Saturday, December 24, 2011

Origins of the Beautiful Game - a Christmas Parody

Because it's the Christmas I thought an examination of the Michelangelo's beautiful artwork high on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was in order.  A friend sent me this interactive link so you can rotate and zoom to most of the biblical scenes.   But here is a still shot to help you orient yourself to what's going on in there.  It's a pretty busy place and Michelangelo was a pretty busy guy from July 1508 to October 1512.  Some of the history behind his work can be found at Art History.  As we examined the work in detail this holiday season a different sort of story began to emerge.  Something else was going on in these paintings that was hard to understand.  Looking straight up in the center of the Chapel it appears that God himself is hurling himself from the painting in an effort to do something.  It's not entirely clear what He intends to do until you understand the history of the painting. Over the past 500 years the painting has been altered in ways that have covered up important details and in other cases exposed additional evidence.

Using the latest in forensic art examination techniques, as well as with cameras, and special lighting, we were able to uncover some secrets that were hidden from current view long ago.  We believe, that these secrets were in fact intended and painted by the master.  Once the secrets have been uncovered one can little deny the action that is going on in each scene.   In this particular one we have what appears to be an early ancestor of Wayne Rooney winding up for a thunderous strike through the goal posts of heaven as an unknown defender possibly Italian, slides in.  The intentions of the Big Guy are clear.  He is diving off his line to make the save.  The human body is beautiful.  Apart from his sculptures Michelangelo has been able to capture the movement of the human body in ways that can only be expressed through a beautiful game.  He has captured the beauty of these movements exquisitely.

As we continued to study each fresco, more and more elements of the beautiful game began to emerge...some not so exquisite.   One element of the game which continues to be a vexing problem within the international community is why do Italian strikers seem to fall to ground too easily? Well from this famous scene there can be no doubt the technique was well understood many centuries ago.  It takes little or no imagination to understand what's going on here.  In modern day football this scene would demonstrate how English defender John Terri could step in to win the ball from Italian striker Fransesco Totti.  Henceforth, Totti would dive to the ground with seemingly little or no contact… but the tremendous amount of pain in his face is registered for all to see, including the ref!  Now we understand completely how Italian strikers learned how to's been ingrained in their culture from a very early time.

Whether or not Totti should be punished is a question of judgement.  The commandments, as they have been established quite clearly by FIFA, penalize overt attempts to deceive the Ref  with a Red Card.  In this scene the Ref clearly is able to discern what's really in the heart of man.  He recognizes the trickery and rewards Totti with a sending off and documents the offence in the proverbial book.
At the other end of the pitch (or Chapel) even more scenes are depicted.  In this one a distant ancestor of Gianluigi Buffon, saves a certain goal scoring attempt.  It was definitely a clean save with  no foul (as indicated by the “play-on” gesture by the ref in the immediate background) despite the protests of the Italian defenders.  However, the FIFA rules regarding the protection of the keeper were not fully recognized by all back then.  Therefore, most defenders were wearing a form of padded leather cap to protect themselves from marauding Europeans entering the box at full flight.

Whereas leather is no longer used, it is clear that modern goalkeepers did not invent the use of the “scrum cap” to prevent further head injury.  The material, however,  has changed.  A synthetic, it is lighter and offers even greater protection.  In this photo, Petr Cech displays the proper use of this important headgear.

Finally, what would the beautiful game be without advertising? We know from history that Michelangelo had a heck of a time getting paid for the painting he did in the chapel.  Throughout the mosaic evidence of Michelangelo's attempts to find sponsorship were uncovered.  In this particular scene we learned more about the game then just who was paying for advertising space. Clearly, since Australian kangaroo leather had yet to be discovered, the early Italian soccer shoe designers experimented with lamb’s skin.  Undoubtedly this additional use of the material insured employment of Sheppard's for several more decades. 
I'm sure many more secrets exist within the masterpiece yet to be uncovered.  But please consider these few alternative beautiful moments as you enjoy a joyous holiday season.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Borg Are Waiting...Please Turn off and Stow all Electronic Devices

Public outcry over the requirement to shut off and stow our electronic devices during air travel seems to be reaching a fever pitch. On November 27 an article in the Technology section of the New York Times by Nick Bilton headlined, “Disruptions: Fliers Must Turn Off Devices but It’s Not Clear Why” hit the street. On 6 December the high profile actor Alec Baldwin created a sensation when he was thrown off an American Airlines flight for apparently refusing to unplug from from his game of “Words with Friends”.

