May 02, 2008


What is Beta? It's time for some conceptual analysis here. A first try: "advice on the best way to climb a route." Not too shabby, but there is an obvious problem - you can get bad beta, perhaps beta for short people that is horrible advice for a tall (and attractive) dude like me. Alright, how about "advice or instruction on how others climb a problem?" Interesting, but you can get beta without consulting others. Imagine you are alone in the woods climbing a problem you know nothing about. You are getting stumped, but after finding a hidden hold you say to yourself "finally! I've got the beta." No one else comes into the picture here, yet you now have beta whereas before you got on the problem, you didn't.

After much thought (oh how my MA Thesis has suffered!) I think this whole business of giving a straightforward definition in misguided. Beta isn't simply a matter of information. Imagine a boulder problem with a crucial heel hook. You would never have thought to get a heel hook on that particular hold, it is around the corner and somewhat hidden, but there is a large tick mark that wraps around the arete. Based on this tick mark you make the straightforward conclusion that you should heel hook the hold. It seems to me, and I think this isn't wrong, that you haven't gotten beta on the climb simply by seeing the tick and concluding the heel hook.

Now contrast this with a situation in which there is no tick, but the person with you has been on the climb and tells you about the secret heel hook. You have clearly received beta here, but oh no! the information you've gotten is exactly the same as in the last scenario. Because of this, I find it unlikely that beta is simply a matter of information.

Alright, so our attempt at providing a definition for beta has been a failure so far. What else could it be? Perhaps "beta" is a functional notion, defined in terms of an onsight and a flash. Again then: "beta is whatever it is that precludes an onsight." Typically this will be information, but notice that on this definition, it is not solely a matter of informational content. The role that this information plays is what is fundamental, that is, information that would turn an onsight into a flash.

I've got to say, this isn't the most informative explanation. After all, we still don't know all that much about onsighting and flashing - we are still ten years away from a decent analysis of these concepts. And we can still ask, what is this mysterious thing that makes an onsight into a flash? What are its characteristics, its properties, both intrinsic and contingent. Yet after thinking about various definitions, I'm not sure we can avoid a functional analysis like this.

Look at those analytic tools you learn from philosophy! How useful, how powerful! What do others think? Sure, this is an inane waste of time, but this is the career path I've chosen, and surprisingly, this is likely the most relevant thing I've written all week. So don't knock it, play along with me here. Thought?!


Kyle V said...

If i may.......
Think of chess.
Only this chess game is unique to each player in that each player owns different chess pieces that move according to a different set of rules. No two sets are alike. Now for each different person and their chess set there exists a perfect strategy or plan of action based on the opponents moves. As a good chess player one could reason and come to these perfect moves on his/her own, but they don’t have to. They may also be coached in any manner as to the best course of action for a particular situation.
The important idea here is that for each person and his/her chess set there is a best move based on statistics. If one plays a perfect game of chess than one will win over an opponent.
The idea of the statistically most logical move to make based on the situation and your particular chess set is it.
So, as an analogy to climbing this means that this idea is beta.
It is different for each person.
It is statistically the best move an individual can make based on their physical and mental attributes and for the given situation.
A climber can come to know the beta for a move by his/her reason alone.
Also, a climber can come to know the beta for a move by being coached in any manner.
The coaching method needs some explaining.
So, how can one be coached by another as to the statistically best method for performing a move when they are of course a different person? (Different Chess Set!) We will assume that know one knows what is statistically best for anyone but themselves. (Most people don’t even know what is best for themselves.) The answer is, they can’t, but there is a catch.
Just because I say heel hook on the hidden hold around the corner and it is the best way for me, doesn’t mean that it isn’t the best way for you to.
See what I am getting at.
So, if you are coached in any way as to the best way to do a move and it just so happens that it is the best way for you to do the move, than you have received beta. (No onsight)
I guess this also means that if you have been coached in any way as to the best way to do a move and it isn’t the best way for you, then you have not received beta.

That’s all I got for now, I am tired, I have to wake up at 5a.m., and I am not going to spent more time thinking about this.
I agree with you, this is pointless.
Never the less, I liked responding to your conundrum.

Mandi said...

too many words.