To become an elite sportsperson, you need to win the genetic lottery

A review of The Sports Gene by David Epstein


Winners, it is said, are not born but made. That, however, is not the whole truth, as David Epstein, an investigative reporter with Pro Publica, shows in his book The Sports Gene.

In recent decades, the role of genes in causing diseases has been elucidated time and again. So it should not be surprising that they must also play a role in creating gifted individuals. And, yet, the science to support the latter hypothesis is limited and more recent. The reason for this disparity is not because we don’t have the tools to find evidence for that hypothesis, but because the message it supports is not one that society is ready for.

Epstein make his case through many examples. These are not just of rare individuals with extraordinary achievements. He also looks at physiological characteristics of all players at the international level across various sports. Consider, for instance, the average male basketball player. Had he lived at the time, he would not have made a good candidate for Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. That is because a professional basketball player won’t fit in da Vinci’s circle—the length of the player’s outspread arms is greater than his height. Those two measures were considered to be equal in an “ideal human”. But Epstein’s calculations show that if you want to be an internationally successful basketball player, you need to be an exception—you need to be tall and have longer arms still.

This phenomenon is true of other sports. Be it sprinting, where those endowed with the ability to draw more oxygen from the air than the average are more likely to win. Or be it high jump, where rare jumpers with excessively long Achilles tendon end up succeeding. Or be it marathons, where most winners come from within a single tribe in western Kenya. The story is clear—to sculpt an elite athlete, the roll of nature’s dice must be played in their favour.

Teasing apart the role of genes on complex human traits is no simple task. But recent studies have identified a handful genes that can make or break an athlete. Take the EPOR gene, for instance. Those who have the gene, also tend to have exceptionally high haemoglobin levels in the blood. This improves the efficiency with which oxygen is consumed, creating some remarkable athletes if they choose that path. Or take the HCM1 gene. It causes one of the chambers of the heart to grow in size without any apparent symptoms. This puts an athlete with HCM1 at the risk of falling dead on a track without a warning. On average one such athlete dies every other week in the US.

In general, however, the interaction of genes that creates such remarkable athletes is too complex to breakdown. For instance, hundreds of genes are involved in determining someone’s height. So, even if genetic engineering is available today, a designer baby can’t be created to make an “ideal athlete”. But, to be sure, neither can the natural bounty of genes alone ensure great athletic feats. And, yet, there is no doubt that Epstein’s thorough analysis raises uncomfortable questions for the long-held view—recently made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule—that talent is nothing and practice is everything.

The nature vs nurture debate is not new, but genetics is providing the tools to take the debate forward. The evidence, as Epstein puts it, appears to be that the contribution of both is equally important.

Nurture alone is not going to turn a Pygmy into an NBA player, and that is not a fact that we must shy away from. If anything, genes could help people find which sports would be a good fit for them. Society must not fear these inherent differences. Rather, such inequalities make human life interesting and worth living.

Image credit: piers_nye, CC-BY-NC

We don’t value tinkering as much, but that’s what makes the world great

Review of The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great by Alec Foege 

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The inventions of the late 19th and early 20th century that define our modern life were the result of America’s tinkering spirit, claims Alec Foege, an American journalist in his book “The Tinkerers”. That tinkering gave us airplanes, telephones, alternating current, light bulbs and air-conditioners.

America’s founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, themselves inventors and scientists, infused this sense of tinkering right at the birth of the nation. But that can-do spirit has been replaced by hopelessness today. The stories of Alexander Bell and Thomas Edison made them heroes. But the mid-20th century needed more than one genius.

That pioneering need gave birth to innovative hubs like the Bell Labs, which invented semiconductor devices, or Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, which built the first computer that used a mouse-based graphic interface. What made them special was that in these centres researchers were given a problem, plenty of resources and left alone to come up with a solution. Curiosity drove research rather than commercialisation. Karlheinz Bradenburg, the co-inventor of MP3 and a former Bell Labs employee, says: “It was like a university with famous professors, but no students”.

Foege argues that American culture is now focussed on efficiency and conformity rather than innovation. With the exception of Google and a handful of other firms, few companies embrace the spirit of tinkering.

But the tides are changing. The rise of the Internet has enabled these tinkerers to come together in larger numbers than ever before. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement is America is larger than anywhere in the world, and it is growing rapidly. Make magazine, which started in 2005 with a focus on DIY projects, has over 125,000 subscribers today, and runs the hugely popular Maker Faire in many cities in America. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are enabling tinkerers to raise money from the public to support their innovative projects. There is even a Tinkering School that involves children to work on DIY projects over summer camps.

It will take time for new initiatives to show any change. In a 2012 survey of the most innovative countries of the world, America came tenth. And perhaps by limiting himself to America—and this is the only criticism of an otherwise well-written book—Foege has missed out on making an even stronger case for the spirit of tinkering. Nevertheless the stories of dabblers and hobbyists, of immigrants and natives, of dilettantes and experts, all living to pursue one dream makes for an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read.

Image credit: TODOIT

Personal metamorphosis

Review of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“Sir,” said a letter to Kafka in the last few years of his life, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story.”

Having finished Kafka’s legendary story, which has “inspired countless stage adaptations and doctoral theses and scores of subsequent writers”, I can share the frustration of the cousin. This story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find he has become a giant bug, has a simple plot but is hard to make sense of without the right metaphors.

After shaking off the possibility that he is in a dream, Gregor does his best to fit in society that he was once part of. But as the story progresses, his attempts bear no fruit in a household which is finding it difficult to sustain their earlier lifestyle after losing the sole breadwinner. At the end, after enduring the growing distance from a family he still loves and feeling useless, Gregor dies of depression and self-inflicted harm.

Despite the dark plot, Kafka, through simple words and short sentences, keeps the mood cheerful almost all through, with comical interludes and many happy moments. Of the many analogies people draw to understand Gregor’s metamorphosis, this one convinces me the most:

The reasons behind Gregor’s transformation are not all that complicated. Kafka declines to spell out the specific reasons but still makes it clear that Gregor (and by extension, all the other Gregors in the world) had allowed himself to become a powerless insect long before actually physically turning into one. As someone who has selflessly sacrificed whatever independence he may have had to support his uncaring parents and their attempts to live an “upper class” life without actually having to suffer for it, Gregor has already willingly given up all the unique traits that make one a human.

The bit of the story that really gets me, though, comes right at the end, where, after the death of Gregor with whom the family still seems to have some attachment, they go on a drive and start thinking about what a “voluptuous” woman Gregor’s sister has become and how they would like to find him an upper class husband. And the fact that that end seems so out of place, forces readers to reanalyse what Kafka had in mind about Gregor’s metamorphosis.

Hat-tip to Emma Hogan, whose brilliant review of Kafka’s biography made me pick up this book.

When free will, causality and privacy are all at stake

Review of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s Big Data

We live in a world where flu outbreaks are predicted faster and more accurately by analysing Google search results rather than by doctors or clinicians, where traffic jams are better judged by crunching data from cellphone signals rather than from direct reports from people on the ground, and where your shopping habits might reveal that you’re pregnant before anyone else in your family knows.

This is the power of big data. It is defined not by the sheer volume of information, but by what that large volume enables us to do that similar smaller volume of data wouldn’t. For example, Google’s flu trends will hardly work if the amount of queries made per second were not in the thousands. Another aspect of big data is that using it means shedding our obsession for causality and embracing correlations. The important thing is to know what rather than the why.

Take the example of how Google’s page ranking system works. The computer algorithm at the heart of Google search that is analysing data from all across the web is not trying to understand what the websites say or mean, so much as it is trying to correlate what people want when they type something in the search query. More queries followed by more clicks on relevant sites will better the algorithm that ranks pages, helping it to make better predictions which links will work best. Now add to it information like a person’s search history, location, time of the day, etc. and Google is able to give near perfect search results.

The book also rightly argues that despite data’s ubiquitous use today, the revolution has only just begun. A lot of the information in the world still remains locked or wasted. Consider the example of electrocardiography (ECG). When a patient undergoes ECG, hundreds of data points are collected every second but most of it gets thrown away. Instead the capability of easy storage (thus never needing to throw away any data) can be used to make better predictions of the patient’s health in the future. Datafication, which is recording everything possible, can unlock information around us. Things which might seem uninteresting could, in combination with other data, reveal insights that we could not have guessed before

Big data’s use does not paint a uniformly rosy picture. Governments are desperately trying to control more and more data from their citizens’ lives under the guise of security concerns. But, just like private companies do, the data can easily be employed by governments for uses that citizens would not approve of, if they were asked to give consent. The story of Minority Report could come true. In it the government develops a system that is used to predict the future occurrence of crime and make arrests in time to stop it. These sort of uses are still science fiction, but not for long. They risk taking away from humanity its most dear capacity—to act on “free will”.

It is this dual-edged sword of big data that makes Messrs Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger’s book timely and important. Written beautifully and convincingly, it makes for a great read. Where I don’t agree with the book is that big data “will transforming how we live, work and think”. I think it already has.

Busting myths with science

Review of David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom

A quick, interesting read for those who like reading websites like Quora (and later having arguments in a pub). This is a book about setting the facts right. David Bradley attempts to use science and rational thinking to clear some age-old myths (like “cats are smarter than dogs“) and some modern ones (like “everyone is connected to the other through six connections“).

This “book” should really exist as well-referenced posts on a single website. Some of it exists on sciencebase.com, Bradley’s blog. There are others like snopes.com too. Perhaps what Bradley has done with the book is refine his explanations.

I somewhat agree with what Brian Clegg has to say about it: If you liken popular science books to food, Deceived Wisdom is simply not meaty enough to make it a three course meal. It is, however, a top notch box of chocolates – and who doesn’t like that?

 

The most remarkable theory of how to achieve happiness

Review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow

Happiness is subjective. And yet, it is hard not to relate to someone else’s happy moments. In this book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as mihayli sixcentmihayli) compiles decades worth of research to construct a theory of achieving happiness. Well, actually, he uses the term optimal experience, which he defines as:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a land-mark in memory for what life should be like.

To achieve this state Csikszentmihalyi says we need to achieve control over our consciousness. That will then allow us to enter a state of “flow”, where there is nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich or powerful no longer matters. ” The tide of risking expectations is stilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. The most humdrum experiences become enjoyable.”

That quote appeared quite early on in the book and made me very skeptical. But in the light of numerous example that Csikzsentmihalyi gives, many of which you can relate to, it is hard to not accept the validity of his theory. The author readily admits that the theory is not a new one. Some of the oldest examples come, not surprisingly, from mythology. Many religions have approached the idea of happiness and Csikszentmihalyi’s theory only adds to their conclusions.

For instance, a key message in the Bhagwad Gita is that happiness is the result of the journey towards a goal rather than achieving the goal. Similarly Csikszentmihalyi says that a key element of optimal experience is that it is an end in itself, where an action is performed not for some expected future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

In one of the most extreme examples of flow that Csikszentmihalyi discusses is one where a paraplegic considers the accident of losing both his legs as the most positive thing that happened to him. When his case is analysed it is clear before the accident, he let life happen to him. Whereas after the accident he had to rethink almost everything he had to do in life, and in doing that he followed a process that helped him achieve flow.

So what do we need to produce flow (one that leads to an optimal experience)?

  1. Set an overall goal (and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible)
  2. Find a way of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen
  3. Keep concentrating on what one is doing. Such that one is able to make finer distinctions  in the challenges involved in the activity
  4. Develop skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available
  5. Keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring

The above steps will make it clear why sport is the most popular flow activity. Csikszentmikhalyi argues that the same flow can be achieved in work, if step 2 and step 5 are given more emphasis. (PS: For those who’ve learnt Yoga in its truest form, Csikszentmihalyi considers it to be the most thoroughly planned flow activity.)

This is not a self-help book, and it is not a light read. At times it can also get very repetitive. Having laboured through it though, I am left with a pretty robust theory to approach every activity in life. Although I’ve always used some of the tools like goal-setting, measuring progress and raising stakes, using them all in sync and with added focus on the process is certainly bound to change how I experience everything.

A white man’s burden

Review of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Even though it’s less than 100 years ago, the 1930s was a very different time from today. Racial discrimination was rife in America even though it had been sometime since slavery had been banned. To Kill a Mocking Bird is a story narrated by an 8-year old of that period as she learns her way of life in Maycomb, a (fictional) sleepy town in Alabama.

From simple struggles of learning to settle in school, of not having a mother, of trying to be a girl to that of dealing with a father who fights against racial discrimination, Harper Lee does a great job of describing Jean Louis Finch’s story. Lee’s vivid story-telling endears the reader to Jean Louis’s every up and down.

Atticus Finch, Jean Louis’s father, is the central character. Although the society around him blames him for many faults, one that he definitely does not deserve is that of being a bad parent. He has a laid back attitude with his son and daughter, but one that helps them each to flourish in their own ways. He hides little from his kids and respects each of their quirks.

In an incestuous town of white folks, Atticus is made to defend a black guy who is convicted of raping a white woman. A situation in which the weaknesses of being human and the ideal goals of a justice system come head-to-head. Through the trial and Jean Louis’s everyday life, the reader meets characters of every kind. There is a brother to look up to, an over-bearing aunty, a family whose kid never leaves home, a wise old lady, nasty cousins, a motherly black woman, among others. Each of their personality has something to offer.

But there is a discomforting feeling to read how this intelligent 8-year old is able to describe and explain very complex social phenomena, but is still a naive girl who is trying to fit in society. This disconnect is more apparent to me having just read The Curious Incident of a Dog at the Night-time, where the narrator is a kid with Asperger’s syndrome and the reader sees the world “exactly” through his eyes.

Lee’s book has its slow spells, but a reader who endeavours is rewarded. As with all good books, Lee is elegant at creating strands of stories that run parallel to the main one. Though sometimes I wished that some strands were given less space than they deserved.

While it is a great story, and arguably a better piece of literature, I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book one of the greatest I’ve ever read (as many of my friends seem to suggest).