Bollywood, Rick Astley, and the Israeli Arms Industry

Amid growing international concern over the India-Israel arms trade, the Israeli firm Rafael unveiled the below marketing video — described by Stephen Trimble of The Dew Line as a “catastrophic collision of Bollywood and the arms industry” – at the Aero India 2009 defense convention in Bangalore. In the months since its posting, the video has become the errantposter-child — even earning a reprimand from The Jerusalem Post — for the new age of covert international arms trading.

Noah Shachtmann of Wired‘s DangerRoom has deemed it “the most atrocious defense video of all time, just days into the Iron Eagles — our celebration of the awesomely bad videos of the military-industrial complex”.

Every element of the promotional film is just plain wrong. The sari-clad, “Indian” dancers look all too ashkenaz and zaftig. The unshaven, hawk-nosed, leather-clad leading man appears to be a refugee fromYou Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Then of course, there’s the implication that the Indian military is somehow like a helpless woman who “need(s) to feel safe and sheltered.”

But for my rupees, the worst thing about the video is the damn theme song they’ve concocted for the thing. To pimp its weapons, Rafael produced a sitar-heavy twist on Rick Astley’s love letter to Satan, “Together Forever,” complete with a new chorus: “Dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga dee.” The rest of us now have to suffer for that bad, bad choice.

The video may be as offensive to our tastes as to our morals, but it’s also, perhaps, a sign of things to come. As a kind of post-modern pastiche of traditions and fads, light-hearted pop songs and mechanistic war, the video seems to embody perfectly the brazen disregard — where anything goes, and nothing is sacred — that we would expect from an arms dealer. Even more remarkable is the fact that these videos are themselves the product of a formula of sorts, where diverse archetypical cultural affects are combined, to easy effect. Saurabh Joshi of StratPost, the South Asian Defense news site, inquired further into Rafael’s marketing practices:

StratPost spoke to Assy Josephy the Director of Exhibitions for Rafael about how this video came about. “In Israel we have Jewish people from India, so we know about Bollywood and the song and dance numbers. Israelis are generally aware of Indian culture. This video is to help build familiarity between India and Israel and Rafael,” he says.

But this is not the first time Rafael has exhibited something of the sort. Josephy says Rafael has displayed such videos in many countries with various themes customized to the culture of the locations. “In Brazil we did a video of football. Football is very big there. In Paris the video had a theme that included Napoleon and the Renaissance. In Poland our video had themes of Chopin and Copernicus. In England it was about Shakespeare,” says Josephy.

Though we can only hope to one day get our hands on the Shakespeare defense video — an odd phrase to be sure — the greater point to be taken here is that even arms dealing can be “Epcotized”. The Rafael video is, no doubt, a classic case of a capital enterprise creating an image of cultural understanding that disguises its opposite, a generic, reproducible schema that can be ‘customized’ to capture any given culture. Only in this case, the product is a missile, not international cuisine, and the means for marketing — “culture” in quotes — is also the target.

Personal reflections on the therapeutic process: Learning from termination.

The process of terminating with ongoing psychotherapy patients, especially long-term patients (those generally seen for a year or more) is one that can be very meaningful and emotional for both therapist and patient. Termination has appropriately been linked with past experiences of loss and abandonment, existential fears of death and dying, as well as with opportunities for new growth and development. Under the best of circumstances the decision to terminate is agreed upon by the client and the therapist, providing them both with the opportunity to work through the process. However, more often than not termination is dictated by one party or the other, brought on by factors such as expiring insurance, a patient’s moving, or in my case stopping at training sites in order to begin my full time internship.

In my case having worked extensively at one clinic in addition to other sites, preparing to start internship meant terminating not only with the patients I had seen over the year, but also with patients whom I had been seeing for the past three years. Having never terminated with patients who I had seen for even close to this long, and certainly never having terminated with so many patients all at once, I was unsure what to expect both from my patients and myself during the termination process. Given this, perhaps it is not surprising that much like I have found throughout my clinical training, my expectations and thoughts about what terminating would be like did not match my experiences. This seemingly common – at least to the training experience – phenomenon creates in my mind an interesting gap, created not by poor expectations, but rather by the inherent difficulties of training. In other words, despite the fact that I had been taught and even experienced when completing previous externships what termination would be like (i.e. see above) it remained difficult to know how it would be when it was this different.

The hardest part of termination for me has been trying to assess the effectiveness of therapy and to evaluate how I performed as a therapist. Going through the termination process I remember voicing doubt to fellow classmates and supervisors about how I helped my patients. While many had made progress towards goals they also often remained stuck in certain places. From my perspective it was difficult to ascertain that what I did during sessions helped them achieve their goals, as opposed to it just being a product of time and their own growth.

