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Data, Technology, and Judgment

We homo sapiens seem overwhelmed by information, technology, and choices. We sadly struggle to manage the daily deluge, cycling through frustration, indignation, anger, and melancholy. A simple scan of news headlines, op-eds, and online comments can fuel a sense of despair, even on the brightest, sunniest day during this era of peak human achievement and prosperity.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat on our societal condition with a sweeping generalization, I will transition to a few practical matters intended to ground our thinking and even the score.

Data

Data, like a socket wrench, is useful if you have something to do with it. The value of data increases with a framework to apply or basic question to answer. How we collect and analyze data, and ultimately communicate results, profoundly affect understanding and insight. In The Effective Executive, the late Peter Drucker wrote about the problem of production data getting averaged out and “translated” for accountants:

“Operating people, however, usually need not the averages but the range and the extremes….”

This applies to investing, medicine, rocket science, and research. In forest economics, for example, there is no such unit as an “average timber market.” Timber markets are uniquely local, though the inputs for analyzing them, as with the ingredients for baking bread[1], are basic and known. Since having the necessary data and knowing how to apply it are two different things, we sometimes look to frameworks, models, and technologies.

Technology

Recalling what the dog said when dating the skunk, with technology “you gotta take the good with the bad.” Technology, like all things human-borne, can prove miraculous and curative or horrific and destructive. Consider technology a two-sided coin: nuclear bombs and nuclear energy; carbon emissions and carbon capture; radiation poisoning and radiation treatments. 

While technological applications support accessible education, they also facilitate misinformation conspiracies, and hate speech. In this dizzying relationship, we use technology in ways that create problems, and then we return to technology to mitigate and solve those problems. Ultimately, technology is an agnostic tool; its use and consequences depend on judgment.

Judgment

Judgment, like trust and good relationships and bonsai, takes time to nurture and develop. Mistakes are okay. Bad judgment, however, is a virus that never leaves. Bad judgment leads to bad decisions and poor results. As Jim Rohn said years ago, 

“Failure is a few errors in judgment repeated every day.”

Across professions, from medicine to education to consulting, the assessment of competence, whether qualitative or quantitative, tests versions of, “Do you have the experience, knowledge, and judgment to improve the situation or help us make a better decision?” In other words, and in the end, do you know when or how to apply the information and technologies at hand?


[1] For reference: flour, yeast, water, and salt, in addition to and quoting a good forest economist friend, love. “Got to have love. Most important ingredient, Brooks.”

Brooks on Books: More on Tennis

In September, I was in Corpus Christi, Texas watching a tennis match and taking notes, when a smiling, clear-eyed gentleman in tennis clothes sat next to me. We chatted about the game and tennis strategies, and then introduced ourselves.

“I’m Bobby Hagerman, the tournament director here,” he said, as we shook hands. A Texas native, Bobby played tennis on scholarship for LSU from 1972 to 1975. After college, friends and neighbors asked for tennis lessons, and this started a 40+ year coaching career. “I love it.”

Later that day, Bobby texted me a few book recommendations. This post, another in the periodic “Brooks on Books” series (including “Interested in Tennis?”, which reviews four influential tennis books), reviews two of the tennis books suggested by Bobby. Both provide practical guidance and strategies for improving our tennis games.  

“Keep the Ball in Play”

William “Big Bill” Tilden, the first American to win Wimbledon, published “Match Play & the Spin of the Ball,” a slim guide of tennis skills, strategy, and training. Published in 1925, the fundamental messages on stroke production, tactics, and psychology on the court have no expiration date. This book reminds us to focus on the things we control and make the most of what we have. As Tilden writes:

“…it seems a shame to me to pass up the ability to do anything well, simply because the effort seems tedious…If there is a hole in your game, plug it by intensive practice…”

This book emphasizes the critical, unequivocal importance of keeping the ball in play. Not only is hitting the ball over the net and within the lines with confidence joyful, but it also puts pressure on your opponent, and Tilden takes particular satisfaction in getting his opponents out of position. Firstly, though, he disdains unforced errors:

“I consider that double faults, missed ‘sitters’ (easy kills) and errors on the return of easy services, are absolutely inexcusable and actually tennis crimes.”

Tilden played during the early days of professional tennis, and he profiles the strengths and weaknesses of many contemporaries. While the names didn’t resonate for me, the descriptions helped me picture the application of Tilden’s recommendations to always have an idea of what you’re doing out there on the court and why. Concluding with another quote from Tilden:

“The two greatest things in match play are to put the ball in play and never give the other man the shot he likes to play.”

Visualize Successful Shots

Michael Zosel’s “Vision Tennis” (1994), written as the story of a high school tennis player, teaches approaches and strategies for developing a positive and tough mental game. This includes, for example, the benefits of “confidence chanting” short positive statements when playing to feed your subconscious. He also advocates visualizing the specific path and success of your serve before tossing the ball. As Zosel notes, your internal process is “hungry for vivid and positive images…”

The book provides a structure and plan for developing a personal philosophy about your tennis game, which is relevant to players of all ages. Bobby recommended this book as one to read with my daughter, and we have done just that. The book addresses the individual components of building a mental plan that includes your skills, strategy, training, and in-match self-talk. 

The reality is that no one plays perfect tennis, so it’s about doing the hard work of developing skills and managing your mental equilibrium that leads to success. To quote the author, “Playing great tennis is a moment-by-moment process, not an end result.

Keep It Simple: Another Lesson from the MIT Baseball Team

My Dad taught me and my brother, “There is no premium for complexity.”  He emphasized the value of keeping it simple, focusing on the most important things you can control, and getting it done. You don’t get paid more to sound like a robot or technocrat, or to add extra milestones or phases. A good plan is simple, and an effective leader or teacher communicates the plan or idea clearly and relentlessly.

Dad’s message still resonates for me in my work at Forisk. Nobody cares about the sophistication of our forest industry models or the length of our resumes if investments lose money or operations underperform.  Simple, well-executed strategies and plans “keep the cow out of the ditch” and on the road towards a pre-defined goal.

Still, most of us can recall times when a plan, approach, or strategy proved overly complex. 

Infield Equations

As a student at MIT, I played baseball for one of the most effective and important mentors in my life, Coach Fran O’Brien. My senior year, our Varsity Baseball Team won its first ever championship, set a school record for wins, and led the NCAA in fielding percentage. I wrote a book about the team called Beaverball: A Winning Season with the MIT Baseball Teamand dedicated it to Coach. However, at times, even the best of managers can overengineer a message.

Each season during spring training, Coach O’Brien reviewed our various coverages for defending bunts. These defensive schemes – which Coach named x, x-squared, y, y-squared, z, and z-squared – were devised for players comfortable with equation-filled chalkboards and electronic circuits. 

Each play designated who covered first and second base, and who would field the bunt laid down by the batter.  Sometimes the first baseman charged with the second baseman covering first; sometimes the second baseman charged and sometimes the third baseman. We reviewed these schemes each year and, frankly, I couldn’t remember them as a player and still can’t recount them accurately today. 

During my time at MIT, I can only think of one instance where Coach called on these bunt defenses in a game. It occurred during my sophomore year, and I was playing first base. I remember holding a runner on first and looking across the infield to see Coach O’Brien barking from the dugout, “Z-squared! Z-squared!” 

I looked to the other players on the infield to see if anyone else knew what to do. We all simply looked at each other, except for Peter Hinteregger at shortstop, who silently clicked into action. I shrugged and moved to cover the bunt as I normally would. Only the bunt didn’t happen – the batter squared around but did not execute – and neither did our bunt coverage. Coach didn’t look at us after the play; he turned away and looked at the ground. That’s the last and only time I remember him calling one of those plays.

