Linsanity and Systems Design

You don’t need to be a fan of professional basketball to marvel at the ostensibly unprecedented series of games that have inspired the New York Knickerbockers during the past few weeks.

It all began on February 4, in a match against their regional rival, the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks had only won 2 of their 11 preceding games and 8 of 23 overall; they appeared to be hopelessly mired in a dreadful pattern of mediocrity.

At that point, an unheralded journeyman player named Jeremy Lin came off the bench and scored 25 points to spark the Knicks to an unexpected victory. At the time, most sports reporters considered the game to be a brief highlight in an otherwise bleak Knickerbocker season.

But Lin continued to shine in game after game, and the Knicks continued to win. During the ensuing two weeks, Lin led the Knicks to seven consecutive victories, and was featured in the cover story of the national magazine Sports Illustrated each week. Knicks fans, enamored with his success, began talking about the playoffs and perhaps even challenging for a national championship.

A Scientific Explanation

Some of the most experienced professionals in the sport claimed that they had never witnessed such a series of performances during their entire careers. But how could a journeyman player suddenly emerge from nowhere and turn around a mediocre team so thoroughly? Indeed, many professionals expressed surprise that such an event could occur at all.

Interestingly, some commentators actually attributed Lin’s surge to the absence of the Knicks’ team leaders Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Their injuries, these commentators claimed, opened the door for Lin’s emergence and permitted him to change the team’s “chemistry.” Indeed, these pundits believe that intangible and unquantifiable factors like team chemistry can drive a team’s ability to succeed, and can quickly change the direction of an entire season.

Such opinions, though, run contrary to the scientific theory of systems design. According to this theory, Lin’s emergence on the Knicks as an unusually superior performer — as well as the emergence of other players and teams as unusually inferior performers — are predictable outcomes of an unusual disruption to the “system” of basketball this year.

Maturity and Volatility

Any young, fledgling, immature system inevitably experiences a significant degree of volatility (both positive and negative) in its operating performance. When professional baseball first emerged into its “modern era” over a century ago, for instance, pitchers like Cy Young were able to win 500 games, while hitters like Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby were able to compile annual batting averages over .400 during multiple seasons.

Among active players in the sport today, though, Roy Halladay leads all pitchers with only 188 victories, supplanting the recently retired Tim Wakefield. And no batter has achieved a batting average over .400 in a single season since Ted Williams managed that feat in 1941.

Do these results imply that modern professional baseball players are less competent than their predecessors of a century ago?  Not at all; in fact, today’s superior dietary and exercise regimens may make modern players superior (in terms of physical ability) to their predecessors. However, the sport of baseball is a system that has matured over many decades, and has — like any other mature system — largely eliminated wide disparities in performance.

So even though we no longer cheer for pitchers like Cy Young, who won 511 games from 1890 to 1911, we (conversely) no longer commiserate with players on teams like the Cleveland Spiders, a squad that won only 20 out of 154 games in 1899. No pitcher won more than 4 games for the Spiders that year, and no hitter socked more than 2 home runs for those arachnids during that season.

Disruptive Events

Occasionally, mature systems are disrupted by unusual events, and thus experience uncommon increases in volatility. The infusion of steroids into professional baseball ten to fifteen years ago, for instance, led to aberrational spikes in the home run totals of players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. It also enabled the 354 win career of pitcher Roger Clemens.

Similarly, the 2012 professional basketball lockout completely eliminated the sport’s annual pre-season and resulted in a drastically curtailed and compressed regular season. That was the disruption that enabled the volatility that underlies the recent performance of Jeremy Lin.

According to systems design theory, though, patterns of extreme volatility should feature unusually weak performances as well as uncommonly superior performances; the current NBA season features such extreme disappointments too. The Charlotte Bobcats, for instance, have only won 14.6% of their first 41 games this year, a performance that (if extended for a full year) would rank it as one of the five worst teams in league history.

Thus, while assessing the incredible performance of Jeremy Lin in a scientific manner, it is important to note that uncommonly weak player and team  performances are occurring as well. That’s a convincing indicator that the performance volatility might be attributable to a disruption of the system itself.

