Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage… Uncertainty is far more challenging

GM Var Akobian in simul match

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Garry Kasparov – How Life Imitates Chess

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Is there a problem here?

Solving a problem that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Unfortunately – or, if you prefer, fortunately – many of the problems that are worth solving, that need to be solved, don’t come with that level of certainty.

In his book, How Life Imitates Chess (which, by the way, I highly recommend), Garry Kasparov has this to say about uncertainty:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

 

The Art of Learning

Last summer I picked up Chessmaster The Art of Learning for the PSP to take with me on my frequent business trips.  One of the things that adds extra value to this game is the involvement of Josh Waitzkin.  (You may remember Josh as the subject of book, and film, Searching For Bobby Fischer.)

On my trip out to Arizona last week I read Josh’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  It is a quick read, so I had finished by the end of the day, but soaking it all in will take a little longer.  Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading sections, marking up the margins, jotting down notes to myself in my notebook about the many insights that Waitzkin provides. I have the feeling that this book will end up with a permanent slot on the bookshelf above my desk; this is where I keep those books I turn back to over and over.

In some ways, The Art of Learning is like George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment and The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei (both of which are on that aforementioned shelf). But where Leonard tells the story of a middle-aged man who sets out on a path of mastery later in life, Waitkin’s story is one of reflection on a life of a child and young adult who essentially started life on the path, lost his way, and then found his way back.

For myself I found his insights valuable, if not obvious in the sense that all good ideas are obvious when someone else gives them voice.  As the parent of two very talented and hard working teenagers, Waitzkin’s insights are invaluable.

What if they had been diagnosed autistic?

In his book Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, author Roy Richard Grinker mentions chess legend Bobby Fischer (p. 63) as someone who may have been an undiagnosed autistic. I’ve just started reading David Edmonds’ book Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (P.S.), and have to say that I was thinking the same thing. (For more discussion on the subject check out the Bobby Fischer talk page on Wikipedia.)

Which got me thinking: If Fischer were indeed autistic, how would his life – and the history of chess, among other things – have been different if he had been diagnosed when he was young? If he had been provided the treatment and services that are typically demanded today for Asperger’s diagnoses, would he have had the impact he did? Would he have been able to have that impact, or would that ability have been “treated” out of him?

You can extend this to any of the great minds that people sometimes say were probably autistic, like Newton, Einstein, Van Gogh. You could also look at those who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and think back on how things may have been different, for them and their contributions, if they had been diagnosed younger.

There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that the increase in diagnoses of autism, especially Asperger’s, is due to a better understanding of what Asperger’s is and an increased desire of parents to understand why their kids are “different”. Many are being diagnosed now that might not have been diagnosed before, and demanding (and receiving) treatment they may not have received before.

I can’t help wondering what these individuals – and the world – may be missing out on because we want to catch and “fix” their differences early in life. We want to make life “easier” for these kids and their parents in the short term, but what is the impact to the long term? (This is kind of a different take on my earlier question, “What would a world without autism look like?“)

(Just to be clear, I’m not advocating not diagnosing children – or adults – if a diagnosis is warranted. I’m just asking the question because I think the answers, even if only hypothetical, can give us some insight into why we think the way we do about autism and why we do the things we do about autism.)

UPDATE: As I finished writing this, I saw Your Advice Requested: Next Steps for a Teen Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome? over at About.com. The questions I’ve asked in this post were a hypothetical to get you thinking about what impact a diagnosis and subsequent treatment would have had on an undiagnosed autistic. If you’ve had a chance to consider those questions, your thoughts on them should help you come up with an answer to Lisa’s question.

How about a nice game of chess?

Remember at the end of the early-80’s movie, War Games, when Matthew Broderick’s character David showed the WOPR how to play tic-tac-toe, and then how the WOPR learned the futility of global thermonuclear war by comparing it to tic-tac-toe?  And how WOPR (or Joshua) then commented on the futility of a game that can not be won (except by not playing), and asked David if he would like to play a “nice game of chess”?

I can’t help wondering if the whole vaccine / autism thing is an exercise in futility for both sides, a game of unwinnable tic-tac-toe, or if it is a game of chess, still in the opening phase with the middle-and end-games left to come.  And if it is a game that can be won, what exactly is it that the victors will win?

A(nother) description of knowledge work

I am just about finished reading Garry Kasparov‘s 2007 book, How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves – from the Board to the Boardroom, and have been holding off on posting anything about the book until I do get to the end. But the following passage, starting on page 183, caught my eye as an interesting way to look at and possibly define knowledge work:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

See my earlier post, A conversation on the nature of knowledge work, and the links in that post for more discussion on those ideas.

* In this context, Kasparov explains, “crisis” is not a disaster, as the word is commonly used, but rather a “turning point, a critical moment when the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.”

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