Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

Mistaking Data for Function

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?

* * *

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!

The Intersilosphere

Here’s day 2 of my experiment in learning to become a writer. I’ve got an hour and a half now to write something, and it just doesn’t feel like enough time. I am operating on the assumption that learning to work within these restraints will be good for me. My problem is that my particular brain doesn’t seem to be designed to work within such restraints. It tends to make a million connections between things, and I have a very hard time knowing when to stop making those connections.

So it doesn’t really help that I just finished listening to James Burke’s delightful new speech called “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.” If you’ve watched Burke’s previous PBS series called “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed“, you’ll recognize my problem in Burke. Burke specializes in drawing seemingly endless lines of connections between things. In this particular speech, he manages to draw connections between Mozart’s music and the invention of the helicopter, and the crash of a fleet of ships off the coast of France in the 16th century and the invention of the toilet roll.

But Burke does manage to pull all these seemingly random connections together under a common theme to make a point, which is this: the industrial revolution began with a recipe from Descartes about how to break things down into their component parts to study them. These disciplinary silos are what brought us the incredible detailed knowledge of the world we humans now possess. However, Burke argues, these silos have become so specialized and detailed that most major innovation now comes in “the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.”

If I wanted to follow a conventional path to a writing career, I would probably try to plant myself firmly within one of these disciplinary silos, and grow within it. After all, within these silos live the corporations who have the money to pay you for your skills. For instance, I probably have enough connections and respect within the baseball writing industry to get a foot in the door there. I have the technical skills to immerse myself in baseball statistics. But I resist, because that’s not where I feel like my particular brand of brainpower would be best suited.

I am aiming for that no-man’s land Burke speaks of. I have a lot of interests: from baseball to computer science, from neuroscience to politics, from poetry to business, from religion to aesthetics. In between these things, that’s where the most exciting stuff remains to be discovered.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: The Slog of Statistics

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!

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

The Foundations of Success

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:

  1. Understand what quality is
  2. 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

That’s the kind of stuff worth talking about.

On Evil

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

* * *

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

Grace Hopper

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Nice shoes

This weekend, Joe Posnanski posted a syrupy sweet story about how his daughters just love to compliment strangers.

Here were all these strangers wearing nice clothes; she was in heaven. I love your dress. Your earrings are beautiful. Your shoes are nice. Of course, everyone then returned the compliment, not realizing that this was like trying to trade jabs with Ali, and she would come back with a follow-up compliment and another — you’re pretty, you’re handsome, you have nice hair, I love your glasses, your teeth are so white, on and on, infinity.

Good for Joe. As a father of three daughters myself, I instinctively want the life stories of my girls to be filled with nice and sweet and beautiful and magical things, too.

And it’s not just dads who feel this way. Last week, I had this sugary exchange on Twitter with Amanda McCarthy, wife of Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy:

@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
I will never be too old for a pb&j with apple slices.
@kenarneson  Ken Arneson
@Mrs_McCarthy32 My four-year-old daughter would like to eat at your restaurant.
@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
@kenarneson my apples are always served with caramel! I am a kids dream!!

And isn’t that a lovely thought?

Don’t we all want a world where a child’s natural gifts are appreciated and developed to their maximum potential? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everyone can have all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they want?

* * *

But somewhere in the back of my mind is a voice telling me to be careful of such sweet desires. I guess I worry that a society that desires sweetness and purity will treat violations of purity with, well, a puritanical harshness.

The flip side of saying that if you’re good and sweet and pure and innocent, you can have all the pb&j you desire, is this: if you’re not pure, if you’re tempted to check out a dangerous hole and fall in as a result, then you’re on your own. Nobody’s going to be bringing you any ladders to get yourself out.

The line between innocence and guilt in a puritanical culture is very very thin. It becomes difficult to distinguish between genuine innocence and a fake innocence for appearances. For the genuinely pure, one minute you’re a cute, sweet, precocious kid who loves to give compliments to strangers, and the next…

* * *

This story is about one month old.

