November 29, 2009
Of Ancient Astronauts and Crossbills
If you've watched the Planet Earth Series on either BBC or The Discovery Channel (and I recommend you do), you may have seen the episode on seasonal forests. Early in the episode, the narrator describes how the trees in the northern forests have leaves that are filled with resin to minimize water loss and to also make them distasteful to animals. Many of these trees also have seeds that are in plated cones to protect them. However, birds such as crossbills have evolved special beaks to pry apart the scales and extract the seeds. When the scenery changes to the southernmost forests, lo and behold, the trees have developed very similar ways of protecting their leaves and seeds. And, as you may have guessed, birds in these forests, such as parakeets, have evolved bills that allow them to extract seeds from the protected cones. It seems intuitive, if not obvious, that similar conditions would engender similar evolutionary paths.
Ancient astronaut theory is the idea that extra-terrestrial beings came to earth and imparted knowledge to the ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and Egyptians, among others. Much of the evidence for this falls, in my mind at least, into two broad categories: that the technology/engineering skills were far too advanced for the ancient peoples to develop on their own, and that very similar patterns/styles are exhibited by ancient cultures all over the world. As to the former, human beings are extremely intelligent and creative. To suggest that humans could not solve a problem without outside help is to ignore the depth of that human intelligence. Especially given the long time frames involved, I find it difficult to question the skills and knowledge of any culture that was able to form a lasting civilization. Add to that the difficulty of translating the writings and drawings that those civilizations left behind, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many things we don’t know about them.
It seems to me that the only evidence that could be said to suggest ancient astronaut theory is the similarities between the various ancient civilizations. However, why is it so much easier to believe that the trees and birds mentioned above also developed in similar ways on opposite ends of the Earth? Why should it be that humans are the only animals on the planet that are not allowed to evolve in similar ways in different places? And when I think about the similarities that are said to be the evidence, I have difficulty thinking of any other way that those civilizations could have developed.
Take pyramids for instance. I won't dwell on why you'd want to build something that large, but I'm inclined to believe that egos have been with humans at least as long as culture itself, probably longer. If you're going to build something large, the easiest way is to simply build a pile of something. At another level, how can you pile things to any great height without any kind of crane or similar device? You build a ramp that slopes up to the top of the heap. Ok, so building in a shape that has sides that slope up seems to be kind of necessary to build a large ancient structure. Curved lines are much more difficult to build and cut along than straight lines. Squares and triangles also have relatively simple math to calculate properties like height and volume. I'm not saying a pyramid is the only way to build a great structure in the ancient world, but it seems to me to be one of the easiest ways using what was available to the people of the time. In my limited experience, a good rule of thumb for nature is that things travel along the path of least resistance, be it electricity, water, or evolution. My question would be why any culture would purposely engineer buildings along different, much more difficult lines, especially with other complications such as the necessity of using stone, since it was the only material available that would last any length of time. Similarly, what better or easier way for a bird to eat conifer seeds than to develop bills that can pry apart the scales?
As far as the obsession with the stars and planets, what else would ancient peoples have been able to study extensively? The sky was one of the few things that was permanent enough to do things such as navigate or plan by. If one was trying to devise a system with which to plan long term endeavors such as farming, what else could have been there to go by? If one was trying to navigate in a strange territory without gps or a compass or detailed maps, what beside the stars could be used? I should think it would be obvious that any relatively advanced ancient culture would use the sun, the moon, and the stars as a way to plan their farming and navigation. And at a less practical, yet still powerful level, what beside the sky is universal in its ability to make us stand in awe and wonder? I have a hard time imagining that ancient peoples didn't also look up at the sky to marvel at its immensity and beauty and to wonder what was up there.
There will always be things we cannot easily explain, and a very convenient and attractive option is to explain unexplainable things with outside forces, be they gods or magic or aliens. Natural phenomena that we explain easily today were explained in ancient times by those same outside forces, and as it turns out, the ancients were wrong. In fact, of all the things that have been explained as caused by non-natural entities or forces, none have been conclusively proven to be so caused. And that’s the point. In the absence of scientific proof, it’s impossible to prove that something is not caused by magic or the gods. Which is why until we find conclusive scientific proof, if and when that may be, there will be no way to prove ancient astronaut theory correct. Nor will there be any way to disprove it. Thus, there will always be a temptation to use such things to explain what we don't fully understand. Perhaps the need to explain the unexplainable with the unknowable is something else that has developed in all of us, no matter when or where we may live.
August 13, 2009
Thoughts on Information in Strategy
"In fact, all the enemy's movements should be determined by the signs that we choose to give him."
