Losing, Learning, and Winning: Wawrinka, Cibulkova, and The Cubs

Cubs Win!“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”  An oft-quoted phrase from the legendary Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five championships in seven years.  He is considered one of the finest coaches in NFL history.
 
I understand what Lombardi was saying — that if a loss doesn’t bother you, even haunt you, you’ll continue losing.  But I think that with Lombardi’s ethos, it’s far too easy to let the losses consume your psyche, leading to frustration, anger, and more failure as you grit your teeth ever harder. I think that learning, and ultimately winning, stems from first becoming a “good loser.”
 
Being a good loser is about learning lessons from loss, and having the right mindset to cope with a stream of setbacks.  As best as possible, divorcing yourself from the results and focusing on the process.  Seeing improvements as a series of small victories, regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard.  Seeing the wins inside the losses, whether it’s a sport, or learning math.
 
Stan Wawrinka
Stan “The Man” Wawrinka is currently the 3rd ranked tennis player in the world, and someone who personifies this attitude towards losing. 
 
Most professional tennis players have a peculiar challenge — they lose every tournament they enter.  On the men’s tour, the Big 4 (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) have won a staggering percentage of tennis tournaments.  From the 2005 French open through the 2016 US open, they have won 42 of the 47 major singles titles (89%), and 90 of the 106 Masters 1000 titles (85%). Even if a player beats members of the Big 4, they also have to beat other players in the tournament.  Tough sledding.
 
In 2013, at the age of 28, Stan had won a few small professional tournaments and had never won a grand slam.  He then enlisted the help of coach Magnus Norman, a former player who had helped steer fellow Swede Robin Soderling to a No. 4 ranking. Norman improved Stan’s fitness and strokes, but most importantly, helped Stan transform his mindset about playing tennis.
 
Stan has a quote from Irish poet Samuel Beckett tattooed onto his left forearm:
 
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. 
Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
 
A statement about focusing on process, and learning, that has perhaps never been more poetically phrased.  We are humans, so we can’t completely divorce ourselves from the motivation that comes from winning and the sting that comes from losing, so “Failing Better” is about seeing the wins inside the losses. It helps to restore that golden ratio of success to failure that keeps us motivated to continue learning.
 
Stan has so internalized this sentiment that he has blossomed at a time when most tennis players are winding down their careers.  An idea so powerful that it has, quite literally, gotten under Stan’s skin.  His signature celebratory gesture is to point to his temple — an indication that his most important transformation has been one of mindset.
 
Stan is now a three time Grand Slam Champion, winner of The Davis Cup for Switzerland, an Olympic Gold Medalist (with Roger Federer) in doubles, and winner of more than a dozen tournaments.   And what’s more amazing is that those three major titles are at three different events - The Australian Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon.  He currently holds a losing record against each of the Big 4 (combined 18-61), and yet he has now achieved an almost-certain hall of fame tennis career. Failing better.
 
Dominika Cibulkova 
If you are not a hardcore tennis fan, you are most likely unaware of Dominika Cibulkova.  At 5’3” (160 cm, and Brad Gilbert has stated he believes she’s actually about 5’1”, or 155 cm), the 27 year old Slovakian is a full head shorter than the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, and Petra Kvitová.  Watching Dominika play is to witness the heart of a lion that has somehow found its way into a diminutive dervish.  She is all smiles, enthusiasm, self-encouragement, dancing feet, and boundless energy.  Even during changeovers, she taps her feet on the ground like a heavy metal drummer on double bass pedals.
 
Two years ago, Dominika watched the WTA year-end finals  from a hospital bed, recovering from surgery on a ruptured achilles heel.  The year-end finals is an elite event, just one rung below the grand slams, where only the top eight players in the world are invited to participate.  They split into two groups of four, play round robin elimination, and then only the top two from each group advance to the semifinals.
 
Still recovering from the surgery, Dominika started 2016 at No. 38 in the world.  She climbed, fought, lost, learned, recovered, and squeezed her way into the top 8, qualifying for the WTA  year-end finals for the first time in her career.
 
In the finals, she lost her first two round robin matches, and needed a straight set victory over the always-tough No. 5 ranked Simona Halep in order to advance to the semifinals. She did so. Next she faced Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals, and defeated her in an extremely difficult three set match.
 
In the final match against fellow late-bloomer and current No. 1 Angelique Kerber, Dominika played the match of her life.
 
The irony of a tennis stroke is that, when hitting with spin, the harder shot is actually the safer shot.  But it requires full commitment and belief to consistently make that happen.  It’s so very easy to begin doubting yourself — to focus on the possible outcomes, slow down your swing, and watch the ball sail 10 feet out.
 
No matter.  Dominika, through the entire match, swung away with abandon.  She understood that attacking was the only strategy to employ against the likes of Kerber.  And for two incredibly compelling sets, she employed that strategy, bringing her to match point.  
 
And then Dominika choked.  And choked again.  And again.  Three match points that she failed to convert.  She looked tight.
 
No matter.  Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
 
Another match point, swinging away with abandon, feet churning, she smacks a ball that hits the net, pops up, and lands softly on the other side, well out of Kerber’s reach.  
 
For years, finding the wins, and the lessons, inside the losses.  And now the win.  Dominika Cibulkova, at age 27, is the WTA year end women’s champion, by far the biggest title of her career. She will end the year ranked No. 5 in the world.
 
The Cubs
Which brings me to my (our) beloved Cubs.  I moved to Arlington Heights, a Northwest suburb of Chicago, at age five.  I began playing organized baseball soon after, and spent seven years on Little League teams like the Bulls, the Pilots, and yes, the Cubs.  I vividly remember watching Ernie Banks hit homers in Wrigley, and imitating Don Kessinger’s leaping throws from shortstop. I am a lifelong fan, despite the fact that I left the area in my early 30’s and don’t have much time to watch baseball anymore.  
 
And like all Cubs fans, I dealt with the experience of loving a team that always loses.  To say that the Cubs, and their fans, felt snakebit is the understatement of the century (actually, running into two centuries).  I believe in science and rationality, but when it comes to the Cubs, there was a bad juju associated with the team so profound that I felt it had crept into my personal life.  Generally speaking, I understand that I am extremely fortunate, but nevertheless, with every woman who dumped me, every professional disappointment, every time they gave me french fries when I had asked for onion rings, it all made sense.  I was somehow, in some small way, as star crossed as my team.
 
But these Cubs, they were different.  Too young to have any responsibility for disappointments by the perennial losers, but savvy enough to have a deep understanding of Cubs history, what their fans and former players have gone through, and learning from it.
 
Despite being down 2-1 to the Dodgers in the NLCS, and 3-1 to the Indians in the Series, they didn’t get tight and didn’t lose their cool.  The seemed to stay focused on the process — they talked about enjoying the game and taking it one moment at a time.  Sure, they were behind, but they were failing better.  They saw those wins inside the losses.
 
Game 7, two outs in bottom of the 10th inning, Cubs up by a single run.  A choppy ground ball to the third base side of the mound.  As all Cubs fans know, the perfect time to freeze, focus on winning the World Series instead of just fielding a ground ball, throw said ball wildly into the stands — along with our hearts, allow runs to score, lose the game, and return home as goats.
 
But not these Cubs.
 
Chris Bryant, his loping 6’5” frame gliding to the ball, smoothly scoops it into his glove.  As he begins to make that throw he’s made thousands of times, the big man’s cleats begin to slide.  He feels it and hunches his shoulders in order to compensate.
 
And then, instead of tightening and panicking, a smile briefly crosses his face.  He is playing his beloved baseball, being watched by millions, and enjoying the process of fielding a baseball in the world series.  Fail better.
 
But he doesn’t fail.  His aim, and his heart, is true.  The ball smacks into Anthony Rizzo’s beckoning glove. The sound of losing, learning, and after 108 years, winning.  
 
Like so many Cubs fans, the tears well in my eyes as I think of the generations of people who have longed for this one moment.  Our Cubs have won the World Series.
 
Steve Bartman
P.S.  Steve Bartman, please step forward and allow Cubs fans to beg your forgiveness.  You had no more to do with the Cubs losing than the Billy Goat — the previous team did not have the mindset to win the World Series (walk, wild pitch, single, booted ball, double, sac fly, missed cutoff man, walk, double, single).  Fans reaching for balls — that’s baseball.
 
 
 

Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy Social Intelligence?

I hate to create a blog post about an existential worry, but I can't help myself.
 
I feel fortunate that I tend to run on the optimistic side, a trait that psychologist Martin Seligman says can help us take charge, resist depression, and accomplish more.  But when it comes to advances in artificial intelligence, I have joined the bandwagon of people (Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Sam Harris, et al) concerned about where all this is heading.  The fact that I have about a quarter of the brainpower of the aforementioned group is something I came to terms with long ago, but I can't seem to  come to terms with the potential rise of the machines.  I fear that we're all going to look like mental Lilliputians compared to the superintelligence that computers will display in the years to come.
 
 
I studied computer science as an undergraduate in the 80's (actually Mathematical Sciences, since there was no pure computer science major at my university back then), and there was a good bit of discussion that artificial intelligence was right around the corner. I even programmed in a language called LISP (LISt Processor), then favored for AI development, and created some rudimentary program that parsed something that I can't even recall.  I was calmed by the fact that for the next 20+ years, the breakthroughs seemed hard to come by, and the promise of AI seemed like it might be forever out of reach.  Always some new complexity revealed which showed just how dramatically the field had underestimated the difficulty of cracking this nut.
 
Recent advances from Google, however, make it seem that the path to superintelligence is moving forward.  Google owned DeepMind has created a program that has the ability to learn - a computer that teaches itself without human intervention (or at least much of it).  Their  AlphaGo product  defeated the world champion in the game of Go - a sort of multi-dimensional chess game that has so many possibilities it was thought, until recently, that it would be quite some time before a computer could beat a great human player.  The computer could not "brute force" its way through computing all possible moves (as I understand it does in many chess programs) because there are simply too many.  It would need to develop some sort of human-like intuition in order to beat a person.  In March of 2016, AlphaGo routed Lee Sedol, considered the top player in world, winning 4 out of 5 games.  Chalk up another victory for the machines.
 
So why worry?  AI clearly has the potential for enormous human benefit, so we simply control the downsides and we're home free, right?  Not so fast.  In a recent TED talk by Sam Harris (Can we build AI without losing control over it?), he argues that we should start thinking about this NOW and should develop a Manhattan Project on the topic.  Advances in AI will happen - and the results could be terrifying.  The development of an intelligence that far outstrips our own could leave us at the mercy of whatever moral compass that intelligence has.  In my opinion Sam Harris is one of the smartest human beings alive, and if he's scared, I'm scared.  I support immediate and substantial funding of such a project.
 
Sam also had a recent podcast featuring a discussion with David Krakauer,  President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute (Complexity & Stupidity - A Conversation with David Krakauer).  In that conversation, Sam asks Dr. Krakauer about the risk of AI.  Krakauer says he is more concerned about the immediate threat of something he calls "Competitive Cognitive Artifacts."  Cognitive Artifacts, according to Krakauer, are tools that we use to increase intelligence.  Complementary Cognitive Artifacts, like maps and the abacus, can actually help to rewire our brain to make us more intelligent, even without the artifact.  People who use the abacus actually learn to make calculations in their brains outside the presence of an abacus.  Competitive Cognitive Artifacts, however, actually rob us of our intelligence when we are outside their presence.  We can make extremely complex calculations when we have an electronic calculator at our fingertips - but take it away and we can't even figure out how to leave a 20% tip at a restaurant.  Take our phones away and intelligent life, as we know it, ceases to exist.
 
Which brings me to an area of special concern - social skills and social isolation.  I'm afraid that even prior to creating generalized artificial intelligence we will be developing, to use Dr. Krakauer's term, competitive cognitive artifacts that will rob us of our social skills. It seems to me this is already happening.  We have all observed people who, in the presence of friends, constantly check their phones and seem oblivious to the humanity that pulses right in front of them. The technology that is "connecting" them to the online world seems to be disconnecting them from actual people.
 
Imagine the development of a bot (think Alexa and the newly announced Google Home) that is perfectly social - polite, entertaining, interesting, flattering, knowledgeable - and completely non-human.  The bot is never angry or inappropriate, and requires absolutely no social skills from its user.  A competitive cognitive artifact that unwittingly turns us into demanding, inappropriate boors that receive everything we need from our bot.  Which makes us even less likely to engage with other equally boorish humans and their own petty demands.  Artificial intelligence that robs us of our social intelligence.
 
We need to begin thinking deeply about artificial intelligence, as well as the competitive cognitive artifacts that are already being thrust into our world via free download from your favorite online software store.  
 
In a nod to the recursion that I learned in my undergraduate CS classes, perhaps we need to first create an artificial intelligence specifically designed to control artificial intelligence.

Harvard and the Sugar Industry

Great/infuriating article in the New York Times.

 

How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat

As a nonprofit with incredible tax privileges, perhaps Harvard could use a portion of its 37+ Billion endowment to unwind some of the damage from its complicity in this bad/corrupt science. I can't even imagine the impact this has had on worldwide health over the last 50 years.

