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.
I’ll summarize, for those who don’t want to watch the whole thing. Gladwell contends that this past century, we’ve gone through three large generational shifts in how people approach human social organization.
In the WWII-generation, the prevailing paradigm was a hierarchical organization. People just assumed that social organizations should be hierarchical, that’s how things work. When Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement, he did it with a hierarchical organization. There’s a boss at the top, and everyone below the boss follows orders.
But when the Baby Boomers came of age, they broke that paradigm. Somewhere around 1975, people started insisting on being treated as individuals. They didn’t just accept the orders coming from above. In Silicon Valley and other places, a new more egalitarian model of corporate governance began — driven as much by engineers as executives. Consumers started to demand choices. “Boomers want to surround themselves with the totems of their individuality,” said Gladwell. They didn’t want chocolate or vanilla ice cream. They wanted a choice of 31 flavors.
In baseball, this era is where free agency started–players no longer accepted that the owners were the bosses, and they had to follow their orders. Players began to assert their individuality, and suddenly there was a wealth of unique characters like Bill Lee, Al Hrabosky, Doc Ellis, and Mark Fidrych.
This paradigm prevailed until the last half decade or so. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in the 1990s, he was still selling to Baby Boomers. The first thing he did was create a series of products in many bright colors, to appeal to that generation that wanted products as an expression of their individuality. He told them that Apple would “think different”.
Now, however, times have changed. The Baby Boomers have now begun to yield to the next generation, which has its own paradigm. This Millenial generation is networked.
As Gladwell says, “That notion of being treated and seen as an individual is not a preoccupation of the current generation.” Millenials don’t care about tokens of individuality. They want to be surrounded by things that signal that they are connected, that they are participating in a community. You’ll notice that Apple doesn’t bother giving people these colorful choices anymore. They don’t say “think different” anymore. People in the Millenial generation go around with identical Apple laptops and iPhones, and are fine with that.
When Millenials start a movement, such as the Occupy movement, there are no leaders. Their work spreads virally across their global networks, effortlessly, but without conscious design or planning or goals. A meme can be born and become a global phenomenon in an instant. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan and control these phenomena.
As an aside, this is partly what makes the current NHL lockout so insanely stupid: the owners are waging a battle based on a paradigm that’s two generations out of date. Wake up, knuckleheads! You’re living in the 21st century.
So in 2037, when Millenials look back at which characters of the current generation they admire most, it probably won’t be the ones like Brian Wilson who flaunt their individuality by going to an award banquet in a lycra tux. That was the modus operandi of the previous generation. Instead, they’ll probably most fondly remember the ones who best participated in social networks: Brandon Phillips, Logan Morrison, and Brandon McCarthy. The ones who were most in tune with their generation.
Actually, this isn’t really a hypothesis about women’s sports per se. It just manifests itself more obviously in women’s sports. It can apply equally to something like, say, men’s lacrosse. But it came up in discussion about women’s sports, so here goes.
If you look at a sport like women’s soccer in the US, you’ll see a gap:
Youth league soccer: very stable
High school soccer: very stable
College soccer: very stable
Pro league soccer: one miserable failure after another
International soccer: very stable
Women’s World Cup and Olympic soccer get very good ratings. College, high school, and youth league soccer are all quite stable entities. But multiple attempts to create a women’s pro league in the US that sits in-between college and international soccer have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, you don’t really see that gap. Each level is just about as stable as any other. So what we see when these pro leagues fail in the US is that American players who have reached that level go over to Europe to play.
How do we explain this? Here’s my hypothesis:
A sports league must reach a certain tipping point of popularity to survive independently in the long term. Below this level, a league requires deep local community support for stability.
In America, youth leagues are primarily supported by a large network of parents. Then at the high-school and college levels, the school community (alumni, teachers, students, parents, school district) provides the support structure. But the pro teams don’t typically have a very deep or tight network of local community support. If they need something done, independent pro teams can’t easily reach out into their community and find people willing and able to chip in — they are expected to pay people to do things. And in the long run, it’s hard to make that math work, and that’s where things fall apart. It’s was hard even to make this work for men’s soccer — America saw several different league iterations before soccer finally became popular enough for MLS to get the kind of attendance and TV ratings for the league to stabilize and succeed.
