Skeletal Systems

Michael Paulus at his website (via The Daily Doubter):

Animation was the format of choice for children’s television in the 1960s, a decade in which children’s programming became almost entirely animated. Growing up in that period, I tended to take for granted the distortions and strange bodies of these entities.

These Icons are usually grotesquely distorted from the human form from which they derive. Being that they are so commonplace and accepted as existing I thought I would dissect them like science does to all living objects – trying to come to an understanding as to their origins and true physiological make up. Possibly to better understand them and see them in a new light for what they are in the most basic of terms.

I decided to take a select few of these popular characters and render their skeletal systems as I imagine they might resemble if one truly had eye sockets half the size of its head, or fingerless-hands, or feet comprising 60% of its body mass.

Charlie Brown:




Many more here.

How are young Muslims radicalized on domestic soil?

Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

In a world amply populated with angry young Muslims, it is a question of some interest why a small number choose to become suicide bombers. President Bush addresses the matter in starkly religious language, consigning it to an eternal contest between good and evil. American scholars have begun to attack the problem with scientific method; Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, for example, recently mustered data to argue that suicide attacks are a rational means by which the weak can humble the strong. To this potpourri of hypotheses can now be added a compelling work by anonymous bureaucrats in Great Britain, under the oddly redundant title “Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005.”

On that summer morning, three young Muslim men blew themselves up on Underground cars, and a fourth immolated himself on a double-decker bus; fifty-two people died, and several hundred suffered injuries. The most striking aspect of the inquiry into the attacks, which was published earlier this month, is the extent to which it plumbs the suicide bombers’ motivations.

The four men depicted in the report are in some respects unfathomable. When Shehzad Tanweer, a talented athlete who was twenty-two years old, bought snacks at a highway convenience store four hours before his death, he haggled over the change. Hasib Hussain, who was eighteen, strode into a McDonald’s just half an hour before he killed himself and thirteen others.

More here.

Beauty and her beasts

Chris Petit in The Guardian:

Ava_gardner_11Her three marriages were essays in fame. Her first in 1942, at 19, to pint-sized star Mickey Rooney, then one of MGM’s biggest assets and an experienced skirt-chaser despite his wholesome screen image, happened when she was barely a signed-up starlet. Rooney was forced to marry because she wouldn’t come across otherwise. Her second husband, jazz star Artie Shaw, gave the uneducated Gardner a reading syllabus, sent her to therapy and, for reasons he never explained, moved them into a modest rented house in suburban Burbank, which they shared for a time with its owners and their teenage sons. The third husband was Sinatra. By then she was the bigger star, a perpetual cover girl and tabloid sensation, epitome of an emerging jet set (which can equally be taken for a life on the run), her movie career almost incidental to her celebrity, and indistinguishable from her often exaggerated notoriety. Asked by a reporter what she saw in Sinatra – a 119lb has-been – she replied demurely that 19lb of it was cock.

More here.

DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism

Jaron Lanier at

Jaron201The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

More here.

It’s time to stop killing meat and start growing it

William Saletan in Slate:

060530_hn_eatmeatexWhere were you when Barbaro broke his leg? I was at a steakhouse, watching the race on a big screen. I saw a horse pulling up, a jockey clutching him, a woman weeping. Thus began a worldwide vigil over the fate of the great horse. Would he be euthanized? Could doctors save him? In the restaurant, people watched and wondered. Then we went back to eating our steaks.

Shrinks call this “cognitive dissonance.” You munch a strip of bacon then pet your dog. You wince at the sight of a crippled horse but continue chewing your burger. Three weeks ago, I took my kids to a sheep and wool festival. They petted lambs; I nibbled a lamb sausage. That’s the thing about humans: We’re half-evolved beasts. We love animals, but we love meat, too. We don’t want to have to choose. And maybe we don’t have to. Maybe, thanks to biotechnology, we can now grow meat instead of butchering it.

More here.

Genetic Comparison Traces Origins of HIV to African Chimpanzees

Lauran Neergaard of the AP in the Chicago Tribune:

Solving the mystery of HIV’s ancestry was dirty work. But researchers now have confirmed that the virus that causes AIDS in humans really did originate in wild chimpanzees–in a corner of Cameroon.

