Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Todd the Fervent Public Audodidact

My sub-species has finally been identified: fervent public autodidact

I was honestly very touched by this comment from Alexander Iwanow on my FaceBook page. I just had to save it here so I can look back on it on those days when I wonder whether anyone reads those reviews that I sometimes put so much into.

"Mr. Stark, I've been an admirer of your fervent public autodidactism for years now. You've turned me on to many great books (and off of many bad ones). You are among the most vibrant, reliable, and judicious voices to gift himself on a public website. (Jeff Bezos should give you a plaque for helping him to sell so many books!) I mean hell, man, you even got me to look into YOGA...!!! Thank you for responding warmly to my somewhat rude and impulsive kamikaze invite, and I look forward to whatever twists, turns, and elegant refinements your consciousness opts to undertake."

Functional Training and Corrective Exercise

Functional Training and Corrective Exercise

In his T-Nation article, trainer Mike Robertson addresses the concept of functional training in terms of the popular trend toward using devices like BOSU balls, wobble boards, etc., that are said to help develop better stability and prevent injuries. Mike discusses why the current trend to using instability devices isn't always productive and how it actually gets away from the concept of functional training. I highly recommend Mike's article, and I want to give some additional context for it here.

The idea of "functional training" was originally to move away from isolation exercises like leg extensions and curls and instead have people do things that were more like the specific challenges they expect to face, forcing them to support, move, and stabilize themselves in controlled ways to prepare to handle real physical challenges better without injury, and in the process, correct more basic weaknesses.

Trainers began to notice that people don't use their bodies in the way that an isolation mentality would predict; the parts are interdependent in important ways when we move. Various neural and connective tissue mechanisms linkn our body parts together to stabilize them as they move through space and exert force against resistance. This led to increasing use of exercises emphasizing multi-joint movements that more closely mimicked real sports movements and real life movements, and led to a growing distinction between training specifically to lift heavy weights in particular ways, training to build big muscles, and training to perform better and avoid injury in other activities. "Corrective" and "functional" training came to increasingly mean doing exercises on unstable surfaces or training the abs, and this starts to drift away from the original concept.

Why is this a drift away from true functional training? ...

Two very important concepts underlie this trend: the "core" and the "kinetic chain."

When someone gets hurt, especially repeated patterns of injury that don't have another obvious cause, it is currently "best practice" to try to track this down to a problem somewhere stabilizing the body properly during movement. Particularly when someone experiences a range of different injuries on the same side of the body, trainers will tend to suspect a problem with the "core." This refers to the central trunk stabilizing muscles and structures.

The "core" obviously doesn't do all of the work of movement. You can think of it as like a platform that we push off in order to move. Actual movement occurs when muscles contract in a precisely timed sequences, where movement at one joint decelerates followed by acceleration at the next joint in the sequence. Thus a "kinetic chain" or simply chain of movements.

The motor cortex in the brain appears to be organized to coordinate muscles in terms of these sequences rather than to fire individual muscles, so this is considered a very fundamental idea. The constant alternation and interplay between producing force at one joint and reducing force at another is coordinated by complex neural mechanisms that are considered an important aspect of proprioception, a general term for our inner body sense.

A synopsis of this topic would be remiss if I didn't mention the first widely read book on the topic, and the one that first fascinated me with it: Total Body Training by Richard Dominguez and Bob Gajda. Many of the concepts that are now widely taken for granted in functional training originated in that very book which is now somewhat hard to find. In fact, this book appears to be the first place where the now ubiquitous late-night infomercial term "core" was used seriously to mean the stabilizing platform for movement. Dominguez is a sports medicine orthopedist and Gajda did his Ph.D thesis in biomechanics. Total Body Training was the result of that work. It is also worth noting that Gajda was a very successful bodybuilder before his work in functional training, having once beaten Arnold for the Mr. Universe title.

