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Thursday, February 27, 2014

A billionaire's arrest

When I mentioned to my son a couple days ago that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman had finally been caught, he responded, "Yeah, I know. I just hope they show pictures of his houses on the newscasts. You know, just so people can see that crime doesn't pay."

Dollar portraits

I was just testing myself this morning, realizing how poor my powers of observation were regarding whose portrait was on which dollar denomination.

I knew Washington was on the one dollar bill, Lincoln on the five, and Jackson on the twenty. But I actually drew a blank on Hamilton being on the ten. I guessed (correctly) that Grant was on the fifty and knew that Franklin was on the hundred.

But I had entirely forgotten that there was such a thing as a two dollar bill (Jefferson), and I couldn't name the face on any denominations beyond one hundred.

Here they are, in order:

$500: William McKinley
$1000: Grover Cleveland
$5000: James Madison
$10,000: Salmon P. Chase
$100,000: Woodrow Wilson

Salmon P. Chase, who lived form 1808 to 1873, served as Senator from Ohio, the 23rd Governor of Ohio, Treasury Secretary under Lincoln, and the Sixth Chief Justice of the United States. That's a pretty illustrious career.

Even more embarrassing than that I hadn't been able to name all the people was that I hadn't even known how distinguished Chase was. (I had just assumed he was a Treasury Secretary.)

You have to wonder how many $100,000 bills are in circulation, and what they're used for. It would seem awfully risky to have that much money wrapped up in one little piece of flammable paper. (What if it just happened to fall out of your pocket?) One would think that any transactions involving that kind of money would be done through checks, or electronic transfers.

I can't imagine walking into the local grocery store and saying, "I'll take a gallon of milk, four sticks of butter, and one of those packages of gum over there. Oh, by the way, you got change for a hundred thou?"

The only people I can see really finding a use for the $100,000 bill -- or even its poor cousin, the $10,000 bill -- are big time drug dealers.

This is what $200 million in smaller denominations looks like (picture courtesy of a busted Mexican drug kingpin):

Obviously, it's a bit much to lug around. Imagine how much more convenient it would be to get paid for your thousand kilos of uncut heroin with cash that would fit inside a briefcase. The only problem would be getting your money back into circulation. It might arouse suspicion.

Still, it's sort of cool to know such bills exist. I'm sure I'll never see one in my lifetime, and just as well. The only circumstances in which I would see one -- other than in, say, a museum -- would probably be scary ones.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Was Nelson Mandela part Bushman?

Yesterday's post on leadership reminded me of something I thought every time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela: that he looked as much Bushman as Bantu. Mandela was born into a Thembu royal family, and the Thembu are a Bantu tribe (almost all African-Americans are of Bantu descent).

But Mandela himself looked as if he had Khoi-san (Bushman) ancestry:

Here are some pictures of Bushmen, who are a distinct ethnic group:

Mandela has the same almost exaggerated cheekbones, round face, barely visible eyebrows, and hooded eyes of a Bushman. The Thembu were a southern African tribe, so it's certainly not inconceivable that some admixture occurred.

The original Boer settlers in South Africa were reportedly awed by the Bushmen's endurance, patience, courage, and tracking ability.

If Mandela did in fact have some Bushmen ancestry, that might partially explain his patience and fortitude.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Human nature the same at Goldman

It's always gratifying to be proven right: I had guessed last May that the Goldman Sachs elevator tweeter was just making those quotes up. On May 4th, I linked some of the quotes, and said:

I highly doubt that these quotes were actually overheard in the elevator there; they sound much more like some writer's conception of how people who have successfully devoted their lives to making money must talk. I worked there for twelve years, and the people I knew there were just not this witty. Plus, anybody overheard boasting this way would probably have been fired.

Then, on May 5th, I quoted some of the funnier (harsher) things I'd actually heard while at Goldman, and added: 

I still doubt that the so-called overheard-in-the-elevator quotes are real, since most of them are more macroeconomic, so to speak, about general differences between the rich and the poor, which is generally not what Goldman workers talk about on a daily basis. They, like corporate employees everywhere, are far more likely to talk about what happened at the office that day, or how much they dislike a particular coworker.

