The Data/Human Goal Gap

As I was writing a letter to my third-grade daughter’s principal in support of a change in homework policy (a letter which I’ve posted here), it occurred to me I was making a point about a phenomenon that isn’t unique to education at all, but happens in a lot of other fields, too: baseball, business, economics, and politics.

I don’t know if this phenomenon has a name. It probably does, because you’re very rarely the first person to think of an idea. If it does, I’m sure someone will soon enlighten me. The phenomenon goes like this:

* * *

Suppose you suck at something. Doesn’t matter what it is. You’re bad at this thing, and you know it. You don’t really understand why you’re so bad, but you know you could be so much better. One day, you get tired of sucking, and you decide it’s time to commit yourself to a program of systematic improvement, to try to be good at the thing you want to be good at.

So you decide to collect data on what you are doing, and then study that data to learn where exactly things are going so wrong. Then you’ll try some experiments to see what effect those experiments have on your results. Then you keep the good stuff, and throw out the bad stuff, and pretty soon you find yourself getting better and better at this thing you used to suck at.

So far so good, eh? But there’s a problem. You don’t really notice there’s a problem, because things are getting better and better. But the problem is there, and it has been there the whole time. The problem is this: the thing your data is measuring is not *exactly* the thing you’re trying to accomplish.

Why is this a problem? Let’s a simplified graph of this issue, so I can explain.

Let’s call the place you started at, the point where you really sucked, “Point A”.
Let’s call the goal you’re trying to reach “Point G”.
And let’s call the best place the data can lead you to “Point D”.

Note that Point D is near Point G, but it’s not exactly the same point. Doesn’t matter why they’re not the same point. Perhaps some part of your goal is not a thing that can be measured easily with data. Maybe you have more than one goal at a time, or your goals change over time. Whatever, doesn’t matter why, it just matters they’re just not exactly the same point.

Now here’s what happens:

You start out very far from your goal. You likely don’t even know exactly what or where your goal is, precisely, but (a) you’ll know it when you see it, and (b) know it’s sorta in the Point D direction. So, off you go. You embark on your data-driven journey. As a simplified example, we’ll graph your journey like this:


On this particular graph, your starting point, Point A, is 14.8 units away from your goal at Point G. Then you start following the path that the data leads you. You gather data, test, experiment, study the results, and repeat.

After a period of time, you reach Point B on the graph. You are now 10.8 units away from your goal. Wow, you think, this data-driven system is great! Look how much better you are than you were before!

So you keep going. You eventually reach Point C. You’re even closer now: only 6.0 units away from your goal!

And so you invest even more into your data-driven approach, because you’ve had nothing but success with it so far. You organize everything you do around this process. The process, and changes that you’ve made because of it, actually begin to become your new identity.

In time, you reach Point D. Amazing! You’re only 4.2 units away from your goal now! Everything is awesome! You believe in this process wholeheartedly now. The lessons you’ve learned permeate your entire worldview now. To deviate from the process would be insane, a betrayal of your values, a rejection of the very ideas you stand for. You can’t even imagine that the path you’ve chosen will not get any better than right here, now, at Point D.

Full speed ahead!

And then you reach Point E.


Egads, you’re 6.00 units away from your goal now. You’ve followed the data like you always have, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, things have suddenly gotten worse.

And you go, what on Earth is going on? Why are you having problems now? You never had problems before.

And you’re human, and you’ve locked into this process and weaved it into your identity. You loved Points C & D so much that you can’t stand to see them discredited, so your Cognitive Dissonance kicks in, and you start looking for Excuses. You go looking for someone or something External to blame, so you can mentally wave off this little blip in the road. It’s not you, it’s them, those Evil people over there!

But it’s not a blip in the road. It’s the road itself. The road you chose doesn’t take you all the way to your destination. It gets close, but then it zooms on by.

But you won’t accept this, not now, not after the small sample size of just one little blip. So you continue on your same trajectory, until you reach Point F.

You stop, and look around, and realize you’re now 10.8 units away from your goal. What the F? Things are still getting worse, not better! You’re having more and more problems. You’re really, really F’ed up. What do you do now?

Can you let go of your Cognitive Dissonance, of your Excuse seeking, and step off the trajectory you’ve been on for so long?

F is a really F’ing dangerous point. Because you’re really F’ing confused now. Your belief system, your identity, is being called into question. You need to change direction, but how? How do you know where to aim next if you can’t trust your data to lead you in the right direction? You could head off in a completely wrong direction, and F things up even worse than they were before. And when that happens, it becomes easy for you to say, F this, and blow the whole process up. And then you’re right back to Point A Again. All your effort and all the lessons you learned will be for nothing.

WTF do you do now?

F’ing hell!

* * *

That’s the generic version of this phenomenon. Now let’s talk about some real-world examples. Of course, in the real world, things aren’t as simple as I projected above. The real world isn’t two-dimensional, and the data doesn’t lead you in a straight line. But the phenomenon does, I believe, exist in the wild. And it’s becoming more and more common as computers make data-driven processes easy for organizations and industries to implement and follow.


As I said, homework policy is what got me thinking about this phenomenon. I have no doubt whatsoever that the schools my kids are going to now are better than the ones I went to 30-40 years ago. The kids learn more information at a faster rate than my generation ever did. And that improvement, I am confident, is in many ways a result of the data-driven processes that have arisen in the education system over the last few decades. Test scores are how school districts are judged by home buyers, they’re how administrators are judged by school boards, they’re how principals are judged by administrators, and they’re how teachers are judged by principals. The numbers allow education workers to be held accountable for their performance, and provide information about what is working and what needs fixing so that schools have a process that leads to continual improvement.

From my perspective, it’s fairly obvious that my kids’ generation is smarter than mine. But: I’m also pretty sure they’re more stressed out than we were. Way more stressed out, especially when they get to high school. I feel like by the time our kids get to high school, they have internalized a pressure-to-perform ethic that has built up over years. They hear stories about how you need such and such on your SATs and this many AP classes with these particular exam scores to get into the college of their dreams. And the pressure builds as some (otherwise excellent) teachers think nothing of giving hours and hours of homework every day.

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, psychological breakdowns that require hospitalization: I’m sure those things existed when I went to school, too, but I never heard about it, and now they seem routine. When clusters of kids who should have everything going for them end up committing suicide, something has gone wrong. That’s your Point F moment: perhaps we’ve gone too far down this data-driven path.

Whatever we decide our goal of education is, I’m pretty sure that our Point G will not feature stressed-out kids who spend every waking hour studying. That’s not the exact spot we’re trying to get to. I’m not suggesting we throw out testing or stop giving homework. I am arguing that there exists a Point D, a sweet spot with just the right amount of testing, and just the right amount of homework, that challenges kids the right amount without stressing them out, and leaves the kids with the time they deserve to just be kids. Whatever gap between Point D and Point G that remains should be closed not with data, but with wisdom.


The first and most popular story of an industry that transforms itself with data-driven processes is probably Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. It’s the story of how the revenue-challenged Oakland A’s baseball team used statistical analysis to compete with economic powerhouses like the New York Yankees.

I’ve been an A’s fan my whole life, and I covered them closely as an A’s blogger for several years. So I can appreciate the value that the A’s emphasis on statistical analysis has produced. But as an A’s fan, there’s also a certain frustration that comes with the A’s assumption that there is no difference between Point D and Point G. The A’s assume that the best way to win is to be excruciatingly logical in their decisions, and that if you win, everyone will be happy.

But many A’s fans, including myself, do not agree with that assumption. The Point F moment for us came when, during a stretch of three straight post-season appearances, the A’s traded their two most popular players, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, within a span of six months.

I wrote about my displeasure with these moves in an long essay called The Long, Long History of Why I Do Not Like the Josh Donaldson Trade. My argument was, in effect, that the purpose of baseball was not merely winning, it was the emotional connection that fans feel to a team in the process of trying to win.

When you have a data-driven process that takes emotion out of your decisions, but your Point G includes emotions in the goal of the process, it’s unavoidable that you will have a gap between your Point D and your Point G. The anger and betrayal that A’s fans like myself felt about these trades is the result of the process inevitably shooting beyond its Point D.


If Moneyball is not the most influential business book of the last few decades, it’s only because of Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. The Innovator’s Dilemma tells the story of a process in which large, established businesses can often find themselves defeated by small, upstart businesses with “disruptive innovations.”

I suppose you can think of the phenomenon described in the Innovator’s Dilemma as a subset of, or perhaps a corollary to, the phenomenon I am trying to describe. The dilemma happens because the established company has some statistical method for measuring its success, usually profit ratios or return on investment or some such thing. It’s on a data-driven track that has served it well and delivered it the success it has. Then the upstart company comes along and sells a worse product with worse statistical results, and because of these bad numbers, the establish company ignores it. But the upstart company is on an statistical path of its own, and eventually improves to the point where it passes the established company by. The established company does not realize its Point D and Point G are separate points, and finds itself turning towards Point G too late.

Here, let’s graph the Innovator’s Dilemma on the same scale as our phenomenon above:


The established company is the red line. They have reached Point D by the time the upstart, with the blue line, gets started. The established company thinks, they’re not a threat to us down at Point A. And even if they reach our current level at Point D, we will beyond Point F by then. They will never catch up.

This line of thinking is how Blockbuster lost to Netflix, how GM lost to Toyota, and how the newspaper industry lost its cash cow, classified ads, to Craigslist.

The mistake the establish company makes is assuming that Point G lies on/near the same path that they are currently on, that their current method of measuring success is the best path to victory in the competitive market. But it turns out that the smaller company is taking a shorter path with a more direct line to the real-life Point G, because their technology or business model has, by some twist, a different trajectory which takes it closer to Point G than the established one. By the time the larger company realizes its mistake, the smaller company has already gotten closer to Point G than the larger company, and the race is essentially over.

* * *

There are other ways in which businesses succumb to this phenomenon besides just the Innovator’s Dilemma. Those companies that hold closely to Milton Friedman’s idea that the sole purpose of a company is to maximize shareholder value are essentially saying that Point D is always the same as Point G.

But that creates political conflict with those who think that all stakeholders in a corporation (customers, employees, shareholders and the society and environment at large) need to have a role in the goals of a corporation. In that view, Point D is not the same as Point G. Maximizing profits for the shareholders will take you on a different trajectory from maximizing the outcomes for other stakeholders in various proportions. When a company forgets that, or ignores it, and shoots beyond its Point D, then there is going to inevitably be trouble. It creates distrust in the corporation in particular, and corporations in general. Take any corporate PR disaster you want as an example.


I’m a big fan of Star Trek, but one of the things I never understood about it was how they say that they don’t use money in the 23rd century. How do they measure the value of things if not by money? Our whole economic system is based on the idea that we measure economic success with money.

But if you think about it, accumulating money is not the goal of human activity. Money takes us to Point D, it’s not the path to Point G. What Star Trek is saying is that they somehow found a path to Point G without needing to pass through Point D first.

But that’s 200 years into a fictional future. Right now, in real life, we use money to measure human activity with. But money is not the goal. The goal is human welfare, human happiness, human flourishing, or some such thing. Economics can show us how to get close to the goal, but it can’t take us all the way there. There is a gap between the Point D we can reach with a money-based system of measurement, and our real-life Point G.

