The Conceit

by TMM


Thursday, July 2, 2020 (Season XVI)
8,212 words · 41 min read


Tim Burke's name is displayed on the footer of every single page of The Mid-Majority's website. In 2014, right before TMM was shut down forever (in the ABBA sense of the word), he posted a listicle on the popular sports blog Deadspin and then saved the entire site to disk. Without that archive the site couldn't have been rebuilt in 2019; you have him to thank for our comeback, and if you're non-plussed about it for some reason you're probably not reading this anyway. He was also a technical consultant for the launch of The Pixelvision Network, since nobody on the internet knows more about managing large numbers of live video feeds.

Because yes, the real reason you know who Tim Burke is has to do with his decades-spanning career distilling the entire world of televised content into effective quick-hit video form. He served as video director for Deadspin and The Daily Beast, and now leads his own successful private practice called Burke Communications. Indeed, you have been Communicated to by Burke: you are one of the 35 million people who watched his video of 45 local Sinclair news anchors reading from the same script, and one of the millions who became #youareinformed by his exposé of Manti Teo's fake dead girlfriend. Unless you're weird or something, you're one of his 78,000 Twitter followers. He is the reason why you know what ALMICHAELSFACE is.

Settle in for what usually happens in this space: a wide-ranging interview that doesn't quite fit in your email box. Among the topics covered are Ohio University and its delightful hometown, the COVID-19 era in Central Florida (and whether or not the NBA will survive it), Australian Rules Football, the cult of fandom, Deadspin history, Bowers and Ochs' theory of Agitation and Control, and chiptune farts. We go from the best tweet ever to how to solve online sports journalism. As a bonus, you'll get the technical overview of the mammoth 65-terabyte Burke-puter that the New York Times and Wired never gave you, and you'll also hear about Tim's days as a polka deejay. Making special cameo appearances are Jon Bois, Adam Curtis and, of course, Stephen Curry.

TMM: This is an ostensibly basketball newsletter, so let's start there. We have to point out that in 2010, you (and a bunch of other Ohio fans) crashed at our house in Rhode Island over the first and second round weekend when the Bobcats beat Georgetown 97-83, which is still the biggest 14-over-3 beatdown in NCAA Tournament history. If you had to choose between that upset and the 2012 takedown of Michigan, which would it be?

TB: I was going through an incredibly difficult time in my life that weekend in 2010 and I am immensely grateful for your kindness and hospitality then. That Georgetown game was something else; it was such a beatdown, that people generally forget it. It was such an uncompetitive game that lesser but more thrilling upsets got more attention that year, and in the years since. Being in attendance for it was no less surreal; it barely felt like an achievement. Some of its shine has been taken off in years since by the Hoyas' continued underperformance in March, too. Thanks for nothing, Dunk City.

That Ohio's team two years later bore a group of frankly more sympathetic figures—and that it went on to play another of my alma maters, USF, to go to the Sweet Sixteen—makes that one my choice, though. Curiously, the best player to commit to Ohio in my time as a Bobcat ended up decommitting and going to Michigan as a result of us winning that game (and John Groce's subsequent departure for Illinois). That guy plays for the Brooklyn Nets now, whatever.

TMM: Which leads directly to a discussion of one of our favorite pit stops from the old days: Athens, Ohio. It's one of the few places we ever went where we said, “damn, [we] wish [we] went to college here,” and something always happened whenever we went. O'Betty's Red Hot was one of the best hot dogs we've ever eaten, and we were stopped by police twice on the way out. What are your lasting memories of your days there?

TB: Being recruited to the forensics team launched ten years of an academic career which found me moving from competitor to coach to director to professor, so that's pretty important. Starting around my birthday on September 17 and for a few weeks afterward Athens is the most beautiful place in the country. I really believe that. And while the mystique of living in a place like Florida (palm trees! tropical plants!) wore off rather quickly after I moved here, I was never not aware during my entire time as a student that I was moving around in an incredible space, one made more impressive by the fact it was chosen by a bunch of drunk American Revolution veterans around the turn of the 19th century.

The bar scene is legendary and with good reason; everything is in a three-block span right next to campus which means you can hit up a bunch of places while avoiding the ones owned by chuds or populated by frat dudes. My favorite basically came by default; I knew the bouncer, which was important since I didn't turn 21 until after I'd already graduated and started my master's program at Eastern Michigan.

Relative to current events, the memory of being shot by a rubber bullet while covering the “time change riot” of 1998 as a student journalist. I learned so much about policing, riot control, protests, and the like and figured that most people would have figured it all out the same way. More than 20 years later, I see the same mistakes—ones made by organizations in Athens that incited, rather than prevented, the riot there—happening in cities across the country. 

