Why do we watch sport?

I opened up my mailbox this morning to a wonderful surprise. A friend who recently passed through Boston sent me a souvenir, the jersey of one of my favourite basketball players, Jae Crowder. But as I figure out how, whether and where I should mount this new treasure, I’ve been thinking about why Crowder captured my attention, why I bother watching basketball at all.

Taking a step back, I can’t help but wonder why I have such an interest in sports. Despite its prevalence in our societies – especially Australia – it just feels like an odd thing to do. I have no skin in the game here. These aren’t fights over grand principle or with that much of importance at stake – despite the incredible legacy building going on. I play basketball only occasionally, and have no hope of achieving the level of skill, athleticism or team-play of my heroes. Further, most professional sports are very Groundhog Daysian – the same players and teams, competing in the same venues. Year after year.

So, on the surface, it’s not like I’m learning much. At least other tv spectacles have a tenuous claim that they expand my horizons.

But if I take a closer look at Crowder, why he can count me as a fan, something else emerges. He’s not the flashiest player. Even on his own team. Although the numbers he puts up are nothing to snort at, they don’t place him even close to the league’s upper echelons. And while there have been some fantastic moments in his short career, that isn’t it either. The reason Celtics home games are filled with Crowder jerseys is about more than easily referenced stats or highlights.

Crowder is one of those players that you love when he’s on your team, hate when he’s not. His style of play is characterised by hustle. He isn’t necessarily the most talented or skilled, but there’s no one that outworks him on the court. You see him everywhere. Chasing everything. Guarding everyone.

It’s grit. Crowder equals grit. And it’s something I admire and want to emulate as much as possible.

I’ll give you a more concrete example. Until he was traded to the Celtics a year and a half ago, Crowder was languishing on the bench. The same guy. The same grit. Completely under-appreciated. He wasn’t getting much playing time, wasn’t contributing anything spectacular. But a new team, a system that works with and appreciates him, and he has blossomed.

It’s these human stories that really make sports for me. It’s Adam Gilchrist in the 2007 World Cup Final. Mark Webber winning the 2009 German Grand Prix. These are stories of talented, determined guys rising to the occasion when given a real opportunity. I know I’ve felt like Crowder before. Many times in fact. Stuck on the bench. On the wrong team. Crowder gives me hope I can make my mark. I just have to keep plugging til that time comes.

This is why you watch sport.

A self-interested case for lots of immigration

Watching the rise of Donald Trump, the success of anti-immigrant Brexiters, the callous demonisation of refugees in Australia and elsewhere, it’s understandable to be outraged.

These are human beings, deserving of at least that level of respect. But this isn’t an argument that can be fought on moral grounds. It never has been.

The rise of populists and anti-immigration movements is motivated, in large part, by genuine fear. Australians are seeing record low wage growth, Americans are seeing similar real wage stagnation, and other nations are too. Meanwhile, the European unemployment rate is heading in the right direction, but is still shockingly high, especially in some states, leaving the spectre of a lost generation. And all of this is against the backdrop of the largest technological shift since the industrial revolution.

With this context it’s understandable that millions of refugees look less than appealing. That the other, especially an easily demonised other, is feeling the brunt. People are genuinely worried about putting food on the table, for their futures and children — let’s not go into zero-sum thinking fostered by our politicians and education systems.

The point is, this isn’t a debate you can tackle with “well, it’s the least we can do”. You need an equally self-interested argument. And I may have found one.

I’ve just finished the first chapter of The Geography of Genius, a splendidly written first-person investigation of the connection between place and ideas. The author, Eric Weiner, is a long-time foreign correspondent and travel writer, so you can imagine the beautiful language and imagery.

Anyway, the first chapter is an investigation of ancient Athens. Why was this one place the progenitor of so much we take for granted — art, science, finance, literature, philosophy, and politics etc.? This is especially remarkable given the short span of Athen’s golden age, and that it wasn’t the richest or biggest of the Greek states.

The Athenians were particularly creative — dare I say, innovative. And the reason why comes back to something I’ve written about before — they had a lot of raw material. Athens was an incredibly open place, it’s people travelling widely, and, extraordinarily for the time, foreigners were allowed to come and thrive. All of these influences came together and mixed, illustrating deficiencies not immediately apparent to locals, surfacing solutions from far and wide.

“The ancient Greeks didn’t invent much at all. They were, in fact, tremendous moochers. They borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians. They felt no shame in their intellectual pilfering. The Athenians, for all their many flaws (see slavery and treatment of women), didn’t suffer from the Not Invented Here complex.”

