Striking a Balance

The Sports Economist has an interesting post that suggests the calling of balls and strikes in baseball resembles a probability density function in that "the probability that a pitch will be called a strike depends on where it is." In other words, "how pitches in the middle of the strike zone are almost certain to be called strikes, how pitches near edge of the strike zone are much less likely to be called strikes, and how pitches outside the strike zone still have some probability of being called strikes."

This supported an earlier argument on the same blog that baseball ought to become more like tennis in its usage of sophisticated electronics systems to help make strike zone judgment calls.

Obviously, the question becomes "Why?". Why is it so crucial to eliminate that margin of error in the human umpire? The easy answer is that modern sport has philosophical pressures of rationally-measured Truth. And with the billions of dollars at stake in pro sport, the pressures of Truth become magnified to an even greater degree.

TSE reader Robert Schwartz has an interesting take on why these electronic systems will never be implemented, which is a twist on my ludic luddite argument:

The reason that Baseball won't get rid of umpires is that they are part of the game. Baseball tells stories about umpires past and present. The Game would be impovrished [sic] if the umps were replaced by machines.

You will note that there has been little agitation for instant replay in baseball unlike football. But football is specticale [sic] and it does not depend on story and memory. Baseball exists outside of secular time and means nothing without its past and its stories.

Related: QuesTec

All The World's A Stage

danah boyd has some interesting thoughts on youth and celebrity culture:

If you follow Goffman, everyone has a tension between the frontstage (that which they show publicly) and the backstage (that which is reserved). This is where a lot of the public/private persona negotiation comes into play. Yet, it is always assumed that access to the backstage is inherently privileged, deeply desirable. Of course, this gets magnified in celebrity culture.

. . .

With both kids and celebrity, i think that the problem partially lies in the idea that the performance is being interpreted not in the performer's terms but in the terms of the audience. Adults typically read youth as "young adults" - a population who has just not yet matured and will one day see the way. [Barrie Thorne does an amazing job of challenging this and arguing for conceptualizing kid/youth culture on kid/youth terms.] But in the typical American construction of both populations, there's a deep desire to reread kids/celebrities from the perspective of the audience, as though they owe something to the audience - the future, entertainment, etc. The failure to own their own voice, to have their voices represent something larger than life alienates the individual, makes them feel nonexistent. When people speak about not being understood, their referencing how they feel objectified and othered.

There's a tension in having a voice. On one hand, people want their opinions and thoughts to have agency, to speak to a broad set of issues, to represent groups of people. On the other, they want to be voicing their own stories, not just being an icon for a broader population. This tension is difficult to resolve because it's simultaneously empowering and disempowering.

Virtualizing Base Impulses

I've felt for a long time that many cultural innovations ultimately stem from two very base impulses: sex and aggression. So it is no surprise to me that along with the military advances I have described recently, I bring you this story from the porn industry (via Wired):

If you've ever fantasized about having sex with Jenna Jameson, your dream is virtually within your grasp.

XStream3D Multimedia has released VirtuallyJenna [nsfw], the first iteration of a sex-simulation game that will eventually feature a number of adult contract stars from Club Jenna and Vivid.

The game has a deceptively simple goal: Bring Jenna to orgasm. You have several tools to help you achieve this, ranging from sex toys to male and female sex partners to a disembodied hand reminiscent of Thing from The Addams Family.

Of course, porn has very little to do with sex. Of course, porn has been at the forefront of almost every medium of communication invented, so its appearance in games is hardly a surprise.

The similarities to a sports videogame are striking: create a character from a menu of features, put it into action situations with a concrete outcome objective, and then control the action with uncertain outcome elements involved. One wonders if this design was intentional, given the demographics involved.

In Open Sky, Paul Virilio describes how the automobile driver, once upon a time in contact with the open air and engine cacophony, has been closed right into a tight cybernetic coupling with the machine. "How can we fail to see that the love relationship will suffer exactly the same fate, with the cybernetic steering of disunited lovers?" he asks, and the VirtuallyJenna game (along with other advances in teledildonics) seems to bear this out.

But that isn't the only thing at play here. Like other videogames, VirtuallyJenna allows the player to choose from various different camera angles — including a first-person look from the perspective of Jameson herself. This is consistent with the manufacture of digital identities I have discussed earlier, but raises an interesting question. There is a paradoxical quality to being able to shift back and forth from third-person to first-person perspectives: who is being manipulated and who is having the orgasm and what is the sense of Self during this process?

A Response to Florida

One of the current memes floating around right now is the so-called "creative class" concept. Coined by author Richard Florida, the "creative class" is a group of idea-creators from art, science, design, etc. that is identified as the primary economic engine as we move further into an information age. Florida's "creative class" could be seen as a more populist version of Wark's "hacker class".

A short sample from a recent interview with Florida (italics mine):

Salon: Your first book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," was so optimistic about the potential of what you termed the "creative economy," but this new book is almost alarmist in nature. You argue that the U.S. is facing a potentially crippling economic crisis if it doesn't improve the ways in which it attracts and retains creative workers.

Florida: I've studied competitiveness for 25 years and the current economic threat is by far the gravest competitive threat to ever face the United States. It's far more significant than the challenge posed by Japanese or Asian competition in the '90s because it's aimed at the crux of our advantage, which is our ability to attract the best and brightest talent. Everyone is frightened of letting terrorists into the country when it's actually more likely that they're keeping out the next Einstein. Look at the amount of attention given to Social Security, look at the attention given to building football stadiums — and you can't even get a conversation going about attracting and retaining talent!

This is not the first time I have noted Florida railing against the sportocracy here at sportsBabel. My ideas have finally coalesced somewhat, and I can say that though I understand the point that Florida is trying to make, I have two main problems with his anti-pro-sport argument.

First, I think he perpetuates, from the art side of the debate, an art versus sport binary, which frankly is most damaging to athletes in sport. Both sides share co-operative and competitive qualities, both offer creativity and a sense of being-in-the-moment, both have outcomes that may produce objects of consumption further down the road. Are you telling me that Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady don't have the creative genius of the great artists, the sense of space, time and body awareness that elevates them from other mere basketball players? Please.

The second is a minor quibble regarding his "maintaining talent" thesis. True, the United States is finding an increasing number of manufacturing jobs move overseas to locales where the labour costs are lower, and has for some time. What is relatively new, however, is the growing number of blue and white collar information jobs that are moving, via the Internet, to Europe and Singapore and developing nations such as China and India. What he fails to note from a sports perspective, though, is that these departures have created a vacuum in American production, which exerts a tremendous pull towards the only manufacturing sector that cannot be outsourced — the cultural production of American spectacle. In the professional sports world, the United States is a net importer of labour. This warrants mention.

A Manual Trackback


[Aside] David Wallace-Wells, editor of the "Today's Blogs" section at Slate magazine — which promises 'Five Million Blogs in Five Minutes' — quoted sportsBabel on Friday in a piece on the Google Maps/Area 51 meme:

At OMG-The Daily Slice, Brad Thomas wonders, "If we can see this, what do our enemies see?" Sean Smith has been reading his Foucault and is more spooked by American surveillance: "[I]f satellite imaging of this high quality is what is commercially available as a bare-bones free service, then how amazing is the technology being used by the surveillance elites?"

Thanks for the mention, David! Come back soon …


Military Technology Update

Noah Shachtman's Defense Tech has had a lot of good material lately on the evolution of the cyborg soldier and other military technologies. First, a piece describing the screaming speed at which advances in thought-controlled robotic limbs and prosthetics are coming to the battleground.

Next, links to stories about clothing and cream for commandos to cloak their thermal registers and escape detection from cheap, commercially available thermal cameras.

Finally, he describes a new free fall navigation system to be used during HALO jumps, which connects GPS to a head-mounted visual display and PDA mission planner, in order to be able to hit targets in low-visibility conditions, such as inclement weather. Objectification: "The navigation system for jumpers runs off of many of the same technologies being used to make precision cargo airdrops."

On a slightly different note, DT discusses the new Google Maps satellite imaging technology (which is super cool, by the way). In this particular case, it is possible to see into the U.S. military's infamous "Area 51".

This raises two questions for me: One, what does this say about the relationship between the corporation and the state? And two, if satellite imaging of this high quality is what is commercially available as a bare-bones free service, then how amazing is the technology being used by the surveillance elites?

Given the parallels of modern discipline that Foucault illustrated between the factory, the school, the barracks and the prison — and that others have drawn with the stadium — I believe it is important to keep examining them as we emerge further into the digital age, and try to compare them with sport if and when possible.