Scientists have long known that captive chimps carry their own version of the AIDS virus, SIV or simian immunodeficiency virus. But it was extraordinarily hard to find in wild chimpanzees, complicating efforts to pin down just how the virus could have made the jump from animal to man.

Fitting that final piece of the puzzle required seven years of research just to develop tests to genetically trace the virus in living wild chimps without hurting the endangered species. Then trackers had to plunge through the dense forests of West Africa and scrape up fresh ape feces, more than 1,300 samples in all.

Until now, “no one was able to look. No one had the tools,” said Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She led the team of international researchers that reported the success in Thursday’s online edition of the journal Science.

“We’re 25 years into this pandemic,” Hahn said. “We don’t have a cure. We don’t have a vaccine. But we know where it came from.”

More here.

on simple human decency

Ben Metcalf in Harper’s Magazine:

Some time has passed since I last raise my voice to the multitude, and whereas literary taste does not seem to have advanced much in the interim, and I assume is still arrayed so as to engage only the weak-minded and dull, I find that I am no longer able to discern with any accuracy where the bounds of simple human decency lie. This would bother me even less than does the taste issue were it not for the fact that ground gained or lost in the theater of decency tends now and then to affect the law, and it has long been a personal goal of mine to avoid capture and imprisonment.

I am therefore led to wonder what the common citizen is allowed to “say” anymore, in print or otherwise, and still feel reasonably sure that some indignant team of G-men, or else a pair of gung-ho local screws, will not drag him away to a detention center, there to act out, with the detainee as a prop, that familiar scene in which one hero cop or another is patriotically unable to resist certain outbursts against the detainee and what were once imagined to be the detainee’s constitutional rights. Because I am loath to violate whatever fresh new mores the people have agreed upon, or have been told they agree upon, and because I do not care to have my ass kicked repeatedly in a holding cell while I beg to see a lawyer, I almost hesitate to ask the following question.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]


Eric Reeves in The New Republic:

Actually, far from suggesting that the United Nations can save Darfur, the developments of the last few weeks provide an excellent illustration of why the international body will never be able to stop the genocide. Indeed, the most recent Security Council resolution does more to highlight Darfur’s exceedingly grim future than to suggest that security for civilians or humanitarian operations will improve anytime in the near term. We might recall that there have been seven previous U.N. Security Council resolutions on Darfur, none of which has halted the genocide. These previous resolutions, which together constitute a shameful record of impotence, are recounted in the most recent resolution–unwittingly drawing attention to just how useless Turtle Bay’s steady stream of diplomatic activity on Darfur has been. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that this time will be any different.

First, it’s worth understanding just how bad the situation on the ground in Darfur has become–despite the recent peace agreement signed in Abuja that many believe could open the way for U.N. troops.

More here.

Intelligent Beings in Space!


From The New York Times:

A future space mission to Titan, Saturn’s intriguing moon enveloped in clouds, might deploy a blimp to float around the thick atmosphere and survey the sand dunes and carved valleys below.

But the blimp’s ability to communicate would be limited. A message would take about an hour and a half to travel more than 800 million miles to Earth, and any response would take another hour and a half to get to Titan.

Three hours would be a long time to wait if the message were: “Help! I’m caught in a downdraft. What do I do?” Or if the blimp were to spot something unusual — an eruption of an ice volcano — it might have drifted away before it received the command to take a closer look. The eruption may also have ended by then.

Until recently, interplanetary robotic explorers have largely been marionettes of mission controllers back on Earth. The controllers sent instructions, and the spacecraft diligently executed them.

But as missions go farther and become more ambitious, long-distance puppetry becomes less and less practical. If dumb spacecraft will not work, the answer is to make them smarter. Artificial intelligence will increasingly give spacecraft the ability to think for themselves.

More here.

Scientists reveal how frogs grip

From BBC News:

Frog_1 The mystery of how frogs cling to surfaces – even if their feet are wet – may have been solved by scientists. A study of tree frogs has revealed their toe pads are covered in tiny bumps that can directly touch a surface to create friction. The scientists found this direct contact occurs even though the pads are covered with a film of watery mucus. The findings, published in the journal Interface, may aid the development of anti-slip devices.

