Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Games of Youth

by Conroy
"Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul."
Chess - one of the first "adult" games I learned to play
This quote is from Friedrich Frobel, one of the fathers of modern education and inventor of the concept of kindergarten. While the language is grandiloquent it must contain some truth. What I'm sure of is that the word play is synonymous with childhood as the word work is with adulthood. As a child I would play; as an adult I work. This is a reality so firmly ingrained that until just recently I had given little thought to the matter.

The truth is I'm not prone to sentimentalism of nostalgia, no more than the next man anyway, but I do have a sharp memory. That memory was jolted the other day as I was searching through some storage bins in my basement - the common repository for forgotten possessions - and came across my classic board game Axis & Allies. Like Proust's response to the madeleine, my mind whirled over all those games I played in my youth. As I thought further I realized that play, that games, must be one of the defining features of my younger years. Games of all forms and varieties. Games of skill, of intellect, of speed and strength.

Today, my adult years, I rarely play games, and I thought of why that might be. I had to go back to the games I played as a child to understand.

World Domination
"No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent actions called games." - W.H. Auden
I thought of my dad teaching me chess as a young boy. I wasn't the next Bobby Fisher, but I had a knack for strategy and other games beckoned. I thought of playing Stratego and Risk, imagining myself as the youthful Napoleon as I led my triumphant armies to glorious victories. I thought of Axis & Allies and how even as a young teenager I was aware that the game makers made it palatable to play as the Germans by showing the Iron Cross on the game pieces instead of the Nazi swastika. But I thought most about Empire Deluxe.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Better Cars and Worse Roads

by Conroy

The future belongs to fuel efficient cars
In June, the Obama Administration proposed substantial changes to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (known by the acronym CAFE). The changes would require a near doubling in the fuel efficiency, measured in miles per gallon (mpg), for passenger cars and light trucks. The automobile industry, represented by most of the major auto manufacturers (Volkswagen being the major exception), is supporting the new CAFE standards (with a few modest adjustments). As announced in late July, the fleet average fuel efficiency for new passenger cars and light trucks by 2025 will have to be 54.5 mpg. This follows on the heels of earlier regulations that will require new cars and trucks to have a fleet average fuel efficiency of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Earlier this month the president announced the first ever fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks (18-wheelers, tankers, etc.). These standards would require percentage improvements in fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions by 2018 based on the type of truck and how it will be used. The American Trucking Association (ATA), an industry advocacy group representing trucking companies and commercial truck owners, is supporting the new standards.

The immediate objective of these new rules is to reduce gasoline consumption and ghg emission, with the larger goal of increasing energy independence, spurring the development of clean car technology, and improving air quality. As with all federal rules, there will be numerous loopholes, exemptions, options to pay penalties in lieu of compliance, and complicated methods for actually measuring fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions. However, assuming these new rules are fully (or even largely) implemented, there will be major ramifications for the vehicles you and I buy and drive over the next fourteen years (and beyond). But perhaps an even bigger effect will be not to the vehicles we drive in, but to the roads we drive on.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Season in the Sun

by Conroy

An exuberant Djokovic after his latest title
Novak Djokovic had a golden opportunity at the French Open in 2008. On a sun-drenched Friday afternoon he faced three-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in a much anticipated semi-final. Win and he would pass the Spainard in the rankings and have a chance to play for his second grand slam title that year. He was a hot player, hard on the heels of Nadal (one year his senior) and perennial number one Roger Federer. He had that "lean and hungry look" as Caesar would say.

The match was intense. The rallies were long and hard. Novak fought, he had stretches of brilliant play, but as the rallies played out and the match wore on, the reality was clear to see on the shadowless court under the midday sun, there was no place for Novak Djokovic to hide; he was no equal to Nadal. He lost 6-4, 6-2, 7-6. He was supposed to emerge as a new contender for number 1. Instead he faded back. As grand slams went by one-by-one he seemed to  get used to being the third wheel in the captivating Federer-Nadal battle of greatness. It played that way right through last year's U.S. Open final. It seemed like it could play that way forever. Or at least that's what we all thought, until this year.


A Season in the Sun
Flash forward to yesterday. I watched Novak Djokovic, the newly crowned number 1 player, continue his nearly flawless, and well, awesome season in Montreal. He beat Mardy Fish, the top-ranked American (and big tournament bridesmaid), in the final of the Canada Masters event. He became the first number 1 player to win his first tournament after ascending to the top ranking since Pete Sampras 18 years ago. He wasn't at his sharpest and Fish was game, but it didn't matter, there's no stopping the Serb at the moment. It was his ninth title out of ten tournaments played in 2011. His record for the year is a hard-to-believe 53-1 (0.981 winning percentage in case you're interested).

The win yesterday was his fifth this year at a "1,000 level" event (you get 1,000 ranking points for winning), the tier just below the four grand slam tournaments. No one had ever won more than four in a single season before (Federer and Nadal each won four in 2005 and Federer won four more in 2006 - there are nine played each year).

