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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Without Sports, Who Would Cheer for the Nimrods?

As is typical for this time of year, there's lots of fun news from the world of college basketball. Duke lost at home to Georgia Tech, snapping a forty-odd game win streak (since the last time Maryland beat them in that pit they call a gym). Syracuse beat Pittsburgh in an ugly game, handing the Panthers their first loss ever in their new building. Stanford and St. Joseph's continue their undefeated seasons, the first teams to be undefeated this late since UNLV lost in the Final Four in 1991 (winning me $32, I should point out). And Maryland showed signs of life, edging NC State in a hard-fought game last night. (Which I stayed up late to watch, despite having an early class this morning. I are a genius.)

If I could shake this damned cough, I'd be really fired up.

The big news, though, is the new breakthrough in pedagogy represented by Jim Harrick Jr.'s class on basketball coaching. The final exam has been cited by a zillion people (I got the link from Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe (coming soon to a blogroll near you)), but it's worth highlighting a few of my favorite questions. You just have to like a test whose hardest question is:

9. How many officials referee a college basketball game?

A) 2; B) 4; C) 6; D) 3.

I could actually imagine a few people getting that one wrong. Of course, the very finest question on the test has to be:

11. What is the name of the exam which all high school seniors in the State of Georgia must pass?

A) Eye Exam; B) How Do The Grits Taste Exam; C) Bug Control Exam; D) Georgia Exit Exam.

I can't decide whether this is simply a truly disgusting display of hubris, or if he really thought that he needed to make the answer that obvious, because otherwise they might get it wrong.

It's been fashionable in recent years to predict the imminent demise of college basketball, due to students leaving early for the NBA, or just skipping college altogether. With the recent court case involving Maurice "Pompatus of Love" Clarett, this has spread to college football.

Those predictions are all grossly overstated. If anything, it's the NBA that's in danger from the influx of high school kids. College sports will continue in spite of the talent drain, and those of us who appreciate actual basketball will still have something to watch.

If there's a real threat to college sports, it comes not from the players, but from walking sacks of excrement like the Harricks pere et fils, Gary "She's a Girl, and She's Terrible" Barnett at Colorado, and Dave "Frame the Dead Kid" Bliss at Baylor. The people making a mockery of the system are the coaches, not the players.

What's especially sickening about all this is that it comes in the rare year when there's truly a story worth celebrating in college basketball, namely the undefeated season of the St. Joe's Hawks. It's a small school in a second-tier league, with a coach who's a class act, players who go to class, and a too-small point guard who might be the best player in the country. You want to see everything that's good in college sports, it's all right there.

But all we're talking about is the antics of assholes like the Harricks.

Posted at 8:39 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

I'm Your Worst Nightmare

NASA announced yesterday that they've found solid evidence of water on Mars. How did I learn about this important scientfic development? From this LiveJournal.

My first thought was, "Well, that's just an anomaly. I'm usually better-informed than that." Then again, though, my main non-blog source of political news is Jon Stewart, who I view as the only truly indispensible political commenter today. OK, I do scan the front page of The Washington Post every morning, but really, that's about it, aside from blogs, which are not terribly reliable.

Of course, I do vote, which at least makes me superior to these idiots (via Electrolite). I think.

Posted at 9:32 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Religion and Agriculture

Steve Cook at Snarkout has a post on millennialism that ties into a pet theory of mine. He notes of my home region:

Upstate New York in the nineteenth century was an unsettled place. Since the opening of the Erie Canal, it had brought an economic boom, but also unsettling changes, as it unlocked the west and brought about the first major population migration in the United States towards the wilds of the Northwest Territories. There were other unsettling influences, as well; the Erie area was known as "the burnt district" for the number of revivals that took place there during the Second Great Awakening. John Humphrey Noyes founded Oneida, a Christian utopian commune in which the men and women were all considered married to one another. The hints of sexual license around Matthias the Prophet's Mount Zion community had become a major scandal. And just outside Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith received his first angelic visitations that would eventually lead him to form the Mormon church. Against this backdrop, the religious proclomations of a farmer named William Miller might not have seemed all that noteworthy, were it not for one thing: William Miller had been told by God that the world was in its end days, and he was willing to say exactly when we would all be summoned home.

This explosion of new religions in Upstate New York might seem strange to some, but if you've ever lived in the area, there's a perfectly sensible explanation: There aren't a lot of jobs in the world that would suck more than being a farmer in Upstate New York. Those lovely field stone walls of picturesque New England and Robert Frost poems? They're made of rocks turned up while plowing. Spend a few years doing that every spring, and you'll see God, too.

My theory is that this kicked up in the early 1800's, once it became practical to grow food out in Ohio and the Midwest, where the landscape is better suited to farming, and ship it back east. Once that happened, there wasn't as pressing a need to continue farming in New York, and people abandoned the trade as fast as they could. This also accounts for the large number of colleges and universities in New England that date from about that time. If you own land in New England or New York, there are a hell of a lot of ways to make money off it that are easier than farming.

A lot of the land in Upstate New York was turned over to dairy farming (my home town, for instance, featured a lot of dairy farms), which doesn't require you to actually grow as much stuff in those rocky fields. In an interesting echo of earlier history, though, a lot of those farms have shut down in the last decade or so, to be replaced by a more lucrative venture that also requires lots of land: Golf courses. If you know any serious golfers, you'll agree that the separation between running a golf course and starting a cult is a narrow one indeed...

Posted at 9:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Lost on Me

After yesterday, this is probably the nicest day we've had thus far this year. And I'm stuck in my office, printing and collating copies of everything I've ever handed out in class, as required for my third-year re-appointment review (the first step in the tenure process). This involves an alarming amount of paper-- one more black mark on the tenure system, no doubt. I can see the bumper stickers now: Tenure Kills Trees!

Anyway, I need to take a break from that for a little bit, and this would seem an opportune time to indulge in some movie commentary before the Oscars tonight.

Kate and I rented the DVD of Lost in Translation last night. This is a movie I've wanted to see (though, obviously, not badly enough to pay to see it on the big screen) since I heard an outline of the plot. Having spent some time in Japan, and enjoyed it tremendously, the idea of a movie about Americans wandering around Tokyo in a daze was pretty appealing.

It's an extremely odd little movie, all in all, and it's a little tough to understand the hype. There's not a whole lot of there there, really. There are some great scenes, and Scarlett Johansson is cute, but Bill Murray is basically playing a less zany version of the same character he played in Rushmore, and nothing much happens. The Oscar buzz is really sort of puzzling.

As I said, though, there are some great bits. If you've ever said "I wish there were a really great cinematic depiction of jet lag," well, look no further. This movie does a great job of conveying the heavy, unable-to-sleep daze that settles in why you fly halfway around the world. I knew exactly what the characters were feeling.

When you're dealing with Japan, of course, the jet lag problem is exacerbated by, well, being in Japan, and the movie does a wonderful job of capturing the fundamental unreality of Tokyo. The high-speed collision of Western and Eastern cultures in that city is enough to leave you a bit dazed even when you're well rested and used to the time zone. It's a weird clash of Zen simplicity and cyberpunk gadgetry: Neon signs next to Shinto shrines; people in kimono wearing cell phones at a tea ceremony; Japanese teenagers dressed as cowboys playing guitar next to the Meiji Shrine. It's a strange, strange place, and that's even before you start talking about karaoke and Japanese television (both of which are handled well in the film, though I wish they'd shown more of the wonderfully odd videos they tend to attach to Western pop tracks in karaoke bars).

They also show a bit of the forced camaraderie of foreigners in Japan. Not too much, as having too broad a group would run counter to the point of the story, but they hint at the way English speakers get pushed together across all sorts of boundaries. I didn't end up with any relationships as significant as what happens in the movie, but then I didn't hang around in a lot of high-end hotels. On the other hand, I did spend a terrifically entertaining evening drinking in Shinjuku with an Irish cook, a couple of crazy Australians, and the chef from the Belgian embassy. Not the sort of crowd I usually run with, but not unusual for Tokyo.

There's a lot that the movie gets right, but on the other hand, they blow it big time in two areas. First, Scarlett Johansson is shown visiting a bunch of different tourist sites-- shrines and temples and gardens-- and she's always completely and absolutely alone. I won't say that that never happens in Japan-- I did manage to be all by myself in a bunch of interesting places-- but it's unusual. The Japanese are firmly of the opinion that anything worth doing is worth doing in a group of ten thousand, and interesting tourist sites are usually jammed with people. The artificial emptiness is done to emphasize her sense of complete alienation, of course, and to show how important her connection with Bill Murray is, but it doesn't really ring true to the city.

The other major problem has a similar origin, but is even worse: Much is made of the language issue, with a number of situations relying on the lack of mutual comprehension for humor value. This is really badly exaggerated, not because Japanese is easy to pick up-- it's not, and written Japanese is hopeless for an outsider-- but because those few Tokyo residents who don't speak at least a little English would never be so rude as to leave a foreigner as baffled and stranded as the characters in this movie are.

When I was there, I never knew more than phrasebook-level Japanese ("Sumimasen, Eigo ga hanashimsu ka?"), but I had no trouble getting around. There were occasional moments of confusion, but they were navigated by means of sign language, broken English, and an incredible amount of good will on the part of the Japanese people I encountered.

One of my favorite stories from my time there has to do with my Christmas shopping. I wanted to get a Captain Santa shirt for my sister, so I went to one of the big department stores in Shinjuku to look for one. The store I went to first turned out not to carry the brand, but I didn't know that when I went in, so after a few minutes of wandering the store fruitlessly, I stopped and asked a salesgirl.

The first woman I talked to turned out not to speak English, but she went over to another department, and found someone who did. She was able to tell me that they didn't carry Captain Santa products in that store, but then went to find the manager. The manager got out a phone book, made a few calls, located a store in the area that did carry the brand, and drew me a very detailed map to guide me to the right place.

Given that experience, I have a hard time believing the hospital scene in Lost in Translation. It's not just that it would be unlikely for a doctor or hospital receptionist to not speak any English at all, but that it would be unimaginably rude for them to just jabber away at an uncomprehending American without a hint of embarrassment.

Again, I understand why it was done the way it was, but it did a number on my suspension of disbelief. That, combined with the slightness of the plot, means that I'll just have to root for The Return of the King to win Best Picture. But you knew that already...

Posted at 4:17 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

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