Category Archives: Entertainment

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:

statsgraph2

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.

Eek!

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.

Education

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.

Baseball

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.

Business

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:

statsgraph3

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.

Economics

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.

Politics

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.”

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

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:
congresscompare780

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:


Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters

NigerianEmbassy2

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.

NigerianEmbassy1

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.

Bless Its Pointed Little Head

(Quoting Wikipedia …) “Jefferson Airplane was formed in San Francisco during the summer of 1965.”

(Doing math: February 1966 – nine months == … ) Ken Arneson was formed in San Francisco during the summer of 1965.

Therefore, Ken Arneson is an airplane.

* * *

Today, Random Wikipedia sends Arneson Airplane to visit the Jefferson Airplane live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. The album was recorded in San Francisco in the autumn of 1968, and released in 1969. Half the songs on the live album are from their most successful studio album, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow.

The Summer of Love was about San Francisco, and about psychedelic rock, about concerts at the Fillmore–that is, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll–and if you combine all those things it ought to all add up to Bless Its Pointed Little Head. But somehow it doesn’t — Surrealistic Pillow is considered a classic album, but Bless Its Pointed Little Head, not so much. Maybe it came too late, after the Summer of Love was over. But if I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because the live album lacks one key Surrealistic Pillow song: White Rabbit.

White Rabbit is perhaps THE canonical psychedelic rock song. Maybe they didn’t realize that back in 1969 when they were assembling this album. But looking back now, it seems pretty clear that a live psychedelic rock album from that era in that city and those venues without the canonical psychedelic rock song is just a missed opportunity.

* * *

Arneson Airplane is not, it must be noted, a particularly big fan of psychedelic rock. I seem to be only be able to tolerate the popular music of my toddlerdom in small doses. I can listen to a song or three and like it, but that’s about it.

I listened to Bless Its Pointed Little Head this morning. I enjoyed first few songs, but after that my mind began to wander and my concentration faded and it all started sounding the same to me. It began to feel like the kind of background music I’d always hear in the record stores in Berkeley during college in the 80s. Atmospherics, little more.

So I’m not sure that, even if I had been old enough to enjoy the music that filled the air in San Francisco in the 60’s that I would have appreciated it very much. I’d probably have missed the opportunity, as well.

* * *

In those days, a lot of concerts had multiple bands playing one after another. For example, during the Summer of Love, Jefferson Airplane performed four concerts in Southern California alongside The Doors on the marquee.

My feelings about The Doors are similar to my feelings about Jefferson Airplane, I liked them in small doses, too. Despite their distinctive, keyboard-first sound, my mind lumps them together with the other rock bands of their era, I guess.

Sadly and coincidentally, The Doors’ keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, passed away this morning, at age 74. Bless his pointed little head. May he rest in peace.

John Cocks

John Cocks” (nudge nudge) was a British “marine biologist” (wink wink) and a “botanist” (heh heh), who lived from 1787 to 1861. He “discovered” (if you catch my drift) a kind of red “seaweed” (rrrrrrrowww) called “Stenogramme interrupta“.

Sorry to interrupt, uh, but are you interested in er… (waggles head, leans across) stenogrammes, eh? Know what I mean? Stenogrammes, ‘he asked knowingly’.

Stenogrammes? As in what a secretary writes down?

Oh, ho ho, a secretary, yes! Secretary, could be, could be! Could be writing, yes. Could be drawings. Pictures, or “photographs”. Pho-to-graphs. Snap snap! Eh? Snap snap!

Snap, as in, holiday snaps?

Could be, could be taken on holiday. Random places, could be – yes – swimming costumes. Underwater, Candid photography. Know what I mean, nudge nudge. Eh?

Ah yes, certainly, I understand now. I happen to have a photograph of a stenogramme interrupta right here:

StenogrammeInterrupta

Say no more!

Photo reproduced courtesy of World Register of Marine Species under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

Ypsilomena

Once upon a time, there was a man named Mario with a world-class mustache. If you read yesterday’s entry in our Random Wikipedia series, you might think I’m talking about a video game character. But nope.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Mario with a world-class mustache who dedicated his life to cataloging all the different kinds of flying insects in the world. He was a pioneer in the scientific study of dipterous insects.

The man with the world-class mustache was named Mario Bezzi. He was a professor of zoology at the University of Turin. He lived from 1868 to 1927. No information could be found on how long his fantastic mustache lived. But it looked like this:

MarioBezzi

The Italian Wikipedia describes him as “rigid and inflexible of character, stern first with himself and with a deep sense of duty… unable to accept compromises.” Perhaps, those character traits were a necessary part of his greatness. Perhaps, a man cannot attain such a perfect mustache without being a perfectionist. To such a man, to accept compromise, to accept that good enough is good enough, is a kind of failure.

Sadly, his perfectionism proved his undoing. Shortly after promoted to Director of the Turin Museum of Zoology in early 1927, “believing himself unequal to the task entrusted to him,” Professor Bezzi committed suicide by cyanide. A tragic end.

Today, however, we honor his mustache and his work. Specifically we honor what he did in 1924, when Bezzi cataloged a species of fruit fly found in the southern part of the African continent, called Ypsilomena compacta. Today’s Random Wikipedia entry, Ypsilomena, is the genus to which that species belongs.

No information could be found for the genus to which Mario Bezzi’s mustache belonged. Rest in peace.

1973 in video gaming

I don’t remember the first time I ever saw a video game. I doubt it was as early as 1973. I know my next-door neighbor had an Atari 2600 in 1978, and I had a Mattel Electronics Football game around the same time. I know I went minigolfing for a couple birthdays in between there, and the minigolf place had an arcade. They probably had Pong, if not a few other video games in the arcade. Probably, then, I first laid eyes on a video game around 1976 or so.

So this Random Wikipedia article, 1973 in video gaming, comes a few years too early for me to have any personal memories. As a historical landmark, it’s one year too late. The big year in video gaming is 1972. In 1972, Atari was founded and they produced Pong. Additionally in 1972, Magnavox introduced the Odyssey, the first home video game console.

So 1973 was a period of infancy for video games–after they were invented, but before they became a major force in popular culture. Did the people working on video games back really believe it would later become a huge deal? Or did they assume they were just part of a temporary fad, just trying to figure something out, maybe eking out a living or something if they’re lucky, but not really suspecting they were incubating a baby entertainment industry that would eventually be as big as movies or TV?

And what’s the 2013 version of video gaming — the rough beast that’s just a baby now, barely even noticed, but one day will grow to be king of the world?

QWOP as an Example of Muscle Metaphor

Jon Bois has a fun story over on SB Nation today about QWOP, the stupidest, most aggravating, hilarious video game ever made. I enjoyed the reminder about the game, because it illustrates what I wrote on Friday about muscle metaphors.

The example I used on Friday was how I’d think about shooting a free throw in order to correct my posture in other, non-basketball contexts. Using this kind of “muscle metaphor” allows your brain to build a solution for your task more quickly out of existing pathways, instead of trying building it from scratch or some other, less optimal pathway.

One of the reasons QWOP is so difficult is that it seems to defy our ability to find such muscle metaphors. It’s quite unlike any other task you’ve likely tried, and so when we first play the game, we struggle to find any sort of muscular analogy to help our brains cope with this job.

We fail miserably, usually falling flat on our faces or upside down on our heads after just one or two steps. We’re like infants all over again, trying to figure out how these muscles of ours work, kicking our legs this way and that, hoping that eventually, through trial and error, we figure out how to control these things. The “everyone is a winner” message after every failure acts like an encouraging parent, urging us to keep going.

* * *

Eventually, nearly all babies figure out how to walk. But there are often intermediate stages. Babies don’t have a lot of previous motor skills to build on, so they have to construct these pathways from scratch. So a lot of babies crawl before walking, as it’s an easier task to master. Others figure out a kind of butt-scoot, shuffling along while seated, and are satisfied with that form of mobility until they figure out the harder stuff.

QWOP has an equivalent to the butt-scoot, and that’s a kind of one-knee scoot, which works like this:

1. At the start line, press W and P together quickly six times. This will bring the runner down to one knee like this:

2. Then press Q and O together one time, to get the right thigh perpendicular to the ground:

3. Then you scoot along the ground by pressing the pairs of keys together: W/P three times, and Q/O once, over and over. Pressing W and P together three times kicks the left leg out, then Q and O together one time brings the right knee back to parallel.