And as such, it will be inevitable that if we optimize our economic systems to optimize some monetary outcome, like GDP or inflation or tax revenues or some such thing, that eventually that optimization will shoot past the real-life target. In a sense, that’s kind of what we’re experiencing in our current economy. America’s GDP is fine, production is up, the inflation rate is low, unemployment is down, but there’s still a general unease about our economy. Some people point to economic inequality as the problem now, but measurements of economic inequality aren’t Point G, either, and if you optimized for that, you’d shoot past the real-life Point G, too, only in a different direction. Look at any historically Communist country (or Venezuela right now) to see how miserable missing in that direction can be.

The correct answer, as it seems to me in all of these examples, is to trust your data up to a certain point, your Point D, and then let wisdom be your guide the rest of the way.


Which brings us to politics. In 2016. Hoo boy.

Well, how did we get here?

I think there are essentially two data-driven processes that have landed us where we are today. Both of these processes have a gap between what we think of as the real-life goals of these entities, and the direction that the data leads them to. One is the process of news outlets chasing media ratings. And the other is political polling.

In the case of the media, the drive for ratings pushes journalism towards sensationalism and outrage and controversy and anger and conflict and drama. What we think journalism should actually do is inform and guide us towards wisdom. Everybody says they hate the media now, because everybody knows that the gap between Point D and Point G is growing larger and larger the further down the path of ratings the media goes. But it is difficult, particularly in a time where the technology and business models that the media operate under are changing rapidly, to change direction off that track.

And then there’s political polling. The process of winning elections has grown more and more data-driven over recent decades. A candidate has to say A, B, and C, but can’t say X, Y, or Z, in order to win. They have to casts votes for D, E, and F, but can’t vote for U, V or W. They have to make this many phone calls and attend that many fundraisers and kiss the butts of such and such donors in order to raise however many millions of dollars it takes to win. The process has created a generation of robopoliticians, none of whom have an original idea in their heads at all (or if they do, won’t say so for fear of What The Numbers Say.) You pretty much know what every politician will say on every issue if you know whether there’s a “D” or an “R” next to their name. Politicans on neither side of the aisle can formulate a coherent idea of what Point G looks like other beyond a checklist spit out of a statistical regression.

That leads us to the state of the union in 2016, where both politicians and the media have overshot their respective Point Ds.

And nobody feels like anyone gives a crap about the Point G of this whole process: to make the lives of the citizens that the media and the politicians represent as fruitful as possible. Both of these groups are zooming full speed ahead towards Point F instead of Point G.

And here are the American people, standing at Point E, going, whoa whoa whoa, where are you all going? And then the Republicans put up 13 robocandidates who want to lead everybody to the Republican version of Point F, plus Donald Trump. The Democrats put up Hillary Clinton, who can probably check all the data-driven boxes more skillfully than anybody else in the world, asking to lead everybody to the Democratic version of Point F, plus Bernie Sanders.

And Trump and Sanders surprise the experts, because they’re the only ones who are saying, let’s get off this path. Trump says, this is stupid, let’s head towards Point Fascism. Sanders says, we need a revolution, let’s head towards Point Socialism.

And most Americans like me just shake our heads, unhappy with our options, because Fascism and Socialism sound more like Point A than Point G to us. I don’t want to keep going, I don’t want to start over, and I don’t want to head in some old discredited direction that other countries have headed towards and failed. I just want to turn in the direction of wisdom.

“It’s not that hard. Tell him, Wash.

“It’s incredibly hard.”

Opinion on Elementary School Homework Policy

The following is a letter I wrote to the principal of my daughter’s elementary school, in support of a plan to limit the amount of homework given to our kids. It is a supplement to my blog entry, “The Data/Human Goal Gap“.

I heard you mention at Open House on Wednesday that you are considering a policy that would limit the amount of homework our kids are given. I am writing to give my strong support for that idea.

You mentioned that we should take a step back and think about what we are trying to accomplish with homework. What is the actual purpose of homework?

I have one child in college now, and one in high school, in addition to the one in elementary school. And here is what I keep hearing educators *say* the purpose is: to prepare you for the next level. In elementary school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in middle school. In middle school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in high school. In high school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in college.

So ultimately, under this argument, the purpose of giving homework to a kindergartener is so that the kid won’t get shocked at a workload that might come 13 years later.

This is absurd. It does not take 13 years to adjust to the amount of homework you get in college. If you had never had homework, and you get to college, how long would it take you to adjust to this new level of homework? I think it’s maybe three or four weeks. It’s certainly not 13 years.

Of course, the *stated* reasons are not always the *actual* reasons. I think the actual reason educators at all levels give out so much homework is one they do not want to admit out loud: if we don’t give out homework, we’re afraid our test scores won’t be as high as they could be, and then the school administration will put a lot of pressure on us, and pressure is unpleasant.

The awful thing about that reason is that it’s a reason that is not for the benefit of the kids. It’s for the benefit of people who have to survive in a competitive environment that the emphasis on test scores creates.

I understand that reason, and why it’s not a reason anyone wants to admit out loud. I get it. Educators have to live in that test-score environment, like it or not. It’s not something an individual educator has much power to unilaterally change.

I don’t know what to do about the test score culture, either. But I would like to take an even bigger step back, and ask some bigger questions, beyond what the purpose of homework is, or what test scores are good for.

What is the purpose of education? And here’s an even bigger question still: what is the purpose of childhood?

The answer to what we think childhood is for trickles down to the answer to what we think education is for. The answer to what we think education is for trickles down to what we think test scores are for, which then trickles down to what we think homework is for.

What is the purpose of childhood?

That is not a question that I hear many people asking, or answering. It’s a deep philosophical question. But the problem is, if you do not try to ask and answer questions like this explicitly, they get answered implicitly. Which means all the other answers are have an unstated, unexamined assumption at their foundation.

Having observed our education system for fourteen years now, here’s what I think our education system’s implicit, unstated answer to the top-level question is: the purpose of childhood is to prepare the child for adulthood.

I disagree with this answer.

Preparing for adulthood is *a* purpose of childhood. It is not *the* purpose of childhood. There’s a big difference.

When our forefathers gave the right to a pursuit of happiness as one of our core American values, they did not define happiness as something that only happens to you when you’re 50 years old and you’ve lived a life as successful citizen. They left happiness as something for individuals to define for themselves at any point in their lives.

Childhood is not merely a stepping stone on the path to a job and a mortgage and a retirement plan. Childhood is a destination in and of itself.

That means we should not only be preparing our kids for happiness thirty years into the future. We should be providing happiness right now. Today.

We should be providing happiness to a five year old as a five year old defines happiness. We should let a third grader pursue happiness as a third grader envisions it. A sophomore in high school should have access to a sophomore’s version of meaningful life.

And this means our children should have the time to climb a tree, slide down a slide, chase a bird, cover themselves in mud, scribble chalk all over a sidewalk, play tag, read a book, play a video game, watch a movie, pretend to be a prince or a princess or a pro athlete or a doctor or a teacher, build a sandcastle, destroy a sandcastle, play catch, do a cartwheel, do a somersault, just hang out with their friends and joke and gossip and goof around, or whatever happiness the child wants to pursue at any given moment.

And they should do those things not because those things somehow prepare them to become responsible adults in the future. They should do those things because those things have value by themselves, in this moment, right now. Their lives have value not just for the future, but for what they are today.

This moment, right now, matters just as much as a moment thirty years from now.

When you assume that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood, you think nothing of assigning a bunch of homework. It’s harmless at worst, and all in the service of the greater good, so on the whole, it can only be a net positive.

But if you assume a different purpose for childhood, homework is not harmless. Homework is taking something valuable away from the children. When I see my child spending a large chunk of her afternoon or evening or weekend or winter break or even summer break doing homework, it angers me. It’s disrespectful.

I am not asking for there to be no homework at all. I’m sure homework has some value, as a matter of making sure that good study habits and self-discipline can persist beyond the watchful eye of the teacher. But this value can be extracted with a minimal intrusion upon the time a child has to be a child.

The hours a child has as a child should not be treated as a resource that belongs to the education system to do with as they see fit. It should be looked at as a resource that belongs to the child, which the education system should only intrude upon reluctantly and respectfully.

This reluctance and respect for the value of a child’s time is the #1 thing I want to see in our homework policy. I was very happy to hear you are giving this idea serious consideration, and I want you to know you have my support. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.


Ken Arneson

Did David Bowie Predict Obama and Trump back in 1999?

What happens when a monoculture fragments?

* * *

Here’s the big question in politics these days: how do you explain Donald Trump? Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has an interesting three part series on the question. Nate Silver presents three theories of his own. Scott Adams hypothesizes that Trump is a “master persuader“. David Axelrod surmises that voters are simply choosing the opposite of the last guy. Craig Calcaterra thinks it’s worse than all that, and we’re entering a new dark age.

Those are interesting ideas, I suppose, and maybe there’s some truth to them, I don’t know. But I want to throw another theory out there that I got, indirectly, while following the news of David Bowie’s death.

* * *

Bowie was very knowledgeable about music of course, but also visual arts, as well. There are a number of interviews of Bowie in the 1990s where he connects the history of visual arts in the early 20th century to what happened to music in the late 20th century, most notably an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight back in 1999.

* * *

First, some background. Up until the mid-19th century, the visual arts were very much a monoculture. Basically, you were supposed to paint pictures that looked lifelike in one way or another. But the invention of photography about that time changed the nature of the visual arts. The value of realistic paintings came into question, and artist began to explore other purposes for painting besides just realism.

The result of that exploration was that the visual arts in the early 20th century ended up splitting up into multiple subgenres like impressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, and abstract impressionism. Bowie said, “The breakthroughs in the early part of the century with people like Duchamp were so prescient in what they were doing and putting down. The idea [was] that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it, and add their own interpretation.”


Duchamp’s urinal is the prime example of what Bowie is talking about. Is this a work of art?

…especially since Marcel Duchamp and all that, the work is only one aspect of it. The work is never finished now until the viewer contributes himself. The art is always only half-finished. It’s never completed until there’s an audience for it. And then it’s the combination of the interpretation of the audience and the work itself. It’s that gray area in the middle is what the work is about.

interview on Musique Plus, 1999

The urinal by itself is not a work of art, Bowie suggested. It becomes a work of art when you react to it.

* * *

But why? Why would this become an artistic trend? Bowie suggested that this is the natural result of the breakup of monocultures. When there’s one dominant culture, artists can dictate what art is, and isn’t. But when there isn’t a single dominant culture, breaking through to the mainstream requires the artist to meet the audience halfway. Bowie claimed that the visual arts went through this process first, and it became a full-fledged force in music in the 1990s.

I think when you look back at, say, this last decade, there hasn’t really been one single entity, artist, or group, that have personified, or become the brand name for the nineties. It started to fade a bit in the eighties. In the seventies, there were still definite artists; in the sixties, there were the Beatles and Hendrix; in the fifties, there was Presley.

Now it’s subgroups, and genres. It’s hip-hop. It’s girl power. It’s a communal kind of thing. It’s about the community.

It’s becoming more and more about the audience. The point of having somebody who “led the forces” has disappeared because the vocabulary of rock is too well-known.

From my standpoint, being an artist, I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified, I think by the rave culture of the last few years. The audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing. And that feeling is very much permeating music.

