Sunday, September 19, 2010

The New Greatest Ever?...Not So Fast

by Conroy

On Monday Rafael Nadal emphatically won the U.S. Open to complete the career "grand slam." He became just the seventh man to attain this achievement and only the fourth to do it in the open era. Nadal's accomplishment is all the more noteworthy because he completed it at the relatively young (in tennis terms) age of 24. The last two men to complete a career grand slam, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Roger Federer in 2009, were 29 and 27, respectively, at the time.

Nadal's (or Rafa as he is affectionately known) career has been a case study in early promise, quick success, and continued accomplishment. He was a teenage phenom like Agassi and Bjorn Borg, and he has steadily improved his game to expand his undeniable skill on clay to a well-rounded and complete package capable of winning on any surface. He has modified his ground-strokes, serve, net play, and court positioning to expand his repertoire from the running and defense that has made him nearly unbeatable on the red dirt to an imposing presence on fast courts. His constitutional ultra-competitiveness and supreme fitness combined with new and improving skills promise continued success in the years ahead.

In fact, talk has already begun that Rafa may soon surpass Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player of his generation, and ultimately of all time, the proverbial GOAT. Here are a couple of opinions along those lines, (1) and (2).

The Federer-Nadal rivalry has been one of the great story lines of tennis since the Majorcan emerged as a force on the tour in 2005. They have played some of the greatest matches (watch perhaps the greatest ten minutes in tennis history here) and the underlying theme of Nadal getting the better of Federer has been the one peculiarity of the Swiss' career success (more on this below).

However, the argument that Nadal has usurped Federer's position I find unsupportable. Nadal's career achievements and 2010 performance are noteworthy without question, but they do not compare to the career achievements of Roger Federer. Grand Slam performance, overall record, and the number 1 ranking all fall decisively in Federer's favor. Consider the following 10 points:

Monday, September 13, 2010

500 Days...or One Year, Four Months, and Fifteen Days in a Life

by Conroy

I recently fell in love with the movie (500) Days of Summer [spoiler alert...critical details about this movie follow...]. Like Tom, the film's protagonist, I knew almost immediately that this was a great film. And fortunately, unlike Tom, the movie doesn't have to love me back. The tagline is:

"Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't."

That's it, a short synopsis of so many post-adolescent relationships. The story is Tom's, but it could be anyone's. How many of us have been in meaningful relationships - to us - but not to our partner? It has to be most of us right? We've felt the cruel mix of excitement and uncertainty; hope and doubt; eagerness and indecision. This type of story has been told plenty of times in plenty of forms, but (500) Days rises above whatever genre associations you may be tempted to apply. Writer/director Marc Webb and co-writer Scott Neustadtler enliven the movie with fresh elements that visually express what so many of us have felt when caught in the whirlwind of a powerful romance.

I will not dive into all of the little moments, and all those days, that make up the movie (though I do love the hyper-specificity of the counting days). The particulars are those of Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They're moments we all recognize, we could substitute our own and the movie would work just as well. There's no great adventure, no wild action, no mystery to solve. Just moments of life. We experience the movie from Tom's perspective, and Summer stays at arm's length. We get to know her, but not well. That makes sense, this is a movie about how Tom saw, remembered, lived those 500 days. He never figured out Summer, never will.

The movie reminded me of another modern masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another movie of failed love, and memory, presented with haunting originality.

I could recommend much, but I want to focus on two aspects of the film that I find particularly effective, the narration (delivered by Richard McGonagle) and a wonderful, original use of the split screen. You can find a few samples of the narration below. The split screen is used more than once, but I am especially fond of a two minute sequence when we see Tom's sanguine expectations for an evening where he hopes to reunite with Summer, and the crushing reality of what actually happens. We see cold truth close out his dream. The sequence is hauntingly underpinned by Regina Spektor's "Hero." A portion of the sequence can be viewed here.

(500) Days of Summer, which starts early in January and ends in late May the following year, is not a perfect movie, but neither is love. It is a great movie, just not a happy love story.

For some examples of the splendid narration in (500) Days of Summer (transcribed from the film), use this link.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What a Piece of Work is Man

by Baxter Radcliff, aka "The Man"

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii.

In reading through Conroy's fascinating list, I was reminded of Hamlet's speech, reproduced above, which greatly exaggerates the scope of human nature—and in the process ignores, denies, or contradicts the view that man is a constrained animal, which is Conroy's view as well as my own. Yet in one fell swoop it ironically demonstrates our self-interest (the important question for Hamlet is: what about me?); our false beliefs concerning our own capacities and limitations; our ability to suffer, especially from feelings of alienation; the fact that emotion can overwhelm our understandings; and, of course, our love of beauty. Despite my affection for the romantic idealism of Hamlet's speech, I believe that we may be the "paragon of animals," but we are far closer to the ape than the angel. And it is our peculiar curse to know it.

