Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shifting Americans

by Conroy

Bright big Dallas
Locals say everything is bigger in Texas, and maybe no place exemplifies this boast more than Dallas – “Big D” – a booming metropolis of well over six million people spread over the flat north Texas grasslands [1]. Examples of bigness: the city is home to the world’s largest domed stadium, along with one of the biggest and busiest airports, and many of the nation’s “mega-churches”. Fulfilling its reputation, metro Dallas has grown to become America’s fourth most populous urban area [2] and the nation’s sixth largest economy. An evening drive south along I-75 towards the city (inside an air-conditioned car which repels the smothering summer heat and humidity), reveals Dallas in all its vibrancy and excess. Starting around Allen, 25 miles or so from downtown, you enter into Dallas’ suburban sprawl: shopping malls, box stores, business parks, mid-rise towers, tract housing developments, and fast food restaurants flanking both sides of the freeway; your eyes dazzled by the sea of house lights, glowing colorful business signs, the pale orange twinge of sodium-streetlights, the alternating white-red of countless vehicle head-and tail-lights. Miles and miles later you can glimpse downtown, tall chromatically lit glass towers glinting in the fading twilight. It’s all new, pretty-ugly, dynamic-gaudy, impressive-bland, a 21st century American city.

What a contrast to the Dallas of my parents’ youth, then a quiet mid-size southern city made infamous by an assassination. Contrast the blandness of Dealey Plaza (which looks much the same as it did in 1963 [3]) with the glitzy modern hustle of the nearby downtown. Dallas is emblematic of what seems to be a continuing fact of America; it’s ever shifting, moving, resettling population. It’s a source of some amazement to me how fluid and dynamic the American people remain, after nearly two-and-a-half centuries of nationhood, in where they choose to live. I think this can be demonstrated by two graphics.

Where Americans Lived in 1950
First, a map showing the largest urban areas in 1950:

In 1950 the U.S. population was 151 million, 6 percent of the world total. Well over a third of the population (36%) lived in rural areas, and as the map above shows, big cities were few and outside of the Northeast and Midwest, widely scattered.  Just one city, New York, had more than 10 million people. Chicago, then still America’s “Second City”, was the only other city with more than 5 million people. Just five other places had more than 2 million: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco. Only five others cities, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Baltimore had more than 1 million. The above map shows whole swathes of the country from the South, to the Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest, and desert Southwest bereft of large cities. Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, and San Diego didn’t even rank. Dallas and Houston were mid-size.

Largest Urban Areas in 1950
Metro Population
Metro Population
New York
Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles
San Francisco
St. Louis
Kansas City
New Orleans

In 1950 the most populous state was New York with a little less than 15 million people (10 percent of the nation’s total); more than double the population of Texas and five times more than Florida. Over half the American population lived in a contiguous band of 15 Midwest and Northeast states [4], which together comprise just 15 percent of the total national land area. These are the states that were (1) well-settled, they all were admitted to the Union before the Civil War, (2) were home to America’s largest industrial centers, which in 1950 accounted for nearly 30 percent of the American economy (e.g., Detroit and Pittsburgh), and (3) were not hampered by the segregationist and discriminatory policies that caused the American South to languish for more than a century after the Civil War [5].

The least populous state was Nevada with just 160,000 people, and less than 50,000 of those lived in and around the new city of Las Vegas. Keep in mind an alternative statistic, baseball in 1950, still then very much America’s most popular sport, didn’t field a Major League team west of St. Louis or south of Washington [6].

Where Americans Lived in 2010
Now, a map showing the largest urban areas in 2010 (just sixty years – less than a lifetime – later):

The first thing that strikes you about this map is the impressive proliferation in the number of large cities. In 1950 there were 12 cities with metropolitan populations of 1 million or more, in 2010 there were 51. This is the result of two trends. First, by 2010 the U.S. population had more than doubled since 1950 to 308 million (5 percent of the world total) [7]. Second, the shift from rural areas to urban areas continued and in 2010, 82% of Americans lived in urban areas. So by 2010 there were more and bigger cities.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Geographic Oddities: The Exclave

by Conroy

The Kentucky Bend
The Mississippi River flows in a meandering path across its wide, flat floodplain; appearing on the map like a slack garden hose, twisting and turning and practically looping back upon itself for the whole of its long and broad lower course below St. Louis. One the most notable bends occurs not too far south of where the Ohio River enters the main channel, and the south flow abruptly reverses and the river turns north and bends omega-like [1] in a counter-clockwise semicircle before returning to its southern course. In this location the river practically surrounds a little spread of land called the Kentucky Bend. What’s notable about this barely populated patch of fallow cotton fields is that is lies totally disconnected from the rest of the Bluegrass State. From here, a look across the Mississippi in any direction (east, north, and west) is of Missouri, and the only land access is from the south through Tennessee. The Kentucky Bend is an example of one of those geo-political oddities: the exclave [2].

There are examples of exclaves all over the world, and they tend to exist in locations where geography, history, and politics have combined to leave a portion of a state or nation where you wouldn’t expect it to be. The stories behind these exclaves are often interesting, and common sense may suggest that they not exist. Why isn’t the Kentucky Bend part of Tennessee, or even Missouri [3]?

First, what am I calling an exclave?  Definitions vary, but to me exclaves are geographic areas of one state or country that are physically separated from the bulk of their home state/country, requiring transit through (or over) another state/country, unless the separated place can be accessed via the open sea. If you can’t drive or walk or ride or fly or sail there without going through another place, it's an exclave. By this definition, Alaska isn’t an exclave of the United States. Sure it’s physically separated from the rest of the country, but planes and ships can transit between the “lower 48” and Alaska without going through Canadian territory. In the same vein, Hawaii, or any other island distant from the mainland, isn’t an exclave. 

Consider a few prominent examples (of dozens) of true exclaves from around the globe:

Straight Lines
A ninth-grade biology or Earth sciences student could tell you that nature doesn’t use straight lines; however, mankind loves them. Just compare man’s architecture to nature’s landscapes. As a consequence, our un-straight Earth, where even the flat horizon of a dead calm sea creates a circle, is divided into political units by straight lines drawn on flat maps. When this happens sometimes you end up with unexpected results. The U.S./Canadian border provides a great illustration of this point.

Point Roberts, Washington
Today it might seem strange that the rather tranquil boundary between the United States and Canada – the longest “unguarded” border in the world – was a place of longstanding and bitter dispute during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A new and growing America vied with Britain for control of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, and the vast interior west of the North American continent. These disputes were settled, peacefully for the most part, resulting in what is today the longest international land border in the world [4]. All of the disputes and agreements, treaties and tribunals decided matters on a macro scale, which produced no less than seven exclaves along the border:
  • Point Roberts, Washington on the Strait of Georgia and connected by land only to British Columbia.
  • Elm Point and Northwest Angle, Minnesota in the Northwest Angle of Minnesota but connected by land only to Manitoba.
  • Province Point and Alburg, Vermont on Lake Champlain but connected by land only to Quebec.
  • Saint Regis, Quebec on the St. Lawrence River but connected by land only to New York.
  • Campobello Island, New Brunswick which is only connected to land, via a bridge, to Maine.

A glance at the map shows that these places would more logically be part of the nations that they are physically attached to. But politics and history means that will never come to pass.

Straight lines similarly separate most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, creating exclaves in both countries. A few of note:
  • Knott’s Island, North Carolina which is actually connected by land to Virginia.
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia which is separated from the rest of the state by the lower Chesapeake Bay and connected by land to Maryland. However, its exclave status was largely eliminated when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed in 1964, which now connects the eastern shore across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia Beach.
  • Lost Peninsula of Michigan, which is actually connected by land only to Ohio.
  • Cold Lake, Alberta where a spit of land near the town is actually connected by land only to Saskatchewan.

The March of History
Colorful West Berlin
There is more than orderly (if arbitrary) lines that create exclaves, unexpected historical developments are often a cause. Take Berlin after World War II. The city like the rest of Germany was partitioned between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Eventually the western controlled areas, West Berlin, emerged as a capitalist, democratic exclave surrounded by East Germany (and East Berlin). The vulnerability of this exclave was revealed when the Soviet Union, in one of the first overt acts of the Cold War, closed the land link between the city and West Germany in 1948. The city was then supported by a massive American-British airlift that lasted nine months until the Soviets reopened the ground links to the city. Later, West Berlin became a focal point for Germans fleeing the communist East. The exclave vanished in a good way when the two German nations reunified in 1990.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Inferno of World War II

by Conroy

“War is prodigiously wasteful, because much of the effort made by rival combatants proves futile, and the price is paid in lives.”

“Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”

“An average of 27,000 perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict.”

- Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War,   1939-1945

It seems that seventy years after the events of World War II – the greatest calamity in human history – historians have gained a better understanding of the facts and effects of the conflict than anyone, be they leaders, generals, soldiers, civilians, or victims, had during the war or in the immediate post war period. Max Hastings is one of these historians and his many works on World War II stand out among the best histories of the conflict. To this list can be added his latest work, Inferno:The World at War, 1939-1945, an ambitious single-volume overview of the war.

Readers of this blog may remember an earlier post where I praised Hastings’ previous two books, Armageddon and Retribution, which respectively covered the final year of the war in Europe and the Pacific. As with those works, Hastings focus in Inferno is not on the Allied and Axis leadership, notable generals, or even the broad goals and war strategy. Instead, he provides a “bottom-up” approach that conveys the experience of war, what it was like to be a rifleman in battle, a civilian under aerial bombardment, or victim of pillage and rape (a ubiquitous civilian experience in many theaters of the war), to provide a few examples.

As Hastings notes it is impossible to present a blow-by-blow account of World War II, an immensely large and far-reaching subject, in 800-odd pages. In fact, a work ten times as long would be insufficient. Instead, he set out to provide an impression of events as they unfolded starting with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ending with the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay six years later. He has succeeded. The quotations provided at the top of this post give a sense of the massive horror of the war, and indeed for a modern reader it’s very difficult to understand how such a large proportion of the world’s people could have endured under the stress of war for so long. No book can fully capture this reality, but Inferno does it as well as any. And it does this through largely new or never before used first-hand accounts, diaries, letters, etc. These sources add a gratifying freshness to the book.

Hastings also manages to provide some new insights that have been revealed through decades of studying World War II. There are no sacred cows in Hastings’ telling of the war and he expertly separates fact from myth and legend. This is useful and appropriate. Wars gather their own momentum and this was especially true for World War II. History (with a capital H) has largely identified the correct decisions from the terrible blunders, the necessary sacrifices from the useless wastes, the effective leaders from the incompetent, and the victims and criminals. But Hastings goes one step further, correctly assigning evil to those to which it belonged and separating it from the terrible logic of war, where horrible things happen to many people by all sides. There no moral equivocation with Hastings, only clarity.

I recommend this work highly, it presents the war as well as any single-volume history is likely to. Hastings book is both concise and comprehensive, but to better present Hastings’ mastery of the subject, I’ve provided a series of quotations and passages below that demonstrate two aspects of the book: the actual experience of the war – the bottom-up view, and the many blunders made by the Germany – the broad evolution of the War.

For me, the only real counter-factual worth pondering about World War II is this: Could Germany have won the war? That’s an important question mostly because such an outcome would have been catastrophic for most of Europe’s population and would have set subsequent history in a radically different direction (and thinking from a modern perspective, a very loathsome and bizarre direction). There is much debate about this issue, the forces arrayed against the Axis were enormously powerful, but surely the many and massive mistakes made by Germany (and Japan) contributed substantially to the Axis defeat.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Warrior Tennis

by Conroy

Djokovic and Nadal weary after nearly six hours of play
Have we seen the limit of tennis? I mean, really, can the sport get any better? Much has already been written, deservedly, about the remarkable Australian Open final, won this past Sunday [1] by Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal; a nearly six hour match – six hours! – of energy-sapping intensity and dramatic competitive swings. This is just the latest, perhaps the ultimate culmination, in what is surely one of the glory times for the sport. We fans must count ourselves lucky that we get to watch three of the greatest players of all time – and yes, Djokovic has now entered that discussion – battle in so many riveting matches on tennis’ biggest stages.

One startling statistic communicates the hegemony that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and now Novak Djokovic have established over tennis: Since the 2005 French Open – the last seven years – they have won 27 of 28 grand slam tournaments [2]. These three have and continue to demonstrate how far the bounds of excellence can be pushed. But along with the brilliance and athleticism come the compelling narratives that leave commentators (including this writer) searching for appropriate descriptions.

Tennis is often compared to other sports. Boxing is a favorite of the TV analyst types as players are described as landing “body blows” or going for the “knockout”, or engaged in a “heavyweight struggle.” This analogy seems fitting given the lonely one-on-one nature of tennis and more so as the sport has gotten more physical. Tennis is also compared to a mental struggle, a kind of hyper-kinetic chess, or as an ultimate test of men, a gladiator’s duel. Loftier still are comparisons of today’s top players to Greek mythical heroes, meeting in dramatic epical battles [3]. The fact that tennis matches are commonly compared to wars and battles [4] is a further expression of this perception. There may be hints of truth in these comparisons, but I think they miss something essential, something that can only be understood by examining the dominance and defeat of each man.

The Rise of Roger Federer
There will never be a perfect player, but by the end of 2003 the 22-year-old Roger Federer had become what many believed to be the next closest thing. Watching Federer in his prime, as David Foster Wallace famously wrote [5], was a religious experience. He was at once fast, graceful, and powerful. But these words don’t do him justice. He was more like the full embodiment of speed and grace and power. His shot-making was beautiful and brutally effective. His intelligence was obvious from how he constructed points, to the shots he chose to play, to his uncanny ability to anticipate and read opponents. He was a virtuoso; he owned every shot in the book and used them in ways no one had seen before. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples from the middle of the tense fifth set of the 2007 Wimbledon Final against Nadal.

Federer leads three games to two and is ahead in Nadal’s service game 0-15. Nadal, a lefty, hits a serve to Federer’s backhand, like he almost always does in the ad (left side) court, and Federer slices a short return into the middle of the court, forcing Nadal to come into the net. Nadal hits a forehand with heavy topspin deep into Federer’s backhand corner and follows this shot even closer to the net. Federer flicks a backhand to Nadal’s backhand side but above the Spaniard’s head. Nadal hits the only real shot available, a backhand crosscourt volley, and it’s good, bouncing low. But Federer has anticipated the shot and sprints along his baseline picking up the low ball and beating Nadal with a perfectly measured forehand pass. Now it’s 0-30 and Nadal again hits a serve to Federer’s backhand, up the “T” (middle) in the deuce (right side) court. Federer hits a neutral backhand return back down the center of the court to Nadal, who then hits a hard forehand to Federer’s forehand side. Nadal is anticipating a crosscourt forehand and has moved a couple of steps to his right. But instead Federer drills a deep, heavily top-spinned forehand into Nadal’s forehand corner. The ball is so well struck and such a surprise that even at a full gallop and stretch Nadal can’t reach it and it goes past him for another winner. Two points later and it’s 15-40. Nadal hits a body serve that Federer fights off with a floating forehand to Nadal’s backhand side. Nadal backs-up and hits a hard forehand deep the Federer’s backhand. Federer hits a hard backhand right back to Nadal who hits a backhand down the left (his right) sideline. Federer quickly scampers to the ball and hits a lofted backhand back toward Nadal but deep, just inside Nadal’s baseline. Nadal is forced to retreat and hits a neutral forehand to Federer’s forehand, where Federer, still on his backhand side of the court, hits a hard forehand near the left (Nadal’s right) sideline. This shot foreces Nadal to hit a crosscourt backhand which Federer anticipates and moves quickly to his right across to the deuce side of the court, easily tracking it down and responding with a crosscourt forehand. Nadal hits a hard backhand into the center of the court that Federer counters with a hard low slice backhand that barely clears the net and forces Nadal to scramble just to get to the ball. He’s forced to hit a short crosscourt forehand. Federer literally skips to his left and near his left sideline strikes a gorgeous forehand smack onto the left sideline past Nadal for a winner and the decisive break. These few critical points show Federer’s variety, intelligence, and wicked shot-making.

I can go on and on lauding his, well, magnificence, but seeing the real thing is better than reading about it, so check out these highlights. His game had (and still has) a genius, an originality and style and potency that can make you shout out loud in amazement while watching alone from your living room. I’ve noted his feats in previous posts, but from the end of 2003 through the end of 2007 he won 11 grand slams (of 16 played), won over 93% of his matches, and beat the other top players not named Nadal like a drum going 69-2 against Top 10 opponents – all feats unparalleled in tennis history. But if Federer was a tennis Superman there was definitely a kryptonite.

The Rise of Rafael Nadal
Federer made an interesting comment during the on-court interview following his 2007 Wimbledon win, stating that he was glad he won this match before Nadal won them all. In the moment it was probably intended as a compliment and as admittance that the match was a close-run thing. Indeed it was, and Federer’s remarks proved prescient, he hasn’t beaten Nadal in a grand slam match since (0-5).

Not long after Federer began dominating tennis there came the meteoric rise of Rafael Nadal, a tennis phenom. Here was the rare player who rose to the upper echelon of the game as a teenager, winning his first grand slam, the 2005 French Open, just after his 19th birthday; the first teen to do so since a 19-year-old Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open. His game was distinguished by its pure physicality. Nadal was blurry fast, he could run forever without tiring, his forehand was hit with tremendous power and an unprecedented amount of topspin. He was also metronomic-ally consistent hitting that forehand, and his strong two-handed backhand, shot after shot until, seemingly inevitably, his opponents made an error or grew impatient and forced (and missed) a risky shot. Add to that an unmatched competitive focus and determination – Nadal never takes a point off and never puts less than full effort into every exchange. This combination of skills and focus made him virtually unbeatable on clay where he set a never-to-be-beaten record of 81 consecutive match wins between 2005 and 2007. He beat Roger Federer in the French Open each year from 2005 through 2008, the last three in the final. The 2006 and 2007 final loses were Federer’s only defeats at a grand slam in those years. Why did Nadal give Federer, the perfect player, such trouble?