Thursday, August 28, 2014

Guess you can't nurture foot speed

Just one white sprinter has broken the 10-second barrier in the 60 meters; France's Christophe Lemaitre. His analysis of the achievement:

"Of course, it was my goal to break it. One has to run under 10 seconds in order to be part of the world's best. I will be recognised as the first white man to do so, but today's achievement is mainly about making history for myself!...It is not about the color it is about hard work." 
Hard work...that old staple. I'm sure you've heard it too: you're having a late night conversation at the bar. The topic comes up (usually in a hushed voice): why don't all groups excel equally in sports?
Progressive "Nurture is Everything" Guy: The poor and disadvantaged excel in athletics because they don't have access to the other rungs of economic mobility.
Once or twice I've even seen a mote of sincerity in the eyes of these people. If they truly believe this, one can only conclude they are intellectually disadvantaged. Or blind.
I don't deny that economic status plays a factor. How many prep school kids take up serious boxing? How many trailer park residents become elite skiers? But economics alone don't come close to telling the whole (apparently uncomfortable) story.
Below is a list of the top 25 recorded times in the 100-meters. 10 countries are represented. Now Google Image these folks. Tell me if you notice they all have something in common; despite the number of different nations represented.
Spoiler alert: None of them resemble Rick Astley:

Rank
Time
Wind (m/s)
Athlete
Country
Date
Location
1
9.58 WR
+0.9
 Jamaica
16 August 2009
2
9.69
+2.0
 United States
20 September 2009
Shanghai
−0.1
 Jamaica
23 August 2012
4
9.72
+0.2
 Jamaica
2 September 2008
5
9.78
+0.9
 Jamaica
29 August 2010
6
9.79
+0.1
 United States
16 June 1999
+1.5
 United States
5 August 2012
London
8
9.80
+1.3
 Jamaica
4 June 2011
9
9.82
+1.7
 Trinidad and Tobago
21 June 2014
10
9.84
+0.7
 Canada
27 July 1996
+0.2
 Canada
22 August 1999
12
9.85
+1.2
 United States
6 July 1994
+1.7
 Nigeria
12 May 2006
+1.3
 United States
4 June 2011
15
9.86
+1.2
 United States
25 August 1991
Tokyo
−0.7
 Namibia
3 July 1996
+1.8
 Trinidad and Tobago
19 April 1998
+0.6
 Portugal
22 August 2004
+1.4
 Trinidad and Tobago
23 June 2012
20
9.87
+0.3
 United Kingdom
15 August 1993
−0.2
 Barbados
11 September 1998
22
9.88
+1.8
 United States
19 June 2004
+1.0
 United States
8 August 2010
+0.9
 United States
29 August 2010
+1.0
 Jamaica
30 June 2011
.

Everyone on this list is of predominantly West African descent. Mr. Lemaitre is the sole white man to break 10 seconds. No Asian sprinter has been recorded breaking 10 seconds.
If poverty is such a determinant factor, why don't we see any U.S. Hispanics on this list? There are estimates that perhaps 1/4 live in poverty. What about the poor South Asians who flock to the U.K.; why don't they become elite sprinters? Where are the poor Arabs from France? Why does just one "disadvantaged group" show up time and time again no matter the country? 

The disadvantaged group doing the elite sprinting is in a better position economically than they were in, say, 1974. So why haven't the demographics shifted a bit to reflect this? The last white sprinter to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters was Allan Wells in 1980. Last white sprinter to win the 200: Pietro Mennea, 1980. Yes, Jeremy Wariner won gold in 2004 in the 400, but did you have a look at the rest of the field? Which one of these things is not like the other? In 2012, the aforementioned Lemaitre was just the fifth white sprinter since '84 to make the 200 meter final.
China and India make up more than 1/3 of the world's population. Why hasn't a single sprinter from either country, poor or otherwise, broken 10 seconds? They aren't capable of the same "hard work" as Lemaitre? None of them have enough interest to pursue sprinting with the same dedication?
Given that Mr. Lemaitre studied industrial engineering, I find it hard to believe he can't calculate how unlikely that is.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Organic Growth of Cthulhu

"The Raven" is unquestionably one of the most well-known slices of the macabre. Every kid in America gets a direct order from a teacher to read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". References to the poem pop up frequently; TV, Halloween paraphernalia - and I would guess the majority of Americans know the poem well enough to recognize "Nevermore."

