January 1, 2010

"The Darwin Show"

Harvard historian Steven Shapin has a long article in the London Review of Books, The Darwin Show, about the apotheosization of Charles Darwin over the last year in service of various contemporary causes, including global warming.

One thing I would add is that the modern cult of beatifying Charles Darwin is dependent upon demonizing his younger half-cousin Francis Galton. Everything politically correct is attributed to Darwin, while everything politically incorrect is attributed to Galton. In reality, Galton was hugely influenced by Darwin, and Darwin, in turn, was influenced by Galton (here's the lengthy index entry for "Galton, Mr." from Darwin's The Descent of Man). Galtonism was seen by both men as the natural evolution of Darwinism.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


A reader asks:

"What or who did you use to bring yourself under hypnosis?"

I had some New Agey lady hypnotism therapist hypnotize me. My wife found her. I was pretty paralyzed by feelings of doom at the time (right after my diagnosis with lymphatic cancer in late 1996), so I don't remember how my wife found her.

There wasn't anything very exciting about being hypnotized. The hypnotist just spoke in a dull, repetitious manner until I was lulled into a state where I was more receptive to suggestions. Then she told me this story I had made up for her about how I was 80 years old and playing the 17th hole at Ballybunion with my sons and grandson. For the rest of the day, I'd feel like I was going to live to 80, which helped me function better. The next day I'd feel lousy, so I'd go back a couple of times per week.

After awhile, my depression lifted permanently, so I stopped going.

I have no idea if hypnosis would work for people on average, but it had a clear and immediate effect on me in that particular situation. Granted, that's purely my subjective feelings, but that's what I wanted to alter: my subjective feelings.

And, yes, I had the hypnotist try to get me to do amusing tricks under hypnosis like in an old nightclub act, but that didn't work. She declared me "moderately suggestible."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

December 31, 2009

Obama's mental health breaks

In The New Republic, Michelle Cottle gets herself worried about the political imagery of the President's golf habit:
Bunker Mentality
Barack Obama's dangerous obsession with golf
During the 2008 race, Obama’s golf outings drew less notice than his battles on the hard court. But, now that he’s firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, the sticks have come out of the closet as Obama constantly looks to squeeze in a few holes ...

But just because other presidents have done it doesn’t mean there aren’t political risks involved. In the popular imagination, golf is the stuff of corporate deal-cutting, congressional junkets, and country club exclusivity. And, unless a president is very careful, a golf habit can easily be spun as evidence of unseemly character traits ranging from laziness to callousness to out-of-touch elitism.

I've mentioned before how most careers in 21st Century America are more or less in marketing, and how journalism is slowly turning into Marketing Criticism.
Various explanations have been floated for Obama’s embrace of golf ...

The most reasonable is mine: that Obama has made it to the top, so now he's doing what men who have made it to the top in the Anglosphere and the Far East frequently do: play a lot of golf. (Why men like to play golf I've explained at length here.)

I would guess that he'll become more addicted to golf as he plays more great golf courses. Right now, his taste in golf courses appears to be rather indiscriminate, happily playing whatever lame layout is at hand. But eventually, like Bill Clinton, he'll learn that some golf courses are better than others, and then the Presidential helicopter will be descending upon Ballybunion (the small town on the west coast of Ireland that is home to Bill Clinton's favorite golf course and the world's first statue of Bill Clinton -- the other Clinton statue is in Kosovo), Sand Hills in remote Mullen, Nebraska, the National and the like.

The more interesting speculation about Obama and golf is that, like George W. Bush, he sure seems to take a lot of mental health breaks, such as when he disappears for a smoke.

Bush is an alcoholic, so that's one explanation for his constant exercising: to stay on the wagon. But what's Obama's reason for his schedule?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

I guess the recession must be over

On New Year's Eve, the tuxedo rental shop on the corner was so sold out that they had stripped all the mannequins in the windows and rented out the dummies' tuxes.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Positive Thinking

From the New York Times, "Seeking a Cure for Optimism:"

Recently, a number of writers and researchers have questioned the notion that looking on the bright side — often through conscious effort — makes much of a difference. One of the most prominent skeptics is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” published in the fall, maintains that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and can, in fact, do harm.

“Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions,” Ms. Ehrenreich said. “If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you?”

There are quite a few distinctions that need to be made regarding the general concept of positive thinking. For example, there's the difference between internal and external cheerfulness, and between private and public optimsim.