Djokovic celebrating his Wimbledon championship
Oh yeah, and let's not forget that Novak is also this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon champion. Five times he stepped on court versus the then top ranked player, Rafael Nadal. Five times he came away the winner, including a paradigm shifting win in the Wimbledon final. He's won on hard courts (29-0), grass (7-0), and clay (17-1). He's beaten the other Top 10 players like a drum, amassing an eye-popping 16-1 record against that distinguished group. I wrote a couple of months ago about his only loss, to Federer - maybe the greatest player ever - in the semi-finals of the French Open (Roland Garros). And that took one of Roger's greatest ever clay court performances.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

One Million Steps...and Then Some

by Conroy

Conroy on top of Uncompahgre - the symbolic peak of the challenge
Back in April I wrote about a challenge I had set for myself: take one million steps over the course of one hundred days; an average of 10,000 steps a day, the equivalent of just under five walking miles a day. On May 1, armed with a pedometer and a determined spirit, I stepped out.

I walked, I hiked, I ran, I even climbed a mountain, and slogged through a river of mud. I was dedicated to reaching the goal, and I achieved it - with ease. I took my 1,000,000th step on Day 60 (June 29), 40 days ahead of schedule. When Day 100 (August 8) - and the challenge - was over, I had taken 1,766,074 steps (give or take a few). That's equivalent to walking nearly 840 miles, or the distance from my home in Baltimore to Jefferson City, right in the heart of Missouri.

I started this effort because I feel that challenges like this are a great way to promote personal fitness, and keep a person interested and motivated in physical activity. I still agree with that, but I had a few other interesting insights along the way:

10,000 Steps and More - after the first few days it became clear that amassing 10,000 steps a day (however I went about it) was not a great challenge. An average walking pace will yield about 100 steps a minute, running about 150 steps per minute. So 10,000 steps takes more than an hour but less than two of concentrated effort. Even a routine day, no extra workouts, will yield several thousand steps, so I didn't find it to hard to carve time out of my day for the extra steps needed to get to 10,000. Lunchtime walks, weekend hikes, my normal running schedule would get the job done. After ten days I was averaging well over 11,000 steps a day. So I set myself to go farther. Could I average 15,000 steps a day? How about 20,000? Here's my average for each ten day increment:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Critical Confusion

by Conroy

Death Cab for Cutie playing live
Last night I went to see Death Cab for Cutie at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I'm a big fan of the band; this is the second time I've seen them this summer. DCFC (for short) is touring in support of their latest album, Codes and Keys, which was released at the end of May. The lead single, "You Are a Tourist", was a big hit on on "alternative" and rock radio, and even gained some airplay on mainstream stations (and VH1). I like the song, I like the album. That's no surprise, as I noted, I'm a fan (see my ten favorite DCFC songs below). 

What I'm not going to do is make a quick judgment about the value of the music, the depth of songwriting, the thematic cohesion of the album. I'm not going to compare it to DCFC's other albums, not yet anyway. I know right away that it's good, anything more will take time to realize. Why? Well, as I with written before (here and here), you have to wary when making quick judgments about art. It takes time, many years, to fully evaluate a work of art.

But then I'm not a professional critic.

Critical Confusion
Critics, some of whom get paid for their opinions (good for them), are quick to make, in fact must make, quick judgments. I'm always cautious when reading these first reviews. To wit, consider a couple of reviews of Codes and Keys:

Evan Sawdey, PopMatters -
 "...it was inevitable that Death Cab for Cutie would eventually hit a wall - after all, there are only so many...tricks you can pull before everyone realizes you're merely rehashing all of you old material-and with Codes and Keys...the bottom has dropped out almost completely."
He continues,
"...as daring as they want to bill Codes and Keys as...this is the sound of Death Cab at their most generic, disjointed, and disinterested. It's a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is this: Codes and Keys is the worst album of their career."
Would it be an understatement to call that a negative review? Here's another opinion,

Friday, August 5, 2011

Forts of Baltimore

by Conroy

Fort McHenry
I've always loved geography and been fascinated by maps. You put an atlas or map in front of me and I'm drawn to it like iron to a magnet. I pour over maps as if there was some deep, precious secret to be found in the lines and names on the page (or increasingly, the computer screen).

I'm this way with all maps, but I especially like when I can relate what I read on a map to what I've seen with my own eyes. Naturally, I'm most familiar with my hometown, Baltimore, and was just looking at a map of the city's expansive harbor. Baltimore and its eastern suburbs boast one of the most interesting coastlines of any large American city. It's located on the fall line and straddles, surrounds really, the wide estuary that is the lower Patapsco River, just a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay. Go ahead and look at this coastline on google maps or some other online resource. The land and water reach out for one another as low-lying peninsulas entwine with wide, slow-flowing tidal rivers.

Simplified map showing the "forts" of Baltimore
Take a close look around this coastline, the harbor and Patapsco River, and you'll notice a curiosity. Around the periphery where river meets bay, smack in the middle of the shipping channel, and right at the entrance to the famous Inner Harbor, you'll read names of places with the same prefix. Fort Howard, Fort McHenry, Fort Carroll, Fort Smallwood, Fort Armistead. What are all these forts? Why does Baltimore need such protection, is the city at risk from some foreign armada?

Well no, not today of course. But if you think historically, the answer is yes, but let's come back to that.