Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Role of Language in Politics

As any reader of this blog likely knows, I am generally displeased with the nature of political discourse in the United States. Thanks to major, for-profit media outlets like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, our national discourse is shaped and our language is carefully selected to represent primarily the interests of the few extremely wealthy men who run those companies. As a result, we spend a lot of time talking about issues like abortion, stem cell research, and immigration policy - all admittedly important - and not much time talking about things like the structure of power, voting policies, and income distribution. Of course, we talk about those latter things some, but with those issues, as with the more popular and sensational issues listed before, the whole debate is framed by major media outlets. And that's the real point: the range of acceptable opinion has almost nothing to do with the range of possible solutions.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the brilliant associations the so-called right and left have made around each others' positions. Anything strongly conservative is "fascist," and anything strongly liberal is "socialist, communist, or Marxist." None of those words is used according to their actual meaning, but rather they have become bugbears, denoting some vague sense of evil and despair that comes from running a government that is not, as we call it, "moderate."

Moderate is much more a myth than words like Socialist and Fascist. How so? Because the concept of moderate depends upon a linear model of political discourse. For some reason we've all bought into the Facebook Likert scale of politics; each position is scored from strongly liberal to strongly conservative, with the middle being moderate. Why should this be? What is so linear about politics? On a superficial level, sure, it makes sense: if I believe the government should take measures to prevent illegal immigration, it is fairly easy to draw a straight line from there to the opposite position, which says that illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. But does it really make sense to draw that line? Even if we can turn the general sense of what should be done into a linear continuum, surely there's room for debate on the how?

Consider: one person might argue that we need to build a big wall along the Mexican-American border. Another might say we need to round up all of the illegal immigrants in the country and deport them. Yet another might argue that we should work closely with the Mexican government to improve working conditions there, so as to minimize the incentives for immigration. Still another might argue that we ought to do our best to simplify immigration law so that it is easier to determine who is legal and who is not. And so on. The thing is, many of these positions are not mutually exclusive for any reason other than where they stand in our perceived left-right linear model of politics. Yet, if you were to ask most Americans, they would think that the border fence idea and the simplified immigration law idea are irreconcilable.

This is just a single example, but we could do the same with almost any issue. Try it yourself. Take a major, hot-button issue. Map out the conservative position and the liberal one. Then determine possible solutions, and see whether they are mutually exclusive.

I should say, what I'm talking about is not a moderate position, because that implies finding the midpoint of a line. My point here is that we are imagining - we believe almost unquestioningly - in a line that does not exist. There is no linearity in political solutions. Even a yes or no question like "should the USA reduce its military budget" cannot be answered by liberal-says-yes and conservative-says-no. The issue is more complicated than that. The issue is not, fundamentally, linear.

With all that in mind, I want to return to the words we use in politics to denigrate opposing positions. "That's socialism!" is the cry around which - ironically - many people rally when talking about President Obama (ironic because Obama is about as far from being a socialist as everyone who derides him for it; indeed, he probably has fewer socialist beliefs than most of the people who criticize him). No explanation is needed. No examination of why socialism is bad, how it works and doesn't work, and why we have to fear socialist reforms is offered in the national discourse. We take for granted that socialism is evil, that it has been tried and does not work, that income and wealth should never never never be distributed throughout the population.

In 1967, the median income in the United States was roughly $33,000. Someone in the 95th percentile, on the other hand, made roughly $89,000 per year. That's significant disparity, but not outrageous.

By 2003, the median income in the United States was roughly $43,000, while the 95th percentile had risen to $154,000.

I don't have the more recent numbers, but I suspect the gap is still growing. And here I wonder, when we start talking about economic policy, why we talk about socialism in such evil terms. Does the richest 5 percent of the country really need to make 4 or 5 times as much as the median (and lets not talk about the bottom 20 to 25 percent, who make less than a living wage)? Is it not possible and, perhaps, reasonable to change the way that income is distributed, not in some bizarre pseudo-Marxist equal way, but simply so that everyone can survive?

Here's the point. I'm guessing that, if you take out all political language, almost everyone will agree that, yes, everyone should have a chance to make it. Hell, it's in the declaration of independence. The thing is, we've been hoodwinked into thinking that equal opportunity exists under our current economic and social structures when it certainly does not. We've been fooled into thinking that we have a "welfare state," where people at the bottom are there only because they are lazy and incompetent. We've succumbed to the idea that there is no alternative - in the best of all possible worlds, to quote Voltaire - to what is increasingly a reverse-socialism in our economic policy.*

*That is, we have socialized losses and privatized gains, a truly despicable situation. Remember that the bailout was paid for by tax payers and paid out to large investment and insurance companies. In other words, a problem caused, at least in part,** by income disparity, was "solved" by increasing income disparity. Brilliant!

**It is worth noting that the biggest economic collapses of the last century occurred at the times of greatest income disparity; that is, in 1929, in 1987, and in 2008. Hmm...

All this because there is no language available to have a rational discourse around economic (or almost any other) policy. You believe in changing the tax structure so that it is more progressive? You're a socialist-communist-Marxist pig who doesn't deserve to be in the country, let alone the conversation. How much worse if you use the word - socialism - yourself? Gone are the days when Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey proudly called themselves socialists. Today you have to apologize, all because of the power of language.

