Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taleb on Black Swan Fitness


Interesting piece by Nassim Taleb, taken from an updated edition of his modern-classic Fooled by Randomness. Taleb's friendship and general professional agreement with Chaos economist Art DeVany on the importance of using fat-tailed distributions for economic and financial modeling are well-known; more recently, Taleb has been following DeVany's evolutionary fitness approach and incorporating the concept of "convex profit functions" (systems that make money during extreme events) into his strength & conditioning program.

The use of controlled, intermittent fasting is a very good principle, in my opinion,and I think the chaotic dynamics identified in the quantitative predator/prey model that Taleb describes have a number of interesting applications (particularly to warfare). I personally don't fully agree with some other aspects of the described routine. For example, I think that long-slow distance running (i.e., heart rate kept below approx. 150 bpm) more closely simulates a prehistoric persistence hunting environment than does the walking that Taleb favors, although of course both can be punctuated by random bursts of short sprints (Taleb, amusingly, says that he uses his desire to chase down and maul former Clinton Administration Treasury secretary Bob Rubin as a motivational tool during his sprinting episodes).

To each his own... DeVany and Taleb seem to have a general dislike for distance running, and they do not feel that it is meaningful to make a distinction between, say, an elite marathoner who maintains a heart rate of 90% of max for two hours (extremely strenuous physiologically), and someone who does more gentle, long-slow distance work to build a tremendous aerobic base. I think that I would prefer it if DeVany and the other paleo-fitness subject matter experts gave rough heart rate ceilings for extended efforts, and left it up to the individual practitioner to decide what kind of pace could be maintained while staying under that target heart rate. Giving specific, objective, and measurable guidelines would also provide a feedback mechanism by which the paleo-athlete could determine his or her progress in terms of fitness for long-range cross-country movement.

(The arguments for the evolutionary pedigree of endurance running/persistence hunting in mankind's deep ancestral times are not without controversy. The basic concept is that we have physiological adaptations which allow us to maintain a pace that exploits a "sweet spot" in the movement qualities and patterns of our quadruped prey targets. Given a flat, hot, open environment, we can drive prey to exhaustion by sustaining a pace fast enough to force them into a sprint/rest cycle which will become increasingly untenable for the prey animals. For those not familiar with the argument, here is a link to one of many interesting papers: http://www.canibaisereis.com/download/liebenberg-persistence-hunting-2006.pdf )

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