Higgins Versus Klosterman

It’s not a Klosterman hypothetical, but I was asked this by a student the other day:

If you could only save one book in the world from destruction, what book would you choose?

A dire situation, don’t you think? I certainly hope it never comes to this. And yet the question has an undeniable allure. The question isn’t really the same as “what is the best book of all time,” or “what is your favorite book of all time.” You have to consider the fact that this book is all that humanity will have to start over with. Twilight might be your personal favorite, but you’ve got to pick with posterity in mind, for God’s sake! This is going to be the seed of all future literature.

There’s one technicality let’s get out of the way immediately: many, if not all, of the books worth inclusion in this conversation are already stored digitally in one place or another, rendering the question of whether a physical copy survives more or less moot. Therefore, for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll assume that no physical data storage survives–including books, hard disks, CDs, anything–except the vessel of your choice. (We can’t pick the Encyclopedia Britannica because it is multi-volume.)

Literature? you might ask. What about the sciences! The sum total of human knowledge! The compendium of academic endeavors!

Yes, I can imagine that, in the face of whatever apocalyptic force has caused the near-total destruction of literary achievement, it would be useful to have science on our side. Should some scientific subfield be particularly relevant to fighting this malevolent force, I would of course yield to choose a seminal text from that subfield. Perhaps anti-book aliens are attacking and we believe there is some microbiological weakness of theirs that we can exploit, and hence I save a book on biological weapons delivery systems. But let’s assume the force of destruction is general and nonspecific, the erasure of books is totally anonymous and non-reversable, it just happens.

But is still a central reason why I would be less than likely to choose a scientific text. Sciences are currently at their most advanced, correct? Then is it not reasonable to say that the mental knowledge of the collected experts in a given field is greater than the knowledge collected in any given bound text? Take the question of trigonometric tables. Without trigonometric tables–the calculated values of sine and cosine, etc–many applications would fall apart. But! Even if we don’t have trigonometric tables memorized, thousands of people would be able to recall the basic maths concepts that would allow us to quickly reconstruct such a table. Because concepts are more important than specific wording in science, it seems even more likely that the wild majority of the important data in science–the concepts–could be retained. It is true that the evidence–the raw observations, recorded in so many lab notebooks–might be gone, but if the concepts are correct, then the observations can be observed once again (it’s the books that are going away, not the fundamental forces of physics).

I’m banking on the idea that scientists would have no trouble remembering their concepts and would not mind rewriting their texts.

That leaves us with literature. Oh, literature.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned above, anything likely to be memorized is out. That means the Quran, for example, is out. So are the works of Shakespeare–somewhere in the world, at any given moment, there is a theater company performing Titus Andronicus. A quick Web search reveals that there are plenty of people who memorize portions of the Bible, but few if any who actually have the whole thing down–still, the original is a patchwork quilt, so it could be made anew in the same way.

The ideal candidate for preservation would have to be evaluated on the following characteristics:

  • beauty;
  • a beneficent impression upon the new society;
  • inclusivity (a larger text is likely to contain within it many more stories, and hence more capacity for impact, than a shorter text)

Emily Dickinson’s poems would score well in the first criterion; Peter Singer’s Ethics, in the second; and Aesop’s Fables well on the third.

With those things in mind, I came up with the following (inexhaustive) list of candidates:

  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
  • John Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • MLK’s collected works
  • Thoreau’s Walden
  • Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (I love The Possessed and Crime & Punishment, but both are too contemporary and political; we want something with timeless themes)
  • the Mahabharata (picked over the Ramayana, which from what I know of it is a bit more essentialist, concerned with doing the duty of your particular station in life, which is too conservative for my taste, but hey, the Metamorphoses could probably be accused of the same thing, so if you want to put it on the list, go ahead)
  • Melville’s Moby Dick (which I haven’t read, but from what I know seems like it might fit our criteria)
  • Bernard Williams’ Ethics & the Limits of Philosophy
  • the Odyssey (over the Illiad, which is more war-focused)
  • Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
  • I don’t know enough about Chinese or East Asian literature to venture a guess at whether anything would work well here, though I’m sure there must be candidates
  • An anthology of some sort, for example, The Oxford Book of Modern Poetry, or something like that; this may be cheating, though, depending on how you read things. This would probably be the best choice unless you decided it wasn’t allowed by the spirit of the question.

