They Haven’t Run Out Of Miracles Yet

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.

Swedish Culture and Why IKEA Is So Confusing

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.

konfjoosingDo 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.

We We We All The Way Home

Yesterday, I mentioned in passing how I enjoy baseball on two levels: one level in rooting for my team, and another in the aesthetic quality of the game. The day before, I defended the idea of cross-pollinating new scientific ideas with older fields of human endeavor, to see what comes out of the mix. So today, let’s make a new hybrid.

How can we explain the psychological attraction in rooting for a team? Why, when we’re watching two teams that we have no previous attachment to, do we often find ourselves rooting for one team or another anyway? And how is this different or separate from the aesthetic joy of watching a game?

* * *

As I write this, I am watching Ian Kinsler bat against my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s. On the rooting level, I want him to fail and flail badly. But on an aesthetic level, I admire Kinsler. His at-bats, the way he takes bad pitches and fouls off good pitches until he can get a good pitch to hit, are probably the most consistently good at-bats I’ve seen from any player since Rickey Henderson. If our enjoyment of sports were only about rooting interest, I should be incapable of appreciating Kinsler at all. If our enjoyment of sports were only aesthetic, I wouldn’t have a reason to want to see him fail.

Can baseball fandom be fully expressed in a mere two-dimensional chart, with rooting on the x-axis, and aesthetics on the y-axis? No, of course not. For instance, suppose the A’s pitcher were Bartolo Colon. Colon was suspended in August for performance enhancing drugs, but let’s say he’s served his suspension and now he’s pitching. Do I still root for him to succeed? Yes, he’s on my favorite team. But now there’s a moral dimension on the z-axis added to the mix, too. We can go on. Fandom is complex.

* * *

But still, we want to talk about it, so we need to model it. Do we need modern science to do so? Not really. For example, Aristotle, addressed such issues over two millenia ago. Here’s a paragraph on Aristotle’s aesthetics, from a 1902 version of Encyclopedia Britannica:

Elsewhere he (Aristotle) distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy.

Not sure if Aristotle meant Good and Morally Worthy were separate things or the same, but I’ll assume they’re separate. So applying Aristotle to my example above, the A’s are Good, Ian Kinsler is Beautiful, but Bartolo Colon is Morally Unworthy.

* * *

Aristotle’s three dimensions are a kind of model of this aspect of human nature. And since this model is still being discussed 2,000 years later, we can certainly say that this model has a certain level of usefulness. But does this model accurately map to the actual structure and organization of the human brain? Can we explain this structure in terms of evolution, that there were some sort of selective pressures which led to this behavior?

Aesthetics and morality are huge subjects, so I’ll pass on those in this blog entry, and just focus on the rooting aspect.

Group behavior has always been a bit of a tricky subject for evolutionist to explain. It’s easy to explain selfish individual behavior: it’s behavior that’s directed towards passing your genes on to the next generation over the genes of your rivals. The prevailing explanation for most of the last 40 years or so has been kin selection: unselfish behavior towards your kin helps pass more of your genes along to the next generation. Any sort of unselfish behavior toward people who are not your kin is just sort of a side effect of unselfish behavior towards your kin.

But that’s an unsatisfying explanation, particularly if you apply it to team sports. Why do I go to the Coliseum, dress up in green and gold with thousands of other A’s fans, 99.999% of who are not my kin, and cheer the team together with them? It’s really hard to make a convincing argument that I’m doing it to pass my genes on.

The alternative explanation is group selection. Group selection is a theory that fell out of favor in the 1960s, but in recent years has been making a comeback. In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues strongly in favor of group selection as an explanation for human social behavior.

Under group selection theory, human evolution happens in two dimensions. There’s a selfish dimension that pushes individuals to promote their genes over others within their group. But there’s also a dimension that pushes us to behave in ways to promote the genes of the group over the genes of rival groups. In times of war or drought or famine, those groups who behave in ways that encourage cooperation instead of selfishness survive to pass their genes on more than the groups whose individuals behave more selfishly.

Under group selection theory, the behavior we see in team sports makes much more sense. We naturally form emotional attachments to our groups, because we were evolved to do just that. As E.O. Wilson points out, every single animal that exhibits social behavior (including the one Wilson is expert in, ants) evolved its social behavior to protect and defend a nest. So we root, root, root for the home team, and find it extremely irritating when invading Yankee fans come into our home nest and chant for their team, instead. The joy we feel when our group wins, the pain we feel when our group loses — those are emotions that evolved in our brains to promote the genetic survival of our groups.

* * *

Note I said “our groups.” Jason Wojciechowski has an article today (Baseball Prospectus, $ required) on the use of the word ‘we’ in reference to team sports. Is it appropriate for fans to use the word “we”, or should that be limited only to the players on the team? Jason tries to define that line somewhere in along the lower level employees of the team. I don’t think that works (which Jason ultimately acknowledges).

Former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein used to rail against fans using ‘we’ on Twitter all the time. At one point (which I can’t find now — Twitter search sucks) — he argued that you don’t say ‘we’ to refer to your favorite band, so why should you do so for your favorite team?

I strongly disagree with Kevin here. A band is different from a team. You like the band primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provides you. But as we’ve seen here, the aesthetic experience is only a small part of the experience of watching baseball. Sports are the most popular activity on earth right now not because they provides an aesthetic experience alone — but because they have gone beyond that and tapped into the a primal root of human evolution: the network of emotions that group selection has hardwired into us.

The reason professional sports is a profession at all is because it creates the feeling of ‘we’. That feeling is the main point of team sports. We-ness is the product.

To have a business that sells a product, we, and then to deny those customers the use of the very word that best describes the product–that’s madness.

Wednesday Linkblogging 2012-09-26

Jason Wojciechowski is finding it difficult to watch A’s games in this pennant race, because any failures by his favorite team are too painful. He wonders:

Given my strong suspicion that we only get one shot at life, is it better that I spend my remaining years experiencing as broad a range of emotions as I can reasonably give myself? Do the lows make the highs sweeter such that they’re worth it as a simple matter of arithmetic?

I have been similarly tempted to look away. I’ve found over the years that I’m actually a happier person when the A’s are not competitive. Winning breeds expectations, and the more your team wins, the more you expect them to win. But happiness research seems to suggest that the key to happiness is low expectations. I suspect, therefore, that unless the A’s actually win the World Series, our happiness as A’s fans actually peaked around early August, when we started to realize the A’s were a good team capable of winning, but before that winning had become so commonplace that we began to expect it.

However, I enjoy baseball on more dimensions than just winning. The game the A’s lost on Friday against the Yankees was a beautiful ballgame aesthetically: it was a dramatic game where both teams played crisp, solid baseball with good pitching. I enjoyed it immensely. Saturday’s game, however, was awful: the A’s lost, but both teams played terribly, the pitching was horrible, the defense was shaky and even the umpires got into the act with several mistakes. And that was just in the first inning before I turned it off, and went out to do something else with my Saturday. The game kept on like that, and ended up lasting almost six hours, without me. I’m glad I (mostly) missed that one.

The next three games have been equally dramatic, but somewhat in-between aesthetically. Last night’s game, for example, featured a horrible error by Brandon Moss that cost the A’s two runs, followed later in the game by a fantastic catch by Moss that saved the A’s three. For me, the drama would be much easier to watch if the A’s were not playing so sloppily.