What terms are available, however, is not the issue. The issue is that we have an entire political and social and culture machine that uses language to force us to think of politics as linear, and forces us to continually reinvent meaningful terms because the ones we try to use continually get twisted and saddled with innuendos and connotations they don't, in themselves, warrant. Language is a powerful thing - maybe the most powerful thing there is - and it seems we don't know how and don't want to use it responsibly.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Impressions of Walla Walla

My first impressions of the little middle-of-nowhere town that is home to world famous onions, a budding wine industry, and Whitman College were somewhat muddied by the unfortunate loss of a filling late on the night before my brother's college graduation. I was flossing my teeth when I felt a strange pop in my mouth, and soon saw a small, but quite hard white piece of something resembling plaster in the sink. Immediately I suspected that a filling had fallen out, and a quick rinse with water from the sink confirmed my suspicion in a thoroughly unpleasant way.

I wouldn't say getting water into the hole in my tooth from which my filling had been ejected was painful, but there was a kind of metallic hollowness in the sensation that frustrated me. Needless to say, the pleasure of attending graduation the next day, and eating what by all rights should have been a wonderful family meal thereafter was somewhat lessened by the presence of what seemed to me an increasingly sensitive and gaping void on the upper left hand side of my mouth.

Fortunately I was able to get to a dentist as soon as I returned to Palo Alto, but that doesn't change the strangeness and discomfort of the situation. Indeed - and before I talk about Walla Walla - there's something unsettling about any personal injury, and in an especially odd way, injuries to the teeth and mouth remind the injured of his or her own frailty. It is so easy to take for granted our seeming invincibility - that is, though we may ache or be sore from time to time, it is easy to play off such minor annoyance - in that, heretofore, most of us have existed and continue to exist in a more or less intact state continuously for as long as we can remember. I have no recollection of missing limbs or digits, or being unable to hear or see. Much less can I imagine being dead.

That might be silly to say, but I think it is silly only because it is so far from our consciousness most of the time. Something as simple as a missing filling, however, blows a hole in the entire facade. The seeming impenetrability of the body - and what is more impenetrable than the teeth, in particular? - melts away. Eating a strawberry, sipping on water, and even breathing hard send an echo of pain and, more disturbingly, incompleteness through the mouth. Where there should be me, there is nothing. And if something as trivial as a small missing filling can set off such a reaction, I cannot imagine what people who have lost fingers, or worse, must feel.

Anyway, that's a strange backdrop against which to discuss Walla Walla, Washington, but I mention it because it was a strange backdrop against which I encountered Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla is certainly idyllic, despite the windy and cloudy weather during the weekend. The rolling hills and distant mountains reminded me of some combination of Northern California and New Mexico, the former because there was green everywhere, the latter because the mountains were actually mountains, and not hills masquerading as such. The outskirts of the town betrayed a mixture of old, industrial poverty and a modern almost production-free middle class suburb disconnected from any metropolis. Alongside the old decaying train that sat on unused tracks - a train, my brother informed me, that had not moved in his four years at Whitman - there were wineries and elaborate housing developments.

I suppose an economy based upon wine production is more industrial than some towns, or at least is some combination of industry and agriculture, but traveling into Walla Walla itself transforms the picture of a hardworking farm town into a small town American service economy. The Main Street is littered with wine tasting rooms, mechanics, and clothing shops, the only oddity being the overabundance of the former. Indeed, there are so many, and such upscale wine rooms that you would be forgiven for mistaking certain parts of Walla Walla for some chic Napa Valley getaway location populated by Silicon Valley millionaires. That Walla Walla has no such millionaires nearby - or, at least, hardly the same density as the Bay Area - makes the apparent success of the wine rooms all the stranger.

Walla Walla, for all the appearances of a self-sufficient land of wine and, I guess, tourism, is really organized around a single thing: Whitman College. That may be my biased perspective as well, given that I was in the city specifically to witness a graduation from the College, but its fortuitous location along the edge of the center of town, and its fairly substantial size make it an all-too-apparent part of the town's culture. Considering that the town has only some 30,000 residents, it is not surprising that even a small liberal arts college like Whitman makes up a significant piece of the fabric of the population.

But Whitman is more than just a collection of students in a town, it is the architectural framework around which the town is built. Arriving on Whitman's campus feels like arriving in the heart of Walla Walla, as if the town exists for the sake of the College. The buildings on the campus are like the Platonic forms of the buildings off campus, the perfect mirror for an imperfect world. The quaint Eastern Washington world of the town can only hope to aspire towards being like their collegiate neighbors. No wonder that, out of a town of only 30,000, there were seven graduates in my brother's class originally from Walla Walla, students undoubtedly enchanted by the magical city of continual youth, fresh ideas, parties, climbing walls, and enthusiastic learning that borders the old-American, red-neck agricultural world in which they had grown up.

Perhaps my truest glimpse of Walla Walla was had in leaving the town via the two-gate airport. I should say, the two "gates" were two doors approximately twenty feet from each other in the, for lack of a better word, terminal. My flight, at undoubtedly at the peak season for Walla Walla air travel, was one of two scheduled for Monday, both going to Seattle. Our 6:50 AM departure seems logical only because I imagine some wealthy Seattle businessmen who weekend in the Washington wine country, and can't bring themselves to drive the whole forty five minutes to Pasco each Monday morning.

