IT’S SUMMERTIME! LET’S TALK BASEBALL: IT’S MORE THAN JUST A GAME

First, full disclosure. I love baseball. I was born 2 blocks from Wrigley Field and walked to Cub games alone when I was 7 and sat in the bleachers. As a lifetime Cub fan it’s a mixed blessing- a life of both affection and affliction. Happily, the Cubs are having another good year and the White Sox are resurging. Baseball is a fun game for sure, but it’s more than just a game. This week’s Economist’s article “Baseball and Exceptionalism” examines how our national pastime reflects America’s desire to be different and successful.

You may have heard that a young man named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday later was credited with firing the first shot for the Union at Ft. Sumter and became a Civil War hero.

Actually, that story is untrue. Doubleday was at West Point in 1839 and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. The Doubleday myth was created by A.J. Spalding, a sporting goods magnate. In the 1930s the National Baseball Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown. However, if you visit Cooperstown today, you’ll see a plaque admitting that the Doubleday myth is untrue.

The real history of baseball, like many things, is more complicated than that. References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the American Revolution. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games; cricket and rounders. However, American promoters in the 19th century, including Mr. Spalding, saw political and commercial profits to be gained from promoting a uniquely American game that was both different and exceptional. Actually, no surprise, American baseball teams raided cricket clubs (Philadelphia for example had 100 such clubs) for players, while the great American poet Walt Whitman proclaimed “Baseball is our game- the American game.”

Anglophobia, stirred by Britain’s trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War, pushed the issue. Alarmed by the persistent claim that baseball was invented by the English, Spalding bankrolled a commission, fueled by “patriotism and research” to produce a better explanation. The Doubleday myth was the result.

For Spalding and many Americans then and now, baseball was (and is) more than just a game. It reflects the triumphs, defeats and tensions of our nation. American baseball is the story of our country over the last 150 years. A common endeavor, yet with periodic problems and disputes between communities, owners and workers, and cultures. Mexicans, Irish, Jewish and African Americans saw baseball as a point of entry to American culture. Author Philip Roth called baseball “this game that I loved with all my heart, not simply for the fun of playing it…but for the mythic and aesthetic dimension it could give to a boy’s life in participating in a core part of America.”

The Economist makes three very good points about Americans creating, and in many cases still believing, the untrue Doubleday myth about our national pastime. First, America is often less exceptional- because, like baseball, it is more of a “European- accented hybrid”- than it considers itself to be. Second, there are costs to self-deception such as isolation in sport and otherwise. For example, right now 2 billion people are avidly watching the Cricket World Cup while baseball remains basically an American game. Third, our country’s belief in our exceptionalism may be at the core of our achievements. Believing you are different and exceptional increases your confidence and that can produce greater success.

Henry Ford is known not only for his fantastic success with his automobile empire but also for his great quotes. I really like this one: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t- you’re right.” Henry Ford inspired Americans to be more confident-exceptional and different- and therefore more successful. Spalding’s myth about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball isn’t true, but certainly has helped Americans believe that we are exceptional and different and this had helped lead to many of our successes.

And, now, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Computers and Technology- A Current Potpourri

Gary Kasparov

Gary Kasparov has always interested me.  Born in the Soviet Union, he was a world champion chess player from 1985-2005.  He has long been a vocal activist opposing Putin’s policies. Today Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation in NY.  But perhaps he is best remembered for what happened on May 11, 1997.  That day he “resigned” and became the first world chess champion to be beaten by a machine-IBM’s Deep Blue.

Newsweek’s cover article the next week called the match “The Brain’s Last Stand.”  As no surprise, Mr. Kasparov hated losing, but over the last twenty years, after learning more, he became convinced that we need to stop “seeing intelligent machines as our rivals.”  They are not a threat, but help provide great opportunities to extend our capabilities and improve our lives.

While most of us won’t face head-to-head competition with a computer the way Mr. Kasparov did, many Americans will be challenged, surpassed and replaced by automation.  Every profession will eventually feel the pressure and that’s what we should expect as humanity makes progress.  We shouldn’t fight it.  Here’s Mr. Kasparov’s analogy: “Waxing nostalgic about jobs lost to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many gravediggers out of work.”

The human vs. machine narrative was a major topic during the Industrial Revolution.  In the 60s and 70s, robots starting replacing union workers and then in the 80s and 90s the information revolution eliminated millions of jobs in the service and support industries.  There is no going back.

Learning to Think Like a Computer

President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative was launched in 2016 and focuses on expanding computer science knowledge by learning how to code.  Kindergarten students are now learning using wooden blocks.  The blocks have bar codes with the instructions such as “forward,” “spin” and “shake” that are used to program robots.  By sequencing the blocks and having the robot scan in information, the children are directing the actions of the robot.  Studies show that after the kids have learned to program the robots, they become better at sequencing picture stories, or even listing the steps required to brush their teeth.

The job market is hungry for coders.  Since 2011, computer science majors have doubled. At Stanford, Tufts and Princeton, it’s the most popular major.  And, even non-majors are cramming into computer science classes.  Learning to think like a computer can help all of us in our daily lives. In addition, the digital age has brought us great access to information.

Steve Ballmer’s Treasure Chest of Real Data

You may remember Steve Ballmer as Bill Gates’s right hand man and CEO at Microsoft from 2000-2014. Or as the high bidder ($2 billion) of the LA Clippers basketball team in 2014.   A few years ago, he started a website, USAFacts.org designed to answer in detail the question:  “What does government do with all the money we taxpayers send it?”  He wanted to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.  The site, USAFacts.org, went live yesterday.

In an age of fake news and accusations about manipulating data to fit biases, Mr. Ballmer’s website is a welcome resource. Certainly, people can come to different opinions on the same subject, but shouldn’t they at least start with the same believable common data?  USAFacts.org was designed to do that.

There is lots of interesting data from 70 government sources.  Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets?  And what percentage of Americans suffer from depression? It’s there. Here’s a good one: how many people do you think work for government in the U.S.?  Remember, this includes those in education, the military, law enforcement, government hospitals, etc.  Answer: 24 million.  Take a look.  You’ll like it.

Think Like a 94-year Old

Lastly, many over the age of 70 think that they were born too late to be part of the computer/tech revolution.  Someone forgot to tell that to 94-year-old John Goodenough.  Mr. Goodenough’s team at the University of Texas has just filed a patent application for a new battery that would be so cheap, lightweight, and safe it would revolutionize electric cars and put an end to petroleum-fueled vehicles.  This is not Mr. Goodenough’s first major patent. In 1980, at age 57, he co-invented the tiny lithium-ion battery.

As a society, we often tend to assume creativity declines with age.  Yet, some people actually become more creative as they grow older.  In the U.S., the highest-value patents often come from inventors over the age of 55.  Mr. Goodenough figures it this way: “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to put ideas together.”  He also said that his old age gave him intellectual freedom.  At 94, he said, “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

Conclusion

For those of us of all ages, computers and technology should be our friends, not our enemies.  With the information it provides and our continued learning and lifetime experiences, hopefully we will all benefit from the great digital age in which we live.  Here at DWM, we embrace technology and strive to make our processes as automated, robust and efficient as possible.  However, we recognize that some of the most important aspects of our work are accomplished through personal interactions with our clients and friends.  Don’t worry-we have no plans to have one of Deep Blue’s cousins doing that favorite part of our job for us.

“Quiet Time”- Throughout the Year

Quiet timeSummertime is a great time to rejuvenate one’s batteries.  Maybe even a chance to get away from email for a while. It may be that “quiet time” is needed year round. Quiet time spawns creativity. And creativity can generate innovation, which is in short supply in the world.

A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that emails are a major problem these days. Many workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them. 80% keep working after leaving the office, 69% can’t go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work emails at the dinner table. “Please pass me the salad and my iPhone.”

We all thought the internet would produce a huge productivity miracle. It hasn’t happened- at least not yet. Last year, Professor Robert Gordon of NorthwesternUniversity, in a controversial essay, outlined why he believes that the impact of computers and the internet is much smaller than industrial revolutions from 1750 until 1900, which gave us steam engines, indoor plumbing, electricity, highways, efficient factories, automobiles and air conditioning. Dr. Gordon even suggests that the tremendous economic progress of the last 250 years may have been a “blip” in human history.

The internet has changed industries forever such as retailing, music and publishing. Consumers have benefited from lower prices. It has made it easier for workers to unchain themselves from their office desk. Yet, according to a report by Smithers & Co, the GDP per hour in the U.S. has grown at a rate of only 0.3% per year since 2010, compared to a 1.5% annual rate for the 20 years before then. Productivity tends to fall in recessions, but this has been a recovery.

Professor Robert Shiller (co-founder of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices) authored an excellent article Sunday in the NYT entitled “Why Innovation is Still Capitalism’s Star.” Dr. Shiller said it well, “Capitalism is culture. To sustain it, laws and institutions are important, but the more fundamental role is played by the basic human spirit of independence and initiative; the importance of an entrepreneurial culture.” Dr. Shiller quoted Professor Edmund Phelps, a Nobel laureate, who suggests that in free-market capitalism, “from 10,000 business ideas, 1,000 firms are founded, 100 receive venture capital, 20 go on to raise capital in a initial public offering, and two become market leaders.”

Certainly, there are lots of business gurus who suggest we all can get more work done. We can “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg. We can conduct “Business at the Speed of Now” with John Bernard. And, you can “Book Yourself Solid” with Michael Port. Alternatively, we might take Ronald Reagan’s approach to work. As we know, President Reagan believed in not overdoing things: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody,” he said, “but I figure, why take the chance?” Queen Victoria’s prime minister, Lord Melbourne, extolled the virtues of “masterful inactivity.” And Jack Welch, while CEO at GE, spent an hour each day in what he called “looking out the window time.”

The world needs more innovations. Innovations come from creative people. Creative people need big chunks of uninterrupted time to think. Schumpeter in The Economist suggested that “leaning in” may not be the right strategy, but perhaps should be replaced with “leaning back”. Perhaps we all need to not only savor our “quiet time” during summer, but also fight tenaciously to maintain it throughout the year.