Friday, December 31, 2010

The Status of Meaning and Truth in the 21st Century

Philosophers, poets, and lawyers throughout history have argued over what constitutes the truth.  Or the Truth.  Or the "Truth."  You see, it's one of those words that changes its meaning based upon whether or not the first letter is capitalized or not, and some people are liable to accompany the sound with air quotations whenever possible.  The reason?  Truth is a complicated concept, an ideal that, nevertheless, seems to have some bearing on the real world.  Truth is a thing most people think it is worth striving towards, and yet, it's also a thing that's incredibly difficult to actually find.

You could say the same things, pretty much, about "meaning," except that it rarely gets capitalized.  The search for truth and the search for meaning are in many ways related, though in our modern parlance the latter seems to have replaced the former, as we've come into contact with more and more disparate ideas about what truth might be.  As Truth (with a capital T) has lost its luster - as fewer and fewer people believe there is such a thing - more and more people are content to find meaning, knowing that truth - if it even exists - is probably not worth the effort.

In our modern age, what with Wikipedia, Twitter, email, and smart phones, it seems to me that the status of meaning and truth are changing in our society.  That is not to say that truth itself is changing - if, again, there is such a thing - or that meaning is becoming harder (or easier) to find.  No, what it means is that the status of those concepts and the way we use those words is changing in a way that is uncommon.  Hegel has it that human history is effectively a long series of reversals in the status of meaning and truth resulting in socio-political and spiritual transformations leading humanity towards a brighter and eventually perfect future.  I'm not sure I buy all of that, but part of it is fair: we, as a society (or a society of societies) are constantly redefining our purposes and goals.

That is not to say there's not a great deal of constancy in human pursuits.  It would be foolish to ignore, in spite of all the radical differences between modern computer-happy man and a hunter-gatherer, the many similarities.  Sure, our conflicts and desires are more sophisticated and/or fetishized than they once were, but they are still more or less the same.  We still want to eat food and drink water, we still want to sleep safely, and - perhaps most important - we still are subject to strong reproductive urges that a cynic might say dictate somewhere between 90 and 100 percent of our actions.  In some ways, things never change.

Ah, but what does change is understanding.  Understanding is not truth, of course, nor is it necessarily meaning.  Rather, understanding is a very human attempt to put construct something sensible around the chaotic mess that is the world we experience every day.  Hegel would argue that, just as an individual has understanding, so too does a society as a whole.  And even if Hegel wouldn't argue that, I will.  From an anthropological perspective, we might just call that social understanding a "culture."  That is, we establish expectations and shared experiences that are so ingrained into our world-view that generally we don't even believe that things could be any different.

Consider, as a simple (and classic) example, standard American elevator behavior.  We stand, facing the door, head and hands down, quietly.  Most of us engage in this socially expected behavior without even thinking about it.  There are, however, examples of more consequence as well.  Things like facial expressions, gestures, and intonation when we ask a question versus when we make a statement are vital to our conceptions of meaning, but yet go largely unexamined except by a select group of social scientists (who, it should be added, are mostly ridiculed).  Even more important are our shared assumptions about morality and practicality, assumptions which spill over into political and religious beliefs.  Indeed, perhaps the biggest reason why our political and religious disagreements tend to be so violent and irrational is because our beliefs in those areas are cultural and not rational; that is, they come from an understanding of the world that is vestigial, subtly inherited from the world we live in.

Despite those ingrained assumptions about everything from how to shake hands to how to argue about elections, it remains the case that things do change.  I am not persuaded that human beings are purely rational creatures, but it does seem to me that reason and assumption dance with each other in a complex tango, leading to refined and re-defined understandings, which in turn change the possibilities for how we understand things like meaning and truth.  An optimist, like Hegel, might call this process evolutionary, pushing humanity towards further refinement and perfection, while a pessimist might call it corruption.  But regardless, there is change.

So where do we stand, in the year 2011, with regards to meaning and truth?  Well, certainly we have destroyed "Capital T" truth.  Our social reality is such that it's impossible for any reasonable person to argue that anyone in particular has access to the Truth, and while that doesn't mean there isn't one, it does mean that determining what it is is impossible.  Faith still exists, of course, and a reasonable person might very well acknowledge that it is not intellectually inconsistent to have faith in a given system of truth - whether that be scientific, religious, political, or otherwise - but then again, while faith itself is not intellectually dishonest, faith without acknowledging the possibility that it is misguided probably is.  Indeed, I, for one, take a very cynical view of religious strife: it seems to me like the insecurity of a bully, who will say he believes in his strength, but who secretly understands that he is not, necessarily, the strongest guy there is.  So too the religious fanatic: the more fanatical, the less certain, fundamentally, he is about his faith.

"Truth," then, has become a kind of rallying call for the refusal to consider another person's perspective.  "You have your facts, and I have mine," is a refrain you have likely heard.  Ironically, while this means that the status of truth is undoubtedly in question, it does nothing to undermine the philosopher's ideal that Truth is worth trying to uncover.  That people refuse to converse with each other and consider alternative opinions is perhaps the best indication not that there is no truth, but rather that no one is particularly working hard enough to get to it.  A tutor of mine at St. John's was fond of saying that perhaps the Truth is very, very, very, very, very hard to get to, while even the most devoted lover of wisdom is only willing to work very, very hard to get there.  It seems to me that Truth, if there is such a thing, is something right now we're not even willing to work hard for.  If it's not on Wikipedia, it's not worth knowing.  Of course, that assumes that Truth is knowledge, when it might be that Truth is, in fact, a way of thinking or a way of being.

Now that we're getting Taoist about things, I think it's time to dive into the deeper linguistic issues that are at play here.  The biggest problem with Truth is not its distance or the difficulty of the search to find it, but rather its ambiguous metaphysical status.  What do we mean by truth?  This is why meaning is so important, and why Wittgenstein was such a crazy person.

Meaning, generally, refers to the desire we have for our lives not to be a miserable waste of time.  But beyond the personal meaning we also use meaning to denote, well, what things mean.  You see, the problem with talking about meaning is that it tends to be a circular conversation.  Meaning is the truth of a thing, truth is the meaning of a thing, and so on.  In the end, a lot of words spew out, but we don't get anywhere.  Again, read Wittgenstein and you'll see what I'm talking about.

So, rather than trying to define meaning, let's talk about the status of meaning in 2011.  Meaning is, in short, becoming more and more individualized, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more standardized.  That is, modern technology is making a kind of paradox that even Husserl in his worst nightmares could never have imagined.  Increasingly, we are encouraged to define and express our own meaning; we live in a knowledge producing, and not knowledge consuming culture (I am as guilty as this as anyone, seeing as I write a blog with very few readers, but read very few blogs myself).  We are all shouting in a crowded room with our Twitter accounts and Facebook status updates.  We, in short, are given a lot of leeway to define and understand what meaning means to us.

That's hardly a bad thing; indeed, more opinions and ideas is probably more likely to lead us to, if not truth, at least somewhere interesting than fewer opinions and ideas.  No, the troubling part is that the variety of opinions and ideas - the individuality - we honor so much is essentially an illusion.  We like, in our culture, to believe that the message and the medium are different, that the content and the form of a thing are only incidentally related.  I think that's foolish.  While we all have the freedom to individually express ourselves, that our media are so constricted means that the possibilities for our opinions are similarly constricted.  Twitter may allow for a huge range of expressions of meaning, for example, but how huge, really?  Is there not a limit to what you can say in fewer than 200 characters?

Similarly the blog, which allows for imbedding videos or songs or pictures, and thus can do things that writing alone could never do.  Nevertheless, it's still limited, it's still restricting in ways that I can't express or imagine.  Of course, you might argue that this has always been true, and you'd be right to do so.  Humanity has never - or rarely, anyway - been able to imagine expressing meaning in ways that reach beyond the restrictions of whatever the contemporary media may be.  But the danger we get into, now, that we haven't in the past, is the assumption that things are supposed to be the way they are, that modern structures are inherently good because they are modern.

Take one of my favorite examples: politics.  While major parties have always been more powerful than minor ones (hence, major parties), it used to be that people found it possible to believe that neither of the two major parties were adequate expressions of their understanding of the meaning of a democratic nation.  In such cases, significant - sometimes in the 20 percent range - swatches of the population voted for third parties.  Now, however, we have narrowed the spectrum so far that we refuse to believe that something outside of that spectrum could possibly make sense.  Voting for a third party is practically a mark of insanity, which only goes to show how dangerous constricting the form (the parties) and not the content (actual issues) can really be.

We might do this with political systems, as well.  Regardless of political affiliation, it's generally considered nonsensical to believe in any kind of government but a Democratic Republic, if you live in the USA.  Indeed, you have to support not just a Democratic Republic, but specifically the archaic American Constitution.  It's not that we can't argue for other systems; it's that we can't even conceive of those systems.

If such is the case in something as simple as politics, imagine how much more pernicious the result of this artificial constriction of meaning is in spirituality, or music, or philosophy, or emotion.  Now I'm not arguing that there should be no systems at all, or that it would be better if we had completely unchecked emotional expression (because, hey, hello murders everywhere).  No, the point is that we have artificially limiting systems that people don't realize are artificial and limiting.  That, again, has always been true, but never at the scale - and thus with the homogeneity - that we have now.  The process of defining meaning (though not meaning itself), principally because anyone can share theirs with anyone else, is in danger of becoming homogenized.  And anytime processes become homogeneous, it seems to me, you see stagnation.