Despite the early flight, what struck me as so perfectly small-town-America-meets-liberal-arts-college was the combination of passenger and security official that greeted my wife and I at the airport. We arrived plenty early - at about 5:45 - but were in line for security for some 20 or 30 minutes, thanks to a painfully slow checkpoint at which about one of every five passengers was pulled aside for a rigorous pat-down. The man in front of us was forced to pull out his iPad, a perfectly befuddling device to our security operators, for further inspection, even though Apple promises it is airport safe, and, as the man himself explained, he had been through security in Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and Denver without getting stopped before.

I have a theory that airport checkpoint rigor is inversely proportional to the size of the town in which the airport is located, and Walla Walla confirms this theory. But what was funny here was not the slowness of the checkpoint at 6:00 AM, with only one flight full of sleepy college graduation attendees, but rather the incongruity between the obviously conservative, God-fearing, gun-toting, true-blooded Americans running the checkpoint and the obviously liberal, iPad-toting, probably agnostic, New York Times reading, globally conscientious patrons of the airport. All of this was accentuated by a beautiful warning at the entrance to the security line about the American government's concern over whether Venezuelan airports were up to our security standards, as if anyone native to Walla Walla could name a single city in or person from Venezuela, let alone intend to travel there. I suppose the sign, then, was for the benefit of we world-traveling parents, friends, and siblings of the graduates.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is It Luck?

There is perhaps no more polarizing argument in the baseball statistics world than the argument over "clutch." On the one hand, there's disagreement about what clutch even means, whether a batter up with the bases loaded in the 5th inning of a tie game is in as clutch a situation as a batter up in the ninth inning with two outs, his team down by three runs. The latter is a save situation, of course, and making an out ends the game. But there's a much better chance of actually changing the outcome of the game with the bases loaded in the 5th inning of a tie game. A double, for example, will likely give you a three run lead, where a double in the 9th will put a runner on second, still with two outs and down by three.

On the other hand, there's great disagreement about whether certain players can raise their game to perform better in clutch situations. Is it not the case, for example, that Derek Jeter simply plays better with his team down by a run in the 9th inning? Doesn't he become a better hitter? Likewise - and this is the other side of clutch - doesn't Alex Rodriguez suddenly forget how to hit home runs in the same situation, and turn into a puddle of self-doubt and failure?

The tricky thing, here, is trying to tell the difference between players who perform better in the clutch and players who perform better, period. Of course you want Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter up in the 9th inning with the game on the line, not necessarily because they are clutch, but simply because they are good hitters. The real question of clutch is not how well players perform in high leverage situations, but how much better or worse they perform in those situations relative to how they perform in normal situations.

Fortunately, Fangraphs keeps track of clutch. Their resolution of the first question - what counts as clutch - is based upon the very statistics that they pioneered: Win Probability Added (WPA) and Leverage Index (LI). Basically, for each and every major league game, Fangraphs keeps track of game situation and calculates the odds each team has of winning based on score, inning, outs, and runners on base. From there, they extrapolate the importance of a given situation. Intuitively, a high leverage situation is like the one I described at the outset: bases loaded in the 5th inning of a tie game. That's high leverage because the outcome of the next at bat will have a tremendous influence on the odds of each team to win the game. A strikeout will be huge for the pitching team, while a walk or a hit will give the batting team a run and the lead (and, again intuitively, the team currently with the lead is almost always favored to win the game).

Anyway, the point here is not to dive into WPA or LI, but rather to talk a little bit about clutch and the Colorado Rockies. As in years past, the Rockies are off to an awesome start pitching this season, but can't seem to hit to save their lives. That their defense has been suspect as well has helped to lead the team to a disappointing early-season record of 19-19. Not the end of the world, but .500 isn't about to catapult anyone into the playoffs, and playing .500 ball so far means the Rockies have to play way better than .500 the rest of the way to earn their first ever division title (or at least their first ever back-to-back playoff berths).

What ails the Rockies lineup, however, is not totally clear. While they have lacked star-power this year, what with Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki forgetting how to hit home runs, Miguel Olivo has been a pleasant surprise (at least so far), Carlos Gonzalez has been excellent, and Seth Smith might finally be working his way into the everyday lineup. The Rockies don't have the talent to have a top-flight offense, but they should be competent.

Except they can't hit in the clutch.

Whether clutch is a skill or not, the numbers are striking. The Rockies currently rank 28th out of 30 MLB teams in clutch hitting this season. That is, the Rockies perform significantly worse in high leverage situations than in normal ones, so much so that only two other teams (the Cubs and Brewers, incidentally) have been worse so far in 2010.

It is early in 2010, but what disturbs me is where the Rockies stand looking backwards to 2003, Clint Hurdle's first full season:

2009 - 27th
2008 - 23rd
2007 - 5th
2006 - 30th
2005 - 28th
2004 - 24th
2003 - 25th

Of course, 2007 was the year the Rockies made the World Series after an improbable run in September and October, and it stands out as an outlier in this list. What jumps out to me, though, is that the Rockies are really the only team routinely this low on the clutch list at Fangraphs. What are they doing wrong? Or is it just luck?

Any regular watcher of the Rockies over the last 10 years will confirm anecdotally what Fangraphs has in numbers: the Rockies routinely fail to produce in key situations. Back-to-back strikeouts with a runner on third and nobody out has been something of a theme for this organization. Again, is this an organizational problem? Is it a hitting coach problem? A manager problem? A personnel problem? Does it have something to do with Coors Field? Or is it just luck?

