Sunday, June 06, 2004

Follow-Up: Ptolomy vs. Einstein / Pitcher Abuse  

I got an extraordinary amount of e-mail on this subject, though in part because I failed to ever touch on the Ptolomy and Einstein topic in the headline. I violated an s.o.p. of journalism...write the headline last. By the time I got around to addressing astronomy, I had overrun my time and length most readers will bear, so I let it drop. But I got some especially insightful responses on the core topic of the entry, so I'm going to include those, too.

Why Ptolomy Could Have Sent a Mission to the Moon, but Einstein Couldn't

I'm actually going to let "rlc", an erudite poster to Baseball Primer explain it, in part because what I was going to write wasn't as concise and clean as what rlc wrote.

Posted by rlc  on  June 04, 2004 at 01:46 PM (#658901)
The headline is a conflation of two separate instances of a discredited physical theory not becoming obsolete, in both cases because it had been refined to such an extent that it was easier to use than the theory that replaced it.

In the Ptolemaic universe, all the heavenly bodies revolve around the earth. The retrograde motion of the planets was explained by proposing that the planetary orbits had loops in them called epicycles. Centuries of observation resulted in epicycles being added to epicycles (epiepicycles? epybicycles? I forget). The idea that the planets actually moved in that way was very hard to swallow, but the astronomical tables that were compiled were so damned accurate that long after the Copernican revolution astronomers were still using the Ptolemaic model to predict eclipses and transits and other astronomical events.

Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity are thought to be the most consistent explanations of motion and gravitation. However, NASA and JPL and every other assembly of rocket scientists still use the Newtonian equations to calculate moon shots.

The tradition of mangling metaphors has a long tradition in the business world - stopping it would be like pulling hen's teeth.

Because the why of basic earth-centered universe model was wrong, scientists spent a humongous amount of energy observing the apparent motion of the planets in an attempt to understand what the behaviour of the planetary bodies was. And they observed and recorded diligently, things they might not have been as ready to do if they had a more sensible model that dovetailed more neatly with observed phenomena.

The parallel I would have gotten to if I had gotten to it is this: In rejecting the old model, it's important not to demonize it. NASA doesn't...they're not ready to throw away Newtonian or even Ptolomaic charts because of the painstaking effort they required & results they deliver. And while the Stan Williams theory of letting a guy throw until he Pulls A Dravecky leads to a lot of Hobbes-ian pitching careers (short, nasty, and brutish), in rejecting it, it's important to recycle knowledge gained in arriving at the conclusions the old models exposed, and not throw the Baby Doll out with the bathwater.

In sum, it looks like a contributing factor in being able to be effective for more pitches a start is throwing more pitches per start within reasonable limits. No one knows what the exact limits are, and the variation between individual organisms, very high among humans, makes "knowing" it hard. The Back In The Good Old Days crowd (the Bitgods) practiced a common American management approach to not being able to know -- if you can't know, just ignore it because analysis will likely be a waste of time. That's lazy, just as the new model's 105-110 pitch ceiling for a healthy pitcher on a normal rest could become a rigid and undermining dogma that prevents an organization form getting the most productive long-term contributions from an individual.


So Mike Gutierrez, Alaska's finest all-natural blogger, sent me an insightful note in how the dysfunctional backlash works to undermine progress in government (the sector he has been working in).

You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned government experiencing that kind of philosophical swing.  In a way, it's institutional.  Each new chief executive comes into office based on the campaign theme that everything the incumbent administration is doing is being done wrong.  So, without investigating whether or not this is accurate, lower level managers entering the system are obliged to adopt this world view.

When was the last time you heard a candidate for a chief executive position (Mayor, Governor, President) say, "My opponent's labor policy is for shit, but he is doing a pretty good job on health care?"  After the election, it would be a very rare manager (Cabinet Member, Commissioner, etc...) who could speak up and say, "you know, they really weren't doing so bad on health care and we should keep doing things their way."  It would be even more rare to see such a manager keep his job after doing that.

Is it similar in the private sector?  Does a new chief executive, perhaps coming in to right the ship, campaign for his or her job by assuming everything was being done wrong?

A perfect example. And the answer is, of course, "yes", it does work that way in the private sector, where the behavior is even more inexcuseable. When officials are taking on incumbents, they invest a lot of moeny and credibility in making the attacks on the old model. This means there's a fairly high cost in "face" if you end up saying, "Well, this was a nice piece of design". In the private sector, except in the case of a hostile takeover of a public company, it's pretty rare that all the steak-holders know what the issues were that defenestrated one set of suited white guys and replaced them with another set of suited white guys, so the new team should have plenty of latitude to preserve as much as they need to. All too often, though, the new team wants to, as my father used to say, pee in the orange juice, to mark their ascension.


Steve Nelson of Mariners Wheelhouse used an example from his own environmental consulting experience to draw parallels between the rigid adherence to average pitch counts as a simplified over-reaction to the actual abuse too many starting pitchers experienced in the old Bitgod model.

One important thing Steve didn't explain to me because he knows I used to do environmental consulting is that generally the kinds of pollution industries create is a lot more toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic than the kinds that come out of municipal wastewater plants (sewage is mostly ordinary organic waste, easily treated; industrial pollutants can have significant concentrations of heavy metals, chlorinated hydrocarbons and radioactive waste). Therefore, the work is more challenging, therefore the market both allows higher charges and has a sparser set of potential competitors with the skills set. So it behooves any for-profit organization that has the skill set at hand to do the higher-margin work.

Steve's words:

Another good example from a former employer.  The company had it's roots in doing municipal water and wastewater treatment plants, and those people still dominated the management.  I was involved in the industrial services practice, a good portion of which was soil and groundwater contamination and cleanup.

The managers were absolutely paranoid that the company was going to have some kind of a professional liability claim for this work, and always insisted on including a risk premium in pricing those projects.  Whenever financial performance was reviewed, the greater profitability of industrial services was always discounted because of the "bigger risk".  These projects also required more layers of approval, all of which wound up in added overhead burden for those services.

Want to guess how many claims the company had ever had in industrial services?  ZERO!

Want to guess what the claim frequency was in municipal services?  About one every three years!

I've been doing industrial services projects for close to 20 years now, and in that time I have never been involved in only one professional liability case, for a grand total of $8000 work that needed to be redone.  The simple fact is that industrial clients only rarely make professional liability claims against environmenteal engineering consultants.  They terminate the job, you never work for them again, and they may occasionally press informally for some financial resolution.

The entities that file claims against engineers are government agencies. They could never see that the municipal end of the business was what was driving premiums and claim experience, and no amount of actual numbers would convince them otherwise. (emphasis is mine)

It actually reached a point where competitors who did only industrial services were routinely beating us on pricing because they didn't have the premiums and inefficiencies, and many managers were just as happy to see that "high risk" work going away.

I have written at length in the past of the self-limitations of fear-based management. Fear always ends up melting away the bottom line through the attachment of overhead, whether its liability insurance, extra meetings to make sure everyone has reached consensus, or funding another commission to investigate whether traffic lights reduce traffic accidents rather than just installing the frelling things.

All large organizations need a measure of caution, but unless they are in a form of the insurance business, no organization, governmental or corporate or non-profit can succeed long-term if its decisions are driven more by fear/risk-aversion rather than by opportunity.

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