I drive to the Home Depot on the border between West Oakland and Emeryville to buy some mortar for a brick wall that I’m repairing. I get out of my car and start looking across the sea of parked cars for one of those flatbed shopping cart to put the bags of mortar on. I spy one a couple aisles over, and head for it. As I get there and grab the cart, I hear a voice behind me.

“Hey, man, I like those shoes!”

I turn around and see an African-American man, maybe about 50 years old, standing beside me. He’s a small guy, skinny, maybe 5’7″ and 150 lbs dripping wet.

“Wow, is that leather?” He bends down and touches my shoes. I’m wearing some casual loafers, nothing fancy, but they do have a strip of brown that at least looks like leather. I have no idea if the leather is real or fake, but I can’t really think about that, because, well, there’s a guy touching my feet.

“Mmm, hmm!” he says enthusiastically, as he stands back up. “Those are nice. Where can I get me some of those?”

“I got them online,” I say. “They’re called Keens. If you Google ‘Keen shoes’ you can find them.”

He is smiling at me. His smile has gaps, he is missing some teeth. At that moment, two things occur to me: (1) a guy with dental problems probably doesn’t spend a lot of time online, and (2) even though this conversation is really bizarre, I can’t help but like the guy.

I start pushing the cart towards the store entrance. He walks with me. He says, “Say, listen, man, I just got out of Santa Rita. You know what that is?”

“Yes,” I say. Santa Rita is the Alameda County prison.

“Ha!” he says. “I bet you’ve never been in there, have you?”

I chuckle. “No.”

He says, “I could use a little help. Could you spare a dollar so I could buy a taco for lunch?”

“Sure,” I say. I reach into my pocket and pull out my wallet. I look in and — crap. I don’t have a dollar bill. I don’t even have a five. So I pull out the smallest bill I have and say, “Here, here’s a ten.”

I close my wallet, put it in back my pocket. I look back up to tell him, “You have a good–“. But I don’t get the chance. He’s already gone, vanished back into the American wilderness.

A Timeline of Holes

  • Image from NASA
    13,700,000,000 years ago

    The universe explodes into existence out of one small, dense dot.

    Why isn't the universe perfectly symmetrical? Why can't we look out onto the other side of the big bang, and see our mirror image?

    The universe is uneven. Unbalanced. Unsmooth. It is full of clumps and lumps.

    We are like particles of dust, swirling through an unstoppable, expanding sinkhole, as it carves itself out of some other earth.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • Solar nebula
    4,568,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star in the Milky Way Galaxy explodes as a supernova. The shock wave hits a nearby nebula of gas, causing a clustering of material which condenses into our Solar System.

    Nothing happens in smoothness. In an undisturbed cloud, there is no conflict, no creativity.

    Action requires a hole. A hole creates an edge, and the edge is where things meet to become other things.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • moon formation
    4,480,000,000 years ago

    A small planet collides with a young Earth, destroying the small planet and gouging a giant hole in the earth. The leftover debris coalesces and becomes the moon.

    Every hole has a past, a life lived as something else.

    Every hole also creates a future. But that future is not for itself. A hole is nothing, but it is also an opportunity for something other than itself.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • 714,000,000 years ago

    In the marshlands of the planet Unbraikea in the Pinwheel Galaxy, a mantisoid species called "Allien" becomes the first sentient life form in the universe.

    An Allien named Jaramu Briwn trips into a bed of hexreeds. His oversized snout gets caught in one of the reed flowers. His embarrassment turns to joy when he discovers a beautiful symbiosis between the two species. 600 million years of co-evolved stability and peace follow.

    image credit: Arjen Stilklik and Gustavo Durán via creative commons license
  • 100,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bell Jymas begins to question the behavior of his society. "We've done things this way for 600 million years. Why? If nothing ever changes, what's the point?" he asks. Jymas is mostly ignored by his fellow Alliens.

    When we feel crowded, we seek to create holes. When we feel empty, we seek fulfillment. We yearn for an easy, soothing uniformity in our lives.

    It's a rare and remarkable event when an intelligent being wants to pokes holes in a fulfilling existence.

  • 65,000,000 years ago

    Back on Earth, a 6-mile wide asteroid crashes into the Yucatan Peninsula. The resulting impact hole sends so much debris into the atmosphere that all the dinosaurs died.

    The large hole in the ecosystem left by the death of the dinosaurs creates an opportunity for some small, mammalian survivors to move in and fill it.

  • 44,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bellu Bayna decides to test out Jymas' theories. He leaves the safety and comfort of his grassy reed nest, and ascends Mount Nervyny. For 40 days and 40 nights, he meditates, resisting the temptation to return to his old, easy life. Following his example, Alliens enter the most dynamic and creative era in their history.

    The leader of a movement usually accomplishes little but to point out the center of a hole. It's the first follower who is key, for this is the one who brings the shovel and starts digging.

    image credit: Giorgio via creative commons license
  • 25,000,000 years ago

    Nearly every ecosystem on Earth is colonized by mammals. But one group of mammalian monkeys discovers a remaining unexploited hole in their ecosystem. They leave the safety of the trees, and begin to regularly forage for food on the ground.

    This group of monkeys, called "Hominoids" or "Apes", lose their tails, and eventually evolve into several distinct genera: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans.

  • 22,000,000 years ago

    Kan Yrnasin, a follower of Bellu Bayna's movement, composes an artwork expanding on Bayna's ideas, entitled "On Sockets". Of the work, fellow follower Mahmyttske says, "Well, the reednet is over, this work won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "On Sockets" becomes generally regarded as the pinnacle of Allien civilization. Allien society soon thereafter begins a long descent into disunity, selfishness and ignorance, the combination of which makes them fail to understand the gravity of their impending disaster until it was too late to stop it.

  • 21,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star 20 light years from Unbraikea goes supernova. The resulting shock wave blows a hole in the atmosphere of Unbraikea, and all the Alliens perish.

    When Alliens realize they are doomed, their culture descends into a violent, nihilistic, destructive rage.

    A brave few try to overcome the desperately long and unfair odds. They broadcast their consciousness out into the expanse of the universe, hoping that someday, somewhere, it will find a recipient who can make their their existence matter.

  • 17,000,000 years ago

    The Colorado River begins carving out the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona, creating the Grand Canyon.

    Is a hole an act of construction, or destruction? Does it matter whether a hole is intentional or not?

    Does it change our judgment of a thing if we know there's an artist behind it, skillfully and willfully causing it to happen?

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • 50,000 years ago

    A rock about 50m wide slams into Arizona, forming Meteor Crater.

    Two large scars in the face of an otherwise flat, dry Arizona desert. One is considered among the most beautiful, defining features of the planet Earth; the other is thought of more as an unsightly blemish.

    What is the difference between a hole that is beautiful and one that is ugly?

  • 1,978 years ago

    Roman authorities kill Jesus Christ by nailing holes into a wooden cross through his hands and feet.

    Some holes go beyond mere ugliness. Some holes make us recoil in horror or disgust.

    The idea that God, from whose breath this holey universe originated, would Himself come and willingly participate in both the joys and the suffering of human life, is a great comfort to many.

    image credit: Mattias Grünewald
  • 1,000 years ago

    In order to avoid religious persecution for his scientific work, Ibn al-Haytham, a/k/a Alhazen, a Persian scientist working in Egypt, feigns madness. He is placed under house arrest for 10 years. During this time he begins writing his influential Book of Optics.

    Many, if not most, of the technologies which involve manipulating light passing through a hole were built atop the principles spelled out in Alhazen's work. A madman may not seem to be of any consequence. But telescopes, cameras, and eyeglasses certainly do.

    image credit: Wikipedia
  • 804 years ago

    The poet Rumi is born.

    "A craftsman pulled a reed from the reedbed,
    cut holes in it, and called it a human being.

