Cliques and Certainties

[If you’re just finding this post, I’d suggest reading Two Minds and a Flame War for the first part of this series.] Defending the Hive Some of you will have undoubtedly noticed that I like to be contradictory and maybe even inflammatory at times. There’s a reason for this. I’m finding myself increasingly bothered by … Read more

Two Minds and a Flame War

I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.

Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.

Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.

Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?

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A Systems View of Exercise

This article began to take shape after reading another well-intended internet complaint about how mock-quote “science” has no relevance to practical get-in-the-gym exercise.

As pro-science as I am, I have to admit there’s a lot of truth to that point of view. You don’t have to look much further than the papers passed around the strength and fitness blogs and Facebook updates to see why. While there’s occasionally interesting stuff turning up, there’s also a lot of crap. By crap I mean papers looking at how Molecular Signal X jiggled in hungover college students when exposed to a lab trial resembling no workout you will ever do.

While I personally find a lot of the biochem research interesting, there’s no shame in admitting that it’s exactly that: a personal interest. I don’t think that material has any relevance at all to doing things at the gym, at least not in the way most folks seem to expect.

Still, there’s something not quite right about the blanket anti-science, anti-intellectual perspective that characterizes some corners of the strength and fitness field. The stereotypical Bro, the musclehead who believes the pseudo-science in supplement ads but turns hostile toward any attempt at debunking it, isn’t our ideal role model. There’s rejecting the irrelevant, on the one hand, and then there’s needless hostility towards intellectual curiosity.

The former I can get behind. The latter, that’s just typical internet posturing — or, at best, an over-reaction to bad science — and in either case an attitude best ignored. The problem is, it’s not always clear which is which, or why there’s a difference at all.

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Outside Context Problem

I rank Iain M. Banks as one of my favorite authors. Banks’ Culture series was one of my first exposures to so-called “literary science fiction”, which uses the backdrop of science and technology but also focuses on interesting characters and quality prose not always associated with “sci-fi”.

The Culture books deal with the eponymous anarchistic super-civilization, run by intelligent machines (called Minds) and inhabited by mostly care-free citizens. With boredom as an eternal problem in utopia, the Culture eschews the Prime Directive in favor of a more hands-on approach to civilization-building. The books handle all the questions of morality and dramatic hijinks that ensue from said policies.

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Knowing Stuff [How to Learn a New Subject]

A question I’ve been asked a lot, and never really sat down to answer, is how I go about learning new things.

Before going there, I want to tackle the whole “smart” matter. I think that, firstly, “smart” — or “knowing lots of stuff” — has more to do with the amount of time you’re willing to spend grappling with difficult concepts than anything else. If you aren’t almost compulsively interested in knowing about some subject matter, then you aren’t going to know much about it. You’ll spend lots of time on things that do interest you, and therefore know a lot more about them. Pretty easy there.

Intelligence certainly plays a part but I really don’t like that kind of deterministic explanation. Although there’s a measurable component to specific kinds of abstract intelligence, I also think that many people underestimate what they could learn if they just applied themselves. For whatever reasons learning stuff for the sake of learning stuff isn’t a huge priority for people, but that’s all getting into discussions for another time.

The other issue relates to meta-cognition (how you think about how you think) and that’s off in another zone of its own. Let if suffice to say that there needs to be a degree of introspection and self-awareness going into any learning process, because knowledge isn’t about rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. You have to be able to think, and most importantly of all, to step away from the details of the problem to more generalized and universal principles. These are not traits always valued in higher education, thus explaining the “dumb PhD” phenomenon.

The framework of knowledge matters as much as the contents.

All I can tell you is that a. I get a warm glowy feeling of satisfaction when I read topics of science and philosophy and b. that drives me to read a whole lot of things in those subject areas which c. leads to a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The rest of this article outlines the rough steps I go through in learning about things that interest me and give me the warm glowy feeling of satisfaction. I’ll warn you up front, I treat my autodidactery seriously, so if you’ve got a ScienceTM allergy or a real smug contempt for Knowing Stuff, you’ll want to skip this one.

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Complex Nonlinear Systems [Videos]

Two videos: Chaos and Reductionism Emergence and Complexity Robert Sapolsky lectures on chaos theory and nonlinear complex systems. Update your ideas on biology and exercise science accordingly.

Assorted Links on Cognition and Neuroscience

Links of interest: The Belief Engine by James Alcock — A nice look at the confabulation powers of the brain which lead to bias and irrationality. Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation — Your belief in free will influences voluntary control over movement. More evidence that abstract beliefs and … Read more

Does it help me? [Stop Nitpicking]

The first chapter of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath (link to my review) tells the story of Jerry Sternin, who came to Vietnam in the 1999 with a big mission and a small budget. Sternin had the task of fighting child malnutrition in poor villages, without government … Read more

Dealing with Uncertainty in Training [Program Hopping]

What is the ‘perfect program’? Could any of us, educated and experienced, define perfection? What does ‘perfect’ mean in the first place? The thinkers among us might be able to cobble together a definition based on abstract concepts, maybe a little handwaving about goals and efficiency and other assorted trinkets of philosophical pontifications. In the … Read more

Why goals do more harm than good [Goal-setting]

Sports are highly competitive. I know, I get the Nobel Prize for Obvious Statements, but we take it on faith that we must push to be the best. And why not? Why go into a sport, or any activity, if you don’t plan to win? Winning is the whole point, no? I’m being sensationalist with … Read more