“The toe pads are patterned with a fine structure of hexagonal cells with channels running between them,” explained Dr Jon Barnes, an author on the paper and a zoologist from Glasgow University. “One imagines if you are sticking to a leaf, that each cell, even if it is separate from the other cells, can form its own closest orientation.”

More here.

The life and work of Oriana Fallaci

Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker:

060605mast_2_r15155_p198“Yesterday, I was hysterical,” the Italian journalist and novelist Oriana Fallaci said. She was telling me a story about a local dog owner and the liberties he’d allowed his animal to take in front of Fallaci’s town house, on the Upper East Side. Big mistake. “I no longer have the energy to get really angry, like I used to,” she added. It called to mind what the journalist Robert Scheer said about Fallaci after interviewing her for Playboy, in 1981: “For the first time in my life, I found myself feeling sorry for the likes of Khomeini, Qaddafi, the Shah of Iran, and Kissinger—all of whom had been the objects of her wrath—the people she described as interviewing ‘with a thousand feelings of rage.’ ”

For two decades, from the mid-nineteen-sixties to the mid-nineteen-eighties, Fallaci was one of the sharpest political interviewers in the world. Her subjects were among the world’s most powerful figures: Yasir Arafat, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Haile Selassie, Deng Xiaoping. Henry Kissinger, who later wrote that his 1972 interview with her was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press,” said that he had been flattered into granting it by the company he’d be keeping as part of Fallaci’s “journalistic pantheon.” It was more like a collection of pelts: Fallaci never left her subjects unskinned.

More here.

Celebrating the commonplace: Starlight

Chet Raymo in Science Musings:

Sometimes it’s fun to think about things that no one has thought about before.

Some things are thought about for the first time because to do so requires genius. For example: Darwin thinking about evolution by natural selection, Einstein thinking about relativity, or Watson and Crick thinking about the DNA double helix. Being the first to think about those sorts of things can win you a Nobel prize.

Other things are thought about for the first time because they are so utterly commonplace that no one has bothered to think about them before. These are the kind of things I like to think about.

Consider starlight. What could be more commonplace than starlight?

More here.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Daren Waters at the BBC:

Ken Loach speaking at the Cannes film festival said The Wind That Shakes The Barley was a story he had to tell.

_41699478_barley203Set in Ireland in the 1920s it recounts events that led to the formation of an independent Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland.

Loach’s aim is to cast his political eye on events that are rarely discussed in the UK and beyond and remain open wounds for many Irish citizens.

Cillian Murphy plays Damien, a young man set to leave Ireland and become a doctor in London.

But events overtake him.

At the start of the film, Ireland remains an effective colony of the UK; with British soldiers stationed in the country.

Damien witnesses the murder of a young friend, killed at the hands of brutal British soldiers because he would only give his name in Gaelic, and not in English.

More here.

On Seeing the Wind at Hope Mansell

Whether or not shadows are of the substance
such is the expectation I can
wait to surprise my vision as a wind
enters the valley: sudden and silent
in its arrival, drawing to full cry
the whorled invisibilities, glassen towers
freighted with sky-chaff; that, as barnstorming
powers, rammack the small
orchard; that well-steaded oaks
ride stolidly, that rake the light-leafed ash,
that glowing yew trees, cumbrous, heave aside.
Amidst and abroad tumultuous lumina,
regents, reagents, cloud-fêted, sun-ordained,
fly tally over hedgerows, across fields.

a new poem from Geoffrey Hill at Poetry Magazine here.

boomer bust


On the afternoon of January 31, 1998, two hundred professors and graduate students gathered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to discuss a disturbing new movement. “A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life,” a flier announced, “the specter of Left Conservatism.” With participants including Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Jonathan Arac, and Paul A. Bové, the conference was designed to address the perceived split in the mid- to late ’90s between members of the so-called cultural and real Lefts.

What was the difference between the two? The conventional wisdom of the time had it that the cultural Left was composed of theory-obsessed, anti-American academic relativists who wrote obscure treatises and preferred ethnic- and gender-oriented identity politics to activism. Members of the real Left, on the other hand, were pragmatic humanists, earnest ’60s types who favored coalition building (with the labor movement, for one), abhorred class inequality, and pressed for political change via elections.

more from Bookforum here.

dieter roth


It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell where the art begins and ends in Dieter Roth’s exhibition at Coppermill, Hauser & Wirth’s new gallery in a gigantic warehouse in London’s East End. Entering the space is like walking into a begrimed indoor city, whose every filthy crevice is crammed with disconcerting detail: heaps of rubbish, hardened paint brushes, broken video cameras. This is the largest exhibition of Roth’s work to be held in this country for more than 30 years, yet it provides little more than an inkling of the artist’s complicated, divergent career, and his no less complicated life.

more from the Guardian Unlimited here.

Sexual attraction: the magic formula

From The London Times:

Selecting a mate is the most crucial decision of our lives. We spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to find that special someone. Our appetite for a relationship fuels a billion-pound industry of matchmaking services. Yet we’re often not satisfied. A 2005 survey of more than 900 people who had been using online dating services revealed that three-quarters had not found what they were looking for. We seem as much in the dark as ever about who is a suitable match.

Let’s start with the conscious part. There are some things we all find attractive. Men tend to desire women with features that suggest youth and fertility, including a low waist-to-hip ratio, full lips and soft facial features. Recent studies confirm that women have strong preferences for virile male beauty — taut bodies, broad shoulders, clear skin and defined, masculine facial features, all of which may indicate sexual potency and good genes. We also know that women are attracted to men who look as if they have wealth or the ability to acquire it, and that men and women strongly value intelligence in a mate. Preferences for these qualities — beauty, brains and resources — are universal. The George Clooneys and Angelina Jolies of the world are sex symbols for predictable biological reasons.

More here.

Thumbs Up for Leech Therapy

From Science:

Bloodsucking leeches relieve the pain of thumb arthritis more effectively and for a longer period of time than the conventional painkilling ointment, according to new clinical trial results. The findings, presented here yesterday at the North American Research Conference on Complementary and Integrative Medicine, may move leech treatment one large wriggle closer to the mainstream of medicine.

Osteoarthritis of the thumb afflicts millions of people, causing joint pain debilitating enough to keep them from opening jars, writing notes, and gripping anything tightly. Doctors usually prescribe painkilling pills, injections, or ointments, but none of the treatments work well. Internist Gustav Dobos of the University of Essen in Germany, and his colleagues had successfully treated patients’ arthritic knees with leeches before. The worms inject a blood-thinning chemical called hirudin and several substances that fight inflammation–components that keep a prey’s blood flowing in the wild.

More here.

Teaser Appetizer: The Definition of Health

The world health organization (WHO) defines health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” This definition entered the books between 1946 and 1948 and has remained unchanged.

Current medical knowledge is desperately struggling — only with partial success –just to “merely” control “disease or infirmity.” while “complete well being” is unlikely to sprout out of our incomplete knowledge If your politicians were to legislate health by this definition, they will be in default for ever for one obvious reason: no nation – I repeat – no nation has the knowledge or the resources to deliver care to match this definition. We all learnt in the kinder garden – well except the politicians – not to promise what we can not fulfill.

This definition is a lofty, laudable visionary statement that may reflect a distant aspiration but its realization is elusive in current practice. In all humility, we should concede that “complete — well being” is a probable unquantifiable metaphysical state which is unattainable without taming nature’s evolutionary laws of life and death. And to presume that we have the ability to do so is a whiff of arrogance – an aromatic trait our species emits in abundance.

The realization of this dream was probably considered feasible in 1948, when we had made a quantum leap in understanding infectious diseases and for the first time in human history, we were exuberant in our demonstrated ability to extend longevity by about twenty years in some countries But that was far before we could predict the explosion of health technology and understand its consequential individual, societal and economic effects.

Isn’t it time we seek a second opinion on the health of this definition and evolve a flexible definition which encompasses the current reality and is malleable enough to accommodate future developments?