I don’t always watch pennant race baseball, but when I do, I prefer errorlessness. Play crisply, my friends.

* * *

If you want to innoculate yourself from the pain of your favorite team losing, you can consume your sports like Will Leitch recently did, by entering the RedZone. Leitch describes his first experience watching NFL RedZone on the NFL Network:

RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.

On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history.

That, I suppose, is both the blessing and the curse of living in this information age. You can’t tell a teardrop from a raindrop in a hurricane.

* * *

Felix Salmon has an article about journalism in the midst of such massive amounts of instant information. Being able to find that teardrop in the hurricane in basically the job of the modern journalist.

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.

* * *

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jetsons, the Paleofuture has started a series to look at all 24 episodes of The Jetsons one-season run.

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 and examples, where my generation made all sorts of big bets on the THAT, and completely missed on the HOW. The Internet would indeed change our lives, but it wasn’t going to be by giving us new ways to sell dog food.

* * *

About 10 years ago, I came to a similar epiphany with neuroscience. I had taken a class at UC Berkeley in the late 80’s that was primarily about aesthetics. The class asked, what made this work of art a classic, but that one forgotten? The question stuck with me for years, but I never could find an answer that made any sense to me. But one day in the early 2000’s it struck me that the answer wasn’t in the artwork, it was in the brain’s interpretation of the artwork. So I googled the word “neuroaesthetics”, wondering if there was such a thing. It turned out there was an International Conference on Neuroesthetics was being held in Berkeley just a few months later. I decided to attend.

I discovered that neuroaesthetics is a baby science, where everyone, including me, was excited THAT we can try to understand art from a scientific point of view, but at the same time, a science where no one really has any clue as to HOW understanding the brain will help us understand art. It seemed to me like looking at a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it’s really a picture of yet. You start out by looking at this detail and that one, and seeing if any of the pieces fit together at all.

It’s taken about 10 years, but now people are trying to take this information and attach it to their existing models of human activity, to see how this changes the picture we thought we were looking at. Some of these attempts will probably turn out to be the equivalent of attaching the Internet to dog food. But we don’t learn that these things don’t work until we try and fail. Watching this process unfold is as interesting to me as watching the dot-com craze play itself out.

And like any craze, the bubble will eventually pop. Perhaps the first sign of that pop was when the leading journalist covering this neurofever, Jonah Lehrer, was found guilty of various forms of plagiarism. Since then, there has come a natural backlash against trying to apply brain research to all these forms of human activity. The most scathing attack came a couple weeks ago by Steven Poole in the New Statesman:

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

Indeed, there are flaws with many of these models that use brain studies for supporting evidence. I’m especially skeptical of those that use brain scans that show the brain “lighting up” in response to this or that stimulus. That’s like trying to understand how a computer works by making note of when the hard drive makes a noise when it spins. It can tell you a little bit about how a computer works, but not nearly enough to build an accurate model from.

I also am suspicious of any model that claims that there are “4 kinds of X” or “7 different Y”, such as Jonathan Haidt’s five six moral foundations. In computer programming, there’s an axiom that you design for cases of 0, 1 or N. You make sure your program can handle it when there’s no data. If there’s one specific thing you’re trying to solve, it’s OK to write something that handles that one specific case. But if you’re going to be handling a number of cases that’s above one, then you abstract your program to a level that can handle ANY number of cases, not just the number of cases you know about. Because otherwise, any time some new situation comes up, you have to write a whole new program. So I find it hard to believe that our brain has wired these specific six moral foundations into our brains, and only these six.

So Poole has a good point. We really don’t know enough about the brain yet to be drawing any grand conclusions from the information with a lot of confidence.

* * *

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
George Box

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 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.

A Baseball Learning Matrix

Russell Carleton has an interesting article today on Baseball Prospectus today about the “Search for an 80 Brain“. He explores whether the difference between prospects who make it and those who fail lies in their ability to learn, and wonders if there’s a way to test those learning skills.

For one thing, it’s hard to observe a player’s learning skills, even with a really fancy stopwatch. But if the ability to learn is key to turning raw talent into actual performance, why not spend some time figuring out if the player has a 20 learning tool or an 80? Many players are drafted based on their physical tools, but what about the guy who doesn’t have blow-you-away stuff now, but can develop quickly because he can learn? In general, the closest thing that I hear to this is when scouts talk about “makeup.”

Can this learning ability be measured? My answer is “Yes… I think…”

I think so, too. But off the top of my head, I’d think there wouldn’t be one measure of learning ability, but four.

Here’s why: in order to explore how to measure learning, we need to be clear exactly what kind of learning we are talking about. Learning is about creating memories in the brain, and making those memories accessible when needed. It would be useful here to point out the two main types of memory: declarative and nondeclarative. I’ll quote from a book by Larry Squire and Eric Kandel called “Memory: From Mind to Molecules”:

Declarative memory is memory for facts, ideas, and events — for information that can be brought to conscious recollection as a verbal proposition or visual image. This is the kind of memory one ordinarily means when using the term “memory”: it is conscious memory for the name of a friend, last summer’s vacation, this morning’s conversation. Declarative memory can be studied in humans as well as other animals.

Nondeclarative memory also results from experience, but is expressed as a change in behavior, not as a recollection. Unlike declarative memory, nondeclarative memory is unconscious. Often, some recollective ability can accompany nondeclarative learning. We might learn a motor skill and then be able to remember some things about it. We might be able to picture ourselves performing it, for example. However, the ability to perform the skill itself seems to be independent of any conscious recollection. That ability is nondeclarative.

In other words, declarative memory holds conscious thought, while nondeclarative memory holds motor skills.

So let’s say we have a hitter, like Carleton’s example of Wil Myers, who is a bit too passive, and doesn’t quite swing at enough pitches. We want to make him a somewhat more aggressive hitter. How do we do that?

So it’s not a matter of merely telling Myers to “be more aggressive”. The idea of being more aggressive is a declarative memory, a conscious thought. And that declarative memory, that idea, is independent of the skill itself, of the nondeclarative memory, the motor skill required to output the desired behavior. That conscious thought needs to be translated into a motor skill. A declarative memory needs to be translated into a nondeclarative memory.

As Carleton points out in his article, this much easier said than done. The reason is that while declarative memories are under our conscious control, nondeclarative memories are not. They are created subconsciously, involuntarily and automatically. These memories are often context and emotion dependent. If you want to manipulate the nondeclarative memory system into creating the muscle memory you want, you basically have to trick it. You can trick it by repetition and practice, and/or by manipulating whatever emotions are needed, whether anger or calmness or excitement or determination.

* * *

So a scouting report for learning might look something like this:

Joe Prospect, Learning Scout Report

declarative input nondeclarative input
declarative output 30 40
nondeclarative output 50 80

Upper Left: declarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to repeat an instruction in his own words.

Coach: “When I say, ‘cut down on your swing’, what does that mean?”
Player at level 20: “I dunno.”
Player at level 80: “It means I shorten my stride, and bring my bat to this position here…”

This square really measures a player’s ability to coach more than it measures his ability to play. Perhaps it might also measure a player’s ability to be a catcher who can take a game plan and execute it, and to handle and communicate with a pitching staff. It can also help pitchers, not so much in the physical act of throwing a ball, but with setting up hitters and sequencing.

