Thursday, January 09, 2014

The insanely great world of sports (and life in general)

Reading Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise" prompted me to consider the beautiful absurdity of human reality. For example, Silver devotes a large chunk of the book to various statistical systems that predict baseball player performance. He shows how scouts and geeks scour gigabytes of objective and subjective data about thousands of candidates: from high school, to minor leagues, to the Major League Baseball (MLB). It's understandable because top player contracts run easily into a hundred million dollars. The total 2013 MLB payroll is over $3 billion dollars.

This large-scale data gathering and analysis is not limited to pro teams. With proliferation of the web, amateurs are getting into the statistical game with online fantasy sports. (In fantasy sports, players draft virtual teams that collect points based on player stats during regular season "physical" games.) According to Bloomberg News, fantasy sports participants spent $3,4B on products, services, and entry fees. Huge business on imaginary teams!

Why is it absurd? Because from an information perspective, an outcome of a home team game produces just 1 bit of information.* That is, the home team either wins (1) or loses (0). Somehow, we humans managed to invent an elaborate process for generating reams of data that result in a minimal amount of information. Judging by the success of Twitter, our purpose in life seems to be pure data generation.

Speaking of human life, since all people die, the informational outcome of an individual human life equals to zero. That is, because there's no uncertainty of the biological outcome, one's life or death does not make any computational difference. What does make a difference though, is whether one has children or not. In that case, an uncertainty exists and we cannot be sure that the data generation process will continue into the future. No wonder God tells Noah, "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth." (Genesis, 9:1). What is s/he computing? :)

Information is classically defined as reduction of uncertainty: the more numerous the alternatives that are ruled out, the greater the reduction of uncertainty, and thus the greater the information. It is usually measured using the entropy function, which is the logarithm of the number of alternatives (assuming they are equally likely). For example, tossing a fair coin and obtaining heads corresponds to log2(2) = 1 bit of information, because there are just two alternatives. (quoted from G. Tononi, Biol. Bull. 215, 216, http://www.biolbull.
org/content/215/3/216.full (2008).

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