While the WHO definition stays seemingly immutable, a new framework linked to human rights has evolved: The human right to health paradigm reiterates: the enjoyment of highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being This linkage has provided an inspirational tool to demand “health..” The tenor of this discourse takes a cue from the rhetoric of Kofi Anan: “It is my aspiration that health will finally be seen not as a blessing to be wished for; but as a human right to be fought for.”

This paradigm recognizes that violation of human rights has serious health consequences and promoting equitable health is a prerequisite to development of the society. The discourse rightly demands abolition of slavery, torture, abuse of children, harmful traditional practices and also seeks access to adequate health care without discrimination, safe drinking water and sanitation, safe work environment, equitable distribution of food, adequate housing, access to health information and gender sensitivity.

All nations are now signatories to at least one human rights treaty that includes health rights. One hundred and nine countries had guaranteed right to health in their constitutions by the year 2001 which qualifies it as an effective instrument for policy change; but it also raises some difficult questions.

Human rights discourse uses the words health and health care interchangeably. Rony Brauman, past president of Médecins Sans Frontières comments: “WHO’s definition of a “right to health” is hopelessly ambiguous. I have never seen any real analysis of what is meant by the concept of “health” and “health for all,” nor do I understand how anyone could seriously defend this notion.” The notion is more defensible if the demand of health care replaced the demand for health.

Yet no country in the world can afford to give all health care to all its citizens all the time. Nations conduct a triage of priorities according to their prejudices and large swaths of populations are not caught in the health care net. Even nations that have right to health embedded in the constitution face a gap between the aspirations and resources.

The human rights debate skirts round the issue by invoking the “Principle of progressive realization”, which allows resource strapped countries to promise increments in health care delivery in future This effectively gives a tool to the governments to ration and allocate resources, even if it conflicts with individual rights.

The following example illustrates the problem: post apartheid government of South Africa had enshrined the right to health in the constitution, yet the courts decided against a petitioner who demanded dialysis that he needed for chronic kidney failure. The court ruled that the government did not have an obligation to provide treatment. The court in essence transferred some responsibility to the individual.

Gandhi had also expressed his concern that rights without responsibility are a blunder. A responsibility paradigm could supplement the rights movement; a pound of responsibility could prove to be heavier than a ton of rights, but the current noise for rights has muzzled the speech for responsibility and “Complete health” is becoming an entitlement to be ensured by the state without demanding that the family and the individual be equal stake holders. Hippocrates said “a wise man ought to realize that health is his most valuable possession and learn to treat his illnesses by his own judgment”

This conflict will escalate further with the impact of biotechnology. A quote from Craig Venter gives the feel: “It will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of what we attribute to human existence — the danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal. —- revealing the genetic basis of personality and behavior will create societal conflicts.”

Derek Yach, a respected public health expert and professor at Yale University says “With advances in technology, particularly in the fields of imaging and genetic screening, we now recognize that almost all of the population either has an actual or potential predisposition to some future disease.”

We can’t help but rethink about health itself before we promise health care. An alternative definition can be derived from the health field concept of Marc Lalonde who was the health minister of Canada in1974. He surmised that interplay of four elements determined health, namely: genetic makeup, environment including social factors, individual behavior and organization of health care. The health field model holds many stake holders accountable.

Each stake holder approaches health with a seemingly different goal. (Even though they complement each other) A healthy person wishes not to fall sick; a sick person demands quick relief; a health care provider attempts to cure and prevent disease; a molecular biologist envisions control of molecular dysfunction; a public health person allocates resources to benefit maximum number of people; a health economist juggles finances within the budget; the government facilitates or hampers the delivery of care according to its priorities and the activist demands that every person has the right to the” Highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Many stake holders mean more questions than answers. Who decides the limits of health a society should attain? Shall the boundary limit to basic primary care or extend to genetic manipulation to deliver well being? Who decides the mechanism of attaining that limit? Who decides positive mental well being? And who pays for it?

It is apparent that ‘Complete well being’ is as much an oxymoron as ‘airline food!’ We urgently need a new definition as a starting point for debate: a definition that is quantifiable for outcomes, accommodative of stake holders, absorbent of future advances, accountable for delivery of care and cognizant of limitations. The new definition has to be both correct and politically correct. Dr. Brundtland, former director-general of the WHO, wrote in the world health report that “The objective of good health is twofold – goodness and fairness; goodness being the best attainable average level; and fairness, the smallest feasible differences among individuals and groups.” We should match our expectations to reality.

These elements, compressed and enveloped into a workable statement, may sound as follows:

Health is a state of freedom from physical and mental consequences of molecular and psychological derangements caused by the interaction of individual biology and the environment; health care is an attempt to reverse such derangement by providing equitable access to all without discrimination within the constraints of available resources and knowledge.

You may call this, if you please: the 3QD definition of health — you read it here first!

Dispatches: Affronter Rafael Nadal

Roland Garros, or tennis’ French Open, started yesterday.  Perhaps you’ve noticed; articles ran in most Sunday papers about it, quite extensive ones too, considering that the French has often been viewed as a third-rate (after Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) Grand Slam tournament, largely because it is usually won by a cadre of specialists instead of the best-known players.  Not only is this perception unfair, but, this year, Roland Garros will be the most important men’s tennis tournament of the year.  Here’s why.

The increasing specialization of tennis has meant that this tournament, the only Grand Slam played on clay, has a set of contenders that is quite distinct from those at the grass courts of Wimbledon and the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows, Queens.  Not only has it been won by players who have not been dominant on the other surfaces, but it has been very difficult for anyone to enjoy repeat success sur la terre battue.  Ten of the last twelve Wimbledons were won by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; the last five winners of Roland Garros are Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio, and Rafael Nadal.  I’m going to try to explain both phenomena (specialized success and lack of repeat dominance) below.

Why does it make a difference what surface the game is played on, and what difference does it make?  Basically, the surface affects three things: the speed of the ball after it bounces, the height of the ball’s bounce, and the player’s level of traction on court.  In terms of the speed of the ball and height of its bounce, clay is the slowest and highest, and grass is the fastest and lowest, with hardcourt in the middle.  This results in differing strategies for success on each surface, with grass rewarding aggressive quick strikes – with the speed of the ball and the low bounce, you can ‘hit through’ the court and past the other player with relative ease.  For this reason, the great grass-court players have mostly been offensive players, who use serve-and-volley tactics (i.e., serving and coming to net to take the next ball out of the air).  Clay, on the other hand, reverses this in favor of the defensive player: the slow, high bounce means it is very tough to hit past an opponent, and points must be won by attrition, after long rallies in which slight positional advantages are constantly being negotiated before a killing stroke.  Clay-court tennis is exhausting, brutal work.

Clay and grass, then, are opposed, slow and fast, when it comes to the ball.  How then did Bjorn Borg, perhaps the greatest modern player (he accomplished more before his premature retirement at twenty-five than anyone other than Sampras) manage to win Roland Garros (clay) six times and Wimbledon (grass) five but never a major tournament on the medium paced surface, hardcourt?  The third variable comes into play here: traction.  Clay, and, to a lesser extent, grass, provide negative traction.  That is, you slip when you plant your foot and push off.  Hardcourt provides positive traction – your foot sticks.  Consequently, entirely different styles of quickness are needed.  Borg didn’t like positive traction.  On clay, particularly, players slide balletically into the ball, the timing for which skill is developed during childhood by the most talented players, most of whom grew up in countries where clay courts are the rule: Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Brazil.  Grass is not as slidey, but offers less traction than the sticky hardcourts, and like clay, grass’ uneven natural surface produces unpredictable hops and bounces, frustrating the expectations of the more lab-conditioned hardcourt players.

So, clay slows the ball and provides poor footing, both of which qualities means that it’s ruled by an armada of players who grow up playing on it and mastering the movement and strategic ploys it favors.  Perhaps foremost among these is the dropshot, which works because the high bounce of the clay court drives players way back and sets them up for the dropper.  This explains the dominance of the clay specialists, but why has the title switched off among so many players lately?  For the most part, this is because of the grinding nature of clay.  So much effort must be expended to win a match (five sets on clay can take five hours of grueling back-and-forth; in contrast, bang-bang tennis on grass can be practically anaerobic), that players tire over the course of the tournament, and so much depends upon perseverance that a superhuman effort will often overcome a greater talent.  It just so happens that last year there emerged a player who combines the greatest clay talent with the greatest amount of effort, but more on him below.  For now, let me return to my claim that this edition of the French is the most important men’s tennis event this year.

