Category Archives: Philosophy

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.”

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.

Sincerely,

Ken Arneson

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.

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

One.

Listen:

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

Two.

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.

Three.

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.

Four.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Hubris

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.

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.

2000 Ericsson Open – Women’s Singles

Martina Hingis

There are two tiers of professional tennis tournaments: the Grand Slam events, and all the others.

The Ericsson Open, a/k/a the Sony Open, a/k/a the Miami Masters, may be the Grandest of the Ungrand. Most Ungrand events are one week, single gender tournaments. The Miami tournament, like the Grand Slam events, plays over two weeks, hosts both genders, and has a large prize purse. It probably has visions of perhaps one day becoming Grand itself.

But so far, it remains the Biggest Fish in the Small Pond. Is that such a bad deal?

The Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune has sent us today back in time to the 2000 Ericsson Open Women’s Singles tournament. It is not a particularly remarkable tournament, other than serving as one affirmation, among many, of the greatness of Martina Hingis. Hingis marched through this tournament basically unchallenged. She never got close to losing a single set. She won 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals against Amanda Coetzer. She destroyed Monica Seles in the semifinals, 6-0, 6-0. Hingis then trounced Lindsay Davenport in the finals, 6-3, 6-2.

In the past two days, the RWWoF sent us to examine the ordinary, unremarkable moments before and after greatness. Today, our eyes are opened to the existence of many other utterly ordinary moments, even in the middle of greatness. Perhaps we are meant to wonder: if greatness is so short and fleeting, what exactly is so great about greatness anyway?

Photo credit: Taís Melillo on Flickr via Creative Commons license.

Swash

1. You were surfing the Internet yesterday. You somehow drifted to the Wikipedia home page. You clicked the “Random Article” link. It brought you to Swash:

Swash, in geography, is known as a turbulent layer of water that washes up on the beach after an incoming wave has broken.

 

2. You don’t intend to drift. You don’t mean to get lost. You worry that the currents will pull you far from land, send you circling aimlessly, repeatedly, without hope of ever reaching a destination.

You intend to get somewhere. You want to make a big splash. You dream of making an impact in the world.

 

3. In an experiment, people like you were paid $3 to take a test and turn the test in to a examiner. The examiner would do one of three things:

  • Look at the test, say “uh-huh” and put the test in a pile.
  • Put the test in the pile without looking at it or saying anything.
  • Immediately shred the test.

Then you were offered 30 cents less ($2.70, then $2.40, etc.) to retake the test.

If your work was acknowledged, even ever so slightly, you retook the test far more often than if your work was ignored or shredded. In fact, having your work be ignored was almost as bad as having your work be shredded. You are not primarily motivated by money. You get meaning out of your work from the acknowledgement of other people.

 

4. Swash is the middle ground between meaningful work and Sisyphean uselessness. Swash is where you end up when your dreams are broken.

 

5. You have edited a few Wikipedia entries in the past. You don’t know if your efforts made Wikipedia better or not. Nobody acknowledged your work. You don’t know if your edits still persist. Most likely, they have all been rewritten or deleted.

Much of your writing — your blogging, your tweeting — is like that. The big waves, the ones that people notice, the ones that persist in people’s minds, break just beyond your reach. Maybe you make a small impact, for a short moment, in a small corner of the world. A couple retweets here, a nice comment there. In the long run, though, all your efforts scroll off the screen and end up ignored and forgotten in a mighty ocean of data.

 

6. It turns out that you are not a mighty wave. You struggle and travel a great distance to land upon that shore, and all you end up doing is wiggling a pebble or two. In the great scheme of things, you barely matter. You slink back into the sea.

 

7. Perhaps that random Wikipedia entry was an omen. Perhaps you should click that random link again. And again. And again.

For you are Swash, a small turbulent layer of water along the shoreline, coming and going with the tides, whose meager purpose is simply to expose and acknowledge other forgotten and ignored fossils, just like yourself.

Uh-huh.

 

Swash

Photo credit: jemasmith on Flickr via Creative Commons license.

Cheating a Little vs. Cheating a Lot

Nobody was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, and Rob Neyer has an interesting post exploring why some writers seem to consider steroid cheating in baseball as being worse than other forms of cheating. I want to address his article, because at one point he says something that is flat out wrong:

Why does the impact matter? I’m trying to imagine a player’s thoughts here … “Gosh, those amphetamines seemed to help a little, so even though it’s cheating I think they’re okay to use. But golly, these steroids everybody’s talking about … I’d better not mess with those, because they seem to help a LOT.”

That just defies everything we know about human nature and, specifically, the nature of world-class athletes. If there’s a small advantage to be taken, big-time athletes will take it. If there’s a larger advantage to be taken, they’ll take that.

Neyer is wrong about that defying what we know about human nature. Just the opposite, it actually conforms to it perfectly. Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke, has made a science out of studying cheating, and he has found that nearly everyone does make a distinction between cheating a little versus cheating a lot. Watch this animated video of an Areily speech, and keep the steroid issue in mind as you listen to it:

Most people cheat, as Ariely says, “just a little bit”. Only a very very few cheat a lot. You see it every day: if you’re on the freeway, and the speed limit is 55mph, do you stay under 55mph? No, most people drive about 58-63mph–cheating just a little bit. A few will drive 70, 80, 90mph — but they’re a small minority.

If you cheat just a little bit, it’s easy to rationalize it, and still feel good about yourself. It is much harder to rationalize cheating a lot: in that case, you have crossed over into Ariely’s “What the Hell” effect.

I doubt that athlete’s psychology is very different from other humans in this manner. People don’t seem to mind people who cheat just a little bit — scuffing a baseball here, or stealing a sign there, or drinking some extra caffeine to stay alert. But there is a point where you flip over into the “What the Hell” effect — where you’re cheating so much that it has a noticeable effect, and you keep doing it, because what the hell, why not?

Where is the line in baseball between cheating a little and cheating a lot? I don’t know, and neither it seems, do the baseball writers. But this is not an black-and-white issue, where in order to be consistent, you either you have to let all cheaters in, or you have to kick all cheaters out, as I’ve seen some people (including, I think, Neyer) arguing. The science says there are levels of cheating wired into human nature. To Neyer’s credit, however much he may not want to draw a line between cheating a little and cheating a lot, he recognizes that writers are doing it, and he hypothesizes that they’re drawing the line at the statistical records being broken:

I continue to believe that a lot of the hand-wringing over steroids — which, by the way, I really wish hadn’t happened — is due to just two players: Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. I believe that if McGwire and Bonds hadn’t so utterly destroyed the home-run records, leaving first Roger Maris and then Hank Aaron in the dust, we might not be having this discussion at all.

On this point, I think Neyer is right. Many people are outraged by steroids because breaking those cherished records makes it clear that Bonds and McGwire were cheating more than “just a little”. And because that line that is built into human psychology, people react emotionally to want to punish that behavior. The fact that baseball writers are taking some time to figure out what and where that line is, to me seems quite a reasonable thing to do.

Beer and Tacos, Prickles and Goo

In yesterday’s mysterious blog post, the philosopher Ray Fosse asked us to “talk about how it’s not a journey.”

The philosopher Alan Watts talked about that better than I can, so I’ll present this video (animated by the staff of South Park!):

* * *

Today, the San Francisco Giants are having their victory celebration in downtown San Francisco.

And if you’re a Giants fan, you say, “My God, I’ve arrived! I’m there!”

* * *

My essay last week about where science, religion and sports meet didn’t seem to open a lot of eyes, but it opened my own. I tend to have a future-oriented outlook on life, thinking about where we go next instead of where we’ve been, and working in the high-tech industry has amplified that way of thinking for me. But realizing that so many things we’re trying to say and do have actually been said and done thousands of years before, only in a slightly different way with a slightly different terminology, has sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. I’ve been looking at all these old philosophies with a fresh new vision. Suddenly I understand how incredibly much I don’t understand, but that others have understood for a long time, in their own way.

I once said this on Twitter:

But now I’m not so sure that’s true. Maybe human knowledge is static too, it’s just that the language we use to express that knowledge gets jumbled up every so often, like a generational Tower of Babel. And then we fight about that knowledge because we don’t understand each other.

Take for example, the battle between stats and scouts in baseball — the “Beer and Tacos” argument, that we’re now also seeing shifted into the political realm by Nate Silver. Seems like a new, modern problem, but actually it’s not. It’s ancient. Alan Watts explains again:

Hmm…there’s that particle/wave analogy again. My writing just seems to be going around and around in circles. But that’s OK. It’s not a journey. It’s music. Let’s dance.

A Translation Guide to Science, Religion, and Sports

I used to write some really weird stuff, man.

Kira, at Bashi.

* * *

So when R. Kelly tells me there’s someone hiding under my kitchen sink, and insists on exposing who he is, I will tell him it is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I have faith in both faith and science, and I believe, that in the end, the truth and the truthiness will join together at last.

Ken Arneson, April 10, 2006

Where did that Ken Arneson go? It’s been over a month now since I returned to blogging, but I still can’t find him. I’m lost, alone, adrift.

Darmok, on the ocean.

* * *

I was discussing with Stacey Gotsulias on Twitter the other day this feeling of having lost your writing chops. Stacey said one thing in particular that stuck with me:

Hmm. Fear? Maybe. Something is holding me back, inhibiting my creativity right now. When I’m in my zone, the right words, the right crazy metaphor, the right structure — it all pours out of me as easily a river flows from a mountain to the sea. But right now, it doesn’t flow. I know it’s inside me, but it won’t come out. It’s a grind.

What is blocking that flow? Is it fear? For me, I’m not sure. If it’s fear, fear of what? Failure? Criticism? Being horrible? Being unextraordinary?

The beast, at Tanagra.

* * *

Have you ever seen the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok“? In this episode, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien named Dathon. Dathon speaks a language that consists almost entirely of metaphor. Dathon says things like, “Temba, his arms wide” “Chenza at court, the court of silence” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. The words sound like English to Picard, but the statements are utterly meaningless to him because he doesn’t have any understanding at all of what those words symbolize. Here’s a key scene:

I have begun to feel that so many modern human conflicts, ranging from science to religion to sports, are like this. At their core, they are talking about the exact same thing, because there is only one human nature. But they have such completely different ways of expressing these things that the other side just discounts it as unintelligible jibberish.

Kadir, beneath Mo Moteh.

* * *

I was baptized and confirmed in the Swedish Lutheran Church when I was 14. In my confirmation proceedings, I acted as best I could to convey that I really understood what Christianity was about. But to be honest, there was one very key aspect of it that I didn’t get, that I’ve felt had a kind of “underpants gnome” quality to it.

Underpants gnomes are cartoon characters from an episode of South Park. These gnomes go around stealing underpants, because they have some sort of assumption that doing so leads to profits. But there’s a missing step in their business plan:

1. Steal underpants
2. ???
3. Profit!

Here’s the thing about Christianity that I kinda felt worked like the underpants gnome business model:

1. Jesus dies on the cross.
2. ???
3. Believers get eternal life.

For years, I just happily accepted this conclusion, like the underpants gnomes happily accepted their business model. I enjoyed the idea of eternal life, just like the gnomes enjoyed the idea of profits. So why question a good thing?

Of course, as I grew older I did come to question it. Why should Jesus need to die on the cross for believers to get eternal life? God is all-powerful. Why couldn’t He just give believers eternal life without Jesus having to die on the cross? It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand the metaphor. To me, it was jibberish.

Chenza at court, the court of silence.

