Monday, March 31, 2014

Optimal design

Here is a terrific short piece on optimal design. The writer is John Rawls, one of the great philosophers in the 20th century. The discussion is about baseball and so you might dismiss the observations as more in the vein of parody than serious reflection. This, I believe, would be a mistake. There are serious points here about how rules can be considered wrt to their optimal game design. Note that the optimality refers to how humans are built (compare: minimality in the context of bounded content addressable memory) and how games entertain (compare: how grammars are used). How the rules have not changed over time (stable) (compare: UG not changed since humans first hit the scene) and apply to all kinds of people (universal). There is also discussion of how easy it is to use the rules in game situations (i.e. using these rules in actual play is easy) (compare: conditions that must be specified to be usable at all). At any rate, I leave the analogies with minimalist principles to you dear readers. Many of you will just laugh this off, regarding anything that cannot be mathematically defined as meaningless and a waste of time. This Rawlsian meditation is not for them. For the rest of you, enjoy it. It's fun.


  1. I’m not sure if Norbert’s post is intended as a celebration of opening day, or is instead an April Fool’s hoax, but I think at least a couple of the claims made by Rawls (who in turn attributes them to Kalven) deserve a little closer scrutiny.

    “... from the start, the diamond was made just the right size, the pitcher’s mound just the right distance from home plate, etc., and this makes possible the marvellous plays, such as the double play.”

    In point of fact, the distance between the pitcher and home plate started out at 45 feet and was successively lengthened, reaching the now standard 60 feet 6 inches in 1893. Additionally, after the 1968 season the height of the mound was reduced from 15 inches to 10 inches.

    “There are close calls in baseball too, but the umps do very well on the whole, …”

    Coincidentally, over the weekend the New York Times published a piece by Brayden King and Jerry Kim, “What Umpires Get Wrong” ( The upshot is that they found that “umpires frequently made errors behind the plate — about 14 percent of non-swinging pitches were called erroneously.”

    Baseball is certainly my favorite sport, but its rules have been tinkered with quite a bit over the years (and I'm trying to avoid discussing the DH mutation).

  2. Many of you will just laugh this off, regarding anything that cannot be mathematically defined as meaningless and a waste of time.

    I certainly don't believe that the mathematically undefinable is meaningless or a waste of time, but mathematics sure helps when optimality is at issue.