Thursday, January 17, 2013

Conroy's Brief Hiatus

Frequent readers may have noticed that I haven't posted anything new over the last month. There is good reason for this lull. I'm taking a few months to focus on a project that I've been wanting to do for sometime, namely writing a readers guide to James Joyce's Ulysses; a guide for first-time readers who may be intimidated or overwhelmed with the challenges of Joyce's masterpiece. This effort represents something of a passion and requires that I (temporarily) set aside my other writing.

I know this may come as bad news for readers who regularly enjoy my posts, but I hope that you'll keep coming back to the site. I'll occasionally post updates on my progress and my intention is to present at least some of my Ulysses guide on this blog. In the meantime, you may see a post or two from The Man. Please continue to send comments, and if you're so inclined, read some earlier posts (a selection of some of my favorites are linked below).

I look forward to getting back to my blogging in the coming months.


A selection of posts from Conroy and The Man:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

Rule 15 - Put the cell phone down.
Back in the summer I wrote a post imploring1 my readers to use their car’s turn signals. Too many drivers, it seems, fail to do this simple yet important act. I meant that post as a (hopefully entertaining) lecture on good driving behavior. An ulterior motive was to express a frustration that I know many of us feel when driving, with an idea (read: hope) that venting in a public forum would somehow be cathartic and lessen my private frustration. No such luck. In fact, if anything, I’ve grown more vigilant of poor driving habits and consequently even more frustrated in the months since, and in that vein I’ve decided to list my rules of driving, highlighting all the many ways that we as a driving public have made driving less safe, more stressful, and indeed more antisocial than it needs to be.

Let’s start with a simple premise: driving is a social activity and as such it demands you, the driver, to be socially responsible. You, the driver, for the majority of your trips, might be alone.  Most of the time your driving will be for a purpose, heading to or from a specific place for a specific reason. You drive from your house to your work; you drive to the store to get groceries for tonight’s dinner; you drive to your friends’ house on Sunday to watch a football game, or to take your kids to sports practice, or to pick someone up from a school event. In other words, most of the time, for all the myriad reasons you go from one place to another, your trips are very personal and individual. This is true, certainly, but seeing driving in this light can lead to a perspective where you view your trips (and the goals that those trips serve) as of paramount importance, and that everyone else on the road is an obstacle in your way, delaying your trip, making your life harder. Such thinking is abetted by the fact that so many of us drive in a “car cocoon” as I like to term it, windows up, radio on, cut off from all the other drivers in their car cocoons. The other drivers become mere abstractions, unknown and barely glimpsed.

It’s this kind of perspective, I believe, that leads to so many of the bad driving behaviors that, well, drive all of us up a wall. How many times have you heard someone say that drivers from fill-in-the-blank2 are terrible? This lament is universal (at least in the U.S.) because we all see so much bad driving every day. When we envision ourselves, individually, in our car as the central and most important person on the road, it leads to a disregard of other drivers, to laziness in our driving, and to rationalizing away our bad behaviors. It’s why so often the rules of the road seem to have been never learned, forgotten, or ignored. You must fight this thinking. You must be responsible to other drivers on the road. Understand that we all share the road; that we all agree to follow rules that make everyone’s trip as orderly and safe as possible; that driving is a privilege earned – you must earn your driver’s license – and that privilege comes with a responsibility to yourself, to the passengers in your car, and to everyone else on the road. We all benefit from driving responsibly. This is the same type of responsibility that leads you to throw your trash into cans instead of hurling it into the gutter, or pay for the things you want instead of stealing them, or to respect the personal freedoms of others. It’s the type of responsibility that makes modern society work.

So keeping this perspective in mind, onto the rules.

[As I get to this list of Conroy’s Rules of Driving, know that while I’m declaring myself a crusader for good driving, I know that the history of crusaders is full of hot air and hypocrisy. So be it, I might not be a saint of the road, but I’ll still champion the cause.]

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

1. Be aware. This may seem obvious, but checking your mirrors, being alert to what’s happening behind you and in the road some distance ahead, looking around as you approach an intersection, just being aware of the general road situation around you. All of this is supposed to be second nature for experienced drivers, but I get the sense it isn’t based on the many rules below that aren’t being followed. One of the primary reasons is that far too many people drive distracted and as a result do not give their primary attention where it belongs, to driving. Too many drivers are on autopilot.

2. Use your turn signal. I already went into this in great detail in my earlier post, but the general idea is to use your turn signal any time you change lanes or make a turn so that the other drivers around you know what you’re intending to do.

3. Be considerate about merging. We’ve all been there, you need to merge out of your lane and into the next lane for any of a number of valid reasons. Yet the stubborn driver in the next lane won’t let you in. As if he/she owns that plot of road or driving is some sort of competitive activity and letting you in front is ceding an advantage (like you’re getting the better of them). And I suspect that many (or most) of us on occasion have been pretty inconsiderate in not letting a driver merge in front of us. Get over it, we’re living in a society, let the driver merge. Letting a car in front of you makes no difference in your trip, but it does make overall traffic flow better.

On the flip side, it’s also a merger’s responsibility to maneuver in a timely fashion. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a driver continue in a lane that is closed a short distance ahead with the expectation that they can merge out of the lane at the last possible moment. Waiting till the last opportunity to merge just causes worse congestion at the merge point and slows everyone down overall. Do everyone a favor and merge (using your turn signal) earlier than at the last possible moment.

And a final piece of advice, please give a thank you wave to anyone who lets you merge in front of them. It's an easy, common courtesy, and it humanizes the whole driving experience; it gets you out of your car cocoon for just a moment.

4. Obey traffic signs. My day job as a transportation engineer has taught me that there is an awful lot of thought that goes into every traffic sign put on the road. All of this effort is needed to ensure a simple outcome: provide clear and consistent direction to drivers to improve overall traffic operations. If you ignore or flout these signs, you’re making traffic worse for everyone else. A good example is disobeying the NO LEFT TURN sign. Often these signs apply during specific time periods, say, rush hours, to eliminate left turns at intersections in conditions where traffic is heavy and left turns are difficult and/or dangerous. If you decide you’re going to make a left turn at an intersection where a NO LEFT TURN sign is in place, you’ll just end up backing up traffic behind you as you likely wait for an extended period for a gap in opposing traffic that allows a turn (often when the light turns red and opposing traffic stops). This is a cardinal example of bad behavior. You’ve decided that your trip is so much more important that everyone else’s that you can ignore a rule that right’s there in front of you in black and white3 – and actively delay a lot of other drivers in the process.