Reflecting upon my uncertainty and ambivalence I think it is in some ways part of the tension that is a part of therapy. Both the therapist and the client have an idea of what they are working on, or what the “problem is”, but how they approach it and work at it may not be so clear. Indeed, as a student I feel that this uncertainty may even be exacerbated as there is a propensity towards trying new techniques or representing the material in ways that reflect recent readings, discussions, ideas etc. That this process of working in different therapeutic frames is likely normal if not central to the training, does not necessarily alleviate the feelings that the patient would be better off with a more established therapist, or generally that they deserve better.

Despite this, during the process of terminating one of the most consistent and perhaps surprising observations was how deep my relationship was with my patients and vice versa. While going through notes I was amazed at how much had transpired in their lives and my own over the course of my sessions with them. Not only did I feel tuned into their lives but it also felt as if I had actively participated with them. In this sense reading through notes about their stories I found myself at times thinking in terms of “we”. For example, how “we” handled a certain issue or “we” achieved certain goals. The feeling of connectedness in some ways belies the uncertainty, almost by saying that this was “you” in the relationship and that your effect was real.

This is in some sense the actualization of the gap that I described earlier. The role of the therapeutic frame and theory is meant to structure the therapeutic space providing the tools to help the patient work and make changes. However, this space does not in effect account for the human-to-human interaction that comprises all of the therapeutic interactions. Indeed, as described above, while talking with my patients about our relationship what was striking was how much they valued the relationship. That to me the frame more often than not felt ambiguous seems to have had a minimal bearing on them. What mattered more to them was that I was there, and that they knew that I would be there to listen, to share, to acknowledge, to discuss and to explore. As my patients discussed with me the aspects of myself that they valued and found effective during therapy, it was amazing how little they had to do with approach or technique. Carl Rogers knew this of course and orientated humanistic psychology around it. Cynically, I feel that in some ways the parts of me that worked the hardest for example to conceptualize them or to make certain interpretations were the least acknowledged.

What terminating has helped me to begin thinking about is how to minimize this gap. One way that comes to mind is how theory can be orientated and utilized around the actual interactions in the office. I understand this personally as a deepening and extending of my thinking about interpersonal approaches to psychotherapy that work off the therapeutic relationship. What I have come to appreciate in terminating is the need for the therapist to present himself or herself in an authentic manner so that the aspects of themselves, whether they are warmth, honesty, directness etc can be felt and understood clearly by the patient.

In many ways this feels both very obvious to me and is also somewhat of a revelation. To me it means both working as myself but doing so in ways that are clearly conveyed to my patient. Theory then becomes a way of looking at the ensuing interactions between my patients and me, providing a perspective to both elaborate upon our shared experience and create new ones. In other words, in therapy a space is created to have experiences that are real but can be explained in ways that allows for the growth of the therapist and the patient.

As a final thought it is probably not a surprise that I felt this gap while terminating with my clients. Termination is not only a time of reflection, but it is very obviously the end of the therapy. This can lead to a sense of safety where both the therapist and the client knowing that their time is ending can act more like themselves in therapy. While throughout termination I was thinking about theories about what is happening for the patient and myself, it still nonetheless felt as if my interactions with my patients were more genuine and less a matter of us participating in social role playing. Experiencing these authentic interactions, while also hearing about what my patients were taking from therapy has not only helped make terminating with them a meaningful experience but also an educational one as well.

TIME Magazine on the Future of Work

The Future of Work

As the latest instance of a major media outlet prescribing mass surrender of even the most limited workplace rights, the cover copy for the May 25, 2009 issue of TIME Magazine reads:

“Throw away the briefcase: you’re not going to the office. You can kiss your benefits goodbye too. And your new boss won’t look much like your old one. There’s no longer a ladder, and you may never get to retire, but there’s a world of opportunity if you figure out a new path.”

The cover image, for its part, gives form to the distasteful idea that a young dope fresh out of college could soon be your boss, not for his wits and skills, but because experience, knowledge, wisdom – the costly corporate ladder, in short – has been pulled out from under everyone climbing it. The young guy – and the boss, for TIME, does indeed seem to be generally male – may not know much about what he’s doing, but he costs less and is cheaper to insure.

What TIME seems to be explicitly endorsing here is the no holds barred, free-for-all, openly oppressive corporate model (or non-model, really) emerging in the wake of the collapse of the already-tenuous, already-insufficient system of benefits, promotion, and reward. TIME may not have anything to say about the mechanisms facilitating the collapse, but they’re happy to describe with pep the new world order and “what this means for you.” Can we really call this journalism, even with the most liberal sense of the term?

Sure, this worldview may now be a reality, but what is so reprehensible aboutTIME‘s description of it is not the world it references, but the carefree manner in which its emergence is taken as an irreversible, and ultimately acceptable, state of affairs. The phrase “kiss your benefits goodbye too” could hardly be more collaborative in spirit, and detached from the full painful effect it engenders. It comes off like it’s no big deal that people will rather suddenly no longer have access to basic medical care. Just adjust and adapt; that’s all.

Furthermore, as anyone who has suffered or survived a mass layoff or company restructuring can attest, these measures are neither necessary nor evenly distributed. Companies are happy to lay off thousands of people, and slash benefits for the rest, before touching the salaries, bonuses, or stock options of the management class, which of course already soak-up an overwhelmingly-disproportionate percentage of company income.

Indeed, the slashing of benefits and further precipitous drop in wages comes as the swift achievement of a long-restrained attempt to permanently crush labor power, to squeeze workers even more than they already were. The financial collapse merely provides the alibi or excuse for implementing a labor arrangement that will persist long past the recovery and which was already in effect well before the “official” September 2008 collapse. The pay gap between executive/management and labor is increasing, not decreasing, and with greater, not lesser, speed.

Just where the “world of opportunity” has been relocated, as TIME insists it has, remains a mystery, but, like Xanadu, we cannot be helped or advised on our journey to “figure out a new path” to this mythical place. And yet, there’s no doubt we’ll continue to encounter, with much greater frequency, vague references to these new paths and alternative means of enrichment, which will have to remain as elusive as they are fictive. The need for this myth is, however, itself a symptom of the strategic refusal to acknowledge the scale with which the labor force is currently being robbed, squeezed, and turned-out for the benefit of a very small group of people. It’s only a matter of time, then, before these upbeat, disillusioned pep talks ring dangerously hollow.

“New Media Technology” Delegation Travels to Iraq

Jeremy Scahill is not pleased:

The U.S. State Department has announced it is sponsoring a “New Media Technology” delegation to Iraq to “explore new opportunities to support Iraqi government and non-government stakeholders in Iraq’s emerging new media industry.” Of all of the areas in Iraq in desperate need of attention, its “emerging new media industry” is not the one that pops to mind. Things like clean water, electricity, right of safe return for refugees and an end to the occupation seem more pressing than increasing Nouri al Maliki’s Twitter followers. But unfortunately, that’s how U.S. priorities in Iraq seem to work.

Anyway, the super star tech delegation, according to the State Department press release, includes “a mix of CEOs, Vice-Presidents and senior representatives” from “AT&T, Google, Twitter, Howcast, Meetup, You Tube and Automattic/Wordpress.”

But the final company listed as participating in the delegation begs for some sort of special review: Blue State Digital, a firm which boasts its services were “Critically important to President Obama’s victory” in the November election. Indeed, federal campaign spending records indicate that the Obama campaign paid the firm at least $2,864,138 in 2007-2008, including more than $700,000 on election day.

But I wonder if Scahill’s anger is slightly misplaced. This project doesn’t seem to be occurring at the expense of, or instead of, other infrastructure projects, so to phrase it that way is a little misleading. I don’t think a prioritizing of projects is necessarily the central issue here.

According to the State Department’s press release:

During their visit to Iraq, they will provide conceptual input as well as ideas on how new technologies can be used to build local capacity, foster greater transparency and accountability, build upon anti-corruption efforts, promote critical thinking in the classroom, scale-up civil society, and further empower local entities and individuals by providing the tools for network building. As Iraqis think about how to integrate new technology as a tool for smart power, we view this as an opportunity to invite the American technology industry to be part of this creative genesis.

Is this old-fashioned economic colonization, only this time channeled through new media and information technology corporations, or is it a genuine attempt to put in place potentially-democratic tools and infrastructure conducive to coordination and transparency?

Lessing on Lessing, in the Hamburg Dramaturgy

If you know Lessing principally as the author of the Laocoon (as I did), then Hamburg Dramaturgy, a collection of his popular theater reviews, is sure to cast him in a stunning new light. Who knew Lessing was such a wit? (I, at least, did not.) Though he is still known for his ironic literary style, the academic quips on which this reputation is based can hardly compare to the sharp-tongued prose and relentless raillery of his then-widely-read and much-acclaimed print column.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Victor Lange’s footnote, you might not know that the performance reviewed by Lessing (below) was of a play written by Lessing himself. For that reason (but not that reason alone), the suggestiveness for which he was famous seems to shine through all the more clearly in this strange, brief, hamstrung review of a performance of his own Miss Sara Sampson.

“It is not possible to demand more from art than what Mdlle. Henseln achieved in the role of Sara, and indeed the play altogether was well performed. It is a little too long and it is therefore generally shortened at most theatres. Whether the author would be well satisfied with all these excisions, I almost incline to doubt. We know what authors are, if we want to take from them a mere bit of padding they cry out: You touch my life! It is true that by leaving out parts the excessive length of a play is clumsily remedied, and I do not understand how it is possible to shorten a scene without changing the whole sequence of a dialogue. But if the author does not like these foreign abbreviations, why does he not curtail it himself, if he thinks it is worth the trouble and is not one of those persons who put children into the world and then withdraw their hands from them for ever.” (“G. E. Lessing, ”No. 13,” in Hamburg Dramaturgy. Translated by Helen Zimmern. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1890 (1962): 38).

Neil Levi on Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

It’s a common accusation of the left that politics, liberal and conservative alike, becomes “aestheticized” through persistent suspensions of law anddeclarations of emergencies. But what, exactly, Neil Levi asks, in a timely, subtle paper on Carl Schmitt, is so “aesthetic” about political decisionism, a doctrine still fresh on our lips in the Obama era. The following, well-known quote from Schmitt’s Political Theology sums up this philosophy succinctly:

“The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” (PT, 15)

Richard Wolin, whose interpretation of this passage is widely shared, finds the image of politics promoted here “aesthetic” in spirit, on account of its celebration of “rupture, discontinuity, and shock, which Wolin describes as ‘aesthetic values.’

“Yet Wolin never tells us why Schmitt’s interest in exceptions, hardly unusual in the humanities and social sciences, is ‘quasi-aestheticist,’ never explains why rupture, discontinuity, and shock are especially ‘aesthetic values.’ He takes their status as such for granted and does not ever seem to find it necessary to explain what he means by the term aesthetic.” (Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 34, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 27-43: 35)

But on the other hand, perhaps there is something ‘aesthetic’ about transgression, ‘breaking through the crust’:

“Yet Wolin’s sense that there is something ‘aesthetic’ about Schmitt’s proclamations on the state of exception is understandable. The notion of the extreme has a certain fascination that one might compare to that exerted by certain transgressive works of art. To dwell on the state of exception is obviously to dwell on the more dramatic aspects of political life, on moments that are conflictual and intense. But do these considerations make an interest in the extreme situation quasi-aesthetic?” (35)

Levi indeed observes that Schmitt’s image of transgression “evokes the Russian formalists’ idea of estrangement, or ostranenie“, except that instead of “calling into question […] outmoded moral and political conventions […] Schmitt’s estrangement seems designed rather to give one a sense of the awesome sovereign power authorizing and enforcing the laws that govern everyday behavior. Shklovsky’s estrangement ruptures everyday conventions to change the status quo; Schmitt’s exception works to reinforce it” (Levi “Schmitt” 36). Is this, then, the mode of “aesthetics” critics of Schmitt have in mind when they use the term pejoratively?

It would seem not, in that the more progressive theories with which Schmitt’s is contrasted do “not assume that the aesthetic component of a political idea automatically disqualifies it from the realm of politics proper”. Benjamin’s much-touted remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” are for this reason largely inapplicable here, a fact Levi conveys succinctly when he observes that Benjamin’s point was that, for some — e.g. Marinetti, — war, specifically, was “already a work of art”. “Aestheticization” was thus, for Benjamin, more a “mode of perception” than a component of political theory per se (at least in this instance), although, in a different sense entirely, Schmitt does at times define the political “as anintensity, so that any conflict or opposition, once it attains a certain degree of existential antagonism, becomes political” (Levi “Schmitt” 30), a proposition with which Benjamin would most certainly have agreed.

With the more polemical understandings of “aestheticization” out of the way, Levi then turns to Schmitt’s own views on the matter, noting in passing that, “As it happens, Schmitt takes great pains to encourage his readers not to think about politics as aesthetic. What is ultimately so interesting, even amusing, about the charge of aestheticization against Schmitt is that it targets precisely those situations that Schmitt himself thinks distinguish the political from the aesthetic” (Levi “Schmitt” 37). Schmitt in fact spends a great deal of time trying to separate the latter from the former. “The aesthetic,” Levi observes, “functions as a kind of disturbing presence that Schmitt repeatedly disavows” (Levi “Schmitt” 37).

Linking this phenomena to “contemporary diatribes against postmodern irony, especially during the soul-searching that took place in the United States for a few weeks after September 11, 2001” (39), Levi then proceeds to enumerate Schmitt’s identification of “aesthetics” with decadent European bourgeoisie “arts and entertainment”, which for Schmitt categorically functions as the fundamental obstacle to the political. Though Schmitt, and perhaps decisionism in general, does view the arts as a purely negative force, they are nonetheless seen as a powerful and inextricable force acting on, or within, political forces. For Schmitt, the dominance of an “aesthetic perception” announces and prepares political defeat.

“Schmitt sees the aesthetic as the existential negation of the political in two apparently contradictory ways. On the one hand, he suggests that the dominance of aesthetic perception is a precursor to destruction of the Lebensform, to political defeat: “Everywhere in political history the incapacity or the unwillingness to make [the] distinction [between friend and enemy] is a symptom of the political end” (The Concept of the Political, 68). For example, before the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie romanticized the Russian peasant, he says, while “a relativistic bourgeoisie in a confused Europe searched all sorts of exotic cultures for the purpose of making them an object of its aesthetic consumption” (CP, 68). For Schmitt, romanticization and exoticization of the other are modes of aestheticization. Aesthetic consumption, he thinks, is a condition, like [page] consumption proper, with fatal consequences. It negates political perception—negates, that is, the ability to recognize a mortal threat when one sees it.” (Levi “Schmitt” 38–39)

This final point, which concludes Levi’s piece, points to the limits of the “aestheticization” hypothesis — in several ways. For one, it shows how explicitly-militant political doctrines like Schmitt’s must in the end rely upon a paradoxical relation between aesthetic forms and political disavowals thereof. The bourgeoise romanticiziation of the Russian peasant, much like, say, contemporary American exoticizations of the Middle East, was a form of enmity, not a distraction from it. Indeed, in light of the extensive work on cultural mechanisms of colonial control, represented most forcefully by Said’sOrientalism, Schmitt’s opposing of “romanticization” to “enemy” seems symptomatic of his own clearly militant (not to mention proto-Nazi) political doctrine. Levi’s paper serves to highlight this important distinction, and in the process re-focuses attention away from the aesthetic image summoned up by political discourses to the cultural role of art and aesthetics assigned bythose theories, which is something else entirely.

“The numbers don’t lie?: The problem of emergence in baseball and basketball statistics”

The role of statistics in sports can be generally stated as providing more objective and sophisticated evaluations of an athlete’s performance. At its heart, statistics are tools that can be used to increase a team’s chance of winning a game. In this sense, much like counting cards can help win at blackjack, keeping track of a variety of individual statistics can in theory help a team win. The logic is to first objectively determine which aspects are important to winning and then to build a team around athletes with those skills. The allure of objective and measurable data is that it levels the evaluative playing field, by providing tools to measure aspects of the game that were previously thought to be subjective and only noticeable to those individuals such as scouts with special visual access. Indeed, the appeal of statistics has grown to the extent that many casual fans have brushed off high school math textbooks to both understand and contribute to statistical evaluations.

For example, in his recent ESPN the magazine article the sometimes sports journalist Bill Simmons documents a recent conference at MIT on the future of statistics in the NBA. Simmons’s article is notable because it reflects a relatively new idea about the use of statistics, specifically that they can be used to measure a player’s impact on the team as a whole. Unlike in baseball, where statistics measure individual players and their talents, basketball is thought to be more of a team sport. Accordingly, analyzing a player’s individual performance does not necessarily help teams win. Instead, it is necessary to develop statistics that capture how individual players contribute to the team’s emergent identity, which is what leads to victories. Given the complexity behind building a team, Simmons implores basketball teams to release the data they have so statisticians can develop new statistical measurements of a diverse number of basketball plays. He writes:

“I want “mega-assists” (passes that create a layup or a dunk) and “half-assists” (for each made foul shot). I want “unforced turnovers,” like in tennis (Tony Allen would be Wilt Chamberlain in this category), and “nitty-gritties” (some combination of charges taken, deflections, balls saved from going out of bounds and rebounds tipped to teammates). I want “Unselds” (a long outlet pass that leads to an assist for a layup or a dunk) and “Russells” (a blocked shot directed to a teammate).”

This quote reflects a general idea underlying the use of statistics. Namely, that it is possible to completely catalogue the different interactive or team related talents of players. By doing so, one could then presumably draw upon an index of players (mega-assist guys, nitty-gritties, scorers, defenders etc) in such a fashion to construct teams with the best chance at winning. Obviously, putting together a team where different player’s talents contribute to the team’s chance of winning is the goal of every General Manager as well as every want to be General Manager (of which we all secretly are).

The use of statistics to measure performance and build teams in sports is nothing new. In his popular book Moneyball, Michael Lewis details the use of statistics by the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane in drafting and trading for baseball players. Beane, who was greatly constrained by the limited payroll of the A’s, used statistics to help find players who had underappreciated talents. The most famous of these is On Base Percentage (OBP), a simple measure of how many times per plate appearance a player gets on base. His argument was that measurements such as OBP (as well as Slugging Percentage) were better indices of successful players (in specific those who score and drive in runs) than traditional descriptive statistics such as Batting Average (BA), Home Runs (HR) and Runs Batted In (RBI). Beane, utilizing primarily OBP successfully built teams around players who were undervalued by other teams. His model of using statistics to help identify undervalued talents has served as a model for other teams and as a result baseball statisticians have become increasingly en vogue. Currently there is a plethora of statistics used to evaluate players, ranging from the mildly simple, i.e. OPS (on base plus slugging) and WHIP (Walks and Hits per inning pitched) to the fabulously complicated, i.e. VORP (value over replacement player) and WARP (wins over replacement player).

The use of statistics in basketball is much more recent. In a recent NY Times article, Michael Lewis describes the unique case of Shane Battier, the Houston Rockets starting forward. According to the Rocket’s General Manager Daryl Morey, (who was also at the statistical conference attended by Simmons not to mention highlighted in his article), despite a lack of visible statistical evidence, Shane Battier, makes his team significantly better when he plays than when he does not. Moreover, he has made every team he has played on significantly better. According to Morey, this is because Battier plays such effective defense against the opposing teams best player and is himself an unselfish offensive player. As a result, Battier limits the other teams scoring while not detracting from his own teams scoring.

Much like Beane, who used statistics to find underappreciated players, Morey has worked to develop statistics to help him find undervalued players. While the secrecy about the nature of these statistics (as well as the data behind them) is what infuriates Simmons, what is of note in the case of Battier is that according to Morey, he recognized Battiers effectiveness but not why he was effective. The recognition according to Lewis, involved a variation of a relative simple measurement known as “plus-minus”. Simply put it “measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court.” Though not perfect, it is in many ways a descriptive statistic similar to that of OBP, as it expands the analysis to include a wider range of behaviors.

The fascinating part about of the Battier story is the eventual recognition of what he was doing that was making him effective. Morey describes it as an accumulation of different abilities Battier had developed that minimized the abilities of the other teams best scorer. One of these was Battier’s intelligence and capacity to assimilate a large amount of information given prior to the game about the tendencies of the other player and then to use them to play the odds. Lewis traces how Battier developed his abilities as a result of growing up between two cultures, a privileged white private school culture and a more street orientated black culture. As a result, he was forced to develop his game as a flexible hybrid of the two. It was his ability to stick (in some senses literally, he is referred to as a “lego” in the article and a “glue guy” by others) between these two games that made him successful.

Battier’s unique “sticking” abilities add intangible elements to the Rockets, such that when he plays they become greater than the sum of their parts. In order to discover this Morey used a statistic that looked at more than an individual’s box score performance (i.e. Field Goals, Shots blocked). While understanding what he is doing to be successful necessitated close observation, allowing for the development of new statistics. It is exactly this process that Simmons hopes to use in order to quantify the talents and impact of other players to construct a team that wins.

The question to me is whether statistics can ever really be effectively used to create a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The phenomenon here is one of emergence. From watching sports we know that over the course of a season a team can almost develop a personality that they did not necessarily have at the beginning of the season. This personality becomes greater than the individual players themselves and is often credited with helping them win. While each teams emergent traits are unique there have certainly been similarities in the narratives of championship teams. For instance, there are “underdog teams”, “goofy teams”, “professional teams” etc. The goals outlined by Simmons and Morey is how to use statistics to construct a team with one of these emergent personalities.

The paradox here is that statistics themselves are necessarily reductive – by definition they measure the probability of an event happening given a set of circumstances. Their use restricts events to what is normative not capturing the events that lie outside of the norm. This is why in his article Simmons lists a variety of statistical categories, because any one category only looks at some aspect of behavior. In order to get all of behavior one needs increasingly diverse range of statistics. Indeed, almost all behavior can be subjected to statistical analysis, especially if there is a trend that the researcher is looking for. What is less clear is that it can be successfully applied to the construction of the team, such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Interestingly, this problem mirrors the historical tension surrounding the use of statistics in studying social phenomenon. In my opinion this tension has been described most clearly by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1932) as the difficulty of developing general laws in science. Lewin recognized, that any attempt at establishing general laws (or abstracting out from individual cases) made it difficult if not impossible to go back to the individual cases. He relates this problem to the traditional method of classification in science, where phenomena were grouped according to similarity. According to Lewin, this only ended when genetic/constructive accounts became viable, as they allowed for the grouping of phenomena according to the way they can be produced or derived from each other. The focus moved from forming classificatory categories (making it difficult to look at specifics) to genetic accounts that provided laws for understanding idiographic cases.

In his article, Simmons discussion of the individual nature of baseball statistics (i.e. the ability for any baseball trait to be measured) maps out nicely to the classificatory use of statistics in social science. Essentially, the view is that if there is a baseball related activity, there can be a statistic for it. The event driven nature of a baseball game (a pitch, an at-bat, etc.) lends itself nicely to this sort of approach. As a result, statistics often highlight the individualized nature of baseball.

