Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes - Part 1

Search anywhere on the internet or pick up any book or manual on ski instruction and you will find that "balance" is at the heart of the teaching philosophy and core of the actual instructions. In most skiing countries in the world the national authorities examine their instructors on their "balance" and score them accordingly. Everyone struts around as if they know what they are doing and they all agree with each other unanimously. I'm sure that you will probably also be quite comfortable with this situation as you have heard the term "balance" all of your life used in the context of physical activity.

When Hans Christian Andersen wrote "The Emperor's New Clothes" he must have taken the idea from watching those ski instructors. It is hard to find a more clear cut case of collective denial, pretentiousness, social hypocrisy and deep failure of education anywhere on the planet.

There was a time when I too would have been standing in front of the King telling him how wonderful his new non-existent clothes were. That continued until one day I found myself being just like the little boy who  eventually shouts out that the King is not wearing anything at all. I actually met that King in person. He is French. Well he might not have been true royalty, but he did claim to be the most famous engineer in the world. His qualifications included two degrees and a business with over 500 employees. Very difficult to tell him that he wasn't wearing any clothes - but he wasn't!

It all started many years ago with a failed attempt to write creatively on the subject of the "balance paradox". This is the apparent paradox concerning the fact that when we walk (or ski for that matter) we perceive ourselves to be in balance all the time, but we cannot take a single step without literally falling forwards. Two pages of written drivel later and I knew enough to know that I didn't have a clue as to what so-called balance really was. Most people would probably just leave it there, but I couldn't. How could I NOT understand something so apparently basic that everyone else claimed to understand it. At school Physics was my best subject despite being a very reluctant student and I came 2nd in the final year with Maths being almost as good. Sure, I absolutely hated Physics at university - but that's because it interfered with  useful drinking  time and the infinite interest in girls. At least I'd discovered how to define infinity. Accepting that I wasn't completely stupid there had to be a problem with the concept of balance itself - so I set about a journey that unexpectedly led to several years of investigation to fully resolve the issue - culminating in a  historic confrontation with the King himself.

To begin with I bought a very thick and heavy book on physics. This is not a really good place to start - unless you are planning to throw it off the leaning tower of Pisa and compare it with a lighter book to see which one hits the ground first. Even after that it would be very hard to spot any relevance. Physics books are pretty dry and discouraging at the best of times - though they are sturdy and useful for stacking up magazines against on the book shelve. The biggest part of the puzzle would eventually be answered directly from this book - however the time wasn't quite right. The rest of the re-education process revolved around a small library of reading that involved over 50 current popular science books. Even that still didn't do the trick - it came down to the internet finally to get to the bottom of it all. I hope the first successful new religion of the 21st century involves worshipping the internet; it really does resemble a giant collective intelligence despite most of it being devoted to pornography. 

I still remember the first book that I delved into on the quest to resolve the balance paradox; it was called "Fuzzy Thinking" by Bart Kosko and was about "fuzzy logic". Don't you just really hate traffic lights - waiting at a red light when there is no one coming through the green, but unable to do anything about it? Well the Japanese have had Fuzzy Logic learning algorithms working in their traffic control systems for a whole generation now. The traffic control learns and gets smarter - that's right, it doesn't stay in balance - it's dynamic and changing. The "fuzziness" just means that there are lots of small rules collected together to define a model - rather than one big classic over-simplification (linearisation). The greater the "fuzziness" the more accurate the model of the complex system. It's great stuff and gives a lot of insight as to how things work (including humans) but doesn't explain the balance paradox.

Book two was "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly. This book is designed to shatter paradigms and that's what it does."Watt took the volcanic fury of expanding steam and tamed it with information. His flyball governor is undiluted informational control, one of the first non-biological circuits." Well obviously this "balancing" malarkey involved some form of informational control, some feedback, but that still didn't hit the sweet spot.

Gradually I built up a library of books on chaos theory, self-organisation, information theory and loads of other stuff that was all relevant and useful for developing teaching strategies - but nothing there which directly explained the balance paradox. Yes it became clear that the upright human body, walking or skiing, was a "feedback driven disequilibrium system" exhibiting "emergent holistic" behaviour and learning though "self-organisation". This could easily cover what was really happening with the body and explain why there was no "balance" involved but it still didn't explain why our entire culture had messed up with the physics and developed the balance paradox, or  why it used contradictory terms such as "dynamic balance" in both sport and medicine.

The basic physics itself was relatively clear because at the root of everything lay Newton's second law of motion. This is where that really big heavy book came in handy eventually - because it explained the law clearly in terms of  "the Mechanics of Disequilibrium" in other words - the opposite of equilibrium or "balance". It was clear from the outset that by putting the details of "informational control" and "feedback" aside for the moment the basic underlying action was all dependent on this law. Newton's second law simply states that any unbalanced force upon an object will cause it to accelerate. This is often written as F=MA or Force = Mass x Acceleration. Something seriously interesting and useful in teaching immediately springs forth from this law - and that is that Force and "Accelerating Mass" are equal and thus interchangeable. Thinking about this brings some startling insights into how we move and what we teach about movement. This gives a great basis upon which to develop simple and relevant instruction. I'll get around to some practical examples later on, but in the meantime I'll proceed with the story.

Several years after that ill fated and aborted article on the balance paradox I had all the bits and pieces in place to show that there was no paradox - just a failure of understanding. Something however was still missing. How was it possible to meet the self-proclaimed King of engineering and for him to tell me that "The entire universe is in balance" and that my theories were all wrong? I could see that he had no clothes on, but he was absolutely determined to convince himself otherwise and to intimidate everyone else around him into agreement.

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