Saturday, March 27, 2010

Analytics and Cricket - II : The IPL effect

This is second in the series of articles on O.R. and cricket. Click here for the first part, done a while ago.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) is close to becoming the number one Indian global brand - not just the number one sports brand. It has overtaken past colonial stereotypes (such as snake charmers, elephants, and Maharajahs), current pop stereotypes (IT outsourcing brands like Infosys, Wipro, et al, knowledge-brands like the IIT graduate, etc). The two newest franchise teams unveiled in this fledgling three-year old league were purchased for $333M, costing more than a couple of current NHL teams. Sports has become big business, even as the cricket fan in me rebels against this. Several owners have 'Bollywood' connections. Not surprising, given that these movie types make so many expensive flops year after year, the risk level for a cricket venture is surely much lower.

This IPL season is on YouTube now after a pioneering deal with Google, and this experiment serves as a nice dress rehearsal for the search engine company toward more such live streaming ventures in the future. In terms of audience size, it's easily a factor of ten-twenty bigger than that for NCAA basketball. India has a lot of cricket-crazy people. I've provided the YouTube link for my favorite match of the tournament so far: Bangalore v Mumbai. This is the shortest form of cricket played where each innings lasts twenty overs and the entire game is completed in three hours.

We will cover two new analytical induced innovations observed in this season's IPL.

First, the number of run-outs (analogous to a baseball strike-out where a player doesn't make it to a base in time) seems to have increased dramatically. Why? It looks like team statisticians have noticed that a traditionally weak area of teams is fielding and the probability of a direct hit on the stumps is low. This reduces the risk of getting run-out and the reward for stealing an additional run against statistically poor fielding teams may be well worth the risk. Teams that do not improve their fielding will probably see this hit-probability decrease. Teams will take more chances against you and more members in your team will have the opportunity to show-case their non-athletic, keystone kops-like fielding prowess leading to a deterioration in stats. Conversely, good fielding teams can improve their hit-probability stats and reap the reward in terms of effecting more run-outs. Teams of both kinds can be seen. The ones adopting better fielding standards are at the top of the points table.

A second analytic innovation is the form of a special T-20 (twenty-over cricket) bat and is now the most famous mongoose in India (that's the brand name for this bat). It has a handle as long as the blade itself, with the total length of the bat itself being constant. Statistics show that in this form of the game, oftentimes, half a bat is often better than a full-one, if optimally designed! Don't believe it? See this YouTube clip of Matt "the bat" Hayden, the first player in the IPL to use this bat. He is certainly not going to be the last.

So why is the mongoose effective? In the most serious form of cricket (test cricket), a full bat is a must. It's a longer game (over 5 days) and the chances of getting out is much, much higher over time and you want a bat as large as a barn door to prevent the ball from disturbing your stumps. From the T20 perspective, the ball travels the longest when it hits the sweet spot of the bat (roughly three-fourth of the way down a bat), and combined with the fact that getting out in T20 is not such a big deal, you end up with the mongoose, which is essentially just a long handle and a reinforced lower half, like a pendulum. It's made of wood just like the traditional bat, just as long, and roughly the same weight. For a given period of time at the crease, you are more likely to get out using the mongoose, but the expected number of runs (specifically in the form of hitting sixers) you could score before that happens can be much higher, thus making it an attractive trade-off in certain T20 match situations.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Dangerfield Syndrome - To Patent, Publish or Present?

Before we start, as always, this tab entry is purely a product of personal opinion, watching much comedy central, and is solidly based on the wild conspiracy theory (if this isn't dual noise, what is?) It is completely unrelated to any real-world company or university, including the ones I worked for in the past or present. On the other hand, it is well and truly dedicated to every Rodney Dangerfield in O.R. practice (you belong to this club only if you already knew that).

In academia, a professor would be happy to get their work published in a leading peer-reviewed O.R journal and often, this acceptance defines the degree of success or failure of a research project. Almost all new ideas in a university make it to some journal or conference, but very few practical innovations in the industry gain visibility. They are either patented, or remain hidden as a company's intellectual property. At the end of the day, the Edelmans, like the Oscars, are as much (and probably more) a tribute to an organization's upper management for being O.R. friendly, as it is to the guys in the trenches who actually pull off the O.R. innovations.

So how does the common O.R. guy in the company gain peer-recognition? (suggestions most welcome here :-)
After prototyping is done, what does the practitioner do? Sit around tooling, while waiting for analytical support calls ? There are a few choices (or few choices if you have a bad boss), depending on when your next project starts. You can try to patent the most practical approach. After all, in practice, the proof is in the pudding. Or you can publish a non-proprietary version of your findings. A cynic may say that what this really means is that you released an 'unpractical' version, but this not the case - at least not always. Patenting is common place in the IT world, but a relatively less popular option in the O.R. world. A patent in your resume can make you look more 'result-oriented'. A future employer may be worried if he/she observes way too many publications during your past job ("so did u do any real work this millennium?").

On the other hand, if you plan to move on to academia after a while, publishing is not such a bad idea. And it's not bad for a future industry job as well, since it serves as a solid, peer-reviewed reference for your scientific skills. It's also a good marketing and recruiting tool, since your company gains recognition in the scientific community as a place that promotes cutting edge R&D. A good manager would recognize these benefits. A common fear that is unfounded is that publishing = giving away your intellectual property. As long as you keep your engineering ideas out of scope, my own experience is that it can be counter-productive for a competitor to try and directly reproduce a product from a journal paper that appears in print 2-4 years after the idea was implemented in a product (or not). Add to that a couple of years that it takes to go from idea to finished product, and you get the picture. Then you realize that you would have been better off building something for today's customer on your own, rather than relying on recycled ideas.

Patenting versus publishing is a personal choice. Acads are shocked to see frivolous patents. But for every seemingly hideous patent, there exists a new publication for yet another factor-of-2 approximation algorithm for an NP-Hard problem that can be readily 'solved' in milliseconds for real data instances. The answer to the original question is not clear cut. And what about presenting at conferences?

Nowadays, companies count the number of patent applications filed by their R&D group. If such a metric is employed, perhaps patenting should be the first option. This scenario is more likely if you work in a non-traditional O.R. industry, and in such a situation, presenting at a conference can provide visibility and is a nice trade-off. Conference presentations takes up much less time than publishing, and you can get your ideas out there quickly. On the other hand, conference proceedings seem to be valued less in our field. Perhaps practitioners can present more of their work at a dedicated conference. These should be a conference of practitioners, and organized by, and for the benefit of practitioners. That would be wicked. Why the Gettysburg clause you ask? When profs meet, its an conference, but when practitioners and engineers meet, its labeled a workshop. As we all know, when the rocket stays up, it's hailed a scientific success, and if not, its an engineering failure. There's still no respect for 'R&D'.