    Since then, it's been wailing a tender agony
    of parting, never mentioning the skill
    that gave it life as a flute."

  • 1911

    One century ago, H. T. Hallowell, Sr., founder of Standard Pressed Steel Company, invents the hex key.

    Hallowell suffers the usual fate of pioneers, seeing someone else get famous for his work. During World War II, the hex key becomes more commonly known as the "Allen Wrench", a trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Company, a competitor of Standard Pressed Steel.

  • 1966

    Ken Arneson is born just a short distance from where the Beatles hold their final concert.

    Meanwhile, 4,000 holes mysteriously appear in Blackburn, Lancashire.

    From this data, scientists are finally able to calculate the hole unit volume of the Albert Hall.

  • September 1, 1991

    Ken Arneson exchanges wedding rings with his wife.

    A wedding ring is a round piece of metal with a hole in it. The circular shape, without beginning or end, is meant to symbolize the eternal nature of love.

  • April 8, 1994

    Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, blows a hole in his own head. His wife, Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, is left widowed.

    "And if you save yourself
    You will make him happy
    He'll keep you in a jar
    And you'll think you're happy

    He'll give you breathing holes
    And you'll think you're happy
    He'll cover you with grass
    And you'll think you're happy now"

    --Sappy

  • August 20, 1998

    Louis Sachar publishes a book named "Holes." It includes a poem about one animal who wants to create a hole, and another who wants to fill one.

    "If only, if only," the woodpecker sighs,
    "The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies."
    While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
    Crying to the moo-oo-oon,
    "If only, If only."

  • My house on September 11, 2001
    September 11, 2001

    Ten years and ten days after Ken Arneson wed, he wakes up to a giant hole in his living room wall. Contractors had removed a chimney as part of a small remodeling project.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, terrorists use airplanes to make holes in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    Ken Arneson's hole is trivial, easily and quickly repaired.

    The friends and loved ones of 3,000 people who died that day suffered a hole in their lives that cannot be refilled.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • May 10, 2003

    Oily sebum clogs a hair follicle on Ken Arneson's head. A hole exposes the sebum to the air, oxidizing the oil and turning it into an unsightly blackhead.

    Meanwhile, Michael Lewis publishes "Moneyball", a book about Billy Beane, who discovers an unexploited hole in the Major League Baseball ecosystem.

    "Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall. When the chair hit the wall it didn't bang and clang, it exploded. Until they saw the hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their futures, solid."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • August 27, 2007

    Ken Arneson publishes a blog entry entitled "Of Holes." Commenter Mehmattski says, "Well, the Internet is over, this post won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "I despair: I don't want to be a robot, programmed to do what I do, oblivious to the world burning beneath my feet. I want to know what my feet are doing. I want to know where the holes in my life are, and why I keep trying to fill them, over and over. I want to accomplish great feats. I want to see and create beautiful things. I want to have amazing experiences."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • June 1, 2010

    A giant sinkhole appears in Guatemala City.

    Here is an event on a timeline.

    We usually think of a timeline as a series of events. But look again. Is a timeline not also a series of holes between events?

    Look at the holes. What is missing? What can't we see? What is being forgotten, being left unsaid?

    We cannot assign significance to the memorable events in our lives without assigning insignificance to the events in between them.

  • May 2, 2011

    US Special Forces shoot one hole in the chest and another in the head of Osama bin Laden, killing him.

    Sometimes, it is necessary to fight holes with holes.

  • August 24, 2011

    After 21 million years of travel, light from the Pinwheel Galaxy supernova reaches Earth.

    The stars come up spinning every night, bewildered in love.
    They'd grow tired with that revolving, if they weren't.
    They'd say, "How long do we have to do this!"

    God picks up the reed flute world and blows.
    Each note is a need coming through one of us,
    a passion, a longing-pain.

    Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated,
    and let your note be clear.
    Don't try to end it.
    Be your note.
    I'll show you how it's enough.

    Go up on the roof at night
    in this city of the soul.
    Let everyone climb on their roofs
    and sing their notes!

