11 November, 2017

Primary Keys

A primary key is a database terminology used to uniquely identify a row. For example, you might want to identify each student by their student ID. Problems can arise when you pick a primary key that turns out not to uniquely identify things. If you keep track of your students by their first names, you might find yourself confusing two students who share the same name!

In the same spirit, we have mental primary keys for identifying uniqueness between objects. I might say “the sushi in this michelin star restaurant tastes just like the one down the corner” or “isn’t what makes one cyclist better than another just how well they can pedal?” In the first example, I see the primary key of sushi as the freshness of the fish and the quality of rice. In the cycling example, I have a primary key that is the athleticism of the cyclist.

When we talk to aficionados in these respective areas, we are often met with vehement disagreement about what considered same or different, or what drives uniqueness in a particular perspective. If they are good explainers, their explanations of their primary keys often point to real observable things.

For example, cycling is about pedaling on a bike right? Newcomers of cycling find the sport dull since all they see are people peddling on bicycles for long hours. I thought so too until I met someone who really likes cycling. During our conversation, I popped the question. Isn’t what makes one cyclist better than another just how well they can pedal?

Nooooooo. He says not only are raw athleticism important, there are many layers of skills, ranging from political skills, economics, and public relations. Two important aspects of cycling are important to note when talking about how it enables new dimensionalities to the game. The first is the efficiency gain from drafting behind another cyclist — around 30 – 40%. That’s insane! If you’re following behind someone, you only have to expend 60% of your energy to maintain your speed. It also means the person in front has to expend almost twice as much energy as you while you leech off his draft.

This brings about a very interesting question — who usually ends up in front? There is no race if no one is in front! In team races, the peloton (called the “peloton”) usually consists of cyclists from the same team. The person who rides in front depends on various conditions. Usually there is a large, strong, bulky guy who fronts the flat terrains, and often cyclists in this role are picked for their ability to generate high top speeds. Then there are people who front the group when going uphill, whose roles are picked for maximum energy efficiency.

How do people “win” in cycling events? That’s the other aspect of cycling. You can win multiple medals in one race. A cycling event usually consists of multiple stages, each stage spanning about a day. Each stage can have a winner. You can compete to try to win the individual races or the team races.

Let’s explore the possible strategies Lance Armstrong might incorporate. Lance Armstrong is a superstar, but he doesn’t win the races by himself. He, for the most part, needs a team he can draft behind. Lance Armstrong as a celebrity is a good rallying point for other riders to join and share some side fame. The only job of these riders is to make sure Lance Armstrong wins, and with that objective they can be put into some crazy roles. For example, usually in the last portions of the race, Lance Armstrong’s team will push heavily forward, and “carry” Lance with him, and when Lance is ready to carry the rest of the way himself, the front liners would peel off, effectively taking themselves out of the race. This is called a “slingshot” move because you’re slinging your winner to the front.

There are cyclists who are water boys, who would break off from the peloton to fetch water, and bring it back to the team. That’s one of the few jobs they have in a team.

Winners are usually determined by the 3 fastest riders in a race, but everyone in the team (often 8)  must finish the race. So cyclists from disparate teams who have been left behind often aggregate together to form pelotons, with a whole different set of strategies and etiquettes to guide their behavior.

I would go on, but that was a taster of what my friend was telling me. After that long conversation, I finally developed taste around what separates a mediocre cyclist from an extraordinary one, and it’s not a matter of how many fast twitch muscle fibers they have. My primary key shifted from one that has one part (muscles & cardiovascular health) to one that has many parts (muscles & cardiovascular health, social skills, public relation skills). The transition makes thinking about how to “solve” cycling non-trivial.

If I find myself lost in the dark on how why I don’t “get” other people’s enthusiasm for something, I often ask myself what my primary key is. Then I ponder if if I’m missing something. If I’m still lost, I will ask the question, “what separates from each other? Is it just

Having a mental handle on primary keys is part a small step towards the journey of learning appreciation. Often we find something as bland or boring because we have bad mental primary keys. If you fine tune your primary keys, you’ll also find more interesting and unique things in the world.

I hope to write more articles in this series of learning appreciation as a skill. There are very few things that I can’t get excited about, and that’s more due to my effort and skill in appreciating the thing than it is that thing is intrinsically interesting.

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