Thursday, September 30, 2010

Psuedo-Art: Book Titles

I'm fascinated by the modern inclination towards combining mundane things together to make "high art."  You know, like modern art exhibits with microwaves sitting on top of a row of stained coffee mugs, or insanely famous paintings of soup cans.  Far from being offended by the notion that such seemingly random hogwash can pass as artistic, I'm completely sincere when I say I'm fascinated.  Stuff like that is so interesting.

Just as the world of visual art has transformed into something that is neither real, surreal, impressionistic, or any other kind of traditional category, there have been a great many works of music and poetry that do the same thing.  Carson Cistulli's poetry, for example, is the product of a time that has recovered from the fanaticism and occasional incomprehensibility of the beats only to discover that the same spirit is available in much subtler tones.

Perhaps the most understated locus for what we deem - for lack of a better word - "post-modern" art is in the way we title our books.  Gone are the days when a play about a couple of lovebirds is called Romeo and Juliet.  Gone, even are the days when we were satisfied with West Side Story as a retelling.  Now we demand far stranger combinations, which are yet unpretentious.  I think of a book I just finished - a book that is hardly destined for fame or worthy of historical mention.  The book was called Gun, With Occasional Music.

What's most interesting to me is that even mediocre books often have great titles.  Gun, With Occasional Music.  That's one of the most fascinating and compelling titles I've seen, and while the book is entertaining, it could hardly hope to live up to that title.  The cover only makes the title more effective (and yes, that is a kangaroo in a suit).  The fairly standard - sans kangaroo anyway - detective scene here has a title far too mysterious for a mystery.

I'm too disconnected from contemporary literature to dig up the most recent of recent titles, but perusing the nearest bookshelf brings up all kinds of strange and unexpected amalgams of words.  Consider a few, some famous and well-known, others already forgotten:
Insect Dreams: the Half-Life of Gregor Samsa
The God of Small Things
Stripper Lessons
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
A Confederacy of Dunces
House of Sand and Fog

Certainly there have been great book titles throughout history (simple though it may be, War and Peace is about as compelling a title as you'll find), but there's something different in these modern editions.  The cynic might say it's marketing, and I've fallen for the trap, but I don't think that's totally fair.  I think there's more effort put into crafting titles today in part because of the role of sales in the literary world, but also because I think they signal a recognition that books occupy a place somewhere in between the fantastical and the mundane.

A good title, then, is like a good haiku; it surprises, it intrigues, and it creates a whole sense of meaning all its own.  I have not read The God of Small Things, but it still works on my imagination.  And even having finished Gun, With Occasional Music, I can recreate an entirely different meaning from those four words than what the book itself suggests.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More Humidor!

My last post ended up being oddly prophetic, as Tim Lincecum 'caught' the evil Rockies cheating just this last home series.  Apparently he - or the Rockies - didn't read the post, which concluded that cheating by mixing in non-humidor balls would be, basically, a colossal waste of the Rockies' time and energy.  Anyway, if the Rockies were cheating, it didn't do a lot of good, as the team lost 2 of 3 and are now all-but-eliminated from the NL West race.  Maybe next year they'll start cheating earlier in the season, instead of just in September.

In all seriousness, I want to further explore this humidor-cheating theme.  The charge against my favorite team is, frankly, extremely severe, and if there is any warrant for it, I'd like to know.  If, on the other hand, this is a witch-hunt that has more to do with irrational fears and the human propensity for finding patterns where there aren't any, well, I'd like to know that too.

Whereas last time we looked at theory - and theory flatly rejected the notion that the Rockies would gain from cheating by mixing non-humidor balls in with humidor balls - today we're going to look at data.  Now, because the theory says that the Rockies would get little to no benefit from cheating as described, what we have to look at instead is whether or not the Rockies have been unduly lucky.  Do they, in short, win more late comebacks than other teams?

Lets start with the most basic stats - and this includes both home and road games.  The Rockies have come back to win 29 games this season.  They have, on the other hand, blown 39 leads.  They have won 10 walk-off games, and have watched the other team walk off 9 times.*  Neither of those numbers looks particularly suspicious - indeed, it's the 39 (!) blown leads that are surprisingly high, apparently the Rockies are forgetting to take the non-humidor balls out when they go back to the mound - but let's dig deeper anyway.

* For comparison's sake, let's also look at the San Francisco Giants, the Rockies division rival who seems most convinced that the Rockies cheat with the humidor.  The Giants have won 35 games by comeback, and have lost 22 games in which they had a lead.  They have 6 walk-off wins and 5 walk-off losses.

Another informative statistic here is the 2010 Rockies record when they are behind at the start of the Xth inning.  Consider:

Behind to start the 2nd: 10-19, .345
3rd: 10-29, .256
4th: 11-39, .220
5th: 11-43, .204
6th: 12-48, .200
7th: 15-51, .227
8th: 10-54, .156
9th: 3-56, .051

The same table for the 2010 Giants.
2nd:  11-21, .344
3rd: 14-28, .333
4th: 14-37, .275
5th: 15-47, .242
6th: 12-55, .179
7th: 13-55, .191
8th: 8-57, .123
9th: 6-61, .090

This table in isolation, and even with a Giants version for comparison, isn't all that meaningful, so let's look at the MLB league-wide numbers as well.

2nd: 330-783, .296
3rd: 408-1115, .268
4th: 413-1325, .238
5th: 367-1518, .195
6th: 317-1640, .162
7th: 263-1757, .130
8th: 170-1892, .082
9th: 96-1999, .046

To summarize, the Giants have been better than the Rockies at coming back starting behind in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 9th innings.  The Rockies have been better coming from behind in the 2nd, 6th, 7th, and 8th.  Both teams have generally out-performed the rest of the league, which at least in part owes to the fact that both teams are above-average teams.  The Yankees, for example, are basically as good or better than both the Rockies and Giants coming from behind in every inning.  The Pirates are worse.  Makes sense.

I want to call out some particular numbers from the last chart.  The Rockies are 3-56 when trailing going into the 9th inning.  Three wins, 56 losses.  Sure, a lot of that has been on the road, but that 3-56 is way worse than the Giants 6-61, for example.  This more or less reinforces what we looked at last post: changing out humidor balls for non-humidor balls in the bottom of the ninth ain't gonna win many games.

In case you're not convinced, here are some numbers from previous seasons. In 2009 the Rockies went 2-63 (for an awesome .031 winning percentage) in games they trailed going into the ninth inning, and 4-58 in games they trailed going into the 8th.  In 2008 those numbers were 3-79 and 8-74 respectively.  Even in the magical 2007 the Rockies went 6-62 in games they trailed going into the 9th, almost identical to this year's Giants.

I don't want to spend forever parsing these numbers, because we'll just get the same thing over and over.  If baseball-reference made it easier, I'd pull these apart and separate home and road, but what we'd find is that the Rockies come from behind and blow leads more often at home, simply because Coors Field is such a good hitters park.  Remember that the Rockies have blown 39 leads this year? That's not because of a bad bullpen, indeed, far from it. The Colorado bullpen has been worth, according to fangraphs, 50 runs above replacement this year (or 5 wins), good for 5th in all of Major League Baseball.  I think that 39 blown leads has a lot to do with where the Rockies play, humidor balls or no.

"OK Mr. Smarty-pants," you're probably saying, "You've given me all kinds of mediocre data that doesn't show that the Rockies aren't cheating, and you've yet to supply an alternative hypothesis." On the first point, you're right.  I can't prove the Rockies aren't cheating because, as my last post said, there's no real reason to believe that the kind of cheating in question would actually benefit the team.  Instead, I'm trying to show, in this post, that there's not really a compelling reason to even suspect that the Rockies are cheating in the first place.  They don't win an inordinate number of comeback victories and they don't score an inordinate number of late runs (once you account for Coors Field, that is; I didn't show this data, but I did look, and if you ask nicely and really care, I will).  In short, they're not better than anyone else at winning games that they don't lead.

Now, as to your second point, I do have a hypothesis for why the Rockies have such extreme home/road splits.  I don't think the humidor has anything to do with it, rather, I think there are a couple things at work.  One is familiarity.  Every team in the Majors plays better at home than on the road, for any number of reasons that no one is quite sure about.  Sleeping in your own bed, a batter's eye you're used to, a mound that feels more comfortable... Whatever.  It just happens.  So it's no surprise that Rockies pitchers do better than those from other teams at Coors, and likewise it's no surprise that Rockies hitters benefit more from Coors than visiting hitters.  They know the park better, they're used to the way the ball breaks (or doesn't) out of the pitcher's hand, and they got a better night's sleep.

Beyond even that, though, I think the Rockies front office has figured out what kind of players play best at Coors Field.  Especially on the pitching end, the Rockies have a particular skill set they seem to target, and they seek a lot of castaways from other teams (Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel, Huston Street, Manny Delcarmen, etc) and try to turn them into Coors Field specialists.  What is that skill set?  Hard to say, but I can point you to some numbers that I find interesting.

There are a lot of numbers we can look at, here, but I think the most informative ones are strikeouts and walks.  As two of the "three true outcomes," strikeouts and walks are the numbers that should be least susceptible to the altitude and cavernous alleys of Coors Field.  That's not to say Coors should have no effect on strikeouts and walks, but rather that the effect shouldn't be as big as it is on batting average or home runs.

So what do we see?  Rockies hitters have, as of today, 3016 Plate Appearances at Coors and 2959 on the road.  In those, Rockies hitters have struck out 555 times at home and 655 on the road.  In rates, the Rockies lineup strikes out 18.4% of the time at home, and 22.1% of the time on the road.  That's a pretty substantial difference.

What about walks?  The Rockies have drawn 288 walks at home and 274 on the road.  In rates, again, that's 9.5% at home and 9.3% on the road.  This is not, it seems to me, a substantial difference.  The strikeouts are telling, however, especially if you consider this amazing piece from Athletics Nation about Carlos Gonzalez.  It seems to me that the Rockies are probably taking more or less the same approach on the road as they do at home, but they're getting fooled by a lot more pitches - and especially fastballs, if you read the Cargo article - away from Coors.

More interesting, however, is the Rockies pitching staff.  At Coors, Rockies pitchers have faced 2988 hitters, while facing 2847 on the road.  At Coors, Rockies pitchers have struck out 596 hitters, while they've k-ed 577 on the road.  That's 19.9% of plate appearances turning into strikeouts at home, and 20.3% out on the road.  Not a substantial difference, which might owe to the kinds of pitches that Rockies pitchers throw.  Namely, they rely on the kinds of pitches that are least effected by the altitude and dry air at Coors.

Here's the really interesting thing, though.  Rockies pitchers have walked 217, or 7.3% of hitters at home, while walking 279, or 9.8% of hitters on the road.  That is definitely a significant difference, and while I think it's impossible - or at least beyond the scope of this post - to figure out why exactly that's happening, I strongly suspect it has something to do with the way that balls break differently when the Rockies aren't at altitude.  If, as the Cargo piece suggests, it's fastballs that are most effected, it stands to reason that more of those 3-2 and 3-1 (fastball) counts are turning into walks on the road than at home.

That's just speculation, but the point is not to prove anything, as I've said.  The point is to show that there's a perfectly reasonable - and much less conspiratorial - explanation for the Rockies huge home-road splits than "LOLCOORZ" and "OMGHUMIDORZ."  Given that the Rockies have been merely average - if not worse - at coming from behind in the last few years, and given that cheating with humidor balls is theoretically close to useless, and given that the Rockies front office is probably trying to build a team that capitalizes on the advantages of Coors Field...  Given all of those things, it takes a particularly hysterical and extremely cynical kind of person to believe that the Rockies are getting away with some awful sin against the sanctity of baseball.*

*O.K.  That's the end of the post unless you're a Rockies fan.  If you are, then feel free to read on to the part where I shed any semblance of objectivity and rant for a few sentences.  Enjoy.

So, yes, Tim Lincecum, you and your namby-pamby cry-baby Giants (and your awful, bourgeois Silicon Valley fans, and your too-good-for-everyone-else ballpark*) have officially made it to the top of my baseball hate list.  Higher than the Dodgers, higher than the Yankees.  Even higher than the Red Sox.  Congratulations.

* The cheapest seat at AT&T is $16!  And what kind of baseball stadium sells sushi and has wireless Internet access?  And I thought baseball was supposed to be for everyone.  Give me a $4 Rockpile seat any day.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


It's even on ESPN! Rob Neyer, in his blog, is the latest high-profile baseball writer to pick up on the Rockies-might-be-cheaters idea (alternatively, depending on source, "might" could show up as "must").  A whisper and a rumor that began with Giants announcer Jon Miller has now expanded to such proportions that the great gods of Confirmation Bias, Hearsay, and Circumstantial Evidence have taken over.  While most rational people - like Neyer - do not believe the Rockies are cheating, the rampant cynicism of Internet goers everywhere, combined with their love of their own teams, has ignited a firestorm of anti-Rockies hate.

Circumstantial evidence leads the way, of course.  Fans point to Troy Tulowitzki's recent hot-streak, the magical Septembers of 2007, 2009, and, hopefully, 2010, and a handful of impressive comebacks the Rockies have engineered, as if those things are proof of improper humidor usage.  In the process, of course, we're ignoring Miguel Olivo's collapse to below mediocrity, Carlos Gonzalez's recent slump, the whole of the 2008 season, the terrible starts the Rockies have had in other seasons (including this one), and the impressive comebacks other teams sometimes engineer against the Rockies.