TMM: Now you've made the transition to Florida Man. You live in Tampa with your wife, grow fruit, you go to Rays and Rowdies games when they let fans in, and you generally live indoorssomething all Americans are doing now.

What's COVID-era Central Florida like from your perspective, and is the general outsider perception of pandemic carelessness correct? And based on your perception of current events there, and with the NBA restarting up I-4 in about a month, what are your odds on the season surviving 100 days and making it to an NBA Finals?

TB: Like everything else, this place is very polarized. Stores like Fresh Market and Trader Joe's have 100% mask compliance and people respect social distancing, et cetera. But bars, restaurants—especially restaurants with bars, since they're still allowed to be open—are a nightmare, particularly the sorts of places you'd expect people who refuse to comply with safety guidelines to congregate. But the neighborhood pizza, wings, & beer place that banned children awhile back because parents weren't keeping enough of an eye on them? That place is safe. Unfortunately, we can't completely keep ourselves from locations where the disease is spreading; my wife is on Tampa's variance review board, which meets in City Council chambers—and a member of City Council tested positive. She can't even get a test, because the response has been so phenomenally screwed up by our state government. 

The problem with the NBA bubble concept is that you can't keep everybody in the bubble. Service workers are going to go home, they're going to have social lives, and they're going to bring the disease into the bubble—because it's not actually a bubble, and this is a magnificently contagious virus. If they actually wanted to conduct the league in a bubble and ensure nobody caught it, they'd have to stage it in Auckland or Hong Kong or Seoul. 

TMM: You are somebody who dearly loves sports simply for sports' sake, so much so that you maintain an archive of tens of terabytes of sports video and have clipped tens of thousands of viral sports GIFs. Now everything's messed up because of COVID-19 and all there is now is soccer with no fans and Taiwanese volleyball. There's a chance things will never be the same again, and MLB might be dead forever. Is it proper to mourn, or is time to focus on other things now?

TB: I've been trying to tell people for a few months now that if they love sports, it's time to get really familiar with sports played in other countries. That's hard, because the stuff that's come back the fastest is on your side of the world, not ours. I love Australian Rules Football—I think the best screencap I've ever taken is of full time from the 2010 Grand Final, when St. Kilda had a wild second-half comeback to tie it up and force a replay a week later (this is how all sport championships that end in a tie should be decided, btw)—but the matches air overnight. Same with KBO, which ESPN has done an adequate job airing here but I'm not staying up all night just to watch sports and watching tape-delayed sports is antithetical to my whole approach.

Same goes for Rugby League—the variety of that sport I find more appealing and, frankly, would be more accessible to U.S. American football fans if the sport were aired live to people in U.S. time zones. Super League—which, did you know, has a North America-based team?—won't be back until August at the earliest, and its availability on U.S. TV is spotty.

I think the idea of focusing on other things has already taken hold, though. One of the reasons so many people are now involved in activism or politics is because of the mass deprivation of the other form of partisanship that dominated U.S. culture—though one thing I learned by moving from working for a sports media company to a political media company is that there are about twice as many Americans who care about politics and don't care about sports than vice versa. 

But since sports partisanship is so tied to indelible aspects of our existence—where we live, and where we attended college, mostly—getting people to care about those sports happening in other countries is going to be a forever uphill challenge. And the betting sports—horse racing has mostly gone off without a hitch this whole time, since that sport figured out how to keep the people who work in it from getting sick, mostly—keep going, which is why I'm trying to find a way to get jai-alai on TV.

TMM: The uphill struggle is real. The Pixelvision idea of 24/7 international basketball for free has been sustainable on a modest TMM-sized level, but it hasn't exactly sparked mass curiosity or tapped into the larger public imagination. But that might be because the United States was never a “sporting country” like, say, Australia. If there are two forces heading in the same direction or two forces trying to propel something past each other, Australians will root and/or bet on one of them. Granted, that's rooted in a level of geographic isolation and detachment America simply doesn't have.

We're old enough to have been a kid when being a basketball or baseball fan was something you aged out of, your mom sold your card collection out from under you when you were off at college, and then you were an Adult who cared about Adult Things. ESPN was instrumental in creating a “sports lifestyle culture”, which was mostly based around white male perpetual adolescence, but later found out there isn't a sustainable industry there. The sportz-ification of politics is definitely a 2010s creation, and it seems to make more structural sense than the “Buffalo Wild Wings party that never ends” model that we were sold in the aughts. Is this accurate history? As someone who's straddled both worlds lately, what's your take on how this all developed?