From Snacks To Software: Seeking Simplicity

The melodic piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The subtle tastes and fragrances of fine French wines. And the extensive software programming that make global positioning satellite technology useful.

What do all of these creative endeavors share in common? To put it simply, they are all astonishingly complex. Although many of us can appreciate their forms and functions, very few of us can comprehend fully how they have been constructed, or how to construct similar works ourselves.

But complexity is not always a desirable trait; quite the contrary, simplicity is often valued instead. And last week, a pair of endeavors from opposite corners of American society earned widespread acclaim and admiration because of their abilities to “keep things simple.”

Goodbye, Food Pyramid …

The United States Department of Agriculture was widely hailed last week for replacing its visually complex food pyramid with a far more elementary food plate. To be sure, the original version of the pyramid was once widely admired, with its sizable foundation of healthy bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, and its relatively small capstone of unhealthy fats, oils, and sweets.

But as nutrition science evolved over the years, the food pyramid grew more complex. A flight of stairs was added to the left side of the pyramid in order to stress the importance of exercise. And the recommended portion sizes were added in precise measurement categories like ounces and cups, some stated in terms of a tenth of a unit.

According to today’s Department of Agriculture, what we now require in place of this complexity is a few simple messages. First, half of everything we eat should consist of fruits and vegetables, with a slight emphasis on vegetables over fruit. The other half of our diet should consist of grains and protein, with (hopefully) no fats or sweets added to our meals at all. And a moderate amount of low-fat dairy, perhaps in a glass of milk, is a healthy approach to washing down any meal.

To the delight of health professionals everywhere, the USDA chose to focus on these three simple assertions by developing a food plate to take the place of the pyramid. It now appears to be gaining popularity, not because of any complexity, but rather because of its sheer simplicity.

… Hello, Cloud Computing Devices!

A perfectly well balanced meal can still be a complicated endeavor … and so can be a perfectly functioning computer system! Microsoft, Apple, and even handheld device manufacturers like Research In Motion and Nokia have struggled during the past few decades to develop operating systems that boot up promptly, help users locate files easily, and avoid crashes, viruses, and other malfunctions.

In other words, computer and mobile phone customers are still searching for an operating system that can help them manage basic computing functions in a quick and reliable manner. They don’t necessarily need powerful computing devices; instead, they’d gladly settle for simplicity instead.

This is the market segment that represents the target of Google’s Chromebook, a revolutionary product that will be introduced later this month. It has no operating system, other than a souped-up version of Google’s Chrome web browser. And it has no built-in hard drive or other storage device; users are expected to find services in the internet “cloud” to help them with such functions.

What it offers is perfect simplicity. Push a button, and it boots up in eight seconds. Type a Google email address and password, and a web browser appears. At that moment, all of the services of the internet become available, with no software updates or security upgrades to slow the user down. Will it work?  Time will tell … and Google hopes that the market will appreciate the device for its sheer simplicity.

A Social Backlash

Have you heard about the restaurant entrepreneurs who recently began focusing on the development of a culinary competition dedicated to grilled cheese sandwiches? How about the investors who have recently begun managing bowling alleys around the nation? They all appear to be responding to a desire for simple pleasures in American society today.

Consider, as well, the recent trends towards small and efficient automobiles, as well as iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices that sport just a single user button on the face of each unit. Indeed, the popularity of these products may owe much to a societal backlash against complexity. Gone are the days when buyers would marvel at horribly complex automobile dashboards, or at mammoth stereophonic sound systems with multiple decks of components. Today, we all seem to admire simplicity.

Indeed, the new food plate and the emerging ChromeBook seem to be focusing on the same underlying desire, an inclination by the American public to value simplicity over complexity. At a time when home mortgages and health insurance policies have become maddeningly complicated, and when planning for retirement has become an intellectually mind-boggling activity, it is no wonder that Americans are interested in “keeping things simple” whenever they can do so.