My point here, however, is not to argue against circumstantial evidence with circumstantial evidence in the opposite direction.  My point is to ask a very specific question to which I hope to find a very specific answer.  The question is this: if the Rockies were cheating by using non-humidor balls during their own at bats and humidor balls during their opponents at bats, what would we expect the result to be?  As far as I know, for all of the vehemence about this issue, no one has bothered to turn a statistical eye on the situation, and it seems to me that we should probably do so before we start slinging accusations around.

The first thing I want to pull out are historical Park Factors for Coors Field (from

1995 - 128
1996 - 129
1997 - 113
1998 - 125
1999 - 125
2000 - 129
2001 - 121
2002 - 117
2003 - 110
2004 - 119
2005 - 110
2006 - 107
2007 - 109
2008 - 105
2009 - 113
2010 - 120

There's a lot of variability in there, of course, but there's a noticeable difference between what's going on before 2002 (when the humidor was put in) and after.  How big a difference?  Well, let's run some (very basic) statistics.

1995 - 2001 Average: 124.3
1995 - 2001 Standard Deviation: 5.7

2002-2010 Average:  112.2
2002-2010 Standard Deviation: 5.4

The SDs here are not totally valid, because we have too few values to really have a normal distribution of data.  Nevertheless, it is not the case that every year is equal.  If we looked across the league, the same would be true; park effects are subject to variation just as a player's BABIP, or home run totals are.  A full season may be a lot of data, but it's not enough to establish an answer for what the real park effect of a stadium is.  In the case of Coors, it seems as though there's a 10-15 percent range, for example, which is fairly substantial.

Regardless, there's a difference here.  From 1995-2001, Coors inflated scoring by an average of 24 percent.  From 2002-2010, that number has fallen to 12 percent.  In real terms, that means that 5 runs elsewhere, in the pre-humidor era, was equal to about 6 runs at Coors, while 5 runs in the humidor era is worth 5.5 at Coors now.

Now if we look at Tom Tango's wonderful Run Expectancy Spreadsheet, we figure out how much of a difference we can expect a half-inning of non-humidor balls might make.  The leftmost column in Tango's sheet is for "run environment," meaning we can calculate the expected runs per inning depending on the number of runs per game the environment in question yields.  The National League this season is very nearly a 4.40 run environment (as in, 4.4 runs per team per game), which means that the Run Expectancy each inning is 0.489.

Coors Field with humidor is probably close to a 4.95 environment, yielding a .55 Run Expectancy per inning.  Coors without humidor jumps up to a 5.45 run environment, which means a .606 RE.

The short-form, here, is that, if the Rockies are cheating late in games (which seems to be the conspiracy theory; I haven't heard it suggested that the Rockies are doing this all game), we'd expect them to see a jump from .55 runs per inning to .606 runs per inning once they switch out the balls.  Undoubtedly the sample size here is going to be too small to make conclusions if we go straight to the data right now, so let's look at a little more theory.

The assumption in our Rockies Cheat theory is that Colorado switches out the balls when they're behind late in games.  Let's start by looking at a single inning - the ninth.  If the Rockies are down by 1 run in the bottom of the ninth, how much does switching out humidor balls for non-humidor balls help?  Well, the likelihood of scoring at least one run - and thus tying or winning the game - with humidor balls is about 29%.  The likelihood of the same with non-humidor balls is about 32%.  The likelihood of scoring two or more - and thus winning outright - with humidor balls is 14%, while the same with non-humidor balls is about 16%.

Let's think about this.  If the Rockies are down by a run in the ninth inning, the switch from humidor balls to non-humidor balls will get them a tie only 3% more often, and a win only 2% more often.  Over the course of the season, that comes out, roughly, to somewhere between zero and one games.  If the Rockies are switching humidor balls for non-humidor balls in the ninth inning, they're not getting that much benefit from it.

Of course, you could argue that they start switching in the seventh inning.  Suddenly that 3% difference between 29 and 32 turns into... a 4% difference (between roughly a 65% and 69% chance of scoring at least one run in one of the three innings respectively).  Considering that, humidor balls or not, the other team continues to hit as well, the odds of winning a game down by a run in the seventh inning are not hugely different for the Rockies in either of those situations.

Upping the deficit here will do what you might expect, decrease the likelihood of a comeback and, in the process, decrease the difference between humidor and non-humidor balls.  You might argue that homers become more likely with non-humidor balls, but that's covered already in the change in the park factor.  And, what's more, the exact point here is that the increased odds of hitting a homer with non-humidor balls compared to humidor ones is probably so small in a given at bat that it's negligible.

I know that this brief theoretical look at the humidor proves nothing, but I hope it does show that, in order for the Rockies to really benefit from putting different balls in play, they'd have to do it systematically and at almost all times over the course of the season.  Considering the likelihood that they'd get caught doing that would skyrocket (compared to just doing it close and late in games), I don't see any reason for them to risk it.

I guess the point here is, if the Rockies are cheating by mixing in non-humidor balls in late innings, they should really stop.  Not only is MLB likely to find out in the long run (or the short run), they're not even benefiting that much from doing it.  Sure, those one or, let's be generous, two extra wins might mean the difference between the watching the playoffs from the dugout or from the living room couch, but that effect is far more subtle than what the hysterical cries of the masses (and Jon Miller) suggest.  The implication is and has been that the Rockies win so much at home principally because they're cheating in the late innings, and that's just patently absurd.  Even if they are cheating, they're getting so little from it that it would take 50 to 100 games to see even a one game difference.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Out with a Whimper

I have heard it said that there is nothing more boring than someone talking about their own fantasy baseball team.  The kinds of stories fantasy owners tell are reminiscent of those stories of vaguely-remembered dreams people fill with "and then there was this guy who did this thing, but I can't remember what."  Fantasy owners remember the guy and the thing, of course, but there's no more substance to it than that.

The point of this post then, is not to tell you about the doomed title defense my co-owned (with my brother) fantasy team put up this year in the Whitman Yahoo league.  Our fifth-place finish hardly warrants mention, after all.  Instead, my point is to try to understand the "fantasy" in fantasy baseball, by imagining some of the conversations I would have had with my players had this been a real league.

April 9 - Dropping Chris Iannetta

Because the Rockies gave up on Iannetta so early this season, the Wheat Bears did, too.  I called Iannetta into the office and asked him to take a seat.  "We're going to have to let you go, Chris," I said.  "Russell Martin is still available, and while I believe you're the better player, I just don't think Tracey is going to give you the playing time necessary for you to contribute to this team."

