Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

by Conroy

Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek
This past weekend I went kayaking on the Potomac River with a couple of friends. We put into the river several miles north of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at a location heavy with history. Just to the north of where we started, in the area around Sharpsburg, Maryland, is Antietam National Battlefield. In September 1862, this was the scene of the bloodiest day of the American Civil War, and likely, in all of American history. The armies of the North and South suffered nearly 23,000 casualties, including 3,700 men killed, in what became one of the major turning points, but also missed opportunities, of the Civil War.

As these facts suggest, Antietam is more than a name on a map or event obscured by the many years that have passed. As a student of American history, I think it's critical to be aware of an consider places like Antietam. The Civil War was both the most important and most horrible calamity to befall the American nation. As with all history, we must understand what went before and the lessons of those events. We must remember the men who fought and fell on that ground.


As my friends and I floated down the Potomac, we passed the mouth of Antietam Creek. Had we paddled our kayaks up the stream (which in reality you can't do very far because of several sets of rapids) we would have passed under Burnside Bridge, one of the iconic landmarks of the battle and war. Living so close to this battlefield, I've toured the area before (from land); and a view of the landscape helps one understand just why the battle was so disjointed, confused, and tactically indecisive. A close view also helps one visualize the mass of men thrown together in battle. The entire battlefield is marked by monuments, large and small, of the various units that comprised the armies. These landmarks were commissioned and installed at a time when the Civil War was still a living memory and veterans were still alive to recount the events.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Speeding and its Discontents

by Conroy

[Note: John Fowles wrote that "all cynicism masks a failure to cope." This is likely true, and perhaps you'll recognize that sentiment in this post, but what follows does have basis in reality.]

Speed kills, or so the saying goes. Speeding might be dangerous, but one thing is for certain, driving faster than the posted speed limit can get you a citation, fine, and if egregious enough, affect your license and insurance. As a basic idea this works, travel too fast, unsafe for a given road, and you'll be penalized. Like other law enforcement activities, speed enforcement is intended to protect other drivers, pedestrians, and the public at large from dangerous behavior. That's the theory anyway, the reality is something different.

Attitudes about speeding vary greatly, but I like the old George Carlin joke:
"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"
So true. For full disclosure, I'm a "maniac" not an "idiot", but still, based on my observations how many "idiots" are actually traveling below the speed limit? Not many. This reality has always bothered me and I have two major objections to speed limits and enforcement: (1) speed limits are set and apply equally to any driver on the road irrespective of their vehicle, experience, or outside conditions, and (2) speed enforcement, in real life, is sporadic and arbitrary. I'm not the only one to hold these objections, and I think this perspective is valid enough to call into question the standard approaches to speed enforcement.

Speed Limits
Let's consider speed limits first. As a transportation engineer, I'm an expert on road design, so let me share a few insights on how speed limits are determined. First, roads are designed based on their context (rural, urban, flat, hilly), classification (freeway, arterial, local road, etc.), and an associated "design speed". This means the various characteristics of a road, curves (horizontal and vertical), cross slope, lane widths, roadside features, etc. are set based on idealized vehicle characteristics and driver behavior at that speed. As a general rule, it is accepted by traffic engineers that drivers will travel over a road at the speed at which they are comfortable. The wider, straighter, flatter the road, the faster drivers will travel. The measured 85th percentile speed of all vehicles is often used to derive this comfortable operating speed. In practice, a very small percentage of drivers will actually travel at an unsafe speed for the design of the road. Speed limits are supposed to be set based on the design speed. But often for political reasons speed limits are set artificially low. Think of how you frequently see speed limits drop by 10 mph just as you enter the jurisdiction of a small town. That's one problem.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Best Picture

by Conroy

Ask most movie fans and they're likely to tell you their pick, or short list of picks, for the best movie of all time. As a movie fan, I'm no different, but until recently I hadn't narrowed my list down to one film. Now I have, but before I reveal what it is, let's consider some more authoritative opinions.

Perhaps the most respected list is that compiled once per decade by Sight and Sound Magazine. It's two top ten lists actually, one developed from the individual rankings of nearly 150 critics and academics the other from the individual lists of over 100 directors. The latest lists are from back in 2002 (a new list should be released next year). Not surprisingly, Citizen Kane ranks number 1 on both lists (click here for the critic's and director's lists). Orson Welles' masterpiece is the movie most often mentioned as the greatest of all time. After 70 years, it still holds up; seeming fresh and inventive. It's not my pick for the best movie though. The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, Vertigo, 8 1/2, and La Regle de jeu are the other films that are included on both lists. I haven't seen the last two (one by Fellini and the other Renoir), but the other three are definite classics, and are high on my ranking, but not in the top spot.

The American Film Institute released a list of the Top 100 films in 1998 and then updated the list in 2008. Again, Citizen Kane ranks number 1 followed by The Godfather, Casablanca, and Raging Bull. I like Casablanca and love Raging Bull, probably Martin Scorsese's finest film and certainly his best directing performance. The internet movie database (IMDB), compiles a list of the Top 250 films based on user's individual film ratings. The number 1 ranking is held by The Shawshank Redemption followed by The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Pulp Fiction. Personally I like The Shawshank Redemption but certainly not as the best movie of all time; Pulp Fiction is great. Still, none of these are my pick.

