Sunday, 25 February 2018

Relatively Stable Idiot Week 8: February 19-25 2018


“the leaves of a tree delight us more than the roots" - Tolstoy
(Everything is clickbait)


“The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic.” - Amos Tversky


In his excellent book The Geography of Genius, author Eric Weiner identifies three attributes common to all creative societies:

  1. Disorder - to shake up the status quo
  2. Diversity - to produce both different viewpoints, and identify new ones
  3. Discernment - the ability to discern the good ideas from the bad

Perhaps we can use these same attributes in our coaching? 

Disorder - it's long been known that variable and-or random practice elicits better learning than block practice. Coaches should be creative with the way they use this knowledge to generate more efficient learning opportunities. 

Diversity - I've written many times about the importance of protecting against bias. Seek out different opinions, and strive to better understand them. Cultivate empathy in all that you do. 

Discernment - to "kill your darlings" is famous literary advice from Arthur Quiller-Couch (often attributed to Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, Stephen King, and Chekov), who spread it in his 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing". It refers to ridding your most precious and self-indulgent passages from your writing, and in so doing improving the reading experience. 

In the same way, we must be careful to not get too emotionally attached to certain 'favorite' elements in our program. We must continue to justify EVERYTHING we do - and if we cannot, we must be ruthless. 


Many folks have their opinions on what the Olympics have become - and in this case, specifically, have opinions about the legitimacy - or not - of some of the participants.  

For example - it is in my opinion, that the Nigerian bobsled team should not be in Pyeongchang.  Nor should the Ghanaian skeleton slider, the Mexican cross-country skier, the Hungarian half-pipe skier, and countless others.  The narrative that is continually repeated is that their stories are somehow ‘inspiring’.  Not to get too deep into it, but I ask anyone who shares this view - what exactly is inspiring about a 43 year old Mexican who took up cross-country 12 months ago, only to gain access into the Olympic Games because of the IOC small-Nation policy, finishing last in the event, almost half an hour behind the winner?  In a world chock-full of 100s of thousands of truly inspiring stories in every corner of the globe - or, for that matter, of the 1000s of legitimate Olympians every 4 years - who a large percentage of will no doubt have a more inspiring story -, please tell me what is inspiring about this?  It’s not.  It’s not because it is not about inspiration - it is about novelty.  

"It doesn't matter if you're 43 years old and it doesn't if there is no snow in Mexico and it doesn't matter if you don't have the money to pursue the sport … What matters is that if you want to do it, you can do it.” - German Madrazo.  What Mr Madrazo is saying there is that the Olympics are for everyone.  That it shouldn’t matter where you come from, what age you are, or how even how good you are at your sport - if you want to go to an Olympic Games, you should be allowed to go. 


When did the Olympic Games become about celebrating participation?  

I guess it comes back to the question I asked last week - what are the Olympic Games truly about?  I’ve been thinking a lot about that question the past two weeks in South Korea, and will explore I further on next week’s post. I don’t think you can truly answer the question about Olympic Games participation until we know what the point of the Games really is.

But I still want to talk a little about it …

Inspiring - or novel?  

What exactly is inspiring about a Jamaican bobsleigh team that every four years come crawling out of the woodwork, crying poor, leveraging the legacy of Cool Runnings, and in so doing, end up lining the pockets of athletes (sometimes), coaches (probably not often), and administrators (where else does the money go, if not to these guys?), from monies collected from gullible public and sponsors, and end up in some entirely predictable disarray - this time, having their coach and sled leaving them the week of competition (this year, respected brands Red Bull and Puma both signed on to the Jamaican project - proving that it is not only a naive public that falls for their tricks).  

A little recent history - 43 year old Jamaican Winston Watts, who came out of returned in 2014 to make another run for ‘Olympic Glory’,  apparently raised in excess of $300,000 through various on-line funding campaigns, appealing to a naive public that he needed funds for equipment and travel - only to show up in Sochi with a rented sled, and finishing 29th out of 30. 

But this time is different you say - this time, it is a female Jamaican bobsled team.

This inspires how exactly?  

How exactly is it inspring that an American who had already competed at the Olympics (for America) decides she would rather compete for Jamaica, and puts together a team of athletes, coaches, etc. and finishes 2nd last, leaving in their wake the latest round of Jamaican organizational incompetence on literally the eve of official training in Pyeong Chang?

