Friday, July 4, 2008

Complexity is not Evil

Over at dragondoor, an RKC colleague recently posted a quote from Dave Tate, powerlifter (and precision nutrition practitioner) extraordinaire.

Mike Johnson, RKC Posted:

"Mastery of the simple things leads to greatness. Application of the complex leads to confusion. Yet, 90% will jump at the complex for the solutions to our problems. What's interesting is the most complex things are external, while all the simple things are internal."
- Dave Tate

There is an article by Tate at This quote from the article really hits home on the training front.

Mike Johnson nicely frames the application of this sentiment in terms of training, but even there, where one might think a training program is "simple" rather than complex, this really raised the question for me, what is the difference between complexity and simplicity? Are we selling complexity short? And what about the assertion that it is "the simple things that lead to greatness" - in what context? according to who and whose army?

For instance, getting to e=mc2 - which is simple in its expression, elegant and powerful - took a whole lot of wrestling with very complex math. The path to e=mc2 was messy, complex, but necessary to arrive.

Would anyone argue therefore that "application of the complex" in such a case "leads to confusion" - rather than ultimate clarity? Surely there is nothing wrong with working through difficult, challenging problems that require the application of multiple strategies, approaches, levels of sophistication and complexity?

The end result may be perceived as again elegant simple beautiful, but the path to getting there is just as often messy - what one might call "complex."

Mr. Tate's statement may be grounded in his experience in the iron game where getting one with the Pavel-like approach to focus on a few things and do them well has been shown to be an effective approach to training. And, as noted, this is exactly the context in which Mike Johnson situates the statement's applicability.

Indeed, Steven Covey in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People asks the question: what is the one thing that you know that if you did it extremely well you know you could make a difference? The one thing you *know* how to do, that doing would make a difference.

How do we get to this one or few things that can be *applied* to make a difference?

Usually it's because someone has either developed a template or deliberately constructed a set of heuristics they can provide to say "for this problem, follow this and you'll get results." But indeed, is always knowing which template will lead to which results simple? or are the complexities in accounting for messy variables to determine the optimal approach?

Heuristics: Rules of Thumb

So how do we get from the messy, the complex, to these templates or heuristics? Heuristics are the outcome and encapsulation of what has taken sometimes incredibly complex and ingenious efforts to determine. That we have so many things we can just APPLY, from westside templates to cartesian geometry is because others have done the work to invent, verify, refine and so on.

Getting Intrigued vs Engaging Compexity

Creativity is messy; it's complex; its extraordinary; it can rarely initially be well tied up into a heuristic for direct application.

i understand the sentiment about simplicity: that in APPLICATION, where there are known and elegant solutions, people can get hung up in over-complicating things and wind up getting nowhere. But i'm not sure that the fault lies with complexity per se, but rather that it *looks* like something that's complex (what i call "getting intrigued") when actually it's lack of commitment or discipline to really get down with the hard work necessary to address the problem. I can see this procrastination/perfectionism/read one more article consider one more twist in students (and at times in myself) where thrashing about is not a sign of engaging rich complexity, but is a sign of getting overly intrigued - rather than getting to it. Why people get intrigued rather than get to work is a whole other topic.

Celebrate the Messy, Too
So why not embrace the messy, the challenging, the complex, too? to boldly go, as it were, to split the infinitive with intent; to ask questions and not be afraid of the hard graft it can take to work through the gnarly problem? Not *all* hard work is as simple as the Nike slogan "either you ran today or you didn't"- The intent and the act might be seen as simple there. Did you work on your thesis today or didn't you - where the work is tough, complex, demanding of a whole different set of problem solving skills - may be reduced to either you did the work or you didn't, but the work is more complex than did i pick it up and put it down several times. We engage such complexity at various stages for training, too, to get to the right way to pick up and put down that thing we swing.

Kenneth Jay's VO2 Max Snatch Protocol: from the Complex to the Simple
In the training space, an example of engaging the complex to get to an applicable heuristic is kenneth Jay's VO2max Snatch protocol.

THis protocol did not come out of hacking around with a kettlebell. It's based on the science of how the body works; of how energy systems adapt to interval training. Of understanding physiologically how to optimize full body effect with the stroke of the snatch to improve lactic acid threshold. It's based on a knowledge of being able to engage and critique the protocols (like Tabatta) of what's gone before. It's based on testing hypotheses based on this science, and then refining, applying, refining again.

We happily receive this protocol (a) because we trust Kenneth (b) because people we respect trust Kenneth (c) because he can show results (d) others testify to those results and (e) for some of the rest of us, because of all the science that's gone into it, it makes sense.

It should be noted here that while some of science is hacking trial and error in the experimental process, the hacking around, trial and error of most good experiments is first based on working through the related research, engaging with it, synthesizing it, analyzing where the gaps are, proposing possible solutions, and in particular trying to scope down and limit the amount of hacking, trial and error around how to demonstrate that the hypothesis you have is correct. When papers are submitted for peer review, the question reviewers will ask is does the experiment actually prove/support the hypothesis?

Principle based AND messy. Complex to get to heuristic.

While i celebrate the elegant and value the heuristic - here's the technique for a great swing, you can just do it without having to understand the mechanics - there seems no point in shunning the truly complex, as opposed to the gratuitously intrigued. Knowing how these energy systems work, or how the biomechanics of a lift comes into play, for instance, sure, adds a level of complexity, but that enriches rather than occludes the Elegant Path, does it not?


Mark Reifkind said...

wow. great great post. it will take more than a few readings to digest all that you have put forth here. and yet I completely agree, there is MANY MANY MANY minutes hours days weeks and years of minisucle analysis and obsessive compulsive disorder of the first order to really arrive at something as simple and beautiful as wsb or other "simple" systems that just plain work.
lots of reading to do here. thanks

mc said...

honored you took the time to drop by and have a read, sir. gotta link in your post about you snatch protocol progress for "tetimony" to effect of a given protocol...where is

mc said...

rif testimony now linked in

Rannoch Donald RKC said...

Great post MC. What I believe we have are two sides, one coin. My banging on about simplicity is arrived at through the most complex of routes.

I work with people who on the whole have little time to "do the digging". That is why they come to the workshops. So, I try and distil all the useable stuff so they can focus on results.

We however are a strange breed. I have these conversations with Marcus of Krav Maga Edinburgh all the time. We look under rocks, search in the woods, climb for a higher vantage point. But we are the exception, not the rule. Sadly, for so many people nowadays, bullet points are what they are after.

So, to engage in the complex, the route must be a simple one. To sail the ocean you first need to master tying a bowline. Then? It's time to explore.

And this takes me to the most interesting some point, properly integrated, this physical culture of ours becomes self expression and that is when true simplicity shines.

mc said...

"And this takes me to the most interesting some point, properly integrated, this physical culture of ours becomes self expression and that is when true simplicity shines"

and that's Art, Rannoch, no?

welcome home?


Rannoch Donald RKC said...

Art it is!

And "Art takes nature as it's model"

MC, we need to talk.



Playing with Iron said...

Hi mc,

Sorry to reply so late to this topic. I've been away from electronic communication for a week.

Anyways, as an undergrad CS Major Complexity Analysis was my favorite area of CS. It's interesting you mention heuristics, as heuristics and algorithm are plans to solve a problem. This fits KB nicely as "RKC Minimun" or the Dane of Pain's "VO2 Max" programs are plans to solve different problems.

In the recent years Chaos and Complexity Theory have been very interesting paradigms for me to look at complex issues. Infinite complexity can arise from the interaction of two or more simple attractors. Complexity cannot be completely known -- it is infinite.
It can still be a tremendous source of creativity and insight.
However, mastery of simple things and playing with the interactions allows you to set "initial conditions" instead of getting lost in the "turbulence".

Tao: Master Yin and master Yang and you understand the Tao.

Just a thought.

This doesn't prove or disprove I'm not crazy

aka "Playing with Iron"
aka "And so Am I Am Not a Strange Loop"

mc said...

Thanks for dropping by, Rich. When the string theory bug bites, you shout, eh?


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