Sunday, October 30, 2011

Postgame Pressers and the Art of Evasion

Most of us are accustomed to occasionally having to answer difficult questions about our behavior, our actions and inactions. As children, we have to explain to our parents why we didn't do our chores, why we got a bad grade on our report card, or why we got in a fight with a sibling. As adults, we have to explain to our bosses why we were late to work, why we didn't get a project done in the allotted time, why a customer is complaining. Bosses have to answer to their bosses and CEOs answer to a board. But very few of us are held publicly accountable for our actions. Elected officials or those in positions of power may occasionally have to answer difficult questions from a reporter. And fewer still have the task of answering public questions in the immediate aftermath of a decision. Even politicians for the most part have time to anticipate, reflect, prep, and eventually spin answers to difficult questions. And that's what fascinates me about post game press conferences in sports--it is one of the few times when a person is asked to publicly account for a decision almost instantaneously to making the decision.

That said, more often than not the press conferences are still banal. Reporters generally don't want to damage working relationships, so they tend not to be too pointed in their queries, and usually don't ask too many follow-up questions. And coaches and athletes are pretty well schooled in how to avoid "incriminating" themselves, usually giving standard responses to questions that they have more or less heard before.

But occasionally interesting things do happen in press conferences. Most people remember the instances where the "heat of the moment" gets to the respondent and results in a spectacular display of emotion. But of greater intrigue for me are the moments when a coach ruminates on some kind of philosophical discourse. College football coaches are particularly notorious for this. Perhaps being in an academic environment emboldens them to become faux philosophers. Consider Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema's comments after the Badgers heartbreaking loss on a last second Hail Mary against Michigan State last week: "I'm not spiritual but everything happens for a reason. I really do think that." Personally, I'm not sure how deterministic teleological outcomes can be attributed to purely material forces, but I'm guessing that many would still give him a pass on his logical consistency if his answer didn't seem like a convenient way to avoid responsibility for taking timeouts that enabled Michigan State to have enough time to complete their unlikely touchdown pass.

Speaking of the avoidance of responsibility, that is how I read most postgame comments. There is no doubt that there is a lot of luck involved in sports, and it can be awfully tempting for a coach to invoke luck, "the fates," "destiny," or the "[name of sport] gods" when a decision doesn't work out. And it's even more tempting when the media perpetrates the same phraseology to explain events that unfold. ESPN's Skip Bayless originally picked the Texas Rangers to win the World Series, but after the St. Louis Cardinals' unlikely triumph in Game 6 (following an unlikely late season run to even make the play-offs), he picked the Cardinals to win game 7, reasoning that they had proven that they were a team of destiny. And since the Cardinals won game 7, there is no reason he won't employ such "logic" in the future.

Without denying that luck and random variation plays a huge role in sports, I'm inclined to believe that all too often factors that can be controlled are confused with factors that can't be controlled. I'm not sure the Cardinals would have made the World Series had the Milwaukee Brewers not started Mark Kotsay in centerfield in game 3. Roenicke's reason: "I think Kotsay going in there, I always feel good when Kotsay is in the lineup. Especially when we start him, he seems to have a big day; something always good seems to happen when he's in there. The numbers matched up good." At least he mentioned numbers, though it appears that most of decision was based upon "feeling," and no mention is made of the significant decrease in range that Kotsay has compared to other centerfielders. The Brewers lost the game 4-3, with all four St. Louis runs scoring after Kotsay couldn't get to a flyball that one of the other centerfielders would have almost certainly caught.

So in light of what ended up occurring, did Bielema or Roenicke use the occasion of the postgame press conference to admit they were wrong? Of course not--that almost never happens. You are more likely to hear a manager blame a phone miscommunication (which was an excuse given in a World Series press conference this year) than express regret over a decision (which was not done in a World Series press conference this year).

