Yahoo Sports remodeled their site this morning, and it’s awful. Mostly, I think, because the new background image on is really distracting and annoying. So I decided to zap it. Here’s how I did it, and you can too:
Breslow hates the food, despises trades.
“Receive Thornton casket.”
Hub fans bid Lester a red fart in October,
Secret drink enhanced Nava.
Lackey is hurling grub for Boston bullpen,
And militant Beato going haiku.
Drew’s hot thong outhit the tubbier Lavarnway.
“Receive Thornton casket.”
I don’t remember the first time I ever saw a video game. I doubt it was as early as 1973. I know my next-door neighbor had an Atari 2600 in 1978, and I had a Mattel Electronics Football game around the same time. I know I went minigolfing for a couple birthdays in between there, and the minigolf place had an arcade. They probably had Pong, if not a few other video games in the arcade. Probably, then, I first laid eyes on a video game around 1976 or so.
So this Random Wikipedia article, 1973 in video gaming, comes a few years too early for me to have any personal memories. As a historical landmark, it’s one year too late. The big year in video gaming is 1972. In 1972, Atari was founded and they produced Pong. Additionally in 1972, Magnavox introduced the Odyssey, the first home video game console.
So 1973 was a period of infancy for video games–after they were invented, but before they became a major force in popular culture. Did the people working on video games back really believe it would later become a huge deal? Or did they assume they were just part of a temporary fad, just trying to figure something out, maybe eking out a living or something if they’re lucky, but not really suspecting they were incubating a baby entertainment industry that would eventually be as big as movies or TV?
And what’s the 2013 version of video gaming — the rough beast that’s just a baby now, barely even noticed, but one day will grow to be king of the world?
For a week now, I’ve been writing a blog entry each weekday about a random Wikipedia article. I’m not sure why. Something about it struck me as an interesting idea, so I went with it.
But when the Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune brought me to the 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team, I almost quit the idea. It annoyed the hell out of me. I mean, look at this, here’s the entire Wikipedia entry:
The 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team will represent the Clemson University during the 2013–14 NCAA Division I men’s basketball season.
It’s basically a tautology. It’s nonsense. It’s vaporware. It’s nothing.
Pffffft. The 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team doesn’t even exist yet. I didn’t go to Clemson University. Why the heck should I care about it? I don’t think I personally know anybody who went to Clemson. Heck, I barely know anyone who went to any of the schools in Clemson’s athletic conference, the ACC. Why should I bother writing about it?
* * *
The past few weeks, I’ve been taking an online course in Behavioral Economics. One of the issues they talk about is how much we overvalue the present and undervalue the future. We also overvalue things that are near to us, and undervalue things that are far away from us. For example:
Would you give $100 if it would pay for an operation that would, guaranteed to work or your money back, save the life of a 5-year-old child today? Probably, you would.
Would you give $100 if it would pay for an operation that would, guaranteed to work or your money back, save the lives of a hundred 5-year-old children in Belgium in 2043, kids who won’t even be born for another 25 years? Hmm…it’s a tougher question, isn’t it?
Why is it so hard to feel sympathy for people and events far away and in the future?
* * *
Taking that knowledge, I plowed ahead and did some googling about next year’s Clemson basketball team. I found an article on RealGM Basketball which uses some statistical analysis of college basketball players to predict that Clemson will go 6-12 in the ACC during 2013-14. Dan Hanner explains:
Given that they lose their two best players and have zero players who were elite high school recruits on their roster, I think a lot of preseason predictions will have them even lower than this. There really isn’t anyone on the roster who looks like a likely offensive star. (The only good news is that Clemson was young last year and the sophomore leap should help at least a couple of their freshmen become solid players.) But let’s face it, this is going to be an ugly team to watch. The only reason the model doesn’t have Clemson lower is because of Brad Brownell’s ability to teach defense.
Maybe that’s accurate. Or not. A year from now, we’ll know for sure.
But I’m from California, not Carolina. I follow the Pac-12, not the ACC. So again, I really don’t care. Because I am human. I concern myself mostly with the here and now. I am, as my behavioral economic class suggests, biased against the people and things that are separated from me by large gaps of space and time.
* * *
In my last Random Wikipedia entry about Błudowo, Poland, I examined a picture of a bible passage about the Lamb of God. I didn’t examine a matching companion text on the ceiling of that same church, partly because the image is interrupted by an ugly ceiling lamp, but partly because it seems to contradict the first image. The text is a quote from Revelations 1:8:
In English, the Błudowo text quotes God saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” The next part of that passage goes: “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is coming. I am the Almighty.”
