The algorithm of failure

September 12, 2013

I really like that headline. I may just quit there. Write a good headline, call it a day. Leave ‘em guessin’. What I’ve always dreamed of, as a blogger, is the mastery of obscurantism. In college we learn from our literature professors that great writing is  incomprehensible to ordinary people, and therefore society must have more literature professors. Only they can possibly understand what Joyce is yammering about. As a blogger I aim for a style that goes beyond enigmatic, into the unintelligible. I want readers to say, “That blog item is so bizarre and convoluted it makes Finnegans Wake look like a Betty Crocker recipe.”

In the great Charles Portis novel “Masters of Atlantis,” the allure of the Gnomon Society is its promise of secret knowledge that will never be fully understood by anyone. The Gnomons are few in number, and constantly struggling with dwindling membership, cultural irrelevance, and internecine squabbles over narrowly argued doctrinal disputes, and certainly their fortunes are not aided by the fact that their belief system seems to be built on a foundation of vapor. But they persist, somehow, because they feel the seductive power of infinitely unspooling mystery and teased-out revelation. (As quoted in The Post’s 1985 review: “The Rosicrucians had finer robes and the Brothers of Luxor had eerier ceremonies, but in the way of ideas that could not quite be grasped, neither of them had anything to touch the Cone of Fate or the Jimmerson Spiral.”)

Some would say that the evolving Obama policy toward Syria has a slight Jimmerson Spiral feel to it — but I’m not going there! The algorithm of failure I seek is lurking amid the baseball statistics. Yes, this is a sports item, about the Nats.

I’m still trying to figure out how it’s possible that the Nats aren’t going to make the playoffs, even though, on paper, they seemed to be playoff-caliber back in the spring. What went wrong? There’s secret information here that needs to be rooted out. This calls for numerology, just for starters.

The Nats have won 5 in a row and 8 of their last 10, and have finally, per my beseeching on this blog, reached the all-important milestone of having scored more runs than their opponents over the course of the season. That happened last night. They’re now plus-3 for the year. But their odds of making the plays are at 2.2 percent. They’re not making any progress there. For the Nats to make the playoffs, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati would have to collapse entirely.

Stranger things have happened, but — well, in life, stranger things usually don’t happen.

Normaller things usually happen. If you will.

Here are a couple of numbers I’m examining with my gnomonic eye: 7-9, 2.96, The first is the won-loss record of Stephen Strasburg, the second is his ERA. It is incomprehensible that someone who has made 28 starts and has 181 strikeouts in 170 innings and gives up only 3 runs a game and is 7th in the league in ERA has managed to win only 7 games through Sept. 12. The Missing Strasburg Victories are surely crucial to this investigation of the secret algorithm of failure.

Bad luck? Freak bounces of the ball? Weird alignment of errors and bad weather and hot hitters and unfortunate timing? Sure, all that’s a factor, but the long baseball season is supposed to even everything out — regression to the mean, and so on. The simplest explanation for the likely failure of the Nats to make the postseason is that they just aren’t that good of a team. That’s the Occam’s Razor approach to this season. They didn’t deserve better. They are what they are.

But I’m going to keep studying the numbers. There’s a hidden algorithm here. Wait, could it be The Zimmerman Spiral??

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · September 10, 2013