The well-worn IOC argument is that by opening up spots for under-qualified athletes, this will somehow ignite an interest in those countries who do not have traditional winter sport legacies.  So will we now see a huge influx of Nigerian bobsledders, Mexican cross-country skiers, and Puerto Rican downhillers? Fortunately, we do not have to guess as to the answer of this.

If this argument had any truth to it, then where is the Jamaican legacy from Cool Runnings?  Where is the established Jamaican program?  Where are the Jamaican bobsleigh stars?  Why does the current program consist of a transplanted American, and a push-athlete who *might* be the among the top 1000 available on the island?

The reality is that these novelties continue to be encouraged because it is is either an easy route to the Games, or an expenses-paid trip to the Olympics for sport officials.  For a multitude of coaches, administrators, government officials, and other hangers-on, it is their chance to live the vicarious Olympic dream - to march in the Opening Ceremonies (don’t get me started on that one.  IMO - the Opening and Closing Ceremonies should be athletes-only).  The Jamaican team - 2 competing athletes, and one alternate, had at least 10 coaches and officials, basking in the ‘Olympism’.

The flip: 

“It’s important to me that little girls and little boys see someone that looks like them, talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy, curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin, included in different things in this world. When you grow up and you don’t see that, you feel that you can’t do it. And that is not right.” - Jamaican bobsleigh pilot Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian

I used to coach Jazmine, and I tend to believe she believes what she says here.  So while the Mexican skier, or the Nigerian bobsledder will not necessarily inspire little Mexican boys to ski or little Nigerian girls to bobsled, perhaps their participation here will inspire Nigerians and Mexicans (and others who look like them, or can relate to them) to feel that they too can ‘live out their dreams’, or - more specifically, perhaps a ‘more-diverse’ athlete group speaks to segments of the greater  population that are a) not spoken to through your typical Winter Olympic athlete; b) not spoken to through other means - i.e. summer-sport athletes; and in so doing, this accumulation of additional inspirers-influencers increases the number of positive role models that young people can look towards.

I guess you can argue that if one young person is inspired by one of these athlete’s stories, then perhaps it is worth it … but is it still worth the hype?  Over more legitimate Olympians, with more honest stories?

One of many problems with this - and why so many legitimate athletes get annoyed about these Olympic ‘participants’ is because the title ‘Olympian’ should mean something 

The argument is that athletes such as Madrazo, Pita Taufatofua, Charles Flaherty, Liz Swaney, are simply cheapening the brand.  

If all it takes to be an Olympian is having access to the right passport, filling out some paperwork, and do a year or two of rudimentary training - literally available to anyone who has the spare time, and the will -, then what message is this sending; again, how is this inspiring?  And what message is this sending the real athletes who have dedicated their lives to their sport, often undertaking significant financial expenses (amateur athletes taking out loans to fund their training, and their potential Olympic dreams is a feature - not a bug of the amateur sport system), only to see the headlines, and anything that arises from it, to be taken by part-time amateurs?

“With every Winter Olympics, fans eat up the weird stories about the athletes from warm-weather countries that would seem to have no business participating in their chosen sports. And although the Jamaican bobsledders failed to qualify for the Olympics this time, the Vancouver Games offer plenty of intriguing tales. In addition to the middle-aged German skier prince representing Mexico, there's a speedskater from the Cayman Islands, cross-country skiers from Bermuda, Ethiopia and Ghana, and a few other oddballs who marched in Friday's opening ceremony. Even Jamaica still got to raise its flag: a freestyle skier from the country earned a spot at the Olympics.
Sure, these stories are charming. Too often, however, the connection between the athletes and the countries they represent is tenuous at best. Though athletes are required to be citizens of the countries they're competing for, that definition of "citizen" varies widely from one country to the next. It's a problem that has spread across a spectrum of sports. A Pittsburgh-bred point guard, who speaks little Russian, suited up for Russia's basketball team during the Beijing Olympics. African distance runners have competed for Bahrain, and American baseball players for Italy. But the tie between country and competitor is especially loose in the Winter Games, since warm-weather places like Mexico and Jamaica can't even claim a speck of snow or ice. Errol Kerr, the Jamaican ski cross athlete, grew up in the Lake Tahoe area. Ruben Gonzalez, a luger with Argentina's team, lives in Katy, Texas; he moved to the U.S. when he was six.”
(From a 2010 Time magazine article, detailing the story of German, Austria-living, 51 year-old ‘Mexican’ skier, Hubertus von Hohenlohe.)

One of the ‘inspiring’ athletes - Ghana skeleton slider (who was raised primarily in Holland, and now lives in the US) actually does have a pretty inspiring back-story - but it - and he - is still not Olympian-worthy.  The following paragraph is from an article in The Atlantic -
“At the time, Frimpong was still focused on the racetrack—and specifically the 200-meter sprint. His eyes were set on the 2012 Olympics in London. Then an injury derailed those plans, throwing into limbo the possibility of him ever competing at the Olympic level. But Nicola Minichiello, a Dutch coach, saw his potential as a sprinter and asked him to consider switching to bobsled.”

“Ghana's Akwasi Frimpong is another favourite in Pyeongchang, winning legions of fans with his wide smile, brightly-coloured helmet and dance moves.  He was born and raised in Ghana until he was eight, when his mother took him to the Netherlands. He has been quite open about the fact he initially tried to compete for his adopted home at the London 2012 Olympics, but his dreams were crushed after he suffered an injury.”

This is the narrative that has been consistently shared in the media - that ‘an injury cost him his chance to compete in the London Olympics’.  The reality, however, is that Frimpong has a 100m PR of 11.04.  The reality is he didn’t qualify for the London Olympics because he is a terrible sprinter - his 'injury problems' had nothing to do with it.  The reality is - even though he has stated he wants to continue on, and medal in four years (anf thereby inspire a continent) - he is also a terrible skeleton slider.  Too slow at the start, too big, and too old, he literally has approximately a zero percent chance of medal in in 4 years, but a gullible media and public eat it up - “the inspiring story of the old, slow, Ghana skeleton guy, who against all odds is going to win an Olympic medal”. 

It’s dishonest.  It’s dishonest of him to communicate this, and it is dishonest of the media to share it.

The above was supposed to be just a short introduction to what I really wanted to write about, but ended up being a bit of a rant.  Sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this quote from former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”  It’s obviously been re-introduced into our current world through the proliferation of ‘fake news’, and the constant lies in Washington.  I don’t really think we can disagree with it, but personally, I would go further.  

Everyone who read my rant will assumedly have an opinion on what I wrote.  You may think I am full of crap - that the Jamaican bobsled team and the Mexican skier is ‘what the Olympics is all about’.  If I debated further, you may simply state - “well - that is just your opinion … and we are all entitled to our own opinions”.  

The problem with this statement is, while we are all entitled to our own thoughts, opinions can actually be harmful, dangerous, and lead to much unnecessary discord.


“Scientists have been warning about global warming for decades. It's too late to stop it now, but we can lessen its severity and impacts.” - David Suzuki

"This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice." - Donald Trump

These are both ‘opinions’, and as much as we may snigger at the obvious confusion of the author of the second one, the fact that it came from the mouth of the American President - and that he is ‘entitled to his opinion’ - is dangerous.  

Because you know what - global-warming is an opinion.  It just happens that David Suzuki’s opinion is shared by over 97% of all climate scientists … and Trump’s opinion is political spin motivated by the money of the fossil fuel industry, and the word of the  ‘scientists’ they are able to pay off (in some cases, literally the very same ones that were paid by the tobacco industry to deny that smoking has a link to lung cancer back as far back as the 1950s). 

“From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,”

Problem is we are seen as weak if we don’t form an opinion.  

Kurt Andersen, in his wonderful book, Fantasyland, wrote: 

“Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth. A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/ 11 attacks.”

We are like this because - according to Andersen - “we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”

One thing I have been thinking a lot about these last two weeks are Olympic legacies.  It is pretty clear that South Korea is going to be saddled with the management of a bunch of white elephant facilities, half-finished housing projects, hotels, and failed business - simply because their government, for some reason, thought it a good idea to bid for the Winter Olympics Games - in a region of the world where the populace has little interest in winter sports.  At least, this is my thesis going in. To be honest, this is something I do not know a lot about - so rather than offering a strong opinion one way our the other, all I can do is ask relevant questions, do some research, talk to others who know more about this than I do, and wait and see.  I will endeavor to find out what experts in this have to say, talk about it with others - thereby forced into synthesize my thoughts more clearly, and do my best to ignore all the dogma, the hype, the sensationalized thoughts of those who do not have the relevant knowledge.

In the meantime, any conversation I have about this will be prefaced with context around my understanding of it: 

“This is a topic that interests me; as I know it interests many more.  It has been written about many times, and is being actively debated throughout the world - in public and governmental circles, and is probably worthy of further discussion.  With the fairly limited information I currently posses, I tend to lean towards thinking we need to do a far better job of ensuring that countries, cities, business, etc. are in a position to adequately cope with any potential post-Olympics fall-out.  Further, we need to come to a more concrete consensus on what the Olympic Games are really about - and whether elite competition is the best use of public funds to begin with.  If it is not - and this is the way I am currently leaning - then what is the alternative?  I believe we can find a solution that strengthens the ‘Olympic movement’; that doesn’t line the pockets of the few at the expense of the many; that inspires people across the globe - young and old alike; and can be a vehicle for good through our increasingly connected experience here on earth.”

What I cannot do is offer a definitive opinion yet.  I simply don’t have the requisite knowledge.

Charles Munger apparently won’t enter into a debate unless he knows both sides of it equally.  He won’t allow himself to form a strong opinion unless he knows the alternative side of the argument better than the other side does.  While this is perhaps a step to far for most of us, the take-home is relevant: don’t rush to form an opinion just because ‘society’ pressures you into it.  

Shane Parrish goes further still - suggesting we train ourselves to be eager to be wrong:

Not to simply being open to being wrong - but to actively trying to disprove what we currently think:
“Simply being open to being wrong allows you to keep the window cracked when confronted with disconfirming evidence — to say Well, I was open to it! and keep on with your old conclusion.”  Being open to being wrong frequently “turns into empty words on a page.

This is all a long-winded way of saying - as it relates to the Olympics, participation, the IOC, the ‘Olympic ideal’, how participants are viewed by other Olympians, what the realty is, and how it is spun by an uneducated media: while we are all ‘entitled’ to an opinion here, perhaps it is prudent that we contextualize it a little.  

One of the Durants’ biological lessons of history is ‘Life is Competition’:

“Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group— our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation— in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

(The other two lessons:  1) life is selection; and 2) life must breed)


"The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demands of human nature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing". — Alfred North Whitehead

Sprinting is a highly complicated puzzle that each athlete has their own unique solution to.  Coach to their solution - not yours.

Each sprinter has a bias to how they move - programming, cueing, and even therapeutic input should all align with these biases.  

Understand that each step is a product of the step that preceded it - none exist in isolation, so beware of coaching static ‘positions’ - we must see the entire movement in context to accurately determine a correction


Waking Up with Sam Harris
Niall Ferguson

Networks and Heirarchies 

Large social networks are inclined towards polarization 

Even small networks will tend to self-segregate the into clusters - “birds of a feather flock together” (homophile) - this happens on Facebook, Twitter etc. 
We thought that if everyone was connected them everything would be great. We should have known better. 


A counter-factual has to be explicit - History is an imaginative discipline - always conducting thought experiments. We can present both facts and counter-factuals. If only facts - then just writing a chronicle 

Sometimes being right condemns you to being in a minority 

US Politics

The paradox is that it will be better for the Democrats that Trump got his chance. Liberalism will be the beneficiary of the Trump presidency 

If Clinton won, fake news and conspiracy theories would be infallible. Rs would go all out to impeach 

Capitalism - globalization

8 richest people on earth have more money than the bottom half of the population (3.5 billion)

However - Globalization has a paradoxical impact. It tends to widen inequality within countries, and reduce inequality between countries. 

Rise of the middle class - especially in Asia over the last 30 years. So on balance, human race is less unequal. 

Bottom 20% of population - upward mobility is limited because of educational failure 

Universal basic income - in addition to other programs is a bad idea. Ideas like this that go from intellectuals into the sausage machine that is politics they morph and become a patch on top of old arrangements of fiscal redistribution 

"The truth is in books; it is not on-line" - Ferguson 


"Never miss a good chance to shut up" - Will Rogers