The Children of Silicon Valley

From the NYR:

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you.

How Tom Emanski Changed Baseball… and then Disappeared

From Fox Sports:

In the summer of 1990, nearly two-dozen youth baseball teams from around the nation gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, for the fourth annual Amateur Athletic Union National Championship tournament. The six-day affair pitted the best 12-and-under ballplayers in the country against each other, and the heavy favorites, the Vipers from Oklahoma City, had won 92 games while losing only eight. According to the local scuttlebutt, they arrived in town wearing 1990 AAU National Champions T-shirts.

The Vipers’€™ first scheduled opponent — a disparate collection of 10 boys from three different Little League programs in central Florida —€” was not intimidated by such bluster. These kids were so composed that they pulled off one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports.

Sporting donated blue pinstriped uniforms with their town name splashed in red across the chest, these newbies from the south defeated the Vipers, 8-4, on that opening day. They would knock down more opponents one by one — Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and still others — but then had to play the Oklahoma City Vipers again just to reach the championship game.

They beat them down one more time, 4-3, and with an 11-1 win over another team from Oklahoma the following day, the AAU national title belonged to the team representing little Maitland, Florida.

As the players stood along the first-base line and waited to collect their medals, their coach —€” an intense 42-year-old who’€™d worked as a Major League Baseball scout and preferred V-neck sweaters, khakis, and brown loafers to a manager’€™s usual garb —€” clamped a scorebook under his left arm and clapped. For him, this championship validated a coaching career spent searching for validation, for the video-based analysis and research that he’€™d pioneered, for the techniques he was told were too radical.

Little did Tom Emanski know that AAU teams produced by his instructional academy would win two more championships in the next two years. And that his series of TV commercials, designed to sell a line of baseball instructional videos, would go national and ride the wave of these back-to-back-to-backAAU titles, making him both comfortably rich and somewhat famous. Tens of thousands of times over a decade, people watching any number of sports on TV could usually expect to see one name pop up during a given commercial break: Emanski. A sweetheart deal kept the commercials on the air and the orders rolling in, thereby ensuring that an entire generation of ballplayers grew up with Tom Emanski as the coach they never met.

But at the height of Emanski’€™s commercial success, nearly everything came to a full stop. Today, his academy is long shuttered, the ads relegated to memories and YouTube. Emanski himself has disappeared from public view. Some of his old coaches and employees haven’t spoken to him in 10 or even 15 years, but they still tell the story of a competitive, brilliant, and intensely private person who spent his career bent on proving his theories on baseball fundamentals and then, just when he’d garnered the very validation he’€™d been chasing, essentially declared he’d had enough.

The only tangible remnant of Emanski’s legacy is the collection of his instructional videos, nine films immune to aging. They remain the clearest window into the life of America’s most underrated and underappreciated baseball nerd, a stathead who saw the flaws in baseball that few others did … and set about convincing millions that there was a better way to play the game.

The videos remain a fine (if superficial) basis for appreciating Emanski’€™s insights. But there is so much more.

How Turbans Helped African-Americans During Jim Crow

From NPR:

Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne was getting a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the ’20s. Originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he traveled around America lecturing on the need to abolish the caste system and on India’s push for independence from the British, among other topics.

In a recent article about Gooneratne, Desai notes that visiting scholars from Asia and Africa, like Gooneratne, were startled to encounter anti-black discrimination. But some of these people, who were lugging around colonial baggage from their own countries, found a way around racism.

Gooneratne, for one, used his turban while traveling in the Jim Crow South to avoid harassment, and advised others to do the same, Desai writes.

“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Desai quotes Gooneratne as saying. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”

If you’re interested in this topic, a professor at my alma mater has written a fantastic book on how American racism influenced our foreign policy throughout the 20th century.

Downwardly Mobile for Jesus

Somehow I missed this story, featuring occasional Mere O writer Matt Loftus, when I did the urbanism roundup:

BALTIMORE, Md. — At the corner of Laurens Street and Fulton Avenue, a man watches Matthew Loftus walk by with his 21-month-old daughter, Naomi, strapped to his back. “She got big!” the man says.

Loftus, 27, says something friendly back, but he’s not sure who the man is. “My eyesight is actually really bad,” he says.

As he runs an errand in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, people notice Loftus before he notices them. On Presstman Street, where Loftus rented before buying a home several blocks away, a young girl in a school uniform smiles and says, “I see you’re visiting the old neighborhood.” A group of men playing cards on the corner asks about the rabbits that he and his wife, Maggie Loftus, 25, were raising the last time they saw him. In front of a Monroe Street car wash, a man spies Naomi. “She still gorgeous!” he says. “Tell your wife I said hi.”

For his neighbors, Matthew Loftus is hard to miss, no matter their eyesight. He is white in a nearly all-black neighborhood. Like much of West Baltimore, Sandtown faces relentless poverty, addiction and violence. Six hours after Loftus’ afternoon stroll in late May, three men were shot just down the street from the car wash.

For a brief while, though, as Loftus walks through the neighborhood, it feels like a small town.

Littlejohn on Piketty


To say that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has become a sensation would be a bit of a cliché at this point. The French economist’s 700-page analysis of wealth and inequality over the past three centuries has dominated not merely the financial press, but the popular press as well since its March appearance in English translation. By late April, the book had rocketed to #1 on Amazon (of all genres) and was sold out (my own copy took three weeks to arrive); a month later, it seized the coveted #1 spot on the relevant NYT best-seller list, a position it held for a month. The blogosphere has been buzzing all this while with reviews, critiques, rebuttals, praise, slanders, and occasionally bewilderment. All of this for an academic work of economics, an unheard-of feat, and one that warrants even the attention of theologians, a group not particularly known for their attentiveness to economics.

Of course, that is in part because Piketty’s book is not really an academic book–and I say that in the sense of a compliment, rather than an insult. While it is full of charts and graphs and numbers, it is readily comprehensible to the general educated public, and few, if any, sections require formal economics training to comprehend.  It is also an engrossing read–at some points, even a page-turner. Piketty’s writing (and the translation provided by Arthur Goldhammer) may rarely rise to the threshold of eloquence, but it is remarkably lucid, smooth, and engaging, with an understated wit that occasionally flashes forth in biting sarcasm. It is also considerably more culturally literate than one would expect; Piketty frequently illustrates his observations about wealth and society by reference to film and literature, most notably the nineteenth-century novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, to which he has recourse throughout.

The Culture Warrior in Winter

From the National Journal:

Today, Land is a long way from Washington—416 miles to be exact. He says he had 10 job offers after he went public with his retirement plans, but none were in Southern Baptist life. Eventually, he started a new job as president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary, located in a suburban enclave outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Only 22 years old, SES is a tiny institution, with an undergraduate and graduate population of just 350 students—a majority of them online only—and a recent graduating class of 43.

In early May, I spent a day with Land at the seminary. He was vague on the details of his typical schedule at SES, preferring to wax poetic about the busy years he spent in his former position. But he was also quick to note that he doesn’t miss the travel, the hectic agenda, or “having to give instantaneous answers—to very complex questions, without any warning—to the media.” Plus, he added, “I don’t miss having 44,500 bosses”—a reference to the approximate number of Southern Baptist churches operating during his tenure.

JKAS on the Modern Wedding

Jamie Smith, channeling David Brooks a bit, I think:

Tis the season to make weekend forays to events that will light up Facebook and swamp Instagram with a deluge of sepia photographs. Years of hopes pinned on Pinterest will become a reality as we dance long into the night.

Nope, it’s not Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo.

It’s your cousin’s wedding.

The excitement has been building ever since that first Facebook post—the one with the video of him proposing to her against the industrial-chic backdrop of the Brooklyn Navy Yard while a band with beards and lots of banjos “surprised” them with a serenade. The video went viral, of course, so the bar was raised for the wedding itself. The invitations arrived encased in 1950s cigar tins, featured overlapping images of their tattoos on handmade paper, complete with vintage postage stamps for your RSVP. The wedding will be catered by Korean taco food trucks and that band is going to play an encore, but with more mandolins, under candle-lit canopies draped with hops as everyone enjoys the groom’s craft beer. The wedding has its own tumblr and its own hashtag. And everyone goes home with their own mouth organ inscribed with the bride and groom’s names.

