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12/13/07 Finally back

Well, I've probably lost all my readers, but we seem to have a web site back again. Actually, there may still be a few bumps to come, but for the moment, we're up. I have a fair number of blog entries written, but rather than post them and just have them roll off before anybody comes back to see them, I'll re-date them and post them over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, one very important piece of news is that the Third Thursday Series is done for the year. Too many people were going to miss the December race to make it worth the trouble. The series will return in March, 2009.

12/14/07 Intervals on the needle

St. Louis terrain does not encourage you to use your compass much. In fact, Gary Thompson has turned in some pretty strong performances at our meets without even carrying one. As a result, I'm not quite as precise as I should be when running on the needle. This is particularly true in light green terrain (as was evident at US Classic Champs this year).

Today, I ran a workout that I think I'll start doing regularly. It's basically terrain intervals, but rather than running along a handrail, I run on the needle. In this example, the odd-numbered legs are all 500m, which takes me about 2:45 at threshold effort. As you can see from the course, the actual control location is such that it's reasonably easy to find, even if off by 50m or so approaching the circle. The idea isn't to learn how to be spike a control using just a bearing, it's to be reasonably accurate while running full speed on the needle. By running the "hot" legs at threshold, I'm not letting myself make adjustments based on reading small details - I have to trust the compass. As the control approaches, I pick up the feature and make an adjustment as necessary.

This workout has the advantage of honing three things at once. Like any interval workout, it works VO2Max (it takes some discipline to run at threshold in light green, but this time of year it's a bit easier to avoid getting hung up). It also improves compass work. Finally, moving this fast through light green works your running technique in difficult footing.

12/16/07 Year end rankings

The debacle at Classic Champs knocked me out of the top 20, but I can't say I'm displeased to see my 2007 Orienteering ranking wind up at 23rd nationally among Blue runners. That's the highest I've ever been ranked on the elite course. It's also nice to see that only three of those ahead of me are older than me. It seems that, at least for now, I'm doing a fair job of overcoming age with experience. I didn't do enough events on Red to get an age group ranking, but the two National Championships make it a pretty satisfying season on that front as well.

Lessons? Well, the obvious one is you get good at what you train. I focused on orienteering this year and it showed. A bit more subtle is that it's better to be looking up than down. In 2003 and 2004 I also focused on orienteering, but I was trying to win age group races on Red. I had good seasons and won several A-meets, but I wasn't performing at the level I was this year. Getting beat by the best is more instructive than winning against lesser competition.

Plans for next year? More of the same. I'd like to make one more run at breaking into the top echelon (by North American standards; I'm well aware of the fact that the bar is considerably higher in Europe). To do that, I need to raise my game roughly 10%. Obviously, at age 45, I won't be doing that with fitness. There is some hope, though. Three of my A-meet results this year were at that level, so I know that I can turn in that type of performance with the fitness I've got. The key will be consistency with technique. It's a stretch goal to be sure, but it should be fun to try.

12/17/07 Possum Trot meet report

... is here.

12/18/07 Not yet, but...

Kate and I saw Beowulf recently. It's the most serious attempt so far to create an animated movie that looks like it was shot with live actors. While the movie was pretty cool (and fairly well acted, in terms of the spoken parts), the Screen Actors Guild has nothing to fear for the moment. However, take a step back and look at the trend and maybe they should be worried.

Twenty years ago, ray tracing (the fundamental technique for creating realistic computer generated images) was understood, but the computational demands to pull it off were such that films from startups like Pixar were limited to short stories involving inanimate objects in relatively simple settings. Increases in computer horsepower over the past two decades have eliminated such limitations and the main obstacle now is that accurately modeling all the little quirks of human motion (particularly micro-expressions) is pretty tough without hooking all the motor control to a real brain. However, with the speed of a desktop PC expected to surpass that of the human brain sometime in the next 10-20 years, there's no reason to think that hurdle won't be cleared in the relatively near future. It's entirely possible that by 2020, shooting a live action movies will be akin to shooting one in black and white today: a novelty technique that is used to evoke nostalgia, but not one used for mainstream production.