It’s an interesting pairing. In the first image, God is presented as being meek and humble. Here in the second, God is powerful and eternal. What does it mean to put these passages together?
When you live a Christian life, everything you do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to going to the grocery store, to pumping gas, to hitting a home run, to striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything.
I think that’s right, but incomplete. Living a Christian life doesn’t just mean understanding or believing Christianity, it means practicing it. And I don’t mean practicing as in “doing”, I mean practicing as in “training.”
We are naturally biased towards the here and near and now. We naturally discount the distant, both in time and space. You can’t just overcome that built-in bias with rational understanding. That bias is our default mode. You have to overcome that bias by actively training yourself to overcome it, otherwise you slip right back into your default mode.
In default mode, you think that three-point shot you just made to win the game is the most important thing in the world. You’re so awesome!
Expressing gratitude toward God, as a practice, removes you from that default mode. It strips away your bias, in two ways:
It affirms that second passage in the Błudowo church. It’s an acknowledgement that there is some thing more awesome than you, and some time more important than now. It is, as Leitch suggests, gratitude towards everything that was, is, and shall be.
It reminds us that our natural biases, a/k/a our sins, are not washed away by conquering the here and now like a tiger. On the contrary, our selfish, competitive biases toward satisfying the desires of ourselves and those nearest to us at the expense of others, is actually a cause of suffering in the world. The practice of thanking God is an act of humility and generosity, of caring about something beyond the immediate. Thanking God makes you more lamb-like than tiger-like.
* * *
Funny though, how in a large Christian nation like America, there aren’t any major sports teams nicknamed “the Lambs”.
* * *
So here I am, a sinner who doesn’t give a crap about the the 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team. If I were more God-like, more Christ-like, I would. I would overcome the bias that makes me care more about my local team and my local league and the current and most recent year than about some team far away and in the future. I’d be more generous, more caring, about everything.
* * *
And this is why I think I am writing these random Wikipedia articles. Like thanking God, it is a kind of practice, designed to train me away from my biases. Away from my compulsive desire to compete, to be great, to win in the here and now. A random Wikipedia article can send me anywhere–past, present, future–and it forces me to contemplate on it, to be generous towards it. Contemplation leads to empathy and compassion, and the world becomes a better place for it. And perhaps I become a better human being, too.
* * *
So Godspeed, 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team.
There are two tiers of professional tennis tournaments: the Grand Slam events, and all the others.
The Ericsson Open, a/k/a the Sony Open, a/k/a the Miami Masters, may be the Grandest of the Ungrand. Most Ungrand events are one week, single gender tournaments. The Miami tournament, like the Grand Slam events, plays over two weeks, hosts both genders, and has a large prize purse. It probably has visions of perhaps one day becoming Grand itself.
But so far, it remains the Biggest Fish in the Small Pond. Is that such a bad deal?
The Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune has sent us today back in time to the 2000 Ericsson Open Women’s Singles tournament. It is not a particularly remarkable tournament, other than serving as one affirmation, among many, of the greatness of Martina Hingis. Hingis marched through this tournament basically unchallenged. She never got close to losing a single set. She won 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals against Amanda Coetzer. She destroyed Monica Seles in the semifinals, 6-0, 6-0. Hingis then trounced Lindsay Davenport in the finals, 6-3, 6-2.
In the past two days, the RWWoF sent us to examine the ordinary, unremarkable moments before and after greatness. Today, our eyes are opened to the existence of many other utterly ordinary moments, even in the middle of greatness. Perhaps we are meant to wonder: if greatness is so short and fleeting, what exactly is so great about greatness anyway?
Over at Beyond the Boxscore, Stephen Loftus has posted Pitcher Similarity Scores. The scores compare pitchers to each other based on:
Pitch Break (Horizontally and Vertically)
Pitch Release Point
Curious about how the A’s scored, I extracted the A’s pitchers from the spreadsheet. A few pitchers didn’t seem to throw enough pitches last year to qualify (Brett Anderson, Sean Doolittle, Pat Neshek), while Fernando Rodriguez is on it, even though he hasn’t been seen in Oakland yet, because he got hurt in spring training.
A few notes:
A.J. Griffin is only mildly Zitoesque, and is actually more similar to Jerry Blevins, of all people.
Griffin is the only player on the A’s who does not have R.A. Dickey among his 10 least-similar players.
Bartolo Colon has the most-similar least-similar player in baseball, if that makes sense. His similarity to John Axford, his least similar player, scores higher in similarity than any other player’s least-similar player. I assume that’s because Colon throws mostly fastballs.