The trend toward using wobble boards and such to improve performance and prevent injury begins with Gajda and Dominguez's ideas and is based on improving proprioception skills. The idea is that weaknesses in "core" strength are transmitted by means of the "kinetic chain" to become problems that don't bear any obvious relationship back to the "core."

It's a little like the medical notion of referred pain. Problems in stabilizing the trunk get "referred" to injuries in more remote places in the body. When people try to correct for problems with their gait, their posture, and their basic movements, they compensate by using other muscles and end up with patterns that induce strain and eventually injury.

So one of the ideas is to improve proprioception by exercising on unstable surfaces, forcing us to develop better stabilization skills rather than overcompensating with the wrong muscles. Especially if we lack adequate balance, which isn't uncommon.

The problem is that while stabilization by learning balance skills is important, it is only part of the problem and not neccessarily the best focus for remediation. One of the most common "core" problems appears to be when certain tight core muscles inhibit other muscles through a neural mechanism called reciprocal inhibition. This causes a deep inefficiency that is transmitted to other areas of the body. One common example is when a tight muscle on the front of the hip diminishes hip extension and inhibits the use of the glutes. This imbalance is transmitted through the movement chain to cause problems with other parts of the leg during activity.

The point is that you won't neccessarily best fix this kind of problem by wobbling on a board or a ball. You have to assess the problem and come up with movements that help address the imbalance. Assessment isn't black magic, there are some basic tests that are widely used by therapists and trainers. It does take a little experience to watch a movement and recognize problems with it, but the assessment tests are designed to amplify the basic problems so you can see them better. If you don't have a trainer handy and want to know more about assessment, Gray Cook's book The Athletic Body in Balance is a good start. His "functional movement screen" is a good example of a simple assessment tool.

There's nothing wrong with doing work for proprioception skills and limb stabilizing strength, but it shouldn't be your primary focus since injuries are more likely to be the result of underlying deeper stabilizing muscle imbalances, somewhat obscured by the actions of the kinetic chain.

If you remember that movement starts from a platform, and operates through a chain, it makes sense to assess the integrity of the platform first rather than trying to adjust the wobbling at the end of the chain.

That's why I think Mike's approach to training with functional corrective exercise is so helpful.
Flowchart for responding to negative blogs

The Air Force (their Public Affairs Agency) has this simple but useful flowchart for responding to negative press online. I found this reading web marketing author David Meerman Scott's WebInk blog. It's largely commonsense, but as the saying goes, such isn't always so common.

Which is Better: Conscious or Unconscious Decision Making?

Which is Better: Conscious or Unconscious Decision Making ?


The snippet above from Science Daily reports on the superiority of unconscious decision making in the case of estimating likelihoods.

My thoughts ...

There's a fairly sizable literature on decision making, and typically the headlines hide the facts in this field. I'd estimate that about 70% of the recent experiments went the way of this article with their conclusion (and of course one of Malcolm Gladwell's popular books) and about 30% went the opposite way, saying that the work 'proves' that complex decisions should not be left to unconscious proceses. It's like the nature/nurture question, we feel compelled to slide toward the extremes.

My impression is that what the literature (collectively) has shown so far is:

1. There are perceptual tracking mechanisms and very powerful computational mechanisms that operate completely outside of awareness for the most part, yet are important in decision making (rapid cognition, etc., the "human intuition is so amazing" school)

2. Our conscious reasoning processes are built very recently (phylogenetically) on a substrate of other things, and so they have a lot of biases and blind spots and rely heavily on our limited and easily distrated working memory capacity (Kahnemann, Tversky, etc., the "human reasoning is so fallible" school)

3. The unconscious mechanisms don't work by magic, i.e. with the exception of some basic category templates for recognizing and sorting things, they still rely on an acquired store of experience built onto those templates (Kant plus Darwin)

4. Good decision making for complex problems is good largely because because it tends to use the unconscious processes effectively, and does this by focusing attention on the relevant aspects of the problem (knowing what is relevant and what is not is sometimes the meat of the problem, and sometimes a given)