In his article Bilton argues that it’s not clear how not turning off our electronic devices poses a safety of flight issue and that the time has come for these rules to change. He works some math to show that many travelers leave their devices on (intentionally or otherwise) and since we have not seen a catastrophic incident as a result, surely these devices can’t be disrupting to a planes electronics. His math works out to 11 million air travelers who have left their devices on over the last four years and since we haven’t seen a related incident it must be fine to leave our electronics on.

Many of us feel the affront to our personal freedom when we are asked to unplug. That disruption and growing sense of violation is on the rise in our society. In those with an over stuffed sense of entitlement the violation has been more severe and has manifested itself in the high profile public incidents that make the news. Regardless of the safety threat to air travel, is this growing sense of loss something greater?  Do we simply feel like our rights are being violated or do we sense something deeper? Is our evolutionary clock ticking?  Is that longing to be connected and remained connected some of the first vestiges of our collective emotions? Is it the hidden force of evolution that one day, many futures from now, will herald in us a real pain felt in our central nervous system as when neurons are forcefully severed from our physical bodies today? I think so...but clearly that day is still a long way off...but these very first emotions are  felt and cannot be denied.

But before that day we still have a growing problem to address. Should we get upset when we are disconnected during air travel?  Is the discomfort of the emotional pangs of being cut from the grid too high? Is the freedom we are forced to give up versus the added safety margin as Bilton suggests, simply too high?Many of these geniuses, Bilton and Baldwin included, are doing the risk vs freedom in their head and coming up with the answer that for them, the risk is simply not worth the inconvenience of powering down. This particular math is hidden the statistics unfortunately Bilton did the wrong math. Whereas I do not believe the FAA or the various airlines who restrict the use of electronic devices (with the exception of cell phones which they must) have done the math  it turns out that the math will continue to change over time. The radiation that electronic devices output in digital form vs analogue is far less than then it was in the old days. Although the number of users has increased considerably. I would argue more than 1% of people inadvertently leave their electronics on. The number is much higher than Bilton’s number yet still we have progressed without incident due to a cellphone or iPad intefering with  aircraft electronics.

However, Bilton and Baldwin’s desire to leave their devices on is not all about aircraft interference, at least not at the current levels and their relation to aircraft electronics. The rules are about living in a civil, as well as safe, orderly society along with the potential impact on the greater good. No where other than in air travel are we thrown together so close and must cooperate for such  good. We all submit to may indignities, inconveniences, discomfort so that we may reach our destination in one piece. The outrage may simply be a reaction to the last vestiges of personal freedom that are being stripped away when we are being told to unplug from the grid...same as we submit to searches and pat downs.

Beyond the combined potential disruption of 200 passengers each with cell phones and iPads all leaving them on...several hundred electronics devices, all concentrated inside an aluminum tube could produce effects that simply are unknown. Whereas all this interference may, in the end, not interrupt the aircraft electronics, it is a well known fact that 200 devices reaching out the closest cell tower simultaneously, will indeed cause cellular disruption. And it’s not just the closest cell tower, from 35,000 feet in the sky a large number of cell towers are in view...up to 200. As the each cell phone leaves and enters a new coverage area it sends out an inquiry, regardless if the phone is in use, only if it is switched on. The quick math shows that 200 phones reaching out to 200 towers can create quite a busy network. Even if you don’t use your cell phone in flight, and it remains on, your phone will be continuously entering a new coverage area. If you leave your phone on expect your battery to be dead at the end of a coast to coast flight even if you never use it. This figure tries to explain the relationship.

In addition to these 40,000 disruptions (keep in mind that is in one location and the location is changing continuously) using our devices reduces our attention that may be required during take off and landing. If you have your phone to your ear or your headphones on playing focused on your iPad how will you hear the flight attendants instructions in an emergency?

Also, consider the hard plastic, aluminum, and glass will also become lethal projectiles flying around during an landing incident.

Let’s not forget the important safety briefing at the start of the flight. This alone can compel the airlines to tell passangers to sit down and sit up, shut down and shut up, and pay close attention.

Finally, the mere annoyance to other passengers (noise abatement) for which the airlines must be able to reduce if only to increase the pleasant flight environment for us all.