TB: I actually don't think things have changed all that much. There's just newer ways to show your fandom. People have always chosen sides and found ways to project their own personalities onto whatever their “team” is. I think the more interesting aspect is which teams have gone defunct, or how some have gone away and then come back with the same name but different management. Union membership was a team a lot of people were proud to be on; there was a whole song about one of them that used to be on TV! Traditional union membership got brought to its knees only for a new generation, led by people born after anything like a “union label” ever meant anything, to become legitimate forces against private equity and every other force trying to ruin the things we enjoy. 

That having been said, there was for decades (centuries?) this idea that engagement in the public sphere was an activity relegated to “elites” and intellectuals. This, of course, has never been true; the voices of the marginalized have always been demanding justice, but the same forces keeping them marginalized have prevented them from effectively promulgating their message. 

Now we have social media, and thus access, and thus Black Lives Matter but also QAnon. I'm glad we've democratized the discourse, but at the cost of making facts partisan. We have millions of people in this country who won't believe any news report if it comes from the wrong media outlet. Imagine a Yankees fan refusing to believe his team lost last night's game because he thinks MLB Network is “fake news.”

TMM: We really want to go down the rabbit hole of potential influence from the late 1970s "Look for the Union Label" on the Band Aid or USA For Africa videos (or the AFL-CIO as a potential simile for the Expos/Nationals) but even back then, it was known that facts just twist the truth around. When New York (AL) plays Washington on MLB Opening Day—assuming they get that far—there will be a traditional Associated Press inverted-pyramid game recap afterwards, which a.) nobody will read and b.) might be written by an actual Robot, since hardly any humans work at the AP anymore.

If we know anything about the history of capitalist media, it's that the AP style of purely factual reporting was a mid-1800s construction necessitated by war and information scarcity, and that most news outlets before and since were geared towards a specific viewpoint. It might be too pessimistic and dark to say that our default setting is to actively seek out propaganda; but what binds you, us, and most of the surviving Mid-Majority readers is a state of mind that is interested in other perspectives (and fascinated by things like Aussie Rules Football). “Black lives matter” is, in pithier words, a demand thay people be curious and empathetic about their lived experience... and as we're all discovering, a lot of people have not been inquisitive about that, for centuries. So—and the future American society might be riding on the answer—can curiosity be taught?

TB: Since this is TMM, I'll say that for Hoops Nation representatives at places like Canisius, Holy Cross, the Loyolas, Santa Clara, et al—the Jesuits certainly believe that's the case, and in fact that one's spiritual relationship is contingent on curiosity. I have a neighbor who learned under the Augustinians and now teaches philosophy at a Benedictine college and we talk about this a lot. Fundamentalism—the defining concept of our age, given how it defines both sides of the forever war—is regularly linked simply with “religion,” when I think fundamentalism is itself atheistic and in reality faith is the figurehead through which to promulgate the retrograde attitudes possessed by those that promote it. 

One upon a time I was a communication professor teaching things like the Rhetoric of Agitation and Control—a theoretical framework first put together by John W. Bowers & Donovan J. Ochs in 1971 based on observations made during the 1960s. It outlines the ways protest movements get their message out and gain adherence, and what the establishment does to shut those movements down. One of the steps of agitation rhetoric is polarization: forcing people to choose sites, “if you're not with us, you're against us,” et cetera. Dubbing something as “polarizing” has become a slur in the 21st century; conservatives declare Obama as “our most polarizing president” while alleged mild-mannered centrists critique the “polarizing” nature of Black Lives Matter (never minding that Dr. King illustrated how beautiful polarization can look in the prose that makes up his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”) The idea that one could be informed but also neutral is a recent, human history speaking idea—one that, in the sense of faith, the late Neil Peart had something to say about

That also plays into the conceit that journalists should be “unbiased”—to the point that I once worked for an employer that barred making political donations, et cetera. It is impossible to be fully informed on an issue and yet have no opinion on it. And I think it's the least we can expect of those tasked with investigating and reporting the news to be informed on the issues. 

But to answer your question succinctly—”How To Be An Antiracist” is the top-selling nonfiction book in the country right now.  

TMM: Since it's our mission to interview everybody from Deadspin eventually, and you did in fact work there for a time, we have to ask you about it. We'll obviously drill down with this, but for starters: what are your general recollections of your time there?

TB: Hindsight has provided me the ability to look back on the people who edited my work or were otherwise my superiors at Deadspin and realize how incredibly talented and kind they were. I very much took for granted the institutional approach that recognized all of us who worked there had a unique set of skills and a unique set of shortcomings and fostered individual work environments that allowed us to excel at “doing Deadspin” while also very much being ourselves. 

