Saturday, October 27, 2012

Observances and Holidays

I'm disappointed that there will be no mail next week Wednesday.   I get USA Today Sports Weekly on Wednesdays, and I would normally look forward to their World Series coverage, but with the Halloween holiday, I guess I'll have to wait until Thursday.

Oh wait.  Wikipedia tells me that the mail is coming on time, after all.  That's weird.  Nobody cares about Columbus Day, but that's a day off for federal employees, while the commercially saturated holiday of Halloween is officially unofficial.  Of course, Columbus Day is really not a holiday at all, but an observance.  We have many days in our culture that are set aside as observances, with a select few having a festive component, which is what makes them legitimate holidays.  I've never really thought about the matter, though, since the American holidays were long established prior to my birth and have not really changed in the multiple decades that I've been around.  So we take for granted that some holidays are officially determined by federal edict (e.g. Thanksgiving), some are essentially the result of the vestiges of canon law (e.g. Easter), and some are particular ethnic observances somewhat arbitrarily elevated to transcend ethnic boundaries (e.g. St. Patrick's Day).  The common thread is that all are seized upon, promoted, and necessarily integrated into capitalist consumer society.  None of these holidays would exist as we know them to exist if there was not money to be made in their commemoration.

But then again, I think it would be reductive to argue that corporations are entirely to credit or blame for our culture's holiday structure.  To some extent, they might manufacture desire for certain kinds of celebration, but in some respects they are bound by whether a tradition exists in the first place.  "Grandparents Day" might result in modest sales bumps for certain industries, and I'm sure those same industries would love to sell products for Columbus Day, but in this case they must wait for demand to create supply.

So Halloween would not be what it is if not for a kind of national demand for a "scary" holiday that can double as a carnavalesque "dress up" holiday.  And since the ancient Celts kind of did that at this time of year, we do to.  But it's interesting to read that the practice of trick-or-treating in America is only about 100 years old, only became widespread in the 1930s, and arguably first became mainstream in the 1950s.  To put that in perspective, as Roctober traditions go, the World Series existed for an entire generation before trick or treating became in vogue. 

It seems more than a coincidence to me that the rise in popularity of this practice coincided with a rise in the reach of the retail industry.  Again, it's not like the government determined that there would be more of an emphasis placed upon this celebration.  It might not have been a completely bottom-up development, but the evolution of the holiday has been more organic than instituted (and the same case could be made for the relative prominence of Valentine's Day in our contemporary culture).

What this implies to me is that if social conditions change, it is possible for observances to become holidays.  The commercial landscape of this country changed in the early-to-mid 20th Century, and new holiday traditions developed.  And even though I've never seen new developments in my lifetime, I'm not ruling out the possibility.  It is in debate how much of a paradigm shift the arrival of online social networking has engendered.  If, a generation from now, we have turned one of our current observances into a holiday, we may have our answer.  But I'm still not holding out any hope for Columbus Day.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mind Change

I believe that Lance Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs.  I realize that this is not an interesting statement, and I myself am actually not all that interested in the details of the case against Lance Armstrong.  What interests me is that at some hazy, indeterminate time in the past, I did not believe that Lance Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs, even as allegations were made and evidence started to mount.

To be sure, this blog post may represent that longest sustained period in which I gave any thought to allegations of Lance Armstrong’s drug use. I’m a sports fan, but given that the Tour de France falls outside of the purview of my sports binge periods, I’ve never actually watched it (the only time I watched the Tour de France for a prolonged stretch was when I was getting an oil change and inexplicably, a TV set in the shop’s waiting room was tuned to Versus coverage of the Tour.  Even then, much of the coverage was a retrospective story about Eric Heiden’s foray into competitive cycling.  But I digress).  But of course, given Armstrong’s celebrity status I was well-familiarized with his story and his successes.  So why didn’t I believe it when he was accused of PED use?  He always pointed to a lack of positive tests, but then again I’ve assumed steroid use by baseball players who have never actually had a positive test.  Maybe I naively thought that a cancer survivor would know better than to jeopardize his health.  Maybe I thought that Cheryl Crow would never date a drug user.  Most likely, I was just in denial, not wanting to believe anything that would complicate the feel-good story that Armstrong conveyed.  I now realize how foolish this was, but I’m sure I was not alone.

But again, this is hardly interesting.  What is interesting is how I changed my mind.  I spent six hours online last night studying up on the case, reading court-filed affidavits that have been made public, exchanging private e-mails with Armstrong’s legal team and the lawyers for his accusers, and then I spent an additional seven hours reading about how cyclists can beat drug tests, cross-referencing that with Armstrong’s race results over a 10-year-span.  And when I say I did all that, I mean that I didn’t do any of that.  At some point I simply sided with a rising sentiment, determining on the basis of public sentiment that the charges must be true.  And again, I’m sure that I am not alone.

I would like to know the tipping point.  I’d like to know more about how my mind was changed.  In general, I’d like to know more about how minds are changed.  And what has got me thinking about this in the last couple of weeks is not accusations against a cyclist, but presidential polling results.  If public opinion polls are to be trusted, there is a rather large group of people who used to think that Barack Obama would make a better president than Mitt Romney, who now think that Mitt Romney would make a better president than Barack Obama (I realize that part of this may be attributed to undecided voters making up their mind, but I don’t think this can account for all of the Romney momentum).

Clearly, the first debate between the two candidates was a tipping point for many people.  This is ironic, given that most of the sentiments I read on social media and elsewhere just prior to that debate could be summarized as “These debates don’t matter; everyone already has their mind made up anyway.”  Certainly, I think that those who harbored such a sentiment have, er, changed their minds. 

I’d be interested to know whether either campaign team has a specific strategy to try to influence those who may be committed to the other candidate.  From my armchair, it seems that most campaign messages are aimed at the undecided.  So called “negative campaigning” wouldn’t seem likely to make inroads with those who view the opponent favorably.  But it appears that it is possible to get people to budge, even to decommit to a candidate and embrace the other.  By many accounts Romney was helped in this regard by President Obama’s own showing in the debate, so it may very well be that his move in the polls may be attributed as much to luck as to his own strategy.  It could be that the first candidate (if not in this election, than in the future) who figures out how to best turn the tide of sentiment, to get people to abandon previously held sentiments, may be the one who secures victory.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think this is true. But I’d be willing to change my mind. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Human Elements

I wonder if 100 years ago the term "human element" was ever written or uttered.  If it was, it was almost assuredly used in a different context than it is used today.  I understand that there is a zombie-based video game called Human Element, and clearly the humans of yesteryear would not have conceived of this usage.  But the context in which I have most often heard the term used is discussions about sports officiating.  This is odd, given that there are many other contexts in which we value humanity moreso than sports officiating.  One would think that the "human element" would most often apply to customer service, or to political campaigns, or to the evaluation of effective teaching practices.  But no--the term arises whenever we debate the extent to which we will allow technological innovation to arbitrate a sports contest.

In my judgment, the term arose purely to appear to give the appearance of rational validity to a non-rational thought process.  The only reason people would choose humans over technology in this area is because they are afraid of change.  Some may be assigning a general anxiety about technological encroachment on human endeavor to this particular idiom.   I make no comment on the validity of such a general anxiety.  But I do condemn its application in this respect.  Think of what we value in an arbitrator: accuracy (the ultimate trait), imperviousness to nonrational appeals (such as when opposing coaches or crowds are condemning them), fairness, the ability to distance themselves from personal prejudices, and the ability to make quick calculations.  And think about what we condemn: emotion, personality, and error.  In short, we want them to be machines.  So there is no good reason to promote any kind of "human element," when humanity is the last thing we are looking for in a referee or umpire.

Of course, that is not to say that we don't want any "human element" in athletic competition.  We just want it from the appropriate participants--the players themselves (and to an extent, the coaches).  If there ever was such a thing as a human umpire that got 100% of his calls correct, we would be exceedingly happy.  But if a human player ever achieved 100% perfection it would be the end of that sport.  It would be a disaster.  One perfect game for a pitcher is celebrated, but if any pitcher ever got to the point where he could reliably pitch a perfect game every time out the "human element" would truly be eradicated.  We need randomness and unpredictability from our games--but it needs to come from the participants, not the judges.

