August 18, 2012

Goody Proctor, I hereby sentence you to be burned as a witch!

From the Chronicles of Higher Education:
Harvard Sociologist Says His Research Was ‘Twisted’ 
By Tom Bartlett 
Robert D. Putnam’s research is being used to make the case that diversity is bad—and he’s not happy about it. 
The Harvard sociologist, best known for his book Bowling Alone, filed a supporting brief in the lawsuit over race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. 
In the brief, Putnam objects to how his research is characterized in another brief, by Abigail Thernstrom, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard historian, among others (the two Thernstroms, in case you were wondering, are married). 
In the Thernstrom brief, a 2007 paper by Putnam, titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” is cited as evidence that diversity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 
In that paper, Putnam finds that in more diverse neighborhoods, people trust one another less, are less altruistic, and have fewer friends. They keep to themselves, “hunker down,” in his words. Not only do people in diverse neighborhoods trust those who are ethnically different less; they also tend to be less trusting of people who are similar to them. They don’t spend as much time volunteering in their communities, and instead “huddle unhappily in front of the television.” 
They hunker and huddle. 
The Thernstrom brief summarizes those findings by Putnam, but doesn’t note Putnam’s multiple cautions against concluding that this means diversity is mostly bad. 

We've been through this all before. Here's my 2007 American Conservative article Fragmented Future on how Putnam shelved his research results for a half decade while he tried to figure out how to spin them. Putnam's original findings make sense: in, say, the diverse San Fernando Valley, for instance, you don't see much ethnic conflict, just a lot of folks going home, locking the door, and watching TV.

But what caught my eye was Putnam's photo. I don't know how germane this is, but have you ever seen anybody who more resembles a 17th Century New England Puritan? He looks like he's about to get into costume to play a judge in The Crucible. Amusingly, when I Google "Putnam Puritan," up comes the Wikipedia article on the Salem Witch Trials:
The accusation by Ann Putnam Jr. is seen by historians as evidence that a family feud may have been a major cause of the Witch Trials. Salem was the home of a vicious rivalry between the Putnam and Porter families. 

August 17, 2012

Niceness v. Noticing Things

Dwight Garner, the New York Times' fine daily book reviewer, complains about the decline of criticism by critics:
I’m a professional book critic, someone who is paid, week in and week out, to take some of those shots. It’s a job that mostly suits my temperament. I like people — artists and civilians — who aren’t rude or censorious but who aren’t mush-mouthed either. Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture. Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument. ... 
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

The rise of niceness in the literary world has much to do with the rise of women to dominance as consumers and creators of books. Women tend to be nicer than men, more sympathetic, less competitive and more conformist, so there is less of a market these days for bare-knuckle criticism. 

Notice how much of an anomaly Mr. Garner is now as a heterosexual regular guy who likes to write about books. It would be great if more guys like him were interested in books these days, but, sadly, in the 21st Century, video games are just too enthralling.

By the way, this is a good place for a quote a friend sent me from Kingsley Amis's novel Difficulties with Girls, in which a female character explains why she doesn't like novels written by men:
“They never seemed to give you a feeling of what it was like to be a person; to be inside yourself and experience things happening; they just went round noticing things all the time.”

Finland v. Sweden in the Anti-Olympics

Americans love a winner. We like superstars. We have a huge country and our institutions are conducive to the formulation of world-conquering individuals in sports and entertainment. Outside of vicarious pride, though, it's not clear that America's superstaritis does the average American much good, as measured by, say, diabetes rates.

A Swede writes to inform me of a Sweden v. Finland sports competition that sounds pretty cool, although alien to 21st Century America in its emphasis on national victory by the many instead of producing a few superstars.
The annual Track & Field dual meet between Finland and Sweden (Finnkampen in Swedish) can possibly be an explanation as to why Finnish T&F is no longer competitive on a world basis. It is a big thing in sports in both countries - a T&F field meet with generally ho-hum athletes that fills big stadia for 2 days straight in late summer. In Sweden, national TV devotes at least 5 hours coverage - straight, without ads - of each day. 
[Finland has won eight of the last ten on the men's side, and Sweden all ten on the women's side, but the competitions are close. In 2011, 206-194 among the men and 225-182 among women.]

How can that be bad for Finnish T&F at the Olympics?