But along with mea culpas, what you usually don't hear are statistically-based defenses of decisions. In many ways, the standard responses of coaches are no different than they were 20 or even 50 years ago, even though technology and greater sample sizes (through the passage of time) have given decision makers greater means to evaluate decisions. After seeing what happened to my favorite sports teams over the last couple of weeks, I'm inclined to turn game management over to a computer. Even if that means that postgame press conferences will never again be as interesting, at least they won't be as infuriating. Until that happens, though, maybe we should just let coaches and managers off the hook. If any of us had to stand before an assembled pack of interregators at the end of our workday, how rational would our responses be?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

School Plays and the Free Will Paradox

In the midst of writing last week's post about Bill Clinton, I was struck by one particular quote, but since it was tangential to my main point, I chose to set it aside. Now, after a week of consideration, I'd like to take it up again. Here is what the 42nd President recently said about his golf game: "Haiti just about ruined my golf game. My best year as a golfer was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I'm not close to that now. I just don't play enough.

Last week's post documented how busy he has been with charitable initiatives. But apparently that wasn't the case for the first year or so that he was out of office. In fact, this quote reminded me of a news story that I saw years ago. It took me about five minutes of Googling to uncover what I was looking for, but I eventually located a USA Today article from March 2001. The article explores Clinton's difficulties in transitioning from the presidency to private life, and it starts with an account of him attending an elementary school play in Bedford, New York, the kind of event that is generally only attended by those related to the student actors. When asked why he was at the play Clinton said he had been invited by the school and that he "had the morning free."

What intrigues me about Clinton's activity is that it is arguably an exercise of complete and total freedom, and also arguably evidence of complete constriction and lack of agency. And it exposes a paradox regarding freedom, control, and autonomy.

On one hand, the ability to attend a random community function indicates unfettered individual mobility. Most of us attend functions out of obligation. Even when we give our time of our own free will to a cause or organization or to the interest of a loved one, the exact nature of our time commitment is prescribed for us. Dates and times for our presence are affixed, and though we could often still choose to back out without substantial penalty, doing so still means that we lose some privilege or social capital that we desire. And this is how it needs to be, since any organizing structure that relies on members to show up if they happen to have a morning free is doomed to failure. The students and teachers and even the parents needed to show up that day for the play to exist, for the former president to have an option to attend. But for the free agent, in this case Bill Clinton, the ability to take advantage of the cohesion of others, the ability to flutter in and out at the behest of personal whims rather than dictates, indicates a special kind of freedom outside of social structure.

But the USA Today article does not present Clinton's attendance in this light. It is not the upbeat story of a man freed from constraints, who has given his mandated service to the world and now is able to happily coast along from one random, original, and invigorating experience to the next. It is a story of a man lacking purpose and meaning. The quote "I had the morning free" is code for "I had nothing better to do." And this resonates as especially pathetic given that mere months prior to that, there was no more important man in the world, no person whose decisions were more impactful on the world. The extent of his impact now is to accept invitations that nobody likely expected him to accept. Rather than the school play being one of an infinite number of activities he may have chosen that morning, in this sense it was the only alternative to the golf course, and because it allowed him to make an impact, however meagre, he was more or less forced into this action

Yet for one who is not used to making an impact, no such dilemma asserts itself. For one who doesn't wish to contribute to the advancement of any group, organization, board, or society in general, there is no need to surrender any autonomy. But can such a person, if he or she even exists, be said to have had any autonomy to begin with?

And one may wonder if it is possible for a former president to find some resolution amidst this paradox. As Clinton's golf game has gotten worse, his ability to impact the world through the work of his foundation has increased, and presumably he doesn't have as many mornings free. But last year he did manage to drop in unannounced at a pancake breakfast for firefighters.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Whatever Happened to...

Bill Clinton turned 65 this year. Suddenly hot GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain is 65. If Mitt Romney has his way, he will have the GOP nomination wrapped up on the day he turns 65 next March. And in 2019, Bill Clinton will be able to fully speak to a question that was debated during his re-election campaign in 1996. He'll finally be the age that Bob Dole was then, so he can talk about whether a 73-year-old can be president.

I'm sure becoming president at 46 felt like a good idea at the time for Clinton, but it has led to an interesting post-presidential dynamic. How does he spend his time now? After being the most important and most scrutinized person in the world for nearly a decade, does he attempt to maintain and command some residual influence and attention? Teddy Roosevelt and JFK may be the only other presidents who were ever positioned to experience what Bill Clinton is going through, but neither of them lived to be 65 (Roosevelt got malaria and died at 60--after a tumultuous post-presidential decade which saw him try to start a third party movement).

One of the pivotal moments of Clinton's rise to prominence was a late night appearance on the once hip but now long-forgotten Arsenio Hall show. Arsenio may be long gone, but David Letterman is still around--and last week the two cultural figures of the 1990s got together. Clinton didn't play the saxophone, but he appeared on Letterman's show to promote a benefit concert this weekend, in which big name performers would be celebrating the 10th anniversary of his charitable foundation. On the bill is U2's Bono, who was at the height of his popularity when Clinton was first elected. Also on the bill is Lady Gaga, who at 6-years-old was too young to vote when Clinton was first elected.

One can follow the concert on Twitter, which of course didn't exist when Clinton was in office. Actually, what makes Clinton's current situation intriguing is that even though relatively little time has passed since he was president, the dramatic ways in which life has changed since the 1990s make his tenure seem longer ago than it was. Even if the economic collapse and the threat of terrorism hadn't happened in the intervening decade, the technological innovations alone would have made the Clinton-era seem quaint in hindsight. Never mind smartphones, cell phones were rare when Clinton first took office. Never mind Facebook or Twitter, there was no Google until late in Clinton's presidency. And the World Wide Web itself was just beginning to catch on during his first term in office. (When Bob Dole announced his campaign's website address during a debate in 1996, it was noted even at the time as a significant moment).

So how has Clinton lived amongst such an odd circumstance? Of course, there was an attempt to return to the White House in 2008 as first gentleman. I'm still struck by how normal everybody (media and voters) treated that situation. I guess people were prepared for a bid by Hillary for a long time which made it seem normal, but would anybody in 1991 have imagined that a former first lady would ever almost win a presidential nomination? But the other way that Bill Clinton has passed his time since leaving the presidency is in doing charitable work. According to the website for the aforementioned concert:

Over the past 10 years, President Clinton's vision and leadership have resulted in nearly 4 million people benefiting from lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatment; more than 12,000 U.S. schools building healthier learning environments; more than 26,000 micro-entrepreneurs, small business owners, and smallholder farmers improving their livelihoods and communities; and more than 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gases cut or abated in some of the world's largest cities. And he has redefined the way we think about giving and philanthropy through his Clinton Global Initiative, whose members have more than 2,000 commitments that have already improved the lives of 300 million people in more than 180 countries. In addition to his Foundation work, President Clinton has served as top United Nations envoy for the Indian Ocean tsunami recovery effort and currently serves as the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

A personal drawback of all this work is that it has made Clinton a worse golfer. He told USA Today: "Haiti just about ruined my golf game. My best year as a golfer was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I'm not close to that now. I just don't play enough. President George W. Bush and I were doing this project in Haiti, and he was ragging me. He said. 'I'm down to a 10 now.' I was there my first year after office. I said you're just going to have to resist the temptation to do good if you want to keep playing well. I said you start traveling and it will wreck you."

Clinton undoubtedly had a lot of detractors as president (whether it was a vast right-wing conspiracy or not), but one way to make the detractors go away is to stop being president and committ your life to directly helping others. And given the gridlock and the scandal that enveloped his presidency, one could make a case that as his scrutiny and notoriety have receded, his abilty to actually make a positive impact on the world has increased. And though only he can answer the question, one has to wonder if his mindset, his personal satisfaction, his mental health, and his overall level of happiness are higher now than when he was flying around in Air Force One.

So maybe the presidency is a good way for young people to prepare for a fulfilling career in philanthropy. It will be interesting to see what Barack Obama is up to when he turns 65 in 2026.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Immediate Mediators

Last night, the Milwaukee Brewers played one of the most memorable games in the 41-year history of the franchise. In the nearly quarter century that I have been watching Brewer games, I have attended, watched, or listened to parts of probably a couple of thousand games--this despite the fact that in a majority of these games, the Brewers lost. In that time, the Brewers have played less than 10 postseason games. So with the relative value of my emotional investment, by all rights I should have been glued to the proceedings last night.

And I was in a way. I was following pitch-by-pitch text and graphics on a smartphone. I was not able to do more than that because I had a commitment to announce a local high school football game for a radio station. My broadcast partner and I got into a pretty good groove of following two games at once, talking nonstop about one but emotionally living and dying with the dramatic turn of events in the other (I was particularly impressed with my partners ability to also keep reasonably accurate statistics of the football game). It is an interesting experience and somewhat peculiar to our contemporary era to be living in two places at once. It's also somewhat of a paradox of our contemporary era that the wall between an immediate experience and a mediated experience is collapsing.

I think it is fair to say that in our society (and in others, including those of the past) simplicity is romanticized. We are often presented an idealized vision of a pastoral, bucolic, rustic existence, where individuals keep to themselves, aspire to nothing more than an honest day's work and its intrinsic rewards, and relationships with others are uncomplicated, based upon mutual respect and familial bonds (ironically we usually get this vision through media portrayals--it's amazing how often narratives in media attempt to subvert the vehicle through which they are conveyed).

But at the same time, it's usually been a characteristic of human societies that we have attempted to enlarge our zones of experience. For all the value placed on a simple life, for most of us that is an unrealized ideal. We seek to complicate our lives, with webs and waves of complications. We take on multiple commitments, sometimes leading to requirements to be in more than one place physically at the same time. We aspire to more than a day's work--we plan and plot future paths for ourselves, and we make contingencies for all of the possibilities that could arise in our plans. We subdivide and stratify our relationships with others (Google Plus wants us to designate people into "circles" for the purpose of sharing information). We "blend" families. And most of all (and not that this is a bad thing by any means), we want to know what is going on outside of our immediate sphere of experience. If something significant happens beyond the range of our senses to perceive it, we still want to know about it.

Of course, the subjective "significance" is usually created by mediated experience in the first place. Few would be interested in Michael Jackson's doctor's trial if not for the media phenomenon surrounding his death, and that phenomenon was only possible because of the widespread media exposure that his music received when he was alive. But of course, very few are truly affected immediately by whatever occurs in that particular trial. So in effect, we are constantly living double lives, perceiving and contemplating both that which effects us immediately and that which does not--again, waves of complication.

But these complications don't seem all that complex to us because society has more or less worked out how to balance it all. We've been born into a world where this is the normal course of affairs. The only thing that upsets the balance we've achieved is another vehicle for mediation. And that's where the smartphone/tablet/laptop comes into play. By carrying around one small device, our immediate "zone of perception" goes from the rather limited purview of our senses to the limitless possibilities of the web. And we've now reached a condition where many people, largely led by the youngest generation among us, are living the double life simultaneously, literally in two (or more) places at once, experiencing both the immediate and the mediate.

This is especially ironic for me when I consider my experience last night. My literal job was to be a mediator, to describe for people who weren't in attendance at the football game what was going on. But most likely most people who were listening to me were also multi-tasking, probably watching the Brewer game or looking at their phones or talking to others or negotiating curves while driving. And considering that I was also giving Brewer updates during the football game, they were probably well aware that I was also having a mediated experience at the same time they were, though it has become such a natural part of our existence that they probably didn't think twice. I know I didn't think much about it at the time. I just think we were all glad that the Brewers won.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Broken Cameras and Self-Surveillance

As a general rule, even though I've nearly six years of blog posts to draw from, I don't like to extensively revisit previous entries. I would prefer not to fall into the habit of recycling old ideas. It would be too easy to consistently go back to what I said in 2007, drop in a few updated ruminations, and call it a day. It's more challenging, and I would argue more rewarding, to create something from the ground up. But because of events that occurred yesterday, I'm going to make an exception.

Our small town dedicated a new fire station with a community open house. Being the father of a 19-month-old, I saw this as a great opportunity to let my little boy marvel up close at fire trucks. Actually, he already already visited the station earlier in the week as part of "library storytime," and had acquired a little plastic fire helmet to wear around. But trips to a firehouse never get old for a toddler, so we had him don the fire helmet yesterday morning and we made our way to the station. At one point during the dedication ceremony, I held my helmeted little guy aloft. An older woman next to me said "That would make a great picture!" I smiled and nodded, not sure if she was asking to take my picture. She didn't say anything further and neither did I. But I was a little disturbed. Must I think of every moment with my son as a photo op?

Later, while my son and my wife had climbed aboard a fire truck and were seated inside, I asked my wife to hand me the camera. Despite my earlier reservations, I figured that photo ops like that didn't come around everyday. But I don't have a ton of experience taking pictures. I had a Diet Pepsi in one hand that I didn't want to set down, and I figured that only one hand would be required to snap the picture. You can probably tell where this is going. In the effort to press the button, I lost my grip on the camera itself, allowing gravity to drive it to the concrete below. Over 24 hours later, the screen is still displaying "System Error."

So how should I feel about this? Aside from the guilt of ruining what is essentially my wife's one and only camera, I became reflective about the importance of pictures. I vaguely remembered once writing a contrarian blog post in which I all but advocated the ban of photos. I managed to locate it: November 2007. What follows is some of the original post in italics followed by my updated commentary.

I have a general dislike for personal photographs. I believe I took some Polaroid snapshots as a kid, but I think it has been about twenty years since I have taken a photograph without coercion or irony.

Okay, as admitted above, this streak has ended. Unsurprisingly, having a kid is what triggered this change. I certainly still don't attempt to assiduously document everything the way that I think some parents might, but at times I actually have a desire to have a photographic record taken (again, see above, though at times with disastrous consequences).

I am particularly unenthused about the idea of photographs as mementos. I've never carried a photograph of a loved one with me (come to think of it, I've never carried a wallet, either, which is another odd aesthetic preference I'd have to admit to holding). My students find it odd that I don't have a picture of my wife on my desk. Now, I'm not a total cad. I don't prohibit my wife from displaying various photographs of us around our home, though if were up to me I'd rather look at pictures of chewpacabras.

The last line might seem random, but I actually had a picture of a chewpacabra (or a purported picture anyway) on my dorm wall as a college freshman. And I still never have of my own volition hung a personal picture to look at, even of my wife or son. I know what they look like. But especially since the birth of my son, my home walls have continued to flourish with evidence that my family has existed.

When one holds to such an unpopular aesthetic preference, it can be incredibly validating to discover any kind of support. Such came to me when I ran across a folk-pop singer named Richard Julian, who has a song called "Photograph" (not to be confused with the Ringo song.) He sings "I prefer a memory to a photograph" and notes that the latter is two-dimensional, while the former is three-dimensional. I would actually go one step further and assert that the memory is four-dimensional, since it can include the element of time.

I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of this artist or this song. I question whether I ever heard the song or if I ran across the lyrics somewhere. (I do still understand my Ringo reference though). I suppose it's pretty ironic to have completely forgotten a quote about the power of memory. I wish there was a control group somewhere that had looked at a picture of Richard Julian four years ago.