Ironically - paradoxically even - we live in a time where meaning is exploding, but where the processes behind meaning are atrophied.  This is a crisis much more poignant than Husserl's fear that science would destroy meaning altogether.  Rather than the broad, soul-crushing forces of an Orwellian totalitarian world, we're trending towards a Brave New World in which we share a wonderful illusion of freedom, meaning, truth, and beauty.  What Huxley missed, however, was that you need not restrict access to ideas or thoughts or even processes: you need only provide systems that are sufficiently limiting in form, but boundless in content.  Given the proper impetus, people will restrict themselves willingly.

The status of meaning and truth in the 21st Century?  Perilous, but expansive.  Paradoxically healthier and sicker than ever.  But that should come as no surprise.  The truth of the matter is, complexity and paradox have always been present in human experience, its just that we avoid acknowledging it.  Now we live in a time where refusal to acknowledge paradox is much more dangerous than it ever has been, whilst the opportunity to benefit from acknowledging paradox is larger than ever.  Color me pessimistic, of course, but hopeful.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reflecting on The Once and Future King

I've never been an Arthurian Legend buff, really.  Knights in shining armor and round tables didn't grab my imagination in the way that, say, spaceships or fictional baseball leagues did.  Not that I was opposed to the idea, but the child's fascination with the dragons and unicorns and fairies and such of fantasy worlds never grabbed me.  No wonder I read a lot more Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov than I did, well, whoever the famous fantasy authors are supposed to be.  While I did, like a good little nerd, read and love Tolkein, I got through half of the first Harry Potter book before giving up, whereas the Ender's Game saga captivated me for months.

So what I'm saying is, I've always been a science fiction reader, and never a fantasy reader.  I took a flier, however, on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, a book most famous among my generation for the film adaptation of its first section, The Sword in the Stone.  It's a kind of historical fiction / fantasy hybrid, based upon the historical myth of King Arthur, but infused with non-nonchalant cameos by witches, wizards, unicorns, and a particularly strange knight errant and his complex Questing Beast.  Indeed, a big part of what makes White's retelling of the Arthur story so engaging is the non-fantastical treatment he gives to the fantastic.  When, for example, the trio of young Orkney tribesmen (Gawaine, Agravaine, and Gareth) venture out to capture a unicorn, the reader is tempted to suspect that there are no unicorns, and that the errand is a foolish and impossible one.  And yet, the unicorn appears - thanks to the presence of a maiden with the party, who they use as bait - and is promptly savagely killed by Agravaine, the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of the brothers.

The unicorn scene is perhaps the most emotionally intense of the novel, not merely because of the brutal destruction of the beautiful unicorn, or even the recognition by the other two brothers of how horrible their actions really are.  No, it's so intense principally because of how well White walks a paradoxical line between the matter-of-fact appearance of the unicorn and the wonder even the bloodthirsty brothers have for the creature.  Agravaine kills the animal, it seems, because it is beautiful and pure, his own brutality and the complicity of his brothers a condemnation of the brutality and complicity of human nature when faced with not only the natural, but the wondrous.

Of course, these Orkney brothers will be among the principal of Arthur's knights.  The time White spends describing them and their home serves a dual purpose of providing background for some of the book's major conflicts and, perhaps more importantly, showing the reader what it is that Arthur has to work with when he strives to replace the rule of Might and Force with the rule of Justice and Law.  The men who will enforce his new order are the same men who would murder a unicorn for no good reason, simply out of their own malice.  What hope does his round table have.

The Once and Future King is, in the end, a tragic story.  It is no wonder that the first section and the first section alone was made into a movie, for it is Arthur's childhood that is the stuff of joy and magic.  Indeed, magic and wonder conspicuously decrease as the story progresses, as Arthur ages, as Merlyn is whisked away to a solitary imprisonment.  A story that begins with Arthur being turned into a fish, a bird, and an ant ends with men firing canons at each other, with the entire line of King Pellinore (the knight errant) and his Questing Beast slain, with a heartfelt conversation between Arthur and a young page who's charge it is to remember the idea of justice.

The contextual shell of the book is that effort, then, to install justice in place of might.  King Arthur is an idealist, a young squire elevated to his station as King thanks to happenstance, but thanks also to a wily magician cum tutor in Merlyn.  It is interesting that Arthur himself blames Merlyn, in the end, for many of his failing.  Merlyn is a man of ideas, it turns out, ideas that Arthur believes almost unquestioningly, simply because of his faith in the magician.  While those ideas may still be good, Arthur's attempts to make them reality - to turn his medieval English world into a more just and lawful one - are thwarted by the nature of the men who he is trying to reform.  We might put it this way: Arthur is always just and good, and never needed to be made into those things.  Little wonder, then, that he can't figure out how to change other people, when he has so little experience changing himself.

Of course, the story is more complicated than that, because there are chapters in which White describes the incredible successes of Arthur.  Oh, those chapters have their own mocking tone, intentional over-exaggerations about the transformations of the land.  One of those hyperbole's ends with the wonder flourish, "a plethora of napkins," while another describes how, where once the roads were too dangerous to travel, not pilgrims can tell each other dirty stories on the way to Canterbury.  Such jokes, however, belie the real improvement of Arthur's England.  While over-the-top to the point of being impossible to take seriously, the descriptions of the land before Arthur's reign are as terrible as the new order is wonderful, and it is impossible not to think that, while the advent of a Chaucerian world may be cause for derision, it is also a significant improvement over a world where Chaucer would be unceremoniously slaughtered.

The heart of the novel, however, is not Arthur's search for a just society.  Indeed, a book that begins with the education that is supposed to aid that effort - and ends with its failure - is in fact mostly concerned with Sir Lancelot and his relationship with Arthur, with Guenevere, and with God.  This quadrangle has a chapter devoted to it explicitly, wherein White talks frankly - in the tone of a history professor, more than a novelist - about Lancelot's complex emotional and romantic entanglements.  Of course, the most obvious outcomes of the Lancelot story are the ones that influence Arthur's efforts, but that's what makes the telling of them so strange.

What I mean is, in a novel about King Arthur, it is odd that a full half of the book barely mentions Arthur at all.  The first section, the aforementioned Sword in the Stone, is Arthur heavy, as is the closing Candle in the Wind, but the second section, The Queen of Air and Darkness, and the third, The Ill-Made Knight, focus on the Orkney clan and Lancelot respectively.  Arthur is in the background of these sections, but whereas he is a person - a child - in the first section, he more and more becomes a symbol, an archetype, an idea as the novel goes on.  Such, we must suppose, is the fate of Kings.

Lancelot, on the other hand, is unquestionably a man, and a compelling one at that.  The story of his illicit romance with Guenevere is the most human drama of the novel.  It is not, however, a Romeo and Juliet tale, nor is it told with particular exuberance or wonder.  No, White paints a very real picture of their love, neither glorifying nor denigrating it.  They simply are, as if they are meant to be.  And yet, so much time is spent on the circumstances of their love, on the single-minded education of Lancelot in his personal quest to become the greatest knight in the world, and on the simple religious devotion the knight has for both his lover and his God.  It is Lancelot himself - likely in recognition of his hypocrisy in loving and emulating Arthur, whilst cuckolding him at the same time - who chooses the epithet "le chevalier mal fet," or the "Ill-made knight."  That moniker, while at least in part a jest - after all, if Lancelot is ill-made, what are Gawaine or Agravaine, or any of the other, lesser knights? - it is also revealing not only of Lancelot himself, but of King Arthur and his effort to establish Good over Might by use of might.  What knight - even the best in the world - could be anything but ill-made?

The real value of The Once and Future King, however, is not its political, moral, or romantic lessons.  It is a thought-stimulating book to be sure, but much like Cervantes's Don Quixote, that there is depth to the novel doesn't mean that it's not a pleasure to read.  Above all, The Once and Future King is a good story, at once beautiful and joyful, and ugly and tragic.  It shows the best of human nature and the worst, and at various times it made even a seasoned, cynical reader like me laugh and (nearly) cry.  Hey, it even compelled me to write a blog post.  I had the book recommended to me, and I picked it up with the skepticism of a man who usually prefers lasers to lances in his light reading.  What I found is that impressive and seemingly paradoxical combination of light and meaningful reading, of a book where a page called Wart can be turned into a falcon or a goose, and thus learn more about the world than he every could just staying a boy.

In all, The Once and Future King is as wonderful a simultaneous celebration and condemnation of humanity as you'll ever find.  And while you read it, you won't care which it is, because it's just that fun.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

LeBron James Misunderstands Contraction

In honor of the NBA's insane practice of playing fifty games on Christmas Day, here's a basketball post for all of you yule-tide guards, forwards, and centers who are skipping out on dinner to watch hoops and surf the web.

I read an interesting piece last night on in which LeBron James says the following: "Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team," James said. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]."  LeBron goes on to propose that taking good players off of bad teams and then putting them onto better teams would improve the NBA, principally because - we can assume - such a move would increase the overall talent pool of the league, and thereby improve competitiveness.

Leaving aside the many financial reasons why the NBA would never even begin to consider contracting franchises, let's take a quick look at the classic argument that fewer teams equals more competition.  The claim that any league will become "watered down" with the addition of new teams is a surprising one to me, given the large number of contrary examples available across sports.  Without even beginning to do quantitative or statistical analysis, you can point to college football, college basketball, or European soccer as prime examples of sports where more teams hardly thwarts competitive balance.  While certainly the overall talent level of the NFL is higher than the NCAA, no one (that I've heard, anyway) really argues that the NCAA should trim the FCS down to its 30 best programs, in large part because you'd have a lot of argument about which programs belonged and which didn't.