How you count means a lot - La Griffe has pointed out that by making tests either insanely hard or laughably simple, it is possible to minimize the race gap in school tests. Similar Principle.

The way that is used to calculate which country wins the competition is really good at doing what it is intended to to - be simple to understand to the casual fan, make all results count, provide human interest stories that the journalists can gobble up, and provide excitement.

Here is how it works: All events in the entire T&F olympic program (except decathlon & heptathlon) are contested during the two days. Each country fields 3 athletes in every event. The winner of an event gets 7 points, the #2 gets 5 points, and so on with 4,3,2, and 1 point for last. Athletes that fail to produce a valid result or a disqualified get 0 points. There are no bonus points for anything - nothing extra for national or world records, nothing.  

American high school and college dual meets are typically scored 5 points for first place, 3 for second, and 1 for third, which isn't hugely different, but does mean it's better for the team to have the winner than the second and third place finishers.
Both countries field competitors that are completely team-loyal - there are no primadonnas that put their own race times before the best of the country.

The 7,5,4,3,2,1 points system ensures that all results count, and this makes makes for stories. Since all fans have booklets with all contestants names and Personal Best results, and the emcee really works the crowd, everybody is fascinated by not just who wins, but by who rises to the occasion and does better than expected.

So, it helps to have a lot of nerds in your country who like their spectator sports with large dollops of arithmetic. Electoral Vote forecaster Nate Silver of the 538 blog would love this meet. I would too.
Every year, there is some athlete who was expected to end up last, but managed to beat one guy on the other team, thus giving his team an unexpected point. Since so many of the points are easy to guess beforehand - in many events, the winner is someone who gets invited to bigger meets in Europe, and is head&shoulders over the the rest in both teams - the overall win is often decided on the marginal athletes. These are athletes that struggle to get bronzes in the national championships, and never get sent to International championships. Suddenly, they get thrust onto a field with 40000 wildly cheering fans, who will roar the names of everyone in the right jersey.  Every year, some of those marginals rise to the challenge, and push their team over the magic 231 points. 
Imagine 40 thousand people roaring SAILER! SAILER! SAILER! while you are completely winded, and trying to overtake some guy who is just marginally better than you with 100 meters left of the 10000 meter race - would you be able to wring out that last ounce of power from your aching muscles?

10000 meters? Sounds exhausting. But, yes, I can imagine my responding to the roar of the crowd chanting my name by heroically keeping my face down in the water a little longer to eke out the last few centimeters to finish fifth instead of sixth in the Plunge for Distance. I would totally do that.
Then, when the two days are over, the entire team - over a hundred strong - takes a victory lap, and throw their head coach into the water pit of the steeplechase. The marginals who managed to nab a unexpected point become media darlings for a few days, and those are they guys who are used to being no-names outside their club, and they are often no-names in their local Podunk also. Suddenly, Podunk News has a new hometown hero to write about. Journalists love such stories. Imagine a 3rd-string Rhode Island GOP politician who, by lots of campaingning, manages to get 3 votes in the electoral college for the GOP, thereby reaching 271 votes total.

So, there are approaching 100 men and 100 women representing each year their small countries of five million (Finland) and nine million (Sweden), so, that must mean that most people in the country are within a couple of degrees of separation of somebody working out to make the national team: my aunt's best friend's grandson is a definite contender to represent the homeland in the steeplechase.
Since the event is so important for both federations (both for money and attracting new kids to the sport) they really work to win it, and that means reacting to the dictates of the points system. (This is like teaching to the test!) In order the win this event, there is no marginal utility for the Finnish federation in improving a promising young guy who reliably can beat all three Swedes, but is not a major player on the international scene, to something better. Time, money, and effort is much better spent on improving the national also-rans so that your weakest guy can reliably beat their weakest guy, and possibly beat their #2 if everything comes together and the gods are smiling.

However, what is strategically sensible WRT improving winning probablity in the annual mealticket meet is not a good recipe for maximising Olympic medal count. The great majority of those who compete in the annual meet are not going to amount to anything on the Olympic level - personal best results show that at a glance. Yet, money&resources get shunted from the top-10 who would be possible Olympic contestants to a whole pile of inherently weaker athletes.

To contend for Olympic gold in track, it makes sense to hire Africans to move to your country, the way Portugal won a silver medal in the men's 100 meter dash awhile ago with a Nigerian sprinter, or rich, sedentary Persian Gulf oil states buy Kenyan distance runners. But if hiring a foreign superstar just discourages your native talent from bothering, it can backfire in this kind of competition where it's important to have a whole bunch of regular guy athletes train hard in the hopes not of becoming the new Bruce Jenner and never having to get a real job, but of representing their country in front of thousands of cheering fans once or twice in their lives.
That is probably a significant part of the explanation for why Finnish T&F has retreated on the international scene, together with the emergence of the East-African runners at distances of 800 meters and up.

I know that saying this will possibly get my Republican voter registration torn up, but Americans could learn a thing or two from the Nordics.

August 16, 2012

35 years of feminism -> Governor Schwarzenegger

One of my recurrent themes is that dopey intellectual frameworks can lead to wacky results that are often the opposite of what the dominant thinkers say they want even in purely "Who? Whom?" terms. 

For example, from the end of the 1960s onward, we've been lectured over and over again about feminism, the social construction of gender, the inappropriateness of noticing biological differences between men and women, the nonexistence of instincts, and so forth and so on. 

One of the side effects of this revolution, however, was that it left society intellectually disarmed for dealing with the rise of steroids. In feminist theory, steroids -- biochemical masculinity in a vial -- shouldn't exist. This lacuna meant that society was vulnerable to exploitation by a small number of clear-eyed and self-interested individuals, such as jocks who made themselves ultra-masculine by going on the juice. 

The most remarkable example is of course mucleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, who rode chemically boosted masculinity all the way to being Governor of California. The triumph of Barack Obama is pretty funny, but it's a dry story compared to the all-out absurdity of Governor Schwarzenegger.

By 2003, the triumph of feminist ideology had left Arnold's political enemies with no vocabulary for explaining to voters: Look, don't you get it? Everybody naturally feels the urge to follow manly leaders, and therefore you people want to vote for Schwarzenegger because he seems so much more manly than everybody else. But, he's hoodwinking your natural instincts, he's just injecting himself with artificial male hormones. It's a scam!

But, virtually nobody said it because, after 35 years of feminism, nobody wanted to hear it. So, 35 years of social liberalism in California brought us Governor Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

A rant

I'm reminded of something else I wanted to mention: how fans often don't really notice when there's something odd-looking about some star. Take the example of Dora Ratjen, who came in fourth in the women's high jump in front of (I'm presuming) 80,000 fans in the Berlin Olympics. A couple of years later, a train conductor objected that that the women's world record holder was just a young man in lady's clothing, and so he decided to give up the charade and go by the name Heinrich Ratjen. But it's not like he was hiding out until then.

Or extremely famous people can change their shape radically and it doesn't really come up. For example, Tiger Woods became extremely muscular over a couple of years around age 30 because he was working out like crazy in case he decided to give up golf and enlist in the Navy Seals. Now, that's pretty interesting, but it's not at all clear how many golf fans consciously noticed that the most publicized golfer in history was changing shape from month to month in front of their eyes. When I wrote an article about it in 2009, I did a bunch of Googling and found a lot of pictures, but it just didn't seem to be a topic of written interest to people interested in Tiger Woods.

Or people can be famous for their shapes and it never seems to come up that there's anything doubtful about why they are shaped like that. The craziest example is that in the 2003 California gubernatorial election, the Democrats almost never got around to bringing up the fact that Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was the world's most famous steroid user and that electing him governor of the largest state in the Union was the highest endorsement possible (Arnold being ineligible for the Presidency) to young people of society's approval of building a career on steroids.

It was hardly a secret -- Arnold admitted to steroid use in his autobiography -- and it wasn't some mistake of his foolish past -- he had just been paid $30 million to star in Terminator 3, which was released just days before he started his campaign. Heck, Arnold did a nude scene in Terminator 3 to show off his regained massiveness. I wrote an article a few months before the election pointing all this out. But the Democratic operatives instead mostly went with the sex scandal stuff that they thought would be electoral dynamite: Hollywood star likes the ladies!

This is not to say that the steroid stuff would have hurt Arnold's run for governor, either. No doubt it wouldn't have. Democratic operative Gary South had brought it up the year before. I don't know why so little attention was drawn to it in 2003, when he was obviously back on the juice for Terminator 3: perhaps it didn't poll well. Or it didn't get much traction in 2002 when South faxed around a scandal sheet of sex and steroid stuff.

What's the explanation for this weird phenomenon? I'm reminded of the scene at the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Hunter S. Thompson goes to Circus Circus to buy an ape:
I found Bruce at the bar, but there was no sign of the ape. "Where is it?" I demanded. "I'm ready to write a check. I want to take the bastard back home on the plane with me. I've already reserved two first-class seats -- R. Duke and Son."  
"Take him on the plane?"  
"Hell yes," I said. "You think they'd say anything? Call attention to my son's infirmities?" 

Still, I don't think politeness is the full explanation. Maybe if somebody is presented in a socially approving way, like on TV or in Hitler's Olympic Stadium, people naturally just say to themselves, "Well, of course, that's what people who work out look like. I could probably look like that myself with some exercise."

Also, Hunter S. Thompson was probably onto something with booking first-class seats. He and his pet ape would no doubt get thrown out of coach, but they had a shot in first-class.

Another aspect is access journalism. If you want Tiger Woods on the cover of your magazine ever again, you don't ask him questions about him lifting weights every day ... unless you have a picture of him with a waitress in a parking lot.

Finally, let me come back to my recurrent theme of the inadequacy of tacit understandings. I am constantly being informed that we don't need horrible persons like me pointing out in writing things that we all understand perfectly well on an unspoken level. But it constantly turns out that we don't understand implicit knowledge when framed in a slightly different way. The Obama staffers who can judge what's a safe enough street in gentrifying Washington within a half block just by watching pedestrians stroll by will go back to the office and sue school districts for racial disparities in suspension rates.

The reason I have a relatively good understanding of the impact of PEDs on sports and movies is because in 1996-97 I spent a huge amount of time constructing and analyzing a database of Olympic running results by sex. By the time I was done, this vague hunch I had had that the narrowing of the gender gap after some point in the 1970s was largely due to artificial male hormones having a bigger impact on women was seared into me. I think the media as a whole is slowly catching on to that, finally, but without spelling it out over and over, people don't learn lessons well enough to apply them in slightly novel settings.

Finally, what people do notice are hair cuts. You don't even have to change hair styles, just get a haircut and other people will notice. You can grow a beard for a year, shave it off one evening, then go into work the next day and maybe one person will mention it. But, get your routine haircut, and five people will mention it the next day, even though there's not a lot to be said about it: "Yeah, I uh hadn't gotten a haircut for six or seven weeks, so I uh got one."

August 15, 2012

Why Australia won so many medals in 2000

Remember how Australia won a pot of medals at its Sydney Games in 2000? Remember how part-Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman's 400 meter victory was the biggest deal in the history of the world for about a week in 2000?

So, how much did the Aussies want to win in 2000?

This much:

7 October 1997 
East Germany's chief track and field coach during the era of government-sanctioned steroid abuse was named Australia's head coach today, a move that stunned a German investigator into sports doping. 
Dr. Werner Franke, the German Parliamentary investigator into East German secret police files detailing sports drug abuse, said Dr. Eckhard Arbeit was "a major person responsible for the use of anabolic steroids." 
Arbeit, 56, was head coach for throwing events of the East German track and field team from 1982-88 and chief coach in 1989-90. "At the time he was coach, there were plans of who should take how much drugs and how this should be co-ordinated. All that was his responsibility," Franke told The Associated Press on Wednesday by telephone from Germany.

After a few weeks of controversy, the Aussies fired Arbeit. But think of his hiring as a leading indicator of how much the Australian sports authorities wanted to win.

As far as I can tell, Arbeit has been employed since 2007 with the South African track team.

Now, Australia has been a sports-oriented country for a long time, although it didn't win a lot of Olympic medals until after WWII. Then it did well until 1976, when its number of gold medals dropped from 8 in 1972 to 0 in 1976, probably due in large part to the rise of the East German women, which was not looked upon favorably in Australia. So, the appointment of the former coach of the East German lady shotputters as head of the Australian track & field team was a sign of pretty serious intent to Do What It Takes.

I don't want to rag too much on Australia. It's more like, jeez, even Australia, with all its traditional advantages and virtues in sports feels compelled to hire the guy who must have been number one on their list of cheaters they loathed, well ...

Beer Summit

From the Washington Post:
For Obama, hoppy days are here again
President Obama has been talking about beer on the campaign trail — a lot. And it’s no accident that he’s pushing the everyman’s drink to the independent crowd whose vote he needs.

I like the look on Obama's face. It's like he's trying hard to remember: 
"What is that witticism one says about beer? ... Now I remember! 'It's a naive domestic pilsener without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption.' Yes, that apothegm will surely sway the downwardly mobile upper working class demographic I need. ... Good God, look at this creature to my right imbibe! I shall need the Secret Service to peel her off me before I'm halfway done with this swill. ... Oh dear, I've once more neglected to curl my pinky. The focus groups shan't be pleased."

Now, I actually would bet against the idea that the President's internal monolog sounds like Anna's son in The King and I, but it would be funny if it did. In fact, there are a lot of things about the President that could be pretty funny, but he's been treated as the national humor singularity for the last five years, with nothing escaping the event horizon of unfunnyness erected about him.

Awareness Must Be Raised

The New York Times alerts us to an overlooked crisis:
Gay Male Comics Await the Spotlight
COULD James Adomian become the first man to break through as an openly gay stand-up star? 
The thought popped into my head as he performed last month in front of an almost entirely male audience at the Rockbar, on Christopher Street. In a hat, with a confident, wry smile and a thin mustache, Mr. Adomian, whose debut album “Low Hangin Fruit” (Earwolf) was released on Monday, is a casually handsome ...

and so forth and so on. 

Yet, there have long been out gay male comedians -- collecting stereotypes for my 1994 National Review article "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay" was helped along by watching gay stand-ups on TV. A retired gay male comedian named Bob Smith writes in to point out: Hey, I was a star back in the day!
It would have been nice if the reporter did a little research. The NY Times gave a rave review to my HBO special on July 14, 1994. I appeared on The Tonight Show, The Late Late Show, Politically Incorrect and Tom Snyder. There is a whole group of out gay male comics who were out in the 80's. My HBO special is still played on HBO. I have ALS and had to stop performing in 2010. This article is shockingly uninformed.

In fact, I remember Smith's HBO special. I liked his melonballer joke. From the NYT:
TELEVISION REVIEW; How Many Gay Comics Does It Take to Do 2 Shows?
Published: July 14, 1994 
Gay and lesbian standup comics are not exactly new to prime time. ... Mr. Smith is no doubt more accessible to general audiences. As an amiable, sort of boy-next-door type, he chats easily about growing up in Buffalo, in a very conservative Roman Catholic family. He plays with stereotypes that, of course, are molded from truth. He says that he knew early on that he was a gay kid, slyly confiding that "my treehouse had a breakfast nook." Even as a Boy Scout, he swears, his Swiss Army knife had a melon baller and a garlic press.

Likewise, the omnipresent Ellen Degeneres is, obviously, a lesbian, and Eddie Izzard, a major stand-up star, is a transvestite. And a famous stand-up once got arrested with a transvestite hooker in his car, but maybe he just forgot to wear his glasses. 

But, if you draw a Venn Diagram of superduperstarness, homosexuality, maleness, and outness, you evidently don't find anybody in the intersection of those four circles, so Awareness Must Be Raised. 

Granted, stand-up comedy is a brutally competitive field requiring a notoriously thick skin and constant low-budget travel. If there aren't a lot of extremely funny gay male stand-ups, maybe it's because it's easier for a gay male to get ahead in more attractive careers, such as acting. Maybe what stand-up comedy needs to stop being so discriminatory against gays is more casting couches.

One unasked question is whether gays are losing their competitive edge because they have become such a sacred cow in contemporary America that they are getting soft from lack of criticism. For example, the tone of this article sounds like it's written about competitors in the Special Olympics rather than about competitors in one of the most unforgiving fields in entertainment.

India > Finland in Olympic medals

I have been pointing out since 2000 that India has been terrible at winning Olympic medals, and this seems to have been the first year that that idea has penetrated the general media consciousness. 

On the other hand, India is improving, from one medal per Olympics to a half dozen this year. In contrast, Finland, a former Olympic superpower, has fallen off a cliff from their glory days, down to three medals, none gold, this year. 

