My Final Word on the Subject

“When a team scores 34 points against you in the NFL divisional playoffs, your best defense isn’t a first-round rookie running back. It’s a better defense.”
— Mark Twain The Oracle

The Topic Under Discussion

As much as any piece of mine is organized enough to have one particular topic, this piece is about the mechanics of improving at daily fantasy sports (and basically anything else).

The Same Book is Still on My Desk

I’ve previously mentioned that one of my New Year’s resolutions is to (pretend to) read more.

Last week I had made it past the dedication and into the introduction of Henry Petroski’s Evolution of Useful Things. I’m now past Chapter 1, “How the Fork Got Its Tines,” and into Chapter 2, “Form Follows Failure.”

The book’s general thesis applies to daily fantasy sports and deserves exploration.

Form Follows Function?

Petroski by trade is an engineer, so the ‘things’ he’s most concerned with are actual objects: pencils, forks, saws, screwdrivers, etc. The questions he explores generally touch upon (as it were) the physical substance of the objects.

• Why does the fork have four tines instead of three?
• How did paper money evolve from metal currency?
• What is the best design for a paper clip?

Such questions might seem random or trivial, but the inclination to understand the evolution of things (physical and otherwise) is valuable.

Most people don’t know much about design (I don’t), but almost everyone is familiar with the dictum that “form follows function” — that the way something looks, is shaped, etc., is a direct result of its intended use.

While that idea is true, it’s also (according to Petroski) overly simplistic, since multiple objects have the same function but still significantly differ. For instance, wooden chopsticks and metal flatware both exist for the purpose of conveying food to the mouth — in form they both follow that function — but they are radically different. For that matter, there are tons of differences between different types of knives and forks.

For Petroski, form doesn’t follow function exclusively, because ‘function’ (as an idea) doesn’t demand satisfaction through one and only one method of action.

Here’s how Petroski puts it:

Imagining how the form of things as seemingly simple as eating utensils might have evolved demonstrates the inadequacy of a “form follows function” argument to serve as a guiding principle for understanding how artifacts have come to look the way they do. Reflecting on how the form of the knife and fork has developed, let alone how vastly divergent are the ways in which Eastern and Western cultures have solved the identical design problem of conveying food to mouth, really demolishes any overly deterministic argument, for clearly there is no unique solution to the elementary problem of eating.

In other words, form doesn’t follow function only. Form is always informed by something else.

Form Follows Failure

Petroski believes that form is the result of failure:

What form does follow is the real and perceived failure of things as they are used to do what they are supposed to do. Clever people in the past, whom we today might call inventors, designers, or engineers, observed the failure of existing things to function as well as might be imagined. By focusing on the shortcomings of things, innovators altered those items to remove imperfections, thus producing new, improved objects. Different innovators in different places, starting with rudimentary solutions to the same basic problem, focused on different faults at different times, and so we have inherited culture-specific artifacts that are daily reminders that even so primitive a function as eating imposes no single form on the implements used to effect it.

Here’s where I want to start exploring the process of improvement.

Becoming Better

It’s my experience and Petroski’s assertion that advancement is something of a two-step process. I’m simplifying, but here’s the basic outline for the process.

  1. There’s a need, but the instrument to satisfy that need doesn’t exist. The instrument is then envisioned and created. This step in the process is rooted in positivity: “Yes, I can fix this problem.”
  2. The instrument now exists — but the problem (though diminished) still persists. The instrument is continuously evaluated and adjusted. This step in the process is grounded in negativity: “This instrument is not as good as it could or should be.”

Eventually, for basic items like knives and forks, the process can be completed as the instruments reach a near-perfect form.

So this process doesn’t need to continue forever. It generally continues until the instrument being perfected is functional enough to make any additional adjustments to or time invested in it not worthwhile.

