Erratic Like a Fox

“Why did he do that?”

“How could she?”

“What was she thinking?”

Tsk, tsk.

We’re living in an age where we cheer the eccentric and boo the erratic, in equal measure. Same as it ever was.

I was prompted to write a post for today’s Word-of-the-day challenge about Erratic.  I immediately reflected on the past couple of weeks. Elon Musk and the joint. Serena pointing at the ref. Madonna, always controversial. What do they all have in common? Success, you motorscooters! Success, despite their seeming erratic behavior. Success which comes from their innovation, talent, and unpredictability.

Serena Williams serving
Serena beating the pants off her rival in the U.S. Open semifinal before losing in the finals, photo by Seth Wenig, AP.

The Erratic 85.49% Winner

Serena is the greatest tennis player in history. Winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, she now competes against teenage athletes who grew up idolizing her. About to turn 37 years old, with an infant at home, she blazed into the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. Although she lost both finals, her power and presence were remarkable given her recent circumstances.

She yelled at the umpire, who apparently is known for harshly judging players. She broke a racket. She then criticized the perceived unequal treatment for receiving penalties that she felt men had not been assessed in similar situations. The fickle public saw her both as underdog and as sore loser, and the controversy overshadowed the tennis, the play, and the win by 20-year-old up-and-coming Naomi Osaka.  Williams has lost matches before, in part, due to emotional reactions. Tennis is a game fueled by emotion.

Williams has also won Grand Slam singles tournaments. Twenty-three of them, more than any other woman or man since tennis went to the open (“professional”) era. Roger Federer, listed by some as the greatest player, cedes that title to Serena; Federer’s won 20 Grand Slams. Williams also has four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam doubles wins (Federer has one gold, one silver and no Slam doubles). Serena Williams: Greatest Of All Time.

By the time little Alexis is saying “mama badass,” Williams will have won another Final.  I hope it’s in the catsuit.

Madonna wearing Moroccan fashions
Madonna at the VMA awards in traditional Moroccan garb, photo from Thenationalae.

Express Yourself as Erratically as You Want

Another figure lambasted  for “bizarre” behavior is Madonna, who turned 60 this month. She’s always been controversial because she sets trends rather than follows them. Madonna’s been a full-employment vehicle for spin doctors who love to critique her fashion sense, singing voice, marriages, divorces, public speeches, political views, vegetarian diet, religious practices… all while wanting to know every intimate detail about what she’s wearing, eating, doing, praying, and saying.

At the recent Video Music Awards, scheduled to present Video of the Year, Madonna was asked before going on stage to share a memory about Aretha Franklin. She told a story about being inspired by Franklin and even sang a little before then presenting the award to Camilla Cabello.

However, VMA chose to put a huge photo of Franklin up on the screen as if the award presentation was always intended to be a tribute. Naturally, the Twittersphere and blog-o-universe was shocked! shocked! at how Madonna’s tribute to such a legend turned out to be self-centered. No doubt Madonna sighed and called her publicist, likely on speed dial.

Madonna also chose an outfit highlighting the beauty of Morocco’s Imazighen people, including a horned headdress, silver necklace, and colorful robes.  She was criticized for “appropriating the culture” rather than extolled for presenting it to a broader audience. When she was younger, critics whined about what she wore in similar measure. Then, Target and Macy’s started doing a brisk business selling knock-off Madonna outfits.

As she gets older, critics whine about how she looks older.  I like what Fiona Sturges said:

When she is told she should slow down, step back and act her age, she protests in the only way that she knows: in the public gaze… All hail to Our Lady, still fighting, still hacking away at the undergrowth, still clearing a path and changing the world for the rest of us.
Fiona Sturges in The Guardian

Erratic to the Moon

Some of this type of criticism at Serena and Madonna is sexist. Some is also aimed simply at those who are different and refuse to conform. Innovation drives the world forward, but often innovators have to pay a stiff price for any choice they make which doesn’t fit social norms. Take another giant on the cutting edge: Elon Musk.

Elon Musk smoking
Elon Musk appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast, photo at NBCNews.

Musk has been torn apart recently by the wolves in business journalism, most recently for appearing on a podcast smoking a joint. The Washington Post speculated about his mental instability in an article that suggested that “people are speculating about his mental instability.” Fortune complained that the military might have to rethink the SpaceX contracts.  Because there are so many other companies that make rockets which successfully take payloads to the International Space Station that the Air Force can just pick somebody else… Oh, I forgot, there aren’t.

Elon Musk started a payments business that turned into Paypal and, when it was bought by eBay, he retired at age 30. He began SpaceX out of his  desire to work on the colonization of Mars. He joined the board of Tesla, then helped press it into practical production.  It’s been a twenty-year slog to figure out all the gory details–sourcing large-scale battery productions, bringing the cars into mainstream, and advancing large scale solar cell production at the same time.

His bio includes a stream of start-ups and flare-ups with his boards, arguing about whether PayPal should stay on Unix or go to Windows and clashing with the business community about whether Tesla should stay private or go public. But the car company started from nowhere with ideas that were deemed impractical and impossible and now the Model 3s, which will sell for nearly the price of a Toyota, are going into production this year.

Elon Musk is brash, outspoken, impulsive, a horrible role model, a great role model, a human being, and he’s made at least three companies successful by creating products that didn’t successfully exist. If we’re lucky, he’ll stay interested in combating climate change.

When thinking about what the press says about these innovators, who live on the cutting edge, I always go back to Bette Midler.

F’ em if they can’t take a joke.


A Shallow Understanding of Sport

Since I am such a lover of sport, I have been surprised this week by the lack of sensitivity displayed in multiple sport stories. No, I am not talking about the political correctness type of sensitivity but the fine tuning required for common sense and intelligence.

Les spectateurs de bicyclette sont stupides

Consider, for example, the Tour de France. I have one friend who is an avid follower of the event, who shrugs at basketball and disdains football, but whose eyes lit up last week describing the day when the riders went over massive amounts of cobblestones. Perusing last night’s updates with my friend in mind, imagine my surprise at googling “Tour de France” and seeing that the top suggested pairing included “tear gas.”

Pepper spray at Tour de France protest
Pepper spray and tear gas at the Tour de France due to a farmer protest, photo by The Boxing Observer

Continue reading “A Shallow Understanding of Sport”

Clean Winning at the Triple Crown

Justify wins Belmont
Justify winning the Belmont, photo from Foxnews

In the 143 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes have been run, only 13 horses have won all three (9%). Fifty-two horses have won only two of the races; 23 failed the third race. The Belmont is the longest, so a horse that likes the front–like Justify–would have to hold the lead forever after already becoming The Target. Thus, I found myself teary-eyed watching Justify complete the Triple Crown even though we had only just been introduced.

Winning is hard enough when everyone tries equally, but even harder when everyone tries specifically to beat you.

The Lengths That They Must Go

I still remember that other chestnut thoroughbred from 1973. Everyone should watch that Belmont race (thanks, Youtube!). Secretariat was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, although I didn’t know it then. What sticks out is his surge along the back stretch, “Big Red” on his way to winning by 31 lengths. TV cameras couldn’t zoom out as they do now, so as the horse pulls away, the camera has to pan farther and farther right to see the rest of the field. Continue reading “Clean Winning at the Triple Crown”

Basketball as Epic

Golden State Warriors artwork battling NBA
NBA Battle from 2018 exhibit Dubz Against the World, drawn by Pzhouart.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
The Odyssey, opening, Fagles translation

The Trojan war lasted nine years, not counting pre-war skirmishes, trade negotiations at Grecian Menelaus’ palace, or the kidnap of Menelaus’ wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. The Trojans and the Greeks had a long history. Epic hero Odysseus wandered among the magic isles of the Mediterranean for ten years. Still older Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh spanned decades while the Indian classic epic Mahabharata lasted for generations. So it may seem impudent to talk of a four-year basketball rivalry in the same terms. Yet many parallels lie between sporting events today and the stories of old, and a contest that now covers an unprecedented four meetings could be described in the language of the epic. Continue reading “Basketball as Epic”

Wow — Team USA Pyeongchang Olympic Medals

Congratulations to our latest Olympic medalists! I have to provide one more shout out to the amazing athletes, who provided an outstanding sixteen days of competition and success for Team USA, from Red Gerard’s and Jamie Anderson’s acrobatics in snowboarding to John Shuster and the curling team’s miracurlllll. Other memorable moments the women’s cross-country ski relay team who picked up the first gold medal in USA cross-country skiing EVER — Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall.

Diggins Randall win Olympics Pyeongchang cross-country relay
Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the gold medal in the women’s team sprint cross-country skiing relay. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

And, of course, the women’s hockey team finally getting that elusive gold medal in hockey (again!) through a hard-fought battle in regulation time. (What about the men’s team? Didn’t crack the semi-finals. Oh, because they’re not professionals? How much do the women get paid to play again? OK, moving on…)

Just one more time here is the list of all the U.S. medal winners, courtesy of Wikipedia:

2018 Pyeonchang US Medalists
List of Team USA Medalists in Pyeongchang 2018

Medal Count Analysis–Bogus and Real

Since it’s the Olympics and there are, well, numbers, then I can’t resist commenting on the data behind the tag line I keep hearing from the media: the US had its worst showing in medal performance since Nagano. Medal count summaries tend to be gobbledygook anyway, as I mentioned in a previous essay, but this offhand dismissal of the athlete’s accomplishments is particularly heinous hornswaggle.

While the 28 medals achieved was lower than in recent Games, that is out of context. Here’s a chart of all the U.S. winter medal results since the 1924 Games in Chamonix:

Notice that in 1988 Nagano and prior years, the U.S. was barely in double digits, and, in fact, was barely cracking the low teens. When all the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events were added, starting in Salt Lake City, the U.S. medal counts started to double and triple.  The phenomenal medal total for Team USA in Pyeongchang is nearly twice the average prior to 1998. So, it’s not as if this 28 medals is some tiny number.

Also, our high numbers in recent games were partly due to those new extreme sports and due to the “home court” advantage of Salt Lake City and Vancouver. If you take those new sports out of the totals, our Pyeongchang result were better than many of those prior years and in line with the strong showings since 1992. In other words, those medals in curling, cross-country, and bobsled really are in line with prior Games.

I can’t wait to see a new generation of curlers and cross-country skiiers come through in Beijing 2022, inspired by the John Shusters and Kikkan Randalls of these Games.  U-S-A Slay all day!