I’ve just started reading this book
and if only for the introduction, people need to take a look at this book. This quote is pretty important to folks who want to understand how football analytics actually works, as opposed to what people tell you..
The other trick in finding ideas is figuring out the difference between power and knowledge. Of all the people whom you’ll meet in this volume, very few of them are powerful or even famous. When I said I’m most interested in minor geniuses, that’s what I mean. You don’t start at the top if you want the story. You start in the middle, because the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world….People at the top are self-conscious about what they say (and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect – and self-consciousness is the enemy of “interestingness”.
The more I read smaller blogs, the more I understand and the better I understand what I’m doing. To note, the Hidden Game of Football is also a worthwhile read, as those guys put a lot of effort into their work, into making it understandable, and a deeper read usually pays off in deeper understanding of concepts.
In Gladwell’s book, there is a discussion of Nassim Taleb, currently a darling because of his contrarian views about randomness and its place in economics. But more immediately useful as a metaphor is Malcolm’s discussion of ketchup. He makes a strong case that the old ketchup formula endures because it’s hard to improve on. It has just about the right amounts of everything in the flavor spectrum to make it work for most people. I’m thinking the old NFL passer rating formula is much like that, though the form of the equation is a little difficult for most people to absorb. I’ll be touching on ways to look at the passer rating in a much simplified form shortly.
Another story is in order here, the story of the sulfa drugs. To begin, recall that the late 19th century spawned a revolution in organic chemistry, which first manifested in new, colorful dyes. And not just clothing dyes, but also the art of tissue staining. The master of tissue staining back in the day was one Paul Ehrlich, who from his understanding of staining specific tissues, came up with the notion of the “magic bullet”. In other words, find a stain that binds specifically to pathogens, attach a poison to the stain, and thereby selectively kill bacteria and other pathogens. His drug Salvarsan was the first modern antibacterial and his work set the stage for more sophisticated drugs.
Bayer found the first of the new drugs, protonsil, by examining coal-tar dyes. However it only worked in live animals. A French team later found that in the body, the drug was cleaved into two parts, a medically inactive dye, and a medically active and colorless drug that later became known as sulfanilamide. The dye portion of the magic bullet was unnecessary. Color wasn’t necessary to make the drug “stick”.
When dealing with formulas, you need to figure out ways to cut the dye out of the equation, reduce formulas to their essence. Mark Bittman does that with recipes, and his Minimalist column in the Times is a delight to read. And in football, needless complication just gets in the way. Figure it out, and then ruthlessly simplify it. And I suspect that’s the best path to understanding why certain old formulas still have functional relevance in modern times.
Update: added link to new article. Fixed mixing of phrases silver bullet and magic bullet