So, why am I rambling about movies without the usual disclaimer that today's entry has no racing content? Because orienteering and adventure racing face a similar dilemma, although very few competitors want to acknowledge it. Currently, GPS is banned, but nobody really pays much attention because it wouldn't help the elites go any faster anyway. The main reason GPS doesn't help is that all it does is keep you in contact with the map. The top competitors rarely lose contact and when they do, they can relocate off features about as quickly as they can read GPS coordinates and plot them on a map (this is less true in adventure racing where night navigation and rough maps make errors more frequent and relocation more difficult).

But, that's not all GPS can do; it's just what's currently built into most GPS watches. Bring in a tiny digital camera to snap a picture of the map at the start of the event. Add a processor that can make good routing decisions based on the map information. Hook it to a heads-up display that would project the best path and distance to the control onto a pair of glasses. Now, the competitor merely needs to follow the arrow into the control. You could even add voice activiated feedback so the unit could adjust the route if, for example, the light green turns out to be slower than assumed.

Science fiction? Hardly. All of this can be done today. It would be expensive to implement in a small package, but all the technology currently exists. In another 5-10 years, there's no reason to think it would be all that expensive. Look another 10 years down the road and there's no reason to think that a good portion of the population won't have GPS-enabled communication devices implanted in their bodies with direct connections to the brain.

Is our sport doomed? I honestly don't know, but the fact that nobody's even seriously considering the consequences of these developments leads me to believe that we'll be caught flatfooted by these changes.

12/19/07 Dante's Interval

In a bit of a departure from my usual reading list, I was looking at Dante's Inferno the other day. I spotted one thing that escaped my notice when I struggled through the text in college: Dante knew a thing or two about hill training. Check out this verse which is right there on the first page:

After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower.
Take a minute to form the image in your mind. On a level trail, the foot on the ground is always lower than the foot in the air. Going uphill, that's not the case. If the foot on the ground is always lower, that means you've got enough spring in your stride that the back foot has come up a fair bit before your front foot hits the ground. Given that he's already implied that it's a pretty substantial hill he's ascending, this description is basically telling us he's hammering the climb pretty hard. Throw in the line about resting between efforts and it seems that Dante was an advocate of hill repeats several centuries before they came into vogue.

12/21/07 Slingshot

E. Molitor (AKA Yukon King asks, "Yesterday in our local little paper they had a reference to a 'slingshot' move in bike racing - what is that?" The short answer: tons 'o fun.

There are several forms of the slingshot maneuver. The legality depends on the type of racing. The most effective form (and the form that is always forbidden, except in Madison events on the track) is properly called a handsling. In a Madison race (named after Madison Square Garden in New York, where the event was hugely popular in the late 1800's), riders pair up and alternate turns on the track. The exchange is done by the current rider tagging the hand of their teammate. The exchange can take place anytime, so a big part of the strategy is deciding when to tag off.

It didn't take long for riders to realize that instead of just tagging the hand of the rider coming in, the contact could be used to transfer some momentum as well. The most effective way to do this is a handsling. The rider coming in gets himself going and then rolls down the banking (gaining more speed in the process) straightening out just above the sprinter's line (1m from the inside of the track). The inside (left) hand is held out, even with the hip. The tagging rider passes on the inside and grabs the hand. Both riders then pull hard and the incoming rider is literally thrown forward while the exiting rider slows by a roughly equal amount. Having been accelerated up to a pretty good speed without expending much effort, the incoming rider proceeds to kick as hard as possible, achieving a speed that would be difficult to attain without the sling.

This is typically done on sprint laps with the incoming rider finishing off the sprint. It can also be done to create a breakaway. For obvious reasons, this sort of thing is taboo in all other races. The only reason it's not disasterous in the Madison is there typically aren't that many teams in the race and everybody is expecting it. Despite the ban, it happens quite frequently in road races. If done in the middle of a big pack, it's not an easy thing to catch (unless it's botched and causes of one of those spectacular pileups).

Another form of the slingshot is the "butt push" which is basically the same thing except the push is done from behind rather pulling as you pass. This is also illegal, but it's so common on the road (both in sprints and on long mountain descents) that it generally gets ignored unless it's extremely flagrant.

The legal form of the slingshot doesn't involve any actual contact, but is simply a way to maximize the draft. The lead rider begins the acceleration and the following rider jumps just slightly less. Through the lead rider's push, the gap continues to open so that when the lead rider tops out, there is a 2-3m gap between the two. The following rider (benefiting from both the draft and a slightly less violent acceleration) continues to accelerate through the draft, pulling to one side at the very last instant to get around the lead rider.

