Category Archives: Book Review

Some notes on "Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal

I occasionally write some notes on books I have been reading. On a lazy Sunday, I read the recently published "Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal and here are my observations (the two authors have recently been guests on some of my favorite podcasts too). 

The book might be decently interesting for people new to "altered states of consciousness" or "flow states", but for people like me who have been interested in altered states of consciousness, bio-feedback, movement and other tools or practices to better oneself for years (I am in the process of writing a book on autogenic training and I bought my first neuro-feedback apparatus more than 10 years ago), the book fell quite short of expectations. But it convinced me to go forward with my book, so I am not complaining too much.

The organization of the book is the one typical of non-fiction books published nowadays. You start with some anecdotes on either a single mother of 4 who's struggling to make ends meet or with some edgy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who feels a lack of motivation, is re-defining culture in the workplace, or wants to make more money while - ça va sans dire - making the world a better place. And why not, let's throw at the issue the occasional Navy Seal (am I the only one bored to death by the glorification of Special Forces?) or elite athlete involved in some obscure sport. Then, you talk about some innovative thinker (often a maverick scientist) who has in wonderful ideas what she lacks in social skills and voilà! here's the new, disruptive hypothesis on some mechanism, process, or idea whose application can better your life, save the world, or, in some not-so-rare cases, do both. Maybe that's what is needed nowadays to appeal to college-educated people who like to post platitudes or feeling-good stories on social media, but I am quite confident that in ten years very little will remain of these grab-some-money-as-soon-as-possible largely anecdotal books.

Thumbs up to the authors for including a “A Quick Note on Inside Baseball” section at the end of the book, in which they give additional details on some of the controversial aspects of the research on states of consciousness, point out that what now are experimental practices fancied by the elites will likely trickle down and reach the poor masses (Soylent anyone?) or that maybe Navy Seals are slightly exaggerating their claims. At the same time, if the reliability of up to 70% of fMRI studies should be questioned, at least one-third of the book should be deleted. Then, the authors don't discuss other questionable, when not downright disproven, research, such as Amy Cuddy and colleagues' research on the "power pose" (which was bogus also on common-sense grounds) or other research on priming effects, which have largely failed to be replicated.

What is evident after reading dozens of these Gladwellian books is that, when writing or discussing science, there are no substitutes for many years of formal study, statistical and quantitative knowledge, and a healthy dose of common sense, which is disappearing from the world faster than good manners. The now-popular broad, edgy, sometimes global thinker typically knows very little of value across many subjects (with the exception of Vaclav Smil, of course), but apparently the world is more interested in "inspiration" than in observations that make a bit of sense. For instance, the authors wrote: “Given that the percentage gains in performance from ecstasis range from 200 to 500 percent [...]”. What are we talking about when we talk about "performance"? Throwing percentage around like darts in a pub may impress the casual reader and help selling diet books when the bikini season is looming, but make the educated reader cringe a bit.

A very interesting topic, poorly treated.


Some excerpts here below.

When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)—what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture . . . There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”

But once we get past the narrative wrapping paper—what researchers call the “phenomenological reporting”—we find four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short.

When you think about the billion-dollar industries that underpin the Altered States Economy, isn’t this what they’re built for? To shut off the self. To give us a few moments of relief from the voice in our heads.
So, when we do experience a non-ordinary state that gives us access to something more, we feel it first as something less—and that something missing is us. Or, more specifically, the inner critic we all come with: our inner Woody Allen, that nagging, defeatist, always-on voice in our heads. You’re too fat. Too skinny. Too smart to be working this job. Too scared to do anything about it. A relentless drumbeat that rings in our ears.

That’s Kegan’s point. When we are reliably able to make the subject-object shift, as he points out in his book In Over Our Heads, “You start . . . constructing a world that is much more friendly to contradiction, to oppositeness, to being able to hold onto multiple systems of thinking. . . . This means that the self is more about movement through different forms of consciousness than about defending and identifying with any one form.

