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On The Limits of Counting 7 min read

On The Limits of Counting

Sports and records, plus creating art through grief, OpenAI, John Gregory Dunne on screenwriting, 50 years of Stephen King, Furiosa, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

It’s been two weeks since I sent out this newsletter. That’s mostly because I decided to take Memorial Day weekend off, like the rest of the country. 

While I was away, my girlfriend and I went to a St. Louis Cardinals game. It was her first-ever MLB game, and it was a great one: 4-3 Cardinals over the Cubs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the beauty of sports since that evening. We saw undeniably beautiful plays that any Major League game can provide on a given night. But I don’t think there was anything particularly momentous or record-breaking about either team’s performance. 

The MLB just righted a longstanding wrong: stats from the Negro Leagues are considered part of the MLB’s record books. This was long overdue, and it’s a great development that young kids will now grow up memorizing stats that include names like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. 

I no doubt grew up in that way, equating my ability to recall stats as a signifier of my fandom, and this was years before the stats-focused data-driven trends that now pervade sports discourse.

Even though the stats are now more complete and honest, I’m more aware than ever of their limitations.

Yes, stats are the timeless measurements we’ve created for ourselves to document the careers of athletes we love. They remain incredibly effective of giving quantitative representations of careers, seasons, and even games. (Baseball especially loves to count things; everything that could be counted and tracked most assuredly is.) Stats provide much-needed ammo for unanswerable questions like “Who’s the greatest [fill in the blank]?” Stats seem fair and objective and consistent, which we appreciate as games evolve and change.

But as I thought back on my girlfriend’s first-ever professional baseball game, I realized just how little the stats actually matter to our enjoyment of the game. I love what they provide for those who see the world numbers first, but I’ve never been able to do it. I prefer the qualitative to the quantitative. No matter how brilliantly baseball can be reduced to box scores that paint entire pictures to those who can read them, the box score pales in comparison to witnessing a routine groundout to the shortstop with a cannon for an arm or a runner scoring from second by beating a just-in-time throw from right-center. It’s poetry in motion, and whenever the stats are rendered, that motion is flattened out; we’re simply left with the prose of history. 

I’ve thought about this beyond baseball, the sport which I played the most growing up and for which I might have the deepest appreciation that defies rational explanation. Courtney and I have been watching a lot of French Open coverage the past two weekends, and while I have loved a lot of the matches I’ve watched, I just find myself missing Roger Federer. His were the records I cherished, namely because I watched along and cheered for him as he chased them. His was the most beautiful game, the highest aspiration for the sport, true poetry in motion. Last weekend when I watched Rafael Nadal play what might be his final match, I reflected on my complicated view of him during those years. He was the buzz saw that my hero kept running into, derailing and prolonging record-setting attempts. But I was choked up to think of him going into retirement, like Roger before him, and I realized that Rafa’s dominance (over Roger in many instances) didn’t diminish what I saw in Roger’s play or the career he mounted. Same with Novak Djokovic now, still going, still dismantling both Roger and Rafa’s records. When I look back on the game of tennis 20 years from now, I won’t have any doubt who was the greatest to do it, because of what I saw and felt watching Roger play. The record books, for one, will not agree with me, but that’s OK.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. This is a great read from Outside about the man who keeps the records, unofficially but with serious credibility, of those who climb the tallest mountains in the world. It’s the story of Eberhard Jurgalski, an amateur archivist who runs the website, and how his findings revealed that Reinhold Messner, the man celebrated for first summiting all 14 8,000-meter peaks, did not actually reach the summits in some of his climbs. Messner never lied about the climbs; he just stopped at a false summit. It’s an interesting piece just for the niche drama of it all, this low-grade feud between the two men, but it also raises deeper and more philosophical questions about the nature of records in general and alpine climbing in particular.
  2. Such a brilliant idea here by The New York Times: Creatives working through grief [free gift article]. Such wisdom, such vulnerability. It’ll come as no secret to any of you who’ve read this newsletter at any point of the past year that I’m still working through my grief of losing my dad unexpectedly. I resonated with this line from Jesmyn Ward: “Honestly I have been struggling a lot lately. I think that sometimes when I’m writing about the people who I love that I’ve lost, whether that’s my brother or my partner — my children’s father — sometimes that looks like just crying the whole time, but still doing it, pushing through it and still writing, but crying.”  
  3. Here’s another great piece I read recently that just sucked me in. It’s from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) and is also about death and grief but more than that an unending love: The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman wrote his wife an unexpected letter.  
  4. I greatly respected The Atlantic’s willingness to publish a story about the dubious decision by its management leaders on the business side to strike a deal with OpenAI
  5. In more AI-related news, this episode of Hard Fork dips its toe into the row between Scarlett Johansson and OpenAI, which is entertaining in itself (and what I initially listened to the episode to hear), but I ended up really enjoying the interview with Noland Arbaugh, the first recipient of Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implant. Compelling to hear why he opted for to participate and why he’s so optimistic about the future of brain-computer interface technology.
  6.  The Paris Review recently offered a bundle with the movie-streaming channel, MUBI. I subscribe to both (unbundled) and I can attest to the excellence of each. As part of the announcement, TPR released from its vast archives an interview with John Gregory Dunne, on The Art of Screenwriting. The interview was conducted by George Plimpton, and it’s a fantastic read. So fantastic that none less than NPR’s own Scott Simon took to reading the interview on Twitter. I loved his delivery of the words almost as much as I loved the thought of being on the same email subscription lists as Simon.
  7. So stinking excited for Greg Iles latest book, Southern Man. In this tweet, I shared my appreciation to quite simply the best indy bookstore in the country, Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, for such a prompt delivery of a signed copy, as well as a photo of me and the author back in 2014 when I attended a signing hosted by Square Books for yet another in his Penn Cage series of novels. Pick up his latest (or catch up on the entire series) from Square Books; they’ll take good care of you.
  8. Iles once upon a time ago played in a band made up of other authors (what a fun concept!), including Stephen King. I recently went back to listen to an episode of The Book Review from The New York Times that celebrates 50 years of King’s work. It includes a fun interview with Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen show runner Damon Lindelof about his fandom. 
  9. Come for the nuanced, thoughtful take of an entire subgenre of not just bands or songs but a sound, and stay for an all-time great final line of a kicker. Loved this from Defector: In Defense Of That Whole Weird ‘90s Rock Marble-Mouthed Thing. 
  10. Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is a fun and visually stunning prequel to a perfect film, Mad Max: Fury Road. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Fury Road, it’s still delivers an incredible mixture of practical special effects and stunts and visual effects. One of the film’s centerpieces is the War Rig, the monstrous semi outfitted to do battle in a post-apocalyptic road war. Check out this behind-the-scenes look at how the crew made it come alive for the big screen.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Former President Trump Found Guilty on All 34 Counts

MLB Recognizes Negro League Stats

Judge Not Lest You Be Judged

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past two weeks.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

5/20: Top Chef, S21 (Peacock); Jeopardy! Masters (Hulu); Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, S11 (Max)
5/21: Jeopardy! Masters (Hulu); X-Men ‘97 (5)(Disney+)
5/22: X-Men ‘97 (5)(Disney+); Survivor, S46 (Paramount+)
5/23: Top Chef, S21(Peacock); Jeopardy! Masters (Hulu)
5/24: WILDE (Amazon Prime); Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, David Sedaris; FERRARI (Hulu)
5/25: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
5/26: French Open (Peacock); The Sympathizer (Max); FORD V. FERRARI* (Hulu)
5/27: French Open (Peacock); ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD* (digital copy)
5/28: THE FALL GUY (theater); FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA (theater)
5/29: The Sympathizer (Max)
5/30: The Sympathizer (Max); Top Chef (Peacock)
5/31: 1000 Words, Jami Attenberg; THE ITALIAN JOB (2003)* (AppleTV+)
6/1: French Open (Peacock)
6/2: French Open (Peacock); RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES* (4K UHD blu-ray); DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES* (4K UHD blu-ray)