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08 May 2006

Shave with Ockham's razor

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein

Razor1In the summer of 1996, I had a bout of terrible headaches—debilitating, numbing, paralyzing brain crushers. I was convinced they were symptoms of a brain tumor; John quietly suggested that it might be a vitamin deficiency.

In fact, they were something in between brain tumor and vitamin deficiency (migraines) and were mainly solved by quitting my job. Not that they were stress-related or anything.  Ahem.

In general terms, my headaches are always Intracranial Aneurysms, sore shoulders are a harbinger of Ewing’s Sarcoma, indigestion is a Massive Myocardial Infarction, to which John always replies: “Vitamin deficiency. Vitamin Deficiency. Vitamin Deficiency.”

More often than I’d like to admit, I assume the complex, the catastrophic, while John always opts for the simplest explanation possible—“Eat more carrots or arugula or drink more water or take vitamin C and you’ll be fine,” he’ll say. He’s always right.

So when he told me the story of Kevin Mench this week, I had to smile.

First, let me admit that I like baseball (though I had never heard of Kevin Mench). My baseball heyday was years ago when I kept up with the New York Yankees, in the day of Don Mattingly, then in the era of the beautiful Andy Pettitte and the idiosyncratic Chuck Knoblauch—I loved Knoblauch’s obsessive compulsive habit of ripping open the Velcro on his batting gloves, then closing the straps quickly, then ripping them open again and closing them quickly six times before each pitch, accompanied by that odd spring-loaded knee-bend, butt stuck straight out, those squinted eyes and lips pushed forward that characterized his batting stance.

KnoblauchI was saddened when, all of a sudden, Chuck lost the ability to throw to first base: he would freeze, overthrow, underthrow, badly throw—a failure that finally took him from second base to left field to out of the game altogether. I miss his intensity on the field. I wonder what deep-seated psychological issues kept him from throwing to first base? Or perhaps it was just a vitamin deficiency?

Outfielder Kevin Mench wasn’t doing so well earlier this year. He’s in his fifth season with the Texas Rangers, and is coming off consecutive 25-homer years. In a game last June against the Los Angeles Angels, he became one of only seven players to homer in three consecutive innings. Then the homers stopped. He’s been in a slump and, finally, unable to play.

What happened? The batting coaches were consulted. Elaborate investigations were undertaken, to no avail—he still wasn’t hitting. Further study ensued, teeth were gnashed, batting practices were taped and watched, doctors were called.

Finally, he happened to mention that his foot hurt. Turns out, his shoes were too little.

He had been wearing size 12 shoes since he was 15 years old, but it was time for a bigger shoe.

Mench has hit 12 homeruns since he got his new 12-1/2 size shoes. Just a half-size larger and he’s hitting the ball again. He’s on a streak—a Texas Rangers record with home runs in six straight games, including two grand slams, and 20 RBIs in a week.

"I'm thinking about changing shoes, too," teammate Gerald Laird said.

"I'm hoping next year he goes to 13s," manager Buck Showalter joked.

Mench is only the fourth player in the past 30 years with 20 RBIs in seven games, joining Sammy Sosa (22 in 2002), Albert Belle (21 in 2000) and Mattingly (20 in 1987). It only took a ½ size larger shoe.

RazorOckham's Razor is a logical principle attributed to the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham, a principle stating that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. It’s often called the “principle of parsimony,”usually interpreted to mean something like "the simpler the explanation, the better" or "don't multiply hypotheses unnecessarily." It underlies all scientific modeling and theory building, admonishing us to choose the simplest from a set of otherwise equivalent models of possible solutions. In any given model, Ockham's razor helps us to "shave off" those concepts, variables or constructs that are not really needed to explain the phenomenon.

Contrary to popular belief, Ockham doesn’t assert that the simpler explanation is always more correct or that the more complex explanation is always less correct. Rather, the point is to start from the simplest possible explanation and only make it more complex when absolutely necessary—rather than the other way around, which is tempting, isn’t it? Brain tumor is infinitely more interesting than vitamin deficiency; deep-seated psychological obstacle more intriguing than too-small shoes…

Ockham insisted that valid, reasonable explanations had to be based upon simple, observable facts, supplemented by logic. Many scientists have adopted or reinvented Ockham's Razor as in Leibniz' "identity of observables" and Isaac Newton’s rule: "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances."

SimplicityThe most useful statement of the principle for scientists is, "If you have two theories which both explain the observed facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along." Or, "The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations." Or, "If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, pick the simplest.” Or, "The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct." Or perhaps I should follow the principle of Ockham’s razor and simply say, “the simpler the better.”

This principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle who wrote "Nature operates in the shortest way possible." The final word is often attributed to Einstein, himself a master of the quotable one liner: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Feynman_icedunkAfter the Challenger explosion, one of the century’s great physicists, Richard Feynman, was on the commission investigating the disaster. During the hearings, many engineers and scientists testified exhaustively on their findings about the composition and construction of the O-Rings on the Challenger, to no conclusive finding. This went on for some time, until one day Feynman took a model of the O-Ring, put it into his glass of ice water, left it momentarily, then extracted it and shattered it on the table, demonstrating the failure in the O-Rings due to freezing temperatures in Florida at launch time, leading to the terrible tragedy in 1986. Sometimes simple works.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia in the mid-1980s, I awoke one morning to a nauseating, powerful headache, one that scared me, with a feeling that a steel pipe was jammed up from my spine into my head. My friend Haynes kept popping in to make sure I was okay; I wasn’t. I called my mother. She called back every few hours with a new diagnosis: “I talked to Lexine and she said Uncle Homer’s daughter’s boyfriend’s sister’s husband had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and he had exactly the same symptoms; get to the Emergency Room.” Just as I would drift off to sleep, she would call back: “Remember when Troy Dobson’s wife’s sister’s husband's Aunt Jessie's boy contracted spinal meningitis? It sounds like what you have; go to the Emergency Room.” Hours later, another call, another diagnosis. I must admit, I was worried, too.

So I did go to the Emergency Room and I was immediately hospitalized. Three days later, after tests for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal Meningitis and several hundred other dire diseases, Dr. Steven Meixel from student health arrived on the scene (The Best Doctor in the World) and asked me some very simple questions: “Did anything about your diet change? Did you start eating anything just before this started? Did you stop eating anything just before this started? Did you run out of anything that you usually eat, for example?”

I had run out of coffee the day before the headache started.

It was caffeine withdrawal. Plain and simple.

I miss Chuck Knoblauch. I wish he had tried bigger shoes, or maybe batting gloves with less velcro.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~   

Razor2As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “Simple solutions seldom are. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.”

I wonder what simple solutions I’m overlooking?  What is keeping me from throwing to first, from hitting home runs, from analyzing the obvious….?

I think I’ll check my shoe size. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s not the earth’s rotational pull multiplied by the weight of water plus Pi squared or some equally difficult algorithm, but just the size of my shoes that’s the problem. Maybe it’s something simple that’s keeping me from moving forward, not something complex. Maybe it’s just a vitamin deficiency, dehydration, too-small shoes, or running out of coffee. Maybe it’s simple, not hard. Maybe it’s not complex and convoluted and difficult, but easy.

Wear bigger shoes. Even a half size larger might make all the difference.

Shave with Ockham’s razor; go for simple explanations first. [Of course, the corollary to Ockham’s razor is Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”]


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Oh Patti, I love this one! It reminded me of the time years ago backstage at one of J's gigs in Portland where I was SURE I was having a stroke...until he asked how much coffee I'd had that day...I quickly blurted out that other than three double lattes that afternoon, nothing out of the ordinary... :) What a great story about Mench! I learned in my 40's that comfortable shoes (let alone the right size!) are truly at the root of happiness for me. Vanity be, for me, is built from the ground up. :)

Ouch...this one gets me right where I live! ;) This was brilliant, as always...HOW do you manage to do this every week? I love coming here on Monday morning with my coffee. It gets the week off to a comfortable start.

I'm definitely going to be looking at my life this week, seeing where things are more complicated than they need to be. Thank you!

If the shoe fits wear it, if it doesn't expand your sole.

I loved the post. I have gone from a size 9 foot to a size 11. I have been told that some running shoe makers are marking the shoes with larger sizes. The thought was that they want children to get into adult sizes earlier.

I still don't think I can hit a home run in my size 11's but maybe I have a toe hold into an over 50 marathon...of course I must remember to eat my carrots.

Marilyn - as I watched women navigate Madison Avenue in NYC this past week in stiletto heels, I was so happy to be sturdily walking along in my Merrell hemp clogs...! Here's to comfort and double lattes!

Mardougrrl - what a wonderful, lovely note - thank you! i enjoy the very idea that you and i are having coffee together each Monday!

I am sorry but would you PLEASE get a book contract and put all your essays in book form? It would help humankind!!!!!!!
You are brilliant and funny and thoughtful. Thank you.

david - don't forget the arugula! and the water! and the vitamins! ;-) (do you really run marathons?)

Great article. I don't know which to remark on most, the lovely dynamics of disease phobia and vitamins. My Hub and I are somewhat the same, him saying, you're normal, nothing is wrong, nothing to fix, nothing to diagnose. Flow.Ode magazine has a current article on placebos and nocebos that seem to twig off this. The shoes too tight too, fabulous. Caffeine withdrawal. Lovely reality checks in a panic-button world of recruited saviors with no one left to save.

Wonderful article. I forwarded it to a friend- And I miss those Yankees too. . .

a story of grace with EASE,
simply wonderful!

Patti... so many applications here... I referenced this post in my own blog entry of 5-13... you have a way of enlightening the rest of us with such grace and simple common sense. Simplicity is a strong value that is so underused in today's business world.

There's a lot of people in my life that would do well to read this article. It put me in my place and I'm sure I'll carry a piece of this with me for the rest of my life. My back's been sore lately, maybe I need smaller shoes!

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