I don’t know what I would pick. Do you?




You are forced to give up one of your five senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, or hearing). However, you may choose to compensate for the loss by means of synesthesia–for example, if you give up your sense of sight, you can choose to smell colors instead, or if you give up taste, you could replace this sensation by feeling flavors. Basically, whichever sense you reject you would be able to sense, but through a different medium.

Which of your senses would you surrender, and how would you replace it?


Unlike a lot of the phenomena discussed in Klosterman’s hypotheticals, synesthesia is a real thing.

That’s right. There are people who can taste purple, feel chocolate, and see your farts. The conditions can be congenital (from birth) or adventitious (coming on later in life). They come with fancy names like ordinal linguistic personification, grapheme –> color synesthesia, and ideasthesia.

Among the most famous synesthetes:

  • Duke Ellington, who literally played the blues–seriously, when he heard that certain note, it would appear blue to him
  • Vladimir Nabokov, who describes the discovery of his synesthesia in Speak, Memory
  • Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstraction in visual art

Whoa. Kandinsky.

In any case, we must move forward. Mr. Klosterman has presented us with options. If we were to lose one of our several methods of accessing the world, but be able to access what the lost method accessed through one of our remaining senses, how would we proceed?

Shall I lose taste? Smell? Sight? Touch? Hearing?

It seems very impractical to have to lose hearing or sight; our daily communication relies upon these. I do not think that a sight –> taste/smell/touch/hearing synesthesia would be very practical; a white wall might elicit a B flat, but what about the depth of field? How am I to know when I am approaching the wall–will the B flat get louder? And what about when I see a rainbow–will that now be some disharmonious chord as all the different colors clash as sound?

The obvious cop-out to me seems to be a smell –> taste synesthesia. Taste and smell are already so closely bound up as to be sometimes inextricable. It is hard to say what red wine tastes like without thinking also of its smell. I have known individuals who have lost their senses of smell, and truly grieved for the loss of that sense; but we must remember that we will not lose the sense, it will only be converted. I think that I could live with that.

However, there are other interesting options. I would love to be able to see sound, but would that interfere with normal vision? When I hear a symphony, would a Fantasia of colors overlay my vision? What about touch–>sound? Touching a cool steel beam could trigger taut synths, sandpaper might sound like a musical saw, and water–what would water sound like? But would I lose my sense of proprioception , which seems related to touch?

It is hard to know how any of these scenarios would actually work out. I think I would immediately take the smell –> taste option. However, if it was only texture that was affected, I might be interested in touch –> sound as well. Think about it–every surface would become an instrument for you to play!


By now you know the story: before last season, Oakland traded away three of its best pitchers (and its last three All-Stars): Trevor Cahill, to the Diamondbacks; Gio Gonzalez, to the Nationals; and Andrew Bailey, to the Red Sox. At the time, it seemed like the confirmation of the trope we in Oakland have come to know so well in the last decade: raise great pitchers and auction them off before they become too expensive. It looked like this was the biggest fire sale yet.


Oakland’s pitching–traditionally a strength–came through as always. Despite trotting out an extremely untested staff, the A’s were a pitching-positive team last year. Perhaps Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone’s success could have been foreseen–but what about Travis Blackley, Dan Straily, Bartolo Colon, and AJ Griffin? The A’s got unpredictably good efforts out of all of them, and trotted out a hard-to-believe 7 starters who each recorded at least one win of cumulative fWAR value. By year’s end, injuries had left the club basically starting all rookies–and it didn’t seem so terrible, especially given the late-season 7-8-9 dominance of the Doolittle-Cook-Balfour trio. If you watched the ALDS it was easy to see how we could have won.