Bowie suggests that it wasn’t just music that this was happening to in the late 20th century, but to culture on a broader scale:

We, at the time, up until at least the mid-seventies, really felt that we were still living in the guise of a single and absolute created society, where there were known truths, and known lies, and there was no duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the seventies. And the idea of a duality in the way that we live…there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question. The singularity disappeared.

Bowie then went on to suggest that the Internet will go on to accelerate this cultural fragmentation in the 21st century:

And that, I believe, has produced just a medium as the Internet, which absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.

The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can visage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

It’s happening in every form. […] That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.

Look then at the technologies that have launched since Bowie made these statements in 1999. Blogger launched the same year as that interview, in August of 1999. WordPress launched in 2003. Facebook in 2004. Twitter in 2006. What’s App in 2010. Snapchat in 2011. Technologies such as these, which give broadcast power to audiences, have become the dominant mediums of the 21st century. The audience has indeed become the mainstream provider of culture.

* * *

Bowie didn’t make any specific claims or predictions about politics in these 1999 statements. But we can look at his ideas and apply them to politics, and see if they apply there, as well. It would, after all, be strange if this process which has been happening for over a century in the general culture did not eventually make its way into politics, as well.

First, let’s ask, are we seeing any kind of fragmentation in our politics? (I’ll limit myself to American politics, because I don’t know enough about other countries to speak coherently.) It’s fairly obvious that the two American parties are more polarized than ever, but let’s show a chart to verify that. This is from the Brookings Institute:

As you can see, the parties were rather clustered together during World War II. In the 70s, you could see some separation happening, but there was still overlap. Now, they are two completely unrelated groups. So Bowie’s model holds in this case.

It could be argued that in the 2016 election, we are seeing a fragmentation of these two groups into further subgroups. On the Democratic side, there is a debate between the full-fledged socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders, and the more economically conservative wing of the Democratic Party represented by Hillary Clinton. (There do not seem to be candidates from the environmentalist/pacifist wings…yet.) On the Republican side, there are also clear factions now: the Evangelical wing led by Ted Cruz, the Libertarian wing led by Rand Paul, the more establishment Republicanism of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich, and the nationalism of Donald Trump.

These factions have always existed in the American political parties, of course. And there have always been subgenres in the arts and the general culture, too. But the difference this time seems to be that each faction is claiming, and insisting on, legitimacy. They are no longer satisfied with mere lip service from the party establishment. The days of the One Dominant Point of View are in the past.

* * *

Suppose that American political parties are indeed fragmenting. What kind of politicians succeed in that kind of environment?

The David Bowie theory would answer: politicians who possess the quality of allowing audiences to project their own interpretations onto them.

Whatever the policy differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it’s hard to deny that both Trump and Obama possess that quality in spades.

The socialist and environmentalist and pacifist wings of the Democratic party seemed to project their fondest left-wing wishes onto Obama, even though his actual policy positions were rather centrist. As Obama’s presidency unfolded, these factions became disappointed, as reality set in. And likewise, in his Republican opponents there arose Obama Derangement Syndrome, where many right-wingers projected their worst fears of a far-left Presidency onto Obama, regardless of Obama’s actual positions.

Now we are seeing similar reactions to Donald Trump. The Republicans who are expected to vote for him are seeing him as a sort of savior to restore conservatism to prominence after a long series of losses in the Obama and Bill Clinton eras. This is despite the fact that, Trump’s immigration policies aside, Trump’s policy positions (that we know of), historically have been more consistent with establishment Democrats. And yet, many Democrats fear a Trump presidency and threaten to move to Canada if it happens.

So there are benefits and drawbacks to this “gray space” strategy. When you give the audience the freedom to add their interpretations to you, you may not like their interpretation very much. There was some pretty strong hatred of Duchamp’s urinal as a work of art. Others see that as part of its brilliance. Similarly, Obama and Trump can’t really control the large amount of people who react to them with repulsion. But it goes hand in hand with their success. That’s what the strategy does.

How do Obama and Trump accomplish this? What are the elements that allows them to interact in that “gray space”, when other politicians don’t? A few guesses:

  • Be vague. Adhering to the specific policy proposals of a faction boxes you into that faction. It doesn’t allow room for other factions to meet you in the “gray space” between your factions.
  • Be emotional. Obama and Trump know how to give speeches that rile up the emotions in the audience. You have to give the audience something to connect to, if it isn’t your actual policy positions.
  • Step out from political clichếs. Bowie noted that by the 1990s, the standard three-cord rock-and-roll vocabulary had become too well-known to be a source of rebellion anymore. Similarly, the standard vocabulary of the Democratic and Republican parties have also become too well-known these days. The mediocre candidates these days seem to spend too much energy signaling that they know the Standard Vocabulary. We pretty much know what these politicians’ answers are going to be every question before they open their mouths to answer them. Hillary Clinton is a master of the vocabulary, but many people seem to be tired of it. Hence this article: “Hillary, can you excite us?

How do you defeat such candidates? I don’t know, but it probably involves forcing them to be specific, to peg them as being trapped inside one particular faction or another. To reduce the “gray space” between them and the audience. Good luck with that. Should be interesting to watch as the primary season begins. Start your engines.

* * *

Postscript: Here’s the entirety of the David Bowie interview with Jeremy Paxman:

The Four Aspects of Henduism

The A’s have a two-run lead. They are two innings away from their first World Series championship in 15 years. They are batting in the top of the eighth, with two runners on base.

Dave Henderson is at the plate.

Hendu has seen leads like this evaporate in the postseason before. His own homer off Donnie Moore. Bill Buckner’s error. Kirk Gibson’s homer. He was on the field for all of those improbable comebacks.

Hendu knows what’s at stake here. The A’s were leading 8-0 in this game, and now it’s 8-6. Those potential runs that are out there on first and second bases are very important. Driving those runs in, or not, could be the difference between a championship, and another agonizing defeat.

The Giants’ best reliever, Steve Bedrosian, is summoned from the bullpen to face Hendu. Hendu gets ahead in the count, 3-1, but then Bedrosian rears back and paints two blazing fastballs on the outside corner. Hendu fouls these perfect pitches off.

So here we are, a full count, with two outs. The runners will be going.

What does Hendu do?

Here’s what Hendu does: he yawns.

* * *

Dave Henderson passed away this weekend. He was only eight years older than me.

I’m about to turn 50. Unavoidably, my thoughts recently have been turning towards mortality. Before, when athletes my age or younger who have passed away, I could always find some thing about their deaths that I could dismiss as irrelevant to me. They had a genetic defect, or were freakishly large. They were addicted to drugs or alcohol. They played a violent sport where they repeatedly bash their brains against their skulls.

But I haven’t been able to shake off Dave Henderson’s death. Partly because he basically died of the kind of thing people die of when they die of old age: organ failure. It is hitting me now that death can come at any time now. It may come 50 years from now, but it may come in just eight. Or it may come tomorrow.

And I also have been unable to shake of Dave Henderson’s death because I loved the guy. If you were an A’s fan in the 80s and 90s, you loved, loved, loved Dave Henderson.

God, I loved Hendu. I miss Hendu.

* * *

My peak as an A’s fan corresponded to the years that Dave Henderson patrolled center field for the A’s, 1988-93. I must have gone to 30-40 games a year those years. And I always sat out in the left-center bleachers, between the two (unrelated) Hendersons, Dave in center and Rickey in left.

It was a wonderful time. Yes, it was a happy era because the A’s were a great team those years. But the joy also came from Dave Henderson himself.

There have been players before and since who acknowledge and are grateful for and interact with their fans. But I have yet to see a player who could rival Hendu to the degree in which he actually, genuinely liked his fans. At any time, before, during, and after any game, he was ready and willing to interact with the fans behind him in the outfield. He’d sit in the bleachers during batting practice sometimes. He’d go out to dinner with fans after a game. And there was always a lot of joking banter between pitches.

I particularly loved the start of the game. Hendu would come out at the top of the first inning to warm up with a big smile on his face. He’d take the ball out of his glove, and wave it over his head at us in left-center, and then to his two(!) groups of fans in right-center: Henduland and Hendu’s Bad Boy Club. And then Hendu’s Bad Boy Club would launch their “Hendu is a bad boy” chant, and the game was on.

It was a ritual that said to you, every game: isn’t this great? Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this life just a joy to be living?

We need more rituals like that.

* * *

“Are you happy, Daddy?”

My eight-year-old daughter asks me this question a lot. She is the closest thing I have seen to Dave Henderson since Dave Henderson. People who only intermittently interact with her often ask, “Is she ever not happy?”

Of course, I see her so much that I know that she is not always happy. She has her pet peeves that set her off, make her grumpy. But her default mode is happy. She is, by default, smiling, excited, happy to see you. She is quite popular as a result. Happiness is infectious.

* * *

My default emotion is not happiness. It’s…I don’t know…satisfaction? I’m satisfied. Things are fine. I’m calm. I’m OK. But happiness doesn’t come easily or naturally for me.

Satisfaction is not infectious. People don’t flock to other satisfied people. I will never be as missed when I am gone as Dave Henderson is. It just doesn’t work that way.

Why is that? Why are the Dave Hendersons of the world the exception and not the rule? Why was Dave Henderson extraordinary instead of ordinary? Why can’t we all be more like Dave Henderson, or my daughter, and be joyous all the time?

* * *

This is a Swedish short film called “The Egg“. It’s a beautiful film, which presents a lovely way to look at why there are so many different kinds of people in the world.

You don’t need to believe in the Hindu idea of reincarnation to appreciate what a beautiful idea this is. Perhaps I’m not capable of being as joyous as Dave Henderson, or my daughter, because my soul simply isn’t as mature as theirs is.

Which means we have a dual responsibility to each other: theirs is to lead by example, to give our souls something to aspire to become in our future lives. Ours is to not turn them backwards, to not drag them back down to our more unripened levels.

* * *

The Hindu religion presents four main aspects, or goals, of human life: kama, dharma, artha, and moksha. Now, I’m not Hindu, so this is not my religion, but I am a believer in finding the underlying truths of any religion, and translating them into a form that you can understand. As God said in the film above, every religion is true in its own way.

So let’s take these aspects of Hinduism, and translate them (sort of like what the Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team did) into a form we can understand: what these concepts mean in a baseball context. And let’s pick Oakland A’s players to represent each of these concepts.

Let’s call this framework Henduism:

  • Kama.

    Kama represents our desire and longing for emotional, sensual and aesthetic pleasures. In Henduism, Kama is represented by Yoenis Cespedes.

    Cespedes, when measured objectively, was never an all-star quality player with the A’s. His statistical results were perhaps slightly above average. He wasn’t a star hitter because he chased high fastballs too much, leaving him vulnerable to various forms of pitch sequencing. Defensively, he often took bad routes on fly balls, and sometimes clanked the balls that fell in his glove. He didn’t read pitchers very well on the bases, so he was a poor basestealer, despite his speed.

    But oh my goodness, what a talent. In an A’s uniform, he was simply beautiful human being to watch, even in failure. If he dropped a ball in the outfield, he would often make up for it by launching a frozen rope to the next base as the player tried to advance. When rounding the bases, there was a spellbinding grace to his form when he ran with a full head of steam. And when his bat did make contact with the ball, the result was often the most majestic of home runs.

    If there is a baseball equivalent of lust, Yoenis Cespedes induced that feeling.


