Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As a part of my upcoming creative writing class, I've undertaken a creative writing project of my own.  That is, I've begun to write a novel.

That's not entirely true.  So far I've begun to write character sketches and vague ideas for a setting (and even vaguer ideas for a plot).  The process of writing an actual novel, it seems to me, hinges much on creating these kind of component parts first, which presents an interesting challenge for me as a writer who tends to think and write in blog-post-sized increments.

More to the point, there's the challenge of writing fiction.  While I don't display it here, I do have an active imagination - it's a part of why I'm such an avid gamer - but actually tapping into that when I write is something I have never really tried to do.  Or, at least, I haven't done so since high school when I took creative writing myself.

Why this project, then, and why now?  For a couple reasons.  Firstly, I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to teach is to model learning.  By working on writing a novel of my own, I will certainly be learning and struggling and creating and all of the good things I want the students to be doing.  Secondly, as my world shifts to education research, my focus will be so much on academic things that I'm unlikely to be able to carve out the space necessary to work on such an ambitious creative project.  There are other reasons, but these two are the most pertinent.

As for the subject, well...  It's going to be a little esoteric, but that's only because I would rather write well about what I know than pretend to be able to write about things I do not.  My hope is that, though the setting and characters will be inspired by, if not drawn from, personal experience (which, I suppose, is true for all writers), the core of the story will extend beyond any narrow personal connections.  In short, I'll be struggling to walk the paradoxical line between personal and impersonal that marks good writing.

The subject, then, is the academic and romantic life of a "Barr College" (modeled after St. John's, of course) student by the name of Jonnathan Quinn.  Perhaps soon I'll post one of my early character sketches for Jonnathan and/or some of his classmates and teachers.  It will be some time before I can give more detail about the plot.  Nor can I say what strange twists I'll put into the style and the - for lack of a better word - design of the novel.  Needless to say, while I want to write something at least moderately accessible, I also am drawn to the fantastical and strange stylings of authors like Italo Calvino.

So, in short, this is an ambitious project that will happen - if it does - in stages.  Some pieces will undoubtedly appear on this blog.  The act of working on this project will likely curtail, at least somewhat, the regularity of my posting here.  In the meantime, wish me luck, and hopefully before the end of the year (that's my goal), I'll have at least a draft of my first novel.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part Three: Catastrophe

To get to parts one and two, as well as the introduction, use the handy-dandy side bar.  These posts are listed just under the "search" and "subscribe" widgets.

"Catastrophe" is a Greek word, a combination of "strophe" - meaning turn - and "kata" - meaning down.  "Strophe" was used primarily to describe the actions of the chorus in Greek plays, with each choral poem either a Strophe or an anti-strophe, a figurative motion in one direction, or in another.  Catastrophe, then, is a total interruption of that process, a proverbial wrench in the works, a form-defying event in the course of the narrative.

In the development section of the first movement of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the listener confronts what can only be described as a catastrophe.  The common name of this section is "the train wreck," and it shows Beethoven at his most intense, most devious, and most, well, catastrophic.  Here's the development section of the opening movement, up to and including the "train wreck," but leaving out the resolution that follows (because that's the next post):

As you can hear, the beginning of the development is a tumultuous back and forth between the second theme (see part two) and the opening theme (see part one).  I think it's fair to say the development starts out relatively cohesive, but each repeat of either theme adds further and further chaos.  The opening theme starts to sway against itself, raising in pitch and intensity, the secondary theme finds itself beset by all kinds of strange counterpoint.  New melodies are introduced, adding tension due to their dominant feel and the urgency of the violins playing them.  Before long, the back-and-forth of strophe (the militant first theme) and anti-strophe (the pastoral second theme) collapses on itself in what can only be described as catastrophe.  As the piece bucks and writhes, it reaches its climax in the "train wreck," separated from the development below:

All semblance of meaningful melody or rhythmic progress disappears from the piece here.  While harmonically the progression still makes sense, that's hardly the point.  This section is barely, by the classical definition, even music.  So many of the chords are dissonant, the entire orchestra is blaring, and there is nothing to do but to push on from one horrible, full-voiced, dissonant chord to the next.

It's too easy to focus just on the train wreck itself, however, and that's why I've included the build-up to it, also.  If the first and second themes truly are incompatible - as I suggested earlier in this series of posts - it's no wonder that, once they were really forced to reckon with each other in the development section, they created a kind of musical conflagration.  A potentially helpful image, if an imperfect one, would be the Viennese elite at their dancing and partying (the second theme) suddenly beset by an invading revolutionary army.  The result is chaos, the destruction of the court itself, and along with it the decomposition (so to speak) of the courtly music to which the nobles were dancing.

A particularly interesting part of this collapse, to my mind, comes not in the loud and flashy places that jump out even during a cursory listening to the development.  No, there's a subtle trick Beethoven plays in the buildup to the train wreck, an inversion of the melodic and rhythmic quality of the second theme that says more about what's going on here than just about anything else.  Listen again to the last statement of the second theme before the train wreck, and then the passage that follows it and leads into our catastrophe:

Can you hear the rhythmic inversion?  Here again is a piece of the theme:

And here's the inversion:

The waltz is still there in the inverted version, but it's hidden behind a strange and different rhythmic emphasis.  All that's really different, actually, is that strong beat of the melody used to fall on the first beat of the measure, in the original theme, but instead falls on the second beat of the measure in the "inverted" version.  The result of this minor change, however, is a fundamental shift in the feel of the melody, a transformation from Viennese waltz to urgent escape from impending disaster.

That this variation of the second theme leads into the train wreck is telling.  Rather than returning to the opening theme, which has found some measure of stability in its back-and-forth washing earlier in the development (perhaps it's not a satisfying kind of stability, but like a pendulum, at least it's not going anywhere), it's the second theme that leads us into catastrophe.  And it does so by allowing itself to be broken, by succumbing to the chaos that surrounds it in the development section.

As for the train wreck itself, there's little to say except that it is completely different from anything in any symphony that comes before it.  As I said earlier, it would hardly be considered music by Beethoven's contemporaries, chiefly because of its dissonance and lack of melody, but also because it plays more of a narrative role than a musical one.  By pointing out the strange motions of the second theme, I hope I've helped you to see how the train wreck is not just a sudden and loud interruption, but rather an inevitable collapse after increasingly strained efforts to put the square peg of the second theme into the round hole of the symphony.

As a wrap-up to this post, I want to ask a couple of questions about meaning.  Well, a question anyway.  What, really, does all of this mean?  In the first couple of posts of this series, I've talked some about potential narrative interpretations we might impose on the symphony, but at the same time I've been hesitant to pick one and stick with it.  Even in this post, I've used the "Viennese nobles confront revolutionary army" idea, but I tell you know that it's only a crutch, a way to help getting at the music.

I suppose, as I listen more and more to the Eroica, as I dive deeper (and I'm diving deeper now than I did even when writing my thesis), I truly am starting to feel like the music has its own narrative, its own meaning, and its own mode of communication.  I don't think that's purely emotional, because I can trace it with some semblance of literary objectivity.  Nor do I think it's purely spiritual, because, while it's mysterious, I'm not sure how meta-physical it is (would, for example, I be able to follow the narrative in the same way were I deaf?).