Some may argue that memory is notoriously fallible, and that photographs offer an objective record. I would certainly agree that memory is fallible, but I would assert that when discussing sentimentality, objectivity is hardly necessary. I'm glad photographic technology exists as a way to document certain things (such as mug shots or items up for eBay auctions), but I'll never agree that family vacations need an objective record.

I still can't think of better uses for photographs than mug shots or eBay auctions. In other news, you can find my vacation photos on Facebook.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I question the true historical objectivity of even "candid" photographs. Given that many photographs are staged in some way, they could be seen to be simulacra--a copy of something artificial to begin with. And even if a photograph captures a perfect fidelity of the physical nature of a scene, there is always a litany of contexts that it can never capture. The viewer of the photo will map that meaning onto every subsequent viewing of the photo. The problem is, if the purpose of the photo is to arouse a remembrance of the original event, its very artifice can overdetermine how the event is remembered. Rather than becoming an aid to recall, a mere tool, it becomes the vehicle. It forces the gaze of the viewer, it communicates to the viewer what should be considered, it replaces the nearly limitless power of the imaginative faculty with a narrowed imperative.

You can tell that I was only months removed from grad school at this time with my use of the terms "simulacra" and "overdetermine." But despite the pretentiousness of the prose, I can't argue with myself. If photos were just a trigger mechanism they would be great, but by circumscribing memory, they can limit as much or more than they enable. And furthermore, I now find it additionally problematic if our experiences simply become anticipations of documentation. We hold as conventional wisdom that happiness comes from "living in the moment." How can we truly do that if we are always looking to lock down any given moment simply so that it can exist in the future?

Additionally, I am now concerned about the proliferation of photographic images and what that means for their future value. In the past, because of limitations on resources and storage space, the origin and then the preservation of a picture required a certain degree of conscious control. I wrote just recently about the decline in relevance of media photos from overexposure (pun intended?), and I think that some of the same principles apply to personal collections. How significant can any one photo become if you are averaging 17 per day?

I'm honestly not sure what kind of a historical researcher would have an easier job--a contemporary researcher attempting to use 19th century photographic archives to understand what life was like in that era, or a 22nd century researcher attempting to use contemporary Facebook mobile uploads. The one has limitations in data, the other such an overabundance of both candid and fabricated images that discerning true representations may become a huge challenge.

My 2007 self would be happy to know I'm still quoting Bob Dylan. In an interview earlier this year, he was asked about films that influenced him when he was growing up. He responded: "I grew up in a small town hidden from the outside world, and the films from the '40s and '50s were like a window into the future, like classic literature, and had great meaning. It's hard to explain that, especially in this age of narcissism and self-surveillance. A lot of people wouldn't know they are alive unless they have photos of themselves to prove it—from the cradle to the grave, actually."

This cuts to the core of my suspicions of the practice of accumulating photos. Dylan is not the first to accuse the millennial generation in particular of being narcissistic. But the term "self-surveillance" is one that I hadn't heard before. It certainly raises interesting considerations about the motivations that one may have for an obsessive documentation of existence. But then again, it's not exactly easy to take pictures of oneself. (And as I found out, it's not a simple thing to take a picture with one hand). Are we really attempting to document our own existence, or are we attempting to document existence itself? And who is to say that the jambled, jumbled mess of images that we end up with is not an accurate representation of the jambled, jumbled mess that our lives entail?

And furthermore, to once again revisit a previous blog post, I wrote about a year ago upon the occasion of the fifth anniversary of this blog, that "by forcing myself to write something every week, I have embedded in amber small artifacts of not only my thoughts, but my very consciousness. I have left evidence for myself and others that not only have I lived from 2005 to 2010 in the physical sense, but I have lived in the intellectual sense. My mind has been active, alert, and aware, responding to both the world around me and the world inside of me." In some ways, I guess the impulse that makes me write is not too far removed from the impulse that makes others take pictures.

I guess we'll have to replace that camera.