Strong Inference Revisited

Last year I wrote a piece about strong inference, White Swans, and DFS trends. In the piece I talk about strong inference as a ‘negative technique’ through which we can ‘falsify’ an idea and thereby create actionable knowledge:

The idea of strong inference is that scientists should have not one hypothesis that they are attempting to prove when conducting experiments. Instead, they should test several competing hypotheses at once. First, this should help scientists avoid confirmation bias. Additionally, science is most truly advanced through invalidation, not corroboration.

One of my biology professors in college was a freshwater ecologist whose most influential article was not one that proved a new idea about pond and lake ecosystems but disproved a faulty hypothesis that had already started to gain traction in academia. This professor’s findings would not have been possible if not for his use of strong inference and his willingness to run multiple kinds of tests that could produce a result that many other people would’ve considered “negative.”

One of my favorite courses in college was my second-semester organic chemistry lab, in which students were given unknown compounds and tasked with identifying them by the end of the year. To identify a compound, one would first carry out a series of “negative confirmation” tests to prove what the compound wasn’t. Throughout that exploratory process, which was imbued with the spirit of strong inference, the most important tests were those in which the answer was “No.”

Negativity is natural. It enables us to know the world better. Proving what something is not is how science is conducted.

In fact, the scientific method is very much like Petroski’s two-step process of advancement:

  1. Observations are made, and a hypothesis is created. This step is positive.
  2. Experiments are conducted, and they are disproved (if disprovable). This step is ‘negative.’

Only after a hypothesis has withstood extensive and rigorous testing is it accepted as scientifically reliable.

The process Petroski describes for how ‘things’ improve is infused with the beneficial negativity of the scientific method.

Criticism is Critical

Let’s consider the phrase ‘constructive criticism.’ People generally think of criticism as bad. Even the Bible casts criticism in a poor light: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Here’s the thing: Each of us should welcome judgment, especially self-judgment. If you’re not your own harshest critic, who’s the person telling you each day how to suck a little less at life?

Disapproving, finding fault, noticing mistakes, assessing shortcomings — all of these are helpful. I’m not saying that it’s OK to be an *sshole . . .

I've had better

. . . but insight into how to improve is always valuable.

By perceiving the negative we enable ourselves to build something better — whether that’s an object, a scientific principle, or ourselves. Constructive criticism is critical to improvement.

How to Improve at Daily Fantasy Sports

To improve, you must review lineups. Peter Jennings (CSURAM88) reviews his lineups. Jonathan Bales reviews his lineups. The best players review their lineups. Everyone should review lineups.

And when you review lineups, you should be doing more than patting yourself on the back. This isn’t just mental masturbation. This is deconstruction.

When you review losing lineups, don’t look at the players who did well and think, “I got that guy right.” Instead seek out mistakes in everything — like the overvaluation of premium assets — because your process can always improve . . . especially with our suite of Tools, which contains the Player Models that CSURAM88, Bales, and the other members of Team FantasyLabs use for research.

When you review winning lineups, don’t assume that any given lineup is good. Rather, imagine that it was just lucky. Attempt to tear up the lineup. Make the lineup prove to you that it was constructed through reason and skill. Learn what to do by exploring everything that ought not to be done.

If you don’t seek out mistakes with a critical eye, you’ll likely never improve.

One Question, Infinite Answers

Like a sharp DFS player seeing a flawed tendency, Petroski sees an imperfect theory, and he attempts to improve it.

For Petroski, the evolution of useful objects is not about one isolated response to a problem. It’s about the matrix of responses. Because people are bound by space, time, personal history, etc., responses to a problem vary in category, efficacy, and frequency. That’s why some people eat with chopsticks and others with knives and forks — and that’s also why Europeans hold and use knives and forks one way and Americans another.

Even if everyone in DFS has the same question — “How can I improve?” — the answers to that question are legion, because each of us explores that question with a different methodology and mind. What works for one DFS player might not work for another and vice versa.

In seeking to improve — in using negativity to strip away weakness — you should endeavor not to become like someone else. You should strive to become more like yourself. Your best answers to the ultimate questions are good enough.

You don’t need to be a chef to eat a steak.


The Labyrinthian: 2017.4, 99

This is the 99th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.