That goes for everyone I worked alongside, too. There's this breaking-in period that almost everyone who worked at Deadspin goes through where you come in and you do work that you think fits the tone and timbre of the place, but it really doesn't. And it's jarring, but everybody eventually figures out that the Deadspin voice isn't about being “edgy” or “profane,” but that being either meaningful or absurd often requires edginess or profanity. That's something that bothers me so much about “Neue Deadspin,” because the current crowd occupying those seats haven't picked up on what actually made Deadspin what it was, and without any institutional memory there's little chance their tone will ever curve back to where it belongs. 

TMM: We've said it before, but our theory is that Will Leitch and Rick Chandler's gentlemanliness were so embedded in the site's DNA that not even the eras where it veered closer to edgy/profane could erase it. Private Equity Zombie Deadspin certainly did. Post-walkout PEZD is terrible on any number of levels, and it's been rejected by 90 percent of its former audience if Comscore's system is any sort of accurate. Here's a soul-searching question: what about its current state is the most offensive to you, a former staffer? Is it the inability to look away while a beloved thing gets three-coilered in slow motion, the symbolic value of a private equity victory, or something deeper and more visceral?

TB: Honestly? There are people working now at Deadspin whose work I have appreciated for a long time, and like as individuals, who are now suddenly producing really substandard work. It breaks my heart that people I know could be doing better simply aren't because of the total lack of editorial oversight and institutional knowledge that resulted from the exodus. But, yes, it also sucks that I have all this Deadspin gear accumulated over seven years and I can't even wear it in public anymore because I don't know what inflammatory, error-ridden dumbass post full of typos might have gotten put up that day. 

It is extremely amusing that Deadspin's old foes keep going after it as if nothing's changed. Nobody cares anymore, chuds.

TMM: But that might be a function of the rigid, inflexible cult mindset. Everyone's looking for one to join, you know. Like, something as big and dumb as Barstool doesn't have the agility to steer the ship on that kind of dime, and may just be stuck fighting 2016's battles for a while. We've talked about this with the others a little, but there seemed to be a time around 2012 or so when Deadspin readers stopped being scary frat boy brigadiers (did it happen to us a few times in the late 00's? yes) and became a more progressive, intelligent blob. Since all that coincides with your time there, what was your general perception of the Deadspin readership, and its evolution over time?

TB: I watched this all happen in realtime. Much of it was simply that editorial leadership grew up; if Leitch had been 30 when Deadspin launched, it probably would have been a very different site. But—I can't believe I haven't written about this in a response here yet?—we as a society underwent some pretty substantial cultural change between 2011 and 2013, or so. I've come to start calling it “The Great Awokening.” 

I did standup comedy through the 2000s. There was a pretty distinctive threshold between “tasteless” humor and “offensive” humor, one that disappeared as we collectively recognized the ways in which what we considered merely “tasteless” was in fact racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise ethno/gendercentric. I do not know what specific act prompted this change; if I ever write a book about this, I suppose I'll find it. But there's no question that the way we (I'm speaking mostly on behalf of white, straight men here) spoke changed after The Great Awokening. And it made everything we said before that look really bad. It's particularly bad because in hindsight it's obvious that our jokes were rooted in our own positions of power, and I won't really make any excuses for it. Drew Magary wrote about this far more effectively than I ever could, and I co-sign all of it.

Across the country, as I answer this question, I'm watching eight screens of people protesting the institutions that have protected the rich, powerful, and white. And tomorrow I'll see the rich, powerful, and white fight against these people, calling them looters or arsonists. Because those who hold power will do almost anything when even a small threat arises that might strip them of a small bit of their ill-gotten gains. Those who oppose changing a flag or removing a monument to white supremacy whine about “erasing history,” but they are fighting on behalf of—and against—ghosts. So, too, are those outlets who built audiences with demagoguery. 

Let me get back to your question, what you really meant, though. The relationship between Deadspin's writers and its commenters has been symbiotic from the start (the new regime's choice to eliminate comments, even from old posts, is particularly painful). The commenters tended toward the overeducated, which made them apt to slide through the Great Awokening with no resistance; they reckoned with themselves the same way we did. And as the site took on politics—as we all recognized that sports and politics are inseparable—the new readers and commenters were already predisposed to have a more progressive outlook. The whole thing just happened organically.

TMM: We've known you for almost 15 years now, but most people first heard about Tim Burke from “Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax”, the research piece you wrote with Jack Dickey. Reviewing it now, a.) it's amazing those mainstream media collaborators are still employed, and b.) it's difficult to figure out exactly how the long con was going to work. But it was an excellent example of an athlete and media conspiring to overlay pure fiction onto a sports narrative, as well as an early victory of cheap manipulative feels over basic fact-checking, all at social media speed. What do you think the true legacy of Lennay Kekua (R.I.P.) is?

