The Interleaving Effect

February 12th, 2016

Studies continue to confirm the power of the interleaving effect:

The first signs of interleaving’s promise appeared in the domain of motor skills. One early study, published in 1986, involved training students to learn three types of badminton serves. Compared with blocking, interleaving produced better recall of each serve type and better ability to handle new situations, such as serving from the opposite side of the court. Similar results were later reported for baseball, basketball, and other sports. In 2003, one of the first studies to examine interleaving outside of sports found that using it to train medical students produced more accurate electrocardiogram diagnoses than blocking. In 2008, another widely-cited study found a similar benefit for teaching college students to recognize the painting styles of landscape artists. Even critical thinking skills benefit: in a 2011 study, students trained with the technique made more accurate assessments of complex legal scenarios.

Foreign language studies however suggest that the effectiveness of interleaving comes with an important caveat. When native English speakers used the technique to learn an entirely unfamiliar language, such as to generate English-to-Swahili translations, the results were better, the same, or worse than after blocking. These mixed results imply that learners should have some familiarity with subject materials before interleaving begins (or, the materials should be quickly or easily understood). Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.


Rohrer and his team are the first to implement interleaving in actual classrooms. The location: middle schools in Tampa, Florida. The target skills: algebra and geometry.

The three-month study involved teaching 7th graders slope and graph problems. Weekly lessons, given by teachers, were largely unchanged from standard practice. Weekly homework worksheets, however, featured an interleaved or blocked design. When interleaved, both old and new problems of different types were mixed together. Of the nine participating classes, five used interleaving for slope problems and blocking for graph problems; the reverse occurred in the remaining four. Five days after the last lesson, each class held a review session for all students. A surprise final test occurred one day or one month later. The result? When the test was one day later, scores were 25 percent better for problems trained with interleaving; at one month later, the interleaving advantage grew to 76 percent.


Researchers are now working to understand why interleaving yields such impressive results. One prominent explanation is that it improves the brain’s ability to tell apart, or discriminate, between concepts. With blocking, once you know what solution to use, or movement to execute, the hard part is over. With interleaving, each practice attempt is different from the last, so rote responses don’t work. Instead, your brain must continuously focus on searching for different solutions. That process can improve your ability to learn critical features of skills and concepts, which then better enables you to select and execute the correct response.

A second explanation is that interleaving strengthens memory associations. With blocking, a single strategy, temporarily held in short-term memory, is sufficient. That’s not the case with interleaving — the correct solution changes from one practice attempt to the next. As a result, your brain is continually engaged at retrieving different responses and bringing them into short-term memory. Repeating that process can reinforce neural connections between different tasks and correct responses, which enhances learning.


Despite these relative advantages, interleaving remains mostly unknown and unused. Consider the example of grade school math. Out of all the math textbooks used in the U.S. today, all but one type — the Saxon series — uses blocked practice.

A general intelligence factor in dogs

February 11th, 2016

Researchers have confirmed that there is a general intelligence factor in dogs — some dogs are more equal than others:

Our results indicate that even within one breed of dog, where the sample was designed to have a relatively homogeneous background, there is variability in test scores. The phenotypic structure of cognitive abilities in dogs is similar to that found in people; a dog that is fast and accurate at one task has a propensity to be fast and accurate at another. It may seem obvious that once a detour task (finding the treat behind a barrier) has been solved in one form, the solution to the other forms will follow naturally, but dogs are not people. Experiments have shown that dogs’ problem-solving skills do not transfer readily from one problem to a different form of the same problem as ours do (Osthaus, Marlow, & Ducat, 2010). The g factor we report is consistent with the prediction made by the many experts in the ‘dog world’ (trainers, veterinarians, members of dog societies, and farmers) who were consulted in the early stages of this study. Those experts said that in their experience some dogs were more likely to catch-on, learn and solve problems more quickly than others. Our results show structural similarities between canine and human intelligence. Individual tests have some test-specific variance, tests are influenced by a group-level factor, and the group-level factor is influenced by a g factor. We tested models without the g factor, without the group-level factors and with uncorrelated group-level factors; models positing correlated group-level factors (the unstructured model and the hierarchical g model) fit the data. We emphasize the hierarchical g model because the poor fit of the no-g model rules out uncorrelated first-order factors; the hierarchical g allows us to examine how those correlations arise.

Although we cannot calculate empirically the impact of range-restriction (of intelligence) on our results we surmise that our sample of farm dogs is somewhat analogous to a human university student population because farm dogs at the low tail of the intelligence distribution are more likely to be given away as companion animals. Range restriction attenuates correlations (Alexander et al., 1984 and Wells and Fruchter, 1970) so we cautiously interpret the g factor we found as being a low estimate of commonality. A plot showing the possible impact on our results given various estimates of range restriction is given in the Supplementary Information together with the zero-order correlation matrix for all test scores.

Noise may arise from variation in appetite for treats. We assume that dogs vary in their appetitive motivation—and that differential interest in food treats may be confounded with test scores. Our finding that speed and accuracy are positively correlated suggests that this has not been a major concern, yet we expect that performance on a problem-solving test is affected by more than just ‘smarts’. Affective traits such as motivation, persistence, and so on likely influence performance on cognitive tasks, but if they contribute to covariance among tasks, it may be hard to distinguish these aspects from g; there is no a priori reason why g should not have an affective component. The crucial point is that our study investigates the covariance, the structure, among test scores. In humans where g has been most studied, g arises among mathematical and vocabulary tests even though students often have different preferences and motivation to do these kinds of tasks. If g tapped motivation heavily, we would expect to see covariance among measures of motivation across different kinds of test; in humans we do not see this (Loken, 2004).

Gimmick Economy

February 10th, 2016

Is society now focused on market capitalism because it is a fundamental theory, or because we have just lived through the era in which it was possible due to remarkable coincidences?

To begin to see the problem, recall that in previous eras innovations created high value occupations by automating or obviating those of lower value. This led to a heuristic that those who fear innovation do so because of a failure to appreciate newer opportunities. Software, however is different in this regard and the basic issue is familiar to any programmer who has used a debugger. Computer programs, like life itself, can be decomposed into two types of components:

  1. Loops which repeat with small variations.
  2. Rube Goldberg like processes which happen once.

If you randomly pause a computer program, you will almost certainly land in the former because the repetitive elements are what gives software its power, by dominating the running time of most all programs. Unfortunately, our skilled labor and professions currently look more like the former than the latter, which puts our educational system in the crosshairs of what software does brilliantly.

In short, what today’s flexible software is threatening is to “free” us from the drudgery of all repetitive tasks rather than those of lowest value, pushing us away from expertise (A) which we know how to impart, toward ingenious Rube Goldberg like opportunities (B) unsupported by any proven educational model. This shift in emphasis from jobs to opportunities is great news for a tiny number of creatives of today, but deeply troubling for a majority who depend on stable and cyclical work to feed families. The opportunities of the future should be many and lavishly rewarded, but it is unlikely that they will ever return in the form of stable jobs.

A next problem is that software replaces physical objects by small computer files. Such files have the twin attributes of what economists call public goods:

  1. The good must be inexhaustible (my use doesn’t preclude your use or reuse).
  2. The good must be non-excludable (the existence of the good means that everyone can benefit from it even if they do not pay for it).

Even die-hard proponents of market capitalism will cede that this public sector represents “market failure” where price and value become disconnected. Why should one elect to pay for an army when he will equally benefit from free riding on the payments of others? Thus in a traditional market economy, payment must be secured by threat of force in the form of compulsory taxes.

So long as public goods make up a minority of a market economy, taxes on non-public goods can be used to pay for the exception where price and value gap. But in the modern era, things made of atoms (e.g. vinyl albums) are being replaced by things made of bits (e.g. MP3 files). While 3D printing is still immature, it vividly showcases how the plans for an object will allow us to disintermediate its manufacturer. Hence, the previous edge case of market failure should be expected to claim an increasingly dominant share of the pie.

Assuming that a suite of such anthropic arguments can be made rigorous, what will this mean? In the first place, we should expect that because there is as yet no known alternative to market capitalism, central banks and government agencies publishing official statistics will be under increased pressure to keep up the illusion that market capitalism is recovering by manipulating whatever dials can be turned by law or fiat, giving birth to an interim “gimmick economy”.

If you look at your news feed, you will notice that the economic news no already longer makes much sense in traditional terms. We have strong growth without wage increases. Using Orwellian terms like “Quantitative Easing” or “Troubled Asset Relief”, central banks print money and transfer wealth to avoid the market’s verdict. Advertising and privacy transfer (rather than user fees) have become the business model of last resort for the Internet corporate giants.


February 9th, 2016

Eric Weinstein presents Kayfabrication for addition to our cognitive toolkit:

The sophisticated “scientific concept” with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity’s future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called “a promotion”) sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which “breaks Kayfabe” is called “shooting” to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called “working”.

Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. Perhaps confusing battles between “freshwater” Chicago macro economists and Ivy league “Saltwater” theorists could be best understood as happening within a single “orthodox promotion” given that both groups suffered no injury from failing (equally) to predict the recent financial crisis. The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the “string” and “loop” camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity.

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery. While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling’s status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as “catch” wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested. This highlighted the close relationship between two paradoxical risks which define the category of activity which wrestling shares with other human spheres:

  • Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants.
  • General Monotony for both audience and participants.

Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

A Highly Subversive, Deep, and Subtle Film

February 8th, 2016

Eric Weinstein — mathematician, economist, and managing director of Thiel Capital — answers an important question for our time. In Kung Fu Panda, how does Po end up developing the capability to be an awesome Kung Fu fighter? How does he shift from being a total fat slob to becoming capable of defeating Tai Lung?

First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this.

From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation.

Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both.

Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film.

Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers.

Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come.

This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.

Evolved to Throw

February 7th, 2016

Human shoulders evolved to throw, as this infographic explains:

Why Chimpanzees Can't Throw

The Happiness Code

February 6th, 2016

As self-help workshops go, the Center for Applied Rationality’s is not especially accessible:

CFAR has been offering workshops since 2012, but it doesn’t typically advertise its classes. People tend to hear about the group from co-workers (usually at tech companies) or through a blog called LessWrong, associated with the artificial-intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is also the author of the popular fan-fiction novel ‘‘Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.’’ (Yudkowsky founded the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), which provided the original funding for CFAR; the two groups share an office space in Berkeley.) Yudkowsky is a controversial figure. Mostly self-taught — he left school after eighth grade — he has written openly about polyamory and blogged at length about the threat of a civilization-ending A.I. Despite this, CFAR’s sessions have become popular. According to Galef, Facebook hired the group to teach a workshop, and the Thiel Fellowship invited CFAR to teach several classes at its annual meeting. Jaan Tallinn, who helped create Skype, recently began paying for math and science students to attend CFAR meetings.

This is all the more surprising given that the workshops, which cost $3,900 per person, are run like a college-dorm cram session. Participants stay on-site for the entire time (typically four days and nights), often in bargain-basement conditions. In San Leandro, the organizers packed 48 people (36 participants, plus six staff members and six volunteers) into a single house, using twin mattresses scattered on the floor as extra beds. In the kitchen, I asked Matt O’Brien, a 30-year-old product manager who develops brain-training software for Lumosity, whether he minded the close quarters. He looked briefly puzzled, then explained that he already lives with 20 housemates in a shared house in San Francisco. Looking around the chaotic kitchen, he shrugged and said, ‘‘It’s not really all that different.’’

Those constraints produced a peculiar homogeneity. Nearly all the participants were in their early- to mid-20s, with quirky bios of the Bay Area variety. (‘‘Asher is a singing, freestyle rapping, former international Quidditch All-American turned software engineer.’’) Communication styles tended toward the formal. When I excused myself from one conversation, my interlocutor said, ‘‘I will allow you to disengage,’’ then gave a courtly bow. The only older attendee, a man in his 50s who described himself as polyamorous and ‘‘part Vulcan,’’ ghosted through the workshop, padding silently around the house in shorts and a polo shirt.

If the demographics of the workshop were alarmingly narrow, there was no disputing the group’s studiousness. Over the course of four days, I heard not a single scrap of chatter about anything unrelated to rationality. Nor, so far as I could discern, did anybody ever leave the house. Not for a quick trip to the Starbucks a mile down the road. Not for a walk in the sprawling park a half-mile away. One participant, Phoenix Eliot, had recently moved into a shared house where everyone was a ‘‘practicing rationalist’’ and reported that the experience had been positive. ‘‘We haven’t really had any interpersonal problems,’’ Eliot told me. ‘‘Whereas if this were a regular house, with people who just like each other, I think there would have been a lot more issues.’’

Mike Wallace Interviews Rod Serling

February 5th, 2016

Mike Wallace interviews Rod Serling in 1959 — before the debut of The Twilight Zone:

You can’t help but notice the complete absence of NPR voice — and the prominence of cigarette smoke, while Serling decries his corporate sponsors’ influence.

Also, you have to chuckle over the game he has to play, pretending that The Twilight Zone won’t tackle any controversial themes.

Here’s a transcript.

You can watch The Twilight Zone on Hulu or Netflix, by the way.

James Patterson Inc.

February 5th, 2016

I wasn’t familiar with James Patterson Inc., but this 2010 article describes the publishing juggernaut’s dominance:

Like most authors, James Patterson started out with one book, released in 1976, that he struggled to get published. It sold about 10,000 copies, a modest, if respectable, showing for a first novel. Last year, an estimated 14 million copies of his books in 38 different languages found their way onto beach blankets, airplanes and nightstands around the world. Patterson may lack the name recognition of a Stephen King, a John Grisham or a Dan Brown, but he outsells them all. Really, it’s not even close. (According to Nielsen BookScan, Grisham’s, King’s and Brown’s combined U.S. sales in recent years still don’t match Patterson’s.) This is partly because Patterson is so prolific: with the help of his stable of co-authors, he published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and will publish at least nine more in 2010.

There are many different ways to catalog Patterson’s staggering success. Here are just a few: Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by James Patterson. He is listed in the latest edition of “Guinness World Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1.

Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books. Despite this support staff and his prodigious output, Patterson is intimately involved in the publication of his books. A former ad executive — Patterson ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996 — he handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step of the publication process, from the design of his jackets to the timing of his books’ release to their placement in stores. “Jim is at the very least co-publisher of his own books,” Michael Pietsch, Patterson’s editor and the publisher of Little, Brown, told me.


To maintain his frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television. But writing a novel is not the same thing as coming up with jokes for David Letterman or plotting an episode of “24.” Books, at least in their traditional conception, are the product of one person’s imagination and sensibility, rendered in a singular, unreproducible style and voice. Some novelists have tried using co-authors, usually with limited success. Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has, with his five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I need an orchestra, otherwise I wouldn’t know how my music sounds,’ ” Pietsch told me when I asked him about Patterson’s use of collaborators. “Jim created a process and a team that can help him hear how his music sounds.”

The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline — sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced — and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson.

Killing Off Senescent Cells

February 4th, 2016

Senescent cells — otherwise normal cells that have stopped dividing and reproducing — accumulate in various tissues and organs over time, and killing them off can extend healthy lifespan:

The scientists took advantage of the fact that one hallmark of senescent cells is that they steadily secrete a certain tumor-suppressing protein molecule called “p16Ink4a.” We’ll call it p16, and you can think of it as basically their calling card.

By rewriting a tiny portion of the mouse genetic code, Baker and van Deursen’s team developed a genetic line of mice with cells that could, under the right circumstances, produce a powerful protein called caspase when they start secreting p16. Caspase acts essentially as a self-destruct button; when it’s manufactured in a cell, that cell rapidly dies.

So what exactly are these circumstances where the p16 secreting cells start to create caspase and self-destruct? Well, only in the presence of a specific medicine the scientists could give the mice. With their highly-specific genetic tweak, the scientists had created a drug-initiated killswitch for senescent cells.

In today’s paper, Baker and van Deursen’s team reported what happened when the researchers turned on that killswitch in middle-aged mice, effectively scrubbing clean the mice of senescent cells. The medicine was injected into the genetically engineered mice’s bellies when they were 12 months old. (Keep in mind, the process isn’t perfect. Some senescent cells, including those found in the colon and liver managed to survive — possibly by avoiding the killswitch drug.)

The big takeaway is that “we saw about a 25 percent expansion of median lifespan of these mice. This held true for two different genetic strains of mice,” each engineered with the killswitch tweak, “and was irrespective of sex or the diet,” says Baker. These mice also showed delayed cancer onset, fewer cataracts, an increased drive to explore, and various other age-resistant effects in a wide range of body tissues. The body, it seems, is better off without senescent cells.

As far as the researchers could find, there was pretty much just a single downside of eliminating senescent cells: Wounds healed more slowly. That’s no big surprise, as senescent cells are known to play a role in healing and scar-tissue formation.

Do you ever fall?

February 4th, 2016

In Practice Perfect, Lemov et al. tell the story of a woman who is a breathtaking skier:

She tells an interesting story about her breakthrough moment — and it was just that, a moment — when she started down the road of becoming an expert. It happened on the day she decided to fall. She was getting on the lift at the base of a steep, sunlit ski bowl. She had just come down a twisted, mogul-ridden trail in top form, earning the admiration of a teenager who’d been trailing behind her. At the bottom, amidst words like “stoked” and “killer,” the teenager asked, “Do you ever fall?”

Getting on the lift, she realized that (1) the answer was no, and that (2) if the teenager had been a nephew or a cousin whom she felt invested in developing as a skier, she wouldn’t have wanted to admit that to him. Instead she would have pointed out that if you never fall, you aren’t pushing yourself and you aren’t improving as fast as you could be. Midway up the mountain she realized that she hardly ever fell, perhaps once every eight or ten days on skis, and even then it was usually at tangled moments when she wasn’t actually skiing that hard. She realized that if she wasn’t falling she probably wasn’t pushing herself to learn as hard as she could be. She had gotten lazy because she was so good.

When she got to the top of the mountain and skied off the chairlift, she knew what she needed to do. She set out to ski hard enough to fall, but she was intentional about how. She knew that there was one thing that she had been working on: pointing her shoulders face down the mountain, no matter how steep. She then set out to execute this skill even if that meant falling. She fell three times that first day. “I could feel myself trying to do exactly the things I was afraid of. I knew if I stuck with it I would conquer my fears.” She began skiing without fearing falling. Within a few weeks she was a different skier entirely.

In that single moment, she was able to embrace two important truths: first, failure is normal and not the indicator of a lack of skill; second, skiing right at the edge of mastery would make her better. She had to trust that exposing her weaknesses — risking ridicule and embarrassment — rather than trying to cover them up would be the driver of excellence. Compare our friend to a skier who just tries to ski the hardest runs as fast as he can. If he pushes himself to fall without encoding success, then he will fail miserably, likely leaning back too much on his skis and risking injury.

How do you build an organizational culture of fearless skiers willing to take thoughtful risks in order to improve — especially when the goal is to encode success? An organization has to help its people realize that failure rate and level of skill are independent variables; it has to help them feel comfortable exposing their weaknesses to their peers so they can help them improve; it has to make them feel trust and faith and even joy, not only to practice but to do so with others. The first step on that journey is to normalize error.

Derren Brown’s “Russian Scam”

February 3rd, 2016

In the follow-up to his interview with Tim Ferriss, Derek Sivers mentions Derren Brown’s “Russian scam” video, which is just baffling:

League of Legends Prodigy

February 3rd, 2016

ESPN looks at League of Legends prodigy Faker — a young pseudonymous Korean eSports “athlete” who has mastered the popular PC game:

When I ask the group why Faker is regarded as the best player in the world, MonteCristo, who goes by Monte, jumps in: “How would you grade a professional athlete? Like, what makes LeBron great?”

I rattle off a few words: athleticism, skill, decision-making.

“It’s the same. It’s exactly the same,” Susie says.

The League equivalent of athleticism is called mechanics, which refers to a player’s ability to use his mouse and keyboard to make swift movements, like dodging shots. In this respect, Monte says, Faker is peerless. He points me to a video of what is widely seen as the greatest play in League history, clipped from a 2013 game between SK Telecom and the KT Bullets. Faker is dueling another player, Ryu, and they’re both playing the same champion, a ninja named Zed. After a brief skirmish, Faker’s Zed appears about to die, so he darts away. Then, just when Ryu thinks he has the fight sewn up, Faker unleashes a startling set of moves, cutting down his opponent in a blinding flash. The audience goes nuts. “He used six different abilities in the span of two seconds,” Monte says.

Even more impressive, DoA adds, is the breadth of Faker’s champion pool, which makes it easier for him to adapt to new patches to the game — the “meta,” in eSports parlance. Because Riot upgrades League every few weeks, players live in perpetual fear of having their favorite champions’ skills diminished. Imagine if the NFL suddenly announced next year that rushing touchdowns were worth only five points, or if MLB expanded the strike zone for left-handed pitchers. Although the constantly changing meta keeps the game fresh, it can be agonizing for professionals. Some players never recover from an ill-timed patch.

That’s one of the reasons the average eSports career is so short. Professional players typically retire before their mid-20s; like figure skaters, they peak long before then. Older gamers must battle slowing reflexes and fatigue, as well as injuries to their necks and wrists. “As a male teenager, it’s easy to play video games for 16 hours,” Monte says.

Because many Korean players skip college, their career options after retiring are limited. “A lot of pro gamers don’t come from wealthy backgrounds,” Susie says. “A good number of them are doing this because they’re supporting their families.” Increasingly, she says, players realize they have limited time to capitalize on their skills, which is driving some of them to leave the country. Although most professional gamers in Korea earn five-digit salaries and a few elite players make over $100,000 (Monte says Faker probably makes more than twice that; SK Telecom declined to comment on his salary), Chinese teams boast massive war chests. One squad, Invictus Gaming, is owned by the son of Wang Jianlin, the richest man in mainland China. This winter, Invictus added four Korean players to its roster.

Pro players also make money by streaming, allowing fans to watch them practice while advertisements pop up. One retired player in China, Wei “Caomei” Han-Dong, has said he makes more than $800,000 a year streaming. Korean teams have begun to stream a little, but in general, “they think it’s inefficient,” says Lee “CloudTemplar” Hyun-woo, a retired-gamer-turned-caster. “In Korea, to make money you have to put up results.” Demand is out there, though. This February, a minor scandal flared up when a Twitch user started streaming Faker’s practice games without permission.

Groundhog Day

February 2nd, 2016

I just realized that I’ve discussed Groundhog Day a few times:

The Paradox of Human Warfare

February 2nd, 2016

What is truly shocking about human warfare is that large numbers of reproductively capable, unrelated, and unfamiliar individuals die in combat for benefits that are widely shared:

From our closest living relative in the animal kingdom, to the highly cooperative eusocial insects—no animal cooperates in war in this manner.

Chimps raid neighboring communities, but in the several decades of observing them, no chimp in the attacking party has been killed. They only attack when they outnumber the opponent sufficiently so that the attackers are unscathed. And the chimps that gang up for a raid know each other well, as they hail from the same community.

Ants readily sacrifice their lives in inter-colony battles, but the ants that do so are sterile individuals. They are giving up their lives to increase the fitness of the reproductively capable queen they are genetically related to.

Reciprocity and relatedness suffice to explain chimp and ant wars. Human warfare calls for a novel explanation.

Sarah Mathew has studied the pastoral Turkana of East Africa and how such egalitarian herders fight:

They make a living in the semi-arid savanna of northwest Kenya by keeping cattle, camel, goat, and sheep, and seasonally moving to find pastures and water. Periodically they mobilize and raid other settlements to acquire cattle and pastures, and to take revenge for previous attacks.

These attacks give the impression that human warfare does indeed require a novel explanation. Turkana warriors are not coerced by any authority. Yet in some areas of the Turkana one out of five males die in warfare. Of the males who survive to adulthood, one out of two die in warfare.

You may be tempted to think that in an egalitarian small-scale society everyone is either a friend or relative, and so this is simply cooperation with one’s kith and kin. But this is not the case. The Turkana number a million people, and are divided into about two-dozen different sub-territories. On Turkana raids hundreds of men from different territories come together. For a typical warrior most of his fellow combatants are neither kin nor close associates. Many are strangers.

So, really, why do these men go on raids, trusting that the strangers they are fighting with will do their part?

Some may say it is obvious why these men participate in warfare. After all, cattle are food, wealth, and the path to marriage. And cattle have feet—drive them away and you can make a fortune overnight. Not only so, without a fight they would lose their territory, and what is life for a herder without good pastures? And lets not forget, it is reproductive-aged men wielding AK-47s who go on these raids. The mix of youth, testosterone, and firearms—how can war not transpire?

Yet, acknowledging these motives—cows, pastures, and firearms—gets us only so far. AK-47-wielding, young, unmarried men have plenty of reasons to have a dustup with other men of their community. They share pastures and water, and vie for the same women. Yet, in quarrels with each other, they put aside their AK-47s, and hash out disputes with their herding sticks and wrist blades.

Turkana Boy with AK

If you think it is the desire for cows, then consider that there are cows everywhere. The neighboring family has cows, the settlement across the river has cows, and herders in distant Turkana settlements have cows. Yet, Turkana men pass up on these hundreds of thousands of cows, and instead will travel large distances until they reach the settlement of people who do not consider themselves Turkana, before they raid cattle.

And yes, territory is precious. But, remarkably, Turkana from one territory typically allow Turkana from other territories to graze in their pastures, and such sharing is especially common in the dry season when grass and water are scarce. Yet, if the Toposa encroach, the Turkana of the area will mobilize a retaliatory raid.

Earlier in this post I noted that warfare is where moral depravity seems to abound. But perhaps the question to ask is why we have moral concerns at all, and why they extend to an arbitrary set of people who are neither relatives nor friends. Why does a Turkana herder pass up on the cows of some distant stranger, to go and raid the cows of some other distant stranger? Why use sticks to fight with some people, and AK-47s to fight with others? Why let some strangers graze in your scarce pastures and kill others for venturing too close? And is that set of people we have moral concerns towards just arbitrary, or is there some logic to our moral inclusivity?