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Category: Philosophy

The Doorway to Hell

 

I had a very vivid dream the other night. I dreamed that the entrance to Hell was an ordinary doorway located along a long white corridor on 25th floor of Facebook headquarters.

 


Photo credit: fractalgfx on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

The door had a very unusual property. If you looked at it, if you acknowledged its presence, it would look and act like any other ordinary door. But if you ignored it, if you didn’t pay attention to it, the door would transform from its ordinary solid state and become a vortex that would suck you down into the fires of Hell.

Business was good for Hell in this location. Many, many people would pass this doorway, staring at their cell phones, absorbed into their own little worlds, texting and emailing and tweeting and updating their Facebook statuses, failing to observe the beauty of the doorways all around them. And into Hell they would go.

 


Photo credit: kamshots on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

This is the nature of Hell. Hell is worse than forgetting, or being forgotten. Hell is not even having a chance to remember. Hell is not noticing.

 

 

First Rule of Sabermetric Marketing…

…is don’t talk about sabermetrics. So I’m going to talk about being kicked in the balls, instead. Then I’m going to explain how my being kicked in the balls is totally relevant to marketing sabermetrics. OK? Let’s go:

I once wrote a blog entry on my old Catfish Stew blog about being kicked in the balls during an indoor soccer game. It went a little something like this:

Somebody forgot to give the goalie the message. Instead of easing up when we got close to contact, he came at me like some freakish combination of Ronnie Lott and Scott Stevens. He ran full speed for the ball, jumped as high as he could to knock it away from me, and in the process, sent his knee full force straight into my groin, and slammed the rest of me right into the hockey-style boards.

The follow-up to that story is that earlier this year I ended up playing on the same team as the goalie who had crushed my testicles a few years before. So I had to forgive, if not forget. Now, you may suspect that the moral relevant to sabermetrics is that those who seem like an enemy could may turn out to be your greatest ally later. Perhaps thats true, but..I wouldn’t temporarily pull myself out of my blogging retirement to make so simple a point.

No, I want to add a more complex point to the conversation going around about the marketing of sabermetrics. The conversation was initiated by Will Carroll, picked up by Tango Tiger, and finally reached Carson Cistulli’s keyboard yesterday.

Reading Cistulli’s message reminded me of an old YouTube video of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s Think Different and Screw the Grammar ad campaign back in 1996.

If you’re interested in the problems of marketing sabermetrics, you should watch this whole video. But here’s the quote that is particularly burned onto my brain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product. –Steve Jobs

Now there’s a reason that quote comes to mind so easily for me. The insight — that listing a bunch of facts about your product is not very effective; the best marketing campaigns make an emotional connection between your core values and those of your customers — is brilliant, but that’s not why I remember it so well. The insight itself is just one in a list of facts about marketing, and probably wouldn’t stick with me very long without an emotional connection.

The reason is this: when I became teammates with the goalie who had earlier impaled me, I found out that in his day job, he was the milk industry executive who had spearheaded the whole original “Got Milk” marketing campaign.

Ever since I learned that, I can’t help but pay extra attention any time I hear any variation of the phrase “Got Milk”. There are very few emotional connections as effective as a solid kick in the nuts. Thus, when Carson Cistulli writes something with similar themes to the Steve Jobs speech, and the quote about “Got Milk” pops right up in my mind.

Now, to turn Steve Jobs’ point into a lesson for sabermetrics: Creating a list of facts explaining how sabermetrics is better than old-school analysis is not the best way to market sabermetrics, just as explaining how MacOS is better than Windows is not the best way to market Apple.

What makes it particularly difficult in this case is that sabermetrics is essentially about removing emotions from the equation. That makes an effective marketing campaign for sabermetrics somewhat of a paradox.

Nonetheless, the questions remain. What are the core emotional values of sabermetrics? What are sabermetricians committed to in their souls? Once you’ve answered those questions, then you start formulating a way to make sabermetrics more mainstream and popular.

So, baseball fans: Got Facts?

That Was Burgundy, This is Teal

You know that dramatic cliché where the main character is trying to solve a problem, and some other character says something completely unrelated to the problem, and the main character goes, “Aha!” and solves the problem?  I’m beginning to think that’s not just some artificial plot device abused to death by the writers of House.  As I’m working on trying to spell out my own personal philosophy, I’m starting to find solutions to the questions I’m wrestling with in completely unrelated places.

So along those lines, I finally got around to watching Battlestar Galactica: The Plan yesterday.  I wasn’t watching it as an exercise in philosophy, I watched it to enjoy one final dose of BSG, and to clear out my DVR before the Olympics start.  But as a half-flashback, half Star Trek-ish morality play, the story for me ended up being more philosophically thought-provoking than dramatically satisfying.  So I won’t dwell on the drama too much, but let’s provoke those thoughts.