  • Dharma.

    Dharma is the quality of conducting yourself virtuously according to the the duties, rights, and laws of your society. In baseball terms, it means “playing the game the right way.” In Henduism, Dharma is represented by Mark Ellis.

    Ellis spent nearly a decade in an A’s uniform, a rarity in the tenure of Billy Beane, who swaps players in and out like a card dealer flips over playing cards. In many ways, Ellis was the opposite of Cespedes. Ellis rarely did anything that tickled your aesthetic senses and made you say “Wow!” He was an ordinary-looking athlete of ordinary size and strength and speed. But in those ten years, I can probably count on my fingers the number of times Ellis made a mental mistake. He was always in the right place at the right time, making the right decision of where to be, of where to throw the ball or not throw the ball, of whether to take the extra base or to stay put.

    You knew exactly what you were getting with Mark Ellis when you wrote him into the lineup. You could always rely on Mark Ellis, because he always played the game the right way.


  • Artha.

    Artha refers to the goal of reaching prosperity and success. In Henduism, Artha is represented by Rickey Henderson.

    If the goal of baseball is to score runs, then nobody has achieved that goal more than Rickey Henderson. Rickey holds the all-time record for most runs scored in a career.

    But there’s more to Rickey than that. Rickey was the full package. He could hit for average, he could work the count and get on base with a walk (OMG could he do that), he could hit for power (most home runs ever leading off a game), he could steal bases (single-season and career records in that, too), and he could play defense, too. As Bill James famously said, you could split Rickey in two, and you’d have two hall-of-famers. And he also won a couple of World Series, to boot.

    If your goal is winning, and you were picking an A’s player in history to build your team around, Rickey would be your first pick.


  • Moksha.

    The goal of Moksha is to make real the kind of the person you were meant to be. This can only follow from a liberation or release from the fears and burdens of everyday life.

    Moksha is represented in Henduism by Dave Henderson.

* * *

“There’s not really much pressure when you’re supposed to make an out. And I guess I’m the only one who realizes that. So, I have a distinct advantage in that everybody else on the field is pressured, and I’m not.”

Dave Henderson

Hendu yawned.

Dave Henderson would often do this in a tense situation in a ballgame. He’d take a step out of the batter’s box for a moment, and let loose a nice big yawn.

Then, relaxed, liberated by the yawn from the pressure of the situation, he’d get back into the batter’s box and face the battle before him, as the best possible Dave Henderson he could be in that moment.

There are those who do not believe in clutch hitters. But Dave Henderson hit .324/.410/.606 over the four World Series he played in. You may think that’s just the luck of the statistical draw. I do not. I think it was Moksha.

* * *

Most of us are broken in some way. We have fears, anxieties, scars, built up over years of heartbreak and abuse and neglect and failures. We build psychological walls around ourselves to protect ourselves from these problems. Mine are certainly lesser than others. I’m sure many, many people have scars far worse than mine, with much thicker walls built up around them.

But here I am: a child of divorce and alcoholism, who got sent to a different country in a different climate with a different culture and a different language just as I was hitting puberty. I developed some psychological walls around myself as a result. I think I fear success (Artha) a bit too much, because I feel like it could be too easily taken away from me. I’m afraid of Kama, too, of being too amazing and sexy and strong, because losing that would be too painful, too. So I hide inside Dharma, doing my duties, behaving properly, probably a bit too much. I miss out on the other connections I could have.

* * *

I think most baseball players, like most of us normal human beings, have their own fears and anxieties and scars. A baseball career is a fragile thing. One small mechanical hitch could be the difference between being in the majors and being out of baseball. One hit a week is the difference between an all-star and an also-ran. Is there time, is there energy, to risk making emotional connections to the whole wide world, when every moment, every play, is so critical to success or failure?

But then there was Dave Henderson. Hendu could yawn in the face of pressure. Hendu had accepted his vulnerabilities, and released himself from the fear of failure. And because of that liberation, he could afford to smile and wave to an audience who watched his every move. And through that smile, and that wave, he lifted an entire fanbase.

* * *

“Are you happy, Daddy?” The wise old soul inside my young little daughter looks into my eyes, and intuits that I have not reached Moksha. I am not quite the person I could be, because I have not released myself from my fears and inhibitions. And most of all, I have not allowed myself the freedom to release myself from my biggest fear of all: that I will somehow mess up this responsibility of fatherhood, that I will play the parenting game in the wrong way, that I will throw some unnecessary scars onto her, and set back her beautiful soul.

She won’t accept my unhappiness. She wants more from me.

“Come on, Daddy, ” she says, and grabs my hand. She pulls, and my inertia yields. She lifts me out of my chair. A smile starts to form on my face.

“Let’s go play!”

My Amazing Funeral Procession

“Steph Curry’s great. Steph Curry’s the MVP. He’s a champion. Understand what I’m saying when I say this. To a degree, he’s hurt the game. And what I mean by that is I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of the game. People think that he’s just a knock-down shooter. That’s not why he’s the MVP. He’s a complete basketball player.”

Mark Jackson

I’m more ghost now than man.

I’ll be turning 50 in a month. Of those 50 years, I’ve played soccer for maybe 42 years. I probably peaked physically at around age 27 or 28, as most human beings do. Which means that half my soccer-playing life, 21 of those 42 years, has been spent in the slow process of fading into a mere shadow of the player I used to be.

There was a time when I never worried about what was behind me. If I had half a step on an opponent, I was gone. No more. Every advantage I earn disappears quickly these days. Each decision I make takes much longer to execute. Younger players just read my eyes and get to where I plan to go before I do. My moves are all telegraphed, like an outdated metaphor trying to go viral on a brand new communications medium.

My ghosting is almost complete. The last lights on my neural relay are flickering.

* * *

I have a friend, Jeff Raz, who once was the lead clown in a Cirque du Soleil show, Corteo. Jeff played a clown imagining his own funeral. A procession of acrobats and jugglers and clowns arrive to play tribute to the dying clown, to give him a few last moments of amazingness before his time is up.

I’ve learned from watching him up close what a huge difference there is between a world-class clown in a world-class circus, and the amateur clown at your kid’s birthday party.

A top-level, world-class circus contains a wealth of jaw-dropping acrobats and jugglers and performers who push the limits of what the human body can do. But your jaw can only drop so many times before jaw-dropping becomes repetitive, and amazing becomes normal.

The job of the clown in a world-class circus is to push the reset button on amazingness. The clown taps into your natural ambition to do amazing things, but mistakingly focuses on an element of the preceding act which is not actually the source of its quality. So, for example, if a dancer does an acrobatic Fred Astaire act with a broom, a clown follows that act by trying to replicate that success by dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Of course, the cleaning utensil was not the point of the preceding act; it was the skill and strength and artistry and precision of the dancer. The clown replicates the form of the act but not the quality, and in doing so, brings our expectation levels back down to those of the normal human being, so that the next act can wow us again.

* * *

In a way, then, your birthday party clown unintentionally makes the same mistake the the top-level clown makes on purpose: s/he imitates the form of the clown, with the makeup and the outfits, but often not the function or the quality. And it is this form without function which horror films use to turn clowning on its head, from a reset button on amazingness to a trigger for the grotesque side of human nature.

* * *

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who drops our jaws, and changes the baseline of what we think is humanly possible. Right now, that athlete is Steph Curry.

The shooting, the dribbling, the shooting, the passing, and OMG the shooting — Curry dazzles us like no other basketball player has done before. With his human proportions amidst the giants of the NBA, Curry serves as both acrobat and clown in the same, complete package. It’s the greatest show on earth.

* * *

My youngest daughter is eight years old. I have coached her soccer team for a couple of years now. At first, the kids only understand the simplest element of soccer’s form: trying to kick the ball in the direction of the goal. A soccer game with six-year-olds is a clump of small human beings clustering around a ball as it pinballs around within the cluster. It is not exactly The Beautiful Game.

But now, two years later, I can see the kids’ eyes becoming open to the function of the game instead of just the form. The first time being aware of the game instead of just the ball. The movement into open space with a dribble. A reminder to a teammate not kick the ball into the middle of the field in front of your own goal. The first primitive attempts at passing the ball to an open teammate.

It’s like a closed flower beginning to open its petals to the sunlight.

* * *

Meanwhile, I keep playing, twice a week, getting worse and worse every time I play. I am one injury from hanging up my soccer cleats for good. Any time I step on the field now, it could be my last time.

But every once in a while, I still manage one more good run, one more nice pass, one more good shot, and the sun delays its setting for just one, brief, bittersweet moment.

But not everything can be avoided. Not forever. Times end, because they have to.

* * *

The young kids in the high school gym, chucking three pointers instead of playing beautiful basketball, they’re just inexperienced youngsters who see the form but don’t yet understand the function. With guidance, their time will come.

You may, if you choose, elect to judge children and old men against the standards of the peak human being, to compare amateurs and novices to professionals. You may elect to criticize their mistakes in an isolated snapshot, as unconnected events to be judged without context, each a single flawed image in a grotesque horror show, every one of which harms the potential perfection of the universe.

Or, you can join me and take a seat at the finest table in all the galaxy. Let us watch the beautiful circus of life, from naïve clowns to amazing acrobats to sad ghosts, march by. It’s my amazing funeral procession, and you’re all invited.

The Value of Not Getting to the Point

I read somewhere recently, I forget where, that the purpose of people getting together for a conversation over a beer or coffee or lunch or dinner is that it the food and drink spare us from the burden of needing to have something to say throughout the whole conversation.

This was a revelation to me. All this time, I assumed that the primary purpose of lunch was lunch. All this time, I figured that I was just lousy at conversation because being an introvert made conversation awkward and laborious for me. For everyone else, conversation seems comparatively effortless. But it seems from this data that conversation must be harder for everyone else than I had assumed.

My oldest daughter is a freshman in college. She recently texted me and said she wanted to talk. I asked, what about? She got annoyed at me for asking.

I was clueless as to why. I guess the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all of us, there’s always some area of life where we’re so incompetent we don’t even know we’re incompetent. This area, apparently, was one of mine.

She asked if we could just talk about something stupid. So I called her, and we talked about Donald Trump and the presidential race and stuff like that for a good long while. I didn’t ask about what was really bothering her.

Eventually, the conversation turned, and we finally got to talking about the thing she wanted to talk about. But that probably at least half an hour into the conversation. We segued slowly and organically from the stupid stuff into the real issue.

And this, too, was a bit of a revelation to me, that someone would not want to get straight to the point, that someone would need a nice long conversational warmup before they’d feel comfortable enough to be ready to talk about something more uncomfortable. I’m very much a get-to-the-point kind of person. I tend to say what I mean, or nothing at all.

Language is imprecise. Our feelings don’t always have direct translations into speech. It’s hard to explain what we feel, to say exactly what we mean. We have wants and desires and emotions, and we often try to rationalize those feelings. Those rationalizations are often logically incoherent. But it’s hard to see the incoherence of our own rationalizations because our points of view are so limited. And often (if we’re not falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect) we intuit that our rationalizations may be incoherent. So we’re cautious in what we say. We know that there can be social penalties for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the wrong person.

All this adds up to making the act of talking about something sensitive daunting. There is a vulnerability in speaking. That’s why our culture has all these rituals and conventions around conversation, like idle chit-chat and coffee and such: to build enough trust in the environment where we can feel comfortable enough to overcome the vulnerability inherent in speech.