No, I think the narrative of Beethoven's music is musical, and its meaning equally so.  It's unfortunate that we're stuck using words like "meaning" to describe a meaning that is non-linguistic, but then again isn't that exactly the point of this effort, to find a way to bridge that gap?  Ah, but the point is also to help bring myself (and my readers) closer to an understanding of that musical meaning, even if that understanding is fundamentally non-linguistic.  What I mean is, I will not be able to write a sentence that says: this is what the Eroica means, but I hope that, by sharing the process of trying to understand and - inasmuch as it possible - translate it, we might all get a little better at our music comprehension.

It is no accident, either, that the train wreck raises this conundrum.  I know of no moment in any other piece that is so direct an attack on the notion that music has no meaning, no narrative value on its own.  Then again, it remains one of the most difficult-to-penetrate moments in Beethoven's oeuvre, precisely because its lack of melodic structure makes it less "musical."  Perhaps, then, our next assay into the symphony will help, when we look at the third theme, the resolution of the catastrophe.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Defining a Season: 2007-2010

Part the last of a Rockies mini-series of posts.
Part three is here.  Part two is here.  Part one is here.  The introduction is here.

2007 Colorado Rockies: 90-73, 2nd place, 0.5 GB, Wild Card, Lost World Series

The Rockies 2007 season is best remembered for the absurd late-season run of 14 wins in 15 games to close the regular season.  By sweeping the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rockies ultimately won 21 of 22 before being swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.  Because of that flukey run, however, it's easy to forget that this Rockies team was actually solid top-to-bottom all season.  Indeed, the Rockies underperformed for much of the year, and that they needed such a winning streak just to make the playoffs was not indicative of their quality season-long.  There truly was no weakness on the 2007 Rockies roster: the rotation, bullpen, and lineup were all solid, if not spectacular.  Nevertheless, the transition from under-performance to playoff darling was fueled by two out-of-nowhere players.

Defining Players: SPs - Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales

These two pitchers' careers went in opposite directions after the miraculous 2007 runs, but that only masks how fundamentally similar their mutual arrival on the scene was during the Rockies World Series season.  If anything, Morales was the better of the two in 2007, starting 8 games and putting up a 3.43 ERA (compared to Ubaldo's 15 starts with a 4.28 ERA).  Regardless, both players were a surprise to people outside of the Rockies organization, young guns who came from nowhere to lead - or at least serve as 2/5ths of a dominant rotation - the Rockies into the playoffs.  In a sense, their careers since 2007 are also perfectly indicative of the Rockies: Morales's failure to harness his awesome stuff speaks to the 2008 and 2010 additions of the team, while Ubaldo's better command and work-horse mentality indicative of the 2009 campaign.

2008 Colorado Rockies: 74-88, 3rd place, 10.0 GB

The 2008 season was extremely disappointing for the Rockies, both because they had just made the World Series the year before, and because the NL West was as weak as it had ever been (the Dodgers won it with a 84-78 record).  It's hard to say exactly what went wrong in '08.  A number of offensive players took small steps backwards and the rotation was just a touch worse.  Above all, the late run that saved '07 from the same fate failed to materialize, with the team all but collapsing down the stretch.

Defining Player: SS - Troy Tulowitzki

After nearly winning both the Rookie of the Year award and the Gold Glove (but losing out on both) in his 2007 campaign, Tulo suffered as bad a sophomore slump as a great player can.  His batting average fell from .291 to .263, his OBP from .359 to .332, and his SLG from .479 to .401.  In all, his value to the team was so much less in '07 that a not-insignificant portion of the Rockies failings can be pinned on him.  Add to that an injury that cost Tulowitzki much of the '08 season, and it's not hard to see how 90 wins became 74 for a team that was never quite great in the first place.

2009 Colorado Rockies: 92-70, 2nd place, 3.0 GB, Wild Card

The '09 Rockies were eerily similar to the '07 version.  After a slow start, a solid rotation and reasonably deep lineup woke up under new manager Jim Tracey - after Clint Hurdle, who had been at the helm since 2002, was fired - and eventually rode a late-season charge into the playoffs.  The trade of Matt Holliday the previous off-season proved a stroke of genius, netting both the young and improving Carlos Gonzalez and excellent closer Huston Street in exchange for a player who was destined to leave Colorado after '09 anyway.  While Gonzalez would share time in the outfield with Brad Hawpe, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, and Ryan Spilborghs, Street was the anchor of another excellent Rockies bullpen.  Beyond the solid performance from the pitching staff and the Holliday-less outfield, bounce-back seasons from two key Rockies both lead the way, and were symbolic of the season as a whole.

Defining Players: SS - Troy Tulowitzki and 1B - Todd Helton

Both Tulowitzki and Helton has miserably disappointing seasons in 2008, but both bounced back to produce well-above league-average campaigns in '09.  While the rest of the lineup and pitching staff improved incrementally from their under-performances in 2008, it was Tulo and Helton's giant leaps forward that propelled the team back into the playoffs.  Helton's .325/.416/.489 slash line harkened back to the good old days of his early career, while Tulo's .297/.377/.552 showed that Tulo might end up being more than just a great fielder with a decent bat.  Indeed, Tulo eclipsed 30 homers for the first time in 2009, becoming not just the leader on the field for the Rockies (a role he shared, by default, with the veteran Helton), but securely becoming the leader in the lineup as well.

2010 Colorado Rockies: 83-79, 3rd place, 9.0 GB

It's easy to forget how much better a season 2010 was than 2008 for the Rockies, because the narrative that has been constructed is that they were parallels.  The narrative goes like this: coming off of an improbable last season charge to make the playoffs, the Rockies followed it up in the next season by promptly collapsing and failing to compete.  But the '10 Rockies did compete, only falling apart late in the season, echoing 2007 in the reverse by losing 13 of their last 14.  Before that collapse, the team had been a very respectable (and competitive) 82-66, well within reach of the 91 wins that would have won them the wild card.  The problem was, beyond the continued excellence of Tulowitzki and the emergence of Carlos Gonzalez, the offense lacked a single other player who put up a 100 or better OPS+.  The offense wasn't bad, per se, but it just wasn't good enough, even with an excellent pitching staff and a near Cy Young season from Ubaldo Jimenez.

Defining Player: C - Miguel Olivo

Like the team he played for, Olivo actually started well in 2010, making a strong case for an all-star berth.  Like the team he played for, however, Olivo ended up not having enough offense.  By the end of the season his OBP - his longtime nemesis - rested at .315.  That was a career high for Olivo, but not good enough for an every-day Major League player, even a catcher.  His 27 walks were also a career high, but it bears remembering that he drew the vast majority of those in the first half of the season.  Perhaps the most damning moment for Olivo in 2011, however, has nothing to do with him, but with the front office.  After extending Chris Iannetta in the offseason, Olivo's hot April, combined with some early-season struggles from Iannetta, resulted in 'netta's demotion to AAA and Olvio's promotion to full-time starter.  That itself was not the cause of the Rockies shortcomings in 2010, but it certainly did not help.


Trying to determine a defining player for a single season is, ultimately, an exercise in futility.  But it doesn't look like it.

The reason it doesn't look like it is simple enough: we love to construct narratives.  It's how we understand what goes on around us, how we make sense of a complex and often confusing world.  It's a lot easier to remember, in short, a season as a failure or a success, a disappointment or a surprise, than to remember the exact won-loss record, the number of games back, the statistics of each and every player.

