Saturday, March 10, 2012

Loving the light

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.   John 3:19

I have been thinking some more about the movie version of Moneyball.  There is a scene that I found about as meaningful as any I have seen in a movie—at least for a very long time—and my mind keeps gnawing at it.  The GM Billy Bean and his stats-nerd sidekick are having a quiet moment to appreciate the fact their team has just broken the American-League record for consecutive wins.  Billy says (I am quoting from memory) I am not interested in breaking a record.  I want to win the last game of the season.  Because if we don't win it all, they'll just erase us—I know these guys.  You see, winning isn't enough for me—I want to change the game.

Aha! The mating cry of a troublemaker.  One of the most enjoyable parts of reading history books is that the overwhelming majority of the people who actually make history are the folks who wanted to "change the game."  Without the game-changers, we are still living in caves and dying of broken ankles.  But even before I started reading history books for fun, I had been given some pretty serious indoctrination on the importance of game-changers by my religious upbringing.  The way I learned it, Christianity was about replacing the law with the gospel and the upheaval brought about by Luther's troublemaking was so profound, it required over 300 years before Europe began to adjust to the implications.  I was literally taught as a child that I had been put on this earth to follow the examples of the great troublemakers that had informed our culture—the people who put the protest in Protestant.

So I have spent my intellectual life operating under the assumption that the only life worth living is one where you seek to find an idea worth promoting and then doing your best to promote it.  I have also held onto a pretty naive idea that because the facts will always win in the end, all you have to do to succeed is dig harder for better facts.  And once you have these excellent facts, the job then becomes figuring out the best way to package these fact so the folks can easily understand them.  The evidence that I actually believed this comes in an assortment of forms.  For example, I have tried to illustrate the class theory of the midwest Progressives using a succession of software programs starting with MacPaint and then progressing through Illustrator, Strata Studio Pro, and finally Cinema 4DXL.  Along the way, I tried to animate it in Adobe After Effects.  That's my theory of change—good ideas born of good information, clearly illustrated and enthusiastically explained.  It's a good theory that occasionally even works in practice.

Unfortunately, progress isn't necessarily permanent. So the question becomes—will the forces of reaction always "just erase" progress like Beane suggests in Moneyball?  These days, it IS easy to believe that the forces of darkness will triumph—they HAVE been on an extended winning streak.

An interesting example from sport would be the tale of Herb Brooks—the coach who won the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Olympics.  This guy wanted to change the game so much, he is best compared to the legendary Anatoly Tarasov—the guy who re-invented hockey in USSR in the devastation following The Great Patriotic War.  This is not a stretch—Tarasov himself considered Brooks his American counterpart.  So how far under the radar was Brooks flying?  Here in Minnesota where hockey is played even at the high school level, with only one exception named John Gilbert, the sports writers and broadcasters completely missed the hockey revolution Brooks was inventing at the University—right under their noses.  He wins 3 NCAA championships in six seasons and they were utterly incurious as to how it happened.  The hockey "experts" at ABC's Olympic coverage had no idea what he was trying—"color" commentator Ken Dryden, considered one of the sport's "intellectuals" by virtue of some mediocre books he has written, was criticizing the play of the USA team at the very moment the winning goal was being scored against the USSR.

So was the coach who figured out how to triumph in what ESPN proclaimed the greatest sporting moment of the 20th century "erased"?  The evidence seems to suggest that he was in spite of the fact that several movies and books have been made about that victory.  The University of Minnesota has never hired another coach like Brooks in the 32 years since he proved his superior methods.  He was never given a reasonable shot at coaching in the NHL (which hated him).  These days, there is a bronze statue of him outside the arena where the Minnesota Wild plays their home games.  The gesture is especially empty because the Wild have never come close to playing Herbie Hockey since they came into existence.  America's Tarasov, his theories of how the game should be played, and his very real accomplishments have been sanitized out of existence and only the cartoonish Brooks remains.

So yes, the movie version Beane was right.  Guys in sports DO get "erased" even when we cast bronze statues of them.  But in some ways, Beane got it wrong, too.  There is no team in baseball that doesn't use metrics to evaluate their players anymore—and baseball is a sport where folks are still debating the designated hitter rule so we are discussing an institution that is highly resistant to change.  In fact, Beane knocked down a wall and a hoard of geeks who understand statistical analysis came flooding through into every front office in team sports.

But how does this work on the big subjects like our understanding of how the economy works?  For over three decades, I have been bemoaning the rollback of the economic understanding that informed my youth.  And the sustained assault on Progressive economics has taken its toll—in many ways such as our international trade situation, we are FAR behind where the country stood in even the 1880s.

And so I wonder—is darkness the default position and the flicker of light that was the Populist-Progressive-New Deal description of how to organize an economy was an historical aberration?  I know I am often astonished at how easy it has been to roll back a century of progress.  And like the kid who thinks he is so quick he can turn out the lights and get under the covers before the room gets dark, I have been unwilling to believe that darkness returns at the speed of light.

Darkness has many friends.  Its biggest advantage is that darkness is the starting point of us all.  Just because a human discovered that lightning was electricity in the 18th century doesn't mean that someone born in 2012 won't have to learn that lesson for himself.  We are all born profoundly ignorant and absent curiosity and real effort, the overwhelming majority of us stay that way.  These folks love darkness rather than light because reading a book or actually learning a subject in school is too much like work.  It's just easier to watch sitcoms on television.  It's just more fun to turn on the music and blast your eardrums into the next county.  We all giggle about how much less informed W. was than his father but in truth, going from informed to ignorant in one generation is the natural state of affairs.

It is easy for we members of the Producing Classes to dismiss darkness as the default human condition of those degenerate Leisure Classes.  And we do have considerable evidence to show that we produce and traffic in whatever light is out there.  The reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden should forever put to rest the crazy idea that there are lost arts—because whatever Producers have ever done, we can still do.  And we can easily and certainly trace our progress.  Imagine Edison or Tesla seeing an iPad for the first time.  I am sure they would understand how it works and marvel at the build excellence. But they would have to think long and hard about what they contributed to its existence because there has been a LOT of progress in electrical engineering since their day.  Even better, the Producers can make extremely rapid progress.  It required less than 35 years for aerospace to go from Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic to John Glenn orbiting the earth.  But Producers would do well not to get too arrogant about their light.  As we discovered here in Minnesota when a bridge fell into the Mississippi River, we can slip back into the darkness too.

While we moan about how easily darkness can triumph and point to the current era as a particularly unenlightened one, it is really quite absurd for the Producers to complain.  Yes our journalism is superficial at best, our schools are overpriced institutions that cause more damage than good, our public intellectuals are ethical illiterates who actually claimed that unleashing a war of naked terror on Iraq was justified as a "suck on this" moment of imperial swagger—and still kept their jobs, that banking has sunk to the level of a predatory drag on the economy, that our politics pukes forth such obvious cretins as Gnoot, Michele, and Ricky, etc. etc.

LOTS of darkness out there.  But it isn't enough darkness to snuff out the light.  And that's because we Producers perfected history's most perfect light source—the Internet.  No matter who you are and how deep the darkness that surrounds you, you can switch on a connection to the Big Mind and instantly access as much light as you can possibly absorb.  The Internet is so large that even IF 99.999% is pure crap, there is still more light available from the remaining .001% than is needed to combat the darkness.  Unfortunately, just as the Enlightenment is wasted on most people—so is the potential of the Internet.  I would warn the children of darkness, however, there are those of us who have learned how to tap into the Big Brain and we absolutely love it.  Unfortunately, darkness lovers, this happiness will make us even less likely to suffer fools gladly.

If you love the light, it has never been easier to find than right now.  So even in a world where there are folks who actually can convince themselves that Rick Santorum is presidential material, there is still plenty of light.  Now if folks chose darkness over light, it really IS because their deeds are evil.


  1. Fwiw, I wrote a resume for Herb Brooks. The Colorado NHL franchise was thinking about hiring him, but needed his resume.

    This was well after the Miracle on Ice, but they still needed him to put it on paper for them. That is not how you attract top talent.

    1. Let me guess—one of the entries that did NOT make it to that resume was: Anatoly Tarasov, easily the greatest genius the game of ice hockey has ever produced, considers Herb Brooks his only true peer in the game. Not that such a sentence wasn't true—but no one in the NHL would ever believe it nor give any credit to anyone who wrote it.

      I envy you Wege I never got to meet Brooks.

    2. It was a very bare bones resume as he didn't really need to blow his own horn.

  2. Great post. So true and it gives me hope for the future.