What I learned last week (#88)

Illustration in notebook

Quote I was thinking about:

“Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open.”

Lord Dewar

Book excerpt I was thinking about:

Most individuals who start as active professionals… change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work… is a poor predictor of attained performance.” Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. This is what happened to me with my guitar playing, to the chess players who stuck to tournament play, and to most knowledge workers who simply put in the hours: We all hit plateaus.” (Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You)

The decision constantly is does one push past the plateau in one domain (which requires a lot of focused work) or aim to reach a lot of plateaus in many different domains (also which requires a lot of focused work)?

Is there such a thing as home field advantage when there are no fans in the seats:

The first league to resume without fans and put this theory to the test was the German Bundesliga, which returned in mid-May. And consistent with the theory of fans driving home-field advantage — rather than travel, familiarity with home stadiums, or other factors — away teams dramatically outperformed their typical results:

Well, not quite. In the time since, Benz has tracked 16 other soccer leagues that have restarted without fans in the stands. The results have been mixed. Of the major European leagues, Benz found reductions in home-field advantage on the order of 0 percent (England), 30 percent (Italy), 65 percent (Spain) and 100 percent (Germany). Overall, the vast majority of leagues had at least some reduction in home-field advantage, but the strength of this reduction varied widely, and in the English Premier League (EPL), home teams continued to do about as well with no fans in the stands.

I reached out to Benz to see if there was any ready explanation for the differences in home-field advantage reduction across leagues.

“The main thing driving these differences is the different quality of referees and/or different styles of officiating,” Benz said. “The differences between these leagues are usually more than you’d see between, say, conferences in college football or basketball. Even before the pandemic, the games in these countries were officiated differently. Games in the EPL had fewer fouls and cards per game than in Bundesliga. The more of these calls per game, I’d guess the more chances a call could go in a home team’s favor. Is that because players in Bundesliga are more physical? Probably not — it’s driven more by the fact that the referees in the EPL probably allow a slightly more physical game to be played without calling as much. In addition, there are differences in
how good referees are.”


What we make from metals:

I started reading Encounters with the Archdruid last week by John McPhee. I could read anything by him. Here are a couple of passages that I was thinking about last week. This book was published almost 50 years ago, so some of this has probably changed:

Most people don’t think about pigments in paint. Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it. The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin-it’s still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things…” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

Once, in the Black Hills, Park had taken me with him into the deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere. The descent took one hour—first in a wire cage down a shaft almost a mile deep, then a level mile or so on a narrow-gauge railway, then on down in another cage, until we were six thousand eight hundred feet beneath the earth’s surface. Heat increases in that area about two degrees for every three hundred feet you go down into the earth. The rock down there was a hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperature in the tunnels we walked through had been brought down into the nineties by air pumped from the surface in long cloth tubes. The tunnels are known as drifts. Wearing coveralls, rubber boots, lamps, hard hats, and shatterproof glasses, we followed one drift to its end—to the deepest and remotest working face in the mine. Park hit away with his pick. Sparks came off the wall, and so did pieces of rock, basically dark gray with shining seams of pyrite and nodular insets of white quartz. I still have the pieces of rock that he knocked off that wall, and I have often shown them to people—particularly to children—and asked them what they thought they were looking at.” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

Learning everything from MasterClass:

I haven’t tried any of these “classes” but they sound like a worthy alternative (albeit not all that different from) a Netflix documentary in many cases.

Over the years, I began to see all kinds of things called master classes, not just intensive live workshops for people who already had a thorough grounding in their field but online introductions to topics like social media marketing and meditation. Why couldn’t people just take classes, I wondered, especially when they knew nothing about the topic? Were they worried about feeling like a child again, afraid of admitting their own ignorance? Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

Half a year after starting my MasterClass adventure, I am a different person from the eager pupil who scribbled down every pearl of wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell’s lips. I am disappointed in other people and — in a distant way I cannot quite place — also in myself. I wish I were stronger, or easier to transform. My back still hurts. And if that were not enough, I have returned home to voluntary quarantine. Now, instead of a fun distraction from everyday life, the computer is my only point of contact with the rest of the world. I cannot bear to see more people talking on the screen, but there are not too many other places to go.

Is it the driver or the car:

Formula One, in fact, consists of two races within one competition: there are drivers, and then there are their cars. Giedo van der Garde, a Dutch former Formula One driver, confirms this: “I’ve also experienced it,” he tells me when we speak on the phone. In 2013, van der Garde’s only season in the world’s biggest motor sport, he consistently drove laps that were about two and a half to three seconds slower than [Sebastian] Vettel, who became that year’s champion. “A few years earlier, I was still driving with [Vettel] in Formula Three – he was my teammate – and then we were about as fast: one or two tenths [of a second, apart] at most,” he recalls. In Formula One, “yeah, it does come down to the car you’re in”.

These are among the unusual features of competitive motor sport. When you look for differences between drivers, you find an uncommon equality: a level playing field where individual performance is much closer, much less unequal, than in – say – major American ball sports or European football leagues. But if you only look at the performance of Formula One teams, you find the opposite: the distribution of trophies in Formula One is more unequal than – say – income disparities in Angola or Colombia.


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One response

  1. I’m definitely a multiple plateaus person, I’ve long struggled with accepting that as being ok and not being down on myself for not exceeding my plateaus but I do appreciate having a breadth of knowledge and skills.

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