5. Use your lights. If it’s getting dark (or not yet light), or raining, or foggy, or any other situation where conditions are a bit adverse, turn on your lights. The purpose here is as much to let other drivers know you’re there as it is to allow you to see well. In any case, it makes the road safer for you and everyone else.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Long Journey of Voyager 1

Voyager 1 (artist depiction)
Mankind is about the leave the solar system. Well, sort of anyway. Voyager 1, the space probe launched by NASA over 35 years ago, has reached a point in space about 18.5 billion miles from the sun, give or take. NASA, which still monitors and communicates with the probe, announced earlier this week that Voyager 1 has entered a region of space called the “magnetic highway” a boundary area where highly charged particles from deep space interact with solar particles. This region is very close to what’s been termed the heliopause, the very outside edge of the heliosphere, which is (the heliosphere) the bubble of space where the Sun’s solar wind dominates the background particles that permeate space. The heliosphere is used by cosmologists to demarcate our solar system from interstellar space.1 One way to conceptualize the heliosphere is to think of it like the solar system’s version of Earth’s atmosphere, which encompasses us and separates us from space. The further from the Earth’s surface you get the thinner the atmosphere becomes until eventually it stops and space dominates. Same concept with the heliosphere2, the further from the Sun you get the less its radiation dominates space until eventually its influence ceases altogether.

It may actually take Voyager 1 another year or two before it technically reaches interstellar space, such is the vastness of space, but still this is a good time to reflect on the spacecraft and just how far it’s travelled.

The Flights of Voyager 1 and 2
Jupiter with moon Io and Europa as photographed by Voyager 1
By a quirk of planetary orbital dynamics, in the late 1970s and 1980s the outer planets were in a favorable alignment for a space probe to observe each one at close range (they were all on the same side of the Sun). The relative position of the planets would allow for each planet’s gravity to be used to assist in redirecting the probe onto the next planet. This alignment was realized in the late 1960s and astronomers knew that this favorable positioning wouldn’t occur again for 175 years, so time was of the essence. Fortunately NASA, in the wake of the concluded Apollo lunar missions, took advantage and developed two probes, Voyager 1 and its sister craft Voyager 2, which would be sent on close-up flybys of each planet. Each probe weighed 1,500 pounds and was instrumented to observe the planets in just about any way NASA engineers could want. NASA launched both probes in late summer 1977.3 Initially, owing to post-Apollo budget cuts the two spacecraft were only going to observe Jupiter and Saturn, and indeed that’s all Voyager 1 did. It reached the Asteroid belt three months after launch, and approached Jupiter in early 1979. At its closest approach it came nearer the Jovian “surface” than the Moon is to Earth. Among other things, the Voyager probes discovered that Jupiter had rings and that its moon Io was volcanically active. Voyager 1 then headed on to Saturn. It flew by the planet in November 1980, just 77,000 miles above Saturn’s outer atmosphere. Voyager 1 not only observed Saturn, but its moon Titan and the combined gravities of these two bodies hurled the spacecraft (as planned) toward deep space. Its primary mission was over.

I was born just before Voyager 1 reached Saturn; for all intents and purposes, the probe has been racing out of the solar system for my entire life.4 More on this below.

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2
After the success of Voyager 1, NASA decided to direct Voyager 2 to Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2 traveled slower than Voyager 1 (it reached Jupiter shortly after Voyager 1 and Saturn about eight months after) reaching Uranus in late 1985 and finally Neptune in mid-1989. To call the missions a success would be an understatement. Along with valuable scientific data about all of the gas giants, they provided gorgeous photographs. These are just the type of results that both advance science and fire our imaginations, exciting us to further explore and learn about space.

Both probes have enough power to operate until at least 2025. After that, barring a collision with some interstellar object, they will continue on into oblivion. Both probes include a Golden Disk that presents information about Earth and mankind (including audio recordings). The chances may be infinitesimal, but maybe sometime, millions and millions of years from now and many many light-years away, some other intelligent species will find these markers of man.

The Lessons of Voyager 1 for Deep Space Travel
I've always been interested in the stark contrast between the realities of space and the fantastic ways that space travel is portrayed in science fiction. The journey of Voyager 1 illustrates this discrepancy. Voyager 1 is one of the fastest moving manmade objects. It’s currently travelling away from the sun at more than 38,000 miles per hour, that’s over 10.7 miles every second. Even at that speed it still took it 32 years to travel from Saturn to the edge of the solar system5, a distance of roughly 17.6 billion miles. The nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, 4.24 light-years distant. A light-year is equivalent to about 5.87 trillion miles (light travels at about 186,000 mi/s). 4.24 light-years is a bit less than 25 trillion miles. Don't bother trying to conceptualize this distance, it's far greater than anything we humans can relate to. At the current speed of Voyager 1, it would take the probe more than 75,000 years to reach that star (and to be clear, it’s not headed towards Proxima Centauri). That’s more than 1,000 lifetimes.6

I highlight these huge numbers to show you just how inconceivable it is for man to travel to another star system. The Apollo missions used the Saturn V rocket to accelerate the lunar spacecraft to about 25,000 miles per hour (Earth’s escape velocity). This is as fast as man has ever travelled, and had the astronauts been headed to Proxima Centauri instead of the Moon, it would have taken 114,000 years. In fact had Apollo 11 been on a mission to the stars when launched in July 1969, it would be about 9.5 billion miles from Earth by now, barely half way out of the solar system. Double, triple, multiply by tenfold the speed of human spacecraft and the time to approach the nearest stars don’t get any more reasonable.

I’ve written before about the questionable purpose of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. But while I think this debate is largely academic (at least in the present fiscal climate), destinations like the Moon, maybe Mars, and perhaps thinking more fancifully, some distant moon of Jupiter or Saturn are at least thinkable. The simple reality of human existence and mortality demonstrate that no one will ever leave our solar system.

The overwhelming odds are that for thousands or even millions of years (or much longer) the Voyager spacecraft (along with the Pioneer and other distant probes) will transit through interstellar space, a virtual emptiness, passing nothing of note and experiencing nothing worth remembering. That’s no trip for humans to take and no place for humans to be.



1. It worth a quick discussion of what exactly comprises the solar system: There’s the Sun at the center with all of the planets, moons, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, and miscellaneous other space objects that orbit the Sun. Less familiar, and well beyond the orbit of Neptune is the Kuiper belt, which is like a much larger version of the Asteroid belt. Beyond that is a less cohesive collection of objects called the Scattered disc, which is where most periodic comets are believed to originate. Beyond that are the limits of the heliosphere, including the termination shock, heliosheath, heliopause, “magnetic highway” and other boundaries that mark the progressive decrease in the dominance of the Sun over surrounding space.

Beyond these traditional (and very distant) limits of the solar system there other highly scattered objects like Sedna (observed) and the Oort Cloud (hypothesized) that do/may orbit the sun over very long orbital periods.

2. This is a much simplified analogy. In reality the heliosphere is more like a combination of our atmosphere and Earth’s magnetic field, which is critical in deflecting solar radiation and is a crucial boundary separating the Earth below from space beyond.

3. Voyager 2 was actually launched two weeks before Voyager 1.

4. In 1990, Voyager 1 did take a long range picture of all the planets together (excepting Mercury and Pluto, which was still a planet then).

5. Voyager 1 picked up speed after it passed Saturn (it stole some of Saturn gravitational energy), so it left Earth slower than it’s travelling today.

