Thursday, October 29, 2015
Friday, October 9, 2015
Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”
Call this a diary, if you will, of one man’s attempts to find what’s been missing from his life where opera is concerned. Until recently, I’ve been walking around the cultural fairgrounds of life with little interest in what goes on inside that particular big tent.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
|Argument settler, or argument provoker?|
The title is just a bit misleading since there is no single “sports” gene – for any event. Epstein reports that single genes have effects so tiny as to be undetectable in small studies: “Modern scientists have begun to abandon small single-gene studies in favor of looking at how the interplay of biological endowments and rigorous training affects athleticism.”
He writes, “The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer always is: It’s both.” But how? he asks. And to what degree? Does one outweigh the other in some cases? Epstein looks for answers in unexpected places.
For example, he tells us that in the early 1940s a Dutch chess master and psychologist named Adriaan de Groot sought to know the core of chess mastery. He devised a test for a panel of chess players who represented four skill levels: A world champion, a master, a city champion and an average club player. He flashed before them, for three seconds, a chessboard with chess pieces set up in realistic game scenarios. Then he took the board away, gave them blank boards and pieces, and asked them to recreate what they’d seen.
The grandmaster could recreate the board exactly. The master performed not perfectly, but very well. Neither of the other two could recreate the board accurately. An interesting finding, but did these findings indicate a superior visual memory, or some other, acquired skill?
Three decades later, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University repeated the de Groot experiment – with a twist. They showed four levels of players a chessboard whose pieces had been set up in random situations that could never occur in an actual game. After a five-seconds look, the players were asked to recreate what they’d seen. This time the masters were no better than the others.
Apparently, randomized boards defying the rules of chess are unreadable. Players who know the rules governing the movement of pieces notice only meaningful situations on a set-up board. Masters are quicker recognizers of rule-governed patterns.
Sports scientists have noticed that successful baseball batters can watch the initial movements of a pitcher’s shoulder, torso and arm and predict what kind of pitch is coming. Similarly, a football running back can run through “holes” in the line of scrimmage just as they form. And basketball players on a three-on-two break can “see the future” forming.
In other words, there is a mental element in sports. Not a “thinking element,” but a rapid perception of where one is in space, taking into account one’s speed, and angle of approach relative to the other players. Elite athletes, according to Epstein, (paraphrasing the research of Bruce Abernethy, a Queensland sports scientist)“need less time and less visual information” to know what to do next.
Is this simply “instinct,” a genetic gift? Yes and no. All other things being equal, practice makes a big difference. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book “Outliers,” popularized the notion of “10,000 hours” as the amount of time one needs to master an endeavor. This “rule” applies to violin playing, basketball, chess, track and field events, golf – you name it. It implies that, even without superior genes, practicing can make one a champ.
All things being equal, that is true – but only sometimes. In a large population, all things are seldom equal when you consider how many hope to be a world champion and how few succeed. Some people are born gifted with the ability to perform at a high level with comparatively little practice.
Epstein cites a four-year study of L.A. Dodgers baseball players whose visual acuity averaged 20/13. Such superior vision is found in about 18 percent of the average population. Studies from the Netherlands revealed that the youths who eventually signed professional soccer contracts had been 0.2 seconds faster than their teammates even back when they were tested at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.
In fact, it sometimes happens that a person who puts in 10,000 hours of practice loses a competition to someone who has practiced, say, only 5,000 hours (or less), but has more innate talent. Epstein’s mantra is that every case involves “both hardware and software.”
A fascinating phenomenon he reports on is that athletic body types have changed over the years. Fifty years ago a single idealized athletic physique seemed appropriate to most events. Today’s athletic bodies conform to their specialization’s needs. Michael Phelps, for example, the swimming champion, is six four, with disproportionally small legs, extra-long forearms and hands, and small hips. Ideal for cutting through water at high speeds.
