The Limits of Optimization

The video discussion is about 50 minutes in length and depends on video archives of deGroms pitching profession. As the presenter explains, they have no special access to deGrom and the analysis is undertaken with a view to gleaning lessons for the firms clientele. That stated, it uses an intriguing glimpse into the world of elite or would-be elite pitchers. Basically every aspect of their bodily motion is subject to analysis, measurement, and calibration. Think about, too, particularly if youve not kept up with baseball analytics, the sheer volume of information readily available to measure a pitchers efficiency. Have a look, for example, at deGroms page at Baseball Savant or FanGraphs. Turns out that when you can measure every pitch and track and every swing, you can create an absurd quantity of analytical classifications.
As I thought about deGroms mechanical precision, it appeared that baseball analytics provided an interesting vantage point from which to consider the nature of data-driven optimization that now structures so much of contemporary society. Now we can have it done for us passively. As many of us know all too well, all way of details about us and our activities is now gathered passively, saved indefinitely, and put to beneficial, dubious, and harmful ends.
It will be practical, I think, for us to think about data-driven optimization in light of what the mid-20th century French polymath Jacques Ellul called la method. It was an extensive idea, which Ellul used to catch what he thought about the tyrannical dominance of the drive for performance in modern-day society.
Elluls problem was not with technological makers but with a society necessarily captured up in effective methodological techniques. Innovation, then, is however an expression and spin-off of the underlying dependence on strategy, on the proceduralization whereby whatever is organized and handled to work most efficiently, and directed toward the most practical end of the greatest performance. Elluls own comprehensive definition is found in the preface of The Technological Society: “Technique is the totality of approaches, logically showed up at and having outright efficiency (for a provided phase of advancement) in every field of human activity.”
And heres a bit more from Fowlers conversation of what technique had actually ended up being in the 20th century according to Ellul:
Strategy ended up being the specifying force, the ultimate worth, of a brand-new social order in which efficiency was no longer a need but a choice enforced on all human activity. Strategy ended up being generally totalitarian in contemporary society as rationalistic proceduralism enforced an artificial worth system of arranging and determining everything quantitatively instead of qualitatively.
The propensity remains, and, as Ellul forecasted, it has actually just heightened. The power of digital computation– still nascent when Ellul published his best understood work, The Technological Society– significantly broadened the scope of strategy, comprehended as the drive towards efficiency in all worlds of human experience. And, as it ends up, developments in the game of baseball illustrate the more general social patterns pretty well, and they might, in truth, present us with a couple of insights into la strategy realized in the culture of optimization.
Baseball, of course, has actually always been a numbers game, at very first defined by standard statistics based on analog records. The baseball scorebook (belwo) became the standard tool for taping at bats, hits, strikeouts, strolls, runs, etc

Im a Mets fan. Right at this minute, thats not such a bad thing. Regardless of having up to 17 players on the hurt list previously this season, theyve been in top place in their department for nearly two months. Over the past three decades, however, being a Mets fan has suggested primarily disappointment and disappointment, stressed by unusual moments of joy. Naturally, Im bestowing this legacy of emotional turmoil to my daughters.
But its not only the top place standing that makes this a tolerable, even pleasurable baseball season. It is also the unique performance that pitcher Jacob deGrom has actually been putting on. If you attend at all to the world of American sports, you might know that deGrom has actually been one of the very best pitchers in baseball the past couple of years. He won successive Cy Young awards in 2018 and 2019. This season he is having a traditionally good run. Ill spare you the stats. If you peruse the leading search results for “deGrom” on Twitter, and youll get a sampling of his accomplishments thus far.
Its been a pleasure to view him pitch. He combines exceptional physical skill and precision with astonishing psychological focus and composure. He gets measurably much better in higher pressure situations. On the mound, his lack of psychological expression lends him a nearly robotic air. You understand. The guy is good, and his existing stretch may extremely well be the finest stretch by any pitcher ever. Oh, and he throws hard. Given that the beginning of the pitch tracking period in 2008, deGrom has actually been the only beginning pitcher to average 100 miles per hour on his fastball for an entire video game. Hes done it twice this year. He has actually also set the record for the most 100 mph pitches in a game.
Possibly the most striking thing about deGroms speed is that it has improved year after year. This excellent improvement over time is specifically significant given deGroms age. One answer is that he has attained machine-like performance with the mechanics of his delivery.
Here is a video produced by Tread Athletics, a baseball consulting firm focused on utilizing data to improve pitcher velocity. Its an analysis of Jacob deGroms mechanics over the last few years during which his typical speed increased more than 5 miles per hour.

And, as it turns out, developments in the game of baseball illustrate the more general social patterns pretty well, and they might, in truth, present us with a couple of insights into la strategy realized in the culture of optimization.
Baseball, of course, has always been a numbers game, at first defined by standard data based on analog records. The effects of this homogenizing tendency will be the very first thing for us to think about, and, back in 2018, Alan Jacobs explained the repercussions in an essay regreting the flattening of the video game that followed the success of the sabermetric revolution.
In Jacobss view, when everyone knows the most efficient way to play the game, the video game as an entire loses its color and range.
And its worth keeping in mind that there are likewise perennial stress and anxieties about the popularity of the game amongst more youthful fans unrelated to the fallout of an analytics extensive method to the game.

” Good morning,” stated the little prince.
” Good early morning,” said the merchant.
This was a merchant who sold pills that had been developed to quench thirst. You need just swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need for anything to consume.
” Why are you offering those?” asked the little prince.
” Because they save a significant quantity of time,” stated the merchant. “Computations have been made by specialists. With these tablets, you conserve fifty-three minutes in weekly.”
” And what do I make with those fifty-three minutes?”
” Anything you like …”
” As for me,” stated the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure towards a spring of fresh water.”