Obviously in 2009 the Rockies were fine without being a good team in high leverage situations, and Troy Tulowitzki - who has struggled to produce at his normal level in the clutch throughout his career - is still a fine player despite often failing in high leverage situations. There's also no reason to believe that Tulo, or the Rockies in general, will continue to struggle producing when it counts. And yet, as a fan, the trend is disturbing, and as a human being, I'm inclined to attribute the pattern to something.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Do people make cultures, or do cultures make people? The obvious answer is both. Of course no culture can develop without the desires, the philosophies, the art, and the simple facts of day-to-day life that the people in that culture express in their very being. On the other hand, no person can develop without being surrounded by other people and the culture that they too were brought up in, or adapted to, or helped to forge. Indeed, the latter possibility - that cultures make people - seems all the stronger when you consider how few individuals are ever in a position to make culture, whereas all individuals exist in relation to others.

Consider the Nietzschian "ubermensch," who is so frustrated by the existence of an external world that shaped both his society and himself that he has to transcend the very basis of culture in order to even exist. Going "beyond good and evil" is little more than going beyond your very upbringing and existence, and while there is no doubt Nietzsche was in earnest in his conviction to do so, it remains an impossible - a frustratingly, maddeningly, utterly dispiriting impossible - dream.

The irony, then, when the culture we cannot escape is a culture that values, above all else, the heroic individual. Our reductionist stories about history, politics, art, and even our own lives turn us into individualists, bent on ignoring the vast and impenetrable backgrounds from which we emerge and in which we continue to exist. We do not celebrate or chastise, all told, the thousands or millions involved in some great accomplishment (landing on the moon) or some awful tragedy (a terrorist attack). The story of each becomes the story of one man: Neil Armstrong, Osama Bin Laden. Good and evil lurk behind our archetypal humans, all events, all people fit into some beautiful Biblical, cultural structure that remains unbending even when we criticize it most carefully.

It is all well and good to attack the seemingly deepest assumptions of a culture. Ideas like Good and Evil are the most obvious targets, after all. Examples abound of the awful practices of savage tribes which, when considered from the point of view of the particular tribe, cease to seem to awful. We cannot but feel moral outrage at a polygamous society, or the homosexuality of the ancient Greeks. We cannot but honor the European aristocracy that produced such wonderful artists as Leonardo Da Vinci. We cannot but stand in awe of Japanese temperance. In short, we reduce, reduce, reduce, and find the exemplars, the protagonists, the antagonists of the stories we wish to tell, all about the grandest and greatest of human problems.

More telling, to me, are the little things. "It is all well and good" is a cliche that says more about how we, as a culture, interact with good and evil than our reaction - or lack thereof - to ongoing war. In so small a phrase you see the grammatical stretching that cliche engenders, because we are a culture that loves and flaunts and loves to flaunt its rules. In so small a phrase you see "good," but ironic good. You see the desire to never say exactly what is meant, if only because such saying is impossible. But, in that the saying is a cliche, you see also our propensity for shared meanings and shared innuendos. There is no reason for utter individualism, even in the most individualistic culture, because it is impossible to communicate if letters, sounds, and words are strewn randomly about the page without sense.

I assume the page and letters, of course, but that is the proverbial rub (a phrase whose meaning has changed and grown thanks to the legend of Shakespeare, and despite the fact that almost no one knows its true meaning). Any and all resistance is couched within the thing resisted. Any and all analysis of culture - whether as deconstruction or reconstruction or simply an attempt to understand - is ruined at its outset by the mere fact of culture at all. One could say the same about language, which perhaps is the same thing as culture anyway, but is an even harder entity to attack because it is so much less tangible.

As with atomic particles, humanity is harder and harder to pin down the closer we zoom in. Likewise the further we zoom out. We get caught failing when we try to understand "humanity" as a grand class, and likewise fail with the individual. If we are to understand anything about the world, we are stuck doing it in categories. The prejudiced stereotype, it turns out, is just as correct as the academic categories we prefer, because ultimately both contain the same grains of falsehood and truth. The "red-neck," himself a stereotype, thinks of the awful moral shortcomings of other races, the terrible socialist liberalism of the intellectuals, and so on, but the academic classifies those other races instead by academic achievement, and talks about the need for affirmative action, and even the best multi-culturalist gets stuck in what boils down to stereotyping (even if it is data driven stereotyping).

Reality is more complicated. The interaction of culture to person and back is too nuanced for a tool as blunt as language. We have invented a whole system of unexamined gestures to convey even the simplest of our meanings (like hunger or the desire to be alone), so how much more would we need to invent to explain such ambiguous ideas as love, family, happiness, peace, war, good, beauty, and so on?

The problem arises when culture goes the other direction:
How many gangs are founded upon the vision and leadership of an individual? How many, instead, on some vague cultural acquisition?
How many failing students fail because they are truly stupid? How many are simply foisted into the stereotype of stupidity that they are forced to live up to?
How many women, indeed, implicitly desire high-heeled shoes, makeup, and perfume? How many men implicitly love sports and drinking beer? How much of the interaction, when it comes down to it, between a man and a woman is organized by a complex set of cultural and societal expectations?

And what is this thing called culture, to which we can broadly attribute so much of what we do, why we do it, and even who we are? Plunging into words is like plunging into people: the deeper we plunge, the messier it becomes. It is no accident, perhaps, that most every culture shares this: that people are turned into words. The name is a powerful thing, because it allows for us to try to understand what previously simply existed. Understanding, thought, consciousness... Do these things actually make any sense? Does culture? Does humanity? Or are those just words meant to signify, but which have turned in on themselves and now do much more than signify? How much of our reality is determined not by what it is, but by the very words - the very culture - we use to interact with it?

