Sunday, November 27, 2011

End of the Season

by Conroy

Roger Federer with his 70th winner's trophy
The 2011 ATP season is over [1], and it ended just like last year. Roger Federer dominated the late fall, winning his final seventeen matches, the last seven of which were against Top 10 ranked opponents (which might be a record), and capturing his record sixth ATP World Tour Finals [2] title. In the process, he demolished Rafael Nadal in his most lopsided victory against the Spaniard and further cemented his claim as the greatest player of all time.

But the end wasn’t at all what the 2011 tennis season was about. Looking back from the finish, it’s clear that the climax occurred two-and-a-half months ago in New York.

US Open Final
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Late on a Monday afternoon [3] in early September Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the world’s two best tennis players, took the court at Arthur Ashe stadium to contest the U.S. Open Final. It was a rematch of the 2010 Final, but this year Djokovic was the top seed, winning his way match-by-match through a near-perfect season. Nadal was a definite underdog. As they began their warm-up, the sinking sun already cast long shadows across the blue court and its expansive green penumbra. The capacity New York crowd of 25,000, the largest audience in tennis, buzzed in anticipation.

Djokovic had dominated the first eight months of the year. Heading into the U.S. Open Final he had remarkably won 63 of his 65 matches, nine titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and dominated Nadal, beating him in all five of their meetings (all in finals). By what seemed a minor miracle, and confirmation that he was in the midst of a historic year, he escaped near-certain defeat in the semi-finals against Roger Federer (click here to see one of the gutsiest and fearless shots you’re ever likely to witness). He looked destined to win the U.S. Open and consolidate the top ranking he had taken from Nadal at Wimbledon. For his part, Nadal was looking to reclaim some of his palpably diminished aura and end his losing streak to Djokovic. In the process claiming his second grand slam title of the year [4], and perhaps steal the number 1 ranking back by the end of the season.

Speaking as a tennis fan, the match was mesmerizing; an apotheosis of power-baseline tennis. Both men played at their peak, as good I think, as they could have played on that surface and that day in front of a huge expectant crowd and millions of television viewers. They are the two best defenders in tennis and probably the two most consistent baseline ball-strikers. Those skills resulted in point after point of long rallies, of sustained sprinting to all corners of the court, and of pure power hitting. Both men repeatedly retrieved what appeared to be sure winners from the other; points ending with each man’s legs and lungs burning. From a purely physical perspective it may have been the most brutal tennis match ever played (see some of the highlights here). By the end Djokovic was suffering from a back injury and the normally indefatigable Nadal appeared totally enervated, his body (and maybe his mind) unable to compete any longer. What else was obvious is that point-by-point Djokovic was better. It seemed that he returned every Nadal serve back at the Spainard’s feet. He won the majority of the long rallies. He won the important points.

An exhausted Djokovic after his U.S. Open win
Djokovic took the first two sets despite early leads in each by Nadal. With day fading into night and the stadium lights taking over, Nadal came back and won the long, intense, captivating third set. After the first game of the fourth set, Djokovic, who just a few minutes earlier was serving for the championship, took a medical timeout for a lower back injury. For a moment it appeared that a monumental comeback was in store. But it didn’t happen, Djokovic regrouped and Nadal was spent. After a little more than four hours [5] and four unforgiving sets the Serb stood as champion. To borrow a boxing analogy, he took the best punches that Nadal could throw and returned his own with interest. He fulfilled the promise of his season-long success. He was the best.

Post U.S. Open
A tired Djokovic at the World Tour Finals
And then, after that scintillating victory, the air was let out of the balloon. Djokovic played just ten more matches, going a very average 6-4 over the remainder of the season. At least two, but maybe all four of those losses were at least partially the result of a bad back or aching right shoulder. And after his mild exit from the World Tour Finals, Djokovic admitted that he was physically and mentally drained. The season, and all his success, had taken a toll. He needed time to recuperate.  Nadal went just 8-4 after the U.S. Open (and just 2-4 over his last six matches), including very lopsided losses to Federer and Andy Murray [6].

The post-U.S. Open fall season often plays like a quiet denouement to the rest of the year. And given how meekly Djokovic and Nadal played, the two bright lights of the season through the U.S. Open, it seemed especially so this year. But there is more to be gleaned from the late season results.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Political Failure

by Conroy

I’ve never used this blog as a place to write about political issues or rail against political developments. As far as possible, I like to maintain an apolitical tone, out of respect to readers and because my deep-seated pragmatism guides me to a more centrist perspective. But the events of today require a response.

The much hyped Congressional “Super Committee” (officially named the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) of six Democrats and Republicans has failed in its one and only task of identifying at least $1.2 trillion in federal budget cuts (spread out over ten years).

As you may recall, back in the summer there was a debt-ceiling crisis – entirely of the political class’ doing – when the United States nearly reached its debt (borrowing) limit. The crisis was precipitated when Congressional Republicans refused to extend the government’s borrowing limits without a guarantee of commensurate reductions in spending (anathema to Democrats). For their side, Democrats refused to consider spending cuts without some form of tax increases (anathema to Republicans). Neither side budged and the prospect of a limited government default was at hand. At the eleventh hour a compromise deal, endorsed by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, was passed by Congress. It raised the federal borrowing limit but required substantial cuts in government spending. Those cuts were to be identified by the Super Committee. There were to be no new taxes.

