January 2006


I sent my last essay on tennis to my college class mailing list. Someone responded that tennis “is graceful probably because it’s important to save as much energy as possible in such a marathon, and so every move must be clean and accurate.”

You should’ve told Baghdatis this before the men’s singles final, because it turned out to be the No. 1 reason for the end of his amazing run.

The match was live on 3am last morning, and replayed on 12pm. We watched the replay without checking the results, and were indeed kept on suspense until the 3rd set, when Bag-man ran out of steam and let Federer Express roll over him.

This has become a striking trend in men’s tennis in recent years. Take a set from Federer while you can; once he kicks into his high gears and plays out his full grace, you’re done. So the best that his opponent can hope for is that for whatever reason Federer gets stuck in his early round mood.

I think Federer himself is well aware of that, and that’s what’s really scary about this guy. He almost always finds a way to motivate himself into what’s he’s fully capable of, which is to play on a whole different level than anybody else. I guess it’s not too hard to find the motivation when you’re in an ATP final, and that’s why his most amazing record (so far) is the 34-9 in ATP finals, with most of the losts in his early career, except last year’s Masters Cup in Shanghai where he lost to Nalbandian due to injury.

Sometimes it feels almost painful to watch Federer not playing his best. He would seem quite remote to the match, no sweat, no emotion, and no grace. Once in a while he tickles you with an incredible shot that reminds you of his greatness, then falls back to his aloofness. He isn’t great when he doesn’t have to be. It’s quite condescending to his opponents, but that’s just part of his plan: he knows he’ll be the greatest player ever with a unthinkable record like 25 grand slam titles with a few Grand Slam, and the only obstacle would be injury. On a side note, I suppose that’s why he cried like never before at the podium, after being handed the trophy from Rod Laver, the only man in the Open Era to win Grand Slam (twice), also after whom the stadium is named. Federer sees greatness and he’s humbled by it. This man knows history and his place in it.

Now back to the Bag-man: what a character! As the newest member of the anti-Federer campaign, he seems to possess all the weapons at a mere 20 years of age: big serve, fast legs, strong backhand, and most of all, charisma. He is smart and cool, and fights till the end (shame on Henin-Hardenne!). The amount of coverage on the tiny island of Cyprus in the last two weeks is probably close to the sum of last twenty years. Two anecdotes: 1) He hardly ever show excessive emotion, like fist pumping. It’s incredible for such a young guy at his first grand slam final to be so relaxed and composed. It’s a stark contrast to the “comon!” from the Hewitts and gimmicks from the Roddicks, which may please the crowd but make them emotionally vulnerable. 2) He has a beautiful young model girlfriend, who stole most of the camera shots from Federer’s stout fiancee-manager. It’d be interesting to see how the relationship plays out for Baghdatis’ career and if he learns anything from Andre Agassi 😉

We’re living in a great era, witnessing legends in many sports: Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretzky, Jan-Ove Waldner, Tiger Woods, … Let’s hope the Federer Express keeps rolling for many years to come, keeping generations of players constantly catching up along…

Stupid ESPN2 didn’t even broadcast the match last night when it was on. Instead it played a ridiculous doubles “match” with George Bush (the old) teamed with Chris Evert. When I checked the scores our girls already lost the first set and had been broke once in the second, so I thought that’s it. First Grand Slam final is already great enough to celebrate.

What do I know about fight and hope! I’m so glad that I was wrong, and I truly hope it’s a metaphor for things bigger than itself, which is usually the case with great sports.

Tennis is a great sport to watch and play. It reflects life like most sports, and it focuses on individualism much more than most sports, team or non-team. You really get to see personalities on court. There’s nothing and nowhere to hide in a 4-hour 5-set marathon. And it’s such an international sport now that you get to see nationalities represented by personalities. It’s no coincidence that unknown players from tiny countries like Luxembourg and Cyprus excel on the big stage by beating Andy Roddick, the stereotypical stupid bruteforce big ass American.

The ultimate goal in tennis to me, like most sports, is grace. You can say that is just colonial bourgeois hypocrisy, which golf and billiard also represent, for things like dress code and audience rules. There’re some things pretentious about them, but as I get to play them myself, I start to realize there’s something deep in them that connects with humanity, again, like most good things in life.

To see Roger Federer play at his best is like watching Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods at their best. Confident yet humble. Proud yet tolerant. Capable of anything yet meticulous about everything. I didn’t watch tennis when Sampras played, and I heard he’s somewhat like that as well. Among women players, Justine Henin-Hardenne is far from Federer’s level, but she’s way above the rest. It’s easy to accuse those who don’t like the Williams sisters as racist, but I have to admit that grace is the last thing on my mind when I watch them play.

Sorry to digress. I didn’t watched Zheng Jie and Yan Zi play, and I’d probably be disappointed or bored (tennis double is never fun to watch), still I’m proud of their fighting spirit and humble words. It may take another generation or two of Chinese players to appear in Grand Slam singles final, but the march has officially commenced today.

cover

This is the best light-reading books I’ve read in the last couple of years. Bought it from “the best bookstore in New England”, Northshire in Manchester, VT during our ski vacation (why weren’t we skiing?). It caught my eyes in the bookstore because of its peculiar shape–it’s the only non-rectangular book we have now!

The short book starts with the latest restoration efforts from 1990 to 2001 lead by a commission, the 17th in 700 hundred years (the first in 1298), and breaks back to recount the history of Pisa at the point which the tower suddenly tilted 4mm more due to the construction. What a cliffhanger!

The book is a nice integrated piece that wraps everything related to the leaning tower together in a smooth way: Pisa history, the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines leagues, building of the tower and the other masterpieces in Campo dei Miracoli, Galileo, Shelley and Byron, etc. The most pleasant surprise is that it expels the well ingrained story of Galileo dropping two iron balls of different sizes from the top of the tower to prove Aristotle wrong. Turns out that the story is most likely fabricated by Viviani, Galileo’s disciple and note-keeper during Galileo’s last years. It’s such an idiomatic image that the young and fearless Galileo dropping the balls on ancient folly, heralding in a new era of science and humanity from the most recognizable architecture in the world that it’s very hard not to believe it’s true. I remember learning essays of this in both Chinese and English textbooks during my high school years.

Another fascinating thing that I didn’t know, this time true, is that there was a short period of time (1818-1822) when a few self-exiled English Romanticists and some other friends formed the Pisa Circle, among whom are the Shelleys and Lord Byron. Shelley and a friend drowned in the Gulf of Spezia, and Byron cremated their bodies on the beath at Viareggio, north of Pisa. What a scene that was, as Byron described, “on a desolate shore, with mountains in the background and the sea before, and the singular appearance the salt and frankincense gave to the flame.”

Another excellent piece from 龙应台 on freedom and status quo of mainland. It won’t be long when her name will be censored.

Some quotes:

促使我动笔写这封信的,是今天发生的一件具体事件:共青团所属的北京「中国青年报」「冰点」周刊今天黄昏时被勒令停刊。在此之前,原来最敢于直言、最表达民间疾苦的「南方周末」被换下了主编而变成一份吞吞吐吐的报纸,原来勇于揭弊的「南方都市报」的总编辑被撤走论罪,清新而意图焕发的「新京报」突然被整肃,一个又一个有胆识、有作为的媒体被消音处理。… 今天封杀「冰点」的理由,是广州大学袁伟时先生谈历史和教科书的文章。因为它「和主流意识形态相对…攻击社会主义,攻击党的领导」。

以这样的价值结构来看今天「冰点」事件,您说我这个台湾人看见什么?

我看见这个我怀有深切厚重情感的「血缘家国」,是一个践踏我所有「价值认同」的国度:

它,把真理当谎言,把谎言当真理,而且把这样的颠倒制度化。

它,把独立的知识份子当奴才使用,把奴性的知识份子当家仆使用,把奴才当──啊,它把鞭子、戒尺和钥匙,交到奴才的手里。

它面对西方是一个脸孔,面对日本是另一个脸孔,面对台湾是一个脸孔,面对自己,又是一个脸孔。

它面对别人的历史持一个标准,它面对自己的历史时──错了,它根本不面对。它选择背对自己的历史。

它拥抱神话,创造假象,恐惧真相。他最怕的,显然是它自己。

I saw it a few years ago when I brought back some classic movies from Beijing for DragonHead. Didn’t remember much of it–I probably fast forwarded through most of the 3-hour film. Under Tuscany Sun and our trip to Rome reminded me of the only scene I remembered (it’s not hard to guess which), so I bought the DVD and watched it together with Ling couple during the New Year holiday (see my previous post). What a chilling dose of alternative reality after 3 days of our own sweet life!

I don’t mean to write a review for the movie here, but I can’t find a good in-depth analysis link to include here. The Amazon page has some good summaries, saying the obvious that it’s about the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern upper-class life. What I find most interesting is the interpretation of the apparent symbol for innocence, the young girl in the restaurant and on the beach. It’s easy to see her as the only good thing in the movie, and Marcelo’s failure to communicate with her means that he’s totally done for. However I feel Marcelo isn’t that hopeless. Of course the Steiner incidence is a lightning strike. The crazy party is the aftershock. But when he sees that dying monster fish and the girl on the beach, I think he knows clearly that he’d become the dead fish very soon. If he doesn’t kill himself for desperation or his maniac girlfriend Emma, he may actually do something different, like returning to his parents, or retreating to religion. He is, after all, still innocent at heart, just like Sylvia the blonde actress, whose stupidity and innocence are entertwined, sometimes one masking the other. The young girl’s future, on the other hand, seems no more brighter to me. The music she can’t stop singing along with is the same piece to which that to-be-married woman striped. She is just another Marcelo in the making.

Anyway what I really want to say about is our life, not the movie. I think I’ve only told Ye Bin about my innermost discomfortness about my own La Dolce Vita, because he’s really the only one that I know well who’s living a different, more “progressive”, life. Everyone else is a worker bee, humming everyday with good pay, good house, good food, or getting there.

In general it’s not too difficult to live a good middle-class life in America. I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes a lot of hard work for me and everyone I know to come to US, get degrees, find jobs, do a good job, buy a good house, keep up the house, etc. Please allow me not to bring up any offspring issue for now because that’s a whole different world. And it’s also a lot of work, though much more enjoyable, to learn to enjoy life like Americans do: tennis, golf, ski, billiard, bowling, poker, … You have to be somewhat smart to do all these well enough.

Right now we still have visa status issue, so there’s at least something to worry about. Take that out of the way, I can almost see the next 30 years of my life, if no major natural or man-made disaster occurs. I’m extremely grateful for everyone and everything that has enabled me to live and foresee my Dolce Vita. I’m so grateful that I feel I’m obliged by my incredible family, friends, and fortune to do something more, something different.

It’s a socialist cliche to say that you should contribute to the society, though JFK also said something like that, didn’t he. The standard American dream is to be whatever you want to be, or as Steve Jobs said, find what you love. If it happens to also change the world for good, all the better. I feel I want to try at least one approach, because if I don’t, I have a feeling that in the end I would have wasted more or less some of natural and social resources I have and will have consumed. Evolution shouldn’t allow that in the long run.

Anyway I don’t feel nearly as much void as Marcelo because I’ve always got more than enough fun things to do, I mean really fun stuff, for at least one more person other than myself. I guess I just identify with Marcelo on an abstract level about the meaning and goal of life. Maybe I’m still not busy enough to forget about those things…

It’s quite a memorable one, though not perfect. It’s been unseasonably warm all across the country since new year, and the forecast for the weekend at Mount Snow was changing everyday. During the last few days before it stablized, and it looks pretty dreadful, which turned out to be quite the case.

On Saturday it rained heavily in the morning and night, so we slept till almost noon, and went to Manchester center outlet. Temp could be as high as 60F. We strolled around the shops seeing quite a few people in T-shirt, visiting a fine bookstore, and bought 3 Furla bags on a very good deal.

Late Saturday evening the temp started to drop and rain turned into snow. By early Sunday morning snow accumulated 5-6″, so we went off to the mountain. During the morning temp was maybe 20s, but NW wind was maybe more than 50mph, so windchill was -10 or lower. We didn’t have full-face mask and the 7.5-minute lift ride to the mountain top was suicidal (the mountain faces east). J kept shivering through lunch time. We bought masks and the sun came out during the afternoon, so it was a bit better.

Monday was very sunny, but the wind kept very strong. We’re better prepared so it didn’t feel nearly as cold. The only problem was as the mountain top after getting off the lift, where it’s mostly ice on the ground (the snow had been blown off) and we had to go against the wind to find the trail start.

The ski part was great. The snow condition wasn’t great because there’s a lot of ice, but it’s ok. We stayed mostly on a long green trail on Saturday, and on Monday I mostly skiied several blue trails alone. The quadrupling (or more) length of the trails, compared to Camelback, really helped to get some groove going. On Monday I was racing down the mountain several times with no one in sight. For the first time I got the feeling of carving.

Lesson learned: buy weather protection with hotel reservation and be fully prepared for all kinds of weather! Now if only I can sell the 2 lift ticket voucher on eBay for a profit…

P.S. One thing that I observed with little surprise is that skiing is still a prodominantly Caucasian sport. During the trip I saw no more than 3 black people, no Hispanic, no Indian, and maybe around 10 East Asians. It’s quite a different feeling with being in the ethinical hodgepodge of NYC.

P.P.S. One of J’s colleagues is a Vietnam veteran. He saw J’s frostbite and brought in a windchill card he got in the army. It shows that with 40mph wind at 10F, windchill is -37.
Windchill

Been passing on his blog for a while because many are very short and on his whereabout. I like long insightful blog like this one. It’s comforting to see a Microsoft guy saying “I really don’t want religious customers. I want skeptical, educated, pragmatic customers. This is why I talk about my competitors so much and let you know what they are doing right.”

Please, marketing guys, no hype, no lie, no this-is-a-feature-not-a-bug. There’re enough bad things in this world already, can you please at least make technology and science a little less poluted?

Scoble mentioned Guy Kawasaki’s blog, which I just started to read. Scoble says Guy’s “the tech industry’s first evangelist, worked for Apple”. I like his recent bs-busting posts on VCs and startup entrepreneurs, very straightforward. However I do agree with Scoble on his dislike of the religious connotations related to being an “evangelist”, which originated from the Greek word Ευαγγέλιο, meaning Gospel.

What Guy says, though, reveals something deeper about human being. It’s easy to be religious, because it provides quick and easy gratification. Something like Pascal’s Wager is very appealing to simple or moderately complicated brains. So when a marketing guy appeals to your religious feelings, he can either win you over for life, or drive you away in disgust, which is less likely. You may just think “this guy is bs, but he’s at least passionate about what he’s doing”.

That’s why I really don’t like the “cult” following in technology, of which Apple is surely the grand master. I’ve never seriously used a Mac or iPod, so maybe I’m not eligible to judge. But I think I know enough in technology to believe that it’s just what you’re used to. Is Mac inherently better than Windows or Linux on several orders of magnitude? I don’t think so. I do admire the industrial designers at Apple, and I do believe Apple has everything in the world to come up with the first truly usable integrated PDA/phone/media player (and I would buy it), just don’t utter any word of any religious connotation to me.

P.S. Joel Spolsky’s Architecture Astronaut attacks similiar things from a technology point of view.

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