12/22/07 Doomed?

Jon Torrance responded to my 12/18 post on technology with the following points:

I'm almost certainly vastly ignorant of the state of the art in software tasks analogous to interpreting an orienteering map and making route choices but my sense is that right now developing such a navigation system, even without trying to make it small and light enough not to greatly affect running performance, would be the sort of task DARPA might be up to but neither they nor anyone else with the resources has much incentive to try. Technological progress may change that faster than I imagine but I can't see that the sport is doomed until it's plausible to imagine that the resulting system would be invisible to the naked eye when in use.

I'm curious though - what do you imagine we might be doing differently if we were seriously considering the possible consequences of such developments?

BTW, I have a hard time imagining there isn't going to be a significant time penalty involved in obtaining a sufficiently good digital picture of the map and converting it into a computer-usable and adequately precise representation of the terrain while on the clock. Though I suppose having a reasonably good digital elevation model of the surrounding area already in the system before the start might allow the system to accept a distorted image of the map and still produce a good model of the terrain.

OTOH, I can't see why the system would need voice feedback to be told an area of light green is slower than anticipated. If it's got a clock, real-time GPS data and the smarts to make good route choices, it'll presumably know how much the light green is slowing you down better than you will.

While Jon may not be an expert on software, he certainly knows a lot more than me about orienteering. Thus, careful consideration of his views seems appropriate. At the heart of the matter is the question: what should we do differently? I'll get to that, but I'd like to clarify the smaller issues first.

On the first point of developing a navigation algorithm, he's absolutely correct. While it can be done today, nobody with resources adequate for this task is going to put them on such a niche application. However, who said that an algorithm needs to be written? Currently, we develop algorithms to compensate for the fact that computers are so much slower than a human brain. That will only be true for another decade or two. Once computers are matching us in speed, there will be no (or at least greatly lessened) need to write algorithms. Computers will be able to solve problems the way we do: trial and error with feedback. Exposing a neural net to several thousand maps with routes taken by WOC-level orienteers would give an excellent set of base rules that could then be honed through actual competition. This is not particularly hard to do. Assuming that one will be able to purchase "off the shelf" neural nets that can be used to make decisions based on visual patterns, any amateur programmer would be able to do this with a few months of concerted effort.

The packaging of the system is a non-issue in my mind. I expect that peripheral device and knowledge implants will be available by 2020 and fairly common by 2030. Excluding such things from competition will mean excluding a significant chunk of the population.

Scanning the map at the start is probably the biggest current limitation, but the easiest one to solve in 5-10 years time. Consider what's happened to the digital camera market in the past 5 years. We just bought Yaya a digital camera for Christmas. For $50 we got a camera in a weather and shock resistance package that a four-year-old can easily operate. The images rival the very best digital rendering from earlier this decade. Just as we correct for distortions by taking repeated glances at the map, the interpretation algorithm could use multiple images to reduce problems with the capture.

The bit about voice feedback is valid; that wasn't a good example. My point was that the information doesn't need to flow in just one direction. The navigation program should be viewed more as a partner with whom you converse. Depending on the implementation, the mode of communication may or may not be verbal and could range over any number of topics, just as teammates discuss many aspects of the race in team events. Whether the program would also be willing to talk about all the irrelevant stuff that comes up at 3AM when you're just trying to keep the team awake will be a deferred design decision.

So back to the big question: what to do? In general, there are three approaches. The first is to pretend that this stuff isn't coming. That's what we're doing now and I think it will result in the collapse of the sport if followed for too much longer. The other two are to fight technology or to embrace it. I'll look at each in the next few days.

12/23/07 Fight it

Let's examine the preservationist (or, if you prefer, Luddite) road first. I'm going to take the following points as axiomatic in 10 years time, though some would debate them:

  • Computers will navigate better than people. By "navigate," I mean the ability to know where you are at any given time and which direction you should proceed. This point could be debated today (though I'd certainly be willing to defend it), but it will be indisputable in 10 years.
  • Computers dedicated to solving problems in a reasonably narrow domain (such as navigation), will be able to make good decisions faster than people.
  • Computer decisions will not degrade significantly under the stress of competition.
  • Computer input devices will be at least as good as our natural senses.
  • Computing devices (including sensory input) will be small enough that they can be carried (or concealed) with no performance penalty.

If any of those offend you, just change the time horizon. Computers will do everything better than we do by the middle of the century. It's not a question of if, but when.

If the goal is to preserve the sport in more or less its current form, all this technology has to be banned outright. There are three problems with this. The first is that we already allow two very important pieces of technology to be used: compass and watch. As anybody who's applied for a patent in a high-tech area knows, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define devices using simple nouns. Watches do a lot more than just tell the time and there is no shortage of compasses that have additional features built in. The acceptance of these devices in current competition will make it more difficult to write rules that exclude the extras. We'll either have to ban compasses and watches altogether (the more promising course in my view) or put up with increasingly complex exclusion rules (and the accompanying protests).

More serious is the fact that, banned or not, these items will be used in competition. Once made sufficiently small (or implanted), it will simply not be feasible to catch cheaters. One could argue that in an amateur sport cheaters are only cheating themselves and the rest of us can simply abide by the rules, but just because there's no money on the line doesn't mean it's fun to be beat by someone who cheats.

But, the biggest problem by far is the fact (presumed, but a reasonable presumption) that the bulk of the population will have these devices implanted in a way that will not be easy to turn off. Nearly all cell phones carry GPS now. Navigation systems in cars are becoming increasingly popular despite a pretty hefty price premium. Those two facts lead me to believe that, once available, people will flock to have nav-enabled communication devices implanted. I don't see why that would be much more than 10 years away. I'll concede that there may be some hesitance because people are naturally queasy about hardwiring something to their brains, but it will be technically feasible. At any rate, when it does happen, the preservationist road starts to look pretty bleak.

So, does this path make any sense at all? I think it does, if only to buy us an extra decade. Here's what I'd suggest to get us pointed that way:

  • Ban all electronic devices except for punch units from major competitions. Yes, that includes your watch. You don't need it if you're epunching since you'll get your splits later. If we must keep compasses (and I suppose we must, just because it would be so difficult to separate the sport from the manufacturers who have spent the last century developing it), insist they be based on a magnetic needle with no electronic enhancement.
  • Continue the emphasis on sprint and middle distance for individual competition. These courses typically feature short and/or complex legs with lots of micro-choices. These are the types of legs where computer nav will take the longest to catch up with human capabilities.
  • Ditch the individual long events and replace them with mass start "goat" type events where pack tactics and fitness count for more than rough navigation.
  • Discontinue the practice of using GPS/mobile phone technology to track the top competitors at international competitions. You can't have it both ways. If you don't want the technology to be used, don't use it.
This buys some time, but sooner or later maintaining the sport as a "human only" endeavor will collapse under the weight of greater societal and technological changes (we haven't even talked about the fact that folks with artificial legs will no longer be "handicapped" but "enhanced".) But, the time may be useful, because implementing the alternative strategy will take time. I'll take a look at the "embrace" road next.

12/24/07 Resistance is futile

Sports, like just about every other human activity, evolve. This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. Sometimes it makes sense to push back on the evolution. Other times pushing back just results in silliness. I think the foremost example of the latter is "traditional" cross-country skiing. There's nothing traditional about using poles taller than you are to push your way around a course on skis with no kick wax. If the powers that be wanted to roll back the clock on the sport, they should have stopped grooming the trails. Of course that's ridiculous, but that's the point: you can't roll back the clock. Once everybody realized that the diagonal stride was inferior, there was no bringing it back.

On the other hand, drag racing has done an outstanding job of limiting technology in a way that both preserves the sport and allows people to look for improvements. Jet-powered dragsters have been around for quite some time. If the NHRA was to embrace jet dragsters as the premier class of drag racing, I expect the sport would die a fairly quick death. Jet dragsters are exceedingly costly and dangerous, which means that few pros and no amateurs would get to drive them. They're not that interesting to watch, either. As a novelty act, they do a nice job of filling the night time intermission with their pyrotechnics, but then the attention is turned back to the classes that really get the fans going: Top Fuel and Pro Stock. These classes capture the imagination because they resemble what you do every time you leave a stop light. Sure, the cars are purpose built and go through several gallons of gas in the four or five seconds that elapse, but they are doing the same thing a normal car does: converting heat to speed via an engine, transmission, and some really sticky tires. A jet dragster is faster, but we have no frame of reference to assess the performance.

