Losing

I have mentioned before that I am a massive rugby fan, and I have also mentioned that I’m not that brilliant at it and have much experience of losing. I also support England, which has left me no choice other than to spend the past ten years alternating between moments of joy and long periods of frustration over what could have been, whilst continually living in the shadow of ‘that drop goal’ (apologies for non-rugby fans, for whom this will make little sense, but bear with me) and trying to come to terms with our latest loss (although… any New Zealanders reading this? ūüôā ). The team I support have spent the last few seasons living through a similar shadow of former success, and many losses have subsequently ensued. As such, I am very well acquainted with the practice of losing, and in particular the different kinds of loss that can occur (and the emotions inspired thereof). The following list will not be exhaustive, but I’ll aim to cover as many as I can.

The most obvious variety of loss has also perhaps the most potential to be depressing; the thrashing. An entirely one sided affair, where all concerned tried their best but simply weren’t good enough to even come close to standing up to the opposition, a thrashing can serve as a message saying “People might tell you to try your best, but your best isn’t good enough“. This is a terribly depressing thought, suggesting that all of one’s hard work, effort and training matter for nought in comparison to one’s opponents; or, the thrashing can be taken in a positive vein, a sense of “hey, they are just better than us, but we did well and there’s no shame in it”. Which way one goes really depends on the opposition concerned and one’s way of handling failure (refer to my back catalogue for more details) but a good example of the latter course occurred during the Rugby World Cup in 2007 when Portugal, never noted as a great rugby side, lost to the rugby powerhouse that is New Zealand by 108 points to 13. That was a definitive thrashing, but Portugal had nonetheless scored a try against the world’s best sides, hot favourites to win the overall competition (although they subsequently didn’t) and had played with pride and tenacity. The sight of their side, chests puffed out and eyes flush with emotion, singing the national anthem at the start of that game was a truly heartwarming one.

Subtly distinct from, but similar to, a thrashing is the collapse, the different being whose fault the scale of the loss is. A thrashing is very much won by the winners, but a collapse is caused by the losing party allowing everything that could go wrong to go wrong, performing terribly and letting the result tell the story. The victim of a collapse may be the underdog, may be expected to lose, but certainly should not have done so by quite so spectacular a margin as they do. This generally conjures up less depression than it does anger, frustration and even shame; you know you could and should have done better, but for whatever reason you haven’t. No excuses, no blaming the ref, you just failed- and you hate it.

Next in the order of frustration is the one-aspect loss, something generally confined to more multifaceted, and particularly team, occasions. These centre on one individual or aspect of the situation; one’s left back failing to mark his man on numerous occasions, for example, or a tennis player’s serve letting him down. Again the predominant feeling is one of frustration, this time of having done enough and still not won; in every other aspect of one’s performance you might have been good enough to win, but because of one tiny aspect you were let down and it was all for nought. The one-aspect loss is closely related to the ‘kitchen sink’ loss, such as Spain experienced at the hands of Switzerland at the football world cup two years ago. Spain were clearly the better side in that match, and but for one lucky goal from the Swiss they surely would have won it, but after that Switzerland holed up in their own penalty area and defended for their lives. Spain might have thrown everything they had and then some at the Swiss after that, might have struck shot after shot, but no matter what they did it just didn’t come up for them; luck and fate were just against them that day, and for all their effort they still managed to lose. A kitchen sink loss is also characterised by frustration, often made doubly annoying by the fact that the one aspect of one’s performance that has let you down has nothing to do with you, but can also summon depression by the seeming irrelevance of all the hard work you did put in. A match you should have won, could have won, often needed to have won, but no matter how much effort you put in fate just didn’t want you to win. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?

The even loss also records significant frustration levels, particularly due to the nature of the games it often occurs in. An even loss occurs between two closely matched teams or individuals in a close contest, and where portents at the start say it could go either way. Sadly, in most sports a draw is rare, whilst in many it is impossible, and in any case such a situation satisfies nobody; there must be a winner and, unfortunately, a loser. Such a loss is always hard to take, as one knows they are good enough to win (and usually have done so in the past; such occasions are often repeat fixtures against local rivals, meaning the prospect of a year’s gloating must also be considered) but that, on the day, it went the other way. On other occasions,¬†a sense of anticlimax may be present; sometimes losses just happen, and do not inspire any great emotion (although the near-neutral loss is a category unto itself), and after a tight game in which you played alright but were fair beaten there’s sometimes not too much to get emotional about.

And then, we come to perhaps the strangest form of losing- the happy loss. It’s often hard to be comfortable about being happy with a loss, particularly in a tight game decided only by the narrowest of margins and that one could have won. There are some people who will never feel happy about a loss, no matter how good the game or the opposition, constantly striving for the concrete success a victory can show; but for others, there is still comfort to be found in losing. There lies no shame in losing a match against a good, deserving opponent, no shame in losing when you could not possibly have given more, and no shame in doing far, far better than you were expected to. I have talked before on this blog on the value of learning to fail with grace; just as important, in life as in sport and such, is learning how to lose.

Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing ¬†(which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…

What good are Olympians?

In my last post I talked about the Euro 2012 football tournament, an event that no European could hope to ignore unless they lived in a particularly well-soundproofed cave. The event I’m going to talk about today however, has a strange power akin to osmosis meaning that it is physically impossible to avoid hearing about it from any distance less than 50 miles from any living being or, if you live in Britain, the centre of the earth. It is, of course, the London 2012 Olympics.

Olympians are, of course, the pinnacle of human physical perfection- or so we keep on being told, despite Usain Bolt’s famous obsession with chicken nuggets. In fact, it can be hard, on occasion, to believe just how amazing Olympians are meant to be. This is especially true given the amount of media attention they have attracted in recent times presenting them as ‘just normal people’, involving talks with their families and discussions of their home lives and ‘normalness’.

To an extent, some of their achievements don’t seem to be super-amazing either, when you think about it. Usain Bolt is a prime example- the man is the fastest on earth and is able to cover 100 metres in a little under 10 seconds. ¬†This, we are told, is amazingly exceptional- despite the fact that anyone watching athletics willquickly notice a far larger number of people all able to run the same distance in less than a second more time. Then there are the dozens of other amateur or schoolboy sprinters, and fast sportsmen such as rugby wingers, who are able to do their 100 in around 11 seconds- in fact one England Sevens player (Dan Norton) has been clocked as quicker than Bolt over 20 minutes, and as a sportsman rather than athlete probably has a broader range of physical skills than him. Admittedly, most of us are probably not going to come close to any of that- but the fastest guy any given person knows is likely to be able to cover 100m in around 12 seconds, despite probably having no formal sprint training and not dedicating their lives to running very quickly in a straight line for an incredibly short period of time, which is perhaps not the most versatile of life skills.

A similar idea can be applied to quite a range of Olympic fields. Most people who keep themselves fit and lead an at least reasonably active lifestyle could cover 400m in around a minute with a little practice, so perhaps covering it in 45 seconds is not something super-amazing. I am not an especially serious rower, but I use a machine occasionally and can clock a time over 2000m of around 7:30- just a minute slower than the men’s world record on-water time for single sculls, and only 2 minutes slower than the record for a machine. A lot of blokes in the pub would consider themselves enough of a dab hand in a fight to be an at least reasonable boxer with a bit of training, and amateur boxers can’t be all that amazing can they? And have you seen the bows they use for archery? They make a laser sniper rifle look like a nerf gun- anyone could hit a target with one of those, surely?

And that’s before you even consider the practical implications of what it means to be an Olympian- I’ll use handball as an example. Up until winning the bid for the 2012 games, Britain had never had a handball team, and after the people who run these things had insisted that Team GB would enter a competitor in every event they had to produce an acceptable outfit within 4 years. This meant recruiting from people who’d already played high level sport (which mainly ended up being rugby players and basketballers) and retraining them as handballers. This required them all to spend countless weeks at special training camps. Most of them had to give up their jobs and entire lives for a worse-paid job with poorer facilities, all in pursuit of their one shot at the Olympics. As far as I know, they have yet to win a game. Surely a balanced life, sampling all there is of the human experience, makes one a better person than this relentlessly single-minded devotion?

Well… maybe, but to sell the achievements of an Olympian short is to seriously devalue them. True, in some events the differences between amateur and world-leading may not be huge, but in others the difference can be truly staggering. Consider distance running- I consider myself to be a reasonably fit guy, and go running of occasion around a 4-mile (6.4 km) course near where I live. There’s the odd small hill, but the majority of it is flat. I can cover that course in about half an hour, by the end of which I am usually sweating like a paedo in a nursery (my apologies for the rather crude expression). However, the other day a news item I saw featured a 10km event in which a few soon to be Olympians were taking part. Bear in mind that this course was over half as long again as mine… and yet they covered it in three minutes less time than I could my course. And they barely looked tired. Worse still, at my rate of running it would take me around three and a quarter hours (assuming I could somehow replicate my pace for six and a half times the distance) to complete a marathon, whereas even a mediocre Olympic marathon runner would expect to hit just two.¬†Usain Bolt can typically keep a top speed of around 12 metres per second up for around 4 or 5 seconds, whilst a marathon runner can keep up six for hours on end. Consider events such as the javelin- they might look all light and easy to throw, but from experience trust me, they’re not. I can get one perhaps 15 metres- an Olympian six times that distance. In a long jump, most of us would struggle to exceed a metre or two, whereas the poorest Olympian jumper can hit six or seven with ease.

In these events the gulf in ability between an Olympian and a mere mortal is obvious- but do not be mistaken. That difference in terms of sheer class is present in every single Olympic discipline, and every athlete attending the games in London this year represents a world leader in their field. The Olympics is a showcase of the top 0.01% of the human race, and just how amazing we can be- and they deserve every ounce of admiration and respect that they get.

