Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Young People are Old

Last weekend, I spent several hours pouring sodas at a festival/carnival, in tandem with a rotating cast of teen-agers. This Friday night, I went out to dinner with a 71-year-old man. Yesterday, I was a groomsman in my little brother's wedding, surrounded by young men in their early to mid-20s. Clearly, I have been absorbing the cultures of generations that I do not belong to. And I'm struck by a particular similarity between generations older and younger than me, one that I believe does not extend to my cohort.

One of the teen-agers I worked with had a particularly strong knowledge of contemporary hit singles. As we poured sugar water, we could hear a P.A. system down the way blast out a variety of music. I recognized Lynard Skynard, the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi, but my young colleague had to inform me when I was hearing Katy Perry, Shakira, and, yes, Justin Bieber. Although her knowledge was strongest when dealing with the contemporary, she wasn't wholly ignorant of music that was recorded prior to her birth. She professed a love of the Beatles, as well as an enthusiasm for 1980s hair metal. I couldn't help but interrogate her about the content of her itunes library. She informed me that she had a wide variety of music, but that she didn't have any particularly artist's discography. In fact, when subjected to my relentless quizzing, she revealed that though she knew a number of Beatles songs, she didn't necessarily know any albums.

The 71-year-old I dined with actually started listening to music before Rock and Roll was popularized, so his taste runs more to Sinatra and classical. We didn't talk much music, but we ended up talking about the early days of television. If one wanted to know about popular TV shows of the 1950s, Wikipedia is unnecessary if you are in the presence of this gentleman. He informed me of the geographic origins of popular television entertainers. Actually, I was struck by how so much of his recitation involved names of people (e.g. Bob Hope and Milton Berle), rather than titles of particular shows. I ventured to ask him about networks--which shows were on which networks, whether there was a particular network that was most popular, etc... This proved to be a blind spot for him, as he simply said "If a show was good, we watched it. We didn't care what network it was on."

And finally, while in the back room at the church, waiting to commence my brother's nuptials, I learned that more than one of his friend's consider themselves a DJ, able to remix songs. When discussing how much of the wedding dance music was to consist of such "remixes," I took occasion to rail against the musical ignorance of the Millenial Generation. "The problem with DJs these days is that they don't actually know any songs. They have a small library of core, canonical singles, but lack a true foundational knowledge of the history of music." Of course, one of the groomsen was a DJ himself and objected to my sweeping generalization. I put him on the spot. "Blood on the Tracks is considered by many critics to be the greatest album of the 1970s. Name one track on Blood on the Tracks." Of course, he couldn't do it. He protested that he didn't know albums, that he just possessed a working knowledge of songs. I then challenged him to name a Bob Dylan song, and the first one he said was "Tangled Up In Blue"...which is of course the first song on Blood on the Tracks.

The teen-age soda pourer and the groomsman DJ may lack knowledge of albums, but if they had grown up in the era of the 71-year-old dinner companion, they certainly wouldn't have had a knowledge of albums either. The music industry didn't realize until the mid-1960s that there was money to be made in selling long playing records with more than a couple of songs on them, and it was around the same time that recording artists sought the opportunity to challenge themselves by making a coherent conceptual collection of songs as an artistic statement. And though the album flourished for decades, the itunes generation has now gone back to the roots of the music industry, cherry picking particular songs of interest.

Meanwhile, while talking about television, I thought back to a Chuck Klosterman column I read a few years back. Klosterman is a few years older than me, but I would consider him to be of my generation. He wrote "I have always wondered this: Why am I able to see any random television program, often for less than ten seconds, and immediately recognize which network the show is airing on? To me, the differences seem obvious and undeniable....For reasons I don’t understand, I can identify the look of any major network instantaneously. So can a lot of other people. We can do it without even trying." But in researching it, Klosterman found that his initial hypotheses, that there is a technological difference in the production, was wrong. The fact was that he watches so much television that he has an ability to (in Gladwellian terms) thin-slice an ethos of a network. As he writes: "I am able to deduce differences between networks — but it’s for content-driven reasons that I’ll never be fully aware of."