 

 

 

Sitting Alone is the New Smoking-While-Eating-Donuts

 

Sitting Alone is The New Smoking While Eating DonutsThe New Crisis of Loneliness Hits Kids with Autism Particularly Hard
 
The famed playwright and existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people.” 
 
That’s the opposite of the way I feel, but I can still relate to the sentiment.  As an introvert, I need regular solitude in order to process the happenings of the day and to recharge my batteries. But as the adage says, “The dose makes the poison.”  Too much solitude, even for an introvert, is harmful. 
 
The truth is that we are in the midst of a major health crisis: Loneliness. Results from the General Social Survey (GSS) by the National Science Foundation show that more than 25% of all Americans say that they do not have a single person with whom they can share important aspects of their life.  When removing family members from the equation, a full half say they do not have a confidant.  The increase in social isolation is shocking.  The average social network size dropped from roughly 3 to 2 between 1985 and 2004, and the modal response of the number of confidants dropped from 3 to 0.1
 
So what’s the big deal about loneliness?  According to a raft of studies, social isolation is a greater health risk factor than obesity, and is equivalent to smoking ¾ of a pack of cigarettes per day.2 Loneliness can be deadly, especially when considering the number of retirees that are reporting high levels of isolation.  There is a reason that solitary confinement is considered to be extraordinary (and I believe extraordinarily cruel) punishment.
 
What are the causes?  The increase in dual career families? Longer commutes and work days?  Higher divorce rates and more single parent families?  Some recent studies3,4 indicate that technology may be playing a role in reducing our social interactions and overall well-being.  Based on this small sample of studies, the GSS trends listed above, and the highly rigorous and scientific approach of listening to my daughter talk about her experiences in high school, I suspect that technology is playing a role in the atomization of society.  Although technology-based social networks are prevalent, I think they may be serving as a poor stand-in for live, in-person social interaction.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, social networks are not in the business of making your life better -  they are in the business of making money.  Just take a multiple-times-daily ride on the hamster wheel and ignore the long-term consequences.
  
And given that much of social isolation now takes the form of sitting alone while staring into a screen, I think we’ve got a double whammy at play. “Sitting is the new smoking” has become a catchphrase because our sedentary lifestyles are now a well-identified health risk. So I believe that sitting alone is the new smoking-while-eating-donuts. Doubleplusungood.
 
People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are particularly hard hit by this trend toward social isolation, since one of the hallmarks of autism is difficulty with social interaction.  According to my colleague Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, “The average child with autism spectrum disorder does not have a single friend, is excluded from play dates and social events, and is therefore denied the opportunity to learn the habits and routines necessary for satisfying social relationships. Limited opportunities for social engagement at school and in the community compound underlying developmental delays, ensure children progressively fall behind in age-appropriate social skills, and perpetuate disability throughout adolescence and adulthood.  Lack of social skills can result in poor peer interactions, increased disciplinary infractions, unsatisfactory school adjustment, and poor academic performance.”
 
What to do?  
 
Over the last three years I have worked with Rondalyn and my dear friend Rich DeVuono in creating The Affinity, an online adventure game designed to help kids make a real-world friend.  It is targeted to children with ASD and related disorders that are characterized by difficulties with social communication and interaction.  The game is unique because it collects, codifies, and shares the wisdom of its players through the use of challenges that require contributions to task/topic specific wikis (e.g. identifying social rules).   It’s like a digital treasure hunt, with both online and offline activities, where the epic quest of players is to make a real-world friend.  We are trying to “hack reality” (thank you Jane McGonigal) by using gaming and social media to help kids teach each other the rules of social interaction. 
 
I hope the game is effective.  We’ll be calling for beta testers within the next several weeks.
 
The irony is that the process of creating a game designed to help children make a friend has resulted in a bit of my own social isolation.  Although I have regular contact with my colleagues, writing a screenplay, developing a comic book, hacking a complex open source system (Moodle) for gaming, and configuring Linux installations has often required that I sit alone, concentrating on the screen in front of me.  Smoking while eating donuts.
 
In an effort to eat my own dog food, I think I’m going to take a walk and interact with other humans.  Two years ago my aging parents moved into my neighborhood just to be closer to family.    
 
Heaven is other people.
 
 
 
 
 

Who is Kraig?

  • Kraig Robson
    • Founder of IsoDynamic, Inc.
    • Bald as a cue ball
    • Opinions? Yuppers.
  • Professional
    • eLearning
    • Custom technology development
    • Marketing
  • Amateur
    • Health and nutrition
    • Music (keyboards, bad drumming, even worse guitar)
    • Tennis, strength training, and yoga
 
 
 

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