The truth is, we live in a world of limited resources—a constrained world. These limitations include our mental resources, our ability to acquire and process information. Our faculties are not infinite. These also include our social resources, our network of friends and family. We depend on others, and yet at the same time our social lives are riven with strife, for conflict is ubiquitous, not only in our social lives but in the natural world. Learning to understand and successfully manage conflict is therefore a worthy subject and one I intend to grapple with from time to time here on this blog. I may also take up the sword now and again myself, in order to cut down spurious, erroneous, or misleading arguments.

When I'm not brandishing my sword, I will discuss on occasion some fundamental game-theoretic concepts, which provide a structured way of thinking about conflict and a strategy. These concepts can help us understand non-obvious truths about the world. Sometimes, for example, the rational pursuit of self-interest can do damage to the broader society. The prisoner's dilemma and the tragedy of the commons provide patterns that can help us think about such situations. I may also discuss the methods by which legal structures attempt to correct and mitigate the weaknesses of human nature for the greater good; and how certain legal structures fail to do so. Sometimes, however, it is not social structures, but our own misjudgments that lead us astray. Fortunately, an awareness of certain well-studied cognitive defects may help us to reduce the number of our misjudgments. I will discuss these defects and how we can attempt to conquer them.

In any event, through posting to this blog I hope to learn a great deal from our readers, from Conroy, and ultimately from myself—for one of the benefits of maintaining a blog (I believe) is the self-knowledge that the act of writing gives to us, as we attempt the difficult task of composing our thoughts and responding to our most thoughtful critics. I look forward to posting again soon...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Post Number 1: The Start

by Conroy

Welcome to our blog! I should start by addressing two of your burning questions: Who am I and why am I writing (and hoping you'll be reading further)? The answer to the first question can be found in my bio, which is helpfully posted on our home page. The answer to the second question is harder to articulate. I can only guarantee the following - this blog will be home to the greatest writing; most original, groundbreaking insights; brilliantly entertaining repartee between its two creators, Conroy and The Man (aka Baxter Radcliff); and the timeless power of genius...okay, perhaps I indulge in hyperbole.

What I can promise is the energy of two men inspired by the complexity and variety of this universe and hungry to express that interest to our readers. We will cover topics from the esoteric to the mundane, but always with enthusiasm. We appreciate your patronage and hope you will respond with comments; I'm looking forward from this beginning. Baxter has prepared a welcome of his own, so please check out his inaugural post.


I decided to tackle a big subject with this first post: the nature of mankind. Pretty ambitious huh? Well, despite the grandiose statements above, I claim no original insights on this topic. Instead, I rely on the coherent ideas of brilliant thinkers coupled with my personal experiences and observations. This is the first of three companion posts. The second and third will be posted in the Autumn, and will explain my views on society and the natural world. Together (I hope) they will comprise a personal philosophy (or non-philosophy) that will explain my views of the universe and identify my perspectives, prejudices, and attitudes. Views that I hope will be consistent through all of my posts no matter the subject matter.

I'll present my understanding of mankind through what will be a recurring format, a top 10 list. I will use this format frequently because, to be frank, I like making and reading lists. Perhaps lists are one small way I create simplicity and order out of an ultra-complex reality. I've listed here in my standard 10 to 1 order, but in this case the number does not equate to a value. These are ten key aspects of mankind - the "very clever ape" as Baxter would say - and they all carry, if not equal, significant weight.

My beliefs stem from a conviction that man is fundamentally imperfect, or to use Thomas Sowell's term, man is constrained. I hardly think you'll get much argument from theologians or scientists on this point, but where my thinking, and that of other "constrained" believers diverges from so many other philosophers and social commentators is an acceptance of man's imperfections as intrinsic and uncorrectable. I could go on and on discussing this fascinating topic, but for now that's enough background on my perspective. On to the list:

10. Adaptation - we are the end products of evolution (so far), of the wide variety of life that has been naturally selected for survival. In a word, we know how to adapt to our surroundings and circumstances. Technological progress has removed much of the need to adapt to the vagaries of the natural world (at least for blog writers and readers), but we still must adapt to the social world that we inhabit. Most of us do this successfully and with little thinking. How many different roles do you inhabit? Husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, sibling, friend, boss/employee, lover, stranger. For each of these roles we take on different attitudes, act different, talk different...we adapt as needed to get by.

