Saturday, February 18, 2017

Bowling your way to the top

"Oh, this is very American!" I said, when I finally understood how Bowling scoring works.

Bowling scoring is nonlinear

In a bowling game, there are 10 rounds. There are 10 pins, and you get 2 shoots in each round to knock as many as you can.

Even if you are novice, if you are eager and put effort in it, at each round you can knock down 6 pins. So that gives you a score of 6*10=60.

If you knock down 7 pins at each round, you get a score of 70.
8 pins, you get a score of 80.
9 pins, you get a score of 90.

Here is where things start to go nonlinear and you get accelerated returns. If you knock down all the 10 pins in your two shoots, this is called a spare. Your score for that round is not just 10, but the point you get from the next round is also added to it. So if you had a spare in round k, and got 7 in the next round k+1, you get 10+7 for round k, and 7 for round k+1, and in total of 17+7=24 points from these two rounds. If we were scoring this linearly, you would only get 10+7=17.

If you knock down all the 10 pins in your first shoot in a round, this is called a strike. Your score for that round is not just 10, but the points you get from the next *two* rounds get added to it. If you had a strike in round k, and got 7 in round k+1 and k+2, you get 10+7+7=24 points for round k, 7 for k+1, and 7 for k+2, and a total of 38 points from these 3 rounds. If we were scoring this linearly, you would only get 10+7+7=24 from these 3 rounds.

In the first game I played, I was knocking about 7 pins each round, so I thought, I should be in pretty good shape. Wrong. I got 4th place. The first two guys were experienced, they managed to hit sequences of strikes and spares, and their score grew very fast. My third place friend had managed to hit a series of spares towards the end of the game, and has beaten my score before I could understand my score was being beaten. I thought I was comfortably ahead.

It is more important to hit occasional strikes and spares than hitting a constantly comfortable 7 average.

So let's get back to where we left, the transition from linear to nonlinear scoring.
All 8 pins at all rounds, you get a total score of 80.
All 9, you get a total score of 90.
All spares, you get a total score of 200, instead of 100.
All strikes, you get a total score of 300, instead of 100.

And that last one is called a perfect game.
Here is a short video of a perfect game.

OK so what?

Why am I wasting my time and your time telling you about bowling scoring?

If you were born and raised in US, you might have yawned reading through the above text. You might be taking the scoring for granted. In fact, when I realized the scoring works in a "funny" way, I asked my American friends to explain. They didn't have much previous practice explaining the scoring. One of them said, after stalling for some time, "Hmm, I realize this is the first time I am explaining Bowling scoring to someone." And this guy has played in a Bowling league for a couple years :-)

After a couple more takes of explaining/questioning with a second friend, when I finally understood what is going on, I blurted: "Oh, this is very American!", which surprised my friend.

If you take this scoring for granted, all I will tell you is this: "Three points for a win" is a relatively recent adoption in soccer scoring. Before that, it was 0 points for loss, 1 points for draw, and 2 points for win. And the games were so boring.

Teams would go for a draw, because the prospect of gaining one extra point by putting effort into attacking was not worth risking your defensive stance which could make you lose the game and get no points. The transition to three points for a win started only after 1980 taking up to 2000 in some countries. And this led to a significant increase of average goals scored in the games.

This is not about bowling, isn't it?

Yes, you see, free markets are inherently nonlinear scoring markets. Nonlinear scoring applies especially for the current information technology markets, where "the best performers are able to capture a very large share of the rewards, and the remaining competitors are left with very little". In such a winner-take-all economy, you run the risk of being overlooked if your products are mediocre. You need to hit some strikes.

This is also true in academia. Yes, you need to show that you are publishing productively, and there is some pebble counting. But in order for those pebbles to count, you need some occasional gems in between. You need to hit some strikes.

It is more important to hit occasional strikes and spares than hitting a constantly comfortable 7 average.

You need to think big, aim big, and go for a strike, so you can achieve nonlinear returns occasionally.

1. Wait a minute? Didn't I tell you a couple days ago "worse is better"?
Yes, I did. But this is how I concluded that post: "Worse is better takes a simplistic/minimalist approach. Simple and minimal can be powerful, if it is not done too ugly. Is worse always better? No. As I said earlier systems design is all about tradeoffs. It is important to analyze and decide in advance what the priorities are."

In fact, a worse-is-better system hits a strike in a priority dimension, such as being minimalist and going viral. On the other hand, a do-the-right-thing system may get stuck with hitting constantly comfortable of 7 average in all dimensions.

2. This nonlinear return idea also reminds me of the high-intensity interval training (HIT) idea. Tim Ferris had a very interesting interview with Prof. Martin Gibala on this.  The idea in HIT is that you get accelerated returns for the short nonlinear effort you put into your training.