I write all this because I recently received a Cthulhu cookie-cutter as a gift (the benign, cute Cthulhu), and could only marvel at the improbable stature Lovecraft's creations have reached; all without official sanction from the education system. Except for specialized college courses, Lovecraft does not appear in classroom study.

Hollywood hasn't helped. There have been no blockbuster films* based on Lovecraft's works. Probably the most famous (and they weren't that famous) Lovecraft adaptations for television were on the '70s show Night Gallery, remembered mainly because Rod Serling hosted it. Meanwhile Edgar Allan Poe's name has been a selling point on several movies (including many high profile ones) since the beginning of film.

Yet Lovecraft's creations, Cthulhu in particular, seem not only to enjoy sprawling popularity, but also to inspire an unutterable number of homages.

Type "Cthulhu" into Google Images. In addition to many creepy and varied portraits of the monster itself, you will find a nameless array of clever parodies:









Keep in mind, this is without typing "Cthulhu funny" or "Cthulhu parody."

Typing "R'Lyeh" - the non-euclidean city from whence Cthulhu came - generates witty results like this:



Punch "non-euclidean" into Google Images; Lovecraft is the fourth entry. Even if you type "non-euclidean geometry buildings," you get at least as many Lovecraft references as you do serious ones.



The miscellany of Cthulhu merchandise that can be found online is enough to make someone flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. Try it for yourself; most any product you can (un)name has an effulgent variety of Cthulhu incarnations.

Cthulhu-Plush-Slippers-NEW-12021

Typing "The Raven" into Google Images doesn't begin to produce comparable results. Other prominent fantasy staples like Lord of the Rings also don't appear to inspire a following quite as eclectic as Cthulhu's. And the ubiquitousness of Cthulhu was mostly achieved outside the standard avenues of pop culture immortalization.

All this humor linked to a man who was a bit of a stiff. All this affection for a tenebrous fellow who confessed to fellow writers: 

Of course, I am unfamiliar with amatory phenomena save through cursory reading.

Much like the writers who codified, continued, and spotlighted the Cthulhu Mythos (spotlighting Lovecraft himself along the way), thousands of others continue using H.P.'s motifs as inspiration. What had sunk has risen, and what has risen will continue rising.




*Ironically, Re-Animator, based on a tale Lovecraft probably composed as semi-parody, is so far the most commercially successful Lovecraft adaptation.


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Saturday, August 16, 2014

People who are better than you

Athletes are dumb, right? And sure, doctors may be smart, but all they have is a very specialized intelligence. Am I right, people?

Of course these statements are sometimes quite true, but often I think we shout them to make ourselves feel better about not measuring up. Athletes ("jocks") and high IQ folks detonate our insecurities, so we remind ourselves they MUST be deficient in other areas. Conveniently, the "important" areas where we claim to excel. I mean, you can't be athletic AND smart. No way: every smart kid got picked last in gym class! Haven't you ever watched an A&E Biography?

Unfortunately for those who excel in nothing, these truisms ain't universal. Many people whose talents are in the 1% distinguish themselves in several domains.

David Robinson

Robinson scored a 1320 on the SAT (before you could use calculators), and entered the elite United States Naval Academy, where he majored in mathematics. He couldn't continue in the Navy because he grew too tall for ships and planes. No really.

Oh...and that was before he joined the NBA, where he was a 10-time All Star and league MVP. In fact, one of the criticisms he faced during his career was that he lacked the psychopathic competitiveness of Jordan and Bird because his interests and talents outside of basketball were too wide-ranging.

You'll notice Tony Parker didn't seduce Robinson's wife. Probably afraid Robinson would trap him in a mad scientist torture device (No Mr. Parker, I expect you to die).

Eric Heiden

Won five speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Olympics...before he decided to attend medical school (to became an orthopedic surgeon). And just to keep himself busy after retiring from skating, he also won the U.S. Professional Cycling Championship. So not only did he dominate speed athletics; he dominated endurance athletics. And he became a doctor, a different kind of dream that many have but few can attain.

Heiden probably saves a lot on medical costs; how many athletes do you know who can operate on themselves?

Kris Kristofferson

After being a college athlete who got a mention in Sports Illustrated, Kristofferson became a Rhodes Scholar, and while at Oxford received a Blue award in boxing. Most would have stopped there and spent the rest of their life telling everyone at the bar for the 9 millionth time that they were an egghead who could punch.

Not Kris. He joined the military, where he attended Ranger School and became a helicopter pilot.

He still wasn't done embarrassing the rest of us.

He took up song writing; writing big hits like "Me and Bobby McGee" and "For the Good Times". Then he recorded some big hits for himself; becoming a heartthrob in the process. Then he became a respectable actor in some big time feature films.

We'd better hope Kristofferson never takes up artificial intelligence or we'll all be replaced by robots within six months.

Michael Crichton

Let's see, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard; later went to med school there. That alone supersedes the achievements of most everyone.

Begins writing novels; several become blockbuster bestsellers whose components - Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park - make their way into the vernacular.

Starts directing films. You know how everyone - actors, writers - talk about directing but it never happens or it happens and ends in tragedy? Crichton actually did it, and one of those films -Westworld (the first feature with CGI, also scripted by Crichton) - was a critical and commercial hit that spawned a sequel. Another film, Coma, this time an adapted workwas also a hot success.

In 1994, a TV show named ER hit the airwaves. Crichton created it. The Andromeda Strain was published in 1969. ER came 25 years a later, and was also a sensation. Not only did the man have mega success in print, film, and television; he managed to have mega success in multiple decades. Think about how different the entertainment landscape was in '69 vs. '94. Yet MC threaded the needle.

It's rare for a writer to stay relevant in publishing for many decades*, let alone relevant in several other mediums (did I mention Crichton also created a successful computer game). Anyone remember Peter Blatty? Peter Benchley? Apparently writers named Peter have short shelf-lives...

Crichton's only mistakes: getting married five times and collecting abstract art. I guess he had to do something wrong just to entertain himself.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Not just the most successful bodybuilder ever; the ONLY iconic bodybuilder. I rather doubt my mother has heard of Joe Weider.

Outside of iron pumping, Arnold becomes a prosperous entrepreneur in multiple fields.

Then he tries his hand at Hollywood acting, and becomes one of the biggest actors in the world and sustains it for a couple decades. And he manages this despite a thick Austrian accent. How many blockbuster Hollywood actors can you name who have deep continental European accents? Austrian accents do not make people all warm and gooey inside the way British accents do (quite the opposite). So here you have someone with the most hated kind of accent ascending from bodybuilding to acting to...

...politics. He makes his first foray into politics and gets elected Governor of California, the 8th largest economy in the world, AS A REPUBLICAN! Everyone laughs about it...hahahaha, he's The Governator now. Guess what: Governator got reelected. Arnold was such an unstoppable force that the only thing that could stop him was himself.




*Stephen King has stayed relevant and exceptional. But when he tried to direct, the result was Maximum Overdrive; which he has repeatedly ridiculed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Nixon-Kennedy: Out with the old, in with the almost as old

JFK's oft-celebrated youth is one of the reasons he became a teen idol. Unlike ancient Eisenhower, Kennedy didn't look like a guy with breath like Tutankhamen's, and wasn't known to be as fragile (though he was quite fragile). What better symbol of the dawning of America's dominance in the world than a nubile chap as young and vibrant as our country was said to be.

Ointment, meet fly: Nixon was only four years older (and far more physically capable than the infirm Kennedy), yet the way the 1960 election is discussed you'd think Nixon was old enough to have been best man at Henry VIII's first wedding.

Not so with Kennedy; he probably used a fake ID! He may as well have ridden a surfboard into office. Youth man, that's what JFK was about. I mean, the hit music of Nixon's youth was soooo Duke Ellington, while the hit music of Kennedy's youth was, uh, also Duke Ellington...

Kennedy and Nixon were so close in age their lives overlap. Nixon was in law school at the same time Kennedy was entering Harvard. Both were in WWII. Both won their first election the same year. But even today, with the zeal of Kennedymania five decades behind us, the Kennedy youth narrative of that election endures, facts schmacts.

But even if 47-year-old Nixon had beaten 43-year-old Kennedy, it still wouldn't have been a standout occurrence. There were several under-50 Presidents:

Teddy Roosevelt assumed office at 42 after McKinley intercepted a bullet, but was elected in his own right at an embryonic 46.
Grant was 46
Cleveland was 47 (one of the very few non-prostitutes to become President)
Pierce was 48
Polk was 49
Garfield was 49.

Not shocking no one noticed this. To most people history started yesterday. They vote for politicians the same way the vote for laundry detergent.

In some areas Nixon was closer to the image of the new, vibrant America. He was a social and economic outsider who gnawed his way into elite circles. Kennedy was...well, a Kennedy. If his blood were any bluer he'd look like Veruca Salt.

