Include the little things
The final score*
Whenever I talk about sports I begin by noting that this is not an essay about sports.
This past weekend the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 35-16.
Let’s assume we can move beyond one team being named the Buckeyes and the other being named the Scarlet Knights. Further, for those of you who can’t move beyond this, I’ll assume you can get it out of your system by searching for “Brutus Buckeye” and imagining the fear the opposing team feels when facing a team named for a nut that grows into a tree.
Where was I?
Oh yeah, 36-16.
That sounds like a one sided game. It sounds as if Ohio State had its way with Rutgers from start to finish.
At half time Rutgers was winning 9-7. In fact, at that point Rutgers had scored three times and Ohio State had only scored once.
Sorry, again for those of you who follow these things, “The” Ohio State university had only scored once.
And you wonder how I keep getting side-tracked.
Don’t focus on the big plays
There are many who will say that only the final score matters.
There are times when that’s true.
In my country, the party that wins the Senate or the House of Representatives even by a single person, controls the legislative agenda for that body.
They will often declare that they have a mandate and it is the will of the people even though the majority of people voted for the other side but the way the districts are drawn or states were drawn, the minority has achieved a majority of the seats.
But in so many areas of our lives, we need to look at more than just the final score to understand what’s going on - to prepare ourselves for next time.
In sports we look at a highlight reel of the big plays in the game.
Usually these are scoring plays. We go to studio in New York where the broadcasters there show us a touchdown, a field goal, or a key interception before throwing it back to the game you were watching.
After the game, the entire sixty minutes of playing time is edited down to a 90 second or less summary of the highlights.
“Daniel,” you point out helpfully, “you said this essay wasn’t going to be about football.”
The rest of the data
I’ve been listening to Hannah Fry’s new podcast Uncharted.
I will stipulate that I am a big fan of people who can explain complicated math or science well and Hannah is brilliant at it.
One of the themes in this series is that if you want to analyze why something went wrong, you can’t just look at the data for the cases in which things went wrong.
One of the examples in one episode is a decision John Carter has to make about whether or not to participate in an upcoming race.
Looking at the times their cars had suffered engine failure, six of the ten had happened when the ambient temperature was less than 65 degrees F and three had happened when the ambient temperature was less than 55 degrees F.
What happens, the podcast asks, if you don’t just look at the ten failures but you look at all of the racing data and see what happens when the temperature was below a certain level.
All of a sudden the conclusion was clear, when the conditions were too cold, all of the races run had engine failure.
An example from a different episode centers around the automated, driverless subway system in Singapore.
I’ve taken this system and it’s amazing.
But there was a period when trains were just stopping and passengers needed to be evacuated and walk to the nearest station.
The subway officials had a theory and looked at the data for all trains that had stopped. This not only disproved their theory but it left them with no working theory to work on.
So instead of just looking at data for the trains that stopped, they looked at all of the data for the trains. Fortunately, during this period the subway had backup drivers riding with all of the trains so a stopped train could be restarted.
The data showed that then the next train would stop. Then the next train. This led the officials to realize that a train traveling the other way on the tracks was sending out rogue signals to the trains it encountered that caused them to stop.
The details aren’t important - the lesson is.
Sometimes the story of why a team wins or loses are all of the plays in between the scoring plays. The plays where the receiver runs to his left so many times that that one time when he runs to his right he’s wide open.
And no, this is not a story about football.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 189. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe