Sunday, 11 February 2018

Very Stable Genius Week 6: February 5-11 2018


“I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up —“ from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.”  - Elon Musk


All basically just varying degrees of certainty. 

“A scientist gathers together only what he or she knows to be true — the first principles — and uses those as the puzzle pieces with which to construct a conclusion.” - Elon Musk

So maybe:-

What we KNOW = 1st principles
What we THINK = ‘2nd principles’
What we GUESS = ‘3rd principles’

More to come …


Engaging in politics habituates and rewires the brain to value agreement and signaling. It weakens the ability to reason independently and clearly. - Naval Ravikant


FAILURE: In her book, The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle looked at why ‘bad’ things can be ‘good.’ She writes, “if you do a Google search of the phrase “The best thing that ever happened to me,” marriage and childbirth certainly do pop up. But …. Here’s a partial list of the unexpected items that make up life’s Greatest Hits: Divorce, My husband’s affair, Cancer, Get fired.” 

Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Solutions to problems have second-order effects; we need to put more thought into what these are 

Referring to his friend Fred Rogers in his book I’m Proud of You, author Tim Madigan writes “another time he wrote that he had discovered the South African word ubuntu, which means: I am because we are. "Isn't that lovely!" he said. "My identity is such that it includes you. I would be a very different person without you."

… and later is told of a prayer by a minister named Harry Emerson Fosdick: "We confess before Thee that if life were all smooth, there would be no patience; were it all easy, no courage, no sacrifice, no depth of character. We acknowledge before Thee that what is most admirable is the child of adversity and of courageous souls unafraid to face it."

‘The Ionian Enchantment’: 

“the intuition that a small number of laws account for the vast complexity that we observe in the physical universe.” - Gerald Holton

Let's get better at accepting our fallibility - let’s better understand that it is entirely natural to develop stories based on our most current information; that all humans tend to build a narrative that fits into what we already lean towards.

The rallying cry of the tribalist: “People like us do stuff like this” (Seth Godin)

Tim Urban, in the Wait but Why Elon Musk Series, writes about two types of ‘tribes’: conscious, and blind, arguing that tribalism per se - while it has a negative connotation - is not necessarily bad: “A tribe is just a group of people linked together by something they have in common—a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality, family, a philosophy, a cause. Christianity is a tribe. The US Democratic Party is a tribe. Australians are a tribe. Radiohead fans are a tribe. Arsenal fans are a tribe.”

Urban describes Conscious Tribalism as “when the tribe and the tribe member both have an independent identity and they happen to be the same”, and Blind Tribalism as “when the tribe and tribe member’s identity are one and the same.  Most of the major divides in our world emerge from blind tribalism.”

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” - Albert Einstein

Icelandic 100m record-holder Ari Kàrason has been with us for the last 6 weeks.  Besides being a pretty decent sprinter (a former Cross-fitter, he actually just started running track 3 years ago), he is also a professional jazz trumpet player.  Last week, Ari gave a presentation to a few of our staff and athletes on movement and rhythm.  Sadly, I was away, and didn’t get to see the Presentation, but in a couple of email exchanges with Ari, he offered the following thoughts:

“Miles was such a good bandleader had so much to do with his “lack of” communication and his superior eye for scouting young talents. 

Improvisation is nothing but being FULLY aware of your surroundings, having control of the language/literature/history and be WILLING to go where the music is going, not forcing it go where you think it wants to go but letting go and trusting that the music will take care of itself. By trusting in your self and your - let’s say - team, you may open up a door that you, your team and the audience was not expecting. 

That’s the magic.

Every note has been played.  It’s the collaborative trust between the bandleader and the band that really allows for true improvisation to happen.”

I’ve been beating the RHYTHM and COORDINATION drum for a while now, and will continue to direct my research towards this (see my brief notes on entrainment last week).  It is no accident that the best athletes, musicians, dancers, etc. are the ones who have the superior RHTYHM.  


Speaking of rhythm, The University of Michigan Head Track & Field Coach Jerry Clayton talks a lot about it on the latest GAINCast

GAINCast with Martin Bingisser & Vern Gambetta
Jerry Clayton

A few take-aways:

Master the forces, the positions will find themselves - Bingisser

Don’t focus on body parts
Instead, focus should be on rhythm, COM, balance, coordination, where you feel forces, etc.

People are scared to add resistance to a movement, because they fear that it will upset timing.  But perhaps it is the opposite; whereby, you the heavier implements force you to find the timing. 

Heavy implement work is simply special strength training.  Everything in the weight room is general. - Clayton

Olympic-lifting is a sport; don’t waste time trying to make your athletes into Weightlifters - Clayton

Martin briefly mentioned Overload & Specificity - opposite ends of the spectrum.  He’s written a couple of good articles on this before.  Check out hmmrmedia, if interested

Also - Clayton told a great story about Bahamas high jumper Donald Thomas.  Worth the listen to the podcast just for this story.
Take-home: Look at what the athlete is doing, and SLOWLY adjust-improve based open how he moves.

FYI - Dr. Ralph Mann said a couple of weeks ago when he visited us in Phoenix: “Concepts work; specifics don’t.” 

This way of thinking forms the background of my ‘Key Words’ posts from last year; rather than teaching positions, teaching through concepts and objectives.  The simplicity of a well-chosen word allows the athlete to provide their own unique context … with the end-goal of a more efficient retrieval system, whereby technical reminders ‘bypass’ the software, and are instead injected directly into the hardware.

A reminder of these 7 words:

  1. pressure
  2. rhythm
  3. timing
  4. shape
  5. elevation
  6. power
  7. peace

Basically - don’t sweat the small stuff 

Also - Steven Pinker on JRE was awesome.  Especially from 1:40 through to the end


Dan Pfaff sends out articles to folks in his network every week or so.  This past week he sent me an older one from the Art of Manliness that I hadn’t previously seen.  Possibly the best review of the OODA loop I have come across, authors Brett & Kate McKay have written a fairly comprehensive overview of John Boyd’s famous decision-making process, that has recently become more popular in management circles.  

I recommend a full read, but if you don’t have time - here are my take-aways:

- Brett & Kate McKay | September 15, 2014

OODA - Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

“It’s not “groundbreaking” in the sense of revealing insight never before conceived; rather, its power is in the way it makes explicit, that which is usually implicit. It takes the basic ways we think, decide, and operate in the world — ways that often get confused and jumbled in the face of conflict and confusion — and codifies and organizes them into a strategic, effective system that can allow you to thrive in the heat of battle. It is a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions.” - McKay

There is much in Boyd’s thinking that mirrors Charlie Munger’s - especially his belief in the importance of building ‘Mental Models’ (simplified as ‘ways of looking at the world’).  Farnum Street blog has a nice review of Munger’s work here:

To help understand our ever-changing universe, Boyd describes the three mental models that are central to his process:

  • Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems: any logical model of reality is incomplete (and possibly inconsistent) and must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations.
  • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: we cannot simultaneously fix or determine the velocity and position of a particle or body. We can measure coordinates or movements of those particles, but not both. As we get a more and more precise measure of one value (velocity or positions), our measurement of the other value becomes more and more uncertain. The uncertainty of one variable is created simply by the act of observation … even as we get more precise observations about a particular domain, we’re likely to experience more uncertainty about another.
  • 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: Boyd infers that individuals or organizations that don’t communicate with the outside world by getting new information about the environment or by creating new mental models act like a “closed system.”  The more we rely on outdated mental models even while the world around us is changing, the more our mental “entropy” goes up.

“The crux of Boyd’s case for why uncertainty abounds is that individuals and organizations often look inward and apply familiar mental models that have worked in the past to try to solve new problems. When these old mental models don’t work, they will often keep trying to make them work — maybe if they just use an old strategy with more gusto, things will pan out. But they don’t. Business magnate Charlie Munger calls this tendency to use the familiar even in the face of a changing reality the “man with a hammer syndrome.”  - McKay

Similar books include Greg Ip’s Foolproof, Taleb’s Antifragile, Gall’s Systemantics, and Tetlock’s Superforecating.  One of the original writings in complex systems is Systemantics: The Systems Bible; a fun, and interesting read, that has a lot of take-homes for coaches.  There is a lot of similarities between Boyd’s OODA Loop and Gall’s work.

"Reality Is What Is Presented To The System, and (as a Corollary) that A System Is No Better Than Its Sensory Organs. We now face the fact that those somber insights, fundamental as they are, are not enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. The Reality that is presented to the System must also make sense if the System is to make an appropriate response. The Sensory Input must be organized into a Model of the Universe that by its very shape suggests the appropriate response. We summarize in the Face-of-the-Future Theorem: IN DEALING WITH THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, IT PAYS TO BE GOOD AT RECOGNIZING SHAPES." - John Gall

Gall’s book has also been used as a primer on heuristics.  I wrote a few short pieces last year on coaches’ use of heuristics to improve our practice.  I discussed Kahnemann’s System 1 (intuition) and System 2 (reasoning) thinking, and its relation to coaching and decision-making.  

An argument of some ’old-school coaches’ (of which I am quickly becoming one) is that younger, more ‘science-based’ coaches, have not developed the necessary ‘feel’ for coaching; their System 1 thinking has been retarded by the over-reliance on System 2.   

A problem with this argument, however, is that often our first impressions are wrong - and are far more susceptible to biases than well-thought through reason.  That being said - the nature of coaching requires that we make strong, FAST decisions; most of the time - at least on the field of play - we do not have time for patiently thinking things through.   

However, it is imperative that we base our intuitive decision-making abilities on well-thought out reason and experience; only the experience of years of actually coaching athletes in the trenches will give us this insight.  

Back to McKay’s review of Boyd:

They quote Grant Hammond, who has this to say:

“It is a state of mind, a learning of the oneness of things, an appreciation for fundamental insights known in Eastern philosophy and religion as simply the Way [or Tao]. For Boyd, the Way is not an end but a process, a journey…The connections, the insights that flow from examining the world in different ways, from different perspectives, from routinely examining the opposite proposition, were what were important. The key is mental agility.”

The original OODA Loop diagram is very simple:

Later in his life, Boyd updated it to better capture his vision:

It is meant as an explicit representation of the process that human beings and organizations use to learn, grow, and thrive in a rapidly changing environment — be it in war, business, or life.

The remainder of the review goes into some detail on each of the stages.  Just a couple of quick highlights from the remainder:

“The Air Force has got a doctrine, the Army’s got a doctrine, Navy’s got a doctrine, everybody’s got a doctrine. [But if you] read my work, ‘doctrine’ doesn’t appear in there even once. You can’t find it. You know why I don’t have it in there? Because it’s doctrine on day one, and every day after it becomes dogma. That’s why….” - McKay

So you’ve got to have multiple models. And the models have to come from multiple disciplines — because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.- Munger

Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.” - Boyd

“We gotta get an image or picture in our head, which we call orientation. Then we have to make a decision as to what we’re going to do, and then implement the decision….Then we look at the [resulting] action, plus our observation, and we drag in new data, new orientation, new decision, new action, ad infinitum…” – Boyd

The final thing that the McKays discuss is the TEMPO of the Loop; not just the speed in which we move through it, but the importance of varying these speeds:

First, the individual or organization that can go through successful, consecutive OODA Loops faster than their opponent will win the conflictwhen it comes to winning a competition or conflict, our actions need to be surprising, ambiguous, and varying; speeding up and slowing down your actions quickly and irregularly can create confusion just as much and sometimes more than simply blowing through your OODA Loop. If the enemy is expecting a sudden and quick attack from you, but you instead delay, you may cause your enemy to have an “uhhh …” moment that can be exploited.” - McKay

“Our point, repeatedly stressed in this text, is that Systems operate according to Laws of Nature, and that Laws of Nature are not suspended to accommodate our human shortcomings.” - John Gall


Sometimes, rather than spending a week or two reading a book, I will hop on to the Blinkist app, and get through a bunch of books in an hour or so.  If I really enjoyed one, then I will buy the book, and dive a little deeper.  I will also quite often read reviews of books; good ones are super-efficient ways of getting most of the information without having to devote the time necessary to read the whole thing.  Andy Clark’s Surfing Uncertainty, detailing the Predictive Processing Model.  is probably not a book I would have bought - but I enjoyed Scott Alexander’s review all the same - all be it, it was overly long.  

- Scott Alexander

A few of my notes:

The ‘predictive processing model’ is about “how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.”

Predictive processing asks: “By what process do our incomprehensible sense-data get turned into a meaningful picture of the world?”

“The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.”

I almost stopped here.  I mean - how much more can be said?

(Feel free to skip to the next section)

As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can.

The result is perception, which the PP theory describes as “controlled hallucination”.

If you remember my thoughts on the Anil Seth TEDTalk and Sam Harris podcast; this is also how Seth described consciousness.  

A more ambiguous example of “perception as controlled hallucination”. Here your experience doesn’t quite deny the jumbled-up nature of the letters, but it superimposes a “better” and more coherent experience which appears naturally alongside.

Clark then goes into considerable detail on a number of sections of the book.  I won’t cover all of them.

Attention. In PP, attention measures “the confidence interval of your predictions”.

High attention means that perception is mostly based on the bottom-up stream, since every little deviation is registering an error and so the overall perceptual picture is highly constrained by sensation. Low attention means that perception is mostly based on the top-down stream, and you’re perceiving only a vague outline of the sensory image with your predictions filling in the rest.

EXAMPLE: gorilla walking through a crowd passing a basketball

Priming .  if you flash the word “DOCTOR” at a subject, they’ll be much faster and more skillful in decoding a series of jumbled and blurred letters into the word “NURSE”.

This is classic predictive processing. The top-down stream’s whole job is to assist the bottom-up stream in making sense of complicated fuzzy sensory data. 

Learning. We create models that generate sense data, and keep those models if the generated sense data match observation. Models that predict sense data well stick around; models that fail to predict the sense data accurately get thrown out. 

Motor Behavior. Clark concludes: it’s predicting action, which causes the action to happen.  With predictions about proprioceptive sense data (ie your sense of where your joints are), there’s an easy way to resolve prediction error: just move your joints so they match the prediction. 

Under this model, the “prediction” of a movement isn’t just the idle thought that a movement might occur, it’s the actual motor program. This gets unpacked at all the various layers – joint sense, proprioception, the exact tension level of various muscles – and finally ends up in a particular fluid movement:

“Perception, cognition, and action – if this unifying perspective proves correct – work together to minimize sensory prediction errors by selectively sampling and actively sculpting the stimulus array. This erases any fundamental computational line between perception and the control of action. There remains [only] an obvious difference in direction of fit. Perception here matches hural hypotheses to sensory inputs…while action brings unfolding proprioceptive inputs into line with neural predictions. The difference, as Anscombe famously remarked, is akin to that between consulting a shopping list (thus letting the list determine the contents of the shopping basket) and listing some actually purchased items (thus letting the contents of the shopping basket determine the list)” - Friston, et. al.

Alexander closes with “The rationalist project is overcoming bias, and that requires both an admission that bias is possible, and a hope that there’s something other than bias which we can latch onto as a guide. Predictive processing gives us more confidence in both, and helps provide a convincing framework we can use to figure out what’s going on at all levels of cognition.”

Emmet Feerick

Asking the question “Is consciousness amenable to scientific inquiry, or is it beyond the scope of Science?”

“Consciousness has been a mystery since at least as far back as ancient Greece, with Aristotle’s formulation of what we now call the mind-body problem. This problem centres around the fact that the universe seems to consist of two types of things: the mental and the physical. For scientists and philosophers, the challenge is to reconcile these two aspects of the world. What is the relationship between mind and body? How can something immaterial, like mind, interact with something material, like body? If somebody asks you to point to consciousness, where do you point?”

“Consciousness may arise from the physical brain, but it is not identical to it (though some philosophers disagree on this point). Science appears not to be designed to answer this type of question.”

Newton was the first to opine that contact between two objects is not required for action; that ‘forces’ were responsible for much of what happened in the universe, including apples falling, and moons orbiting planets, “something he himself admitted was absurd. Despite this, it was an absurdity to which he felt committed. The reality of forces would have to be accepted and incorporated into our science, whether they made intuitive sense or not. The scientific standards of intelligibility had thus been lowered. When we do science now, we no longer seek to understand the world, but to understand theories of the world.”

“What is now referred to as “body” is not something intelligible to our common sense, but a useful theory.”

“For Science to understand consciousness, a further reduction of the standards of intelligibility may once again be required; one which includes those aspects of the world we call “mental.” Such change is unlikely to give us an intuitively satisfactory account of the mind-body relationship, but as with the science of the last 300 years, it may yield unthinkable promise.”


Rhythm is critical - Jerry Clayton

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