But I think in the early days of television, such an ability was unlikely to be held. Since everything was so new, all networks were possibly in a state of conformity. Time needed to pass in order for programmers to take chances, for identities to evolve, and for philosophical or ideological differences to emerge. And now, in the DVR era in which people casually time shift their viewing habits, and in an era in which many people watch television shows for the first time on DVD releases, the importance of network identify (at least among over-the-air programming), is again minimized. Like the consumption of music, consumption of television has essentially come full circle.

So the end result is that the older and younger generations consume discrete entities, while the middle came of age looking for a more unified product. And I realize it's awfully easy to have a particular bias about one's own perspective, but I worry that we are losing something by devolving. The groomsman DJ and I ended up having a nice conversation (after he got past the initial shock of the intensity of my pontificating). It turns out that though his Dylan knowledge needs some work, he is expert in Van Halen's discography. He acknowledged that to truly appreciate the career of the band, it's important to know the progression of albums that they produced, the aesthetic feel of each album, and in particular the distinctions between the eras (largely characterized by having different singers). To truly have more than a superficial quotidian knowledge of something, a context and a foundation needs to be acquired.

My advice to then to young people (and perhaps even older people): find somebody of my generation to spend some time with.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Ignoring

"Just ignore them." When I was growing up, this was the standard advice for how to deal with bullies or hecklers. I was never sure it was good advice, though. It seemed to me that to ignore a bully was to invite a challenge: "What more do I need to say or do before this person will react to me?"

I thought about this while watching Milwaukee Brewers centerfielder Nyjer Morgan play in San Franscisco this weekend. Rather than describe what I saw, though, I'll turn things over to San Francisco Chronicle writer Bruce Jenkins:

Morgan was simply a disgrace in center field Friday night, at least by modern-day standards. The bleacher fans were riding him, as is their custom with most any opposing outfielder, and Morgan heard every word. He routinely engaged them with words and sweeping gestures, at least one of them carrying the hint of malice, and created a tempestuous atmosphere that easily could have led to alcohol-fueled retaliation.

Of course, being a Brewer fan I may be a bit biased, but I'd take issue with Jenkins' partisan tone. It would seem to me that the disgraceful individuals were those who make taunting the opposition "their custom," individuals who one suspects of having a likelihood to engage in "alcohol-fueled retaliation." But in any event, he does bring up an interesting point about "modern-day standards." According to conventional thought, the player in that situation should be the "professional." He should be used to being heckled, learn to ignore it, and carry on normally.

But what enables one to tune out taunting, heckling, or bullying? The obvious answer would seem to be that a high degree of self-confidence (self-esteem, even) would permit one to become selectively deaf. But the odd thing about the Nyjer Morgan situation is that the individual in question appears to be among the most supremely self-confident people walking this planet. I suppose it is possible that the insecure could potentially construct a facade of self-assurance, but I would have to think that in most cases it takes a measure of self-confidence to stand up to bullying or heckling, while the truly insecure would be more likely to cower away in shame.

But aside from self-confidence, what makes Nyjer Morgan (or his self-styled alter- ego "Tony Plush") such a favorite among Brewer fans is that he is constantly seeking to connect with them. On a Brewers off day he asked on Twitter what he should do with his spare time. A fan suggested that he fly a kite on the Milwaukee lakefront. A few hours later, Morgan posted a picture on Twitter of himself flying a kite on the Milwaukee lakefront (shown above). For me, a particularly interesting Nyjer Morgan epiphany came when FSN showed footage of Morgan playing for Pittsburgh a couple of years ago. Morgan was "miked up" during the game, and he was well aware of this fact, constantly dropping comments that he knew would resonate with a television audience. At one point he said hello to "the guys in the truck," suggesting that they be recognized for their efforts.

Particularly devoted sports fans know that the "guys in the truck" refer to the production crew, who literally are in a truck outside of the stadium, co-ordinating the camera cuts, replays, and graphics. They are truly indispensable to the success of a broadcast...but since they are behind the scenes I'd like to know how many athletes would ever think about them. Athletes obviously have a lot to think about on the field, and I'm sure they are not above thinking about what announcers might be saying about them, but to actually be thinking about the behind-the-scenes crew indicates to me a particularly high level of awareness about the functioning of the world around oneself.