Having finally seen the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man last night, which is like a less funny version of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik is relentlessly abused by the spontaneity of human interactions with people like Ms. Ehrenreich, I'd say that a little social smiling isn't such a bad thing.

About a year ago, my younger son's high school hosted a talk by radio rabbi Dennis Prager. He said that young people all want to help humanity, but that the surest, most effective way to help humanity is for you to act less whiny and more cheerful toward the people around you. Every single student at the school thought that was the worst idea ever -- Shouldn't you be authentic and therefore wallow in the horrors of having your oppressive parents ask you to empty the dishwasher? -- except, to my astonishment, my kid, who thought that Prager had a great idea. And he has been easier to live with ever since (and easier than I was to live with at that age).

So, thank you, Dennis Prager.

A study published in the November-December issue of Australasian Science found that people in a negative mood are more critical of, and pay more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who are more likely to believe anything they are told.

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Joseph P. Forgas, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in the study.

In other words, don't marry a stand-up comedian.

Psychologists and others who try to study happiness scientifially often focus on the connection between positive thinking and better health. In the September 2007 issue of the journal Cancer, Dr. David Spiegel at Stanford University School of Medicine reported his efforts to replicate the findings of a 1989 study in which he had found that women with metastatic breast cancer who were assigned to a support group lived an average 18 months longer than those who did not get such support. But in his updated research, Dr. Spiegel found that although group therapy may help women cope with their illness better, positive thinking did not significantly prolong their lives.

I have no idea if the Placebo Effect is real or not. But I do know that when I had cancer in 1997 and was, not surprisingly, pretty much paralyzed by depression, a half-dozen hypnotism sessions helped me get my mood up enough to research the alternative treatments and choose, correctly, among the three on offer. The point of hypnotism is to lull you into a relaxed state where your skepticism is low enough that you'll believe a pep talk. (I crafted a personalized pep talk for my hypnotist to give me when I was under.) It worked for me, in the sense that it helped me get back to the point where I could make important decisions, such going with the clinical trial in which I became the first person in the world with my specific form of cancer to be treated with what's now the world's most lucrative cancer drug, Rituxan.

Ms. Ehrenreich, who was urged to think positively after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago, was surprised by how many readers shared her visceral resistance to that mantra. She created a forum on her Web site for people to vent about positive thinking, and many have. “I get so many people saying ‘thank you,’ people who go back to work after their mother has died and are told, ‘What’s the matter?’ “ she said. Likewise, there are “corporate victims who have been critics or driven out of jobs for being 'too negative.'"

The far, far bigger issue is the mandatory Happy Talk among the intellectual elite. You might think that people at the level of James D. Watson and Larry Summers might be allowed a Happy Talk-free zone about social issues so that the ruling elites could stay informed, but the opposite is true.

So, we wind up with disasters like the Sand State Mortgage Meltdown.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant

Sponsors are dropping Tiger Woods as an endorser, which suggests to me that some brave marketer could make out like a bandit in the long run by signing Woods cheaply right now to a ten year deal.

After all, look at Kobe Bryant, who is now #10 on the 2009 Forbes Celebrity 100, between #9 Brad Pitt and #11 Will Smith. Bryant currently makes $24 million per year in endorsements, even though he spent 2004 on trial for rape (he got off because the woman, who reached a secret civil suit settlement with him, ultimately wouldn't take the stand against him in the criminal trial). Even though the rape trial, which he would attend during the day in Colorado, then jet to Laker games in the evening, was a huge publicity brouhaha less than six years ago, it has effectively vanished down the media hole. In LA, the only thing bad you ever read about Kobe these days is that he used to squabble with Shaq. There are countless articles about "how Kobe has matured" but they are all about him not being so much of a ball hog anymore. The whole being tried for rape thing has vanished. Winning an NBA title in 2009 changes the past in ways the Ministry of Truth never dreamed of.

Bryant and Woods have fairly similar personalities: intensely competitive, smart about their sports, foolish about marriage, etc. (Bryant married young without a prenup -- his agent didn't attend his wedding). At some point, Woods is going to realize that he's no good at "working on his marriage" and all those other distractions, but he is good at hitting golf balls. So, he's going to go hit a whole bunch of golf balls. Then he's going to go out and win a whole bunch of tournaments. And then, once again, he's going to get paid a whole bunch of money by marketers because, in the big picture, there really isn't much difference between sports fans and the kind of women Tiger likes.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Did you have too much taxable income in 2009?