TB: I certainly think that we've helped introduce some level of skepticism into the natural myth-making that goes into reporting on personalities in sports. I think that there was a short-term reckoning with reporting processes within sports media organizations but I don't know that the current state of sports media is able to adequately address the failings that led to the Manti Te'o story being reported as credulously as it was at the time—we know there was a breakdown in the Sports Illustrated fact-checking process in 2012, but does SI even employ fact-checkers anymore? It's a dire state of affairs; almost everyone I know is out of a job right now. And the cuts always come from the places where skilled, knowledgeable journalists are needed most—fact-checking, editing, investigative reporting, and so forth. 

We're far enough out from the Manti Te'o story that I am now speaking to groups of college students and finding many of them who are wholly unfamiliar with it, which makes telling the story an incredible joy. The narrative at the time was reported with such rich details of things that never happened—”the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago,” etc—but there was a whole industry of Lennays throughout the 1990s that we read and accepted when they were printed as the dedicated workout regimen, diet, and daily yoga that were solely responsible for some spray hitter's surprising 50-homer season. 

TMM: That kids now don't even know the story might be a function of the way the whole thing landed: the story itself, the lack of consequences for anybody involved, and the way it was all quickly forgotten. At the time, those were all clear signals that in 2012 sports journalism, nothing mattered lol. And it still doesn't: that recent ESPN McGwire-Sosa documentary “Long Gone Summer” felt like a creepy attempt to keep that "daily yoga" conspiracy alive... it was from the "perspective" of 1998 and the androstenedione butt injections barely came up. Your story came out the same week as Lance Armstrong's Oprah interview, and we vividly recall that in January 2013, there were Manti and Lance apologists online whom you could argue with if you had spare time.

Lennay Kekua either served as a confirmation of existing nihilism and cynicism (we were in this category) or a wake-up call that feelings didn't care about your facts. Fast forward to seven years later, and sports journalism is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where nobody has a job—regardless of anyone's talent level—and there's no consensus on what societal use it has. "Reporting" can be managed by one or two dedicated league propagandists, and the rest is a competition of who can generate low-level, knee-jerk emotional appeal. Do you have any concept of how sports journalism could work on an industrial level in the future, or is it over?

TB: We absolutely bigfooted Lance Armstrong, whose confession aired the day after we published the Manti Te'o story and completely blew up ESPN's planned coverage of Lance's “apology.” I'd feel worse about it if it were a more sympathetic character or if Oprah needed money.

There is a desire for both in-depth reporting and analysis in sports (The Athletic, while not as big a success as I'm sure its funders were hoping, has shown there are a lot of people willing to pay money every month for it) and for the sort of thing we did at Deadspin. I mean that both for readers—whose loyalty made the site extremely profitable even when the industry as a whole was sinking—and the sort of people who would like to fund a new operation doing what Deadspin used to do. I think services like Patreon and Substack have shown there's a market for people subscribing to products; that business model is not what has sunk newspapers and magazines. 

One outcome many predict is the eventual consolidation of all sports media into outlets either financially beholden to the leagues or those controlled by them outright. I don't actually see this happening, because people (at least in the U.S.) have a cultural distaste for state-run media as a concept, and I have faith the work we've done to expose these obligations will mean there's always space for an independent sports media industry.

TMM: We're still headed towards a sports media landscape where breaking news in the four major American sports can be adequately covered by Adrian Wojnarowski, Jeff Passan, John Buccigross and Rich Eisen. That is, if that isn't what it's become already. (College basketball is too big for one person to handle, but the NCAA probably has the resources to create a Matt Pomekatz in a lab.) Part of the reason that it's kept in check is that part of the sports stan experience is trying to figure out and expose what the people's true inner biases are. Like, we barely break even, The Athletic is starting to lay people off, The Ringer is an inbred Caucasian sausage party, blog networks like SBNation and Bleacher Report were built on exploitation... so what, in your mind, is a workable independent sports media model going forward? What, or whom, does a successful outlet look like in 2025?

TB: Subscription-based, personality-driven, but with an aggressive social breaking news strategy. I think the last two parts are where The Athletic is sort of missing the boat; they certainly did draw a number of popular beat writers and columnists from newspapers that had their fans, but they haven't done much to cultivate those individuals as national brands within themselves and their video operation was a complete disaster. They've also made it clear they aren't interested in that third dimension, which is how you continue to build an audience after an initial plateau that happens once everyone who thinks they might be interested in your content has already signed up.

The problem is that the people who build audiences through their writing tend to really not want to do any kind of television or video work and the people who are eager to do video tend to be the sort of clout-seeking individuals you don't really want to work with. They're also, so be fair, vastly divergent skill sets. 

But here's a description of a sports site that would make everybody involved a lot of money and if any readers out there have a few million to give me to fire it up I'll happily accept it:

Staffed with a small number of people who have large and/or influential followings. There are a number of people who fit this description that I can name right now who happen to be available! 