6. Using the biblical three score and ten years definition of a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time – Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed a quantitative approach to determining the greatest tennis player of all time and counted down players 18 through 11. Here in Part 2 I want to complete the countdown from 10 through 1, the GOAT. But first, a brief recap of how the rankings were determined.

Players were awarded points for their Open Era accomplishments, focusing on time spent ranked number 1, grand slam tournament success, and overall match wins. Players were awarded bonus points for notable achievements like winning multiple grand slams in a single season or accomplishing the career grand slam. The specific formula is discussed in detail in Part 1.

Here’s how the players were ranked 18 through 11:1

18. Jim Courier – 211 total points,
17. Lleyton Hewitt – 211,
16. John Newcombe – 237,
15. Ilie Nastase – 287,
14. Mats Wilander – 288,
13. Novak Djokovic – 295,
12. Boris Becker – 306,
11. Guillermo Vilas – 316.

On to the rest of the list.

The Greatest Players of All Time (Numbers 10 through 1)

10. Stefan Edberg (1983-96)
When I think of Stefan Edberg I picture a suave, blond-haired Swede wearing a sweater vest on court and putting away an easy volley as cool as a cucumber, no sweat on his brow. This isn’t right of course because what Edberg really was was an assassin; perhaps the last of the great pure serve-and-volleyers,2 those players who put relentless pressure on their opponents with their net rushing and precise volleys. (It also wasn’t true that Edberg was a super cool Nordic sort, my memory of pretentious sweater vests may be entirely wrong and his penchant for ugly shirts and un-hiply tucking his shirt into his shorts is apparent, see the picture on the right for an example.) Edberg’s career closely shadowed his flashier rival Boris Becker, but by almost any measure, Edberg was more successful. He turned out to be the last in the lineage of dominant Swedish players that included Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander before him.

Total Points: 327
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 72
Year-End Number 1: 2 (1990-91)
Grand Slams: 6 titles / 5 finals
Career Titles (all): 42
Career Wins (PCT): 806 (0.749)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Edberg won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open two times apiece. He made one French Open final in 1989 and lost a famous match to 17-year-old Michael Chang in five sets (after leading two sets to one). He was that close to being only the fifth man in the Open Era (and second at that time) to win the career grand slam.

Iconic Moment: 1992 U.S. Open Final. Edberg’s last grand slam victory came at the expense of a young Pete Sampras at the 1992 U.S. Open. I remember watching that match (when I was first getting into the sport) and being impressed by the tenacity and confidence that Edberg used to subdue his younger and more talented opponent. He came back to win the last three sets after dropping the first, and it seemed that by the end he had broken the spirit of the American. Edberg would remain in the top 10 for a couple of more years, but never again win a big tournament.

9. Rod Laver (1962-79)
Rod Laver is the epitome of a player whose accomplishments are obscured by playing before the Open Era. As an amateur in 1962 he won the calendar year grand slam. Having nothing left to prove among amateurs, he turned pro and didn’t compete in another grand slam until the French Open in 1968 (where he lost the final to Ken Rosewall). Then he promptly won the next five grand slams, including all four in 1969 – his second calendar year grand slam and the only one of the Open Era. All told he won 11 grand slams (6 as an amateur). How many would he have won had he played in them in the five seasons between 1963 and ’67, eight, ten, twelve more? In just the Open Era, less than half his career and only a fraction of his peak, he still gets enough points to rank ninth on this list. We can never know, but if the Open Era had started five years sooner, or Rod Laver come along five years later, he could very well be regarded by everyone as the clear greatest player of all time.

Total Points: 351
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 0
Year-End Number 1: 3 (1968-70)
Grand Slams: 5 titles / 1 final
Career Titles (all): 42
Career Wins (PCT): 392 (0.798)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: All told Rod Laver won 200 tournaments over the full length of his career. These are split between his amateur and professional days, and some are not officially counted as tour wins, but it’s the most tournament wins in history.

Iconic Moment: 1969 U.S. Open Final. Laver rolled over countryman Tony Roche (the Australians really did dominate the sport in the 50s and 60s) winning the last three sets easily after dropping a long first set. In doing so he accomplished what Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic never could, win four consecutive grand slams (let alone win them all in the same year).

8. Andre Agassi (1986-2006)
If Rod Laver is the epitome of a player who lost out by turning professional, then Andre Agassi is the epitome of a player who lost out by not being professional enough. Anybody who saw Agassi play knows he was one of the purest ball-strikers ever. He could stand right up on the baseline, take the ball on the rise, hit clean and very hard, all the while running his opponents into the ground. When he focused on his game and his talent, which was spotty, especially during the mid-90s, he was the best player in the world. He rededicated himself to tennis in his late 20s and played to a high level well into his mid-30s until injury forced him to retire after the 2006 U.S. Open. He remains the oldest player ever to be ranked number 1 (33 years old in 2003). His full career is undeniably impressive, but we’re left to wonder how much greater it could have been had he been as dedicated to his talent as, say, his rival Sampras.

Total Points: 482
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 101
Year-End Number 1: 1 (1999)
Grand Slams: 8 titles / 7 finals
Career Titles (all): 60
Career Wins (PCT): 870 (0.760)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: With his victory in the 1999 French Open, Agassi not only achieved the career grand slam, but also the career “golden slam” so named because he had also won the 1996 Olympics singles tournament. At that time the only other player to have accomplished the feat was his future wife Steffi Graf (who won a calendar year golden slam – all four grand slams and the Olympic gold – in 1988). Rafael Nadal joined this club after his U.S. Open victory in 2010.

Iconic Moment: 1999 French Open Final. Agassi’s rededication to tennis finally came to fruition when he won the 1999 French Open. He had lost the 1990 and 1991 finals to journeyman Andres Gomez and lower ranked American Jim Courier, respectively. The first, he later revealed in his autobiography, because he was afraid his weave was going to fall off during the match (that should tell you a lot about the style-over-substance flakiness of the young Agassi). Back then Agassi was seen as the next big thing. By 1999 he was seen as a has-been. But he surprised everyone and won the tournament (although he had to come from two sets down in the final against Andrei Medvedev), became the first man since Rod Laver to achieve a career grand slam, and reignited his career. He would finish 1999 ranked number 1, win four more majors, and become a paragon of fitness and focus.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time – Part 1

The tennis tour has entered its short end-of-year hiatus1. For the first season since 2003, the just completed (2012) tennis season was highly competitive throughout, with no dominant player. Four different men won the four grand slams2, and the remaining major tournaments were snatched up by the top five players. It says something that the man who won the most matches and tournaments (76 and 7), fifth ranked David Ferrer, was no one’s pick as the player of the year. In the end, Novak Djokovic was just a bit better than Roger Federer and Andy Murray and finished top ranked for the second consecutive year. Rafael Nadal, despite not playing for the last six months due to a career-threatening knee injury, still finished ranked fourth. It all sets up for an interesting 2013, a season that will kick-off in just five weeks.