The real question is how likely the young staff is to repeat last year’s success. Brandon McCarthy is gone, which is my main quibble with this front office this offseason; with him gone, Brett Anderson is the new big man on campus (Colon’s heft aside). Tyson Ross is also gone; while he was bad as a starter, his real problems always came in the 3+ time through the lineup, so he could have become a valuable stretch reliever.

Credit the ballpark, to an extent: the A’s held their opponents to nearly a run fewer at home, posting a 3.08 ERA at home to a 3.95 average away. You can also credit the team’s defense, which went from being a famous afterthought in the Moneyball-proper era to a new advantage around the turn of the century. The A’s should be even better in the field this year: they have four legit center fielders, and as I’ve mentioned before I think Yo’s flyball-route woes will evaporate as he gets more major league coaching. Up the middle they may miss Pennington’s glove; it really depends on how Nakajima shakes out, which is a total wild card.

Without any further ado,

I think it’s a four-seamer.


1. Brett Anderson — That slider bites. I have no qualms about Anderson when he is out there. The only question seems to be how often he will be out there. He came back from Tommy John surgery last year having recovered his old velocity, but hasn’t approached the 175 IP he threw as a rookie in 2009. I hope he can top that this year — if so, he’ll be the ace we need. (5-3)

2. Bartolo Colon — I don’t think many of us thought we’d see Colon but not McCarthy back this season. Colon’s 2012 was cut short by a suspension for PEDs, but he went 4-2 in six starts even after he knew he would probably be suspended. Assuming he’s not going to be on them now, I don’t know if he can repeat last year’s success. PEDs aside, his control last year was absolutely insane–a ridiculously low 1.3 BB/9. This was far below his career average of 2.91, but maybe (?) is due to a strategic change. Last year, despite the velocity decrease that comes with age, Colon threw an absurdly high percentage of fastballs–89%! I expect him to be solid (ha, ha) when he’s out there, though I don’t know how much that will be. (3-1)

3. Jarrod Parker — Parker showed gravitas in stepping up to become the A’s effective #1 by the NLDS, given the injuries/suspensions that took down McCarthy, Anderson, and Colon. Don’t get too excited by the Greg Maddux comparison ZiPS comes up with–okay, it’s pretty awesome, but still. Dude’s a sophomore. The concern with Parker & Milone alike will be whether their arms can withstand the rigors of pitching 150+ innings, given their heavy workload as rookies. I’m looking for a sub-4 ERA, and will be happy if it’s sub-3.5. What a nasty changeup. (4-2)

4. Tom Milone — Am I the only one who sees Jamie Moyer out there? (Given the Maddux comp above, maybe even Tom Glavine?) Okay, maybe the soft-tossing lefty comparison is a little lazy. If he’s as good as Moyer, though, we’re set. In any case, as a fly-ball pitcher he’ll always have an advantage at he was basically an ace at home last year (.271 wOBA allowed) and replacement-level away (.367 wOBA allowed). He has some minor-league history of higher strikeout rates; if he can improve in that area, his weaknesses away might be mitigated. I’m quite happy with him as a 3rd or 4th starter, though. (3-2)

5. Dan Straily/AJ Griffin — While the first four spots in the rotation are relatively set, it’s much less clear who will take the ball on the fifth day. Both Straily and Griffin were surprising successes last year, though in different settings. Griffin took the ball for the A’s on the way to a sterling 7-1 record. He relies on control. Straily became the talk of the minors when he shot from non-prospect status to lead the minors in strikeouts (he is now considered one of the A’s top prospects). While Griffin had a better big-league season last year, most expect Straily to come out with the fifth spot. In the long run both are major league starters. (2)


Depth: Andrew Werner, Travis Blackley


Okay, I don’t want to be here all day. The bullpen will be fine. Jordan Norberto might get suspended as he’s recently been linked to PEDs, but we were fine without him anyway. We won’t have to deal with Brian Fuentes, thank the stars. The last couple innings seem set, though I’m not sure how long Balfour can keep it turned up to 11 without bursting a blood vessel. Sean Doolittle may have been the strangest story in baseball all last year, but I look forward to a lot of 1-2-3 innings from him. Blevins can handle lefties. Ryan Cook probably has the most potential out of all of them. For long relief… who wants to hear about long relief, anyway?


The A’s broke completely beyond expectations last year to win the AL West. To do so, they had to get past the Rangers, who had become something of a juggernaut in the past couple yars, as well as the Angels, who have seemingly never had a down year since 2001. Well, the Rangers have three of the top prospects in baseball (Leonys Martin, Jurickson Profar, and Mike Olt), and the Angels added a couple of guys named Josh Hamilton and Jason Vargas (who seemed to own the A’s last year). Competition is likely to remain fierce on the left coast. On the plus side, the Angels’ pitching seems like it might have gotten even shakier than it was, and the Rangers lost an MVP in Hamilton. On the other side… the Rangers offense is still scary, Yu Darvish might get better, and the Angels are trotting out Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.

So the picture in the West is pretty cloudy. What about around the rest of the AL?

The AL Central seems to be the Tigers’ for the taking. The Indians should be much improved, and the White Sox might crack .500, but there’s no one predicting the result won’t be mostly the same as last year.

So what about the AL East? The division seems to get more crowded every year, and this may be the year when every club can lay claim to some shred of real hope for the crown.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but the Yankee dynasty may be coming to an end. While Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are still around, the house seems to be crumbling around them. A-Rod may or may not ever be effective, much less play, again. Mark Teixeira is rapidly declining in productivity. I still expect them to contend, but the hope now is for 90 wins, not 100 as the standard has seemed to be for the last fifteen years. (Oh, crap. Just looked at their roster. This is frightening. I’m a sucker for redemption stories, so seeing that they signed Travis Hafner has me afear’d he’ll go back to being the Pronk of old.)

The Blue Jays were the big movers of the offseason. Their top four batters (Reyes, Me. Cabrera, Bautista, Encarnación) rival the Angels’ for most fearsome in the league, and they also added last year’s NL Cy Young (RA Dickey), the guy people keep picking to win the NL Cy Young (Josh Johnson), and veteran Mark Buehrle. However, their bullpen still isn’t great and the other five batters nowhere near as impressive.

The Orioles had a dismal offseason, and don’t seem likely to repeat last year’s miracle, but can’t be completely ignored.

The Rays should be their usual pesky selves; they lost Upton, but added Wil Myers, and a full season of Evan Longoria will be nice.

I wish I could say the Red Sox won’t compete, but look at that lineup! They have power all the way through. Stephen Drew, who hit 2nd for the A’s for a time, is projected to bat last!

My conclusion is that the AL is going to be a murderfest this year. By my count there are seven teams (Jays, Yanks, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, A’s, Angels) that are very good. I’m leaving out the Red Sox on the basis of their pitching. Of these, the A’s probably have close to the lowest ceiling. However, that was never what this offseason was about. Following the front office’s strategy this winter was to be given notice of the value of stabilizing the team and consolidating the gains made last summer. Compare this with the Yankees, who are relying on a number of aging stars: Andy Pettite could win fifteen games or none, Ichiro could hit .300 or .250. Oakland has major-league depth around the diamond, and if they make the playoffs, I expect this to be a major reason why. I listed seven “very good” teams. Only four/five of these seven will make the playoffs. If I had to guess, injuries will play a significant part in downing the two teams that will be on the outside looking in come Wild Card Day. Luckily, these A’s are built to withstand injuries.