Sure enough, this morning The NY Times revealed his identity: John Lefevre, who never worked at Goldman. All of those supposed quotes were merely the product of his fevered imagination.

The entire time I worked at Goldman I heard maybe two or three general comments about how it was better to be rich. People at Goldman, like corporate employees everywhere, just don't make the kind of sweeping pronunciamentos the infamous Tweeter attributed to them.

They were far more likely to discuss intra-office politics, or how much they resent a colleague, or the girl in another department whom they want to screw, or how much they had to drink the night before, or the stupid thing someone on their desk said that day, or their golf game, or their children, or the fortunes of the Knicks. If they were going to boast about their money, they would do it obliquely, by mentioning a vacation house they were thinking about buying, or their new car.

In other words, they talked about the same stuff, in the same way, that people at corporations everywhere do.

Conversational patterns don't suddenly change because you get a few extra bucks. And people at Goldman don't walk around thinking about how wonderful it is to be a master of the universe. Mostly they just worry about hanging onto their jobs and stew about coworkers who get paid more. 

Leadership vs. lifestyle

The Ukrainian people were recently stunned when they took over the Presidential palace in Kiev and found out the extent of President Yanukovch's spending. There were exotic animals, a personal golf course, a restaurant shaped like a pirate galleon, and a host of other luxuries. Visitors to the estate also found files that had been thrown into the lake; some of these seemed to indicate that Yanukovych had been involved with money laundering and bribery as well.

This brings to mind a near inviolable rule: that a leader's moral stature is inversely correlated to the lavishness of his lifestyle. The great leaders have always been about the cause, not the opulence.

Think of Mahatma Gandhi. He wanted freedom from British rule, and also advocated nonviolence, two causes it's hard to argue against. But his moral authority somehow seemed enhanced by his vegetarianism, fasting, and even his efforts at celibacy. (He may have been a wimp, but he was a noble wimp.)

Or compare the Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979, was an ascetic who would drink nothing stronger than tea. He was an extremely religious man who took all the teachings of the Koran seriously, and he was evidently uninterested in personal wealth. Unlike Gandhi, he was no wimp, in fact looked a bit like Sean Connery-as-the-Raisuli (in The Wind and the Lion):

Khomeini may have put into place a theocracy which set Iran back in the Dark Ages, but his austere lifestyle earned him the loyalty and admiration of his people, and there was no doubting his moral stature. Saddam Hussein's reign was all about power, using his office to accumulate personal wealth, and self-indulgence. He ruled by force; Iraqis feared him, but did not admire him.

Or contrast Nelson Mandela to other African leaders. Whatever you think of the ANC and its communist ideology, whatever you make of the consequences of black rule in southern Africa, there's no denying Mendela's moral stature. He could have been released from prison earlier had he only renounced his anti-apartheid stance, but he refused to do so. More to the point of this post, once Mandela was released, he led a relatively austere lifestyle. He abjured alcohol, and did not use his office to accumulate riches. As President, he even made his own bed every morning. (His second wife Winnie was interested in all the trappings, but he wasn't.) Mandela's only personal indulgence was fine clothes.

Contrast Mandela to John-Bedel Bokassa, the leader of the Central African Republic, who spent one third of the national treasury on his coronation ceremony, and whose entire reign was about self-glorification. Or to Mobutu Sese Seseko, the Zairian kleptocrat whose net worth, gained from siphoning off foreign aid, was upwards of five billion by the time he left office.

If a country's leader wants to live like a drug kingpin, he's not a good leader. Period. (Yanukovych's menagerie of exotic animals was a particularly Pablo Escobar-like touch.)

There's actually a faint parallel to this rule with recent US Presidents. Some recent Presidents have been content to go back home while on vacation and occupy themselves clearing brush from their ranch. Others want to stay at fancy estates in chi-chi areas where the Secret Service must go to extra effort to protect them. Some are happy to attend state dinners and get together with a few close friends. Others are thrilled to party with Hollywood celebrities and superstar athletes and bigwigs from the music world.

It's all quite illuminating, and illustrative of how the leadership vs. lifestyle rule is near-inviolable.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sociopath alert: Goran Lindberg

A commenter ("A") just pointed out, after the previous post:

Another example of this is the former Swedish chief of police Göran "Captain Skirt" Lindberg, who made his name promoting gender issues in the police force, equality, blah blah... while at the same time being a pimp and a rapist (among his victims was apparently a 14 yo girl).

The Wikipedia entry on Lindberg confirms this:

[He] served as rector of the Swedish National Police Academy 1989–1997 and as police commissioner in Uppsala County 1997–2006. After stepping down as police commissioner, he was an adviser on gender equality and sexual harassment to the National Police Directorate.

He was arrested on 25 January 2010 and charged with multiple sex offenses, including the rape of a 14-year-old child. He was subsequently also charged with raping several other women, and of procuring. On 30 July 2010, he was convicted of several sex offenses, including rape, and sentenced to 6.5 years in prison by the Sodertorn District Court.

The commenter is right, of course, Lindberg is a perfect example of what I was talking about in the previous post: beware those who parade themselves as pillars of moral rectitude. 

(I suppose, at a certain level, that's what I do on this blog, by castigating sociopaths; you'll just have to take my word that I'm not one -- though, of course, that's exactly what a sociopath would say.)

Lindberg is actually an interesting case study on another front as well: there's something about that face which is unmistakably sociopathic. Note the smug, self-satisfied look about the eyes, the completely relaxed affect (as if he knows he's in control), and the sneer playing about those thin lips. The impression the photo leaves is of an uninhibited, vicious, feral man, hiding behind a badge. 


Friday, February 21, 2014

Sociopath alert: Darren Sharper

This blog has stated numerous times that people generally don't go on about how caring and decent they are unless they aren't.

For instance, sociopathic prison inmates looking for pen pals will inevitably go on about what warm-hearted, considerate, loving people they are. (These self-descriptions never seem to jibe with the crimes that they are in for.)

Bernie Madoff's old business website described how personal integrity was the key to his business.

We were given another wonderful example of this this past week in the person of Darren Sharper, former NFL star, a vocal women's right advocate. He has been quoted as saying:

My daughter makes (me) mindful of how women are treated, undervalued and exploited, which is why I felt compelled to take advantage of this opportunity to speak up about domestic violence. 

Sharper was also active in A Call to Men, a national organization dedicated to preventing violence against women. 

Sharper is now under investigation for eleven druggings and seven rapes in four states. Evidently his modus operandi was to spike a woman's drink with a date rape drug, then rape her. 

Had Sharper merely been accused of being a serial rapist, it would be probable that he was a sociopath. Had it been known that he would initially be friendly to these women, and charm them, then surreptitiously drug them and rape them, it would be all but certain. 

That he actually was an active proponent of women's rights at the same time leaves absolutely no doubt. 

Most people would react to this story by thinking, "Wow, what a hypocrite! A guy who campaigns for women's rights then turns around and rapes them? What a scumbag!"

What most fail to realize is that a sociopathic serial rapist is far more likely than your average guy to pay lip service to stopping violence against women.

What better subterfuge for a rapist than to pretend to be a feminist? There are audible echoes of Bernie Madoff and all those prison pen pals here. 

The point of this post is not to name Sharper as a sociopath: that's a foregone conclusion. The point is merely to emphasize, once again, that whenever you hear someone advertise his good character, beware. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I had you at hello

A young man recently told me he'd noticed that you could pretty much tell which girls will have sex with you based on how they said hello.

If they light up when they see you, and greet you with a drawn out "hellooooo," it's pretty much a done deal.

If they give you a perky "Oh hi, how are you" or the like, it means they won't have sex with you. (Politeness is the kiss of death.)

But strangely, if they are somewhat brusque, and just said "Hey," or even downright rude, and just say, "Oh," the odds go up again. This is either because these are girls who are shy around you because they're attracted to you, or because they're the types don't care as much about social propriety.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wonderment, Part II

More questions raised by last week's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week:

The name if this designer was "Asia Fashion Collection." Evidently they weren't kidding about the "collection" part of that name. How many different patterns can you count in that outfit and accessory? Isn't the model a little concerned that her handbags-and-gladrags handbag will get dirty if she continues to drag it on the ground?

Is this Custo Barcelona model wearing sunglasses to shield her eyes from the bright colors in the outfit? if she took her sunglasses off, would she suffer retinal damage?

Was Alon Livne striving to make these young ladies look more like flappers or like vestal virgins? Or could he not make up his mind?

With those translucent "wings," doesn't this Katya Leonovich model look a little like a fly? Does this outfit make the model appear desirable to you? If so, do insects get you hot?

This Ricardo Seco outfit combines some of the worst fashions from different eras: leather pants from the 1980's, a long-collared shirt from the 1970's, sunglasses from the 1960's, running shoes from the 2000's, and an overly long overcoat (with overly short sleeves) from the 19th century. (The garbage/gym bag is of indeterminate vintage.) Is this how a nerd with a time machine would dress?

Given the size and coloration of this J. Crew scarf, does it not seem as if that skinny model is an accessory to it rather than vice versa? Do you think this bath-mats-stapled-together look will catch on?

What material is this Jenny Packham outfit made out of? Is it a hair dress -- the equivalent of a hair shirt? Is that some kind of shredded fabric? Or is it fur? If it's fur, what animal is it from?

If you spilled food on this Libertine outfit, would anyone notice? Is its purpose to save on laundry costs?

Men: when was the last time you woke up in the morning and thought, hmm, I wonder which dress I'll wear with my Batman cap today? (You can thank Skingraft for this design.)

Despite the equestrienne hat, doesn't it seem that this Wendy Nichol model's whip is meant for masochistic men rather than horses?

If the White Queen from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe fell upon hard times and had to resort to Narnia's oldest profession, might this Betsey Johnson outfit be what she would wear?

If you saw this Betsey Johnson-clad woman strolling up the street, would you have any doubts whatsoever about her occupation?

Does this secondhand thrift store Anna Sui flapper outfit make you feel more sorry for the leopard who died to provide it, or for the model who has to wear it?

Which personality type does this Zang Toi look seem more suited for, women who are soft and feminine, or women who are imperious and demanding? You be the judge.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wonderment at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week

I couldn't help but be struck again by the creativity of the designers at New York's Fashion Week which just ended. But I was also perplexed by questions some of the outfits raised, proving once again that avant grade fashion is like modern art -- it's supposed to make you think:

A couple of Nicole Miller's designs for women featured peacock feathers. But in nature, it's the peacocks -- and not the peahens -- which sport such bright plumage. (Peahens tend to be dull brown.) Does this not then constitute a form of cross-dressing? And why is it that humans so consistently do the opposite of the animal kingdom, and encourage the female of the species to dress in bright colors, and the male to wear darker colors?

It is often said that clothes make a statement, but what is this outfit by Lee Jean Youn saying? That the widow has been driven crazy by grief?

People generally wear hats for one of two reasons: to keep their heads warm, or to protect themselves from the sun. Which of those purposes does this headwear by Lee Jean Youn serve?

The jacket and skirt by Hache are each nice enough in their own way, but under what weather conditions would the winter parka-with-miniskirt-combo be appropriate? And what is it about that utterly impractical combination that makes it seem so right for a fashion show? (The answer to the first question must be, the weather on a catwalk.)

What exactly is it about this outfit by Charlotte Ronson that evokes S&M? Is it the leather pants, the crossed suspenders, the sheer top, the severe hairstyle, or the model's zombie-like expression?

What exactly is this design by Nicholas K opposed to signify? What is that thing around the model's right wrist? Why am I put in mind of The Gimp from Pulp Fiction? Is Nicholas K too embarrassed to use his full last name?

Is the Jay Godfrey model on the left channeling Michael Jackson? Am I the only person who thinks the sitting model looks like a drug addict? Is she sitting because she's too weak to stand? If I found her attractive, would that make me a pervert?

Did designers Mark and Estel steal that rubber chest plate from the set of a Batman movie? Given the nature of the breastplate and the model's short hair, was this outfit supposed to strike a blow for transgender rights? How does a beautiful woman who's probably not transgender herself feel about being a symbol for the movement?

I've only seen that collar in paintings from the Elizabethan era and on playing cards. Which one is Ruffian trying to evoke? (This outfit is actually weirdly attractive, as opposed to the other outfits shown here, most of which are merely weirdly weird.)

In my day Lacoste was known for their preppy alligator polo shirts. Does the fact that they are now featuring cat burglar outfits mean that they have fallen upon hard times?

This Son Jung Wan outfit is quite striking, but it's hard to tell whom it's for. Would this be worn by a rich playboy, a bellhop at an expensive hotel, a doorman at an exclusive nightclub, a gay gigolo, or an extra in The Nutcracker Suite?

Monday, February 17, 2014

If the average gay guy were like Michael Sam….

Writing the post about Michael Sam a few days ago got me to thinking, what would the high school social scene be like if the average homosexual were built like him? Sam is 6'1" and 260 pounds of solid gristle. It's hard to imagine that the bullying would continue on in the same direction. In fact, it seems more likely that it would end up going the other way.

Imagine how the Sams of the world would treat straight guys:

"You wimpy little poofter, are you going to go running to your mommy's titties again? Whatsamatter, don't want to have sex with a regular guy? You make me wanna throw up!"

"What're you going to do, try out for the school play again this year? You wanna go out for the football team, you gotta be ready to do some male bonding -- like a real man!"

"These pussy-lickers, there's just nothing masculine about 'em. Honestly, I think the real reason they like havin' sex with girls is because they want to be girls. And that's the closest they can get. God they make my skin crawl!"

"I'm warnin' you, I catch you around this football locker room again, I'll kick your fuckin' ass. Or maybe I'll just bend you over that bench and give it to you hard, teach you how to be manly for a change."

"Those people who say we feel the need to beat the crap out of straight guys because we're ashamed of our own latent heterosexuality are full of it. I just do it 'cause I can't stand the sight of those mincing little fairies."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Can't miss TV

There's a certain type of person who feels he -- or she -- has to watch an event just because it's gotten a lot of publicity. This type of person has no intrinsic interest in the event, it's just that it's been hyped up and so he feels he has to watch it.

Case in point: the Super Bowl. I know someone who isn't a football fan, doesn't know the first thing about football, and a week beforehand would not have been able to name the two teams playing, but feels she has to watch the Super Bowl just because, well, it's the Super Bowl.

Likewise, there are lots of people watching the Winter Olympics right now just because it's the Winter Olympics. How many of these fans tuned in to watch the world slalom championships last year, or follow the snowboarding half pipe competitions on non-Olympic years?

This type of person thinks that just because there's a lot of noise being made about something, it must be worthwhile. There's a certain inability to think for one's self implicit here.

I'm not entirely immune; I've been watching a little of the Winter Olympics, just because of the second word in their title. But I have close to zero interest in the sports being contested in Sochi.

Anyway, I'd finish this post….but there's a program on NBC I have to watch.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Chancellor Farina strikes again

In a meeting on Tuesday Chancellor of New York City Schools Carmen Farina said, in reference to how important it is to have pre-K classes:

“The grade at which we look at incarceration in the future is third grade. Third-grade reading scores nationally are the grade by which jails are chosen to be built.”

That's the kind of statement a lot of people will hear, and just sort of let go in one ear and out the other, without really thinking about it. But let's hit the pause button and think about this one for a moment. Farina's statement makes no syntactical, grammatical, or logical sense.

By her first sentence, does she mean that we pick out children in the third grade and mark them for future jail terms? (Silly me, I thought that jail terms are handed out because of crimes.) Does she mean that future felons start to contemplate their sentences while still in third grade? Or did she mean that future wardens start thinking about their jobs while still in third grade? (If they are, then they certainly showed more foresight about their careers than I ever did.)

Her second sentence was even worse. First of all, reading scores are scores: they're not third grade. That makes as much sense as saying that someone's time for the 400 meter dash is eleventh grade. (What??) Secondly, if you read that sentence closely, it almost sounds as if Chancellor Farina is saying that the jails themselves go through third grade. Thirdly, how could national reading scores determine which local jails will be built? (Or is she referring to the federal penitentiary system?)

Keep in mind that Chancellor Farina was chosen out of all the teachers and principles in the NYC school system because she is, theoretically, the most capable, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful, and eloquent educator the entire system has to offer.

In any case, Chancellor Farina seemed to be talking in one of those Google translations of a foreign language: you have to try to glean the gist of what she's saying from the jumble of words which pile out in seemingly random order.

What I think she's trying to say is that by third grade most kids are on a path which will lead either to a life of law-abiding productivity, or a life of crime.

That may be some truth to that, but the influence of pre-K is negligible at best. There have been all sorts of studies indicating that whatever benefit is derived from Head Start disappears by third grade. And any honest psychologist will tell you that the direction a person's life takes has to do with a multitude of factors, most of which have to do with the type of family he's from, how much love and attention he got, whether his parents set good examples, his friendships, his hormonal levels, his impulse control, and his IQ.

The de Blasio/Farina push for pre-K has much more to do with increasing the number of teaching jobs available, which in turn increases the size of the teachers' union, dues toward which are automatically deducted from teachers' pay. The union then contributes much of that money to Democratic political candidates, all of whom are then beholden to the teacher's union.

It's a tidy little arrangement. (In the future, whenever you hear an educator talk about how something has to be done for the children, bear in mind that it's really the teacher's union which will benefit.)

In closing, I would just like to say that the time at which we look at judgment in the future of chancellors and mayors is this past week. Pronouncements about weather and third grade reading scores are the time by which judgments are choosing to be made.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No curiosity

Yesterday, a young man told me, "There is no group of people in the entire world who are less intellectually curious than American college girls."

He continued, "Seriously -- 80-year-old black churchwomen, 30-year-old Mexican day laborers, they all have more intellectual curiosity than your typical college girl. Maybe some of these girls are smart and get good grades, but I've never spoken to a single one who expresses any sort of awe or wonderment about the world around her. And they just never have anything interesting to say. Worse, if I tell them about anything interesting that I've learned recently, the only responses I can expect are, 'Oh,' or, 'You're weird'."

"I thought people were supposed to go to college because they're actually interested in learning."

I had to laugh.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


NFL prospect Michael Sam has gotten so much predictably positive publicity, so much sympathy, and so much goodwill from his coming out that it makes me wonder why some straight NFL player didn't pretend to be gay and "come out" just to reap the benefits.

Given the media's longstanding, and until recently unrequited, hunger for a gay NFL star, it's been obvious that the first openly gay player to come out was going to be anointed a national hero. (Medal of Honor winners could only hope to get a tenth this much public adulation.)

As the first gay pro football player, you might even get endorsements you wouldn't otherwise get.

All you'd have to do is stay in the closet. It wouldn't be that hard. Every time a gay guy came on to you, you could just say, sorry, I'm in a relationship right now. And every time you wanted to get laid, all you'd have to is either swear the girl to secrecy (if you trusted her) or tell her that you're HIV-free and want to "experiment."

It'd be sort of like the life of a Hollywood actor, but in reverse.

Had I been an NFL player, I would have seriously considered doing this.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The second-rate Olympics

The modern Olympic Games were first revived in 1896; the first Winter Olympics were held in 1924. They were instituted at the behest of the Europeans, especially the Scandinavian and Alpine countries, for whom winter sports loom large.

The original Olympic Games were staged by the Greeks every two years, and went on for an amazing 1176 years. They included running, jumping, a javelin throw and a discus throw, boxing, and wrestling. All events required speed, strength, stamina, or a combination of the three.

The current track and field events come close to the spirit of the original Olympics. There are now more running distances contested, and a shot put as well as the discus and javelin throws, but all measure the same sort of athleticism. Likewise, boxing and wrestling carry on the tradition of the ancient Greeks.

The modern Olympics have gotten further and further away from this ideal. The Summer Games now include yachting and equestrian events, which are essentially a gift to the rich friends and relatives of the aristocrats who have traditionally run the International Olympic Committee.

Generally, the fancier the equipment used, the less the original Olympic spirit is invoked. The Winter Games now include skiing, skating, bobsledding, luge, and shooting. And there seem to be more winter sports than summer sports which involve fancy equipment.

The more expensive the equipment, the less universal a sport is. Virtually every child has at one point run a foot race against another child. The fastest ones usually go on to at least test themselves in larger competitions at some point in their lives. Thus, when Usain Bolt wins the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter dash, he stands atop a very large pyramid -- comprised of roughly seven billion people.

How many people do you personally know who have competed in running or swimming events? Now, how many do you know who have competed in bobsledding, or luge?

For me, the most fun part of watching an Olympics is to see athletes who perform feats I couldn't dream of doing. When I see a sprinter run 100 meters in under ten seconds, or a weight lifter snatch 300 pounds, I know I could never have done those things, and marvel at the athleticism involved. I can even watch a ping pong match and marvel at the reflexes of the players (even as I don't think ping pong should be an Olympic sport). When was the last time you watched a curling match and thought, wow -- what magnificent studs!

(What is the closest summer equivalent to curling: shuffleboard, or bowling?)

There are winter sports which embody the traditional spirit of an Olympic sport, even if they have fewer worldwide participants: speed skating, downhill skiing, and cross country skiing.

But because the Winter Olympics have fewer of those types of sports, they simply have more room for extraneous sports, like snowboarding. Skate boarding is essentially the same sport as snowboarding, yet no one has seriously thought to put it in the Summer Games. Why not? It involves the same sort of coordination and balance, and the feats that top skateboarders perform can be equally impressive.

If there were as much room for such extraneous Xtreme-style sports at the Summer Olympics, they might include a sky diving event. And cliff diving. And mountain climbing. And free rock climbing. And wind surfing. And hang gliding. And parasailing. All of these involve athleticism and daring as well.

And as long as bobsledding is included in the Winter Games, why not include a tandem bicycling event in the Summer Games? Or auto racing, for that matter? And while I marvel at the athleticism of the figure skaters, I might similarly marvel at the athleticism of ballet dancers at the Summer Olympics.

To be fair, the Summer Olympics have recently included their share of nontraditional sports, such as BMX cycling, trampoline, beach volleyball, and rhythmic gymnastics.

But the Winter Games seem to have a higher percentage of such sports. For that reason, and because most winter sports have far fewer worldwide participants, whenever the Winter Olympics roll around, I can't help but feel that they are the lesser Games.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

In the latest Jack Ryan movie, Ryan, as usual, saves the United States. First he does it in Moscow, a city he's never been to before but seems completely at home in, then in New York. The plotting relies on a lot of coincidences, saves which come in the nick of time, and lucky breaks.

In one early scene, young Ryan, played by Chris Pine, who weighs maybe 170, overpowers and drowns a 300 pound Ugandan professional killer. That's one of the more realistic scenes.

Then again, this is an adventure film, in which such outcomes are standard fare.

Surprisingly, given the weak plot, the dialogue is actually pretty good, though the best lines are given to Kevin Costner, as Ryan's CIA boss, and Kenneth Branagh, as the Russian bad guy.

Costner has never been a great actor; he always pretty much plays himself. But that persona is good for certain roles, and this was one of them.

Branagh, now that he's middle-aged, looks intelligent and tough, and can affect a grim enough expression to play a passable villain:

(Branagh directed the movie as well.)

Keira Knightley is as beautiful as ever playing Ryan's girlfriend/fiancee, though she is constantly pushing her mouth out the way she always does; I guess she thinks it makes her more attractive:

At one point, Branagh, intent on seducing Knightley, says, we could make chitchat, or we could talk. When she subsequently says something devastating to him, he replies, "Now we're talking." (I'll have to remember those lines.)

The character of Jack Ryan is essentially Rambo crossed with Sherlock Holmes, so he ought to be played by someone who appears at least smart or tough, preferably both. The young Alec Baldwin was good in the role.

Chris Pine makes a game effort, but unfortunately, he looks neither smart nor tough. He looks more as if he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. (He was probably better cast as a drag queen in Surrender Dorothy.)

I was struck by his resemblance to Denise Richards:

Richards was once cast as a nuclear physicist in a James Bond film; a lot of critics made sport of that at the time. Pine-as-Ryan is no less egregious.

Despite all of which, the movie actually isn't bad. It's fast-paced, there's plenty of action, and there are some good lines.

If you're good at suspending disbelief, you'll enjoy it.

Meddling in the Ukraine

The big issue in the Ukraine recently has been whether to align more closely with the European Union or with mother Russia. Vladimir Putin just extended a 15 billion dollar loan to the Ukraine and offered cheaper natural gas in return for closer ties, so Yanukovych wants closer ties to Mother Russia. But the Ukrainian people seem to want closer ties with the EU.

Russia has complained recently that the US is "crudely interfering" in the internal affairs of the Ukraine.

They have a point.

Recently Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the United States stands with the people of the Ukraine, i.e., against democratically elected current President Viktor Yanukovych. The Obama administration wants the Ukraine to turn West, and get out from Russia's sphere of influence.

Why is this any of our business?

The Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic. For us to be over there as the self-appointed referee in this dispute is akin to Russia deciding that it should exert its will in the internal affairs of Mexico or Canada.

What would our reaction be if Vladimir Putin suddenly announced that Russia supported the Quebecois separatists? Most Americans would probably think, stay in your own neighborhood.

It is our unfortunate tendency to stick our nose everywhere and see ourselves as the world's umpire, or worse, world's police force, that makes much of the world hate us.

It's true that we get more censure than we deserve, especially given how much aid we hand out. And it's true that Putin himself regularly meddles outside his neighborhood, most recently in Syria. But he is a mere dilettante compared to us; we're everywhere.

We're almost like the belligerent drunk who wanders into a bar looking for a fight with whoever happens to be there.

We'd be better off letting everyone else resolve their own fights.

The sad thing is, this is how most Americans feel. It's just our imperial government which wants to get involved everywhere.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"YMCA" as mournful dirge

We were at a Thai restaurant the other evening. While we were waiting for our food some sappy song was playing in the background. I didn't pay much attention to it, but during a lull in the conversation I realized that the lyrics to a song that was playing in the background sounded strangely familiar. A few seconds later I realized, with some shock, that the song being sung by the female artist was "YMCA."

This singer had utterly drained the song of all its energy and vitality and sly humor and was singing it slowly in a weak, sad voice.

It seemed almost sacrilegious.

I just looked for the song on Youtube so that I could link it here, but couldn't find it. I tried "YMCA as sad song," "YMCA as mournful dirge," and "YMCA by female singer," but nothing came up.

Who would take a song whose primary (really, only) strengths are its catchy rhythm and tongue-in-cheek wit, eliminate both those qualities, and think they somehow improved it?

Yet this vocalist had somehow managed to get a band to back her up, get produced, and be included on some kind of mass-distributed mix.

I think I'll rewrite the James Bond theme, but take out all the brass. Then I'm going to do a cover of the Beatles' She Loves You, but do it in half time, so people can slow dance to it. After that I'm going to re-make Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, but eliminate the instruments and do it as an a cappella rap.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Destination charge"

One of the more annoying things about buying a new car is that the price quoted is never the final price. There are always add-ons; some are understandable, like the cost of getting it registered, or taxes.

The worst is the so-called destination charge, which can be $700 or so. Sure, it costs money for a car to be delivered to a dealership, but why is that cost not included in the original price? Automobiles are the only product for which you have to pay for transportation costs as an add-on after you've agreed on a purchase price.

It also costs money to deliver a large screen TV to an electronics store, but that cost is built into the advertised price. Ditto for washing machines, dryers, bicycles, and, for that matter, watches.

Yet if you buy a TV, the sales clerk does not say, as you hand him your credit card, "Oh, by the way, it cost a lot of money to lug that big thing all the way from the plant to this store, so we're going to tack on another $250 to the price."

Why do auto dealerships insist on such misleading pricing?

Evidently, because they can get away with it.

(My Andy Rooney rant for the day.)

And here I thought I was being nice….

I recently spoke to an old friend, a well known sportswriter whom I know from masters swimming, for the first time in over a year. He filled me in on what he's been up to and explained why he hadn't been swimming. The conversation then proceeded like this:

Me (semi-facetiously): I guess you need me to encourage you more.

Friend: Well, Jeff encourages me to get in the pool too, but he does it in a nice way.

Me: What, I'm not being nice when I encourage you?

Friend: Well, you can be sort of a prick about it.

There are times when I know I act like a prick (as on this blog, when I tell a harsh truth, or mock people). In person, most of the time I think I'm just sort of neutral. And there are a few, rarer, times when I think I'm being nice.

The thing is, I actually thought I was being nice when I was encouraging my friend to swim. 

But if I actually come across like a prick when I think I'm being nice, how much of a prick must I come across like when I know I'm being one?

Disconcerting thought.