I don’t think I’d be spoiling much to say the only thing you really learn about The Plan is that it doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy.  Like the US in Iraq, the Cylons thought that they’d just win quickly and be done with it, mission accomplished.  When instead it dragged on and on, they had to start improvising, and that’s when things get complicated.

Every philosophy begins as grand design, and then ends up bogged down in details.  In BSG: The Plan, nothing less than the survival of the whole human race is at stake, yet the plan eventually devolves into a debate about clothing styles.  Cylon model #1 (Cavil) complains that cylon model #5 (Doral) is dressing too similarly to another Doral clone.  Doral disagrees. “His jacket was burgundy. This is teal!” replies Doral, in all seriousness.

BSG: The Plan is essentially A Tale of Two Cavils, two cylon agents, both posing as priests, one copy on the Galactica, one back on Caprica.  Each Cavil ends up with a moral dilemma:  whether to remain loyal to The Plan, or to follow the path of compassion.  Compassion for the enemy can have fatal consequences for the plan.  But the brutality of a plan that lacks compassion can be utterly appalling.

This is the risk we take when we devote ourselves to a philosophy.  We can become so attached to a philosophy, to a plan, to a cause, that we detach ourselves from our humanity.  This is the very definition of evil: a lack of compassion.

If there is one thing in the Bible that I take to be true above others, it is this: compassion is mankind’s most important quality.  When Jesus was asked what we should do when our values conflict with each other, Jesus said, choose compassion:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:36-40

Above all, show compassion for the entirety of creation, and compassion for individual fellow humans.  It seems so simple in theory, but in practice, it’s not.  There’s a reason that the oldest human institutions, our religions, are designed in their ideal forms to promote human compassion. It’s that important, and yet also that prone to failure.  The procedural memory cells in our brains that dominate our normal behavior live or die on repetition.  We need to be reminded of compassion, to practice it, to make it a habit, or else it will too easily be drowned in the other details of our lives.

We saw this play out this very week with the earthquake in Haiti.  Where BSG is the mere fictional destruction of a civilization, the earthquake in Haiti is real.  That country has been destroyed by that earthquake.  For all practical purposes, there is nothing left there.  They have to start over from scratch.  They need help.

I can think of no event in my lifetime that more obviously calls for human compassion than the earthquake in Haiti.  The suffering is immense.  And yet, there were still people so devoted to their own plans that they could not see beyond their plans to focus on the compassion necessary.  Rush Limbaugh wasted no time turning the issue into a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama.  Meanwhile, Pat Robertson blamed the Haitians themselves for the earthquake.  Willpower bias, anyone?

Of course, perhaps I am guilty of the very same thing in the last few paragraphs, using the events in Haiti to further my own cause, too focused on my own details to see the whole picture in its entirety.  Is this sort of behavior inescapable, inevitable?  I don’t think so.  My philosophy will be different.  My philosophy will take our flaws into account.  My philosophy will acknowledge our competing and contradictory ideals. My philosophy will keep the big picture in focus.  My philosophy will not get so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that it forgets to be compassionate.  That was burgundy.  This is teal.

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Willpower Bias

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.

versus

My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.

Put on my Linking Cap

I’ve got a blog post that’s about 33% written, and every time I write more, it remains 33% written, because it just keeps growing, and I can’t figure out how to break it up into smaller parts.  So in the meantime, here’s some interesting links that don’t fit into the upcoming monster essay:

Americans are flexible about religious beliefs

Bible literalists are the squeaky wheels of American religion, and so they get a lot of attention.  But a large percentage of Americans personalize their religious beliefs, mixing elements of various philosophies and religions into their own.  Knowing this makes the quest I’m undertaking on this blog seem a little less lonely, if nothing else.

Orchids and Dandelions

Context matters.  Some genes expressed in the brain that may lead to criminal behavior in an abusive environment may also lead to beneficial creative behavior in a rich, loving environment.

Aging Brains

Older brains zoom in on the higher-level main idea, and ignore low-level details.  This has its benefits, but also drawbacks.  Can we train the older brain to pay attention to detail?

Should government take “pursuit of happiness” seriously as one of its primary goals?  Money quote:

Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.

Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

Review: Justice with Michael Sandel

The worst teachers take complicated subjects and somehow make them seem even more complicated.  Mediocre teachers take complicated subjects and help you understand just how complicated they are.  Great teachers take complicated subjects and make them simple.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel is a great teacher.

His philosophy course on Justice is the most popular course at Harvard, and PBS wisely decided to capture it.  Unfortunately, philosophy lectures aren’t exactly ratings gold, so most PBS stations buried the 12-part series at odd hours of the night if they showed it at all, but you can watch the whole thing online.  If you weren’t a philosophy major and know all this stuff already, but you have the slightest interest in philosophy, if you feel the slightest confusion about morality and want to understand the underlying historical points of contention, this is the series to watch.