It's hard to overstate how good Finland, despite its small population and near poverty, was at the Olympics from 1912 (when it was still a part of the Russian empire) up through 1956. It finished second in total medals at the well-attended 1924 Paris Olympics and was regularly in the top half dozen countries. They have a total of 300 medals in the Summer Olympics (and 151 in the Winter Olympics), and after the 2008 games one web page calculated they were tops all time in medals per capita. (This kind of calculation is sensitive to where you draw the bottom cutoff to keep out, say, very small countries with a single medal.)

The Finns pretty much invented "scientific" running: Paavo Nurmi was famous for running, no matter what the opposition was doing, with a stopwatch in his hand at whatever pace he'd calculated would win. Then, on the last lap, he's toss the stopwatch on the infield grass and sprint to gold. He'd then stroll over and pick up his stopwatch and go get ready for the next event he'd win.

This national obsession with fitness helped Finland avoid complete conquest by the Soviets in the 1939-40 Winter War, which was largely an aerobically-exhausting fight of infantry in thick snow. When people talk about how awful nationalism is in the Olympics, I'd respond by pointing to Finnish nationalism. Finland is a peaceful and prosperous nation that has only been independent for 95 years. Their remarkable record in the Olympics when a new country probably helped build national unity. 

But, in 1960, their medal haul dropped into the single digits, only climbing above that in the boycotted 1984 games. A non-Finn reader speculates: 
My guess is that they are not a country with much sports diversity. Previously (until 1936) they were a superpower in T&F, especially in middle and long distance and javelin. In middle and long distance running, the east africans came and ate their lunch. They had no male javelin finalist this year, while Kenya, of all places, had one. He had trained a lot in Finland, though. A look at the wiki page of Finnish medalists since 1992 shows that most of those have medaled in old sports. In recent years, the games have diversified a lot by adding a lot of new events, but Finland has not helped itself to those opportunities, by and large. The 2nd most medaling sport for Finland is wrestling, but there they have been losing out to a growing importance of countries in the area that formerly was covered by either the old Persian Empire or Ottoman Empire.

The common theme of those events is that it is easy - conceptually - to dope for them, and Finland is probably not willing to compete in that regard.

The last superstar Olympic Finn was distance runner Lasse Viren in the 1970s who was subject to numerous allegations that he would have some of his blood stored during the off-season then would get topped off with a pint or two right before the Olympics.
Also, none of those sports pay anything unless you reach Olympic medalist status, and not all that much even then. Until the 60ies, when a lot of Finns were poor, it made sense to train hard in the off chance that the training provided a way out of the cold farm. Look at Michigan upper peninsula - a lot of finns emigrated there, and it is the only place in USA where finns dominate. It is also a cold place, and the agricultural land is not bountiful. Now, Finland itself is to a great part even bleaker. Do a google pic search of Finland before 1960. Now, Finland has undergone a huge economic leap forward, so it makes more sense to study for getting into Nokia rather than to escape the farm. That economic logic is not there for a Kenyan runner or Taijik wrestler.

Finland would do well by following the British lead. GB had their best games. medal-wise, since 1908. GB performed exceedingly well in Equestrian, rowing, and a few other sports. The commong thing about those 2 sports is that they cost quite a bit to compete in, so there are significant barriers which limit competition from poorer countries.

Finland has the sports mix of a poor country, with a 5 million population, and rich people. That is not a good combination if one wants to amass a lot of medals.

So, my guess is that modern Finns are too rich to go in all out for poor man's sports and too recently poor to think it a great idea to spend a lot of tax or charitable money on piling up medals in rich man's sports.

A Ryder Cup for basketball?

David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, is dissatisfied with Olympic basketball. Either the U.S. wins, which is pretty boring because it ought to win easily, or it loses. 

A reader comments:
By the way, given the closeness of the Spain / US basketball final, a match between an EU all star team (comprised of players from any of the EU countries) against the US team should be organized. There is a very good chance that predominantly white EU all star team would indeed spank the predominantly black US team.

The Ryder Cup in golf is organized that way, with twelve top U.S. players taking on twelve E.U. players every two years. Golf is an individual sport, and the chance to play as a team adds a lot of excitement. The U.S. team usually looks better on paper, but the E.U. is 8-4-1 going back through 1985. A lot of theories have been offered to explain this, such as that the Europeans play better as a team, but none seem conclusive.

Here's a proposal for Stern: A three game tournament of the stars of U.S. v. the stars of Europe (don't restrict it to the E.U., because unlike in golf, good European basketball players can be found in non-E.U. countries like Serbia). Hold it whenever it is in the interests of the NBA, such as a few weeks into training camp.

The first game in Barcelona (or other touristy, basketball-oriented European cities), the second in New York (or Chicago or L.A.), the third game, if necessary, in neutral court Shanghai. Ka-ching!

August 14, 2012

The Last Hurdle

From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
I turned on the TV and saw a new reality show with an intriguing premise: How big of a head start does a white woman need to outrun a black man? While skinny women frantically raced toward the finish line, a muscular black youth sportingly spotted them a 30-meter lead, then accelerated effortlessly and overtook all but the most desperately striding Russian woman. 
But this turned out to be the Olympic 800-meter race for women, even though the silver medalist, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, is built like an LSU cornerback. 

Read the whole thing there.

August 13, 2012

Vijay Amritraj on Indians and sports

The role of role models in a country's sports success is a curious one. For example, it is regularly explained that Korean lady golfer Se Ri Pak's victory in the U.S. Women's Open in 1998 at Blackwolf Run set off South Korean dominance in women's golf. Presumably, that's true, but the thought, "I hope I grow up to be just like Se Ri Pak" doesn't strike me as hugely galvanizing. But I guess I'm missing something.

On the other hand, there are the role models without followers. When tennis on TV suddenly became wildly popular in the early 1970s, one of the prominent names was dashing Indian sportsman Vijay Amritraj. He never won a Grand Slam tournament, but he won some tour events, and he played many a hard-fought match in the Grand Slam against legends like Laver, Rosewall, Borg, Connors, and McEnroe. (Here are video highlights of his five set victory over Bjorn Borg in the 1974 U.S. Open.)

He had a long, fun career as captain of India's not-bad Davis Cup team, and was a regular on the international celebrity circuit, even appearing in a James Bond movie. He generally gave the impression that he was having a blast. I presumed there would be more like him in the future. Obviously, most Indians are too poor for sports, but the top 2 or 3 percent in India are as numerous as the entire population of Australia, so it hardly seemed unlikely 39 years ago that there would be more well-known Indian tennis players following Amritraj and his brother.

Recently, Amritraj said ESPN on why there aren't many prominent Indian athletes four decades after he made his mark: "Indians mature late physically and early mentally while people in the West mature early physically and late mentally."

I don't know how true that is, but it does fit with the career of Vijay Singh, the Indian golfer from Fiji, who pushed Tiger Woods out of #1 in 2004-2005, when in his 40s. Singh won more PGA tournaments after his 40th birthday than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus combined. 

Olympic basketball final: 40 million white Spaniards 100/107th as good as 40 million black Americans

But 200 million white Americans can only produce Kevin Love.

Josh Levin has an article in Slate about how the American Dream Team had to play good basketball to get by Spain in the final game 107-100, because the Spanish team is now full of genuine NBA talents, like the 7' Gasol brothers (plus an African import, Serge Ibaka). Back in 1992, in contrast, the first Dream Team only had to face four guys in the Olympics who had yet made an impact in the NBA.

So, what is going on with white American basketball players? Why are they getting worse relative to black American basketball players while white Spanish basketball players are getting better?

This is an interesting question that has lots of lessons for How the World Works because it's taking place right before our eyes on a big stage. It would seem like a textbook example for studying the concept of Disparate Impact, but nobody seems to be terribly interested.

One reason is that Spaniards got taller -- Spain was a pretty beaten down country for a long time, and then it got normally prosperous. It can take a couple of generations for height to catch up, and the Spanish appear to be pretty good at big money sports these days like soccer, tennis, and basketball.

A commenter rejects the notion that white American NBA players aren't very good anymore:
I would go as far as saying that if USA fielded two segregated teams, we would finish Gold and Silver. The two deep below would be tough to beat by any nation in this years tourney. They all started NBA games last season.

PG: Kirk Heinrich, Jimmer Fridette
SG: Steve Novak, JJ Redick
SF: Ryan Anderson, Gordon Heyward
PF: Kevin Love, Tyler Hansborough
C: David Lee, BJ Mullens 

Well, maybe, but could the NBA's 2012 Euro-American All-Stars even beat the six best white guys on the 1986 Boston Celtics? Boston went 67-15 and 15-3 in the playoffs with a top eight rotation of six white guys, plus Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson (who were very good but not great). The six main white Celtics were Larry Bird (league MVP that year), Kevin McHale (21 ppg, 8 rpg, 2 bpg, .574 shooting percentage), Bill Walton (Sixth Man of the year), Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman, and Jerry Sichting.

I'm an old fogey, but my guess would be that the the white Celtics of 1986 would kill the white NBA stars of 2012 for as long as Walton could stay on the court. Let the 1986 white Celtics have the 1986 Bill Laimbeer (led league in rebounding) to help out and it wouldn't be close.

August 12, 2012

Spanish-surnamed U.S. medal winners: 5 out of 208

Here's the kind of statistic that nobody else counts: on NBC's list of 208 American Olympic medal winners, I find five Spanish surnames, or 2.4%. That's compared to approaching 20% of the relevant age cohort is Spanish-surnamed.

1. Leo Manzano won the silver in the men's 1500m run, which is traditionally a glamor event

2. Women's water polo veteran Brenda Villa won a gold  -- As a loyal California, I've tried hard to like water polo, but it's not much of a TV sport, to say the least.

3. Marlen Esparza won a bronze in women's boxing - no comment

4. Danell Leyva, a Cuban, won a medal in men's gymnastics all-around, which is cool. Men's gymnastics is awesome (here's Epke Zonderland's triple release routine), although it lacks the car-crash fascination of women's gymnastics.

5. Amy Rodriguez, who is a Cameron Diaz-style half Cuban, won a gold with women's soccer.

A bunch of other medal-winners with non-Hispanic surnames are part Hispanic, such as swimmer Ryan Lochte, whose mother is Cuban, and basketball player Carmelo Anthony whose mother is Puerto Rican. But, if you sum up all the fractions, it comes out to about the same thing as just counting surnames.

This is a particularly low percentage because Californians are traditionally so over-represented on the U.S. Olympic team.

Anyway, this points out a theme that I've been bringing up for a decade or more, which is the remarkable lack of high achievers among the Hispanic Tidal Wave. 

Lady high jumpers

Here is Russian high jumper Anna Chicherova praying for a gold medal yesterday. Not surprisingly, God couldn't resist.

Chicherova is 30 years old and took 2010 off to have a baby with her sprinter husband. She is listed at 5'11 and 126 pounds.

And here's the great war and sports photographer George Silk's classic Life magazine picture of Swedish high jumper Gunhild Larking sulking at the 1956 Olympics. She finished sixth. Silk shot two rolls and some of the other pictures are even more flattering.

High jumping in the past was kind of nuts since they didn't have modern airbags to land on, much like pole vaulting remains a pretty crazy sport today. (Here's Buster Keaton trying out for the 1925 USC track team in College by jumping a 5' bar into a sawdust pit. Keaton, a remarkable athlete, only needed a stunt double for the pole vaulting scene.) Future singer Johnny Mathis was invited to the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials as a high jumper, but he passed it up for a tryout for a recording contract because, as he later explained, going up was fun but coming down hurt.

Larking was listed as 5'8" and 123 pounds. Apparently, upper body muscularity is not very important in high jumping. This was also long the presumption regarding sprinting. I can recall reading with bafflement the Sports Illustrated cover story in 1987 about Ben Johnson's 100m dash world record as it tried to explain why Johnson's new found (and rather grotesque) body builder-style upper body helped him go faster. 

One question I've seldom seen addressed is the relationship between elongation, elegance, and social class. Why do we assume that long and lean is classy? Why are femme fatales in film noirs long-legged rather than voluptuous?

Obviously, the well-fed tend to grow taller, but, all else being equal, they also tend to grow wider, in the manner of J.P. Morgan. (My father, born in 1917, referred to the rich as "the fat cats," and was unimpressed by my pointing out that rich people these days jogged more than poor people.) 

So this apparent correlation between elongation and higher social class remains curious.

My guess would be that it's related to this tendency for girls to stop growing at puberty. Thus, taller women tend to have reached sexual maturity later, which is useful in making high class marriages. Aristocratic girls who got knocked up by the groom before they can be married off to the prince tend to not have a lot of aristocratic offspring. So, there could be a selection process that leads to higher class people getting more elongated until such point as they aren't robust enough to maintain their class privileges.

Incidentally, Larking found out after the Olympics that she was already pregnant and retired from athletics.