Category Archives: Technology

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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Death and Parataxis

Fact: 42 is an adjective.

* * *

This blog entry is a long, complex answer to a simple question. It uses big words. It is not a linear story. We start by observing some thoughts about baseball journalism. We collect trading cards. We visit the University of Minnesota. We ride bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge. We travel back in time, 15,000 years, to the time when the first humans reached Australia. We listen to R&B while penguins explode. We hang out in a New York City saloon. We discover that God is on a sailboat headed for Buenos Aires, and the truth is hiding under my kitchen sink together with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And after all that, we will have the answer to the ultimate question of life, baseball, and everything.

* * *

At the top of my blogging to-do list has been to respond to Will Leitch’s Baseball Analysts essay regarding the changing nature of baseball journalism. Leitch writes:

We are no longer in the days of radio; if you have MLB.TV, or even freaking cable, you can watch every game. We do not need reporters to tell us the facts; we need people to tell us what it means. Or, more specific, to ask us what we think it means.

Leitch was talking about it on a game-to-game level, but if you look at the big picture, it’s a big question. What is the meaning of baseball?

I shall hereby demonstrate why journalists do not try to answer that question.

* * *

Calvin: Susie, do you want to trade Captain Napalm bubble gum cards? After chewing almost $20 worth of gum, I’ve collected all the cards except numbers 8 and 34. I’ll trade you any duplicate for either of those.

Susie: I don’t collect Captain Napalm bubble gum cards.

Calvin: It must be depressing to go through life with no purpose.

A recent University of Minnesota survey revealed that the most distrusted minority group in America are atheists.

This surprised me. A lot. For all the racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia we’re constantly hearing about, the group that Americans really dislike the most are atheists?

Folks, don’t let your kids marry an atheist! Or be raised by one!

Atheists have been a pretty quiet bunch, relatively speaking. They haven’t deliberately antagonized anyone by holding Atheist Pride Day Parades down Main Street or anything. I suspect, however, that they’re starting to get louder. The Charlie Rose show recently spent an hour discussing atheism (although it wasn’t Charlie Rose, who just had heart surgery, it was Bill Moyers–when is a rose not a rose not a rose?). But I doubt this stuff has reached mainstream America yet. So what is so threatening about atheists that generates such animosity?

Here’s my guess: anti-atheists can’t stand the idea that life could be meaningless. People want human life to have meaning, just like Will Leitch wants his baseball to have meaning. People for whom life has no meaning are dangerous, not only for meaningless itself, but because they are free to behave in any selfish way they choose. If nothing matters, and no punishment or reward awaits people after they’re dead, morality breaks down, and all hell breaks loose. Faith holds society together.

Atheists would probably counter that atheists shouldn’t be confused with nihilists–their lives can have both meaning and morality, even without God. But nonetheless, the confusion happens, and here we are.

I think a lot of the hostility towards statistical analysis, in baseball or elsewhere, is similar to this. The resistance isn’t towards math or logic, it’s towards meaninglessness. The idea that human behavior is governed by mathematical formulas is repulsive, because it seems to rob people of free will. We want to believe that good choices, good character and teaminess will guide us to victory. Without free will, how can baseball, or anything in life, have meaning?

* * *

I own a couple of David Byrne CDs. I guess that qualifies me as a David Byrne fan, even if I don’t really listen to them all that often. My fandom has grown in recent months, however, as I started becoming becoming a regular consumer of his blog. (Now with permalinks! Yay!) From day to day, paragraph to paragraph, he takes you on a series of short journeys of discovery, which are always interesting, even if you don’t always agree with what he says.

One day, he’s in Stockholm, turning a building into a musical instrument. Then he’s in the Bay Area, having lunch with Jonathan Ive, riding bikes with Dave Eggers, and having nightmares about a broken cellphone.

His life seems to be one interesting anecdote after another, which at times makes me feel somewhat jealous, yet at other times is inspiring, for it seems Byrne makes his life interesting by taking the time to appreciate the art form in everything he encounters, from lawns to grocery stores to muffins. Attitude is everything.

One of Byrne’s recent entries has him in Adelaide, Australia, taking pictures of nature dioramas and local election posters, and taking notes about the various forms of Australian cuisine he has encountered. He tells us about some strange Aussie animals that went extinct soon after humans first appeared on the continent.

In the middle of this stream of Australian trivia, Byrne inexplicably links to a marvelous essay about R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.

It’s a total non-sequitur. Which means I loved it, because I’m a huge fan of non-sequiturs. Let’s step to the side for no reason whatsoever, and see what happens. I was watching Graham Chapman’s Personal Best recently, and they were discussing how Chapman would always find the perfect non-sequitur to insert into a scene to make the scene complete.

And now for something completely different…the penguin on my computer will explode.

Boom!

Dang, there goes my Linux box. Is that why humbug.com has been so quiet lately?

* * *

Back to R. Kelly. If you’ve never seen or heard it, Trapped in the Closet is a sort of R&B soap opera. Wikipedia has a good synopsis, plus links to the videos. In this essay (you gotta read it), Morgan Meis marvels at how throughout the whole series of songs, R. Kelly never once strays from his straightforward narration into any sort of analysis. Then Meis teaches us a couple of big words:

…you could also say that human thought can be divided into two basic categories, paratactic and hypotactic. They are the two most elemental ways of putting thought together. In paratactic arrangement, you just keep adding something more. The greatest ally to parataxis is the conjunction. Such and such happened and then such and such happened after that, and next was a little episode of this and that, and then it all came to a head with this particular series of events, and then after that a whole new thing started.

…[snip]…

Hypotactic arrangement, by contrast, nestles thoughts within thoughts, steps to the side, qualifies, alters, and modifies. It has the structure of reflection and argument rather than that of lived experience.

This is what Leitch was talking about: journalism provides parataxis (facts and events), blogging provides hypotaxis (meaning).

* * *

When I see the words “facts and events” appear somewhere, a neuroscience alarm bell rings in my head. “Facts and events” is a codeword for “declarative memories”.

The human brain stores two separate types of memories, called declarative and nondeclarative memories. These memory systems function quite differently. Declarative memories store facts and events, and are conscious. Jackie Robinson wore uniform number 42. That’s a declarative memory.

Nondeclarative memories are subconscious, and store motor skills and patterns. A motor skill like riding a bike, or a pattern such as a pitching motion, are nondeclarative memories. One of the characteristics of nondeclarative memories is that they are difficult to describe. I can’t easily describe Dontrelle Willis’s pitching motion, or teach you how to duplicate it, but I recognize it the instant I see it.

Now here’s the fascinating thing to me about Leitch’s conjecture, and why I wanted to write about it: journalism is dividing itself along the same boundaries as the human brain.

Journalism: facts, events, parataxis, declarative memories.
Blogging: patterns, meaning, hypotaxis, nondeclarative memories.

* * *

Perhaps that’s a natural divide. Which gets me wondering: are all successful human advancements simply steps towards a better mirror of human psychology? Did communism lose, and capitalism win, because the winner more closely mapped the human brain than the loser? Do Oracle (structured data) and Google (nonstructured data) have dominant companies because their technology represents the best computerized analogies to declarative and nondeclarative memory systems? Are the best artists simply the best accidental neuroscientists?

* * *

Let’s examine one of the best artists to find out. PBS recently showed a great documentary about Eugene O’Neill by Ric Burns. The documentary covers O’Neill’s life and career, but focuses on his two most revered plays, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

O’Neill was, at least in some sense, an atheist. From documentary transcript:

Eugene lost faith. He left the Church at fifteen years old. He never came back. It would do nobody any service whatsoever to try to reclaim him for the Church. He was an apostate.

O’Neill came to feel that religion was a kind of illusion that prevented us for acknowledging reality and truth. Many of the plays O’Neill wrote early in his career dealt with characters whose tragic flaw was a failure to face the truth about themselves. They cling to their illusions, and suffer the consequences.

In O’Neill, there’s this absolute sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovered that there is no God. It’s a terrifying sort of mandate, but it also, I think, should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people.

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937. At the time, he was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive his prize, so his prize was awarded to him in a hospital bed in Oakland, California. (Which also awards us a very flimsy connection to this Oakland A’s blog.) What was unusual about this, besides having Oakland join Stockholm and Oslo as cities where Nobel Prizes have been awarded, was that O’Neill had won the award, and still had not yet written his masterpieces.

O’Neill’s greatest breakthrough comes when he finally acknowledges the truth about himself: that his relentless search for “reality and truth” was, in fact, the biggest tragic flaw of all.

The Iceman Cometh is an allegory about truth and faith, set in a New York City saloon which O’Neill frequented as a young man. The characters each embody one form of “pipe dream” or another: religious, political, social, romantic. They each cling to their own personal illusion. In comes Theodore “The Iceman” Hickey, a Messianic character who proceeds to persuade each of them to abandon their pipe dreams, and live a life of truth, without guilt or illusion.

The result is disaster. Without their pipe dreams, the characters find that their lives fall apart. Life without illusion is like death–existence without meaning. To believe otherwise is insanity. In the end, the other characters dismiss Hickey as insane, and return to their illusions.

Tony Kushner: The thing that makes the tragedy so powerful and true is that you’re not allowed to escape what’s horrible, you’re not allowed any kind of denial. It’s annihilating, and on one level, I don’t think you leave the theater feeling in any way uplifted, and then on the other hand, you are brought to the absolute worst place that a human being can go, and you have survived, you’ve come out of this nightmare alive, and as I said, the stage is now sort of purged of this horror. It’s catharsis. It’s what Aristotle was talking about. And it leaves open the possibility that now something new will come at the end after the bombs fall and the landscape is clean. It’s the nothing that gives birth to something.

* * *

It’s as if Eugene O’Neill had spent his whole life looking for the perfect journalist, who would lay all the facts out on the table, one after another, and expose the truth. Notice that R. Kelly tries to accomplish the same thing. We all have something hiding in our closets and under our kitchen sinks. We try to pretend we don’t, but R. Kelly insists, like the early O’Neill did, that every one of those things must be exposed. And the only way to do that is pure reporting. Just the facts, ma’am.

The thing that puts O’Neill into the pantheon of great artists, that allowed him to create his masterpieces, is that he goes the extra step, and contemplates what it means to have pure journalism. He builds a truer map of the human brain, and concludes that our minds are simply not equipped to handle the truth. We need our pipe dreams.

* * *

In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill takes this insight and reflects on his own family, his own life. He comes full circle. His life begins with faith and illusion. He finds that faith stripped away, and goes on a lifelong journey to face the dark truth. When the journey ends, he is finally able to return to the faith that makes life worth living. From a monologue by Edmund, the character who represents Eugene O’Neill in the play:

Edmund: You’ve just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They’re all connected with the sea. Here’s one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself–actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged without, past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on the beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see–and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Meaning itself is fleeting. But the dream of meaning keeps us going.

* * *

O’Neill had the sea. I have baseball. Baseball fans like me dream of the moment when our team wins the World Series. The fact is, my team only has a 1-in-30 chance to win it all any given year. The fact is, I’m chasing a pipe dream. The fact is, that even if and when my team does win the World Series, the joy of victory that I have been pursuing will be far too brief. But the joy itself is not the point. It’s the dream of that joy keeps me going day after day, year after year. I need my illusion. I insist on it.

* * *

The dictionary says “42” is adjective, two more than forty. To Douglas Adams, 42 was a random number assigned to hold the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It was a symbol of absurdity, the meaningless of life itself. To a baseball fan, it’s more than a number, more than an absurdity. 42 goes beyond facts. Baseball goes beyond facts. It’s Dave Henderson, his gap-toothed smile, and the fun he insisted on having while patrolling center field for the Oakland A’s. It’s Mariano Rivera, a skinny man who somehow mastered one thing, a nasty cut fastball, and led his team to numerous championships. And, of course, it’s Jackie Robinson, overcoming incredible obstacles to inspire and lead generations of people. 42 is about the dreams we hold that, the real world be damned, sometimes come true.

* * *

Which brings us to today’s wørd: truthiness.

Truthiness is Steven Colbert’s term for what we feel to be right, not what the facts tell us. Now, Colbert points his satrical machine gun on the political uses of truthiness, but the power of truthiness extends beyond politics. Truthiness is about the triumph of meaning over fact, and it applies to all areas of human endeavors, because that’s just how the brain works.

So you know why I don’t like R. Kelly? He’s truth, not truthiness. He’s all fact, and no heart. And when I say heart, I really mean “nondeclarative memory system”, which is actually part of the brain, not the heart. But that doesn’t matter, because it feels like my nondeclarative memory system is in my heart, not my head.

Eugene O’Neill, on the other hand, rocks. He recognized, by living through the whole process himself, that pairs of words like “science and faith”, “truth and truthiness”, “journalism and blogging”, “statistics and scouting”–these things are not the opposite ends of a straight line. They are both points in motion on a circle. Science deconstructs faith, moves away from it, but eventually, the process brings it back.

Remember when science told us that chocolate was bad for you? Remember when baseball statisticians said defense was pretty much irrelevant, and there was no such thing as clutch hitting? Nobody believed them, because it didn’t feel true. Eventually, science did a 360.

Faith isn’t static, either. Faith, when confronted with science, will also adjust its position along the circle of knowledge. And when the whole process finally runs its course, when the facts have all been laid out on the table, and the meaning of those facts have all been analyzed, we will find that all these pairs of so-called opposites have ended up in the exact same place on the circle. Because that’s where we, as human beings, need them to go.

* * *

Universe man, Universe man
Size of the entire universe man
Usually kind to smaller man
Universe man

He’s got a watch with a minute hand,
Millenium hand and an eon hand
When they meet it’s a happy land
Powerful man, universe man

Particle Man

* * *

So when R. Kelly tells me there’s someone hiding under my kitchen sink, and insists on exposing who he is, I will tell him it is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. R. Kelly will tell me that I am lying. He will point out the fact that Kareem is way too large to fit under my sink. He will measure the sink, and demonstrate quite logically that the person under my sink must be someone much, much smaller than Kareem. He will insist on opening the door. He will open the door. He will show me who is really under my sink. He will say “Ha! See?” I will say, “Yes, I see. Thank you for showing that to me. I needed to see that.” And then I will continue to insist that the man under my sink is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For the things that I have hiding under my sink do not belittle me, they embiggen me.

Kareem represents the grand scale of my dreams. Those dreams may be unlikely or impossible, but they make me who I am as a human being. My dreams are my reality. I have faith in both faith and science, and I believe, that in the end, the truth and the truthiness will join together at last.