The course asks a simple question:  what’s the right thing to do?  It starts out with Bentham and Mill and utilitarianism, and then contrasts that to libertarianism.  Then the heavyweights come in–Kant and Aristotle, with Rawls thrown in between.  It’s not a chronological history of philosophy, but it works better that way.  The order that Sandel chooses to discuss these philosophies helps greatly in the understanding of the what the philosophers are trying to say.  In this order, the issues seem to flow naturally from one philosopher to the next.  Only with Kant did Sandel not fully succeed in making a complex philosophy easy to understand; I’d probably have to watch those episodes multiple times for Kant’s ideas to truly sink into my head.

Each episode includes both a lecture and a classroom discussion.  I was always afraid of something cringeworthy coming out of the discussion parts, but they were for the most part well edited, and never dragged on too long.

Although I had studied bits and pieces of these philosophers before, I was fascinated throughout.  But because I have an engineer’s mentality, there was also a little nagging voice in my head throughout the series, asking, how do these theories stand up to the mess when the users get their hands on them?  How do the assumptions these philosophers make about human nature match what is beginning to emerge from the young neurosciences?

Plato was not discussed in the series, but he has a character in The Republic named Thrasymachus.  Thrasymachus argues that there is really no such thing as justice, because in the end, might makes right, and the powerful impose their concept of justice on the weak.  I think there is a certain amount of truth to that, just as I found a certain amount of truth to all of these approaches to justice.

The question then becomes, how do you choose a philosophy?  They all seem to make a certain amount of intuitive sense, but they also contradict each other.  There is no easy answer, but if we want to participate as a citizen of the world, we must in one way or another make such choices.  And that is what I shall attempt to do as this blog progresses.

Review: Caprica pilot

I’m knocked down today with the H1N1 or the R2D2 or the Educated L337 or some such malady, so I took advantage of the couch time to watch the Caprica pilot, which is now available for viewing on Hulu.  Quick spoiler-free first impression:  I will definitely be watching this series.

More, with spoilers:  I’ve been hungering for a sci-fi series to follow since Battlestar Galactica ended.  I tried FlashForward and V, but I think the relentless realism of BSG’s take on human behavior ruined those newer shows for me—the characters’ behavior in those shows just seemed false, and often ridiculous.  In Caprica, under Ron Moore’s guidance, we can be confident human behavior will ring more true.  Like Darth Vader, Zoe Graystone may be “more machine now than” girl, but we can also be sure she won’t be spewing any corny love poems to Natalie Portman.  The force in Ron Moore’s fantasy isn’t a simple two-sided object.

Sure, I had some complaints.  The Graystones had no clue that their daughter was basically the greatest computer genius of all time?  Zoe’s two-line text message to her mom took more than three seconds to transmit, but her entire emotional experience of those three seconds got successfully transmitted to her avatar in real time?  Okaaaay.

On a wider scale, the tone seemed a bit subdued.  Unlike BSG, there isn’t a single goal that everyone is working toward. There isn’t a Starbuck-like character to root for and give the show a positive, kick-ass vibe.  Knowing how badly this is all going to turn out in the end, it makes you wonder if anything truly redemptive will come from out of Caprica.  Goodness knows BSG just kept getting darker and darker and darker.  Do I really want to be led down such a destructive path, by a cast of characters who all, except for maybe young William Adama, are motivated by questionable ethics?

But perhaps that’s the point of this exercise.  The best fiction puts a mirror to us and helps us understand ourselves.  Our goals are multiple, not simplistic.  Our characters are layered, not cardboard cutouts.  Our ethics are questionable, not boilerplate.

The show even contemplates that last paragraph, questioning simplicity vs. complexity.  The monotheistic faction in the show insists that there is a right and a wrong, as opposed the more relativistic philosophy of the polytheists.  Joseph Adama was clearly conflicted about his own relativism, in which he functioned as an enabler to organized crime.  The pilot hints that he will be taking a more moralistic stand in the future.  But stark moralism has its potential evils, as well.  It can turn their proponents into terrorists, for one thing.

Which philosophy is better?  How do you define humanity?  Where do we draw the line between ourselves and our technology?  What’s the right thing to do?  Those are questions worth exploring.  Whether Caprica can succeed in addressing these issues we face in our real lives while also connecting us emotionally to an entertaining drama remains to be seen, but it’s worth the attempt.

Exploring these questions is what inspired me to start blogging again.  I have some things to say on these issues that I don’t think are being said by others, so I feel compelled to get them down.  It will be good to follow a show that can trigger new trains of thought, new things to write about.  Hopefully, my efforts too will be worth the attempt.

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