A clear, unique, and recognizable editorial voice for the site. But with emphasis that it is only a THEME, and that editorial staffers are to leverage their own unique voices with all the content they produce. I feel like this is the biggest mistake media startups make.

Early relationships with more, uh, legacy-y media types to get the content shared once it is being produced.

Staffers who have a bit of on-camera ability (or, alternatively, some people who have a desire—but not too much of a desire, see above—to be on camera) and a handful of really skilled motion graphics artists to crank out well-illustrated sports takes for social consumption. 

A subscription model but only put 50 to 75 percent of the content behind the paywall, with breaking news never (NEVER) behind a paywall.

A social media operation run like it's a totally different brand with a small staff doing… the sort of thing I do. Building new media brands, for better or worse, requires attracting audiences with dessert in order to feed them the vegetables that they don't know taste good.

Contracted with Netflix/Amazon/whoever for a doc series about the sort of things that fall in line with the aforementioned editorial voice. There are so, so, so many amazing sports stories that have never been produced on video, and despite my many attempts to get this off the ground during my time cashing checks signed by Univision, we couldn't make it happen even though everyone agreed they'd be a huge success. Contract all the hard parts to a production company.

Sales outsourced to one of the small boutique firms that facilitate integrating the brands with the content but with the upfront knowledge by all parties that these integrations will be very explicitly labeled as ads.

Not based in New York, and hopefully with no office at all.

Uses WordPress as the CMS. Dev outsourced. 

Has at least one product that is not editorial at all. Consulting, or data tech/viz, whatever.

Here's why this would work: Overhead is what is killing every media company. Keep your editorial staff small, outsource everything you can, and keep it the hell out of New York City. Diversify the revenue stream with things that are on-brand but reach people who aren't/won't/can't read a sports blog.

TMM: Seven years ago, the New York Times ran its feature about your daily process. Since TMM plays to a much smaller but far more tech-savvy Gen X/Millennial audience than their Upper West Side brunch demo, how does the Burke-puter really work? And seven years later, how much has your setup changed and evolved?

TB: So much of the setup is based in my preparation and planning, which used to involve a pile of spiral-bound notebooks at the daily TitanTV schedule. That's only starting to creep back into the rotation—do I really feel like keeping an eye on Milan vs. Lecce?—but the disruption of even that morning ritual reflects the liminality of our current situation. I'm not writing today's date at the top of a sheet of paper as the first act I take upon entering my office, right? 

But the differences today compared to seven years ago mostly involve the Robots I've built to watch TV for me. That's in the form of both hardware and software tools, because I can't monitor everything myself so I try to record everything cyclically (like a DVR, but for 30-some channels) and I've moved away from broadcast TV channels and closer to the firsthand satellite feeds and that sort of thing. So every morning I run a couple scripts that pop up about 20 feeds and then ten are on the monitors in front of me. I moved into my new office four years ago and still only have about half my equipment hooked up simply because I'm too busy to take enough time off to get the rest of it done. Maybe next year.

But you asked for details. So here are some details. There are five or six computers in this office that are used regularly. My workstation is a custom-built X299 platform running MacOS, the secondary workstation is a different custom-built system but from ten years ago—also running MacOS, and then a server running Ubuntu handles most of the Robots; two or three Macbooks of various generations fill in the gaps on busy days, of which there have been more lately. There are several eight-drive platter arrays in RAID 10 configuration among the home-built computers, with everything that gets archived being transcoded to HEVC using CUDA in an NVIDIA 980ti in the Linux server. 

There's a Windows 7 computer over in the back for times when I need to build something for a client who uses Windows, but other than that we stick to leveraging open-source Unix-y stuff. I was mostly coding in Python but more recently went back to PHP because of how closely the video recording process is being connected to embedded devices that run their own web servers.

All my screens are either cheap HANSPREE TVs or old Dell monitors I got off a pallet from a bankruptcy auction. I do have one 4K screen, but it's a $200 Best Buy model and if someone tells you you need a fancier TV, they are lying to you. 

TMM: One thing we've always admired you for is your innate understanding of social media. We used to be good at Twitter back when there are fewer Boomers and no ads, but in 2012 it's a lot of dealing with Robot cops and algorithms that reward people who spend a lot of time on it and punish everyone else. If you aren't a complete attention whore, it's basically an unpaid job. But your viral content hits different; take the Sinclair edit or recent police-related videos. They show things the way they are, so clearly that propagandized responses are impossible. We saw your Van Nuys false arrest clip quote-tweeted in Japanese, your stuff translates well.

You gave some of your content creation philosophy at the end of the NYT piece before they cut you off; care to expound on that?

