Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stealth More Interesting: Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the most attractive and problematic aspects of the "Great Man" theory of history is that it allows us to pack stories into neat packages of a few important people. World War Two, for example, is largely a story about Hitler and Churchill, with supporting roles played by the leaders of other countries and, of course, J. Robert Oppenheimer. These few men dictated, the story goes, the fates of millions, and it was their interactions and their decisions which shaped the modern world. Similarly, if we look back at earlier wars, important scientific discoveries and theories, or famous and influential pieces of art, the dramatis personae is always small.

In reality, of course, no story is so simple as to be about a single man or woman. At the most basic level, the massive network of personal interactions and cultural influences that any given "hero" experiences means that no one is shaped solely by himself. Even the most stubborn, self-assured, and rebellious personality stands in contrast to something, and so the lone voice of a Galileo or a Lucretius hardly exists in isolation. Those voices were alone - though not entirely, of course, even that gets overblown - because they contravened excepted dogmas and cultural narratives so strong as to be unquestionable.

What makes such people memorable, however, is rarely their genius. In that regard, I suspect that there have been and are many more people capable of great fame than have achieved it. What's more, even genius may be culturally mitigated, and one time's luminary may be another's villain, or, worse, Average Joe. No, fame is mostly about luck, about being in the right place at the right time, to use a tired phrase. Even an unquestionably great man like Gandhi would not have been Gandhi without South Africa, and without a colonial oppression so vile that a nation of a billion wanted desperately to fight against it. Without his context, Gandhi is just another deeply spiritual man, and not a man who changed the world.

Which is not to say that the fact of fame is accidental, but rather that the bestowal of fame on particular people is. We, as Westerners, and likely as human beings, much prefer to condense our stories into manageable chunks. Without some synthesis of the vast account of a particular bit of history, how could we possibly build an understanding of meaning? Leave the detailed examinations to the experts, we say, and let the school-house narrative of George Washington and the Founding Fathers suffice when the Fourth of July roles around. There is, frankly, nothing to be done about the simplifications we make, because they are necessary in order for us to accomplish much of anything. To study the thousands of years of recorded history across the many different cradles of civilization that exist in depth is the work of dozens or hundreds of lives.

Nevertheless, it is easy to forget that we are reducing, reducing, reducing. It is easy to forget that even Galileo was not solitary, and that even Beethoven's music was impossible without his interactions with his father, with Haydn, with the music of Mozart, with the women he lusted after, with the countless unnamed and unremembered princes and patrons and musicians. I as much as anyone am guilty of letting the name of some famous person stand in for an unimaginably complex situation which I don't understand, and more often than not I forget that I am doing it and come to a conclusion about that bit of history that supports my own biases and ideals.

How much more so media, politicians, advertisers, text books and teachers, who are in the business, to varying degrees, not only of informing, but of convincing as well? How much of our understanding of the world shaped by our confirmation bias? Because we grew up with a certain narrative, and from that narrative - be it historical, religious, moral, or some combination of all of those (and more) - we have each built a set of ideals and expectations, our own schema for interpreting and defining and rewriting complex events to make them comprehensible, we tend to find that the world either agrees with our preconceptions, or is not worth bothering about. Approaching history from any other way is not only difficult, it may very well be impossible.

What is there to do, then? Well, ignoring the problem is perfectly valid. I say that without irony, because frankly, it is not in the least bit upsetting to me to imagine a world where we tell wonderful stories about the exploits and tribulations of great men and women. Though we call such things history and myth based upon their supposed accuracy, they are more often than not the same thing, and regardless both excite the imagination, inspire the heart, and stimulate critical thought. I am just as likely to talk about Beethoven as a paragon as I am to talk about him as situated within his cultural and society. Indeed, I am more likely to do the former, because it's a more compelling and more entertaining story.

On the other hand, I do have some interest in the truth, and while ignoring complexity is valid, so it charging headlong into it. That is a more complicated task, granted, but a rewarding one as well. Indeed, many of the stories of greatness we have come from people who did exactly that: consider, again, Galileo's challenge to our most fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world. Consider the development of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, who violated the established principles of mathematical truth to do so. Consider more modern examples like Erving Goffman, who challenge the very notion that gender is anything but a socially and culturally mediated display of differences, and not nearly so rooted in biology and neurology as we like to think. Consider Stanford's Ray McDermott, who argues that learning disabilities acquire kids more than kids acquire learning disabilities.