  • September 10, 2011

    Ken Arneson visits the Chabot Observatory on the roof of the Oakland Hills. He waits in line for over two hours to get a glance at the supernova in a large telescope.

    Peering in the viewhole, Ken sees a single white dot. In this context, a galactic-scale catastrophe looks to be roughly the size of a pimple on a man's face.

    Driving home in a somewhat disappointed mood, Ken hears a faint sound coming from somewhere in his car. "Flub flub flub," it whispers. "Flub flub flub."

  • September 11, 2011

    Ten years to the day after Ken Arneson woke up to a hole in his wall, he wakes up to a hole in the left rear tire of his car.

    Ken jacks up the car and removes the flat tire. Embedded into the tire, he finds an allen wrench.

    "Hissssssssssssss," the tire boos, as Ken removes the allen wrench. "Hissssssssssssss."

    Ken stops and ponders for a moment how an allen wrench, of all things, could maneuver itself into exactly the proper angle to puncture his tire. The odds against it seem desperately long.

    Ken walks over to the garbage can, lifts the lid, and tosses the allen wrench into the hole.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 25, 2011

    Ken Arneson goes to see the film version of Moneyball. While watching the film, his blackhead begins to swell up, painfully infected. Later that night, it bursts open, and the pus flushes the blackhead away.

    "That's a metaphor."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 28, 2011

    Billy Beane's team plays its final game in a forgettable season. Meanwhile, two teams that copied the philosophy he pioneered, battle each other for a playoff spot on one of the most unforgettable nights on the timeline of baseball history.

    As Beane asks in the Moneyball movie, what does it matter?

    It matters, because sometimes, a supernova explodes, and briefly shines 5,000,000,000 times brighter than the sun, giving off more light than every star in an entire galaxy combined.

    And it matters, because sometimes, a single drop of water dislodges a single pebble from a riverbank.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright

 

Why a no Chicken?

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Simplicity I

Stuff.

Stuff trespasses in stealth,
like a twisted
thief in the night.

At first, stuff
just violates a drawer, but
then too a closet, and
an attic, a garage, a now-homeless car.
Stuff overflows the furniture, the floors
and next, moves
beyond the physical spaces
until you find you carry

a hard drive full of stuff, plus
a backup drive full of stuff
(in case you lose
the hard drive full of stuff), plus
a blog, two blogs, three blogs, plus
a facebook and a twitter, plus
a linkedin and a tumblr, plus
a yahoo and a flickr, plus
a google and a google plus, plus
three hundred friends, plus,
on each…

And where
among all this stuff
do you keep yourself?

Lock this silent prowler out
before your own figure
dissolves away to darkness.

The Doorway to Hell

 

I had a very vivid dream the other night. I dreamed that the entrance to Hell was an ordinary doorway located along a long white corridor on 25th floor of Facebook headquarters.

 


Photo credit: fractalgfx on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

The door had a very unusual property. If you looked at it, if you acknowledged its presence, it would look and act like any other ordinary door. But if you ignored it, if you didn’t pay attention to it, the door would transform from its ordinary solid state and become a vortex that would suck you down into the fires of Hell.

Business was good for Hell in this location. Many, many people would pass this doorway, staring at their cell phones, absorbed into their own little worlds, texting and emailing and tweeting and updating their Facebook statuses, failing to observe the beauty of the doorways all around them. And into Hell they would go.

 


Photo credit: kamshots on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

This is the nature of Hell. Hell is worse than forgetting, or being forgotten. Hell is not even having a chance to remember. Hell is not noticing.

First Rule of Sabermetric Marketing…

…is don’t talk about sabermetrics. So I’m going to talk about being kicked in the balls, instead. Then I’m going to explain how my being kicked in the balls is totally relevant to marketing sabermetrics. OK? Let’s go:

I once wrote a blog entry on my old Catfish Stew blog about being kicked in the balls during an indoor soccer game. It went a little something like this:

Somebody forgot to give the goalie the message. Instead of easing up when we got close to contact, he came at me like some freakish combination of Ronnie Lott and Scott Stevens. He ran full speed for the ball, jumped as high as he could to knock it away from me, and in the process, sent his knee full force straight into my groin, and slammed the rest of me right into the hockey-style boards.

The follow-up to that story is that earlier this year I ended up playing on the same team as the goalie who had crushed my testicles a few years before. So I had to forgive, if not forget. Now, you may suspect that the moral relevant to sabermetrics is that those who seem like an enemy could may turn out to be your greatest ally later. Perhaps thats true, but..I wouldn’t temporarily pull myself out of my blogging retirement to make so simple a point.

No, I want to add a more complex point to the conversation going around about the marketing of sabermetrics. The conversation was initiated by Will Carroll, picked up by Tango Tiger, and finally reached Carson Cistulli’s keyboard yesterday.

Reading Cistulli’s message reminded me of an old YouTube video of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s Think Different and Screw the Grammar ad campaign back in 1996.

If you’re interested in the problems of marketing sabermetrics, you should watch this whole video. But here’s the quote that is particularly burned onto my brain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product. –Steve Jobs


Now there’s a reason that quote comes to mind so easily for me. The insight — that listing a bunch of facts about your product is not very effective; the best marketing campaigns make an emotional connection between your core values and those of your customers — is brilliant, but that’s not why I remember it so well. The insight itself is just one in a list of facts about marketing, and probably wouldn’t stick with me very long without an emotional connection.

The reason is this: when I became teammates with the goalie who had earlier impaled me, I found out that in his day job, he was the milk industry executive who had spearheaded the whole original “Got Milk” marketing campaign.

Ever since I learned that, I can’t help but pay extra attention any time I hear any variation of the phrase “Got Milk”. There are very few emotional connections as effective as a solid kick in the nuts. Thus, when Carson Cistulli writes something with similar themes to the Steve Jobs speech, and the quote about “Got Milk” pops right up in my mind.

Now, to turn Steve Jobs’ point into a lesson for sabermetrics: Creating a list of facts explaining how sabermetrics is better than old-school analysis is not the best way to market sabermetrics, just as explaining how MacOS is better than Windows is not the best way to market Apple.

What makes it particularly difficult in this case is that sabermetrics is essentially about removing emotions from the equation. That makes an effective marketing campaign for sabermetrics somewhat of a paradox.

Nonetheless, the questions remain. What are the core emotional values of sabermetrics? What are sabermetricians committed to in their souls? Once you’ve answered those questions, then you start formulating a way to make sabermetrics more mainstream and popular.

So, baseball fans: Got Facts?

That Was Burgundy, This is Teal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 22:36-40

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

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

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

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

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Willpower Bias

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.

versus

My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.

Put on my Linking Cap

I’ve got a blog post that’s about 33% written, and every time I write more, it remains 33% written, because it just keeps growing, and I can’t figure out how to break it up into smaller parts.  So in the meantime, here’s some interesting links that don’t fit into the upcoming monster essay:

Americans are flexible about religious beliefs

Bible literalists are the squeaky wheels of American religion, and so they get a lot of attention.  But a large percentage of Americans personalize their religious beliefs, mixing elements of various philosophies and religions into their own.  Knowing this makes the quest I’m undertaking on this blog seem a little less lonely, if nothing else.

Orchids and Dandelions

Context matters.  Some genes expressed in the brain that may lead to criminal behavior in an abusive environment may also lead to beneficial creative behavior in a rich, loving environment.

Aging Brains

Older brains zoom in on the higher-level main idea, and ignore low-level details.  This has its benefits, but also drawbacks.  Can we train the older brain to pay attention to detail?

Should government take “pursuit of happiness” seriously as one of its primary goals?  Money quote:

Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.

Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

Review: Justice with Michael Sandel

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

Harvard professor Michael Sandel is a great teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Caprica pilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And So To Fade Away

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

— Herman Melville

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

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

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