-Tu Mu, notes to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War"
I was playing gin this evening when I got to thinking about the role of information in the game. To hear the really good gin players talk, the key to the game is information: what is in my opponents hand? If you can deduce what cards your opponent is holding, then you have a distinct advantage, and this is no different from any other card game. In fact, the importance of information is seen in virtually any game or sport where something is known to one side and not the other. For example, in baseball, if the defense knows that the batter will bunt, then they can bring infielders in to nullify the bunter's advantage.
To my way of thinking, there are really three types of information: What I have, what my opponent tells me, and what I tell my opponent.
Notice I didn't use the questions "what does my opponent have?" or "what does the opponent think I have?" There's a reason for this. You must always assume your opponent is of equal or better talent, or you will underestimate them and eventually make unsound decisions relying on the fact that your opponent is weaker. This is how upsets happen. If I am capable of choosing what information I give to my opponent, then I have to assume that they can choose what information they give to me. In poker terms, if I can bluff, then my opponent has the ability to bluff as well.
Type number one: what do I have? In card games, this is very easy: what cards am I holding? In other games and sports, the question is more difficult, especially when what you have are people. You have to know and understand your team's strengths and weaknesses so that you can form your strategy along the lines that give you the best chance.
Type number two: what does my opponent tell me? This is usually the step that distinguishes the beginner from the advanced player in many games. Every single action your opponent makes tells you something about what they have and/or what they want to do. In gin, this consists of paying attention to what cards your opponent picks up and which cards they discard. In other sports it's less transparent. An example in football is knowing the tendencies of your opponent. If the opposing team has run the ball in the same situation nine times in a row, it might be safe to bet that they will run when that situation occurs again. Of course, it's important to remember that your opponent has control over virtually everything they tell you, so you must take each piece of information with a grain of salt. How skeptical you are, or more appropriately, whether you can act on the information shown, depends on the arena and the situation. DIfferentiating between which of the information is true or false is a matter of skill and experience, however, and I have little to offer that can be applied to a wide range of endeavors. That is, except for considering how you yourself would act if you were in your opponent's shoes.
Which brings us to the third type of information: what information do I choose to give my opponent? This applies to how much or how little information you choose to give as well as what specific information you convey. This is, to me, the essence of strategy when information is involved. If you know all of the information that your opponent has about your situation, then you can use that to your advantage. If you know that your opponent knows your tendencies, then you can choose to break that tendency in a critical situation. Of course, the corollary is that you have to keep track of what information you give. As difficult as it is to keep tabs on the information coming in, you must also keep tabs on the information going out. Manipulating your opponents expectations can be a powerful advantage.
In other words, in many situations you have to allow your opponent to be right. In general, I don't believe in always giving away as little as possible. If you know what your opponent expects, and you give it to them, then it simply reinforces their expectation. Josh Waitzkin, in his excellent book The Art of Learning, uses the metaphor of martial arts. If you can get your opponent to lean heavily on one leg, then you can sweep that leg from beneath them when they try to rely on it. The key here is to realize that once you do choose to sweep that leg away, then your opponent will now be aware that you may attempt this tactic. Once you have done this one time, it loses some of its potency. It may very well work again, but likely not with one hundred percent success in the future. Therefore, it's important to wait until the opportune moment for maximum effect.
As you may have already realized, this discussion is not limited to games. The ideas and themes are definitely applicable to any other arena where strategy is necessary, which happens to be everywhere in my eyes. Perhaps not always to deceive and defeat, but also to give yourself the best chance in whatever you do.
June 28, 2009
FIFA 2009 Confederation Cup Final: Postgame
I've always said that you have to wait until about a quarter of the way through the second half to decide if an underdog is actually going to win. Even though I developed this theory watching college basketball, it applies to soccer as well and any other sport that has a back and forth nature with many possessions for both sides. The key is momentum. The team that is the clear favorite often comes out a little tense to start the game, as they feel the pressure that is on their shoulders as the favorite. The underdog, on the other hand has no such pressure, as they know that nobody expects them to win. Thus, the underdog often hits the ground running and can grab an early lead over the favorite, simply by virtue of playing without the tension and pressure that comes with being expected to win. Once halftime comes around, though, the favorite usually calms down and begins to play their game and assert themselves. Concurrently, there is a tendency for the underdog with a lead to come out of halftime tense, because they begin to realize that they may actually win. The hallmark of great teams, as opposed to merely good teams, is their ability to handle the mounting pressure as the game moves along. Teams are labeled underdogs for a reason. They are often unable to handle the pressure that comes with taking a lead into halftime. The tendency is to become conservative and get away from what they used to take the lead in the first place. Coming out of the locker room to start the second half, the favorite, the more skilled team, is settled down and very often takes the momentum back. Once on their heels, the underdog rarely is able to regain the momentum and will give up the game. This is a law of competition, and must be kept in mind by anyone that truly wishes to understand the nature of sport.
This was the case in the 2009 FIFA Confederation Cup final, which Brazil won over the United States 3-2, after the USA took a 2-0 lead into halftime. Brazil came out of the locker room aggressive, scored quickly to take the momentum, and then used their superior technical ability to assert themselves and take over the game. The American team as a whole is young and has plenty of room to grow and improve. Even so, the US served notice that they have the ability to compete with the best in the world, and have nothing to hang their heads about. The US team has many things to be proud of and have learned many lessons, I'm sure, from the experience. The task now is to continue the high level of play, and go into the World Cup next year with the confidence and fire that they showed in the last three matches of this tournament. If this tournament helped to turn some Americans on to soccer, even better. In fact, this increased visibility of American soccer may be the achievement with the most lasting affect, even more so than the second-place trophy that the USA soccer team earned this week with grit and determination that all Americans can be proud of.
FIFA 2009 Confederation Cup Final: Halftime
Anyone that has a genuine love of sports should be watching the FIFA Confederations Cup final this afternoon. The USA leads Brazil 2-0. While it's only halftime, this game and the game before when the USA upset Spain, the number one ranked team in the world, has been an amazing performance. For any team to reach the finals of a FIFA tournament is an accomplishment (a first for America by the way), and I don't think any team would ever take that for granted. But noone can deny how much of an underdog the USA has been, especially since giving the game up against Italy and being roundly defeated by Brazil in the group stage. The unlikely combination of events that sent the United States into the semifinals against Spain seems to have revitalized the team. I've watched every game that the US has played this tournament, and the team that played against Italy and Brazil in the group stage and the team that upset Spain and has Brazil on the ropes at halftime of the finals are two different teams. Of course, one must keep in mind that in both the Italy game and the first match against Brazil, the United States played with only 10 players after getting a red card in the first half of both games. At least one goal in each game could probably be attributed to simple fatigue. Still, those two losses could have demoralized the team and had the players accepting defeat and an early trip home. Somehow they found a way, caught a break or two, and got a second chance to prove themselves. It's really been an excellent metaphor for the American dream in general: the ability to have a second chance and make the most of it. There's still a lot of time to go against a monster of the international soccer world, but the USA has proved that they belong on the international stage, and that confidence and determination are quite possibly more important than a slight edge in ability. It's a lesson that everyone that ever has or will compete, in any endeavor, can take to heart and be proud of.
June 27, 2009
The Post-American World
I recently finished reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, and I must say that it was a really interesting read. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and he grew up in India before emigrating to the United States, so he has the background to write a book about America's global role in the 21st century. The book is split into three relatively equal parts, the first is generally about what he calls the "rise of the rest." The idea is that America is not slipping per se, but that most of the rest of the world is on the rise economically as well as politically. The middle third focuses on the individual situations of China and India, while the third is specifically about America and its role in the coming century.
While the rest is interesting, I think the most important part is the last third in which Zakaria details the sources of America's strength and what we must do as a nation going forward to keep from being left behind. I won't go into too much detail since you really should read the whole book to get the full argument and not a half-hearted attempt at summarizing a 250-page book in one paragraph. But the ultimate point that Zakaria makes is that America's most important strength is its openness and ability to assimilate immigrants from anywhere in the world. He points out that were it not for immigration, America would face the same negative population growth that is being experienced in Europe. It also gives America a diversity that is unique in the world, and that helps imbue the nation with energy and creativity moving forward. Zakaria points out, though, that America is crippled with a political environment that is long in rhetoric and machismo but sorely lacking in the willingness to have a long-term outlook. He says that the preoccupation with fear (of terrorism, immigrants, China, etc.) that our politicians and media display cripples our ability to have a meaningful discourse on where American efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, should be directed to achieve our long term goals, or even as to what those goals should be. In Zakaria's own words:
"The United States is not a fundamentally weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. An...overly rigid political system...has been captured by special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia--politics as theater--and very little substance, compromise, and action. A 'can-do' country is now saddled with a 'do-nothing' political process..."
With the possible exception of some of President Obama's recent reforms (though one suspects there can be very little compromise involved when bills are passed without being read), this is a perfect snapshot of America at the dawn of the 21st century. As I said before, the book is extremely interesting and prescient, and I highly recommend it. It is fairly easy reading, but can be time-consuming if one pauses to really consider some of the issues that Mr. Zakaria raises, which is something that all of America should be doing as we ponder the future of America in a Post-American World.