Yes, there's certainly something to be said for challenging accepted narratives in order to, just maybe, get closer to something that is true. But even in so doing we tend to find a similar set of biases and ideologies. The dogmatic belief in being anti-dogmatic is itself dogmatic; the insistence on challenging established cultural and historical narratives can itself become (and has, in some circles) an entrenched cultural and historical narrative. So what is there to do? Nothing, and everything. Who can really say? It's a too tangled web to unravel in a mere blog post. Rather, I'll make reference to Emerson in Self-Reliance: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Replacing my Hard Drive

Having finished at Stanford, I'm in the process of making my way to Honolulu, Hawaii, where I will start at my new job on September 1st.  "On my way" means, counter-intuitively, traveling eastwards across the mainland towards my one-way flight from Denver.

At the moment I'm sitting back and properly relaxing for the first time in quite a while, especially after a crazy-hectic ending to the school year.  After a 3:30 AM completion of academic requirements on the morning of Friday the 13th, Jericha and I rushed to get our packing done in time for the Sunday noon "get out of our apartments" deadline.  Stanford is happy to have you around, but the day after you're program is over, you'd better get out.

Fitting everything into the car was no easy feat, and in the process I made the dangerous mistake of dropping my laptop.  My exact words were "Well, let's hope the hard drive is ok," before throwing it - or rather shoving it - into the remaining empty space behind the driver's seat.  After a meandering drive down the California coast, including a stopover in Encinitas, we eventually powered through the Arizona heat all the way to Belen, New Mexico where I now sit Enchanted by the Land Thereof.

It turns out that my hard drive was not ok.  Oh, my computer booted fine, but in the midst of some ordinary Internetting, I heard some unseemly clicks and whirs, and everything just froze up.  At first I thought the sounds was coming from the CD drive, caused perhaps a forgotten CD that had become dislodged in transit, but no such luck (and, really, I've put maybe 5 CDs in the drive since I got the computer).  It began to dawn on me that, maybe, this was the hard drive that was acting up, and that maybe I should back everything up and think about how to confront the issue.

Actually, what I really thought was, "Hey, it's probably not really a problem, let's just restart and everything should be fine."  Upon restart, and finding the computer functional again, I thought nothing of it.  Until the thing crashed again a couple hours later.  When even opening the thing up, taking out the drive, blowing on everything, and sticking it back in offered no improvement, I realized it was time to make sure I had a backup, and go to Best Buy and get a new drive.

Fortunately, a replacing a hard drive is much cheaper than replacing a computer, so I was able to get a comparable - indeed, somewhat better - drive for $100.  Replacing it was a snap, and my backed-up Windows 7 image plopped itself comfortably onto the new drive in a matter of minutes.  I did reinstall my Ubuntu rather than restoring it (fresh installations are good now and then), but all in all it took only a couple hours for the entire thing to be up and running again.  And the best thing is, I don't have to go through the arduous process of replacing software or restoring documents, because my external drive and restore CD did their job so well.  Color me surprised.

Growing up, as I did, in the early days of Windows, I was truly shocked that repairing my computer was as easy as it was.  It was certainly easier than installing Windows 7 was in the first place.  It is true that I needed some hardware and software know-how, but not very much.  Almost everything was automated, except for my failed and not particularly vital efforts to change my partition sizes on the new hard drive (a screen in the Ubuntu installer which Jericha said "looks like gibberish").  And now I have a shiny new hard drive which hopefully will last me a tad bit longer than the old one, as long as I remember not to drop the computer.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Some Bertrand Russell Quotations

I'm vaguely in the process of reading Bertrand Russell's "Unpopular Essays," a series of essays so titled not because they are offensive - though some very well may be - but rather because Russell is unapologetically not writing for a popular audience.  While still not his formal philosophy, per se, Russell makes frequent recourse to famous philosophers and ideas without fully explaining them, and uses language which may confuse, as he says, particularly dull children.  The latter point made in response to some reviewers who had lambasted some of his "popular essays" for not being reader-friendly enough, as if it's the writer's job to write to the lowest common denominator.

Reading Russell is always enjoyable for me, because I find him so eminently reasonable.  Of course, he get pinned into the "liberal socialist" camp, and is thus something of a polarizing figure in the history of both theoretical and popular philosophy, but no one would find that more absurd than Russell himself.  In fact, he was very much a man who believed that dogma of any kind was dangerous; the idea that he represents any particular ideology - except perhaps the ideology of avoiding ideology - is a reach.  Certainly he had a great many opinions which are classified in our modern era as liberal, but - and I would say the same about myself - those are, on the one hand, conditional ideas that don't represent "The Answer" to anything, and, on the other hand, are usually more nuanced than the expression of them as 'liberal' can possibly capture.

Russell was eminently quotable, as well, even though he is the kind of thinker who would resist the idea of summarizing someone's ideas with mere quotation.  With that in mind, I want to share a couple quotations of his - not necessarily from "Unpopular Essays" - and explicate them a bit.  Consider this the next post in the "More Interesting Than It Seems" series. 


Russell is well known as a philosopher, as well as an historian of philosophy.  Though he himself in fact pursued a great many philosophical thoughts, he was irreverent in his efforts. 

"That Plato's Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history."

I think he found, in the existing academic structures in the world of philosophy, the same deference and refusal to think that he so much despised in politics.  It was too easy to simply believe that Plato, because he was Plato, was making a good point about how societies should be organized.  Hence the dogmatism among philosophers that Plato is some kind of political all-father. 

"I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine."

One of the biggest critiques of Russell was that, while he was anti-dogmatic, he often spoke persuasively rather than inquiringly.  He, in fact, came across as extremely dogmatic about his anti-dogmatism.  That's a fair criticism, but I also think it does a bit of a disservice to Russell.  Ultimately it's not that satisfying to read an essay that begins every sentence with "I might be wrong about this but..." 

"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way."

However much he was irreverent, Russell was also well-aware of the history of philosophy, though the above quotation could just as easily apply in politics or religion.  Nevertheless, there's a Kantian notion* here.  In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant comes to very much this conclusion, that some especially metaphysical questions are impossible to answer, and that those same questions are also likely to have vehement debates surrounding them. 

* See what I did there?

"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."

Of course, this quotation could easily apply to Kant, as well as a great many other philosophers.  For his own part, Russell was rarely taken seriously as a pure philosopher, probably because he found the pure, academic efforts of contemporaries like Husserl to be, shall we say, ridiculous.  His moral, political, and social writings may not have been as academic, but were they less valuable? 


Russell was no apologist for the world in which he lived, however.  Though he was certainly an idealist, who believed very much in the capacity of people to be good, he approached his political and social philosophy with a great deal of cynicism. 

"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years."

While not an anthropologist, Russell certainly does strive to undermine existing paradigms.  The above quotations tells a different story than the one we traditionally hear.  Usually, the problem is that we're too caught up in ourselves, and that we should care more about the happiness of others, but I think he makes a good point: people who sacrifice their own happiness entirely make a grave mistake as well.  We should, instead, find a better way to encourage individual happiness that comes not at the expense of others.  Which is really just the other half of the golden rule, so often (and ironically) shortened to "do unto others."  Let's not forget the "as you would have them do unto yourself." 

"It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won't go."

Nevertheless, Russell did not blame people for their shortsightedness.  The influence of culture, social norms, and political structures is extreme.  While this quotation is a bit too behaviorist for my liking, I appreciate the point: it's silly to rage against the man who is merely a symptom of a bigger problem, and not the disease itself. 

Work and Leisure

I've left out a number of good quotations that could go well here in favor of three particularly good ones.  In short, Russell was very much of the opinion that entirely too much work gets done in the world, and that we, in general, spend far too little time and effort thinking about what we want and ought to do with our spare time. 

"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

Not being dogmatic, Russell lacks the moralizing that comes with our modern conceptions of leisure.  Reading books is good, being on Facebook all the time is bad, we say.  Writing essays is good, playing computer games is bad.  I could go on.  The point is, though, that maybe the time you enjoy wasting, well, yeah. 

"Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid."

This quotation and the one after it are related.  The above trivializes work by showing what it is, in its essence.  While it is true that, in order to survive, we have to move matter at or near the earth's surface, it is also true that we get extremely caught up in how, why, where, and by whom all of that is done. 

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

I suspect you know someone for whom this applies.  You may even be someone for whom this applies.  Regardless, I think the point is a good one; even the most serious work in the world should be taken with proper perspective, not just because it makes life a little better, but also because you might be more effective anyway if you're not having a nervous breakdown. 


As an ardent thinker and believer in thinking, Russell has a lot to say about thought as such.  In particular, Russell is frequently distraught by the surprisingly negative relationship the majority of the world has with the process of thinking. 

"Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so."

I don't think this quotation is meant to mean that people don't think during their lives and then die.  Rather, I think it means that people, given the palpable choice between thinking and dieing, often actively choose death.  Cynical?  Extremely, but also likely true.  For example, consider how many people consume vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup every day. 

"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more than ruin -- more even than death.... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."

Of course, if the short form of the quotation isn't enough, the long form is here to spell it out.  How ironic, in Russell's view, that the greatest accomplishment of mankind is also terrifying. 

"Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination."

Changing gears, this quotation makes me think of Einstein's famous sayings about imagination.  In much the same vein, Russell speaks to the desirability of imagination, and I would say elevates it over knowledge in the process.  Indeed, it may very well be that science is actually, at its core, about both. 


Russell was raised in a Christian household, and actually did hold that most of the traditional Christian virtues were good ones (except, for example, sexual abstinence, which he found absurd).  Even so, he was a staunch atheist - or at least a staunch agnostic, being generally undogmatic - and held that morality could be arrived at logically. 

"The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy - I mean that if you are happy you will be good."

Here is an example of a practical philosophy of morality, and also an example of a fantastic reversal of expectations.  The opening of the quotation seems innocuous enough, but his conception is non-traditional.  The point is well-taken, however.  It may very well be that if we focused more on making people happy, then they would be good more easily, rather than trying to make people good and hoping they'll also be happy.  The idea here is related to one authors and philosophers have been expressing for a long time: it's much rarer for wealthy - or at least comfortable - people to be thieves.  If so much is true with money, why not with morals as well? 

"The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others."

I think this is the most controversial quotation in the set, and I love it.  It takes on both the "Great Man" theory of history - if tangentially - and the unchallenged (and, really, almost unchallengeable) notion that self-sacrifice is desirable.  Moral luminaries are, as we often forget, people, and Russell sees in their willingness to give up their own pleasures a kind of sick desire to rob the same from others.  He is, of course, mainly challenging Christianity here, but we could say the same about any number of areas of human experience.  Consider the over-worked teacher who gives up everything so that her students might become stressed-out, over-worked adults themselves.  Consider the monk who surrenders sexual company in the hope of motivating others to do the same.  Consider the insurance executive who works 15 hours a day, so that he might better ensure that his profit margins are high (and therefore his coverage more scant).

In all, it's a polarizing quotation, but the seeds are visible even in some of the more mundane thoughts about happiness.  Of course, Russell would not be phased by the offense that many of his readers would take at such an idea, if only because he recognized that most popular opinions today were once extremely unpopular, to the point of being absurd.  And, on the balance, it's not really worth it to get angry with a dead philosopher, is it?  That sounds dangerously like wishing for the unhappiness of another more than wishing for the happiness of oneself.  Or, worse yet, confusing the two.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgetting Coors Field

In what is quickly becoming a disappointing season for the Colorado Rockies, I'm somewhat surprised by the insistence in the (rather limited) Rockies blogosphere that the team's problem is an inability to hit on the road.  Granted, that much seems obvious, given the .301/.373/.492 line the offense puts up at Coors Field and the .232/.306/.364 line on the road.  There's no question, looking at those numbers, that the Rockies can't can't can't hit on the road.  A .306 OBP anywhere from your worst hitter is atrociously bad, let alone from your entire roster.

Consider the other teams road slashes in the NL West, for comparison:

Arizona Diamondbacks - .255/.339/.419
San Francisco Giants - .256/.325/.397
Los Angeles Dodgers - .256/.325/.382
San Diego Padres - .244/.304/.377

Amazingly, the Padres, despite playing in Petco Park, are hitting significantly better at home (.258/.339/.380) this year than on the road.  The unlikely success of San Diego this season has a great many sources, not the least of which is the magical transformation of Petco into a hitter's paradise for Padres players, whilst remaining one of the stingiest pitcher's parks for opposing hitters.

Anyway, it's clear from this list that the Rockies are quite poor on the road, but it is true that all of those teams have the benefit of playing a substantial number of their away games at Coors Field, so lets look at the NL East, too.

Philadelphia Phillies - .257/.328/.394
Atlanta Braves - .248/.334/.380
Florida Marlins - .256/.314/.410
Washington Nationals - .239/.307/.375
New York Mets - .240/.295/.366

 The Phillies have been much better than you would think, given all the doom-and-gloom talk about their offense this season.  Other than that, what stands out most here is that the Mets and Nationals, who no one picked to win the World Series this offseason, are the only teams with road splits as woefully bad (or, in the Mets case, worse) than the Rockies.

We might as well do the NL Central, too.

Milwaukee Brewers - .271/.339/.436
Cincinnati Reds - .264/.322/.414
St. Louis Cardinals - .260/.315/.405
Chicago Cubs - .252/.314/.396
Houston Astros - .244/.304/.344
Pittsburgh Pirates - .232/.289/.351

The Brewers offense jumps out at you, but their woeful pitching is the other side of the story, and the reason for their disappointing season so far.  The Pirates are truly awful, even though they certainly played the Rockies tough recently.