When our attention is focused on the present, we stop scanning yesterday for painful experiences we want to avoid repeating. We quit daydreaming about a tomorrow that’s better than today. With our prefrontal cortex offline, we can’t run those scenarios. We lose access to the most complex and neurotic part of our brains, and the most primitive and reactive part of our brains, the amygdala, the seat of that fight-or-flight response, calms down, too.

What looks inevitable in hindsight is often invisible with foresight.

Eight out of ten of us are disengaged or actively disengaged at work, despite the HR circus of incentive plans, team-building off-sites, and casual Fridays.

In a culture supposedly ruled by the pursuit of money, power, prestige, and pleasure,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, “it is surprising to find certain people who sacrifice all those goals for no apparent reason. . . . By finding out why they are willing to give up material rewards for the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts we . . . learn something that will allow us to make everyday life more meaningful.

Across the board, from education to health care to business, motivational gaps cost us trillions of dollars a year. We know better; we just can’t seem to do better. But we can do better. Effortlessness upends the “suffer now, redemption later” of the Protestant work ethic and replaces it with a far more powerful and enjoyable drive.

It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see ecstasis for what it actually is: an information technology. Big Data for our minds.

Second, we have very little success training people to be more creative. And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.

Throw money, people, or time at any of these and you may fix a symptom, but you create additional problems: financial aid to the developing world, for example, often breeds corruption in addition to its intended relief; adding more lanes to the highway encourages more drivers and more gridlock; fighting wars to make the world safer can make it more dangerous than ever.

As Buddhist scholar Alan Watts put it, ‘Western scientists have an underlying assumption that normal is absolutely as good as it gets and that the exceptional is only for saints, that it is something that cannot be cultivated.’

If those trauma studies demonstrated that a few instances of ecstasis can help mend what’s broken, then what happens if we deploy these techniques repeatedly, over the course of a lifetime? Can recurring access to these states really “nurture what is best within ourselves?” Can they, as Alan Watts suggested, be used to “cultivate the exceptional”?

What Newberg discovered is that extreme concentration can cause the right parietal lobe to shut down. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” he explains. “During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.”

By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.

It’s why the SEALs say “you don’t ever rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training” and then proceed to overtrain for every scenario possible.

Notes on "How Google Works" by Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle

Some notes from "How Google Works" by Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle. Very interesting book, definitely recommended.


Over time I’ve learned, surprisingly, that it’s tremendously hard to get teams to be super ambitious. It turns out most people haven’t been educated in this kind of moonshot thinking. They tend to assume that things are impossible, rather than starting from real-world physics and figuring out what’s actually possible. It’s why we’ve put so much energy into hiring independent thinkers at Google, and setting big goals. Because if you hire the right people and have big enough dreams, you’ll usually get there. And even if you fail, you’ll probably learn something important.


It’s also true that many companies get comfortable doing what they have always done, with a few incremental changes. This kind of incrementalism leads to irrelevance over time, especially in technology, because change tends to be revolutionary not evolutionary.


We both came to Google as seasoned business executives who were pretty confident in our intellects and abilities. But over the humbling course of a decade, we came to see the wisdom in John Wooden’s observation that “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”


But it wasn’t Google’s culture that turned those five engineers into problem-solving ninjas who changed the course of the company over the weekend. Rather it was the culture that attracted the ninjas to the company in the first place.


As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said in Winning: “No vision is worth the paper it’s printed on unless it is communicated constantly and reinforced with rewards.”


But these, as we shall see, would become integral to creating—and sustaining—a culture where a simple statement like “These ads suck” is all that’s needed to make things happen.


One last organizational principle: Determine which people are having the biggest impact and organize around them.


Bill Campbell, the former Intuit CEO and ongoing coach and mentor to us both, often quotes Debbie Biondolillo, Apple’s former head of human resources, who said, “Your title makes you a manager. Your people make you a leader.”


Once you identify the people who have the biggest impact, give them more to do.


