No. 56 | Sports
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All cultures engage in some form of ball play. Ball games are a basic way for us to hone what computational neuroscientist Beau Cronin calls “the quotidian
spatiotemporal genius of the human brain,” and over the past two hundred years, they have come to dominate the popular imagination, with huge swaths of
airtime and large volumes of ink given over to the dramas of soccer, basketball, baseball, American football, tennis, golf, rugby, cricket—the list goes
on.1 All ball sports are aleatoric structures organized, to greater or lesser degrees, around bounce. Aleatoric structures—structures of planned
chance—produce a reliable kind of uncertainty. We don’t know who will win and who will lose, but we know that at the end of the day, there will be a winner
and a loser. A ball introduces a second, more uncertain, kind of uncertainty into the fray. Its bounce dances along the edge of our predictive capacity,
always almost but never fully under control. At least in the Anglophone world, this second kind of chance—the chance of the ball—seems to be especially
important to our contemporary understanding of play.2 While other kinds of contests are raced, run, rowed, and swum; wrestled, fenced, fought, and boxed;
timed, weighed, measured, and judged; ball games are played. And only an athlete who contends with balls (or pucks, or shuttlecocks, or other third
objects) earns the title “player.” We become players in and through bounce.
Over the past twenty years or so, Nikola Tesla has become a folk-hero for the millennial tech-generation, who consider him the godfather of all visionary scientific mavericks, and thus a key precursor to their own “disruptive” aspirations. But during the twilight years of his life, Tesla was a much more withdrawn shadow of his former dynamic self, when he had been equal parts inventor and showman. At the end of the nineteenth century, during the battle for standardized electrical currents, Tesla found that his alternating current (AC) model put him in direct competition with his former boss, Thomas Edison, who favored direct current. Despite the fact that AC systems eventually emerged the winner, Edison’s standing continued to rise while Tesla was relegated to a footnote in history books, at least until the resuscitation of his reputation toward the end of the last century.
How long does a building stand before it falls?
How long does a contract last? How long will brothers share the inheritance before they quarrel?
How long does hatred, for that matter, last?
Time after time the river has risen and flooded.
The insect leaves the cocoon to live but a minute.
How long is the eye able to look at the sun?
From the very beginning nothing at all has lasted.
Galileo taught mathematics at the University of Pisa from 1589 to 1592, and sometime during this period he mounted a dramatic public demonstration of one of his more unorthodox notions. Clutching two lead spheres of different sizes and masses, he climbed the stairs of the campanile, the bell tower in the Piazza del Duomo, behind the cathedral. The young professor then proceeded—before an assembly of expectant onlookers, many of them faculty and students from the university—to drop the test objects simultaneously from the upper balcony. The plummeting orbs reached the ground together; with no temporal interval between their terrestrial impacts, a single resounding thump announced their coincident landing. Aristotelian physics, for ages the dominant paradigm, held that the velocities of free-falling bodies moving through the same medium vary in direct proportion to their weights. Galileo’s so-called Leaning Tower of Pisa Experiment conclusively disproved Aristotle’s doctrine of natural downward motion: heavier objects do not fall to earth faster than lighter objects, after all. In a veritable instant, the old certainties, all those dusty apriorisms of ancient and medieval inheritance, were upended. Science and knowledge had at last entered the modern era.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter
to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in
Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery
excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his
slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien,
nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide
the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic
dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time,
certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture
days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”
It is getting on toward autumn, and this is what she must do with her day. Up early, switch off the alarm, unbolt the doors, and out into the garden in slippers, dressing gown, overcoat. Low sun on her flat dusty curls as she passes along the back of the house, and against the windows, which are shuttered still inside, behind the net curtains. The birds mad at this hour. Starlings. The young ones from the spring, reared and grown, little hooligans now. She has got a bag of seed out of the shed. From here the feeder looks like a small, startled red man, hung from that second stretch of clothesline she had one of the boys put up this time last year. It’s empty now, the feeder, light and swinging in the breeze.
One afternoon in May of 1853, the painter Eugène Delacroix went for a walk in the forest with two old friends. As they walked, the three men returned to topics they had discussed before: questions of spontaneity, how finished pictures are “always somewhat spoiled” compared to sketches. Together they admired a famous oak tree. They talked about Racine. Then they went back to Delacroix’s house for dinner. After the meal, Delacroix later recalled, “I made them try the experiment which I had done myself, without planning it, two days before.” The experiment was simple. First, he passed around a set of unusual pictures, photographic calotypes that Eugène Durieu, a pioneer in the new medium of photography, had taken at his request.1 In these small amber images, a naked man and woman appeared—sometimes alone, sometimes together; sitting, standing, or kneeling; often staring warily back at the lens. The naked couple are memorable to posterity, because they were among the first humans to be photographed without clothes. If they weren’t the Adam and Eve of photographic nakedness, they were among the earliest citizens of that now fairly populous realm. But they didn’t beguile or even impress the great painter and his companions. “Poorly built, and oddly shaped in places,” as Delacroix drily put it, the two models were “not very attractive generally.” After his friends had spent some time examining the calotypes, Delacroix asked them to look at a second set of pictures, ones that should have been much more appealing. These were engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi, the celebrated Renaissance printmaker whose compositions were based on designs by, among others, Raphael and Michelangelo. Delacroix’s experiment was in effect a beauty contest. When it came to depicting the body, how would the new “machine-art” fare against human skill? How would photographic nakedness compare to idealized nudity? The result was decisive and unsettling. Looking at the older nudes, Delacroix’s little group saw them with new eyes.