You must read the entire thing at some point if youve never ever done so. And perhaps glance at this old poem by Wendell Berry.

. Most of this data told us what had actually taken place in a video game, and it needed reasonably uncomplicated calculations to yield helpful information about gamer performance.
Here, for example, is a fascinating bit about Davey Johnsons career-long fascination with utilizing the power of computation:
Before Bill James popularized sabermetrics, Davey Johnson used an IBM System/360 at team owner Jerold Hoffbergers brewery to compose a FORTRAN baseball computer system simulation while playing for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1970s. He used his lead to an unsuccessful effort to promote to his manager Earl Weaver the idea that he need to bat second in the lineup. He composed IBM BASIC programs to assist him handle the Tidewater Tides, and after ending up being manager of the New York Mets in 1984, he scheduled a group staff member to compose a dBASE II application to put together and save sophisticated metrics on team stats.
What was when a distinctive and idiosyncratic technique to the game became the dominant technique. The effects of this homogenizing propensity will be the first thing for us to consider, and, back in 2018, Alan Jacobs explained the effects in an essay regreting the flattening of the video game that followed the success of the sabermetric revolution.
Weavers unique method to the game focused on the most efficient way to score runs was quickly validated by Bill Jamess statistical analysis in the late 70s and Billy Beanes success with the As. In Jacobss view, when everyone knows the most effective method to play the game, the game as an entire loses its color and variety.
Jacobss goes on to describe how this played out:
Coaches used to position a great deal of focus on teaching batters how to strike the ball to the opposite field, a minimum of in some cases. However sabermetrics has revealed that batters get more hits, and more extra-base hits, if they pull the ball. In turn, the increased dominance of pull-hitting has actually led defenses to utilize shifts that put fielders in the most likely paths of balls hit by any provided batter. If you struck the ball out of the park, and then batters have reacted to these shifts by realizing that it doesnt matter where the fielders are. So: a growing number of batters swinging for the fences, striking more house runs than ever, and accepting historically high levels of strikeouts as just the inevitable collateral damage.
And, as Jacobs goes on to emphasize, “gamers and coaches comprehend the percentages much better than they ever have in the history of the game, and are acting accordingly. All of these changes I have traced are eminently logical.”
” So you cant blame anyone for the method the video game has established,” Jacobs concludes. “It has become more rational, with a much better command of the laws of likelihood, and stricter, more extensive canons of performance.”
Its worth pausing to consider in which the supposed rationality lies. It is the logic of competition. Within the sporting world, obviously, the point is to win, and to do so in a way that can be clearly figured out quantitatively. There are no grounds for anyone to ask a gamer or a manager to pursue a strategy that will diminish their one-upmanship. The majority of life, however, is not a video game with measurable results, and probably shouldnt be treated as such. The victory of technique in Elluls sense motivates the competitive mode of experience. Certainly, quantification itself welcomes it. This dynamic can be put to advantageous usage, and, in plainly delineated situations, is perfectly appropriate. Applied uncritically and indiscriminately or even nefariously (see e.g. social media metrics) it can present damaging propensities and eclipse qualitative or otherwise unquantifiable values. Typically speaking, metrology and the reasoning of optimization which it encourages tend to transform our field of experience into points of aggression, as the sociologist Hartmut Rosa has appropriately put it. Data-driven optimization is, in this sense, a way of perceiving the world. And what might matter most about this is not necessarily what it enables us to see, but it keeps us from viewing: in other words, all that can not be quantified or measured.
On an earlier event, Jacobss analysis also remembered a difference drawn by one theorist between what is appropriate and what is true. It seemed to me that we might, in comparable style, draw a distinction in between what is right and what is great. It is not, nevertheless, good for baseball that they do so, or so Jacobs and others who take his view of things would argue.
And its worth keeping in mind that there are also seasonal anxieties about the popularity of the game among more youthful fans unrelated to the fallout of an analytics intensive method to the game. And here we are at the core of the concern from another angle: how is the goodness of the game determined and accounted for? Or, more to the point, can the goodness of the video game be determined?
As it ends up, Jacobss analysis in the piece Ive been referencing reminded me of a paragraph he had actually published on his blog site a couple of years prior from Claude Levi-Strausss memoir, Tristes Tropiques:
In Martinique, I had checked out rustic and disregarded rum-distilleries where the equipment and the techniques utilized had not altered given that the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display screen of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. The different kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wood barrels heavily encrusted with waste matter, were fragrant and mellow, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and severe. We may expect, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums depends on impurities the continuation of which is motivated by the archaic technique of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the different residues it brings along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being twice as in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep making expenses down. But we are also ideal to treasure those really imperfections we are endeavouring to get rid of. Social life consists in ruining that which gives it its savour.
In order to do so we need to have before us a clear sense of the excellent we seek. This might take place due to the fact that we ourselves lose sight of the ends we were initially looking for or because the focus on technique itself slowly blinds us to those ends. In his own fine post on baseball and optimization a couple of years back, Rob Horning mentioned Melissa Gregg who observed that “individual performance is an epistemology without an ontology, a structure for understanding what to do in the lack of an assisting principle for doing it.”
So as more and more of our lives end up being based on regimes of optimization, we should keep in mind the limitations of metrology and make every effort to see what we can not determine. And because we may require a little assistance toward that end, Ill cover us up by commending a childrens book to you, The Little Prince.

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