For fun, I’ve summed the wins I think we’ll see from each of the A’s significant players and added that to the replacement level for wins (47 last year), as follows:

C = 4 (Jaso 3, Norris 1)

1B = 4 (Moss 3, Barton 1)

2B = 2 (Lowrie 1, Sizemore 1)

SS = 2 (Nakajima 2)

3B = 3 (Donaldson 3)

RF = 4 (Reddick 4)

CF = 4 (Crisp 2, Young 2)

LF = 4 (Céspedes 4)

DH = 1 (Smith 1–Crisp & others may also get time at DH)

SP = 15 (Anderson 4.5, Parker 3.5, Milone 2.5, Colon/Straily/Griffin 4.5)

Relief = 4.5 (Balfour, Cook, Doolittle 1 each, Blevins etc .5)

Total = 47.5

Total + Replacement Level = 47.5 + 47 = 94.5


I do not expect Oakland to win 95 or even 94 games this year. However, they will be in the thick of the Wild Card race, maybe give someone a scare for the pennant, and I will not be surprised if they do win 94 or 95 games. That’s the best I can do.

You die from natural causes. You ascend toward a warm, white light. You immediately realize you have entered the afterlife… and (much to your surprise) it is exactly like the clichéd, kindergarten version of Christian Heaven. The ground is covered by a white, cloud-like fog. Angels fly around you and play the harp. You are wearing a comfortable white robe. Everyone there is aimlessly walking around, smiling broadly, perfectly content; this, it seems, is how you will spend eternity.

Upon your arrival, you are greeted by Jesus (and he looks exactly like the stereotypical depiction of Jesus). “Welcome to Heaven,” he says. “I think you will like it here, and I look forward to loving you unconditionally for the duration of time. But I also realize that Heaven isn’t necessarily for everyone, so I always give newcomers a chance to go to the other place, if that’s what they would prefer.”

“Are you referring to hell?” you say in response.

“Oh, no,” says Jesus. “Not hell. Certainly not hell. I would never send you to hell. But you can go somewhere that isn’t here. It’s another viable post-life option. About eighteen percent of our potential residents go in that direction.”

“What is the other place like?” you ask.

“I can’t tell you,” says Jesus. “But if you do elect to go there, you can never come back here. And you only have twenty minutes to decide.”

“Why only twenty?” you ask.

“Because I’m Jesus,” says Jesus.

And that’s the hypothetical. I’ve asked this one of people before, and heard some interesting answers. There are a couple immediate questions that arise:

  • Are you willing to give up a sure thing (Heaven) for an unknown thing (Other Place)?
  • What is desirable about Heaven?
  • If life in Heaven is, as is implied, both blissful and boring, what balance of the two is desirable?
  • To what degree is differentiation required for meaning? Can an unvaried existence be desired?
  • What might the Other Place be?

The immediate reaction I have is towards the Other Place. The reason for this lies in the nature of Stereotypical Heaven, and a distrust of its pleasantness. I think this distrust has a root in the same parts of human nature that make some facets of the Romantic revolt so alluring. In Heaven can we retain our individuality, if we are equally happy (and equally loved)? To problematize this, we might ask whether individuality is worth retaining at all. Another track is to ask whether emotion is relative. If it is relative and not absolute, the lack of variation in Heaven might render eternal bliss eternal numbness. If it is absolute–if there are no diminishing marginal returns to time in Heaven, it is impossible to be bored of bliss, one moment of beatitude is as good as the next–then we cannot really oppose this choice on the basis of pleasure.

Heaven is a place/where nothing ever happens.

An interesting wrinkle pops up if we suppose that we have accepted our place in Heaven. Would it be possible, once in Heaven, to regret one’s choice? Regret implies unhappiness, but unhappiness contradicts the nature of Stereotypical Heaven. I am led to think that it would be impossible to regret the choice to go to Heaven. On the contrary, it is very easy to see how one might come to regret choosing the Other Place. As long as the configuration of the Other Place involves a) remembrance of the choice offered by Stereotypical Jesus, and b) some sort of circumstance that would make one prefer eternal bliss, it seems almost certain that one would regret, at least for a time, the choice to spurn Heaven.

It seems we have looped back and shown quite demonstrably that Heaven is the better choice. It is impossible to regret such a choice; given this, how could it not be preferable? In order to elucidate the case against such a choice, we need to backtrack a little bit, and ask what the Other Place might look like.

The starting point is that we know it is not Heaven and it is not Hell. Heaven is Eternal Good and Heaven is Eternal Evil. The Other Place must then be either some mix of the two–sometimes good, sometimes bad–or something that cannot be described by the terms “good” and “evil.” The first case entails the existence of variation in the Other Place–perhaps variation and change and vicissitudes just like those on Earth. (To tell the truth, my hunch is that the Other Place is likely, well, life.) In the second case, the Other Place is beyond our imagination.

In the interests of length–I’ve gone on long enough, I think, so far, to make my points–I’ll cut things short here for now. I would choose the Other Place, I think, for the simple reason that I am curious.

Addendum: A highly interesting article, “Is God Happy?,” which references our question and explores a similar one at length.

Addendum II: “Blandula, Tenella, Vagula,” is a poem by Ezra Pound that also deals with the central idea of preferring Earth to Heaven.

What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?

Will we not rather, when our freedom’s won,

Get us to some clear place wherein the sun

Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves

A liquid glory? If at Sirmio,

My soul, I meet thee, when this life’s outrun,

Will we not find some headland consecrated

By aery apostles of terrene delight,

Will not our cult be founded on the waves,

Clear sapphire, cobalt, cyanine,

On triune azunes, the impalpable

Mirrors unstill of the eternal change?


Soul, if She meets us there, will any rumour

Of havens more high and courts desirable

Lure us beyond the cloudy peak of Riva?

Assume everything about your musical tastes was reversed overnight. Everything you once loved, you now hate; everything you once hated, you now love. If R.E.M. (always with periods) used to be your favorite band, they will now sound awful to you. If you hated Jethro Tull, they will now entrance you. If you consider the first album by Veruca Salt slightly above average, you’ll now find it slightly below average. Particulars will be changed, but the whole will remain in balance (and the rest of your personality will remain unchanged). You won’t love music any more or less, just differently. 

It’s very likely you find this transformation highly objectionable. But explain why.

So this one isn’t quite as fun, in that I’m not sure how I can put a poll at the bottom to elicit quick feedback. Instead, I’d have to suggest that you use the long form–comment away!

At first glance this question befuddled me. Rational me wanted to say that it didn’t matter; tastes are tastes and I shouldn’t worry if they change. Irrational me said they were a core to who I am. In the end, I think irrational me is right, but for rational reasons, and this is the part where I explain those rational reasons.

First, a point: tastes are not entirely arbitrary. They are the result of both environment and self-cultivation. If I think White Light/White Heat is the best VU album, you can probably extrapolate a little about my personality, worldview, and politics from that. If I am totally into Bikini Kill, I’m probably mildly into the whole feminism thing.

Tastes, then, exist as part of a cohesive whole. It would cause you a lot of dissonance to find out George Bush was (after the switch) a huge Immortal Technique fan. The thing is, it would probably cause ol’ George some trouble, too. People would say, “hey man, is this a phase?” It would weird people out.


It hurts to say this, but imagine the scene–you notice some cute guy or girl on the BART. They’re rocking a Greenpeace shirt. They’re reading Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine. They pull out their iPod… and you see they’re listening to Kid Rock. Probably not going to talk to them after all, right? But the rest of their personality hasn’t changed, so even if you two might have hit it off, you’re never going to make it anywhere, because they like Kid Rock and that just doesn’t fly.

So I think there is an objective basis for claiming that the musical reversal would cause a decline in your life, based on the dissonance between the reversal and the preserved personality. In fact, it might be more difficult to argue against an entire reversal, because it might lead to the argument that some preferences are inherently better than others. I’ve been able to avoid that here (despite my use of Kid Rock in the example).

What say ye?

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