In Europe, it’s quite different. You don’t have different kinds of league structures at different ages. In each community, a single organization typically manages everything from youth teams up to the pro level. The pro level functions under a national organization, where clubs move up and down with a relegation system.
I played basketball in Sweden for two years in one such organization. Our top men’s basketball team played in Division One, and the year after I left, they managed to advance into the top Swedish league for a year. The organizations made some money from ticket sales, some from sponsorships from local businesses, some from player fees, and some from fundraisers. The top players got some money, but typically it wasn’t enough to live off of, so local businesses and organizations often gave them day jobs and hired them as employees. (Sorta like alumni hiring college athletes, only it’s not against the rules.) In return, the players were also expected to act as coaches in the organization, and indeed, I had several of these players as coaches. As a younger player in the organization, I would also volunteer support, by selling lottery tickets, or helping set up the arena before the men’s games, which were typically attended by 500-1000 people. A lot of that attendance came from younger players and their families.
Now, I was involved in a men’s structure, but the women’s structure was nearly identical. Of course, in Sweden as in America, the men’s teams were more popular than the women’s teams, so there was more money available to them. But European women’s teams can still function in this same kind of structure, because the structure embeds the pro-level team into a larger soccer community which can help support it. The nature of these communities makes it less likely for such a structure to fall apart. There are always plenty of people to figure out a way to pick up the slack if any part of the structure runs into trouble.
So if I were to design a women’s pro soccer league, I’d experiment by trying to model it after the European system. Pick a few large cities in one narrow region of the country, and partner/merge with the local youth soccer organizations. Grow the players within those organizations from age 5 up to the pro-level teams. Build a support structure in the community that can ensure the team survives, even if the league doesn’t get a national TV contract. Create a relegation system to encourage/reward those organizations that do the best job of this. If it works, expand to other regions, and then nationally.
In yesterday’s mysterious blog post, the philosopher Ray Fosse asked us to “talk about how it’s not a journey.”
The philosopher Alan Watts talked about that better than I can, so I’ll present this video (animated by the staff of South Park!):
* * *
Today, the San Francisco Giants are having their victory celebration in downtown San Francisco.
And if you’re a Giants fan, you say, “My God, I’ve arrived! I’m there!”
* * *
My essay last week about where science, religion and sports meet didn’t seem to open a lot of eyes, but it opened my own. I tend to have a future-oriented outlook on life, thinking about where we go next instead of where we’ve been, and working in the high-tech industry has amplified that way of thinking for me. But realizing that so many things we’re trying to say and do have actually been said and done thousands of years before, only in a slightly different way with a slightly different terminology, has sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. I’ve been looking at all these old philosophies with a fresh new vision. Suddenly I understand how incredibly much I don’t understand, but that others have understood for a long time, in their own way.
I once said this on Twitter:
Human nature is static. Human knowledge is not. RT @baseclogger crazy this game has been played so long but stats are still being invented.
But now I’m not so sure that’s true. Maybe human knowledge is static too, it’s just that the language we use to express that knowledge gets jumbled up every so often, like a generational Tower of Babel. And then we fight about that knowledge because we don’t understand each other.
Take for example, the battle between stats and scouts in baseball — the “Beer and Tacos” argument, that we’re now also seeing shifted into the political realm by Nate Silver. Seems like a new, modern problem, but actually it’s not. It’s ancient. Alan Watts explains again:
Hmm…there’s that particle/wave analogy again. My writing just seems to be going around and around in circles. But that’s OK. It’s not a journey. It’s music. Let’s dance.
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
The world is a complicated place full of random chaos and your brain works by grouping clusters of that chaos into an easier to understand model. In my model of the morning, there were only a few things going on.
I am definitely running into that fallacy head on with my writing right now. In my mental model of the morning, I walk my daughter to kindergarten, walk home, eat breakfast, and then write for about three hours until it’s time to go pick her up.
I don’t plan for common but irregular things, like the kids leaving a mess that needs to be cleaned up, or ants invading my kitchen after a rainstorm, or a doctor’s appointment, or an email that needs a quick response, or a news event that interest me, or a friend who pings me and wants to chat.
Nor do I plan for black swan events, like my mom calling me from Sweden last week and telling me that my brother had a stroke. (He’s fine now, it turned out to be a minor one, thank goodness.) I’m 6,000 miles and nine time zones away from that, and it’s really out of my hands and nothing I can do, but something like that completely fills my available mental capacity.
But the one big thing I really don’t plan for in my mental model is the time it takes to think. Just to think things through, make associations, build mental models for solving a problem.
I think this is a particular problem for me because of the kinds of things I like to think about and say and write. If I have a strength as a human being, it’s my ability to think about things more deeply and broadly than others. If I only write about shallow things (hello, Twitter), or pursue something deeply but narrowly (hello, Catfish Stew), I feel like I’m limiting myself. Part of what I want to accomplish in my experiment as a writer is to figure out what is the best combination of width and depth that works for me.
Duggan has a suggestion:
The problem is almost always oversimplification. If you want to know how long it will take to get ready in the morning or how long it will take to drive home during your lunch break, don’t make a list of tasks and guess, time yourself when you do it. Measure the act itself, not your mind’s recreation of a simplified version.
I’m having trouble fitting the writing task into my three-hour window. I need to adjust my model of writing to fit the data. Either I need to get more narrow and/or shallow in what I think and write about to be able to fit my writing into that window, or I need to give myself permission to not publish something every day.
Or a combination. My “Quantum Moneyball” article yesterday, for example, gave people headaches:
Thinking broadly and deeply about something is fine, but probably what I need to learn most is how to do better is to bring that deep and broad thought back into a narrow context so people can relate to it more easily. Because people learn most effectively when that learning is only slightly different from what they already know and believe. As Ben Casnocha recently pointed out, you learn most from people who mostly agree with you:
In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. … If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.
. . .
Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.
So maybe the model for me is something like this: pursue one deep and/or broad topic per week. If that topic takes me more than one day to write about, so be it, and I won’t publish that day. But then, after that topic is explored broadly, pursue that or other topics narrowly and or shallowly for the rest of the week.
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.
The Oakland A’s lost ALDS Game 5 last night to the Detroit Tigers, and their 2012 season is now over. That’s kinda sad, so let’s step back a day and remember Game 4, where the A’s made a miraculous comeback in the bottom of the ninth to extend their season one more day.
Here’s some video I took at the game. Unfortunately, my camera failed me (or I failed my camera) at the climactic moment, so I had to get a little creative to make the piece hold together.
A’s broadcaster Ray Fosse’s reaction to the win was priceless. And it’s especially noteworthy to me because I had a brief conversation with him before the game, after which I videobombed him on the pregame show.
It was a great day, the climax of an amazing year for the Oakland A’s. The year was so unexpected and remarkable that I wasn’t even depressed in the slightest when they lost Game 5. And neither were my fellow A’s fans, who stayed and cheered their team after Game 5 ended, even as the Tigers celebrated on the field. There was no anger from the crowd, no bitterness, just joy and appreciation for a remarkable run. It’s how sports ought to be, human nature at its best.
Jon Bois has a fun story over on SB Nation today about QWOP, the stupidest, most aggravating, hilarious video game ever made. I enjoyed the reminder about the game, because it illustrates what I wrote on Friday about muscle metaphors.
The example I used on Friday was how I’d think about shooting a free throw in order to correct my posture in other, non-basketball contexts. Using this kind of “muscle metaphor” allows your brain to build a solution for your task more quickly out of existing pathways, instead of trying building it from scratch or some other, less optimal pathway.
One of the reasons QWOP is so difficult is that it seems to defy our ability to find such muscle metaphors. It’s quite unlike any other task you’ve likely tried, and so when we first play the game, we struggle to find any sort of muscular analogy to help our brains cope with this job.
We fail miserably, usually falling flat on our faces or upside down on our heads after just one or two steps. We’re like infants all over again, trying to figure out how these muscles of ours work, kicking our legs this way and that, hoping that eventually, through trial and error, we figure out how to control these things. The “everyone is a winner” message after every failure acts like an encouraging parent, urging us to keep going.
* * *
Eventually, nearly all babies figure out how to walk. But there are often intermediate stages. Babies don’t have a lot of previous motor skills to build on, so they have to construct these pathways from scratch. So a lot of babies crawl before walking, as it’s an easier task to master. Others figure out a kind of butt-scoot, shuffling along while seated, and are satisfied with that form of mobility until they figure out the harder stuff.
QWOP has an equivalent to the butt-scoot, and that’s a kind of one-knee scoot, which works like this:
1. At the start line, press W and P together quickly six times. This will bring the runner down to one knee like this:
2. Then press Q and O together one time, to get the right thigh perpendicular to the ground:
3. Then you scoot along the ground by pressing the pairs of keys together: W/P three times, and Q/O once, over and over. Pressing W and P together three times kicks the left leg out, then Q and O together one time brings the right knee back to parallel.
4. At 50 meters you will reach the hurdle. You can just kind of knock it over. You may need to give an extra Q/O or two to get over it.
5. Then just continue until you get to the finish line at 100m:
* * *
Interestingly, though, this knee scoot method uses the opposite pairs of keys from what you want to use if you’re trying to move the QWOP guy along on two feet. If you’re walking, you want to press Q together with P, and W together with O.
But having mastered the one-knee scoot, walking becomes a little easier. Although the pair of keys we want to press is now the opposite of what we pressed before, we now have some muscle metaphors to build on. We’ve got practice now in pressing these pairs of keys together instead of individually. We’ve also got practice in developing a rhythm to our motion.
And here’s where I finally can find some muscle metaphor from my own experience instead of just the game’s. I find that when I successfully get the QWOP guy to move, I’m actually doing a kind of skipping. I do a long press first, to kick the leg out, and then I do a short little one with the same foot to adjust the leg to where it needs to be so I can successfully get the next leg moving forward. Thinking about skipping gets me in the right frame of mind to get my muscles to press the keys at the right time.
Of course, it’s still not easy even then. The part I still have trouble with now is failure recovery. If I lean forward or back too much, or stick the leg out too far or not far enough, my instincts for correcting the error seem to always be wrong. Half the time, I choose the wrong pair of buttons to push, so I make my mistake worse, not better. Splat.
Mastering failure recovery is also one of the final stages when toddlers learn how to walk. At first, they’ll fall hard to the side or face down, and as a parent, you need to be there to catch them. Eventually, though, all seem to learn how to fall onto their butts, so that they end up sitting after they fall. And finally, the failure recovery gets to be so good that they don’t fall at all.
Then, the next thing you know, your kid is old enough to drive. (My oldest just turned 15 1/2 last month). Then you have to go through this all over again with them, until they’ve mastered the accelerator, brake and steering wheel enough that you know they won’t crash into a tree anytime someone throws a banana at them.
The A’s making the postseason has hurt the discipline I’m trying to develop as a writer. The little brain tingle I get from reading articles about the A’s or talking about the A’s on Twitter right now is so, so tempting and hard to avoid. I’ve tried to turn my feeds off during my daily writing window, but this week, I’ve been cheating. My writing habits after one month aren’t so strongly ingrained and automatic yet that they could override the temptation of A’s talk. My articles have been much shorter this week as a result.
Translating verbal ideas into unconscious habits is difficult. So much of our routine behavior functions subconsciously and automatically, so it’s a bit of a black box. We can’t see into our brains and see what is wired to what. So we often have to try various tricks to get our subconscious brains to do what our conscious brains want them to do. A recent Fangraphs interview of LaTroy Hawkins by David Laurila had a good example of this:
I chewed on that awhile and slowly tried to transfer the concept of how I felt on the basketball court when I was shooting my jump shot. I worked that into my delivery — my arm angle and my release point. I think that was the key for me, having him translate it into basketball terms. The ball coming off your fingertips when you’re shooting a jump shot isn’t all that different from delivering a pitch.