We all know people who essentially don't think or comprehend anything that does not directly pertain to them. I've at times tried to engage in abstract conversation with such individuals, and it is often a bizarre experience. It can be as if they are literally deaf to what you are saying; other times they may acknowledge that you have said something, before turning a conversation back to more comfortable territory.

Nyjer Morgan appears to be the opposite of such a person. He appears to be hyper-aware and hyper-attuned to what is going on around him. Like anyone else who has an extreme personality characteristic, this can be both blessing and curse. It enables him to be magnetic and draw people to him, to enjoy life to a high degree... and to be completely unable to stoically stand still when drunken louts are shouting insults at him. So before we are so quick to tell people to "ignore" critics, opponents, bullies, or hecklers, maybe we should think instead about how to best encourage people to positively interact with the world around them. At worst, maybe victims can instruct their taunters to "go fly a kite." With any luck, they might actually do it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

If Janet Jackson's Nose Was a Carrot

I watched the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl alone. Consequently, when the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" occurred, I had nobody to turn to and ask "Did that just happen?" And given that the total amount of time that there was any nudity on-screen amounted to less than one second, I think it was legitimate to enquire as to the accuracy of my perception. Not having a live human to compare notes with, I logged onto the World Wide Web (using a dial-up connection), and tried to find evidence that somebody else had seen what I had seen. I checked Google News, then used a few search terms that a good parental filtering system would have blocked, then checked sports sites, and nowhere did I find a mention of anything related to a wardrobe malfunction. Finally, I found a live chatroom on, and saw that somebody had typed something to the effect of "Did they just show Janet Jackson's breast?" Even though nobody answered the question, and even though the anonymous soul who had typed it wasn't sure of the answer to the question, this was sufficient to satisfy me that I wasn't out of line to have perceived such a thing. I put the matter out of my mind and focused on the second half of the game (which was a truly outstanding Super Bowl).

Later that night, I saw news stories reporting that CBS had issued an apology. By the next day, the story of the halftime show was bigger than the game. And now, several years later, I'd bet that the sensational media fallout has colored people's recollection of the original event, and most don't remember their initial perception. Most likely, numerous people who would claim to have seen Jackson's exposure didn't actually realize at the time what had happened. Obviously, for many the Super Bowl is a communal event, and I'll bet that in gatherings across the nation, one person turned to another and asked for confirmation of what had occurred. Given the extreme unliklihood of the occurrence, and given how fleeting it was, I think my reaction of questioning what I had seen was a common one. In other cases, those who didn't see it would perhaps have been informed by others. But I'll bet in a number of those cases, there were arguments about what had really happened.

Of course, now the game has changed. If "Nipplegate" had happend at last year's Super Bowl, it wouldn't take me any time at all to be able to confirm my perception. A quick check of Facebook or Twitter would tell me immediately whether I was hallucinating or not. Social media may not construct a perfect hive mind--there is certainly dissention on any given issue (the fallout from the Super Bowl controversy itself engendered a variety of dissenting opinions). However, the degree to which we are experiencing a common objective reality is likely greater than ever before (no reasonable person argues today that the exposure of Janet Jackson didn't actually happen).

So in a world where our perceptions are shaped by collective judgment more than ever, what are the implications? It's been more or less proven that most of us are relatively unconfident of our ability to perceive. We've known since the Asch conformity experiments of the 1950s that people will often surrender their own judgment to the majority, even when the majority is wrong.

I posted a question on Facebook awhile back: "You are the TV play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football. At one point during the game, you notice that one of the team's quarterback has had his nose turn into a carrot. At least, that's what it looks like to you. But absolutely nobody else is seeming to notice this. What do you do or say?" Everybody who chose to respond noted that they would first find some way to confirm the perception before commenting on the air.

The above example is obviously loaded. You are dealing with high stakes when you are forced to make a judgment on potentially exposing yourself as a fool before millions of television viewers. But even though most of us are never in a position to be exposed before so many (with apologies to Janet Jackson), that doesn't mean the stakes aren't higher than they used to be. As the hive becomes more encompassing and the expectation of conformoity more enchanting, our capacity for self-reliance atrophies. And it may just become less, rather than more, possible for someone to point out when an emporer has no clothes.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Why It's Frustrating to be a 21rst Century Baseball Fan

When I was in grade school, I lived a little more than a mile from my school...and I somehow had a 45-minute bus ride home. Since handheld electronic devices had not yet achieved prominence, my classmates and I would devise all manners of entertainment to pass the time. I introduced a way to simulate a baseball game with dice (or, more accurately, a "die."). Each player had a stack of nine baseball cards, and when one of the players was "up," the die was rolled. A "one" resulted in a single, two was a double, three a triple, four a homer, five was an out, and six was a strikeout. Yes, the league batting average of .667 and slugging average of 1.667 was a bit ridiculous, but we had fun with the slugfests. Over time, we came to regard certain players as having certain tendencies. Mike Marshall of the Dodgers (the hitter, not the pitcher) proved to have a good power stroke. Hack Wilson (I had a worthless "retro card", not a vintage 1920s collectible) came to be known as "Strikeout Man."

I'm really not sure how much my friends believed that certain cards were more likely to obtain certain results. I know that outwardly I appeared to believe this myself, but inwardly I knew that all of our results were random. Even as I would tout the likelihood of a Mike Marshall home run when he came up to bat, I harbored an unspoken skepticism, aware that the luck could end at any time. I wouldn't learn until years later that repetition is proof of randomness, rather than something that flies in the face of it. Ask someone to flip a coin 200 times and record the results. You can always tell who is faking it because they will have no runs of six, seven, or eight heads or tails in a row, which should happen as a result of random variation.

Actually, most streaks in sports could be explained by the same reasoning. The concept of a "hot hand" (or a "cold hand") has been exposed as a myth, multiple times. The recent book Scorecasting, which seeks to demolish a number of myths prevalent in sports today, uses Ray Allen's shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals as an example. In one game, he made seven three pointers in a row. In the next, he missed 13 in a row. In the first game announcers and teammates called him "red hot," while the next game he apparently was "ice cold." For the two games together, he was 8 for 19, or 42%...and his career average for three pointers is 40%. So although there are some notable differences between real life and my dice game (the biggest of course being that there is a variation in skill levels between the participants in real life), one core principle is true: an athlete should not be expected to perform a certain way based upon a small sample size of recent performances.

Fortunately, in the high-stakes multi-million dollar world of pro sports, those who are entrusted to make decisions on personnel and strategy are smart enough to trust overwhelming statistical evidence and to disregard fallacious antiquated belief systems based on "gut feeling". Or not. Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has on multiple occasions indicated that he believes in the "hot hand." Although the Brewers have both a right-handed and a left-handed centerfielder, earlier this year Roenicke indicated that he wouldn't go with a straight platoon (though platoons have been shown to be statistically preferable in many cases). Rather he said he would be playing whichever centerfielder was "going well." (Fortunately, this hasn't necessarily proven true, as he has actually favored a straight platoon the last couple of weeks). And a couple days ago, Roenicke made a comment that gives fans an insight into his game strategy: "When we go into a series - we have a chart that says who's hot. And if we see a guy's got some kind of streak going, we try and stay away from that guy. We don't really try to go after him and pitch to him." I wish he hadn't revealed that. It's difficult feeling like you know more about good strategy than the guy paid to strategize for your favorite team.

Another recent example of an infuriating decision occurred about a week ago, when Roenicke used right-hander Kameron Loe to protect a lead in the 8th inning. Four straight left-handers came to bat, all of them reached base, and the Brewers surrendered their lead and eventually lost the game. Three other relief pitchers in the Brewers bullpen have better statistics against lefties than Loe. So why did Roenicke use Loe? At some point this year, he had decided that Loe was his "8th inning guy." The "8th inning guy" is a relatively recent invention, following the invention of the "9th inning guy" a.k.a. "closer." Since the late 1980s, baseball teams designate their supposedly best relief pitcher as the closer. One would think that since that time, 9th inning rallies have declined across the board in baseball. SI's Joe Posnanski ran the numbers last winter:

Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952....Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.