Tommy Milone seems to be the most unique pitcher on the A’s. His #1 comp score (Jason Vargas, 0.739) would be the 24th-highest score on Bartolo Colon’s list.
Yoenis Cespedes fascinates me. He came to the USA from Cuba last year with no professional baseball experience, and went straight to the majors. He had to adjust to the new level of play, of course. All players do. But usually the kind of learning a player does in the majors is subtle, since the difference between AAA and the majors is subtle. It’s hard for a layman like me to catch on to those subtleties.
But with Cespedes, the learning wasn’t subtle, it was obvious. He’s amazingly talented, and you could see, often from pitch to pitch, the adjustments he was making. The first time he faced a pitcher last year, he had a tendency to swing at breaking pitches out of the strike zone. Once. Maybe twice. But the next time, he’d take the pitch. Then the pitcher would have to throw some new wrinkle at him. Which he’d fail at initially, and then figure that out the next time, too. Then the pitchers have to come in and throw him a strike, and he’d hit it, hard.
Which makes me especially intrigued about this year, his second time through the league. How will the league try to get Yoenis Cespedes out now that he’s seen most of the pitchers before?
So I’d thought I’d look at what Seattle has done in the first two games against him, courtesy of some Pitch F/X graphs from Brooks Baseball.
Facing Felix Hernandez. Last year, Cespedes was 4-for-12 against him, with a double and four strikeouts.
Plate appearance #1: Hernandez throws a get-me-over fastball on the first pitch. Cespedes takes. Then Hernandez throws a curve down and away, which Cespedes chases out of the zone, and grounds to third. I’m sure the Mariners wouldn’t mind seeing Cespedes swing at curveballs out of the zone all the time. If this were one year ago, they’d keep throwing it over and over again hoping he’ll still chase it, but as we’ll see, the Mariners don’t just do one thing against him anymore.
Pitcher F. Hernandez Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 91 Fastball (Four-seam) Called Strike
2 80 Curveball In play, out(s)
Yoenis Cespedes grounds out, third baseman Kyle Seager to first baseman Justin Smoak.
Plate appearance #2: Hernandez throws a slider up and over the middle of the plate on the first pitch. That’s a dangerous pitch to throw Cespedes, and he whacks it, but Brendan Ryan manages to make a good play on it and throw him out. The Mariners win this battle, but you wouldn’t want to use that pitch as an example of how you want to get Cespedes out. We’ll find that out in game 2.
Pitcher F. Hernandez Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 84 Slider In play, out(s)
Yoenis Cespedes grounds out, shortstop Brendan Ryan to first baseman Justin Smoak.
Plate appearance #3: Cespedes hasn’t seen a changeup yet, but Hernandez throws him four of them in this at-bat. Also interesting is how Hernandez moves around the strike zone. Up and in, down and away, up and in, down and in, up and away, up and…oops over the plate. The last pitch is a changeup that’s up and over the plate, slightly in. Again Cespedes jumps on it, and again hits it hard right at a fielder, this time, the third baseman. Cespedes works the at-bat and gets a good pitch to hit, again it finds a glove, but again, this isn’t a recipe you probably want to rely on to get Cespedes out.
Pitcher F. Hernandez Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 89 Changeup Called Strike
2 87 Changeup Swinging Strike
3 91 Fastball (Four-seam) Foul
4 87 Changeup Foul
5 91 Sinker Ball
6 87 Changeup In play, out(s)
Yoenis Cespedes grounds out, third baseman Kyle Seager to first baseman Justin Smoak.
Plate appearance #4: This was in the bottom of the ninth, and Felix Hernandez had been replaced by Tom Wilhelmsen. Cespedes had struggled against Wilhelmsen last year, going 0-for-5 with 4 strikeouts. Cespedes gets ahead in the count by laying off a first-pitch curveball off the plate. Wilhelmsen then comes in with a fastball which turns out to be the best pitch of the at-bat for Cespedes to hit, but he fouled it off. Cespedes then lays off another curveball out of the zone. Cespedes is probably looking for another fastball like the 2nd pitch and does get it. But Wilhelmsen throws it inside off the plate, not a good pitch to hit, and Cespedes jams himself and grounds out to third. Another lesson for Cespedes to learn from–it will be fascinating to see what Cespedes and Wilhelmsen do the next time Cespedes faces him ahead in the count 2-1, 3-1, or 3-2.
Pitcher T. Wilhelmsen Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 77 Curveball Ball
2 95 Fastball (Four-seam) Foul
3 79 Curveball Ball
4 97 Fastball (Two-seam) In play, out(s)
Yoenis Cespedes grounds out, third baseman Kyle Seager to first baseman Justin Smoak.