Historically, the greatest offensive players (meaning players who try to dictate play and win points outright, rather than counterpunchers, who wait for their opening, or retrievers, who wait for you to mess up), have been unsuccessful at Roland Garros, while the defensive fiends who win in Paris have been unsuccessful on grass.  (Borg, a counterpunching genius, is the great exception.)  The best attackers, namely John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and of course Pete Sampras, have won zero French Opens, while Ivan Lendl, a three-time Roland Garros winner, narrowly failed in his endearing late-career quest to win Wimbledon (all of these players won major titles on hardcourts as well).  The only man since 1970, in fact, to win all four major titles (known as the Grand Slam tournaments), on the three disparate surfaces, is one Andre Agassi, a hybrid offensive baseliner.  This has made the dream of winning all four Slams in a single year, a feat also known, confusingly, as winning the Grand Slam–last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969–seem pretty quixotic nowadays.  Until now.  The game’s best current offensive player is also an excellent defensive player, and an extremely competent mover and slider on clay.  Roger Federer has the best chance of anyone since Agassi to win the career Grand Slam, and, as the holder of the last Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and Australian titles, could win his fourth straight major this month (a feat he is calling, with a little Swiss hubris, the “Roger Slam”).  If he succeeds this year at Roland Garros, he’ll accomplish something Sampras couldn’t, and if he does I think it’s almost inevitable that he’ll sweep London and Flushing and complete the calendar Grand Slam as well. 

Standing in the way of Federer’s c.v.-building efforts is the aforementioned combination of talent and drive, the nineteen-year-old Mallorcan prodigy Rafael Nadal.  He had one of the finest seasons I’ve ever seen last year, absolutely destroying the field on clay, winning Roland Garros, winning over Agassi in Montreal and over Ljubicic in Madrid.  He’s now won a record 54 matches on clay without a loss.  Not only does Nadal’s astonishing effort level intimidate opponents, but he is surprisingly skilled, a bulldog with the delicacy of a fox.  You can see him break opponents’ spirits over the course of matches, endlessly prolonging rallies with amazing ‘gets,’ or retrievals, which he somehow manages to flick into offensive shots rather than desperate lobs.  When behind, he plays even better until he catches up.  His rippling physique and indefatigable, undying intensity make him literally scary to face on clay.  And yet, when off the court, he is a personable and kind presence at this stage of his young life.  All in all, a player this brutal has no business being this likable, but there it, and he, is.

Nadal and Federer have played six times: Nadal has won five, and held a huge lead in the other before wilting on a hardcourt.  Let me underline here just how anomalous this state of affairs is: here we have the world number one on a historic run of victories, and yet he cannot beat number two.  Federer has lost his last three matches with Nadal; with all other players, he has lost three of his last one hundred and nineteen matches.  Rafa is the only player on whom Federer cannot impose his will; indeed, Federer must try and quickly end points against Nadal to avoid being imposed upon.  In the final at Rome two weeks ago, Federer unveiled a new strategy, coming in to net whenever the opportunity arose, though not directly following his serve.  Federer’s flexibility, his ability to adopt new tactics, made for a delicious and breathtaking final, which he led 4-1 in the fifth and final set, and held two match points at 5-4.  Here Nadal’s hypnotic retrieving unnerved him once again, and two errors led the match to a fifth-set tiebreaker.  In a microcosmic repetition, Federer again led (5-3 and serving) and again let the lead slip away.  Nadal, after a full five hours, took the title and reconfirmed his psychological edge, even over the most dominant player of the last twenty years.  His confidence will be nearly unimpeachable, where Federer’s will be shaken by losing a match in which he played the best clay-court tennis of his life.  If, as expected, they play again in the final of Roland Garros, for all the marbles, you’re going to see the most anticipated tennis match in several years.

(Note: I have gone on for way too long without handicapping the women’s field, for which I apologize.  I’ll just say here that I am hopeful that France’s glorious all-court player, Amelie Mauresmo, will win.)

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