Finally, A Word On Men's Gymnastics

I know you have probably been waiting for men's gymnastics to make it to this blog. Wait no longer.

This is about the FIG (Federation Internationale de Gymnastique), the US Olympic Committee, Paul Hamm, and Yang Tae Young.

Here's the story: In the All-Around Men's Gymnastics Competition at the Olympic Games on August 18, Yang Tae Young's parallel bars routine was incorrectly assessed by the FIG's technical panel as having a maximum point value of 9.9. As a result, Tae Young scored one-tenth of a point less than he deserved, winding up finishing in third place for a bronze medal. Paul Hamm amassed the highest point total in the All-Around and was awarded a gold medal, edging out the second place Korean gymnast Kim Dae Eun. Their point totals were: Hamm, 57.823; Eun, 57.811; and Young, 57.774. If not for the error, Yang Tae Young would have won the gold.

In a statement issued by the FIG on August 21, the FIG announced they made a "judging mistake" and suspended three officials. The FIG also announced that there is no mechanism for protest:
The judges’ marks have to be accepted as a final decision and cannot be changed.
In statements reported in the American press, Hamm has revealed the poor lines of communication with the FIG:

A lot of the time I did not know what the FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] had decided ... and what I was doing was basically looking on the Internet to see what reporters had been saying because no one had contacted me. Not a single person.
Fair enough. But Hamm also said, "If the FIG will decide that I have to give it back, I’ll do it."

Bruno Grandi wrote a letter to Paul Hamm and asked the USOC to pass it along to Hamm. You can read the letter here. In it, Grandi congratulates Paul on his performance, quotes Hamm's statement regarding returning the medal, concedes that the error lay with the FIG, and states "the true winner of the All-Around competition is Yang Tae Young." Bafflingly, the letter falls short of asking Hamm to return his medal: "you are the only one who can make this decision."

The USOC refused to relay the letter to Hamm, further undermining the lines of communication that Hamm complained about. The chair, Peter Ueberroth notes, "To put an athlete on the field of play [in position] to make a decision [on a contest] just doesn't make any sense." I have to agree.

How should this have unfolded?

  • Scenario 1: FIG concedes the error, says there is no mechanism for protest, that the review is for internal purposes only, and states clearly that the competition results should stand as awarded.

  • Scenario 2: FIG concedes the error, states that the competition results are invalid, reissues corrected results, and instructs the medalists to return the medals for redistribution.

  • Scenario 3: FIG concedes the error, states that the competition results are invalid, reissues corrected results, and petitions the IOC to award a second gold medal to Young.

Before I wrote this post, I thought Hamm was being obtuse and splitting hairs. After reading the FIG's statement and letter to Hamm, I have to confess that I am starting to agree with Hamm, and feel that the FIG has bungled the matter.


Sometimes, Web Fluid Isn't Just Web Fluid

I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday when I took my eight-year-old to see Spider-Man 2 as a treat for participating in a recent provincial swim meet. I expected the usual comic books for film fare. Something in the neighborhood of the X-Men rather than like the graphic novel adaptation From Hell. What I got was a film in the tradition of the comic book, but with some sophisticated flourishes.

[some spoilers here]

So, we get Peter Parker's familiar guilt about the death of his Uncle Ben, and we revisit his decision to use his supernatural arachnid powers to bring evil-doers to justice. We also get Peter's now familiar regret about sacrificing his relationship with Mary Jane to protect her from the enemies he creates.

However, Peter begins to suffer from impotence--as a superhero. He discovers a startling loss of powers, including the inability to produce web fluid. He is counseled by his physician who sees through Peter's awkward admission of his dysfunction. He tells Peter he is physically sound and that it's probably "all in his head." Peter vows to give up his Spider-Man persona and reclaim control of his life. Easier said than done.

A more controversial accent in the movie depicts Spider-Man's rescue of the passengers of a runaway subway train. Spidey stands at the nose of the train, fires webs at the buildings he shoots past, then restrains the train, arms outstretched, until it at last comes to rest. He assumes the crucifixion position, suffering for those he safeguards, then collapses and is brought into the train by the passengers. He is gently laid to rest in a kind of Subway Pieta (cf. Michgelangelo's Pieta; note wound). He bears lacerations to his lower chest in further homage to Christ's suffering.

I assume that the symbolism in these passages owes its presence to Michael Chabon, who co-wrote the story. Chabon also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. The novel was set in Manhattan of the 1930's and 40's during the rise of the comic book industry. Two young cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, develop a character called the Escapist, a hero who releases the oppressed from their overlords. The book overflows with symbolism about escape, and also uses the Judaic story of the Golem as a metaphor for the boys' creation of their comic book character. The origin story and subsequent Escapist escapades described in the novel have now been adapted into comic books in their own right, by Dark Horse Comics and the full collaboration of Michael Chabon.


Hyped Hybrid Vehicles

With skyrocketing oil prices, and legislation promoting the manufacture and purchase of energy efficient vehicles, automakers have been scrambling to introduce hybrid vehicles that are still saleable to a large market. This has resulted in laudable products, like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, achieving a gas mileage of 60mpg and 57mpg in the city respectively. The push has also resulted in the introduction of laughable hybrid vehicles achieving sub-20mpg fuel efficiency, like the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, boasting a 5-13% improvement on their non-hybrid counterparts. Do not be fooled by the hype, and take a close look at the numbers before assuaging your conscience by buying a hybrid vehicle.

Consumers are generally not prepared to sacrifice the security, size, versatility, and performance of powerful gas-guzzling vehicles. I myself purchased a 6-cylinder sport sedan when, in truth, a 4-cylinder family sedan would have sufficed, sacrificing a 10% poorer fuel economy.

Artificially insulating consumers from genuine escalations in fuel prices is hazardous for governments in terms of financial liability, and undermines the ability of the market economy to respond to the increasing pressures on the energy supply. Governments may instead need to modify manufacturing, purchasing, or consumption patterns by artificially increasing energy prices. They're planning on doing it in Ontario. It works for cigarettes. It works for Europeans and their gas prices. Europeans consume 30-60% less oil per capita than we do here in Canada or the US. Their gas prices are 2-4 times higher than those here or in the US.

So I don't envision an invisible hand guiding energy consumption, I see a benevolent hand, one interested in the long-term health of the planet, and the sustainability of the energy supply for as long as it lasts. Easily extractable crude oil reserves will run dry. We are ingenuous, but not ingenuous enough to create oil when it no longer can be found. Hubbert accurately predicted the peak of US oil production back in the 1950's as occurring sometime around 1970. This roughly coincided with the US requiring oil imports to keep pace with its consumption (see slide 10) for the first time. OPEC suddenly became relevant. Here's how the US Energy Information Administration describes the onset of the 1973 Energy Crisis:

In 1973, several Arab nations, angered at U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, instituted an oil embargo against the United States and Holland. The Arab oil embargo came at a time of declining domestic crude oil production, rising demand, and increasing imports.
The US has done much since to limit its vulnerability to external price pressures, but this can only last so long. Eventually, world oil production will peak and then decline, while global consumption continues to spiral out of control. This is especially true of the massive developing economies of India and China.

I hope an enlightened leadership can steer the right course. Personally, I have not done all I can, but I have moved to within two blocks of work, eight blocks of my grocery store and other shopping, and 3km of most of my destinations in town. This is making a dramatic impact on my fuel consumption, more than any vehicle aside from a moped or bicycle could, both pretty impractical for a family of four.

For energy saving ideas, check out the David Suzuki Foundation.


Secular Sunday School

The question: what if secularists--atheists, agnostics, humanists, rationalists--had an analog to a community church, a venue where they could congregate on a weekly basis, learn of philosophy, religion, history, and science from community leaders, direct concurrent programs of instruction for their children, and support community initiatives or charitable organizations in accord with their values? What if secularists could call upon one another when in need? What if they were able to strengthen their beliefs through a communal elevation of rationalism, and strengthen their communities by their leadership and coordinated action?

I have had this idea for only a short while. I have a great deal of respect for organized religion as a social institution. It provides counseling, sanctuary, charity, and community. When properly implemented, it stabilizes families and helps socialize children and adults to act responsibly and honorably. It educates, enlightens, and imparts wisdom to its congregation. It connects people to a shared past and provides identity. If not for the egregious flaw of relying on the invocation of a fictitious omnipotent being, through whose agents are His will, edicts, and knowledge imparted, I might almost be persuaded to join a religion.

There are also a multitude of pitfalls to asserting that a church's position is backed up by an incontrovertible authority; I need not enunciate these here. Much blood has been spilt in His name.

What we secularists need is a Secular Forum. Maybe a Secular Sunday School, a place for our children to be imbued with a sense of wonder for the world, and equipped with curiosity, knowledge, and skepticism so they may better understand its wonder. A place where tolerance, respect, responsibility, health, scholarliness, and love are promoted. We have too much xenophobia and hate in our world. Too much credulity and ignorance.

My son recently attended a summer camp sponsored by a church. In addition to the watersports, campouts, and sing-songs, the kids were also treated to about one hour of religious instruction a day. My son was taught that "Only fools don't believe in God," a sentiment he disagreed with but did not dispute. I know that my son is too well supported at home to believe that atheists are fools. I expect that most other children there are not, and accepted this truth without reservation.

Such is the danger and the promise of educating children.


The Village Idiots

I saw Shyamalan's The Village last week. I think the filmmaker is quite adept at packaging big, existential questions into thrillers. I know I'm in the minority, but I really enjoyed Signs. In a classic bait-and-switch, Shyamalan lures you into the theatre to watch a creature feature, but winds up exploring the nature of faith, and how a man wounded by love's loss, a man of the cloth, recaptures his faith in God. The creatures were a significant letdown, and could quite possibly have been avoided entirely, but that's another story.

[spoiler alert--some giveaways coming]

Back to The Village. I enjoyed this film too. I kept searching for allegorical correlation with contemporary politics. I thought in the early part of the film that the villagers were meant to represent Americans. I thought that their illusory boundary with the forest, and the menace beyond it, was meant to represent the illusory secure perimeter of the nation, and the terrorist threat beyond. That the 'warnings'--small, shaved and gutted animals--corresponded to terrorist incursions on American soil. The allegory was holding up pretty well. But as the story continued to unfold, the symbols started to fall apart and the true themes began to emerge. The film is a meditation on courage and love. There's a line in the movie that goes something like, "We sometimes avoid doing that which we most wish to do so others may not know our desires." The line is spoken by Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and addresses Lucius' reserve and withdrawal from Ivy at the moment his love for her began to swell. The remark opens Lucius' eyes to the unspoken love between his widowed mother (Sigourney Weaver) and Ivy's wedded father (William Hurt). Lucius interposes himself between the invaders and Ivy, and is spurred to confess his love to Ivy and propose. Ultimately, Ivy is called upon to face the menace in the woods in a similar show of love.

The maddening thing about the story is the Elder Council, the aforementioned idiots. We learn the true nature of the threat to the community, and it comes from within. It is the elders' fear and disengagement--a sentiment paralleled in the relationship between Lucius' and Ivy's parents, members of the Council--that leads to the Village's vulnerability. And the really maddening thing is that the prevaricators prevail, turning tragedy to their ends.

A Hollywood movie without a happy ending. How refreshing.

I liked Shyamalan's clever insertion of himself into the movie, a la Hitchcock, via over the shoulder shots and a reflection in a glass cabinet door. The film production if beautiful. The dialog is sometimes stilted, especially when uttered almost robotically by William Hurt. The mediocre dialog and creature design are internally consistent deficiencies in the film. You'll know what I mean once you've seen it. Mostly, the film works. Eight of ten.


Kids Dig Dinosaurs

I recently returned from a family trip to Drumheller, Alberta. We did some day hikes in the badlands at Horseshoe and Horsethief Canyons. We also toured the Royal Tyrrell Museum and picnicked at the feet of the World's Largest Dinosaur. Good, wholesome, nerdy family fun. My boys, aged 5 and 8, enjoyed the otherworldly terrain of the place. They scrambled over the sandstone and clay and didn't mind getting their hands dirty in their excitement. They acquired some rocks of no scientific value, but of immense interest to them.

The museum exhibit was fantastic. It held the attention of my five-year-old for about three hours, and my eight-year-old's for six. I especially liked being walked through the excavation of a fossil find, the Extreme Therapod Gallery, and the Burgess Shale Diorama. Creatures found in Burgess Shale deposits were rendered in their bioluminescent splendor at twelve-times scale in a creepy seascape diorama with a glass floor that allows you to glide through the scene as the seafloor creatures appear to scuttle beneath your feet.

Most of the exhibit is displayed chronologically, each period being preceded with a globe illustrating the break-up of pangaea, the location of modern day Alberta in the primordial geography, and the position of the period on a timeline.

It is a long way to go for such a display unless you're really dinosaur crazy. But if you're ever in the region, it's worth a day's drive to reach Drumheller and enjoy these simple pleasures: commune with nature, learn about life's pageant on this planet, and support the ongoing pursuit of such knowledge.