Friday, May 14, 2010

An Ode to Stardock

As a Stanford graduate student, it is almost impossible to avoid design. Never mind that "design" is in the title of the program I'm a part of, design permeates the Stanford world. Why? Because almost everything we interact with day-to-day, as well as the way that we interact with those things, is the product of some design process. Good design process, however, is hard to find.

I won't go too far into what Stanford bills "Design Thinking" right now. Instead I want to talk a little about video game design, and the difference between what most companies do and what one company in particular - Stardock - does. Along the way perhaps we'll get some design thinking, too.

Most game companies, like Electronic Arts, develop game ideas that they think will be marketable and will appeal to a wide audience. The Madden series is a good example of this. Americans love football, especially long passes, bone-crushing sacks, stiff-arms, and spin-moves, so EA developed a game that is, essentially, a hyped up version of football that is realistic enough to not feel gimicky, but far enough removed from being realistic that it's not frustrating to play for the majority of EA's consumer-base. That's a model that works, and EA has gotten away with progressive minor graphical upgrades and occasional feature additions on the way to huge sales year after year of what is essentially the same game.

Of course, EA is not alone in this. Almost every major game - especially on the PC, but also on consoles - these days is a sequel. Mass Effect 2, Tropico 3, Majesty 2, Fallout 3, Final Fantasy 7,326, and so on. In sports gaming, perhaps it's inevitable that all games are remakes, but in strategy, or RPG, or action it's not so much good game-design as good business.

Stardock does things a little differently. Don't get me wrong, they are still doing what they need to do to make money. Because Stardock is a hybrid company, they use their massive enterprise software profits to support a game-development branch that can afford to and does risk doing things differently. The result has been some of the most innovative games of the last few years: Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod, and Galactic Civilizations. All three were successful and, in their own ways, completely different from what anyone had done before.

At the moment, Stardock is developing Elemental: War of Magic. Old-time gamers will recognize Master of Magic, one of the most famous strategy games of all time, and the godfather of Elemental.

What is striking about Elemental, besides the far superior, post-1995 visuals, is the process Stardock has used in its development. Design Thinking 101, you might call it.

(Here's a link to some screenshots)

Stardock opened the Beta for Elemental to any and all pre-ordering customers over a year before their scheduled release date. In essence, they made available to the public an early alpha version of the game, sans graphic engine, sans most features, sans fun. Why? Because they wanted to know what their customers wanted to have in the game. They had a lot of good ideas themselves, of course, and as experienced game designers they knew what they reasonably could and could not hope to accomplish. But the most important first step to good design thinking is to build empathy, to know not what you can, should, and desire to make, but rather what you ought to make, and for whom. Stardock, more than any other game designer, does just that.

For example, Stardock's last game, Demigod, was a multi-player focused RTS/RPG hybrid. It released buggy, struggled in reviews, and never really took off despite a fairly solid game mechanic and an innovative structure. Stardock learned, from the subsequent year's customer survery - which, I should mention, they publish freely - that most of their buyers don't really care for multi-player games. In a time when the gaming world is going MMORPG, where World of Warcraft has a larger annual income than many countries, this is a stunning revelation. It's not that people don't want multi-player, it's that there are a whole bunch of gamers who simply don't play online, but for whom almost no one is developing games anymore.

As they continually build a sense of what their future players want, Stardock also continues to introduce the prototypes of ideas they develop in their own brainstorm. The public beta has allowed for more feedback than most games could ever hope to get, both in the form of bug-catching and in terms of refining the game engine. This is also design thinking: rapid prototype, show to users, and refine based on feedback. Whereas EA doesn't show this year's Madden to a large audience until release, at which point features are locked in and only bugs remain (because it's way easier to catch bugs with 1,000,000 players than with 100 testers). Stardock, by making the game available before it is finished, is allowing the game's future players to actually help determine what's in the game.

The most exciting thing about Stardock, however, is that they're not just a bunch of crazy idealists. They have a business model, a successful plan. They are already a strong, established company, and they are just as susceptible to the need for profits as any other corporation. What's exciting, then, is that they do things the right way anyway, because, as it turns out, that's a more sustainable model for customer satisfaction, long-term profits, and, when it comes down to it, good, satisfying design. Where Electronic Arts is lagging in innovation compared to companies like Paradox Interactive and Bioware (who they essentially bought-out), Stardock is leading the way in building games for people, rather than building games for games.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The End of the Tracy Honeymoon

Last year Jim Tracy, manager of the Colorado Rockies, was named Manager of the Year in the National League. The reason was the incredible turnaround he helped to engineer after an 18-28 start under Clint Hurdle. The Rockies, after appointing Tracy, went 74-42 the rest of the way to finish 92-70 and make the playoffs.

This season, however, Jim Tracy's leadership has transformed into an altogether more sinister beast. After an ugly 9-5 loss to the Phillies tonight (following an ugly, but for different reasons, 2-0 loss in Los Angeles yesterday) the Rockies have fallen to 15-17. Better than last season, but far from the World Series contending start the team expected.