Similarly, while European soccer leagues are notoriously top-heavy (Rangers and Celtic win the Scottish league every year; Roma, Inter, and AC Milan duke it out in Italy; Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only two Spanish contenders; Manchester, Arsenal, and Chelsea usually top the EPL; and so on), there's not nearly so much to separate those league champions and runners-up from each other, as the Champions League routinely demonstrates.  And, what's more, the there are enough fans to support not only Premiership (or equivalent) teams around Europe, there are enough to support second, third, fourth, and sometimes even fifth tier professional clubs.  Far from decreasing the competitiveness or intrigue of the leagues, that there are well over 100 progessional soccer clubs in England alone seems to improve the overall quality of the game, because more people (hence, more talent) actually have an opportunity to make a living playing the sport.

This last point is especially important when you consider player development.  European soccer stars often hone their skills at a young age by playing for lower-division teams on loan.  Instead of riding the bench and just participating in practice, a future phenom has a chance to participate in real competitive matches, real promotion races, and real cup games with other players who - while not of Premiership quality - are also professionals, are experienced and knowledgeable, and are trying really hard because, hey, it's their job and their passion.  Compare that to American sports, where development almost always takes place in leagues dominated by - indeed, almost exclusively composed of - younger players.  Perhaps it's a minor difference, but the point is that more professional teams seems not only to help soccer in Europe financially, but competitively as well.

Returning to the NBA, LeBron is right in assuming that the overall level of talent in the NBA would increase with contraction.  It stands to reason that, if you take the current 150 starters (from 30 teams) and trim that down to, say, 100 starters (for 20 teams), you're generally going to improve the average overall quality of starters league-wide.  Likewise down the roster, where the roughly 360 NBA players (assuming a roster of 12) would be cut substantially to 240.  Since the NBA is the premier basketball league in the world, it's safe to assume that you'd be going from very close to the best 360 basketball players in the world to the best 240.  Of course there's some fudge-room at the edges, where evaluating talent and meeting team needs might mean that the 250th best player makes it onto a roster before the 230th best does, but roughly you're going to be in that range.

But does decreasing the number of players, and therefore increasing the overall average quality of players league-wide, really improve the league?  That really depends upon what you want to see, as a fan, and what the league is trying to accomplish from a competition standpoint.  Certainly you're likely to see a higher quality of basketball in a smaller league, but not by very much.  Given that basketball talent, like talent in most areas, is almost certianly normally distributed, some rough math (assuming about 10,000 professional / aspiring professional basketball players in the world; a very rough guess) tells us this: in real terms, the difference between the 240th best player and the 360th best player in the world is about the same as the difference between the best player in basketball and the second best.  Those 120 players in-between, in other words, are pretty close to each other in skill.

What LeBron James misunderstands, then, is two-fold.  1) Success in the NBA - like in any sport at the highest level - is only partially the result of talent. 2) Improving overall average talent does not necessarily improve competitiveness.

The second of these misunderstandings first.  When you cut a league's size, even by a substantial number like 10 NBA teams, you don't change the talent pool all that much, as we see above.  But even more importantly, in changing the average level of talent, you do little to change the distribution of that talent.  Sure, the overall quality of play league-wide might improve by some small measure, but you're still liable to have a small set of dominant teams, a bigger set of middling teams, and another small set of poor teams.  While sometimes the league will skew one direction or another, it would be foolish to forget that team quality, just like player talent, tends to be normally distributed.  Lowering the league size will make that distribution less obviously normal, but it doesn't change that some teams will still be stacked while others are terrible.

Now, it is still right to say that the worst team in the league will be better in a 20 team league than in a 30 team leauge.  However, the point is that the best team will also be better, and probably by roughly the same amount.  Which means that LeBron's Heat would not be playing a star-studded opponent every night.  Far from it; they'd be heavy favorites just as often, if not more often, in a smaller league.

Consider, as an example to bring the point home, your fantasy league.  Instead of distributing the NBA's 360 players amongst 30 teams, you've split them up between 10 or 12 (or something).  Now, in pure talent terms, the team you put together featuring the best players from 5 different NBA teams is pretty awesome, but the other guys in your league have done the same thing.  Suddenly, in that setup, everyone has great players on their team, and winning becomes a matter of getting the best of the best.  Odds are someone (or sometwo) dominates your fantasy league, a bunch of other teams are middle-of-the-pack, and a couple teams - probably abandoned - really suck.  Similarly, in a smaller NBA some of those stars on bad teams might be united with stars from good teams to form all-star rosters, but stardom is relative, and that guy who looks like a stud in a league of 30 might suddenly be average in a smaller league.  Just like in fantasy sports, smaller leagues tend to make what used to be great players look good, and good players look average.  That's what happens when you shift the average talent level upwards.

If anything, LeBron should advocate for expansion if he wants to see teams with more great players.  It's a lot easier to be three standard deviations (or more) above average when the average is lower, after all.

As for the other misunderstanding I mentioned above, even in a league with a smaller distribution of talent, there's not likely to be a substantive change in competitive balance because talent is only a part of what makes a basketball team successful.  Is it a big part?  Of course.  But - and especially as you decrease talent disparity - things like how well players do their jobs, how well the coaches game-plan, and, of course, luck play huge roles in determining outcomes.

Consider college basketball.  In the NCAA, it is enough for Duke to simply show up and beat most teams in the country because they have more talent.  Not so in the NBA.  Sure, the Lakers will probably beat the Timberwolves 9 times out of 10 - or even 49 times out of 50 - on talent alone.  But Duke will beat Bethune-Cookman or Denver University 999 times out of 1000 because they are that much more talented.  Even the worst NBA team is still composed of 12 of the top 400ish basketball players in the world (which is far from true in college basketball).  That alone is enough to allow them to compete against anyone they might play, even if they have a disadvantage.  A gameplanned and prepped worst team (by talent) in the NBA would probably beat a completely unprepared best team (by talent) fairly often.

What separates great teams in the NBA, then, is not merely talent, but how that talent is used, and how the coaching staff decides to employ that talent.  Indeed, it is easy for us to confuse talent for preparation at the elite echelons of sport, especially because the ability to fit into a system often wins out over talent in determining who should get a roster spot.  Regardless, it's silly to think that a smaller league would change the impact of game-planning and roster-construction on NBA success.

I want to close with a final observation that seems almost too obvious.  I wonder whether LeBron realizes that, if you cut the number of teams in the NBA, you also cut the total number of points scored, the total number of assists, the total number of rebounds, and so on.  Even if you keep the schedule at 82 games a team, those two or four or ten missing teams don't have players amassing points and minutes, and as the Heat are discovering this year, it's a lot harder to be the guy who scores 30 points per game when you've got 3 guys capable of scoring 30 per game.

A team, in a smaller league, has a couple options: it can try to distribute the ball evenly to its many star players, in which case none of them look quite as starry as before, or it can anoint a leader, and given him the ball most, and make everyone else a role player (or somewhere in between those two options).  In other words, teams still have to make the exact same decisions in a smaller league that they do now.  And, in the end, most of them would choose to take current "stars" and turn them into role-players to even better stars, just like the successful USA Olympics basketball team in 2008 did with Kobe Bryant (defensive specialist) and Carlos Boozer (rebounder), just like the Lakers do, and just like the current Heat are starting to do.

So to any of you who believes that contraction is the way to a better league in any sport, I challenge you to think again.  After all, if smaller leagues were really more compelling, we'd all watch the Harlem Globetrotters instead of March Madness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Return of More Interesting than it Seems: William Faulkner on Books, Blogs, and Tweets

How's that for a long blog post title?

There's a William Faulkner quotation that I want to lead off this post with.  It goes like this: "I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."

Something tells me that Dan Brown, for example, isn't really a failed poet.  Or maybe he is, but he took up writing (bad) novels for an entirely different reason than Faulkner did.  There's really not very much money in poetry these days, while there's still plenty in trashy suspense stories that can be made into movies starring Tom Hanks.  There's little question in my mind that Carson Cistulli is a more talented artist - and probably far more sarcastic - than Dan Brown.  Hell, the title of his book of poetry, Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated, is way better than the uninspired dribble that most modern novels are adorned with.  Of course, it's unfair to call modern novels "novels" in any real sense.  They're more like extended sound-bytes, pre-fabricated and totally predictable explorations of human action tailored to what sells, and not what is interesting or revealing of human nature or profound.

Now that I've demonstrated my snobbishness, I want to consider the place of books - novels in particular - in the modern literary world.  Despite my cynicism, there are still authors who write real books, novels like The Alchemist or the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay* which count as real novels written for artistic reasons, and not merely to sell.  Of course, they may do both, and any publisher worth his or her salt will not take a book written without the potential to sell (which is why Dune, for example, was turned down by so many publishers; ditto Stranger in a Strange Land).  But some books retain artistic merit, are built around fundamental questions about human existence and experience, and, perhaps above all, actually make the reader think.

* I must shamefully admit that I haven't read either of these books yet.  They are, however, on my ever-ballooning reading list, and I'll get to them just as soon as I finish the other bazillion books I also intend to read.

Books, however, are a dying media.  Oh, there are still more than plenty of books being written - indeed, probably more now than ever - but a smaller and smaller portion of the daily reading of even the staunchest book defender (like myself) is happening on the page.  To be clear, I'm not talking about eReaders, which perform the same function as a book.  I'm talking about blogs, tweets, forums, and, perhaps most important and most overlooked of all, comments.

The blog is an obvious stand-in for the newspaper, and likely owes to the slow death of papers around the country.  Why pay to have a honking, advertisement-ridden jumble of information about topics ranging from who died to who won the hockey game to who murdered who when all you care about is the political editorials?  Why recycle 50 pages of unread paper every day when all you want is that fold-out photojournalism special?  The blog world provides an opportunity to read just that one section - and probably in more depth, detail, and sophistication thanks to the specialization of most blogs - without having to wade through the rest, without having to pay, without having to recycle, and so on.

The danger here, of course, is self-selection.  If all you read are blogs written by fervent Democrats or Republicans, you're liable to take an already biased perspective and subtly tweak it further and further until you can't even recognize the potential for reason in any perspective that differs from your own.  Whereas the newspaper may have had subtle biases, but largely strove to be objective, or are not likely to present the facts of a story without adjusting them to fit their politic desires.  Indeed, they're not likely to present the same stories at all.

Which only means that there's more onus on the reader to be objective and critical, to know when there is a real debate going on, to know when to take the other side seriously, and to know when red herrings are being served to each other's straw men.  Unfortunately, most readers seem incapable of doing this - or, worse, are unwilling to try - and so most of our blogly conversations are like attracting like.  The conversational power of the Internet turns, not to an integrating or dialogic force, but rather a divisive one.

Which brings me back to Mr. Faulkner, who wrote charged books that are extremely difficult for even a well-read, intelligent person to understand.  He intentionally confuses, complicates, draws complex images and connections, and uses symbolism that is self-developed (rather than cultural stock).  He is, indeed, a kind of poet writing novels.  Or, as he has it, a failed poet.  His quotation - with which this post began - is fascinating to me not just because Faulkner is regarded as one of the finest novelists in American history, but because of all novelists his novels are some of the most poetic.

If we draw Faulkner's line from poem to story to novel, I wonder where we put our modern forms of composition.  Where does the email go?  Where the blog post?  Where the tweet?  Perhaps Faulkner's continuum has nothing to do with what we're writing these days, because so much of our writing and so much of our reading have become communicative instead of artistic.  Are people on Twitter trying to say something about anything other than themselves?  Then again, are writers of novels and poems any different, except in that they take more time to do it?  Good writing is both impersonal - applicable and interesting to a wide audience - and intensely personal.  Without the latter, there's no impulse, no passion for the subject matter.  Without passion, there's no writing at all.

It seems to me that there is passion in the blog world.  After all, no one pays the vast majority of bloggers to write their missives, and while a great many of those posts are not particularly interesting, a great many - more than any one person can read, in fact - are extremely well-written, engaging, and often profound.  The same could be said, I suspect, of Twitter.  Most tweets may be little more than glorified status updates or text messages, but the occasional 160 character (or whatever) salvo might be just as profound as a well-written haiku.  Indeed, I understand there's a whole set of people devoted to writing Twitter haikus.

What separates Faulkner, then, is not the medium, like you might suppose, but rather his self-awareness.  It seems to me that the map of Faulkner's continuum need not be overly complicated: tweets are - or can be - poems, blog posts can be short stories, emails can be either - and, occasionally, novels in their own right.  It's just that, most of the time, they aren't, and have no desire to be.  There are, however, those who do desire to write well, to even be great writers in one sense or another, but what we lack in our myopic times are not avenues to be great, but an audience that recognizes the difference between great, good, ok, and boring.  Most of all, what we lack is the self-awareness that says "I am a failed poet," and uses that to become a great novelist.  Instead we all keep hammering out at the poetry, reading and writing and digesting a sentence at a time, forgetting that sometimes it is easier and better to try to express or understand the soul of another human being in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hitter Value and Pitcher Value in Colorado

It has been a while since I played this broken record, and I think it's time for another listen.  The subject of this post is the value of the current Rockies roster offensively and defensively (or, more specifically, pitch-fensively).  The outcome you can probably guess if you've read my posts on the subject before: the Rockies are one of the best pitching teams in baseball (if not the best), but have a mediocre to poor offense, and that's what is stopping them from going from good team to great.

I'm just going to take for granted that you know about Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, because it's just such a mind-bogglingly useful statistic that writing this post would take probably five times as long without it.  That said, WAR is no be-all-end-all, but it's a useful shorthand for getting a close approximation of who is better than who and for what reason (for example, Albert Pujols is better than Edgar Renteria because he's an ungodly hitter, while Renteria is an aging punch-and-judy middle infielder; you don't need WAR to tell you that, of course, but it still does).

Of course, Rockies fans are generally of the opinion that the team has a deep, potent lineup capable of producing lots and lots of runs, while the pitching staff has become solid, but is unspectacular (certainly not as good as the Dodgers or Giants, our divisional foes).  Rockies fans - and the mainstream baseball media, which holds the same opinions - would be very wrong if they agreed with this position.  Consider the National League of 2010.  You may not be surprised to learn that the Brewers and Reds had the top lineups, producing 74.6 and 67.9 Runs Above Replacement respectively.  Those two teams were far and away the best in the NL.

Only three other teams produced positive value from their lineups.  Now, you have to remember that "offensive WAR" is a combination of batting Runs Above Replacement, fielding Runs Above Replacement, A more-or-less fixed "Replacement" value that denotes playing time, and a positional adjustment (which comes out very close to zero for a whole team over the season).  So it's ok that only five NL teams had positive batting RAR; none had negative WAR overall (though the Pirates were close).

Those other three teams were the Braves, the Phillies, and the Cardinals, checking in with 35.5, 24.2, and 17.6 RAR respectively.  The Rockies finished sixth in the NL - respectable, but not excellent, with -7.4 Runs Above Replacement.  It is worth noting that almost all of the Rockies positive offensive value came from two players: Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.  A handful of others produced small positive contributions with the bat (Ryan Spilborghs, Melvin Mora, and Seth Smith for example), but many, many more were offensive detriments.  Consider the following unimpressive contributions:

1) Clint Barmes, -17.1 RAR
2) Eric Young Jr, -7.9 RAR
3) Chris Iannetta, -3.5 RAR
4) Todd Helton, -2.1 RAR
5) Miguel Olivo, -2.0 RAR
6) Chris Nelson, -1.1 RAR

I'm leaving out the pitchers, who also produce significant negative offensive value, and are the main reason why the AL romps over the NL in Runs Above Replacement (8 of the 14 AL teams were ahead of the Rockies in this category).  Even so, this is an unimpressive list, notable in particular for including three of the primary holders of the Second Base position throughout 2010.  More importantly, though, this list includes starters at three positions.  Considering that the Rockies got minimal value from third base, center field, and left field already, it hurts a lot to get negative value from second base, first base, and catcher.  Tulo and Cargo are good players, but they couldn't carry the lineup themselves.

At least, you say, the Rockies have a good defense.  But you'd be wrong.  Last season the Rockies finished 12th out of the 16 NL teams in defensive Runs Above Replacement, at a woeful -19.4.  How is that possible, you wonder, given how much the Rockies broadcast team lurves the Rockies fielders?

The main culprit was Ryan Spilborghs, who is a butcher in the outfield, and who is sometimes even asked to play center, poorly.  He alone racked up -16.7 RAR on defense, more than compensating for his 5.0 offensive RAR.  Melvin Mora was the other major problem, amassing -9.8 RAR playing mostly first base, second base, and third base.  In Mora's defense, he's not a second or first baseman, and being played out-of-position is a sure way to look like a bad fielder.  Nevertheless, it matter little whether the Rockies used Mora incorrectly, or if he's simply bad on defense, because the result is the same.  What's more, the acquisition of Ty Wigginton for the next two or three seasons indicates that we're liable to see more of the same: a "utility infielder" who can't field.

You won't be surprised to hear that Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Olivo were both excellent defensively, and - if you read this blog - you also will be pleased to know that Seth Smith was solid on defense as well.  It comes as a surprise, however, if you're a Rockies fan, that Carlos Gonzalez produced negative value on defense.  Now, Fangraphs WAR - which I'm using - gets its defensive value from UZR, a statistic that not everyone agrees about.  Cargo, however, scores poorly on just about every defensive metric.  Some people argue that Coors Field has not been adequately adjusted in those defensive statistics for how hard it is to play the cavernous outfield, but even so, the point remains that Cargo's value comes almost entirely from his bat, and not his glove.  Even the production of a great fielder like Tulo is 3/4 hitter and 1/4 fielder

The result of the Rockies mediocre defense and mediocre offense is a grand total of 18.8 Wins Above Replacement.  That places the Rockies firmly in 9th in the National League, smack dab in the middle.  The Rockies do not have a bad lineup - principally because Cargo and Tulo are good hitters - but they are far from excellent.  Consider the Cincinnati Reds (a playoff team), who amassed 33.3 WAR, or the World Series Champion Giants, who's meager lineup was offset by excellent fielding, to the tune of a total 25.1 WAR.  The other two playoff teams - the Phillies and Braves - both scored higher than the Rockies here as well, with 23.6 and 22.0 WAR respectively.  Which is not to say that position players win divisions and/or championships.  But they're really important.

Ah, but the Rockies had a saving grace in the form of the best pitching staff in the National League.  By far.  As in, by three full wins.

But, the Giants!  Tim Lincecum!  Matt Cain!  Jonathan Sanchez!  Brian Wilson!  They're all so good!

Yes, they are, and the Giants were second in the NL with 21.5 WAR from their pitchers (combined with 25.1 WAR from their position players, that's a pretty solid team, though hardly an all-time great; 48 Wins is considered "replacement," so 48 + 46ish results in 94, very close to the 92 wins the Giants actually ended up with).  The Rockies, however, put up 24.5 WAR.  Buzah?  How did they do that with such "crappy" pitchers and castaways like Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa?  Well, here's a comparison of the Rockies top-ten WAR pitchers with the Giants.

Rockies Pitchers 

1) Ubaldo Jimenez, 6.3
2) Jason Hammel, 3.7
3) Jhoulys Chacin, 3.0
4) Matt Belisle, 2.2
5) Jeff Francis, 1.9
6) Rafael Betancourt, 1.9
7) Jorge De La Rosa, 1.7
8) Aaron Cook, 1.5
9) Esmil Rogers, 1.4
10) Huston Street, 0.9

Giants Pitchers

1) Tim Lincecum, 5.1
2) Matt Cain, 4.0
3) Brian Wilson, 2.7
4) Jonathan Sanchez, 2.6
5) Barry Zito, 2.1
6) Madison Bumgarner, 2.0
7) Sergio Romo, 1.2
8) Santiago Casilla, 0.9
9) Javier Lopez, 0.6
10) Dan Runzler, 0.4

Again, the Giants have an awesome pitching staff.  Lincecum and Cain are as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find in baseball, and Brian Wilson is an excellent closer.  It's just, Lincecum and Cain were worth 9.1 WAR, and Ubaldo and Hammel were worth 11.0.  If you paid attention to the late season rambling about how good the Phillies, Giants, Rays, and Yankees (among others) rotations were, you might have missed out on the best rotation in baseball: Colorado's.

Indeed, consider the WAR of the top three starters from each of the 8 playoff teams, compared to Colorado.  Remember, Jimenez, Hammel, and Chacin combined produced 14 WAR last season.

1) Philadelphia Phillies - Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt - 12.4 (note: with only a few starts from Oswalt)
2) Texas Rangers - Wilson, Lewis, Lee - 11.9 WAR (note: with only a half season of Cliff Lee)
3) San Francisco Giants - Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez - 11.8 WAR
4) Minnesota Twins - Liriano, Pavano, Baker - 11.7 WAR
5) Atlanta Braves - Hanson, Lowe, Hudson - 9.7 WAR
6) New York Yankees - Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes - 9.6 WAR
7) Tampa Bay Rays - Price, Shields, Garza - 8.3 WAR
8) Cincinnati Reds - Cueto, Wood, Bailey - 6.9 WAR

Not once did I hear the Rockies rotation mentioned as good, let alone one of the best in the NL.  And yet, there it was, it's top three every bit as good as the top three from anywhere else.  Throw in De La Rosa - who's 1.7 WAR is largely due to missing about half the year - and consider that Chacin didn't start regularly until a couple months into the season, and you've got a staff that has four 3+ win pitchers, including a guy at the top good for 6 or 7.  That's as good as it gets.  Indeed, if any team in the NL can compete with Philadelphia's four aces next year in the pitching department, it's Colorado.  The Rockies may not have the names or the pedigree - in part because of how Coors Field inflates ERAs - but they have the skill to be just as good as the hideously named Phab Phour.  Also, since rotations go five deep, it's worth noting that I'll take Aaron Cook and/or Esmil Rogers over Joe Blanton any day.

The lesson here is that the mainstream media doesn't know about park effects, or else they'd realize what a good pitching team Colorado has (National League leaders in pitching WAR two years running).  Colorado can pitch.  The problem is, that NL leading 24.5 WAR (Chicago - the White Sox - led the Majors with 24.9; another team from a hitter's park) still isn't enough to win a division without, say, at least 20 or so Wins from the position players.  Can Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton make up that difference?  We'll see.  Regardless, the Rockies will be a fun team to watch pitch, and Coors Field will remain a fun place to watch even bad hitters mash the ball.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading the Birth Chart

My birth chart, generated with
Above is my natal chart.  It is substantively the same as the chart at the end of my last post, but obviously it's a bit more colorful and, I think, easier to read than the version.  If you have no background in astrology, however, you're just going to see a big mess of lines and bizarre, arcane symbols.  That's fine, because this post is going to be a brief introduction to how to make sense out of this mess.

The most important thing to remember, when you read a chart, is that the process is equal parts analysis and synthesis.  That is, you can't simply look at each individual planet and sign (and degree) and drill into it and explain it in isolation with the expectation that you'll thus develop a coherent narrative.  The process of reading a chart is much more like looking at a picture than reading a book.  That is, you have to pay attention to the whole, and while you can take in the details, they are meaningless without their relationships.

For example, my Sun is in Cancer, in my fourth house.  While certainly that says a lot about me, it would be foolish to ignore that my Sun is also opposed to my Neptune, or trine my Moon and Ascendant, or conjunct my Mars.  All of those things - regardless of their meaning - influence the essential core of "Sun in Cancer, 4th house."  Indeed, they influence it so much that two people with the same planet in the same sign and same house might have completely different manifestations of that aspect based upon the other planets in the chart.

Before we get into individual planets and signs, then, the first thing I do when reading a chart is look at overall shape.  Are the planets clustered or spread apart?  Are they mostly on the top, or on the bottom?  Are there any planets sitting out by themselves, or are there groups of several in the same place?

As you can see, my chart is dominated by a set of planets on the bottom - in the 2nd through 5th houses - and another set on the top, in the 8th through 10th.  Jupiter - indicated by the symbol that looks like a 4 - is alone in my 12th house, the only planet not clustered around either of those areas.

What does this shape mean?  Well, I don't show a strong East-West (Left-Right; opposite from a map, because we're looking at the sky) bias, or a strong North-South (Bottom-Top) tendency.  Usually, someone who's strong on the Eastern part of the chart is self-defined and self-directed, more likely to try to change a situation to match his or her needs, whereas someone strong in the Western part of the chart is more likely to "go with the flow" and adapt him or herself to whatever circumstances arise.  The presence of my Jupiter in the 12th suggests at least some Eastern influence in my chart, but, really, I'm not pulled strongly either way.  Indeed, that I have almost no planets in either direction means the question of self-defined versus circumstances-defined is something that I don't really even process.  I'm more liable to say that I am both, and/or neither, that the dichotomy there is only a seeming one, which in reality isn't a dichotomy at all.  Sounds like me, no?

As for the top and bottom of the chart, I likewise don't have a particular tendency here, but rather than having no planets to the North (bottom) or South (top), all of my planets go one way or the other.  I would say that, were the East-West question is almost a non-issue to me, the question of whether I am an internal, introverted person or an external, social person is a profoundly difficult one for me to answer.  That is, while I have undeniably strong introverted tendencies - my Sun is bellow the horizon, along with my Mars, my Mercury, and my Venus - I am also more than capable of talking to people and, sometimes, talking their ears off.  I can be a public speaker, and am more than happy to show off many of my eccentricities to the world (signified, particularly, by my Uranus - the one that looks like a capital H with a line through it - on my "midheaven").

Here, again, I might say that the seeming dichotomy between the two isn't really a dichotomy at all, but for a completely different reason.  Where I don't feel as though either self-definition or circumstantial-definition really applies to me, I feel all-too-much that both introversion and extroversion do apply to me, just in different ways at different times.

Having considered the shape of the chart, the next step I usually take - especially when using OpenAstro, which calculates it for me - is to look at elemental influences.  The chart is composed, fundamentally, of only seven different types of energies.  That is, there are 4 elements and 3 modalities that basically explain every sign, planet, and house.  "Huh?" you ask? "There are 12 houses, 12 signs, and 10 planets (or 12, if you count Chairon and the node, which I leave in).  What are you talking about?"  Let me explain.

There are four elements in astrology, the classical elements of the ancient Greeks: fire, water, air, and earth.  There are also three modalities: cardinal, fixed, and mutable.  Now, four elements times three modalities equals twelve signs.  Or, in other words, each sign has an element (you've probably heard that Leo is a fire sign, for example), and each element has three signs, one for each modality.  So, for example, Leo, Sagittarius, and Aries are the three fire signs.  Aries is cardinal, Leo is fixed, and Sagittarius is mutable.

Usually, when you're learning astrology, whatever book you're looking at will ask you to memorize the dates and qualities of each sign, as if they are all unique.  That's a fair thing to do, but it misses the mythological and elemental core of the practice.  If you learn, instead, the meanings of the elements, and the meanings of the modalities, you can synthesize them to figure out what any given sign means.  For example, Leo is a fixed sign, and a fire sign.  That means it has fixed energy: it is focus, determined, sometimes stubborn and lazy, devoted, and other stationary type adjectives.  It is also a fire sign, meaning it is passionate, intense, loud, and generally fiery.  Compare that to a Sagittarius, who is just as passionate and intense, but is mutable, and therefore has flighty, changeable, wandering energy instead of stubborn or lazy energy.  Voila, without memorizing the qualities of Leo or Sagittarius, you've generated explanations of both signs out of their elements.

My bias, then, is always to push towards elements and modalities.  There are dozens of influences in the chart, some extremely subtle, and for exactly that reason - because the thing is so freaking complicated - it's vital to try to break it down into fundamental building blocks that can be put together to form a coherent narrative.

In my chart, as OpenAstro tells you at the upper left (calculating based upon which signs my planets are in, giving more weight to more important planets), there's a lot of water energy, and not so much air or fire.  There's also a fair amount of earth.  What this means, in broad strokes, is that I am an emotional person.  I feel things strongly, and am naturally empathetic (to the point of sometimes over-estimating the emotions of others).  This much water does not mean that I am innately sensitive - though at times I can be very sensitive - because it can also indicate that I am emotionally very strong as well.  In short, I have a deep emotional well, which can manifest itself as strength or weakness depending upon the situation.