Nixon was from California; a then emerging locus of power in America. "Young, vibrant, new blood" Kennedy was from Massachusetts; America's Old World.

You can't even say Kennedy was a fresher face in politics; they'd been in office the same length of time.

The punchline is you're only as old as you make people think you are; not even Wikipedia can outrun a narrative.*




*The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concerns a politician and is the finest dramatization of the power of narratives I've seen.


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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Are we nearing WWIII?

Says The Atlantic:

Instability in Ukraine, chaos in Syria, conflict in the East China Sea—the trigger points for World War III are in place.


Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states. Their ambition to gain, retain, and project power is never sated. Optimism, toward which Americans are generally inclined, leads to rash predictions of history’s ending in global consensus and the banishment of war. Such rosy views accompanied the end of the Cold War. They were also much in evidence a century ago, on the eve of World War I.
Then, as now, Europe had lived through a long period of relative peace, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, too, rapid progress in science, technology, and communications had given humanity a sense of shared interests that precluded war, despite the ominous naval competition between Britain and Germany. Then, too, wealthy individuals devoted their fortunes to conciliation and greater human understanding. Rival powers fumed over provocative annexations, like Austria-Hungary’s of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, but world leaders scarcely believed a global conflagration was possible, let alone that one would begin just six years later. The very monarchs who would consign tens of millions to a murderous morass from 1914 to 1918 and bury four empires believed they were clever enough to finesse the worst.
The unimaginable can occur. That is a notion at once banal and perennially useful to recall. Indeed, it has just happened in Crimea, where a major power has forcefully changed a European border for the first time since 1945.


I could write an identical article about the trigger points of the late ‘90s.
The late '90s saw the onset of a technological revolution – the Internet – which launched a wave of prosperity and a far greater ability for nations and cultures to integrate. Velvet Revolutions were fresh in the memory. The Evil Empire had fallen. Happy days abounded.
Then in ’98, Russia, whose relatively new openness to the world was on very shaky legs, defaulted on its debt and slid into crisis. The default had a contagion effect that stung Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine (where they experienced the kind of hyperinflation that causes revolutions).
Other countries in that neighborhood – Romania, Hungary - were also still on very shaky legs after emerging from the fog of totalitarianism. Oh, and there was that whole Yugoslav chaos in the background. NATO eventually intervened in Kosovo, less than a year after Russia's default, the same NATO H.W. Bush promised wouldn’t expand towards Russia (oops)!
So many former enemies quaking with turmoil, so many people whose point of reference was authoritarianism suddenly feeling tumult and desperation during their transition to relative freedom. Perfect petri dish for a widespread rise of STRONG MEN. Perfect breeding ground for authoritarianism, revolution, and warfare that ripples and ripples. OH MY GOD THE END WAS NIGH!
Things were bleak, but WWIII didn’t happen. Of course it CAN happen; it can ALWAYS happen, but  pieces like these (which have been everywhere this year) are closer to cold reading than they are to political analysis. People didn't talk like this in '98 because it wasn't the centennial anniversary of the War to End All Wars.

Right now I’m not as worried about the rise of nationalism as I am about the rise of commentaries (and documentaries) that cause the impressionable to spot WWI and WWII analogies around every corner.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All Crises are Local

You go to parties, right? You know what it's like when you're making the rounds:

First you talk to a scientist. The scientist tells you that there isn't enough funding for his specialty. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Then you talk to a music teacher. She tells you there isn't enough funding for music in schools. She says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Next you talk to a cop. He tells you his hands are tied when it comes to investigating crimes. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

If every sector of human endeavor was as badly off as these types of conversations make it appear, human endeavor would cease entirely. If everyone worked in a field that was in crisis, nothing would function. See, because everyone thinks their interests and pursuits are extremely important, anything they consider awry with those pursuits to them constitutes a grave, MUSHROOMING crisis. Makes sense; we are all our own little sun that the rest of reality revolves around. We're more crestfallen by our personal setbacks than by anything Hitler cooked up.

Much is made of the power of anecdotes; not enough is made of the power of telling anecdotes. The more opportunity we have to reveal the plight of our work field to strangers (particularly those unaffiliated with that work field), the easier it is for us to believe its problems are uniquely dire and underappreciated. People are more skeptical of statistics than they are of anecdotes - including the anecdote teller. You seldom hear - even from scientists - hard data being tossed around at parties.

Holocausting haberdasher Harry Truman said it well: It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours. All crises are local.