If the problem was just one of limiting technology on the course, I wouldn't have any worries about orienteering. The steps outlined yesterday would be adequate, perhaps even overkill. Unfortunately, there's a bigger issue looming: the ascension of silicon-based life. You can plug your ears and sing "la-la-la-la-la" if you don't want to think about it, but purely "biological" humans are only going to run this planet for another 30 years or so. After that, the dominant "species" will either be a heavily augmented form of Homo sapiens or some sort of completely new artificial life (assuming the development of the former, I don't expect the latter to be superior until 2060-2070, but some who know more about it than I have predicted earlier dates).

One might rightly wonder if the future of orienteering really rates as a serious concern in light of such a change, but I would argue that we ignore these "small" issues at the peril of not being able to deal with the big ones. If we can't figure out how to incorporate an artificial life form into a simple pastime, how are we going to respond to its request to buy a house, vote, get married, adopt children? These changes are going to be such a shock to our society that I think it makes sense to start small when thinking about them.

And, just like everybody else, I think I'll put that off until tomorrow, because I've got a biological life form of my own making that needs my attention right now.

12/25/07 Embrace it

If we're looking for a model of a sport that has successfully embraced technology, one could do a lot worse than sailboat racing; particularly the offshore variant. To the casual observer, ocean racing still pits crews against the elements in an effort to get across the sea using only what nature gives you. All the drama (and a good bit of the danger) is still there. On closer examination, these boats are closer to the space shuttle than their 19th century progenitors. And, you literally could launch a satellite for less than the typical budget of an America's Cup team.

Ocean racing boats make extensive use of electronic instrumentation. Aside from the obvious use of GPS and weather instruments, sensors monitor the attitude of the boat, the shape of the sails and relative position of other competitors. While the ultimate decision still rests with whoever has their hand on the wheel, the computer indicates the best course to windward, position of the lay line (the point at which you can sail straight to the next mark without tacking), and assist with sail selection.

You might think that all this takes some of the skill out of the sport, but it doesn't. I've crewed on ocean racers and can attest that there are still plenty of ways to get it wrong (and all the gadgetry in the world doesn't take any of sheer terror out of sailing in a gale). If anything, having being relieved of the guesswork, the premium has shifted to strategy and preparation. Having better data is akin to having a better map in an orienteering race: it removes some of the luck, but you still have to know how to apply the information. A good crew will wax a bad crew every time unless one boat is significantly faster. The rules are tight enough that such speed mismatches are rare.

So the question is, can orienteering incorporate these types of devices while still keeping the fundamental challenge of the sport? My take: sort of. The sport will be much different, but it will still be a challenge. The specific direction will be determined by what parts of the sport are valued most by the participants. We'll need to take a step back and come to terms with that before looking to the future.

12/26/07 What are we trying to preserve?

Lisa Carr solicited the Attackpoint crowd for reasons they orienteer. You can read the thread for yourself if you want the details; here are the main positives cited:

  1. Combination of physical and mental challenge. Correlated to the mental aspect were the opinions that orienteering was less boring than most endurance sports and that one could continue to improve later in life.
  2. Feeling of freedom. This one was taken many ways - freedom to choose your own route, freedom of running your own race, and the more general "free" feeling one gets when out in the woods.
  3. Sense of purpose in finding controls.
  4. Fascination with maps and puzzles.
  5. Camaraderie of the orienteering community.

While Attackpoint is an excellent sampling of competitive orienteers, one also needs to consider the desires of the recreational participants. Without them, the sport would simply not have the numbers to exist. I wouldn't say I'm particularly well plugged into that group, but my time on the SLOC board gave me some exposure to their preferences. Their list is not that different, but one would put a lot more emphasis on the second and third points. These folks are mainly looking to get out and enjoy the woods. Finding the controls gives structure to their activity.

Any future version of the sport that I can contemplate satisfies the last three desires. It's the first two that are tricky. The reason for this is that, when combined with the coming technological shifts, they are at odds with each other. Not to the point of being mutually exclusive, but certainly competing priorities.

Preserving the feeling of freedom is easy. Just let everybody use whatever they want and send them out on the course. However, without some limits on what constitutes legal means of progress, this would hardly even qualify as a sport, much less one people would find challenging.