The brilliance of Billy Beane was not so much his use of statistics as a whole, but rather his use of a particular statistic, OBP, which allowed for a more genetic view of the player. Specifically, players with high OBP generally did many things better than players with just a high batting average. Some of these things, such as taking more pitches even help the team as a whole, by letting other players see more pitches or tiring out the pitcher quickly. Beane’s use of OBP in effect switched lenses, from one that only looked at hits to one that examined at-bats as a whole. It is crucial to also keep in mind the reasons why Beane was looking at OBP, namely his relative need versus what he could afford. In other words, OBP was great not only because it was more holistic but also because it was undervalued. Relatively, it provided greater bang for the buck.

Looking at Beane’s effectiveness in constructing a winning team using OBP, the early “Moneyball” Oakland Athletic teams on the one hand consistently made the playoffs, while, on the other never advanced to a World Series. Indeed, mixed results are the norm for other teams that have focused on building their teams around statistics such as the Dodgers and Blue Jays.  The explanation for this at least in part, is that statistics due to being inherently reductive only capture some aspects of the game. What is not captured often is minimized. The classic example of this is how Beane’s teams stole relatively few bases because stolen bases are thought to be statistically inadvisable. Yet, it was a stolen base, by the 2004 Boston Red Sox that is credited with propelling them to winning the World Series. While statisticians point out all the other things that happened during the year and the playoffs without that single event the Red Sox would have lost to the Yankees.

This matters because while Beane’s use of OBP while more genetic, still reduced the whole of a player into certain aspects of worth. This reduction, was far from an objective measurement, but instead was defined in relationship to the more traditional and highly valued statistics. Indeed, since OBP has become more popular it has become less cost effective for Beane to build a team around OBP players. Instead he has switched to looking at more holistic defensive statistics as well as base running statistics. These skills, which were undervalued to him in the 1990’s, have become more valuable as the market has changed.

To Simmons and Morey, the goal for basketball statisticians is balance the tension between measuring a player’s individual effectiveness and their impact on the team. Morey described how in baseball individual statistics almost always benefit the team, whereas in basketball good individual statistics do not always equate to team success. It is this line of reasoning that has them looking measures to capture the emergent properties that make the whole greater than the sum. To Morey, basketball needs “to measure the right things … meaningful statistics” about how certain players help their teams. It is this idea that led Morey to identify Battier as a valuable player as he had a high plus/minus and a relatively low salary. Accordingly, this theoretically represents a shift from thinking about the player’s statistics as directly helping the team to how their overall play fits in with and helps the team.

At first glance, this appears to be a move towards exactly the genetic type of thinking endorsed by Lewin. However, the question remains to the extent statistics are able to assist with this matter. Identifying Shane Battier as a significantly better player than reflected by popular statistics involved using a different lens (specifically, plus/minus) than commonly used by General Managers. Understanding why Battier was so effective required intense observation and knowledge of his developmental history. To Lewin, such idiographic study is at the heart of science. He sees two possible paths. One is to attempt and genetically understand how Battier does what he does in an order to develop certain that can be applied to other players. Much like understanding why he is effective, this approach emphasis subjective observation and comparison. By observing how he interacts and influences the play on the court it is possible to qualitatively describe his play in such a way that rules can be generated and applied to others. Indeed, this is very much like Morey does when talking about Battier with Michael Lewis. Alternatively, we could abstract outwards the specific traits (i.e. getting his body in front of players, or using his hands in a certain manner) that make him effective, give them names and then statistically measuring them in others. This process will inevitably reduce Battier to certain traits and more importantly limit the extent of observation in other players. Exactly like OBP excluded stolen bases, the defining act of categorizing in basketball would do the same.

While it would certainly be interesting and likely elucidating to attempt and develop statistics that are more sensitive to how players interact with each other and thus their impact on the team the nature of sports is such that this can only capture parts of the whole. This is not reflective of one sport being more team orientated than another sport but instead a question of the locus of analysis. Any attempt at statistically analyzing an action, interactive or otherwise (and I would argue that even the more individual aspects of baseball are still interactive and team orientated) limits the field of study. Though this analysis can generate useful and insightful data it is at best only complimentary to other subjective and qualitative methods of inquiry.

Lewin, K (1932). The Conflict Between Aristotelian and Galileian Modes of Thought in Contemporary Psychology. Contemporary Psychoanlysis; 23, 517-554

The Art of the Commercial Break

Now that I’ve switched from Comcast to AT&T, and seem to only watch pre-recorded programs off the DVR, I’ve become a little more attuned to the importance of the commercial break. We may say we hate it, but when it’s gone, or artificially eliminated rather, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important is missing. And sure enough, in  two new studies reviewed by The New York Times, researchers who study consumer behavior argue that, in fact, “interrupting an experience, whether dreary or pleasant, can make it significantly more intense”.

“The punch line is that commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch. Even bad commercials,” said Leif Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new research. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Whether or not Nelson’s findings are intuitive on some level — our anticipation for the commercial break to end does, after all, reinforce its existence — it’s the interpretation that really matters. Now, one could of course read these results as evidence of some ‘deep’ psychological function that thrives on “interruption”, which seems to be Nelson’s perspective, but even if this is the case, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the TV drama itself is written for commercial breaks — which is to say, the commercial’s interruption is less random and disruptive than strategic and productive.

As a matter of fact, every guide to writing for TV spends considerable time discussing how to account for the commercial break in the structure of the plot and timing of events. (Which perhaps explains why the researchers found little variation in results across all kinds of content. In this regard, the interruption is hardly an interruption.) So, technically speaking, the commercial break itself is built into, on a deeper level than otherwise suggested, the story it’s supposed to ‘interrupt’.

In this guide, for instance, Evan Smith devotes a chapter to negotiating the distinction between ‘dramatic structure’ and ‘broadcast format’. The tension between them — irreconcilable, to be sure — in many ways reproduces the familiar struggle between commercial conditions and artistic endeavors (–which despite their presumed animosity must ultimately come together). As Smith puts it, rather succinctly:

“Here is where things get confusing. The timing of commercial breaks does not necessarily coincide with the transitions between threedramatic acts in a typical episode.” (99)

As TV watchers, we know this intuitively. How many times have we seen an old movie written in anticipation of its eventual consignment to TV, only to find that the commercial break structure they expected has since changed? The awkward flash-fades to black peppered throughout (almost unnoticeably), followed by cuts to a resumed action that the writers clearly wanted us to have to anticipate, are in this regard strange, archaeological signs of a former age, not evidence of a permanent, evolutionary form of ‘interruption’.

It’s this kind of subtle, almost meaningless, dissonance that reveals just how conventional, and non-interruptive, the commercial break really is. There’s an art to it, after all. So much so that it’s practically a credit and a compliment to the writers that their work is now attributed to our brains instead of theirs.

Real Culture in Virtual Worlds

In this month’s Journal of Virtual World Research, Tom Boellstorff, author of the much-praised Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human, makes an important observation about theories of culture in virtual worlds.

To concretize my concerns, it will prove helpful to consider the example of some recent work of the economist Edward Castronova, whose influential research I often cite with great approval in my own. In his article “On the Research Value of Large Games: Natural Experiments in Norrath and Camelot,” Castronova (2006) draws upon large datasets from two online games on develop fascinating insights about interpersonal coordination. Castronova rightly sees in this approach possibilities that have “never before existed in the long history of social thinking” and are “of incredible power and value” (p. 183).

As the title of his article indicates, Castronova explains this power and value by asserting that online games allow us to conduct “natural experiments,” explaining that, “Until now, it has not been possible to take all of society as a research object; such a thing is too big to fit in a lab . . . Now however [. . .] it is indeed possible to replicate entire societies and allow them to operate in parallel” (p. 163). (5)

Castronova’s position draws on the popular suspicion that because Second Life is a virtual world — i.e., a program, which suggests a kind of artificial delimitation — it is more coherent, unified, and available to analysis than is the world proper. The error here, as Boellstorff points out, lies in thinking that a virtual world can only produce virtual culture, that it is not part of the world per se and is therefore simpler, more contained, and open to easy surveillance. In fact, what Boellstorff shows first and foremost is just howunimportant the self-enclosed finitude of SL really is. If anything, the popular image of virtual worlds as less than real and less than able to capture or express real, cultural phenomena has the unintended effect of inhibiting genuine virtual anthropology.

Abel Gance’s 1922 epic “La roue” now available on DVD

La roueIn a post praising Flicker Alley’s continual release of otherwise unavailable films, Kristin Thompson reminds us that Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue, long overdue on DVD, was released last year. Though Gance is most well-known for his Napoleon, La roue is often thought of as his greatest picture.

A case in point is the new DVD version of Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue (”The Wheel”), which the enterprising company Flicker Alleyreleased last year. In its short existence since 2002, Flicker Alley has done exciting work. Its recent “A Modern Musketeer” collection finally makes a selection of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies and dramas available. I personally prefer these lively, witty, imaginative films to Fairbanks’ 1920s costume pictures. Flicker Alley’sGeorge Méliès set is one of the great achievements of DVD production and deservedly won last year’s prize for the best silent DVD set at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Other highlights include F. W. Murnau’s rare psychological drama Phantom (1922) and Louis Feuillade’s serial,Judex (1917). I wrote about Flicker Alley’s release of Discovering Cinema, on early sound and color.