4. At 50 meters you will reach the hurdle. You can just kind of knock it over. You may need to give an extra Q/O or two to get over it.

5. Then just continue until you get to the finish line at 100m:

* * *

Interestingly, though, this knee scoot method uses the opposite pairs of keys from what you want to use if you’re trying to move the QWOP guy along on two feet. If you’re walking, you want to press Q together with P, and W together with O.

But having mastered the one-knee scoot, walking becomes a little easier. Although the pair of keys we want to press is now the opposite of what we pressed before, we now have some muscle metaphors to build on. We’ve got practice now in pressing these pairs of keys together instead of individually. We’ve also got practice in developing a rhythm to our motion.

And here’s where I finally can find some muscle metaphor from my own experience instead of just the game’s. I find that when I successfully get the QWOP guy to move, I’m actually doing a kind of skipping. I do a long press first, to kick the leg out, and then I do a short little one with the same foot to adjust the leg to where it needs to be so I can successfully get the next leg moving forward. Thinking about skipping gets me in the right frame of mind to get my muscles to press the keys at the right time.

Of course, it’s still not easy even then. The part I still have trouble with now is failure recovery. If I lean forward or back too much, or stick the leg out too far or not far enough, my instincts for correcting the error seem to always be wrong. Half the time, I choose the wrong pair of buttons to push, so I make my mistake worse, not better. Splat.

Mastering failure recovery is also one of the final stages when toddlers learn how to walk. At first, they’ll fall hard to the side or face down, and as a parent, you need to be there to catch them. Eventually, though, all seem to learn how to fall onto their butts, so that they end up sitting after they fall. And finally, the failure recovery gets to be so good that they don’t fall at all.

Then, the next thing you know, your kid is old enough to drive. (My oldest just turned 15 1/2 last month). Then you have to go through this all over again with them, until they’ve mastered the accelerator, brake and steering wheel enough that you know they won’t crash into a tree anytime someone throws a banana at them.

Spotlight on Quality: Transitions and Clowns

In between shows, I went backstage to grab some food. One of the volunteers came up to me and said, “Hey, Ken, the lighting director is looking for you.”

I wondered why. Had I screwed up? I was a rookie at operating a spotlight, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t understand something correctly during the first performance, and they wanted me to get it right for the next show. Lighting was an element of the performing arts that I had never given any thought to, until one day earlier. Now I was trying to learn on the fly: what is the meaning of quality in the field of stage lighting?

I went and found the lighting director. Fortunately, I hadn’t screwed up. “We’re adding a new transition in the second show, after the broom act, ” he explained.

* * *

“Transitions are the subtle in-between details that we as human beings actually connect with and the reasons we fall in love with something rather than simply like something.”

Brendan Dawes

Brendan Dawes has an interesting post about transitions in design on his blog. His thought is that the transitions between states of usage is the thing that makes the difference between a product that is functional and a product that is beautiful. A commenter named Robert Turrall added an excellent example of this idea in action:

“I remember having discussions with an industrial designer a few years ago about why interior lights in cars that dim gently after you’ve closed the doors go towards the perception of the car itself. BMWs had them, as did other more expensive cars, and this was one of the features that really made the car “feel” exclusive and expensive. Other cars had lights that just switched off abruptly – and they immediately felt “cheap”, almost on the basis of this alone.”

Robert Turrall

There is likely almost no difference in manufacturing cost between a light that turns off abruptly and a light that turns off slowly. But little details like that can be the difference between cheapness and luxury, between amateur and professional.

* * *

I have operated plenty of car lights in my time, but until a month ago, I had never laid hands on a spotlight. I was called on to operate one of the two spotlights at Circus for Arts in the Schools, an annual fundraising circus show put on by professional circus artists to raise money for arts education.

The show is the brainchild of my friend Jeff Raz, a veteran circus performer who, among other things, played the lead role in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, and founded the Clown Conservatory, the only full-time clown training program in the US. Jeff is very well connected in the circus industry, so he manages to get some really amazing acts to come donate their time and skills for this cause.