All told, Colorado clocks in with a tie for last in road batting average (with Pittsburgh), at 12th out of 16 in road OBP, and at 14th out of 16 in road SLG.  So the Rockies problem is definitely that they can't hit on the road.  I buy it.

But I also think this is a case where the hypothesis - that the Rockies can't hit on the road - is only a part of the whole story.  "Can't hit on the road" is a subset of the broader statement, "can't hit."  The Rockies, I would argue, can't hit on the road because they can't hit, period.  This is one of the very worst offensive teams in baseball.  Only a spectacularly good pitching staff and a set of mediocre talents particularly well adapted to playing at Coors Field keep the team slightly above .500.

Coors Field.  That's the real issue here.  I was one of the first people on the "Coors Field is no longer an absurd bandbox" train back when the humidor was put in place in 2002.  I fear, however, that the pendulum has swung too far back in the other direction.  Many Rockies fans (and announcers, I'm unhappy to report) seem convinced that Coors plays like any other park.  It doesn't.  It's still the best hitters park in baseball by a longshot, and that continues to make a mediocre-to-poor offense, like the Rockies have always had, seem good.

Coming into today, the Rockies are fourth in the NL in runs scored at 543.  Fourth, even though they are one of the worst road hitting teams in the National League.  Now the question is, are the Rockies inordinately unlucky on the road, or is Coors Field just that good of a hitter's park?

Unfortunately, "Park Factors" are calculated, primarily, by comparing home and road splits, so to say that Coors Field has a high park factor is to say that the Rockies hit better at home.  Park factor does account for visiting teams as well, but we might simply write off that influence as insignificant, certainly over the course of a single season, compared to the influence of the Rockies roster construction.

Nevertheless, we might begin to suspect that Coors Field really is a good hitter's park if it is consistently the best or one of the best hitter's parks in baseball.  Over time, sure, there still might be some luck involved, but the influence of visiting teams in the calculation feels more substantial, and over multiple seasons the sample size gets large enough that something systematic is going on.

So what has the Coors Field park factor looked like since the first year of the humidor?  It's higher than you might think.*

* I'm using the standard, ESPN "runs" Park Factor here.  Basically, a number of, say, 1.5, means that 1.5 times as many runs are scored at Coors compared to an average ballpark.

2002: 1.440, 1st in MLB
2003: 1.243, 5th in MLB
2004: 1.412, 1st in MLB
2005: 1.276, 2nd in MLB
2006: 1.149, 2nd in MLB
2007: 1.160, 3rd in MLB
2008: 1.126, 3rd in MLB
2009: 1.247, 1st in MLB
2010: 1.275, 1st in MLB

There are a few things to notice here.  First of all, Coors Field has always been in the top 5, and usually in the top 2 hitter's parks in baseball in any given season.  Even as league-wide scoring has gone down, and scoring at Coors with it, the home of the Rockies continues to rank near the top in MLB.  Coors Field, regardless of how much it has calmed down with the addition of the humidor, is still a hitter's paradise.

Also worth note here is that a park factor around 1.2 can seriously muddle simple metrics like "runs scored."  The Rockies, as mentioned above, are fourth in the NL with 543 runs this season.  If, however, we factor in that the Rockies have played 55 home games, and that those games inflate scoring by 1.275, we can roughly scale the Rockies actual production down to 485 runs or so if they played at a neutral park.  Lo and behold, that would put the Rockies 12th in the National League.

A final statistic worth looking at here - and we've done it before on this blog - is WAR.  Fangraphs has the Rockies offense (and defense) at 13.8 Wins this season, good for 16th in baseball (they adjust for DHs, so comparing across leagues is fair).  The Rockies pitching has been worth 17.4 Wins, good for 2nd in the entirety of MLB.  The problem is, hitting and defense together account for more of a team's success than pitching, so that 16th outweighs, unfortunately, the 2nd.  That's why you see a 59-55 record.

It's easy to think that the Rockies have the pieces in place to compete offensively, especially because of how lauded the lineup is in the local media.  But we forget that players who look good at Coors are merely average elsewhere, that near-MVPs like Matt Holliday turn into marginal All-Stars on other teams, that Neifi Perez looked like a passable Major Leaguer playing in Colorado.  That is still true for today's Rockies.

Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are the Rockies best offensive players, but neither is a world beater.  The CarGo for MVP talk is nonsense.  Even with his recent surge, he is 21st in WAR in the National League, almost 2 full wins worse than the NL's best position player this season, Joey Votto.  In fact, "Little Pony" has been only the third best outfielder in the NL West, according to WAR, so far this season (behind the incredibly underrated Andres Torres and Chris Young).  Gonzalez is a good player, but Coors makes him look better than he is.

The same can be said of Tulo, who is incredibly valuable by default as a slick fielding shortshop.  That he hits a little is just a bonus, but just because he rakes on the Rockies doesn't mean he hits more than a little.  He's no Chase Utley.  One can only imagine what a player like that could do at Coors for 81 games a season.

It is true that, with the exception of Tod Helton, who has had an atrocious season, no one hitter on the Rockies right now is particularly bad.  But no one is particularly good either.  When your best offensive player doesn't know how to draw a walk and is 21st in WAR in the league, you're not likely to score a lot of runs unless you play at an extreme hitter's park.  The same could be said for when four of your regulars are producing at approximately replacement level (Helton, Spilborghs, Hawpe, and Mora).  Without offense, even a team with great pitching like the Rockies is doomed to mediocrity.

The point of this post, though, is not to write a post-mortem of the Rockies season.  We all know that anything is possible, and while it's unlikely that Colorado will catch all of the teams in front of them, stranger things have happened.  No, the point here is to remind fans of the Rockies - and really any team - that the raw numbers you see don't tell the whole story.  The Rockies score a lot of runs, but not because they have a good offense.  Rather, Coors Field is the culprit.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

More Interesting Than It Seems: Arthur C. Clarke

I want to try out a new idea for a shorter kind of post this afternoon (thanks to the somewhat alarming amount of work I need to do between now and August 15th, when I am unceremoniously booted out of my apartment).  The idea is to take a famous or semi-famous quotation - or, hey, maybe a really obscure one - and to talk about why it might be a little more interesting than it seems at first blush.  Of course, a great many famous quotations are actually quite a bit less interesting than they seem, but we'll try to dodge those for the most part.

What makes a quotation "more interesting" than it seems is largely subjective, but that's part of the point.  By the time a famous quotation becomes famous, it has undergone various permutations in context, intonation, and sometimes even diction and syntax to the point that it might not have anything in particular to do with the actual thoughts of the speaker of that quotation.  Add to that the sine qua non of famous quotations - that they almost uniformly come from famous people - and it's no wonder famous quotations are easily abused.

So let's begin our own abuse with one of my favorite quotations from Arthur C. Clarke:* "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

*That until just recently I mistakenly thought this quotation was Isaac Asimov's just goes to show how easily and often unwittingly manipulated these things are.

On the surface, this is a wonderful, if somewhat obvious, thing for a science fiction author to say.  There is certainly something fantastical about the way we interact with science fiction stories, and for the most part we're not apt to hold the author's feet to the fire when he or she describes the technologies that make the setting possible.  Star Trek fans would not get far if they needed a scientifically plausible explanation for the transporter, holodeck, or warp drive.  Fortunately for us, those technologies are sufficiently advanced that they are like magic, and understanding is not important.

What makes the quotation more interesting, however, upon closer inspection is that it contains within it a bit of a cautionary tone.* While Coram and I were working on our Master's Project, one of the students we talked to described his own laboratory experience as being "like magic," and this quotation jumped to my mind.  Magic may be fanciful and fun, but it can also be a dangerous stand-in for "lack of understanding."

*Or, at least, we can read a cautionary tone into it.
I think the word "magic" isn't the real locus of interest, though.  Rather, "sufficiently advanced" is what really counts.  What, exactly, qualifies as "sufficiently advanced."  What is advanced to me or you is obviously different than what would be advanced to our great grandparents, or to the ancient Greeks.  But I cannot help but feel that, even for us, there's a certain magic that goes into most of the technology we use on a day to day basis.  Sure, there are people who understand cars, people who understand computers, people who understand WiFi, people who understand cellphones, people who understand microwaves, and people who understand the electric watch, but there are very very few people indeed for whom at least one of those things is not, in a very real sense, magic.

It's easy to point to authority and say, "ah yes, well, I may not know how a toaster works, but the electrician next door does."  The problem is, that's very much what Clarke means by magic.  The toaster, even, is sufficiently advanced that we need to call in the local sorcerer to fix it when it goes wrong.  And, like magic, it has the power to make yummy food or to burn your house down.

I'm being somewhat facetious, but not entirely.  I think, especially from an educational perspective, Clarke's quotation serves to remind us that it's not necessarily a good idea to encourage students to be satisfied with merely calling the local witch-doctor to fix their plumbing.  That's not to say we shouldn't employ plumbers, but that we shouldn't simply take for granted that all of this technology we have around us all the time just is.  Ultimately, what I'm talking about is two different attitudes towards science (and, subsequently, technology): one is skeptical, empirical, and practical, and the other is dogmatic.

A healthy attitude towards science acknowledges that, hey, we can't all build microwaves, and therefore while it's hardly foolish to use one, it's probably worth spending a little time at least curious about how the darn thing functions.  An unhealthy one says, "I don't care, I just want my Instant Ramen."  Silly example, sure, but I'll bet you don't have to think that hard to come up with a much more dangerous one.  Dogmatic faith in science and the technology it produces is dangerous, after all, because technology is a powerful magic.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Lazy is one of the most pernicious words in the English language. Often the most devoted, hard-working people are labeled "lazy" on those occasions when they are not actively trying to accomplish ever more. It's an odd and vicious cycle, where those hard workers learn to call themselves "lazy," even when they are most definitely not. I've certainly had a number of friends - and I'm sure you have to - who call themselves lazy despite generally getting work done on time or early and taking on more projects than is required.

It would be easy to chalk this up to the centuries old Protestant Work Ethic, which accounts for the general tendency for Americans (and Europeans) to work exceptionally hard because, ironically, that would demonstrate their worthiness for Heaven. That is, everyone's spot in Heaven or Hell was predetermined, but you could tell based on a person's earthly success, and so Protestants - despite determinism - worked really hard to prove that they were predetermined.

It's a little lazy (see what I did there?) to attribute the modern distrust of laziness to Luther and Calvin, however. Surely there's some influence, but fewer and fewer people are being brought up in Protestant households, and the iron grip of dogmatic determinism has significantly loosened over the last hundred or so years.

No, I think that our revulsion for laziness - and yet our willingness to call ourselves, or friends, and people we've never met lazy - must come from something more immediate. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, and I don't believe I can tease it out just by speculating, but I have a couple ideas which are probably not totally true. More importantly, however, I want to defend laziness, not as a way of life, but in the kind of moderation that should accompany most of what we deem vices and virtues.

As a starting point, I think we do have an extremely strong cultural stage set up for hard work. Watching the news, or any television show, or even browsing the Internet, it's hard not to find examples of hard work, not as exceptional, but as an expectation that simply cannot help but be met. Hard work is the status quo, everything else is an incredible, unbelievable, awful, society-ruining vice. That watching TV or browsing the Internet is usually not work only drives the point home: look at how much other people do.

Ultimately this account of laziness is highly personal, because we cannot help but compare the vastness of the work everyone else does compared to the extremely limited amount of work we individually do. That there's something of a fallacy here doesn't affect us overmuch because, frankly, we're mostly a bunch of egomaniacs who believe that we should be able to do more than not just anyone else, but everyone else. How disappointing to see that that's not true, and how much easier to our self-love to attribute it to laziness than to lack of ability. I could ____ if I wanted.

More than that, however, I think our notions of hard work and laziness come from the extreme competitiveness of our educational, economic, and political models. Even though cooperation and collaboration have become more and more prominent buzzwords in recent years, we remain an inherently competitive society. Consider that standardized tests are scored by percentile. Consider that we class people primarily by socio-economic status, and apply a kind of innate superiority to people who have more money. Consider that the almost universal organizational structure in the business world is hierarchical.

Competition, of course, has its virtues, but so does cooperation. To use a trivially simple example, if four people on an island each try to horde the limited available food, they won't last long. If they instead divide their efforts, so that one person builds fishing nets while another plants and tends crops while yet another does the fishing and the last does the cooking, well, then they're getting somewhere. Of course, cooperation is, as I said, smiled upon in the modern world to a point, and no one would deny that small groups of people ought to cooperate. The problem is at a larger scale, where the narrative of human-beings-as-innately-greedy has led to the notion that, ultimately, you simply have to build a competitive system.* It's not a matter of morality or effectiveness, it's simply a natural outgrowth of human nature. Laziness, in that account, becomes a deadly disease that will not harm you as such, but rather will put you so far behind all of the non-lazy people that you're liable to suffer and die. No wonder "lazy" is such a bugbear.

* There's a little ironic laziness in the competitive model of capitalist economics, which is that, at its core, it says that the less we mess with competition the better off everyone will be. It's so much work to try to influence the actions of large groups of people anyway that we might as well just let it be. In practice, of course, this never happens; the primary function of most companies, governments, and schools is to try to influence large groups of people. But apparently that influence should never, ever happen in certain, particular ways; namely, in the form of the government influencing business. I guess I just don't get it. Anyway, since we're obviously not better off in a competitive system at a small enough scale, there must be some kind of point at which cooperation stops paying off and competition starts working. Perhaps we need just a couple more billion people, and then we'll be there...

I would argue, on the other hand, that entirely too much work gets done in the world, and we would be a lot better off if there was more laziness to go around. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that we need a whole class of people who sit around doing nothing all day.* Rather, it makes much more sense to me to structure a society - or, at a smaller scale, a company, an organization, a school, or a life - such that there is ample opportunity for laziness to go along with hard work. It turns out that free time, during which we have the chance to be lazy, can be incredibly important to our emotional and spiritual well-being, and that we might work more effectively when we do work if we're not working 12 hours a day.

* One of the fundamental (and most hilarious) disagreements in our political spectrum is over who is lazier, the poor or the rich. Broadly speaking, left-wingers think that rich people are lazy, while right-wingers think that poor people are lazy. Never in question is how incredibly irresponsible and unethical it is to be lazy. The question might as well be: who is moral, the rich or the poor? Show me someone's villain, and I'll show you their political leanings.

I know, I'm expressing things that we started to figure out a hundred years ago, but it strikes me that we forget easily, or that we forget to apply that lesson widely enough. For example, when we hear a story about a young student working a full time job in addition to going to school so he can pay his own way through college, we are filled with admiration for his virtue, but for some reason we don't find fault with a social, economic, and political structure that makes such fundamentally needless hard work necessary and expedient. And you will not convince me that said student will be better off in life by virtue of his job at a 7-11. The laziness he was robbed of cost him how many books, how many love letters, how much time listening to or writing music?

You see, the problem is that we tend to equate free time with accomplishing nothing. On the one hand, it would be good if we accomplished less, as a society, because then perhaps we would use fewer resources, stop having so many kids, and generally do a better job not of saving the planet (because the planet is fine), but of saving ourselves (because we're in a lot of trouble). We've always been a hard-working, competitive, quickly-expanding kind of species, and like Douglas Adams's favorite bird, the Kakapo,* now that we've got global environmental, economic, and social crises, we're just doing the stuff we've always been good at - which is the stuff that got us in trouble in the first place - with even more fervor.

* The Kakapo is a flightless bird from New Zealand that, finding itself suddenly in danger of being eaten by rats, dogs, and other carnivorous animals after the arrival of Europeans on their island, promptly died off because they were really only good at mating slowly and being completely unafraid of other species. Suffice to say, mating slowly in the face of rapid predation hasn't worked out, nor has sitting around and waiting to be eaten.

On the other hand, terms like "accomplishment" are a bit loaded. For my own part, some of my favorite accomplishments have nothing to do with work that was assigned to me, or things that I had to do in order to forward my career or life goals. And I don't just mean things like keeping a blog, being married, or reading good books, which we grudgingly tend to admit are worthwhile pursuits. No, I mean lazy stuff like sleeping in, watching every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and beating Knights of the Old Republic as both a light side and a dark side Jedi. Even though I acknowledge that I'm generally intellectually involved in those pursuits, I also know that, by almost any measure, they're a complete waste of time. Supremely lazy, you might say.

Except that the whole point is for those things to be a waste of time. What I have "accomplished," in each of those cases, is having fun. Some people have fun by working and then working some more, I'm told, but I don't totally buy it. Hard work for the sake of hard work may be rewarding and therefore fun in a certain way, but most meaningful work is also draining. Interacting with people all the time is hard, and solving problems that effect other people puts you in a precarious emotional position. Without a chance to sit down and turn your attention to something other than all the work you have to do - without a chance to be lazy - there is no subconscious processing, no emotional, physical, and spiritual recharge, and no chance to find those little nuggets (because even Star Trek has its moments) of wisdom, humor, or information that can completely transform the way you approach a sticky problem.

Lazy is not a way of life, as I said, but it is much more useful than it seems. As John Dewey says, the point of education is not to prepare people for jobs, but to prepare them for free time. Likewise, Bertrand Russell would say that the point of society is not to ensure that work gets done, but rather to ensure that everyone has a chance to not work sometimes. If we get into the way-back machine, Aristotle says that the point of philosophy is not to make laws, but to make laws unnecessary. Idealistic? Perhaps, but it sounds a whole lot better to me than feeling guilty for living a balanced, sustainable, and enjoyable life.