One could preserve the mental challenge easily enough by switching to a virtual environment. There, GPS, or any other real-world navigation aid, wouldn't do much good. We'll have to see where virtual reality goes, but it's possible that a virtual environment could adequately test the physical aspects as well. However, I don't think many of us would find this nearly as satisfying as being out in the actual terrain.

Finally, we need to come to terms with just what is meant by physical and mental challenges because these very concepts are going to be at the heart of the larger technological changes. We must assume that, as with technology today, there will be early and late adopters. This includes everything from communication and navigation implants, to physical and sensory enhancements, to brain enhancements, to outright re-hosting of individuals into virtual or cybernetic bodies. The difference in performance between the early and late adoption of technology is typically 2-3 orders of magnitude. Pitting a jet against a bicycle doesn't make for a very interesting sport.

My take is that the virtual reality route is the only one with long-term promise, simply because I expect that everything else about our lives will head that way as well. The need for the physical world will likely diminish as we become more accustomed to being free of it. In fact, it's quite possible that future generations will find life in a 3-dimensional space where things happen so slowly quite dull. Nature may be fascinating in slow motion, but when our brains are a thousand times quicker than they are now, it will appear to stop altogether. To challenge such processing capacity will require some sort of artificial construct.

So, back to the original question: where to go from here? I'll look at that in a final post.

12/27/07 Predicament

OK, I lied. I implied yesterday that I had just one last post on this subject. However, when I started to write it, I realized that one more piece of background was needed. To consider where we should go in embracing the ascendance of technology, it's helpful to look at a sport that has already been overrun by it: Chess.

Maybe you don't like calling Chess a sport, but it's certainly a competition and one where computers are better than people. All people. That's an important point. It's one thing for us to dismiss navigational systems claiming that the elite are better than that. That's what the chess community did for many years. As late as 1993, World Champion Gary Kasparov was clinging to the notion that computers couldn't play at the top level because they lacked the "fortitude". When he got beat in shorter games, he (rightly) claimed that the restricted time limit favored the machine. But, in 1997, he was beat outright using the time limit for international games and there was no denying that human supremacy in the area of Chess was over for good. Well, actually Kasparov did try to deny that for a while, but it was pretty obvious to everybody else.

While that may have been a blow to our collective ego, it didn't immediately threaten the sport. Computer chess was allowed to advance on it's own with separate tournaments. Nearly all players, even at the Grandmaster level, used computers to train, but over the board it was still one person against another. However, less than 10 years later, the strength of Kasparov's rival, Deep Blue, was mainstream technology. Suddenly, anybody with a laptop, an off-the-shelf chess program, and an earpiece could cheat their way to a major tournament win and some did.

I played my last Chess tournament in 1999. I was never that good. In 1994 I was actually the median tournament player for the entire country and since most tournament players are young, that meant I got beat by high-school kids pretty frequently. Computers had been busting my chops for over a decade when Kasparov went down to Deep Blue, but the knowledge that nobody could beat a machine certainly lessened my interest in continuing (although, I was pretty much losing interest by then, anyway).

It didn't take much foresight to see the cheating thing coming. For the moment, tournament organizers are relying on detection. That's not going to work for much longer. Whereas there are some real physical constraints that currently make cheating at orienteering problematic, cheating at Chess is currently easy and about to become trivial. It's hard to imagine that the greatest game in the Western world will vanish overnight, but it won't surprise me at all if tournament Chess as currently practiced is completely undone by cheating in the next 10 years. The only form of competition that won't be completely bogus will be computer tournaments. The World Champion will not be the best player, but the best programming team (or engineering team, if hardware is not standardized).

That may sound bleak, but consider this: the World Champion has always been the best programmer - all that's changed is that we're programming silicon rather than neurons. The way you program a Chess computer is to expose it to lots of patterns and let it play out the position. That's exactly the way masters have trained since tournament play began.

This is the point that needs to be understood if we are to carve out a future for orienteering. What we do when we train is the same thing that will be done to train navigational systems based on neural nets. Most experts in artificial intelligence believe that neural nets are the only way computers will surpass human intelligence anytime soon. Thus, turning a sport into a programming contest doesn't change the mental aspect of things nearly as much as one might imagine. Preparation still caries the day and the more training, the better.