Jeff recruits the acts and directs the show, while his wife and my wife co-produce it. And I…well, I do whatever I’m asked to do.

* * *

“Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.”

Josh Wilker

For this year’s circus, I was asked not to step into the spotlight, but to hold onto it. The lighting director gave me a crash course in how to operate the device. (I learned that in theaters, unlike in cars, turning a spotlight on and off quickly is a signal of high quality, and doing so slowly is considered “cheating”). And then we rehearsed.

In preparations for two 75-minute shows on Sunday, we practiced for five hours on Saturday night, and then another two hours on Sunday morning. Interestingly, we did not rehearse the actual circus acts in the show. Those were simply assumed to be ready to go. For the most part, the only thing we worked on were the transitions between the acts, and between various lighting and sound cues.

* * *

A show with acrobats and clowns consists of, as Jeff Raz says, “the superhuman and the supremely human.” If you had a show with just acrobat after acrobat after acrobat, your mind would quickly become numbed by the superhuman feats of these performers. That’s where you need to bring in the clowns.

Clowns get a bum rap in today’s culture, thanks to some bad horror films and a few other choice clichés. But after being involved with this annual circus for seven years, and having seen some truly top-notch artists at work up close, I’ve really grown to appreciate the art form.

The clown’s role in a circus is not merely to make you laugh. The clown is there to serve as the transition between acts in the show. They bring equipment onto the stage, and they take it off. But perhaps most importantly, they allow your mind to continue to enjoy the superhuman nature of the acrobats by reminding you of what it is like to be a normal human, by acting “supremely human”.

* * *

The new transition was inserted following an act by Matt White, who dances with a broom reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s hat rack. As soon as the broom act was over, I needed to find the clown in the wings. The clown would then turn on a fully functioning vacuum cleaner, and I had to follow him with the spotlight as he tried to dance with the vacuum cleaner across the stage.

It’s probably the oldest clown gag in the book. The clown earnestly tries to succeed like the act before him, but focuses on the wrong element of the act to emulate. It’s not the cleaning tool that is the source of the quality in the performance.

If you or I were thrust out on a stage and told to emulate Fred Astaire, we would probably fail miserably. Not because of one huge mistake like choosing the wrong prop to dance with, but by a thousand little things that we, as amateurs, simply do not understand.

By distilling these thousand little errors into one big error, the clown points out our own human flaws: we recognize quality when we see it, but recognizing is not the same as understanding.

* * *

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world!

— Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Wanting to succeed is human. Failing to succeed because we don’t understand the elements of quality is supremely human. Persisting through those failures until we do understand — that is what redeems us.

A good circus is not just a series of good acrobats and good clowns. It’s the two working in concert to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an expression of the entire human experience, moving from the innocent curiosity of childhood to the godlike comprehension of adult mastery. The result is an uplifting feeling of possibility — that we humans can get past our lack of understanding to accomplish amazing things — that makes so many people leave the circus show with smiles on their faces.

* * *

Later that night, when we got home, my four-year-old daughter was inspired. “I’m going to put on a show!” she declared. She went into our pantry, and pulled out a mop. “Watch me! Watch me!” Then she and the mop danced in circles all around the living room.

On Evil

There are few characters in all of literature more evil than Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the very first scene of the play, Richard comes right out and declares that he is a villain. He then proceeds to spend the rest of the play alternating between describing the evil he’s about to do, and doing that evil. He cares nothing about the damage he does to the people around him. He murders anyone who gets in his way: his enemies, his friends, his closest ally, his brother, his wife, and his two nephews–both children. He’s a monster.

Yet he’s also intelligent and, in the hands of a good actor, both charming and funny. I recently saw Kevin Spacey perform in Richard III at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. At times, Spacey’s impeccable comic timing had the audience in stitches.

It was both an amazing and a disturbing performance. The play would have no life, no value, if it were just a laundry list of evil actions. But, thanks to the genius of Shakespeare, and the talents of an accomplished actor, we find ourselves entertained by evil, impressed by evil, charmed by evil, laughing at evil, laughing with evil. We, the audience, can’t help ourselves.

What does this say about us? Does our ability to enjoy evil condemn us as evil ourselves?