I never fully understood this before. I feel like everyone else understands it, though, because they act as if they do. But if they do, it must be an intuitive understanding, a grokking, not an explicit fact that people state out loud. Otherwise, I probably would have heard someone say it explicitly sometime before in the almost 50 years I’ve been in this earth.

Having now finally come to this understanding, it occurs to me that perhaps this is the great flaw with Twitter, why everyone I know on Twitter seems to eventually run into a wall with it. The 140-character format pushes you to get straight to the point. There is no room for the idle chit-chat and sips of coffee and other conversational rituals that let us dance around the sensitive issues. Without these rituals that are built into real-life human-to-human conversation, the problems with speech that those cultural rituals are designed to prevent come flooding in.

There is so much hair pulling and teeth grinding about what people should and should not say online, and how they should or should not say it. And maybe all that hair pulling and teeth grinding arise because our online conversational cultures, and the technological platforms they reside on, have not had the time to evolve into something that works, the way that our real-life conversational culture has.

There are many, many more people who are clueless about how to behave in online conversations than there are people who are clueless about how to behave in offline ones. How I came to be the flipside of that, I don’t know.

And it also occurs to me that there is a value in stating explicitly the things that are mostly just intuited about human nature and human culture. I want to explore these sorts of things. There is a risk, though, a vulnerability, in stating these things. The people who intuitively grasp these things will feel as though I am insulting their intelligence by stating something so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it isn’t meant as an insult to their intelligence, it’s meant as an insult to mine. I need to say these things because I’m the one who doesn’t understand these things. I need them explained to myself.

Which is all a roundabout way of stating something that maybe could fit into a tweet: I plan to start saying things that aren’t obvious to me but may be obvious to others. Sorry if you fall into the latter category and I waste your time. Such is the risk of saying anything, ever. And sorry for the roundaboutness in getting to this point. I seemed to need it, for some strange reason.

Vulnerability, Trust and the Marshmallow Test

In God we trust; all others must bring data.

–W. Edwards Deming

The Marshmallow Test is one of the classic experiments in psychology. In 1972, Walter Mischel gave 600 preschoolers a choice of one marshmallow now, or if they could wait, two marshmallows 15 minutes later. When he followed those kids into adulthood, he found that the kids who could wait had much more success in life.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added a little twist to the famous experiment. They preceded the marshmallow test with a promise about some crayons that was either broken, or kept.

It turns out that almost none of the kids who were given the unreliable offer ended up waiting for the extra marshmallow. Why should they? They already waited for a promised reward that didn’t come. The rational thing to do in an untrustworthy environment is to take any reward that is presented. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

As I wrote in Box 32 of my Forty-two Boxes essay, children are born trusting. They are totally helpless, they have no other choice but to trust. But then through life experiences, they gather data that can change that default setting of trust.

In my last blog entry, I quoted Mister Rogers saying, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.” This modified marshmallow test demonstrates is why trust is so important. Trust allows people to spend energy and resources now for a greater payoff later.

You are told if you do your homework now, in 10 years you’ll get to go to college, and in 15 years, you’ll have a great career. You are told if you work hard at your entry-level job now, and you will eventually get promoted into management later. But if you don’t trust what you are told, if you don’t trust these equations, if the data keeps telling you there’s a glass ceiling you’re unlikely to surpass, you’ll probably go do something else where the data tells you the odds of success are better.

This is why poverty, racism, sexism, and totalitarianism are so destructive. Not only because those things present roadblocks in and of themselves, but because they corrode the trust that a sacrifice now will be worth a payoff later. Both society as a whole and the individuals in it fail to achieve their potential, because people in an untrustworthy environment take fewer long-term risks, and receive correspondingly fewer long-term payoffs. The result is stagnation.

Mister Rogers on Vulnerability and Trust

In my last post, 42 Boxes, I spent 17,000 words trying to get around to the point that the first principle of human morality is that humans are vulnerable, and that the antidote to that vulnerability is trust.

In 1969, Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers) addressed Congress. Early on in his address, he came right out and said this:

One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.

It didn’t take him 17,000 words to say the same thing I did, because Mister Rogers was a saint and a genius, and I, in comparison, am a dim-witted blowhard. He later adds:

If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.

The recipe for a healthy family, or a healthy society, is simple. Admit your feelings about your vulnerabilities, trust that you can talk about them, and you will be able to control these vulnerabilities in a constructive, not destructive, fashion. It’s not that complicated.

Forty-two Boxes



When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.

Steve Jobs


Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.

This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?

We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.

Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.

We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.


I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.

It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.

Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.

Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.

I got mad because they laughed.


Is a story a kind of technology?

The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.

We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.

The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.

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The Long, Long History of Why I Do Not Like the Josh Donaldson Trade

Once upon a time, about a billion years ago, life was simple. Everybody lived in the oceans, and everybody had only one cell each. This was quite a fair and egalitarian way to live. Nobody really had significantly more resources than anyone else. Every individual just floated around, and took whatever it needed and could find, and just let the rest be.

This golden equilibrium was how life did business for a couple billion years. There was no such thing as jealousy or envy, and as a result, everyone lived pretty happy lives.

Then, one day about 800 million years ago, a pair of single-celled organisms merged to become the first multi-cellular organism in the history of the earth.

At first, these multi-celled creatures were just kind of like big blobs of single-celled organisms, and didn’t cause a lot of problems. Everybody was still kind of doing the same job as everyone else, even if they had organized themselves into a limited corporation of sorts. Most other single-celled creatures just figured they were harmless weirdos hanging out together, and ignored them.

They could not have been more wrong. For once the multi-cell genie was out of the bottle, Pandora’s box could not be closed, and the dominos began to fall. This simple change may have seemed innocent at first, but little did the single-cells know that they were the first creatures on earth to fall victim to the innovator’s dilemma. The single-celled creatures were far too invested in the status quo to change, and consequently ignored the multi-cellulars as irrelevant, and did not realize until it was too late that the game had suddenly shifted.

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The Short, Short Josh Donaldson Trade Story Based on Platoon Splits

Ok, look, I told y’all with the Cespedes trade that you can’t analyze an A’s trade of a position player without breaking it down by platoon splits across the whole lineup. But did any of y’all listen to me? No. Y’all are still trying to analyze Donaldson vs Lawrie as if they are single players on single teams instead of two players on two platoon teams with other players on the team. So stop that.

Now look, I’m gonna make this simple. I’m going to assume that both Lawrie and Donaldson will be equally healthy, and they’re roughly comparable defensive players. They may not be, but this is a quick and dirty exercise here, so bear with me. And I’m just going to use OPS, so I don’t have to make this story as long as the other Josh Donaldson story that’s coming later today.

Let us begin.

* * *

OPS 2014/career, Josh Donaldson vs. RHP: .727 / .744
OPS 2014/career, Josh Donaldson vs. LHP: 1.007 / .953

OPS, 2014/career Brett Lawrie vs RHP: .760 / .760
OPS, 2014/career Brett Lawrie vs LHP: .595 / .713

See, Brett Lawrie is actually better than Josh Donaldson against RHPs. The difference is that Donaldson crushes LHPs, and Lawrie for whatever reason actually is worse against LHPs than RHPs. He was particularly bad in 2014. I do not know why.

So for the platoon team that plays 2/3s of the A’s games, the one against RHPs, the A’s lineup actually just got better.

* * *

So now we need to fix the 1/3 of the A’s games against LHPs.

Last year, one of the A’s primary 1B/DHs against LHPs was Alberto Callaspo. He was awful. The A’s have signed Billy Butler to replace him.

OPS 2014/career, Alberto Callaspo vs LHP: .518 / .729
OPS 2014/career, Billy Butler vs LHP: .847 / .912

So the A’s are losing about .400 OPS points by downgrading from Donaldson to Lawrie vs LHPs, but they get back about .300 of those OPS points by upgrading from Callaspo to Butler.

So now all Billy Beane has to do find that extra .100 points of OPS against LHPs, and the math works. Maybe it will come just out of the fact that most players don’t have reverse splits last their whole careers, and Lawrie will actually bounce back and hit better against LHPs in the future. If so, QED.

* * *

Disclaimer: the above analysis does not mean I like this trade. I do not like this trade. That (much longer) explanation is here.

10 Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence

Well, here we are. The Giants won another World Series, while the A’s flopped in the playoffs yet again. I’m not one of those A’s fans who hate the Giants, but it’s starting to annoy the crap out of even me to see the Giants always succeed in the playoffs, while seeing the A’s always fail.

The A’s have had 14 chances in the last 14 years to win a game to advance to the next round of the playoffs. They have lost 13 of those 14 games. If the playoffs are truly a crapshoot, the odds of this happening are 1-in-1,170. (So it’s not technically always — they could have gone on to lose the 2006 ALDS against the Twins, too, which would have made them 0-for-16, with an unlikelihood odds of 1-in-65,536. So if you want to look on the bright side, things could be 56 times worse than they are.) And in a crapshoot, the odds of the Giants winning 10 playoff series in a row, as they have now done, is 1-in-1024.

So if you’re an A’s fan who hates the Giants, and who believes that the playoffs are a just crapshoot, you’ve been struck with a series of unfortunate events that had literally less than a 1-in-a-million chance of happening.

Sabermetrics has come up with no good explanation for it except to say, well, these things happen about once every thousand times, or once every million times, sorry A’s fans, it just happened to be your turn to hit that unfortunate lottery, and it’s just bad luck. Oh, and you have a crappy stadium that’s falling apart and a team ownership and a local government who all seem too incompetent to do anything about it unlike those guys across the bay, sorry about that, too, gosh you guys are unlucky, tsk tsk tsk.

Which is just a deeply, deeply unsatisfying answer. If you have an ounce of humanity, you will reject that explanation, and ask the obvious question.

But Why?

And to answer that question, the sabermetrician dives into the numbers, and pulls some out numbers with some number-pulling-out tools, and finds nothing to report. Nope, no evidence here of anything, so it must just be bad luck.

To which I ask: what if the reason the number-pulling-out tools can’t find any cause for the problem is because those number-pulling-out tools themselves are the problem?

I have no evidence of that. But it’s something I believe might be true, even though I can’t prove it.

* * *

I have a number of these beliefs–or hypotheses, if you will–about baseball, but I’ve mostly kept them to myself because of this lack of evidence. What the hell do I know, anyway? Who am I to pontificate? And why bother spouting these theories when I can’t defend them with evidence? So I just keep my mouth shut.

But I got a little bit of self-confidence in my belief system when Robert Arthur of Baseball Prospectus took one of my hypotheses (that injured A’s in the second half of 2014 had begun cheating on fastballs, making themselves vulnerable to offspeed pitches) and found evidence to support it ($):

The overall pattern of changes is beautifully consistent with Ken’s theory…

It’s very satisfying to find that the data supports one’s theory!

But I didn’t just come to this particular hypothesis that Mr. Arthur investigated out of thin air. This hypothesis arose out of a deeper foundation of hypotheses that color the way I look at baseball. I want to put all those hypotheses out on the table now, lack of evidence be damned. And maybe someone (maybe me someday, if I ever find the time and energy and resources and willpower to do so, which hasn’t happened yet) will take those hypotheses and invent the technology needed to find the evidence to support it.