* * *

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

David Foster Wallace

It’s interesting to juxtapose that David Foster Wallace speech with Clayton Christensen’s concept of the Job To Be Done. The Job-To-Be-Done model says that we don’t necessarily rationally think through what is the best product, and buy that. What happens is, we go along in our lives, and at certain times we come across a job that we need to get done. We tend to hire the product or service which (a) does the job, and (b) most easily comes to mind or is most readily at hand.

To borrow Christensen’s milkshake example, we may want to hire a milkshake to keep us busy on a long, boring morning commute. But we probably won’t hire that milkshake if it only comes packaged together with a hamburger. We’ll hire a banana or a bagel instead. We don’t want a hamburger in the morning.

By Wallace’s account, we humans have a psychological need to worship something. But when exisiting religions take sides in politics, or reject science, conflict with other values like equality for gays or women, they make it more complicated for us to pull them in to solve our Job-To-Be-Done. We want to hire something to worship, but we don’t necessarily want it packaged together with a rejection of science or equality.

And so what do we do? We may not outright reject religion, but we don’t explicitly buy it, either. We put the decision off. And then we find ourselves as Wallace describes, drifting unconsciously towards other things that can fill that Worship-Job-To-Be-Done. Money. Sex. Intellect. Art. Power. Reason. Fame.

Or sports.

Zinda, his face black, his eyes red.

* * *

Many religious institutions tend to think of science as their biggest competition. But if you ask me, sports is by far a bigger competitor. It’s global. It’s ubiquitous. There’s no religion that has 3.2 billion adherents. There’s no science book that has 3.2 billion readers. But the 2010 World Cup had 3.2 billion people watching it.

3.2 billion people hired the World Cup to do a job for them. But what job, exactly, is it filling?

Uzani, his army with fists open.

* * *

The other day I was watching a 2010 Ted Talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown spent the first six years of her career studying a single human emotion: shame.

The data she collected led her to expand into exploring other aspects of human nature: courage, worthiness, and vulnerability. And she concluded that the fulcrum around which all of the other aspects pivoted was vulnerability. I recommend watching this talk, it’s both interesting and entertaining:

Rai and Jiri, at Lungha..

* * *

If you don’t have the time to watch the whole of Brown’s talk, here’s a money quote:

One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability… We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”

You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.

And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.

* * *

This resonated with me regarding my writer’s block. One cannot create something for public consumption without passing through vulnerability. Writing is a risky act. When we write, we risk being wrong, we risk being ridiculed, we risk being rejected, we risk being dismissed, we risk being ignored, we risk being horrible, we risk being mediocre, we risk being unspectacular.

It’s natural to feel the desire to numb ourselves to those consequences. There are many ways to do so. We can use external sources to numb our feelings, with drugs or comfort foods. But can also do it with internal, psychological sources. Denial. Delusion. Cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias. Self-censorship.

The latter, I think, is the source of my inhibitions. I am subconsciously self-censoring myself, to avoid that vulnerability, to prevent myself from saying something wrong. But in numbing myself from those negative consequences, I am also numbing my creativity.

I need to let go of that fear of failure. I need to embrace my vulnerability, to risk being wrong to let the creativity flow out of me again. I need to do what Brown says healthy people do: practice gratitude, seek out joy, accept my limitations.

Kailash, when it rises.

* * *

It also seems plausible to me that this vulnerability is why we hire sports into our lives. When you commit to a team, when you say “I am a diehard Oakland A’s fan”, you are exposing yourself to vulnerability. You are vulnerable to the pain of Kirk Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley, of Jeremy Giambi failing to slide, of Eric Byrnes forgetting to step on home plate, or of Coco Crisp dropping a fly ball in center field. But unless you expose yourself to that vulnerability, you also won’t experience the joy of Scott Hatteberg’s home run, of Ramon Hernandez’ walkoff bunt, of Marco Scutaro’s foul pole doink against Mariano Rivera, or of that crazy comeback in Game 4 of the 2012 ALDS. Vulnerability is the intersection where all the pain and the joy meet. If we humans crave that intersection, sports is a product that provides it.

Uzani, his army with fists closed.

* * *

Brown believes that our modern culture has an unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability. We perceive it as synonymous with weakness. We treat it like a disease to be avoided instead of as the source of everything beneficial in our lives. This has consequences for us not just individually, but as a society as a whole:

The other thing we do is make everything that is uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up. … That’s what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.

This unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability also applies to sports. When Derek Jeter broke his ankle the other day, Nick Swisher was blamed for it, even though he wasn’t involved at all in the play where Jeter got injured. He misplayed a ball on the previous play, extending the inning where Jeter got hurt. When your attitude towards vulnerability in sports is unhealthy, you treat victory as required, and failure as unacceptable. Talk radio and internet discussions are full of this sort of attitude: our team must win, or else scapegoats must be found and heads must roll.

Kiteo, his eyes closed.

* * *

If I have drifted away from religion in my life, it is because of this: the versions of Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years, with all its certainties of how everything worked, became at odds with how I came to understand the world. I wasn’t certain God exists, at least not as a man with a white beard in the sky looking down on us. I wasn’t certain evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality was evil, or that if you’re a socialist, you’ll go to Hell. How could I be certain of any of those things if I didn’t even understand how the crucifixion worked?

The job I personally needed my Christianity to do was to be comfortable with uncertainty. To embrace my doubts instead of rejecting them. To be able to say, “I don’t know or I don’t understand–and that’s OK.” But that version of Christianity was not a product visible to any shelf I could see or reach. And so off I drifted, unconsciously and unintentionally, into the open fists of sports.

Shaka, when the walls fell.

* * *

After watching Brown’s Ted Talk, I went back and read the accounts of the Crucifixion. I found it interesting that Jesus only says two things while on the cross: the first line of Psalm 22, and part of the last.

The Old Testament’s Psalm 22 is subtitled “A Cry of Anguish and Song of Praise”. It could just as easily be subtitled “A Cry of Vulnerability, and a Song of Gratitude.” It is a poem that begins as an expression of our vulnerability. Sometimes we suffer, and in those moments, it feels as if God is not there.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not;
and in the night season, and am not silent.

But this poem does not reject that suffering, nor does it reject God for allowing it. Instead, it praises God, and thanks him.

A seed shall serve him;
it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness
unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

This is why Jesus needs to die on the cross to deliver eternal life. This is the missing stage 2. Because the path to everything that is divine (a/k/a eternal a/k/a good) in life passes through vulnerability. If Jesus is to be the example for the whole world to follow, to show us mere mortals the way to experience divinity, He must lead us to and through vulnerability. He must experience the ultimate vulnerability — death itself. So Jesus suffers. He suffers not just physically by being nailed to that cross, but also suffers spiritually.

Jesus saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” confuses a lot of people. If Jesus is the son of God, why would God forsake him? But of course, God isn’t forsaking Jesus. But if Jesus is to be truly, genuinely vulnerable in this moment, He must feel vulnerable to being rejected by the one thing He loves the most, God the Father. That one moment, of God Himself feeling vulnerable, is the greatest gift God ever gave mankind. It creates the perfect example for mankind to follow, that single seed that shall serve him.

And that is how, if we believe in the story of Jesus–or, in the language of science, if we embrace our vulnerability instead of numbing it away–we can have access to all the blessings and joys that life offers.

Sokath, his eyes uncovered!

* * *

Does this mean I am now rejecting sports in favor of Christianity? Not at all. I don’t need to reject anything. There is only one human nature. We can express that single human nature through the language of Christianity, the language of science, the language of science fiction, the language of art, or the language of sports. We can make the mistake of numbing our vulnerability through each kind of language and suffer the consequences (hello, sports talk radio!). But we can also be uplifted in each of these languages by the beauty of human nature when it is done right.

Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha.

* * *

“All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2

On October 3, 2012, after beginning the season being expected to finish in last place, after trailing in the standings by five games just nine days earlier, an improbable Oakland A’s team completed an amazing comeback to win the American League West. The team and their fans went wild, celebrating the culmination of a miracle season.

A’s reliever Pat Neshek wasn’t there. He had flown to Florida two days earlier to witness the birth of his first child. He went to his hotel room to watch the last game. In the fifth inning of the game, he got a phone call. His wife told him, “The baby stopped breathing.”

If Pat Neshek had an unhealthy attitude towards life, he’d be angry. Angry at his team for distracting him away from being with his child. Angry at God for taking his baby away from him just as the promise of a new life together began to feel real. He’d be looking for someone to blame, wanting to sue the hospital for its negligence.

Instead, Neshek returned to the team two days later. And this is what he said:

It was probably the best day I ever had, the one day. I’d go through it all again just for that one day. It was pretty awesome.

Neshek went out the next day and threw a perfect inning in the first game of the playoffs.

Darmok and Jalad, on the ocean.

* * *

The A’s lost those playoffs, in a fifth and deciding game to the Detroit Tigers. But the fans were so overjoyed by this unlikely story, by this unlikely team, that even though they lost and their season was now over, they gave their team a five-minute standing ovation after the final out was recorded. Watch this, all of it:

This is Psalm 22, translated into sports. This Brené Brown’s scientific research, translated into sports. It starts out with an expression of vulnerability, of suffering. When the Tigers start rushing out onto the field to celebrate, the A’s fans boo. But very quickly, that cry of anguish transforms into a song of praise from 36,000 people for what their team had accomplished. There is no demand for certain victory, no bitterness at an entitlement taken from them, no blame for whoever caused the loss, no numbing or turning away from the vulnerability sports fans expose themselves to by choosing to root for a team. It’s just five minutes of pure gratefulness and joy.

Mirab, with sails unfurled, sing thee to thy rest. It is done. The rest is the river Temarc, in winter.

I Wanted To Say

I wanted to say something about yesterday…about how the Oakland A’s joyously won the AL West, only to find out a few hours later that the newborn son of A’s reliever Pat Neshek had suddenly died:

I wanted to say something about how cruel this world we live in is, when joy can be transformed into horror in just a matter of hours. About the pain of a present destroyed, and the emptiness of a future that will never come to be. About how I want to cry at the injustice of it, like Job did after God let Satan test his faith by destroying his wealth, killing his children, and taking his health.

“I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer.
I stand before you, but you don’t even look.
You have become cruel toward me.
You use your power to persecute me.
You throw me into the whirlwind
and destroy me in the storm.
And I know you are sending me to my death—
the destination of all who live.”

I wanted to say something like what Ray Ratto said about the news. About how awful it is, and how any good news about the A’s going forward will now be tempered by this unbearable sadness the Neshek family must face.

But I also wanted to say how we … and baseball … together … and life … but, no.

My natural reaction, the desire to try to find something redemptive in this, to find something that can explain why and how such suffering can exist–that reaction doesn’t seem quite right. The loss of a child is not something the human mind is designed to comprehend. There is no lesson to be learned here, no perspective to be gained.

Then the LORD said to Job,

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?”

Then Job replied to the LORD,
“I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers?
I will cover my mouth with my hand.
I have said too much already.
I have nothing more to say.”

Sometimes, horrible things are just horrible things. And I have said too much already.

We We We All The Way Home

Yesterday, I mentioned in passing how I enjoy baseball on two levels: one level in rooting for my team, and another in the aesthetic quality of the game. The day before, I defended the idea of cross-pollinating new scientific ideas with older fields of human endeavor, to see what comes out of the mix. So today, let’s make a new hybrid.

How can we explain the psychological attraction in rooting for a team? Why, when we’re watching two teams that we have no previous attachment to, do we often find ourselves rooting for one team or another anyway? And how is this different or separate from the aesthetic joy of watching a game?

* * *

As I write this, I am watching Ian Kinsler bat against my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s. On the rooting level, I want him to fail and flail badly. But on an aesthetic level, I admire Kinsler. His at-bats, the way he takes bad pitches and fouls off good pitches until he can get a good pitch to hit, are probably the most consistently good at-bats I’ve seen from any player since Rickey Henderson. If our enjoyment of sports were only about rooting interest, I should be incapable of appreciating Kinsler at all. If our enjoyment of sports were only aesthetic, I wouldn’t have a reason to want to see him fail.

Can baseball fandom be fully expressed in a mere two-dimensional chart, with rooting on the x-axis, and aesthetics on the y-axis? No, of course not. For instance, suppose the A’s pitcher were Bartolo Colon. Colon was suspended in August for performance enhancing drugs, but let’s say he’s served his suspension and now he’s pitching. Do I still root for him to succeed? Yes, he’s on my favorite team. But now there’s a moral dimension on the z-axis added to the mix, too. We can go on. Fandom is complex.

* * *

But still, we want to talk about it, so we need to model it. Do we need modern science to do so? Not really. For example, Aristotle, addressed such issues over two millenia ago. Here’s a paragraph on Aristotle’s aesthetics, from a 1902 version of Encyclopedia Britannica:

Elsewhere he (Aristotle) distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy.

Not sure if Aristotle meant Good and Morally Worthy were separate things or the same, but I’ll assume they’re separate. So applying Aristotle to my example above, the A’s are Good, Ian Kinsler is Beautiful, but Bartolo Colon is Morally Unworthy.

* * *

Aristotle’s three dimensions are a kind of model of this aspect of human nature. And since this model is still being discussed 2,000 years later, we can certainly say that this model has a certain level of usefulness. But does this model accurately map to the actual structure and organization of the human brain? Can we explain this structure in terms of evolution, that there were some sort of selective pressures which led to this behavior?

Aesthetics and morality are huge subjects, so I’ll pass on those in this blog entry, and just focus on the rooting aspect.

Group behavior has always been a bit of a tricky subject for evolutionist to explain. It’s easy to explain selfish individual behavior: it’s behavior that’s directed towards passing your genes on to the next generation over the genes of your rivals. The prevailing explanation for most of the last 40 years or so has been kin selection: unselfish behavior towards your kin helps pass more of your genes along to the next generation. Any sort of unselfish behavior toward people who are not your kin is just sort of a side effect of unselfish behavior towards your kin.

But that’s an unsatisfying explanation, particularly if you apply it to team sports. Why do I go to the Coliseum, dress up in green and gold with thousands of other A’s fans, 99.999% of who are not my kin, and cheer the team together with them? It’s really hard to make a convincing argument that I’m doing it to pass my genes on.

The alternative explanation is group selection. Group selection is a theory that fell out of favor in the 1960s, but in recent years has been making a comeback. In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues strongly in favor of group selection as an explanation for human social behavior.

Under group selection theory, human evolution happens in two dimensions. There’s a selfish dimension that pushes individuals to promote their genes over others within their group. But there’s also a dimension that pushes us to behave in ways to promote the genes of the group over the genes of rival groups. In times of war or drought or famine, those groups who behave in ways that encourage cooperation instead of selfishness survive to pass their genes on more than the groups whose individuals behave more selfishly.

Under group selection theory, the behavior we see in team sports makes much more sense. We naturally form emotional attachments to our groups, because we were evolved to do just that. As E.O. Wilson points out, every single animal that exhibits social behavior (including the one Wilson is expert in, ants) evolved its social behavior to protect and defend a nest. So we root, root, root for the home team, and find it extremely irritating when invading Yankee fans come into our home nest and chant for their team, instead. The joy we feel when our group wins, the pain we feel when our group loses — those are emotions that evolved in our brains to promote the genetic survival of our groups.

* * *

Note I said “our groups.” Jason Wojciechowski has an article today (Baseball Prospectus, $ required) on the use of the word ‘we’ in reference to team sports. Is it appropriate for fans to use the word “we”, or should that be limited only to the players on the team? Jason tries to define that line somewhere in along the lower level employees of the team. I don’t think that works (which Jason ultimately acknowledges).

Former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein used to rail against fans using ‘we’ on Twitter all the time. At one point (which I can’t find now — Twitter search sucks) — he argued that you don’t say ‘we’ to refer to your favorite band, so why should you do so for your favorite team?

I strongly disagree with Kevin here. A band is different from a team. You like the band primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provides you. But as we’ve seen here, the aesthetic experience is only a small part of the experience of watching baseball. Sports are the most popular activity on earth right now not because they provides an aesthetic experience alone — but because they have gone beyond that and tapped into the a primal root of human evolution: the network of emotions that group selection has hardwired into us.

The reason professional sports is a profession at all is because it creates the feeling of ‘we’. That feeling is the main point of team sports. We-ness is the product.

To have a business that sells a product, we, and then to deny those customers the use of the very word that best describes the product–that’s madness.

Wednesday Linkblogging 2012-09-26

Jason Wojciechowski is finding it difficult to watch A’s games in this pennant race, because any failures by his favorite team are too painful. He wonders:

Given my strong suspicion that we only get one shot at life, is it better that I spend my remaining years experiencing as broad a range of emotions as I can reasonably give myself? Do the lows make the highs sweeter such that they’re worth it as a simple matter of arithmetic?

I have been similarly tempted to look away. I’ve found over the years that I’m actually a happier person when the A’s are not competitive. Winning breeds expectations, and the more your team wins, the more you expect them to win. But happiness research seems to suggest that the key to happiness is low expectations. I suspect, therefore, that unless the A’s actually win the World Series, our happiness as A’s fans actually peaked around early August, when we started to realize the A’s were a good team capable of winning, but before that winning had become so commonplace that we began to expect it.

However, I enjoy baseball on more dimensions than just winning. The game the A’s lost on Friday against the Yankees was a beautiful ballgame aesthetically: it was a dramatic game where both teams played crisp, solid baseball with good pitching. I enjoyed it immensely. Saturday’s game, however, was awful: the A’s lost, but both teams played terribly, the pitching was horrible, the defense was shaky and even the umpires got into the act with several mistakes. And that was just in the first inning before I turned it off, and went out to do something else with my Saturday. The game kept on like that, and ended up lasting almost six hours, without me. I’m glad I (mostly) missed that one.

The next three games have been equally dramatic, but somewhat in-between aesthetically. Last night’s game, for example, featured a horrible error by Brandon Moss that cost the A’s two runs, followed later in the game by a fantastic catch by Moss that saved the A’s three. For me, the drama would be much easier to watch if the A’s were not playing so sloppily.

I don’t always watch pennant race baseball, but when I do, I prefer errorlessness. Play crisply, my friends.

* * *

If you want to innoculate yourself from the pain of your favorite team losing, you can consume your sports like Will Leitch recently did, by entering the RedZone. Leitch describes his first experience watching NFL RedZone on the NFL Network:

RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.

On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history.

That, I suppose, is both the blessing and the curse of living in this information age. You can’t tell a teardrop from a raindrop in a hurricane.

* * *

Felix Salmon has an article about journalism in the midst of such massive amounts of instant information. Being able to find that teardrop in the hurricane in basically the job of the modern journalist.

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

The tricky balance there is to be able to both swim in the flood of information to gather the data, but to step out of it long enough to gather your thoughts.

* * *

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jetsons, the Paleofuture has started a series to look at all 24 episodes of The Jetsons one-season run.

Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.

The deluge of information we now experience in the real future thanks to the Internet and television is vastly different from the one we imagined when we grew up watching the Jetsons. The Jetsons’ future seems so much simpler than ours. So when we feel overwhelmed, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and we want to reject it all and run away.

As Jason says in his post above about turning off the A’s in this tense pennant race: “My gut the last few weeks appears to have made the latter choice for me, leaving me a little more time to spend with my cats, my wife, my books, and my thoughts.” Sometimes, you have to connect to the basic human needs that persist no matter what century you live in. And therein lies the dilemma of the real 21st century George Jetson: to know how to both live in the 21st century, and how to step away from it. It’s not easy.

Neurohumbug

Early in my life, I really didn’t have any sort of vision for a career. I just kind of drifted towards whatever opportunities came to me. I had an aptitude for computers, partly because my dad, who was an electronics technician, understood that they were the Next Big Thing. In 1980, he bought a TI-99/4, hoping that I would fiddle with it and learn from it. I did. And so as I grew up, the opportunities that fell into my lap happened to be with computers, because whenever there was some computer stuff that needed to be done, I seemed to be the guy who could figure it out.

Then in 1994, I was asked to set up a web server. Immediately, I knew. It was like walking up a big hill and just staring at your feet the whole time, and then suddenly you reach the top, see the view, and you suddenly realize the world is a whole lot bigger than the size of your feet. The Internet was going to be huge. It was going to be exciting. I decided I would bet my career on it.

I was far from the only one who understood that the Internet was a Big Deal. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that I was right THAT the Internet would be huge. It’s also clear that neither I nor anyone else had any idea whatsoever HOW it would be huge.

And so the dot-com bubble came and burst, and there were plenty of Pets.com and Webvan.com examples, where my generation made all sorts of big bets on the THAT, and completely missed on the HOW. The Internet would indeed change our lives, but it wasn’t going to be by giving us new ways to sell dog food.

* * *

About 10 years ago, I came to a similar epiphany with neuroscience. I had taken a class at UC Berkeley in the late 80’s that was primarily about aesthetics. The class asked, what made this work of art a classic, but that one forgotten? The question stuck with me for years, but I never could find an answer that made any sense to me. But one day in the early 2000’s it struck me that the answer wasn’t in the artwork, it was in the brain’s interpretation of the artwork. So I googled the word “neuroaesthetics”, wondering if there was such a thing. It turned out there was an International Conference on Neuroesthetics was being held in Berkeley just a few months later. I decided to attend.

I discovered that neuroaesthetics is a baby science, where everyone, including me, was excited THAT we can try to understand art from a scientific point of view, but at the same time, a science where no one really has any clue as to HOW understanding the brain will help us understand art. It seemed to me like looking at a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it’s really a picture of yet. You start out by looking at this detail and that one, and seeing if any of the pieces fit together at all.

It’s taken about 10 years, but now people are trying to take this information and attach it to their existing models of human activity, to see how this changes the picture we thought we were looking at. Some of these attempts will probably turn out to be the equivalent of attaching the Internet to dog food. But we don’t learn that these things don’t work until we try and fail. Watching this process unfold is as interesting to me as watching the dot-com craze play itself out.

And like any craze, the bubble will eventually pop. Perhaps the first sign of that pop was when the leading journalist covering this neurofever, Jonah Lehrer, was found guilty of various forms of plagiarism. Since then, there has come a natural backlash against trying to apply brain research to all these forms of human activity. The most scathing attack came a couple weeks ago by Steven Poole in the New Statesman:

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

Indeed, there are flaws with many of these models that use brain studies for supporting evidence. I’m especially skeptical of those that use brain scans that show the brain “lighting up” in response to this or that stimulus. That’s like trying to understand how a computer works by making note of when the hard drive makes a noise when it spins. It can tell you a little bit about how a computer works, but not nearly enough to build an accurate model from.

I also am suspicious of any model that claims that there are “4 kinds of X” or “7 different Y”, such as Jonathan Haidt’s five six moral foundations. In computer programming, there’s an axiom that you design for cases of 0, 1 or N. You make sure your program can handle it when there’s no data. If there’s one specific thing you’re trying to solve, it’s OK to write something that handles that one specific case. But if you’re going to be handling a number of cases that’s above one, then you abstract your program to a level that can handle ANY number of cases, not just the number of cases you know about. Because otherwise, any time some new situation comes up, you have to write a whole new program. So I find it hard to believe that our brain has wired these specific six moral foundations into our brains, and only these six.

So Poole has a good point. We really don’t know enough about the brain yet to be drawing any grand conclusions from the information with a lot of confidence.

* * *

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
George Box

But at the same time, if we don’t use what little knowledge of the brain we have, we’d still be asking and trying to answer the same questions about ourselves. Only we’d be doing it without this added scientific information. What we had before this explosion in brain research in fields like aesthetics was not really a science at all. It was mostly just academic jargony humbug.

It’s like condemning the entirety of the Internet because Webvan.com was a disaster. Yes, there were a lot of crap businesses at the beginning of the Internet, and there are a lot of crap theories at the beginnings of neuroscience. But that’s part of the process. Until we can exactly replicate a human brain from scratch, everything is just an imperfect model.

Some of these models will be more useful than others. Today’s models may be deeply flawed, but they’ll be less flawed than yesterday’s. And upon a few of these models, the Googles and Facebooks and Twitters of neuroscience will be born, the models of the human mind that we find truly useful. I see no reason to give up on that vision.

On Motivation, and the 47%

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has a thought experiment on his blog today. He wonders: what would we do if there was a drug that could increase human motivation? Adams writes:

As a practical matter, it might be cheaper and easier to tweak the motivational chemistry of people who are in bad circumstances instead of trying to fix their circumstances and hope that’s enough to stimulate their natural motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Adams’ essay too much, because it’s a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. But on the other hand, it’s an instructive example to use, because it shows some of the mistaken assumptions we make about human motivation.

Yesterday, I said that I wanted to read Clayton Christensen’s new book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” So I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle, and began reading. And coincidentally enough, Christensen spends an early chapter talking about the latest scientific understanding of human motivation, specifically in regards to the workplace.

The basic misunderstanding that Christensen points out is that most people assume there is a single scale of job satisfaction that looks something like this:

satisfaction
dissatisfaction

But it turns out job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are two completely unrelated things. You can be both satisfied and dissatisfied with your job at the same time. There are actually two scales, not one, that look more like this:

absence of dissatisfaction
dissatisfaction

and

satisfaction
absence of satisfaction

The reason for this, Christensen explains, is that dissatisfaction comes from external influences. Things that cause dissatisfaction are things like an unsafe work environment, not having the right tools to do the job, bad relationships with colleagues and managers, and low or unfair pay. Fredrick Herzberg, a leading researcher on motivation theory, called these things “hygiene factors”.

An impure, or “unhygienic”, work environment makes us dissatisfied. But a pure environment doesn’t make us satisfied. Satisfaction is internal, and it arises from the relationship between the individual and the work. Do you have responsibility over what happens? Is the work challenging? Are you improving? Is the work important? As I mentioned the other day, Daniel Pink calls these motivators “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”

So there’s a function in the brain where “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” are the inputs, and motivation is the output. Can you replace that input with a chemical, and still get motivation as an output? That seems unlikely to me. The input isn’t a mere chemical, it’s a complex set of biological wires.

But whatever — that’s science fiction. What matters is this: even if you could fix motivation with a pill, you still wouldn’t have fixed demotivation, because that’s a completely separate thing. If you want to lift people up, you can’t just make them or tell them or teach them to be more motivated. That’s only half the equation. You also have to fix the external factors that are demotivating them at the same time.

And maybe if we had a two-party system that worked, the party that wants to tell people that they should be more internally self-motivated could work together with the party that wants to fix all the external factors that demotivate people, and we could actually get something done around here.

Eavesdropping

For us Oakland A’s fans, this year has been a dream. Very little was expected of the team this year after GM Billy Beane traded three of the A’s best players over the winter. When the A’s lost nine games in a row in May, we fans resigned ourselves to our low expectations having been met, another disappointment in growing series of disappointments. The A’s haven’t had a winning season in five years. But in June, some magic wand was waved over the team, and suddenly everything changed. With just three weeks left in the season, the A’s are now in the lead for a wild card playoff spot, and just three games behind Texas for the best record in the American League.

I headed out to the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday to soak up some of the magic vibes. The A’s were playing the Baltimore Orioles, in the midst of a dream season of their own. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season in 15 years, but here they were tied with the hated New York Yankees atop the American League East division.

The Orioles scored single runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-0 lead. This subdued the crowd a bit, and the focus of the people around me started drifting away from the game.

This is not the same boy as in the story

In front of me sat a young boy about 8 years old. To his left was another 8-ish boy, perhaps a friend, and the friend’s younger sister and father. They boy’s mother had made a pre-game appearance and scolded him very sternly to sit nicely and behave properly while seated here with this other family, and then had left. In the top of the third one of the kids pulled out a hand-held video game console of some sort, and they began to play. The three heads all gathered around the tiny screen.

Behind me sat a row of older men and women, all probably in their fifties or sixties. One of them was wearing a Cal shirt, so I introduced myself as a fellow Cal grad, and chatted him up about his experiences at UC Berkeley. He said he graduated in ’73, which put him there at the peak of the whole protest era. He remembered walking through Sproul Plaza the day after one of these protests, the condensation from the previous day’s tear gas still dripping from the trees, stinging his eyes.

Another lady in that row then launched into a lengthy monologue. I can’t remember it word for word, but I’ll paraphrase it thusly:

My oldest daughter lives in Riverside. It’s a great place to live. It’s an hour to Disneyland on the 91, or and an hour to downtown LA on the 10 if the traffic isn’t too bad. And San Diego’s easy to get to, about an hour and a half down the 15, and you can also get to Palm Springs in an hour heading east on Highway 60. It’s fantastic.