For all these reasons, with the jamming of cell phone towers being number one in my book, the real culprit here is lack of education of the flight crew. When a flight attendant is asked why the devices must be powered down they should be able to give the complete and correct answer...not just that “the FAA regulations require us to do it”. A trained flight crew should be able to give the extended answer above. If they gave this answer I don’t think another question would be raised.  In some cases I don't think the flight attendants even agree or at least they are soft on the requirement and therefore people are let alone to get away with whatever they can. If they knew all the reasons perhaps they wouldn't be so soft on enforcement.   Baldwin seems like one of those types who might be used to getting away with things...regardless if he might believe himself to be a "American Treasure" which he might be.  Perhaps some flight attendant's haven't confronted him previously.

In the end, however, without this evolutionary hiccup our continued assimilation into the collective as I've reported previously, would have gone unnoticed. I for one, am glad these warning signals show up. I will be disconnected from the grid, not only on air travel, but when I simply don’t need to be.  I'm not ready to be assimilated.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Urban Window

So we have arrived in Northern Virginia. The first thing we noticed about the surrounding area was the hills. I didn’t remember the hills as vividly as we have been driving up and down them the past few days. There are no hills in Florida, particularly when you live on a barrier island on the coast. Our town was as flat as the granite countertops lacking in our Florida home--one of the criticism of a prospective buyer who didn’t buy. And when we left Virginia I didn’t drive a car with a standard transmission. I do now. There is nothing more exciting then stopping at traffic lights while pointing straight up a hill. As my daughter continues to point out the surrounding hills I explain to her about using the emergency brake to hold the car as you slip the clutch and step on the gas. She will be negotiating these hills in about 2 ½ years. For now she just gets to enjoy them, and in particular the hills on Hunter’s Mill Road, that is if you hit them just right. If you do you can produce that momentary glimpse of weightlessness. Just like jumping in an elevator.

And speaking of elevators…we have one in the apartment we are renting until we find our new home. As it turns out the elevator is right across the hall. I’ve always thought it would be neat to have an elevator that opens right into your apartment…we don’t have that but it is right across from our front door. We get to meet all the neighbors’ right in the hall. And our dog gets to tell us about them as well. It all feels very urban. I’ve never really lived in quite this urban setting. I’ve worked in the city but never lived so close to all these people. And it’s not just the hall way and the elevator and the parking garage. We have an urban window…or a series of windows and a porch. It all over looks the town center and all the activities that take place below. We see the hordes of people and hear their voices as well as the screams of their children playing in the fountain. We smell the food being prepared in the numerous restaurants that surround us and we’ve got balcony seats to hear the music from the bands that frequently play in the square. This is the square that the average person gets to see from ground level. We have an urban window into so much more. It’s a reality television show that’s always on and doesn’t cost us a dime. All you have to do is look through. And, from the moment she walked into her room, that is what my daughter has chosen to do.

Her bed is pushed up against the urban window in her room. We are on the third floor so I am more worried about her jumping on the bed than a drive by shooting. As such she has been outlawed from even thinking about jumping it if she wants to keep her room in that configuration. But with her bed in place and the blinds pulled up she can sit in front of the window for hours. She likes to draw. She does it there. She likes to listen to her iPod, she doesn’t have to move. See likes to open the window and listen to the sounds coming through. And she can gaze out the window and make observations about the life that passes her by…some of it late at night. I told her to enjoy the window because when we move she may never have a window quite like this one.

My wife and I also get to enjoy the urban environment. Some of it can be fun. Some of it is just people watching. We already know the schedules and shifts of all the restaurants as we see the workers on their way in to prepare for the lunch crowd. Some of it’s not so fun. Like when the pre-screening of the new release of the movie “Transformers” was shown at midnight the day of its release. It must have been screened to a full house because at approximately 2:37 am the parking lot erupted. The first people to leave the movie must have been full of adrenaline. Their cars screamed out of the parking lot. It sounded like a high speed chase. When we awoke and gazed out the window our first thoughts were of Armageddon. When you see several hundred cars exiting a parking lot at the same time, in the middle of the night, it makes you wonder if you should also be getting in your car and heading towards the mountains or some underground shelter. It didn’t take us too long to figure it out…but it made us wonder.

A few days later we were awoken on the morning of the Fourth of July. It was the National Anthem playing loudly in our room. I stared at the clock trying to figure out who set it and why it was playing, it didn’t even look like a clock radio. I stood up and walked around the room. My wife was yelling at me and calling me a dumb-ass for setting the alarm on a holiday and I was trying to figure out if I should be standing at attention as the National Anthem played. It was an awkward moment. Then I realized the music was coming from outside the urban window. I looked through the shades and sure enough, hundreds of people were gathered. Oddly they were all dressed in running shorts and tee-shirts. It was the beginning of the Fire-Cracker Five Mile Run—an annual foot race hosted by the town center.

