Archive for the 'sports' Category

In 2005, I came 9,405th in the London Marathon in just under four hours (3:55:36, to be precise). Last year I had a plan that I would do better, and would cover it as a freelance journalist too. The organisers obliged, and I realised I’d better start a blog. The Knackered Hack was born to track my exploration of endurance fitness, and some of the issues sports can reveal to us as amateurs: something like the professional lessons of Ed Smith’s book, which I reviewed only the other day.

But I lost eight weeks of training from the first 10 of 2007 to two viruses. Thus my hopes of running a marathon were in shreds. That was a lesson in itself. And it was about that time that Nassim Taleb contacted me so that his publishers could send me a copy of The Black Swan to review. The rest, as they say, is path dependence

Last week, Guy Kawasaki listed The Knackered Hack as one of the web’s leading journalism blogs at his newly-launched aggregation site:

Not all of you will be familiar with Guy. That’s OK, because the patron saint of us uncertain folks is Herbert Simon, who some will know coined the term “bounded rationality”, which incorporates the idea that you can’t know everything. Admitting as much did not stop Simon from winning a Nobel Memorial Prize.

But I digress. Guy was one of the early Mac team, he is a venture capitalist, and renowned speaker. And is aimed at us head-scratchers, who don’t quite know where to start sometimes. His company is also called Garage Technology Ventures. QED.

I’m bound to say that is a great site, and if you start using it you’ll be an early adopter because Guy and colleagues only really announced it a few weeks ago. Although I’m no expert in these things, some of you may find that the concept is broadly similar to What Guy is doing is taking a non-Google, non-quant view at the web, looking for influencers and connectors, especially through the prism of Twitter and the trust networks it is both generating and reflecting.


Here is what Guy said about it on his blog:-

A good metaphor is that Alltop is an “online magazine rack” that displays the news from the top publications and blogs. Our goal is to satisfy the information needs of the 99% of Internet users who will never use an RSS feed reader or create a custom page. Think of it as ‘aggregation without the aggravation.’”

If I’m allowed to say one thing I really like about it, it is the clean way that the first few lines of each news or blog entry open up as floating text (see above) and allow you a quick preview of the contents. There are other technologies that try to do something like that, but this reminds me of something I wanted way back in the 1990s as a way to allow the reporter to mask explanations of complex terms that would get in the way of readability or the patience of cognoscenti. Like many bloggers, I use Wikipedia for that these days in most instances, but it does involve opening up a new window/tab. So it will be great when that technology finds its way into more general use.

The week before last was Annie Hall week at home here, which contains Woody Allen’s paraphrased reference to the Groucho Marx joke: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member”. It was not my intention to start a journalism blog, and I’m not doing this for the brethren, but I’m grateful for the recognition. Of course, I do think journalism is important, and I do write about journalism frequently on this blog. And just so that there’s no doubt that this IS a journalism blog (amongst other things), I’ve decided to celebrate my Alltop accolade with the introduction of a new category on the right there: “journalism”. As I’m learning more and more, there are two certainties in this new world of ours: death and taxonomy.

And before we get carried away that we’ve reached the A-list, Guy shares some interesting ideas about influence from different sources on his blog here and here, that further explains perhaps our apparent non-linear rise out of the Long Tail‘s long tail.

Of course, for regular readers of KH, especially those who’ve subscribed to the email, or feed or follow the marginal entertainment of my Twitter service, you can feel especially vindicated for your loyalty and encouragement of this tired soul ;-) . Thank you.

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With it’s playful green and red cartoon dust jacket, Ed Smith‘s What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons (Penguin Books, £14.99) could easily be taken for a belated Christmas stocking-filler, destined for a long stay in the bathroom’s literature section. But it deserves to be taken seriously. As the inside cover says:

Sport is a condensed version of life — only it matters less and comes up with better statistics.”

I realised this myself some time ago, and periodically spend more time following sports science than business and finance. And it was one of the thematic reasons for starting the Knackered Hack in the first place, to explore what could be learned from sport in general and my own participation in it in particular, without being glib. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions…

Smith, who is captain of Middlesex County Cricket Club, offers up sport as an under-used analytical resource from which can be drawn a number of intellectual and practical lessons about education, business, politics, the study of history, etc. The book takes the form of a series of essays, each kicking off from one sporting theme and following where any beam of light is usefully shed.

Smith takes in some of the old chestnuts such as: are our sporting heroes what they used to be? (the golden age hypothesis says no) or are our sportsmen and women getting perpetually better? (evolutionary theory says yes); is sport too commercial? — you’ve heard these discussed in the pub no doubt. He also covers some remarkable new ground for me, making some startling and insightful connections.

