Slavery is Freedom

No, this isn’t about politics. You can stop reading now if that’s where you thought it was going. If, on the other hand, you thought this was going to be about basketball, I congratulate you on your perspicacity and invite you to accompany me on a magical journey.

One of the things that I’m struck by as I look at advanced basketball analytics is how relatively model-free the whole enterprise seems. There are a couple of good methods that you see show up over and over again: regression analysis, adjusting plus/minus stats to remove bias, and estimating overall player contribution, usually in terms of either points or wins produced or some similar derived statistic. Nothing wrong with any of this of course, and it yields a certain amount of valuable insight. But coming from the science world as I do, and particularly coming from a recent background in working in cognitive science, what I find interesting about these analytics is that they seem mostly unconstrained by the game itself.

What do I mean by that? I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying “this is a terrible thing” or “everyone is an idiot” which is not the case. All I’m saying is that the way these models are constructed relies very heavily on box scores and backing out weights of various elements of player performance via regression. What they don’t do in any explicit way (modulo a few exceptions, like 3-point shooting and per-minute analysis) that I’ve seen is incorporate top-down constraints from the actual game itself into the analysis.

What would such constraints look like? One very obvious thing that comes to mind is the shot clock: you have 24 seconds to put the ball in the hoop, and if you fail to do so your opponents get the ball. Another constraint is the ball itself: there’s only one, and only one player (and one team) can possess it at any given time. The court boundaries are obviously also constraints, as is the fact that you can’t camp in the lane (on either offense or defense). And so on.

At first glance these seem like trivial statements, as anyone who pays the slightest amount of attention to basketball will understand them to be obviously true. We can debate the value of LeBron James (really high or really, really high?) all day if we want, but no one is arguing that the shot clock is anything other than 24 seconds. But I think that because the information is so obvious, it may have escaped incorporation into interesting analyses. I’m really just throwing thoughts out there, but if the end goal of each possession is to get the ball in the hoop, and you’re looking for a method which accomplishes this with maximum efficiency, you are really optimizing within the bounds set by the constraint of the shot clock. In a completely unsurprising turn of events, each possession becomes a constrained optimization, although not one that is expressed in terms of any simple objective-function (indeed the landscape here is certain to be very complex).

The reason such constraints are valuable in other fields is because they set hard limits on what you can and can’t do. In physics, for example, you know that whatever happens, you can’t extract work by moving heat from a cold body to a warm body; that’s the second law, and if you find that your theory has violated it, you know you’ve done something wrong. In cognitive modeling, life is a bit more complex because the constraints are often empirical; for example, ACT-R, a cognitive architecture I work with, commits to a certain (experimentally validated) model of working memory decay. That’s an architectural constraint on the kinds of dynamics that an ACT-R model can exhibit. Other architectures make other assumptions, etc. The point of the constraints is that, although you may sacrifice the freedom of your model to generate any output by embracing them, you gain the security of reducing your outcome space and the freedom to focus on things that you think are relevant. The nice thing about basketball is that the constraints are baked-in via rules, so we don’t have to guess at what they are; we “just” have to take them into account.

The reason I think this is important for basketball is because I think the box score analytics game is largely played out. By this I don’t mean that the analytics are useless, but my strong suspicion is that virtually everything that can be extracted from such information, has been. Obviously people are doing more complicated stuff now with line-ups and stuff, but since “keep your best line-up on the floor for 48 minutes” is not a viable strategy (another constraint!), a coach is faced with a complicated process of decision-making when it comes to rotations. The question for analysts is this: is there any way that a systematic breakdown of basketball dynamics which takes seriously the various constraints presented by the game rules can aid coaches (and players) in making decisions on the floor? I think, optimist that I am, that the answer is “yes” but the work of getting there will require a lot more than just box score information.

Cargo Cult Politics

In the days since the election, recriminations have been flying fast and hard inside the Republican hivemind. Mallet du Pan observed more than 200 years ago that the revolution devours its own children, and a modified form of that adage has applied quite well to the recent “analysis” of just what it is that went wrong on November 6th. Of course, not all of the analysis is scare-quotes worthy; over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides explains with voodoo things like “numbers” and “logic” why this election may not be a realignment, and elsewhere occasionally-sane conservative David Frum has been trying to bring some semblance of reality into the conservative bubble.

Part of the soul-searching, if it can be called that, that is taking place among the more fact-aware members of the Republican community, has involved reflections on the changing demographics of America. Oh, has it ever involved them! It is possible now to finally get Republicans to realize that the demographics are changing, which I suppose is progress of a sort, but there are things that you believe with your head, and things that you believe with your heart; while it seems the head-belief is making inroads, the heart-belief that Republicans can win by changing nothing remains.

This, I hope, makes the title clear. When Richard Feynman first spoke about “cargo-cult science,” he had in mind something that has all the appearance of science but none of its actual content. It’s clear that so far, the Republican strategy has had all the appearance of a strategy, but none of the actual content. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Or maybe it’s too fair; the appearance is the content.

If you read almost any breakdown of future GOP strategy, you find a lot of discussion about how to best communicate the Republican message to Latinos, women, and, well, anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. But as James Joyner astutely observes, the problem is not communication. The problem is that all those people really fucking hate the Republican platform. To understand this, one need look no further than a man who is righter than he knows: Bill O’Reilly. For anyone not familiar will O’Reilly’s post-election pontifications, his surprisingly non-psychotic take on the whole thing was pretty straightforward: the people who voted for Obama want “stuff.”

Let’s set aside the obvious racism (which is even more racist in context) of O’Reilly’s remark. Taking Republicans to task for racist bullshit is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and plenty of people have done it. What is more interesting to me is looking at the sense in which O’Reilly is entirely correct in his evaluation.

O’Reilly seems to have discovered the remarkable phenomenon, previously unknown to anyone in American politics, that people are motivated by political messages that promise them some desirable outcome. Just like many rich people are motivated to vote for Republicans by promises of tax cuts, and lots of white people are motivated to vote for Republicans by barely-disguised racist pandering, so are people on the other side of the fence motivated by considerations of what benefits they might reap from electoral outcomes. Of course, far from being some sort of pathology, this is actually an entirely normal thing for people to do, and the only objection that O’Reilly can possibly have to this is that the “wrong” sorts of people want the “wrong” sorts of things. Women with their abortions and gays with their marriage and liberals in general with their welfare state, UGH!

And that’s the basic problem for Republicans going forward: people like what the other party’s offering. They legitimately think that a welfare state funded by progressive taxation and a legal regime in which a woman isn’t forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are good things. If you offer to dismantle all of that stuff that people like, you can hardly be surprised if your platform ends up being somewhat unpopular. It’s not wildly unpopular, yet, but the trend is headed in that direction; the only age group that voted for Romney was old people, and the younger the demographic gets, the more liberal it is. For all their talk of “communication” and “appeals to minorities” it’s pretty clear that a lot of Republicans think that they can just put a Latino face out there, or possibly a woman (say, how did that work last time?) and run the same regressive policies expecting to win. It’s a strategy of sorts, I suppose, but it’s not a strategy that, despite the ardent please of David Frum, includes any sort of modification of actual policies.

Of course, it’s easy to understand the problems that the GOP faces. They’re caught, especially at the Congressional level, between the Scylla of national unelectability and he Charybdis of primary challenges from their socially conservative base. A Republican party that decided to wave a white flag in the culture wars would face a powerful backlash in precisely the places where it’s currently strongest, but a party that continues to prosecute the same culture wars is facing an electorate that’s been progressively souring on that particular message. In a textbook illustration of irony, the truth of that, the truth of the proposition that voters will vote for the “stuff” they want, has been brought home by none other than O’Reilly. And when Bill O’Reilly is the one in your party who most closely resembles someone who understands how politics works, you’re probably deeply fucked.