Hawkins’ brain was already wired to do something close to the right thing when he played basketball. Thinking about his pitching in terms of shooting a basketball created a pathway in his muscle memory to the right behavior.
That struck me, because I’ve used basketball as a kind of muscle metaphor myself in order to change a physical behavior. I have a bad habit of locking my knees when I stand, which transfers weight away from my legs to my back. It causes me back pain if I end up standing for too long. Somewhere in my life, my muscle memory became wired to stand this way, and it’s very hard for me to avoid this habit this without conscious thought. In trying to fix this, I found that there was one situation where I naturally stand with the correct posture — when I prepare to shoot free throws in basketball. So now, when I need to get my posture correct, all I do is say the word “free throw” to myself, and my body corrects itself.
Finding the right cue can take a lot of experimentation, and often differs from person to person. It can be even harder when the behavior you’re trying to change isn’t a simple motion like throwing or standing, but more complex social behaviors. Charles Duhigg wrote a book called “The Power of Habit”, and he has an interesting preview of it here, where he explains how he broke a bad habit he had developed:
I’m really trying to accomplish two things with my experiment of writing daily: first, to improve the quality of the actual words I put on the page, and second, to develop the habits of behavior around that writing that put me in the proper context to write efficiently and effectively. Obviously, this week has shown me that I still haven’t figured either one of those things out yet. Because that part of our brain is a black box, it takes a lot of time and trial and error to figure out a system of cues and rewards that result in a productive set of behavioral habits. I’m still very much a work in progress here.
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.
As the A’s try to win the AL West today, I thought I’d post a little thing I wrote on a friend’s Facebook feed. My friend was making the old complaint about how Moneyball ignored Hudson, Mulder, Zito; that the real reason for the A’s success is not the Scott Hattebergs and their on-base percentage, but pitching.
* * *
Yes, the A’s have consistently developed good pitching — but really only since Billy Beane took over as GM in 1997. BUT: the A’s had the third best ERA+ (ERA adjusted by ballpark) in the AL this year. The A’s had the third best ERA+ in the AL last year, too. If it was the pitching that gave the A’s their success, they would have won 93 games last year, too.
The point of Moneyball isn’t that Hatteberg was the REASON for winning. It’s that everything adds up: pitching, defense, hitting, baserunning. The big things (Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Tejada, Chavez) — those reasons for winning are easy to see. The point of Moneyball is to find those small little advantages beyond the obvious. Add a run from hitting here, a run on baserunning there, save a run on pitching here, a run on fielding there — it all adds up. That’s the story, that’s what makes the A’s different.
So in the book/movie, the A’s took a catcher from another team (Hatteberg) and turned him into a first baseman, and that helped them _partly_ to overcome the loss of Giambi’s numbers, at a very low cost. They also saved some other runs on the pitching side by acquiring Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon.
This year’s team has THREE Hattebergs: Brandon Moss started the year as an outfielder, and ended up as a first baseman. Josh Donaldson started the year as a catcher, and ended up as a third baseman. And a year ago, Sean Doolittle was a first baseman, now he’s a left-handed relief pitcher.
This year, the A’s have also added up all those little runs by platooning all over the place: at catcher, first base, second base and DH. These sorts of thing won’t always work. But when you’re a poor team, that’s what you have to try sometimes. And sometimes, you get lucky and all those risks actually all work at the same time. That makes this year’s team probably a better example of Moneyball than Moneyball itself.
I went to the Oakland A’s game last night, hoping to see them clinch their first playoff spot since 2006. Rather than write up my experiences, I decided to throw together a bunch of 5-second video clips I took together, to try to give you a feel of what it was like to be there last night. Here you go:
The thing I love about reading Clayton Christensen is that he provides new ways of looking at common problems, which open up a whole different set of solutions for you.