Before we get into cricket v baseball, as Smith himself explores, know that Smith understands both games well, and bigs up baseball as a crucible for pithy life observation, just as obsessive fans would claim. And he critiques the Moneyball strategy of the Oakland As from a player’s perspective. He also reveals baseball to be most likely a French invention, overtaking cricket for popularity in the Civil War (American of course) because of rough pitches, and then being gamed by some 19th century spin doctor called A. G. Spalding, who touted it that baseball championed the egalitarian, in contrast to the effeteness of cricket. Yes, he was just trying to sell more gear. And it worked. Despite the fact that cricket had enjoyed wide social acceptance in the US earlier in the century, it fell into terminal decline as a national pastime.

I’m no expert on Schumpeter’s oeuvre — though I’ve lived through one or two creative destruction episodes. But after 87 pages of What Sport Tells Us, all I could think of was Schumpeter, Schumpeter, Schumpeter. Smith elaborates on the fluctuating fortunes of sport, not just in terms of games and spectacle. He shows how at an industry (and at a national cultural) level the individual sporting disciplines are so rich themselves in creative destruction, confounding the stereotypes that fans, commentators and team owners all too frequently apply. On page 88, Smith finally drops the great man’s name. For the reader like me it was a back-of-the-net moment, as they say in soccer. Well-scored, Ed! When Penguin offered me the book for review, I hadn’t expected to find a discussion of how the free market has worked its invisible magic to raise the salaries of “left tackles” in American football. These hulks go unwatched on the field of play because all eyes follow the star quarter-back; but their presence determines whether the star player makes the goal or ends up face down in the mud. It all made sense to me. Schumpeter, he the man!

Someone should get Russ Roberts at EconTalk to interview Smith for a podcast. Smith is a broadcaster himself, having fronted a BBC programme called Peak Performance, which is sadly no longer in their online archive. In Roberts’ podcast with Schumpeter biographer Thomas McCraw, he highlights that when we observe an economic phenomenon like income inequality, the dominance of particular corporations (or, I’d suggest, the current credit crunch) we tend to see only the present snapshot in time; we miss the continuum. This can be both positive and negative. Bad news and bad money can drive out the good. But, Smith shows us that in the larger sweep of sporting history as well, so much of the hand-wringing of the short run is misplaced.

He also despatches sporting cliches all over the ground like loose bowling. He sends the concept of professionalism for six, hits a homerun against the notion of talent’s primacy, but saves his best shot for the role of luck and our contradictory and mistaken attitude to how it operates both in games, and also how it influences entire career paths.

Believing that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, on the other hand, is actually a rather easy doctrine. (At least until you realize the idea has led you up the garden path.) The fallacy that desire and determination hold the keys to all success appeals to the inner adolescent in us that cannot bear the thought of hard work going to waste. I try, ergo I succeed; the world is just, so I will prevail; there is a fair distribution of justice, so I will be lauded. Such a shame that it isn’t true.

Of course, that logic is not reversible. Sitting around waiting for luck to come your way is as misguided as thinking that good things always come to those who ‘want it enough.’ The truth is that determination and desire are necessary but not sufficient. We have to try like crazy; we have to retain a relentless sense of determination; we have to make sacrifices and take the road less travelled. And yet still there are no guarantees. Even after all that, we may come up empty-handed. That is the bleak but unavoidable logic of anyone who has deep ambitions.”

But before we get too depressed by the potential tragedy of it all, he has a whole chapter celebrating the need to retain a sense of amateur love for the game, but not in the long out-dated Corinthian notion. Quoting Simon Barnes, quoting Brazilian World Cup Coach Felipe Scolari:-

Scolari said: ‘My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.’

[Barnes continues] This is not romantic twaddle. It is a fact that the more important something gets, the harder it is to do it well. We can all walk along the kerbstone in safety, but if the drop were not six inches but six miles, how then would we walk? Football matters too much; it matters to the players too much. As a result, the mattering gets in the way of the playing.”

In Smith’s own words:-

All professional sportsmen battle with their fears and anxieties. And by no means do they always conquer them. We live on the brink of disappointment, of failure, of being dropped, of getting sacked, of retreating back into civilian life with our dreams unfulfilled. That is the parlous state in which most sportsmen usually find themselves. All of us have experienced downward spirals of anxiety and introspection – I am losing form, my place is in jeopardy, my career could be in danger. Often you deny the problem, which secretly increases your anxiety – you are scared of admitting your fears even to yourself – and your form worsens still further.