With that established, we can finally look at where we should be heading when the stopgap measures of the "fight it" path are no longer feasible.

12/28/07 Where from here?

In 2004, I directed an A-meet at Hawn. I was approached by the St. Louis Area Geocachers Association about putting on a combined meet with the idea that our memberships might have a lot in common. For those who don't know, Geocaching is basically recreational orienteering with GPS. Well, it turns out the two groups couldn't be much more different. The geocachers were a fun lot and both camps were friendly, but we just didn't see things the same way. This is why it's so important that we start directing the future of our sport in light of technology rather than letting technology shape it. If we don't, we might wind up with something we don't like very much.

Obviously, this direction will not be one person's vision. It will be the result of many ideas being tried and the best ones identified and pursued. So, without any further explanation or apology, here are some ideas. All of them are flawed, but if everybody started just getting thoughts out, we might find a few that lead us to a place where we're happy. To do otherwise pretty much guarantees the opposite.

Think virtual

We already have a pretty good orienteering simulator in Catching Features. The program's author, Greg Walker, doesn't bill it as anything more than a game, but it is widely used as a training tool and has hosted some moderately serious competitions. Nobody is claiming that proficiency at Catching Features is equivalent to skill in the actual terrain, but the correlation is fairly high once one gets past the initial learning curve.

Aside from being a well-written simulator, I think there are three things that have helped Catching Features become the de facto standard for computer orienteering. First, the program operates online allowing for the creation of a community of users. Rankings are given not only to individuals, but clubs and countries as well. Second, the game speeds up time. This may seem like a small thing, but it's not. Orienteering is hard because you are doing it under duress. When the physical aspect is removed, you need something else to keep you under pressure. This will become increasingly important as our brains are augmented with additional processing power. Finally, and most importantly in the long run, the game is truly virtual. It comes with a map editor (OK, it's clunky, but it does work) so you can create just about any terrain imaginable. "Fantasy" maps frequently get high ratings by online competitors who enjoy the challenge of something completely different. I expect that, as we become more accustomed to virtual spaces, orienteering in higher dimensions may provide the needed additional challenge.

Think preparation

Performance is the outcome of preparation. All great athletes know this. However, sports are not deterministic. Upsets occur. Computer programs can be made to appear random, but they are not (at least not with today's technology). Given the same data, a computer will reach the same conclusion. "Randomizing" the program doesn't change this assertion - the random seed is part of the data. That's generally considered a good thing, but whereas a person may produce a surprisingly good or bad result, programs tend not to. Whether this will change as increased processing speed allows for tackling increasingly difficult problems remains to be seen. What is clear is that the quality of the program is hugely important in producing a good outcome. This is also true with humans, but the fact that we are constantly programming our brains to handle all sorts of problems (and generally doing a good job of it) often masks this. We tend to talk a lot about "skill" and "talent" when we really should be noting perseverance. While it may well be possible in the near future to purchase a neural net designed to navigate, without some real effort in training it, the results will be quite dismal.

My hope is that the development of these systems parallels what is being done with technique training today. The basic nets may be developed by clubs or national federations (just as clubs and federations currently hire coaches) and then the individual athletes work on training them to their own preferences. Just as elite competitors are generally open with sharing training tips with the rest of us, I'd like to see some open source development with various elite competitors uploading their own experiences. This may seem like giving the game away, but Chess Grandmasters have been doing exactly this for years and the result has been a tremendous improvement in the quality of play at all levels. It's true that an opening novelty is usually kept under wraps until used in competition, but once played, the inventor of a successful move typically publishes their analysis and others are quick to add their own comments. If this can work in a professional sport where knowledge is everything, it should be quite feasible among us amateurs.

Think stress

Much of the drama of sports comes from the perception that much is at stake. In some sports, such as auto racing, mistakes can actually be fatal. Usually, the penalty for error is significantly less, but the important thing is that it feels like mortality is on the line. Look at the language we use to describe races gone bad: "I died at the end", "that mistake killed my chances", "there was no saving it", etc.