Following all this haggling Standard & Poor's actually downgraded the United States credit rating for the first time in the nation’s history, and the stock market plummeted by several hundred points (several percent of its total). It was a stark indictment of the men and women controlling America’s federal finances.

The national debt has been an issue for a long time, but it has really soared over the last decade as increased defense spending and rapidly increasing Social Security and health care costs, combined with two large tax cuts and a major recession to throw the federal budget out of whack. Despite non-stop talk in Washington about corralling the ballooning debt, nothing was done. That was supposed to end with the latest budget bill.  

Politics without Leadership
Now, nearly four months later, despite all of the promises and hoopla surrounding the Super Committee, and after ten weeks of in camera meetings, no schedule of spending cuts has been identified. Congress (and the President) has failed to lead; to make tough choices. Instead, as this summer’s budget bill stipulates, automatic cuts will be enforced starting in 2013. These include 8-9% reductions in both defense and non-defense programs. However, third rail programs like Social Security will not be touched.

No doubt in the immediate term – like tomorrow – we will see another drastic decline in the stock market as investors react to yet more government ineptitude.

This abdication of responsibility allows Republicans to go back the their constituencies and boast about avoiding tax increases and Democrats to go back to their constituencies and brag about maintaining vital social programs. And here’s the kicker: Between now and 2013, Congress has the power to exempt programs from the automatic cuts. It’s very possible that by the time 2013 comes around special interests will have lobbied Congress out of all serious cuts. In other words, nothing will be cut. Business as usual; and the national debt will continue to pile up at record levels. The President held a short press conference this afternoon where he promised to veto any bill that exempts programs from the automatic cuts. Sound words, but we’ll see.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting Old

by Conroy

Jeanne Calment - the oldest person on record (122 yrs.)
What if we never had to get old? A couple of days ago I kept encountering this theme. First, there was a minor headline on the cover of this past week’s edition of The Economist that hinted at an answer to this most captivating of questions. I was immediately intrigued and excitedly flipped through the magazine to find the article. My mind was alive with thoughts of about staying forever young, about immortality. Alas, and not surprisingly despite my silly reaction, the article related emerging science that promised considerably less.

Read the article for the specific details, but experiments in mice have shown that counteracting certain genes in cells that have reached their biological age limit can check some of the deterioration associated with aging. Someday, it is hoped, these types of approaches could be used to ease the effects of senescence in humans. I hope, for not entirely selfish reasons, someday comes sooner rather than later.

Then, by sheer coincidence, I was re-reading a portion of James Joyce’s Ulysses – searching for a remembered (different) passage – when I rediscovered the following paragraphs (it’s a longish excerpt, but worth it [1]):

What spectacle confronted them when they, from the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. [2]

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipent lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of so called fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

And then by further coincidence, I flipped on the television and caught the very end of Rocky III, where in a more succinct and less inflated way than Joyce, Apollo Creed [3] says to Rocky, in a fleeting reflective aside about the waning of his once overwhelming physical skills:

"You know Stallion?  It's too bad we gotta get old."
And so my mind settled on the sad fact of getting old and mortality. Happy thoughts, I know, but ones we’re all apt to brood over from time to time.

I’m 31-years-old, and I still throb with the vigor of youth [4]. But in the coming years the signs of aging are going to appear. We all know these signs: decreasing speed, dexterity, and reaction time; graying hair; balding (for men); wrinkles; weight gain; loss of muscle mass and bone density; lower sex drive; flagging energy; arthritis; deteriorating vision and hearing; loss of collagen that makes your skin all droopy and inelastic; age spots; age-related illnesses like heart disease; memory loss, and maybe dementia. Just think of your grandparents. Nothing that you look forward to, all things you want to delay as long as possible. It’s not a pretty picture. Just compare the following two photographs.

 Robert Redford in his early 30s

 Robert Redford in his mid-70s

(Of course I’m planning (read: hoping) to age well, like Paul Newman or Cary Grant. No one has actually laughed when I’ve suggested this, which is nice of them.)

And then somewhere along the arc of aging, we die. Aging and death are cruel facts, especially for intelligent life. It’s cruel that humans can witness our senescence and contemplate our physical demise. But, contemplation is the first step to understanding, which is where we stand; there are several theories about why we age:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Big Budget Bland

by Conroy

The epitome of the mega-budget movie
We live in the era of the mega-budget movie. Those films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and tens of millions more to market. By my count, in the last seven years there have been eighteen movies with a production budget of at least $200 million (see table below). These movies share one characteristic – they’re dominated by digital effects.