Facing Hisashi Iwakuma. Last year, Cespedes was 2-for-4 against him, with a homer.
Plate appearance #1: The pitchers Cespedes faces in this game don’t have the kind of stuff that Hernandez and Wilhelmsen had yesterday. Cespedes hardly sees any inside pitches in this game. We can see what Iwakuma wants to do in this game: instead of working inside and outside like the fireballers yesterday, he lives on the outside corner against him, either slightly over the plate away, or slightly off the plate away. Iwakuma misses away on the first two pitches, and Cespedes takes the third to make him throw a strike. Then Iwakuma makes the same mistake Hernandez did yesterday, leaving a slider up and over the plate. This time, Cespedes doesn’t hit it at any fielders, as he deposits it over the center field fence for a home run.
Pitcher H. Iwakuma Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 89 Fastball (Four-seam) Ball
2 81 Slider Ball
3 89 Fastball (Four-seam) Called Strike
4 81 Slider In play, run(s)
Yoenis Cespedes homers (1) on a line drive to center field.
Plate appearance #2: Iwakuma avoids throwing Cespedes any sliders after that. He throws a fastball inside for show on the first pitch, and then goes back to the outside corner. He leads off with a good curveball down and away, and then goes up the ladder with two excellently located fastballs, both of which Cespedes swings through. I’m guessing the second fastball in a row surprised Cespedes a bit.
Pitcher H. Iwakuma Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 89 Sinker Ball
2 73 Curveball Swinging Strike
3 92 Fastball (Four-seam) Swinging Strike
4 91 Fastball (Four-seam) Swinging Strike
Yoenis Cespedes strikes out swinging.
Plate appearance #3: Iwakuma is gone, and Cespedes is now facing Carter Capps, whom he faced once last year. He takes a first pitch curveball over the inside of the plate. Then Capps gets him to chase a couple of curveballs just off the plate, and strikes him out. Next time they face each other, I’ll be watching to see if Cespedes chases those curveballs again, or if he lays off the next time, and makes him throw something in the zone he can hit.
Pitcher C. Capps Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 83 Curveball Called Strike
2 85 Curveball Swinging Strike
3 96 Fastball (Four-seam) Ball
4 82 Curveball Swinging Strike
Yoenis Cespedes strikes out swinging.
Plate appearance #4: Oliver Perez, this time, who like Capps had faced Cespedes only once before. He takes the first pitch for a strike, as he often does. Then on the second pitch, he gets a slider it a hittable location over the middle of the plate, but fouls it off. Then he swings through a well-located fastball low and away in the zone.
Pitcher O. Perez Batter Y. Cespedes
Speed Pitch Result
1 88 Sinker Called Strike
2 80 Slider Foul
3 92 Sinker Swinging Strike
Yoenis Cespedes strikes out swinging.
Eight at-bats isn’t enough to draw any definite conclusions from, but it’s enough to speculate a bit. Here’s a rough-draft preliminary formula I’d draw from this:
If you have a pitcher that Cespedes hasn’t seen much, try to throw him breaking pitches off the plate and get him to chase. That won’t work forever, though.
He can hit fastballs and crushes badly located off-speed stuff. So if he has faced a pitcher multiple times, mix up your pitches and avoid predictability.
If your pitcher has good velocity, you can try to jam him inside. Don’t try this with soft-tossers, though.
Location, location, location.
I don’t know that there’s anything there that isn’t true of most hitters in general, except that Cespedes doesn’t seem to have any one particular hole in his swing or vulnerability in his approach except against unfamiliar pitchers. So you have to try to fool him like Iwakuma did when he went up the ladder on him, or just hope that when you miss your spot that it finds a fielder.
Now go turn on the A’s game and watch Joe Saunders blow my whole rough theory apart tonight by pounding Cespedes inside with loopy sliders or something. That would be cool, because baseball is awesome like that, and there are always new lessons to be learned.
Major League Baseball’s Opening Day fell this year on Easter Sunday. It is probably no coincidence that both Easter and Opening Day arrive in spring, as both are meant to signal as spring does a rebirth, a new beginning, a fresh start.
Starting fresh is not as easy as it sounds. We humans are very good at pattern recognition. We see a new thing, and recognize in its shape some other shape we’ve seen in the past. The older we get, the more we do this; the more patterns we can bring to mind, the less we see some new thing as it is today, and the more we see that thing as something that came before.
Look, here comes young Oakland A’s baseball pitcher A.J. Griffin, throwing a curveball. It looks familiar, that curveball. Does he throw that curveball Zitoesquely? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he throws it Duchschereresquely?