In trying to find a player whose individual narrative either matched up with or underscored the narrative for the entire Rockies team, I did exactly that: I looked through the won-loss record, the number of games back, and the statistics of each and every player.  But then I turned it into a narrative, and that's where the futility comes in.  Ultimately, how can I do justice to Miguel Olivo's 2010, or Todd Helton's 2006, or Andres Galarraga's 1994?  Sometimes I listed statistics, but only to illustrate a point: the players I selected were, in some sense, a microcosm of a team's successes and failures.  But in other ways they were no such thing: they were merely grown men playing a game for a lot of money, men who undoubtedly care about winning, but whose narratives are far less intense than those of a fan.

In the end, though, it's impossible to escape narratives, and undesirable to boot.  Ironically, even the most sabermetrically-minded baseball fan is doing little more than building narratives.  Are his narratives more quantitative?  Sure.  Are they more objective?  Probably.  But they are narratives just the same, built of words and sounds and ideas and stories, even if those stories are contained in season-long numbers and fancy statistical acronyms instead of anecdotes and clutch homers.

Of course, I've been more stat-head than story-head in this series, but that's exactly the point.  The stats tell a story, too, and an interesting one.  Silly though it may be to pin a whole season - for better or worse - on a single player, doing so might just give us a certain insight, or help us better enjoy a sport we already love.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Defining a Season: 2002-2006

Part three of a series of Rockies-centric posts.
Introduction here.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part four here

2002 Colorado Rockies: 73-89, 4th place, 25.0 GB

It was during 2002 that a new era of Rockies baseball began with the hiring of Clint Hurdle as manager.  Following a slow start, the Rockies let go of Buddy Bell and replaced him with the former hitting coach, a move that I would not go so far as to say defined the Rockies for the next five seasons, but definitely set a certain tone.  Clint Hurdle's hiring was an indication that the team was changing, trying to get younger and trying to build from within.  While witnessed the disastrous collapses of Neagle and Hampton, Rockies fans in 2002 also watched the first wave of young up-and-comers from the Rockies growing minor league system in Jason Jennings, Juan Uribe, and Juan Pierre.

Defining Player: CF - Juan Pierre

Pierre was an exciting young player in 2002, but despite his impressive speed, he wasn't a particularly good player.  He didn't get on base enough, was not quite a good enough fielder, and was completely without power.  His slash line (.287/.332/.343) left much to be desired, especially playing at Coors Field, and despite his youth it was hard to see him as a centerpiece on a future contender.  Nevertheless, on a team now stuck with aging, mediocre, and largely overpaid players around the diamond, Pierre was a symbol of a different approach, a glimpse of a future of home grown talent.  Beyond being a symbol for a future approach, however, Pierre was also an important part of the post-2002 trade that sent Mike Hampton to the Florida Marlins, meaning he also played a key, if ironic, role in the transition to the home-grown approach.

2003 Colorado Rockies: 74-88, 4th place, 26.5 GB

There was little compelling about baseball in Colorado during the dark-ages of the mid-2000s.  Todd Helton and Larry Walker would quietly put up All-Star numbers year after year, but no one else was particularly compelling.  Sure, the offense hit plenty of homers (the 2003 team had 7 players with 10 or more HR), and the bullpen was usually solid, and the rotation usually at least a little better than it looked, but there were simply too few players good enough to push the team to .500, let alone to contention.

Defining Player: 3B - Chris Stynes

Unless you're a die-hard Rockies fan, you probably have never heard of Stynes.  Even if you're a die-hard, you probably had forgotten about him.  But he was the Rockies starting third baseman for the whole of the 2003 season, punching up a miserable slash line of .255/.335/.413.  Of all the players from the dark ages of Rockies baseball, Stynes is the most mediocre, the most forgettable.  If someone were to ask: why couldn't this team manage to win more than 74 games, you could do worse than answering "Chris Stynes," not because of who he was, but because of what he represented for an organization treading water.

2004 Colorado Rockies: 68-94, 4th place, 25.0 GB

After the 2002 and 2003 seasons, things got worse before they got better.  The 94 losses the Rockies suffered in 2004 was the worst in franchise history since the inaugural season in 1993.  Nevertheless, at the bottom of the proverbial barrel (so far, anyway), there was a scrap of hope.  The new organizational focus on building from within didn't quite start to payoff in 2004, but it did bear its first fruit.

Defining Player: LF - Matt Holliday

Perhaps its not fair to say that Matt Holliday was the defining player of one of the worst seasons in Rockies history, but I still think he fits precisely because it was him - and his generation of minor league teammates - that the organization had changed its philosophy.  As the Rockies floundered throughout the 2004 season, Holliday put up a solid .290/.349/.488 line.  Excellent?  Hardly, but at only 24 Holliday showed promise that none of the other young players the Rockies had developed ever had (since Helton, that is).  Here was a power hitter, an anchor for the lineup to replace the now departed Larry Walker.  Here was, in short, the future.

2005 Colorado Rockies: 67-95, 5th place, 15.0 GB

Things began to come together for the Rockies in 2005.  That's strange to say, given that they finished in last place in the worst division in baseball (as the mere 15 games back indicates, the Padres won the division with an 82-80 record).  However, this was the rookie season for Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe.  While none of those players would ever approach Holliday in talent or production, they would all become important pieces to the 2007 World Series team.  And, more importantly, each of them was drafted and developed by the Rockies.  There were growing pains, to be sure, as the 67-95 record indicates, but the future was looking bright.

Defining Player: SP - Jeff Francis

The future was bright not because of the offensive players listed above, important though they would be in 2007.  No, the most important rookie in the '05 season was Francis, the first of so many first-round pitchers the Rockies had drafted to actually make it to the big leagues.  Francis, like the Rockies, was far from impressive in 2005.  His 5.68 ERA was well-deserved, given a SO/BB rate under 2, a fairly high 1.3 HR/9 rate, and a pitch-to-contact approach that is always dangerous in Colorado.  Nevertheless, there were glimpses from Francis (and his young rotation-mate, back from a near-fatal blood clot suffered in 2004, Aaron Cook) that he could tame the Coors Field beast, along with the help of the now operating humdior.

2006 Colorado Rockies: 76-86, tied for 4th place, 12.0 GB

In a still-weak division, the Rockies in 2006 were a team on the brink.  That's easy to say after-the-fact, but the signs were there even at the time.  The core of Helton, Atkins, Holliday, and Hawpe provided enough offense that little else was needed to fill out a contender's lineup.  Meanwhile the top of the rotation, featuring Cook, Francis, and Jason Jennings, was well above-average.  The bullpen remained solid as well, though mostly a collection of cast-offs from other teams (a trend for the Rockies front office).  Though the team finished 10 games under .500, they were really just another year of development from their young players, plus the arrival of a certain shortstop and certain pitcher, away from ending nearly a decade of futility.

Defining Player: 1B - Todd Helton

Though the team as a whole was young, unproven, but about to explode, the 2006 team's shortcomings were defined best by the Helton.  This season looked like the beginning of the end for Todd, the first season in which he would fail to hit 20 home runs, and easily his worst season by batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage in his career.  However, his place here is not merely because he underperformed his talent as the team struggled to a 76-86 season, but because the beginning of his decline underscored the urgency of the next few seasons, and because Helton would, like the rest of the team, have an excellent season in 2007.  On a team of young up-and-comers, a team transitioning from age to youth, from hitting to pitching, Helton was not merely harkening back to old days, but also a reminder that he too was once a young star, an up-and-comer, and that chances to win are sometimes few and far between.  Not for his shortcomings, but because he was for so long the only shining light on a miserable team, does Helton deserve to be remembered as an iconic player not just for the 2006 Rockies, but throughout the early 2000s.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Defining a Season: 1998-2001

Part two of a series of Rockies-centric posts.
Introduction here.
Part one here.
Part three here
Part four here

1998 Colorado Rockies: 77-85, 4th place, 21.0 GB

If the '96 and '97 seasons were the beginning of the decline of the Blake Street Bombers, the '98 season was the end.  Ellis Burks was traded for a just-as-old, but not-nearly-as-good Darryl Hamilton, Vinny Castilla turned 31, and Dante Bichette's power contined to fade.  Even the outstanding rookie campaign of Todd Helton couldn't lift what proved to be a fatally flawed roster in what ended up being manager Don Baylor's final season.  The '98 season was disappointing, perhaps, because expectations were still high after three straight seasons in which the Rockies were at least good, if not great.  But it was impossible to ignore that a team already in decline had taken a fateful step towards sub-.500 baseball.

Defining Player: SP - John Thomson

I know what you're thinking.  Who is John Thomson?  In 1998, Thomson was the Rockies best pitcher, the only member of the rotation with an ERA under 5.00 (his was 4.81).  While Coors Field didn't do any favors to Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio, they didn't do any favors to themselves, either.  Despite the still potent - if decreasingly so - lineup, the Rockies rotation in 1998 was inadequate, and Colorado found itself on the losing end of a few too many blowouts.  That the bullpen was, once again, excellent was some consolation, but hardly enough for a team who's best pitcher was, in the end, John Thomson.

1999 Colorado Rockies: 72-90, 5th place, 28.0 GB

As if it wasn't bad enough that the Rockies finished in last place for the first time in 1999, the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks broke their record for fastest expansion team to make the postseason, winning 100 games and the division in only their second season.  Meanwhile the Rockies were a mess.  The once vaunted bullpen began to crack, the remaining Bombers - except for Helton and Larry Walker (who spent a significant part of the season on the disabled list) - lost their clout, and the rotation was, if not terrible, at best mediocre.  Coors Field, meanwhile, continued to inflate offensive numbers to an absurd degree, which excused the horrid offense and deflected blame to a not-as-bad-as-it-looks pitching staff.

Defining Player: SS - Neifi Perez

In many ways, Neifi is the defining player for a whole era of Rockies baseball.  He manned shortstop almost every game between 1998 and his trade in 2001, and at no time was he even a remotely passable offensive player.  In 1999 he had one of his worst seasons, hitting a good-on-the-surface .280, but with only a .307 OBP and .403 slugging percentage.  Neifi's 12 home runs in 1999 would end up being a career high, but even so, his OPS+ was 62.  For that reason, he is the defining player of the 1999 season because he looked like an acceptable player, but wasn't.  He was a sinkhole, an out waiting to happen, an incapable hitter even at Coors Field (where his OBP was a measly .326) whose road numbers were simply awful (.251/.287/.356).  Neifi's empty batting average, his mirage power, and the perception that he was actually good typify the Rockies organization during a season in which the team lost 90 games despite looking like they weren't that bad.

2000 Colorado Rockies: 82-80, 4th place, 15.0 GB

Despite a strong NL West and an offseason during which the team made few significant changes, the Rockies bounced back from their 1999 season with a surprising above-.500 campaign in 2000, giving hope for a post-Bombers future.  This was a fateful season, however, because the rotation was better than mediocre, and the offense worse, and yet the offseason that followed would see the acquisition of Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton.  In reality, the offense needed far more help than the rotation did, but Coors Field made it seem the other way.

Defining Player: SP - Pedro Astacio

Pedro Astacio had a 5.27 ERA in 2000, and his was the second lowest in the Rockies rotation.  His 12-9 record was nice enough, but he surrendered 32 home runs, and gave up almost 10 hits per 9 innings.  What gets lost in those sub-par numbers, however, is his 193 strikeouts against only 77 walks, and the adjusted ERA+ of 110, meaning Pedro was actually 10% better than league average.  Throughout his career with the Rockies, Astacio was a victim of misperception: he always seemed a worse pitcher than he was.  Sabermetrics hadn't yet taken hold in the baseball world at large, and so the Rockies saw what was actually a strength as a weakness.

2001 Colorado Rockies:  73-89, 5th place, 19.0 GB

In many ways, this was the worst season in Rockies history.  After a lot of preseason hype - including some bold proclamations that the Rockies were the team to beat in the NL - and a hot start, the Rockies fell apart.  The chief reason was an offense that sported only two better-than-league-average hitters, Larry Walker and Todd Helton.  Moreover, the expensive contracts for Hampton and Neagle did not pay dividens, as John Thomson lead the pitching staff in ERA and ERA+, and Pedro Astacio was, in many ways, better than both free agents.

Defining Player: SP - Mike Hampton

 Could there be a more perfect symbol for a team with high expectations that didn't work out?  Could there be a better symbol for a team that looked like it could hit, that pitched better than it seemed to do, but was not quite good enough at either?  Hampton was all of those things, with a price tag of over $100 million.  What doomed Hampton, more than anything, is that he couldn't strike anyone out (5.4 SO/9).  At Coors Field, in a part where batted balls turn into hits more than almost anywhere else in baseball, this was a cardinal sin.  That said, Hampton wasn't horrible.  His ERA+ in 2001 was 99, placing him firmly as league average.  But for a supposed ace, the highest paid pitcher in history (at the time), that wasn't good enough.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Defining a Season: 1993-1997

Part one of a series of Rockies-centric posts.  See the introduction here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.

1993 Colorado Rockies: 67-95, 6th place, 37 Games Back (GB)

The Rockies inaugural season was impressive despite the abysmal .414 winning percentage.  Colorado led the league in attendance with almost 4.5 million fans, thanks to Mile High Stadium, and boasted their first batting champion in Andres Galarraga.  In all, the 1993 was a season of unbridled optimism, an unspectacular but promising first step in a career.

Defining Player: SP - David Neid

Neid was the Rockies first pick in the inaugural draft, a former Braves prospect and a promising young talent.  Though injuries would stop him from ever becoming the pitcher he had the potential to be, in 1993 Neid showed glimpses of his quality, including a complete game 5-3 win against the Mets in April.  Indeed, Neid - the Rockies' opening day starter and presumptive ace - started the season 3-1 with a 3.10 ERA.  Beyond all that, though, Neid was a symbol of all things new in Colorado: a rookie pitcher on a rookie team, an early promise that the Rockies would have an anchor in their rotation for years to come, and an early fan favorite.  That things didn't work out that way only further reinforces his place as the defining player of the '93 season, for reasons that will become clear.

1994 Colorado Rockies: 53-64, 3rd place, 6.5 GB at time of strike

The strike season was disappointing for fans across baseball, but it was especially hard on the Rockies* because of their rabid new fanbase.  By the time the season was called off, the Rockies attendance had already surpassed 3 million, and while their 53-64 record was far from great, it was a vast improvement over the '93 campaign.  The mere possibility of losing the 1995 season was frustrating to fans who had approved a new ballpark to be opened that year.  After the expectation and excitement of 1993, 1994 should have been another step forward - and it was, to a point - but it turned out a kind of limbo.

* It was hardest on the Montreal Expos, who comfortably lead their division by 6 games - at 74-40 - when the rest of the season was called.  After the strike fan interest waned and, before long, the team was moved to Washington, D.C.

Defining Player: 1B - Andres Galarraga

The Big Cat gets the nod here because he was good in 1994, but not nearly as good as he was in '93.  He followed up his league-leading .370 batting average with a .319 effort, and while he crushed a crowd-pleasing 31 homers in only 103 games, he also struck out 93 times, and the lack of adequate support in the lineup left him with only 85 RBI to go with his power.  What's more, the strike put him in limbo as much as anyone.  The promise of stardom - after a solid, but far-from-special career before the Rockies - had started to shine on Andres, but the strike robbed him of a full year of productive baseball at a time when he could least afford it.  Like Neid in '93, he was destined never to be at the heart of the Rockies again after 1994, as Larry Walker and then Todd Helton would steal the spotlight.

1995 Colorado Rockies: 77-67, 2nd place, 1.0 GB, Wild Card

Never before had a team made the MLB playoffs as early as the third year of their existence, but thanks to the shortened season, the addition of the wild card, and some shrewd moves by the front office and career years by the players, the Rockies managed to play their way into the postseason in 1995.  They were promptly crushed by their nemesis, the Atlanta Braves (who had, incidentally, beaten them in every matchup they had in 1993).  Even so, the Rockies were historically good for a 3rd year team, and their new ballpark and hitter's heaven named Coors Field was packed every night.

Defining Player: RP - Curtis Leskanic

The '95 Rockies performed better than expected thanks largely to their bullpen, and that bullpen was great thanks largely to Leskanic.  He worked in over half of the teams games, leading the league with 76.  He struck out 107 in 98 innings.  Despite Coors Field, he boasted a 3.40 ERA, and surrendered only 7 home runs all season.  Above all, though, Leskanic represents the '95 Rockies because, while he had always had decent stuff, this was by far the best season of his career, and it was totally unexpected.  He was still relatively young, like the team he pitched for, and he came out of nowhere to outperform all expectations quietly, but consistently.

1996 Colorado Rockies: 83-79, 3rd place, 8.0 GB

The '96 Rockies were the victims of an excellent division.  Both the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers won at least 90 games, leaving a solid Rockies team in the dust.  Despite a solid record and another season of leading the league in attendance, 1994 was a disappointment coming off of the playoff berth in 1995.  Despite being in only their 4th season, this Rockies team is the second oldest (by average age of the players) in Rockies history, behind only the 2004 edition.  Though young in a grander sense, this was a team with a rapidly closing window.

Defining Player: SP - Kevin Ritz

Not only was his own window rapidly closing, Kevin Ritz was the perfect mix of good and bad in 1996, capturing the essence of the team's season.  His 17-11 record was good, but his 5.28 ERA (and 99 ERA+,  meaning that even adjusted for Coors Field he was merely league average) is none-too-pretty.  He was a horse, starting 35 games and working 213 innings, but he walked exactly as many hitters as he struck out (105).  At 31 years old, this was a strange season for Ritz: good, but not as good as his 1995.  Nevertheless, he was rewarded with a raise from $740,000 to $2.5 million going into 1997, expectations high after his moderately successful '95 and '96 seasons, but set up for disappointment.

1997 Colorado Rockies: 83-79, 3rd place, 7.0 GB

Expectations were high coming into 1997, and in many ways this was the Rockies most disappointing season.  They were contenders for most of the season, and were once again done in by a solid division and a lack of depth in both the rotation and the lineup.  The Blake Street Bombers were in their heyday, but four of the team's regular starters had an OPS+ under 100 (league average).  Similarly, the Rockies used six different starting pitchers regularly in '97, but only two managed to be above league average.  Even another excellent campaign from the bullpen wasn't quite enough.

Defining Player:  LF - Dante Bichette

No player was not-quite-enough enough than Dante Bichette.  As Larry Walker bashed his way to a deserved MVP award in 1997, putting up incredible numbers (Coors aided or not), Bichette was the poster-child for the overrated Blake Street Bomber.  He hit 26 homers, with a .308 average and .343 OBP, but those numbers are less impressive thanks to Coors, and his defense was bad enough that he actually was worth exactly 0.0 Wins Above Replacement for the season.  Dante was coming off of a number of good - or at least better - seasons, but like the Rockies he was getting too old too fast, and it was too hard to admit that this iconic figure for a young organization wasn't good enough to play for a contender.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A New Mini-Project: Constructing Narratives with the Colorado Rockies

I want to try an experiment.  For a while I've had this idea of going through the Rockies history and picking the player from each season that most exemplified the team that year.  I don't mean the best player, or the most famous, or the most highly paid, or anything like that.  I mean the player who's individual narrative most mirrors that of the team as a whole.

There are a few ways to do this, I think, but the method I'm going to use is this: I'm going to write a sentence (or maybe a haiku?) to describe each season, and then I'm going to look through the roster from that season and see which players best reflect the sentence I've written for the team.  While the result, hopefully, will be an interesting - to a Rockies fan anyway - trip down memory lane, I also expect to do some meta-analysis, to ask questions like the broad "How do we construct narratives?" and the more specific "What is the relationship between statistics - like W-L record or home runs - and the words that make up our stories?"

To save both you and me from an incredibly long post, I'm going to break this up and post a bit of it each day or two.  After that, and barring any significant event that demands a Nicht Diesian commentary, I promise I'll get the next Beethoven post up soon.

Part one, covering 1993-1997, is here.
Part two, convering 1998-2001, is here.
Part three, covering 2002-2006, is here.
Part four, covering 2007-2010, is here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

More Internets: Responding to a Comment

While writing a response to this comment on my last post, I decided I might as well just make my response into a new post.  Heres' the comment:

Interesting post, Paul, and I was glad to finally read your conclusion to such an ambitious project. I also have quite a lot of doubts about the quality of human interaction over the internet, but that said, I'm not sure I totally followed your arguments. 

You wrote that cynics "would point out that, in the long history of mankind (and especially in the last 300 years), almost every human interaction can be characterized according to political economy." Though your obviously sincere belief in the benefit of actual human communication seems on one hand to separate you from the cynics as you characterize them, but then you say quite categorically "It is undoubtedly the case that there is no online service which actively promotes communication in the sense I've talked about it above." You argue that all the best social sites do is to actively promote networking without standing too much in the way of communication. But I ask, why must the two be mutually exclusive? Moreover, if you truly believe that the real empathy necessary to true dialogue exists, then why must networking always be slave to the selfish inclinations of the political economy? What if the networking is for the purpose of solving a larger problem?

On the same note, you say "it is clear to me that communication...has been largely ignored, harried, or even battled against by the political economy of the last 300 or so years." The past 300 years more so than any other time in human history? How so? It seems to me that true dialogue has forever been a harried, ignored phenomenon happening most often in secret or on the unimportant fringes of this or that power. Has the overwhelming increase in availability to education and information (putting aside debates over the quality of the two) not helped at all? Have all those benefits been so outweighed by modernity's correlated evils? I guess I would have to say that despite all the very pertinent and important evils you've pointed out in these posts, I think the past 300 years have been a net positive in terms of dialogue.

Finally, you twice picked out the number 300 years. What has been so especially bad about the past three centuries in your opinion?

Phew! Sorry for the lengthy comment! Keep up the good work.

P.S. Ok final question, I swear: where do thoughtful comments on blogs stand in the networking v. communication discussion?

And here's my response:

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment DC. I'll do my best to address some of it briefly.

On your first set of questions, I'm not sure whether communication and networking have to be mutually exclusive, per se. I do think, however, that networking has a kind of addictive effect, simplifying our view of interaction to the point that communication becomes undesirable because of how much more effort it is than merely "poking" people and writing on their walls. It doesn't necessarily actively discourage communication, on a small scale, but on a large scale, while it increases the number of contacts we make, it might decrease the depth of those contacts.

You do make a good point about the problem-solving potential of networks. The ability to connect to people with disparate abilities and specialties allows us to more easily put together teams of problem solvers than any time in the past. There's no question that the Internet's ability to help us find things, people, knowledge, and so on is a boon to all people.

You're right that dialogue has always been harried, of course, and largely ignored society wide. However, despite its myriad corruptions, the intellectual and academic world used to hold dialogue in much higher esteem than it is now. There's no question that the scene has changed in the ways you describe (better access to information and more widespread education) in the modern world, but I guess I would argue that dialogue is a process, and not an outcome, and that in our modern world we're in the stranglehold of outcomes. That is, while there are way more "smart" people, who know more about more things, and who are specialized experts in their fields, I think the proportion of educated men and women who are generalists and process-oriented enough to talk about actual ideas and not just the jargon-infused specialized knowledge of their discipline is woefully small. To my mind, the web encourages, rather than discourages, that kind of (what I consider) intellectually deadly specialization.

That's not to say specialization doesn't work. It does. It drives technological progress, it leads to multi-disciplinary teams of problem solvers, and so on. It's just, having been on such teams, seen such progress, there's a distinct lack of real communication, a failure to ask why we do what we do, or what kind of progress is really desirable. Increasingly it seems to me that we're not only afraid, but maybe even incapable of having that conversation.

As for 300 years, it's partially an arbitrary number. More than anything, I'm pointing to the inception of a modern capitalistic-economy and the coming of romanticism, which ultimately lead to the myopic, every-man's-truth-unto-himself philosophy of post-modernism. I also wanted to encompass the industrial revolution, because it was the time in which the philosophy of "progress" became so powerful. But, again, I could just have easily picked out another time, because the actual past is not nearly so broken into discrete eras as our narrative of it is.

As for your ps, that's a good question to which I don't really have an answer. I often ask myself "why do I write this blog?" Passionate as I am about dialogue, there's little question that I'm as trapped by the medium as writers have been throughout history. The written word can't respond to a question,* to paraphrase Plato, even if I can respond post-facto. Though there is tremendous value in writing, reading, responding, and so on, I don't know if it's fully a dialogue, in that we're stuck exchanging declarative and/or interrogative monologues.

* At a certain point, of course, I might as well critique the shortcomings of books as Plato does. Really, the lesson is, with any technology (like books) there are benefits, which we usually champion, and drawbacks, which we too easily ignore. Unfortunately, in addition to this optimism, we often fail to ask questions like "why do we need this?" or "how should we best use it?"

Then again, much as I prefer dialogue, the alternative is for you and I not to communicate in any form, since you're halfway around the world from where I am if I'm not mistaken.  But I think there's an analogy to be made with distance education here.  Yes, it's better than nothing, but that doesn't mean we should rest on our proverbial laurels and say "oh how great a thing is the Internet!"  I'd instead challenge you, myself, and any other thinking person to think bigger: how might we make the Internet a venue for communication and dialogue?

It's that last question that inspired this series of posts, and I think it's a sticky and difficult question, because it's not so simple as "what kind of website" could accomplish that goal.  And really, I'm talking about the effort to bring real dialogue online - to code it into some experience, and not merely to make it possible or to not make it impossible - requires confronting the commercial, informational, and networked aspects of the Internet experience.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interrogating the Internet, Part Four (and Conclusion): Networking

Let's get all the chips on the table.  Networking is the purpose of this series.  Or, more accurately, the distinction between networking and communication.  You see, in the early days of the web I feel like there was a rampant philosophical debate about the value of this new technology.  What would dominate the web, the question went, information or communication?  In one camp firmly sat Google and Yahoo, the early bastions of information search.  In the other camp sat AOL and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft (with MSN and Hotmail leading the charge), services that connected people through instant messaging and email.

In the years that have followed it has become clear that the Internet had room - perhaps infinite room - for both communication and information, along with the added and not-totally-unexpected third wheel of commerce.  In my last few posts, I've talked - in broad and inexpert strokes - about commerce and information.  Because we are increasingly natives of the digital landscape, I felt it was worthwhile to point out the obvious, to challenge us to remember aspects of the Internet that we now take for granted or ignore.  For example, information on the web is rarely unbiased, even when it strives to be, and is sometimes wildly inaccurate.  At the very least, search engines do little or nothing to filter results for reliability or accuracy, rather choosing to filter based on more arcane algorithmic criteria like "relevance" as determined by computational linguistics or, more simply, the criteria of the dollar.

That money underpins everything on the Internet, even free networking services like Facebook or Twitter, is another important reminder.  Increasingly we feel entitled, I suspect, to the long range (in time and space) contact that social networking has made possible.  That the services are "free" only increases our sense of entitlement.  But they are not free, no less than a phone, a radio, or a television is.  That does not, in itself, corrupt said services any less than charging for a book corrupts the book, but corruption is not the point.  The point is that we forget too easily that Facebook is not just a website, but a company trying to make a profit.  For day-to-day use, that may not impact us much, but it has implications for a philosophical discussion of the platform.

Before we venture too far down that road, however, let's return to communication and networking.  What do I mean by each of those words, and why have I gone to pains to distinguish between them?  I'll start with networking, since it's the easier of the two to capture.

By "networking," I mean making connections.  When two people network, they try to assess each other's position, and contribute resources - intellectual, physical, or otherwise - to each other in an effort to be of mutual use in the effort to meet emotional, psychological, physical, or professional needs.  Networking is, in short, a kind of poking at each other and shoving stuff (whether tangible or intangible) in each other's direction.  Building a network, then, is about creating a vast web of people to whom one can go for such assistance, and from whom one expects requests of a similar nature.

The beauty of the Internet - as opposed to previous incarnations of the same concept, all the way down to bartering at the local swap meet - is that it makes the whole thing both asynchronous and distributed.  Asynchrony is important because the exchange between one node on a network and another need not be simultaneous, so I might borrow emotional support from a friend or borrow a potentially useful business contact from a mentor without needing to engage in immediate payback.  Granted, this asynchrony of networked exchange is not unique to the Internet, as the phrase "I owe you one" indicates, but it is particularly strong on the web because no face-to-face meeting is even necessary.  "I owe you one" is built into the structure, rather than something that has to be said after an arrangement has been reached.

That networks are distributed on the Internet is by far the more revolutionary and vital of its differences with traditional networks.  What I mean by "distributed" is simply this: it is not important that the person who "owes you one" be the person who pays you (metaphorically) back.  In a sufficiently advanced network redundancies abound.  "You and Connor have 82 friends in common."  If you, then, help out Connor by connecting him with a potential employer, it is not fully necessary, in a world where networks are distributed, asynchronous, and - a third important piece that warrants mention, if not discussion - instantaneous, for Connor to provide a similar service to you.  It is taken as granted that he might, and maybe even will try to do so, but when you have needs that become paramount, you will not seek Connor on the basis of him owing you, but rather only if he is the member of your network most able to help you.

As a result, in a distributed network, there is ample commerce, but it is not always direct.  A cynic would point out that, in the long history of mankind (and especially in the last 300 years), almost every human interaction can be characterized according to political economy.  The debits and credits of that political economy are what made up the networks of the past.  That cynic, then, in order to understand the Internet and the kind of networking that the web has created, would have to decentralize the political economy, shifting it away from the exchange of capital (be it fiscal, emotional, spiritual, or whatever) from one person to another and towards a new model where exchange remains individualized, but the reserves, so to speak, are more communal.

Despite that shift from individual to community, however, the Internet is far from socialist or communist.  It is innately capitalist, innately concerned with individualism and personal gain.  Modern networking is in some sense the epitome of the capitalistic notion of the "invisible hand," where each person looking out for himself allows things to work out for the good of everyone, where the rising tide does, indeed, lift all boats.

Wither communication, in that picture?  Before I can answer that, I need to distinguish communication from networking.  Communication, as I imagine it, is an actual exchange of ideas, an effort not merely to assess the material or emotional needs of oneself and one's interlocutor, but to actually understand the spirit and mind of that person.  Communication is what happens when neither party in a conversation is looking out for his own advancement or the advancement of the other, but rather the shared effort of the two people is dialogue: a talking, thinking, and reasoning through difficult questions about meaning, purpose, and truth.  A modern cynic will say that such a conversation is not possible, because we're all too myopic and too self-absorbed to achieve the level of objectivity necessary for such a conversation to occur.  Moreover, said modernist (or, really, post-modernist) will argue that never in history have such conversation occurred; they have only seemed to do so because of the narrowness of the perspectives of those culturally hegemonic (or, at least, culturally isolated) societies in which conversations are said to have happened.

I suppose, on some level, the capacity for real empathy and, thereby, true dialogue is an article of faith.  Once convinced that such a thing does not exist, it is impossible to be persuaded otherwise, because the opinion itself precludes any evidence to the contrary.  Nevertheless, I believe firmly that such communication can and does happen.  Indeed, while this blog is hardly dialogic, in that I write all of these posts by myself, at its heart is the belief in ideas and communication, despite my doubts that such is possible over the Internet.

Which leads me to the end point of this series of posts.  Twitter and Facebook are two of the most successful and revolutionary services on the Internet.  We might also lump in email, skype, Linkedin, or any of a number of other networking services.  Regardless, however, we will be talking about networking.  It is undoubtedly the case that there is no online service which actively promotes communication in the sense I've talked about it above.  My question is, is there any service that does not, actually, actively prevent communication, in favor of networking?  What's more, is it possibly the case that some networking services begin to trick us into believing that we are communicating when we are actually networking?

Those are questions to which I do not have answers, even if I pose them rhetorically (as if I do have answers).  Regardless, it is clear to me that communication - or, we might also say, learning (a connection that might require a whole post to itself) - have been largely ignored, harried, or even battled against by the political economy of the last 300 or so years.  That dialogue has held on - if only in a few places - is a testament to how important it is to actual human progress.  That it has not yet, to my knowledge, broken through in the digital world is a testament to how powerful the myopic impulse for networking (we might as well say, for personal gain) is.

I leave with an analogy.  Networking is not merely with people, but with ideas.  Increasingly, we are concerned with what ideas link to other ideas.  While there is evidence that learning happens largely through making connections, and that building networks of thoughts and definitions and concepts is an important part of thinking critically, I wonder when we synthesize.  Building a network - of people or ideas - does not seem innately good or bad, any less than a blueprint or a scaffold for a building is innately functional.  Rather, the question is what do we do with that network.  If we merely connect ideas (or people) to each other, but never bore into them, try to discern their meaning and import, try to improve ourselves and our world, what good is that network?  It is as if we have made a blueprint for a building but have never actually built it, instead going from room to imaginary room, thinking about how we might decorate them, instead of how we might live in them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Interrogating the Internet, Part Three: Information

In spite of all the mean things I said about e-commerce in my last post, there is a notable exception to the Internet-as-giant-money-machine routine.  Wikipedia is a free website, a vast and successful experiment in crowd-sourcing, and a remarkable human accomplishment.  While the site still requires money to run, it is the rare enormous non-profit enterprise run truly for the good of mankind, and not for the good of some one man.

Wikipedia is the height of information on the Internet, but it is not the hub, nor is it perfect.  Like any source of information, it is constantly in flux, a battleground for ideology and interpretation.  That scholars often scoff Wikipedia does not make it less valuable, but it does indicate that, especially when highly specialized knowledge is involved, the site might be just as guilty of perpetuating myths or, at least, subtly flawed characterizations of information as it is deserving of praise for striving to make anything and everything available to the curious.  Of course, while the debate continues over Wikipedia's overall fidelity compared to traditional encyclopedias, there is no question that it is more comprehensive and more-userfriendly.  The "wiki" has spread far beyond wikipedia.org, and for good reason: behind the specific information presented on the site, there's a process for how to present information that has proven extremely effective.

As I said above, however, Wikipedia is not the hub of information on the Internet, because Google is.  Whereas Wikipedia is a non-profit organization dedicated primarily to providing articles on any and every piece of information available, Google is a for-profit, publicly traded search engine that, some time ago, began to reach far beyond search.  Google's success in part owes to the fact that, when the search engine battleground was still densely populated, Google chose to separate out "sponsored results" from organic ones, giving users the opportunity to make their own decision, rather than being forced towards some marketing campaign by a page worth of disguised but paid-for search results.  Google, internally, put this kind of decision under a broader heading: "don't be evil."

I won't venture into the question of whether Google has become evil, whether it has maintained it's plucky start-up idealism as it has become a publicly traded corporation, slowly but surely taking its place as one of the most successful companies - and certainly the most successful brand - in the world.  Rather, I want wrap up this post by talking about where information fits in the picture of the Internet, in light of the two organizations discussed here.

Can information ever be unbiased?  Probably not.  Any historical event, for example, will have dozens of different interpretations, even at the time that it occurred.  How much more so twenty years later, or a hundred, or a thousand?  What, then, can a provider of information do?  Wikipedia strives for an unbiased account, where possible, but its crowd-sourced mechanism for doing so is susceptible to the tyranny of the masses.  On the other hand, the expert - who pens the Brittanica entry, for example - is liable to skew information in favor of his own perspective, ignoring competing theories or interpretations, even if he does so subconsciously.  Especially troubling is not just interpretation, but hierarchy: not just what happened, but how important any given event - or other piece of information - is might also be debatable, and the cause or result of bias.

The Internet does nothing to change the conundrums of information, it merely makes them more pronounced.  Wikipedia, to my mind, has as good an approach as can be expected: tap into the knowledge of the masses, edit carefully and vigilantly, strive for a lack of bias even when impossible.  As a source for answers to factual questions, there is no better resource in the history of mankind.

Google's approach, meanwhile, is more complex.  As a search engine, it is not actually designed to provide the user information.  Rather, Google connects users with websites, websites which may contain information, but may (and usually do) also contain advertisements, interpretations, arguments, and other kinds of networks.  Google takes minimal responsibility for what you find on the other end of your search, and rightfully so, but it bears remembering that the output part of the search enginge experience is not merely fallible, but often malicious as well.

We might say the same about Wikipedia, of course, if in a different way, because we might say the same about information as a whole.  What the Internet does, I would argue, is that it elevates information by making it so sublimely accessible.  That we can answer almost any question about history, etymology, science, mathematics, sports, weather, or just about anything else almost instantly has made us almost too comfortable with information.  So much of our web-based learning, thanks to Wikipedia and Google, is the transmission and acquisition of information that we might not be doing so well on the critical thinking, interpretation, and creativity side of the equation.

Not that those things don't exist.  Indeed, I have no evidence to suggest that we, as a society or as a world, are any less creative or critical now than we ever have been.  Rather, my point is that, from my own experience, easy availability of information can inspire a kind of intellectual laziness that is far from fatal, but is troubling nonetheless.  Where we should see an opportunity to do more and better critical thinking thanks to the Internet, all-too-often we're satisfied merely to link from one piece of information to the next, as if connections alone comprised analysis.  Society wide, it seems to me that we're more interested in saying what a text (for example) reminds us of or what it resembles than we are in what it means, as if meaning were just another piece of networked information.

What does the Internet do, then?  It makes information readily available to anyone and everyone.  What doesn't it do?  It doesn't assess the validity and uncover the biases of that information, it doesn't interpret it, and it doesn't create meaning.  None of that is troubling, in itself, because those tasks are - to some extend - the exclusive right of the mind.  Rather, what is troubling is that it is so easy to believe that the Internet does assess validity and bias, does interpret, and does create meaning, and, indeed, that it does so better than we can.  Combined, especially, with the obvious but secret fact that the Internet is moved by money, first and foremost, and there is a strong incentive for information to be a commodity, for interpretation and meaning to be bought and sold.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Just wanted to let my readers know that earlier today I joined Eric Nusbaum and Ted Walker from Pitchers and Poets on their regular podcast.  Zip over to the post and give it a listen.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Interrogating the Internet, Part Two: Commerce

In my last post I introduced a new mini-project, an attempt to gaze into the Internet and to see what it looks like.  A cursory glance at web traffic rankings suggests that there are three primary uses of the internet: information, networking, and commerce (or, as I called it in the first post, shopping).  My next few posts will address each of those areas, starting with the last of the three: commerce.

Beneath the surface of the Internet is money.  Each and every server - and therefore, each and every website, email account, or bit of streaming media - exists somewhere in the real world, if only as little bits of electrical charge on a hard drive somewhere, demanding day-to-day energy usage, maintenance by IT professionals, and the occasional replacement.  That the Internet feels "free" because the user experience is so abstracted from the silicon heart of the beast, but in reality it is anything but.

I don't just mean that the user pays his ISP a monthly connection bill.  I mean the very fabric of the web is financial, that sites like Google or Facebook are able to operate not because they are popular, but because they are profitable.  In the case of those two sites, extreme popularity and profit go hand in hand, of course, because they make so little from any given user that the user barely notices.  There are sites, however, with much smaller user bases that are just as profitable because of the nature of their work.

Amazon and eBay are, of course, the two biggest online marketplaces because they understand the capabilities of the Internet better than sites created by traditional stores that had a real presence before the web.  Amazon and eBay both thrive by allowing people to connect directly with each other, cutting the middle-man (the bookstore, for example) out of the buying and selling of used merchandise.  Where Barnes and Noble is just a bookstore online, Amazon is a whole different kind of beast, a commercial enterprise that simplifies and democratizes commerce.  Where Amazon started as a bookseller, primarily, they have been able to branch into just about every area of consumer purchases because they were built not on books (like Barnes and Noble), but rather on a retail process.

Make no mistake, however, about Amazon's motives.  As great a company as Amazon is, it is still profit-driven.  Stocking, shipping, and selling merchandise from their own warehouses is obviously a priority, given that they put their own results at the top of search results, and encourage consumers to register for Amazon credit cards, use "Super Saver" shipping, and so on.

Moreover, Amazon shares with eBay its primary means of making a profit: taking a small chunk out of every sale that occurs on the site.  Given the sheer volume of commerce occurring on these two sites, it's easy to see that the small (around 10%) cuts that the sites take adds up fast.

Even Craigslist - which does not charge a commission - remains financially solvent thanks to a simple business model.  According to Forbes.com, Craigslist survives by charging companies ($25, a pittance) to post job listings in the six largest US markets, plus a tiny $10 fee for New York apartment listings.  That alone more than covers the cost of operating the site for free in every other category it works in, and in every other city.

The lesson from Craigslist - or even from Amazon and eBay - is that there are a lot of people on the Internet, and it doesn't take much to run the machine.  But the machine must run, nonetheless.  Google, despite its fundamental role as an information search site, is also a business that absolutely rakes in cash pennies at a time.  When you click on that Amazon link from Google, you are greasing the wheels of the corporate Internet machine, because a small part of your Amazon purchase goes to Google, also.

It is hardly surprising that the Internet is commercial, but it's easy to forget.  Rare as it is to see people working for free in the real world, it is even more rare to see it online.  Indeed, the Internet is, in the end, a kind of abstracted, simplified version of real human interaction, with advertising at the heart of it all.  But advertising alone cannot drive any economy unless actual purchases follow, and on the Internet they certainly do.  What's more, since increasingly the things we purchase are digital to begin with, profit margins can be much, much higher in the web space.  The traditional economic notion that purchase cost is derived, at least in part, from production cost is essentially meaningless online, where a game developer (for example) or a book for the Kindle need only be produced once, and distributed according to what people will pay for it, and not what it is "worth."

Perhaps what a thing is worth is what people will pay for it.  That's a bigger economic and philosophical question.  Regardless, as sales of digital media increase, the profit margin for each sale approaches something close to 100% (minus the negligible, compared to traditional commerce, increased costs of managing more sales).  Scale - often a bugbear in traditional business - is the whole point of online business.  The more people buy a product or use a service, the better the company does unequivocally.  Does that make the capitalistic competition of the web more robust, or less robust?  Is the consumer better off in a digital economy?  Are businesses?  Are governments?  Those are important questions that to my knowledge have not been adequately answered.

Needless to say, the point here is remember that money makes the Internet go round, even more so than the material world.  To most people I'm guessing that is no surprise, but it might just give us pause as well move forward and try to understand what the Internet is and does.  First and foremost, it's a business, and it does sales.  What deeper value we are able to pull out of it may or may not be corrupted by this fact (I truly do not know), but at the least it bears remembering that behind each and every corner of the Internet is the wall of commerce.