Chris understood, nodding silently and slinking out.  Shortly thereafter he got a call from Dan O'Dowd asking him to report to Colorado Springs.  I felt vindicated in making the decision to cut him, but I wasn't happy about it.  There was a lot of soul searching.

April 23 - Adding Chad Billingsly

As a Rockies fan, picking up a Dodgers pitcher is something of a taboo, so I won't tell you that Billingsly was on the 2009 Whitman champion Longboarders also (as were Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier).  Billingsly was mysteriously dropped after a slow start - the classic victim of small sample size.  The Wheat Bears held a closed-door meeting and decided to swoop down and pick up the pitcher on waivers.

He was fuming when we first met, incredulous at being dropped.  "I mean," he began, "I pitch at one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball, and my team is fairly solid, so I'm going to pick up some wins.  And look at what I did last year! I'm an early pick, and I'm getting dropped three weeks into the season!  This is an outrage!"

After calming him down with promises we never delivered upon, Billingsly went on to be his usual excellent pitching self.  We even kept (gulp) him in the rotation when the Dodgers played the Rockies.

May 1 - Dropping Franklin Morales

This was a short conversation.  We picked up Franklin early in the season, as he was the Rockies closer on opening day.  We forgot that he remained, despite this new role, Franklin Morales.  "Dude, you're Franklin Morales!  You can't throw a strike to save your life."  Simple.

May 1 - Adding Carlos Zambrano, May 25 - Dropping Carlos Zambrano

If you follow baseball, you may recognize that this was after big Z's demotion to the bullpen.  Knowing that Zambrano is a good pitcher, we imagined this to be a temporary move, and in the meantime added him with the hope that he might pick up some holds (which, for some reason, our league counted).  We should have known better.

Carlos was unintelligible: "GAH! Ooogey-boogey, GRRRRR!!!"*

* This is more or less how I imagine Zambrano communicating in real life.  I'm sure he's actually a kind, well-meaning person, but the only time I ever hear about him, as a non-Cubs fan, is when he's attacking Gatorade coolers, teammates, or himself in the dugout.

"We know, Mr. Zambrano, but we think you'll be a valuable contributor again soon."


There was a pause.  I motioned for my assistant to bring out the barbecue ribs.  Placated, Zambrano unleashed a soliloquy.

"Starting pitcher! No bullpen, that bullshit! PINELLA!!!"

You don't want to know about the conversation on the 25th.  Needless to say, we wracked up some expenses that day.

May 28 - Dropping Grady Sizemore

There's not much to say about this one.  Grady was supposed to be one of our best players, instead he was one of our worst, and he went out for the season in May, to boot.  It became clear that he was playing hurt from the beginning, so the decision to let him go was an easy one.  He left stoically, glancing at Carlos Gonzalez (our real star) listlessly on the way out.  "Someday, he'll understand," he muttered.

July 16 - The Trade

The early season was more eventful than the late season for the Wheat Bears, with one notable exception, a trade that ultimately didn't help (or hurt, really) either team.  We dialed up the infamous Quiz's Submariners, the runner-up to our defending champs from a season ago.  "Let's make a deal," we said.  Their shrewd, if unpredictable GM agreed.

We worked late into the night, and arrived at an agreement.  We would ship off Ben Zobrist, Jorge Cantu, Johnny Cueto, and Jorge De La Rosa for Ian Stewart, Pablo Sandoval, Manny Ramirez, and James Shields.  To misquote and oft-misquoted passage, this was "sound and fury, signifying nothing."  Manny B-ed all over us, getting "hurt" over and over and eventually ditching the Dodgers for the White Sox, Ian Stewart actually got hurt, and while Sandoval improved with the change of scenery, he cost us a fortune because of how much more he eats than Zorilla and Cantu combined.

The Whimper

Our second round playoff matchup was ugly.  Local reporters suggest that the blend of personalities in the Wheat Bear locker room were such that they simply couldn't face the pressure of an elimination game.  I would argue that we got hit with too many huge injuries late in the season (replacing Ricky Nolasco with Jordan Zimmerman, for example, didn't help our cause).  Regardless, we put up a terrible week, and were relegated to the demeaning "5th place game" against inferior competition this week.  So much for a title defense, and, what's more, I fear that Wheat Bears ownership is upset with the season, and I may not be asked back again for a third year.  Alas, such is the life of a fantasy GM.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Surviving Mercury Retrograde

OK, so as you probably know by now, I take my astrology somewhat seriously.  I don't read too many charts these days, but I've done quite a few since I started studying the field as a Sophomore in college and have even been paid on occasion.  Reading charts - for those of your who think astrology means the horoscope in the newspaper - is the meat and bones of astrological practice, because it involves looking way deeper than a person's Sun sign (e.g. Leo, Sagittarius, etc.).

If reading charts is the meat and bones of astrology, paying attention to transits is, I suppose, the musculature?  I don't know, the analogy might be breaking down.  Anyway, the point is that transits - and especially the way they interact with a person's natal chat (and progressions) are what makes horoscope work possible in the first place.  Though they are compelled to paint with exceptionally broad strokes, those newspaper horoscope writers are looking at how the transits - the current sky - interacts with the sign in question.  At a smaller scale, looking at a single chart, that process is much more refined.

No matter your sun sign, ascendant, or other aspects in your chart, there is one particular transit event that happens frequently and which, if you ask most astrologers, is not devastating, but is extremely inconvenient.  That event is Mercury's retrograde.  Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, and because it zips around so fast, it often appears to be moving backwards relative to the earth.  That is, while the Sun plods along continuously from one sign to the next (at very nearly 1 degree per day, until it completes its 360 degree rotation every 365 days), Mercury tends to move forward - in front of the Sun - and then back again, going as far as 45 degrees in either direction, and usually moving quickly.

The name "Mercury," indicating a planet of communication and short-distance travel, represented by the Roman messenger God (and psychopomp*), is a mythologically sound fit for the flighty inner planet.  It also relates to our sense of mercurial and flighty temperaments, an aspect of Mercury's astrological profile prominently on display during a retrograde.

* That means he directed souls in the afterlife.  Not in the sense of making decisions or anything.  More in the sense of being an usher; as a messenger, he just told people where to go next.

Mercury retrograde is infamous for garbled messages, computer crashes (you may recall my harddrive crash, which happened during this latest retrograde), and general tardiness.  Making new contacts is often difficult and frequently those relationships don't work out.  For my own part, my hiring at NALU Studies took from September 1st until September 10th or so to get finalized, even though the process should have taken only a day or two.  Similarly, I sat through a significantly delayed flight, and have found myself unusually late (because I try to arrive 10 minutes early to most meetings) for the last few weeks.

But no longer! Mercury went direct earlier this week, and it is now gallantly shooting forward back across the face of the sun.  It will take a while to "catch up" to where it was, but at least now all of those lost emails and dropped calls will start to work out better - or so the astrological wisdom goes.

So now to the point: the title of this post suggests advice, and I'm here to give it.  First of all, keep an eye on when Mercury retrogrades.  It's a lot easier to approach the entire thing with some caution and a well-stocked sense of humor than to expect things to flow smoothly.  A specific example: you can be frustrated by your flight delay, or you can use the time to call an old friend or read a book you've been meaning to get back to.  Mercury's retrograde is not so much about stopping productivity as it is about consolidating, looking inward, and reflecting.  The very nature of "retrograde" implies a backwards vision, and hindsight will always be your ally when a planet is moving backwards.

With Mercury in particular, reestablishing old contacts can be very effective.  Where trying to create a new partnership might be effective, returning a month-overdue call to a friend could go extremely well.  Likewise, starting a brand new job is often perilous during a retrograde, but returning to an organization you used to work for (like I did) is not unwise.

Whether you believe in astrology whole-hog or are a skeptic, I think there's a lesson to be learned here either way, and that's the impossibility of always moving forward.  Take the analogy however seriously you want to, but I think there's something to be said for the motions of the planets: they're never - at least relative to us - moving the same way all the time.  Sometimes, whether it's during a Mercury retrograde or not, we all need to sit back and reflect.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Fascination with Casual Games

When I have the time and space to be so, I'm a fairly serious about my computer games.  I don't mean I take games seriously - I reserve that distinction for people who are more committed to their World of Warcraft* characters than their real lives.  No, what I mean is, I play games that most people balk at, the kinds of games that people point to when they're talking about why PC gaming is dying (because the games are too complicated for a general audience).  For example, I'm a big fan of Europa Universalis III, a game with a practically vertical learning curve, no victory conditions, and one of the most awful, boring combat systems you'll find in a strategy game.

* Blogger, evidently, thinks "warcraft" isn't a word, as angry red squiggles pop up when I type it (it sugests "watercraft," "aircraft," and "hovercraft" as alternatives, among others).  This is odd because warcraft was a word far before the series of games came into existence.  More hilariously, "Blogger" also induces angry red squiggles.

Another example: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI.  I'm linking to the Metacritic page because the blurbs there tell you a lot.  IGN writes, "The considerable investment of time and focus it takes to begin to enjoy Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is probably enough to turn off most gamers."  Absolute Games says, "The pace of this game is laid-back even by the standards of the 4X strategy genre. Most people will hate it for being obscure and boring."  A particularly harsh review from PC Zone UK muses, "It lacks the logical connections that most strategy games have."

But I love it!  Well, most of it.  The problem with Romance, for me anyway, is not its so-called steep learning curve (I found the game quite easy to get into) or its extreme micromanagement.  Rather, the problem is an abysmal tactical and strategic AI and the rather shallow limits in the number of choices the player can make as leader of his ancient Chinese faction.  The game looks amazing, but its problem is that, far from being too hard, its far too easy.  Add in an atrocious interface designed for console (strategy games on console? really?), and you have the makings of a disappointing title, overall, but for all of the opposite reasons from the ones the reviewers give.

I could list more games, but the point is, I prefer deep, strategic, complex games with challenging AIs.  I prefer turn-based games over real-time games, I prefer games that ask me to design (in one way or another), rather than games that ask me simply to be awed by beautiful graphics and to kill everything that moves.

It might come as a surprise, then, if I say that I am fascinated by a large number of recent Casual Games.  The genre is nothing new - think Bejewelled or even Tetris - but the level to which casual gaming has risen is truly stunning.  In addition to the literally thousands of free flash games - some of which quite good - available at dozens of websites, there have been a handful of standout commercial games in the last few years that I want to mention in particular.  Why?  Because it turns out that a good developer, with some creativity and a good design process, can create a game every bit as deep as a Civilization title without forcing the gamer to spend ten (or twenty, or a hundred) hours playing just to achieve victory.

Osmos is a recent standout.  Not only is the game beautiful in all of its 2D splendor, but it's highly intuitive and incredibly relaxing.  Also, it's one of the single most difficult games I've ever played.  The later levels cannot be defeated by willpower alone; rather, they require intense focus, strategy, and a fairly sophisticated and intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics.  One level in particular - which had me screaming, cursing, walking away from the computer - is so difficult that it took me probably in excess of 50 tries to beat it.  And yet, even in my frustration, I was happy; this was a challenge worth meeting.

Completing F3C-3 (Epicycles 3) from hemisphere games on Vimeo.

The level in question is "Epicycles 3," in the Force tree of the game.  Your goal is to progressively absorb other motes until you're big enough to absorb or otherwise destroy the four "attractors," in the game window.  The tricky thing is, in order to move, you have to expel mass, and thus you're in a constant fight to get larger whilst also moving to the right place.  In most levels, doing this is fairly straightforward - though cleverness and patience are always virtues - but in Epicycles this is a truly Herculean task.  As you can see from the video, the developers of the game realized the level was so difficult that they felt compelled to put up a tutorial just for the level.

Flotilla is a game I haven't played much, but I love that it takes only fifteen minutes or so to complete a play-through.  Often, at least for the beginner, much less.  What makes Flotilla great is its combat system - which is really the whole game.  It's incredibly abstracted, thanks to the wire-frame animations and general lack of graphics, but it has a certain charm to it as well, and the tactical depth is incredible.  Casual though this game may be, it's no walk in the park to play.  As I said, the beginner (like me) is liable to get blown out of the water repeatedly before he gets the hand of how to effectively pilot his ship.  But this is a game where defeat does not weight heavily on you, because you can simply fire up a new ship and get blown to bits by someone else.  And even if you do manage to survive your battles, your "Capitan" is on his proverbial last legs anyway, so death is inevitable.

A similar game to Flotilla, though a bit older, is Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.  The concept is eerily similar, but the execution very different.  Combat is 2D instead of 3D, and you're much more likely to survive the thing.  Like Flotilla, Weird Worlds takes minutes, not hours, to play, and there's a certain satisfaction in exploring the entire map you're provided at the beginning of each session.  Even better, in Weird Worlds, is all the frankly bizarre stuff that happens.  Sometimes the galaxy gets invaded by a freakish alien menace, sometimes stars go supernova, and sometimes you get sucked into a black hole because you thought you could make it around the thing when you actually couldn't.  Even in death, however, there's always the opportunity to fire up a new 10 minute session and to see what will happen this time.

Passage is a game you've probably never heard of.  It takes five minutes to play, and you'll probably only play it once or twice, but it is truly one of the most fantastic gaming experiences I've ever had.  The play area is only 100 pixels by 16 (4 of which are used for a small scoreboard).  But what it accomplishes with that space is amazing.  It's poetry.  It's art.

I don't want to give the game away, because not knowing what it is makes for much of its charm.  Download it, play it, and be stunned.  You may even cry, it's that good.  And once you've had a chance to play it, I promise to do a whole post on it at a later date.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is somewhere between casual game and traditional PC game.  I say that because actually beating Puzzle Quest - as I have not done - takes as long as beating a normal RPG.  The gameplay is almost all Bejeweled, but the bejeweled puzzles take place as a part of a classic RPG storyline where you, as a young mage/knight/warrior/druid have to fend off some evil nemesis yadda yadda.  Actually, the story is more compelling than you'd think, and the artwork throughout the game is charming and fun.  There are even some (somewhat simplistic, but fun anyway) strategic elements to the game, including building up your castle and choosing which mount to ride into jewely battle.  In all, you don't lose in Puzzle Quest, so it is decidedly casual, but no game is as indicative of the rise of casual gaming in the PC world as it is.

Finally, the crowning jewel of the casual game world, at least to my mind, is 2D Boy's World of Goo.  It is brilliant, both in its fantastic level design and in its humor.  The mechanic is fairly simple and intuitive, and learning the game takes no time at all, but the twists the game's "story" goes through - and the levels with it - are all so wonderfully unexpected and fresh that one wonders why major developers can't find people this creative.  One part in particular - when the goo world suddenly turns into a Tron-like retro 80's look and the gameplay mechanics shift fairly substantially - had me literally jumping up out of my chair in excitement.

What's best about World of Goo, and what makes it perhaps even more emblematic of modern casual gaming than Puzzle Quest, is its wide-ranging appeal.  To a true, serious gamer it is hilarious, full of cynicism and barbs intended for both society at large and the gaming world in particular.  For the truly casual casual gamer, it is both fun to play and intuitive.

For my part, playing World of Goo is easily one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had, on par with more in-depth games like Civilization IV or Mass Effect.  Which surprises me.  I suppose the question is, what makes these simple, mostly 2-dimensional, casual games so compelling?  Or, perhaps more aptly, why are (mostly independent) casual game developers doing such a better job being creative and innovative than big companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, or Firaxis?  That's kind of a leading question of course, because a smaller package means it's easier to take risks, and there are a great many casual games that fail to deliver on their innovative promise.  Nevertheless, casual games are becoming more and more prominent, and can deliver - even for a serious gamer - a truly in-depth, strategic, and stimulating gaming experience.  Who knew?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ode to the Ptolemaic Venus

This is an assignment from back in (undergraduate) college.  We were asked to write a 3 to 5 page essay about Ptolemy's treatment of the planet Venus, so of course I wrote an essay in verse.  It probably took me 10 times longer than the assignment should have, but I'm still happy with the result.  It occurred to me this morning that I hadn't posted this, so here it is.

Of planets fair and fairer still ‘tis Venus that’s most bright
Before sunrise or after set when Moon conceives the night.
Described by motion circular, the learned Ptolemy claims
Through Almagest, in which for wisdom he enshrined his name
In tomes of history, the planets move about the earth
In just such way divinity would give the sky its birth.
And yet a question plagues his work (that long was held as True):
What of the equant, we must ask, that gives appearance due
Measure against the doubt that our observance fuels with sight,
When Venus struts across the sun in variable flight,
That circles lone cannot describe except with forced constraint
Of center offset that a line to epicycle paints,
Describing thus by motion circular about a path
Itself circular? It is here we later find the wrath
Astronomers to come will hold, and doubt ourselves whether
Ptolemy can be justified in sending this tether
To bind the motion of our star (the brightest and most fair).
If circles can only describe the heavens with repair
By inconsistent equant, then it seems simplicity
(Which is a gauge of truth and, more, this task’s felicity)
Is lost, with both epicycle and eccentricity.

Our author asks if we can judge by earth’s shallow standard
What is ‘simple’ to heaven high, or if instead it’s slandered
By our unwitting questions, thus in Book Thirteen he writes:
“We should not judge the simple by what nature’s spirit frights
To changeability, for we forever move and change
And find ‘simplicity’ of constant motion out of range
Of human possibility.” Therefore we must rethink
Whether objections on these grounds must surely start to sink
Beneath other concerns, or if instead we will challenge
The bold proclaiming Ptolemy and for ourselves avenge
Our first complaint. Defense, it seems, is possible on grounds
That, while eternal, motion such as this is hardly bound
By laws divine, for though we cannot know the mind of God,
We can ask whether “constant motion” is but a facade
For Ptolemy through which his physics he can then imbue
Without having to worry whether ultimately True
His universe remains. For his concern, I think, is not
For Truth complete, but rather what he passionately sought
Was explication of mathematics pure, and what we see
In starry night that seems to us to move with constancy,
And more, still left in this is something true, we may decree.

To Venus, then, we must direct our literary gaze,
For in the star of love our enterprise may yet be razed.

If from appearance first our author asks us to derive
The motion of a planet that a theory can describe
By means of observation first, then reason soon applied,
Allowing first predictive sight, and then to physics tied,
Then we are blessed with math divine that morning star abides.

If from a misconception, though, of earth-bound universe,
Accepting as a truth assumptions now found as perverse,
And then applying oft sought visage to a path rehearsed
By circles impiously from their very source reversed,
And put in hands of man, then sadly we are cursed.

Returning to the open of astronomy’s great work
Confronts us with a disparate opinion which to shirk:
That Ptolemy, a charlatan, has hidden us from truth
(Despite his claims that to do so would be a bit uncouth),
Or else that he may be aware of centric point besides
The earth. It hinges on a phrase, a clause he leaves aside,
Which some translate as “simple” where we may have “simplistic,”
And this is where suggestions of heaven heliocentric
Are born. If Venus, to rephrase the thought, moves by mean sun,
Which Ptolemy himself admits, it seems with only one
Small step we can deduce that circles epicyclic move
About the sun itself, and we with bright planet of love.

Regardless of translation we approach a reason odd
For why this cannot be the case, that, if we still must prod
Into the nature of the heavens, it will soon be clear
That nothing could exist on earth (letting alone the air)
If quick about the sun we twirled. In this there is complaint
That gravity and Newton fix, but now ‘tis still a feint,
Avoiding possibilities this system strong implies,
But undermining eloquence, and thus we cast aside
The whole affair, rather to face a truth left incomplete
Than ‘knowledge’ false. Such quick restraint an admirable feat
It is for our learnèd astronomer, who did not shroud
In propositions ostentatious falsehood far more loud;
For in philosophy there is no room to hold the proud.

Questions of equant left and doubts of insincerity,
In Venus we find questions still of what the point may be.
Why Almagest was written, so much time and effort spent
On tracking nightly skies with inaccurate equipment
If only to arrive at a confusion unresolved
By equant line, a paltry thing, that neigh the problem solves?
Alas that problems physical which plague this work divine
Could come from planet Venus, causing questions unrefined!

Before an answer I propose to why we read this book
I first ask that we contemplate the task that undertook
Great Ptolemy when every night he gazed on spinning sky,
Imagining and measuring where in the heavens lie
The Beauty that first Euclid gazed upon so well.
And in this task he found there was a story still to tell
Of Euclid’s pure geometry in heaven ably mirrored,
That now he too, toward realms of gods, had fortunately peered.
He did not see a universe that spun around a pole
Impaled in sun, but rather saw the spinning human soul
And heard the music that only the goddess, Venus, sings
When morning comes, or evening falls, and love through cosmos rings,
For that is where humanity must find its hidden wings.

My answer, then, I fear I have precluded with too much
A hint. My reader likely has proposed to guess that such
A world as our astronomer unfolds we ought to see
Because in his great work he shows us true divinity.
Not Truth as we would have it in our ultimate repose,
But truth as best we can perceive, with senses so imposed
Upon our reason, that only in math do we see pure
An abstract world that, free from us, provides our wonder cure,
Proclaiming Truth as Ptolemy, who saw Venus as we,
And knew that in his human sight could only hope to see
Its motion through the heavens from his humble place on ground,
While it, so perfect in its light, about the stars was wound
Like justice, or a true account, or Plato’s fleeting forms
That hide themselves and so withstand the ever-blowing storms
Of false impression. In such way soft Venus moves the mind
To Beauty, and in Beauty’s hearth we may at long last find
A Truth that only Beauty’s breath could e’er hope to unwind.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Many Attractions of American Sports

As you are probably aware, today is the first serious day of college football in the United States.  Today all the preseason ranking will be proven wrong, all the analysts will change their strongly held opinions, and quite possibly some big name team will have its national championship hopes dashed by an upset.

I doubt I'll watch any of the games today, especially because Stanford's matchup with Sacramento State isn't televised and, frankly, shouldn't be.  Nevertheless, major sporting days like this one - especially coming as it does, in the midst of baseballs playoff races, and with the NFL and NBA seasons right around the corner - spark thoughts about sports widely.  I've written here before about the role and importance of athletic competition to our culture, so today I want to be a little more specific.  What is it about each of our major sports, in particular, that make them popular?

Baseball, of course, is the so-called "national pastime," a quaint and anachronistic name for a game that has a cadre of die-hard fans, many of whom are stat-heads.  The sport is buoyed, however, by casual observers who care a lot more about home runs than things like BABIP.  Regardless, the attraction of baseball is, I think, its pace and its capacity for sustained drama.  The one-pitch-at-a-time nature of the game - where one pitch could be complete inconsequential, or could be the third out, or could result in a grand slam - makes the excitement of those close games all the more palpable.  There is no continuous action to force focus on a player, instead he must focus during the pause, as the crowd cheers and as everyone waits for the next pitch.  On a related note, I think baseball also benefits, in a world of sports that are timed, by its lack of a clock.  The idea that the game will simply go on until a winner is declared only adds further drama.

More than anything else, though, what is compelling about baseball is the skill necessary to play the game.  While this is true of any sport at its highest level, in baseball there is a particular honor given to the guy who can hit.  People often say that baseball is a game of failure, which is mostly true, but only because hitting is so difficult to do.  Likewise, over such a long season, pitching consistently well (and without injury) is well nigh impossible.  Even fielding and baserunning, which are frankly the easiest parts of the game, are full of nuance and challenge, so much so that players need gloves and basecoaches to help them do it right.

Basketball, is extremely different.  I think the attraction here is, in part, all of the awesome moments that occur during a game regardless of drama at a given time.  A slam dunk or an alley-oop or a three from the corner is pretty cool no matter what the score, and because basketball's best moments come from sheer athleticism, there's a kind of visceral reaction to them.  I would argue this is why basketball's all-star game is so much more entertaining than baseball's or football's: in those sports, the score gives sense of drama that in basketball is generally missing, not because winning and losing don't matter, but because the game is so often decided in the last five minutes anyway that most basketball fans are used to watching for greatness without worrying about the points each team has scored.

I think, also, that basketball is well-liked because it is played so widely.  More than any other major American sport, people play basketball.  Basketball is everywhere, from the local gym to the driveway to the neighborhood park, and it's going on all the time.  People feel a natural connection to athletes who play the same games they play (I certainly appreciate baseball more as someone who grew up playing), and so, despite the horrid officiating, the often boring first three quarters, and the bizarre and draconian salary laws in the NBA, people watch.

Football is almost certainly the most popular sport in America, but I don't think it's for the reason you normally hear.  Football is an exciting and violent and fast-paced game, in some ways, and I'm sure a great many people watch it for that reason, but if that were what makes football popular, I don't know why rugby or, frankly, soccer hasn't caught on in the US.  Both rugby and soccer are faster-paced than football, rugby is more violent, and soccer is, I'm willing to argue, more exciting.  Football, I think, beats those sports - and basketball and baseball - not on drama, on intensity, or on pace but on tactics and strategy.  Even the dumbest of the dumb football fan, if he is a serious fan, will talk with great intelligence and nuance about the values of the 3-4 defense compared to the 4-3, or about the kinds of blocking schemes his team's offensive line is using, and so on.

People say that baseball is appeals to the intellectual, and it does, but not because it is tactically complex.  Baseball's "chess match" is really more of a checkers match, while the football is more akin to chess, if not something even more complicated like Go.  Consider that, in baseball, even former players - many of whom are not that bright - often make good managers.  Former football players - with the exception of quarterbacks - rarely make good coaches because the game is so complex, so tactically nuanced, and so strategic that only particularly bright people can handle it.  On top of that, the NFL at least comes with a complex set of roster rules that add another strategic dimension to weekly preparation.

Football teams play only once a week in part because of how physically demanding the game is, no doubt, but I expect that a huge part of the reason for its infrequency is how mentally demanding it is as well.  There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on there, but it seems to me that, given the modern game, teams and coaches need at least a week to prepare tactically for the next week's game, as much as they need that time to prepare physically.

To summarize, baseball is a game of sustained drama, basketball a game of moments of extreme skill and athleticism, and football a game of tactics and strategies.  Of course, all three games have aspects of all three of those attractions, but what makes each stand out - to me, anyway - are what I have listed above.  Just don't tell any of those rabid Texas football fans that football is a slow-paced (four hours?  Really?) game of the mind, lest they get offended.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Specialist and the Generalist

A recent Pitchers and Poets podcast spoke to an issue about which I have a strong opinion.  I suppose I have a great many strong opinions - or at least I present them strongly - but I would argue that the vast majority of those remain conditional.  It is important, I think, to be open-minded enough to be persuaded by a contrary, or more likely, an entirely new perspective on an issue.

For my own part, my political convictions - which were (and are) quite strong - have undergone quite a few radical shifts since I first was granted the right to vote.  The outcome of that was, in the 2008 election, a ballot which included at least one vote for a member of each of the following parties: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, and Independent.  Why? Because I felt, in each of those races, that the party in question was irrelevant, and that the person most capable of doing the job was worthy of my vote.  Anyway, the point here is not to discuss politics, but to point out that even what seems a fervent position on my part is liable to change if I am confronted with a valid alternative that seems compelling enough.  At the very least, I am easily persuaded by nuance, especially nuance that takes on accepted cultural narratives.

There is, however, one duality which I reluctantly accept, and about which I firmly and probably irrevocably believe in one position.  That duality is specialization versus generalization, or the competing ideas that a person should focus on learning a small number of things exceedingly well, on the one hand, or a large number of things in less depth.  Of course, as Ted and Eric point out in their podcast, we live in a time where being a generalist is almost impossible.  Specialization has so much won the day that it's practically a sin to have too many interests.

Of course, I think it's difficult to draw an exact line between the specialist and the generalist.  How many fields must one study to be a generalist?  How advanced must a person's knowledge of a particular field be in order to qualify as a specialist?  What about people who are somewhere in between?  And, moreover, isn't the true generalist also a specialist in some sense?

All of those are valid questions, and I think the duality here is - like most dualities - not totally fair.  I believe there are a great many people who are, in fact, both generalists and specialists, and there's no reason those things have to be mutually exclusive.  I think there is, however, a marked difference in mentality between the two.  It is especially rare to find someone who will advocate specialization whilst also celebrating the "Renaissance Man," as we like to call generalists (implying their anachronism).

It seems to me, however, that this is a horrible mistake, and particularly important in education.  A lot of what people say is "wrong" with education amounts to this: it's not specialized enough.  Certainly it's not fair to look at students and to say that they all need the exact same, incredibly broad education, but it's also not fair to say that we should tailor everything we teach to some appropriate and predetermined career pathway for each student.  Specialization, at its extreme, suggests that students should not learn anything that isn't directly relevant to what they're going to do in their lives.  Of course, the extreme generalist learns anything completely regardless of its value, which is equally silly, but that's the point.  Going to an extreme here is bad, and these days, as we cut arts programs, recess time, and gym class, we're much closer to the extreme of specialization.

The reason this debate is important in education, however, reaches far beyond the classroom.  It is in our adult lives where we, generally speaking, are forced to specialize most.  Indeed, the older we get and the further along we go in our career paths, the more and more narrow our focus becomes.  Professors at most Universities don't just study a field (like Sociology) or even a sub-field (like the Sociology of Business), but a specific aspect of that sub-field (like gender relations in rural small businesses, or some such).  At a certain point, the robust thought processes that shaped the original study become so fine that, I would argue, they are no longer useful.

The same could be said in the business world.  One of the reasons we have such a strongly established hierarchical structure in business - besides being a vestige of feudalism - is the fact that all of the specialists that make multi-national corporations go can't speak to each other without an interpreter.  The fact of being able to talk to the IT guy, the operations guy, the finances guy, and the engineer, and the ability to translate between those branches is, as far as I'm concerned, the primary function of most executives at major companies.  Making decisions and selling the company are of minor importance by comparison.

Unlike in academia, however, in business there is an established method for getting specialists to interact, and it mostly works.  Indeed, if specialization didn't work, we wouldn't use it.  It's almost impossible to argue with specialization, in fact, from within our existing social and economic system, because of how effective it is.  The point, however, is that if we step outside of the specialized world and look at the other consequences of a society built around the extreme specialist, it's not quite as pretty as it seems from the inside.

Bertrand Russell was fond of pointing out that things like useless knowledge and idle inquiry are vital to a person's happiness.  A child does not ask questions because he wants to master his world, but merely because he is curious.  Over time, curiosity tends to diminish and ambition increase, and as a result people become more successful and less happy.  Education, from my perspective, works best not when it forwards a person's professional goals, but when it reminds him or her that there are other important goals as well.  What good is money if you are so specialized that you don't know where and when to spend it?  What good is success if you are so specialized that you can't have a conversation with anyone?

From the individual point of view, specialization, I think, can be somewhat soul-crushing.  A professor I had at Stanford told me that the day he got tenure was one of the best and saddest of his life.  Best because he was secure and successful, saddest because it meant he was locked in, all of the potential paths he might take had been narrowed to one that he had taken and would take from then on.  Why must we do that to people?  Does our society benefit so much that taking away the wonder of exploration and inquiry into ideas unknown and unconsidered is necessary?

The answer, I think, is clearly no.  Our society may benefit from specialization in that we are able to produce more goods, more "knowledge" (which so few people can use, because it's highly specialized), and more advertising.  But isn't one of the biggest problems we face as a world that we produce too much?  There are too many people on the world, eating too much food, using too much plastic, guzzling too much gas, and wasting too much electricity.  It's all well and good to address those problems by creating legions of conservation specialists, I suppose, but wouldn't it be better to just ease up off the ever-racing production line?  Indeed, it seems to me a self-perpetuating cycle.  Less specialized work means more generalization, more "Renaissance Men" who can step back and see that, hey, the world is a better place when we communicate more and produce less.

Again, I don't advocate the extreme, here, else nothing at all would get done and we'd all starve, but it seems to me that we've ventured too far in the direction of specialization.  What's more, my other fervently held opinions - that process is more important than outcome, and that cooperation is generally a better model than competition - seem to me to be complementary here.  Specialization encourages competition, which in turn is concerned with outcomes.  Generalization encourages cooperation, which is much more about processes (stuff like how people work together and whether they're doing the right thing) than outcomes.

All told, it's unlikely that we'll see a world of generalists anytime soon.  But it is the case, in my experience, that we "Renaissance Men" have serious advantages, even in this society, over extreme specialists.  Generalists learn to say "both... and..." while specialists are stuck with "either... or..."  As a teacher, there's no bigger selling point: generalists get to be leaders and visionaries, while specialists have to do what they're told.    As a human being, I believe my breadth of interests may make it harder for me to define myself to other people, but it makes it easier for me to move around joyfully and inquisitively.  And, really, what else is there?