Today is Opening Day for Griffin’s A’s 2013 team. Will it be as magical as 2012 was? Or as disappointing as 2007? Or perhaps glorious, like 1972, 1973 and 1974?
We can take all the statistics from all the players from all the history of Major League Baseball, sum them all up in clever and scientifically sound ways, and make predictions. 82.2 wins! 86 wins! 93 wins!
Those predictions, they aren’t the future, or even the present. They are merely shadows of the past. To truly start fresh, we must try to look on things as a child does, like someone who has no past, who has no library of previous patterns in our heads.
This is, of course, impossible. These thoughts come to our minds automatically, whether we want them to or not.
And so today will happen, and tomorrow, and the days will add up through October to a number that is greater than or equal to or less than some number we expect in our heads, and we will be delighted or bored or disappointed accordingly. And only then, when it is too late to enjoy the year in and of and by itself, can the 2013 season drop the baggage of its past, and be free to be itself.
For what is truly born on Opening Day is not the current year, but the previous year. Congratulations on your newfound freedom, 2012. You were amazing.
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.
talk about how it’s not a journey
especially because every journey ends but we go on
and how since the world turns and we turn with it
suzuki takes over
but wherever I go there you are
Just before the beginning of this sentence, this essay could go in an infinite number of directions. But now that the first sentence has been written, the number the infinite directions it could possibly go has been reduced into a much smaller infinity. Who knows what I’ll write next?
It could be anything!Gratitude to their emotions in the water! Or maybe with Zito is blind to park your dastardly actions.
I recently watched a TED Talk by Emily Levine which is like that. It rambles off in a gazillion directions, with little coherency. You could go off now in the direction of watching it. I’m not sure I’d recommend that for you, but I’m glad I did it myself, because it contained one nugget near the end which sent me off in another, more interesting direction.
She rambles this way and that on purpose, not completely polished and slightly unprepared, because she says she likes her talks to remain in a “probability wave” as long as possible. If you’re polished and prepared, you’ve already collapsed your probability wave into single point, and you’ve closed yourself off to new possibilities. She wants to keep open the possibility of “getting on the same wavelength” as her audience.
It’s that idea of “probability waves” that got me intrigued. She’s using ideas from quantum physics to help her understand her art. Using quantum physics as a metaphor sounded interesting, so it sent me scrambling to update myself on quantum physics and probability waves again. And now there’s a very high probability that this essay will devolve into a physics lesson.
* * *
To understand Levine’s metaphor, you need to know about the double slit experiment. This cartoon is the best introduction to it I’ve seen:
That’s kind of freaky. If you’re like me, you still don’t quite get it. I’ll add Professor Brian Cox explaining what the double slit experiment means to a bunch of British celebrities:
(To be accurate, I should point out that some physicists complained that Cox wasn’t entirely accurate in his explanation of the Pauli exclusion principle, that he should have said no two particles can occupy the same quantum state, not energy level. Whatever.)
* * *
Before observation, a subatomic particle is anywhere in the whole universe.
Upon observation, a subatomic particle can no longer be anywhere. It must “collapse” to somewhere specific.
Where an “anywhere” ends up collapsing into a “somewhere” is based on probabilities. Some places it can end up turn out to be more likely than others. And these probabilities can interfere with each other, or amplify each other, in the way that one wave can either interfere with another wave, or amplify it.
Ok, if you’re like me, you’re still having trouble understanding the concept of “probability waves.” And when I’m confused, I turn to baseball metaphors.
* * *
Imagine that a baseball player is a subatomic particle. We’re going to pass the player through two slits, and we’ll call these slits “On-base Plus Slugging” and “Plate Appearances”.
Suppose we have a player/subatomic particle named “Kila Ka’aihue”. Let’s say Ka’aihue is projected to hit something like this in 2012:
4% chance his OPS is around .913
8% chance his OPS is around .869
12% chance his OPS is around .837
16% chance his OPS is around .811.
20% chance his OPS is around .786.
16% chance his OPS is around .762
12% chance his OPS is around .738
8% chance his OPS is around .705
4% chance his OPS is around .663
and let’s say he’s projected to get playing time like this:
4% chance he gets around 500 Plate Appearances
8% chance he gets around 450 PA
12% chance he gets around 400 PA
16% chance he gets around 350 PA
20% chance he gets around 300 PA
16% chance he gets around 250 PA
12% chance he gets around 200 PA
8% chance he gets around 150 PA
4% chance he gets around 100 PA
Before the season starts, any combination of these stats are possible. He could hit a .913 OPS and get around 200 PA. Or he could hit .738 and get around 400 PAs. Or any other combination — some are more likely than others, but they can all happen.
Some of these probabilities, however, interfere with each other. If Ka’aihue hits .663, it reduces his odds getting 500 PA, because the A’s will likely give his PAs to somebody else instead. If he hits .913, it reduces his odds of taking a path with only 100 PA, because if he’s playing that well, the A’s will want to give him a lot more than 100 PAs.
Other probabilities amplify each other. If Ka’aihue ends up with a .663 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with only around 100 PA. If he ends up with a .913 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with over 500 PA.
* * *
So now, let’s play the 2012 season a million times.
Each time we play, we shoot the Ka’aihue subatomic particle through these two slits, and some particular combination of OPS and PAs ends up on the back wall.
Now, if we chart the one million Ka’aihue outcomes, all the OPSes and PAs, we’ll see something similar to the double slit experiment. We’ll see some areas of high density, and other areas of low density. We’ll get lots of marks where the OPS and PAs are both high, or both low, because that’s where the odds get amplified. We’ll get gaps where one is high and the other is low, because that’s where the odds cancel each other out.
* * *
Now of course, we didn’t play the 2012 season a million times. We only played it once. And in that one, single time, Ka’aihue ended up with .693 OPS in 139 plate appearances — both low. And because of that low outcome, the A’s tried Brandon Moss and Chris Carter at first base, instead.
* * *
You can think of the whole 2012 Oakland A’s season in this way. If Ka’aihue has a low OPS, it amplifies the odds that he’ll also have fewer PAs. If Ka’aihue has fewer PAs, it amplifies the odds of Chris Carter or Brandon Moss or Daric Barton getting more PAs, until one of them starts hitting well. Which is what happened: Moss and Carter ended up in a platoon and hit well.
But if Ka’aihue has a high OPS instead, it amplifies the odds that he’ll get more PAs, and cancels out the odds of Carter and Moss getting a lot of PAs. The whole season takes a completely different path, and probably ends up “collapsing” into a completely different place.
* * *
Baseball is more complicated than just OPS and plate appearances, of course. And in the end, the stat we baseball fans are really interested in measuring on that back wall is team wins.
As the season starts out, there are an infinite number of possible ways the season can play out. Some things are more likely than others, but once we observe the season, all those possibilities collapse into one, single outcome. The 2012 A’s could have ended up with 0 wins or 162, but those are extremely unlikely paths. That would be like Brian Cox’s diamond spontaneously jumping out of its jewelry case and into his pocket. Most likely, the diamond stays in the box. Most likely, the team stays within a “box” between 40 and 120 wins.
Atomic-era general managers will understand all these possible amplifications and cancellations, and construct their teams to maximize the odds that the path their team takes collapses into a championship. The most likely outcome for the A’s was figured by pundits to be around 75 wins. And maybe if you replayed 2012 a million times, it will average to 75 wins. Or maybe, Billy Beane understood how all those waves of statistics amplified and canceled each other out better than anyone else. Maybe, the A’s season collapsing into a single, specific result of 93 wins and an AL West Division title was not quite the miracle we thought it was.
And with that, this essay shall hereby collapse into itself.
* * *
Disclaimer: this metaphor was presented for informational and entertainment purposes only. Baseball players are not actually subatomic particles. Quantum physics are not the most accurate way to describe the behavior of baseball players. Nor are the behavior of baseball players the most accurate way to describe quantum physics. The reader assumes all risk for all unintended uses of this metaphor, including–but not limited to–using Feynman path integral formulations to project future baseball outcomes.
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.
This week I’ve been reading my favorite childhood book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to my 5-year-old daughter. It’s a bit of an odd book in a way, because the real climax of the book comes in the middle, when the Golden Tickets are found. It has a happy ending, too, but it doesn’t quite bring that sense of elation that you get when poor Charlie Bucket finally has his first stroke of good luck. That wide-eyed giggling happiness that you share with your kid when reading a chapter like ‘The Miracle’ together — it’s absolutely one of the best things in life, ever.
* * *
I thought about taking her and my wife to the A’s game on Saturday, but Friday night I tweaked my back a bit playing soccer, so I decided it would be wisest to stay home and rest my back. I missed attending probably one of the top 10 most exciting games in Oakland history. The A’s fell behind 4-0, and were trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning. Their lead in the race for a playoff spot was about to shrink down to one game. Here is what happened next:
Josh Donaldson’s 2-run home run tied the game 4-4 in the ninth inning, and then in the extra 10th frame, Brandon Moss homered to give the A’s the win.
I love A’s radio announcer Ken Korach’s call. “The A’s — they haven’t run out of miracles yet!”
* * *
The rest of the story this season may turn out to be pretty good. Or not–the A’s may not even be Charlie Bucket in this story. Maybe their young enthusiasm leads them to make a quick, sudden exit like Violet Beauregarde, instead. Who knows. But this miracle today, the giggling, bubbly happiness I feel inside — this is undoubtedly the best part of the book.
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.
Given my strong suspicion that we only get one shot at life, is it better that I spend my remaining years experiencing as broad a range of emotions as I can reasonably give myself? Do the lows make the highs sweeter such that they’re worth it as a simple matter of arithmetic?
I have been similarly tempted to look away. I’ve found over the years that I’m actually a happier person when the A’s are not competitive. Winning breeds expectations, and the more your team wins, the more you expect them to win. But happiness research seems to suggest that the key to happiness is low expectations. I suspect, therefore, that unless the A’s actually win the World Series, our happiness as A’s fans actually peaked around early August, when we started to realize the A’s were a good team capable of winning, but before that winning had become so commonplace that we began to expect it.
However, I enjoy baseball on more dimensions than just winning. The game the A’s lost on Friday against the Yankees was a beautiful ballgame aesthetically: it was a dramatic game where both teams played crisp, solid baseball with good pitching. I enjoyed it immensely. Saturday’s game, however, was awful: the A’s lost, but both teams played terribly, the pitching was horrible, the defense was shaky and even the umpires got into the act with several mistakes. And that was just in the first inning before I turned it off, and went out to do something else with my Saturday. The game kept on like that, and ended up lasting almost six hours, without me. I’m glad I (mostly) missed that one.
The next three games have been equally dramatic, but somewhat in-between aesthetically. Last night’s game, for example, featured a horrible error by Brandon Moss that cost the A’s two runs, followed later in the game by a fantastic catch by Moss that saved the A’s three. For me, the drama would be much easier to watch if the A’s were not playing so sloppily.
I don’t always watch pennant race baseball, but when I do, I prefer errorlessness. Play crisply, my friends.
* * *
If you want to innoculate yourself from the pain of your favorite team losing, you can consume your sports like Will Leitch recently did, by entering the RedZone. Leitch describes his first experience watching NFL RedZone on the NFL Network:
RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.
On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history.
That, I suppose, is both the blessing and the curse of living in this information age. You can’t tell a teardrop from a raindrop in a hurricane.
But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.
The tricky balance there is to be able to both swim in the flood of information to gather the data, but to step out of it long enough to gather your thoughts.
Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
The deluge of information we now experience in the real future thanks to the Internet and television is vastly different from the one we imagined when we grew up watching the Jetsons. The Jetsons’ future seems so much simpler than ours. So when we feel overwhelmed, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and we want to reject it all and run away.
As Jason says in his post above about turning off the A’s in this tense pennant race: “My gut the last few weeks appears to have made the latter choice for me, leaving me a little more time to spend with my cats, my wife, my books, and my thoughts.” Sometimes, you have to connect to the basic human needs that persist no matter what century you live in. And therein lies the dilemma of the real 21st century George Jetson: to know how to both live in the 21st century, and how to step away from it. It’s not easy.
Russell Carleton has an interesting article today on Baseball Prospectus today about the “Search for an 80 Brain“. He explores whether the difference between prospects who make it and those who fail lies in their ability to learn, and wonders if there’s a way to test those learning skills.
For one thing, it’s hard to observe a player’s learning skills, even with a really fancy stopwatch. But if the ability to learn is key to turning raw talent into actual performance, why not spend some time figuring out if the player has a 20 learning tool or an 80? Many players are drafted based on their physical tools, but what about the guy who doesn’t have blow-you-away stuff now, but can develop quickly because he can learn? In general, the closest thing that I hear to this is when scouts talk about “makeup.”
Can this learning ability be measured? My answer is “Yes… I think…”
I think so, too. But off the top of my head, I’d think there wouldn’t be one measure of learning ability, but four.
Here’s why: in order to explore how to measure learning, we need to be clear exactly what kind of learning we are talking about. Learning is about creating memories in the brain, and making those memories accessible when needed. It would be useful here to point out the two main types of memory: declarative and nondeclarative. I’ll quote from a book by Larry Squire and Eric Kandel called “Memory: From Mind to Molecules”:
Declarative memory is memory for facts, ideas, and events — for information that can be brought to conscious recollection as a verbal proposition or visual image. This is the kind of memory one ordinarily means when using the term “memory”: it is conscious memory for the name of a friend, last summer’s vacation, this morning’s conversation. Declarative memory can be studied in humans as well as other animals.