5. Focusing attention on the relevant aspects of a complex problem generally requires us to draw from the skills that rely on working memory and are generally conscious and build on structural rules, sequencing, and explicit algorithms (the virtual von Neumann machine that many of us we believe we possess in our head)

So while the above is a very simplistic account of a big topic, I think it helps illustrate that "conscious" vs. "unconscious" is not really the important issue in decision making, although it is certainly useful to distinguish automatic processes. The more compelling issue is how to structure problems so we can use the powerful resources of the mind, and how to learn the skills for making best use of those abilities, and the skills for recognizing our own biases and blind spots when we structure problems.

Many natural mechanisms work best on imperfect information but fail when compared to systematic reasoning with good information. However most real and meaningful human problems in nature require responses with limited resources, limited time, and very limited information, so a lot of the research actually demonstrates that while we can do better than intuition in theory, we can't do better than intuition in practice.

That is, unless we have some way of "cheating" by having unusually good information or knowing the answer ahead of time. Our species dependence on social imitation probably reflects exactly that, a way of "cheating" the limitations of individual problem solving by copying what other people are doing. For every problem we find that legitimately shows that people screwed up by trusting systematic reasoning too far, we can find one where someone trusted an intuition that had catastrophic consequences. In my opinion, the key skill set is in learning clues for recognizing when to trust each tool. That is, rather than espousing either blind trust or mistrust in powerful automatic processes.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hack: using parity to burn more reliable disks

If you like to burn data disks and are concerned about their longevity, check out this great idea posted on LifeHacker. The example here uses a Windows freeware tool called QuickPar, and for recovery you will need another tool (such as ISOBUSTER) to read surviving data from bad disks so you can use this method.

Burn More Reliable Discs with QuickPar http://tinyurl.com/9j7hyb

The tip is about using that lump of extra space you usually end up with on your data disks to hold parity files for your data. Parity files have extra information that lets you recover your files if they are later found to be corrupted. I've had a number of cases where old disks started to have a few corrupted files before the entire disk became unreadable, and this tip would have saved a lot of anguish. Of course if you want to protect everything on the disk, you'll need to leave more space on your disks for the parity files.

This takes just a touch of tech savvy, but it's a beginner tip as "hacks" go. Anyone comfortable with using disk burners and disk reading tools like ISOBUSTER will find this an easy thing to use to make the most precious data on their CDs and DVDs much more reliable.

So why don't they build this functionality into all disk burning tools?

Thoughts on Twitter (so far)

I just started using Twitter this week and have been wondering whether it would be of any use in the long run. It seems to leverage our instinct for gossip, effectively a giant ongoing chat room. But that doesn’t mean it can’t become a powerful tool.

First, so far, I think it's pretty clear that it is not the right medium for intelligent discussion and encourages a soundbite mentality that is already too common and too tempting. We can’t structure a thoughtful argument and provide context for an original thought in 140 chars, unless we have been involved in a dialog for a while or have common source of context, neither of which is encouraged by the Twitter format. It is possible but extremely inconvenient for that purpose. You can only give clues to your thinking, or give the impression of saying something useful, which hopefully will trigger thinking in other people.

However, that said, it also seems to me that Twitter seems particularly powerful when used as a source of quick pointers to potentially interesting things … a spur to creativity or looking in new directions. The more people think of it as a way to trigger ideas in others, the more selective they will be about giving ideas rather than statuses, and the more feeds we can read that trigger useful ideas. So long as the mundane “I am going out to the store for some bread and milk now” stuff doesn’t overwhelm the channel.

I think that (as with non-virtual relations), it works best if you surround yourself with people that have good ideas and diverse thoughts about similar interests to yours (and maybe a couple of offbeat friends). I can't see how people following 5,000 Twitter contacts can use it for anything more than random inspiration?