In general, though, this is the least important square in the matrix. Because what we’re aiming at in regards to players is the nondeclarative output, the muscle memory needed to perform at a high level. And nondeclarative input — the sensory and pattern-recognition feedback the brain gets from actually playing — is more important than the theoretical, declarative input in this square.


Upper Right: nondeclarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to articulate his own experiences.

Coach: “Why didn’t you swing at that pitch?”
Player at level 20: “I just froze.”
Player at level 80; “I was expecting a breaking ball away, and instead he threw me a fastball on the inside corner, and because my body was leaning out, I couldn’t adjust my balance quick enough to pull my hands in and start the swing.”

An 80-level player in this square of the matrix would be a reporter’s best friend. High skill in this area can also help a player to understand what he needs to work on, and create systematic workout procedures for improving those self-understood weaknesses. But being able to articulate what you physically experienced won’t really help you unless you also possess a high score in the lower left square.


Lower Left: declarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents coachability: a player’s ability to take verbal or conscious ideas, and translate them into muscle memory.

A player at level 20 probably can’t even do this at all. If he learns anything, it’s only “the hard way”– by failing or succeeding himself in real situations.
A player at level 50 is someone who may need to be told something over and over until it finally sinks in. Or needs to be told something in 1,000 different ways until he finds that one mental cue which triggers the correct behavior.
A player at level 80 probably only needs to be told something once, and can immediately make the physical adjustment.


Lower Right: nondeclarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents a player’s ability to learn from his own senses and body, from the immediate success or failure of his efforts.

A player at level 20 probably isn’t affected much by his own failures and successes. He probably repeats the same mistakes over and over again, and can’t adjust.
A player at level 50 can learn from his own failures and successes, but it takes a long time and many repetitions for those adjustments manifest themselves.
A player at level 80 probably never seems to make the same mistake or get fooled by the same pitch twice.

* * *

A single, Wonderlic-like test wouldn’t work to fill out such a matrix. You’d probably need to develop separate tests for each of the squares in the matrix. And then you’d need to collect that data for a number of years to figure out whether there is actually any sort of correlation between any of that data and the eventual success and/or failure of prospects. Sounds like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff, but it would certainly be interesting to see if there’s something there of value. The sad part is, since baseball teams keep information like this proprietary, we baseball fans will probably never know.

Awards Are Celebrations, Not Measurements. And Vice Versa.

At the risk of committing the journalistic sin of plagiarizing myself, the time has come for me to repeat an old argument I’ve made about baseball awards.

I am repeating myself this year because of the American League Most Valuable Player race. The player who has provided the most value to his team winning in the AL has been the LA Angels’ Mike Trout, by most reasonable measurements. Measured by bWAR, Mike Trout has provided 10.1 wins to his team, followed by Robinson Cano of the Yankees at 6.8, and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers at 6.5. Measured by fWAR, Trout is at 9.2 wins, Cabrera at 6.8 wins, and Cano at 6.3. In any case, Trout is 2 or 3 wins ahead of anybody else. His batting stats are similar to his competitors, or possibly slightly worse, but his baserunning and defense has the others beat by a mile.

But there is an argument for Cabrera, in that he is only one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown: leading the AL in home runs, RBI and batting average. If Cabrera wins the triple crown, many people are arguing that he should win the MVP, too, for this accomplishment.

This has sent many sabermetric types into apoplexy, since the Triple Crown is just an arbitrary set of statistics, and is not a good measure of a player’s value. This anger towards the support for Cabrera bothered Ken Rosenthal, who said that although he would support Trout if he had a vote, he feels that voting for Cabrera is not a unreasonable idea, and sabermetricians should open their minds a bit more.

I agree with my fellow Ken here. As I’ve said before, awards are celebrations, not measurements. It is entirely reasonable to want to celebrate the player who has provided the most fWAR or bWAR in the league. But the MVP rules are vague, and do not define what value means. There are other ways to define value. We watch baseball not because we are tools of measurement, but because we are humans participating in a culture, and we acquire emotional and social value from watching it. If our culture values an arbitrary set of stats like the Triple Crown, for whatever reason, then there is value to the team’s culture and history by reaching this achievement.

So by any meaningful measurement, Mike Trout has been better than Miguel Cabrera this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has produced the season that is the most worthy of celebration. It’s quite reasonable, especially if Cabrera does win the triple crown, to vote for Cabrera.

* * *

On the flip side of the M. Cabrera coin, Melky Cabrera was today ruled ineligible to win the National League batting title. The San Francisco Giants’ version of M. Cabrera was suspended last month for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. At the time of his suspension, he was just one plate appearance shy of qualifying for the batting title. When that happens, the previous rule was to assume he had enough hitless at-bats to qualify, and if his batting average was still highest in the league, he would win the title. But probably because the league wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having a player who cheated win its batting crown, they decided they wouldn’t do the “add 0-fers” to his number of plate appearances, and so Melky won’t win.

Which is odd, because the batting title is a measurement, not a celebration. It’s basically a matter of math; it goes to the player who had the best batting average in the league, hits divided by at-bats. But Major League Baseball is treating it like a celebration, not a measurement, and they have decided that they don’t want to celebrate someone who cheated, so they’re invalidating his measurement. I suppose they can do that because Cabrera finished shy of the required number of plate appearances, but I wonder what they would have done if he had already surpassed the required 3.1 plate appearances per team game to qualify. Would they have invalidated it then?

Space Shuttle Flies Over Alameda

The Space Shuttle Endeavor flew over Alameda this morning, so I went out to the rock wall on the shoreline near Encinal High School, a couple of blocks from my house. I took this video:

I couldn’t find an exact itinerary this morning, all I knew was that it was supposed to fly over the bay sometime around 9:30. It was actually more like 10:15 before it flew over. I remarked to my middle daughter, who had the day off from school and came with me, that it was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where they keep opening candy bar wrappers, hoping it will be a golden ticket, only to find that it was just a bar of chocolate. Every time we saw an airplane on the horizon, we would wonder if it was the shuttle. But it was only an simple airplane, participating in the mere miracle of human flight.

Finally, an airplane with a very odd-looking silhouette appeared low in the sky near the Oakland Airport, and I immediately knew that this must be the shuttle. Here it is as it flew past Encinal High School:

Then it headed north a bit, then turned and flew over San Francisco. As it got to about Candlestick Park, it turned and headed straight towards us. Then it turned again, to make one more pass over San Francisco. Here it is as it passed close to us.

Then it flew over San Francisco one more time, then headed south towards Moffett Field, where it disappeared into the hazy morning sky.

On Motivation, and the 47%

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has a thought experiment on his blog today. He wonders: what would we do if there was a drug that could increase human motivation? Adams writes:

As a practical matter, it might be cheaper and easier to tweak the motivational chemistry of people who are in bad circumstances instead of trying to fix their circumstances and hope that’s enough to stimulate their natural motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Adams’ essay too much, because it’s a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. But on the other hand, it’s an instructive example to use, because it shows some of the mistaken assumptions we make about human motivation.

Yesterday, I said that I wanted to read Clayton Christensen’s new book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” So I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle, and began reading. And coincidentally enough, Christensen spends an early chapter talking about the latest scientific understanding of human motivation, specifically in regards to the workplace.

The basic misunderstanding that Christensen points out is that most people assume there is a single scale of job satisfaction that looks something like this:


But it turns out job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are two completely unrelated things. You can be both satisfied and dissatisfied with your job at the same time. There are actually two scales, not one, that look more like this:

absence of dissatisfaction


absence of satisfaction

The reason for this, Christensen explains, is that dissatisfaction comes from external influences. Things that cause dissatisfaction are things like an unsafe work environment, not having the right tools to do the job, bad relationships with colleagues and managers, and low or unfair pay. Fredrick Herzberg, a leading researcher on motivation theory, called these things “hygiene factors”.

An impure, or “unhygienic”, work environment makes us dissatisfied. But a pure environment doesn’t make us satisfied. Satisfaction is internal, and it arises from the relationship between the individual and the work. Do you have responsibility over what happens? Is the work challenging? Are you improving? Is the work important? As I mentioned the other day, Daniel Pink calls these motivators “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”

So there’s a function in the brain where “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” are the inputs, and motivation is the output. Can you replace that input with a chemical, and still get motivation as an output? That seems unlikely to me. The input isn’t a mere chemical, it’s a complex set of biological wires.

But whatever — that’s science fiction. What matters is this: even if you could fix motivation with a pill, you still wouldn’t have fixed demotivation, because that’s a completely separate thing. If you want to lift people up, you can’t just make them or tell them or teach them to be more motivated. That’s only half the equation. You also have to fix the external factors that are demotivating them at the same time.

And maybe if we had a two-party system that worked, the party that wants to tell people that they should be more internally self-motivated could work together with the party that wants to fix all the external factors that demotivate people, and we could actually get something done around here.

Wednesday Linkblogging 2012-09-19

I’ve volunteered to help out in my daughter’s kindergarten class on Wednesday mornings, so that’s going to cut into my available writing time on those days. Since my time is short, I thought I could use Wednesdays to throw out some interesting links I encounter each week. Ready, steady, go…

* * *

My old Baseball Toaster buddy Jon Weisman is retiring from daily baseball blogging. Anybody can recognize quality writing, and Jon has been one of the best team bloggers anywhere. But people who haven’t blogged usually don’t realize how incredibly difficult it is to keep up the quantity. Most people who try blogging give up after just a month or three, because it’s too hard to keep going, day after day. Our lives get in the way. Jon’s ability to maintain both the quantity and the quality of his writing for 10 years has been astounding to me. But even Jon is human, and he’s decided that now is the time for him to move on. He’ll still be writing at his day job, the entertainment awards blog at Variety. Best of luck, Jon!

* * *

Speaking of life getting in the way, researches have found that all throughout human history, mankind has had a distinct preference for a maximum commute of 30 minutes each way. No matter whether we’ve travelled by foot, by horse, by bicycle, or by automobile, we’ve arranged our lives so that our work and our homes are no more than 30 minutes apart. This limit is called Marchetti’s Constant.

* * *

Yesterday, I wrote about some political questions that are looking for an answer. Today I saw that Stephen Johnson has written a book called Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, about some political answers that are looking for questions. It looks interesting, and will definitely add that one to my Amazon wish list. Here’s a YouTube preview of the book:

* * *

Here’s a thought experiment for you, as an extension of Johnson’s idea: if you wanted to start up a business whose purpose was to disrupt government, how would you do that? I don’t mean disrupt government in the political way, like in organizing big protests or anything. I mean disrupting government in the Clayton Christensen sense: creating an innovative product that starts out small, but eventually grows to performing some of the same functions as government at a cheaper cost than government can compete with.

* * *

Christensen has a new book out that’s also on my Amazon wish list called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The book extends the metaphors he uses to measure businesses to our personal lives. Here’s a TED Talk he gave about the topic:

* * *

Finally, my friend Bryan Pendelton pointed to a 1980 Turing Award acceptance speech by Tony Hoard. The money quote is this:

Programmers are always surrounded by complexity; we cannot avoid it. Our applications are complex because we are ambitious to use our computers in ever more sophisticated ways. Programming is complex because of the large number of conflicting objectives for each of our programming projects.

I conclude that there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.

This tension that exists in computer science between simple and complex, is also a tension that exists in American politics. I think a lot of people who are fed up with both parties and the whole political system, are really feeling that the system has gone overboard on the “so complicated” end of the spectrum. That’s definitely the case with the financial crisis: it got so complex, nobody could see where the deficiencies were. They weren’t obvious.

You’d expect that the backlash to that would be toward a simplicity movement, where the rules and the system become so simple that any deficiencies become obvious again. I keep hoping that one of the political parties, probably the Republicans since it seems like idea that might land closer to their hearts, latch on to this idea. But it probably won’t until one of them loses so badly that they obviously need to change course in some way.

Old Playbooks, New Playbooks

My mom lives in Sweden, but she worked in the US for 10 years, so she qualifies to get a small little Social Security check each month. When I talked to her on the phone the other day, she complained that she wasn’t getting a very good exchange rate anymore. “That’s because you live in pretty much the only country on earth whose government hasn’t screwed up their economy,” I said. The relative health of the Swedish economy versus the rest of the world makes the Swedish crown stronger and worth more. When she tries to buy Swedish crowns with her US Dollars now, she doesn’t get as much as she used to.

Then we talked a bit about the American elections. I’m finding this year’s elections mostly uninteresting. Romney is trying (not too successfully) to stick to the narrative that Obama has screwed up the economy. I can agree that the US economy has been mishandled, but at the same time, I find that everyone else’s economy around the world (save Sweden’s) has been mishandled, too, and most of them have been mishandled far worse than America’s. I wouldn’t trade America’s economy right now for Europe’s. Or China’s — they’ve got a real estate bubble that’s probably going to burst soon just like ours did in 2008.

So America isn’t doing so well — but the competition is worse. That kinda makes us like a young athlete who is playing in a league that he’s too good for. He doesn’t have to work to improve; it seems pretty safe to just use his same old tricks to win the game he’s playing today. He’s not challenged by outside competition to innovate. And so I see both political parties are pretty much sticking to the same old playbooks they’ve used since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. There are really no new ideas in this election.

I feel, though, that these playbooks are almost all used up. Each party is very near to getting what they have fought hardest for during my lifetimes. When the Democrats finally get gay marriage and universal healthcare on the books, which will probably happen if Obama wins, what will they want next? When the Republicans finally get taxes down as far as they can realistically go, and they’re pretty darn close, what’s their plan beyond that? I don’t see anything. It just looks like trench warfare in America to me after that, pushing the lines six inches here, six inches there, but not really getting anywhere new.

Which is fine, as long as the rest of the world stagnates along with us.

I worry, though, that the technology of the 21st century is producing a tectonic shift in economics itself. These sorts of disruptive technological shifts can punish the old guard who are too slow to change, and create new winners out of those who are less invested in an old way of doing things.

I’ll give some examples of what I mean. Here’s a talk by Daniel Pink about the what the latest science tells us about human motivation:


The interesting thing there is that basic carrot-and-stick economics–pay someone more if he does a good job–works remarkably well as motivation if the task is mechanical and/or routine. Those types of tasks formed the large majority of jobs all throughout human history, until the invention of the personal computer.

What has the computer done to those types of jobs? They’ve taken them over. If a job is repetitive or routine or algorithmic, a computer can now do that job cheaper and more effectively than a human being. So human beings have to move on to other types of jobs.

What types of jobs are those? Jobs that require human creativity and complex cognitive thought. And these are precisely the jobs where Daniel Pink points out that monetary rewards suppress productivity instead of enhancing it.

What does it do to the science of economics when higher monetary rewards suddenly start resulting in lower productivity? How do you design economic policy around that? The old playbooks that our political parties use now don’t address that question. Those old playbooks assume carrots and sticks always work. And they did work just fine, up until the time that you could fit a whole network of supercomputers in your pocket.

Computers also affect basic economics by ruining the supply/demand ratio. Throughout human history, up until the computer, anything of an economic nature that was made or done, was done in an environment of scarcity. Anything you can think of, there was a finite, limited supply of that thing. But now, thanks to computers, you can make 7 billion copies of this blog entry with barely any extra added cost to you at all. Scarcity does not exist in a digital environment. Supply is infinite.

This goes beyond just digital media. It affects other areas of human endeavor, like education. Our education system is designed around the concept that information is scarce, and it needs to be transferred from teacher to student, in order to prepare them for adulthood. But now, information is not scarce, students can acquire as much of it as they like for practically nothing. The jobs today’s kids will have when they grow up will not depend at all on what information they have, but on their skills in manipulating an infinite supply of information in creative new ways. How do we set up our educational institutions to function in a world of information plenty?

And soon, as 3D printers become more and more ubiquitous, scarcity will become a thing of the past for many physical objects, as well. What does that do to the manufacturing industry? What kind of policies do we need to manage that transition?

I have no answers to these questions. Neither do any of today’s political parties or candidates. It’s too new, too strange, and there’s not really a competitive threat that is forcing them to try to figure any of this out.

But at some point, if we Americans don’t at least start asking ourselves these new questions instead of re-asking the same old ones, some upstart countries will. And when the upstarts ask themselves these questions, at least one of them will be a Billy Beane-type who figures out some good answers, and moves his little country from an afterthought to a powerhouse. If we’re serious about winning the 21st century like we did the 20th, we should work hard to Moneyball them before they Moneyball us. Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day as the stodgy old rich team needing to scramble to catch up, wondering what happened to the good old days when America did things better than everyone else almost as a mechanical routine, without needing a second thought.


For us Oakland A’s fans, this year has been a dream. Very little was expected of the team this year after GM Billy Beane traded three of the A’s best players over the winter. When the A’s lost nine games in a row in May, we fans resigned ourselves to our low expectations having been met, another disappointment in growing series of disappointments. The A’s haven’t had a winning season in five years. But in June, some magic wand was waved over the team, and suddenly everything changed. With just three weeks left in the season, the A’s are now in the lead for a wild card playoff spot, and just three games behind Texas for the best record in the American League.

I headed out to the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday to soak up some of the magic vibes. The A’s were playing the Baltimore Orioles, in the midst of a dream season of their own. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season in 15 years, but here they were tied with the hated New York Yankees atop the American League East division.

The Orioles scored single runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-0 lead. This subdued the crowd a bit, and the focus of the people around me started drifting away from the game.

This is not the same boy as in the story

In front of me sat a young boy about 8 years old. To his left was another 8-ish boy, perhaps a friend, and the friend’s younger sister and father. They boy’s mother had made a pre-game appearance and scolded him very sternly to sit nicely and behave properly while seated here with this other family, and then had left. In the top of the third one of the kids pulled out a hand-held video game console of some sort, and they began to play. The three heads all gathered around the tiny screen.

Behind me sat a row of older men and women, all probably in their fifties or sixties. One of them was wearing a Cal shirt, so I introduced myself as a fellow Cal grad, and chatted him up about his experiences at UC Berkeley. He said he graduated in ’73, which put him there at the peak of the whole protest era. He remembered walking through Sproul Plaza the day after one of these protests, the condensation from the previous day’s tear gas still dripping from the trees, stinging his eyes.

Another lady in that row then launched into a lengthy monologue. I can’t remember it word for word, but I’ll paraphrase it thusly:

My oldest daughter lives in Riverside. It’s a great place to live. It’s an hour to Disneyland on the 91, or and an hour to downtown LA on the 10 if the traffic isn’t too bad. And San Diego’s easy to get to, about an hour and a half down the 15, and you can also get to Palm Springs in an hour heading east on Highway 60. It’s fantastic.

We took a trip down there a couple weeks ago. I had surgery for uterine cancer two months ago, so the kids had been all cooped up, and you know, they needed to get out. So we headed down 101 first to Soledad, where another of my daughters lives. Her husband works in the prison there. Then we continued down 101 to Paso Robles where our oldest son lives, and then on 101 through LA to the 10 and then down the 215 to Riverside.

The day before, I had blogged about how it was an error to mistake data for function. Here was a remarkable example of avoiding that error. You’d think uterine cancer would consume a person’s life — that fighting it would become the primary function of her life. Yet this lady somehow managed to make cancer sound like merely a data point on a highway map of Southern California.

The word “cancer” has struck me with more emotional impact lately, as my brother-in-law Jim died of melanoma in August. Up until then, I had been fortunate enough not to really know anyone who had been struck down by cancer. But now having seen someone close to me suffer from it, it’s far less of an abstraction to me now, hearing about all the chemotherapy and radiation and medicines, hoping that one or some combination of these will miraculously work. Having that lady mention Paso Robles struck me double, because about six weeks before he died, Jim took a trip from his Arizona home here to the Bay Area. We watched several Euro 2012 soccer games together. Then we said goodbye, and he and his wife headed down to Paso Robles to do some wine tasting. It was the last time I saw him. There were no miracles.

The somber mood of myself and the crowd quickly reversed itself in the bottom of the third. Stephen Drew led off with a solo homer to cut the Orioles’ lead to 2-1. The boy in front of me cheered enthusiastically, jumping up and down with his arms high above his head. The crowd seemed to sense some magic happening, as the chants of “Let’s Go Oakland” grew louder and more intense as the A’s got one hit after another. When Yoenis Cespedes hit a bullet single up the middle to give the A’s a 3-2 lead, the crowd went crazy.

Chris Carter followed with a two-run double down the right field line. Cespedes read the ball perfectly off the bat, and took off running. As that powerful body flew around the bases, so fast that he nearly caught up with Josh Reddick one base ahead of him, I couldn’t help but marvel at what an amazing athlete he is. His swing and his running stride have such an lovely combination of power and grace and speed, that I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Yoenis Cespedes is a beautiful human being.” Not in the sense of him being a nice guy, since I know nearly nothing of his character, but of his body. His strong yet fluid manner seems almost the Platonic ideal of human motion.

The inning ended with the A’s ahead, 5-2, and the crowd abuzz in an intoxicating mix of joy and disbelief. As it turned out, that was all the scoring there would be. The game then marched ahead straightforwardly, without much more excitement.

As the outs piled up, the kids in front of me started getting a little bored and restless again. At one point in the 6th inning, the boy picked up some empty peanut shells and tossed them into the air.

* * *

At the exact moment the peanut shells left his fingers, his mother returned, carrying two boxes of pizza.

“What are you doing?” she shouted at him, as the peanut shells fluttered harmlessly to the floor. “I told you very specifically that you needed to behave! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with him, I thought, is probably that he has a mother who is the type of person who says “fuck” to her kids.

She handed the pizza boxes to the father of the other kids, and then grabbed the boy by the wrist. “Come with me,” she said sternly. She pulled him behind her, and pulled him up the stairs onto the concourse.

Two minutes later, they returned. “Now sit down right there, don’t move, and eat your fucking pizza.”

* * *

The next morning, Craig Calcaterra blogged about a letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his son, in which Hughes explains that our true selves are childlike and innocent, but we learn through the crush of circumstances in our lives to build a shell around that inner child, to protect it from pain. It is that armor that we adults use to interface with the world.

But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt.

As I read this, I thought about that mom from the day before. Where does her anger come from? Was she so overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt in her childhood that the only thing she knows is to make her own offspring feel overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt, too?

* * *

The boy sat. His shoulders slumped. His head bowed. His face lost all its joy.

He took a slice of his fucking pizza. With each bite, a hard shell began to form around his soul.

* * *

I was reminded of this new anti-alcohol video from Finland:

My dad had an alcohol problem when I was growing up. I was fortunate in that when my dad got drunk, he didn’t become abusive. He merely became the world’s worst standup comic. Still, as a child, you’re bewildered by it. Embarrassed. You try to ignore it, forget about it, put a shell around yourself and block it out.

Eventually, my mom had enough and divorced my dad. My dad remarried. Eventually, about the time I was a senior in high school, the drinking got to the point where he couldn’t eat if he drank. The food would just get stuck in his throat. I could see that same bewilderment, that same embarrassment in his new wife’s eyes, that I knew so well.

One day, after another one of these episodes, I found him alone in the basement. I walked up to him and said, “You’re going have to choose. Which do you love more, your bottle or your wife?” Up until that day, I had never said a word about his drinking, ever, in my life. He looked at me, speechless. I turned around and walked out.

I walked into that basement a hurt child, and walked out a man. I decided that this cycle of pain was going to end, right there, with me. Any family I had was not going to have to deal with this same kind of crap I had to deal with. That’s why I don’t drink alcohol.

Shortly after our confrontation, my dad quit drinking, cold turkey. Never drank another drop of alcohol the rest of his life. Our relationship got so much better after that. I am so grateful.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of socializing by not drinking. You don’t invite the guy who doesn’t drink out for beers with the guys. Fortunately, I’m an introvert, so missing out on socializing doesn’t really bother me at all. Pity the poor extrovert who has to make the same decision.

* * *

The boy now in submission, her damage done, the hurricane of a mother departed the scene as abruptly as she arrived. She was not seen again for the rest of the game.

* * *

The outs pile up, three outs here, three outs there, and eventually, the game is over. But that boy and I, we had that one moment together, didn’t we, that raw, magical, miraculous moment where Chris Carter hit that double down the right field line, where Yoenis Cespedes flew around the bases and almost caught up to Josh Reddick, and we broke through our shells and forgot our pain and fears and we marveled and cheered and threw our arms up in the air, each of us free as an uninhibited child.

Mistaking Data for Function

I went to my daughter’s middle school back-to-school night last night. For those of you who have never attended such a thing, a back-to-school night is basically just a quick introduction to your child’s classes and teachers. You go around to each of your child’s classes for about 10 minutes, and her teachers introduce themselves briefly and describe the class, and then you move on to the next one.

Her science teacher told us her class was working on the difference between observations and inferences. “The human brain is amazing,” she explained, “but it wants to jump straight to inferences.” It’s fundamentally important to good science to know how to separate your data from your hypothesis, and not to conflate the two. You may think you’re observing that “I’m in a science classroom”, but that’s an inference, not an observation. You make that inference by combining several smaller observations, such as the microscopes and the sinks and the biology posters.

The idea that humans naturally mix up their data with their conclusions kind of stuck with me the rest of the evening. I could see how it would be easy to think an inference was an observation, but then I tried to think of examples of making the opposite mistake. How often do people think something is a conclusion, but it actually is data?

* * *

The example that first came to my baseball-addled mind was Moneyball. Moneyball is a book and movie about the 2002 Oakland A’s, a relatively poor baseball team, who used some unconventional techniques to complete with rich ones. As a result of the book, a lot of people thought the A’s philosophy was about encouraging walks and discouraging stolen bases. But actually, the walks and steals were not a philosophy in and of themselves, they were data outputs. There was another set of data: the inputs of the relative costs of acquiring specific baseball skills in a particular market of players. To properly infer what the A’s philosophy is, you need to change the inputs, and see how the outputs changed. But a lot of people thought the output was the conclusion.

In the past four years or so, the A’s have actually had a lot of stolen bases and relatively few players who took a lot of walks. As statistical analysis spread throughout Major League Baseball, the price of players who took a lot of walks went up, and the price of players who stole a lot of bases went down. So the A’s adjusted accordingly. This isn’t to say the A’s philosophy hasn’t changed at all since 2002, but at a very basic level what changed was not so much the A’s philosophy, as the data inputs into that philosophy.

* * *

Once I realized there’s this category of error — mistaking the output of a function for the function itself — it was easy to come up with lots of other examples.

  • Winning in team sports is about creating good chemistry between the players.

    Good team chemistry may be both an input AND an output of a process that builds a good team. It can hardly be the cornerstone of such a process. Talent is by far more important. It’s far more likely that a team assembled with talent as its primary input ends up happy as an output, than a team assembled with happiness as a primary input ends up talented as an output.

  • Religion is about obeying sets of commandments.

    If you have the proper relationship between yourself and the rest of creation, obeying basic commandments like “thou shalt not kill” will flow naturally as output from that relationship. For people who do not yet have such a proper relationship, these commandments can also function as input — as a reminder to help practicing, developing, and growing that relationship. Either way, input or output, the commandments are data. The function is something deeper and more fundamental.

  • Good foreign policy means deciding not to go to war.

    War is obviously bad, and an ideal foreign policy has peace as an output. But sometimes not going to war now can lead to more war and/or other forms of suffering later. Pacificism as an input may be the best way to create peace as an output in some contexts, but in others, it may not be. Looking at peace as a function instead of a desired output may lead to less peace, not more.

  • Smart economic policy means cutting taxes.

    The real goal of economic policy is to maximize the productivity of that economy. In some or even many contexts, the best way to do that may be to cut taxes. In other contexts, however, it may not be. And maybe in an environment of budget surpluses, tax cuts become a natural output of that surplus. In either case, tax cuts ought to be thought of as data, not as a philosophy.

I’m sure I’ll be seeing this category error all over the place now, and maybe you will, too. If you do, tweet me your examples!

Keeping My Eyes Up

When I come back after an extended break from playing soccer, whether because of injury or vacation, I always struggle to recover my field vision. When the ball comes to me at these times, my eyes seem to naturally want to look down at my feet and at the ball, instead of looking up to see where the other players are on the field. My decision making and my overall play suffer quite a bit as a result. I have to consciously and repeatedly remind myself to keep my head up. It takes me a few weeks to get back in the habit of assuming I have control of the ball with my feet so that I can look around and make good choices on where to move the ball.

I’m in a similar state right now with my writing. Back when I was blogging regularly, I understood without much conscious effort what the objections to my piece would be, so that I could address those objections in advance. But when I haven’t written in a while, I lose that habit. When I’m rusty, I have to deliberately go through my writing and make sure I’ve thought through those potential objections.

My first two entries after returning to blogging this week generated about 40 readers each. So I didn’t worry about needing to restore that habit so fast, I figured my readers will be patient, and it will come. But my story yesterday about MLB’s Customer Alignment Problem surprised me by finding it’s way to over 2,000 readers. And so my rustiness became a bit more of an issue.

So let me address a couple of things that I screwed up yesterday:

  • I assumed my audience of 40 were all regular readers of mine, and that they would know that the island I lived on was Alameda. Understandably, many of the new readers did not know that, and assumed when I said “island” that it was some rural place. That made my complaints about my cell phone coverage confusing. What I wrote only makes sense if you know that Alameda is a densely populated island, and there are many buildings in the way that interfere with cell phone coverage. I also didn’t mention that even though the cell phone coverage has improved of late, I still choose to continue to live without one.
  • My biggest mistake was not specifically mentioning by name. The people who have and root for a team outside the market where they live love the product. I should have made clear that for those people is, like ticket sales, an area where MLB does get direct feedback. My point wasn’t that MLB gets no direct feedback from their direct sales to fans, but that the ratio of indirect-to-direct revenues is increasing at a rapid rate.

Some minor mistakes there, but when you’re trying to improve, that’s OK. Science shows that if you want to improve, you should aim to fail about 20-50% of the time. Right now I’ve made clear mistakes in 33% of my blog entries, so that’s about right.

Hopefully, I’ll soon stop making these particular kinds of mistakes, and progress on to making more challenging ones. I plan to write a little bit about politics soon. That makes pre-covering your objections particularly important, because when it comes to things where people already have pre-formed opinions, people will read what they want to read, instead of what you write. I’m sure I’ll learn all kinds of new lessons from that.

MLB’s Customer Alignment Problem

As Apple announces the iPhone 5 today, I want to make a confession. It’s a bit embarrassing for someone like me who has spent his career in high tech, but here goes: I don’t have a cell phone.

At first, my reason was this: I lived and worked and played on a very flat island with no tall buildings, so coverage was awful. I had reception in only one room of my house, not at all in my office three blocks away, and spotty reception where I play indoor soccer. I spent 95% of my time at those three places, and I wouldn’t be getting what I was paying for. When I went out somewhere that coverage was better, I’d borrow my wife’s cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and my needs were met.

The cell phone service providers made a mistake. They gave me an opportunity to learn that I could live without them.

* * *

This is the image of an industry suddenly collapsing.

Why did the newspaper industry suddenly collapse like that? Because it got hit from two sides at once by the Internet. Craigslist and eBay took away their classified ad business, while blogs and online news sources directed their readership elsewhere for the same information. Newspapers might have been able to handle a one-front battle, but a two-front battle was catastrophic.

But there’s something else that hurt the newspaper industry: the indirect nature of their feedback loop. It’s a business model that provides a service to one group of people, while taking money from a different group of people.

The best kind of feedback for a business is revenue. If your revenue increases or decreases, you’re going to notice. But when the users of your product aren’t providing the revenue for your product, your feedback loop has a natural delay to it. The people who give you revenue might lead you to innovate (or not) in a direction your users won’t like, and you won’t notice that you’re making a mistake because it takes a while for that problem to reach your bottom line. So you react too slowly, and that slowness can be fatal.

* * *

In fact, all businesses that rely on advertising have this problem. Their users want one thing, and the revenue generators want something different. So if a company like Facebook starts alienating their customers in an effort to maximize their revenues, they may find themselves not just the subject of an Onion parody, but ruining their business before the bottom line has time to let them know they’ve made a mistake.

* * *

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a very smart man. He understands this problem. He knows that the key to keeping ahead of the rapid pace of high-tech change is to master the feedback loop between what his customers want next, and what his company makes next. That’s why in his Kindle press conference last week, he laid out this doctrine:

Think about the major players in high tech right now: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple. Which of these has their revenues most directly aligned with what their customers want? It’s probably in roughly this order:

Amazon and Apple sell most of their products directly to their users. When their customers buy something they make, they know the product is good; when they don’t buy, they know immediately they made a mistake. Microsoft doesn’t sell directly to users– they sell to distributors and OEM manufacturers, so there’s noise injected into their feedback loop, and they land just a little lower on this spectrum. Google sells ads, but their ads are often directly related to what the customer wants; if someone is searching for jeans, they get an ad for jeans. Sometimes the ad happens to be exactly what the user wants.

Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, need to inject their ads into an environment where the users wouldn’t really want to see ads at all if they didn’t have to. This leads to customer dissatisfaction, expressed not just in the Onion parody above, but also in a real-life alternative social networks like who are trying to sell directly to users.

* * *

My favorite product of all is probably Major League Baseball. I consume a lot of Major League Baseball. But MLB is going in a very tempting, but dangerous direction. When MLB began, a vast majority of their revenues came from the product their users consume. They sold tickets to the games, and that’s how they made their money. But more and more of MLB’s revenues are coming from indirect sources.

At a local level, if you’re a team like the Oakland A’s, who play in an antiquated stadium that doesn’t generate a lot of revenues, a big proportion of your money comes from TV and league-wide revenue sharing. So you can do things over a number of years, like threaten to move away and trade away favorite players, that damage your brand but aren’t directly noticeable in your bottom line. Ownership may not even know how much their fans hate them, because their loyalty to their local team keeps them around despite their dissatisfaction. But eventually, there may be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Los Angeles Dodger fans may have hated owner Frank McCourt for years, but it was only in the last year of his tenure that the dissatisfaction actually became truly noticeable in attendance figures. The feedback loop in baseball has quite a long delay.

In recent years, baseball’s misalignment problem has accelerated almost exponentially. Like the newspaper industry, the source of this change is new technology. Unlike the newspaper industry, however, the change has caused MLB’s revenues to increase, not decrease, dramatically.

The reason for this change is twofold:

  1. The DVR allows people to skip through commercials on TV. This makes live events, which people can’t skip through, a much more valuable delivery mechanism for advertising.
  2. Internet video allows people to watch television shows and movies without subscribing to any sort of cable or satellite TV service. Cable/satellite may or may not be shedding customers at the moment, but it’s certainly not growing much, and without sports would almost certainly be shrinking. This makes sports networks extremely important to cable and satellite providers: without them, most people will eventually learn to do without cable TV, and just get all their content from the Internet.

So this sets up a strange mismatch between what MLB customers want, and what their revenues tell them to do. MLB fans want to watch their favorite team on whatever device they prefer. But MLB’s revenue stream is depending more and more on their customers NOT being able to watch their team over the internet, forcing them to watch on TV.

MLB’s revenues come less and less directly from baseball fans, and more and more indirectly, from TV networks and cable/satellite providers.

This causes MLB to lose control over the customer experience of their fans. If a TV network and a cable provider can’t come to an agreement on price, for example, Padres fans can go a whole season without being able to watch their team on TV. And if not all TV networks are available on all cable/satellite services, fans have to scramble around to watch the games they want.

Or, fans just go without. And what does that do? It ends up teaching them that they can learn to live without your product. That too, may not be noticeable right away, until it snowballs too late for you to do anything about it.

* * *

But you can’t really blame MLB, can you? If you’re the Los Angeles Angels and someone wants to pay you $3 billion dollars over 20 years for your TV rights, do you turn that down? No, probably not.

In expectation of an even larger payday than the Angels got, the Los Angeles Dodgers recently sold for $2.1 billion. Given that the estimated value of the Dodgers just a year before that was about $800 million, over 60% of the value of the franchise lies in that regional TV deal.

But think about that for a second. The new owners of the Dodgers spent $1.3 billion dollars on a business model that:
(a) depends almost entirely on another industry that isn’t growing, and would be in steep, steep decline without your industry. If either one of your industries catches a cold, the other one will necessarily start sneezing.
(b) puts your industry in a complete misalignment with your customers, requiring you to prevent your customers from consuming your product in the way they’d prefer, distancing yourself from the revenue feedback loop, making it more difficult to know if you’re doing any long-term damage to your product, and where you need to improve.

The new Dodger owners obviously didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t think about these risks. Or maybe they did, and thought the math worked anyway. Or maybe they considered it, but they thought they could sell the team to someone else before the whole house of cards fell in, like an investor in a Ponzi scheme who doesn’t think he’ll be the one who ends up being the victim.

Who knows. But me, I wouldn’t touch a business model like that with a 10-mile pole.

The Intersilosphere

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

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

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

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

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


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OK . . .

Three and a half years ago, I wrote my final blog entry on Baseball Toaster. Although I’ve written a few blog entries sporadically since then, I’ve basically been retired from blogging.

I didn’t retire because I no longer enjoyed writing. I retired because I had spread myself too thin. At the time, I was:

  • Running and moderating a blog network with over a million page views a month
  • Writing on two blogs almost daily
  • Programming full-time for an internet startup company
  • Planning a major remodel of my house, and
  • Trying to keep a wife and three kids, one of whom was entering her terrible twos, happy

Looking back on it, that was ridiculously ambitious of me. It was too much. I was spread so thin, I was only able to do a half-assed job on everything.

I HATE doing a half-assed job at anything.

* * *

Jason Parks and Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus have coined a term (or precisely, a Twitter hashtag) for the kind of dedication it takes to maximize your talents and turn them into success: #want. #Want is about focus: dedicating 100% of your energy towards a goal. For athletes, this means practicing hard, working out, eating right, studying the game — all day, every day. You sacrifice your life for your sport.

But this doesn’t just apply to sports. The Silicon Valley startup culture is rife with #want. If you’re starting up a business, and you’re not working 100 hours a week to get that business running, you’re doing it wrong. #Want is expected, even mandatory–or so the culture tells you.

* * *

Leah Libresco has a different term for people dedicated to #want: secular monks. She notes that our culture fails to properly recognize what people with #want are trading away: intimacy.

If we were honest about what these jobs entail, we’d talk less in terms of success and more in terms of sacrifice and seclusion from the world. If we recognized the single-minded focus that drives Rosin’s interviewees to think of intimacy as obstacle, as life-thwarting, we might not hold it up as the ideal, the logical next step for the best and the brightest. Or, if the work is truly important and can only be done by using smart, high-energy graduates as emotional cannon-fodder, maybe we’d start thinking about how to reintegrate them into normal life, once their time of service was up.

* * *

Programming in particular is a monk-like job. It requires intense concentration. To be productive at all, you need to isolate yourself and work in silence, without interruption, for long stretches of time. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I had no problem with this. I would simply work from about 10pm to about 3am, and get 90% of the work I needed to get done during those lonely hours.

But as I tried to program as a 40-something while juggling a blog network with a family of five, this became impossible. There were four people in my family who needed intimacy from me, and I couldn’t give it to them. Even when I was physically at home, I wasn’t mentally at home.

I slowly came to admit to myself that my days as an effective programmer were over. It was time to leave the monastery. Libresco addresses this, too:

The high-commitment jobs that drive Rosin’s interviewees to forgo intimacy and that sunder Slaughter and her peers from their families are pernicious because we don’t yet have an expectation of when and how to leave them. There’s no exit strategy, no moment when your life as a turbine ends, and your real life as an adult with responsibilities and vulnerabilities begins.

I have a friend who recently retired after 27 years in the Coast Guard. The military, of course, has a deep understanding of the kind of sacrifices that its men and women make for the greater cause. They have procedures for deciding how and when a soldier should advance on with a military career, and ritual retirement ceremonies to guide its retired military into the next phase of life.

No such guidance exists in civilian life. How and if and when you are done, it’s up to you to figure out. Without a good model to follow for such things, we make inefficient choices. We make mistakes. It’s messy.

* * *

“I’m not 18, and I can’t start out like a raw cadet. No, there comes a time when a man finds that he can’t fall in love again. He knows that it’s time to stop.”

–Montgomery Scott, Star Trek: TNG, “Relics”

So three years ago, I shut down the Toaster. I stopped blogging. I remodeled the house. I got the startup handed off to other people. Then I took some time off, as they say, to ‘spend time with the family.’

This week, my youngest daughter started kindergarten. I feel like, finally, all the things that were on my plate three years ago have finally been cleared off.

But like Scotty in Star Trek, I can’t go back. Scotty realized he couldn’t be chief engineer of a starship anymore. And I can’t reboot myself into another programming job. It’s time to transition into something else.

* * *

When I’m faced with a major life decision that I’m uncertain about, I like to imagine myself on my death bed looking back at my life. Will I regret one choice or another? In other words, where’s my #want?

I’m certain I won’t regret it if I don’t program computers anymore. I’d like to start my own business (and be fully in charge this time), but I don’t think I’d regret it too much if I didn’t. I suppose I might regret not taking some other high-paying, high-tech job if my kids decide to make some expensive choices about college.

But there’s one thing I’m certain I’ll regret. If I don’t do this, I’ll always have this one big WHAT-IF hanging over my head: what could I have done if I had tried to be a writer?

So many of people in the Baseball Toaster community, both bloggers and commenters, have gone on to do amazing things. But they were all professional or aspiring professional writers, while I was just doing it as a hobby. My career was elsewhere. But what could I do if I focused on the task like they did?

Maybe nothing. Maybe I’d fail. But I’d always wonder.

I don’t want to wonder.

* * *

So I’m rebooting myself today as a writer. I’m making a commitment to write.

A commitment with one caveat: I won’t trade intimacy for #want. I will write, but I will be disciplined about it. There will be clear boundaries about when I am working, and when I’m with my family. When the alarm rings for me to go pick up my daughter from school, that’s it. I hit publish, perfect or not.

So every day, while my kids are at school, I will write and publish something. I will learn how to manage both my words and my time more effectively. I will try my best to become a full-assed writer instead of a half-assed one.

* * *

What will I write? Where will it lead?

I don’t know.

But I’d guess that although I’m giving up on being a programmer for internet startup companies, there’s one aspect of that world I won’t easily let go of: a preference to boldly go where no one has gone before.