While I don't put a lot of stock in the importance of a good manager in baseball - it seems to me that good teams make good managers, not the other way around - it is the case that managers make a small handful of decisions which should be fairly straightforward. Beyond that, they also manage personalities, making sure the $10 million a year guys get along with the $1 million a year guys. Tracy is renowned for his ability in the latter category, and earned my admiration during last year's miracle turnaround on that count. His actual tactical ability has never impressed me, but I was willing to overlook it.

This season, however, things are different. I can't overlook the tactical when the personality side seems to be falling short as well. The story is that Hurdle lost the respect of his players by constantly juggling the lineup, but benching players for an 0-4 day, or starting inferior backups simply because they hit a homer the day before. The team became so much his, so little a team, that the Rockies had no choice but to axe him and to go with someone else. Tracy came in and provided a stable lineup, secure and well-defined roles, and, perhaps best of all, someone who wasn't Clint Hurdle.

Except now he's becoming Clint Hurdle. The Rockies lineup is different every day this season. Chris Iannetta was demoted to AAA (where he is, not surprisingly, tearing the cover off the ball while Miguel Olivo wracks up strikeouts and pop-ups) after a mere 8 games. Three different pitchers have already held the "closer" role in the absence of Huston Street. Eric Young, a natural second baseman, has repeatedly started in Left Field during Brad Hawpe's recent injury, while Seth Smith - a superior hitter and fielder to Young - has sat on the bench. I could go on.

I know the Rockies are dealing with injuries, and that tonight they were missing Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez, and that Greg Smith has to keep starting every 5th day in the absence of Jorge De La Rosa. But despite all that, despite the misfortune, Tracy is not putting his team in a position to succeed. There were two decisions from tonight's ugly, ugly game that baffle me, that scream "I don't know what I'm doing," that signal the official end of the honeymoon.

The first of these was an intentional walk of Raul Ibanez in the ninth inning. At the time the score was tied 5-5. Manny Corpas had hit Ryan Howard with a pitch, but had managed to get Jason Werth out. After a first strike to Ibanez, Corpas uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Howard to move up to second. With the count 1-1, Tracy ordered an intentional walk of Ibanez to bring up Carlos Ruiz instead. Now, Ibanez is left handed and Ruiz right handed, but both are slow, and Ruiz had a homer earlier in the game. What's more, Ruiz is off to an awesome start this year, and the aging Ibanez looks like his baseball playing days are wearing thin.

Of course, Ruiz smacks a single to left to bring in Howard, and Ross Gload follows with a three run home run to give the Phillies an insurmountable 9-5 lead.

Why not pitch to Ibanez, especially since the count was already 1-1? It's not like Manny threw a wild pitch on a 2-0 count, putting Ibanez way ahead. At 1-1, the at-bat is even, and if Manny gets a strike two across, he's way, way ahead. Why give up that strike? What's more, why give up a free baserunner? I know you don't want to give up any runs, but putting another runner on means that the Phillies have a better chance to have a big inning, which they did.

Sometimes the Ibanez walk works out fine, don't get me wrong. Sometime you get a double play out of Ruiz and go to work in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. But why risk it? Why not try to get Ibanez out, and even on a grounder to the right side, you've got Ryan Howard - who's no track star - on third with two outs. Then you don't need a double play from Ruiz. Then you don't need to face Gload, or, if you do, you do with one fewer base runners. And yes, maybe Ibanez gets a hit, and Howard scores, but are your odds really that much better with Ruiz than with Ibanez? Are they so much better that giving up the free runner is worth it?

The second and altogether more frustrating decision occurred in the bottom of the 6th inning. The Rockies were, at the time, down by one run, 5-4. After Miguel Olivo and Clint Barmes not surprisingly both made outs, the pitcher's spot came up. Now, this is the 6th inning. The pitcher's spot is likely to come up once more - maybe twice - if the game goes nine innings. The Rockies have a short bench due to Tulowitzki's injury, but Ryan Spilborghs, Eric Young, Todd Helton, and Paul Phillips (the backup catcher in the absence of Iannetta) were still available.

And Jim Tracy sends up rookie pitcher Esmil Rogers to pinch hit.

Esmil Rogers.

I simply don't get it. Why? Why would you send up a starting pitcher - and not even your best hitting starting pitcher; Ubaldo and Cook are both better - instead of one of your bench players? Why? Even with no one on and two outs, what reason is there to give up on the inning? Why not send up Helton? If he draws a walk, you have Seth Smith - who had already hit a single, double, and triple in the game - up with a runner on first. That's good, right? Even with two outs you'll take one of your best hitters up with a runner on, right? Or send up Eric Young, so if he gets on you can try to steal a base and have a runner in scoring position.

It's all well and good to save your bench, but in this case the math doesn't work out. Four bench players (and lets be generous and make it three, since Tracy never never never uses his backup catcher) and two or three more at bats for the pitcher's spot. 4 (or 3) - 2 or 3 is not a negative number. Use your bench!!! This game ended with Eric Young, Todd Helton, and Paul Phillips unused, while Esmil Rogers ended with an 0 for 1. Unacceptable. Giving away outs does not win baseball games, and hitting a pitcher instead of Todd Helton is giving away outs.

Giving up free baserunners and giving away outs... It's bad enough that the Rockies are throwing Miguel Olivo's .290 OBP out there every day when they could have the .350 (or better) OBP of Chris Iannetta. It's bad enough that the Rockies haven't done anything to upgrade at second base, where Clint Barmes will surely put up another .290 OBP this season. It's bad enough that the Rockies have to rely on Greg Smith to start 1/5th of their games, and that Aaron Cook suddenly forgot how to throw strikes. It's bad enough that the Rockies are playing the Phillies when Carlos Gonzalez is in Venezuela and Troy Tulowitzki is hurt, and Todd Helton is taking a scheduled day off. All of that is bad enough. Much of that is not Tracy's fault.

But, as a manager, you have to get right the stuff that you can control, and Tracy isn't doing that. This is a team that's supposed to contend for the World Series, and tonight they looked like amateurs against one of their biggest competitors.

Friday, May 7, 2010

You Can Sleep When...

There are a great many sayings that make little sense to me. One of the silliest is "you can sleep when you're dead." I get the sleep/death analogy, but really? Can you sleep when you're dead? I'm pretty sure that, when you're dead, you stop sleeping. It's not really 'eternal rest,' so much as, you know, death. I mean, maybe it's restful, I don't know. But there's not really any evidence that suggests death is like sleep.

Personally, I like to sleep. Not only do I function poorly when I don't get my 8-9 hours, I also enjoy laying around in the morning, waiting to get up. I like dreaming. I like the 30 minutes while I'm falling asleep when I think about some complex question and let it drift into the increasingly nonsensical stuff of dreams. I like waking up in the middle of the night, seeing that it's only 2 AM, and going back to sleep.

And, as far as I know, I can't do any of that when I'm dead. So, no, I can't sleep when I'm dead. And neither can you. You can sleep only when you're alive, so I advise that you do so, lest you miss out.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Shakespeare's Opening Lines

Nicht Diese Tone... I've been doing a lot of posts on education and baseball lately, so here's something completely different.

How much can you tell from a play's opening line? Shakespeare, of course, is famous for, among other things, his attention-grabbing first scenes. I don't remember when I heard this, but I recall being told as a student that every single one of his plays promises romance, violence, or ghosts and other paranormal beings at the outset. The idea was that, though Shakespeare wrote for the well-educated and well-mannered of his time, he knew how to appeal to the masses as well.

Opening lines are a bit more limiting than opening scenes, and some in Shakespeare's plays are less engaging than others (Timon of Athens). Some, however, kick of incredible soliloquies of the kind you'd expect to hear far later in the play (Richard III). Some, of course, are delivered by witches (Macbeth), or welcome ghosts to the stage (Hamlet). If I had a goal, I would say that my goal here is to sort these opening lines into the mundane, the epic, the frivolous, and the provoking.

The Mundane:

There are actually quite a lot of opening lines in Shakespeare's plays that are not all that engrossing. While often these lead to famous - or at least effective - opening scenes, it is nevertheless the case that we often start with day-to-day business, rather than the more weighty business of the play.

First Citizen: "Before we proceed any further, hear me speak."

Bernardo: "Who's there?"

Henry VI, Part II

Suffolk: "As by your high imperial majesty I had in charge at my depart for France..." (he drones on a bit)

Henry VI, Part III

Warwick: "I wonder how the king escaped our hands."

These two opening lines aren't so bad, but coming as they does at the opening of the second and third parts of the Henry VI series (which, in turn, comes somewhere in the midst of the other many Henry plays), they are not especially exciting. Really, they serves to connect the ending of the previous plays to the starts of their own, and thus barely count as opening lines at all.

King John
King John: "Now, say, Chatillon, what would France with us?"

Well, we do have the title character speaking, at least. But this opening seems more interesting to the Englishman in Shakespeare's time than to us now. Oh those conniving French! How dare they!... It's just not as stirring anymore.

King Lear
Kent: "I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall."

A psyche-out. King Lear is full of epic everything - especially from the mouth of Lear - so of course the opening itself is petty bantering between noble, courtly-types. Compare to Lear, shortly after his entrance: "Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester... Meantime we shall express our darker purpose." A perfect answer to the banal conversation of Kent and Gloucester.

Measure for Measure
Duke Vincentio: "Escalus."

"My lord," is the response. The Duke starts to unveil the plan that gets everyone in trouble in the rest of the play thereafter, but I wonder why Shakespeare didn't just straight into that? Is it, perhaps, the conspicuous name of this key player in the action, Escalus? Certainly beginning a play with a name is not exciting, but when that name is shared by one of the most famous playwrights of all time (the Greek Aeschylus), surely there's a reason.

The Merchant of Venice
Antonio: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad."

Not interesting. The rest of his speech adds little. I suppose natural sympathy is somewhat awakened here, but I think the audience naturally looks down on Antonio with this opening as much as they are moved by it, especially once they find out he's sad because he's having problems with his riches-laden merchant ships. Poor guy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Shallow: "Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star-Chamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire."

Much Ado About Nothing
Leonato: "I learn in this letter than Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina."

The Life and Death of Richard the Second
King Richard II: "Old John of Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster, hast thou, according to thy oath and band, brought hither Henry Hereford thy bold son, here to make good the boisterous late appeal, which then our leisure would not let us hear, against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?"

Response: "I have, my liege."

The Tempest
Master: "Boatswain!"

To be fair, the play starts "of thunder and lightning heard," so there is a storm going on.

Timon of Athens
Poet: "Good day, sir."

An uneventful beginning to an awesome opening scene. The conversation is between a poet, a painter, a jeweller, and a merchant. You can imagine the fun, or go read it.

Troilus and Cressida
Prologue: "In Troy, there lies the scene."

Two Gentlemen of Verona
Valentine: "Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus: home-keeping youth have ever homely wits."

Not bad, but not terribly exciting either. A decent joke, but the essence of the speech is "get out of the house!" A good enough starting point for a plot.

The Winter's Tale
Archidamus: "If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on the like occasion..."

There's a lot of argument over whether this is one of Shakespeare's best plays or one of his worst. Regardless, the opening is uninspiring. The rest of the speech is, essentially, "man, Bohemia and Sicily are different, and if you came to visit, you'd see." Great. Anyway, from there the play is certainly much more... unusual. There's even a mysterious, sudden jump forward of about 20 years at one point.

The Frivolous:

I separate these from the mundane because many, while still not exciting, are at least quirky in a way that the mundane openings are not.

The Comedy of Errors
Aegeon: "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall and by the doom of death end woes and all."

This has potential, but strikes the reader as being a bit over-the-top. The Duke's speech, which follows, indicates that Aegeon is overreacting a bit. Hence frivolous, not epic or even provocative.

Henry IV, Part II
Rumour: "Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? I, from the orient to the drooping west, making the wind my post-horse, still unfold the acts commenced on this ball of earth."

It's always dangerous to start with "Rumor," or some such, and this opening is a little silly. "This ball of earth" leaves much to be desired, and the truism of Rumor's swift spread is far from news. Not a terrible opening, nonetheless, but really just a transition from the fist part of Henry IV to the second.

Henry VI, Part I
Bedford: "Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!"

Oh those hung heavens and their blackness, yielding day to night! Oh the poor, dead, Henry V! Not the best funeral ever.

Julius Caesar
Flavius: "Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home: is this a holiday?"

First Witch: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
Second Witch: "When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won."

This one goes to show that silly can also be provocative. The mysterious witches here have many a strange and, I daresay, funny line. The hurlyburly trivializes what's going on, but the matters at hand end up being far from trivial.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Theseus: "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace; four happy days bring in another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow this old moon wanes!"

File this opening under the "conversation that would never happen" category. Clearly we've got some expository information that's useful for the audience, but what engaged couple sits there idle-y counting the days to their wedding in glowing verse? No, the real conversation goes like this: "Hippolyta, we only have four more days to get everything in order for the wedding! Oh crap!"

Roderigo: "Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly that thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this."

Tush, indeed.

Taming of the Shrew
Sly: "I'll pheeze you, in faith."

Appropriately, this play starts with a drunken man in front of an alehouse. The exchange that follows is witty and fun, as the rest of the play is.

The Provocative:

These opening lines don't blow the reader (or viewer) away, but they certainly capture your attention.

All's Well That Ends Well
Countess: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband."

I don't know this play, but the opening certainly raises questions. What happened? How is this going to be a comedy, exactly?

Antony and Cleopatra
Philo: "Nay, but this dotage of our general's o'erflows the measure"

Spicy. Antony and Cleopatra enter shortly thereafter, displaying ever their mutual dotage. If you know the story, however, you know who's really in command in this relationship. Hint: it's not Antony.

As You Like It
Orlando: "As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns, and, as thou sayest, charged my brother, on his blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my sadness."

Not unlike the Merchant of Venice, but here the "sadness" has to do with the need to find a good wife. Knowing that this is a comedy - and one of my favorites - goes a long way towards promising the kind of absurdity that does indeed follow. As You Like It has more cross-dressing, more fools, and more hilariously bad puns than just about any other play you'll find.

First Gentleman: "You do not meet a man but frowns: our bloods no more obey the heavens than our courtiers still seem as does the king."

Henry IV, Part I
King Henry IV: "So shaken as we are, so wan with care, find we a time for frighted peace to pant, and breathe short-winded accents of new broils to be commenced in strands afar remote."

Something exciting is going on. This is definitely the way to start a history.

Henry V
Chorus: "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars."

At Shakespeare's time, especially, it's easy to see why this would engage the audience. We know from the outset that we're going to follow kings to war and death, all in an almost mythological tone.

Henry VIII

Prologue: "I come no more to make you laugh: things now, that bear a weighty and a serious brow, sad, high, and working, full of state and woe, such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow, we now present."

Love's Labours Lost
Ferdinand: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, live register'd upon our brazen tombs and then grace us in the disgrace of death; when, spite of cormorant devouring Time, the endeavor of this present breath may buy that honour which shall bate his scythe's keen edge and make us heirs of all eternity."

Pretty cool. Almost epic, if only the play were more well known. It's worth noting that the Ferdinand, King of Navarre, is talking of love already, as if it were a war.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Prologue: "To sing a song that old was sung, from ashes ancient Gower is come; assuming man's infirmities, to glad your ear, and please your eyes."

Titus Andronicus
Saturninus: "Noble patricians, patrons of my right, defend the justice of my cause with arms, and, countrymen, my loving followers, plead my successive title with your swords: I am his first-born son, that was the last that wore the imperial diadem of Rome; then let my father's honours live in me, nor wrong mine age with this indignity.

Sounds like there's a fight brewing.

The Epic:

There are not many truly "epic" openings in Shakespeare, but there are a few that, I expect, you'll recognize. Texts in full; no comments.

Richard III
Gloucester: "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes."

Romeo and Juliet
Prologue: "Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."

Twelfth Night
Duke Orsino: "If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical."