Saturday, February 26, 2011

Content is King

Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a fascinating profile of Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke. Greinke, one of the best pitchers in baseball, has battled a social anxiety disorder (which almost caused him to retire from baseball at the age of 22). During the interview, the theme that he kept coming back to is that he needs to avoid talking or listening to other people for extended periods of time because it gives him mental fatigue. I've collected three separate quotes below:

"Some lady came up to me yesterday and just started talking nonsense. It takes eight minutes to get a real question out because it's buttering me up. Then they get to the question and it's a stupid question. So I've wasted 10 minutes and in that 10-minute time I didn't get to do what I needed to do. And even if it is a good question, I spend 10 minutes and they take the one quote that didn't mean anything" ...."It wears me out to do stuff like our meetings every day," he said. "If I actually listened to them, it would wear me out. So I go into a little daze. It's always been that way with me. Say teachers are talking to me in math class and they're going over these things. Really, you only need 10 seconds for the answer and they give you five minutes. You spend all this time focusing and most of it is nonsense... "To talk to people, I have to spend energy. If I spend my energy focused on talking to people to make friends, that takes away from the energy I could be focused on getting ready to pitch. So I just try to avoid nonsense talk.

It's not difficult to find laments about the declining attention span of Americans. Conventional wisdom is that with all of the entertainment options and distractions at our immediate disposal, we are more apt to flit from one thing to the next, never really going in-depth or engaging with any one thought or idea, never really living in the moment.

But Greinke offers an alternative way of viewing contemporary life. If we really did fully engage with all of the people and/or things that demand our attention, we would be mentally wearied and worn down. And Greinke realizes exactly why--most of our language is verbiage. One thing that a viewer immediately notices when watching "classic" re-broadcasts of televised sporting events from even as recently as 30 years ago is how little the announcers talked compared to now. Even radio broadcasts would sometimes have seemingly long stretches of dead air (occasionally you can still get this effect listening to Bob Uecker today). I'm always skeptical about claiming that a paradigm shift has occurred, but it does seem to me that we are more uncomfortable with silence than previous generations were. When I was a kid, I would find it strange that when riding with old people, they could go somewhere without turning the car radio on. Now everyone in a car may have their own listening apparatus (perhaps while holding multiple conversations at the same time). And it's not even enough to have an announcer talking nonstop during a televised sports event--now there has to be continuous on-screen graphics and sometimes a screencrawl as well. And if we could get by before without all this wall-to-wall content, it's worth asking if the contemporary emphasis on filling dead air is necessarily a good thing.

I'm no expert on how the mind works, but I wonder if most of us have an innate chemical ability to filter most of this stimulus and really cut to the core of what we need to know, whereas Greinke may lack the natural ability to filter, feeling the need to focus with utmost concentration on all that comes in (only to be continuously frustrated by how unnecessary his mental efforts were). And I'll admit his mention of math class hit a little close to home. I'm not a math teacher, but I teach English classes, largely in 75 minute blocks, twice per week. That usually still isn't as much time as I feel I need to cover the material that I want to (I've found that the only time I've ever taught classes without feeling rushed was when I had a two-hour class three days per week last summer). I feel like I am giving students their money's worth, that I've got clear objectives in my mind about what I want to accomplish in any given class period, and that students who stay focused will benefit from having come to class.

But at the same time I also wonder if there are better models for thinking (and learning) than having two big blocks of time. Even if we do practice "filtering," how good at it are we really? Could we be missing out on important stuff and locking onto the unnecessary? (This may be exactly what goes on in the mind of a person with ADD, but perhaps in all of us to some extent). How can we cut down on margin for error? Perhaps as our technological advancements facilitate distance learning, our classes will become shorter and more frequent. I wouldn't mind experimenting with teaching a class for 20 minutes at a time, twice a day, four days a week. It might be more challenging for teacher and student to make efficient use of the time and focus with utmost concentration, but it could be worth it to maximize our brain's functioning.

I suppose I could come up with some other ideas for how to cut down on superfluity in our society, but I'm afraid I've gone on long enough--any longer and I fear alienating Zack Greinke.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy, Debate, and "Being Heard"

"This is what democracy looks like"-- A chant shared by more than 400 union workers in Madison's Veterans park this week

"That's not democracy. That's not what this chamber is all about."-- Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on the Democrats' boycott of the budget vote

"We call on every citizen and taxpayer here, and assembling across Wisconsin, to continue the tradition of peacefully expressing their passionate opinions to their government. We assure you all – you are being heard."-- Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca

"They shot down debate when people had a right to be heard"-- Democratic State Senator Chris Larson

“Tens of thousands of citizens have petitioned legislative offices to change the bill... I agree with them. They deserve more time to ensure their voice is heard."-- Democratic State Senator Bob Jauch

"The president has chosen to attack leaders such as Gov. Walker, who are listening to the people and confronting problems that have been neglected for years at the expense of jobs and economic growth."-- U.S. House Speaker John Boehner

“We are taking the phone calls and we are listening, but the fiscal crisis that we're in doesn't slow down"--- Republican Assembly Representative Johny Nygren

"I think it's important for them to have their voices heard. I respect that."
--Governor Scott Walker on protesters

To be sure, a lot has been said this week in Wisconsin about unions, about salaries and benefits, about comparisons between the public and private sector, about rights and privileges, about the history of collective bargaining, and about budgets. But what has struck me as interesting has been that there has also been a lot said about democracy and about communication. It's almost as if we have two sets of debates going on: one about concrete and specific ideas, and the other abstractions about how government operates or should operate. There are plenty of blogs you can go to to read about the former. I'm interested in exploring the latter.

What is "democracy"? David Cratis Williams and Marilyn J. Young define democracy as a "communication system," and this is what they write about it: " is a process of opening, questioning, advocating, refuting, persuading, debating, deciding, and changing...But even at its 'best', democracy is rarely efficient, and it is always contentious...a static, stable, peaceful end is never attained, even in theory." By that definition and way of thinking, protesters are right to say that their demonstrations are what "democracy looks like."

But the key word for me in the above quotation is "debating." This seems to be the value that both sides are laying claim to in the case of the Democrat walkout. Democrats are claiming that a delay in the vote is necessary to promote further debate, while Republicans say that the debate should take place on the floor of the legislature. Democrats say that not enough time has passed to allow opponents of the bill to have their say, while Governor Walker counters that the unprecedented 17 hours of testimony in front of the joint-finance committee reflects a willingness to allow voice to the opposition.

The quotations above seem to indicate that both sides put a value on debate as a tenet of democracy and that they place a high importance on allowing political expression (even if they differ on what that means in practicality). But I wonder if the rhetoric is so centered around the importance of upholding democratic processes that the process itself becomes the product. In other words, debate and expression is seen not as a means, but an end. When the Democrats seek to delay a vote in order to promote expression, do they have an honest belief that it could result in their opposition changing their minds in the interim? After all, in response, Republicans were quick to say that the tactic has solidified their caucus.

It's standard procedure that before bills are passed in legislative bodies, lawmakers are allowed to take the floor and discuss their support or opposition to the bill. And very rarely do their words have any resonance beyond the halls of their immediate building. Occasionally, a few seconds of a soundbite are excerpted by a media outlet and relayed to a vast minority of the populace. But I have never heard a quotation by a legislator that indicates that she or he had been swayed by testimony. In fact, such an admission would likely be viewed as a sign of weakness by the electorate. Ideological malleability is not a trait that is celebrated by either side of the aisle.

But a system in which bills are introduced and votes immediately taken is inconceivable. No matter our partisan leanings, we all have been brought up in a system, solidified through generations, that preaches that discussion is needed before action (even if informal discussion has already long been taking place) and that to speak out (or, in the passive voice, to "be heard") is not only a right, but an obligation. So is there a way that we could uphold these principles and avoid the charade of inefficiency that we all pretend doesn't exist?

I believe there is. First, we need to start teaching the Wiliams and Young definition of democracy. We need to acknowledge that democracy doesn't begin or end with legislative bodies, that our individual political belief systems are formed through complex environmental factors (and not always as a direct result of reasoned analysis of issues), and that political conflicts are healthy and necessary. And to address the political and psychological need to "be heard," we should take a lesson from the judicial branch. When a bill is introduced, each side should be given time to produce a written opinion, a "majority" and a "minority" opinion. Instead of testimony being given, a member of the majority party should be required to read out loud the minority opinion without comment, and vice versa. And then after the vote is taken, democracy can resume.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

X Marks the Spot

I've read a lot of news coverage about the aftermath of the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl victory, but none of the stories made mention of what happened to the ball that Scott Wells snapped to Aaron Rodgers on the last play of the game. Apparently, it's only in baseball that the ball that was in play for the final out of the World Series becomes a story, particularly when one of the players decides to keep it. Doug Mientkiewicz took a lot of heat a few years ago for "selfishly" holding onto the ball that gave the Boston Red Sox their first World Series victory in 86 years. He eventually donated the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame. For this, he was praised by the Hall of Fame's Brad Horn:

Mientkiewicz said 'It's in my possession, so I'm going to make sure it gets to a place that everybody can enjoy it, the Hall of Fame. And that's what we often tell players -- "You can keep these items in your possession and a handful of fans will see them, or 15 million fans who have seen things at the Hall of Fame over the course of our history will see them."

And that sounds like a fine ending to the story. But I don't think that the sentiment stands up to scrutiny. What does it mean to "enjoy" an artifact? Does standing in front of a baseball ensconced behind glass actually give anybody tangible enjoyment? If it does, it is only valuable in terms of building up cultural capital. At one time relics were thought to have the power to heal or grant wishes, but now access to the contemporary relic is all about cultural capital--more specifically, bragging rights. People can take a picture that proves they were in the presence of the venerable, and they can tell others something like: "Hey, I saw the backpack that actor Jeff East wore in Superman: The Movie" (which is actually a claim I can make, having visited the Metropolis, Illinois Superman museum). But the actual act of viewing an artifact of memorabilia is usually less physically satisfying than eating a cheeseburger.

That said, I do appreciate the populist ethos of the above quotation, and the mission of many such curators to make the artifact accessible to a wide audience, to spread around the potential to tap into the cultural capital (though there is undoubtedly a certain degree of "bragging rights" at stake for the museums, as they will often compete with each other for acquisitions). But beyond these institutions, there are the cultural hoarders, those who attempt to acquire items for their private collections, often at staggering costs. And there is likewise usually no special "enjoyment" in the consumption of the item. Right now, you can go to and find the complete lyrics to "The Times They Are a-Changin'"--for free. Or you could pay nearly a half million dollars and buy Dylan's original handwritten lyrics (which aren't as legible as the lyrics on the website). A hedge-fund manager recently chose the latter option (and in so doing, kind of defeated the sentiment of the song). What does he get for his money? Nothing more than the opportunity to tell people that he has something they don't.

Now certainly there are items in our culture that we imbue with a certain value because of what they represent. But doesn't that value become cheapened (figuratively if not literally) the moment that they also become representative of the status of the bearer? And is there truly a way that they truly can be "enjoyed"?

I believe there is a way to solve both of these problems. First, if merit were attached to acquisition, the possession would stand to acquire an even greater value. An Ayn Rand fan would argue that having money equals merit, so those who purchase expensive items are simply demonstrating a pre-existent merit. But although I wouldn't dispute that those who hold money should be able to purchase any legal good or service that they feel can enhance their quality of life, the purchase of exclusivity of ownership strikes me as more of an attempt to flaunt wealth than to enjoy its trappings. For one-of-a-kind items of sentimental value, I think that there should be a separate market, one where everybody is at the same starting line.

And the way to accomplish that is though worldwide treasure hunts. The NFL should take the final game ball from Sunday's Super Bowl and bury it in a strategic location somewhere in the country. Then they should put out a series of books, clues, riddles, maps, whatever it takes to turn locating it into a fun game. If nobody finds it, the market has spoken, and that just means it doesn't have enough value and it deserves to stay buried. But for anyone with enough skill, fortitude, and desire, they could be rewarded with, well, a football. But at least they will have experienced enjoyment in the acquisition, the game will have given even more value to the item, and the owner will be more entitled to brag about its possession.

The Smithsonian probably has a fair amount of material that isn't actually giving much "enjoyment" to visitors. Could such items be made more enjoyable by hiding them and daring the public to find them? If they replace their original Oscar the Grouch puppet with a more recent model, and hide the original in a trash can in a railroad terminal in Brownsville, Texas, could that be a greater service to the American people? Could the state of Minnesota hide pieces of the Metrodome roof in cubbyholes throughout the land of 10,000 lakes?

And although auction houses would stand to lose economically from such a culture, the overall national economic stimulus would probably be greater. Tourism dollars would come flooding in to places that might really need it. Even if treasure hunters were to come away empty-handed, they would still be richer for the experience of being somewhere that they would otherwise have never had the opportunity to visit.

Now if we could just track down the whereabouts of that football...anybody check if Doug Mientkiewicz has it?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Hey Look Over There

One of the important skills I've acquired and cultivated in the last year has been the art of diversion. Having a baby who is always interested in grabbing things he shouldn't, I've had to frequently resort to creating distractions. Perhaps this is actually a latent trait that I've always had but never had to practice. Or maybe I picked it up in childhood by watching cartoons and sitcoms--whether Scooby Doo or Full House, protagonists would frequently "create a distraction," in order to achieve a desired objective.

Perhaps mindful of the prevalence of this practice in society, the sports media has always been quick to attempt to locate "distractions." When a player underperforms, it is often attributed to off-field distraction, such as a contract negotiation. Apparently in the .45 seconds that it takes a player to decide whether he will swing at a pitch, it is not uncommon for much of that time to be taken up with thinking about performance incentives, and then, bam, the ball is already in the catcher's glove.

And ever so often specific incidents are regarded as "distractions." The Green Bay Packers apparently suffered to a 6-10 record in 2008 because they were distracted by Brett Favre's unretirement. I suppose when Mason Crosby missed a 52-yard field goal that would have beat the Vikings in week 10, he was distracted thinking about whether he would have had to try that field goal if Brett Favre was still his quarterback. Sometimes individuals are referred to as "distractions." Terrell Owens and Randy Moss are walking distractions. Somehow their teams have achieved more success than failure throughout their careers, but obviously the lack of Super Bowl rings on their fingers must be due to their teammates thinking about their latest comments to the press during crucial stretches of games.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, there is nothing like Super Bowl week(s) to amplify the media's fixation on locating distractions. Historically, there have certainly been some high profile off the field incidents involving Super Bowl teams: Cincinnati's Stanley Wilson getting high on cocaine just before Super Bowl XXIII, Atlanta's Eugene Robinson soliciting an undercover officer the night before Super Bowl XXXIII, and Oakland's Barrett Robbins going AWOL before Super Bowl XXXVII. In all cases, those individuals' teams lost the game, and pundits blamed them for creating a distraction. (Never mind that the Bengals lost after a last minute Joe Montana drive, the Falcons were lucky to be in the Super Bowl at all and were playing a much superior Denver team, and the Raiders were going against a coach who knew them inside and out having coached them the previous year).

And while nothing quite on the scale of the above incidents, a couple members of the Green Bay Packers were accused of creating a distraction leading up this year's Super Bowl. A google search of "Nick Barnett distraction" yields over 66,000 hits. (Here is one such account for anyone who doesn't know the story). ESPN's Skip Bayless took the hysteria to another level by tweeting "Jermichael, Nick Barnett should've been fined for tweeting unhappiness about team pic. 2 guys who can't play creating turmoil, distraction!" Barnett apologized saying, "just wanted to say I was never trying to be a distration" (sic).

Whatever happens in the Super Bowl, I guarantee that the Packers will not lose because Nick Barnett tweeted that he was sad he wasn't going to be in the team photo. If anything, having tertiary issues emerge leading up to a high pressure event could actually be a blessing--the opportunity to focus attention elsewhere instead of being mentally consumed by the implications of the impending competition could be just what one needs. I'm sure nobody was thinking about these issues during practices or meetings, and nobody will be thinking about them when the game starts.

Now I've just got to figure out a way to keep my son occupied so that I can focus on the game.