Sunday, April 22, 2007

Reading: Freakonomics, iWoz & The Blindside

Read three books this month: Steven Levitt's (with Stephen Dubner) "Freakonomics," "iWoz," the eponymous autobio by Apple legend Steve Wozniak, and Michael Lewis', "The Blindside: Evolution of a Game."

"Freakonomics" comes much ballyhoo-ed for its thesis of connecting disparate phenomena, such as Roe v. Wade having a major impact upon the drop in crime during the 90's. Now, I have to admit in full disclosure when I first got pitched "Freakonomics" my initial reaction was to just stay away, cuz frankly, it's not an original thesis by a long shot.

What Levitt is really getting at is contingency. In science evolutionary biology has been talking about this for forever, most notably and popularly, the great Stephen Jay Gould. But it's not an original thesis in art by a longshot either. Everyone from Breton and the Dadaists/Surrealists, most notably Bunuel, to Tom Twyker's, RUN LOLA RUN.

In psychology there's Freudian free association and the many Surrealist games, such as "medium," (where Robert Desnos and Rene Crevel excelled at going into "trances" and speaking or writing disparate "nonsense"), or "cadavre exquis," based upon the children's game of taking a sentence, committing it to paper, folding it over, having another person write the next sentence below it, folding it over, and repeating. It's really fun to play with kids and can even be done with pictures.

What, I suppose, attracted the many readers of "Freakonomics" was the "explanation" of events. Thus, Roe v. Wade prevented many babies being born into economically challenged environments in the 70's. Babies, furthermore, that would have been adolescent age in the 90's and statistically much more prone to violent crime.

Now, that on the face of it makes for sorta interesting reading, but after reading the many examples Levitt provides - "What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?", or, "How is the Ku Klux Klan like a Group of Real Estate Agents?" - I was reminded of something very wise that Jerry Farber said about how academics are always studying the pathologies of the "criminal" like gang activity, drug pushing, pimping, etc., but will never commit time and money to studying the political assumptions of the top 10% of the economically empowered and their effects upon society.

Perhaps a more sober - and tragic - example of contingency exists in the mass media reporting of the 32 murdered at Virginia Tech this week - randomness in bloody effect. These murders dominated and overwhelmed the mass media here in the states.

OF COURSE those murders were a tragic example of our crazy society, but meanwhile, on Wednesday alone, at the height of the media frenzy over the VT shootings, Iraq suffered one of the deadliest weeks ever - 5 car bombs alone killing over six times as many killed at VT, maiming who knows how many others. And bringing a country already crippled on its knees belly down on the ground, with insurgents, terrorists and even loyal Baathists all joining in the melee. It is beyond civil war, because there is nothing but hopelessness and chaos with no end in sight except misery.

And then there's this back at home; big insurance companies are now re-examining claims put forth by some of the Katrina victims.

I don't condone it, but I certainly understand why, with a media structure such as ours, certain things are brought to light, and others remain in the background. So to you readers who observe us from afar, know that what's being perpetrated here is a form of mind-control unprecedented in history - far beyond Goebbels.

I rant because if ever there was a case of contingency, the one between mass media reporting and American ignorance and hubris deserves examination. Actually, Chomsky and Herman have already done it. But while Bill Safire gets placed in the NY Times, Chomsky is relegated to the intellectual ghetto.

At any rate, I got tired of "Freakonomics" and its "novel" approach.


"iWoz" was fun. Many complain of Woz's propensity for chest thumping. It can get a bit much, I admit, but for me, what was more annoying was his terminal cheeriness. His self-described "floating head" that's always happy. Quite frankly I look at his childhood in suburbia withe the white collar engineering dad and the June Cleaver stay at home mom, and shudder. In fact, it was that exact conformity that the flower children were at least in part rebelling against.

I've never been an Apple user, but I respect the hell out of the two Steves. And while "Hackers" is still the gold standard re-telling of the tech revolution, if you've an interest in computers you'll grin reading this.


Last but most is Michael Lewis's brilliant "The Blindside: Evolution of a Game."

At once the story of Michael Oher, who at age 16 was 6'5", 350+ lbs., posted 4.6 in the 40, and was the left (offensive) tackle prodigy - and thus the book's title - and arguably the most coveted high school recruit to big time college football in the nation at his time. But "The Blindside" is much, much more than the telling of a sports prodigy.

For starters, Michael Oher lived largely on the streets, and had been doing so for some 5 years. Childrens Services finally just gave up trying to locate him. And of course he wasn't going to school and was illiterate.

So, it delves into some sociology, the institutional aspects of black poverty and governmental inability and refusal to address the deep rooted pathologies of inner city urban settings and, moreover, our nation's blind eye toward them.

But then it weaves in detailed recountings of football strategy, how for right-handed quarterbacks, the blindside (left) was becoming a gamble that teams couldn't afford to take anymore - they had to address it. The reason? The player who single-handedly changed the game - and the economics of the game - of modern pro football; "LT."

Simply, Lawrence Taylor changed the way football was played. He was so big and strong he was hard at best to contend with, but it was his speed that changed everything. What Bo Jackson did for big strong and fast running backs, LT did for linebackers.

As a consequence, head coaches and offensive coordinators throughout the NFL were losing sleep over LT nightmares. I recall ultra vividly the sight of Joe Theismann's leg bending as a result of LT's fury; it was rubber-like, and a real sickening feeling accompanied that visual.

That all would eventually give rise to Bill Walsh's rebuttal, the so-called "West Coast Offense" (actually originating with Larry "Air" Coryell's San Diego Chargers) and the ascendancy of the left tackle to protect a team's most valuable investment, the quarterback. Specifically, the qb's blindside...

For those who like HBO's "Real Sports" this book is a dream. On top of that, Lewis is such a great writer... it's a tough combo to beat. His "Liar's Poker" was also excellent.

There's SO much going on in this book but it's written so well and thought out so deftly that it's deceptive. If you don't like sports, particularly American football, then nothing here will convince you.

Honestly, this is one of the best books I've read in the past 2 or 3 years, bar none.