No one will forget this day, mostly because it will be scrupulously photographed, posted, shared, tweeted, and uploaded. And as we all know: the Internet never forgets.

The Decline of Sports Writing

From Pacific Standard:

The hot take is ruining sports writing. If the hot take is a foreign phrase to you, don’t worry, you’ve read one before. They are published en masse after any seemingly scandalous sports story. They are usually written on tight deadlines with little research or reporting, and even less thought.

Writing a hot take is simple. Start with an easy target—any athlete accused of doing anything “bad” will do—channel the aggrieved, paternalistic wails of your least favorite news anchor drunk on paranoia and privilege, dismiss nuance and insight at every opportunity, and close with some nonsensical pap about tradition, or responsibility, or America.

A recent apex example of the form came via Jeff Passan, the lead baseball columnist for Yahoo! SportsThe easy target was Ryan Braun, an all-star and MVP outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers who was suspended 65 games by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. The extent and specifics of Braun’s presumed cheating remain, at best, vague, but Passan still wrote about him with the same level of humanity Hunter S. Thompson afforded his obituary of Richard Nixon.

The History of the Chuck Taylor

From WBUR, Boston’s NPR station:

Millions of people around the world wear Chuck Taylor’s name on their ankles every day. His signature has appeared on the high-top, canvas All Star sneakers since 1932.

In Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., there’s a steady stream of college students, tourists, hipsters … and Chuck Taylors. On a sunny October afternoon, Morgan Goldstein was sporting a multi-colored pair of high tops. The 23-year-old has owned several pairs of All Stars.

“They’re comfortable. They’re classic,” Goldstein said. “My parents wore them. My mom thinks it’s weird that I’m still wearing them because that’s what she wore when she was a kid.”

Aleem Ahmed, 29, was wearing black low-tops. Ahmed has no problem explaining why he likes the sneakers, but like most Chucks owners, he’s less certain about Taylor’s story.

“I only know him from the sneakers. Maybe he has a skateboarding background? I don’t know,” he said.

Abraham Aamidor wrote a biography of Taylor published in 2006 titled Chuck Taylor, All Star.

“It became like Betty Crocker in a sense. If you were a cook, you knew the name Betty Crocker. There was no such person as Betty Crocker. But there really was such a person as Chuck Taylor. Most Americans didn’t know that,” Aamdior said. “People who were buying his shoes by the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and beyond, they just thought of Chuck Taylor as a brand. His brand grew with the shoe even as his persona, the real persona, was lost.”

3 Books on Technology and Cultural Change

Given the launch of Kindle Unlimited, now seems a good time to recommend three books that look at how technology is changing the way we read and receive stories:

The first to recommend is Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. There are three things I particularly admire about this book: First, Jacobs addresses technological shifts (and really does take them seriously) without resorting to lots of handwringing and alarmism. Second, he reminds his readers that reading ought to be fun. This is particularly useful in a book like his because the sort of person who picks up a book with such a title is likely the same sort of person who has read How to Read a Book or Amusing Ourselves to Death and has taken some really bad lessons from both. Jacobs’ book is a great antidote to that. Third, Jacobs’ loyalty is to the written word, not to any single device we might use for reading. So he manages to speak intelligently about codices (conventional books) as well as Kindles and other e-readers. (As long as you’re reading him, you should also read his lecture “Christianity and the Future of the Book.”)

The second I’d recommend is Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. It’s not a perfect book and if you only are going to read one of my recommendations, read Jacobs. But Johnson’s book is an interesting and engaging look at how pop culture is getting smarter and how technological innovations have helped make that happen. For Berry-loving luddite-types like myself, this is a really helpful counter. (His discussion of TV shows is especially good and helps explain the marked increase in quality we’ve seen on TV in the past 10-15 years.)

The third is Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect. Maushart is a single mom living in western Australia who decided to unplug in her house for six months–and she took her children along for the ride. This is a fun read because you get to hear first-hand how the experience changed her and her kids and how they brought screen devices back into their home after the six months ended. She also looks at different research that has been done on the effects screen devices have on us. It’s a breezy, fun read that still manages to teach its readers something interesting and helpful.