Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An Observation on Ryan Howard's Contract

The Phillies 5 year, $125 million contract for Ryan Howard doesn't even start until after his current deal ends in 2011. In all, Howard is signed until 2017. 2017 is a long, long time away. A lot changes in 7 years of baseball. Consider the 2003 Major League leaders in RBI, along with age at the time:

1) Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays, 31 - 145
2) Preston Wilson, Rockies, 28 - 141
3) Gary Sheffield, Braves, 34 - 132
4) Jim Thome, Phillies, 32 - 131
5) Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 23 - 124
6) Richie Sexson, Brewers, 28 - 124
7) Alex Rodriguez, Rangers, 27 - 118
8) Vernon Wells, Blue Jays, 24 - 117
9) Todd Helton, Rockies, 29 - 117
10) Brett Boone, Mariners, 34 - 117

Pujols is the only person in the top 10 in 2003 RBI that was in the top 10 in 2009. He is, in fact, the only person in the top 20 in RBI in 2003 still in the top 20 in 2009. He's joined only by Derek Lee and Alex Rodriguez in the top 30 in 2003 and 2009... You get the picture.

Ryan Howard also hits home runs, you say?

Similar list, 2003 HR leaders:

1) Alex Rodriguez, Rangers, 27 - 47
2) Jim Thome, Phillies, 32 - 47
3) Barry Bonds, Giants, 38 - 45
4) Richie Sexson, Brewers, 28 - 45
5) Javy Lopez, Braves, 32 - 43
6) Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 23 - 43
7) Frank Thomas, White Sox, 35 - 42
8) Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays, 31 - 42
9) Jason Giambi, Yankees, 32 - 41
10) Sammy Sosa, Cubs, 34 - 40

Again, Pujols is the only person in the top 10 in homers in 2003 still in the top 10 in 2009. He's the only one in the top 20 in each, and he and A-Rod are the only two in the top 30 in each.

Of course there's a lot of turnover in these kinds of lists, but it's worth noting that the people who are on both were 23 and 27 years old in 2003. Howard is already 29.

I suppose the question is, is Howard at 29 more like Pujols at 23 or A-Rod at 27, or more like Richie Sexson and Preston Wilson at 28? Even if he's somewhere in between - say, a Delgado or a Derek Lee - is he really worth $25 million?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chris Ianetta, Miguel Olivo, and the Problem of Sample Size

Chris Iannetta's demotion today is far from the most disappointing news in Rockies-land recently, what with injuries to Brad Hawpe, Jason Hammel, and now Jorge De La Rosa, and, of course, the still shocking death of team President Keli McGregor. Nevertheless, Ianetta's demotion is troubling for the same reason that Seth Smith's continual lack of playing time is troubling. A franchise that is doing so much right in so many ways (a tip of the cap to McGregor, here, who was a huge part of the way the Rockies were built) continues to misunderstand sample size, player roles, and, in general, how to put the best nine players in the organization on the field each day.

I will not deny that Miguel Olivo is off to an excellent start. In his first 47 PAs this season, he's wracked up 14 hits, 5 of which have gone for home runs. He plays a competent defense, and his utter inability to draw a walk has so far not been troublesome. Even so, Olivo has 16 strikeouts to his 14 hits, and he has so far been incredibly lucky on those rare occasions when he's put the ball in play without hitting it out. In short, while he may be hitting .310 now, 47 solid plate appearances does not tell us more than years and years of incompetence at the plate. Olivo, for all the power he has displayed in his career, has a career high OBP of .292 (and for the batting average fans out there, his career high is .263, which is well above his career average of .244). Yeah, .292. As in, in his best season - last year - Olivo made an out an astounding 71% of the time he came to the plate. For a point of comparison, Ubaldo Jimenez - a good hitter for a pitcher - put up an OBP of, you guessed it, .292 last season.

Granted, Olivo hits more home runs than Jimenez, and is obviously a better hitter for that reason alone. There's also reason to believe he'll be boosted somewhat by playing half of his games at Coors Field, and he could very well launch 30 home runs this season if he plays regularly, even though he'll probably punch up a .250 batting average and an OBP under .300. It's worth noting that the Rockies already have a .290 OBP, 20-30 home-run hitting, strike-out machine in Clint Barmes (who is, at least, one of the better second basemen defensively in the league), why do they need Olivo to produce outs, too?

As for Iannetta, there's no denying he's off to a slow start, despite the walk-off homer he hit a little over a week ago. But do Iannnetta's 34 plate appearances really constitute a trend? For one thing, Ianneta has been unbelievably unlucky so far. Of the 17 balls he has put in play (non home-runs, strikeouts, or walks), a measly 2 have fallen for hits. In general, about 3 out of every 10 balls in play drop for hits, so with even average luck, Iannetta's putrid .118 average should be above .200, at least. And, as always, Iannetta's value comes from power and walks. He'll never be a .300 hitter, but last season, despite a .228 batting average, Iannetta's OBP was .344 (against the league average of .331). That is, Iannetta made an out a full 1% less often than the average hitter in the NL, and a full 5% less often than Miguel Olivo.