Hyperbole aside, the emotions of competition are often more intense than the emotions of real life and death struggle. I've been in three situations that one could reasonably call life-threatening: a head-on car crash, caught above tree line during a thunderstorm, and having a heart attack (OK, that last one was a false alarm, but I had no way of knowing that at the time). All three were stressful and, particularly in the case of the thunderstorm, there was some very genuine fear. However, I wouldn't rate any of them in my top 5 emotionally-charged moments. Those slots are all occumpied by situations when the race, not my life, was on the line.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that large chunks of your brain shut down when your pulse approaches maximum. In physically stressful situations, we revert to our more primal impulses. I'm sure this was useful when not getting eaten was a daily concern for our species. Now, it's just a rush and it's a lot of what we like about participating in sports. Whether we find some way to make orienteering work in the terrain or whether it becomes completely virtual, it will be necessary to force the competitors into stressful situations or the exercise will seem less like sport and more like doing math homework.

So, where do we go?

Obviously, I don't have a short answer. If I did, I would have stated it a week ago. But I do believe that the general direction should be to implement the "fight it" suggestions as soon as possible and start seriously developing a parallel competition track based on virtual reality. A middle ground, for those who insist on having such a thing, would be to start embracing the use of technology in the terrain, if only to get a read on how much it is threatening the fight it path.

In closing, I'll go waaaaay out on a limb and predict that around 2017 an Orienteering World Champion will lose some sort of exhibition match to a very good runner using navigation aids. If that is our wakeup call, the sport will die almost immediately after. If we've seen it coming and are already heading down a different road, we may wind up with something even better.

12/30/07 2007 Wrap

To say 2007 was a good year for race results would be a colossal understatement. The 21 wins tied my career high and two of those wins were National Championships. I also got my first "Silver" level national ranking among elite orienteering competitors. Perhaps the most gratifying finish was finally breaking the hour at Pere Marquette. All three of those were on my list of "reasonable" career goals, but when they haven't occurred by your 44th birthday, you begin to wonder if they will.

Unfinished business? Of course! There's always something more to shoot for. The two big ones from this year were the very near miss at a sub-3-hour marathon and not making the US Orienteering Team. The 3-hour marathon still seams like a reasonable goal. Making the US Team is looking more and more like a stretch. However, it's good to have a few stretch goals, so both of these get carried over to 2008.

12/31/07 3000

Under the heading of year-end silliness, I went to the trouble of designing a couple control picking courses today to push my annual control total to 3000. I didn't actually get a chance to run them, so I'll have to settle for 2928. While there's nothing magical about hitting a round number like 3000 (particularly when the total is padded with city park workouts like what I drew up today), I think keeping a control count does serve some value. I've definitely noticed that I'm sharper when I'm hitting 50-100 controls a week than when I'm getting in fewer than 25. Running to a specific point is better training than just running on a map. Running on a map is better training than just running. Running is better than doing nothing. The bottom line: totals do matter.

Pursuing a high control total just for the sake of meeting a training goal will bias you towards putting a lot of short legs in your training. This is not really a bad thing. Just about any long leg can be broken into a series of short legs. If you can run short legs well, you should be able to run long legs well. The opposite is not true. You can get away with a lot of sloppiness on long legs simply by running the "green light" sections fast, but short legs have to be precise because even small errors are significant.

Of course, there are skills that are best trained with longer legs. Rough compass, route choice, and terrain speed are not particularly important on most short legs. However, compared to the time losses incurred when map contact is lost, the difference between being proficient versus merely competent on such skills is fairly minimal. Running short legs forces you to stay in contact all the time.

Aside from weekly and yearly totals, I believe the lifetime total is pretty significant as well. Every time you hit a control, your brain matches what it sees in the terrain with what it sees on the map. After a few thousand of these, the pattern matching becomes pretty automatic and you are rarely surprised by what you see. However, there's a big difference between being able to read and true fluency. It takes many thousands of map/terrain matchings for your brain to automatically construct a 3-dimensional image of the terrain every time you take a glance at the map. You should be doing this all the time; not just at control locations, but most people benefit from the discipline of doing it at a specific spot.

I'm often asked how I train navigation without hanging markers. I believe that training without markers is actually more beneficial because it forces you to look for the terrain feature. The downside is that sometimes you get taken out of your rhythm because the map isn't quite right (or you just didn't read it right) and you have to spend some time verifying where you are. To me, that's a small price to pay for having the ability to verify your location any time on a course and not just when you're at a control. If you have an active local club, you can get in plenty of training with actual markers by attending all the local meets.

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