For instance, watch this video as he explains his concept of “Jobs to be Done”:
“If you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”
I love that phrase: “hiring a milkshake”. When you think of a milkshake as a product, then you analyze it the way you analyze products: it’s properties (thickness, taste, size, price, etc.), and the demographics of the purchasers of that product (rich, poor, male, female, young, old, etc.)
But if you look at it in terms of a “job to be done”, that one product may actually turn out to be two or more separate products. There’s the milkshake job for the morning commuter, and there’s also the milkshake job for the parent buying it for their kid. These separate products may have separate sets of properties and demographics.
What is the job that we hire the Most Valuable Player Award to do?
I suspect that the reason there seems to be such vehement disagreement about the AL MVP this year is that it’s actually like the milkshake: we think of it as one single product, but in fact it’s actually two. The morning commuters need the MVP to function like a measurement: that’s what they want to hire the job to do. The evening parents want to hire the MVP award to tell the best story, to celebrate the player who best matches our platonic or cultural ideal of what the best player should accomplish.
Sometimes a single item on the menu can successfully accomplish two jobs. But sometimes they can’t. If we’re smart at marketing, we’ll figure out how to get each set of customers the product that they actually want.
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.
I’m looking to buy some office-type furniture for our home office. So I looked in our IKEA catalog, but I didn’t really see anything that satisfied me. However, the catalog had a pointer to their IKEA Business web site, so I typed in the URL, and clicked around. It was just a bunch of marketing hype. I could not find any actual products.
Do you remember the first time you stepped into an IKEA store? How utterly confusing it was? How you were led into the display section of the store, and the store seemed to just go on and on and on forever? How you had no idea how you would actually decide on buying any of this stuff? And how if you actually did decide you wanted something, how in the heck the process of actually buying stuff worked? How some things you have to order upstairs with a sales person, and then pay for it first downstairs at the register, and then pick it up after the register at delivery services? How other things you can’t order upstairs, and you have to go pick up yourself in the warehouse, and pay for it after you pick it up? And how other things were neither preordered upstairs, nor picked up in the warehouse, but instead were found in a section of the store called the “Marketplace”?
I’ve been shopping at IKEA stores since 1979, so this doesn’t confuse me anymore. But I was thinking about this as I read an article in the Washington Post by Dylan Matthews called “Is Sweden awesome because it mooches off the U.S.?” The article links to a new economic model that predicts that “cuddly capitalist” states like Sweden really only work when there are “cutthroat capitalist” states like the US operating alongside it.
I don’t really have any opinion on how valid or useful that economic model is. I suppose it sounds plausible. But as Matthews points out, Sweden isn’t exactly a good example of cuddly capitalism anymore, while the US isn’t a pure example of cutthroat capitalism, either. Sweden has had a right-wing government for half a decade now, while America has been run by a left-wing president. Sweden isn’t as “awesome” as some American left-wingers seem to think, nor is it as dystopian as some American right-wingers do. I don’t think that the differences between the countries are a simple as a two-dimensional scale of with “capitalism” and “socialism” on the other. There are lots of other differences, too, like culture.
* * *
“Cuddly capitalism” is a weird term. IKEA isn’t cuddly. It’s a user-interface nightmare. It’s designed for the efficiency of the organization, not for the benefit of the customers. And IKEA isn’t alone. When I visited Sweden this summer, I found that the whole country seems to operate on this mentality. It’s a country of the bureaucracy, by the bureaucracy and for the bureaucracy. And I’m not just talking government bureaucracies here. IKEA is as capitalist as they come. It’s everywhere.
I went into a Burger King at one point to get some fast food for my kids who were getting cranky. I tried to see what they had on their menu, and how much my choices cost. They didn’t have a menu, just some gigantic photographs of about five different value meals to choose from. What if I don’t want a value meal, just some hamburgers? What did that cost? I couldn’t find the information. So I said, forget it, I’ll just go next door to McDonalds.
