Week 13: Spread Picks – Optimistic Tinkering vs. Skeptical Grand Central Planning
Every one of us is forced to make decisions in situations of uncertainty throughout our lives. In fact, I’d argue that very few of our decisions are clear cut and obvious. Even the decisions you make that seem obvious to you in the moment, are actually really quite nuanced and complicated. The simple decision to get up and grab a beer (about as clear cut and excellent a decision as can be made) could devolve into a cascading layer of second guessing yourself if it weren’t for the simplifying instincts of your brain. The human brain is fantastically optimized for rapid decision making. For simple, low stakes decisions, the brain will often filter out and forget much more data than it lets in and considers. In so doing it prevents us from falling into the trap of paralysis by analysis.
But when faced with more difficult decisions we call on our reason to do the thinking, and we attempt to broaden our mental horizons to account for a wider range of potential variables and circumstances. We typically reject instinct as a means for making sound decisions in situations of high stakes. We’ve been trained in the western world to plan before we act. While planning certainly has it’s place, I think it’s importance has been overblown in our modern society with it’s obsession for certainty and stability. For my musing today I’d like to take second to tout the merits of tinkering and the potential pitfalls of making plans.
Aside from the fact that our grand plans never quite play out the way we imagine, there is another sinister fact about planning. Every second spent planning is a second spent not doing. And doing is exactly the cause of most of the great things that will happen to you in your life. No one ever remembers glowingly how well-planned their trip to the Great Wall was. They remember what they actually did during the trip, who they were with and what they experienced. The plan may or may not have gone smoothly, and that doesn’t matter. It’s often in the unexpected wrinkles of a plan where the truly unforgettable experiences in life are hiding.
So how do we draw the line between where planning ought to stop, and doing begin? This is a classic optimization problem, and it plays out dynamically over the course of making a decision. Obviously some very limited forethought has to take place to send us on a trajectory towards some goal: “I’m going to get my ass off the couch, and grab a beer.” But when we stand up, we realize that the dog is soundly sleeping at our feet. So we decide that we ought to give some consideration to the pooch, and we step more softly than we had planned as we navigate around him at the outset of our critical mission. When we open the fridge we realize that the milk has expired. We also find 7 different varieties of earth-shatteringly delicious IPA to choose from, and the one we really want is hiding bashfully behind the orange juice. When we try to navigate around the orange juice to grab the brew we’ve targeted, we knock over the ketchup bottle – it’s contents spilling out onto the kitchen floor. We abruptly clean up the mess, toss the milk, return the orange juice to its previous position and return quietly and happily to the safety of the couch to enjoy the adult fruits of our labor.
At each step along the path of acting out our decision we picked up additional bits of information that were immediately and seamlessly integrated into our decision making protocol. With all the forethought in the world we could not have anticipated spilling that ketchup, remembered the exact 7 flavors of IPA we had in stock, or that the one we wanted was hiding behind the orange juice, or that the milk expired and we’d have to throw it out. We could have spent hours racking our brains on the couch, planning every step along our path towards grabbing a cold one – and it would have been hours wasted. The plan started very general, and we tinkered with it as things came up along the way.
From my experience, life is made much richer and my efforts more fruitful and worthwhile when I plan a little bit less, and tinker a little bit more. The algorithm used in this blog to predict games is the result of several years of tinkering! I had a very general goal – I want to use math to predict sports outcomes – and I took the first steps towards that goal by writing one or two lines of code. I realized I would need data to do any analysis, so I scoured the web for a few easily digestible data sources. Within a few hours I had a data object that I could use for making and testing models, and my first embarrassing attempt at a linear model to predict points scored in a contest. Yes, the whole thing was held together by the coding-equivalent of duct tape and chicken wire – but it was a helluva lot better than the thing planner-man had created in that same timeframe. And the quality of it didn’t even matter – it was a start. It was something I could tinker with.
Fast forward three years and I’ve got a legitimate live data source, custom created algorithms and variables that are probably unique to this system, an infrastructure for weekly updates during the season and an entire workflow for training and backtesting models, visualizing their performance, etc. Almost none of it was planned. At each point along the road of achieving my broader goal of using math to predict sports outcomes I tweaked, and tweaked, and tweaked.
The advantages of tinkering over grand central planning are thus three fold:
1) Less thinking, more doing. You’ll never know what bumping your head feels like until you bump your head. So many plans are made to avoid even mildly negative outcomes, when those negative outcomes are exactly the thing we need to experience in order to grow properly. Everyone has encountered the individual whose life was carefully planned and sheltered by mom and dad, who turn out to have one type of personality pathology or another. Genuine character is the product of a very clumsy tinkerer. See Nassim Talibs theory of anti-fragility for a very intellectually stimulating take on how many systems, human bodies, character, and careers included can gain from disorder.
2) Planning is static, tinkering is dynamic. It’s impossible to discover something while planning. You might think of things a bit differently or develop a new abstract way of understanding some system, but you can’t truly discover new attributes of the world around you simply through introspection. When you tinker you stumble onto things; sometimes big things. Check out this list of the top 25 things that were invented by accident. Penicillin? Coke-a-Cola? X-Rays? Imagine where we’d be if the folks who stumbled upon these amazing inventions decided they were going to stay home that day planning out their next move, instead of getting back on their grind and tinkering.
3) Planning requires foresight, tinkering leverages insight. We can’t see the future – but when we tinker we actively create it. Making a plan ensures nothing about how events will unfold. But as soon as you’ve made that first key stroke to write a story, or write that first line of code in a new algorithm, you’ve actively changed the course of the future forever. At each point in the tinkering process you are using your unique insight about how things work to alter the future… now that’s powerful stuff.
Now, let’s see if all my endless tinkering will pay off this week.
Interesting that fading Denver is once again the pick of the week. Also interesting to note that there are no picks with a Cover.Index (SCI) that has an absolute value greater than 3.0 this week. These are the most confident picks, and so far this year have been 67% accurate. Looks like there are fewer locks this week…
QB projections will be put up on Saturday. As is usually the case when one of my creations isn’t performing in line with my expectations, I’m tinkering with it.