Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow

1st U.S. black American winter Olympians
Willie Davenport & Jeff Gadley, 1st African-Americans on a Winter Olympics team, courtesy of ESPN

The achievement was a historical footnote at Lake Placid, an asterisk among the ALL CAP raves for the “big” notables like Team USA’s hockey upset of the Soviets and Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley, push men for the four-man bobsled, were the first black Americans included on a U.S. winter Olympic team. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in two days, the intersection with Black History month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss diversity and to celebrate notable achievements by athletes in the Games.

I was somewhat bewildered immediately in seeking information. First, while data on medal winners came easily, detail about the first Olympic participants was harder to find. Boxer George Poage was cited as the first black medal winner at the summer Olympics in 1904, only the third time the Games had been staged. Whether he was also the first participant is hard to determine. It took quite a bit of digging to ferret out the ESPN analysis that showed Davenport and Gadley as the first winter participants.  Secondly, it was a bit shocking to realize that while only eight years passed before African-Americans were added to the summer U.S. teams, a full 56 years occurred before blacks were included on TeamUSA in the winter. Continue reading “Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow”

Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams

I Tonya movie still, broken skate
I, Tonya
courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

The Olympics start in nine days, but this is not–strictly speaking–a post about the Olympics. This is a reflection prompted by seeing the movie, I Tonya, which cleverly insinuated itself into movie screens early enough to put itself in Oscar contention for 2017 but late enough to be seen right before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. The mockumentary-style film is worth seeing as a drama even if you’re not a skate fan. It also reveals the quirks in skate judging that result in odd results, perhaps to Harding, but to so many more that Olympic skate results are practically a conveyor belt of unfair outcomes.

Bashing Someone’s Hopes

Margot Robbie is terrific as Tonya Harding*, the powerful but feisty skater who won the U.S. Nationals but wanted more. Her manipulative and abusive husband launched a plot to scare her competition and his cretinous cohorts improvised with a crowbar to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Harding became a national joke and an international disgrace. I thought the film clearly showed Harding’s culpability in covering up the plot after the fact, lying to the FBI, and suing to keep her Olympic spot.

But afterward I heard some say that they thought the movie showed Harding was robbed, that she should have won a medal, shouldn’t have been pilloried by the press, and deserved more. Harding’s interview with the New York Times this month suggests she still thinks she was mistreated. The film–assuming its accuracy–does make one thing clear: when you are abused by your loved ones, as Harding was by her mother and husband, you come to feel that the world is against you and that you bear no responsibility for whatever happens. Continue reading “Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams”

‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?

Sherlock Holmes playing the violin while puffing on a pipe, gray smoke misting the air like thoughts of inductive reasoning… Hercules Poirot sipping on his tisane while musing with his little gray cells…Mr. Monk framing the room with his hands… Columbo, hand to his forehead, dripping cigar ash on his raincoat…such detectives have captured popular imagination for centuries and are among the most famous of our modern heroes. Mysteries have nearly eclipsed novels as popular reads. Agatha Christie is called the world’s best-selling author with two billion sales of her 66 detective novels.

How did we get here?

Most discussions of the history of the mystery define the universe as related to detective fiction — a premise I grant — and suggest that Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” was the beginning of the mystery. But let’s go back a little further. How does Poe’s 1841 short story about a detective, C. August Dupin, arise into existence? What were detectives before then? Didn’t anyone write short stories? Didn’t anyone write stories about people who investigated things? Continue reading “‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?”

I Didn’t See That Coming

Why don’t we anticipate large scale events better? Giant hurricanes (again, the 3rd in ten years)…500 year floods (again, the 3rd in Houston in three years by at least one account)… the crash of the economy… the election of crazy people… the list is getting pretty darned long.  People’s inability to see the coming tsunami wave is analyzed quite well in a book I recently read: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. The illusion of understanding…
b. The retrospective distortion…
c. The overvaluation of factual information and the handicape of authoritative and learned people
The Black Swan

Taleb’s book is only ten years old but already a classic. I read it on the mini-bus driving around the quiet hills of Ireland, and I can’t imagine a better way to absorb such an indictment of our human myopia. It’s very readable; there are some numbers in it, but mostly in the footnotes or the appendix. Most of it is anecdotes and stories, which is kind of ironic, since one of Taleb’s main points is that we rely on anecdotes to understand things because we can’t cope with the math. As it turns out, that’s probably okay, because we aren’t using the math properly anyway.

The Illusion of Understanding–Don’t Be the Turkey
One way Taleb says we fail to predict properly is in our inability to understand the world in front of us. The world is complicated and large; it’s hard to take it all in. As a result, we either (a) conclude that we can’t predict anything because it’s too complicated or (b) we rely on simply models and create quasi-statistical understandings entirely based on the present. These models fall apart if what our scope is limited. The best example of this is Taleb’s Turkey analogy.

The turkey, born on January 1st, for example, learns to look forward to the chef. The chef feeds him every day, lovingly popping the tastiest grains and morsels into his little mouth. For 330 days, he sees that chef come over and knows, from experience, that something good’s gonna happen.

Until it doesn’t. Continue reading “I Didn’t See That Coming”