Life is something like that island, only more complicated. For not only are knaves in real life devoid of integrity, they are also sloppy, selfish, and have a sneaky way of working their way into virtually any company. Arrogance, for example, is a knavish tendency that is a natural by-product of success, since exceptionalism is fundamental to winning. Nice humble engineers have a way of becoming insufferable when they think they are the sole inventors of the world’s next big thing. This is quite dangerous, as ego creates blind spots.


(Tom Peters: “There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity.”) (my note: I there is)


There are tipping points in knave density. It approaches a critical mass—which is smaller than you think—and people start to believe they need to be knave-like to succeed, which only exacerbates the problem. Smart creatives may have a lot of good traits, but they aren’t saints, so it’s important to watch your knave quotient.


Knaves need to be dealt with as quickly as possible. But as long as their contributions match their outlandish egos, divas should be tolerated and even protected. Great people are often unusual and difficult, and some of those quirks can be quite off-putting. Since culture is about social norms and divas refuse to be normal, cultural factors can conspire to sweep out the divas along with the knaves.


Marissa Mayer, who became one of Silicon Valley’s most famous working mothers not long after she took over as Yahoo’s CEO in 2012, says that burnout isn’t caused by working too hard, but by resentment at having to give up what really matters to you.


If someone is so critical to the company’s success that he believes he can’t unplug for a week or two without things crashing down, then there is a larger problem that must be addressed. No one should or can be indispensable. Occasionally you will encounter employees who create this situation intentionally, perhaps to feed their ego or in the mistaken belief that “indispensability” equals job security. Make such people take a nice vacation and make sure their next-in-line fills in for them while they are gone. They will return refreshed and motivated, and the people who filled their shoes will be more confident. (This is a huge hidden benefit of people taking maternity and paternity leaves too.)


A great start-up, a great project—a great job, for that matter—should be fun, and if you’re working your butt off without deriving any enjoyment, something’s probably wrong. Part of the fun comes from inhaling the fumes of future success. But a lot of it comes from laughing and joking and enjoying the company of your coworkers.


There’s a problem with these Fun events: They aren’t fun.


Everyone’s fun when they’re dancing to Billy Idol and swigging an Anchor Steam. (my note: Agreed)


Here’s our idea for off-sites: Forget “team building” and have fun. Jonathan’s criteria for his excursions included doing outdoor group activities (weather permitting) in a new place far enough from the office to feel like a real trip, but still doable in a day, and providing an experience that people couldn’t or wouldn’t have on their own.


Sheryl Sandberg ran a book club for her sales team that was so popular in our India office that every single person participated.


(Eric doesn’t adhere to Satchel Paige’s advice to “dance like nobody’s watching.” When you’re a leader, everyone is watching, so it doesn’t matter that you dance poorly, it matters that you dance.)


A defining mark of a fun culture is identical to that of an innovative one: The fun comes from everywhere. The key is to set the boundaries of what is permissible as broadly as possible. Nothing can be sacred. In 2007, a few of our engineers discovered that Eric’s profile photo in our intranet system was in a public folder. They altered the background of the photo to include a portrait of Bill Gates, and, on April Fools’ Day, posted the updated image on Eric’s page.


It’s fun, and can only occur in a permissive environment that trusts its employees and doesn’t defer to the “what happens if this leaks?” worrywarts. It’s impossible to have too much of that kind of fun. The more you have, the more you get done.


“When you are in a turnaround,” the man told him, “find the smart people first. And to find the smart people, find one of them.”


(Eric was once asked at a company meeting what the Google dress code was. “You must wear something” was his answer.)


To do all this, you have to be crazy enough to think you will succeed, but sane enough to make it happen. This requires commitment, tenacity, and most of all, single-mindedness. When Israeli tank commanders head into combat, they don’t yell “Charge!” Rather, they rally their troops by shouting “Ah’cha’rye,” which translates from Hebrew as “Follow me.”


We have no idea what your venture is or even your industry, so we won’t presume to tell you how to create a business plan. But we can tell you with 100 percent certainty that if you have one, it is wrong.


(Henry Ford: “If I had listened to customers, I would have gone out looking for faster horses.”)


Companies have always built networks, but historically those networks were internal and designed to reduce costs. In this way, they followed the tenets of University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who argued that it often makes sense for firms to do things internally rather than externally, because the transaction costs of finding vendors, negotiating contracts, and making sure the work gets done right are high.


Coase was right: The internal management costs were lower than the transaction costs of outsourcing. This led them to do as much as they could within the organization, and, when they did go outside their four walls, they worked with a small group of tightly controlled partners.


Today, Coase’s framework still holds true—but it leads to radically different outcomes than it did in much of the twentieth century. Rather than growing the biggest possible closed networks, companies are outsourcing more functions and working with a bigger and more diverse network of partners. Why? Don Tapscott put it well in Wikinomics, when he wrote that “the Internet has caused transaction costs to plunge so steeply that it has become much more useful to read Coase’s law, in effect, backward: Nowadays firms should shrink until the cost of performing a transaction internally no longer exceeds the cost of performing it externally.


we didn’t choose to specialize in that area because our crystal ball told us it would ultimately be more lucrative and impactful than the alternate, more popular portal business model. Rather, we focused on search because it was something we felt we were better at than anyone else. So in those early days of the Internet, while these leaders of the industry were busy tending to their business of building Internet portals, Google search got better and better at providing great answers for users.


Open also allows you to harness the talents of thousands of people, because, as Sun cofounder Bill Joy noted, “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”


For a manager, the right answer to the question “What is the single most important thing you do at work?” is hiring.


A workforce of great people not only does great work, it attracts more great people. The best workers are like a herd: They tend to follow each other. Get a few of them, and you’re guaranteed that a bunch more will follow. Google is renowned for its fabulous amenities, but most of our smart creatives weren’t drawn to us because of our free lunches, subsidized massages, green pastures, or dog-friendly offices. They came because they wanted to work with the best smart creatives.


Their deep interest made them more interesting, which is why in an interview context our philosophy is not “Don’t get them started.” When it comes to the things they care most about, we want to get them started.


our experience raw brainpower is the starting point for any exponential thinker. Intelligence is the best indicator of a person’s ability to handle change.


Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning.


Favoring specialization over intelligence is exactly wrong, especially in high tech. The world is changing so fast across every industry and endeavor that it’s a given the role for which you’re hiring is going to change.


Once you hire those learning animals, keep learning them! Create opportunities for every employee to be constantly learning new things—even skills and experiences that aren’t directly beneficial to the company—and then expect them to use them. This won’t be challenging for true learning animals, who will gladly avail themselves of training and other opportunities. But keep an eye on the people who don’t; perhaps they aren’t quite the learning animals you thought they were.


So, passion is crucial in a potential hire, as is intelligence and a learning-animal mindset.


Another crucial quality is character. We mean not only someone who treats others well and can be trusted, but who is also well-rounded and engaged with the world. Someone who is interesting. Judging character during the interview process used to be fairly easy, since job interviews often included lunch or dinner at a restaurant and perhaps a drink or two, Mad Men style. Such a venue allowed the hiring executive to observe how the candidate comported himself “as a civilian.” What happens when he lets his guard down? How does he treat the waiter and bartender? Great people treat others well, regardless of standing or sobriety.


We institutionalized the LAX test by making “Googleyness” one of four standard sections—along with general cognitive ability, role-related knowledge, and leadership experience—on our interview feedback form. This includes ambition and drive, team orientation, service orientation, listening & communication skills, bias to action, effectiveness, interpersonal skills, creativity, and integrity. (Larry and Sergey took the LAX test one step further when they were looking for a CEO: They took candidates away for a weekend. Eric played it a bit more conservatively: “Look, guys, I don’t need to go to Burning Man with you. How about dinner?”)