When I went to McDonalds, same thing. No list of what they sell, just five gigantic pictures of their extra value meals. I went up to the counter. “Do you have a menu somewhere I could look at?” I asked. “No, unfortunately, we don’t,” she said.
A restaurant without a menu! The concept had never occurred to me. I guess they just assume that their customers have been there before, and already know exactly what they want, and don’t care how much any of it costs.
Everywhere I went in Sweden, I started noticing the same thing. Buses, subways, airports, grocery stores, convenience stores…a sort of implicit assumption that everybody already knows how their crazy system works. (And trains. Don’t get me started on how horrible it is to interact with the Swedish Railway system.) Every time I tried to ask for help, I got snippy answers from annoyed customer service agents. “Of course, you can’t buy that kind of subway ticket from me, a subway employee, here in this booth at the subway station gates where I sell many other kinds of subway tickets to many other subway customers, you have to go next door into the convenience store to buy that kind of ticket. Don’t you know anything, you idiot?” they said with their tone of voice if not their actual words.
When I complained to my wife about how unhelpful these people are, she said she never experiences that in Sweden. “But I always ask in English. Why don’t you try asking in English yourself next time?”
So I started doing exactly that. Even though I can speak Swedish quite fluently, for the rest of the trip, whenever I needed any customer service at all, I asked in English instead of Swedish. And…magic! All of a sudden, people were quite nice to me! “Of course, I’ll help you, you poor dumb American who has never seen or experienced our advanced civilization before, I’d be happy to help you navigate through the finer details of our wonderfully efficient system.”
I’m sure these Swedish organizations sure are indeed efficient, from point of view of the organization, not the customer. But this organizational efficiency can exist only because Swedish culture tolerates it. As a Swede, you are expected to conform to the way things are organized. If Swedes had a more confrontational and unconformist culture instead of a consensus-driven one, these unfriendly user experiences would have to change, because the confrontations would start costing them too much.
* * *
When I want cheap furniture that I can pick up today and bring home with me immediately, nobody is better than that than IKEA. They are masters at packing large furniture into small flat, car-sized boxes at low prices. As Clayton Christensen points out in his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?”:
It’s fascinating that in forty years, nobody has copied IKEA. Think about that for a second. Here is a business that has been immensely profitable for decades. IKEA doesn’t have any big business secrets–any would-be competitor can walk through its stores, reverse-engineer its products, or copy its catalog … and yet nobody has done it.
I wonder if would-be competitors walk through IKEA’s stores and get as confused as the customers. They somehow think that the whole key to IKEA’s success is this overwhelming, confounding customer experience. Potential competitors can’t understand it or imagine how to replicate it, so they don’t bother.
The customer doesn’t hire IKEA because they want a confusing experience. They hire IKEA because the job to be done is cheap furniture which can be easily transported home. A confusing customer experience isn’t necessary, it’s just happens to be that way, because it’s more efficient for IKEA to do it that way, because Swedish culture let such unusual operational processes grow into being.
But there’s no reason that someone can’t create a furniture company focused on low prices, transportability AND a pleasant customer experience. The potential is lurking there under the surface, like a clerk waiting to be asked a question in English instead of in Swedish.
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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Early in my life, I really didn’t have any sort of vision for a career. I just kind of drifted towards whatever opportunities came to me. I had an aptitude for computers, partly because my dad, who was an electronics technician, understood that they were the Next Big Thing. In 1980, he bought a TI-99/4, hoping that I would fiddle with it and learn from it. I did. And so as I grew up, the opportunities that fell into my lap happened to be with computers, because whenever there was some computer stuff that needed to be done, I seemed to be the guy who could figure it out.
Then in 1994, I was asked to set up a web server. Immediately, I knew. It was like walking up a big hill and just staring at your feet the whole time, and then suddenly you reach the top, see the view, and you suddenly realize the world is a whole lot bigger than the size of your feet. The Internet was going to be huge. It was going to be exciting. I decided I would bet my career on it.
I was far from the only one who understood that the Internet was a Big Deal. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that I was right THAT the Internet would be huge. It’s also clear that neither I nor anyone else had any idea whatsoever HOW it would be huge.
And so the dot-com bubble came and burst, and there were plenty of Pets.com and Webvan.com examples, where my generation made all sorts of big bets on the THAT, and completely missed on the HOW. The Internet would indeed change our lives, but it wasn’t going to be by giving us new ways to sell dog food.
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About 10 years ago, I came to a similar epiphany with neuroscience. I had taken a class at UC Berkeley in the late 80′s that was primarily about aesthetics. The class asked, what made this work of art a classic, but that one forgotten? The question stuck with me for years, but I never could find an answer that made any sense to me. But one day in the early 2000′s it struck me that the answer wasn’t in the artwork, it was in the brain’s interpretation of the artwork. So I googled the word “neuroaesthetics”, wondering if there was such a thing. It turned out there was an International Conference on Neuroesthetics was being held in Berkeley just a few months later. I decided to attend.
I discovered that neuroaesthetics is a baby science, where everyone, including me, was excited THAT we can try to understand art from a scientific point of view, but at the same time, a science where no one really has any clue as to HOW understanding the brain will help us understand art. It seemed to me like looking at a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it’s really a picture of yet. You start out by looking at this detail and that one, and seeing if any of the pieces fit together at all.
It’s taken about 10 years, but now people are trying to take this information and attach it to their existing models of human activity, to see how this changes the picture we thought we were looking at. Some of these attempts will probably turn out to be the equivalent of attaching the Internet to dog food. But we don’t learn that these things don’t work until we try and fail. Watching this process unfold is as interesting to me as watching the dot-com craze play itself out.
And like any craze, the bubble will eventually pop. Perhaps the first sign of that pop was when the leading journalist covering this neurofever, Jonah Lehrer, was found guilty of various forms of plagiarism. Since then, there has come a natural backlash against trying to apply brain research to all these forms of human activity. The most scathing attack came a couple weeks ago by Steven Poole in the New Statesman:
An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.
Indeed, there are flaws with many of these models that use brain studies for supporting evidence. I’m especially skeptical of those that use brain scans that show the brain “lighting up” in response to this or that stimulus. That’s like trying to understand how a computer works by making note of when the hard drive makes a noise when it spins. It can tell you a little bit about how a computer works, but not nearly enough to build an accurate model from.
I also am suspicious of any model that claims that there are “4 kinds of X” or “7 different Y”, such as Jonathan Haidt’s five six moral foundations. In computer programming, there’s an axiom that you design for cases of 0, 1 or N. You make sure your program can handle it when there’s no data. If there’s one specific thing you’re trying to solve, it’s OK to write something that handles that one specific case. But if you’re going to be handling a number of cases that’s above one, then you abstract your program to a level that can handle ANY number of cases, not just the number of cases you know about. Because otherwise, any time some new situation comes up, you have to write a whole new program. So I find it hard to believe that our brain has wired these specific six moral foundations into our brains, and only these six.
So Poole has a good point. We really don’t know enough about the brain yet to be drawing any grand conclusions from the information with a lot of confidence.
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“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
But at the same time, if we don’t use what little knowledge of the brain we have, we’d still be asking and trying to answer the same questions about ourselves. Only we’d be doing it without this added scientific information. What we had before this explosion in brain research in fields like aesthetics was not really a science at all. It was mostly just academic jargony humbug.
It’s like condemning the entirety of the Internet because Webvan.com was a disaster. Yes, there were a lot of crap businesses at the beginning of the Internet, and there are a lot of crap theories at the beginnings of neuroscience. But that’s part of the process. Until we can exactly replicate a human brain from scratch, everything is just an imperfect model.
Some of these models will be more useful than others. Today’s models may be deeply flawed, but they’ll be less flawed than yesterday’s. And upon a few of these models, the Googles and Facebooks and Twitters of neuroscience will be born, the models of the human mind that we find truly useful. I see no reason to give up on that vision.