Nondeclarative memory also results from experience, but is expressed as a change in behavior, not as a recollection. Unlike declarative memory, nondeclarative memory is unconscious. Often, some recollective ability can accompany nondeclarative learning. We might learn a motor skill and then be able to remember some things about it. We might be able to picture ourselves performing it, for example. However, the ability to perform the skill itself seems to be independent of any conscious recollection. That ability is nondeclarative.
In other words, declarative memory holds conscious thought, while nondeclarative memory holds motor skills.
So let’s say we have a hitter, like Carleton’s example of Wil Myers, who is a bit too passive, and doesn’t quite swing at enough pitches. We want to make him a somewhat more aggressive hitter. How do we do that?
So it’s not a matter of merely telling Myers to “be more aggressive”. The idea of being more aggressive is a declarative memory, a conscious thought. And that declarative memory, that idea, is independent of the skill itself, of the nondeclarative memory, the motor skill required to output the desired behavior. That conscious thought needs to be translated into a motor skill. A declarative memory needs to be translated into a nondeclarative memory.
As Carleton points out in his article, this much easier said than done. The reason is that while declarative memories are under our conscious control, nondeclarative memories are not. They are created subconsciously, involuntarily and automatically. These memories are often context and emotion dependent. If you want to manipulate the nondeclarative memory system into creating the muscle memory you want, you basically have to trick it. You can trick it by repetition and practice, and/or by manipulating whatever emotions are needed, whether anger or calmness or excitement or determination.
* * *
So a scouting report for learning might look something like this:
Joe Prospect, Learning Scout Report
Upper Left: declarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to repeat an instruction in his own words.
Coach: “When I say, ‘cut down on your swing’, what does that mean?”
Player at level 20: “I dunno.”
Player at level 80: “It means I shorten my stride, and bring my bat to this position here…”
This square really measures a player’s ability to coach more than it measures his ability to play. Perhaps it might also measure a player’s ability to be a catcher who can take a game plan and execute it, and to handle and communicate with a pitching staff. It can also help pitchers, not so much in the physical act of throwing a ball, but with setting up hitters and sequencing.
In general, though, this is the least important square in the matrix. Because what we’re aiming at in regards to players is the nondeclarative output, the muscle memory needed to perform at a high level. And nondeclarative input — the sensory and pattern-recognition feedback the brain gets from actually playing — is more important than the theoretical, declarative input in this square.
Upper Right: nondeclarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to articulate his own experiences.
Coach: “Why didn’t you swing at that pitch?”
Player at level 20: “I just froze.”
Player at level 80; “I was expecting a breaking ball away, and instead he threw me a fastball on the inside corner, and because my body was leaning out, I couldn’t adjust my balance quick enough to pull my hands in and start the swing.”
An 80-level player in this square of the matrix would be a reporter’s best friend. High skill in this area can also help a player to understand what he needs to work on, and create systematic workout procedures for improving those self-understood weaknesses. But being able to articulate what you physically experienced won’t really help you unless you also possess a high score in the lower left square.
Lower Left: declarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents coachability: a player’s ability to take verbal or conscious ideas, and translate them into muscle memory.
A player at level 20 probably can’t even do this at all. If he learns anything, it’s only “the hard way”– by failing or succeeding himself in real situations.
A player at level 50 is someone who may need to be told something over and over until it finally sinks in. Or needs to be told something in 1,000 different ways until he finds that one mental cue which triggers the correct behavior.
A player at level 80 probably only needs to be told something once, and can immediately make the physical adjustment.
Lower Right: nondeclarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents a player’s ability to learn from his own senses and body, from the immediate success or failure of his efforts.
A player at level 20 probably isn’t affected much by his own failures and successes. He probably repeats the same mistakes over and over again, and can’t adjust.
A player at level 50 can learn from his own failures and successes, but it takes a long time and many repetitions for those adjustments manifest themselves.
A player at level 80 probably never seems to make the same mistake or get fooled by the same pitch twice.
* * *
A single, Wonderlic-like test wouldn’t work to fill out such a matrix. You’d probably need to develop separate tests for each of the squares in the matrix. And then you’d need to collect that data for a number of years to figure out whether there is actually any sort of correlation between any of that data and the eventual success and/or failure of prospects. Sounds like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff, but it would certainly be interesting to see if there’s something there of value. The sad part is, since baseball teams keep information like this proprietary, we baseball fans will probably never know.
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.
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.