(This is an edit of a comment to Cameron Reilly's blog post about how he uses Twitter).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Being "scientific" about exercise and weight control

I was looking for references to research on the relationship of appetite and exercise and I came across an interesting blog post that inspired some thoughts. I see a lot of people trying to interpret research results, which in general I like to see. But people also seem to commonly try to draw advice for themselves from selectively chosen studies, and that's the part that I wanted to comment on.

If you want to know how exercise effects your body, and you have confidence in science, try doing it and measure the effects. Make yourself the study population rather than trying to identify (or not) with the population in the latest study. Or, if instead you want to understand the research, get the background for the program and read the literature directly.

People tend to treat journalist's reports of research it as if it were "scientific advice" and then when it is nothing of the kind (which is generally the case), the researchers are accused of being hopelessly obscure, getting paid for results, or being contradictory about their advice. What a bum rap. That's not the point of research at all.

Research is most *interesting* when it contains contradictions and gets *boring* when the results become consistent. Sure, you want to prove your new hypothesis is right, but if it were easy to demonstrate someone would already have demonstrated it. You expect things to be fuzzy in a new area of research where there are interesting new hypotheses to test.You can almost never generallize "laws" (or advice) from a single study, nor should you expect to.

Conclusions vary even in very similar studies either because of the way the question was asked or because they didn't identify the right variables in the right way yet to address the question. That's assuming they're even studying something that can be characterized in a law-like way, which isn't always the case.

Sometimes individual differences outweigh generalized laws, even when there *are* underlying laws (this is a common finding in social psychology research). More to the point, this seems to be the case somewhat with nutrition as well. Conflicting results are a symptom of a fertile research topic.

IMO, if you want to draw good advice from research, stop jumping on every new study that comes out just because it seems to say something you'd like to hear, and learn to follow the *trends* in the research programs. That means reading technical books and journals rather than sound bites and blogs, and looking for commonalities rather than just reports that stand out because they are novel. But that's more work than you probably need to do.

There are a lot of people that have been spending decades researching obesity and there are some very useful conclusions. But you still have to do the work to see what works best for you.

I think there are many, many fat people out there exercising like crazy and not reaching their goals because they keep looking for magic bullets or excuses instead of starting with sound principles and then experimenting carefully to see what is working for them and what isn't.

I've noticed that there are also a number of chubby runners out there who stay chubby because they take in more than they put out, which I suspect is due to the putative appetite effect. It could well be that they would benefit by changing their training to briefer, higher intensity work, so that the appetite effect would lessen and the metabolic increase last longer. But that's speculation at this point and represents very hard work and many people would give up on such a regimen if they're used to jogging and elliptical machines and such. So they have to experiment to see what's right for them.

Well, anyway, personal experimentation (and brief high intensity training) is an approach that has always worked very well for me. Just remember, people tend to distort their own perception of what they take in and what they put out (*that's* a pretty well validated research result across many studies). So when you measure your compliance and your results, be sure to be specific and use accurate measurements and don't rely on memory and estimation.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Creative Science, Naturally

[I am posting this to preserve a copy of it as much as to share it. It is a book review originally published in Fall, 2003 Entelechy. ]

A review of Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind written by Peter Corning
by Todd I. Stark

In Nature's Magic, Peter Corning offers us good news and bad news. The he good news is that chance, necessity, and natural selection aren't the only factors in our evolution. There is also a very real role for purpose (or more specifically, purposiveness.) The role of purposiveness has continued to increase over time.

The bad news is that our efforts to seek an underlying grand law or force that governs history may be fundamentally flawed. We may be more responsible for our own survival than we have so far been willing to recognize. The true teleonomy inherent in Corning's view gives us a creative (and destructive) role that is discounted in theories that rely on grand laws of history. Corning refers to the various people who have searched in vain for an inherent mathematical law of evolution as "Neo-Pythagoreans" after the cult surrounding the legendary mathematician. He counts various well-known contemporary complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman and physicists like Steven Weinberg among them.

