Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ten commandments in modern societies -10


"There is no such thing as democracy."

Lee Bollinger once said that the holocaust is "the most documented event in human history.”  As the Columbia University President, his words carried a certain weight, but it is far from certain if it is true, on what basis he said that, or if he was even in a position to comment on the verifiable topic.  But it is much closer to the truth that democracy is the most analyzed subject in human history.

Democracy has been talked about, argued about, written about, gloated about, or gone to wars about, by everybody from the penniless to the kings for thousands of years.  So whatever is written here would be awfully inadequate and utterly unoriginal.

But it is only fitting to conclude the Ten Commandments with a subject of very common interest and clear significance.  And just days before the 2012 US election.

Democracy has two integral components: the idea and how to achieve the idea.  Few would object to the idea, although it is frequently conflated with what it aims to achieve, i.e., is the idea is the end or the means to the end?  Unless we are in a perfect world or close, there will be schism between the two.  Critical, but not the issue here.

Instead, this commandment pertains to achieving the idea, and on this count, there never had been or is a democracy during and since Athens.

Hearing people talking about "the largest democracy in the world" or "the greatest democracy in the world" is equivalent to hearing "my God is better than your God".  Humans are talking about something that they believe in dearly to the extent to be willing to die for it yet ultimately does not exist in a practical and grandiose way.  

It can be argued that no democracy is perfect, but imperfect democracy is still democracy.  But if the imperfection is so systematically pervasive, there can be no real democracy, which must reflect the desire and interest, both short-term and long-term, of the whole populace.  

Currently most countries use the form of representative democracy, at least in name.  The people select or elect the representatives, like the President, by various means, and the representatives then wield the most power to decide policies for the next few years, with some inputs from the constituency, depending on the issues.  

There is another, also ancient form called participatory democracy, in which the constituency has or had a much larger role in decision making.  

Many differences exist between the two forms.  For example, for the first one, the higher-up, e,g., the President or Congress, decide to go to war, and the constituency typically follow.  In the second one, the decision to go to war would first come from the regular guys, not the few elites or the President.  Also, in terms of representation, in the first, it is dominated by the professional politicians and elites, while in the second, a Congress would look like the main street, not 50% lawyers.

Why did representative democracy win out?  Because participatory democracy has serious weakness and is easily manipulated to morph into representative.  Policies and governing is complex and often requires special sets of skills, not an average Joe on the street can do.  Nonetheless, it is also highly questionable that the current elected officials or the 50% lawyers know any better.

Here lies the problem that inevitably fails democracy: the representatives cannot represent the whole populace or the best interest.  For a few reasons.

First is that the elected officials are a very skewed snapshot of the population, and their world views are not the same as the average people.  Everything else follows.

Second, the system constraints.  The representatives work in a political system that is dominated by history, precedents, and the elites, the rich and powerful, who surround it and always control how it is run.  Money, access, what they see and hear, is much different from the average Joe.  And when a new guy is elected and works for only a few years, how much can he change it?

Third, human self interests.  The officials do not have the same interests as the average people.  They want to be re-elected, be famous, be remembered, be rich.  So they like grand projects, defer bad consequences, or look presidential, while an average guy only wants to live a steady life.

Fourth, to sell their ideas or policies, the representatives and elites resort to deception.  Lies, non-truth, flip-flopping, and pandering are considered normal and to be expected in any campaigns, and it is common knowledge that candidates with the best ideas have no chance.  Election produces winners based on what the voters know, but what they know comes from the political system that avidly produces an alternate reality not unlike the one depicted in the "Matrix" movies.  The populace either lose interest or even willingly vote against their own interests.  

The reasons above are not automatically or always negative, but there is no denying that too many decisions have hurt the constituency greatly.  Churchill was right to say the democracy is the worst form of government, but he ignored the fact that only because democracy has always been manipulated by people like him.  

In essence, modern democracy is merely a shell game devoid of the idea.  In a matured society like the US, it is a game with many rules that the representatives and constituency largely follow, whereas in a less developed country fewer elites and common people play by the rules.  Mature or not, this is still not qualitatively different from the game of baseball.  Nobody should have this warm, fuzzy feeling talking about it or after casting his vote, a.k.a. fulfilling his civil duty.  You would also see the absurdity if anyone gets morally superior if his country plays baseball while others do not. 

Eventually one has to go back to the original, democratic idea and see how best to achieve it.  Having a knowledgeable voting population is a prerequisite for democracy, which the current political system actively undermines.  Of course, despite the best efforts there will always be fools ("Ten commandments in modern societies -9"), whose views must be reflected, a cornerstone of participatory democracy.  But the mortal flaw during human history is that the ruling class encourage and reinforce stupidity in order to cling to power and money. 

Thus, one's civil duty should be all year long, not tied to any election cycle or any election day.  He should get familiar with the issues most important to the world and his life.  Only when he votes with the correct information is it truly democratic.  Perfection is impossible, but voting with the mindset that Iraq had WMD or was involved in 911, or Iran is making a nuclear bomb, is worse than democratic, because it rubberstamps devious decisions.  What is the virtue of "democracy" and what does it tell you if it produces bad or many of the worst outcomes in modern societies?  







Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ten commandments in modern societies -9

"You can't stop everybody from being a jerk."

Knowledge has no boundary.  Neither does stupidity.

It is normal to feels ignorant once in a while.  But some people are jerks most of the time for the critical subjects in the societies, and there is simply no medicine for them.

This defeatism sounds harsh but is well rooted in reality and science.  See an earlier post "Ten commandments in modern societies -5: Keep in mind that everybody is a mutant".  If there are genetic defects for us all in physical health, there are bound to have defects in mental health, e.g., learning, appreciating, comparing, and judging.  The topic is not about autism etc, but about things we don't typically perceive yet know it immediately when a person opens his mouth.

There is absolutely no shortage of examples.  Like Todd Akin's 'legitimate rape' story in Sept 2012. Even though Akin tried to "clarify" the comment, he actually does believe in it, by his political history, and there is a significant populace embracing his ideas if not his exact words.  He is in Congress and remains in a close race for a MO senator.   

And here is another good one, the Paul Broun's evolution "lies straight from pit of hell" comment.  Broun's words could have been brushed aside except for the fact that he sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and he is popular within his GA district.

A lot of the world's problems are because there are too many of these kinds and they are too many in power, on TV, radio, and the internet.  We'd like to think that modern societies are meritocracies, like in the US, but then how can one explain that the public figures we see and hear most of the time are usually the repeatedly proven, fake prophets, certified hypocrites, straight-faced liars, intellectually challenged, or war criminals.  An excuse is that even stupid people deserve a voice or freedom of expression.  Fine, until you realize that few truth-tellers are ever out there opposing those jerks.  They don't come straight to you from Sunday morning talkshows: you have to find them by googling.  

Solution?  Not much for the jerks, including regular guys you may bump into as well as public figures.  They have had plenty of time and opportunities to study instead of just "believe", learning from their mistakes instead of repeating.  But for others, verifiable facts and science are the best and only weapons.  It will be a long fight, as long as humans exist.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tutu vs Blair and Bush


It was in the news recently that Desmond Tutu wrote an op-ed on The Observer calling for Blair and Bush to be tried at the International Criminal Court for the 2003 Iraq War.  Many print and online reports cited a story by AP (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/tutu-bush-blair-should-face-trial-hague).  The news is nothing original, as Tutu’s position has been well-known for 9 years, and many people, including millions in the US, have called for and demonstrated for similar actions.  But it is worthy to analyze the story’s background and how AP wrote the story, which tells us a lot about human beings and societies.

Whenever Tutu is mentioned, a title is invariably Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  The Nobel Peace Prize has no such thing in peace until it is rewarded to Noam Chomsky and renounces at least 50% of its previous winners (see blog “The Overhyped Nobel Prizes”).  Until then, it is just a willful exercise by a handful of people in Norway.  What qualifies these people to monopolize and define peace?  For comparison, the scientific community would agree that probably 80-90% of Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine Prize winners are well deserved.

Tutu’s should be better than 50% of the Peace Prizes.  A long standing problem with him, however, is that he likes to join other winners for their causes, as no petition is complete until his name is on it, no matter how little Tutu knows the subjects or how ridiculous the positions.  A reason is that his current social status, i.e., why should anybody listen to him now when he did his last, real work so many years ago, rests almost entirely on the Nobel Prize halo.  If it falls, so will he.  So it is more a defense of the Prize than a defense of the people/petitions.  This speculation means a selfish intention, but it is the only reasonable explanation.

Unlike many Prize winners, though, Tutu has been relatively independent, at least from Western influences when compared to others.  This is why he has been or can be critical to Western governments’ numerous wars over the years.  In contrast, Dalai Lama has always punted on the subject of Iraq War, annoying his swamp of Hollywood admirers.  Worse, many Eastern European winners and Liu Xiaobo vehemently support the War.  Thus, other Peace Prizes do not feel the need to reciprocate the support by Tutu.  Who can blame them if they can’t bite the hand that feeds them and won them the Nobel in the first place? 

When scientists publish a paper, they need to reveal financial conflict of interest, like whether they have a relationship with any company or own its stock.  I think when prominent political activists publish something or are mentioned in any story, their funding sources from government agencies and major private foundations should be reported, at least online.

Now back to the AP story.  It was mostly a matter of fact writing, but the writer added a few paragraphs that are telling.  Regarding Tutu’s call for trial at ICC, AP said:

“While the International Criminal Court can handle cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, it does not currently have the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes of aggression. Any potential prosecution over the Iraq war would likely come under the aggression category.

The U.S. is among nations which do not recognize the International Criminal Court.”

Nobody thinks that Blair or Bush would ever be tried, ICC or not.  So AP’s words about ICC ring hollow, and seemed to imply that the trial has not taken place because of ICC’s technicality.  The words may be true, but they are also irrelevant or even misleading.

AP then got a response from Blair: "To repeat the old canard that we lied about the intelligence is completely wrong as every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown," Blair said.

“In Britain, a two-year long inquiry examining the buildup to the Iraq war and its conduct is yet to publish its final report. The panel took evidence from political leaders including Blair, military chiefs and intelligence officers. Two previous British studies into aspects of the war cleared Blair's government of wrongdoing.”

To convict Blair or his government of the most serious crime ever possible (war), especially by British’s own investigations, is mission impossible, not least because it would undermine the legitimacy of the whole political system. 

Besides, a common excuse by Blair and Bush and the governing elites now is that the intelligence was wrong. This has been uncritically swallowed by the mainstream media.  But it defies history.

During 2001-2003 as Bush pushed for war, there was Western intelligence repots, Iraqis declaration to the UN, UN inspections, and statements from the US and UK government officials up to the President and PM.  On the scale of 0-9 about the existence of WMD:

Saddam Hussein said 0.  Nothing can be any louder, clearer, or more official than the Iraqis’ report to the UN.  Later on, Western governments and the "independent" media like to imply that Saddam made this on himself because he faked WMD in order to scare away his regional enemies.  Which is silly: there was never hard evidence shown, and even if there was, was it more official than Iraqis report to the UN, seen by everybody?

Western intelligences said 3.  They had had this mindset for many years, so every lead, no matter how weak and who gave it, confirmed the bias.  Like the yellow cake, aluminum tubes, mobile labs.  However, as more leads turned out wrong, and dissent formed among or within government agencies, e.g., CIA and the DOS, only suspicion left but never any real proof for WMD.  CIA can’t say 0 because it would invalidate all these years’ work or even call into question its existence.  No matter what, Saddam must be always hiding something!

The UN inspections said 1.  Obviously months' goose chase came up empty, despite all the advanced "intelligence" from the US and UK.  In fact, UN debunked most if not all of their intelligence and found Iraq's report much more trustworthy than Western intelligence or Bush's words.  They had to settle on 1 instead of 0 because they could not account for everything or all the old bombs.  This is expected: if you audit the Pentagon, do you expect to account for every gun it purchases over the past 20 years? 

Bush and Blair said 9.  This was the real deal, as unequivocal as unequivocal can be, with government officials parading and vouching for it in front of TV, or the UN.  No need to rehearsing old news in 2012.  Bush and Blair likely knew they were exaggerating, because their intelligence could never pinpoint where WMD or programs were (an astute observer would know this by reading between the lines of the official statements and reports of NYT, WashPost, WSJ, etc), but they rested their hope on finding just a hint of the WMD/program, perhaps only a single WMD bomb, to declare victory or vindication.  Instead, nobody found any.  

The Iraq story is not unique in a sense that similar events happens over and over, even as of today.  It is unique in a sense that Bush and Blair doubled down on something (WMD) that can be verified but failed utterly.  But if you count on something more nebulous, like ethnic cleansing, human rights, etc, then you are safer, although the devastation is no less.  

 


Saturday, August 18, 2012

The nobody beats me twice in a week rule

This golden rule states that if in a group play, team or individual A beats the close rival B but both finish atop of the group and advance, when they meet again in the final, B will beat A.  There are exceptions, but it happens often enough to merit evaluation.

The rule requires a competition format in which the field is composed of two round-robin groups, and then the elimination stage.  If you have a single elimination format or a single, large group, then nobody has a second chance.  If you have many groups, common in football, then title contenders are never placed in the same group.  Another limit for the rule is that A and B must be close in their world ranking, level of play, win-lose record, etc.  Thus, it does not apply to the US basketball teams and other clear favorites.

Not many tournaments use this format.  The most high profiled ones are the Olympic volleyball and tennis year-end championships.  Below are examples of A and B play in the group stage as well as in the final.

1984 Olympics.  Men, US lost to Brazil in group 0:3, but won the final 3:0.  Women, China lost to the US 1:3 but won the final 3:0.  These teams finished the groups as #1 and 2 and were considered strong title contenders at the time.

1992.  Men, Brazil beat Netherlands 3:0 and 3:0 twice.  However, Netherlands was #4 in the group and considered a surprise getting to the final.

1996.  Men, Netherlands vs Italy, 0:3, and 3:2.  They finished their group #1 and 2.

2000.  Men, Russia vs Yugoslavia, 3:1, 0:3.  #2 and 3 in their group.  Women, Cuba vs Russia, 2:3, and 3:2.  #1 and 2 in group.

2004.  We have the true exceptions this year.  Men, Brazil vs Italy, 3:2, 3:1.  Women, Russia vs China, 0:3, 2:3.  All finished #1 and 2 in group.  But on the women's side, Cuba was considered a stronger team than Russia, and Russia actually came awfully close to winning the final.

2012.  Men, Brazil vs Russia, 3:0, 2:3.  #2 and 3 in the group but had the same 4:1 record as the #1 US.  Russia came back from two sets down but the fifth set was easy, unlike the Chinese women in 2004.  Women, Brazil vs US, 1:3, 3:1.  US and Brazil rank #1 and 2 in the world.  Brazil was #4 in the group but only because of the upset by a clearly weaker South Korea team.


This rules is not limited to volleyball.  In ATP tour championships, 8 top players are placed into 2 groups, and top 2 advance to the SF and final.  In both 1994 and 1996, Sampras lost to Becker by a close 0:2 but prevailed in the final 3:1 and 3:2.  Becker was then still a dangerous player, able to beat Sampras enough times, and in 1996 playing in Germany the match was like a heavy weight title fight.

Why loser (B) of the first match tends to win the second time?  Because it happens so many times, it can't be attributed to the randomness of sports.  Perhaps B wasn't in the top form during the less important group play, or B made adjustments after the loss, to which A failed to adapt.   

So if I am B going to the final, I will feel confident but still need to figure out what went wrong the first time.  If I am A, I will be very alarmed.  Expect B will be very different, motivate myself or the players, and mentally plan for dramatic changes in the process and strategies.



Friday, August 17, 2012

Two interesting matches in the Olympics

A previous post "Two countries, three sports" pondered the future of badminton, table tennis, and tennis and suggested that badminton and table tennis might go like tennis as far as competiveness is concerned.  Currently China is dominant in badminton and table tennis, having won all 9 golds in the two events in London (and all world championships prior).  But the dominance will wane.  A critical factor is that nobody can keep a secret of the techniques Chinese use or develop, and Chinese coaches will train other athletes in China or overseas.  So players from other countries will master the same techniques and are not at any disadvantage facing Chinese players.  The only, main advantage Chinese players have is that their teammates are overall better training partners, but if it is the world vs China, the advantage is minimized.  Just like professional tennis.

If there is, ideally, little difference among countries, how about individual players?  Obviously, how well an athlete learns and uses various techniques depends on his physical and mental abilities.  People are innately stronger in some aspects and weaker in others, and their playing styles are molded by their development and natural strength.  Often we see close matches in which the two sides fight as hard as they can, with the outcome seemingly determined by who has the better stamina or will power.  But strategies play an often under-appreciated role, at least to lay people, as shown in one badminton match and one table tennis match in London 2012.

The badmonton match is the QF between Wang Xin and Ratchanok Intanon, truly the most notable match along with the WS and MS finals.  As an overview, WX led by 14:9 in the first set and lost, RI led by 16:9 in the second and lost.  In the third, RI was spent and lost.

This match featured the two most offense-oriented female players in the world and packed more firepower than any MS badminton matches.  WX and RI are not tall players, but they try to overpower their opponents like no one cares.  Players of the old attacking style do not have as many weapons and do not have the hit-a-straight-winner-every-point mindset, while Li Xuerui is a more complete player varying with opponents.  So WX and RI are similar to Lin Dan in 2004 or before, while Li Xuerui is like Lin Dan of 2012.  In the first two sets of the QF, WX and RI went punches to punches immediately after serves and didn't even bother with hitting to the four corners of the courts.  RI applied the same attacking strategy throughout the match, while WX was in a more rallying mode in the third, less entertaining but sensible when your rival was tired.    

RI got the upper hand until the second set at 16:9, because she defended better, and WX had the habit of simple errors when leading, which likely contributed to her unlucky fall in the later bronze medal match.  But how did WX come back at this late in the game?  WX had been serving long all day, while RI had varied with long and short serves.  At 10:16, WX suddenly served short and pounded on RI's returns right away.  RI was not prepared for that at all and lost consecutive points rather quickly in a similar fashion to 15:16.   This allowed WX right back into the game, and she continued to serve short to win the second set.  There were no typical, long rallies that ended when one side made an error or was out of breathe.  RI was in no position to win the third set.

I don't know how this WX's move from the left field came about.  Was it a game plan before the match, advised by her coach during the interval, or did WX come up with it all by herself or simply learn from RI?  It worked magic for her. 

The other is the men's doubles match during table tennis team SF between China and Germany, which essentially determined who would win the Gold.  China won the first singles' match, Germany's Boll beat Zhang Jike for the second, so it was 1:1.  If China won the double, Ma Long was expected to win the next singles.  If Germany won it, we might see the fifth and deciding match involving Wang Hao.  If he lost, we would have the image of 2004 Athens MSF all over again.  So the stake was very high for both teams.

The match featured Wang Hao and Zhang Jike vs Boll and Steger.  Chinese double alreay lost to Russia in team competition, so it was suspect.  The German pair were left and right handed, a combination better than the all right-handed Chinese.

Zhang Jike's forehand always has holes, but in his previous match against Boll, his forehand often swung and missed, and even when it made contact, he hit it wildly into the net or over the table too many times.  I think the problem is that his reflex was a tad slow on that day.  A deeper reason is perhaps he was nervous or not excited enough.  A telling point is at one set apiece, 8:8.  Zhang served, Boll popped up the return, but Zhang was slow to the ball and made such a half-hearted attack that Boll recovered in plenty of time.  That was perhaps the turning point of the match as well. 

Zhang Jike's form continued, although better covered by Wang Hao in the doubles.  Boll was prepared and motivated; Steger is not as famous as the other three, but he is very steady with dependable techniques and does not give away many free points.  Germany won the first set, a consecutive win of four sets by Germany, a sense of momentum.  China won the next two and was ahead by one or two points in the middle of the fourth set.  But a Chinese win was not sure thing as Boll and Steger fought hard.  A Chinese mishit or a German successful counterattack could turn the tide. 

A characteristic move by both Wang Hao and Zhang Jike is backhand loop-returning serves.  This has the advantage of initiating attacks and being aggressive.  But once you do it too many times, your opponent will expect and back off the table more, and he can better defend or even counterloop it.  That is why while Wang/Zhang always seemed to be the first to attack, they were not winning by a wide margin.  Then perhaps by a stoke of a genius, they returned serve with a short push near the net at 4:3 and won the point outright when Boll couldn't move forward fast enough.  Coach Liu Guoliang asked for a timeout at 6:4.  Don't know what he said or whether he was inspired by the service return he saw earlier.  Chinese looped the next German serve like old and lost the point.  Then at 6:5, short push, won, to 7:5.  Germany served again at 9:5, drop shot return, won.  Next serve, drop shot again, won again to 11:5.  In modern table tennis where every point necessitates high rpm loops or wide angle shots, I have never seen an outcome of a match of this magnitude decided by a simple change of service returns at so many points.   

A lesson from these two matches is that you don't have to use all your athletic ability to win every point, or even the most crucial points.  No heavy lifting, a clearer mind or better vision will go a long way.  This is perhaps how the best individual players win.  Have a good coach and game plan, still remember the plan in the heat of the competition, and change and adapt.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Badminton, table tennis, and tennis in 2012 London Olympics




These sports are the ones I play almost exclusively and also follow the most, so they are the most interested ones to me in Olympics.  Also, these three sports represent the pinnacle of how humans use tools to compete directly with each other, or, the "highest" combination of human physical and mental ability and skills in sports.  Badminton requires the utmost agility, table tennis fastest reflex, and tennis power generation.

In badminton, MS, WS, and MD are the most remarkable.  In MS, one can only say the legend continues (confirmation bias alert).  The Chinese media for all their foolishness make up the notion of “四大天王”, or "four kings" or "fantastic four", but really, there is Lin Dan, and there is everybody else.  This is admittedly a slight to Lee Chong Wei, who likely would have won at least one Gold medal, one world championship, one more AE, and one Asian Games Gold without LD.  The final was very similar to the 2011 World final, except that LD didn’t face any match points in London.  LCW prepared quite well against LD at the end, unlike the surprise he got from 2011.  At 19:19, LD attacked quickly to gain an advantage.  At 20:19, LD played fast but didn’t overforce it.  LCW varied by attacking a couple of times but when shots were returned he played it safe as well.  It was a long rally involving a variety of shots, both players well-balanced, with LD perhaps a bit more pro-active.  The difference is only the air which flew clearly from LCW’s back, sending the shuttle eventually long.  LD and LCW have been the two best MS players since 2008.  LD wins most of the times, especially in big events.   This is likely due to the playing styles of the two.  LD is offense-oriented.  So at crucial points, he can and will try to unleash the winning smashes.  His opponents are well aware of that, which adds pressure to their strategies.  LCW is more defense-oriented, so at crucial points his natural tendency is to wear opponents down.  LCW did attack this time at 19:20, but when it didn’t work, he waited for opportunities, which was the right thing to do, except that drift was not on his side.  LD also is taller and bigger, so his presence at the front court makes LCW hesitant.  To use a running analogy of 10 km race.  A few years back, LD would win by a lap (e.g., 2008).  In the past two years, LD and LCW are head and shoulder at the last 100 meter, but LD is naturally a better dasher.

The young Li Xuerui won WS.  From the Chinese’ perspective, her victory was slightly tempered by the fact that she didn’t beat the major threats from India and Thailand, who were taken out by Wang Yihan and Wang Xin.  I like her style a lot (“Who will you pick for a fight?”) and hope it is the moment when the legend begins. Wang Yihan would have been an excellent and thoroughly deserved choice for the Gold as well, too bad in the final she faced the only player in the world who can consistently beat her.

Cai Yu/Fu Haifeng won the MD.  This is really a gratifying sight, of which one can say the legend completes.  The only thing CY/FHF hasn’t won is Asian Games, but that is not a particularly important parameter because Europeans who are strong in MD do not participate.  The pair has won 4 world championships, 2 AE, all the team titles since 2004, world No 1 for so long, Silver in 2008, and Gold in 2012.  MD has always been the most competitive in badminton, with many potential title contenders and new, strong pairs coming up all the time.  It is, therefore, the most remarkable that CY/FHF have been able to maintain their high levels since at least 2004.  During this time, many good pairs have come and gone, such as Koo Kien Keat/Tan Boon Heong, Markis Kido/Hendra Setiawan, and Lee Yong Dae/Jung Jae Sung, only CY/FHF have remained.  They are by far the most successful MD in the history of badminton.  Whether they are the best, like LD, is unclear.  There may never be a answer to this question, but at least they enter the conversation.  The downside of all this is that where is the next dependable Chinese MD?

In table tennis, Zhang Jike won a well-deserved MS, while Wang Hao got three consecutive silvers to three different players, which must have been a record in Olympics, not just in table tennis.  I suspect Wang Hao lacks a bit killer instinct.  He is a slow starter, while his opponents at the final always struck first and fast before he could respond.  Zhang Jike thus becomes the youngest MS to win the world championship, world cup, and Olympic gold and the first with all three titles at the same time.  The only blemish is for the world cup and London, merely two Chinese players were entered.  These days the biggest challenge to individual Chinese players comes from their teammates.  See Ma Lin vs Wang Liqin.  Playing style wise, the only player who has any advantage over Zhang Jike is Ma Long, who was excluded in the world cup and singles in London and beaten by Wang Hao during the last world championship.  So obviously Ma Long has a lot to do, and Zhang Jike needs to consistently beat Ma Long to show he is truly one of the greats in history. 

Li Xiaoxia won WS over Ding Ning in a match marred by the judge messing around with DN’s serves.  It was a golden opportunity missed by DN, who had beaten Li for her world title and world cup a year earlier.  DN is still young and has her chances.  But again, her competition will come from her teammates, and who knows who will come up in the next four years where only two slots are available for China.  

An observation in London is that many matches were close, much closer than in Beijing.  Chinese actually lost matches during team competitions or won by 4:3 in singles, which did not happen in 2008.  It can be due to the host factor in 2008, playing singles prior to teams in 2012, or other players are getting better. Germany now has a stronger team that can really challenge China.  Japanese men did not perform well this time, but they are young and have potentials.  South Korea’s three players should have their swan song this time, and what will their successors be like?

In tennis, Federer ran out of gas in the final and likely lost his last chance at Gold.  A bit surprising that Novak Djokovic lost the Bronze medal fight.  Despite his great success in 2011, if he wants to be in the same sentence as Federer and Nadal, he needs to get his form back up quick, as Murray seems ready to take off.  Nadal pulled out of the Olympics and subsequent events, so it is confirmed that he hasn’t been well since May.  When he comes back, he does need to have more confidence in his backhand so that he doesn’t have to run around too often (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Serena Williams won the WS.  She is the best female player since Graf, and her 6:0, 6:1 win is another example of her being a smart player and what is wrong with women’s play (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Overall, most of the best players in the world were present and tried their best in London, the competition was fierce, and the winners were well deserved.  It is regrettable that some top players could not come due to injuries or the stupid quotas.


On the closing day of the 2012 London Olympics




It has been a great success for London Olympics in terms of athletic performance.   There are also a few issues plaguing the Games.  With regards to organizations, venues, judge scores, and drug use and its allegations, these discussions are unavoidable once every four years, so nothing new.  Two things do stand out in London.  

The first is there are many rules, appeals, and overrules or no overrules in swimming, fencing, track and field, gymnastics, cycling, boxing, etc.   Those affected include Olympics and world champions, world record holders, and who would win the Gold, Silver, and Bronze. There was almost not one day going by without such an incident.  Don't remember ever seeing this before.  It is good for some athletics because fairness prevailed.  Unfortunately, different sports have different processes, so other athletics are justified in thinking they were robbed.  Judges need to improve themselves, just like athletics, with the help of better technologies.  All sports should apply the same or at least similar rules to ensure objectivity and accountability of the judges and openness.

The second is the disqualification of 4 badminton women's double pairs, one from China, two from South Korea, one Indonesia, because they tried to lose to each other during their last group matches.  Officially, competitors should try their best to win, so being passive during competition is ground for dismissal.  In a perfect world this would be absolutely true, and if I were the Chinese coach I would not have ordered it.  But clearly we are far from a perfect world.  There are many other instances of passive plays in other sports (track and field, football, cycling, etc) in the London Games or before, without such high profile DQ.  And the 4 teams were merely aiming for a better position during elimination plays since they already advanced, so from this angle, they were indeed trying their best to win the Gold later.  The only reason officials make such a unprecedented decision likely was that these teams wanted to lose so badly were such terrible actresses in the matches.    

At I watched the many different sports I am not familiar with, I appreciate that the athletics train hard and deserve the praise and medals, but I also wonder if they and we as audience place too much emphasis on Olympics.  If you never win a Gold, once every four years chances, are you a failure, even if you have won everything else in the sport?  Especially compared to your main competitor who always lost to you but won, just once, in the Olympics?   There are many such cases in the history of Olympics.  Some of the Gold medalists are out of the top 3 or 5 in their professions. Like, top tennis players are competing in Olympics as the fifth GS now, but Nicolás Massú (2004) and Elena Dementieva (2008) had never won a GS, while Federer will probably never win a singles' Gold.  Extrapolate to other sports without a GS counterweight, players have an even bigger image problem.  Is Ji Xinpeng (2000, Badminton) a better player than Peter Gade or Lee Chong Wei as of 2012?

Another long-standing problem is counting the medal totals of countries, which is fine, but what does it mean?  A country is better than another at developing top athletics in more specific Olympic sports?  If so, how much is the significance of that?  One would hope it stimulates people in a country to participate more in sports.  Otherwise, Olympics are just like a summer blockbuster movie, only it lasts for two weeks once every four years.




Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ten commandments in modern societies -8


“The more powerful one is, the less meaningful his apology is.”

Apology means one regrets his action, pays for the damage as much as he can, and takes concrete steps to prevent future mistakes. 

Individuals and entities such as companies say sorry all the time and often pay restitution voluntarily or as ordered by courts.  But the situation is entirely different when it comes to governments and governmental agencies such as the military.

Nobody can deny that government actions have inflicted the most damage to humanity in the past 300 years, perhaps longer.  This is because power has been vastly concentrated since the Industrial Revolution.  The ability to kill and destroy by direct and indirect means has also skyrocketed.  The trend shows no signs of abating, neither does the insatiable viciousness of the governments and elites. 

Take the US federal government as an example.  It has good (e.g., WWII) and bad records.  When it does something wrong, we expect it to say sorry.  Indeed many time it did, but to what effect?

In most if not all cases, we will see that the apology comes very late, bears little substance, or offers no guarantee against future offenses.  So if an easy statement is all about us feeling good and washing dirt off ourselves, then why not?   

Like apology for slavery.  Slavery was practiced for 400 years before being abolished officially in the US following the Civil War.  Only in recent years did the Congress issue a few pieces of paper (e.g., http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/31/race.usa and (http://www.mcclatchfuturefutydc.com/2009/07/02/71194/congress-apology-for-slavery-just.html) that apologized for slavery minus any true consequences such as reparation.  Practical concerns aside (like who will get paid what), it is curious how the always self-righteous gentlemen forgot to apologize when everybody was still alive.

Another example is the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882.  Anybody who arrived at the US shore automatically became a US citizen then, just not Chinese, who if present in the US suffered many forms of racial discriminations by the Act as well.  It was repealed in 1943 only after China and the US became WWII allies.  On June 18, 2012, the Congress passed a statement of "regret".  Needlessly to say, it is pure words. 

There are a few exceptions to the rule.  For the Japanese interned in the US during WWII, a resolution apologized for it over 40 years later, and a puny $1.6 billion was paid.  Same with the Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiments by the US.  One must note that these horrendous acts paled in comparison in brutality to many other atrocities by the US governments, such as many past and present wars.

Enough about the history, how about now?  The US is actively engaged in multiple wars and sanctions around the globe.  Most notably, in Afghanistan, killing is a daily occurrence.  A routine after 10 years of fighting is well-known: First, the US reports an air strike or night raid kills a number of militants.  The local people say a number of civilians instead including women and children are dead.  The US denies it.  Pictures show the bodies.  For the one thousandth time the Afghanistan President demands US stop.  The US admits “collateral damage” and apologizes and pays $2000 per death.  Then the US reports an air strike or night raid kills a number of militants….  According to NYT the US military is getting better at apologizing to the Afghans; but when apologizing is a game, it becomes a joke.

One can bet that the US government will continue to offer apologies for the many wrong things it did and do, including violating the civil rights of US citizens, but only at a safe distance many years later. 

The above characterizations are not intended to apply exclusively to the US government, as any government will do.  Only that the US government is one of the most powerful ones in the past 200 years, the most powerful the last 100 years, and the unchallenged one the last 30 years.  With a docile citizenry subdued by fear and propaganda, the US government has an unchecked power as it can be.

Any explanation for the disconnect between governmental apology and reality?  The usual legalese cover is that government has too many considerations.  Like, who the victims are, how much to pay, what will follow, etc.  As one ponders and time goes by, one has less urgency and incentive to apologize.  The public is not enthusiastic about apologizing to a segment of the population, much less to foreigners, in protection of the country’s image and own tax money.  The primary factor, however, is that the government is not compelled to do so, unlike a loser in a war being dictated by the winner.  The only constrain is one’s own conscience, which means little for politicians. 

So far what has been written is not really a commandment, which is what one should do in spite.  Forget about demanding empty regrets from the governments.  The citizenry needs to know what the government does.  Clearly the less need for apologizing, the better.  Next, follow up with any governmental regret.  What does it mean, does it have teeth, does any one get punished?  Don’t let apologizing become a game that sheds real responsibilities by the rich and powerful. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sports news before 2012 Olympics

1. A news piece about many American Olympians facing hardship at http://money.cnn.com/2012/07/10/news/economy/olympic-athletes-financial/index.htm.

This is true in the US as well as in other countries as well, e.g., China.  Chinese government provides funding, but the salary is quite low for most athletes.  The only big difference is that active athletes in China can claim to have a governmental job, even though they earn very little (at about the same level as most other people), which is even less than the "poor" Americans, and they typically don't have another job.  The minority, the famous ones, like those in the US, earn more money through other channels, such as sponsorship.  And once the athletes retire, they usually get a buy-out money from the government and then they are pretty much on their own.  There have been more efforts to help them through education and others, but the situation can improve only as the country becomes richer.

2.  A legal battle between Lance Armstrong and USADA, which accused him of a major doping conspiracy.

Hopefully this is the finale of the Armstrong saga.  This doping case and suspicion is the most significant in the history of sports because it involves the most accomplished winner ever in a sport for so many years, dwarfing those in MLB, 1988 Seoul Olympics, etc.  The evidence is overwhelming, if following the case for > 5 years, so one has to wonder why he was able to deny and evade positive tests for this long?  It is possible that Armstrong, because of his health history, has complicated prescriptions to mark the use of drugs or procedures.  It is entirely possible some of the drugs have legitimate medical applications for his treatments of disease.  But from the news reports of the USADA's accusations, the whole Armstrong riding team were involved in the doping scheme.  

On the other hand, a danger is to overstate the effects of drugs.  Not about the legaility of drug use, it is about how drugs affect your performance itself and against competitors who might also use the same drugs as well.  Cycling is like sports such as track and field, baseball, and weightlifting in which steroids and other drugs clearly improve performance.  But if everybody uses it, then you only hold your ground and do not gain any advantage, unless your chemist is better than others'.  Additionally, drug use in other sports does not entail a clear, real advantage.  For example, in shooting, concentration-enhancing drugs are not what they claim to be and have variable, even negative, consequences.  Using drugs in the more skill-oriented sports may even be counterproductive and has at most placebo effects.  But often people view all drug use in all sports as the same.

3.  Wimbledon 2012.

Unlike in most other sports, tennis players do not suffer from pre-Olympics fatigue because Olympics is at best the fifth GS.  At the ladies' side, Serena Williams won her 14th GS.  Radwanska played probably as well as she could, cleverly using Serena's power against her for much of the match, but Serena is truly the tennis Queen for the last 10 years.  She is old and fatter now, and her ground strokes are no more powerful than some other hard hitters in WTA.  She can run all over the place for a few points, but no longer for a game, less so for a set or match.  Then, how did she win?  Her serve is still the best.  This saves her a lot of energy and gives her confidence.  She also hits her ground strokes close to or inside the baseline, while others prefer a couple of meters behind.  This makes the opponents run a lot more than her.  Like Agassi playing.  At the end the younger Radwanska was more tired.  The most important factor, however, is that Serena is a smart player.

A frustrating aspect in watching women's tennis is that you know someone can play much better than this, yet she is making one silly errors after another and loses by 6:0, 6:1.  Men rarely do that.  There are some GS winners that are definitively not very smart, like China's Li Na.  But you can't be stupid to play at this level.  So the reason is likely that women can't control their emotion as well as men and this greatly affects their performance in court.  Serena is smart because she controls her emotion well.  By no means perfect, as there are instances that she lost it, but during Wimbledon 2012, even when she was behind, she played calmly and rarely made mistakes that were costly.

One has to wonder what if Serena has dedicated more to tennis?  Will she accomplish more than Graf?  Serana is a bit like Agassi, only that she seems to be in and out of tennis more often.  Purely speculatively, this has good and bad.  Good is that her tennis age is shorter, and she is physically better than her real age.  Bad is that she missed many GS chances.  Throughout her career only her sister (earlier days and in Wimbledon), Henin (in 2007), and Clijsters could give her real troubles, but she still has a good record against all of them   This is in contrast to Monica Seles.  Seles missed a year and a half to the stabbing instance, less than Serena's combined off-time, but her GS and rival head-to-head records are worse.

On the men's side, Federer won his record 17th GS.  Federer has technical superiority over everybody else except Nadal, so it is not an upset that he beat Novak at the semi.  Andy Murray, like his old self, played conservatively as the match progressed.  Some points he was obviously in the upper hand, but chose to play safely, handing Federer the opportunities.  This cost Murray too much energy to win just a point.  His only reliable weapon was his first serve, but his second serve was below 100 mph. At the end Murray was too tired, like Radwanska, while the 30-year-old Federer was much fresher.

The questions now are how long can Federer keep it up, which Djokovic will return, and what is wrong with Nadal?  Rosol didn't play like world #100 when he beat Nadal, but Nadal was very flat even when he beat Bellucci in the first round: Nadal came back on that match only because Bellucci could not handle underspins.  Rosol plays like Soderling, whose style innately troubles Nadal, but Nadal usually still beats it.  The rain delay after the 4th set likely hurt Nadal, but his form was definitively not enough to win Wimbledon.  It may be that Nadal aimed to beat Djokovic at GS, and once he did that in Paris he was like a balloon with the air let out.  There may also be an injury issue.  Comparing to Nadal 2008 or earlier, he runs around and uses his forehand more and more now.  Being more aggressive is all good and well, but perhaps the downside is that he uses his backhand less and less, reflecting either less match practice or less confidence.  Djokovic's constant attacks of his backhand perhaps creates a phantom insecurity in Nadal's mind such that he tries to overcompensate with his forehand, which then has too much pressure and makes too many errors.  Nadal needs to stand his ground with his backhand and returns serves more aggressively.  

It will be interesting to see how they perform in London 2012.  Federer will have his 4th and likely last chance for a singles' gold.  If Djokovic wants to be a real king, he needs to beat an in-form Federer, which is now.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

The overhyped Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics will be here in three weeks.  It is a once every four years festival, akin to World Cup Football.  It commands a great deal of attention and money, to the widest audience possible as well as to the majority of the competitors.  For them, their sports are little known to the lay people, so Olympics will be almost the only platform to showcase the sports to millions of viewers.  After all, a gold in shooting is the same as a gold in tennis. 

Olympics, however, has becomes largely a show business, and there are downsides with so much attention paid to Olympics.  The foremost is that it is too nationalistic.  It would be nice if the organizers do away with or minimize the national flag and anthem routine.  In practical terms, everybody knows which country the winner represents already.  A compromise could be you do the flag and anthem thing for only the first gold won by any country.  Even professional sports, like MLB, French Open tennis, play the flag and/or anthem, so we are absolutely saturated in our life.

The second is that Olympics have quotas.  A country has only three, often two, representatives to fight for an individual gold, and you can be world number 4 or even number 1 but be excluded.  We all know sports results are unpredictable.  Lowering the number of participants reduces the chance of upsets and deprives some truly worthy competitors a chance of winning.  So winning an Olympic gold should be evaluated based on who the winner beats and how, and should not be an automatic crowning as the best in a sport.

The third is that athletes, especially those not in professional sports like golf, tennis, and MLB, have attached so much importance to Olympics that they and the public actually suffer as a result.  Most sports are unlike swimming or track where you can do 10 events at once.  Realistically, you have no more than two shots in Olympic Games with one or two golds available each time.  If a world champion doesn't qualify for one Olympics for any reason and does not win in his chance four years later, he loses the biggest goal in his professional life.  Many people retire soon after Olympics not because they are no longer competitive, but because they realize they will be too old when the next Olympics comes.  Furthermore, athletes train for their best shapes during the summer, so you typically see so-so performances in sports up to one year prior to the Olympics and months after that.  They dispense less energy during matches and resort to excuses like avoiding injuries or preparing for the Olympics for their losses.  Athletes all say on TV it is such a honor to represent your country in Olympics.  True, but you also represent your country whenever you take part in any international competitions, and you should have the same, high standard throughout your career, not just once every four years.

Monday, June 11, 2012

2012 French Open men's final

Nadal beat Djokovic for the title, concluding two days' play on 6/11/12.  Sports fans care about the results, but real fans analyze the players and plays.

Nadal is suited for red clay, and a sunny, dry day is his best friend.  Under such conditions the tennis ball rotates the most and bounces the highest, giving him plenty of time to get to and hit it and his opposition trouble returning it.  If 6/10/12 were a normal, clear summer day, Nadal would have won by 3:0.

The rain helped Djokovic a lot.  The ball got wet, slippery, heavy, and hard to spin.  It also made Djokovic's flat hits sink faster.  It was unusual but explainable for Nadal to lose 8 games straight during that time.

Going forwards, if next year's final is on a clear day and both are healthy, Nadal will win again.

To the other surfaces it is a different story, and need to include Federer for comparisons.

Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all have excellent techniques and footwork, all are fast and strong.  Without Nadal, Federer would have won 20 GS or more, ending any discussion about GOAT.  Without Djokovic, Nadal would have caught up with Sampras by now, seriously challenging Federer's totals.  Federer's style has precedents, even though he masters it the best.  The emergence of Nadal and Djokovic is more "accidental", an example of sports and hence history being influenced by chance.

The weapon of Nadal is his running ability and big top spin from a left-hander.  The last point is a killer to a single-handed backhand right-hander like Federer.  Because his style matches so well to Federer's, it is natural that Nadal is Federer's nemesis.  As long as Nadal keeps spinning to Federer's backhand, Federer will eventually make an error.  Federer can't use his big forehand alone because Nadal retrieves too many shots; once Nadal returns the ball to Federer's backhand, we get the same thing all over again.

This situation is reversed when Nadal plays Djokovic.  Djokovic is taller and has longer arms and stretch that handle high balls better.  More importantly, Djokovic has the most balanced forehand and backhand in the history of tennis (and the best hair).  Like Nadal against Federer, Djokovic has a simple plan.  Serve to Nadal's backhand, then attack his forehand open court right away.  When in defense, hit to Nadal's backhand, then turn to offense.  One sees this formula time and time again when they play.  Why can't anybody else do it against Nadal, as there is no secret?  Because only Djokovic can attack from anywhere in the court with his balanced forehand and backhand.  

How can Nadal counter this strategy?  On clay Djokovic's strikes are less lethal.  Nadal actually anticipated serves to the backhand side very well during the French Open final such that Djokovic had to mix it up by serving to his forehand more.  Surprising in a sense that although Nadal didn't give Djokovic as many chances as before, Nadal didn't have an advantage there either by returning serves from the backhand side.  Serving to Nadal's forehand too much seemed to be overthinking on Djokovic' part.  Overall Nadal can improve his backhand or lob a few service returns to buy time.  Or run around to use his forehand, this option will be more tiring and only works when Nadal is >100%.  Nadal should also use backhand slices more, deep and low. They still do not guarantee success, but Nadal can hope that by doing so he wins all the big points and the match.  He also needs to serve well to deny Djokovic opportunities of counterattacks.

Djokovic's style or strategy does not work as well against Federer at his prime.  Federer's single-handed backhand has too many variations.  When Djokovic attacks his backhand, he can slice more naturally to deep corners or the middle to make Djokovic use more energy to lift the ball to induce errors, while at the same time allowing Federer time to recover.  Djokovic doesn't have the top-spinning ability of Nadal, so he can't exploit Federer's weakness as much.  The recent success of Djokovic over Federer is not due to any strategic superiority but because Federer is getting too old and slow.

Now, where do the upcoming players stand, and how will the playing style evolve?  Tennis techniques haven't changed much over 30 years, with Nadal's top spinning being perhaps the exception.  Players are simply stronger with better rackets to execute better.  It can be imagined that Djokovic's style will be the easiest to imitate by young players.  Balanced backhand and forehand, top spin and flat hit, fast and precise serves.  On the other hand, it becomes boring when everybody plays the same style.  This would have already been the case if not for some of the greatest players ever playing today.  Look at women's tennis today, minus the beauty contest.  Once these three musketeers retire, what will be there for a surprise?

Personally, I wish there will be another Federer with a stronger backhand.  




Sunday, May 27, 2012

On the 2012 Thomas Cup and Uber Cup finals

China won the Badminton Team World Championships (Thomas Cup and Uber Cup) by beating South Korea 3:0 in both the Men's and Women's competitions in May 2012.

For the men, Lin Dan and Cai Yun/Fu Haifeng become the first individuals who ever won either Cup five times, consecutively, as the first single or first double.  Lin Dan has been perfect in the finals of Thomas Cup and Sudirman Cup (Mixed Team), amazing considering he always faces the best of the opposing teams, usually in the first match.  Lin Dan did lose a couple of times in earlier rounds in the Thomas and Sudirman Cups.  Only Yang Yang and Chen Jin might have a perfect record in team competitions ever (?).  Yang Yang played in fewer events though, and Chen Jin has never been the first single.  Chen Jin did contribute by winning the deciding, third single in Thomas Cup in 2008, when Lin Dan lost to Lee Chong Wei in the semi.

For the women, there would have been little to say, just like the men, because on paper Koran players are ranked all lower, except for the fact that China lost to South Korea in 2010.  The key in both 2010 and 2012 was the first single by China's Wang Yihan, underscoring how important the first match is.  Wang lost in 2010 and won in 2012.  But she only escaped barely in 2012, having lost the first set and been down 16:20 to Sung Ji-hyun in the second.  It is interesting to analyze how Wang Yihan plays and came back.  Much has been said about how she persevered.  This is true only in a small part.  From 16:20 to 20:20, all four points were quick affairs, and only one Wang won by being active.  The other three points Sung made simple errors, including serving long once.  One of the three points Sung could have made easily and sealed the victory she netted, a clear unforced error.  So it was mostly Sung's mental block that cost her the match.  In such situations the leader should have played it safe and extended the point, because the pressure is on the other side.  Losing the points quickly only emboldens your opponent and doubly unsettles you.  After 20:20 Sung lost two more points and the third set in no time. 