Back in 1998 David Foster Wallace skewered Hollywood for enthusiastically embracing what he termed the “F/X Porn” genre: Mega-budget movies that feature massive doses of highly effective, sensuous special effects, but very little character or plot. Prominent examples from the 1990s include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park [1], and Twister. He likened these movies to pornography – instead of porn’s prurient carnality, there are a few elaborate, terrifically convincing effects sequences separated by long segments of vapid, formulaic storytelling.

Wallace cited the Inverse Cost and Quality Law, which may sound like a concept plucked from a microeconomics textbook, but was actually his invention. Stated simply, the “ICQL” says, “the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be.” For a movie snob like me, this idea seems so obvious that I’m embarrassed I didn’t articulate something similar. When Wallace developed the ICQL, it hadn’t been that long since “T2” and Jurassic Park revolutionized the scope and role of special effects. They were no longer a feature of many big budget movies; effects became their very reason for being. The ICQL posits that mega-budget effects movies need a bankable star, a simple plot relying on proven formulas and easy sentiment, and lots of distracting digital effects. In addition, corollaries to the ICQL state that (a) the more lavish the effects the worse the non-effects parts of the movie will be, and (b) the necessities of a mega-budget-effects movie will subsume the creativity and originality in even the most talented director [2].

Maybe the first "F/X Porn" movie
The upshot of the ICQL is that mega-budget movies are stripped of what attracts people to storytelling in the first place, namely characters and plot. These elements have been the foundation of storytelling since the oral tradition of our distant ancestors. I love movies because, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese, they are our dreams brought to life. Movies offer a different experience (and better in many ways) than novels or plays or poems, or any of the other media we have to express our innate drive to tell stories – to communicate our human experience. Movies bring together sight and sound and humanity in ways unmatchable by other forms. That's what's so disappointing about mega-budget-effects movies, as the ICQL says, these movies abandon the core tenets of good storytelling and focus on distracting our minds by overwhelming our senses.

Two rhetorical questions: How many lines of dialogue can you remember from your favorite movie? What do those words, coming from those characters, mean to you? Two follow-up rhetorical questions: How many of the dazzling special effects sequences can you describe, in detail, from one of the recent mega-budget-effects movies? What do those effects sequence mean to you?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ghost Stories

by Conroy

A ghost on the stairs?
This past Sunday, in anticipation of Halloween, CBS’ Sunday Morning featured a segment on ghosts and haunted places. I, incredulous as always, was stunned to hear the following statistic: 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and fully half of them (20% of Americans) believe they have actually seen or experienced a ghost (!). Needless to say, I’m unsettled (if not entirely stupefied) by the fact that 60 million of my compatriots seem to, well, either have suffered some sort of delusion or actually believe in the ridiculous. Still, ghosts, or the idea of ghosts, has too long a history and is too engrained in human culture not to intrigue.

Let me write upfront (if it isn’t already clear) that “ghosts” don’t exist, at least in the appear-as-a-phantasmal-presence-in-a-dark-corridor-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye type of way. Believers would label me a skeptic, but my disbelieving position is the majority view (thankfully), so let’s set that as the perspective of the rest of this post. “Ghosts” is an interesting and enduring cultural-religious conceit not an actual phenomenon.

Ghost Stories
Currently, the most popular movie in American theaters is Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to the very effective original, a word-of-mouth hit from a couple of years ago. This movie is just the latest in what is a never ending procession of ghost stories. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a hit: ghosts sell. Paranormal Activity (the original) cost almost nothing to make yet grossed almost $200 million in theaters worldwide. The same feat had previously been pulled off by The Blair Witch Project, a ghost-horror movie from 1999 that cost well under one million dollars (maybe a lot less) and grossed $250 million worldwide. And ghost stories are the subject of big-budget blockbusters as well (some serious, some not): the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, The Sixth Sense, Ghost, and Ghostbusters, for example. The lasting popularity of ghost movies means something.

Perhaps the most famous ghost in literature
Ghosts have appeared in our folktales and myths and finest literature, from the Bible and the Egyptian Book of the Dead to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. By Dante in the Divine Comedy, Shakespeare in Hamlet and Macbeth, Dickens in A Christmas Carol, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost. Modern examples include Joyce’s Ulysses, and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (even if the ghosts in Ulysses are just, to paraphrase Hamlet, in the mind’s eye).

I think you can also see how elemental the idea of ghosts is by the many terms we have for them. In addition to ghost there is: spirit, phantom, spook, specter, banshee, demon, soul, shade, wraith, haunt, apparition, haint, poltergeist, and revenant. And that’s probably an incomplete list.

Every Halloween images of ghosts are used as decorations (or lame costumes). Everyone knows of ghosts, whether that be Casper the Friendly Ghost, the surprisingly effective Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, the over-sweet Boo Berry cereal, the sometimes heroic and sometimes funny (sometimes neither) Space Ghost, popular (sadly) television shows following “ghost hunters,” and advertised lists of what must be hundreds if not thousands of reputedly “haunted” places in the U.S. alone. The bottom line is that for most Americans the idea and symbology of ghosts is familiar, in a casual almost unmindful way.

So why the ubiquity of ghosts in our culture, especially since most people don’t believe they exist? I’ll attempt a few explanations: