Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Win Probability and Tennis

As a huge baseball statistics nerd, I love Fangraphs.com.  Well, I don't really read many of their articles, nor do I engage in their often contentious comment threads.  Rather, I love the thing that made it famous: win probability graphs.  If you haven't seen one, they look like this.

 Hey look, the Royals lost a game they should have won!

The premise is simple.  Given any game situation, you can calculate - based on the number of expected runs scored for both the remainder of the inning and the remainder of the game - how likely each team is to win.  Certain events, like home runs, tend to increase your odds significantly, while others, like strikeouts with the bases loaded and two outs, tend to hurt them.  Of course, context becomes extremely important, and the graph will fluctuate more in closer games like the Royals versus Tigers game above.

Now the cool part is not even the graph itself, but the "Leverage Index" beneath it.  Basically, the amount of change that is possible/likely in any given situation is mapped beneath the graph.  This leads to a clear, quantitative mapping of high and low leverage situations.  This in turn, leads to cool calculations of things like "clutch," which fangraphs calculates by comparing a player's performance in low leverage situations to his performance in high leverage ones (instead of the standard, and unsatisfying "close and late").

All of this is old hat to baseball fans, and my point isn't to recap what you already know or could find on fangraphs.  Rather, I want to put out a call to coders, web developers, and tennis fans to do this for tennis.  I've seen a man named Jeff Sackmann produce a "Tennis Win Expectancy Graph" for a particular match, but as far as I know, there is no widely available tool to let tennis fans calculate win probability on their own, much less a live scoreboard like on fangraphs.

If anything, win probability for tennis should be simpler than for baseball.  Rather than having to calculate run expectancies, your set of variables are much, much smaller.  If you use the tour wide statistic, as Sackmann does, that the server will win 64% of points, you can, theoretically, easily produce a win probability algorithm.  Turning that into a graph is obviously not too difficult, given Sackmann's own work.

So let's make it happen! Tennis needs would benefit from win probability graphs as much as baseball.  Questions that win probability (and leverage index) could help answer include:
1) Do great players "raise their level" on key points, or are they just always better?
2) How much of a difference in point-by-point leverage is there between a three and five set match?
3) What is the "most important" point in a given match?
There are countless others, so I won't list them all.  But even these should whet the appetite of the statistically-minded tennis fan.

Now you're probably thinking: "great, so do it yourself."  If only I could.  I have spent most of the day watching the U.S. Open and playing around with Excel.  But while the mathematics are not beyond me (though they are harrier than you might think), the coding is.  Perhaps someone else wants to take the baton?  If so, I'd be a happy contributor, cheerleader, partner in the process, to whatever degree I can.

Hey, fangraphs isn't just graphs, it's also writers.  If someone starts "tennisgraphs," I'll be happy to write for it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Corporate Death Penalty

If corporations are people, they should not only have the rights of people, but also the responsibilities.  They should be able to suffer the same consequences individual people do for immoral and illegal actions, including, in particularly heinous crimes, the death penalty.

Now what I'm not going to say here is that corporations are not people.  It should be obvious that they are not, but the notion that they are has been a legal reality in the United States for over 100 years.  So as much as the Democratic Party was ostensibly up-in-arms over Mitt Romney's "Corporations are people" gaffe, they've been on the same bandwagon for over a century (since, in fact, the Democrats were the conservatives and the Republicans the liberals).

No, the point here is that, if corporate personhood is a legal and philosophical reality in the United States already, we ought to extend it to its logical limits.  As is, the corporation (capitalized?  I think maybe yes)...  Ahem, Mr. Corporation is protected by the constitutional rights of individuals.  That is, his individual rights are protected under the 1st and 14th amendments, among others.

Obviously, this has created all kinds of problems, not the least of which being the (increasingly less) recent Federal Election Commission vs. Citizen's United Supreme Court ruling that allows corporate entities to give unlimited sums of money to political causes.  The result was the meteoric rise in spending in the 2010 midterms, and the even more insane fundraising that has already occurred in the 2012 election cycle (Barack Obama is on pace to shatter George Bush's reelection fundraising totals, and not because of grassroots support).  Of course, corporate personhood has been around and caused trouble for a long time before FEC vs. CU, but this particular piece of legal interpretation has dire, self-perpetuating consequences in a way that few previous corporate personhood rulings and legislation have.

How do we get ourselves out of this mess?  Well the root of the problem is, in some sense, that we've endowed personhood on entities that have no conscience, no fundamental ethical code, and no accountability to anyone except for shareholders.  Because most shareholders are only distantly involved in the companies they are invested in, and because of the cultural maxim that all public companies must maximize profits at all costs,* there is little concern for little stuff like making sure people or the environment aren't harmed by defective (or even effective) products and services.  The result is a set of beings with human rights, but without human responsibilities.

* Indeed, they must not only maximize profits, they must actually make more profits than they were expected to make if they are to do well in the market.

Getting rid of corporate personhood is well nigh impossible.  There's no political traction for it, no reason that either major party will challenge a nearly two-century old legal statute.  What I propose, then, is to force the corporate person to have a conscience by forcing him to be accountable for his actions.  There have been a great many well-known cases where corporations knowingly engaged in immoral behavior at the expense of consumers, the environment, or both.  While there are repercussions for such actions, they are usually slight and monetary.  While there are people held accountable for heinous corporate crimes, their prison sentences are lenient and their fines meaningless (and frequently uncollected).

Rather than approaching corporate responsibility quantitatively, let's approach is qualitatively.  When a corporation is convicted of a heinous crime - the intentional killing of a human being (or murder, as we call it in human-speak), for example - it should be subject to the same kinds of penalties an individual is subject to.  In particular, I believe we should sometimes put corporations to death.

What does that mean, exactly?  It means that the corporation is dissolved, it's assets liquefied and seized, and its board and CEO barred from serving with any other for-profit corporation in the future.  Is that too harsh?  Ironically, a great many people would say "yes," even though I'm talking about a corporation convicted of murder.  "Why," the argument goes, "should the people inside the company (and the shareholders) be legally responsible for the actions of the corporation?  The CEO is not the murderer."  Too which I respond, yes, but the corporation is being put to death, not the CEO.  The CEO and board, however, do share some responsibility for the corporation, and thus should not be allowed to serve with other for-profit corporations in the future.

What about the shareholders?  Well, they could conceivably cash out between indictment and conviction.  Otherwise, their investment would come to nothing.  What about the employees?  Well, unfortunately, they'd be out-of-work.  Now if that seems harsh and unfair to employees and shareholders (the "little people" in the equation), think about the other side of the equation.  If every single employee and every single shareholder of a corporation has that much stake in the corporation not committing heinous crimes, suddenly said company actually does have a conscience.  The CEO and board stand to lose plenty under this proposal, but the employees and the shareholders stand to lose even more, which makes them powerful advocates for the moral behavior of the corporation.

While the corporate death penalty - complete with severe professional ramifications for the board, as well as loss of employment for the employees and loss of investment for shareholders - would be a significant step towards ensuring a more ethical moral climate in the corporate world, it's far from a silver bullet.  Indeed, the hassle of prosecution, the potential economic ramification of a "too big to fail" company being put to death, and the difficulty of enforcement of the stipulations that would be necessary to stop the most corrupt of CEOs and boards from profiting even from the death of their companies (see Ken Lay at Enron) would prove significant hurdles to implementing such a proposal.  Hopefully, however, the very attempt would at least force us to recognize the absurdity of legal corporate personhood to begin with.

The biggest hurdle to the corporate death penalty, however, is that corporations would resist it, just as they resist rescinding corporate personhood in general.  Given their political influence, it would be nearly impossible to gain traction on a bill that allowed corporations to be put to death.  Given the Supreme Court's political leanings, it is also hard to believe they would uphold such a bill (though, in the process, they might at least be forced to declare the individual death penalty unconstitutional).  Nevertheless, I suggest that it might be an easier path to the end of corporate tyranny than any other we have before us.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Returning to Coors Field

For the first time in over a year, I made it to Coors Field for a Rockies game on Monday.  Though I missed the real excitement by one day (yesterday's game had a little bit of everything), the opener of the Astros series had a couple innings worth remembering.

First off, the Rockies - after much mocking by me and my fellow attendees for their abysmal offense - managed to score six runs in the first inning.  This offensive explosion proved enough to win the game, though the home team, in another shocker, managed to tack on to the lead in later innings.

All was not peachy in Rockie-ville, however, as J.C. Romero and Josh Roenicke combined to surrender 4 runs and record one out in the ninth inning of what had been a 9-1 game.  Rafael Betancourt was summoned to close out the game, which he did promptly by retiring two batters in, roughly, seven and a half hours.

The final out was a strikeout of former Rockie Clint Barmes, who batted with two runners on base and a chance to bring the game to one run.  Even as a die-hard Rockies fan, a small part of me secretly wished that Barmes would have hit the ball out.  As one expects with Barmes, however, occasional power comes with frequent strikeouts and popups, and so the game was hardly in doubt.  Betancourt, especially, is the kind of pitcher that Barmes struggles to hit well, and while he had a battlers at bat, he never seemed likely to square anything up.

The details of the game, of course, were nothing remarkable.  Instead, the reason I mention it in this space is because of the chance to return to Coors Field.  Recently Rob Neyer sung the only slightly over-exaggerated praises of the park I grew up in.  While even I'm hesitant to call it the best of the last 50 years, there's no doubt that it's an amazing stadium.  The views of the mountains alone are enough to separate Coors from most any other ballpark.

Unfortunately, we sat away from the mountains, instead finding ourselves behind the left field foul pole.  Our slightly-obstructed view of the infield meant that Mark Ellis was hard to see.  Which is fine, because he still barely feels like a Rockie to me (though an offseason resigning seems plausible, if unfortunate).  On the other hand, we had an unparalleled view of Eric Young Jr., who continues, for some reason, to play out-of-position in left field.  Though, as fellow attendee Joe observed, Eric Young Jr. is out of position no matter where he plays, so there is that.

 Me and the view from our seats.

As for ballpark banter, my favorite incident was our critique of a nearby fan's unfortunate sign.  It read "CarGo's #5 Fan."  Clever, at first blush, because Cargo's number is, of course, 5.  Not clever because it lacks the usual fanbole (fan hyperbole, per Joe Posnanski) of always using superlatives.  Perhaps, we discussed, it could be an ironic sign?  But the other side of the same poster-board said that it was the fan's first game at Coors, which suggests, instead, an unintentional faux pas in sign construction.

With Eric Young Jr. continuously in view, we hatched a plan for how to improve the sign.  Eric Young Jr. wears the number 1 - because, hey, that's what 5'10''* utility infielders/outfielders/fast-guys-who-don't-play-defense wear.  Combined with EY Jr.'s status as the son of Eric Young - of first Colorado home run fame - and you have the much better sign: "EY2's #1 fan."  Much, much better.

* Standing next to Dexter Fowler, Eric Young looks like a small child.  Dexter is 6'4'', though he only weighs, per baseball reference, 10 pounds more than EY.  Also, for some reason Dex can't steal bases.

The original sign showed its weaknesses in particular when Cargo came up with the bases loaded in the 8th inning. As Joe observed, "Cargo's #5 fan must be really excited, right now."  "Yes," I responded, "but there are four people more excited."

Perhaps all of this sounds irrelevant.  But that's exactly the point.  Watching baseball on television (or MLB.tv, anyway) for the past year, I forgot how different it is to watch in person, with friends.  There's a vitality to the experience that is lacking even on the most vivacious Purple Row game thread.  The game is alive.  What you lose in ability to see strikes and balls on television, you gain in the ability to watch the defense.  What you lose in announcing (which, frankly, is little with the Rockies broadcast crew) you gain in the quips and jabs of surrounding fans.

To those of you who live near baseball stadiums, this is not news.  But living in Hawaii - despite its many virtues - makes you forget the magic of baseball.  Even a mediocre, meaningless August game at Coors Field is enough to remind my why I love the sport, and why, even in the leanest and meanest times, I'll always be a Rockies fan.  In the end, it's not about the Rockies at all.  It's about being there - about feeling and seeing the game around you.  And, in my case, it's about Coors Field, because that's where I learned to love and understand the game, and the place that will always define my fandom.  Even if I live the rest of my life in the Bay Area, the Rockies will be my team because Coors Field is my baseball home.  And it was good to be home again, if only for one game.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Traveling

Just a quick heads up that the week-long silence here is a result of the move-in-progress.  Jericha and I left Hawaii on the 10th, are now in Colorado, and will be visiting New Mexico and San Diego before we make it out to the South Bay.  During that time I'll have some Internet access, but can't promise frequent blog posts (especially because this is prime novel-writing time).  Expect an occasional check-in, but our regularly scheduled programming probably won't return until mid-September.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Economy, Purpose, and the Fallacy of Infinite Growth

Introduction: The Language of Economy

Let's put aside labels and their connotations for a minute.  Words like "capitalism," "socialism," "communism," and even "economics" have way too much baggage and innuendo attached to be a part of a rational conversation. We've imbued them with Good and with Evil, and so one cannot be proclaimed a socialist or a capitalist without moral judgment following close behind.  Once cannot speak of economics without the intensity of fear, anger, outrage, frustration, hope, and expectation.

Putting aside the labels and building from scratch, what ought the fundamental building blocks of a society be?  That is, if we suddenly had the need to create a new nation, how should that nation be organized?  I don't mean what branches of government it should have, or what kinds of political parties (if any at all).  I mean something more fundamental than all of that.  What should the motive force for the people of that society be?  What should the implicit goal and purpose of individual and collective life be?

Building a Society

Freedom, it should be said, is not an end goal.  There perhaps was a time when it made sense as one, as both the French and American revolutions demonstrate.  But what does it mean to organize a life around freedom?  It means little, because freedom is a way of doing things, and not a reason for doing things.  To act for the sake of freedom is, in some measure, to act just because you can.  "Because I can," is rarely a good reason for doing things.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying the people ought to be free, need to be free.  While we might debate the meaning of "free," we can, I think, agree that any actual purpose in human life is best achieved when people are free.  This has been the mistake of communist (and other) governments of the past: they change the end goal while doing nothing to improve the conditions necessary to make that end goal attainable.  Without freedom, people cannot employ their creative energy towards their process, which prevents them from reaching a meaningful and successful outcome.  Just as you cannot dictate the learning of a child and expect that child to actually learn, you cannot dictate the life of a man and expect that man to actually live.

So what kinds of goals should a society be organized around?  Justice, like freedom, is not an end point, but a means.  Peace is the same.  How about, then, happiness?  Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence suggests as much: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" are inalienable rights.  Life and liberty are means, the pursuit of happiness is an end.  A reasonable and desirable goal for both individual human life and for a society.  Of course, we could probably come up with dozens of good goals, and reasons why each of them are flawed.  The point, however, is that it makes sense to have a philosophical purpose for a society as an anchor around which laws, governmental systems, and, yes, even economies can be built.

The Constitution, of course, reads "Life, Liberty, and Property."  Now, let's resist the urge to use those dirty economic words.  Think, instead, about meanings.  What, really, does it mean for property to be a right?  It does not mean, importantly, that our society need be organized around money.  Context does matter, here, however, and so it does mean that our society is not organized around the pursuit of happiness.  That was a revolutionary campaign slogan with no power to shape the law.*

* Indeed, it probably sounds absurd to say that the law should be organized around the pursuit of happiness.  One might even argue that the right to the pursuit of happiness is built into liberty, in every meaningful legal sense.  That very well may be true, but it misses the point.  The point is, liberty speaks to process, and pursuit of happiness speaks to outcome.  Pursuing happiness is something you do, liberty is something you need in order to do it.  In building a society, it does no good to speak solely of the means that people will have without speaking, to some degree, to the goals that will be supported and encouraged.  You may argue that supporting and encourage goals is not the work of a government (or a society at large), but of course it is an inevitable outcome of having a society at all.  What is a culture if not a set of supported and unsupported (or honored and shunned) actions?  Indeed, even the most libertarian states and individuals tend to have a semblance of moral sensibility.  If a society says that the pursuit of happiness is both right and a right, I suspect few would object on the grounds that said society is unfairly trying to control people.  And if they did object on those grounds, they must be very upset at every other society ever, which have had more obscure and stricter moral goals than happiness.

What, then, is our society built around?  There is no constitutional necessity that it be primarily commercial, despite the presence of "property."  Increasingly, however, that is our shared end goal.  Commerce, money, exchange...  Acquisition is the measure of a life in the modern world.  Why is this true?  Because our culture - with some governmental aid, but let's not shift blame to those who simply enact our cultural will - had decided, globally, that property should be the primary purpose of both individual human life and of our social existence.

Now, I would be surprised if the majority of people would say that money ought to be the end goal of individual human life or society in general.  I would also be surprised, however, if a careful examination of any individual life in the modern world would not include some concern for money.  You see, regardless of how highly any individual person holds monetary gain, it is a kind of implicit measuring stick in our society, a measuring stick, what's more, that shapes behaviors and determines possible actions based upon a shared cultural understanding that certain amounts of money equate to certain material resources.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that money is flawed in itself.  It's a useful abstraction for many reasons.  The problem is not money, but a global (and increasingly globalized) culture in which money is not merely a convenient way of ensuring that people's needs are met, but rather an entire organizing principle and end goal for human social life.  Much like grades in school, money is an abstraction of achievement that bears some not inconsequential relationship to actual success, but which also misses the point entirely.  If the purpose of going to school is to get good grades, and not to learn, then what good is school?  Similarly, if the purpose of life is to acquire property, to hold money, to be rich, then what good is life?*

*Again, I beseech you to stay away from the language of socialism, capitalism, and so on.  I am not talking about capitalism, here.  I'm talking about the fundamental assumptions of our society and culture, and whether or not they make sense.  If those assumptions are capitalist, if I am, therefore, a socialist... Well, then you've missed the point.  The point is not to label, but to live.

It would be insanity to create a school where grades supersede learning in importance (and so, of course, in many schools this is the case).  Insanity not because it doesn't make sense, but because it fails to go to the root of things.  Indeed, it makes a lot of sense for students to pay more attention to grades than their learning, and so most do.  What they miss, then, and what their teachers miss, is the opportunity for a more fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful experience.

Now lets take that entire paragraph and do it with society at large.

It would be insanity to create a society where money supersedes happiness in importance (and so, of course, in many societies this is the case).  Insanity not because it doesn't make sense, but because it fails to go to the root of things.  Indeed, it makes a lot of sense for people to pay more attention to money than to happiness, and so most do.  What they miss, then, and their law makers and luminaries miss, is the opportunity for a more fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful experience.

Now you may say that there is no meaning to human existence, so who cares how society is organized?  I would argue that that's just the money talking.  Because money is so abstract, so inherently meaningless except as a kind of measure of materially full but spiritually empty success, a society built around it tends to produce citizens who find life meaningless.  Why?  Because they are right.  True, they are free to find their own purpose, to organize their own lives around the pursuit of happiness or some other more meaningful goal, but at every turn they will be confronted with commerce, with their own money or lack thereof.  It is no accident that many of even the most ardent supporters of a spiritual life live in material comfort (and why shouldn't they?): in a society built around money, it is hard to be seen as spiritually successful if you are not economically successful.  We have an innate cultural bias against poverty.*

* Just as the school has an innate cultural bias against students with bad grades.  We say those bad grades (that poverty) comes from laziness, from stupidity, from an inability to understand the system.  The thing is, we've built the system not only so poverty (so bad grades) are possible, but in fact so that they are necessary. "The poor will be with you always" because, in a system built around money (grades) it is impossible for everyone - or even the majority - to succeed.  So whose failure is it?

The Fallacy of Infinite Growth

Little of this, of course, is surprising.  A society organized around X will tend to produce citizens who are deeply concerned with X, whether or not they think that X ought to be the purpose or goal of their own life or of society at large.  What's more, if X is limited in its availability, it naturally follows that people will try to horde X, even at the expense of other leaving other members of their same society with too little X to survive.

Ah, but there's the problem.  Everyone can have enough X.  Everyone get an A in this class.  Everyone can be rich.

The true, fundamental problem with organizing a society around money is none of what I've written above.  Sure, it is troubling and frustrating to watch people (both successful and otherwise) come to believe that their lives are meaningless.  Of course it's silly that we've fallen for the argument that money is the best way to assure happiness on a large scale (despite centuries of evidence to the contrary).  Yes it's amazingly stupid that we've made even having a conversation about economics well nigh impossible thanks to how loaded the language surrounding it has become, in spite of the actual meaning of the words involved.  But in spite of all of those problems, at the real core is this issue, which is tied up in human nature and evolutionary history: the fallacy of infinite growth.

Everyone can be, if not rich, well-off.  A rising tide lifts all boats.  Everyone can have X.

Except that's not true.  There are complex reasons why not everyone can have an A in a class.  Similarly, there are complex reasons why not everyone can be "well-off" in society.  But there's a simple reason why a money-driven economy makes material comfort for all impossible.  Finite resources, and the unsustainable nature of infinite growth.

Human beings evolved in a time and place where the size of the world and the resources in it were effectively infinite relative to the human population.  Acquiring material goods made sense for small packs and tribes because, well, there was so much stuff around that was so hard to get that it was crazy not to stockpile, to horde, to protect, to be "rich."  We have, built into our evolutionary psyches, a notion that the world will continue to support us no matter how much more of it we use.  And for good reason: this has always been true.

The problem is, it's not true.  Not at all.  The world is manifestly finite in size, and therefore finite in resources.  For all of the talk about renewable, sustainable energy and such, the simple fact remains: there is only so much stuff that we have access to.  Now think about the assumptions of a society built around money, an economy built around growth...  Recall that success and failure of companies in the modern world has less to do with profits, and more to do with growth of profits, with success relative to projections.  A growing economy, we believe, is a healthy one.  A growing world is a successful one.

Except the world cannot support more people (if it can even support how many we have now), and the economy cannot, fundamentally, grow ad infinitum.  Even if there were good philosophical reasons to organize society around commerce (and the first part of this post has argued that there are not), there are practical reasons why it is ludicrous.  What happens when we continue growing for the next twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?  Where will the people go?  Where will the energy come from?  What resources will we be able to access?

An assumption of infinite growth may very well be built into human nature, but it's an assumption we need to overcome, nonetheless.  Having seen the flaw of that assumption, it's impossible not to see the flaw of modern commerce: it cannot go on forever, because we cannot create ever more goods, ever more energy, ever more stuff when we only have a finite amount of stuff to begin with.  It would not only be better to organize our society - our world - around a different principle than money.  It will be necessary to do so.

Conclusion: Where Are We Going?

There is little reason to believe that there will be a fundamental change in the political economy of the modern world in the near future, despite the fact that such a chance is ultimately not only desirable, but necessary for the continued success of humanity as a species.  The reason such a chance is impossible is cultural and linguistic: we lack the language to have the conversations we need to have in order to restructure our political world.  We are stuck in a verbal shouting match, arguing over which deck chair should go where on a sinking ship.

It goes deeper than that, however.  Our current political and economic systems are self-perpetuating.  They make use of human nature to reinforce their tenets.  They make dangerous assumptions that are not only left unexamined, but are in fact are transformed into boons with rhetoric.  They serve no one - including the most successful - and yet are defended staunchly by even the least successful.  How this is achieved is not totally clear: there's deception, of course, but no vast conspiracy.  There's mis-education, but not explicitly.  Above all, there's oversimplification and moralizing without any attempt to understand the roots of those processes.

With that in mind, the takeaway here should not be that "Capitalism is Evil."  That's exactly not my point.  Indeed, the mentality that capitalism, socialism, or any other economic system is innately good or evil is in fact a large part of the problem.  True or not, those assessments forget to go to the root.  They forget to ask, "How ought a society to be organized, especially in light of the material realities of the modern world (where infinite growth is an illusion that has been dispelled)?"  They turn the entire conversation into an ideological shouting match, which, of course, only serves to perpetuate the existing cultural, social, and economic systems as they already are.

So what do I suggest?  Well, that's hard to say.  I think, above all, we need to engage in a conversation about purpose, about meaning, and about how we can better design a society, a government, and a world.  That conversation must challenge assumptions.  That conversation must undermine the belief that we should do things a certain way because it's natural to do so, or because we have always done so.  As Descartes attempted with philosophy, we need now, in the modern world, to attempt with society: to start with a blank slate.  We must ask, how ought we, as human beings, to design a society so that we all might live more fulfilling lives?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Language Has Nothing To Do With Words

The title is not really accurate.  Language obviously has something to do with words.  Language, generally speaking, is made of words.  But the importance of words to language is, I think, a little overrated.  Hmm, that's not really right either. Words are, after all, essential to language. No words, no language. No words, no blog post. Hard to be overrated when you're essential.

So let's try it this way: vocabulary is not the most important part of learning a language. We might add a corollary to the same effect about grammar. And yet, vocabulary and grammar rules make up the core of how we teach and learn language, whether foreign or our own. To me, this is like trying to teach someone to play piano by making them memorize the names of the notes (something many music educators do, of course). It's not useless, it's just not the most important part.

So what's the alternative? Well, I think there's a strong argument to be made for the importance of culture in learning. Can you truly learn to speak a language without an appreciation for how and when and where it is spoken? Perhaps you can, in a mechanical kind of way, but there's a reason why people learn more about how to speak Spanish by living in Spain for a few weeks than by taking years of courses.*

* This was certainly my experience, though you have to exchange Spain for Costa Rica.

Language is a cultural phenomenon. Think about how much of what you say is idiom, context, suggestion, gesture. Even in written text, there are cultural meanings and expectations. We learn to read not just words, but the meanings of words. We learn to listen not just to grammar, but to intonation and inflection.

Of course, none of this is a revelation. The importance of cultural context to language may have been news long ago in anthropological and even educational circles. As early as Wittgenstein, modern philosophy began a deconstruction of our concept of language which has meaning outside of context. No, the point isn't that this is news.

Rather, this is a gentle reminder - to myself, or to any educator - that language has everything to do with culture, and nothing to do with words.