9. Social Dependence - it makes sense that we adapt to our social surroundings so well because ultimately we are social beings that need other people. We need others because the world is too tough for us to get by on our own. We need others to share thoughts, share experiences, share emotions. We need others to really be alive. Love, friendship, companionship, all are manifestations of our need for other people. Think of Tom Hanks' character in the movie Cast Away. As the character, Chuck, intimates after he is rescued. He was already dead on the would be too if left alone.

8. Misjudgment - it's probably a good thing that we are social creatures because even the most brilliant of our species just can't know all that much very deeply. For example, Sir Isaac Newton perhaps the greatest physicist of history, and a man who revolutionized our understanding of the universe was also an ardent believer in alchemy. On that subject he was as dumb as the rest of us. Too often we come to terms with our world by developing models, simplifications, theories, that give order to the complexity. Man has a tendency to draw conclusions from woefully inadequate data, we develop explanations for events and behavior with tenuous logic and little information. In a word we misjudge. We do this all the time and on so many subjects, from the large natural phenomena (think climate change) to everyday life (the crime we see on the local news). And what's more, we often do it arrogantly. How many pet theories and hasty explanations have you concocted for your day-to-day life and the events you're exposed to in the larger world?

7. Beauty - perhaps a manifestation of our tendency toward misjudgment is our attraction to beauty. I'll avoid a nebulous definition and just write that you know beauty when you see it. And when you see it, you cannot resist it. We melt before beauty, sexual beauty, natural beauty, artistic beauty. More than anything, we trust beauty. Men will lust forever over beautiful women, we are enchanted by a beautiful landscape, we will fawn over the majestic creations of other men. We have developed countless reasons to explain our attraction, to justify our attraction, but our response to beauty seems something deeper than these rationalizations.

6. Our Nature - one of my great beliefs is that our genetics and early life experiences (up to and perhaps through part of adolescence) form our personal nature. Like concrete, once set our nature cannot be changed. That's why we develop so many of the same patterns in our personal relationships, persist in behaviors that we don't like, settle into bad habits that are hard to break. Sure we can make changes in our lives, and perhaps a rare person does experience a sea change, but in general, we revert to our nature: a cheater will always cheat, a liar will always lie, someone betrayed will have difficulty with trust, someone kind will be kind no matter how much ignored, and someone optimistic will see the bright side no matter the disaster.

5. The Passions Rule - I want to challenge my readers to find the origin of this expression. The power of passion makes a farce of logical, rational man. We are ruled absolutely by our emotions. We may not always act on them, but anger, lust, love, joy, fear are the powerful feelings that can drive us to act rashly, foolishly, wrongly, violently, but also courageously, fervidly, devotedly. They can result in the worst aspects of our species - our ability to hurt others, and the best - our ability to love others. In the end the passions are what we live for.

4.Will to Power - but beyond the passions we have a drive to improve or increase ourselves. We are impelled to what Nietzsche termed the "Will to Power". In a simplified explanation, one more amenable to my intellect than Nietzsche's, this is our drive to realize our potential, to expand our abilities, knowledge, and influence. The will to power drives our acquisitiveness in all forms, and can only be checked by the will to power of others. For lack of a better term, those with greater achievements have a greater will to power, but big or small it's there in all of us.

3. Hope Springs Eternal - mankind has a remarkable resiliency. In the face of the largest setbacks we are still able to imagine a more successful future. Even the greatest cynics hope for a better tomorrow. My favorite example, because it's obvious and most of us have experienced it, is the broken heart. The broken-hearted will look again for love, no matter how painful the break. Our ability to move on, even when an event or circumstance deeply affects us, is intrinsically human.

2. Grass is Always Greener - perhaps a dark cousin of hope is our tendency to imagine things better than what we have. If better exists then better can be possessed. This view tends to be coupled by dissatisfaction with what we do have. Reality is rarely as colorful as imagination. How many good things (marriages, jobs, friendships, projects) have been lost in the search for something better. As John Fowles wrote in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "There are some men who are consoled by the idea that there are women less attractive than their wives; and others who are haunted by the knowledge that there are more attractive." [Italics is mine.]

1. Self-interest - and most fundamentally, we are driven by self-interest. That's why we look around for something better. Self-interest makes sense from a biological, evolutionary perspective. The great achievements in human history and the upward arc of humanity are the result of the selfish impulse, measured in what I term selfish success (esteem, fame, wealth, professional achievement). This must be so. Still, self-interest can be a great evil. Self-interest can lead us to abandon or betray those we love. Self-interest must at times result in hurting others. Self-interest, like so much else in our nature is a good and bad.


That's all for now. Look for a new post soon. Take care.