Sunday, October 02, 2011

Is the Polar Bear the Earth's Canary? With Cameos by San Antonio Water and Moneyball

Canaries were an early warning signal of low oxygen levels for coal miners.
[T]hough low-tech, [canaries were] extremely effective and rather easy to read: if the bird died,  miners had to get out of the shaft. .  .

The bright yellow canary birds were an early coal miner's life insurance policy. Carried below ground in cages, the animals' highly sensitive metabolism detected methane and carbon monoxide gas traces that signaled potential explosions, poisoned air or both.  [from petcaretips]
It's just possible that polar bears are now playing that same role for the earth.  Global climate change naysayers argue that the changes we have to make to save the polar bear aren't worth it.  For those people who think taking polar bears to extinction is just the cost of human 'civilization,'  I'd propose the idea that it isn't just for the bears we take precautions, it's for all the others who live on earth as well.  Like the canaries, the polar bears are simply in a part of the world that is being affected by the consequences of human activity in a dramatic way earlier than other animals and plants and humans.

We're all susceptible to resistance to change.  We don't like our routines disturbed.  We don't like people challenging our world views.  And if we've established a comfortable life, we don't want that threatened.  If one's comfortable life is based on resource extraction and one's world view sees free market capitalism as the answer to all of humanity's problems, then the idea of resource - particularly fossil fuel based resources - consumption reduction is a threat to what one believes and how one lives.

Of course, everyone's life style is threatened by weaning human beings off of fossil fuels.  Even many environmental activists probably have no idea of all the implications of pulling back on our use of traditional energy sources.  But the word 'threatened' is loaded.  It suggests that the consequences will be bad.  I would argue that they will be different, and yes, the change over time will bring uncertainty and, for many, discomfort, even severe discomfort.  But climate change will also bring those things.

So, the question is:  Why do some people see the obvious long term consequences early on and others do not?   And why don't some people ever see the obvious? 

There are lots of examples of changing 'truths' over the last 50 years.  When I started graduate school in the 1970s students and teachers smoked in seminar rooms.  There was a lot of resistance to banning indoor smoking.  But I think today most people appreciate the cigarette-smoke-free indoor air we breath.  And most people put on their seat belts without even thinking about it, but these and other mandatory auto safety rules were resisted strongly.  Tobacco and auto  companies didn't want the government telling them what to do.  Consumers, they argued, weren't going to pay more for amenities like seatbelts.   But it turns out that lung cancer deaths have dropped and so have car deaths.  It's not just lives that were saved, but lots and lots of money.
According to an '02 report by the NHTSA, between 1976 and 2002 seatbelts prevented 135,000 fatalities and 3.8 million injuries - saving an amazing $585 billion in medical and related costs. Their report states if everyone had used seat belts during this period, nearly 315,000 deaths and 5.2 million injuries could have been prevented, saving roughly $913 billion. [from a business group that has a vested interest in preventing injuries and deaths from car accidents]

Saturday NPR had a story about San Antonio's water supply.   By cleaning and recycling waste water, through an aquifer storage system, and through working with businesses, San Antonio's goal is to reduce water usage by 1 billion gallons a year.  Sea World, according to the report, has already cut its water usage from 8 million gallons a month to 4 million. 
"Guz says it started in the early '90s when the Sierra Club sued the city in federal court to protect an endangered species — the blind salamander — that lived in the water supply of the Edwards Aquifer.
When the judged ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, San Antonio politicians and newspapers spitted with rage. Twenty years later, the current San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro says his city has learned the judge was right."
Sound familiar to anyone?  Our Governor here in Alaska may not be spitting, but he and his Department of Natural Resources officials are voicing the same sort of outrage over the change of status of the polar bear and the beluga whale.  Life as they know it is threatened.  But they don't have the imagination to envision a way to adapt so that we save the polar bear, the beluga whale, and move to a better overall solution - as the people in San Antonio, according to the NPR story, have done.  They're not willing to think bigger and longer term to find a way for humans, belugas, and polar bears to all live.  Is it just lack of imagination?  Or maybe the governor has been hanging around the oil industry so long that he's bending to the same sort of peer pressure that causes high school students to do stupid things.