Concluding Thought

Sometimes, we prefer a simple restaurant menu, a basic oil change, and clear parking signage. I like recipes that start with “microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes” and avoid buying clothes with “special” washing instructions. Most of humanity prefers that we keep our message, guidance, and plans short and simple. This is true at work, at home, and on the field. 

Cybersecurity Simplified: Best Practices to Reduce Risk

After delivering the keynote at AgWest Farm Credit’s “2023 Forest Products Summit” in Portland, I parked myself in a seat on the side to listen and take notes during presentations on geopolitics, macroeconomics, and cybersecurity. This final talk, by Rachel Wilson, current Head of Cybersecurity for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management and formerly an executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), changed the way I think about everything electronic with my team at Forisk and at home with my family.[1]

What is Cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity refers to protecting computers, data, and networks from digital attacks that destroy intellectual property or hijack systems via ransomware. Cyber criminals use simple, easily deployed tools to acquire access and personal information. Therefore, cybersecurity starts with educating ourselves on ways to minimize the risk and implications of attacks.

The basic “tools of the trade” for bad online actors include phishing and social engineering. With phishing, fraudsters send phony but reputable seeming emails or text messages to get you to reveal personal identifiable info. Hackers throw hooks in the water and hope you bite by clicking a link or attachment that downloads malware and disables your computer or network. 

Social engineering involves techniques to manipulate you to “bite the hook”, such as creating a false sense of urgency, appealing to your good will, or leveraging your personal network. For example, hackers sometimes check social media, pluck names of friends from your network, open an email account in that person’s name, and send you a phishing email from that account. (If unsure about an email, call your friend to confirm they sent it.)

Best Practices at Work (and Home) to Reduce Risk

To protect both your personal information and your firm, consider the following:

  • Keep all operating systems patched, updated, and current. This includes your phone, laptops, iPads, and anything connected to the web. Rachel Wilson emphasized that this is by far the most important and effective thing you can do.” 
  • Back-up everything with a “1-2-3 Strategy”. This means three back-ups in two locations with one disconnected from the internet (such as a regularly updated external hard drive). 
  • Practice uploading and restoring from a backup. Train to fight. If we don’t know how to restore a backup when needed, we’re not ready.
  • Use strong passwords (and a password manager). Use long, complex passwords with capital and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Then use a secure password manager to organize and store them. Do not keep a “Note” on your phone or computer or desk labeled “Passwords” or a simple document on your computer that lists all your passwords.
  • Use secure wireless connections. Any public Wi-Fi connection, like drinking water downstream, is free but risky.
  • Enable two-factor authentication. This also significantly increases the security on your accounts. Two-factor authentication typically requires “(1) something you know and (2) something you have.” For example, logging in requires a password (something you know), followed by you receiving a confirming text message on your phone (something you have).   
  • Check your security settings on social media. Facebook and others often change security settings, and you may not be aware of how they’ve changed. A big risk to personal information is that you have little control over what your friends share, so if you don’t want your stuff going all over the place, prevent sharing via your personal security settings.
  • At home, consider having a single, standalone device for high impact activities and business. Typically, that would be a desktop or laptop computer, and the entire family would understand that “on this machine: no social media, shopping, gaming; only banking, investing, and business.”

Interestingly, your most secure device is apparently your mobile phone, so keep that in mind if banking by phone versus computer. That said, avoid letting people know when you’re not home by posting pictures from your phone while you’re on vacation. Share those exotic pictures after you return home.


[1] This post summarizes advice from Wilson’s presentation and from materials and videos provided by AgWest (https://agwestfc.com/education-and-resources/fraud-and-security).

Brooks on Books: Interested in Tennis?

Books are magical and the most powerful of technologies. The fact that lines of ink on flattened pulp can transmit ideas, information, and inspiration to our minds remains remarkable to me. This post, one in the periodic “Brooks on Books” series (see “Recommendations on Recommending” and “What are You Reading?”) reviews four influential books related to tennis that offer lessons and strategies applicable to our lives on and off the court.

Deliberate Focus Quiets the Mind

Tim Gallwey’s slim 1974 classic The Inner Game of Tennis has informed coaches and players across sports and vocations. For example, recent editions include a forward from Pete Carroll, who has taught and applied approaches from this book as a college and professional football coach. The thesis of The Inner Game is that, to do anything well, one must master the ability to focus on the present moment and task at hand. 

This is not a tennis “how to” book. Rather, Gallwey highlights the connection between our mental self-flagellation and performance on the tennis court. Overthinking and trying too hard create tension in the body and mind. As Gallwey writes, “the inner game… is played against… lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation… all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”

This book helped me relax when practicing and move past errors when playing. It includes techniques for directing your attention. For example, you can concentrate on specific things, such as the sound of the ball or the seams of the ball in play rather than on the score. In a way, Gallwey shows how tennis can help us practice living in the moment and focusing on the task at hand.

Learn and Plan

Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert and Steve Jamison builds on the idea that players should work as hard on planning and thinking as they do on their physical skills. It says, “you can improve your tennis game fastest and the most if you improve the way you think.” This includes advance planning, scouting opponents, evaluating yourself, and truly understanding how, given your strengths and weaknesses, what strategy puts you in the best position to win.

Winning Ugly offers lots of practical advice related to warming up before a match, correcting strokes during a match, scouting, and building game plans and strategies. Throughout, Gilbert and Jamison emphasize the importance of making sure you are mentally and physically prepared. These are in your control. 

The authors observe that this 1993 book, which focuses on the “administrative” left brain, complements Gallwey’s The Inner Game, which emphasizes the intuitive right brain. They write, “always believe that most of the time there is a way for you to win. You just have to find it.” In sum, have a plan and know what you’re trying to accomplish on the court.

Use Good Data

Many of us who go down the YouTube tennis rabbit hole eventually find videos by Craig O’Shannessy and his data-based analytics of tennis (click here for a great example).  However, Craig and other data-driven tennis professionals stand on the shoulders of coaches and analysts such as Vic Braden who co-authored, with Robert Wool, Vic Braden’s Mental Tennis. This 1993 book advises “eliminate uncertainty where you can” by developing plans based on hard data. 

The authors write, “your game is only as good as your data…Good data… is the reality of what is happening to the ball, to you, to your opponent…” Alternately, poor information prevents improvement. In this way, opinion and unsubstantiated assertions become enemies of progress. The only things that matter are those that help you concentrate effort and execute.

“Execution is the name of the game… getting into position to hit the ball, addressing it properly, and hitting it in the center of your strings…focus on the ball…The ball must be hit in a particular way… regardless at what point in the match… The ball…has no brain or emotions.”

Braden’s research findings hold up today. For example, while casual observers believe professional tennis players hit lasers from the baseline inches over the net, the data showed (and shows) the best players average four to seven feet (or more) above the net when hitting deep shots. Braden shares data on areas such as hitting crosscourt versus down the line, on return of serve, and approach shots. A key take home is the idea that focusing on and improving one element or stroke at a time can raise your entire tennis game. 

Maintain Perspective

Tennis is a game played within a larger human construct. John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, which alternates between the on-court action of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner and the off-court history and background of these two players, cuts a slice of U.S. cultural and social history with the tennis match. 

One of the individuals profiled in the book is Dr. Robert Johnson, a black doctor who fell in love with tennis, built a court next to his house, and ended up supporting, mentoring, and coaching some of the greatest African American tennis players, including Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. The book reminded me how, relatively speaking, we have it easy today. Most of us, most of the time, can go hit balls or enter tournaments without a lot of contrived hooptedoodle. 

McPhee is a wonderful writer, and he captures the flow of the match and the character of those he wrote about. As Arthur Ashe told McPhee, “When you’re confident, you can do anything.”