So all that the invention of the closer has done has given us a new stat (saves) that artificially inflates the value of a specific player on every team and leads to an increase in payroll (which inhibits teams' ability to upgrade at other, more important positions). But Roenicke (and he is not alone in this) felt the need to augment his "9th inning guy" with an "8th inning guy," even at the expense of giving his team the best chance to win. Fortunately, it appears that the loss last week made Roenicke re-think things. From

"Not that we won't use Loe in that role again, because we will," Roenicke said. "But we're going to look at matchups a little better. ... We're not going to put him out there when there's so many left-handers that he's got to go through."

The purpose of this post isn't to lament the current state of my favorite baseball team. (Other blogs can do that just fine). My point is to draw attention to the unusual circumstances facing an informed baseball fan in this era. Much of the conventional wisdom of baseball, in both evaluating personnel and in implementing strategy, has been called into question in the last ten or so years by a movement called Sabermetrics. And much of that recently discovered knowledge can be gleaned by interested fans who visit the right websites. But given that most of the people in baseball who are in a position to make decisions first got their start in baseball before the rise of Sabermetrics, there is a gap between what a fan might know to be a good course of action and what a manager or general manager might do.

At any given point in history, in any given field of human endeavor, it is fairly common to find laypeople who think they know more than the professionals. And they have almost always been wrong. In almost all cases, the dedicated specialists are to be trusted more than backseat drivers. And, not for no good reasons, they've become accustomed to ignoring the advice proffered from the backseat. But in some isolated instances, and I think contemporary baseball qualifies, the drivers would do well to heed the passengers. But until that happens, the passengers find themselves in a rather frustrated state. It's bad enough to see your team lose, but when they lose because of factors which you can foresee leading to a defeat, it can be downright exasperating. It almost makes you want to take up baseball card dice games as an alternative.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

What Are You Going to Do With That?

As somebody who has spent quite a bit of time over the last 15 years in universities, having received undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I had thought I had heard every last argument for and defense of a liberal arts education and the practice of getting an "impractical" degree. But a Stanford student with an English major and a classics minor makes a point that I hadn't heard before, one that is simultaneously humorous, disturbing, and thought-provoking. Miles Osgood tells The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The stories are true: The closer I get to graduation—to an honors B.A. in English—the more I'm asked, "What are you going to do with that?" What bothers me about the question is not its wry concern for my working future, or even its implied dismissal of my academic past. What bothers me (honestly) is that it's always the same question, word for word.

The language of our world—where the Internet provides our reading, television our theater, and advertising our art—has grown increasingly dependent on stock phrases. I read, write, and study literature in large part because its more careful language can order this world of chance events into scenes and narratives of heightened form and significance. Our trite, repeated lines order the world too, but only by flattening it.

I thought of this yesterday while reading a standardized test essay submitted by an anonymous student somewhere in the USA. In response to a prompt about the value of extracurricular activities, literally almost every other sentence was a cliche (e.g. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "There is no 'I' in team."). I wanted to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were satirizing the concept of writing a standardized test essay, but I fear that would be too generous of an assumption.

I'm always suspicious of arguments that blame technology and/or popular culture for some kind of mass societal decline. And yet...evidence would seem to indicate that the "flattening" of language that has resulted in stock phrases and cliche-ridden essays is a product of mass media. I recently saw an interview with Civil War scholar Adam Goodheart. He discussed the pleasures of doing primary research with documents of that era, particularly letters written by soldiers. He commented on the richness of language used by people of modest education and the depth and vividness with which they conveyed their circumstances. And he contrasted that richness of language with the relative paucity of later eras (including our own), noting that the most obvious explanation for the shift was the emergence of mass media.

If the result of this shift is simply a loss of aesthetic quality, some would argue that this would be enough of a reason to bemoan our loss. But ironically, Osgood suggests that there are practical considerations. If language is how we order our world, the "flattening" of language would also lead to a more simplistic view of reality, implications of which may be on display in the political and economic problems confronting our nation today. And more in line with the traditional defenses of liberal arts education, the individual who can sidestep the use of reductive phraseology may also succeed in living a more fulfilling experience.

So although the common stock phrase used in defense of liberal arts education is that it makes people "well rounded," perhaps the phrase could be amended so that it is said to allow people to be exposed to and then express themselves in "rounded language." Is it necessary to major in English and minor in classics in order to have a more rounded perception? Of course not--but it might help in allowing people to realize that such a perception is needed in the first place.