How much credit did Wang deserve?  Wang Yihan's strength and weakness is obvious.  Her weakness has always been her movement or footwork.  She is like a tennis player who doesn't know how to slide plays in the French Open.  She compensates for this glaring problem by being physically strong and having good hands.  She plays aggressively and excels at the net.  A couple of years back, if she lost the first set and down in the second to capable players, she rarely came back  But a big difference in 2011 and 2012, as she has rallied multiple times.  A prime example is in the All-England against Tine Baun on March 9, 2012.  She lost the first set and was trialing in the second most of time but came back.  That match was very similar to what happened in the Uber Cup final.  So this is not first time for Wang Yihan, and Sung should have been prepared for that.  In many aspects Wang Yihan is like Serana Williams, both strong and aggressive players. Serena also often faces match points.  At such important times Serena rarely makes mistakes and plays patiently and conservatively.  Then her opponent makes the errors and Serana comes back, over and over.

On the other hand, Wang Yihan can improve by not digging herself a hole.  Against Sung, Wang was ahead by a few points by the intermission in both the first and second sets.  Somehow Wang lost her concentration and lead quickly afterwards.  Had Wang been more consistent, there would have been no drama.  Here is another issue of how Wang Yihan plays: despite her superb physical and technical ability, she is not a very smart player.  Often times the trailing opponent might try new things after the intermission.  One has to be focused and adjust.  If you only play with autopilot, you will be lost.

Now comes a general observation of badminton.  For close to 10 years we are fortunate to watch the performance of Lin Dan, the best men's single player ever, and the dynamite Cai Yun/Fu Haifeng, China's best ever and one of the world's best ever men's double.  But perhaps more significantly, we are now witnessing a decisive change in the playing styles of women's badminton.  Many players are more aggressive, like the young Thai players and Wang Xin and Li Xuerui, and the rallying style is no longer the only option.  The old way is to move her around the court, create an opening, then attack.  The new thinking is to attack to win or create a better opportunity, and attack again.  Two reasons for the change.  One is that players are taller and stronger than before.  The other is the old 11-point system is no more.  The new attacking style is not the same as the older, aggressive style of Zhang Ning and Wang Yihan.  The new style attacks earlier, from everywhere in the courts, more often, and with more force even on the first strike.  Rallying ability is still the basic, but chances that are missing in the old books are imperative in the new.  Li Xuerui is the most typical.  She seems smarter than Wang Yihan and is younger than Wang Xin.  She will likely become stronger physically and improve her techniques in the next two years.  The real challenge will come when others study her more.  If she has the street smarts of Lin Dan, she will overcome.

Another big development is that Indonesia failed to advance to the semifinal stage in both the men and women events.  It has been a slow but persistent decline.  Chinese dominance can't be the reason because South Korea has held steady, and Japan and Thailand are rising.  There is a feeling that Indonesian players have not made the necessary adjustments to the rule changes and the strategies everyone else is playing and advancing, especially in the women's side.  This is mostly the coaches' faults.     



Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Who will you pick for a fight?

Sports fans are among the most opinionated bunches of people.  We also like dream matchups, often impossible ones.  That is why there are endless greatest-of-all-time discussions.  In essence, who do you want in your team in the history of the sport if there is THE fight today, even though someone has to be transported from time?  In China there is this old saying: 关公战秦琼, or Guan Gong (关公, ~160-220 AD) fighting Qin Qiong (秦琼, ?-638).  In the US people are debating whether the 1998 Yankees are better than the 1927 Yankees.  It is pure fun to speculate on such fights, hence the Hollywood films such as Rocky 6.

For this fight, we have to imagine that both players must be in their prime.  Also, the average levels of play across different eras must be considered, or normalized to be the same.  So what we really measure is how much the two players are better than their peer groups.

Suppose men's tennis.  It depends on the courts.  For red clay, Nadal is the one.  Whoever opposing him, does it matter?  Any other surface, for me, Sampras or Federer is tough choice.  For peak performance, I will choose Sampras.  Consistency, Federer is one level above anybody else.

Women's tennis.  I will choose Graf.  She will have strong competitions though.  

Men's table tennis.  The field is wide open.  Mainly because there are wide varieties of styles that match well with some but poorly with others, also the techniques are evolving.  For just one match I will pick Jiang Jialiang, because in mid-1980s he ate Waldner alive, whom many people may pick.  But I doubt Jiang would ever be able to beat Wang Liqin. 

Women's table tennis.  Deng Yaping is the one.  She doesn't have the best techniques, but she is fast and furious, and handles players with different styles well.  I can't think of any common names capable of a good matchup against her. 

Men's badminton.  Lin Dan is the one.  Nobody else since 1980 comes even half close to his big championship counts and head-to-head records against peer.  Opposing him, maybe Yang Yang, with his tenacity, perhaps can rattle Lin Dan.  Zhao Jianhua is the one whose techniques and attacking games are the best I have ever seen, but he is not a good defender. 

Women's badminton.  Another wide open field.  Great players at different eras are not much better than each other.  I actually think a new comer Li Xuerui, not a world champion yet, may be the one.  I like her refreshing style.  She is also calm.  She still needs to polish her techniques though. 

Basketball.  Wilt Chamberlain is a player that transforms the sport.  He broke all kinds of records and forced all kinds of rule changes when he played while never fouling out of an NBA game.  Nobody else famous can claim likewise.  Nowadays people talk about Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, and Russell, but if just a single player, Wilt is the one.

In terms of the record books, baseball probably has the most records documented.  Babe Ruth is considered the best ever.  Even though his records have since been surpassed by others over times, when he set those records, they were so far ahead of his fellow players, like out-homering every other teams in the MLB and being both an elite hitter and an elite pitcher, that he set a bar so high no one will be able to reach.

Talking about baseball, the biggest story since 2000 is the steroid scandal.  On one hand, steroids definitely had an effect.  Barry Bonds would not have hit so many HRs so late in his career, which is just against human physiology.  On the other hand, there is a lot of hypocrisy regarding players using steroids, like many writers vow not to vote players into HOF simply because of (suspected) steroid use.  For one thing, it is not clear how and how much steroid affects performance.  It definitely varies among sports.  Even in the same sport like baseball, some people may get a better effect, some very little.  The argument that steroid use is illegal has many holes as well, because players in earlier years also used illegal drugs, which was already well known then.  For what is worth, we had no idea what Babe Ruth took when he was hitting those HRs.  Yes, a lot of meat and alcohol, but can anybody be certain that he didn't take steroids or like chemicals?  Steroids have been around for a long time, and natural products contain performance enhancing chemicals as well.

In essence, we don't need to know what if.  Just two great players relative to their peer groups comparing themselves and the record books.