Corning doesn't see the world as necessarily a glorious self-maintaining Gaia, he sees it as a place where living things through their relations and interactions have come to have certain responsibility for their own fate. This becomes an awesome burden once we apply this view to humans, where we take on the role of the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Goethe's (and Disney's) tale. The apprentice knows just enough magic to get himself into serious trouble.

The starting point is Arthur Koestler's insight that "true innovation occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate." Peter Corning takes this insight to heart and explores its remarkable implications, applying this "astonishing capacity" to nature in general.

The essence of the argument is not that nature creates things that cannot be explained or things that cannot be understood, but that no grand laws of nature predict her fruits. In effect, evolution is grounded in nature's astonishing capacity to create beyond what we foresee at every juncture.

Corning's theory of complexity in evolution is based on synergy, by which he simply and elegantly means the myriad effects of combining things where the result doesn't resemble what we'd expect simply by adding them together: the whole is different than the sum of the parts.

Corning's "Holistic Darwinism" is a way of viewing variety and selection in nature which is at once is fully consistent with the neo-Darwinian synthesis and also provides theoretical bridges with the cybernetic theory of self-regulating systems and much of the body of scientific literature in social and political sciences. Holistic Darwinism shifts the focus in natural selection from selection itself as a causal force to where the variety comes from.

Corning leans heavily upon John Maynard Smith's concept of "synergistic selection." If unrelated individuals are often locked into a shared reproductive fate with others, as Corning suggests, then it is reasonable to assume that they will evolve strategies for cooperation, not for "altruism" per se but for their own interests.

This is an ambitious task for a single book, but at least the foundation is put down extremely well here, persuading us that nature continually yields variety that is neither predictable nor random, but fundamentally economic in its operation. In other words, Holistic Darwinism sees nature as a great marketplace where the functional outcomes of new innovations are continually shaped by the consequences of their costs and benefits.

If combined effects in nature are really different in general than we would expect from simply putting things together, there are some unexpected implications. For one thing, it implies that history matters. If things combine in new ways to produce new features in nature that are not simply an extension of the laws governing the parts, then those new features can potentially have meaningful functional outcomes that play a role in natural selection. This is the core of Corning's argument.

Corning boldly claims that Lamarck was right after all (in a sense). Not that giraffes can create new genes by stretching their necks, but that they can create new ecological niches through their behavior that can later be reinforced by natural selection because of the successful outcomes of those new behaviors.

In a nutshell: "synergy" is combined effects all around us in various forms, it plays a causal role in differential reproductive fitness in a highly context-specific way, and it provides a scientific alternative to overreaching grand laws of history.

Instead of theorizing a vague new force or seeking a new law to help explain how natural selection can lead to biological complexity, Peter Corning supplies a fresh way of looking at the whole puzzle of complexity. He does this by reversing the usual logic about cooperation in living things. Rather than living things somehow cooperating to produce new outcomes through some unexplained form of 'altruism,' Corning sees 'nature's magic' of synergies underlying cooperation.

Corning makes his case with a massive amount of data drawn from a wide variety of fields. With obviously decades worth of research behind Nature’s Magic, it covers a lot of ground and has links to a number of other theories in both economics and biology. Because it is so lucid and well-written, it ought to appeal to a wide range of readers, from academics interested in systems science, bioeconomics, and the philosophy of biology, to those without an academic background in biology who want to keep up with what will most likely be a significant part of the future of biological science.

Todd I. Stark is a computer consultant and freelance medical and science writer. He is also an obsessive reader and has written hundreds of book reviews for Amazon. His formal background is in computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and psychology at Drexel University. His academic interests include hypnosis and suggestibility research, social psychology, and most recently, evolutionary approaches to behavioral science. Todd briefly moderated the HBE-L list on Yahoo for discussions in evolutionary psychology.

Vox Libertas: On Sex and Evolution and Politics

I liked BRONS' post on altruism and evolution, and I responded to it with my own thoughts on the changing view of altruism in biology.

Vox Libertas: On Sex and Evolution and Politics