Probably not.

But, in case you did, I just wanted t0 mention that I didn't.

Today, New Year's Eve, you can make tax deductible credit card contributions to me here (then, under "Steve Sailer Project Option" click on the "Make a Donation" button); or fax credit card details here (please put "Steve Sailer Project" on the fax); or you can snail mail checks made out to "VDARE Foundation" and marked on the memo line (lower left corner) “Steve Sailer” to:

VDARE Foundation
P.O. Box 211
Litchfield, CT 06759

Second: any old time of the year, you can send me an email and I'll send you my P.O. Box address.

Third: You can use Paypal to send me money directly, either by just using any credit card or if you have a specific Paypal account.

If you want to use your credit card, click "Continue" on the lower center-left to fill in your credit card info. If you have a Paypal account fill in your Paypal ID and password on the lower right of the screen.

I'll try to get the Amazon donation link working in a day or two, but, in the past, Amazon has been limited to $50 (hint, hint) and tends to stop working as soon as I've collected more than a pittance.

Thanks. I appreciate it, deeply.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

December 29, 2009

Ancestry question being eliminated from Census

From the Detroit Free Press:
Ethnic groups say 'white' isn't enough on the 2010 census

Arab Americans, others fear loss of benefits if ancestry not accounted for

By Niraj Warikoo

... But the 2010 census form -- in a departure from 2000 and previous decades -- will not contain a question asking people about their ancestry, prompting concern among metro Detroit's diverse ethnic communities. Many in the sizable Arab-American population in metro Detroit -- who have faced a host of challenges during the past 10 years -- are particularly concerned.

... With her light-brown skin and Islamic headscarf, Khadigah Alasry of Dearborn said she doesn't see herself as white.

But the Arab American is officially classified as such by the U.S. government, which says that anyone with roots in the Middle East -- including north Africa -- is white.

"That's just weird to me," said Alasry, 23, born to immigrants from Yemen.

It's also weird for thousands of other Americans who say they don't fit into traditional categories of race in the United States. As the 2010 U.S. census prepares to tabulate millions of Americans, the issue of racial and ethnic identity is being debated as groups push to get their voices heard.

The census is conducted to get accurate population statistics that are used to determine the number of congressional seats and amount of government funding, and to ensure that minorities are not discriminated against.

The concern is acutely felt in metro Detroit, home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans and Chaldeans -- Iraqi Christians -- in the United States, according to 2000 census figures.

Having the ancestry question is important because terms like "white" and "black" are vague and don't offer much detail, said ethnic advocates. ...

Since the 2000 census and 9/11, many Arab Americans say they have experienced bias. On the other hand, they also are being recruited for federal jobs and invited to participate in conversations with top U.S. leaders as the government finds itself involved in conflicts across the Middle East and the Muslim world.

But Arab Americans -- who make up about 1.5% of Michigan's population, based on the 2000 census -- won't be counted as such in 2010. Census officials say part of the reason was to streamline and shorten the form so that more people fill it out.

Two of the 10 questions will ask about a person's race -- white, black or Asian -- and whether the respondent is Hispanic. Arabs are considered white.

"It's unfair because we are not treated as white in society and by the government, but we also don't qualify as minorities to get the benefits of some programs" such as minority contracts, said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. ...

Whites and blacks are not given the choice to further specify what their backgrounds might be. In the past, one out of six households would receive a long form with 53 questions, one of them asking about ethnic origin.

"We're aware of the problems with the census," Gary Locke, secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, told a crowd of Arab Americans in Dearborn. "But we still need you to participate."

Locke and census officials said the ancestry question will be retained under the American Community Survey, which is done every month. But that survey reaches a much smaller percentage of the population than the full census.

Arab Americans and Chaldeans have varying views on the issue of race, said Andrew Shryock, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His research showed that religion can affect racial identity, with Arab-American Christians much more likely to see themselves as white than Arab-American Muslims.

Arab Americans and Chaldeans are 10 times more likely to identify their race as "other" as compared with the general population, according to the Detroit Arab American Study, a survey in 2003 of 1,000 Arabs and Chaldeans in metro Detroit.

"I'm often told by Arab Americans that they check 'white' on official forms but do not feel that they are 'white white,' " Shryock said.

In 1997, Mostafa Hefny, an Egyptian-American Detroiter, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Office of Management and Budget -- which classified Arabs as white in 1977 -- in order to be classified as black. In the lawsuit, Hefny said, because of his dark skin and kinky hair, he was more African than blacks such as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. The case was dismissed in 1998.

Race, ethnicity and the census

Race: On the 2010 form, question No. 9 asks a person to indicate his or her race. Choices are "White," "Black, African-Am, or Negro," "American Indian or Alaskan Native," and several Asian categories such as "Vietnamese," "Asian Indian," and "Chinese."

Hispanic: "Hispanic" is not considered a race, according to the U.S. census. On the 2010 form, question No. 8 asks if the person is "of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" followed by several boxes to check. Some of the choices include "Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am, Chicano," "Yes, Puerto Rican," and "Yes, Cuban."

Ancestry: On the long form in 2000, given to one of every six people, respondents were asked to list up to two ancestries, such as Irish, Polish, Lebanese, etc. But the census tabulated only those ancestries from Europe and the Middle East. Ancestries from other regions of the world -- such as Asia and Africa -- were classified as races.

This question was eliminated for the 2010 census.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

The Crypto-Counter-Steveosphere

In recent years, David Brooks of the NYT has taken up Malcolm Gladwell's rhetorical straw man device of writing as if the conventional wisdom in 21st Century American media circles consists of a cartoonish caricature of my ideas. Gladwell and Brooks then go on to refute Sailerism to vast applause.

Not surprisingly, Brooks writes in the NYT:
It’s become fashionable to bash Malcolm Gladwell for being too interesting and not theoretical enough. This is absurd. Gladwell’s pieces in The New Yorker are always worth reading, so I’ll just pick out one, “Offensive Play,” on the lingering effects of football violence, for a Sidney award — in part to celebrate his work and in part as protest against the envious herd.

Gladwell's problem isn't that he's "not theoretical enough." Gladwell is relentlessly theoretical. For example, he entitled one chapter in his bestseller Outliers "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." Gladwell's problem is that most of his countless theories are so wrong that a few minutes of reflection can debunk them.

Note that the one Gladwell article Brooks specifically endorses is one that I endorsed in a post entitled "David Brooks' lonely struggle against the Sailerite conventional wisdom." Unlike Gladwell, Brooks is smart enough and sly enough to know he doesn't want to get in a headlong battle over simple matters of fact, so he chose to endorse a Gladwell article pre-approved by me.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Media a lagging indicator

From the New York Times:
For First Time, Minority Vote Was a Majority

Much of the focus on the results of last month’s New York City elections was on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s small victory margin, despite the more than $102 million he spent to secure a third term. But the elections also produced a seismic political shift that so far has gone largely unnoticed: Black, Hispanic and Asian residents made up a majority of voters in a citywide race for the first time.

But, surely, that demographics are changing faster among voters than among journalists helps explain why the news media was so shocked that their beloved billionaire-mayor, the eighth richest man in America, barely squeezed through to a third term. Everybody they knew adored Bloomberg (who might be the only man in America hiring journalists). Bloomberg is their kind of guy.

But the new majority of voters didn't find him their kind of guy.

China likes blondes

China correspondent Keith B. Richburg of the Washington Post comes up with a tough reporting assignment for himself: the influx of blonde fashion models into China:
China's Next Top Model may well be a blue-eyed Canadian blonde named Nicole.

Nicole Vos, 19, has been modeling in Canada for four years and was doing runway shows for Toronto Fashion Week when "my agency one day just told me that I'm going to China." Now just halfway through her three-month contract in Beijing, Vos has been photographed for catalogues, magazines and commercials.

"I love it here!" Vos gushed, shouting over the blaring house music at Touch, a club at the Westin Beijing Chaoyang hotel, the models' watering hole. "I definitely want to come back!"

Vos isn't alone. Western models, it seems, are everywhere these days in the People's Republic of China: on department store display ads, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows. They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes like Vos, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs selling products from jeans to underwear.

A walk through the Guiyou department store in central Beijing is instructive. On the third and fourth floors, where designer brands from Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are showcased, there's a display of a blonde modeling over-the-knee boots and red-and-black pumps for Hongke shoes. A pouty brunette advertises Baykal, a local brand of wool products. Even the mannequins have Western features.

It may seem incongruous that a country of 1.3 billion people -- roughly half of them female -- would have to import models. Or that designers and clothing brands would want to use blondes and redheads to market to a nation of black-haired consumers.

But the use of foreign models has been growing in China's fashion industry, as brands jostle to be known as "yangqi," or trendy -- literally "foreign-style" in Mandarin Chinese. The alternative, using only Chinese models, is interpreted as making the brand come off as "tuqi," or countrified. ...

Then there is the matter of the Chinese sense of what constitutes beauty in a globalized world. "The foreign models' faces are much more three-dimensional," Ou said. "They look nicer in pictures."

He added that he never hires black models. "Our clients don't ask for black models," he said. "It's an issue of Chinese people's aesthetic view."

Almost all of these kind of articles are written by women journalists, so they inevitably end with a ringing demand for social values to be revolutionized in order that, come the revolution, the reporterette will be considered hotter looking. In contrast, Richburg, a black guy, is objective and bemused by it all.

December 28, 2009

Why not just hit the white kids on the head with a ballpeen hammer?

From the East Bay Express, the latest news from the national drive to eliminate racial gaps in test scores;
Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs
The proposal would trade labs seen as benefiting white students for resources to help struggling students.
By Eric Klein

Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students.

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse. [No Asians in Berkeley? Answer: BHS is 8% Asian. This wouldn't be happening if there were more Asians at BHS. Nobody pushes around determined Asian parents. Perhaps Asians already avoid Berkeley High School because of the power of multiculti ideology there.]

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.

Science teachers were understandably horrified by the proposal. "The majority of the science department believes that this major policy decision affecting the entire student body, the faculty, and the community has been made without any notification, without a hearing," said Mardi Sicular-Mertens, the senior member of Berkeley High School's science department, at last week's school board meeting.

Sincular-Mertens, who has taught science at BHS for 24 years, said the possible cuts will impact her black students as well. She says there are twelve African-American males in her AP classes and that her four environmental science classes are 17.5 percent African American and 13.9 percent Latino. [By the way, I've heard that Environmental Science is the easiest science AP test to pass.] "As teachers, we are greatly saddened at the thought of losing the opportunity to help all of our students master the skills they need to find satisfaction and success in their education," she told the board.

The full plan to close the racial achievement gap by altering the structure of the high school is known as the High School Redesign. It will come before the Berkeley School Board as an information item at its January 13 meeting. Generally, such agenda items are passed without debate, but if the school board chooses to play a more direct role in the High School Redesign, it could bring the item back as an action item at a future meeting.

School district spokesman Mark Coplan directed inquiries about the redesign to Richard Ng, the principal's assistant at Berkeley High and member of the School Governance Council. Ng did not return repeated calls for comment.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

What % of 7-footers play basketball?

Tyler Cowen asks a question of a type that I've often wondered about:

What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?

... The more general issues are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at.

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly -- albeit briefly -- to lots of the activities which might intrigue them. If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance. To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries. Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages.

The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug. If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn't become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.

Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels. ...

[Chess player] Magnus Carlsen's father suggested that if he hadn't had an older sister, he might not have taken up the game at all. Magnus was uninterested at ages four and five, but grew intrigued at age eight when he watched his father play chess with his older sister. I read this anecdote as suggesting he would have been exposed again to the game, one way or another, probably in school. ...

In sum, I believe that the odds that "the best (modal) chess player in the world" has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent.

Presumably, by "best chess player" in the world, Cowen means the most naturally talented. That raises the question of whether "overwhelming passion for the game" should be considered a talent or not. If somebody has the natural ability to be the best but lacks the urge to practice, they won't be a top chess player.

Generally speaking, the people who claw their way to the top of something are fanatics about it. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were crazy about swinging golf clubs before their second birthdays.

In contrast, Wilt Chamberlain was never terribly enthusiastic about basketball: he always said he would have preferred to be an Olympic decathlete, and he retired from the NBA while still in his prime and played professional volleyball for several years instead. Despite boring easily, Wilt was, however, the best basketball player in the world at some point or points in his career (certainly in 1966-67). This shows how important genetics is to basketball. When Wilt entered the league, he was one of only three 7-footers, and vastly stronger and more athletic than anybody near him in height.

In contrast, it's hard to imagine somebody who isn't passionate about golf being the best golfer in the world -- genetics aren't as important relative to dedication as in basketball.

Also, the more obvious your genetic advantage at a particular sport, the more likely you will be steered toward it. Nobody can tell just by looking at somebody if he'll have a talent for golf, so there are no doubt people with tremendous golf potential walking around who never seriously tried golf (two of the more successful golfers of the 1980s, Calvin Peete and Larry Nelson, never tried golf until they were in their 20s). But every 7 footer gets prodded about basketball.

Then there's the question of whether being a screw-up in most of the rest of your life might be considered a talent. Would Bobby Fischer have been Bobby Fischer if he was good at other things? As an exercise, consider Vladimir Nabokov, who for a number of years was crazy about chess (or at least chess problems). Nabokov had the energy, determination, intelligence, ability to hold many things in his head at once (think of the architecture of Pale Fire), competitive streak, and so forth to be a top chess player. But he had other things to do with his life, such as entomological research and writing great novels. Fischer didn't.

Similarly, Michael Crichton was big enough (6'9", which would have been listed as 6'11") to ride the bench in the NBA in the 1960s, but he had other things to do with his life, such as graduate from Harvard Medical School, write bestselling novels in his spare time, and become a movie director.

One way to think about this issue is to compare different fields of endeavor. For example, what are the odds that the current best polo player in the world has the most natural talent for playing polo of anybody in the world? Low, right? I can't recall anyone ever telling me in conversation that they had even tried polo.

In contrast, what are the odds that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has the most natural talent for the 100 meter dash of anyone in the world? I don't know what they are, but they are definitely higher than for polo.

Let's think about sprinting.

Sprinting may have the highest exposure rate of any sport in the world. Just about everybody kid in the world gets roped into a running race at some point early in life. (Is that universal? The place I'd be least surprised to hear it isn't is India.)

On the other hand, sprinting has a high loss rate because it's less interesting and less lucrative than some sports with which it directly competes for talent. So, it loses a lot of athletes to other sports. For example, Bob Hayes dominated the 1964 Olympics, then became an NFL wide receiver. Johnny Lam Jones finished 6th in the 1976 Olympic 100m dash finals at age 18, then became an NFL player. Herschel Walker held a sprinting world record for 10 minutes once, until Carl Lewis broke it in the next heat. It's not surprising that the dominant sprinter of our age, Lewis, wasn't very masculine and didn't like football, getting hit, team sports, or machismo.

It's not particularly surprising that the Jamaica has the top sprinters right now: track plays a larger role there than in other countries. Jamaicans love cricket, but they don't play American football, they don't play basketball, and they aren't quite as crazy about soccer as most other countries. So the loss rate of sprinters to competing activities is low.

Then there's nurture: sprinting isn't hugely complicated, but it requires coaching, along with decent quality tracks so sprinters don't get hurt. Jamaican athletes, who speak English, tend to get track scholarships to American universities, where they enjoy good training facilities. And finally, there's drugs: Jamaica doesn't test its own athletes the way Americans and Germans finally do, so it has a big advantage there.

All in all, I'd still probably say Usain Bolt is more likely to have more natural ability than anybody who is #1 in any other sports.

Another way to look at this general problem is to look at men who are close to 7 feet tall: how many of them never play basketball?

There is a lot of effort put into finding very tall men all over the world. In 2007, John Amaechi became the first retired team sport athlete in the U.S. to voluntarily come out of the closet. Amaechi is a good example of how basketball relentlessly trawls for guys with the right body for the game. He grew up in England, a country where basketball is a very minor sport. He was gay and his interests were artistic rather than sports-oriented. But he was 6'10" and 270 pounds, so when he was 17 somebody recruited him into trying basketball, and he wound up getting paid $9.5 million dollars for a truly awful career in which he repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for basketball.

There are very, very few of them. When I was at Rice, there were two 6'11" students, the starting and backup center. (The basketball coaches were perpetually sore at the backup center because he was always sneaking off to the library or engineering lab. They had the nagging suspicion that he was just exploiting his height to get a Rice engineering education.) When I was at UCLA with 35,000 students, there were two seven footers on campus: the starting center (Stuart Gray) and the backup (Mark Eaton).

To a high degree, the best in the world emerges out of a community that's close to the best community for that kind of competitor in the world. If Michelangelo is the greatest artist of all time, for example, then 15th Century Florence was an unsurprising time and place for the best to emerge from.

Consider Michael Jordan emerging out of basketball crazy North Carolina v. Hakeem Olajuwon emerging out of soccer crazy Nigeria. Exchange them at birth and my guess is that Olajuwon, who was a half foot taller than Jordan, would be, by far, the greatest basketball player in history. In our world, Olajuwon peaked in his thirties instead of his expected mid-twenties because that's how long it took him to fully learn the game that he didn't start playing until his late teenage years.

Another interesting phenomenon is the the first person to make a splash from somewhere is often better than anybody else to come from there in his wake for quite some time.

I first heard of Olajuwon in the fall of 1981. I imagine that there had been African college basketball players, but he was certainly the first that I, or most people, ever heard of. So far, he's never been surpassed. The NBA keeps trying to find the next Olajuwon:

By the N.B.A.’s count, 23 Africans have played in the league, including six last season. Three more were drafted in June, including the Tanzanian center Hasheem Thabeet, taken second in the first round out of Connecticut by Memphis.

... and they've come up with some fine players such as Dikembe Mutumbo, but the first remains the best.

That's not uncommon. If there are barriers to entry, such as getting from a continent that doesn't play basketball into big time American basketball, then the guy who breaks through those barriers first is likely to be something special.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

December 27, 2009

Am I going deaf?

Or was much of Robert Downey's English-accented dialogue in Sherlock Holmes close to inaudible?

I started to understand more of what the star was saying after about an hour. I think I could follow the diction of Jude Law's Dr. Watson a little better. In contrast, when I was 13 and first saw Laurence Olivier's Richard III on TV, it took me about five minutes to get the hang of the accent, the blank verse, and Shakespeare's 16th Century vocabulary.

Am I deafer now, or was there something wrong with the sound system in the theatre, or is Sherlock Holmes not worth watching until it comes out with on subtitles? (Of course, that raises the issue of whether it's worth watching on DVD.)

In contrast, Englishman Hugh Laurie has been doing Holmes with an American accent to perfection on House on TV for most of the decade. (In general, I don't mind the movie turning Sherlock Holmes into bare knuckle brawler -- Laurie has been doing a brilliant riff on Sherlock Holmes as a purely cerebral force 22 times a year.)

Part of the problem is no doubt using overlapping dialogue like in a 1930s screwball comedy. But audiences could follow His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby because Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn didn't actually step on each other's lines. Instead, they generally started each line with an unnecessary syllable like "Ohhhhhhh" while the other finished.

Visually, Guy Ritchie did a bunch of useful hand-holding exercises to keep the audience from losing the thread of the plot, which was much appreciated. But it's frustrating when dialogue is inaudible. Later in the movie I could understand better, but then the witticisms didn't seem very funny. That I will never understand -- why spend years and 9 figures mounting a movie and then not spend a few weeks and six figures for a script doctoring to make sure there are enough jokes? Downey is really funny, so why not give him some jokes?

Also, is it really a good idea to make Robert Downey Jr. an action star? Despite what they tell you in the making-of documentaries, the insurance companies that provide the business-interruption insurance for film productions won't let expensive stars do their own stunts. What action stars are supposed to do is fake the hard landing after the stunt man flies through the air.

The worst job I've ever seen a leading man do in regard was Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing on Friends) in a 2002 turkey called Serving Sara. In the middle of production, he'd disappeared into rehab for a vicodin painkiller addiction. So, when he got back, the crew treated him like he was as fragile as Christmas tree bulb. They couldn't let him get hurt because he was on the wagon for painkillers, and if he slipped off the film would never have gotten finished (which wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing for the history of cinema). So, the stuntman would fly through the air and then the director would cut to Chandler lying inertly on the ground.

Now, which major current 44-year-old star would you guess would be most vulnerable to a Vicodin addiction if he, say, dislocated his shoulder taking a tumble and then gallantly soldiered on to keep the production on track?


Sherlock Holmes wasn't nearly as bad as Serving Sara, but the interplay between the star and his stunt double was a lot less seamless than is the norm these days. Guy Ritchie's Vegematic editing distracts from this problem, but it's still there.

And is it really the best use of Downey's verbal skills to have him sitting around endlessly on giant productions waiting for the crew to get ready for his next shot?

And maybe Downey got all ripped for his shirtless boxing scene purely through natural weightlifting, but, don't forget, Downey's director was married for years to Madonna, a notorious performance enhancing drug abuser. So, if the middle-aged Downey's workout regimen wasn't producing the results Ritchie had in mind, how much pressure would he put on Downey to try some chemical shortcuts? But is Downey the right guy to be putting weird chemicals in his body?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer