What is making me happy: my dissertation

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.


I am in many ways a throwback. Some of the historical questions that interest me haven’t been reviewed in decades. I prefer to walk, my cellphone does not have a data package. I have neither a television nor a microwave. I read books in physical form, printouts of articles, take notes by hand and do a lot of my writing with pen and paper, including this post. Each of these is part of my personality, but none is haphazardly chosen. If there is a cheaper, more efficient, or more beneficial way to accomplish my goals, then I am amenable to change. Being an anachronism is not incompatible with being open to change and being open to change does not mean embracing change for the sake of change. At some point there does need to be a limit, but one should not be so intractable that change is opposed for its own sake. The corollary to my demotivational shirt “Tradition” [1] could read Change: if it worked, why did you try to fix it? The key here is that while changing something that works is a good way to make it cease working, refusing to change something because of your tradition is a good way to be relegated to irrelevance.

With such an introduction, I could easy be talking about academia, but I am actually talking about baseball. I love baseball and have for two decades or more, whether playing or watching or just keeping tabs on what goes on. For most of that time I have been a fan of the Minnesota Twins and I certainly enjoyed the run of success the team had for a good part of the last decade. But the Twins have been awful–I mean, one of the worst handful of teams awful–for the past three years. There are some good players in the minor league system, but not enough (or at the right positions) to make up for the glaring weaknesses on the major league roster. The worst part of this situation is that the Twins refuse to adjust or make changes. Not change for the sake of change or even radical changes like firing a coach before his contract is up, but little things like platooning players [2] or not renewing the contract of a manager who has not been able to maximize what is an admittedly bad roster for three years running. Drafting well and a good defensive team with an elite pitcher covered up some of the weaknesses in team philosophy for some time, but the current roster cannot do that, so to hear the manager and the front office bluntly declare that platooning players is not something they would even consider doing is infuriating. I suspect that they believe in being loyal to “their guys” and that sitting someone too often could destroy their confidence, or something like that, but it comes across as a lack of concern for winning–or even putting players in a position to succeed.

Beyond winning and losing, the thing that frustrates me most about baseball is just how anecdotal and conservative it is, particularly in large swathes of the media and on the field. I do not claim to be on the cutting edge of baseball knowledge or even to know what statistics go into the calculation of WAR [3] or what all of the other statistics mean, but I was easily reconciled to the idea that OBP [4] is the most important offensive statistic, while RBIs [5] are a statistic almost exclusively dependent on the ability of teammates to get on base ahead of the batter and the Triple Crown, while rare and a nice story, is a comparative achievement rather than a statement about how well a player performed that year. [6]

Run scoring and run prevention are the keys to baseball, after all, the team with the most runs at the end of the game wins, but while all teams agree on this premise, some deny the component parts of run scoring and run prevention. What is frustrating is watching your team fall so far behind the curve that it makes you question in what scenario they would consider change. What they are doing is stupid. It is incredibly stupid and the change they are refusing to make is not for the sake of change. It is for the sake of winning. A maximized lineup would not have made the Twins a team with a winning record this year, but it might have eked out seven wins, which would have meant that the Twins avoided the third straight 90 loss season. It is one thing if, like the Astros, you tear down the team to start over with the draft. The Astros do not have the talent to compete, though they are considered one of the more progressive teams with their current management. That is one thing, it is another if you stink and refuse to change, the situation the Twins seem to be in.

As an afterthought, baseball, just like all professional sports, is a business. We like to talk about sports as though it is a pastime, rooting for our teams, purchasing their gear, and getting lost in the excitement of the spectacle, but it is still a legal monopoly. It is slow to change as the owners seek to maximize their control and their profits and the players seek every edge both to win and to be rewarded with ever larger contracts. This is the cynical angle, but it is there. What keeps the passion alive and the illusion that the fans and the team are in it together intact is the unified desire to win. There is a constructed connection where if the team seems to be trying–even if the team is bad–then the fans can be there for the team. As a result, the owners can profit. The cycle the Twins are in right now comes across as a greater betrayal because it reads like they are refusing to even try.

[1] Given to me by my father, it reads “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

[2] Playing batters who hit left-handed pitching well in against left-handed pitchers while sitting batters who struggle to hit left-handed pitching, and vice-versa.

[3] Wins above replacement–a measure of roughly how well a player performs in all aspects of the game (batting/fielding/baserunning for position players, pitching/fielding for pitchers) against a baseline “replacement player. No statistic is perfect, particularly when it comes to defense, and some facets of the game are not or are not yet quantifiable, but allows for a relative gauge to easy see how players are doing relative to each other.

[4] On base percentage — how often a player gets on base or, negatively, how infrequently he makes an out. In baseball there is, fundamentally, one finite quantity from which all others derive. Each team gets twenty seven outs in a regulation game, in three out segments. Sure, there are other measurements and finite quantities (e.g. three strikes and you’re out), but it all comes back to the outs. A high OBP minimizes the number of outs created by that player and therefore a high OBP team is able to maximize opportunity to score.

[5] Runs batted in– “run producers” are those batters who are supposedly better at causing runs to score. They are only able to drive themselves in with a home run, though, and the rest of the runs scored are by the men on base ahead of them. The issue here is that most of the RBIs are a feature of opportunity, rather than a preternatural ability of batters to create runs. Runs are important, but the RBI statistic glosses over how the runs are actually created.

[6] Note that Miguel Cabrera had better hitting seasons to either side of his actual triple crown (AVG – HR – RBI) victory.

Assorted Links

  • Chinese Textiles from Palmyra– From Dorothy King’s PhDiva, some color pictures of Chinese silks found in Palmyra.
  • Academic Groupthink and the Power of Randomness– A discussion by Neville Morley about invitation-only academic workshops. His basic point is that invitation-only events tend to support a limited group of students and scholars, while marginalizing everyone else.
  • The Historicity of the Hall of Fame Debate– A discussion of historiography and the baseball hall of fame by way of responding to the group of people determined to maintain “the integrity” of the institution by excluding those who cheated…also known as everyone who played in the 1990s and most of the 2000s. His point is much as mine has been (and why I would put Pete Rose in the hall, though I can understand the lifetime ban so long as he is put in posthumously), which is that the hall of fame is both a record of the game and a memorial to the greatest players of each generation. The game of baseball is what it was at the time and no amount of omission will change that. Put them in and then you can have a debate about what narrative is presented with the plaque–are we going to remember Mark McGwire for chasing and then breaking the single season home run record or for steroids (or both)? That should be the debate, not whether or not he should be in the hall of fame, any more than the height of the mound, size of ballparks or a game without an emphasis on home runs at all should be held against players of other eras.
  • History With a Beer ChaserA nice story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a reading and writing group of the sort I crave.
  • The end of Homework?-Discussion in the New Yorker about the potential of eliminating homework in schools on the grounds that it does not provide a significant benefit for test scores and is universally despised. The author suggests that providing extra-curricular activities–music lessons, sports programs, museum trips, etc– for students through the schools (so that the financial burden does not fall on the parents) in place of homework would allow for the elimination of homework for everyone (since the opponents are affluent parents). For some types of classes this idea works well. For others, there is a need for homework (paper writing once students reach a certain age, and certainly reading books) because there is simply not enough time in class for students to read entire novels or even news/history articles that should expand their awareness beyond what the teacher says–one of the dangers of a lecture based education that dominates history at all levels. Moreover, while the idea of more extra-curricular activities is a good one, there needs to be more imagination to meet the needs of rural schools for whom museum trips is not feasible, as well as more education funding to pay people to lead these activities.
  • Assorted Links

    1. The Writing Revolution– From the Atlantic, this information that every educator, particularly those in the humanities, should take to heart. In short, it is the realization that schools have been failing to teach students how to logically compose their thoughts and use their own native language. Once the problem is identified, educators have begun to systematically teach language and writing composition from a young age. This is something I very much support since I often feel the need to teach this information to my students who have reached college without being able to write. Likewise, I feel that teaching these underlying skills will best prepare students for life.
    2. Anti-Japan protests: Outrage to a point– An article in the economist about a series of protests in China about Japan. Some of the people involved suspect that mixed in with the ever-present and historic tension between Japan and China is suppressed social unrest in China.
    3. Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer-A rosy account of the catcher Joe Mauer and his efforts to overcome injuries.
    4. Western Lifestyle Leading to Dangerous Bacterial Imbalances– An article in Spiegel suggesting that western lifestyles are leading to a number of health issues because essential bacteria transfers and growths are not taking place.
    5. Want to Change Academic Publishing?– An article in the Chronicle suggesting that academics should stop giving away labor to for-profit publishers on behalf of peer reviewed journals. The author’s idea is that work done for journals put out by non-profit presses could be considered pro bono, but if the press is in the business of making money (and limiting access to articles), then doing the work pro bono is absurd. Publishing peer reviewed writing is the toughest publishing job by academics and is done without immediate financial reward. I am not sure that a change is viable, at least in the short term, because articles help earn jobs so there is a sort of financial gain obliquely.
    6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?