Supercomputer pioneer Seymour Cray used to deliberately hire for inexperience because it brought him people who “do not usually know what’s supposed to be impossible.”


John Dewey, an American philosopher and writer, said that “a problem well put is half solved.”


It should go without saying—but it usually doesn’t, so we’ll say it—that data is best understood by those closest to the issue, which is often not management. As a leader, it is best not to get lost in details you don’t understand, but rather trust the smart people who work for you to understand them.


As General Patton famously said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”


They may be dissenters who are afraid to disagree with you in public (but need to get over that fear), or they may be of the shy but brilliant type. Or perhaps they truly have nothing to say, in which case maybe they shouldn’t be at the meeting in the first place. One technique is to throw out a few “stupid softballs” that let people dip their toe in the water of disagreeing with the boss.


“Do something,” he told the executive, “even if it’s wrong.” Tom Peters would call Bill’s attitude in this situation a “bias for action,” and his book In Search of Excellence lists it as a top common attribute of the companies he studied.


there is real signaling value in using your convening power as a leader to hold regular meetings. If the decision is important enough, the meetings should be daily.


People complain about meetings and how they are a great waste of time, but in fact a well-run meeting is a great thing. It’s the most efficient way to present data and opinions, to debate issues, and yes, to actually make decisions.


One of the most important decisions any business leader makes is how to spend his or her time. When Eric became CEO of Novell in 1997, he got some great advice from Bill Gates: Spend 80 percent of your time on 80 percent of your revenue.


That shiny new stuff can be much more interesting than the boring old core business stuff, but it’s the core stuff that pays the bills, and if you make a mistake there, you probably won’t be able to recover.


If someone is in charge of a business and can’t rattle off the key issues she faces in a matter of ten seconds, then she’s not up to the job. A hands-off approach to leadership doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to know the details.


This doesn’t just apply to questions. It is one of the most universal of human truths: No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Yet as a leader it is precisely the bad news that you most need to hear. Good news will be just as good tomorrow, but bad news will be worse.


of our favorite Urs quotes from the user manual: “I didn’t grow up in the US, and I tend to be more direct than others when I talk about something.… I tend to overstate points for clarity of argument—it’s easier to summarize something in black and white vs in shades of gray.… If you think I am wrong, you need to tell me. I’ll never blame anyone for speaking up.… If you feel I’m beating you up all the time and all you’re getting is negative feedback, then it’s very likely that this wasn’t intentional.”


many companies (universities too), the incorrect, knee-jerk management reaction is to discourage employees from connecting with company rock stars. After all, they might waste their time with stupid questions, right? Yes, that does happen, but it turns out that most rock stars have very little patience for people wasting their time and they make doing so a very unpleasant experience. The inexperienced smart creative who does it once quickly learns not to do it again.


One of Eric’s most basic rules is sort of a golden rule for management: Make sure you would work for yourself.


Think about the late novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to a question about his success as a writer: “I leave out the parts that people skip.”


This isn’t just handy for emails, but important documents too. Jonathan scans his family’s passports, licenses, and health insurance cards and emails them to himself along with descriptive keywords. Should any of those things go missing during a trip, the copies are easy to retrieve from any browser. (My note: just did it)

(Champion racecar driver Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”)

Some Notes on "The Sports Gene" by Epstein

I had the pleasure of reading the stimulating David Epstein's book "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance". Some excerpts (and some notes) here below:

Some of the traits that help predict the future pros are behavioral. The future pros not only tend to practice more, but they take responsibility for practicing better

It’s what Durandt hasn’t seen, though, that is telling. “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” he says, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.”

Sure enough, there were high responders to training and low responders, “but within pairs of brothers, the resemblance was remarkable,” Bouchard says. “The range of response to training was six to nine times larger between pairs of brothers than within pairs, and it was very consistent.

Amazingly, the amount of improvement that any one person experienced had nothing to do with how good they were to start.

I do not think it is the same for acquisition of highly-cognitive skills.

Statistical analysis showed that about half of each person’s ability to improve their aerobic capacity with training was determined exclusively by their parents. The amount that any person improved in the study had nothing to do with how aerobically fit he or she was relative to others to begin with, but about half of that baseline, too, was attributable to family inheritance.

"Choose your parents well" never gets old.

That scenario creates what economist Robert H. Frank termed a “winner-take-all” market. As the customer base for viewing extraordinary athletic performances expanded, fame and financial rewards slanted toward the slim upper echelon of the performance pyramid. As those rewards have increased and become concentrated at the top level, the performers who win them have gotten faster, stronger, and more skilled.

Incentives all over again, even if I doubt that in the case track and field became more popular than, say, American Football, we would necessary see new record in the sprinting or throwing events. Current top guys are far in the tail of the distribution in terms of athletic abilities.

In one study, she compared the skeletons of Mistihalj people—a group of medieval Yugoslavian herders—to the skeletons of kids from 1950s Denver. “The herders’ kids are the biggest, buffest kids I’ve ever seen,” she says. “Based on data of modern American children, we’re just puny in terms of the amount of bone we have.” But might a strict childhood training program be able to transform any American tot into a mighty medieval herder? “There’s a lot you can do with activity, and especially starting it earlier,” Cowgill says. “But it’s looking more and more like there’s a genetic component as well.”

Today, the expanding universe of athletic body types is slowing down. Much of the self-sorting, or artificial selection, is finished. The tall athletes are no longer getting taller compared with the rest of humanity at the rate they were two decades ago, nor the small smaller. And the march of constantly shattered world records is slowing right along with it.

Height is an incredibly narrowly constrained trait among humans. Fully 68 percent of American men are in just the six-inch range from 5'7" to 6'1". The bell curve of adult height is a Himalayan slope that falls off precipitously on either side of the mean. A mere 5 percent of American men are 6'3" or taller, while the average height of an NBA player

While inhabitants of the industrialized world grew taller over much of the twentieth century at a rate of about one centimeter per decade—at least partly because of increased protein intake and the decline of growth-stunting childhood infections, and perhaps because people are mixing genes more widely, with “tall” genes dominating “short” genes—NBA players have been growing at more than four times that rate, and the tallest of the tall NBA players at ten times that rate

See here for the increase in mean height of Europeans in the last century

But the “threshold hypothesis” of IQ is not supported by the work of scientists who specialize in that field, nor is the threshold hypothesis of NBA height supported by player data.

Recently over Twitter I wrote that the threshold hypothesis as popularized by Gladwell is tautological (and beyond that probably wrong).

Reaching it required increasing globalization of the game. The average height of American players in the NBA is about 6'6½", while the average height of foreign players is nearly 6'9". A great many of the foreign players in the NBA are there, it seems, because teams ran low on sufficiently tall players at home. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the non-U.S. countries with stable representation in the NBA—Croatia, Serbia, Lithuania—are among the tallest in the world. Because height is a “normally distributed” human trait (i.e., a bell curve), a tiny difference in the average height in a country means a big difference in the number of people at the far extremes, like seven-footers.

This has implications (but it well known to people in the know) for "any" polygenic trait. See this contribution by the late and great James F. Crow.

[About Jamaica] Contemporary letters from British officials show deep respect for the Coromantee, whom one British governor in Jamaica called “born Heroes . . . implacably revengeful when ill-treated,” and “dangerous inmates of a West Indian plantation.” Another Brit, writing in the eighteenth century, said that these “Gold Coast Negroes” were distinguished by “firmness both of body and mind; a ferociousness of disposition . . . an elevation of the soul which prompts them to enterprizes of difficulty and danger.”

Here’s the conclusion of Peter Matthews, the track-and-field statistician who compiled those numbers: “In these days of computer games, sedentary pursuits, and driving our children to school—it is the ‘hungry’ fighter or the poor peasant who has the endurance background, and the incentive to work on it, who makes the top distance runner.”

The Cinderella story is still a must of course.

Interestingly, a system that thrives on the hard work of many is fueled by an abiding belief in natural talent. The Kenyan coaches and runners I spoke with almost uniformly said that it was never too late to begin training. If one has talent, they said, then one just needs to start training hard and elite status will come swiftly.

As psychologist Drew Bailey told me: “Without both genes and environments, there are no outcomes.”

That's a nice one-liner. At the same time, we want to know at the population level how much is explained by nature and how much by nurture. These contributions are only to be estimated at the population level, this is a very important and often overlooked point.

Using the gene frequencies, Folland and Williams made statistical projections of how many “perfect” endurance athletes (people with two “correct” versions of the twenty-three genes) walk the planet.

The paper is here (free access).

Thoroughbreds may have either reached their physiological terminal velocity or simply run out of new athleticism genes within the breeding population. (Thoroughbreds are relatively inbred, with more than half of the genes of modern racehorses tracing back to only four individual horses—the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk, and the Curwen Bay Barb—that traveled from North Africa and the Middle East to England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.)

In the very last line of his paradigm-shattering On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin says this of his revelation that all the biological variation he sees springs from common ancestry: “. . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Isn't that cool?

Regression to the mean and chance

I think that Kahneman's body of work is of the most interesting contribution to psychology and economics of the last  decades. Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow" is a must read for anyone interested in understanding a little bit little about how human(s) (dynamics) work. Kahneman gives the impression in the book that the majority of his (and Amos Tversky's) results have been - after the usual initial struggle - well-accepted by the scientific community. This is far from the truth, but the book is a must read anyway.

By the way, Peter Kareiva, one the most influential conservation biologists in the world, asked during his seminar at UCSC this past January 2013 who among the audience had read Michael Sandel's last book "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets". I was the only one. For me, it is absolutely necessary as as scientist to keep up with the psychological/philosophical/economic literature, and it is even more necessary for scientists dealing with conservation issues and projects. If you are not engaged in the current psychological/philosophical/economic discourse, you are bound to be irrelevant. No other options.

Here are some of the notes:

"Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular."

"[On regression to the mean] Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty."

“She says experience has taught her that criticism is more effective than praise. What she doesn’t understand is that it’s all due to regression to the mean.”

I agree 100% with this one below. The contribution of chance is way underestimated.

"A few years ago, John Brockman, who edits the online magazine Edge, asked a number of scientists to report their “favorite equation.” These were my offerings: success = talent + luck great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck."

"[Google's founders] a year after founding Google, they were willing to sell their company for less than $1 million, but the buyer said the price was too high."

"Professional investors, including fund managers, fail a basic test of skill: persistent achievement."

"The human mind does not deal well with nonevents."

"Indeed, the statistician David Freedman used to say that if the topic of regression comes up in a criminal or civil trial, the side that must explain regression to the jury will lose the case. Why is it so hard? The main reason for the difficulty is a recurrent theme of this book: our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with “mere statistics.”"

"The goal of venture capitalists is to call the extreme cases correctly, even at the cost of overestimating the prospects of many other ventures. For a conservative banker making large loans, the risk of a single borrower going bankrupt may outweigh the risk of turning down several would-be clients who would fulfill their obligations. In such cases, the use of extreme language (“very good prospect,” “serious risk of default”) may have some justification for the comfort it provides, even if the information on which these judgments are based is of only modest validity."

Showers are always good.

"However, it is clear that for the large majority of individual investors, taking a shower and doing nothing would have been a better policy than implementing the ideas that came to their minds."

"The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. Where there is skill, however, the rankings will be more stable. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, car salespeople, orthodontists, or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike."

"Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions."

"But this is what always happens when a project ends reasonably well: once you understand the main conclusion, it seems it was always obvious."

"(the classic “triumph of hope over experience”)"

"The chances that a small business will thesurvive for five years in the United States are about 35%."

"I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers."

Do yourself a favor and read the whole book.