But this, too, raises an interesting dynamic.  Players and coaches do not leave the human element on the field.  Knowing what we know about human beings, we should expect our sports stars (and non-stars, for that matter) to exhibit human failings away from the arena of competition.  And yet, whenever an athlete is arrested, it is considered newsworthy.  A story broke in the Wisconsin media last night that Franscisco Rodriguez, who pitched for the Brewers the last two years, was arrested last month on suspicion of domestic violence.  Charges are still pending.  Rodriguez wasn't expected to be back with the Brewers even before this news broke.  I'm sure that he wasn't the only person in Milwaukee County arrested on such charges last month, but he is the only one who I have read about.  It made me wonder, especially given Rodriguez's status as a de facto ex-Brewer, if someone who had pitched for the team five years ago had been arrested last month, would we have found out?  How about someone who had pitched for the team 20 years ago?

I'm not suggesting the story shouldn't have been reported.  Clearly, the public has an interest in knowing about such things.  But I am suggesting that the public shouldn't have an interest.  There should be a line drawn between the human element that we need to be on display, and the human element which does not bear upon the spectacle of competition.  It should be noted that this probably would be a net loss for the athlete.  He wouldn't have to worry about negative P.R., but he wouldn't stand to gain any endorsement checks, either.  But I do think it would be a net gain for the fan.  We would lose a few (false) idols, perhaps lose a few genuine role models, but we would gain the ability to root for guys without worrying about whether they were jerks.  As long as their failings are reserved for the space between the lines (preferably adjudicated by machines), we can rightly celebrate the human element.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

I'll Do it Later

A Google search on "Procrastination and Writing" yields over 25 million hits.  At the top are three scholarly articles, one of which contains empirical evidence that students who procrastinate on papers get worse grades than those who don't--which actually may not be as obvious of a point as one might assume. As a writing teacher, I've had a number of students tell me that they "work better under pressure."  But perhaps they think this because they lack experience with any other method.  Another article contains the findings that 95% of undergraduates procrastinate, with the primary reasons being "fear of failure," and "task aversiveness."  I've always thought there is a connection between the two.  We generally aren't averse to tasks that are guaranteed to reward us with feelings of success.

Given that an unfinished writing project has the potential for success or failure, and a "finished" writing project has no potential at all, it is psychologically easier for us to inhabit a realm of uncertainty.  And until this week, this has largely shaped my understanding of why procrastination (specifically in writing tasks but applicable to other areas as well) is such a widespread practice.

Then I ran across an article on (which, incidentally, is a good place to go if you are trying to procrastinate).  I've certainly heard the "it takes 10 weeks to build a habit" concept before, and how it takes one bad day in those 10 weeks to cause you to have to start all over again.  But this article explained (in a way I have never heard before) why this is the case:
It's not because your brain hates you; it's because your brain likes efficiency, and mindless habits are efficient. See, what your brain really wants is to shift into autopilot, to turn your life into repetitive patterns and create heuristics -- mental shortcuts that help you get through the day using the least amount of brain power necessary. Heuristics allow you to drive to work half asleep and hung over, and get there with no recollection of the trip you just made. They compel you to repeat the same little things over and over day after day, because these routines require way less energy.
But even though  it is possible to build heuristics that center around habitual writing (as this blogger apparently did), the creative process resists efficient, repetitive patterns.  I try to post on this blog every Saturday, and most weeks I am successful in reaching this goal, but that doesn't mean it isn't a struggle almost every time I sit down to type, whereas it is never a struggle for me to sit down and open my web browser and visit the same bookmarked websites every morning.

So while initiating a writing routine is an obvious way to break procrastination habits, the underlying problem still may not be dealt with.  Our brains are lazy.  What do we do in light of the fact that we are biologically resistant to creativity?  Perhaps the key is to not only initiate rote mechanical routines, but to build into our day periods in which our brains can practice being creative--that is to say, thinking about abstract things.  That need not mean that we practice some kind of isolating meditation.  Thinking can come about precisely through writing, or running, or listening to music, or any number of other activities.  But an important factor is that it should be a sustained period, free from quick fixes of outside stimulation (e.g. cell phones).  We've got plenty of practice being receptive vessels and being rote actors, but more practice at being generative thinkers will make it easier for us to be generative thinkers.  It might take 10 weeks to get into the habit, though.