He continues:-

Remove the obstacles to playing well. Anxiety is one of the obstacles. Worrying is one of the obstacles. Failing to focus simply and only on the job in hand is one of the obstacles [...] Dreading failure is one of the obstacles. Now you are thinking like a player again that is usually a beginning of a return to form.

The exposure to failure that really loving your sport entails is painful. The following paragraph(s) sang out particularly plaintively to the Knackered ears:

Trying desperately hard and not getting what you want is decent summary of what almost all sportsmen go through. The more deeply you compete and the greater the quality of your caring (to lift a line from Larkin), the more it hurts when you lose, or fail, or fall short. Each time a competitor taps into the essence of his personality in an attempt to win a sports match, he takes a risk. The risk is that he will get no reward — in the sense of a win or a personal triumph — for exposing himself to that degree of psychological rawness. It is easy to resent having tried so hard in the first place.

On the other hand, being too disengaged isn’t the answer, as the next paragraph elaborates:-

If it didn’t get us anywhere today, why should I bother to care so deeply next time? One answer is that being prepared and able to experience such deep emotions, and being exposed to that degree of disappointment, is a privilege not open to many. It doesn’t feel like a privilege at the time. It feels like hell. But it makes for a life more fully lived. After ten years playing professional sport, I have come to the startling conclusion that a big part of me actually enjoys caring about sport, even when that caring expresses itself as pain at losing. I wouldn’t rather life was more pallid. It sometimes reminds me that I am not wasting my time — and protects me a little from the resigned emptiness we all dread in sport.”

So don’t be put off from ordering a copy from or to steal a march on any US publication plans that Penguin has. He is good on this stuff, you know. He read History at Cambridge, and because he is younger than me, has been more exposed to counter-factualism, which he uses quite devastatingly to examine some rather controversial sporting triumphs, like England’s unexpected win in the 2005 Ashes cricket series against Australia.

And to show that someone has already deftly combined sport and philosophy, a re-run of one of my favourites. Schumpeter didn’t make the team on this occasion, but then… that was the story of his life.

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For anyone who missed it, Peter Day’s In Business programme on BBC Radio 4 several weeks ago highlighted the peculiarities of competition and collaboration in the Cambridge University Boat Club in preparing for the selection of its 1st VIII for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race, or The Boat Race to be precise. (Podcast for download here.)

Judge Business School reader Marc De Rond said that business researchers have had difficulty identifying the impact of one individual within teams. In sport, it is a little easier and he set out to study his local rowing club. Cambridge coach, Duncan Holland, put it thus:-

Rowers are very experienced at making teams because in an eight, in comparison to other sports, you can’t have a star and some water carriers… An eight really is as fast as the slowest member, so rowers have a lot of experience of getting on together and working out how slightly better people can get on with slightly lesser people and focusing on a common goal.”

However, there was an added complexity. All members of the squad have to row perfectly together, but this requirement to co-ordinate their actions perfectly together was simultaneous with their own competitive need to capture the next person’s place in the first team, or “blue” boat.

De Rond’s study noted that the qualities that make the alpha-male rowers good competitors, also make them difficult. They think quickly, believe they can anticipate what will be said to them, and are surprisingly oblivious to the feelings of others. In this instance the skills needed of the coach are of a high order if the team is to be successful.

It may also mean picking an inferior rower in some instances to provide social buffering between otherwise dysfunctionally aggressive behaviours. They highlighted the way in which a majority of the Blue boat chose Dan O’Shaughnessy to row with them rather than a stronger rower, because his sense of humour, among other things, permitted them to relate to one another in a way that they could not on their own. And so they would row faster.

Echoing the work of Scott Page, which we have noted several times, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School said:-

We know that the relationships we have in teams are at the heart of how we feel about our companies. We stay in our companies because we love working as a member of a team and we leave them because we hate working in that team. There is an argument that people are naturally cooperative and that what has happened in organizations is we’ve put an overlay of competition which actually destroys the humanness of being in a team and the pleasure of working.

Having studied companies including Goldman Sachs and Google, she said strong teams had three things in common: all teams were prepared to cooperate with one another, they all had diverse points of view, they all had a mission or a question that was very exciting for them.

She said the best teams for a highly innovative product comprise members from different countries, different mindsets and different genders. Male and female teams are more productive than single gender teams.

A group of experts is only good at finding a better way to do what they do well. Yet they struggle to innovate. Innovation comes from a clash of ideas. And a common mistake leaders make is in believing they should choose all the participants in a team. The best teams are those where there is a core, and then volunteers come in because they are excited by the idea of participation in the project. Naturally, Google’s “twenty-per-cent time” was offered as a compelling example.

Another interesting proviso was to not make diverse teams socialise before they work together. It only makes them realise how much they don’t like each other.

This dissonance was central to Scott Page’s RSA seminar last spring. The New York Times interviewed him in early January here. He offered a mathematical reflection of how all this works:-

What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity.”

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Bonking. It’s not such a good idea to mention this in polite company, unless you’re amongst cyclists. You’ll find that “bonking” means something quite different to these athletes. Whilst for most of us (in the correct circumstances) the idea of “a bonk” would normally be welcomed, for the cyclist it’s something to be avoided.

I used to understand “the bonk” as a sensation felt by a competitor towards the end of a Tour de France stage, where all the glycogen or fuel stores in their muscles has been exhausted. They’ve hit what marathoners call “the wall”. They are basically out of gas*.

For many years I commuted by bike between Twickenham (in West London) and Fleet Street. I would ride hard and fast. I knew nothing about modulating effort or recovery. And this intensity of a monotonous daily activity, I now understand, led to overtraining syndrome.

On occasions I’d cycle home late in the evening, perhaps delayed by a transatlantic conference call. I’d have eaten a chocolate bar (usually Snickers) earlier in the afternoon. By halfway, where I crossed the Thames at Putney Bridge (the famous start of the Boat Race) I was in an unexplained state of collapse, as if I had rowed stroke to the Mortlake finish for the Oxford eight. My head was light, my legs were leaden, like I was pedaling through treacle. Ready to faint, I’d dash to the nearest gas station and stuff my face with potato chips*.

I used to joke that these episodes were “the bonk”, thinking that I was probably misusing the term. Because how could 6 miles pretty much on the flat equate to a professional stage over the French Alps? However, while reading Art De Vany’s blog only a few weeks ago, I saw the term “bonk” applied to just such a modest implosion, and it gave me pause. It seemed to be saying something about my metabolism which confirmed a growing intuition that I had been, was, or was becoming, somewhat insulin-resistant.

The really bad part of all this is that there are a lot of high insulin people out there who can “bonk” from low blood sugar if they don’t get their carb hit. And then after the hit wears off, they may “bonk” again. They may be driving when this happens and are easily angered and lose concentration. They can be a danger to themselves and others when this happens. I would bet a fair number of auto accidents could be traced to blood glucose/insulin surges.”

And when you’re on a bike, you don’t want to meet those people coming the other way.

So, since Christmas I’ve been trying to apply De Vany’s paleo diet strictures (which have informed some of my thinking for a while now) with much greater observance. The effects on my current health — as far as I can determine — have been tangible, and arguably dramatic.

Way back in those glorious days when I used to dash home on my hand-built pillar-box red Condor racing bike, with its 27 gleaming Campagnolo gears (see below) I figured out a strategy to see off the bonk.


I called it “bringing the banana forward”. This terminology caused much mirth among my Canadian in-laws at the time. But I’d realised one thing about diet through this experience: the mid-afternoon Snickers bar was the principal cause of this strange loss of fuel-supply by late evening. I cut that out and ate a banana just before leaving the office instead. But that did not immediately do the trick. I guessed this was because, depending on how ripe a banana is, it can break down into sugars quite slowly. Timing the banana became an obsessive-compulsive ritual ahead of my evening departure. I eventually solved the problem by eating the banana a little earlier – i.e. bringing the banana forward.

Now, what De Vany’s blog was describing was in the context of hypoglycaemic episodes. The essence of much of this is that you don’t have to be diagnosed diabetic to experience wild swings in energy, attention, and perhaps even consciousness. In short, too many carbs at the wrong time can drive you bananas.

* I have self-consciously americanized this post, so apologies to all my British readers who expected to see the words “petroleum spirit” and “crisps”.

Photo credits: banana -eko- , campag: knackeredhack

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surf science


As promised from yesterday, another great clip, which will be the best eight minutes you spend today.

If surfing brings out the extreme then surely Grant Washburn‘s double-negative referring to Jeff Clark, Maverick’s organizer and the first person to tackle the waves head-on, takes some topping:

It wasn’t obvious that he was..uh…not crazy.”

And here we are talking about an earth-moving experience. As Bill Martin, KTVU Chief Meteorologist says:-

When you talk about energy release the most amazing thing I have ever heard — and this is absolutely the case — when the waves get big out here and they crash onto the North American plate, they register on the UC Berkeley seismograph.”

Go here for full screen version from KQED. If you have kids, show it to them.  They’ll love it.

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