Giving it all to win knows no boundaries.
Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fittest is a British documentary in which the Olympic gold medalist looks at the fact the 100 meter men’s sprint has been dominated by the decendants of slaves. See this preview.
The documentary and articles on it then go on to investigate whether in some way the rigors of slavery meant that only the strongest and fastest survived with this selection leading to the current domination of international sprinting.
Johnson come to the following conclusion:
“All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations.
Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us” (Daily Mail).
While I have observed the same phenomenon in terms of the racial identity of sprinters in 100 meter finals, I really find it hard to believe that natural selection works this way. Among other things, I cannot believe that skill at such a narrow, specific activity developed as a result of historical factors. Any people with a background in genetics reading this, please weigh in.
Also, the whole idea of any group of people being genetically good at something opens a whole can of worms that is quite problematic, not to mention the whole idea that there is a way something, anything, positive came from slavery.
The dwarfs in Snow White and the Huntsman are not played by dwarfs. They are played by digitally altered actors of normal stature, or the faces of actors have been digitally attached to the bodies of little people. The organization Little People of America has complained about this fact in a piece on TMZ. My first reaction was to smile and think that this complaint seems frivolous. Then I thought about it a bit. I am not happy that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Moreover, I would have a serious problem if a white actor were digitally altered so as to play Jim in Huck Finn or Othello in Othello. If this parallel is valid, then I should support the complaints of the Little People. This casting decision does deprive a group of opportunities; it also is an example of a majority group taking on the representation of a minority, an occurrence which tends to lead to inaccurate, inauthentic portrayals. I do not have problems with minority group members taking on traditionally minority [edict--should read "majority] roles (Lucy Liu as Watson in Sherlock Holmes) as those cases are examples of an increased opportunity for a group whose opportunities have traditionally been limited.
Then again, I cannot help but see this complaint as being a little bit of a stretch. This movie is a presentation of a fairy tale, not a drama presenting the lives and struggles of little people today. The script or source text was not written by a little person. I am not sure, but I do not think that the text “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a touchstone of little person culture.
Nonetheless, I think I suffer from the bias I have picked up from American culture and British and American literature, a tendency to see little people as figures of fun and amusement (jesters, fools, clowns, etc.) and not take their complaints seriously. So, I guess I do think the casting decisions are unfortunate and perhaps even discriminatory, and I will not be going to see the film. Of course, I do not really watch movies anyway, but that’s beside the point.
This artistic, powerful video inspires me when I watch it. The moves are great, especially what he does with the crutches. The way he uses the crutches as part of his performance really says a lot about taking a supposed disability and making into an opportunity for art and life.
As I prepare to teach a unit on the Olympics and as we head towards the London Games, I have been reading a lot about sprinting. With some notable exceptions, the fastest sprinters in the world are black (African-American, West African, Caribbean). With some notable exceptions, the fastest distance runners are black (Kenyan, Ethiopian, generally East African). Why is that? My favorite recent discussion of the topic is from a great piece on Jamacian sprinters. I reprint some of the theorizing below:
“These are athletes of black ancestry,” Dr. Errol Morrison, an endocrinologist and the president of UTech, says ”They have long limbs; they have little subcutaneous fat, which gives you a lot of reduction in all the drag, you know, in the weight that you have to carry around.”
Then there’s the phenomenon of narrow hips. According to Morrison, Jamaicans are built to lift their knees high when they run.
“Now, in sprinting, the knee lift is the fundamental principle,” he says, “how you lift that knee, extend the leg and your stride length. So not only have you got the long limbs, but we have an angulation of the pelvis so the muscles there that lift the knee have a direct line of sight, as opposed to in the white or the [Asian pelvis] where you’re literally sliding up.”
But if Jamaican sprinters are so genetically well-endowed, does that mean there’s a speed gene, some inherited trait that distinguishes the elite runner from the broader population?
Both Morrison and Irving have collaborated with Yannis Pitsiladis at the University of Glasgow on just that question. Pitsiladis has studied a DNA bank of samples from hundreds of Jamaican and African-American sprinters, not to mention Kenyan middle-distance runners and Ethiopian marathoners. He says he started out hopeful of finding a speed gene.
“We were so convinced by arguments that had been put forward by other scientists, by the media, that these populations like the Jamaicans have the right genes, that we thought it’d be easy enough to just go to the island, collect DNA samples, analyze them, come up with those genes and there’s the end finding,” Pitsiladis says. “Four to five years later, I can tell you that we have been looking at the genes and, in one line, I have to say that we have found no genetic evidence for the phenomenon that we’re observing in Jamaica.”
It’s not that genes play no role; it’s that the genes of elite sprinters just aren’t that different.
The article then goes on to talk about environment and hard work, factors I prefer to stress because they get away from some sort of racial, genetic determinism. Besides, I know lots of slow black people. Still, it is interesting to see how people approach this topic, desperately trying to analyze a talent that seems to correlate with race, but without seeming racist.
I have been reading about automatic essay grading programs. It seems that a study shows that the results they produce correspond quite accurately to the the results produced by human graders. However, Les Pereman of MIT has played with one system and found many flaws. As reported in The New York Times the system reward high scores for long words, long sentences, and long paragraphs. It also fails to check facts. Those are significant flaws, although one argument made by the system’s creator is that if one is smart enough to learn to game the system, one has learned the skills the test assesses.
However, I have been a human grader for a standardized test. I have read an essay every three minutes and quickly put down a score. In that process I was pretty close to robotic. I did not automatically reward length, but I certainly gave students the benefit of the doubt on outside facts. If I did not know for sure the fact was wrong, I assumed it was right. Some of my colleagues, those recognized as fast graders did look to length. They checked out how long the essay was before they started since how long the essay was could predict how effective it was.
Although paralleling what humans do, these programs could eliminate human readers’ conscious and unconscious bias. For example, when I graded I was biased toward Shakespeare. If a student used Shakespeare for an example, they were likelier to get a higher grade. That bias was against grading policy. I was supposed to reward all well-integrated examples equally. A computer would guarantee that a reference to Hamlet and a reference to Tupac both had equal weight. Likewise, my favorite word in the English language is the word pulchritudinous. I might give a student using that word the benefit of the doubt in assigning a grade. The computers might be flawed, but they could root out these sorts of bias (of course depending on the programmer’s bias).
I am not afraid these computers will take my job. I have yet to see one teach writing. Yet, they could be helpful in creating a standard, uniform baseline. That is as long as they evolve past giving automatic high scores to long sentences featuring “however” or “moreover,” as signs of advanced thought.
On the plane flight home Saturday I watched the NCAA game between Ohio State and Syracuse. Aaron Craft, starting point guard for Ohio State, got a lot of laudatory commentary from the announcers. They praised in particular his hard nosed play, his defensive skills, steals, and his never give up attitude. They did address his ability to score but that was secondary. Hearing all of these remarks, I noticed how Craft fits into the stereotype of the “white guard.” He is not a three point shooter, see Steve Kerr for example, so he is a scrappy pest who works hard and never gives up. Certainly players of other ethnicity are described this way, but the particular celebration seems limited to white players who, perhaps assumed to lack athletic gifts, are praised for their smarts, grit and intangibles. Since Ohio State won, I can now watch another game and see how the coverage develops. The question is a chicken and egg one. Does the nature of his play lead to the descriptions, or did hearing white players described this way over time lead him to develop this approach to the game?
I filled out my NCAA bracket last night and I chose Vermont to lose in the first round. The reason why? When I thought about the team whom I briefly saw play on ESPN2 the day before, I thought that they had too many white players to win. Now this was not conscious analysis. It was quick flash of dubious insight before I moved on to the next game. However, when I look back on that choice I am saddened that I relied on such a stereotype of white (and by logical opposition) black athletes. All the theory I have read and thought I have done comes to naught when faced with a tournament pool; time to work on my conditioning.
I usually fall into the trap of paying more attention to some of the Big 8 dimensions of diversity (ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class) than others. Then I hear pieces like this one “Baby Steps” from This American Life by Ryan Knighton, a father taking his daughter for a walk, and I am reminded to pay attention to all forms of diversity.
Very troubling NPR story regarding the history of a Eugenics Board in North Carolina. The name alone evokes chills and dread. It is hard to believe there was a time when state sponsored and managed sterilization programs were seen as a good idea both for the community and the women involved. At least today that is a fringe opinion even though variations do pop up occasionally. See this Louisiana legislator’s ideas that include paying the poor to have their tubes tied while giving the higher income, college educated tax breaks to encourage reproduction.