Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Cultural Diversions: Genius 

"I wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can't control it." -- Jeff Tweedy, on Wilco's 2004 album A Ghost Is Born

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." -- Thomas Alva Edison

Another three-fer of reviews, loosely linked by the idea that genius, or at least a great idea, masks a tremendous amount of work behind it...

The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz. I decided to read the book after reading a fairly glowing review by Joe Sheehan in BP. (In retrospect, it feels somewhat like a plug, since BP is praised in the book.) Overall, the book is good, not great. The book can be roughly split into three sections:

-- Part One, in which we realize that most of the great statistical ideas (or at least concepts) were discussed, oh, a century ago.
-- Part Two, in which people realize you can make a living from this sabermetrician stuff and, as a result, they can get worked up about it.
-- Part Three, in which they just talk about the numbers.

Part One is kinda cool. Part Two can get tiring. In both parts, you realize just how much went into coming up with statistical analysis in the pre-microcomputer era. Imagine cranking out expected runs charts... with a pencil and paper. Part Three (the last 3 chapters) is awesome. The book is well worth checking out of the library just for those last 3 chapters -- to some extent, the chapters just cover ground many amateur sabermetricians (and, obviously, professional ones) are familiar with, but as a brief survey, it's really good. I especially liked the chapter on luck, how much power randomness has.

Garden State At 29 years old, Zach Braff was best known for his role on the TV series Scrubs, which is one of those few TV shows I'd probably watch if I actually watched TV. But now with Garden State, a whole new world has opened up for him. He wrote and directed the movie, and is in just about every scene. As a writing/directorial debut, it ranks well above the Ed Burns of the world, and much closer to the Wes Andersons and David Russells of the world. The central conceit of the movie, that we can control what happens to us in our lives, is opposed to the idea of luck. It could also serve as a stand-in for what must have been a lot of work on Braff's part to get the movie made. At times, it seems little more than a standard self-realization plot grafted onto some genuinely odd and hilarious sketches of mid-20-something life. But it's still moving and it's filmed with not a small amount of visual flair. Special kudos to the soundtrack -- any movie willing not only to play the Shins not once, but twice, let alone actually name-check them is OK in my book. I'm sure my head-bopping during the scenes in which their music plays must've confused the people behind me.

Learning How To Die, by Greg Kot. This biography of the rock band Wilco and its founder Jeff Tweedy is probably for fans only. Since I'm a fan, I enjoyed the book, but near the end, when the book spends almost all of its time on the revolving door of Wilco bandmates and record company problems and very little time on the music created during that time, my attention flagged. (Kot's occasional lapses into meaningless rock-crit babble don't help, but if talking about what it's like to play music is hard, talking about what it's like to listen to it is even harder.) To some extent, the Tweedy quotation above on randomness strikes me as ironic, because it's clear in the book that over the 20 or so years Tweedy's spent making music for a living, he's learned to take control of his musical destiny.

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