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.
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.
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.
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.
Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.
This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?
We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.
Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.
We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.
I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.
It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.
Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.
Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.
I got mad because they laughed.
Is a story a kind of technology?
The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.
We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.
The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
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.
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.
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:
Human nature is static. Human knowledge is not. RT @baseclogger crazy this game has been played so long but stats are still being invented.
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.
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
Here’s the thing about Christianity that I kinda felt worked like the underpants gnome business model:
1. Jesus dies on the cross.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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
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.
I went to my daughter’s middle school back-to-school night last night. For those of you who have never attended such a thing, a back-to-school night is basically just a quick introduction to your child’s classes and teachers. You go around to each of your child’s classes for about 10 minutes, and her teachers introduce themselves briefly and describe the class, and then you move on to the next one.
Her science teacher told us her class was working on the difference between observations and inferences. “The human brain is amazing,” she explained, “but it wants to jump straight to inferences.” It’s fundamentally important to good science to know how to separate your data from your hypothesis, and not to conflate the two. You may think you’re observing that “I’m in a science classroom”, but that’s an inference, not an observation. You make that inference by combining several smaller observations, such as the microscopes and the sinks and the biology posters.
The idea that humans naturally mix up their data with their conclusions kind of stuck with me the rest of the evening. I could see how it would be easy to think an inference was an observation, but then I tried to think of examples of making the opposite mistake. How often do people think something is a conclusion, but it actually is data?
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The example that first came to my baseball-addled mind was Moneyball. Moneyball is a book and movie about the 2002 Oakland A’s, a relatively poor baseball team, who used some unconventional techniques to complete with rich ones. As a result of the book, a lot of people thought the A’s philosophy was about encouraging walks and discouraging stolen bases. But actually, the walks and steals were not a philosophy in and of themselves, they were data outputs. There was another set of data: the inputs of the relative costs of acquiring specific baseball skills in a particular market of players. To properly infer what the A’s philosophy is, you need to change the inputs, and see how the outputs changed. But a lot of people thought the output was the conclusion.
In the past four years or so, the A’s have actually had a lot of stolen bases and relatively few players who took a lot of walks. As statistical analysis spread throughout Major League Baseball, the price of players who took a lot of walks went up, and the price of players who stole a lot of bases went down. So the A’s adjusted accordingly. This isn’t to say the A’s philosophy hasn’t changed at all since 2002, but at a very basic level what changed was not so much the A’s philosophy, as the data inputs into that philosophy.
* * *
Once I realized there’s this category of error — mistaking the output of a function for the function itself — it was easy to come up with lots of other examples.
Winning in team sports is about creating good chemistry between the players.
Good team chemistry may be both an input AND an output of a process that builds a good team. It can hardly be the cornerstone of such a process. Talent is by far more important. It’s far more likely that a team assembled with talent as its primary input ends up happy as an output, than a team assembled with happiness as a primary input ends up talented as an output.
Religion is about obeying sets of commandments.
If you have the proper relationship between yourself and the rest of creation, obeying basic commandments like “thou shalt not kill” will flow naturally as output from that relationship. For people who do not yet have such a proper relationship, these commandments can also function as input — as a reminder to help practicing, developing, and growing that relationship. Either way, input or output, the commandments are data. The function is something deeper and more fundamental.
Good foreign policy means deciding not to go to war.
War is obviously bad, and an ideal foreign policy has peace as an output. But sometimes not going to war now can lead to more war and/or other forms of suffering later. Pacificism as an input may be the best way to create peace as an output in some contexts, but in others, it may not be. Looking at peace as a function instead of a desired output may lead to less peace, not more.
Smart economic policy means cutting taxes.
The real goal of economic policy is to maximize the productivity of that economy. In some or even many contexts, the best way to do that may be to cut taxes. In other contexts, however, it may not be. And maybe in an environment of budget surpluses, tax cuts become a natural output of that surplus. In either case, tax cuts ought to be thought of as data, not as a philosophy.
I’m sure I’ll be seeing this category error all over the place now, and maybe you will, too. If you do, tweet me your examples!
When your kids first start learning to read, it takes a lot of effort. They have to remember the sounds that each letter makes, they have to combine those sounds together, and then try to figure out what word that combination of sounds actually is. Reading, at first, is slow and almost painful process.
Then one day, you’ll be driving along in your car, and you’ll hear from the car seat in the back, “SPEED LIMIT 55”. “EXIT 25B”. “CARPOOL LANE”. And then your kids have this sudden realization:
“Oh my goodness. I can’t stop reading! I can’t stop reading everything!”
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Reading the first two parts of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow flew by for me in a flash. Part III, however, was a bit of a slog. This section covers the various ways humans fail when it comes to statistical thinking. Kahneman notes that ideas like regression to the mean are among the most difficult for human beings to grasp. Kahneman does a pretty good job simplifying the issues, but it still takes some effort to understand.
To be honest, I took a couple of naps while working through that section. The best part, though, is that Kahneman explains why statistics are so tiring to work with.
We have two systems of thought, labeled System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic, while System 2 is slow, deliberate, and effortful. System 2 thinking uses up a lot of mental energy. Often, that effort seems not worth the trouble, so System 2 often just lazily accepts the intuitive suggestions from System 1, and moves on.
Unless you have a lot of practice in statistics, statistical thought is entirely a function of System 2. It’s slow. It takes effort and concentration. It requires a lot of mental energy to think in a statistically accurate way. It tires us out. We take naps afterwards.
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When your kids first start reading, it’s a System 2 process. It takes effort and concentration. But with practice, the System 1 gets trained to do it. System 1 is effortless and automatic. You can’t turn it off, ever. Once you learn to read, you can’t ever look at a sign again and NOT read it.
* * *
Most of us don’t encounter statistics enough in our daily lives for it to be transformed from a System 2 process to a System 1 process. For us, statistical thinking will always be a tough slog. But reading books like Kahneman’s can at least give us enough experience to recognize when proper statistical thinking is called for. When the stakes are high, we can understand just enough to say, “my gut feeling is X, but let’s run through the numbers to make sure”, instead of just accepting X.
One of the things that’s prevented me from blogging more is that I haven’t spelled out the foundations of the arguments I want to make. I find myself first having to explain the foundations, which makes my articles too long and time-consuming for me to complete. So I want to spell out those things that I have come to believe first, so that I can just link to them later. Here’s the first one:
Success, in pretty much any field, is a two-step function:
Understand what quality is
Insist on it
The first is a matter of education and experience. The second is a matter of character and hard work.
If you fail, it’s usually because you fell short on one of these, or both.
Look at Steve Jobs. Jobs obviously embodied this idea. He knew what quality meant to him, and he would insist on it, even if he had to be a jerk in the process.
But quality isn’t just artistic quality. Bill Gates has also been very successful, but heavens knows that understanding artistic quality has never been among his strengths. But I’d argue that Microsoft had a different definition of quality. They defined it in terms of ubiquity. They explicitly said that their goal was to get their products on every desk in the world. And so Microsoft organized itself in such a way to achieve quality as they defined it. Nobody was better than Microsoft at making sure their products were able to get on every desk in the world. I’ve worked in the computer distribution industry and seen them at work. They’re absolute geniuses at distribution.
Understanding quality doesn’t necessarily mean a conscious understanding of quality, though. You don’t have to be able to verbally explain your definition of quality. It can be a “gut feel” of what is good and what isn’t. But if your “gut feel” of quality doesn’t correlate with actual quality, you won’t succeed.
You can also insist on quality without being a jerk like Steve Jobs. I’ll bet that the reason Steve Jobs clashed with so many people is that while he insisted on making quality products, he didn’t bother, like most other people, to insist on behaving like a quality human being. He would probably accept that trade-off. Most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t. That’s probably why there are so few Steve Jobs. Insistence is hard.
There are some things you can’t insist on. If I decided today to become a world-class soccer player, I could maybe come to understand how to do that. But I couldn’t insist on it. I’d have to go back in time to when I was about 7 years old and start practicing. It’s too late for that. When you truly understand quality you will also understand when you are incapable of achieving it.
We can feel free to dismiss or ignore people who can’t or won’t bother to understand quality, or don’t care enough about it to insist on it. I’m not physically capable, at age 45, of becoming a great soccer player. Maybe I was at age 10, but back then, I didn’t care enough about it to insist on it. Therefore, then as now, nobody bothers to write essays about my soccer skills, and nobody should. It’s not worth talking about.
Where things get really interesting are when:
Multiple understandings of quality collide
An environment is so new that there’s no way to know what quality is, so you have to experiment and figure it out as you go along
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.
— Herman Melville
This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.
Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.
My baby daughter turns two months old today. For the first six weeks of her life, she didn’t do much of anything; she was like a cute little simple robot that was programmed to just eat and sleep and fill her diapers. Lately, however, there have been signs of sentience. If I sit her on my lap, she will stare intensely down at her own bare feet, studying them as if they were the two most interesting things in the universe.
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I woke up yesterday morning and found my seven-year-old daughter in a state of hunger. Of course, she didn’t tell me this, I had to deduce it from her attempts to pick a fight with her older sister. When she’s hungry, she gets cranky and loses all ability to reason. She feels like nothing can ever possibly make things right (save food, but she’ll never admit that): she’s unhappy, that’s the way it is, and that’s how it always will be, and everyone else around her might as well be unhappy along with her.
Come to think of it, that behavior is not too much different from the two-month-old, minus the foot fetish. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:
Me: What do you want for breakfast? 7-year-old: I don’t want breakfast. Me: You need to eat. What do you want? 7-year-old: I don’t want breakfast. Me: OK, let’s skip breakfast and go straight to lunch. What do you want for lunch? 7: I don’t want lunch. Me: Dinner? 7: I don’t want dinner. Me: How about dessert? 7: I don’t want dessert. Me: You must be sick, if you don’t want dessert. Shall I call the doctor? 10-year-old daughter (sensing an opportunity): I want dessert for breakfast! Let’s have chocolate-chip cookies! Me: I was kidding. You can’t have dessert for breakfast. 10: What about donuts? Can we have donuts? Me: We don’t have any donuts, and I’m not going out to buy any. 10: How about chocolate-chip pancakes? Me (sighing defeatedly, heading towards the kitchen): Oh, all right. I’ll make chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast today…
* * *
Reason is an elevator to Enlightenment. But Enlightenment is a just a small, lonely bus stop on a long journey to a chocolate-chip beach. Enlightenment is nobody’s final destination. Dessert, on the other hand…
* * *
Josh Wilker, as a young man, took a Greyhound bus to California. He found a hole in a grocery store security system. He stole some cream cheese. But there’s a hole in his story. Where did the bagels come from?
The bagels fell from the sky, into the ocean, and washed up on the shore. Barefoot people with tans combed the strand, gathering the bagels into baskets, and drove the baskets away in a vintage VW bus painted with all the landmark tourist attractions of the world.
(You got your loaves, your cheeses, your walking on water, and then the topper–Wow! Look at the front of that bus! What a header! Who was that–Jesus or David Beckham?)