Other films that rank high on various lists or are frequently mentioned as one of the best of all time include, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battleship Potemkin, Dr. Strangelove, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Rashomon, Schindler's List, Seven Samurai, Singin' in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz.

Now ask me and I'll tell you that I'm a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola's first two Godfather movies, Citizen Kane is great, Lawrence of Arabia is an amazing viewing experience, Raging Bull has some of the best editing moments of any film, Roman Polaski's Chinatown is pitch-perfect, and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven is haunting. These any many more movies rank high on my list, but it's another that takes my top spot.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Still the Best

by Conroy

A familiar final pair -- and result
The French Open results prove that you must be wary of doubting great champions as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer once again grabbed the limelight in Paris.


When I last wrote about tennis, Novak Djokovic had just beaten Rafael Nadal in the finals of Indian Wells to win his third straight tournament and 20th straight match. I posed the question of whether this would be merely a career run or the beginning of a major shift at the top of the game. Well in the weeks and then months after, Djokovic kept on winning, beating Nadal in a thrilling three-set final in Miami, transitioning smoothly to clay to capture his “home” tournament in Belgrade, and then most impressively, beating Nadal twice on clay in the finals of Madrid and Rome – both times in straight sets. By then Djokovic had the world’s attention, his match winning streak was extended to 39 and he was 37-0 to start 2011, just five wins shy of tying the record set by John McEnroe in 1984.

When the French Open (or Roland Garros as the French call it) started Djokovic stood alongside Nadal, the five time Roland Garros champion, as the favorite. A win (or finals birth) or a Nadal loss, and he would take over the number 1 ranking from the Spaniard. Perhaps for the first time since his winning streak started, he had a lot to lose. He didn’t let it affect him, navigating a tricky draw, including a very game Juan Martin del Potro in the third round, to work his way convincingly to the quarterfinals. Then he got a free pass and four days off when his quarterfinals opponent, Fabio Fognnini, withdrew due to injury. As he took the court for the second semi-final, his winning streak stood at 43 matches (41-0 in 2011). He was one win away from a much anticipated final against Nadal; and a pivotal moment for both men. There was only one problem, his semi-final opponent was the greatest grand slam player in history.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hidden Success

by Conroy

Bill Gates - an example of traditional success
I'd like to talk about an insight I had about the nature of success. Traditionally, we think of success as the fulfillment of some goal in the immediate sense or achievement of a desired social status in the broader context. We assign objective measures like wealth, fame, professional achievement. If I asked you to name the most successful people in the world, who would flash into your mind? President Obama, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey seem like good examples. Why pick these people? Their immense public achievements; they have reached a level of esteem, fame, wealth, and professional achievement that we find admirable. Looking at our own lives we see those around us with the high-paying jobs, those with important professional responsibilities, those with impressive material possessions, those that we respect for their competence, intelligence, and charisma. Surely these are measures of success.

But what else makes up "success"?

I would suggest there are less obvious measures that are of profound value. I wrote about this recently, but how about the happy marriage?  Happy is the key and hard to measure, but I would say that a happy marriage not only improves the lives of husband and wife, but provides a substantial foundation for the well-being of that couple's children. If one of society's greatest challenges is getting young people through adolescence ready to join the "real" world, then what better start than under a happy marriage? And in that same vein, how about being a good parent? Providing the care, love, and guidance that can help children become well-adjusted adults. Someone once told me that the most important job a person will ever have is being a parent. That's not a hollow statement, we all know children whose lives as been damaged, sometimes irrevocably, from neglectful parenting.

Good parenting - a hidden success
How about the value of charity? Giving one's time, money, effort to others, especially others in need, must improve our world. Isn't responsible altruism a mark of success? More broadly, charity in its widest context, that of a loving kindness toward others, was described by Saint Paul as the greatest of all virtues. Certainly anyone who can embody even a portion of this virtue is a success. It sounds simple, but how many people do you know who can follow Henry James’ dictum: “three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind”?

How about being a loyal and dependable friend? Maintaining long-standing relationships, being there for others in good times and bad?

Perhaps you could term these as "selfless" measures of success and the more traditional forms noted above as "selfish" measures of success.

I believe an evolved individual must be both selfish and selfless; responsible to yourself and to others around you. As I’ve written, the great achievements in human history and the upward arc of humanity are the result of the selfish impulse, measured in selfish success. This must be so. But as throughout history we have slowly and painfully learned to function as a community, and are still struggling, surely we must recognize the vital importance of selfless acts, measured in selfless success.

Who do you know that is a selfless success? I count myself fortunate to know many successes of this type: my parents, my girlfriend, many of my friends. I’m a better person for it, and hopefully I can learn from their example.


In Woody Allen’s excellent movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, there is a character of a sleazy and shallow television executive played by Alan Alda. He’s a bad human being, but he’s been immensely successful in his career. In the end he wins the girl, wealth, and the esteem of those around him. He epitomizes that reality that our society seems to value selfish success over all other behavior. We lavish attention on celebrities, athletes, business leaders, and politicians. These people gain fame and wealth, are idolized and too often viewed as role models and even “heroes”.

If I asked you to pick one form of success for yourself, selfish or selfless, which would it be?