* * *

What, dost thou scorn me for my gentle counsel?
And soothe the devil that I warn thee from?
O, but remember this another day,
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow,
And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!

–Queen Margaret, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene III

Only one character in Richard III recognizes from the start that Richard is a bad man: old Queen Margaret. She had suffered this kind of treachery before. But when she tells people about the evil before them, nobody chooses to consider she might be right. They dismiss her as just a crazy old lady. Nobody really wants to confront such an uncomfortable idea. And so an evil man continues to roam free, to do more damage to people’s lives.

Sound familiar?

* * *

“You manage things. You lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership.”

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer science. She is credited with coining the computer terms “bugs” and “debugging”. One of the bugs she felt had crept into late 20th century society was that our educational institutions stopped teaching leadership, and started teaching management instead.

If you think about her quote in relation to the Penn State scandal, you can easily see how this thing went wrong. When organizations get large, when millions and billions of dollars are at stake, human beings become abstractions. People aren’t people anymore. They’re assets, or resources, or targets, or obligations, or liabilities, or potential lawsuits.

This thing at Penn State went horribly wrong because this thing became a thing. It became something to manage, an issue to deal with. And every time the buck got passed along the management chain, the issue became less person-like and more thing-like.

Penn State failed because they had management, not leadership. They had managers, not leaders. They failed because they didn’t have anyone who could tell the difference.

* * *

It’s very de-motivating to work in an environment where you can see all the brutal facts, but those in power are not confronting those brutal facts. And you want them confronted because you want to be part of something great.

Jim Collins, on “How the Mighty Fall”, his study of how great enterprises unravel.

Evil is repulsive. So it’s natural to want to repel it, to look away, to ignore it, to hope it’s not really there, to hope it will go away. Shakespeare recognized that human behavior 500 years ago. We’re still just as human today.

But the only way to defeat evil is to not repel it too quickly. If you dismiss or rationalize away the brutal facts you face, you only displace those brutal facts temporarily. They’re still there, lurking in the background.

Wise leaders must have the courage to let that evil in, just long enough to examine it, to understand it. That’s dangerous. You don’t want to be seduced by the temptations of evil yourself, and you don’t want to become a victim of it. But it must be done. It is wise, not evil, to want to study the likes of Richard III. It is wise to try to take lessons from the failures at Penn State. Otherwise, there will certainly be more victims whose hearts are split with sorrow.

Why a no Chicken?

In a recent episode of Louie, Louis CK tells a joke that he admits he doesn’t know how to finish. It involves a duck who thinks he’s special because he has a green head.

This blog entry — heck, this blog — is like that. I’m not sure where I’m going with it, I don’t know how it will end, I just have a feeling that I’ve got something here that can come together in the end.

* * *

I recently took one of those online narcissistic personality tests. I scored “normal”. But the only reason I even got as high as normal was because I had an over-the-top score in the “superiority” subsection. I’m not vain or power-mad at all, but dammit, facts are facts. I’m special. I have a green head.

* * *

The Louie show fascinates me. If you put me in a focus group where I was holding one of those dials while watching it, I’d probably flatline at the bottom the whole episode. I squirm, I cringe, I feel uncomfortable the whole time I’m watching it, thinking “I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Based on my real-time reactions, the network execs would probably cancel the show. But when you ask me afterwards how I feel about the episode, I usually love it. Love love love it.

Nobel Prize winning behaviorial economist Daniel Kahneman had demonstrated how humans have two distinct kinds of happiness. There’s a happiness that one experiences in the moment, and there’s a second kind of happiness that one feels in remembering things afterwards. The two kinds of happiness don’t necessarily correlate with each other at all.

The standard sitcom focuses like a laser on the experiential kind of happiness. We’ve all watched these shows–30 minutes of set up, punchline, laugh–but the remembrance of it usually leaves us feeling empty. I think Louie’s uniqueness stems from an indifference to the happiness of experience, if not an outright avoidance of it. The show cares more about afterwards, the happiness of memory.

* * *

Steve Jobs recently retired as CEO of Apple Computers. It’s been a helluva career. In the one and only commencement speech he ever gave, Jobs said:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

From most accounts, Jobs could be a mean sonofabitch to work for. The experience at the time of creating all those great Apple products was probably miserable thanks to Jobs’ harsh taskmastery, but after seeing the results, the memory of it afterwards was probably amazing.