“This willingness to borrow, steal, and embellish distinguished Athens from its neighbors. Athenians were more open to foreign ideas and, in the final analysis, more open-minded. At the symposia, they enjoyed the poetry of outsiders as much as that of locals. They incorporated many foreign words into their vocabulary and even began wearing foreign clothes. Athens was both Greek and foreign, in much the way that New York is an American city and not.”

At one point, Weiner very clearly links this openness and cross-pollination to commerce. Something we can see in some of today’s more interesting technology companies — Transferwise, WhatsApp, and Telegram were all founded by immigrants and exiles, largely solving problems not evident in their new homes. Nevertheless, they bring an incredible amount of wealth and expertise. Would any of these countries be better for locking them out?

The reverse example is also present, as evidenced by Facebook’s spectacular failure to bring Free Basics to India, largely thanks to a lack of cultural awareness. Diversity is an incredibly powerful facet in the creation and dissemination of ideas. Even if you don’t immediately benefit from the diversity, you may do so indirectly — you might not get a job with Facebook, but your life is undoubtedly richer from greater access to friends and family.

“The Athenians, master shipbuilders and sailors, journeyed to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and beyond and brought back every good imaginable. Embedded in those goods were some stowaways: ideas.”

“Ideas insert themselves into the fiber of merchandise and lie dormant until a careful observer unlocks them. This is why authoritarian regimes that believe they can open their economies but not their politics are fooling themselves. It may take a while, but eventually these subversive ideas, embedded in a can of tomato soup or a pair of Crocs, squirm free.”

One of my favourite classes during university was a history of China, a central theme being the country’s cycles of expansion and isolation, and the accompanying booms and busts. Similarly, it can be argued that much of America’s success over the past hundred years comes from its immigration policy, its openness. Its being built on an idea, rather than a foundation of race, ethnicity or religion. We have so much evidence that openness works, that closing doors is nothing more than self harm.

Unfortunately, much of these issues are viewed through a zero-sum lens. Each additional immigrant is feared as a source of more competition, rather than for any of the number of benefits they provide. As fellow consumers, helping to foster demand and bring economies of scale. As more-mobile workers, smoothing out booms and busts throughout he country. And, maybe more importantly, as a source of diversity, helping us plug gaps, learn from the countless natural experiments going on, and enriching our culture. Taking in more refugees and immigrants isn’t just a moral concern, we are all the beneficiaries of millennia of mixing cultures.

Cheers, Mr Feynman.

I’ve recently entered the mind of a genius. It’s a book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a weird amalgam of biography and autobiography of Richard Feynman. Feynman, Nobel prize winner and popular science communicator, was an insatiably curious character – my train trip home was spent in wonderment at a series of experiments he did on ants, using Rube Goldberg-esque tests to try and figure out how they communicate with each other. But his antics extended far beyond this, to safe cracking, bongo playing and much more.

But it’s a short anecdote from early in his studies that really grabbed my attention this morning. Feynman, then a graduate physics student at Princeton, decided to take a course in biology. Because of course he did. Given a paper to read and present to the class, his reaction is brilliant.

”When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.
The other students in the class interrupt me: ‘We know all that!’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.’ They had wasted all their time memorising stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.’”

That the way we educate, test, live and learn is broken, is not a new argument on this blog. But consider the context of this reaction. This is Feynman in the early 1940s. When knowledge was still locked away in expensive books, guarded by jealous librarians. Long before search engines, hyperlinks, the mass digitisation of books and online encyclopaedias. Yet Feynman was already decrying our fetishisation of memorisation over understanding.

What excuse do we have now?

”I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

The race I’m watching this election cycle

Australia is mired in a most dreary election. It’s not Trump v. Hillary bad. We’ve only got to sit through this for five more weeks, for starters. But it’s hardly the battle for hearts, minds and souls that we deserve.

On the surface, it has a lot to do with the players. Malcolm Turnbull, the last great hope of many Australian progressives, has been successfully tamed by his backbenchers. Bill Shorten was never really liked and is largely running on a platform of not being Turnbull.

The parties themselves aren’t much better. They’ve long given up attempting to rouse their partisans with positive rhetoric or ideas. All pretence of vision and grand design is absent. Issue after issue becomes a principle-less race to the bottom, reflecting our worst, base instincts, rather than seeking to guide or tame them. And let’s not even start on the wholesale lack of ideology in our political system. The major parties are now so similar, the only real difference between them is they are, in fact, two distinct legal entities.

As with America and elsewhere, into this void comes the populists. In our case it’s former Australian Idol host James Mathison. Mathison is running in the seat of Warringah, seeking to unseat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott has held the seat for over two decades, holding it by a large margin. But as with most safe seats in this country, he may have taken his electorate for granted.

“I don’t have any political experience, but you know, if political experience means that you deceive the public and means that you break promises and means that you never say what you mean, then maybe we need someone who doesn’t have ‘political experience’,” Mathison said.

On the whole, I am not much impressed with arguments against political experience. “Regular people” may be less corrupt than career politicians, at least initially, but there are big tradeoffs. Outsiders don’t have the benefits of institutional knowledge, connections, campaign and political machinery. Without long-term incentives of a career in politics, there is little impetus to compromise and the achievable. As we’ve seen recently in America with the rise of the tea party, a bunch of ideological rogues with an inflated sense of mission can cause a tremendous amount of harm.

Further, power and position corrupt. Just think of the Senate Cross benchers’ dummy spit over the recent voting reforms. After being voted in on minuscule first-preference votes, they somehow come away with an incredible sense of ownership over their positions. As if they had the Mandate of Heaven.

Despite all of this, I am going to be watching Mathison’s race intently. He probably won’t win, but he has sufficient fame to achieve Trumpian levels of free media. And he appears to have some genuine grievances to raise — the broken promises alluded to in the above quote. Apparently, Abbott’s electoral history is littered with the dashed hopes of the poor burgers of Warringah. If Mathison gains even a little traction, there may be some hope that voters care about local issues, that our representatives are more than very expensive proxy votes for a party leader.

Mathison, like the few independents that have been successfully elected, may also be able to shift the discourse. I don’t mean onto certain issues — Mathison has already promised to run on issues important to younger generations. I’m looking to see if he can shift the discussion away from the focus group-zapped platitudes and slogans of the major parties, and on to the powerful messaging of the likes of Xenophon, Palmer and even Trump. If there’s anything politicians the world-over should learn from Trump, is that we all see through them. And it’s frustrating as hell.

Lastly, Abbott’s reaction will be interesting. Safe seats are some of the biggest pox on our democracy — a prime cause of our unrepresentative elections, as politicians focus most of their time, resources and promises on the small section of society who haven’t given away all their power. Someone with a profile as big as Mathison will be bound to sap some of the vote, from both parties. They will need to react. As I said, Mathison won’t win. But he is shaping up to be an interesting experiment.

What I’ve learned from three months away from Twitter

It’s three months now since I decided to be Twitter free. As a journalist, it’s an invaluable source. As a rabid news consumer, it’s a peerless recommendation engine. But as a person, it’s terrible. Sucking you in. Mercilessly consuming any and every spare moment. I needed a break. As I wrote a week after my decision:

“…from an information diet perspective, Twitter’s feed is worse than Facebook’s. Sure, if you do it right, Twitter is less about emotional blackmail. But the barriers are far lower. Thoughts are less curated. The firehose effect is worse. No matter how curated your feed, sheer volume leads to a whole bunch of crap. So, about a week ago, I decided to take a break.”

Three months in, I can’t see myself going back. Disconnecting from Twitter has been amazing. Sure, I’m less in the know than before. But that’s a feature, not a bug.

Breaking the direct link between myself and the world’s mercurial hive-mind was glorious. I’ve gotten off the rollercoaster. My worries narrowing to only that which I am truly affected by, can impact, or care about. I don’t find myself wildly lurching from outrage to joy. Maddened, sickened or uplifted by inconsequential crap, surfaced by an opaque, yet seemingly ubiquitous, set of rules and custom.

It’s only when you take a step back from the mob that you really see how capricious it is. Was the world dramatically improved by the mob justice felt by Justine Sacco? Were we much enlighten by the days-long debate over the colour of a stupid dress? Following Batkid in real time was incredible, but the constant churn is just exhausting. Emotionally and intellectually.

And where did any of these stories end up? What happened to the people? Who knows. They were chewed up and spit out. We had our fun, were successfully distracted from our own thoughts, and are happy to ignore collateral damage.

The last three months, on the other hand, were oh so peaceful. I haven’t been party to any summary lynchings. The stories I’ve consumed, the events I’ve tracked, were filtered and came with context. As much as possible in a media landscape riven by clickbait and journalists with little subject knowledge, I haven’t had my time wasted by pabulum.

And all of this time has been put to good use. I’ve been interacting with more stories of consequence, reading more books and magazines. I’ve started Geocaching — a new hobby I hope to write about, and made headway with experiments in aquaponics, coffee and photography.

Caught up in the maelstrom of Startups and tech, it’s really easy to forget that the new isn’t always better, that there was often purpose to the old way of doing things beyond a lack of options. Twitter is a perfect exemplar. In this case, the old way means not drowning in the collective id of 300 million people. The old way is better.

   
   

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