There’s more…much much more…all in the last two weeks. The people, the cars, the dogs, the police, the sounds, the smells, the sights…all to be experienced over the length of our stay. And then we will move into a residential suburb and leave our urban window behind…I will keep you posted.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Where There's Smoke There's Fire

On the eve of making our big decision to move back to the Northern Virginia area I read a story in the Washington Post by Donna St. George on the controversy over the disciplinary action taken by the Fairfax County school system against a student at W.T. Woodson High School. (School Superintendent Jack D. Dale Defended Fairfax County’s Discipline Policies, 11 Feb 2011) This was of particular interest to me because W.T. Woodson is one of the high schools my wife and I have been discussing as a potential for our daughter to attend if we decide to relocate. Of course I was horrified to discover the reason for the controversy stems from the connection drawn between the Fairfax County disciplinary policies and the suicide of a student from W.T. Woodson. Tragically 15 year old Nick Stuban took his own life on Jan 20, 2011. This connection was made by two school board supervisors. However, the School Superintendent, Jack D. Dale, disagreed and is quoted as having said the link is, “…unconscionable and a blow to those who have already suffered great pain" and “that it would be most constructive to focus on the incidence of depression among youths in Fairfax County”.

Aside from snapping me completely out of my self-centered focus on events in my own life I was shattered by the news of this teen suicide. A well regarded student with a bright future caught up in a horribly unforgiving bureaucracy who believed ending his life was his only recourse. I read further and discovered that this is actually the second suicide of a student linked to a perceived “zero tolerance” policy in the Fairfax County School System disciplinary process. The first was in March 2009, less than two years previously. Tragically Josh Anderson, a 17 year old student at South Lakes High School, took his own life on March 18, 2009.

Teen depression and teen suicide are vastly complex subjects and Superintendent Dale is partially correct when he says it would be constructive to focus, “…on the incidence of depression among youths…” This is always a good thing. So why not address some of the causes of depression. That would be just as good as any other area to focus on. Yet the man in charge immediately jumped on the defensive and said that the link is “unconscionable” and “a blow to those who have already suffered”. Turns out the two families involved, who have suffered the most, are standing with the board members as they make this indictment of the “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. You can read more at the blog, “Remembering Josh”, posted by one of the families. They made this link in 2009.

Of course it’s not even clear that the mental illness known as “depression” played any role in these two incidents. Superintendent Dale is making an incredibly superficial judgment of causation. It is more likely that “Anxiety Disorders” stemming from the disciplinary circumstances have played a much larger role in these two cases. These of course would be coupled with other factors in the student’s environment. With any suicide there is rarely a single cause. But we shouldn’t ignore any cause when our children’s lives are at stake. A school suicide affects every student, profoundly, and for the rest of their lives. A single incident is one too many and well worth the cost of investigation.

Last Thursday, Donna St. George again reported in the Washington Post that, “The Maryland Board of Education asked for a review of policies in the state's 24 school systems, expressing concern about any existing "zero tolerance" practices and a need for support services for suspended students.” What does it hurt to review the policies? I applaud Maryland for taking this prompt action. Of course, as it turns out Jack D. Dale was the Superintendent of Frederick County Maryland Public Schools before taking his high paying job in Fairfax County back in 2004.

In other recent news, Superintendent Dale has been quoted as saying, ““Schools can’t be expected to solve all of society’s problems,” this while he lobbied against legislation to require Physical Education classes in Fairfax County elementary and middle schools to be increased to 150 minutes a week.

And also in recent news, Fairfax County schools will no longer charge students to take Advanced Placement exams. The Virginia Attorney General ruled that these fees were, in fact, illegal. It turns out Superintendent Dale announced last year that Fairfax would charge students $75 each, as a cost-saving measure during difficult financial times. Not to pile on but since taking this high paying job in Virginia where he signed on for $237,000 per year his salary has been increased to $292,469 during these “difficult financial times”. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Since we are currently living well away from all this turmoil but might, before summer’s end, join the fray, I am now aware of these mounting concerns with regard to Superintendent Dale and the Fairfax, County School disciplinary policies. I am glad I have been awakened to this controversy. My heart goes out to the families of Josh and Nick and I stand-by your belief that there is something wrong with the system. If Superintendent Dale isn’t willing to make a change, or at least investigate, it’s time for Fairfax to make a change.