Stud and Fighter Instructions

My apologies for the third S&F post in four days. However, this blog represents an impression of the flow of thought through my head, and if I try to time my thoughts to suit readers’ interests and variety, I’m afraid I may not be doing a very good job.

I came across this funda in one of the “sub-plots” of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which I finished reading two days back. Actually, there is another post about the main plot of that book that I want to write, but I suppose I’ll write that some other day, maybe over this weekend. So Dawkins, in some part of the book talks about two different ways of giving instructions. And thinking about it, I think it can be fit into the stud and fighter theory.

I must admit I’ve forgotten what Dawkins used this argument for, but he talks about how a carpenter teaches his apprentice. According to Dawkins, the carpenter gives instructions such as “drive the nail into the wood until the head is firmly embedded” and contrasts it to instructions which say “hold the nail in your left hand and hit it on the head with a hammer held in the right hand exactly ten times”. By giving instructions in the former way, Dawkins argues, there is less chance of the apprentice making a mistake. However, in case the apprentice does err, it is likely to be a significantly large error. On the other hand, with the latter kind of instructions, chance of error is higher but errors are likely to be smaller.

A set of “stud instructions” typically tell the recipient “what to do”. It is typically not too specific, and lists out a series of fairly unambiguous steps. The way in which each of these smaller steps is to be accomplished is left to the recipient of the instructions. Hence, given that each instruction is fairly clear and unambiguous, it is unlikely that the recipient of the instructions will implement any of these instructions imperfectly. What is more likely is that he goes completely wrong on one step, maybe completely missing it or horribly misunderstanding it.

“Fighter instructions”, on the other hand, go deep into the details and tell the recipient not only what to do but also how to do what to do. These instructions will go down to much finer detail than stud instructions, and leave nothing to the reasoning of the recipient. Obviously the number of steps detailed here to do a particular piece of work will be significantly larger than the number of steps that a set of stud instructions. Now, the probability that the recipient of these instructions is likely to make a mistake is much larger, though the damage done will be much smaller, since the error would only be in a small part of the process.

Dawkins went on to give a better example than the carpenter one – consider an origami model of a boat on one hand, and a drawing of a boat on the other. Origami gives a set of precise and discrete instructions. Drawing is as good as a set of “continuous instructions”. Dawkins talks about experiments where kids are made to play a version of “chinese whispers” using the origami and the drawing. I won’t go into the details here but the argument is that the stud instructions are much easier to pass on, and the probability of the tenth kid in line producing a correct model is really high – while in case of a drawing, there is a small distortion at each and every step, so each final model is flawed.

Stud and fighter instructions have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Fighter instructions require much more supervision than do stud instructions. Stud instructions enable the recipient to bring in his own studness into the process and possibly optimize one or more of the sub-processes. Fighter instruction sets are so-finegrained that it is impossible for the recipient to innovate or optimize in every way. To receive a set of stud instructions, the recipient may need to have certain prior domain knowledge, or a certain level of intelligence. This is much more relaxed in case of fighter instructions.

I personally don’t like supervising people and hence prefer to give out stud instructions whenever I need to get some work done. However, there was one recent case where I was forced to do the opposite. There was this IT guy at my company on contract and I was supposed to get a piece of code written from him before his contract expired. Given the short time lines in question, and given that he didn’t have too much of a clue of the big picture, I was forced to act micro and give him a set of fighter instructions. He has ended up doing precisely what I asked him to do, the only problem being that he has  written code in an extremely inflexible and non-scalable manner and I might have to duplicate his effort since this bit now needs generalization.

I have noticed that a large majority of people, when they have to give out instructions spell it out in the fighter manner. With a large number of micro steps rather than a small number of bigger steps. And until the recipient of the instructions has got enough fundaes to consolidate the set of micro-instructions he has received into a natural set of bigger chunks, it is unlikely that he will either be very efficient or that he will produce stuff that will be flexible. It might also be the case that a large number of people don’t want to let go of “control” and are hence loathe to give out stud instructions.

In the general case, however, my recommendation would be to give stud instructions, but have a set of fighter instructions ready in case the recipient of the instructionss wants things to be more specific.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

Lazy Post – Statistical Analysis

I call this a lazy post since I didn’t originally write it as a blog post. I had written this as an email to a mailing list, and now thought it might make sense as a blog post. The reference to context: a prominent and well-respected member of the group had written a fairly lengthy argument, and ended it by saying “Maybe this calls for a good regression analysis….” . My reply is here.

I need to mention here that this mail to the group wasn’t responded to (apart from one tangential remark by  Udupa). I don’t know if it simply got lost in the flood of mails on the list today, or if people on the group (in general, a very intelligent lot) don’t care for this kind of stuff, or if, for some reason, this caused discomfort of some sort. Anyway, I begin:

I think I had raised this point before in a similar context. it is about the use and misuse of statistical analysis. i think one lesson that ought to be learnt from the ongoing financial crisis and the events leading up to this is that statistical analysis, when misused, can have dangerous consequences, and this is not just for the people who are misusing the analyses.

there is this popular view that if there is data, then one ought to do statistical analysis, and draw conclusions from that, and make decisions based on these conclusions. unfortunately, in a large number of cases, the analysis ends up being done by someone who is not very proficient with statistics and who is basically applying formulae rather than using a concept. as long as you are using statistics as concepts, and not as formulae, I think you are fine. but you get into the “ok i see a time series here. let me put regression. never mind the significance levels or stationarity or any other such blah blah but i’ll take decisions based on my regression” then you are likely to get into trouble.

i think this is broadly the kind of point that is made by people like Paul Wilmott. that the problem is not with statistical analysis, but  with the way people use statistical analysis.

ok, now that i’m done with my rant, I’m very sceptical about regression yielding any kind of conclusive results here. i think the number of data points we have here is too small to produce any meaningful results. of course i’m saying this without really looking at all the data that you want to might want to include. and i won’t be surprised if a few tens of papers get published on this topic. all based on statistical analyses. and the results all being orthogonal to one another.

Yede thumbi haaduvenu format is unfair

A month or so back, I had blogged about yede thumbi haaduvenu, a talent hunt show for young singers on ETV Kannada. I was full of praise for the event. About the format. About the way SPB comperes it. About the judging. Organization. And all that. I think I had written that post towards the end of last season. The new season has just begun. And I have a crib. It is not a minor one.

The format has changed. Last time around, it was a “normal knockout”, with round of 16, quarters, semis, final, etc. Each round would have four contestants of which two would progress to the next round and two would get eliminated. It was a nice and clean system – considering that any non-knockout format for a TV show isn’t a good idea.

Now, they have some sort of a serial knockout. Each episode has four kids, of which two get knocked out. The two who survive compete the following week, with two new people. Two out of these four qualify further. And so on.

This might have been an excellent format – if only the players were robots. If only the players didn’t have that human element called “form”. The format as it is right now is heavily biased in favour of kids who join the program in later rounds. Maybe they have been seeded there based on qualification placings. Nevertheless, it is wrong, and puts the kids who join early at too much of a disadvantage.

Kids who join early need to be at their top form for a larger number of episodes than those that join later. Sustaining an above-average performance over a larger stretch of time takes much more effort. You will also need to keep in mind that the pressure to perform in such events is huge. For the kids who join later, however, all it takes is for them to get lucky and produce terrific form for  a handful of episodes and they are through.

I suppose the producers of this event simply didnt’ realize that there is something called uncertainty. They would’ve looked at the format and said “this seems simpler for spectators and anyways the best will have to beat everyone else so this is ok”. I’m sure it the people who came up with this format are a bunch of fools who have no clue about either mathematics or about human tendency. I go back to one of my recent posts and call for the so-called “creative” or “qualitative” industry to cash in on the ibanking bust and take in some quants.

I’m reminded of one of the world chess championship (FIDE) cycles in the late 90s. They had a strenuous knockout tournament for a month to decide the challenger. And the winner of this tournament (Anand) then played the reigning champion Karpov who had been directly “seeded into the finals”. Anand got walloped by Karpov. And he had said something like “this is not fair. I have run the full marathon and in the last 100 meters this guy joins the race. what sort of a contest is this”

The current format of yede thumbi haaduvenu is no different. Now, if only the producers were to have some sense.