* * *

So three cheers for Steve Jobs and Louis CK. They inspire me to want to follow in their footsteps, to connect the dots of my life and do amazing things.

But there’s one nagging question I have about this philosophy: what if you only think you have a green head? What if your self-image is deceptive? What if you’re really something other than what you think you are? Why a duck? Why a no chicken?

* * *

There’s a scene in another episode of Louie where Louis CK has lunch with a Hollywood executive. She asks him for his sitcom ideas, and he starts explaining his idea for a show that avoids experiential pleasure. But he can’t explain how it’s special, how it pays off in the end. He’s envisioning a green-headed duck, trusting that the dots will connect and there will be a green-headed duck in the end, but what he’s describing sounds to the executive like a chicken with some sort of deadly disease.

It’s safer and easier, not just for network executives but for human beings in general, to follow the immediate feedback, to trust the constant data streaming in from our current state of happiness, rather than ignore that short-term data and believe that something larger and more rewarding will emerge.

Postponing pleasure now for a bigger payoff later is very risky. If you’re not special, if you can’t make the dots connect, if there’s no big payoff in the end, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no heaven waiting for you after a virtuous life, if you don’t really have a green head, then you’ve got nothing to show for it but misery. No happiness from experience, and no happiness from memory, either.

That’s why shows like Louie don’t get made very often. That’s why companies like Apple are unique rather than ubiquitous.

* * *

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve worked in the high tech industry from the infancy of the world wide web, and I’ve seen a lot of companies (including some of mine) start out with the Applest of intentions. But then the feedback starts coming in, from customer service and sales, and it’s nearly impossible to say “nope, our customers are wrong and our vision is right.” Because usually the customers are right and your vision is wrong. So you follow the feedback. Be the bird that you are, and you usually have a pretty decent gig.

* * *

Modern electronic writing is primarily a pleasure-of-the-moment activity. Today’s blog entry is forgotten tomorrow. Our tweets are out of mind as soon as they scroll off our feed. We’re reacting in the moment to last night’s game, this morning’s article, tonight’s political speech. Which is fine, that’s what these media are meant to do. They’re chickens. Chickens are great, as long as you’re not expecting a duck.

* * *

Lately, I’ve had offers to write for a number baseball outlets out there. I’ve thought about trying a Craig Calcaterra, to see what I could accomplish I left my old, higher-paying career to commit to writing full time.

But so far, I’ve (mostly) resisted that temptation. My gut tells me, “don’t make that commitment.”

It’s partly because I don’t have all my ducks in a row in my personal life to make that practical right now. I quit writing regularly two years ago because I was juggling too many balls in my life, and I ended up doing a half-assed job on all of them. I hate feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, I hate feeling like I need to work 24/7 in order to avoid feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, so I resist making commitments that would create any expectations. Hence, for now, this blog, where I can do what I like, when I like, how I like with maximum flexibility and minimum commitment.

It’s probably also because I’m narcissistic enough to believe I’m unique. I’m not ready to cooped up and commit to a life as a chicken. I’m not ready to accept that this is how I finish this story. I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I’m my own species, who simply has not yet encountered the right variety of poultry to fall in love with.

That Was Burgundy, This is Teal

You know that dramatic cliché where the main character is trying to solve a problem, and some other character says something completely unrelated to the problem, and the main character goes, “Aha!” and solves the problem?  I’m beginning to think that’s not just some artificial plot device abused to death by the writers of House.  As I’m working on trying to spell out my own personal philosophy, I’m starting to find solutions to the questions I’m wrestling with in completely unrelated places.

So along those lines, I finally got around to watching Battlestar Galactica: The Plan yesterday.  I wasn’t watching it as an exercise in philosophy, I watched it to enjoy one final dose of BSG, and to clear out my DVR before the Olympics start.  But as a half-flashback, half Star Trek-ish morality play, the story for me ended up being more philosophically thought-provoking than dramatically satisfying.  So I won’t dwell on the drama too much, but let’s provoke those thoughts.

I don’t think I’d be spoiling much to say the only thing you really learn about The Plan is that it doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy.  Like the US in Iraq, the Cylons thought that they’d just win quickly and be done with it, mission accomplished.  When instead it dragged on and on, they had to start improvising, and that’s when things get complicated.

Every philosophy begins as grand design, and then ends up bogged down in details.  In BSG: The Plan, nothing less than the survival of the whole human race is at stake, yet the plan eventually devolves into a debate about clothing styles.  Cylon model #1 (Cavil) complains that cylon model #5 (Doral) is dressing too similarly to another Doral clone.  Doral disagrees. “His jacket was burgundy. This is teal!” replies Doral, in all seriousness.

BSG: The Plan is essentially A Tale of Two Cavils, two cylon agents, both posing as priests, one copy on the Galactica, one back on Caprica.  Each Cavil ends up with a moral dilemma:  whether to remain loyal to The Plan, or to follow the path of compassion.  Compassion for the enemy can have fatal consequences for the plan.  But the brutality of a plan that lacks compassion can be utterly appalling.

This is the risk we take when we devote ourselves to a philosophy.  We can become so attached to a philosophy, to a plan, to a cause, that we detach ourselves from our humanity.  This is the very definition of evil: a lack of compassion.

If there is one thing in the Bible that I take to be true above others, it is this: compassion is mankind’s most important quality.  When Jesus was asked what we should do when our values conflict with each other, Jesus said, choose compassion:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:36-40

Above all, show compassion for the entirety of creation, and compassion for individual fellow humans.  It seems so simple in theory, but in practice, it’s not.  There’s a reason that the oldest human institutions, our religions, are designed in their ideal forms to promote human compassion. It’s that important, and yet also that prone to failure.  The procedural memory cells in our brains that dominate our normal behavior live or die on repetition.  We need to be reminded of compassion, to practice it, to make it a habit, or else it will too easily be drowned in the other details of our lives.

We saw this play out this very week with the earthquake in Haiti.  Where BSG is the mere fictional destruction of a civilization, the earthquake in Haiti is real.  That country has been destroyed by that earthquake.  For all practical purposes, there is nothing left there.  They have to start over from scratch.  They need help.

I can think of no event in my lifetime that more obviously calls for human compassion than the earthquake in Haiti.  The suffering is immense.  And yet, there were still people so devoted to their own plans that they could not see beyond their plans to focus on the compassion necessary.  Rush Limbaugh wasted no time turning the issue into a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama.  Meanwhile, Pat Robertson blamed the Haitians themselves for the earthquake.  Willpower bias, anyone?

Of course, perhaps I am guilty of the very same thing in the last few paragraphs, using the events in Haiti to further my own cause, too focused on my own details to see the whole picture in its entirety.  Is this sort of behavior inescapable, inevitable?  I don’t think so.  My philosophy will be different.  My philosophy will take our flaws into account.  My philosophy will acknowledge our competing and contradictory ideals. My philosophy will keep the big picture in focus.  My philosophy will not get so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that it forgets to be compassionate.  That was burgundy.  This is teal.

Review: Justice with Michael Sandel

The worst teachers take complicated subjects and somehow make them seem even more complicated.  Mediocre teachers take complicated subjects and help you understand just how complicated they are.  Great teachers take complicated subjects and make them simple.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel is a great teacher.

His philosophy course on Justice is the most popular course at Harvard, and PBS wisely decided to capture it.  Unfortunately, philosophy lectures aren’t exactly ratings gold, so most PBS stations buried the 12-part series at odd hours of the night if they showed it at all, but you can watch the whole thing online.  If you weren’t a philosophy major and know all this stuff already, but you have the slightest interest in philosophy, if you feel the slightest confusion about morality and want to understand the underlying historical points of contention, this is the series to watch.

The course asks a simple question:  what’s the right thing to do?  It starts out with Bentham and Mill and utilitarianism, and then contrasts that to libertarianism.  Then the heavyweights come in–Kant and Aristotle, with Rawls thrown in between.  It’s not a chronological history of philosophy, but it works better that way.  The order that Sandel chooses to discuss these philosophies helps greatly in the understanding of the what the philosophers are trying to say.  In this order, the issues seem to flow naturally from one philosopher to the next.  Only with Kant did Sandel not fully succeed in making a complex philosophy easy to understand; I’d probably have to watch those episodes multiple times for Kant’s ideas to truly sink into my head.

Each episode includes both a lecture and a classroom discussion.  I was always afraid of something cringeworthy coming out of the discussion parts, but they were for the most part well edited, and never dragged on too long.

Although I had studied bits and pieces of these philosophers before, I was fascinated throughout.  But because I have an engineer’s mentality, there was also a little nagging voice in my head throughout the series, asking, how do these theories stand up to the mess when the users get their hands on them?  How do the assumptions these philosophers make about human nature match what is beginning to emerge from the young neurosciences?

Plato was not discussed in the series, but he has a character in The Republic named Thrasymachus.  Thrasymachus argues that there is really no such thing as justice, because in the end, might makes right, and the powerful impose their concept of justice on the weak.  I think there is a certain amount of truth to that, just as I found a certain amount of truth to all of these approaches to justice.

The question then becomes, how do you choose a philosophy?  They all seem to make a certain amount of intuitive sense, but they also contradict each other.  There is no easy answer, but if we want to participate as a citizen of the world, we must in one way or another make such choices.  And that is what I shall attempt to do as this blog progresses.

Review: Caprica pilot

I’m knocked down today with the H1N1 or the R2D2 or the Educated L337 or some such malady, so I took advantage of the couch time to watch the Caprica pilot, which is now available for viewing on Hulu.  Quick spoiler-free first impression:  I will definitely be watching this series.

More, with spoilers:  I’ve been hungering for a sci-fi series to follow since Battlestar Galactica ended.  I tried FlashForward and V, but I think the relentless realism of BSG’s take on human behavior ruined those newer shows for me—the characters’ behavior in those shows just seemed false, and often ridiculous.  In Caprica, under Ron Moore’s guidance, we can be confident human behavior will ring more true.  Like Darth Vader, Zoe Graystone may be “more machine now than” girl, but we can also be sure she won’t be spewing any corny love poems to Natalie Portman.  The force in Ron Moore’s fantasy isn’t a simple two-sided object.

Sure, I had some complaints.  The Graystones had no clue that their daughter was basically the greatest computer genius of all time?  Zoe’s two-line text message to her mom took more than three seconds to transmit, but her entire emotional experience of those three seconds got successfully transmitted to her avatar in real time?  Okaaaay.

On a wider scale, the tone seemed a bit subdued.  Unlike BSG, there isn’t a single goal that everyone is working toward. There isn’t a Starbuck-like character to root for and give the show a positive, kick-ass vibe.  Knowing how badly this is all going to turn out in the end, it makes you wonder if anything truly redemptive will come from out of Caprica.  Goodness knows BSG just kept getting darker and darker and darker.  Do I really want to be led down such a destructive path, by a cast of characters who all, except for maybe young William Adama, are motivated by questionable ethics?

But perhaps that’s the point of this exercise.  The best fiction puts a mirror to us and helps us understand ourselves.  Our goals are multiple, not simplistic.  Our characters are layered, not cardboard cutouts.  Our ethics are questionable, not boilerplate.

The show even contemplates that last paragraph, questioning simplicity vs. complexity.  The monotheistic faction in the show insists that there is a right and a wrong, as opposed the more relativistic philosophy of the polytheists.  Joseph Adama was clearly conflicted about his own relativism, in which he functioned as an enabler to organized crime.  The pilot hints that he will be taking a more moralistic stand in the future.  But stark moralism has its potential evils, as well.  It can turn their proponents into terrorists, for one thing.

Which philosophy is better?  How do you define humanity?  Where do we draw the line between ourselves and our technology?  What’s the right thing to do?  Those are questions worth exploring.  Whether Caprica can succeed in addressing these issues we face in our real lives while also connecting us emotionally to an entertaining drama remains to be seen, but it’s worth the attempt.

Exploring these questions is what inspired me to start blogging again.  I have some things to say on these issues that I don’t think are being said by others, so I feel compelled to get them down.  It will be good to follow a show that can trigger new trains of thought, new things to write about.  Hopefully, my efforts too will be worth the attempt.

And So To Fade Away

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

— Herman Melville

This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.

Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.

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