Female gymnasts are usually small in stature, have little body fat, and very small hips. Track sprinters have more “fast twitch” fibers in their muscles, allowing them to win events that call for speed and explosive power. The bulk of the muscles in their calves and thighs is located high on the bone, almost a physics text design for a fast leg.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers aren’t very efficient at longer distances, however, because they don’t correlate with long-term oxygen debt over time. Distance running favors smaller, less overtly muscular bodies with more slow-twitch muscles fibers that use oxygen more efficiently.
Some of these requisite body sizes are found more often in certain “populations” than others. (Anthropologists and sports physiologists dismiss the word “race” as scientifically useless.) These findings are the subject of several chapters of the book and their results are discussed in an informed and interesting manner.
The most important thing to learn from this highly readable synthesis of the available information is that body, mind and will govern all athletic ability. But, sadly, for most American sports buffs, however, all other things being equal, talent will win nearly every time. Not an American thing to say. Too elitist. Undemocratic. This book dispels that and many other illusions.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in paperback too, through Amazon.com.
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Thursday, September 17, 2015
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Since last May most of my Chestnut Hill Local newspaper columns have been about people who were not what they seemed to be. For example, I’ve written about Margaret Wise Brown, the children’s book author (Goodnight Moon) who turned out to be quite neurotic, depressed and misguided. And John Howard Griffin, a white journalist (Black like Me) who passed as a Negro to travel the American south recording the racial oppression he observed. Most recently, I told how the world-famous “Crying Indian” (from the 1970s anti-pollution ads) was really the movie actor Iron Eyes Cody – who was in real life a Sicilian American from Louisiana.
I hesitate to include today’s illusion, “la Saraghina,” in this series. The woman who played this character in Federico Fellini’s classic movie “8 1/2” never pretended to be anything other than what she was – an actress. Nonetheless, her performance in her one big scene in that movie was so perfect she remains lodged in my mind as the grotesque dancing temptress known as la Saraghina.
Young cinema buffs can never know how we all awaited and anticipated each new Fellini film back in the 1960s. Fellini and Italy were inextricably linked. His movies were thoroughly original, and terrifically entertaining. He wrote and directed most of his films. What will he do next? was on our collective movie-going minds whenever he released a new movie. They were not classics then; they were modern.
Too bad we’ll never know what might have happened next. Two priests came running up to the scene. The boys fled. Guido was caught and dragged home. Cut back to present time in the garden, the adult Guido nodding perfunctorily as the priest talks and his boyhood memory fades.
What a great scene! Indelible. The essence of Italian cinema to me back then when all was new. Funny, thoughtful, offbeat, sensuous, satiric. And la Saraghina: An icon of Italian sexuality to those young, uninitiated boys. All the swells and curves of the female shape widely exaggerated. Made up to seem repellent, but still mysteriously attractive. As though one wandered backstage and learned some truth about women, especially Italian women. Ah, that’s what they’re really like. Raw and irresistible.
Another unforgettable Fellini character. (For a treat, see “Fellini’s Faces,” a book that contains over 600 headshots of characters Fellini auditioned over the years.) La Saraghina has been blazed into my memory all these years. Enough so, that last month I wanted to know more. I wanted to see the beach scene again and found it easily on YouTube. It was as good as I remembered it. Better in some ways because my accrued maturity allowed me to appreciate her more. Fascinating. But who was the actress? What part of Italy was she from? Did she appear in other Fellini movies?
The IMDB revealed that la Saraghina, to my complete and utter surprise, to my everlasting amusement, was played by a woman named Eddra Gale. Who had been an opera singer from Chicago! Of Norwegian descent. She was living in Milan in the early 60s, taking vocal lessons. Fellini saw her on the street one day and asked her to audition for “8 1/2.” She had just the look he was searching for. The rest is cinema history.
And thus it happened that this tempestuous figure, by appearances straight out of classical Italian peasant folklore, was anything but: she was a Scandinavian American from Chicago, of all places. Another cinematic illusion. After this film, she went on to appear in over 100 movies and TV shows including, “The Graduate,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Somewhere in Time.” She died in New Mexico in 2001.
I’ll never forget you, Seraghina. Thank you, Eddra.