Sunday, April 01, 2012

The "K" States

I got both games wrong in the Final Four semifinals, earlier in the week picking winners with my heart instead of my head.  Joe Nocera's Op-Ed notwithstanding, as a fan I prefer the myth of the student-athlete to the reality that in significant part Men's College Basketball is prep school for the NBA.  Note that I don't say minor leagues.  Men's College Basketball is big time sports, with the Final Four the coup de grâce.  Because John Calipari puts the lie to the myth in his approach with recruiting players, I have a distaste for him.  So I picked Louisville over Kentucky.  I don't have a distaste for Bill Self, though he left Illinois for Kansas.  He didn't leave the cupboard bare at that time and he was pursuing a lifelong dream.  It's hard to blame him now, though many Illini fans were disappointed at the time.  No, I picked Ohio State simply to show loyalty to the Big Ten.  That game really was a you pick 'em and that's the way it turned out.

Given the truth in the observation about big time sports, one might expect the actual performance to exhibit substantial proficiency and inspired play.   The little I watched yesterday, I found it otherwise, particularly on the offensive end.  Players dribbled right into the defense and then got the ball stolen, they put up shots that had no chance whatsoever, and there were mainly dribble drives rather than trying to hit the open man.  On this last one, one can only surmise that's how the game is played now, with passing and moving without the ball a lost art.  Athleticism has replaced a sense of team play.  I am attracted to excellence in performance and can watch that even without really rooting for one team or the other.  When it's lacking, the ball game is painful to watch.  I did turn off a lot of Illini games this season, for that very reason.

So I move onto other things, mainly futzing at the computer, hoping to come up with a better story to start my class session on Tuesday, which is on employment policy and human resource management, as well as wanting a title for my next post to come to me.  These days I seem to need the title first and then use it as a seed for the ideas to crystallize around.  I did keep track of the scores via the ESPN Web site.  Had Louisville actually retaken the lead, I would have turned the TV back on.  I probably fell asleep before the end of the first half in the Kansas-Ohio State game.  I woke up briefly to see that Kansas had one.  The title occurred to me almost immediately after that.

I asked myself some questions I wouldn't usually pose:  Are Kansas and Kentucky the only states that start with the letter K?  Can I answer that question intuitively? (The answered seemed like yes.)  Or must I enumerate all the states to check because I might have missed one?  (I started to do this in my head, but it seemed more trouble than it was worth.)  As I'm trying to go back to sleep, this occupies me, an alternative to counting sheep.  It's the sort of question that Daniel Kahneman poses quite frequently in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  This morning I did find a Web site to verify my intuition.

I find I'm fighting this book.  My prior post was about finding what I believe to be a logical inconsistency in the presentation, one that should bother Kahneman if I'm correct in my conclusion.  But I don't read this sort of of book to find whatever errors there are.  I'm looking for personal illumination.  On reflection, there is some.  But really, there is not too much.   Most of my thinking I view as a type of search.  You might consider it metaphorically as fishing for ideas.  Sometimes I throw the fish back in.  It's either too small or doesn't look good enough to eat.  Kahneman seems to say, with his emphasis on our intuitive thinking making errors in a systematic way, that most of us never throw the fish back in.  (What never?  Well hardly ever.)

This morning I cheated.  I'm only on chapter 12, The Science of Availability, but I fast forwarded to chapter 37, Experienced Well Being.  There flow comes up (again) as one real possibility to answer the question, what should you do with your time so that you are engaged in what you are doing and prefer that to stopping and doing something else?  So one might wonder why earlier in the book Kahneman doesn't talk about activities or habits of mind that might make flow more likely.  This seems like an obvious question to ask.

Kahneman does indirectly answer it in chapter 3, The Lazy Controller, where he talks about flow the first time.  He relates an anecdote about strolling leisurely in the Berkeley Hills and engaging in thoughtful conversation while walking or in reflective thought.  But then when encountering a harder problem to solve, one that requires all his intellectual energy, he has to stop altogether.  He can't walk and solve that problem simultaneously.  There is a normative argument in these observations, about working things through at a pace the ideas suggest themselves and not forcing onto that pace a harder problem that needs to be solved quickly.

Last Friday I had lunch with a few of my former colleagues, CIOs in their respective colleges at Illinois.  I like these folks and enjoy their company.   But now, no longer wrapped up in the day to day IT issues that the campus confronts, I see that an obvious source of their stress isn't that they have these issues, but rather that the work requires a quick resolution of possibly vexing problems and that they need to be on top of all current developments, though that is inherently tactical, not strategic.   The system as a whole doesn't allow the harder problems to be worked through at their proper pace.  I suspect much stress in the workplace exists for this very reason.  In retirement, I spend more of my time thinking slowly about issues.  I will admit to occasional boredom.  Some stress is probably good to feel alive.  But I know from my writing blog posts and preparing my class that I likely also spend much more time than my colleagues do on slow reflection, and much of that I enjoy.  I suspect an investigation would find that my colleagues would be more productive overall if they could reallocate a good chunk of their time to reflective thinking.  If that's true, one wonders why they can't reconstruct their work time to achieve that end.

I also have this feeling, reading Kahneman's book, that a big deal issue for society as a whole is that many "bright" people don't develop the habits of mind to desire slow, reflective thinking.  I wonder if Kahneman would agree with the following assertions.  First, a self-actualizer, Maslow's term for someone who has regular peak experiences, has learned to have System One come to the service of System Two, at least on occasion, while the rest of the population lives with System One the dominant player much if not all the time.  Second, the true purpose of school, at least the part of school that is general education and not vocational training, is to encourage the students to become self-actualizers. In other words, school should educate System Two and help it to understand its relationship to System One.  Third, unfortunately, much of school creates the opposite consequence.  It stresses the students in the same way that my CIO colleagues are stressed by their work.   These are things I wished the book would say, but it's not there in what I've read so far.  That's why I'm fighting with it.

Now let me say where it's provided me with some insight, though the example is in some sense trivial.  The last few months or so, I've developed a reputation in the family for being the master at the Jumble, which appears daily in the local paper.  It's something my wife likes to do and then sometimes tries it with one of the kids.  With some frequency, there is a word or two they can't get.  My wife then might try brute force techniques.   If that fails they'll give it to me for a try.  I enjoy such challenges.   I much prefer to do them in my head, without pencil or paper, though sometimes I need to reread the clue to be sure I've got the letters right.  Finding the answer to the jumble is a kind of fishing, but in this case one where "there is a trick" of sorts to get the answer.  The trick is first to eyeball the number of consonants and vowels and to see if the word likely starts with one or the other.  Then, based on that, one tries to make a string using a few of the letters that might plausibly go together.  With that string in place, one tries to fit the remaining letters around it.  Often the word appears that way, with the entire process more or less immediate.

This morning, it occurred to me to look for the Jumble online.  I found a sight and started to play it.  There was just one problem.  A timer was prominently displayed.  The timer is annoying, a distraction to doing the puzzle.  The first three words I get so quickly it's as if the distraction is of no importance.  The fourth word is harder and I don't get it immediately.  The timer starts to really bother me, eventually so much so that I leave the site without getting the fourth word.  I should note here that I do a lot of sudoku online, and they have a similar design, but usually done in such a way that you can have the timer where it isn't immediately visible.  You have to scroll to see it.  So you can put it out of your mind when working the puzzle.  The Jumble site, didn't allow this.  To see the scrambled words you saw the timer too.  Kahneman's book made me hyper aware of just how annoying that is.

Let me conclude with some obscure facts and questions.  Deleting the "University of" in the school name, if it comes before the real name or "University" if it comes after the real name, Kansas versus Kentucky is the first time since at least 2000 where both finalists have their name start with the same letter.  (In 2010, both teams had nicknames that start with the same letter, the Butler Bulldogs versus the Duke Blue Devils. Wikipedia has a Web page for each tournament year, such as this one for 2011.)   Based on this years' bracket, what possible pairings for the Championship Game would have resulted in both teams have their names start with the same letter?  Can you determine  the likelihood of seeing the names of the finalists start with the same letter?  Inquiring minds want to know.

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