Even in 2008, when Iannetta produced a career high 18 home runs, along with a .264 batting average and a .390 (!) OBP, the Rockies have insisted on starting other catchers regularly. It is certainly beneficial to have more than one competent catcher, because the position is the most tiring in baseball, but as with Yorvit Torrealba, the Rockies are mistaking some mysterious intangible quality of Miguel Olivo's for actual skill and usefulness, and are relegating Iannetta to a backup and, now, minor league position. There is every reason to believe that Iannetta will not be a Sky Sock for long, but that he has been demoted at all suggests that Olivo will get the majority of starts throughout the year, even after he regresses to his usual, futile self.

What I haven't made explicit here is the difference in how I am understanding the numbers and how, apparently, the Rockies front office is. When I look at Olivo and Iannetta, I look at the last two or three seasons of their respective careers. There is no question, given those larger samples, that Iannetta is a superior player to Olivo in every way. I would wager that, given the chance to start regularly, Iannetta would even hit more home runs than Olivo (all the while posting a .350 OBP instead of a .290). But apparently that analysis isn't happening with the Rockies. They see 30 at bats for one player, 45 for the other, and are drawing conclusions from there not about who has been better so far - it's clear that Olivo has been - but who is going to be better moving forward.

One of the fundamental insights of sabermetrics has nothing to do with which statistics are better or which skills are repeatable and which luck. That insight is that baseball teams should make decisions based upon what they think is going to happen, not on what has happened before. The Philadelphia Phillies, in signing Ryan Howard to a 5 year, $125 million extension yesterday, are paying for what Ryan Howard has already done, not what he is going to do. There is little reason to believe he will be worth a $25 million salary when he is 36 years old, even if he potentially was when he was 27 or 28.

Likewise with the Rockies (though at much less cost): Miguel Olivo's hot start is a blessing, and there is no question he is a useful backup. But Iannetta is younger than Olivo, he has a significantly higher career OBP, and he has just as much power. There is every reason to believe that, moving forward, he'll be the better player. Even so, over any given sample of 40 at bats, Olivo might hit 5 homers and Iannetta hit .120. But, and here's the key, over most samples of 40 at bats, Iannetta is going to be the better player.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Corporate Education

It's the direction we're heading, like it or not. I for one, decidedly do not, but have been surprised in one of my Spring quarter courses to find that not everybody has the same reservations I do. Indeed, there is a big push - especially in the technology world - to embrace the disruptive and innovative opportunities that a more corporate model of education offers. Our current reading for the aforementioned class, Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, speaks to how technology will revolutionize education, the undying undertone being: technology will turn education corporate. Scary? Big time.

First things first, what exactly does a more corporate model of education look like? Well, for one thing, we're already moving down that track in the language that schools use. Former Chicago Superintendent and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not go by "Superintendent" in his previous post. Rather, he was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of his district. It is hardly a bad things that schools are paying more and better attention to how they spend their money, and to what their results are, but it is also important to ask about what comes along with bringing business to schools.

For one thing, the emphasis we now place on test scores is a vestige of business, which, even in its most dynamic and innovative forms, is always concerned with producing certain usable products for its consumers, whose use can then be measured. It does Apple no good to produce a product if they cannot later tell how and why people are using it, so they do extensive market research, they do intensive user-feedback and bug fixing, and so on. Some business types think that education needs exactly this: we should think of curriculum content as a product, students as consumers, and thus tailor the whole educational experience to the wants and needs of individual students. In many ways, that would be an improvement, but the first difficulty here is how we do our evaluations.

Standardized testing is an effort to scientifically compare students across time, space, and culture. Moreover, it is a mechanism by which we can make policy decisions in education, electing who to fund and who to fire, which students to slap "at-risk" labels or "learning disabled" labels on, and which to call "gifted." In all, assessment is the framework upon which modern education is built, and it is almost certainly not going anywhere soon. The tricky thing is making assessment more dynamic, which would be a step towards fulfilling a more business-y model of education. How can we do that? Is there really a meaningful way to engage students beyond, on some level, their knowledge of content? It's really hard to standardize essays - because good writing is so varied - or to assess thousands of students on their knowledge of the scientific process, because those are performance-based and intensive processes. Even computers, with their amazing, disruptive capabilities cannot replace a human eye for the aesthetic component that comes along with assessing learning.

Apple measures how consumers use the iPhone quantitatively and qualitatively. They need both. In education, we do a little of each, but quantitative measures dominate. As long as content is important to education, quantitative measures will continue to dominate. Or, is that the other way around? As long as it is important to assess, content will be the purpose. Christensen rightly believes that technology is transforming education, but he still understands that transformation as being formal, and not centered around content as such. That is, he does believe that each student will be able to learn a content based on individual preference, but he still sees the purpose of education as the delivery of content. Technology makes it easier to do that, and to assess it, but is that really what we want out of our schools (or computers)?

Why does Christensen value content over, say, thought process, innovation, or critical thinking? Because he is, I believe, stuck in a businessman's world, where outcomes need to be assessable, and where all things can be understood in terms of production, consumption, and exchange. For a long time - and even still to a degree in these sad times where tests dominate the schools - K-12 education in America has been a place where students were at least partially extracted from a capitalist, survival-of-the-fittest world in favor of exposing them to myriad possibilities and thought-patterns, ranging from artistic expressions to advanced mathematics to world history. The why of all of that content was never "because Johnny needs to know who won the war of 1812," but rather because Johnny's quality of life would be higher, his citizenship more robust, and, yes, his contributions to the work-force more meaningful if he knew how to think about a wide variety of topics.

Christensen takes for granted that students, given the choice, will pursue what topics are most interesting and important to them, but that is exactly the trouble. Without the guidance of a teacher, who personally knows and personally interacts with a student, none of us might ever have found our respective callings. Computers can certainly do some of that work, but where is the teacher who encourages you to take a subject even though you don't want to, ultimately to your benefit? How many - to give a concrete example - St. John's graduates would ever take Greek or Music Theory on their own? How many, having taken those courses, regret it? I think the answer to both is almost none.

Education is not a business because students are not consumers. The vision of a public education system has always been to create intelligent, moral citizens. Public education is essential to Democratic government precisely because Democracy is non-disciplinary, non-specialized. It asks its members to be adept at weighing evidence and testimony in any and every subject. It desires citizens conversant with history, with mathematics, with science, with arts, with music, with foreign languages, and so on. More important than the content of any of those subjects, however, Democracy requires citizens who know how to think like historians, mathematicians, scientists, artists, musicians, and linguists. A business model of education is not interested in such a broad ambition as this, and yet this is the very ambition upon which public education in America was founded.

There is a telling analogy in Christensen's book, which I think captures the essence of his argument, and also my reservations. He describes the disruptive technological effect of recorded sound, and how it allowed for high-quality recordings to be distributed far more widely than a visit to a concert hall ever could (whilst leaving the possibility of attending a concert intact). By analogy, he sees education as moving in a similar direction. Great teachers can distribute - through video, or through as yet uninvented technologies - their teaching over a wider network than ever before. Sure, it's not necessarily as good as in person, but its a whole lot better than nothing.

All of that I agree with, but the problem with Christensen's analogy is that he ignores what happened to music with the invention of recorded sound. What was once an art form pursued and distributed primarily for its own sake - Beethoven and Brahms didn't write music because it made them rich - became, with wider distribution, more economized, more capitalized. That's not to say music for the sake of music doesn't exist now, but it can be really hard to tell the difference. More importantly, though, in the everyone-can-access-everything modern music world commercial viability has replaced quality. Christensen tellingly uses Rachmaninoff and Mozart as his exemplars in his analogy, and he's right to say that now more people can listen to Mozart than every could before. But do more people actually choose to? That's another question.

I've shared my thoughts about great music here, and my readers are free to disagree. In education, however, I think we'll all agree that some teaching is better than other teaching. Some classes are more instructive. Some schools do a better job of turning out critical thinkers. The problem with market forces is that there's no reason to believe that they will allow good teachers to succeed. Good online courses won't necessarily do best, rather, the most popular ones will. There's much to be said for the wisdom of the crowd, sure, but I also wonder whether the direction of a student's education ought to follow a path created by someone (or a culture, broadly) who believes that Justin Timberlake is a better musician than John Tavener, Usher better than Scott Joplin.

My biggest concern with applying business to education is the same as my biggest concern when applying business to life: what's the point? Business is built around an internal structure of meaning. Namely, money is meaning. The point is to compete, to get rich, to produce, to consume, and to iterate on that process ad infinitum (until you die or your planet can no longer support you). Nowhere, in that cycle, are you to ask, "Why?" Why breaks the whole thing apart. It is as if, finding the question, "What is the meaning of life?" too unwieldy, we have decided to build a whole structure that makes asking the question impossible. But I think we need to demand, not answers, but the freedom - and there is no other freedom - to ask "Why?"

What is the purpose of education? I demand that you answer me, Mr. Christensen, and with you all the businessmen who would reform education in the image of Toyota, Starbucks, Virgin Records, Southwest Airlines, Apple, and McDonalds. What is the purpose of education?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Ironies first. The United States Military is now working on building "green" aircraft carriers. As if saving a little bit of fuel makes up for the horrendous ecological, economic, and, of course, human harm caused by a massive and ever-growing military budget. There's a big difference between taking meaningful action to remedy the tremendous ecological concerns that trouble our planet (and, more pointedly, the quality of human life upon it) and engaging in empty token political gestures that do nothing but make us feel better about things. Replacing "smog" with "smug," as South Park so aptly observed, only makes things worse.

I have an Earth Day story from way back in 2004, during the Presidential primaries that saw John Kerry (really?) chosen the Democratic nominee. I attended, that day, a rally for Dennis Kucinich held on the top floor of the Mercury Cafe in Denver. It remains the only time I've seen Kucinich speak in person, but what was most notable was not, actually, Kucinich's speech. He was his usual charismatic and hilarious self,* and I was surprised that he really is as short as they say he is.** But what I remember most clearly - besides some very astute answers about Israel and Palestine - was a surprise appearance from none other than John McConnell.

* What is it about "fringe" politicians that makes them so much more endearing than main-stream types? Kucinich is not alone in using humor to engage and build rapport with his audience. Ralph Nader is one of the funniest speakers I've seen live, funnier than many stand-up comedians. Likewise, the Mike Huckabees (since we're not exclusionary at this here blog) and Al Sharptons of the world remind us that, sometimes, there are real people in politics who aren't afraid to tell a joke or to laugh. Heaven forbid we remember that life is a strange and funny thing.

** A fatal flaw in modern politics. Combined with a difficult-to-pronounce name and a Catholic upbringing, Kucinich never stands a chance, and that's before you factor in his refusal to take corporate money and his tendency not to placate a corrupt power-structure.

For those who don't know, McConnell is one of the founders of Earth Day, and a resident of Denver. He came to Kucinich's rally and, slyly, did not announce himself. Towards the end of the session, he popped up and rambled a little bit about the environment, before finally letting fly that he was, in fact, one of the creators of one of our most respectable - though, sadly, one of our most corruptible* - holidays. McConnell presented Kucinich with one of his patented Earth Day flags, and received a warm ovation from the overflowing audience.

* Which is no surprise. Martin Luther King Day, because it has become such a big deal, has become little more than an excuse for people to make political gains on the back of token interest in the actual life of Martin Luther King. Earth Day, similarly, is becoming a way to pretend like you care about the environment, or to forgive yourself for 364 days a year of not caring.

Which is really neither here nor there, except that it goes to show that people who do important work towards a better world are often relegated to unheralded attics of unknown restaurants, until they get big enough that their work ceases to be effective anymore. The real moral of the story is, work smart and small, but don't be afraid to imagine big.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hard Education in Hard Times

One of the benefits of reading works written in previous centuries is that we might find informative patterns. I do not say that "those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it," because that is a tired phrase. Rather, there are dynamics which are so much repeated that they might easily be mistaken as eternal components of the human condition. Social, political, and economic structures change with time and technology, to be sure, but do they change so much as we think they do? Is it really the case that the year 2010 is a marvelous and impossible dream to the people of 1850? There's not really a meaningful answer to that question, except the remembrance that people remain people, in every time.

Much changes in cultures, and across cultures, with geography and technology and so on, despite some essential similarities, and so it is with a combination of surprise and expectation that Dickens, in his Hard Times, captures so perfectly some of the very issues which are fundamental to us today.

"Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you!" - Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Book II, Chapter VI

Replace "fact" with standards, replace "the poor" with students (or don't, it still reads; but that's a weightier discussion), and you have very much a picture of school. Dickens speaks, in the 1850s, to a commodified education, wherein the learning is bought and paid-for, the purpose being to elevate economically (the purpose of life itself being the same). "Now, what I want is, Facts," begins the book, in the classroom. If education is a commodity, we have to treat it as such, and we can and should only measure that which is measurable about it.

It is a remarkable fact - I say with irony - that economic trouble often is met with a stiffening, rather than a loosening, of the grip of industry on education. As with food, where the most abundant and cheapest of things - namely fruits - are the least prevalent in restaurants and grocery stores exactly because they occur without being manufactured by mechanical intervention, in education we have manufactured long strings of standards and facts to memorize, and accompanied those with an economy of learning disability, fancy hardware, and unstoppable grading programs, all when we might just have easily lived off the land with discussion. A classroom discussion is cheaper, easier to prepare for, and more rewarding than a highly contrived lesson, and yet we use it not, because no one manufactures it.

Dickens does not speak to discussion, per se, in Hard Times, but he may as well. Instead his opposition to fact is fancy, much engendered by the flightful dialogues that take place between children, especially the younger and, therefore, less beaten-down by their acquired identities as "cool kids" or "special needs" or "jocks" or "goths" or what-have-you. Hard are the times, indeed, when learning in school is more about learning how to play your apportioned role than it is about learning how to think.

When has it been otherwise? That's the rub, of course. Never and nowhere, except perhaps in those elite schools for the elite and wealthy members of societies who have, generally, had no interest in promoting the fancies - and, along with imagination, critical thought - of the sordid students of the world. We get locked into cultural morays more easily than we perceive. When was the last time any of us did something that did not correspond with our selected and ascribed identities? Even the rebel is rebel by dint of his society's culture.