The Problems of the Real World

My last post on the subject of artificial intelligence was something of a philosophical argument on its nature- today I am going to take on a more practical perspective, and have a go at just scratching the surface of the monumental challenges that the real world poses to the development of AI- and, indeed, how they are (broadly speaking) solved.

To understand the issues surrounding the AI problem, we must first consider what, in the strictest sense of the matter, a computer is. To quote… someone, I can’t quite remember who: “A computer is basically just a dumb adding machine that counts on its fingers- except that it has an awful lot of fingers and counts terribly fast”. This, rather simplistic model, is in fact rather good for explaining exactly what it is that computers are good and bad at- they are very good at numbers, data crunching, the processing of information. Information is the key thing here- if something can be inputted into a computer purely in terms of information, then the computer is perfectly capable of modelling and processing it with ease- which is why a computer is very good at playing¬†games. Even real-world problems that can be expressed in terms of rules and numbers can be converted into computer-recognisable format and mastered with ease, which is why computers make short work of things like ballistics modelling (such as gunnery tables, the US’s first usage of them), and logical games like chess.

However, where a computer develops problems is in the barrier between the real world and the virtual. One must remember that the actual ‘mind’ of a computer itself is confined exclusively to the virtual world- the processing within a robot has no actual concept of the world surrounding it, and as such is notoriously poor at interacting with it. The problem is twofold- firstly, the real world is not a mere simulation, where rules are constant and predictable; rather, it is an incredibly complicated, constantly changing environment where there are a thousand different things that we living humans keep track of without even thinking. As such, there are a LOT of very complicated inputs and outputs for a computer to keep track of in the real world, which makes it very hard to deal with. But this is merely a matter of grumbling over the engineering specifications and trying to meet the design brief of the programmers- it is the second problem which is the real stumbling block for the development of AI.

The second issue is related to the way a computer processes information- bit by bit, without any real grasp of the big picture. Take, for example, the computer monitor in front of you. To you, it is quite clearly a screen- the most notable clue being the pretty pattern of lights in front of you. Now, turn your screen slightly so that you are looking at it from an angle. It’s still got a pattern of lights coming out of it, it’s still the same colours- it’s still a screen. To a computer however, if you were to line up two pictures of your monitor from two different angles, it would be completely unable to realise that they were the same screen, or even that they were the same kind of objects. Because the pixels are in a different order, and as such the data’s different, the two pictures are completely different- the computer has no concept of the idea that the two patterns of lights are the same basic shape, just from different angles.

There are two potential solutions to this problem. Firstly, the computer can look at the monitor and store an image of it from every conceivable angle with every conceivable background, so that it would be able to recognise it anywhere, from any viewpoint- this would however take up a library’s worth of memory space and be stupidly wasteful. The alternative requires some cleverer programming- by training the computer to spot patterns of pixels that look roughly similar (either shifted along by a few bytes, or missing a few here and there), they can be ‘trained’ to pick out basic shapes- by using an algorithm to pick out changes in colour (an old trick that’s been used for years to clean up photos), the edges of objects can be identified and separate objects themselves picked out. I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in this field so won’t go into details, but by this basic method a computer can begin to step back and begin to look at the pattern of a picture as a whole.

But all that information inputting, all that work… ¬†so your computer can identify just a monitor? What about all the myriad of other things our brains can recognise with such ease- animals, buildings, cars? And we haven’t even got on to differentiating between different types of things yet… how will we ever match the human brain?

This idea presented a big setback for the development of modern AI- so far we have been able to develop AI that allows one computer to handle a few real-world tasks or applications very well (and in some cases, depending on the task’s suitability to the computational mind, better than humans), but scientists and engineers were presented with a monumental challenge when faced with the prospect of trying to come close to the human mind (let alone its body) in anything like the breadth of tasks it is able to perform. So they went back to basics, and began to think of exactly how humans are able to do so much stuff.

Some of it can be put down to instinct, but then came the idea of learning. The human mind is especially remarkable in its ability to take in new information and learn new things about the world around it- and then take this new-found information and try to apply it to our own bodies. Not only can we do this, but we can also do it remarkably quickly- it is one of the main traits which has pushed us forward as a race.

So this is what inspires the current generation of AI programmers and robotocists- the idea of building into the robot’s design a capacity for learning. The latest generation of the Japanese ‘Asimo’ robots can learn what various objects presented to it are, and is then able to recognise them when shown them again- as well as having the best-functioning humanoid chassis of any existing robot, being able to run and climb stairs. Perhaps more excitingly are a pair of robots currently under development that start pretty much from first principles, just like babies do- first they are presented with a mirror and learn to manipulate their leg motors in such a way that allows them to stand up straight and walk (although they aren’t quite so good at picking themselves up if they fail in this endeavour). They then face one another and begin to demonstrate and repeat actions to one another, giving each action a name as they do so. ¬†In doing this they build up an entirely new, if unsophisticated, language with which to make sense of the world around them- currently, this is just actions, but who knows what lies around the corner…