Monthly Archives: June 2012

Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

Good song. And really good video.


Floating Cyclists by Zhao Huasen

Take pictures of cyclists. Erase bicyles.

(via Faith is Torment)


George Plimpton is one of my heroes. Journalist, writer, sometime actor and the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, he had a seemingly insatiable desire for new experiences. Ones that often seemed completely at odds with his literary demeanour. Even half of his life would have been a life twice lived.

Plimpton was the father of modern participatory sports journalism, having pitched in the National League, sparred with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, trained with the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions, played in preseason goal for the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, attempted to get on the PGA tour, performed as a high-wire circus act and been soundly beaten at tennis by Pancho Gonzales. He recorded each of these experiences with great wit and honesty for Sports Illustrated and in a number of best-selling books. He also played in the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, and acted alongside John Wayne, Warren Beatty and Matt Damon.

He is responsible, too, for one of my favourite lines in all of sports journalism when, covering the Rumble in the Jungle for Sports Illustrated (Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974) and attempting to convey Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, he described the great heavyweight as leaning far back over the ropes “at the angle of someone looking out of his window to see if there’s a cat on the roof.”

He was a remarkable man.

Plimpton! a documentary of his life premiered at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival in Washington last week. The film’s website is here, and the trailer here.

Vanessa Carlton – Hear the Bells

Teofilo Stevenson, 1952-2012

 “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

This week the greatest amateur heavyweight to have ever laced a pair of gloves died, aged only 60. The phenomenal Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson, won consecutive Olympic gold medals in Munich 1972, Montreal ‘76 and Moscow 1980 and had Cuba not boycotted the LA Olympics in 1984 he almost certainly would have added a fourth title to this triptych. He was crowned world amateur champion in 1974, 1978 and 1986, Pan-American champion in 1975 and 1979 and was one of only three fighters to win three Olympic golds, alongside Laszlo Pap of Hungary and his fellow Cuban, the titanic Felix Savon. It is an extraordinary record.

Despite this remarkable feat, however, he is even more famous in his homeland for his refusal, aged 22 and possibly at the peak of his powers, to fight Muhammad Ali for an unconfirmed $5,000,000. Even in the face of rapacious advances from promoters Don King and Bob Arum. For that reason he is held up alongside Che Guevara and Fidel Castro himself as a post-revolutionary Cuban icon. It was this snub, to the USA, the CIA and all agents of capitalism, and delivered with the immortal line above, that has cemented his place in history. Both political and sporting. As a result he enjoyed the untainted adulation of an entire nation, and the global left, for the remainder of his life.

Whether or not he would, or could, have beaten Ali will remain the subject of barroom debate among boxing fans, from Havana to Honolulu, for many years to come. Tactically amateur and professional boxing are related by only the thinnest of bloodlines. But his death marks the passing of a preternatural  fighter, a giant of a man in every sense, and a unique political era.

Here is the Guardian obituary:

Boxing holds a special place in the hearts of Cubans, and after Fidel Castro banned professional sports in the early 1960s, the country quickly became a dominant power in the amateur rings. Their biggest star was the heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who has died after suffering from heart disease aged 60. Stevenson was the second boxer, after the Hungarian László Papp, and the first heavyweight, to become a three-time Olympic gold medallist. (His fellow Cuban heavyweight Félix Savón has since accomplished the same feat.)

Stevenson famously turned down a potential million-dollar payday for a fight against Muhammad Ali, which would have been billed as an epic confrontation between American democracy and Soviet-style communism. “What is a million dollars,” asked Stevenson, “compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” The match would have been intriguing; tall, handsome and formidable, with a seemingly unmarked face, Stevenson was the amateur Ali. But he was rarely tested by the three-round amateur bouts.

I was at the Montreal Forum in 1976 when Stevenson won his second Olympic gold medal. His opponent, the Romanian Mircea Simon, was respectful of Stevenson’s dominance and edged warily around the ring for two rounds, landing the occasional long-range jab, to the delight of his corner. In the third and final round, he tried to land a punch. Stevenson deployed a powerful right-handed counter, and SSimon’s corner threw the towel into the ring immediately.

Stevenson was born in Cuba’s eastern Las Tunas province. His father was an immigrant from Saint Vincent; his mother was a first-generation Cuban whose parents had come from Saint Kitts. Big for his age, and otherwise seemingly unfocused, he began sparring seriously at nine and by his early teens, coached by John Herrera, had won his first junior title.

Soon he was training in Havana under the Soviet coach Andrei Chervonenko, who began teaching him the style perfected in eastern Europe to take advantage of amateur scoring, which counted all punches landed equally. Combined with the more professional style he had already learned, Stevenson quickly established himself. He lost in the national finals at 17 and won bronze at the Pan American Games in 1971, after losing to the highly touted American Duane Bobick.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Stevenson and Bobick met in the quarter-finals, in what was probably the greatest fight of Stevenson’s career. The fight went into the decisive third round, and he won after putting Bobick down three times. Stevenson then easily won his semi-final, and he took the gold when Romania’s Ion Alexe withdrew due to injury. This began Stevenson’s unprecedented run of domination in the amateur ranks. He won the 1974 World Championships before a wildly partisan crowd in Havana and the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City before his Olympic victory in Montreal. These were heady times for Cuban sport – Stevenson and the athlete Alberto Juantorena were arguably the biggest stars of the 1976 Olympics.

Stevenson’s only losses during this time came in dual meets with the Soviets, in 1973 and 1976, to Igor Vysotsky, but he won further World, Pan American and Olympic titles, the latter achieved in Moscow in 1980. His streak ended at the 1982 World Championships, with a loss to Italy’s Francesco Damiani, but he would likely have won a fourth Olympic gold had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles; Stevenson had beaten Tyrell Biggs, who won the Olympic gold, in a Cuba-US dual meet before the Games.

Stevenson won the 1986 World title at super-heavyweight, but retired in 1988 after another Cuban boycott – this time of the Seoul Olympics – cost him another chance for a fourth gold. He ended his career with 302 wins and only 22 losses. Stevenson then lived in relative luxury in Havana. He became a coach with the national team, and rose to the vice-presidency of the national boxing federation. It was while travelling with the national team from a match against the US in 1999 that he was arrested at Miami airport, accused of headbutting an airline employee. Released on bail, he returned to Havana, and never faced trial, but said that he had been provoked by Cuban exiles in Miami, because he was an internationally successful Cuban sports figure.

In January this year, Stevenson was hospitalised with a blood clot. He was gladdened by the outpouring of support he received from around the globe – “even from Miami,” he said.

He is survived by two children.

• Teófilo Stevenson, boxer, born 29 March 1952; died 11 June 2012

Dark Side of the Lens

The breathtaking, award winning video from artist and waverider, Mickey Smith


Play Ping Pong. Read Tolstoy. Daydream….and Get Smarter.

The Virtues of Daydreaming by Jonah Lehrer (via)

Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.

At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”

In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.

Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” eloquently describes this form of thinking as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.

A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara helps explain why. The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.

Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.

Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks. This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.

On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.

Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.

If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.”

Schooler has tried to apply this hypothesis to his own life. Although he used to take piles of work with him on vacation—he’d read papers and grant proposals on the beach—he now finds that he has better ideas when he lets himself really get away. “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem.”

A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.

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