Friday, September 22, 2017

Deep Dives

For the first half of the 20th century, major league baseball was segregated by race -- not by any written rule, but by a "gentleman's agreement" among owners and league executives to not give any African-American player a real shot at a contract or spot on any team.

But baseball was too much of an American pastime to keep Americans out of it, even Americans segregated, marginalized and derided for the color of their skin. And so the Negro Leagues were born, lasting as an organization from roughly the first of the century through a few years after Jackie Robinson re-integrated the major leagues in 1947. Several biographies and histories of the teams and stars of the Negro League teams tell the stories of the game and its impact on segregated African-American urban life -- that strange parallel existence by which entire cities and cultural structures grew up in the areas to which the people had been confined. Black doctors, black businesses, black hotels, black restaurants and so on formed a complete society that rarely needed white support to survive. Black baseball was a part of this structure, and so was a black press that reported on it. Media professor Brian Carroll has written two books on the relationship between the African-American press and Negro League baseball, of which 2015's The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915-1955: A Devil’s Bargain is the second. It focuses on several "slices" of the overall half-century story rather than laying it out in detail, using them as a way to understand the complicated relationship.

On the one hand, Negro League owners and executives saw the black press as a booster for what they were doing. The news outlets of a particular city had a responsibility to make that city's team look good. The initial chapter, which covers the way that individual newspapers enlisted on different sides of owner fights in 1915, shows how this quickly reduced them to owner mouthpieces (Indianapolis and Chicago papers allowed the different team owners a column to respond to each other in print).

Reporters for black newspapers agreed with this to some extent. Carroll highlights the history of the Negro League's "East-West Classic" and the way that papers and writers trumpeted its financial success and cultural demonstration of black equality. The way that the Classic's gate outdrew the competing Major League All-Star game some years features prominently in their writing. Their boosterism during Robinson's first season ignored a reality that the job was harder on him than anyone knew.

But increasingly, reporters and editors used their platform to argue and work for the integration of American society, including baseball. And as Carroll notes, the success of their efforts spelled the end of the Negro Leagues, as major league owners classified its teams as independent operators and simply raided the best talent. Aspiring young black ballplayers set their sights on major league uniforms and joined major league farm systems, leaving black fans with less and less reason to support separate teams that reminded them of their marginalized past. Carroll closes the book with a chapter on the role of the black press in pushing for desegregation in spring training facilities in the American South during the 1960s, the last remnant of official racial separation in baseball. The "devil's bargain" of the subtitle refers to the way that when the goal of official integration came to pass, it consigned to history the teams so important to 20th century black culture.

The Black Press is a little dry in tone, less so in describing the colorful feud of the first chapter than elsewhere. The Routledge Press sports history research format confines Carroll to relatively few pages and probably helps drive the vignette structure of the book. So although he brings to light an important part of American sports and press history, a fuller treatment will also be welcome whenever it arrives.
Mathematics has always had two main branches -- applied and what is often called "pure." Applied math is what we do when we figure how much paint we need for a certain size of wall or try to balance our checkbook. It's also found in physics, design and engineering work. "Pure" math usually describes work with formulas or equations that are being used in the abstract. Their numerals or variables don't refer to any physical measurements or qualities. Work in this field can seem as much philosophy as math and, at least in the time of the ancient Greek originators of some of its fields, functioned the same way.

In fact, for some groups like students of Pythagoras, math and geometry were as much religion as anything else. When advances in calculation and working materials in the mid and late 1800's led to a resurgence of abstract math, a number of folks revived its connection to religion as well. Daniel J. Cohen in 2007's Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith traces the rise of this trend as well as its eventual end as mathematicians worked to professionalize their discipline.

Cohen starts by showing how the largely unchanging equations and laws of math offered security to a lot of folks bewildered by the rapid pace of technological change during the 19th century. Equations related to each other and their concepts moved and changed completely independently of things that happened in the "real world." The relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle was the same whether the triangle was drawn on paper or existed only in the mind of the person thinking about it. This regularity in abstraction appealed to intellectual folks who were also devoted people of faith, as it seemed to offer a parallel to their religious understandings.

Cohen focuses on a handful of professors at schools in the United States and England, and the way their interest in math began to dominate their religious thinking and philosophy as well. They're all Unitarians or in some cases Deists, as those branches of faith had stronger appeal for the highly educated men involved in this loose movement. Some are names less well-known today than in their time, although George Boole's work in logic during the 1850s led to a lot of the concepts underlying modern computing and what's called "Boolean logic" in search engines. It's how you use AND or NOT in a search window to limit the results. Both Boole and his contemporary Augustus De Morgan used their pattern of logical formulation to describe their religious ideas and to try to falsify those of some opponents.

The end of the wave came as mathematicians moved to set themselves on a more professional footing, in part to reduce the attention they were having to pay to people who came up with flawed "solutions" to unsolvable problems, like the exact value of π. But the only way they could distance it and support the idea that mathematics was its own discipline was to trim away its connection to others, including theology. Narrow minds in both fields pushed against the idea of bridges between them and helped contribute to a supposed gulf between faith and science or scientific ideas that many accept as real today.

Cohen doesn't have a tight focus on the non-mathematical aspects of his subjects lives, and although the biographical details humanize them he doesn't always draw clear connections between the facts he includes and their bearing on the math-theology connection which his book is supposed to explore. DeMorgan especially was prone to feuds with other scientists, such as Michael Faraday, and we don't learn exactly why the details of it bear on the central idea. To some extent Boole and certainly De Morgan aren't really religious as much as they are spiritual or metaphysical, but they do apply their work to some religious themes.

But math can hold the same appeal for the intellectual and religious today as it did in the 19th century, and so Equations offers a quick picture of a time when the idea of a religious scientist was not the oxymoron limited thinkers would hold it to be today.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Eternal September

Am NPR story from earlier this month relates the history of Earth Wind and Fire's "September," a 1978 hit that is one of the evergreens of the dance floor, radio playlist or windows-down volume-up drives down a sunlit boulevard.

Writer Dan Charnas tells the story of how the song was written, how it got its "ba-di-ya" chorus and why the specific date referenced is the 21st. According to the headline, the main purpose of the story is to explain the song's longevity and its popularity. Charnas' story is a cool little slice of history, but the headline is asks the wrong question. We don't need to read a retrospective on "September" to understand why it's lasted so long and why people will still groove to it 39 years later. We just have to push "play:"

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Can't Stop the Signal

"May have been the losing side...still not convinced it was the wrong one."

--Malcolm Reynolds, five hundred years from now

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Today's Text

A reading, suitably interpreted for the day:

Aye th' Lord be my Cap’n, I’ve all that I need.

He puts a wind abaft th' beam; he sets a course f’r smooth waters; he sets me heart at ease. Sure an’ once ‘tis all done we do give him honor for it.

Even though I’ll sail in th’ roughest seas, I be fearin’ no lee shore, f’r his hand on th’ wheel is sure, an’ ne’er do we miss stays.

Never in life does he stop our grog f’r nothing, an' sees he we’ve all et well afore there’s a row; we’ve prize money an’ booty t’ spare.

Surely ‘tis blessing an’ favor all me days, an’ I shall sail in his crew ‘til th’ waves close over me head an' beyond.

Th' word o' the Cap'n f'r th' people o' th' Cap'n;


Monday, September 18, 2017

Empty Screens

This guy is smack on the money about how hard it is to watch an older movie on Netflix's streaming service.

Zach Schonfeld writing at Newsweek points out the very limited selection the streaming service has when it comes to movies made before 1970. I switched when the gym where I used to live got wi-fi and it was easier to stream something onto my tablet on the treadmill. But I'm thinking about switching back or maybe trading out for one of the other services Schonfeld mentions. And for that matter, everything he says about classic older movies goes and maybe even double for international movies. It's not hard to exhaust the catalogue in your fave genre if you even just want to catch two or three a week.

Netflix has some of the same misconceptions that a lot of modern culture seems to when it comes to these classics. Most of today's great directors started out on a diet of those iconic movies and it inspired their own creative visions. As bad as the screen scene is today, I shudder to think of what it might be like if future filmmakers get moved to study the craft based on a menu of Will Farrell, Judd Apatow and David Gordon Green.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Strong Constitution

On this day in 1787, 39 men signed a document outlining the new method by which the United States would govern itself. The initial Articles of Confederation had proved unworkable, and delegates had been meeting to hash out a new proposal. Sept. 17 was their final meeting, at which they signed the document in order for it to be sent out to states to be ratified.

So today we celebrate Constitution Day, with a little bit of melancholy at the realization that most of the political figures who take an oath to uphold and defend said Constitution see it mostly as a tool to be used rather than rules and limits to be followed. But this was probably bound to happen; the Constitution may be great but it's not magic or anything. And it would probably take a supernatural force to bring their attention to what that document says they should and should not do.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Test Pattern

The worn-out Friar got his tartan on at the Oklahoma Scotfest in Tulsa and listened to some great music, so he will return tomorrow.