After all,  Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources Joe Balash this summer essentially told folks that the biggest dangers Alaska faces due to global warming are the climate change prevention regulations coming out of Washington DC. 

So, all this was in my head when we saw Moneyball Saturday afternoon.  Here was yet another example of resisting change and sticking to 'the way we've always done it."

Billy Beane, former big league ball player, is now General Manager of the Oakland A's, a low rent, small-market team that can't compete with other teams for big stars.  As he listens to his scouts go over prospects for the year using Old Scouts' Tales ("he's got an ugly girlfriend, which shows he has no confidence") to justify their picks, Beane gets impatient.  Scouts told him when he graduated from high school that he had all five qualities a ball player needed and made an offer that lured him away from a full scholarship to Stanford.  And he failed miserably in the majors.

So he hires Paul Brand (the original script uses his real name Paul DePodesta), a numbers whiz who uses a computer program that evaluates ball players on an array of statistics.  Beane's coaches are appalled.  You can't pick players on a computer.  You're throwing away our decades of experience and wisdom.  But, Beane argues, we can't pick players like the Yankees do because we don't have their money.  And Brand has software that analyzes stats that really matter so they can put together a team of people who get on base - even if it's just by getting walked. They're looking for the overlooked gems that they can get cheap. 

The connection here is that like with the introduction of new ways of thinking about how 'we've always done it' in other areas - smoking, water, seat belts, global warming, etc. - there is plenty of resistance.  Red Sox manager, John Henry, explains* that the new system threatens all they know, threatens their jobs, so of course they resist it.   And at first it looks like they're right.  The team is terrible.  But then they go on the longest winning streak ever in baseball.  Even though they don't get into the World Series, John Henry points out that the Yankees paid about $1.2 million per win while the A's paid about $200K per win.

The Red Sox then use the system to get their first World Series championship in 86 years.

New ways of thinking are always resisted the most by people with the most invested in the status quo.  Some human beings can do amazing things.   Some humans also can be really dumb.  (And smart humans can sometimes do dumb things and dumb humans can sometimes do exactly the right thing.)  We can shift society and economies and energy use in ways that give people comfortable lives and that allow the other animals and plants we share the planet with to survive as well.  Whether the people with smarts and imagination will prevail over the people with ambition, power,  and vested interests in the status quo remains to be seen.

*Caveats and other extras that I left out because I didn't want to totally hide the key points with side comments:  While writing positively about the use of quantitative techniques to find better ball teams, I couldn't help but also think about my skepticism over how No Child Left Behind (NCLB) uses quantitative techniques to evaluate schools.  Teachers and their unions often use the same kinds of responses the coaches used in the movie.  "But the numbers can't tell what's really happening."  I've often pointed to the uniqueness of baseball in class when having students come up with personal work measures.  Baseball has lots of things you can keep good track of.  And those stats are easy to track during a game.  It's also possible to keep better track of teachers and schools, but it's a lot harder than with ball players.  I want to make it clear - I believe that good quantitative techniques, used intelligently and in good faith, take us a long way, but they aren't a panacea.  Given the kinds of numbers NLCB  tracks (as well as the kinds that aren't tracked) and the emphasis on identifying failed public schools and closing them down I understand why some people believe its intent is to destroy public schools.   The irony here is that many liberals agree that public schools are in big trouble, that they are fundamentally flawed.  But not that the answer is to push everyone into private schools using publicly funded vouchers.  As I said, I believe in using numbers, but they have to be the right numbers for the right reasons.   In fact, inthe movie, the computer generated team was going down in flames until Beane used some old fashion human relationship work to get the players working as a team. 

Also, in the movie, Red Sox owner John Henry's gives Beane a great explanation why the rest of the league is fighting him over the new system.  I tried to find the script online so I could post his words.  It summarizes a lot of what I'm trying to say here about resistance to change.  But the only online Moneyball script I could find was an earlier one by Steven Zaillian and revised by Stephen Soderbergh.  It didn't have that mini-speech in it.  In fact things were a lot different.  For example, Beane went to visit him in Boca Raton, not Boston. I guess they just wanted those shots of Fenway Park.  The film almost got scuttled when Columbia executives saw the Soderbergh script. 


  1. Today's word, Jay, is patience. The elf who carries the comments from the basement and then posts them here on the blog probably got caught up in the moonshadows, or perhaps he heard a raven croaking.

    But, eventually he got all four posted.

    And yes, when blogger switched to its automatic spam catcher, it also put a limit on the size of comments. I got caught on that when they did that. There were complaints on the appropriate forum, but we can't turn the limit on or off.

    So, if your comment is long, copy it before hitting the post button. If it jams, then post it in two or more installments. Or rewrite it as a haiku. :)

  2. Thanks for the reply, Steve. I sometimes want to really dig deep and reply at length for sake of the ideas needing to be engaged. Virtual community does have its limitations. By the way, I'm enrolled on a one-year level one gardening course here in London. I NEVER thought I'ld love gardening but with losing Alaska's wilds, a back garden is what one has to hand -- the wilds on a micro level. And so, I add the practical study of nature with my continuing university studies.

    Recently, I took up reading work on evolutionary psychology. I can only hope Ropi reads more widely than economics to see other contributors of human behaviour (and consequently transactions). Social theory has other constructs than the acquisition of necessities.

    We've had nearly two weeks of 27C+ sunny weather. Our English neighbours are grumbling and hoping for the return of proper rainy, cold misery!

  3. Jay, it should be easier. I've gotten rid of the traces of your, now, self-deleted posts.

    Evolutionary psychology offers explanations of things that answer cleanly many questions I've pondered.

    Enjoy the warm weather while it lasts.

  4. Regarding the designed-to-fail No Child Left Behind program: The problem is NOT with the schools!

    It's due to a society that no longer celebrates intellectual activities or sanctions rudeness and bad behavior.

    It's due to poor or inept parenting, including a lack of training in good manners and polite behavior, a lack of willingness to help with homework, a lack of parental insistence that children work hard and try to exceed expectations, and lax discipline of their children.

    We've got to stop blaming the schools and teachers and start promoting good parenting. We can't expect the schools to compensate for the effects of urban life and poor parenting on the students.

  5. Harpboy - You pushed one of my buttons this time.

    It's amazing how the liberals had all these serious problems with schools for a long time. Until Conservatives had problems. Then liberals begin to say the schools are fine.

    The Conservative problems seem to be that the schools are public and they can't control the message completely.

    But that doesn't make public schools a good thing. Think Pink Flood. Schools work for kids who match the model student the curriculum/teacher is aimed at. But if not, the schools are mediocre to terrible. Part of it is mass production for teaching kids who are each unique. Part is a lot of bad teachers. Or even good teachers, but good for certain kinds of kids (depends on the teacher which kind.) Our schools are not made for kids who don't come in ready to get the high left brain dose of college prep training. Or kids whose developmental age isn't the same as their chronological age. And for the most part schools are authoritarian and bureaucratic. Good training grounds for obedient employees.

    Some kids can get a good education in our current public schools. A lot of kids just don't fit the mold they're forced into. It breaks both the mold and the kid.

    It would be nice if kids came prepared and their parents helped them, but that's not the world we're in. It's a problem. But those kids are there. We can let them grind down the schools or we can adjust to teach the kids that come. And those neglected kids are hungry for love and attention. They can be reached. But stuck in a room with 30 others, they aren't going to get it.

    Then there are the kids who are mentally and socially so far off the scale that they shouldn't be in regular classes and schools. A serious societal problem. Setting up vouchers for private schools who don't take these kids, gets good kids out of the public schools and leaves the hardest to teach.

    I agree schools aren't as bad as the Conservatives say - certainly not for the things the conservatives don't like. On the other hand, in some ways the schools are worse than the conservatives say.


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