I do not incite to action, here, because what action to take is a question far too complicated to begin to answer. That is not to say we ought to ignore the mysteries of how political economy drives education, for good or ill, but rather to say that we ought not allow ourselves to be easily fooled by the statements of "experts" that "studies show" or that "America is falling behind" or that, heaven forbid, we are leaving children behind despite our federal mandate to the contrary. A skeptical eye, I ask, in these deceptively credulous times, wherein we are inclined to believe any evidence that supports our inclinations. A skeptical eye goes a long way not just in education, but in politics broadly, and in philosophy and science and, indeed, life.

Life, indeed. Perhaps it is naive to ask - O me! O Life! - but when did we stop asking such important questions? What, after all, is the meaning of life? Why, after all, are we here? Surely it is not to produce and consume widgets? Surely not to memorize facts? Surely, enough of us stand face to face with a bare existence each day that we ought to demand better.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ubaldo's No-No

It happened on the road, in Atlanta. Coors Field, though it has been tempered by the humidor, remains a hitter's paradise, where 8-6 is a much more common score-line than 1-0. The odds of seeing a historic pitching performance in Denver remain slim, the notable exception being Hideo Nomo's gem back in 1996. On the road, though, the Rockies can pitch. As I've pointed out before, they had the best staff in baseball last year, according to Fangraphs metric, Wins Above Replacement.

Today, you may have heard, saw the first no hitter ever thrown by a Rockies pitcher. Ubaldo Jimenez threw almost 130 pitches on a Saturday evening in Atlanta, mowing down the Braves. It wasn't a pretty no-no, but it still counts.

As a fan watching the game, I was surprised when I saw the 0 in the hits column for the Braves in the 5th inning. Jimenez was wild all day, and his errant pitching netted him 6 walks by the day's end. He balked once, he switched from the windup to the stretch mid-game, and he generally looked uncomfortable for much of his outing. Had he given up even one hit, he probably would have been gone after the 6th or 7th.

But some things are sacred in baseball, and the no-hitter is one of them. Ubaldo was given the silent treatment by his teammates and coaches, and the announcers hilariously spent the final three innings talking about the no-hitter without mentioning it explicitly. A fan who knew little about baseball would have been mighty confused about the excitement George Frazier and Drew Goodman carried through the late innings of a seemingly mundane game.

Fittingly, Ubaldo also provided the key hit in this game, a two-out single in the fourth to drive in Brad Hawpe and keep an eventual three-run inning alive. Dexter Fowler deserves some credit as well, for making the only truly difficult defensive play in the game, and in the seventh inning, no less. Fowler tracked down a drive into the left-center gap, making a diving (or falling, anyway) stop, and preserving the effort for Jimenez.

Ubaldo certainly has always had the stuff to pull of a performance like this. If there was any doubt about his status as an ace, it should be completely gone after today. Ubaldo has the stuff, moreover, to do this again someday. Of course, there's a lot of luck involved in throwing a no-hitter, but high-strikeout, groudball pitchers like Jimenez (and, incidentally, Jorge De La Rosa) are the perfect type.

I suspect I'm jumping around a bit in writing this, since I'm more excited than reflective at this just-after-the-game time. As a fan, it's fascinating to watch a real no-hit bid. I've seen a few games come close, but none felt as inevitable as this one did (or is that hindsight?). Even with the wildness, once Jimenez settled down he was on fire. Even so, the emotion is intense. Almost never, as a fan, do you want to see your team pitch more than hit, but I found myself hoping for quick innings from the Rockies offense, as if they might spoil the no-hitter themselves. I found myself, also, more nervous (in that irrational fan kind of way) than I have been since the play-in game against the Padres in the 2007 playoffs.

On some level, a win is a win, and today's game doesn't count for extra in the standings. But that's not totally true, either. Sports are not just about wins and losses; stories matter too, and exceptional performances. I still remember the 20(ish) inning game the Rockies lost to the Padres I attended some three or four years ago. I still remember the first 1-0 contest at Coors, pitched by Jason Jennings. I still remember, vaguely, the Eric Young homer that initiated Colorado to Major League Baseball.

I'll still remember this game, too. From my half-focused, multi-tasking early-inning watching to the fully engrossed, not-letting-Jericha-leave-for-her-get-together ending. And, really, that's what being a fan is all about. Much as I'd love to see a World Series, it's the games - the chance, even if it's one in several thousand, that you'll see your team's first no-hitter on a non-descript April afternoon - that really make baseball what it is. And, even if you don't see a no-hitter, hey, there's worse things than watching baseball.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Visualizing the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak

I don't know that this is big enough for you to make out the text (it gets bigger if you click on it!), but you don't need to read the words to get the bigger sense. I won't say much about the theory behind this, since my previous post got into some of that. Instead, I want to provide a brief description of the artifact and let it simmer.

First off, since the legend isn't on this, circles represent questions, squares represent questions, upwards-facing triangles represent hypotheses, downward-facing triangles represent experiments, and diamonds represent conclusions. On the whole, the diagram above represent the process that John Snow used while dealing with the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak in 1854. As you can see, there's a general tendency to move through the traditional steps of the scientific process, but it is notable that questions and observations pop up throughout, where experiments and conclusions are much more infrequent. Of course, the point is not to generalize here, but to open up dialogues: why might observations and questions be more prominent? Should they be?

There's also a lot of room for debate as to whether each node is assigned the correct shape. Some of the observations could be characterized as experiments, for example. Likewise, some observations might be conclusions. How can you separate a hypothesis from the question that leads to it? All of those are discussion points, and the purpose of this artifact is to help generate those kinds of questions.

One other important note here is the cloud down at the bottom right. Since we are planning on making a web-based tool that will help students generate process maps like this one, we also see the potential to jump off of existing questions (and data) in the direction of new discoveries. Historically, this is not uncommon in science, but the jumping-off process - like the narrower process of a single experiment - is usually quite obscure. We want to make it easier to find questions to jump off of, and to make it clear where that jumping off happens.

Anyway, in this artifact in particular, the cloud represents the process that generated germ theory. Snow himself, in solving the cholera problem, did not develop a theory as to why people were getting sick (beyond there being sewage in the water). The attendant question, "why does sewage in water make people sick," may sound silly to us today, but at the time there was no meaningful answer. Snow pursued a more practical path - getting the sewage out of the water - but left it to future scientists to address the bigger question.

Constructing historical exemplars of the dynamic scientific process will be an important part of our project, but in so doing we've already learned how important it is to be careful about phrasing. It is so natural to assume modern knowledge about, for example, bacteria, when in fact that was non-existent at the time Snow was operating. Even the question, "What was in the water?" presupposes things which at the time scientists had no reason to suspect. Of course, in being careful about historical knowledge, we're finding that there are discussion points we hadn't even considered.

Image Credit to Jericha.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Scientific Process (feat. Vincent Van Gogh)

I've teamed up with a fellow LDT student, and we're heading towards the first draft of our proposal for a Master's project. I should say, rather, that our proposal is due tomorrow, and we're in the process of constructing something like a draft. Really, our problem is that we have more writing than we can possibly use to fill our 2,000 word limit, and we still haven't written everything we need to write. Such is proposal writing.

Anyway, I won't get into the project too much yet, since I'm sure I'll be sharing more about it as it gets more advanced, and because I want to leave room for a little suspense and imagination. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts that are central to what we're doing: the scientific process. What, in short, really is the scientific process? How should it be taught? How is it used? What does it look like?

There is, of course, no systematic agreement about what the scientific process is and exactly which steps should be a part of it. Indeed, there is much debate about whether it should be called the "scientific method" or the "scientific process." I choose process because I think that fits better with my conception of how it operates, but "method" is more historical (Francis Bacon deemed his work on the matter a method). Nevertheless, there are generally five steps, through which the scientist is meant to proceed in order (methodically) in order to come to a better understanding of the external natural world. Those steps are as follows:

1) Observation
2) Question
3) Hypothesis
4) Experiment
5) Conclusion

Generally speaking, the scientific process is taught like this, as I said, with perhaps some linguistic modifications. It is not uncommon, of course, to call out the iterative nature of the scientific process - that is, that a conclusion might just qualify as a new observation - but there is general agreement that these steps in this order more or less make up the effort of science, and they are not accidentally a prominent feature in science standards and benchmarks across the country.

Do scientists really follow this process? That is not so clear. It certainly seems as though observations, questions, hypotheses, experiments, and conclusions are important parts of the act of doing science, but are they always used sequentially, in just that order? Reflecting on thought-process in general, it is not clear that we always begin with an observation; rather, we might start from a hypothesis or even an experiment. We might say that we are, nevertheless, making an unconscious observation to get there, but does that substantively change the process, or not?

More telling, however, is when we go from observation to question, back to observation. Or when we go from question to question. Or when we go from question straight to experiment without formulating a hypothesis. All of those things unquestionably do happen. Sometimes, before experimentation, we pass through a long series of observations, questions, and hypotheses. Sometimes, unfortunately, we jump straight from questions to conclusions, favoring action over information-gathering (especially when there's insufficient time to test).

That's all abstract, so here is an example. To keep this broad, I'll use a famous work of art rather than a physical and scientific phenomenon. By analyzing a piece of art, I also want to point out that the scientific process is a heuristic tool useful in more than just science:

Observation - I see houses in this painting.
Question - Why are the lines in the houses so much straighter than lines elsewhere.
(Unconscious) Hypothesis - It has something to do with the nature of houses.
Question - What else is in the painting?
Observation - I see a large green thing.
Question - What is that?
Hypothesis - Maybe it's a tree or a bush?
... (note that here I could do the "experiment" of looking up interpretations)
Question - OK, what else is in the painting?
Observation - There seem to be hills, and a highly stylized sky.
Observation - The lines in the hills are less wavy than those in the sky, but they are still soft and flowing.
Observation - The sky is quite swirly.
Observation - The painting's title, Starry Night, tells me that the yellow spots are starts, though somewhat abstracted.
Observation - The big "star" on the right is actually the moon!
Hypothesis - The moon is meant to imply the sun in this painting.
... (again we could "experiment" here, but I'm trying to stay on the path of my initial question)
Hypothesis - Van Gogh is painting natural things with more and more flowing lines than man-made things.
Observation - The church steeple is quite prominent.
Experiment - An analysis and interpretation of the painting suggests that Van Gogh painted this whilst desiring to reconnect with nature. He was in a psychiatric hospital, and was disconnected from the world literally as well as figuratively - a fact augmented by his recent decision to cut off his own ear, which landed him in the hospital to begin with.
Conclusion - The town in Starry Night is soft and forgiving, but remains less free than the natural aspects of the scenery. The steeple could signify a very human sense of hope, but could also be a menacing intrusion on a much more beautiful and interconnected natural world. It does not seem to me that Van Gogh is arguing anything - least of all a "return to nature," - but nevertheless he expresses a stirring (which seems just the right word) picture of the contrast between the form of nature and the forms constructed by man, all-the-while knowing that his painting expresses more than fulfills his desire to bridge those gaps.

A few things here. First off, I don't have the slightest clue whether this interpretation - my "conclusion" - is at all reasonable. I do know, however, that I arrived at it by following a certain process, which I have traced out above. Part of the reason for giving an example with a work of art, here, is to emphasize that scientific knowledge is not unlike the interpretation I've offered here. A scientific conclusion may be reasonable, but it is hard to claim with certainty that it is necessarily correct. Even expressing the actual, and more verbose, process of scientific thinking - as opposed to the 5-step formula we generally teach - there are steps that I've likely left out (I did go back and add a unconscious hypothesis, and could likely add more, but you get the idea).

At the very least, there are points of contention throughout the process I've laid out. Where did I observe, and where did I hypothesize? How many of those observations were genuinely observations, not constrained by hypotheses I had already built? How well did I do in asking questions that did not lead to an expected answer? All of those things I should reflect on, because a good scientist tries to be objective, not by destroying his subjectivity - an impossible task - but by becoming conscious of what directions his subjectivity is likely to pull him in. Indeed, I might ask, is it problematic that my conclusion was in part determined by the prejudices and beliefs that I brought with me into the analysis? If not, would it be problematic if a scientist doing, say, pharmaceutical research, were guilty of the same thing (that is, expecting or desiring a certain outcome)?

As you may have guessed, a part of opening up the scientific process like this - understanding it as a dynamic and iterative process that need not proceed "in order" and can happily dance around especially in the early stages for a long time - is opening up dialogue. Science, contrary to much modern pedagogy, is actually one of the liberal arts, and the division between science and the humanities is less than helpful. My choice to analyze Van Gogh instead of photosynthesis implies this bias on my part, but I hope that you can see by virtue of my selection that scientific thinking is critical thinking, just as much as literary or artistic analysis, and that science should embrace dialogue.

With that in mind, I want to pose a final question. How could we express this messy, but genuine, version of the scientific process more succinctly, thus making it easier to digest and, hopefully, easier to talk about?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's Springtime in Baseball Land

Tonight is the opening of the 2010 Major League Baseball regular season. The powers that be have decreed that, this year, the Red Sox and Yankees will face off as a prelude to the opening games of the puny rest of the teams in the league tomorrow. I suspect this decision was made because the Red Sox and Yankees don't get enough exposure, but I could be wrong.

The game is on as I write - though probably not as you read - and I am streaming it live to my computer on (soon to be "ESPN 3"). I have already made the plunge and purchased for the season, meaning I'll be able to follow the Rockies while I'm here in California and after I return to Hawaii. Since this game in nationally televised, however, the game is blacked out on, but fortunately ESPN is one of the few broadcast companies out there understands that the Internet is a great place to expand, rather than restrict, access to content.

Which leads me to the subject of this post: three questions (and my answers) to keep in mind while you watch your favorite team start off its season.

1) What role does the Internet play in baseball broadcasting, and what role should it play?

Major League Baseball was and remains ahead of the curve in terms of Internet broadcasting with the release of a few years ago. The NFL and the NBA have not adopted meaningful online broadcasting, unlike baseball, largely because so much of their TV income comes from national broadcasts instead of local ones. Baseball, as a sport with occasional national broadcasts, but predominately local TV stations that cover most of each team's games, is a prime sport for league-wide online broadcasting.

Unfortunately, MLB is way behind the curve in terms of actually making content available. The steep price of is understandable, given access to any and every broadcast during the season, but what makes no sense is MLB's proprietary attitude towards highlights and replays. Where the NBA is happy to parade its best players making great plays on YouTube, MLB systematically hunts down any unauthorized publishing of its content. The result, of course, is that MLB is losing a lot of exposure online - and not just among Americans - from which it could otherwise benefit.

The other problem with MLB's attitude towards the Internet is its backwards and confusing blackout rules. customers cannot watch live national broadcasts online - which makes sense given the investment ESPN and Fox put into those broadcasts - but neither can they watch local broadcasts if they are in the territory of the team who's broadcast they are trying to watch. That is troublesome enough, but what is truly infuriating is the nonsensical delineation of "territories." As a student in New Mexico, I never invested in because my Rockies were considered a "local" team in Santa Fe, despite being broadcast on TV only on Sundays. What's more, the Diamondbacks were also a local team, despite never being on TV. So a Diamondbacks fan living in Santa Fe could never watch his team live without buying a dish and the expensive MLB package thereon. In some parts of country the problem is worse; there are parts of the midwest (think Iowa) where as many as FIVE teams are blacked out. Yikes. Way to put the fan first.

Update: here's a take on the issue at "biz of baseball"

2) Why are baseball games so long, and how can they be shorter?

Baseball catches a lot of heat for having long games (which wouldn't be a problem if they all started mid-day on Sunday like in the NFL, instead of at 7 pm). This is especially true of nationally televised games, which have a tendency to run 4+ hours. Ever since TV, MLB has been fighting a losing battle with game length, but usually on the wrong fronts.

MLB's solutions to long games usually involve things like limiting the number of pick-offs or mound visits, and actually enforcing existing rules about how long a pitcher has to throw the next pitch. What MLB never really discusses is the incredibly long and unnecessary commercial breaks that do more to lengthen the game than anything else. During the playoffs, for example, it is not uncommon to see both teams wait in the dugout between innings for two minutes while the commercials run, before finally taking the field so they can finish their warmups in time to start the inning after the next two minutes of commercials run. Even during pitching changes - if the weather is cold - some players will leave field and wait in the dugout for play to resume.

Ignoring commercial break length when talking about baseball game length strikes me as a bit like ignoring military spending when talking about the US debt: it's the dishonest result of corrupted priorities. If baseball really wants to shorten games, they'll find a way to limit the length of commercial breaks. If they can't stand the lost income, then they'll just have to deal with how long games go, because they're not about to speed up the game itself.

As an aside on that issue, a great many people are opposed to including instant replay in baseball because of the increase in game time it would entail. This seems a bit questionable for a few reasons, the first of which being the strange notion I have that its more important to get calls right than it is to keep the game a few seconds shorter. The other problem, though, is that there's no indication that instant replay needs to make the game any longer. For one thing, it would shorten arguments - which can go on for quite a while - and for another, there's no need to copy the convoluted NFL replay system. Just do something more like the NBA on buzzer-beaters; take 15 seconds and check. No trouble, hardly any time, and better calls.

3) Is there parity in baseball, and does it matter?

Parity is something of a buzz-word in the sports world these days. Everyone wants parity, the NFL and the NBA are champions of the notion that every team can compete every year thanks to their salary caps and free agency systems. There is, however, no real indication that those leagues have any more parity than MLB does. The turn-around time from bad to good can be faster in other sports than in baseball (because developing good players takes a long time, and developing good players, on some level, is essential to success, even through trades), but that doesn't mean it happens. Baseball has the Pirates and Royals, who have been bad for over a decade, but the NFL has the Lions, the NBA the Knicks. What's more, while baseball certainly does have perennial powerhouses, when was the last time a season started when you honestly didn't expect the Patriots and Colts to be in the playoffs? Or the Lakers?

Parity, moreover, might be overrated. European soccer is notorious for not having parity, and no one seems to complain. That Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea duke it out every year in the Premiership doesn't stop fans of Wigan Athletic or Tottenham from cheering on their teams.

Regardless of the desirability of parity, it's not clear that a salary cap would create it. Salary caps tend not to cause a fair distribution of talent, so much as ensure that well-run teams will dominate poorly-run ones - a fact that is true in any sports league. Salary caps, as I've argued before, also tend to allow big-market, rich teams to spend even more money on player development, scouting, and other expenses, which increases their competitive advantage. Look at the Lakers, who operate under the same cap as all other NBA teams, but dominate anyway because they can spend so much more on non-player expenses.

More than anything, though, salary caps move money away from players and towards owners. As egregious as baseball salaries are (and aren't NFL and NBA salaries just as extreme?), a salary cap would only allow already wealthy owners to increase profits. Would it really make us feel better if the Steinbrenners got to - were forced to - keep A-Rod's $250 million?


There you have it, not the gushy "hope springs eternal" stuff that kicks off the season on many sites, but so it goes. Of course, come tomorrow afternoon (while I'm working on my Master's project proposal), I'll be tuning in and watching the Rockies start off their season, all full of gushy hopes springing eternal, because it is, after all, springtime in baseball land.