I thought this “off-season” break would be a good time to debut my rankings of the Greatest (male) tennis players Of All Time; the proverbial GOATs. In tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, there is long and heated discussion among fans and commentators about who’s the best ever. The entire sport is based on rankings; tournaments are structured on a hierarchy that descends from number 1. And unlike team sports, the discussion of rankings, of greatness, can be focused on each man. Absent are the nuances that make ranking teams (and players in team sports) so difficult, subtleties of teamwork, synergies between players, the interplay of complex team-based tactics and collective talent. No, instead, in tennis it seems that the play of each man – his skill, his will, his mind – are all on display. It’s all there to be witnessed and all measured in his results. There aren't any ambiguities. Points are awarded for every result, and rankings listed. And so it follows that if we can rank tennis players at any given time then we should be able to rank them over all times. We should be able to identify the greatest of all time.

Of course this assertion presumes a lot, or stated differently, it ignores a lot of complicating and uncomfortable factors. Factors like changes in racket and string technology over time; varying court surfaces, qualities, and speeds; the regularly changing structure of the tennis tour and the tournaments that make up the yearly calendar; and of course improving fitness and athleticism, and a general broadening and deepening of the professional tennis field. All these things make it problematic to compare, say, the circa 1969 wood-racket-wielding Rod Laver, charging the net on a fast and dodgy grass court, on the one hand, with the 2006 version of Roger Federer and his hi-tech composite racket whacking heavily top-spinned groundstrokes from the baseline of a slow hard court, one the other. This comparison is at minimum a challenge and perhaps impossible. Laver and Federer will never play one another, so we’ll never really know who the better of the two is. So we should just get this out front and center: determining the greatest player of all time, the real GOAT, is a fan’s fantasy. We can make arguments, but we’ll never have a final answer.

But it’s still fun to have the discussion and to make a case, so in that spirit I’ve developed a quantifiable approach to determine the greatest player of all time.

A Quantitative Approach
Just this past year the Tennis Channel presented a list of the 100 greatest players of all time (men and women), based on career achievements and the perspectives and opinions of tennis players, journalists, and historians. Similar lists have been compiled in the past by Tennis magazine other tennis- and sports-related websites and publications. These lists are always qualitative in nature. They attempt to rank players and identify the best based on a range of factors from day-in-day-out results to stylistic innovations, and influence on the sport, which is all fine by me. If we concede that identifying a GOAT is by nature difficult to impossible, then trying to balance all the factors in a qualitative measure is a reasonable approach. But for a numbers oriented person like me, it’s a whole lot less fun, and well, imprecise.3 So I’ve come up with an approach that considers results and rankings over a full career to rank players and identify the one and only GOAT.

Before I lay out the factors that go into my formula, a few ground rules:
  • The list is restricted to the Open Era only, the period that started at the 1968 French Open when professional players were permitted to play in the grand slam tournaments. It’s during the Open Era when all the best players, amateur and professional alike, played in the sport’s biggest tournaments. Before then grand slam results were skewed because many of the best (read: professional) players weren’t there to compete for the titles. I don’t want to gloss over this point, some great players (e.g., Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Poncho Gonzalez) played entirely or mostly before the Open Era and they are completely excluded from my rankings. For players whose careers spanned the Open Era, only the Open Era accomplishments are counted. This is in effect a list of the greatest players of the Open Era.
  • The list includes if and for how long a player was ranked number 1, but the rankings didn’t start until 1973, so for the period from 1968 until 1973, the top ranked player (whoever that was at any time) loses out in my system. There’s nothing that can be done about that, though I have identified who would qualify as the year-end number 1 based on the season long results.
  • This list is of the top men players. A similar list, using the same approach could be made for women (I should probably dedicate a post to the greatest women players at some point).

The Formula
We’re discussing the very best players, so three broad categories of achievement capture, I think, who’s should be considered as among the best. These are (in no particular order) the time spent ranked number 1, success in grand slam tournaments, and “winning” in the general sense. Number 1 ranking is important because a player can hardly be considered the best if he isn't the best at any given time. Grand slam success is important because the best players win the most prestigious, coveted titles, and overall winning is important because that’s what champions do.

So I’m breaking these three broad categories into 12 specific measures, with points assigned for the discrete accomplishments within each measure. They are:
  • Number 1 Ranking – was the player ever ranked number 1 (10 points),
  • Weeks Ranked Number 1 – the longer a player was ranked number 1, the longer they could stay above the rest of the field, the more credit they deserve (2 points for every five weeks a player is ranked number 1),
  • Year End Number 1 – there is special recognition for being the year-end number 1 because that player was by definition the best player of the season (10 points for each year ending number 1),
  • Grand Slam Titles – winning one of the four grand slam tournaments is the highest accomplishment for a tennis player. Each one is highly coveted and very hard to win (seven, best-of-five set matches). These tournaments are also the only tennis achievements that resonate in the larger sports culture. Further, it's only the grand slams that can be compared over time, as most other tournaments come in and out of existence over relatively short periods of time, especially in the pre-ATP Tour era (15 points for each title),
  • Grand Slam Finals – just making a grand slam final is noteworthy, and I think it’s fair to say that appearing in a grand slam final is a greater achievement than winning a lesser tournament (5 points for each grand slam final loss),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams in one year is the greatest accomplishment in tennis and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat and the historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for each calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year – winning three of the four grand slams in one year is a rare feat (at least until recently) and demonstrates clear dominance over the rest of the tennis field. It deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (25 points for each year winning three grand slams),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year – winning two of the four grand slams in one year is a clear indication of superior play and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (10 points for each year winning two grand slams),
  • Career Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams at least once is a very rare feet (almost as rare as winning a calendar year grand slam) and deserves bonus points for the difficulty and historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for a career grand slam),
  • Titles – winning tournaments (other than the grand slams) is what the best players do (3 points for each (non-grand slam) title),
  • Career Match Wins – winning matches is the core of being a great player (1 point for every 20 match wins),
  • Career Winning Percentage – the best players should win a high percentage of their matches (1 point for a 0.700 winning percentage, with one additional point for each 0.010 increment over 0.700).

Add all the points up and you get a player’s total; the higher the score, the better. I make no claims that this is a definitive inventory of the elements that should go into determining the best of all time, or that the points allocated for each measure are appropriate. The old axiom of garbage in, garbage out should be heeded with any formulation like this; it has to pass the sniff test. I think this approach is at least a reasonable start, but let’s see how it computes for an individual player, and I’ll go ahead and pick the current number 1 player, Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic’s GOAT Points:
  • No. 1 Ranking: 10 points (he’s currently ranked No. 1),
  • Weeks Ranked No. 1: 24.8 points (he’ll have been ranked No. 1 for 62 weeks through the end of this year),
  • Year End No. 1: 20 points (he’s been year-end No. 1 twice, 2011 and 2012),
  • Grand Slam Titles: 75 points (he’s won five grand slams),
  • Grand Slam Finals: 20 points (he’s appeared in four other grand slam finals),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam: 0 points (no calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year: 25 points (he won three grand slams in 2011),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year: 0 points (he’s never won as many as two grand slams in any other year),
  • Career Grand Slam: 0 points (Novak has never won French Open),
  • Titles: 87 points (he has won 29 non-grand slam tournaments),
  • Career Match Wins: 23 points (he has won 469 matches over his career so far),
  • Career Winning Percentage: 10 points (he has a career 0.792 match winning percentage).

You add all of those points up and you get a total of 295 points (rounding to the nearest point). At the risk of taking some suspense out of this list, the total of 295 points put Djokovic thirteenth among Open Era players. That seems reasonable to me. Certainly Djokovic has put himself into the discussion as one of the best ever, but he hasn’t done enough just yet to be among the top 5 or even 10. (It’s safe to say that baring major injury or some hard to imagine loss of form, he’ll be climbing this list in the coming years.)

So, the formula passes the basic test of reasonability, I applied it to every player who was ranked number 1 or won a grand slam in the Open Era. The results make sense to me, but judge for yourself. Eighteen players amassed at least 200 points (arbitrary number), so that’s where I’ll start the countdown of the greatest players of all time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Republicans Are Losing the Electoral College

Will the GOP be able to compete in the Electoral College?
Conventional political wisdom holds that incumbent Presidents are hard to beat. But this year, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party thought they had a good chance. In their view, President Obama’s first term had been a failure: he was presiding over a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and a looming fiscal crisis. The President seemed vulnerable, and indeed, pre-election polls showed a dead heat. But to the chagrin of the American Right, instead of a victory their candidate was roundly defeated – at least in Electoral terms. What many thought would be an election decided in the wee hours of Wednesday morning (or even later), was over by the time the polls closed on the West Coast. In the end, Obama won a second term by a lopsided Electoral Count of 332 to 206, not much less than his landslide four years ago.

In these days after the election, the Republican Party and American Right probably feel like the Democrats and American Left felt eight years ago after George W. Bush won a second term. Confused about losing an election they thought they could win. They are left wondering what went wrong and what do they have to do to stand a better chance in 2016? But from this writer’s perspective, Republicans face a far stiffer challenge today than Democrats did in 2004.

This is not a political blog, and I’m not going to write in any detail about what Republicans should do to win on the national stage, but (looking from the Center) some things appear obvious. It would seem vital to attract a larger share of the Latino vote. This is a large and growing cohort of the electorate and the Republicans can’t afford to get less than 30 percent of their vote like they did this year. A more coherent and less xenophobic stance on immigration would likely go a long way. America, as is often said, is a country of immigrants. This is true and people across the globe have always wanted to come to this country. Immigration is a complex issue, and a blanket open door is almost certainly not the right answer, but neither is a closed door, and Republicans will have to embrace a more welcoming and workable position. Moderating their positions on social issues would be good as well. Abortion may be abhorrent to many on the Right, but an immediate prohibition will never happen, and stridently preaching for one doesn’t help with the larger mass of voters, especially women voters. Neither does, say, stigmatizing homosexuals, or the poor, or painting the government (and by extension government employees) as a parasite feeding on the productive private sector. And Republicans have to do better in articulating their message. If President Obama was vulnerable in this election, especially on economic issues, this argument, as presented by the GOP, clearly didn’t win over the voters. Mid-term elections are supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent, but much of the national discourse in the months leading up to October seemed to be focused not on the President’s first four years, but on the Democratic message that Mitt Romney was an out-of-touch elitist. Republicans clearly lost the rhetorical battle.Romney and his Party didn't do what they needed to do: convince Americans why they were the better choice to lead and not the President and his Party.

All of these are important, but none directly address the largest problem for Republicans, their increasing narrow path to an Electoral majority.

A Growing Electoral Reality
The President won about 50.6% of the national vote to Romney’s 47.9%. This is hardly a landslide, actually down noticeably from 2008, but the 332 to 206 Electoral count, as noted above, was lopsided by any measure. This just continues a trend that’s been evident for a generation. The last Republican Electoral landslide occurred in 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Electoral count in that year was 426 to 111, the popular vote 53.4% to 45.7%. Bush 41 (41st President) had been the eight-year Vice President under a very popular President in Ronald Reagan, the last Republican who was truly able to attract Democratic voters. And Dukakis ran a poor campaign. Since then, these have been the Presidential election results:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Geographic Oddities: A Sea or Not a Sea?

About five hours after the launch of Apollo 17, in the early morning hours of December 7, 1972, the astronauts of man’s final lunar mission turned their gazes back to Earth. Their capsule was positioned between the Earth and the sun, and from their God’s-eye view 28,000 miles overhead they saw a full hemisphere bathed in light and shining spectacular blue against the black void of space. The photograph they took of the scene is one of the most iconic views of our planet and has become famously know as the “blue marble”.1 Take a look at a globe or a world map and you see mostly blue, and as we all learned as school kids, about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. There’s even a term for all this water, the hydrosphere. Virtually all of the hydrosphere is part a vast connected world ocean; the oceans, seas, bays, gulfs, bights, channels, estuaries, firths, fjords, sounds, and straits, which despite the many names we give them, comprise a single body of water.2 There is, however, one conspicuously massive body of water that isn’t part of this world ocean, the landlocked Caspian Sea.

For all you amateur geographers out there, the Caspian Sea presents a riddle of geography and definition. Is it a real sea, or is it just a big lake? What does the word “sea” actually mean, and speaking geographically, what is a sea really? I ask these questions because we humans love to classify, to put a blanket of order on the world. But let’s come back to this.

Is the Caspian a Sea or a Lake?
The Caspian Sea lies a few hundred miles east of the Black Sea along borders of Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East. Territorially it’s divided between Russia in the northwest, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran in the south, Turkmenistan in the southeast, and Kazakhstan in the northeast. It’s famous as the fishing grounds for much of the world’s sturgeon, the major source of caviar. Lately its oil-rich shores and seabed have become the crucial economic engine of the region (and a source of political tension among the surrounding countries). And it is a one-of-a-kind body of water.

You look in most atlases or encyclopedias and the Caspian Sea is listed as the world’s largest lake. Its maximum length (north to south) is 640 miles and its max width (east to west) is 270 miles. It covers an area of 143,000 square miles (371,000 square km),3 which makes it about the same size as Montana or all the islands of Japan, and bigger than Germany; it could easily accommodate all of the British Isles. It’s also really deep. The southern third of the Caspian is oceanic with a maximum depth greater than 3,300 feet. The total volume of water is about 18,800 cubic miles (78,000 cubic km).4 These dimensions dwarf all other lakes. By area the next biggest lake is Lake Superior (the greatest of the Great Lakes), which itself is huge with an area of a little under 32,000 square miles. But this is four and a half times smaller than the Caspian. In fact, the Caspian in larger in area than the next seven largest lakes combined.5 Just to emphasize the point, the Caspian is 50 percent larger than the combined area all of the North American Great Lakes. A comparison of volume tells the same story. The Caspian holds more than three times the water of the mile-deep Lake Baikal (the world’s most voluminous fresh water lake) and more than the next seven lakes combined.6


Before we go further, a quick aside for definitions:

  • Sea: (1) the salt waters that cover the greater part of the Earth’s surface; (2) a division of these waters, of considerable extent, more or less definitely marked off by land boundaries; (3) a large lake or landlocked body of water.
  • Lake: a body of fresh or salt water of considerable size, surrounded by land.

These are dictionary definitions but they jive pretty well with wordier geographic definitions. And they don’t help us answer the question of whether the Caspian is a sea or a lake.


The Caspian is so large that its shores touch on radically different climates. There’s the cold deserts of Kazakhstan the Turkmenistan, the arid Russian steppes, the high mountains of the Caucasus, the dry subtropical plains of Azerbaijan, and the lush, verdant subtropical forests of northern Iran. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan is the largest city situated on the Caspian, but Iran’s capital Tehran and Russian Astrakhan7 aren’t too far removed from its shores.

Oil tanker on the Caspian Sea
The Caspian is an endorheic basin. That means it doesn’t have any outflows. Water comes in via rivers and streams but can only leave through seepage or evaporation. And like most other endorheic bodies of water (e.g., the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea) it is salty. The saline concentration varies greatly, but on average it’s about as third as salty as typical ocean water. The Caspian is fed by the longest river in Europe, the Volga, which supplies 80 percent of the inflow. This is unusual because all of the world’s great rivers – except the Volga – flow into the world ocean. Many large rivers have their source in lakes, like the Nile at Lake Victoria and the Congo at Lake Tanganyika, but no others empty into one. The Caspian’s level is independent of the world ocean, and it’s the center of a large basin that sits below global sea level (presently the surface sits about 92 feet below sea level). In fact the geology of the southern part of the Caspian is oceanic as the seabed is oceanic crust and not continental crust.

Caspian Sea and Lake
So given all these facts, I’m going to argue that the Caspian is both a lake and a sea, a mini ocean. It’s a lake for the simple reason that it is landlocked; it’s distinct from the world ocean. It’s a sea because it’s huge relative to other lakes, salty like the sea (just not as salty), deep like an ocean, geologically oceanic (at least in part), ancient (it’s been there for 5.5 million years), and the outflow for one of the world’s largest rivers. If you compare the Caspian to many mediterranean seas (a sea mostly enclosed by land within distinct circulation patterns, hence the lower case “m”), it is about the same size (a little smaller) than the Black Sea and Red Sea, the same size and saltier than the Baltic Sea8, and much bigger than the Persian Gulf.

All of this is to say that the Caspian is two things at once, a sea and a lake, a sea-lake; it defies easy classification. And the more you look at our world’s geography, the more of these classification conundrums you find.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Lost Songs: Five Forgotten Tracks from the 1980s

Let’s concede that sometimes the world moves too fast. Time, to our mortal frustration, never stops. And down on a personal level so much of our limited time is taken up with the big chunks of real, mundane, responsible stuff that constitutes our everyday lives; and then there’s our daily turning off for sleep.1 The upshot of this is that even the most alert, astute, inquisitive, energized, wired…[fill in your adjective here]…of us can barely keep up with even the most momentous peaks of that uninterrupted wave of complex, countless happenings that make up our world. And this is reality.

This little preamble is my way of saying that we’re mostly stuck to follow the flow of events. I doubt you’ll want to follow me down this path of philosophical rumination, so let me do a quick left turn and apply this line of thinking to something a lot more fun, pop culture. Now is a glorious time to be a fan. What with the internet, blogosphere, youtube, television channels and websites dedicated to every form of entertainment, twitter, facebook, etc., and the endless parade of commentators and critics ready to make sense of it all. This is the age of entertainment variety and specialization. And I don’t think us fans of pop culture (a fairly frequent subject of this blog) would want it any other way. In fact, if anything, we probably want our special tastes even more catered to. But as any economist will tell you, life is about compromise and trade-offs. Specialization and variety are accompanied by scattering and diffusion. I may get to enjoy my favored entertainments better than ever, but at the loss of all the other things that I’ll never even know were there to be experienced. And this is reality.

So, here is the first in a new series of pop culture posts that represent my battle against the uninterrupted wave of time. To paraphrase a famous American conservative, this is my standing athwart history and yelling "stop". Or at least asking you to take a few moments to experience some bits of pop culture that you may have missed. The subject of this post is five “lost” tracks from the 1980s. I’ll touch on movies, TV, books, etc., and other decades in future posts. Before I get to the songs, let me note upfront that these tracks aren’t supposed to be my version of a “best of” or a shrill screed against a culture that failed to recognize the excellence of so-and-so 20-plus years ago. It’s just a list of relatively unknown songs that I think have aged well, and that you might like.2 It’s all meant in the spirit of fun, so enjoy.

Conroy’s Five “Lost” Tracks from the 1980s (in no particular order):

"Pure" by Lightning Seeds. This is pure 80s, what with the heavy synth backing, melodious, upbeat rhythm, and distinct way the English have of singing a pop song.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inside USADA’s Armstrong Doping Report

Lance Armstrong had a great story. World class athlete is struck low by metastasizing cancer and given only fifty-fifty odds to live. He suffers through surgery and chemotherapy. He survives. And then he thrives, his body leaner and stronger, his mind and will hardened. He returns to his sport and dominates the most grueling athletic competition in the world. He stakes his claim as one of the great athletes in history and in the process inspires millions the world over with his legend of fight, survival, and triumph. He founds an organization in his name and becomes a tireless crusader in the battle to eradicate the illness that nearly ended his life. His is a hero. But this great story was too good to be true.

Rumors of doping have swirled around Armstrong since he won his first Tour de France in 1999, but like Teflon, nothing seemed to stick. Armstrong never tested positive for drugs – or so he claimed – and he was never caught with drugs or paraphernalia or anything else that could link him directly to doping. He denied ever using illicit substances and even claimed that as a cancer survivor he would never put potentially dangerous substances into his body. (You can read about Armstrong’s career here, and see my post from last spring detailing the many doping rumors that have plagued him since at least his first Tour de France victory.)

The release of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) Armstrong Report1 seems to have converted rumor to fact, and it’s no longer credible to label Armstrong a great champion or a hero, at least not for his exploits on a bicycle. The Armstrong Report – all 200 plus pages of it – lays bare Armstrong’s career-long record of doping. But it goes further. According to USADA, not only did Armstrong dope but he was the leader in his team’s sophisticated doping program, a program that he was central in developing, managing, and enforcing; while, of course, repeatedly and forcefully denying it ever existed. Armstrong maintains that he has a clean record, never once failing a drug test or demonstrating any dubious spikes in performance. The Armstrong Report tears these arguments to shreds.

From the Armstrong Report:
“The evidence is overwhelming that Lance Armstrong did not just use performance enhancing drugs, he supplied them to his teammates. He did not merely go alone to Dr. Michele Ferrari for doping advice, he expected that others would follow. It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required them to adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced. He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it. Armstrong’s use of drugs was extensive, and the doping program on his team, designed in large part to benefit Armstrong, was massive and pervasive.” – Pages 6-7

The Armstrong Report also exposes Armstrong’s fundamental character flaws: his tendency to deny his actions, malign his accusers, threaten witnesses, turn on friends, and do anything to win. Even Armstrong’s ardent defenders must concede that he’s a tough man and you cross him at your own risk. It’s his character traits that make his cheating all the more believable. Indeed, it’s likely that for Armstrong doping was just one more activity he needed to master to become the best cyclist. If everyone else was cheating – or if cheating would get you ahead – then Armstrong would cheat, just like he would train harder than anyone, or become the finest tactician in the peleton.