So let’s put it out there.

* * *

Belief Without Evidence #1. A technological Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a/k/a the Linguistic relativity principle holds that the language that a person speaks influences the way a person conceptualizes their world. The obvious example of this is that people have trouble distinguishing between colors if their language does not have a word for that color.

To a certain extent, I believe this hypothesis. Being fluent in both Swedish and English, I know there are certain concepts, such as the difference between belief in an opinion and belief in a fact, where the Swedish language makes clear distinctions (tycka and tro) and English does not. English speakers spend ridiculous amounts of time arguing about these things, and Swedes simply don’t need to. It’s not that English speakers can’t conceptualize the difference between opinion and fact, but doing so is way more difficult in English, because the word “belief” in English is quite fuzzy, whereas in Swedish, the language makes it simply impossible to confuse the two.

I touched upon this in my essay in the 2014 Baseball Prospectus annual, that I believe a similar concept applies to the technology we use. The reason statistical analysis began to influence the way we conceptualize baseball in the 1990s is not because human beings suddenly became smarter in the 1990s. There were statistically informed people who suggested such analysis almost a century earlier. It happened in the 1990s because the price of the technology needed to perform such analysis had finally became reasonable.

The predominant technology we use to perform such analysis is SQL, which is the primary language used to query relational databases. SQL and relational databases are technologies which are built upon set theory. A set is basically an unordered collection of objects.

And this is where I believe that a technological Sapir-Whorf hypothesis applies to baseball. Practically all of our analysis of baseball statistics treats its data an unordered collection of baseball events: pitches, plate appearances, games, series. Standard baseball analysis (the public kind anyway, who knows what is being done inside these organizations) treats its data that way because that’s the way SQL treats its data. The available technology guides our conceptualization of the world. And that leads us to my second hypothesis:

Belief Without Evidence #2. Baseball events are NOT unordered

For any batter to hit a ball, the batter needs to predict where the ball is going to be before it reaches the bat. There are two different mechanisms for this prediction.

First, there is a conscious prediction. The batter may decide, consciously, based on some sort of rational analysis, that he is looking for a fastball down and in, and wants to swing at only a pitch in that location that he can pull.

But once the pitcher releases the ball, this kind of conscious prediction mechanism is far, far too slow to be of any use. At this point, everything is turned over to a much faster, subconscious, automatic system to predict the actual flight of the ball, and to send the muscles in motion to meet the ball.

My thoughts here are heavily influenced by Jeff Hawkins‘ book On Intelligence, which lays out a framework for how this automatic system in the brain works as a memory-based prediction machine.

Order matters in baseball, because this automatic prediction mechanism has a strong recency bias. (A conscious prediction might not have a recency bias if truly rational, but how often does a batter perform a purely rational analysis at the plate?) The speed, location and movement of the most recent pitch will affect the brain’s automatic prediction of the speed, location and movement of the next pitch. The more recent a pitch, the more it affects the automatic system’s prediction for the next pitch.

Pitch sequencing, therefore, is at the heart of the very sport of baseball, yet it is woefully understudied in current public analysis, because our tools, based on a foundation of unordered sets, are woefully bad at processing and studying sequenced events.

There is a whole industry now dedicated to the statistical analysis of baseball using these set-based SQL tools. But SQL does not have a recency bias clause in its syntax that you can apply to a query. Because these tools don’t handle the ordered data well, they basically ignore The. Very. Core. of the sport: the sequencing battle between pitcher and batter.

Let me say that again: statistical analysis (that we in the public are aware of) takes the most important element of the sport, and ignores it.

It’s like having Newtonian physics without relativity and quantum mechanics. There’s a lot you can do with Newtonian physics, but at the extremes, it begins to break down, because it is ignoring some deeper, more fundamental truths.

If you’re a team that relies on constructing its roster using such statistical analysis, what mistakes are you making by ignoring the most important part of the game?

Belief Without Evidence #3. All high-level sabermetric truths derive from lower-level truths about human biomechanics and psychology

And not vice versa. Things like platoon splits and home field advantage are not Constants of the Universe like the speed of light or the Planck-Einstein relation. The arise from more fundamental truths about human anatomy and psychology.

For instance, once I got in an argument in which I did not believe that Sean Doolittle pitched better to certain catchers than others. The stats did not agree with me, albeit perhaps with a small sample size. But my objection wasn’t to the numbers, adequate sample size or not, it was to the lack of any sort of underlying physical/psychological mechanism where this these numbers could derive from. Sean Doolittle throws 90% fastballs. What the hell difference physically/psychologically does it make what catcher is back there catching it? It’s the same pitch, no matter who is catching it.

I do not consider a sabermetric truth to really be a truth unless there is a biomechanical/psychological foundation upon which that truth can rest, and from which that truth is capable of being derived.

Belief Without Evidence #4. Pitches are paths between states in a Prediction State Automaton

First, a little explanation of automata:

Automata theory is used in computer science to study states. For example, you can look at baseball as an base/out automaton, where before each plate appearance, the base/out combination is in one “state”, and in another “state” after the plate appearance. There are rules that tell you what possible states you can be in before and after a plate appearance.

So, at the beginning of an inning, the baseball base/out automaton is in a {Nobody on, 0 out} state. After the first plate appearance, you will be in one of five possible states:

{Runner on 1st, 0 out}
{Runner on 2nd, 0 out}
{Runner on 3rd, 0 out}
{Nobody on, 0 out} (Batter homered)
{Nobody on, 1 out}

You can’t, after the first appearance, reach a state where there are two runners on or two outs. You have to go to an intermediate state first. There are exactly 24 possible states you can have in this automaton. Each state in this automaton is a two dimensional {base, out} object. And from any of these 24 possible states, there are a limited, finite number of possible following states.

The “automaton” then, defines the what possible states can exist, and the rules by which you can move from one state to another.

Got it?

OK, now to the thing I believe without evidence: I believe that before any given pitch, the batter is in some sort of Prediction State for the next pitch. After each pitch, the batter then moves into a different Prediction State.

I don’t have a clear belief on exactly how many dimensions these Prediction States have. Maybe the Prediction State has three dimensions it:

1. Whether to swing
2. When to swing
3. Where to swing

Or maybe these Prediction States are much more complex, combining the above three states with specific kinds of pitches and movements and locations. It may be expressed by something like this, for example:

{60% expection of fastball, 30% changeup, 10% curve;
80% outside, 10% middle, 10% inside;
60% down, 30% middle, 10% up;
70% in the strike zone, 30% out of the strike zone}

and then if the pitcher throws you a fastball on the lower outside corner for a strike, perhaps you move to a state like this:

{70% fastball, 20% changeup, 10% curve;
85% outside, 8% middle, 7% inside;
70% down, 20% middle, 10% up;
75% in the strike zone, 25% out of the strike zone}

Or whatever. I don’t really know as what the parameters for these Prediction States should be. Is it {pitch type, in/out, up/down, movement/straight, fast/slow} or some other combination of pitch attributes? I don’t know.

And to what extent are these prediction automata more or less universal, or does each batter have his own unique automaton with its own unique rules? Again, I don’t know.

But I do know that if I were to build a technology for analyzing baseball, this is where I would begin, right at the core of the game, the engine that drives the sport: what pitch the batter is expecting from the pitcher, and what happens when the pitch he gets conforms or deviates from that expectation.

In order to unite the quantum and Newtonian versions of baseball analysis, the biophysical and the statistical, any Grand Unified Theory Of Everything Baseball must, in my belief, have some way to handle the Prediction State of the batter.

Belief Without Evidence #5: The quality of a pitch is a function of its speed, location, and movement, and also of the batter’s swing and prediction state

There are a few pitchers, like Aroldis Chapman, who can throw a pitch with such high-quality speed that the location, movement, and prediction state are rather irrelevant. And there are some, like Mariano Rivera, who have such a combination of high-quality location and movement that the speed and prediction state don’t matter much. With pitchers like that, the batter can predict perfectly what pitch he’s going to get, and still not hit it.

But most pitchers do not possess such a high-quality pitch that they can be predictable and get away with it at the Major League level. They need to manipulate the prediction state of the batter in order to succeed.

The less a batter is expecting a certain pitch, the less likely he is to make good contact. But pitching is not just a function of being unpredictable: the pitcher must balance what the Prediction State of the batter is and the batter’s ability to hit it, with his ability to also throw a pitch with good speed, location, and movement.

The complex nature of that 5-dimensional object ( {speed, location, movement, swing, prediction state} ) is what makes baseball so fascinating from pitch to pitch.

So for each pitch, the pitcher wants to:

1. Choose a pitch the batter is likely to predict incorrectly
2. Choose a pitch the pitcher is likely to throw with good speed, location, and movement
3. Choose a pitch which will result in a suboptimal swing path, resulting either in a miss or weak contact
4. Choose a pitch which, if not put in play, worsens the batter’s Prediction State for the next pitch

Belief Without Evidence #6: The quality of an at-bat is a 3-dimensional function

Those three dimensions being:
1. Getting a good pitch to hit
2. Hitting a ball hard when you do
3. Hitting a ball hard if you don’t.

A good pitch to hit is a pitch that (a) he is successfully predicting, and (b) he can get a good swing on. Whether he can get a good swing on a particular pitch depends on what his swing path is.

And again, there are two kinds of predictions: the automatic subconscious one where the batter just reacts to a pitch, and a conscious one where the batter decides beforehand to look for a certain pitch and ignore all others. And the count plays a big role whether the batter can take an approach to consciously look for a particular pitch, or whether he should (with two strikes especially) just let his subconscious react to whatever comes in there.

On the subconscious level, the more the pitcher keeps throwing the same pitch, the more the batter predicts that pitch accurately, and the more likely the batter is to hit that pitch. When pitchers talk about “establishing the inside fastball” for example, this is what they mean: to change the Prediction State in such a way that an inside fastball becomes part of the Prediction State, and thereby necessarily reduces the expectation of a different pitch in the future.

Just because a batter gets a pitch he is predicting, does not mean he will hit it. Most batters have some kind of hole in their swing. Some batters prefer high pitches, others low. Some are vulnerable inside, and others can’t hit the outside pitch well. Some can hit a fastball, but can’t time an offspeed pitch. Others have a slow bat speed and struggle with fastballs, but feast on the slower pitches.

So for each pitch, the batter wants to:
1. Predict a pitch correctly
2. Swing at a pitch that if it lets him approximate his optimal swing path
3. Take a pitch if it would cause a suboptimal swing path (unless 2 strikes in zone)
4. Take pitches out of the zone to move to a better Prediction State for the next pitch
5. If in a 2-strike situation, make contact (foul or fair) on a pitch in the zone

Belief Without Evidence #7: SQL-reliant GMs don’t value the third dimension of #6 enough

In a vast sea of unordered pitches from an unordered group of pitchers, you will get a randomly-distributed plethora of good pitches to hit, so the numbers will all work out in the end. So you acquire hitters based on these vast seas of data, ignoring what the batter does with difficult pitches to hit, because in the long run, they don’t matter much.

But against a good pitcher on a good day who does not give you a good pitch to hit, what do those batters do? Do they hit a ball hard if they don’t get a good pitch to hit?

To me, the biggest difference between the A’s in the playoffs and the Giants in the playoffs is Pablo Sandoval. Because there may not be anyone in baseball right now better than Sandoval who does damage even when he does not get a good pitch to hit. He can turn pitches in the dirt, in his eyes, and/or six inches off the plate into a hit. He’s almost immune to prediction state manipulation by opposing pitchers. And Hunter Pence, though not as extreme as Sandoval, has similar characteristics.

The A’s simply do not pursue those types of players. Players like Sandoval tend to have low OBPs, because they swing at so many bad pitches. Minor leaguers with that profile flop far more than they succeed, so they’re a bad risk to take. But there are times, against a good pitcher on a good day who is simply not giving hitters a good pitch to hit, that it is valuable to have a player who often does damage even with a bad pitch to hit. And those times happen more often in the playoffs.

A technology that used a system of evaluating players in which high-level statistics of player value were derived from a low-level {speed, location, movement, swing path, prediction state} matrix would better identify the true value of such players.

Belief Without Evidence #8: Diversity is Good for Batting Lineups

This belief is related to the belief about the definition of the quality of a pitch, and to the belief of a biomechanical/psychological foundation to all of this. A lineup with too many batters with similar strengths and weaknesses can make it easier for a pitcher to settle into a psychological/mechanical rhythm and mow down such a lineup. A lineup that is diverse (some hit fastballs, some like it inside, or low, some slug, others make contact, etc.) makes a pitcher have to change his approach from at-bat to at-bat. That forces the pitcher to have to make a variety of quality pitches in order to win. It’s harder for a pitcher to win if he has to have multiple pitches working well.

So when I praised the Giants for having Pablo Sandoval, I did not mean that an entire team of hitters like Pablo Sandoval would be ideal. But having one or two guys like him in a lineup with some more patient-type hitters is a good thing.

Belief Without Evidence #9: A lineup without holes scores runs exponentially, not linearly

This is probably the easiest of my hypotheses to disprove. But I have the gut feeling that one guy who is an automatic out in the middle of a lineup can take a rally that might score five runs and drop that rally down to 0 or 1 runs.

I think we saw this play out with the 2014 Oakland A’s. At the beginning of the year, everyone in the lineup was healthy and hitting somewhat near or above expectations. The A’s were just killing it in the pythagorean win column, because they’d get a rally going and that rally would just keep going and going.

But then Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss started having some nagging injuries, and Moss in particular became pretty much an automatic out for a month or two. Those five-run rallies, once plentiful, almost instantly disappeared. Every rally seemed to be killed by a terrible at-bat in the middle of it.

Almost every team has a hole in the lineup at any given time, someone who is slumping for whatever reason. So for most teams, run scoring appears to be linear. But in those rare cases when everyone is clicking at the same time, their run scoring graph turns like a hockey stick and shoots upward.

The A’s success early in the year depended on the lineup being holeless, and when holes appeared, the whole thing collapsed back from exponential scoring into linear.

Belief Without Evidence #10: A’s fans are magical elves

I’ve been playing in my mind lately with the idea that A’s fans are like the house elves in the Harry Potter stories.

We exist so that others may abuse us. The greatest triumphs of others often comes at our expense. We dress in ratty clothing (stadium). Yet despite this constant abuse, we are fiercely loyal to our master. We attack viciously anyone who dares attack our master. We perform magic (great stadium atmosphere) on their behalf, no matter how awful our masters treat us in return.

If ever we were given clothing (a new stadium) by our master, we would be free of our bondage. Some, like Dobby, desire this, but others would not know what to do with themselves with freedom and wealth. It would ruin the very essence of their being.

I used to be like Dobby, longing for the freedom that a World Series victory and/or a new stadium would bring. But now, I am beginning to feel that the other elves are right — that it is wrong to support S.P.E.W. and long for something that would destroy who we are.

We are meant to suffer, so that other wizards may have their glories. We are elves. Let us be that we are and seek not to alter us.

Much Ado About SomethingGate

A play will be performed this weekend which has the following characters:

  • A unethical journalist who befriends a disgrunted employee and seduces an industry insider to gain access to better stories
  • A troll who, out of envy for what he perceives as undeserved fame and attention, slanders an innocent woman, who is then forced into hiding
  • A group consisting entirely of men who believe the slander and amplify it
  • A feminist who rails against the privileges and advantages of such men
  • A completely incompetent law enforcement agency

A brand new play, pulled from today’s headlines? Nope, the play was written about 416 years ago by William Shakespeare. It’s called Much Ado About Nothing.

Encinal High School in Alameda, CA, is putting on the play this weekend. And maybe a hundred people or so will see it, since it’s a high school play, and the first performance will conflict with Game 4 of the World Series, with a Bay Area team playing.

Which is a shame, because the things these kids (including two of mine) have done to pull the current relevance out of a 400-year-old play is remarkable. And that Shakespeare wrote a play 400 years ago that drips with relevance to today’s headlines is equally remarkable. It deserves to be seen by more people than that.

So if you’re an A’s fan looking to escape the Giants’ clutches on our attention this week, or if you have a few spare hours Sunday afternoon before Game 5, please come out and see Much Ado About Nothing at Encinal High School. You’ll enjoy it.


Much Ado About Nothing
Encinal High School cafeteria
Alameda, CA
Saturday, October 25, 7pm
Sunday, October 26, 2pm
Adults $10, Students $5
Running time: about 90 minutes



I believe the evidence is clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone.

Edward O. Wilson

In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, the title character hears a rumor that he may not be what he thinks he is: the son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Polybus and Merope deny the rumor, but Oedipus seeks external confirmation, and visits the Oracle at Delphi. The oracle ignores his question, and instead prophecies that he will kill his father and wed his mother.

Oedipus has no evidence he is not his parents’ son. He has no evidence to suggest he will eventually kill Polybus and marry Merope. But the latter is a much bigger problem than the former, so Oedipus ignores the first small problem and acts on the second, leaving Corinth forever, so as to avoid this horrible fate. He then proceeds to live his life as if he had solved his problem. And, of course, because this is a Greek tragedy, he hadn’t.

Rumors are not facts. Prophecies are not proven theorems. Yet it is not true that Oedipus had no evidence that he was not his parents’ son. He had the rumor. He had the prophecy. In a Bayesian sense, he should have considered the odds of his being adopted having increased from 0% before hearing the rumor and the prophecy, to what–1%? 10%? 25%?–afterwards.

The odds being less than 50%, however, the logical thing for Oedipus to do when faced with any given binary decision is to act as if the rumor was false. That’s the choice that gives him the best odds of succeeding, based on the information he has.


Hubris is extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character that ultimately brings about his downfall.

Hubris is a typical flaw in the personality of a character who enjoys a powerful position; as a result of which, he overestimates his capabilities to such an extent that he loses contact with reality. A character suffering from Hubris tries to cross normal human limits and violates moral codes.

–Definition of Hubris from Literary Devices

Is it extreme pride and arrogance to make the most logical decision? If so, then the human condition is tragic no matter what decisions we make.

If we choose with the odds based on the best information we have, we risk making a catastrophic decision because we lacked a critical piece of data. If we choose out of rumor and superstition and fear, we risk living a life where bad decisions compound themselves with every choice we make, and we end up living a suboptimal life.

The more successful we are, however, the more likely we are to make the catastrophic decision that results in a classical, Greek-style tragedy. With every successful decision we make, the less likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that we are lacking that critical piece of information, and the more likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that our decision-making process is sound.

If you have a decision-making algorithm, and you’re 50% sure it’s good, and then you test it, and it works, now you’re, what–51%? 55%? 60%?–sure that it works. Test it again and it works again, and the odds rise again. Eventually, if you reach the top of a hierarchy and stay there, you get really confident that you know what you’re doing. You’re the king!

Hubris, then, is the logical result of success. In every form of competition, somebody has to reach the top. The closer to the top you get, the more likely it is that you think your success is because of your knowledge and your decision-making process. The more you become certain that your data and your process are sound, the more you should logically make bigger and bigger bets based on that data and that process. And because of those bigger and bigger bets, the harder you will fall if and when it turns out that your data and/or your decision-making process was flawed.


But if you look at the impact those trades have on this particular team’s offense, it’s negligable. Offensively, the numbers tell us that losing Cespedes is no big deal.

Ken Arneson

If you look at Yoenis Cespedes statistically, there’s no real evidence that trading him would hurt the A’s very much. His numbers are mediocre, and easily replaced.

But looking back on the trade now, it feels like the A’s and their fans were focused on the wrong prophecy. The prophecy that a superstar ace pitcher was the missing piece to Moneyball. The significant rumor, the important piece of Bayesian evidence that we ignored was this: that the 2012-14 A’s team was not a product of Billy Beane’s genius. That this team played like complete and utter crap for five years, and then Yoenis Cespedes showed up, and it suddenly and immediately became good. That for 2 1/2 years, when Cespedes was in the lineup, the team played well, and when he was out of the lineup, the team played like crap, regardless of how well Cespedes was playing.

And then Beane, in his moment of hubris, trusting the logic and the data and the decision-making process that had made a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie of his life and had seemingly landed him in first place for 2 1/2 years, traded Cespedes away, and the team reverted immediately to playing like complete and utter crap again.

Could this Cespedes anomaly possibly, actually be real thing? No one can explain it. The fans don’t know why this Cespedes anomaly exists, and all the statisticians don’t know why, and Bob Melvin doesn’t know why, and Billy Beane doesn’t know why. There no evidence! It’s just rumor, innuendo, speculation, unfactual gobbledygook, completely illogical bullshit ex-post-facto rationalization.

But it’s there. It exists. It hurts to look at it. And it has all of us A’s fans wanting to poke our eyes out.

The gods hate us. They want to punish us for our pride and arrogance.

And you may say, gods are superstitious nonsense, that there is no evidence of an external wrath raining down upon us, no demonstrable cruel destiny or fate assigned us, no eternal Sisyphean existence vouchsafed us for the end of the present one.

And that’s true. There is no evidence for the existence of God, or gods. Except for the small, annoying, persistent rumor that at this particular point in time, we are here.

Why I Have Stopped Tweeting

Because my hands are full. Literally. In each hand, I am carrying a whipped cream pie. I carry these pies with me 24/7, one in each hand, which prevents me from tweeting. I shall carry this burden with me until I find the inevitable person who is wearing both Google Glass and an AppleWatch at the same time, at which time I shall throw these pies at said person for being such a pretentious twit. And then, having completed what I was sent here on earth to accomplish, I shall at long last be satisfied with my life, and I shall immediately thereafter ascend into the heavens.

The End.

(26178) 1996 GV2

(26178) 1996 GV2 is an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is small, so small that scientists can’t tell how small it is, only how brightly it reflects sunlight.

(26178) 1996 GV2 is small, and also faint.But despite its faintness, (26178) 1996 GV2 has been observed 800 times since it was discovered in 1996.That’s enough observations to calculate that (26178) 1996 GV2 orbits the sun every 4.4 earth years.(26178) 1996 GV2 does not make for a particularly illuminating blog entry.Other blog entries get interesting things when trick-or-treating from old Random Wikipedia.Not this blog entry. This blog entry says, “I got a rock.”Nobody cares about rocks.Unless they slam into the earth and cause mass extinctions or something.Then the rock becomes famous.So this blog entry is to blog entries what (26178) 1996 GV2 is to celestial bodies.It will be ignored and forgotten, just sitting there like a boring rock among countless boring rocks, unless I do something to stand out, to make myself famous.And just as the more people there are, the harder it is for a person to stand out, the more rocks there are, the harder it is for a rock to stand out.Can you imagine what Wikipedia would look like by the time we master interstellar travel?By then, they’ll have catalogged every rock orbiting around every star in this quadrant of the galaxy.Damn near every Random Wikipedia article that comes up will be about one rock or another because there are so many of them.There are a lot of rocks in the galaxy, I’m sure, so there will be lots of rocks in Wikipedia.Maybe one day, though, rocks will get demoted out of Wikipedia, unless it’s a planet.Do you ever feel sad that a planet didn’t form out of the asteroid belt?I feel like we’re missing out on a potentially interesting planet, instead of a bunch of rocks.Although, if there had been a planet there instead of an asteroid belt, we probably wouldn’t have had those chase scenes in Star Wars.OK, I guess the asteroid belt is worth it after all.I wonder, if you sent a rocket ship randomly through the asteroid belt, what are the odds you would actually crash into an asteroid?A lot less than the odds 3CPO gave that’s for sure, our asteroid belt not that dense.It is more spread out.Blah blah blah blah blah blah

And that is why people who are as dumb as rocks turn into trolls when they get online. They think this is their big chance to be a star. Nope, we see you, but you don’t have any brilliant ideas of your own. You’re just a rock. Go disappear into a catalog, like (26178) 1996 GV2.


Today, Random Wikipedia wants us to study urease, which is:

an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. The reaction occurs as follows:

(NH2)2CO + H2O → CO2 + 2NH3

I don’t really want to think about how pee breaks down. But I have been thinking about chemistry a lot lately. Mostly because I’ve been auditing an online course called the Fundamentals of Neuroscience.

I’ve been hoping to learn some juicy stuff about how the brain affects human behavior, but so far, the course has consisted entirely of the low-level details about the electrochemical properties of neurons. It’s all about how differences in the ratios of sodium, potassium and chlorine ions inside and outside a cell can lead to the flowing of electric currents via various chemical channels in the cell membrane. It blows my mind that this random soup of ions could arrange itself this complex way so as to send signals around a living body to respond to stimuli. And that this random soup of ions could arrange itself to make neurons, which arrange themselves to create networks of information, which arrange themselves to create human behavior, which arranges itself to create communities and nations — it’s hard to grasp the entire scope of all this.

Of course, we don’t grasp the entire scope of all this. We may know little pieces of it, like understanding exactly how to chemically block a sodium ion channel through a cell membrane in order to block pain signals. But the people who understand that probably don’t understand how drugs that block sodium ion channels get distributed through impoverished communities and create addiction and crime and distrust of poor people among authorities and distrust of authorities among poor people and economic vicious cycles that perpetuate that distrust.

Some people may have useful theories about how the big picture fits together but don’t understand the details. Others understand the details and but don’t see the big picture. The scope is too big for one human brain to comprehend. You have to hope there’s some mechanism through which a network of human brains can gather enough pieces to figure out a functional system instead of a disfunctional one, from low-level literal chemistry to higher-level figurative chemistry.

[insert sudden awkward segue to a very different topic here]

…and speaking of figurative chemistry, it’s amazing how poorly the Oakland A’s have played since trading away Yoenis Cespedes. On the spreadsheet, losing him shouldn’t make much of a difference. But no matter how brilliant Billy Beane is, he doesn’t understand the whole system from ion channel to World Series Champion. Nobody does, or can.

Who knew that how pee breaks down has anything to do with the Oakland A’s? Very few. But pee is part of the process, even if it’s not part of your model. Maybe there is some ununderstood literal or figurative chemistry that Cespedes provided which is affecting the A’s play.

I know that for me, as a fan, the trade has pretty much ended up ruining the season for me, and it would have even if the A’s were playing well. Because Cespedes, for me, provided the identity of the team. He was Us. Cespedes’ value as an entertainer was unmatched on the team. Every time he came to bat, and every time a ball was hit to him, my attention perked up, just in anticipation of what he might do. Even in a dreary game, he provided a reason to keep watching.

That reason is gone now. Jon Lester is a great pitcher, but he’s utterly joyless on the mound. And knowing that he’s a two-month mercenary, gone after the season is over, makes it difficult to create any emotional attachment to him. He’s not My Guy. Cespedes was My Guy.

As a result of trading the heart and soul of the team, I find that I’ve become detached. To me, the 2014 A’s season has now become all about The Destination instead of The Journey. So I find myself not caring whether I watch a game or not, because all that matters is the result. If they win, the trade was worth it. If they don’t, it wasn’t. So wake me up when the playoffs start, if the A’s even get there. In the meantime, I’ll hiding off here to the side, blocking all my sodium ion channels, numbing myself to all the inevitable pain that is soon to come.

Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters


Random Wikipedia sends us today to the Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters, which is a subdivision of the Pan-African Parliament. The Pan-African Parliament was established in 2004, and is similar in scope and goals to the European Parliament, aiming for central banking, unified currencies and free-trade zones. Obviously, to establish free-trade zones, you need rules and regulations regarding trade, customs and immigration between countries. Hence, this committee, probably tasked to create an African version of the Schengen Agreement.

Back in 1988-89 when I worked as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm (shown above, with me in the open window), I would not have envisioned that Africa would have come this far in 25 years. But they’re about at the same place the European Union was back then. In 1989, it wasn’t called the EU yet; it was the European Community. There were economic subgroups like the EEC and EFTA, but no common currency. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, and as a consequence, Sweden and Finland were not yet willing to join such an alliance. The pieces were there, but it had not yet all come together.

Of course, there are some unstable countries in Africa, especially in North Africa after the Arab Spring revolutions. But Europe in 1989 similarly unstable when the Berlin Wall fell. It would have been really interesting to still be working in the Embassy to experience the Nigerian reaction to the Berlin Wall falling, but I left that job in June of 1989, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. My successor as translator worked there in interesting times, to be sure.


Wow, look at how serious those young professional translators looked back in 1989!

“Please! Spare me your egotistical musings on your pivotal role in history. Nothing you do here will cause the Federation to collapse or galaxies to explode. To be blunt, you’re not that important.”
–Q, to Jean-Luc Picard, in the Star Trek TNG episode, “Tapestry”

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m living the life of the version of Jean-Luc Picard who didn’t get stabbed in the heart by a Nausicaan in that episode of Star Trek– the one who didn’t become a famous captain, the one who lived life too cautiously, who didn’t take risks, who drifted in life with no particular plan, and who as a result ended up with a decent, but forgettable and unremarkable career. But then I think, wow, I worked in European diplomacy as Communism was falling, and I worked in Silicon Valley as the Internet was starting, I got involved in blogging as social media became a thing, I covered the A’s as Moneyball introduced the world to statistical analysis. I’ve witnessed a lot of history unfolding, even if I never was the one who captained any ships to glory. All those events probably would have rolled on more or less the same without my being there. We can’t all be a Jean-Luc Picard (primary version). It is the nature of hierarchies that most of us, at best, are lucky just to be a Jean-Luc Picard (alternate version). I’ve been lucky.

Book Peddler

Today’s trip down Random Wikipedia lane introduces us to book peddlers, who were ‘travelling vendors (“peddlers”) of books.’ I’m not sure why book peddlers warrant a wikipedia entry, when other door-to-door salespeople like broom peddlers or brush peddlers don’t.

I’ve never peddled books much, but I’ve peddled blogs plenty of times. I’m a lousy peddler, though. I admire a good peddler, but it’s not for me. There is a good reason why in my career I have ended up in engineering departments instead of sales departments. I just want to focus on making good products and leave the sales work to teammates who are much better at it.

I am beginning a Twitter exile, partly to devote some of the time that Twitter sucked away to my family, but also to take some of that time to get back to doing some blogging. I don’t seem to be able to both blog and tweet at the same time. For me, it’s either one or the other.

So in exiling myself from Twitter to return to blogging, the arises whether to peddle my blog entries over on Twitter, despite my absence there otherwise. The question boils down to this: why do I write at all? Is it for the social rewards of praise from others? Or is it for the reward of a job well done?

Twitter in its purest form provides the former, blogging in its purest form provides the latter. While I have, on occasion, created a well-crafted tweet, it is more a source of quick, easy, (though ephemeral) social rewards than a place where to get the satisfaction of a job well done. And while I have, on occasion, written a blog entry that provided the social rewards of being widely praised, most of the time, even the blog entries I gained deep satisfaction from writing have largely gone unnoticed and/or unfeedbacked.

And so an experiment: I’m going to quit peddling what I write, and I’m going to remove all analytics from my web site, and all comments, so unless someone takes the trouble to email me, I will have no idea whether anyone reads my stuff or not. Any peddling will come purely from the kindness of strangers, not from me. Is writing well its own reward? I guess I’ll soon find out.

Xenotilapia leptura

Xenotilapia leptura is a species of fish that lives in Lake Tanganyika in Africa. It is currently in no danger of extinction.

But this will change.

Lake Tanganyika is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. It is located in the East African Rift, which is being formed by the African tectonic plate splitting in two and drifting apart. Sometime in the next 10 million years, the split will become large enough that a new ocean will form between the two new plates.

What will become of Lake Tanganyika when this new ocean forms in the East African Rift? Will it be incorporated into the new ocean? Will the change be gradual, or catastrophic? Will the salt water from the world oceans suddenly rush into the lake? Or will the saltiness increase very, very gradually?

These are important questions for the future of Xenotilapia leptura. You cannot just plop it into a saltwater ocean and expect it to survive. It needs the saltiness to increase gradually, so that the species has time to evolve with the change.

* * *

It is amazing to think that we can see 10 million years into the future of some other species, but barely see 10 days into the future of our own. Every day a new startup company is born, or within an existing business a new project is launched, with a mission to invent some new technology that will change the world.

Ten days from now, Apple will announce something.


What rough automaton, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Will we, as a species, have time to evolve with the change? Or will the change overwhelm us?

* * *

I have been on Twitter now for seven years. There have been murmurs now that Twitter has changed, for the worse, and people are dropping out. Frank Chimero:

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

But perhaps Twitter hasn’t changed. It’s just a dumb new ocean, flooding in. We’re the ones who haven’t changed, who haven’t evolved fast enough to survive the new saltwater.

I’ve dropped out of Twitter three times this year. I don’t want to blame Twitter for it. I just have trouble adapting to the changing environment. Twitter for me has become like Fox News is for many senior citizens — it’s entertaining and informative, but it also leaves me bitter and angry and frustrated at the world, 24×7.

True, there are some things worth being angry about. But I can be angry about those things without Twitter. It’s the things not worth being upset about that’s the problem.

I’m just not very good at dipping my feet into that ocean in moderation. It pulls me down deep, every time. And as a result, I become a lousy husband and father in the real world, and my productivity plummets.

When I’ve taken breaks, the anger and bitterness leaves, and everything in my life gets better. I’m happier, the people around me are happier, and I get a hell of a lot more useful stuff done.

I’m taking a long, looooooooong break from Twitter this time. I’m not planning to come back until (a) the bitterness is gone again, and (b) I have a real plan for using Twitter in moderation. Until then, anytime I feel like expressing anything, I’ll do it here, on this blog.

* * *

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about