Water is not merely emotion and empathy, however.  It also indicates spirituality and mysticism, and is linked with artistic practice (if not always inspiration, which is more of a fire-sign tendency).  I would submit that my interest in astrology and my particular way of reading charts - which tries to break down people's personalities to their emotional, psychological, and spiritual essences - is emblematic of a person strong in water.

Air is the sign of intellect, and while I consider myself an intellectual and an academic, it is not strong in my chart.  That, however, does not mean that I am not intelligent; rather, it means that my thinking is not as rigorous or calculated as a pure air-sign native's would be.  I can be focused and calculating - my earth influences do help me stick to tasks, including intellectual ones - but my intellectual decisions are largely decided based upon emotional, psychological, or spiritual concerns, and not purely academic ones.

Having taken in hemispheres and elements, I might also take a look at modalities.  My own modalities are balanced between cardinal, mutable, and fixed, but some people show a preponderance or absence of one.  A pure mutable person, for example, is usually an extreme perfectionist and procrastinator, unwilling to ever be finished with something, and yet, at the same time, very easy going and not worried about getting things done.  A cardinal person will jump from idea to idea, never finishing anything, but always inspiring either him or herself or others to take on some new project.  A fixed person may be difficult to get moving sometimes, but will often fear change, and will establish routines, and will finish and start things on time.

Obviously, all three modalities are useful in different circumstances, and potentially dangerous in others.  Sometimes the initiator needs to finish things, sometimes the perfectionist needs to meet deadlines, and sometimes the diligent, trusty worker needs to shake up the routine to stay sane.  That's why it's so important to remember that charts do not only contain within them myriad interactions between planets and signs, but also that the world itself and the other people in it effect our charts in profound ways.  If I am "missing" a planet that might give me a favorable aspect, and I meet someone who has that planet, it might just let me accomplish things I couldn't accomplish on my own.

Believe it or not, my first time sitting down with a chart, this is all I look at.  Oh, I'll glance at where the Sun, Moon, and Ascendant are, and I might notice particularly prevalent aspects (I have a grand trine and a t-cross in my chart, for example).  But the fundamental first steps to reading a chart are much like the fundamental first steps to engaging with a painting, or a musical piece.  First you step back, take it all in, and look or listen for basic things like style and structure.  Analyzing harmonies, deciding which aspect influences career success, (or which light source is casting that shadow, or which subdominant substitution is used when) comes later.

I suppose I'm trying to form a question, in these last two posts: what is astrology?  Is it an art, or is it a science, or is it a craft (a techne, in Greek)?  I think it is all of those things.  Then again, I also think that music is all of those things, and, what's more, listening to music is all of those things.  What is so brilliant about astrology, however, is that the thousands of ways of interpreting a chart - the thousands of different processes, as well as outcomes, that make up the art/science/craft - are all contained within the practice itself.  Astrology is meant to be different for different people, it's meant to be an exploration of interactions not just between elements or planets in a chart, but between people.

If you ever do work with an astrologer, I recommend this, that you see the experience as a dialogue.  Astrologers are not mere mystics and entertainers trying to divine your past or future.  They are like counselors, or close friends, who are also students of human nature and the universe, asking questions and seeking answers in a way that may seem unscientific, but is in fact purely and especially human.  Engage in that dialogue, seek that wisdom, and see how your energies play off against someone who is an expert in engaging in that kind of conversation.  After all, astrology is fundamentally about finding one's place in the universe, a task we can all agree is worthwhile.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Astronomy, Astrology, and the Natal Chart

Astrology is an interest I picked up as a Sophomore at St. John's College.  There was something about reading Ptolemy's Almagest, tracing his mathematical and mythological argument for how the planets move around the Earth according to circular paths that was alluring.  Of course, Ptolemy is wrong about the construction of the solar system - indeed, he would never even call it a solar system - but he was not really that off on the appearances.  That is, the conceptual framework for his system may have been incorrect, but the math more or less wasn't.

More important than the question of right or wrong, to me, was the project itself.  As my roommate and I would sit on our balcony and gaze at the stars during one of his smoke breaks (my second-hand smoke breaks, I guess), we would ruminate on college-y things like how mind-bogglingly vast the universe is.  But, at least as Sophomores, we'd also think and talk about Ptolemy, about how much dedication and effort it must have taken to build his model.

The thing is, Ptolemy worked well before even telescopes had been invented.  His evidence that Mercury even existed was scant, and his complex formulae describing the motions of the other planets like Mars and Venus were built upon the kind of inexact measurements that mere eyesight and some fingers held up to the horizon provide.  In short, his was a Herculean task, impossibly detailed, completely lacking the equipment to do it, and without even a solid theoretical backdrop (for example, a theory of gravity) to do it from.

The mythos not only of the planets and their namesakes, but also the man who first described with a degree of accuracy the paths of those planets is a powerful one.  My own interest in astrology may surprise - does surprise - people who know me as a scientific kind of thinker.  I would argue, however, that while I do not know how or why the planets seem to be so relevant to my life and my understanding of the world, I do know that mythology is a much more powerful force than we like to give it credit for.  Human energy poured into any project - especially one as ancient and alternately revered and persecuted as astrology is liable to produce results we simply do not yet have the capacity to understand.

As a person interested in mythos, there is no question that astrology is fascinating to me.  Each planet, each sign, each aspect and house has its own story, its own anthropological and anthropomorphic being.  Whether those elements of astrological calculation are causes for us or we for them is irrelevant; they tell a story, they are an organized and orderly system in a chaotic world, a lens through which we can filter the nonsensical noise of life and end up with a meaning.  And what, after all, is a myth?  Is it not a story, a moral or ethical parable that provides way of divining meaning from chaos?  And what, after all, is science?  Isn't it the same thing?

The other key piece of Ptolemy's story is what happened to his work afterwards.  Sure, his model of the universe was co-opted by the Catholic church and turned into a dogma used to persecute scientists - the first astronomers in particular.  But the church had little use for astrology either, seeing its practitioners as just as dangerous as their more scientific brethren.  Indeed, in many cases those people were one in the same.  Astrology and astronomy may be worlds apart in our modern age, just as alchemy and chemistry are, but there was a time when those words meant essentially the same thing.

Think about the Greek roots for a minute.  Astronomy means, simple "laws of the stars," while Astrology means either "study of the stars," "logic of the stars," or, as I prefer, "story of the stars."  The difference is minimal, really.  Astronomy is, in some ways, a mere subset of astrology, a piece of the bigger picture.  Astronomy delineates the rules - hence Ptolemy as astronomer - but astrology tells the story.

All of which leads me to the actual practice of astrology.  My interest was piqued by Ptolemy, reinforced by gazing at the night sky, informed by my grandmother - who was a professional astrologer - and refined as I studied more and more, eventually taking an online course (which I heartily recommend) from the Astrology Career Institute and Samuel Reynolds.  I have learned a lot of specific skills along the way, but because I'm a meta-learner, too, I've also thought a lot about how different people both do and teach astrology differently.  My grandma, for example, has a number of opinions about how retrogrades work that differ from Sam's.  Some of the books I've read characterize certain aspects as bad and good, while others see them as "hard" and "soft."  In short - and this is no surprise - in this mythological, anthropological, psycho-social, linguistic field there's no shortage of debate and disagreement about everything from meaning to process to the nuts and bolts of which method of calculating houses is best.

All of which, I think, speaks in astrology's favor.  It's a robust world, an ancient study that has more to do with interactions and relationships than it does with solitary absolutes.  There is no greater misunderstanding of astrology than the notion that you are your sun sign, leading to the off-hand, "But I'm nothing like what the paper says a Virgo is like!"  Of course you aren't, I say, because astrology is about the way that Virgo sun you have interacts with your other planets.  But more than that, it's also about how the astrologer you're with right now reads your chart, and how that reading differs from the one a different astrologer would give.  The point is, both of those astrologers, though they might interpret every single piece of your chart differently, might both be right nonetheless.  The point is, astrology isn't about reducing your life or your person into a single sentence or a single word ("Leo!"), but rather it's about expanding it and complicating your picture of yourself.  It's about providing you a lens to discover your heart and soul and grow in ways you never previously imagined.

For those of you who don't know anything about astrology, then (and I'm impressed that you're still reading), I want to show you what a chart looks like.  I usually use to run my charts, but since I'm too lazy to boot to Linux and create one right now, I'm just plopping my own birth info into, a free chart service online.  Take a look and see what you think about it.  As a teacher who prefers inquiry-based learning, I'm going to let the thing stew for a couple days before I write another post getting into more of the details here, explaining how I read a chart.

My Natal Chart

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Facebook

I don't have a Facebook account.

I know, that's impossible, right?  I'm a technology-savvy, blog-friendly, twenty-something in 2010 (almost 2011) who doesn't use the biggest social networking site in the world?  And not just that, Facebook is the second most visited site on the entire Internet, behind only Google.  How is it possible that yours truly doesn't even have an account?

In some ways my refusal to join Facebook is merely stubbornness.  I didn't get one before, and I haven't had one yet, and I don't see any need to create one now.  In other words, it's just an irrational computation of habit, a perception that the barriers to entry - while undeniably low - are still too high to be worth the investment.  That is, I don't want to spend the half-hour or whatever to set the thing up.

That, however, is not the real reason.  Stubbornness is sufficient to prevent me from even raising the question most of the time, but it is not enough to really keep me away.  No, the real reason I don't have a Facebook account is because I don't believe that I would benefit from Facebook.  Far from it, I feel as though Facebook lowers, rather than raises, quality of life.  Now don't get me wrong.  I don't mean to insinuate the same is true for you or your 1,000 Facebook friends.  I mean that I, personally, would benefit very little from having a Facebook account.

It is true that I have few close friends, and that I don't tend to make many vague, Christmas Card acquaintances either.  I'm a natural introvert, and while I don't dislike people by any stretch, I don't have this burning need to stay in touch with everyone I meet.  Facebook, I believe, is designed to satisfy that very burning need, to excuse you for forgetting and ignoring people - which you would do anyway - simply because you are their "friend," and therefore you have "stayed in touch."  For my part - and I don't think I'm alone here - I don't see any benefit from having a network of 1,000 emigos (as Joe Posnanski calls them) that I am reminded of constantly, without any meaningful change in my actual relationships with those people.  It just sounds like extra work and stress.

Of course, there's more to Facebook than accumulating lists of friends.  There's the whole status update and wall posting.  That part is so successful that Twitter abstracted it, made it into its own service, and is now the 11th most visited site on the Internet.

This communication-focused part of Facebook I find more entertaining, but ultimately empty.  While there are many witty tweets, Facebook statuses, comments on pictures, and so on in the Facebook world, there are also plenty of the same in real conversations.  I don't feel as though I'm missing out on a vast trove of humor or wisdom by not following people on Twitter, or being linked in to their Facebook pages.  And, what's more, by the nature of the services, most Twitter users or Facebook users are intensely personal without even a hint of trying to bridge the paradox that makes good writing worth reading: being personal while still being impersonal and, perhaps, universal.

Is that too much to ask from a Tweet or from a Facebook wall post?  That it be a piece of good writing?  I think so.  It is probably impossible, in 140 characters (or, in the case of Facebook, in a few sentences of indeterminate length), to say much of anything really worth saying.  Oh, sure, you can be witty, and you can maybe even be profound, but what makes the great quotations of, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson so great is not the quotations themselves, but the process of getting to them, the explanations and context that go with them.

Writing that does not explain itself leaves so much up to the reader that it encourages a kind of bland myopia.  Either we get it, and agree, or don't, and disagree and disregard.  Conversations die when there's no nuance in the exchange, no subtlety, no persuasion or explanation.  Facebook lets us retreat away from people we don't like so we can surround ourselves with groups of similar-thinking compatriots.  It lets us speak in sound bytes, in malformed or unformed thoughts that are reinforced by the agreement of the vast networks of friends we collect.

The result is conversation without purpose, without direction, without empathy.  Over the Internet, the kind of networking Facebook does may be practical, but it is not, it seems to me, human.  There is no substitute for sitting with your interlocutor and having a real conversation, because you have to acknowledge, when you speak in person, the other speaker's humanity.  You have to take them seriously, because they aren't just a vague collection of images and statuses.  You have to strive to understand, to agree.  Or, at least, you should do all of those things.  One of the problems with the cheapening of conversation that the Internet allows is that it might also cheapen our real-life interactions.

Don't get me wrong, though.  I love the Internet.  I believe that modern technology can improve quality of life immensely.  I just don't think that Facebook and Twitter really unlock the potential of a networked world.  Rather, they are just the same kind of stuff we've always engaged in as a society - backbiting, refusing to think critically, paying lip service to our "friends," general myopia - streamlined and made more efficient and widespread.  I believe, however, that there are also things the Internet can do that actually do connect people, that allow for real conversations where there never have been real conversations before, that encourage critical thinking and information sharing and so on.

It might very well be that Facebook and Twitter and social networks in general can be a gateway to that kind of thinking.  It might be that Joe South gets exposed to Mike Northwest via Facebook and they hash our their cultural differences.  But I don't think that happens very often.  Nevertheless, the model is not impossible, the question is how can the Internet really connect people, instead of just superficially connecting people?  I suspect the answer has something to do with understanding technology as an aide and not as life itself.

Which is why, above all, I don't use Facebook.  I've seen too many people let Facebook friendship stand in for real friendship, let a digital world replace a real world.  That's not what makes technology great, that's what makes it dangerous, and few people can resist the allure.  I don't use Facebook not because of the flaws in Facebook, but because of my own flaws, because I believe that I would lose touch with reality.  I only wish more people made the same decision.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Context Indepedent Statistics

It is my belief that the single biggest reason for the reach and speed of baseball's statistical revolution is the existence of context independent statistics with sufficient sample size.  That is not to say that context does not matter in baseball; far from it.  A pitcher at Coors Field will appear, based on everyday statistics, to struggle where a pitcher at Petco is an All-Star, even though the Coors Field pitcher might be better.  Likewise - and an even simpler example - a pitcher for a terrible team may accumulate a crappy W-L record despite pitching well, while a mediocre pitcher on a World Series winner will put up 20 wins.  Context absolutely, positively, without a doubt, matters.

Which is why sample size is so important.  Any one event on a baseball field - or even a week of events, or even a month, or, in some cases, even a season - is too small to really tell us much about actual player abilities.  There are enough events, however, over the time and space of a season, or multiple seasons, that we can start to determine things like park factors, home field advantages, player aging curves, and expected batting averages on balls in play.  What all of those statistics let us do is normalize, meaning that the .263 your favorite player hit this year may not be an indication of his actual ability as a player, but that, combined with linedrive rate, on base percentage, and a variety of other real numbers can be normalized to provide a context independent statistic that may not tell us exactly how good a player is, but will get us pretty close.

Now a lot of people don't trust that process, and rightfully so.  It's complicated, it's mathematical, and it is not always predictive.  No advanced statistic predicted Andres Torres of the San Francisco Giants to succeed as well as he did this year, for example.  But that misses the point.  Individual outliers are a part of any statistical sample; a little good luck, and anyone can end up in that third standard deviation away from the normal curve.  Even in a full season - even in a full career - no player will play exactly to his ability, and some will, simply by chance, vastly overperform or underperform expectations.

The point here, however, is not to argue in favor of baseball statistics, or to explain how and why they work.  There are dozens of great websites and articles out there that can do that for you.  No, I'm writing to make a simple observation about baseball statistics relative to statistics in other sports.  In short, I want to argue that the ability to come up with context independent statistics, I believe, means that baseball will always be far ahead of every other major sport in its ability to quantify player performance.

Of course other sports can normalize their numbers to some degree, based on factors like home field advantage, weather (in the case of outdoor sports), or other external factors.  What makes basketball, football, and soccer so hard to quantify, however, is the interdependence of the success of one player on the success of others.  The context independent statistics in baseball depend on the ability to limit or remove external influences on data, but they also benefit from the non-interference of internal influences.  That is, Albert Pujols may drive in more runs with a good leadoff hitter in front of him than with a bad one (which is part of why RBI is a useless statistic), but it will have a negligible effect on his ability to get on base or to hit home runs.  His actual ability is unchanged by his teammates.

Consider, in turn, each of the other three major sports.*  This year's Miami Heat - though the sample is still small - are demonstrating that three players with tremendous individual skill do not necessarily result in greater success.  Certainly, and this likely goes without saying, that individual skill is not additive in the way it is in baseball.  What I mean is, if Pujols is worth 9 wins and the Cardinals added, say, Alex Rodriguez at 6 wins, the addition of Rodriguez would not make Pujols any worse, and the Cardinals would be expected to win 6 more games with A-Rod than without.  In basketball, on the other hand, you can't just add a 6 Win Shares player to a 4 Win Shares player and get 10 wins.  Why? Because there aren't any context independent statistics at play, and there can't be.  What LeBron does cannot be separated from what Wade does, and there's no two ways about it.  If LeBron takes a shot on a given possession, that's a shot that Wade doesn't take, and vice versa.

* Yes, I'm elevating soccer over hockey, and not just because of international appeal.  It seems to me that the MLS is very close to catching the NHL in national popularity.  Maybe I'm wrong about that.  After all, the Stanley Cup still has larger viewership than the MLS Cup.  However, comma, the Seattle Sounders averaged over 30,000 fans a game this season, and the league is expanding, and I think it's only a matter of time.  Then again, I'm biased, because I don't particularly like hockey.

Anyway, regardless of the status of hockey and soccer in America, it's no contest in the rest of the world (except for Russia and Canada).  Soccer wins, hands down.

One could argue that baseball is effected by this to a degree.  If Pujols is surrounded by an amazing lineup, he'll naturally get more chances to hit over the course of the season because the Cardinals will bat around more.  But that's a poor proxy, because the effect is minimal, and what counts most is still Albert's rate stats, not his counting stats.  Rate stats matter in basketball too, of course, but even the rate stats (shooting percentage, points per 48 minutes, even player efficiency) depend heavily on the rest of the roster.  Last year LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were 1,2, and 4 in player efficiency.  It's safe to say they're all great players.  So far this year, however, they're number 9, 18, and 34 respectively.  Still plenty good, but - ironically - it's hard to be as efficient a scorer with other teammates who are also efficient scorers.

In the NFL the case is even more stark.  Almost every NFL fan can tell you who's a good quarterback and who isn't, and we keep a strange and esoteric statistic called "Quarterback Rating."  Quaterback rating, however, is anything but context independent.  Indeed, in a sport as specialized as football, there's really nothing that is context independent.  Whereas an MLB player can get traded from the AL East to the NL West and still hit cleanup the next day, even a quarterback as gifted as Peyton Manning would struggle if he suddenly had to lead the Seattle Seahawks next week, and not just because the Seahawks are inferior to the Colts.  The systems are completely different; Seattle doesn't run the same - or even a similar - offense, the offensive lines block differently, the receivers run different routes.  The context is entirely different, and even Peyton Manning would have to learn the new system.

So how can we measure the true skill of a quarterback, when systems differ, when some offensive lines block better than others, when teams don't play balanced schedules, when the season is too short to really tell?  We can't.  We can use scouting - and, in fact, this is what teams do - and we can try to maximize the success of a player by adapting gameplans to the player's skillset.  But that just goes to show that there's no single objective measure for quarterback skill.  And if not at quarterback (the position that touches the ball most), at what position could we possibly generate a context independent statistic of real meaning?

Soccer is in the same boat.  While the soccer world has done fascinating work on player aging curves (by position, no less), and some teams have learned how to identify and pursue (or sell) under or overvalued players, it remains difficult to calculate some underlying ability.  I don't think it's impossible, because there is a wealth of information available and, while context does matter, soccer is has less variability in roster construction and approach than football or, I would argue, even basketball.  In other words, context is controlled more naturally.

Nevertheless, it's a difficult sport to quantify, because it has one of the same problems as baseball defense: player spacing and positioning is probably as important, if not more important, than player skill levels, and a lot of that has to do with coaching.  Moreover, there are so many different kinds of skills and players that a singular scale may not work to assess player values.  Some teams, for example, are built on speed and strength, neglecting skill or technique, while others are filled with wily veterans who cannot outrun their opposition, but rely on being in the right place at the right time.  Successful soccer - and soccer is undoubtedly a sport where success and failure walk a razor's edge - depends upon coherent roster construction as much, if not more, than skillful players.  Much like the Heat, a soccer team filled with great players (like England's World Cup roster) may crash and burn while inferior players who work well together (like Uruguay or Holland) may succeed.

All of this is not to say that other sports should not be asking questions about how to quantify - or at least understand - player ability and contribution to team success.  Rather, it is to say that baseball will always have a leg up here, because the unit of action is so easy to measure by comparison.  Maybe it comes down to that, above all: baseball is a turn-based game, while soccer, football, and basketball are all real time.  Or at least closer to real-time.  Football in particular strikes me as a turn-based game with real-time tactical battles.

Anyway, the point remains: baseball actually has units of action that generally revolve around two players: the batter and the pitcher, with ancillary support from the catcher and whatever fielder the ball is hit to.  Even the smallest unit of action in basketball, football, or soccer involves the entire team, by necessity, because there's so much inextricable context.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The List

For the past few weeks - since my resignation at NALU - I've been mired in a search for an appropriate PhD program.  If you know anything about academia, you know that my timing is particularly awkward, because most programs put their deadlines smack dab in the middle of December, which is, you know, very soon.  So I've been exploring research angles, having conversations, browsing websites, sending emails, and doing all the legwork I need to do as quickly as possible.

The result is that, as of today, I've made my decision as to where I'm applying, and for what.  I don't think it's a perfect list, but it's a list, it's actionable, and I know - or at least strongly suspect - I would be happy in any of the programs I've narrowed my search down to.  So, without further ado, here are the five programs.

Stanford University, Learning Sciences and Technology Design

I'll be applying to LSTD for the third time, and from a third completely different angle.  When I was accepted to LDT I applied at both the Master's and PhD levels, but my application was broad and vague to a degree that made me an undesirable PhD candidate.  Last year, I wrote a more specific statement of purpose, but unfortunately my specific interests didn't align with anyone at the University.  This time, and now that I know the Professors better (and they know me better), I feel I can write an even better statement of purpose, and potentially latch on with a suitable advisor.

In short, the question I'm pushing will be this: what is the most effective design in terms of providing students access to secondary, tertiary, and contextual sources?  There are more than a few angles here, including whether it's better to simply let students surf the Internet for contextual information about the books they're reading or the history they're learning, or whether there are ways to specifically limit that vast set of information.  Likewise, one might focus on the difference between learning from primary source materials alone versus learning from primary source material supplemented by secondary sources, interpretations, and contextual information.  Regardless, it is vital to consider pedagogy here, as well, and what kind of teaching goes best with what kind of information.

So yeah, that's jargony, I know.  But it's also the kind of focused question that not only might help me get into a school that I do love, but also would set me up to be a successful doctoral student there, with a sufficiently nuanced, but also sufficiently broad research question.

University of Chicago, Committee on Social Thought

Now I haven't really chosen a specific research focus here yet, but the program is fascinating to me.  Perhaps the most appealing part of this program is its breadth, and its inherent similarity to the St. John's education I received as an undergraduate.  Indeed, the program shares common roots with St. John's and the "Great Books" curriculum - as well as the dialogic pedagogy - they use.

The Committee on Social Thought website states that students are encouraged to come without a specific dissertation topic already in mind, but rather a broader area.  The purpose of the first two years, then, is to study a variety of works in that area, to select a dozen-ish of them, and then to begin laying the groundwork for doing a dissertation on the confluence of themes and ideas in those dozen books.  So, really, it's like a Johnny's dream.

The broader area, however, is something I still need to think about.  The application asks me to check a box: philosophy, literature, history, classics, or art history.  I'm inclined towards literature and/or art history, and perhaps even the combination of the two.  Peter Quince at the Clavier is, of course, an example of that intersection, and something I felt compelled to write about for fun.  I'm leaning, however, towards an explicit study of art history in the form of music.  That would be in line with my undergraduate thesis, on the one hand, but would allow me to reach far beyond the narrow scope that I began to explore in my paper about Beethoven's 3rd and 9th Symphonies.

Needless to say, this won't be as specific and jargony an application as my Stanford one will be, but I dare say it's not supposed to be.  Rather, this program would signal a return to my educational roots, but at a much higher level of sophistication.  And, armed with some knowledge of education and technology design, who knows what fun ways I'll come up with to synthesize my learning.

University of California Santa Clara, History of Consciousness

Besides having an awesome name, this program fulfills the requirement of being sufficiently cross-disciplinary and creative for my liking.  The website notes that the program is "in transition," and that the next cohort will be a smaller-than-usual one, which doesn't necessarily bode well.  But, on the other hand, that means that if I am not a good fit, it's extremely unlikely I'd get in.

I'm applying, however, because my intuition says that I am a good fit.  Unlike Chicago, UCSC asks for applicants to have a fairly specific project in mind, and of the faculty research interests they list perhaps the most interesting to me is "global capitalism and cultural process."  Now, I have almost no economics background, but culture and I spend a fair amount of time with each other, and the relationship between the two is the kind of question that I could easily get lost in for a few years.

That said I'm also intrigued by the possibility of formulating some of my own questions about culture and learning.  More than any non-education program, it strikes me that I might be able to formulate the intersection of my questions about culture, learning, and technology into a single actionable research path.  The question, of course, is if anyone at UCSC is interested in that kind of thing.  If not, well, that's why I'm applying to five schools.  If so, then maybe this is the place.

University of California San Diego, Communications

Yes, that is half of a green telephone at the top of their website.

The program here was described by someone I trust very much as "the only good communications program in the country."  So I figure it's worth an application.  Back before I enrolled in the LDT program, I looked long and hard at communications as a field that I might want to do graduate work in.  I think that education ended up being the right choice in the short term, but now that I have at least some education background, branching out into a cross-disciplinary communications program makes sense.

One of UCSD's Communications listed sub-genres is, in fact, "mediational theories of mind and of learning."  UCSD might be, for that reason, the perfect place to pursue something along the lines of a study of how people learn music, and in what role "communication" plays in that learning.  That would be an outgrowth, in some ways, of my undergraduate studies combined with my graduate work at Stanford.  In short, it would be wonderfully synthetic of what I have already done, meaning I can write a compelling application, and I would enjoy the hell out of studying it because I could go so much deeper into the issues at hand than I had an opportunity to as an undergraduate (or Master's student).

University of Hawaii, Educational Foundations

Perhaps the least "ambitious" of my applications, I nevertheless feel as though there are significant benefits to potentially staying in Hawaii and receiving a PhD from the School of Education at UH.  For one thing, if Jericha and I want to live and work in Hawaii in the long term, I could do worse than getting a degree from UH.  It's hard to explain, but I honestly believe that a PhD at UH will get you further in Hawaii than a degree from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or any other school.  That's just the way it is here.

Beyond the practical, however, I'm happy to note that UH has a very interesting School of Education.  Like all of UH's programs, the Educational Foundations program is cross-cultural.  And, moreover, it strikes me as fairly interdisciplinary as well.  That is, the goal is to understand what is at the heart of education, and how to build meaningful thought and learning processes that serve as a foundation for further learning.  The question "How do we learn?" may be too broad for PhD work, but it's a good entry point, especially coupled with the cultural question: "In what ways do different people's learning differ, and what do various cultures and peoples have in common?"

In summary, I am legitimately excited about the possibilities in all five of these programs.  What's more, the geography is agreeable as well.  The three California schools are, of course, in the good parts of the state (two in the Bay Area, one in San Diego), the Hawaii school is, well, yeah.  And the University of Chicago may be in Chicago, which would test my anti-Cubs patience, but is also the location of the Baha'i National Assembly for the United States, which would make Jericha very happy.  Plus, a lot of people do swear by Chicago, and it does have a good reputation as big cities go.

Unfortunately, deadlines loom, and so I'll be holed up working for the next couple of weeks.  Then, once I'm done, I'll be waiting for a few months.  Ah, academia.