USADA’s Specific Allegations and Evidence
The USADA has charged Armstrong with (1) use of prohibited substances, (2) possession of prohibited substances, (3) trafficking of prohibited substances, (4) administration of prohibited substances to others, (5) “assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up, and other complicity involving one or more anti-doping rule violations”, and (6) “aggravating circumstances…justifying a period of ineligibility greater than the standard sanction”. To back up these charges they have detailed a remarkable catalog of cheating by Armstrong and his team, which includes:

Witness testimony. Much of USADA’s charges are based on the sworn affidavits of 26 people connected with Armstrong throughout his career including 15 professional cyclists and 11 former teammates. The teammates includes admitted dopers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, who Armstrong has denounced as biased and “proven liars”, but also George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Jonathan Vaughters, and Christian Vande Velde, each of whom have no axe to grind, and in fact have much to lose from admitting their own past doping. Hincapie, especially, has always been close to Armstrong, referring to Hincapie as “like a brother”.

These 26 witnesses provided USADA with first-hand accounts of their doping while on Armstrong’s teams, his own doping as witnessed by them, the leadership position Armstrong assumed in his team’s doping programs, and the logistical and material support he provided for his doping and that of his teammates.

Chronology of cheating. USADA lays out a compelling timeline of specific events and activities that demonstrates rules violations, doping, trafficking, and related activities for every year from 1998 through 2005, and then again in 2009 and 2010 when Armstrong returned from his first retirement. The Armstrong Report details where Armstrong was when he doped, be it in competition or in training, who he was with, what drugs he used, and how those drugs were transported and distributed

Blood doping
Drug use and doping. The Armstrong Report includes intricate details of Armstrong’s extensive use of the blood booster EPO, testosterone, steroids, and Actovegin, to name only the major drugs. USADA shows Armstrong’s use of blood doping, which consists of getting a transfusion of your own blood weeks or months after that same blood was removed from your body for the hemoglobin boosting effects. The report includes lurid details like Armstrong having a secret refrigerator in his Spanish apartment where he stored blood (and not just his own) for future transfusions, of he and teammates going on a training ride shortly after having blood removed and being so weak they could barely pedal, and of Armstrong organizing covert rendezvous on remote European mountain passes to receive drugs or medical/doping advice from his long-time doctor Michele Ferrari (see below)

One of Armstrong’s most repeated claims is that he never once failed any of the 500 to 600 drug tests he received throughout his career. USADA demonstrates that the actual number of tests was only half as many as claimed, and in fact Armstrong did test positive on a number of occasions. Armstrong’s “B” urine samples from the 1999 Tour were tested along with many other samples by a French lab in 2004 after a test for EPO had been developed (the test results became public in 2005). Tests for EPO were not available in 1999. Six of his urine samples from the 1999 Tour tested positive for EPO. This could not be used officially against him because the corresponding “A” samples had been destroyed per standard procedure, but there is little scientific reason to doubt the test results. Armstrong tested positive for cortisone during the 1999 Tour, which he explained away at the time as resulting from a topical cream used to treat a saddle sore. In fact, the prescription for cortisone cream was written by the team doctor after the positive test (and backdated) and the actual test results were consistent with a drug injection and not a topical cream. Further, during the 2001 Tour de Suisse, one of Armstrong’s blood samples tested positive for EPO, but at the time the testing results indicated only a “probability” of doping and not a “positive” result.  Under today’s standards it would have been a positive result (more on this below).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner's Historic Fall

Felix Baumgartner ready for his record jump

Earlier today Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner fell from the edge of space. Or more accurately, he jumped from a higher altitude than anyone ever has, setting records for the highest balloon ascent, highest skydive, and fastest descent (watch a few minutes of video here). The successful mission was the culmination of more than five years of effort by Baumgartner and his Red Bull-sponsored team. Baumgartner had initially planned to jump a few days ago, but poor weather delayed the attempt. However, today the morning in Roswell, New Mexico dawned clear and calm. By mid morning the sky was crystal blue and Baumgartner was ready. He boarded his gondola/capsule under the colossal silver bulge of the helium balloon that would carry him to the stratosphere. At about 11:30 AM EDT the balloon was released and Baumgartner left the ground.

Prior to Baumgartner, the highest skydive was made by American Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger who successfully jumped from over 102,000 feet as part of Project Excelsior in 1960.1 Kittinger was brought on as a consultant for Baumgartner’s mission and was active today in walking the Austrian through his pre-jump checklist. It took Baumgartner more than two hours to ascend in his small capsule as his helium balloon expanded in the thinning air.2 Mission control released some helium from the balloon to stop it rising at about 128,000, or just a bit higher than 24 miles. Baumgartner and his equipment were under constant observation from ground-based cameras and a small mission control center that gave to whole undertaking the look of a miniature NASA operation. The balloon carried Baumgartner 26,000 feet higher than Kittenger’s 1960 jump altitude, and almost 15,000 feet higher than the previous manned balloon ascent record set by Navy Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather, Jr.,3 in 1961.

Balloon and capsule leaving Earth
The project tagline as a “mission to the edge of space” is a more  marketing slogan than reality as the actual height of 24 plus miles is less than half the altitude of true outer space, which is traditionally recognized as starting at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above the Earth. Nevertheless, the air pressure at 128,000 feet is only about five one thousandths of that at sea level, which as far as humans are concerned is a virtual vacuum. Baumgartner’s capsule and suit were pressurized and oxygenated. The view from that height reveals the curvature of the Earth and a black sky overhead. The entire mission was broadcast live on the internet and when Baumgartner’s capsule door opened and he scooted into jump position it sure looked like space with the eastern New Mexico landscape appearing as a faded brown surface far below.

Baumgartner moved onto a step outside of the capsule and I imagine he must have experienced a jolt of vertigo as he looked down farther than anyone who isn’t an astronaut has ever looked down. With a simple salute he tipped forward off of his perch and into free fall. Jumping into such a diffused atmosphere, Baumgartner met virtually no air resistance, nothing to slow his fall. At more traditional skydiving altitudes, say 10,000 to 15,000 feet, air resistance prevents jumpers from exceeding a terminal velocity, typically about 120 miles per hour. At higher altitudes jumpers can reach much higher speeds. Kittinger set the record of 614 miles per hour during his 1960 jump. Baumgartner’s stated goals included breaking the previous speed record and breaking the speed of sound. Within a minute he had, reaching a maximum speed of 834 miles per hour.  The speed of sound varies based on air density and temperature, but it has been confirmed that Baumgartner’s maximum speed, reached at about 98,000 feet above sea level, was supersonic.4 A little more than three minutes later Baumgartner released his parachute ending his free fall,5 floating safely to the dry, scrubby ground.6

Felix Baumgartner - the "supersonic" man
So today Felix Baumgartner has taken mankind higher and faster than we’ve ever been outside of a plane or spacecraft. I don’t know how long it might be before someone goes higher or faster, maybe it will take another 52 years (i.e., it's been 52 years since Kittinger's jump), but it was pretty cool to see someone jump from the “edge of space” and reach speeds as fast as a fighter jet. Congratulations to Felix Baumgartner and his team on his historic fall.



1. I’ve written about this jump and other successful attempts by man to go higher and faster in this earlier post.

2. The balloon would expand to a maximum of some 30 million cubic feet. Imagine a spherical balloon with a diameter of almost 400 feet.

3. Prather tragically died after the successful ascent. The balloon landed in the Gulf of Mexico as planned, but during their recovery Prather lost his grip and slipped from the helicopter hoist. He was weighed down by his suit and drowned.

4. On video it was impossible to hear a sonic boom and in fact the air at 98,000 feet was probably too thin for there to have been much of one.

5. In total Baumgartner’s free fall lasted about 4 minutes and 22 seconds, which is actually twelve seconds less than Kittinger’s 1960 jump, so Kittinger still holds the record for the longest (by time) free fall.

6. The perception of floating down on a parachute is a bit misleading. A person descending under a parachute is still falling at about ten miles per hour, which can lead to painful or even injurious landings. I can attest to this as on my first and only skydive I landed in tandem with my instructor. His legs slipped and we fell hard on our butts. Fortunately, the pain was mitigated by the adrenaline coursing through my body still thrilled from the jump.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Insidious Influence of Political Polls

Electoral votes based on recent polls
The U.S. Presidential Election is just a month away, and if you’re at all curious about how the election may go, you’re in luck, just turn your attention to the latest political polls. You can compare the national approval ratings for president Obama and (former) Governor Romney, how favorably they’re viewed by “likely” voters, and who’s leading who in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. You can note which has the advantage on issues like unemployment, foreign affairs, and government debt. You can survey how the candidates compare among young voters, retirees, minorities, and women. You can follow how the race is tracking on a day-to-day basis. If you’re interested in just about any measure of how Americans may vote on November 6, there’s likely a poll for it. They’re all just a Google search away, knock yourself out.

Political polls are everywhere in the run-up to every major election, they’re quoted by the media, consulted by the campaigns, and, they’re bad.

To explain why this is, I’d ask that you first consider a question: Why should you, a voter deciding on how to cast your ballot come Election Day, care at all about political polls?

Polls Aren’t Science
Pollsters, and there’s a bunch,1 will tell you that their polls are scientific and accurate. This is not true. Their argument is that their methodology ensures that a statistically representative sample of voters is used in every poll. The overall number of responders, the political leanings of those responders, the questions asked, etc., are carefully calibrated to give an outcome that is accurate within a small margin of error. This gives the sheen of science to the whole effort, as if polls are just another demographic study based on heaps of concrete data. They’re not. It’s certainly true that over the decades pollsters have learned how to better sample the population. Gone are the days when polls showed Alf Landon2 beating FDR. But at the end of the day, polls are based on the responses of people, and when it comes to people and politics, you can throw science out the window.

Consider the emphasis in the following question: “Do you agree that President Obama has done a poor job in addressing unemployment?” Admittedly, this is a very simplified example of obvious bias, which is supposed to be scrubbed from all modern poll questions. An unbiased question would better read: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the economy?” But here is an actual question from a Washington Post poll from late last month: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” Would you call this question unbiased? Maybe you think it is. Or maybe you consider terms like “reduce the gap”, “wealthy”, and “less well-off” as loaded and apt to nudge responders in a certain direction. What if the question were reworded this way: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to shift wealth from those Americans better-off to those less well–off?” Which wording is more biased and are they likely to elicit different responses? This shows you just how hard, and maybe impossible, it is to actually extract bias from any political discussion. If you can’t take bias out of the questions, how can you have an unbiased poll?

Then there is sampling and response bias. Most polls are conducted by calling people with landline phones, which is becoming an increasing anachronistic approach in the era of mobile communications. Consider the constantly shifting demographics (age, sex, economic background) of people that use landlines as opposed to cell phones. What groups are over- or under-represented in surveys conducted in this manner? Further, when are the surveys conducted, during what days and at what times (i.e., who is home when the calls are placed?)? How might this affect the bias of the results?

With response bias people may answer in a manner contrary to what they believe or refuse to participate at all. After all, how honest are people when talking to strangers about politics, a sensitive subject for many? What type of person is willing (and available) to participate? How representative is that person, or that aggregated group of people, of the voting population at large? These questions aren’t easy to answer or dismiss.

Here’s a good example of how these factors can combine for bad polling. Back in 2004, pre-election polling showed a very close race in Virginia between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. And this seemed to be confirmed on Election Day when exit polls indicated that Kerry was performing very well. Yet when the actual votes were counted, Bush led Kerry by a wide margin at all times (he won comfortably 54% to 46%). The networks didn’t call Virginia in Bush’s favor for many hours after the voting ended based on the strength of the inaccurate pre-election and exit polls.3

Polls are bandied about as accurate and unbiased. In other words as a useful indicators of how the public is likely to vote. But they’re often neither accurate nor unbiased. What’s the practical difference between a bad poll and the daily political spin issued by a campaign? Intentional or not, aren’t they both forms of misinformation?

Politics is Not a Spectator Sport
It’s hard not to see the same relationship between political polls and politics as we see between sports and sports statistics. Professional and college sports are one of the tent poles of the vast and growing American entertainment complex, and statistics are the drug of sports enthusiasts;4 the careful tracking of performance, the rankings, the orderly measure of players, teams, and leagues. There’s long been a cottage industry built around baseball statistical research; fantasy football, which is all about statistics, is one of the most popular recreational activities in America; the essence of entire sports are based on standings and rankings, and a player’s worth is determined in hard data. As a nation of spectators we love to watch sports – you could probably argue that the next Superbowl will be a more watched event than the upcoming election – and statistics give us more to talk about and discuss. It seems weightier to parse a team’s statistics and analyze performance based on numbers than to simply describe and appreciate the physical competition. It’s the data-science companion to the physical action-art.

For some, politics is the sport of choice. But of course politics isn’t a sport, it’s not entertainment. At its core politics is about how as a society we choose to live together, and it involves complex, convolved issues. Issues that are hard to fully understand yet have an important effect on everyday life. It’s hard to understand the current tax structure and the implications of changes to the tax code; health care is a confusing tangle of doctors and medicine, hospitals and insurance, regulations and paperwork; unemployment, gay marriage, abortion, education, government debt, the European financial crisis, war in the Middle East, they all dominate the headlines but none of them have easy solutions. The real societal issues of the day, the issues that make up the political landscape, all require strenuous discussion and wearisome compromise. It’s hard, not fun; it’s tedious, not exciting.