Category Archives: Art Forms

Humans without Vulnerability

Every good story is, at its core, a story about human nature. Who are we? What are we really like?

In order to answer these questions about ourselves, we tell stories that put human beings to test. What happens if the various aspects of human nature get pitted against each other? What happens when we test our human nature against its limits? What happens if you change or remove some vital part of human nature?

Then once we have concluded a story about human nature, we then are left with a question. what does this story say about how we should behave and organize ourselves?

I recently found myself unintentionally but simultaneously binge-watching two stories that tested human nature in a very similar way, but drew completely different conclusions. Those stories were a web serial called 17776 by Jon Bois’, and the HBO television drama Westworld.

(WARNING: some mild spoilers follow.)

Both of these stories imagine a near-future where human beings find themselves in an environment where the intrinsic physical vulnerability of human nature has been removed. In the case of 17776, there are some mysterious nano-bots which automatically fix things anytime someone gets sick or hurt. In Westworld, humans interact with robots who they are free to treat however well or badly they like with no repercussions. People can kill the robots, but the robots can’t kill humans. If a robot is killed, they are removed, fixed, and returned to service good as new.

That’s pretty much where the similarity between these two stories end. The two stories reach very different conclusions about what humans would do if they suddenly became physically invulnerable. Bois imagines that people would spend their days playing and watching increasingly elaborate games of football. Westworld, on the other hand, thinks that people would primarily indulge themselves with sex and violence.

17776 is optimistic about human nature, and the conclusion you could draw from it is that our vulnerability essentially causes us to indulge in behaviors that harm other people. Human nature is essentially good, and if you removed the external sources of our vulnerabilities, there would be no point in bothering to harm anyone else, so we wouldn’t. Westworld, more pessimistically, implies that it is our vulnerability that prevents us from harming others, because we are afraid of reciprocal harm. If you remove that fear, we will all become psychopaths and indulge in orgies of harm. We are by nature essentially wild, dangerous animals that need to be restrained.

Which model of human nature is more correct? It’s hard to know for sure. These are fictional stories. In real life, you cannot simply devise a scientific experiment where you remove vulnerability from human nature and see what happens. Every aspect of human nature, our emotions and intellect capacity and built-in heuristics are evolutionary responses to all the various sorts of vulnerabilities that all our ancestors faced since the creation of the earth. Human nature consists of a complex jumble of behaviors that are not easy to reduce down with a simple two-dimensional A/B test.

But speaking of simple, two-dimensional A/B tests, I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to draw the parallel between these two views of human nature, and the views of human nature that underlie the policies of our two American political parties.

Did David Bowie Predict Obama and Trump back in 1999?

What happens when a monoculture fragments?

* * *

Here’s the big question in politics these days: how do you explain Donald Trump? Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has an interesting three part series on the question. Nate Silver presents three theories of his own. Scott Adams hypothesizes that Trump is a “master persuader“. David Axelrod surmises that voters are simply choosing the opposite of the last guy. Craig Calcaterra thinks it’s worse than all that, and we’re entering a new dark age.

Those are interesting ideas, I suppose, and maybe there’s some truth to them, I don’t know. But I want to throw another theory out there that I got, indirectly, while following the news of David Bowie’s death.

* * *

Bowie was very knowledgeable about music of course, but also visual arts, as well. There are a number of interviews of Bowie in the 1990s where he connects the history of visual arts in the early 20th century to what happened to music in the late 20th century, most notably an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight back in 1999.

* * *

First, some background. Up until the mid-19th century, the visual arts were very much a monoculture. Basically, you were supposed to paint pictures that looked lifelike in one way or another. But the invention of photography about that time changed the nature of the visual arts. The value of realistic paintings came into question, and artist began to explore other purposes for painting besides just realism.

The result of that exploration was that the visual arts in the early 20th century ended up splitting up into multiple subgenres like impressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, and abstract impressionism. Bowie said, “The breakthroughs in the early part of the century with people like Duchamp were so prescient in what they were doing and putting down. The idea [was] that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it, and add their own interpretation.”

duchamp

Duchamp’s urinal is the prime example of what Bowie is talking about. Is this a work of art?

…especially since Marcel Duchamp and all that, the work is only one aspect of it. The work is never finished now until the viewer contributes himself. The art is always only half-finished. It’s never completed until there’s an audience for it. And then it’s the combination of the interpretation of the audience and the work itself. It’s that gray area in the middle is what the work is about.

interview on Musique Plus, 1999

The urinal by itself is not a work of art, Bowie suggested. It becomes a work of art when you react to it.

* * *

But why? Why would this become an artistic trend? Bowie suggested that this is the natural result of the breakup of monocultures. When there’s one dominant culture, artists can dictate what art is, and isn’t. But when there isn’t a single dominant culture, breaking through to the mainstream requires the artist to meet the audience halfway. Bowie claimed that the visual arts went through this process first, and it became a full-fledged force in music in the 1990s.

I think when you look back at, say, this last decade, there hasn’t really been one single entity, artist, or group, that have personified, or become the brand name for the nineties. It started to fade a bit in the eighties. In the seventies, there were still definite artists; in the sixties, there were the Beatles and Hendrix; in the fifties, there was Presley.

Now it’s subgroups, and genres. It’s hip-hop. It’s girl power. It’s a communal kind of thing. It’s about the community.

It’s becoming more and more about the audience. The point of having somebody who “led the forces” has disappeared because the vocabulary of rock is too well-known.

From my standpoint, being an artist, I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified, I think by the rave culture of the last few years. The audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing. And that feeling is very much permeating music.

Bowie suggests that it wasn’t just music that this was happening to in the late 20th century, but to culture on a broader scale:

We, at the time, up until at least the mid-seventies, really felt that we were still living in the guise of a single and absolute created society, where there were known truths, and known lies, and there was no duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the seventies. And the idea of a duality in the way that we live…there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question. The singularity disappeared.

Bowie then went on to suggest that the Internet will go on to accelerate this cultural fragmentation in the 21st century:

And that, I believe, has produced just a medium as the Internet, which absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.

The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can visage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

It’s happening in every form. […] That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.

Look then at the technologies that have launched since Bowie made these statements in 1999. Blogger launched the same year as that interview, in August of 1999. WordPress launched in 2003. Facebook in 2004. Twitter in 2006. What’s App in 2010. Snapchat in 2011. Technologies such as these, which give broadcast power to audiences, have become the dominant mediums of the 21st century. The audience has indeed become the mainstream provider of culture.

* * *

Bowie didn’t make any specific claims or predictions about politics in these 1999 statements. But we can look at his ideas and apply them to politics, and see if they apply there, as well. It would, after all, be strange if this process which has been happening for over a century in the general culture did not eventually make its way into politics, as well.

First, let’s ask, are we seeing any kind of fragmentation in our politics? (I’ll limit myself to American politics, because I don’t know enough about other countries to speak coherently.) It’s fairly obvious that the two American parties are more polarized than ever, but let’s show a chart to verify that. This is from the Brookings Institute:
congresscompare780

As you can see, the parties were rather clustered together during World War II. In the 70s, you could see some separation happening, but there was still overlap. Now, they are two completely unrelated groups. So Bowie’s model holds in this case.

It could be argued that in the 2016 election, we are seeing a fragmentation of these two groups into further subgroups. On the Democratic side, there is a debate between the full-fledged socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders, and the more economically conservative wing of the Democratic Party represented by Hillary Clinton. (There do not seem to be candidates from the environmentalist/pacifist wings…yet.) On the Republican side, there are also clear factions now: the Evangelical wing led by Ted Cruz, the Libertarian wing led by Rand Paul, the more establishment Republicanism of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich, and the nationalism of Donald Trump.

These factions have always existed in the American political parties, of course. And there have always been subgenres in the arts and the general culture, too. But the difference this time seems to be that each faction is claiming, and insisting on, legitimacy. They are no longer satisfied with mere lip service from the party establishment. The days of the One Dominant Point of View are in the past.

* * *

Suppose that American political parties are indeed fragmenting. What kind of politicians succeed in that kind of environment?

The David Bowie theory would answer: politicians who possess the quality of allowing audiences to project their own interpretations onto them.

Whatever the policy differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it’s hard to deny that both Trump and Obama possess that quality in spades.

The socialist and environmentalist and pacifist wings of the Democratic party seemed to project their fondest left-wing wishes onto Obama, even though his actual policy positions were rather centrist. As Obama’s presidency unfolded, these factions became disappointed, as reality set in. And likewise, in his Republican opponents there arose Obama Derangement Syndrome, where many right-wingers projected their worst fears of a far-left Presidency onto Obama, regardless of Obama’s actual positions.

Now we are seeing similar reactions to Donald Trump. The Republicans who are expected to vote for him are seeing him as a sort of savior to restore conservatism to prominence after a long series of losses in the Obama and Bill Clinton eras. This is despite the fact that, Trump’s immigration policies aside, Trump’s policy positions (that we know of), historically have been more consistent with establishment Democrats. And yet, many Democrats fear a Trump presidency and threaten to move to Canada if it happens.

So there are benefits and drawbacks to this “gray space” strategy. When you give the audience the freedom to add their interpretations to you, you may not like their interpretation very much. There was some pretty strong hatred of Duchamp’s urinal as a work of art. Others see that as part of its brilliance. Similarly, Obama and Trump can’t really control the large amount of people who react to them with repulsion. But it goes hand in hand with their success. That’s what the strategy does.

How do Obama and Trump accomplish this? What are the elements that allows them to interact in that “gray space”, when other politicians don’t? A few guesses:

  • Be vague. Adhering to the specific policy proposals of a faction boxes you into that faction. It doesn’t allow room for other factions to meet you in the “gray space” between your factions.
     
  • Be emotional. Obama and Trump know how to give speeches that rile up the emotions in the audience. You have to give the audience something to connect to, if it isn’t your actual policy positions.
     
  • Step out from political clichếs. Bowie noted that by the 1990s, the standard three-cord rock-and-roll vocabulary had become too well-known to be a source of rebellion anymore. Similarly, the standard vocabulary of the Democratic and Republican parties have also become too well-known these days. The mediocre candidates these days seem to spend too much energy signaling that they know the Standard Vocabulary. We pretty much know what these politicians’ answers are going to be every question before they open their mouths to answer them. Hillary Clinton is a master of the vocabulary, but many people seem to be tired of it. Hence this article: “Hillary, can you excite us?
     

How do you defeat such candidates? I don’t know, but it probably involves forcing them to be specific, to peg them as being trapped inside one particular faction or another. To reduce the “gray space” between them and the audience. Good luck with that. Should be interesting to watch as the primary season begins. Start your engines.

* * *

Postscript: Here’s the entirety of the David Bowie interview with Jeremy Paxman:


Much Ado About SomethingGate

A play will be performed this weekend which has the following characters:

  • A unethical journalist who befriends a disgrunted employee and seduces an industry insider to gain access to better stories
  • A troll who, out of envy for what he perceives as undeserved fame and attention, slanders an innocent woman, who is then forced into hiding
  • A group consisting entirely of men who believe the slander and amplify it
  • A feminist who rails against the privileges and advantages of such men
  • A completely incompetent law enforcement agency

A brand new play, pulled from today’s headlines? Nope, the play was written about 416 years ago by William Shakespeare. It’s called Much Ado About Nothing.

Encinal High School in Alameda, CA, is putting on the play this weekend. And maybe a hundred people or so will see it, since it’s a high school play, and the first performance will conflict with Game 4 of the World Series, with a Bay Area team playing.

Which is a shame, because the things these kids (including two of mine) have done to pull the current relevance out of a 400-year-old play is remarkable. And that Shakespeare wrote a play 400 years ago that drips with relevance to today’s headlines is equally remarkable. It deserves to be seen by more people than that.

So if you’re an A’s fan looking to escape the Giants’ clutches on our attention this week, or if you have a few spare hours Sunday afternoon before Game 5, please come out and see Much Ado About Nothing at Encinal High School. You’ll enjoy it.

Details:

Much Ado About Nothing
Encinal High School cafeteria
Alameda, CA
Saturday, October 25, 7pm
Sunday, October 26, 2pm
Adults $10, Students $5
Running time: about 90 minutes

MuchAdoGraphic

Hubris

I believe the evidence is clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone.

Edward O. Wilson

In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, the title character hears a rumor that he may not be what he thinks he is: the son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Polybus and Merope deny the rumor, but Oedipus seeks external confirmation, and visits the Oracle at Delphi. The oracle ignores his question, and instead prophecies that he will kill his father and wed his mother.

Oedipus has no evidence he is not his parents’ son. He has no evidence to suggest he will eventually kill Polybus and marry Merope. But the latter is a much bigger problem than the former, so Oedipus ignores the first small problem and acts on the second, leaving Corinth forever, so as to avoid this horrible fate. He then proceeds to live his life as if he had solved his problem. And, of course, because this is a Greek tragedy, he hadn’t.

Rumors are not facts. Prophecies are not proven theorems. Yet it is not true that Oedipus had no evidence that he was not his parents’ son. He had the rumor. He had the prophecy. In a Bayesian sense, he should have considered the odds of his being adopted having increased from 0% before hearing the rumor and the prophecy, to what–1%? 10%? 25%?–afterwards.

The odds being less than 50%, however, the logical thing for Oedipus to do when faced with any given binary decision is to act as if the rumor was false. That’s the choice that gives him the best odds of succeeding, based on the information he has.

 

Hubris is extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character that ultimately brings about his downfall.

Hubris is a typical flaw in the personality of a character who enjoys a powerful position; as a result of which, he overestimates his capabilities to such an extent that he loses contact with reality. A character suffering from Hubris tries to cross normal human limits and violates moral codes.

–Definition of Hubris from Literary Devices

Is it extreme pride and arrogance to make the most logical decision? If so, then the human condition is tragic no matter what decisions we make.

If we choose with the odds based on the best information we have, we risk making a catastrophic decision because we lacked a critical piece of data. If we choose out of rumor and superstition and fear, we risk living a life where bad decisions compound themselves with every choice we make, and we end up living a suboptimal life.

The more successful we are, however, the more likely we are to make the catastrophic decision that results in a classical, Greek-style tragedy. With every successful decision we make, the less likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that we are lacking that critical piece of information, and the more likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that our decision-making process is sound.

If you have a decision-making algorithm, and you’re 50% sure it’s good, and then you test it, and it works, now you’re, what–51%? 55%? 60%?–sure that it works. Test it again and it works again, and the odds rise again. Eventually, if you reach the top of a hierarchy and stay there, you get really confident that you know what you’re doing. You’re the king!

Hubris, then, is the logical result of success. In every form of competition, somebody has to reach the top. The closer to the top you get, the more likely it is that you think your success is because of your knowledge and your decision-making process. The more you become certain that your data and your process are sound, the more you should logically make bigger and bigger bets based on that data and that process. And because of those bigger and bigger bets, the harder you will fall if and when it turns out that your data and/or your decision-making process was flawed.

 

But if you look at the impact those trades have on this particular team’s offense, it’s negligable. Offensively, the numbers tell us that losing Cespedes is no big deal.

Ken Arneson

If you look at Yoenis Cespedes statistically, there’s no real evidence that trading him would hurt the A’s very much. His numbers are mediocre, and easily replaced.

But looking back on the trade now, it feels like the A’s and their fans were focused on the wrong prophecy. The prophecy that a superstar ace pitcher was the missing piece to Moneyball. The significant rumor, the important piece of Bayesian evidence that we ignored was this: that the 2012-14 A’s team was not a product of Billy Beane’s genius. That this team played like complete and utter crap for five years, and then Yoenis Cespedes showed up, and it suddenly and immediately became good. That for 2 1/2 years, when Cespedes was in the lineup, the team played well, and when he was out of the lineup, the team played like crap, regardless of how well Cespedes was playing.

And then Beane, in his moment of hubris, trusting the logic and the data and the decision-making process that had made a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie of his life and had seemingly landed him in first place for 2 1/2 years, traded Cespedes away, and the team reverted immediately to playing like complete and utter crap again.

Could this Cespedes anomaly possibly, actually be real thing? No one can explain it. The fans don’t know why this Cespedes anomaly exists, and all the statisticians don’t know why, and Bob Melvin doesn’t know why, and Billy Beane doesn’t know why. There no evidence! It’s just rumor, innuendo, speculation, unfactual gobbledygook, completely illogical bullshit ex-post-facto rationalization.

But it’s there. It exists. It hurts to look at it. And it has all of us A’s fans wanting to poke our eyes out.

The gods hate us. They want to punish us for our pride and arrogance.

And you may say, gods are superstitious nonsense, that there is no evidence of an external wrath raining down upon us, no demonstrable cruel destiny or fate assigned us, no eternal Sisyphean existence vouchsafed us for the end of the present one.

And that’s true. There is no evidence for the existence of God, or gods. Except for the small, annoying, persistent rumor that at this particular point in time, we are here.

Fixing the Oakland Coliseum Fences (and Foul Territory)

Grant Brisbee has a fun series over on SB Nation where he ranks MLB stadiums by how well they make home runs look impressive. Surprisingly, he ranks the Oakland Coliseum 13th. It gets that high ranking because the various levels of Mount Davis provide a good contrast between a mediocre home run, and a towering one. When someone crushes one at the Coliseum, you can tell it’s crushed because it lands in the 2nd deck (down the line) or hits off the luxury boxes in center field.

That’s fine and all. I suppose it’s good that Mount Davis has some redeeming feature. But there are far more mediocre home runs than monster ones, and it’s what the current version of the Coliseum does to those wimpy home runs that I hate.

Hate hate HATE.

Really, there is nothing I hate more about the Coliseum than the placement of the outfield walls. Nothing. Not the troughs, not the sewage, not the crap we A’s fans have to take from other fans teams about the troughs and the sewage, not the 8th-inning Call Me Maybe, not even Mount Davis itself. I hate the placement of the outfield walls more than all of those things.

Except at the foul poles, there is no logic to the outfield walls at all. None. Look at the fence at any point between the foul poles. Why is the fence there? Why is it that height? No reason at all, really.

And worse than that, what really drives me bonkers about it is this: any EVERY point from pole to pole, if you hit the ball just barely over the fence, it DOES NOT LAND IN A SEAT.

Home runs should land in seats. Or if not IN seats, then OVER seats. Period.

* * *

Ok, Ken, you’ve been made Dictator of the Oakland Athletics for a day, and you can change one thing and one thing only. Give us your plan.

OK, I’m going to assume the A’s will sign a rumored 5-10 year lease extension, and are therefore planning to stay at the Coliseum awhile. This may be putting lipstick on a pig, but nonetheless, let’s make it a better place to watch a ballgame.

First of all, do you know why there is so much foul territory in Oakland? The story goes, as former A’s broadcaster Monte Moore use to tell, that the third deck had obstructed views of home plate because of its slope, so they had to move home plate further out than they planned.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but let’s say that it is. Well, guess what? We’re not using the 3rd deck anymore. It’s (mostly) tarped off. So why is home plate still pushed out so far?

We’re going to put home plate back and the foul poles back to where they originally were supposed to be. Then we’re going to use the extra eight feet or so we gain to add some seats in front of the current bleacher seats. What we end up with is (a) an outfield configuration where, except for at the stairs, every home run lands in or over a seat, and (b) every seat in the main seating bowl is suddenly about two rows closer to the action, in a way that (c) shouldn’t cost ridiculous amounts of money to implement.

Here’s what it looks like with the new configuration in left field, and the old configuration in right field (click image for larger version):

coliseumremodelcompare900

Let’s look at this in more detail:

 

1. We’re moving the foul poles over about 6-7 feet, so that there’s only about 1 foot between the pole and the foul line seats. This pushes home plate back about eight feet or so, thusly:

coliseumhomeplate

 

2. The wall nearest to the foul poles is about 2-3 feet shorter than the seats, and begins to angle away from those seats as you move more towards center field. We’re fixing this. The walls go all the way up to the seats, and hug the seating section all the way. No more balls that land over this fence, but fall short of the seats. Compare the new and old corners:

coliseumcorners

 

3. We’ll get rid of that stupid idiotic ledge above the out-of-town scoreboard. With home plate being pushed about 8 feet back, we have room to add two or three extra rows of seats, and still keep roughly the same distance from home plate as before.

I don’t know if we keep a scoreboard there or not. If you give free wifi throughout the stadium instead, you probably don’t need it.

I cut and pasted Fenway’s Green Monster seats here, to show you don’t need to add seats identical to the other bleacher seats. There’s room for some creativity in this new section.

coliseumbleachers

 

4. Centerfield is now about 405 feet from home instead of 400, but we’ve cut down on the foul territory quite a bit, so this may keep the amount of offense roughly the same as before.

coliseumcenterfield

* * *

Ahhhhhhhh, now see? That’s much better.

I’m sure you have all loved your Dictator for the Day, and Wish Long Life for your Beloved Comrade Who Brings Glory to the Homeland. Now please excuse me, I have some propaganda posters to go photoshop.

Azteca de Gyves

Today, the Random Wikipedier sends us to visit Azteca de Gyves, a Mexican artist who deftly juggles the contrasts between the personal and the universal, and the local and the global.

Ms. de Gyves hails from Juchitán de Zaragoza, a city in the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Juchitán sounds like it is like the Berkeley of Mexico, a very left-wing, rebellious city. Wikipedia adds, “The region’s progressive politics and strong work ethic have cultivated a tradition of powerful women and an unusual tolerance for alternative gender roles.”

Her work reflects both this political background and her indigenous Zapotec heritage, often melding the local traditional geometric patterns with modern styles. She recently had an exhibit which displayed, among other things, a series of large 3-D eggs painted in these traditional patterns. The significance of the eggs lie in both their local but also universal relevance. Eggs are a key staple in the local diet, but they also represent both the physical origins of life. They symbolize the spiritual rebirth found in the resurrection of Christ, in a heavily Catholic area.

For more, take a look at this video of some of her other artwork:

Bülent Güngör

The Random Wikipedier would like to introduce you to Bülent Güngör, a Turkish architect. If you judge by his Wikipedia entry, you would think that he specializes in restoring historical buildings. Maybe he does, but this promotional video from his architectural firm seems to suggest otherwise, as there are lots of modern elements shown here:

Perhaps the most notable thing about Bülent Güngör is that he has been chosen to be the architect on a project to realize a 500-year-old dream of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1502, da Vinci designed a bridge to span the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It was an unusual design consisting of three arches. Sultan Bayezid II rejected the idea, not believing it could be successfully constructed. But in October of last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that a group of private Turkish sponsors would build a pedestrian-only version of da Vinci’s bridge.

There are worse fates in the world than to be Leonardo da Vinci’s assistant, even if it’s half a millenium after the man himself.

And So To Fade Away

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

— Herman Melville

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

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

Continue reading

Of Holes

My baby daughter turns two months old today. For the first six weeks of her life, she didn’t do much of anything; she was like a cute little simple robot that was programmed to just eat and sleep and fill her diapers. Lately, however, there have been signs of sentience. If I sit her on my lap, she will stare intensely down at her own bare feet, studying them as if they were the two most interesting things in the universe.

* * *

I woke up yesterday morning and found my seven-year-old daughter in a state of hunger. Of course, she didn’t tell me this, I had to deduce it from her attempts to pick a fight with her older sister. When she’s hungry, she gets cranky and loses all ability to reason. She feels like nothing can ever possibly make things right (save food, but she’ll never admit that): she’s unhappy, that’s the way it is, and that’s how it always will be, and everyone else around her might as well be unhappy along with her.

Come to think of it, that behavior is not too much different from the two-month-old, minus the foot fetish. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

Me: What do you want for breakfast?
7-year-old: I don’t want breakfast.
Me: You need to eat. What do you want?
7-year-old: I don’t want breakfast.
Me: OK, let’s skip breakfast and go straight to lunch. What do you want for lunch?
7: I don’t want lunch.
Me: Dinner?
7: I don’t want dinner.
Me: How about dessert?
7: I don’t want dessert.
Me: You must be sick, if you don’t want dessert. Shall I call the doctor?
10-year-old daughter (sensing an opportunity): I want dessert for breakfast! Let’s have chocolate-chip cookies!
Me: I was kidding. You can’t have dessert for breakfast.
10: What about donuts? Can we have donuts?
Me: We don’t have any donuts, and I’m not going out to buy any.
10: How about chocolate-chip pancakes?
Me (sighing defeatedly, heading towards the kitchen): Oh, all right. I’ll make chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast today…

* * *

Reason is an elevator to Enlightenment. But Enlightenment is a just a small, lonely bus stop on a long journey to a chocolate-chip beach. Enlightenment is nobody’s final destination. Dessert, on the other hand…

* * *

Josh Wilker, as a young man, took a Greyhound bus to California. He found a hole in a grocery store security system. He stole some cream cheese. But there’s a hole in his story. Where did the bagels come from?

The bagels fell from the sky, into the ocean, and washed up on the shore. Barefoot people with tans combed the strand, gathering the bagels into baskets, and drove the baskets away in a vintage VW bus painted with all the landmark tourist attractions of the world.


(You got your loaves, your cheeses, your walking on water, and then the topper–Wow! Look at the front of that bus! What a header! Who was that–Jesus or David Beckham?)

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Death and Parataxis

Fact: 42 is an adjective.

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom!

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

* * *

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

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

…[snip]…

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

Which brings us to today’s wørd: truthiness.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Particle Man

* * *

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

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