TB: My favorite documentary film of all time is Brett Morgen's “June 17th, 1994.” It's proof a collage film can tell a complete narrative entirely through archival footage. We're speeding toward post-truth—we are probably already there, frankly—but my philosophy remains the same it was ten years ago when I talked about it to Erik Malinowski for Wired magazine: interesting things are happening all around us, all the time, in plain sight; they just need somebody to be looking at them. All I've done since then is build technology to let me look at a lot of things, simultaneously. (Most of this “looking” is algorithmic.)

But there's truth in different forms. There's truth in the video of an Ole Miss player costing his team the Egg Bowl by pretending to pee, and truth in the usually stoic Russian TV announcers' reaction to it. There's truth in a GIF of Russell Westbrook doing something incredible with a basketball. The human condition in post-truth may be that people seek out evidence of that which really happened. And what better source of that with which to ground ourselves than the absurd, after all?

TMM: This response is good timing since we went through an Adam Curtis marathon while under super-strict lockdown back in February, and there's another filmmaker who reorders archival footage to make his points. So now we're thinking of Brett Morgen's film through the lens of HyperNormalisation. "June 17th, 1994" was fascinating because it placed these events in a linear boxed context that wasn't really possible in 1994. (As we've written in this space, we spent that day on a hot couch in Eugene, Oregon and weren't able to watch our childhood hockey team's parade.) A hypernormalized version of 6/17/1994 would be an oversimplified narrative that says, for the sake of story smoothness, a single one of those events fully explains what that day is. Any O.J.-centric narrative is just that, but five intertwined stories does a better job of illuminating context, even if it's at the cost of making a viewer halt for an hour and ponder (and hopefully appreciate) that day's fragmented complexity.

So if post-truth is the use of small facts in complete service of a ridiculously simple unifying theory—and this is basically what QAnon is—then the Burke-puter is the complete opposite of hypernormalization, the “fake world”. As a Robot-aided eye in the sky filtering through hundreds of realtime video streams, you're curating a feed based on judgments of prima facie interestingness. And any puzzle that fragmented would come across as fundamentally absurd and more than a little confrontational, no?

TB: Well, here is where I both attempt to explain my psyche while also absolving myself of responsibility. I don't really put a lot of thought into what I do. Things just happen, and I'm not unaware that like a fighter pilot, there is an edge to eventually be lost. The advice I give to clients to have a very consistent, but human, voice. But my personal feed is sometimes schizophrenic; as protests raged around the country, my tweets fluctuated wildly between indignation at acts of state violence, absurdities of live TV, L.A. police chases, and live media criticism. If there'd been any sports to highlight, that would have been there too. 

This was all very different ten years ago, when Twitter didn't have embedded media support and I had to post everything on my own website. That relied on a lot more of my personality bringing people onboard, and honestly I really miss that.  

TMM: Anyone who reflexively shudders when they hear “yfrog”... real ones know. Damn. We were listening to a podcast recently where Rob Delaney was asked about tweeting strategy, and he said that a great tweet has to have an internal dynamic to it, a one-two punch. A legendary tweet, according to him, makes you think about the thought process that went behind it for a few seconds afterwards. As someone who goes viral every other day, what do you think a great tweet is made of? And what, in your opinion, is the best tweet of all time?

TB: That's some interesting insight since, as I've tried to make clear, I put no thought into any of my tweets, at all, save for a few where I'm trying to make a specific but complicated point within the character limitations.

I think a great tweet has a few qualities:

It is uniquely of the person who tweeted it; it reflects the personality of the account.

At the same time, it is universal; it speaks an indisputable truth to all.

It exhibits text, context, and subtext simultaneously.

And, yet, my favorite tweet of all time is not a tweet at all; it is Jim Abbott, the one-handed Michigan and Team USA alum who logged ten years in the majors, retweeting Jimmy Fallon. A quote-RT would have ruined the joke; the joke is that Jim Abbott, tweeting with one hand, is retweeting Jimmy Fallon tweeting about tweeting with one hand. 

But if you're going to hold me to an actual tweet, it is Crab Rangoon

TMM: No Tim Burke retrospective would be complete without a discussion of your long music career, and that's actually how we'd first independently heard of you: some goofy song back in the mid-aughts. You've written FIFA anthems and Creed parodies, often at the same time. You have in-depth knowledge of rock instruments, and reverse-engineered Microsoft Songsmith long before OpenAI was leveraged to create new verses for "Never Gonna Give You Up". Where and how did all this start, and are you still making songs?

TB: So I grew up in a Bavarian-settled area of rural Ohio where I worked at the radio station spinning polka records and hosting live coverage at polka festivals and even recorded some polka music with the band I had in high school, all aimed at eventually completing a perfect polka album that would win me a Grammy award. Then the recording academy eliminated the Best Polka Album category, just as I had laid out the framework for recording the album destined to win it. I was doing a standup comedy-music hybrid act throughout the 2000s and for about a decade recorded an annual holiday music record I mailed out alongside my Christmas cards. I still have a number of holiday songs yet to record, and as soon as I finish the podcast studio in my closet I'll get around to doing those, too. But I recorded a number of instrumental tracks for various purposes during my Deadspin days and have continued to do so for clients of mine now. 

There's a Soundcloud playlist!

Look, you made fart noises with chiptune, and that's worth a lifetime achievement award from somebody, and you are to 8-bit 80s covers as Jon Bois is to KPN catalog music. We'd first ask you what the podcasting studio is going to be for, but we'd like to know how to hack the perfect Grammy-winning polka album, since we would always listen to those AM polka stations when we were driving through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania during the TMM 1.0 days. Is there a certain ratio of classics to novelty songs to ironic Weird Al-style modern songs?

TB: I did a lot of experimentation with the polka music as I was just starting to study music as an academic discipline—I actually went to a music conservatory for my freshman year of college as a vocal music major—so I had 12-bar blues polkas, stuff in what might be charitably considered Germanglish, polka renditions of Bavarian hunting songs, et cetera. Polka music was a big part of my upbringing and I'm really fortunate to live in a city that hosts a surprisingly large Oktoberfest event yearly; we're friends with the organizers and I've been able to provide input for the bands they hire insofar as which songs I consider “standards,” and the like.

TMM: Finally, you are a key figure in The Mid-Majority's history, such that it is. Your epic combination of Queen's Flash Gordon theme and Stephen Curry highlights won a much smaller internet a decade ago.

You convinced people that the 2014 shutdown was an important thing to Deadspin readers, and you were the one who kept a copy of the archives so that we could relaunch TMM five years later. You believed in the site when we got burned out and stopped caring about it. One question: why?

TB: I've stuttered and stopped and retracted myself a few times with this answer. The truth is that I have a very poor memory and my reference points for not just sports but my whole life are tied up in the things I read and experienced while living it and so googling the TMM archives for temporal anchors is a common tool that I could not really suffer losing. 

TMM: We certainly could suffer that, and we had deleted it so completely from our systems that we had to ask you for your XML files in order to rebuild the database... and that was only after we'd learned that several of TMM's 800 Games Project authors had died too early, and that in at least two cases their game recaps were the only things they'd written publicly. So disowning most of the 1300+ pieces we'd written, which were mostly gauzy apologism for a corrupt and exploitative (and fundamentally racist) NCAA system, was kind of a selfish prickish act when it came down to it.

We've found a sort of balance: we'll keep it all up as long as readers will pay for it themselves, and we're writing things we're actually proud of now, even if we've lost all the NCAA men's Division I stans. We're not very nostalgic. So where does something like TMM 1.0, or any content, fit into your mental map of certain months and years, and do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?

TB: Nostalgia. I always focus on that last part, from the Ancient Greek ἄλγος, “pain.” I find nostalgia an unwelcome hindrance, a disruption, a spam telemarketing call. It arrives to take you away from the present. If we could only choose our triggers, and it were that easy. 

Gambling-types have often said to me that having money on the line makes any game interesting. I consider those people to be incredibly uncreative; I think that any game, in any sport, requires nothing but the ability to watch it and an imagination in order to be interesting, as there are infinite arbitrary reasons to cheer for one side or another or one player or another. But TMM 1.0 gave me a framework to save myself from needing too much creativity when it came to caring about college sports, and it introduced me to personalities—most of whom have moved on from their respective schools, anyway—that made me a forever fan of places like Belmont and Drake and Sam Houston State.  

TMM: As you know, we have a naming convention for posts here—they each have to start with “The”—but we're still unsure what to call this one. So for the first time in TMM 2.0 history, we're turning it over to you.

TB: “The Things We Enjoy,” or “The Conceit.”

This has been Season 16, Episode 47 of The Mid-Majority. We welcome your letters at The Form™. For just one dollar per month you can help keep the ten-year TMM archives online and support interesting basketball research projects like the international mid-major player tracker. At the GOLD™ level of $10 per month, you can keep The Pixelvision Network on the air and receive special GOLD™ perks in games like Pickball. Or directly support this newsletter at the STONE™ level: pay what you want monthly or make a one-time donation. Our weekly writing volume is proportional to your monthly support. (Currently: 3,000 words per week.)

This newsletter is sponsored by Brendan Loy and would not have been possible without him.

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The Woods

Once you give over your entire identity to a sport, the lines that separate the game and real life start to disappear. Welcome to The Woods, a new 22-essay anthology from TMM's Season 16.