We took a trip down there a couple weeks ago. I had surgery for uterine cancer two months ago, so the kids had been all cooped up, and you know, they needed to get out. So we headed down 101 first to Soledad, where another of my daughters lives. Her husband works in the prison there. Then we continued down 101 to Paso Robles where our oldest son lives, and then on 101 through LA to the 10 and then down the 215 to Riverside.

The day before, I had blogged about how it was an error to mistake data for function. Here was a remarkable example of avoiding that error. You’d think uterine cancer would consume a person’s life — that fighting it would become the primary function of her life. Yet this lady somehow managed to make cancer sound like merely a data point on a highway map of Southern California.

The word “cancer” has struck me with more emotional impact lately, as my brother-in-law Jim died of melanoma in August. Up until then, I had been fortunate enough not to really know anyone who had been struck down by cancer. But now having seen someone close to me suffer from it, it’s far less of an abstraction to me now, hearing about all the chemotherapy and radiation and medicines, hoping that one or some combination of these will miraculously work. Having that lady mention Paso Robles struck me double, because about six weeks before he died, Jim took a trip from his Arizona home here to the Bay Area. We watched several Euro 2012 soccer games together. Then we said goodbye, and he and his wife headed down to Paso Robles to do some wine tasting. It was the last time I saw him. There were no miracles.

The somber mood of myself and the crowd quickly reversed itself in the bottom of the third. Stephen Drew led off with a solo homer to cut the Orioles’ lead to 2-1. The boy in front of me cheered enthusiastically, jumping up and down with his arms high above his head. The crowd seemed to sense some magic happening, as the chants of “Let’s Go Oakland” grew louder and more intense as the A’s got one hit after another. When Yoenis Cespedes hit a bullet single up the middle to give the A’s a 3-2 lead, the crowd went crazy.

Chris Carter followed with a two-run double down the right field line. Cespedes read the ball perfectly off the bat, and took off running. As that powerful body flew around the bases, so fast that he nearly caught up with Josh Reddick one base ahead of him, I couldn’t help but marvel at what an amazing athlete he is. His swing and his running stride have such an lovely combination of power and grace and speed, that I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Yoenis Cespedes is a beautiful human being.” Not in the sense of him being a nice guy, since I know nearly nothing of his character, but of his body. His strong yet fluid manner seems almost the Platonic ideal of human motion.

The inning ended with the A’s ahead, 5-2, and the crowd abuzz in an intoxicating mix of joy and disbelief. As it turned out, that was all the scoring there would be. The game then marched ahead straightforwardly, without much more excitement.

As the outs piled up, the kids in front of me started getting a little bored and restless again. At one point in the 6th inning, the boy picked up some empty peanut shells and tossed them into the air.

* * *

At the exact moment the peanut shells left his fingers, his mother returned, carrying two boxes of pizza.

“What are you doing?” she shouted at him, as the peanut shells fluttered harmlessly to the floor. “I told you very specifically that you needed to behave! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with him, I thought, is probably that he has a mother who is the type of person who says “fuck” to her kids.

She handed the pizza boxes to the father of the other kids, and then grabbed the boy by the wrist. “Come with me,” she said sternly. She pulled him behind her, and pulled him up the stairs onto the concourse.

Two minutes later, they returned. “Now sit down right there, don’t move, and eat your fucking pizza.”

* * *

The next morning, Craig Calcaterra blogged about a letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his son, in which Hughes explains that our true selves are childlike and innocent, but we learn through the crush of circumstances in our lives to build a shell around that inner child, to protect it from pain. It is that armor that we adults use to interface with the world.

But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt.

As I read this, I thought about that mom from the day before. Where does her anger come from? Was she so overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt in her childhood that the only thing she knows is to make her own offspring feel overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt, too?

* * *

The boy sat. His shoulders slumped. His head bowed. His face lost all its joy.

He took a slice of his fucking pizza. With each bite, a hard shell began to form around his soul.

* * *

I was reminded of this new anti-alcohol video from Finland:

My dad had an alcohol problem when I was growing up. I was fortunate in that when my dad got drunk, he didn’t become abusive. He merely became the world’s worst standup comic. Still, as a child, you’re bewildered by it. Embarrassed. You try to ignore it, forget about it, put a shell around yourself and block it out.

Eventually, my mom had enough and divorced my dad. My dad remarried. Eventually, about the time I was a senior in high school, the drinking got to the point where he couldn’t eat if he drank. The food would just get stuck in his throat. I could see that same bewilderment, that same embarrassment in his new wife’s eyes, that I knew so well.

One day, after another one of these episodes, I found him alone in the basement. I walked up to him and said, “You’re going have to choose. Which do you love more, your bottle or your wife?” Up until that day, I had never said a word about his drinking, ever, in my life. He looked at me, speechless. I turned around and walked out.

I walked into that basement a hurt child, and walked out a man. I decided that this cycle of pain was going to end, right there, with me. Any family I had was not going to have to deal with this same kind of crap I had to deal with. That’s why I don’t drink alcohol.

Shortly after our confrontation, my dad quit drinking, cold turkey. Never drank another drop of alcohol the rest of his life. Our relationship got so much better after that. I am so grateful.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of socializing by not drinking. You don’t invite the guy who doesn’t drink out for beers with the guys. Fortunately, I’m an introvert, so missing out on socializing doesn’t really bother me at all. Pity the poor extrovert who has to make the same decision.

* * *

The boy now in submission, her damage done, the hurricane of a mother departed the scene as abruptly as she arrived. She was not seen again for the rest of the game.

* * *

The outs pile up, three outs here, three outs there, and eventually, the game is over. But that boy and I, we had that one moment together, didn’t we, that raw, magical, miraculous moment where Chris Carter hit that double down the right field line, where Yoenis Cespedes flew around the bases and almost caught up to Josh Reddick, and we broke through our shells and forgot our pain and fears and we marveled and cheered and threw our arms up in the air, each of us free as an uninhibited child.