Saturday, August 16, 2014

People who are better than you

Athletes are dumb, right? And sure, doctors may be smart, but all they have is a very specialized intelligence. Am I right, people?

Of course these statements are sometimes quite true, but often I think we shot them to make ourselves feel better about not measuring up. Athletes ("jocks") and high IQ folks detonate our insecurities, so we remind ourselves they MUST be deficient in other areas. Conveniently, the "important" areas where we claim to excel. I mean, you can't be athletic AND smart. No way: every smart kid got picked last in gym class! Haven't you ever watched an A&E Biography?

Unfortunately for those who excel in nothing, these truisms ain't universal. Many people whose talents are in the 1% distinguish themselves in several domains.

David Robinson

Robinson scored a 1320 on the SAT (before you could use calculators), and entered the elite United States Naval Academy, where he majored in mathematics. He couldn't continue in the Navy because he grew too tall for ships and planes. No really.

Oh...and that was before he joined the NBA, where he was a 10-time All Star and league MVP. In fact, one of the criticisms he faced during his career was that he lacked the psychopathic competitiveness of Jordan and Bird because his interests and talents outside of basketball were too wide-ranging.

You'll notice Tony Parker didn't seduce Robinson's wife. Probably afraid Robinson would trap him in a mad scientist torture device (No Mr. Parker, I expect you to die).

Eric Heiden

Won five speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Olympics...before he decided to attend medical school (to became an orthopedic surgeon). And just to keep himself busy after retiring from skating, he also won the U.S. Professional Cycling Championship. So not only did he dominate speed athletics; he dominated endurance athletics. And he became a doctor, a different kind of dream that many have but few can attain.

Heiden probably saves a lot on medical costs; how many athletes do you know who can operate on themselves?

Kris Kristofferson

After being a college athlete who got a mention in Sports Illustrated, Kristofferson became a Rhodes Scholar, and while at Oxford received a Blue award in boxing. Most would have stopped there and spent the rest of their life telling everyone at the bar for the 9 millionth time that they were an egghead who could punch.

Not Kris. He joined the military, where he attended Ranger School and became a helicopter pilot.

He still wasn't done embarrassing the rest of us.

He took up song writing; writing big hits like "Me and Bobby McGee" and "For the Good Times". Then he recorded some big hits for himself; becoming a heartthrob in the process. Then he became a respectable actor in some big time feature films.

We'd better hope Kristofferson never takes up artificial intelligence or we'll all be replaced by robots within six months.

Michael Crichton

Let's see, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard; later went to med school there. That alone supersedes the achievements of most everyone.

Begins writing novels; several become blockbuster bestsellers whose components - Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park - make their way into the vernacular.

Starts directing films. You know how everyone - actors, writers - talk about directing but it never happens or it happens and ends in tragedy? Crichton actually did it, and one of those films -Westworld (the first feature with CGI, also scripted by Crichton) - was a critical and commercial hit that spawned a sequel. Another film, Coma, this time an adapted workwas also a hot success.

In 1994, a TV show named ER hit the airwaves. Crichton created it. The Andromeda Strain was published in 1969. ER came 25 years a later, and was also a sensation. Not only did the man have mega success in print, film, and television; he managed to have mega success in multiple decades. Think about how different the entertainment landscape was in '69 vs. '94. Yet MC threaded the needle.

It's rare for a writer to stay relevant in publishing for many decades*, let alone relevant in several other mediums (did I mention Crichton also created a successful computer game). Anyone remember Peter Blatty? Peter Benchley? Apparently writers named Peter have short shelf-lives...

Crichton's only mistakes: getting married five times and collecting abstract art. I guess he had to do something wrong just to entertain himself.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Not just the most successful bodybuilder ever; the ONLY iconic bodybuilder. I rather doubt my mother has heard of Joe Weider.

Outside of iron pumping, Arnold becomes a prosperous entrepreneur in multiple fields.

Then he tries his hand at Hollywood acting, and becomes one of the biggest actors in the world and sustains it for a couple decades. And he manages this despite a thick Austrian accent. How many blockbuster Hollywood actors can you name who have deep continental European accents? Austrian accents do not make people all warm and gooey inside the way British accents do (quite the opposite). So here you have someone with the most hated kind of accent ascending from bodybuilding to acting to...

...politics. He makes his first foray into politics and gets elected Governor of California, the 8th largest economy in the world, AS A REPUBLICAN! Everyone laughs about it...hahahaha, he's The Governator now. Guess what: Governator got reelected. Arnold was such an unstoppable force that the only thing that could stop him was himself.

*Stephen King has stayed relevant and exceptional. But when he tried to direct, the result was Maximum Overdrive; which he has repeatedly ridiculed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Nixon-Kennedy: Out with the old, in with the almost as old

JFK's oft-celebrated youth is one of the reasons he became a teen idol. Unlike ancient Eisenhower, Kennedy didn't look like a guy with breath like Tutankhamen's, and wasn't known to be as fragile (though he was quite fragile). What better symbol of the dawning of America's dominance in the world than a nubile chap as young and vibrant as our country was said to be.

Ointment, meet fly: Nixon was only four years older (and far more physically capable than the infirm Kennedy), yet the way the 1960 election is discussed you'd think Nixon was old enough to have been best man at Henry VIII's first wedding.

Not so with Kennedy; he probably used a fake ID! He may as well have ridden a surfboard into office. Youth man, that's what JFK was about. I mean, the hit music of Nixon's youth was soooo Duke Ellington, while the hit music of Kennedy's youth was, uh, also Duke Ellington...

Kennedy and Nixon were so close in age their lives overlap. Nixon was in law school at the same time Kennedy was entering Harvard. Both were in WWII. Both won their first election the same year. But even today, with the zeal of Kennedymania five decades behind us, the Kennedy youth narrative of that election endures, facts schmacts.

But even if 47-year-old Nixon had beaten 43-year-old Kennedy, it still wouldn't have been a standout occurrence. There were several under-50 Presidents:

Teddy Roosevelt assumed office at 42 after McKinley intercepted a bullet, but was elected in his own right at an embryonic 46.
Grant was 46
Cleveland was 47 (one of the very few non-prostitutes to become President)
Pierce was 48
Polk was 49
Garfield was 49.

Not shocking no one noticed this. To most people history started yesterday. They vote for politicians the same way the vote for laundry detergent.

In some areas Nixon was closer to the image of the new, vibrant America. He was a social and economic outsider who gnawed his way into elite circles. Kennedy was...well, a Kennedy. If his blood were any bluer he'd look like Veruca Salt.

Nixon was from California; a then emerging locus of power in America. "Young, vibrant, new blood" Kennedy was from Massachusetts; America's Old World.

You can't even say Kennedy was a fresher face in politics; they'd been in office the same length of time.

The punchline is you're only as old as you make people think you are; not even Wikipedia can outrun a narrative.*

*The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concerns a politician and is the finest dramatization of the power of narratives I've seen.

My Twitter feed is old and new and borrowed and blue:

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Are we nearing WWIII?

Says The Atlantic:

Instability in Ukraine, chaos in Syria, conflict in the East China Sea—the trigger points for World War III are in place.

Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states. Their ambition to gain, retain, and project power is never sated. Optimism, toward which Americans are generally inclined, leads to rash predictions of history’s ending in global consensus and the banishment of war. Such rosy views accompanied the end of the Cold War. They were also much in evidence a century ago, on the eve of World War I.
Then, as now, Europe had lived through a long period of relative peace, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, too, rapid progress in science, technology, and communications had given humanity a sense of shared interests that precluded war, despite the ominous naval competition between Britain and Germany. Then, too, wealthy individuals devoted their fortunes to conciliation and greater human understanding. Rival powers fumed over provocative annexations, like Austria-Hungary’s of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, but world leaders scarcely believed a global conflagration was possible, let alone that one would begin just six years later. The very monarchs who would consign tens of millions to a murderous morass from 1914 to 1918 and bury four empires believed they were clever enough to finesse the worst.
The unimaginable can occur. That is a notion at once banal and perennially useful to recall. Indeed, it has just happened in Crimea, where a major power has forcefully changed a European border for the first time since 1945.

I could write an identical article about the trigger points of the late ‘90s.
The late '90s saw the onset of a technological revolution – the Internet – which launched a wave of prosperity and a far greater ability for nations and cultures to integrate. Velvet Revolutions were fresh in the memory. The Evil Empire had fallen. Happy days abounded.
Then in ’98, Russia, whose relatively new openness to the world was on very shaky legs, defaulted on its debt and slid into crisis. The default had a contagion effect that stung Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine (where they experienced the kind of hyperinflation that causes revolutions).
Other countries in that neighborhood – Romania, Hungary - were also still on very shaky legs after emerging from the fog of totalitarianism. Oh, and there was that whole Yugoslav chaos in the background. NATO eventually intervened in Kosovo, less than a year after Russia's default, the same NATO H.W. Bush promised wouldn’t expand towards Russia (oops)!
So many former enemies quaking with turmoil, so many people whose point of reference was authoritarianism suddenly feeling tumult and desperation during their transition to relative freedom. Perfect petri dish for a widespread rise of STRONG MEN. Perfect breeding ground for authoritarianism, revolution, and warfare that ripples and ripples. OH MY GOD THE END WAS NIGH!
Things were bleak, but WWIII didn’t happen. Of course it CAN happen; it can ALWAYS happen, but  pieces like these (which have been everywhere this year) are closer to cold reading than they are to political analysis. People didn't talk like this in '98 because it wasn't the centennial anniversary of the War to End All Wars.

Right now I’m not as worried about the rise of nationalism as I am about the rise of commentaries (and documentaries) that cause the impressionable to spot WWI and WWII analogies around every corner.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All Crises are Local

You go to parties, right? You know what it's like when you're making the rounds:

First you talk to a scientist. The scientist tells you that there isn't enough funding for his specialty. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Then you talk to a music teacher. She tells you there isn't enough funding for music in schools. She says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

Next you talk to a cop. He tells you his hands are tied when it comes to investigating crimes. He says it's a serious problem, and the public doesn't even know about it!

If every sector of human endeavor was as badly off as these types of conversations make it appear, human endeavor would cease entirely. If everyone worked in a field that was in crisis, nothing would function. See, because everyone thinks their interests and pursuits are extremely important, anything they consider awry with those pursuits to them constitutes a grave, MUSHROOMING crisis. Makes sense; we are all our own little sun that the rest of reality revolves around. We're more crestfallen by our personal setbacks than by anything Hitler cooked up.

Much is made of the power of anecdotes; not enough is made of the power of telling anecdotes. The more opportunity we have to reveal the plight of our work field to strangers (particularly those unaffiliated with that work field), the easier it is for us to believe its problems are uniquely dire and underappreciated. People are more skeptical of statistics than they are of anecdotes - including the anecdote teller. You seldom hear - even from scientists - hard data being tossed around at parties.

Holocausting haberdasher Harry Truman said it well: It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours. All crises are local.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is New York America's Unhappiest City?

New York, America’s unhappiest city

New York City has been declared America’s unhappiest city by researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard.

The paper, “Unhappy Cities,” leaned on survey data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that asked respondents: “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

Researchers then tweaked that data for control factors such as race, education, marital status and family size. They concluded that New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Milwaukee and Detroit are, in that order, America’s least happy cities.

Envy contributes indefatigably to unhappiness, and it is difficult to avoid envy in New York. I don’t subscribe to the idea that neighborhoods with diverse incomes generally make people happier. When you’re in a building with kingly penthouses and you’re in a claustrophobic studio – like my last apartment – you really see up close how the other class lives. In Manhattan at least, those situations are common. It is much easier to keep up with the Joneses when the Joneses are a fellow suburban neighbor with a lifestyle roughly the same as yours. Subdivisions don't usually have a McMansion next door to a Steinbeckian shack.
A lot of people move here to build an identity, to reinvent themselves as winners. They don't just come to be a lawyer, they come to be a New York lawyer. Many of these transplants were large fish in cramped ponds. They arrive and suddenly realize that in Manhattan they’re just average (or worse). They're whole scheme to be the crème de la crème goes sour, and overachievers don’t take underachievement well. They probably would have been happier staying in Omaha, being the best lawyer in town and sucking on a small regret about what might have been in New York (and telling themselves, and probably believing it, that they would have conquered New York). 
Those who do try to keep up with the manic Manhattan competition do so at the expense of health and social lives, which of course begets unhappiness. Those competing in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx have a hard time even saying they're in the competition (Staten Island is actually a floating car dealership).
A city with a lot of dreamers is going to have a lot of broken dreams.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Assassination is a young man's game

Two things you don't see often in this life: Bon vivants who listen to the Cure and middle-aged assassins.

Czolgosz was 28 when he killed President McKinley.

Gavrilo Princip was 19 when he killed Archduke Ferdinand.

Hinckley was 25 when he shot Reagan.

Yigal Amir was 25 when he killed Yitzhak Rabin.

Wilkes Booth was 26 when he killed Lincoln.

Lynette Fromme was 26 when she tried to kill Gerald Ford.

Arthur Bremer was 22 when he shot George Wallace (Travis Bickle was partly modeled on Bremer*).

Sirhan Sirhan was 24 when he killed RFK.

Mehmet Ali Agca was 23 when he shot Pope John Paul II.

Mohammad Bokharaei was all of 17 when he killed Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur.

If Stefan Wisniewski killed Germany's Attorney General Siegfried Buback, he did it the day before his 24th birthday.

Giuseppe Zangara was 32 when he killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while attempting to shoot FDR.

Truman's failed assassins were 36 and 20.

van der Graaf, who was 32 when he killed Pim Fortuyn, was an elder statesman of the assassination racket.

Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry was also long in the tooth, being almost 35 when he tried killing De Gaulle.

The reason assassins are usually mere babes (particularly when it comes to random "lone gunmen"): is obvious: Young people are romantic, and only a pie-in-the-sky romantic sacrifices himself to commit a murder that in 99% of cases alters very little. If the killing of Franz Ferdinand led the way to WWI, it was the exception.

People in their 40s and 50s might care about politics, but in addition to being less romantic about the world they usually also have more to live for; kids, spouses, mistresses, etc. A 22-year-old guy is living for beer and Transformers 5; hardly impenetrable walls against foolish revolution attempts.

Even when assassinations involve teamwork the organizations behind them normally rely on wide-eyed youngsters to commit the actual violence. The heads of these organizations know it ain't easy getting a boomer to try a low percentage act of terror that will change nothing and end with his facing a firing squad.

When you're young you feel much more strongly about revenge; even if it is macro revenge, the kind you take against political figures. Plus young folks are more likely to harbor a sense of destiny; they compare themselves to Great Ones much more often than oldies. Someone who thinks he's destined for greatness is going to be far more inclined to TAKE ONE FOR HISTORY.

By the time you're older you're more aware that nothing changes. This is why young people, including the non-assassins, do most of the marching and screaming. They're too young to know no one is listening.

*Behind every would-be "great man" is a woman who said no.