The High Cost of Win-At-All Cost

In 1972, when I was the scrawniest ten year old swimmer in the Midwest portion of the United States, I competed in a big YMCA swim meet somewhere in Ohio. According to the buzz on the deck, one guy I had to swim against was the top ranked ten year old in the state. I can’t remember the stroke or distance. All I can remember is his psycho mother hovering behind the blocks prompting him to swim fast enough to hop out, towel off, and throw some clothes on. In her twisted mind, posting the fast time wasn’t enough, he had to belittle his competition. He executed her maniacal plan to perfection. Having lost the mother lottery, odds are his adult life didn’t turn out too well.

Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a., ” The Blade Runner”, has me thinking again about athletic competition and character.

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Conventional wisdom is that athletic competition enhances character. But when win-at-all cost thinking prevails, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Athletes shouldn’t bare all the blame for “win-at-all cost” approaches to sport. Among others, corporate sponsors, insecure parents, and rabid fans are all co-conspirators.

I recently read a book and watched a television series that powerfully illustrate the high cost of win-at-all cost thinking. The book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The television series, House of Cards, a Netflix original program.

On the Pad, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was 307 pages. The first 57 were decent, the last 250 truly outstanding. Billy Lynn is an 18-19 year-old Iraq war soldier. His Bravo troop is touring the United States following a widely reported and celebrated fire-fight with Al-Qaeda enemy combatants. Apart from a few flashbacks, the story encompasses about 48 hours, one day at a Dallas Cowboy game at Dallas Stadium and one day at Billy’s small-town Texas home.

Sometimes, when reading especially good fiction, I can’t help but stop and marvel at the artistry. Franzen’s Freedom was the last book that repeatedly stopped me in my tracks. The same with Fountain. “How did he do that?” I kept asking myself. Sometimes by “that” I mean how did he write a particularly beautiful sentence. More generally, I mean, how did he weave together details of soliders’ lives, the realities of modern warfare, the violence of professional football, class differences, family dysfunction, free-market economics, evangelical Christianity, and popular culture into a cogent anti-war argument? All of those sub-topics interest me, and I’m a dove, so it was as if Fountain set out to write a book for me, but if any of them interset you, I strongly recommend it.

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Netflix spent $100m to make 26 episodes of House of Cards, loosely based on a critically acclaimed 1990 British t.v. miniseries of the same name. The first 13 episodes are available to U.S. viewers. Netflix streaming costs $8/month. Think of House of Cards as a cross between The Sopranos and The West Wing. Kevin Spacey, the main character, is a phenomenally immoral, Machiavellian political heavyweight. The question isn’t whether should you watch it, the question is whether you can watch just one episode at a time. Long story short, Spacey, Francis Underwood, or FU, is the House Majority Whip who helped a Democrat get elected President. Underwood mistakenly expects to be appointed Secretary of State in return. Sent reeling, his immoral politicking is riveting stuff. Again, highly recommended.

Win-at-all-cost thinking is corrupting on athletic fields, on battlefields, in business, in politics, and in personal relationships. In every sphere of life. But we’re loathe to admit it because we loose perspective all too easily and are part of the win-at-all-cost problem.

Television Review—Netflix’s Lilyhammer

I’m halfway through Netflix’s first original television series, an eight episode series titled “Lilyhammer” that takes place in Lillehammer, Norway. Episodes are 45 minutes long or about 20k on the bike trainer. It’s solid and hopefully a positive sign of things to come from Netflix. Here’s their brief description.

After he testifies against a Mafia boss, ex-gangster Frank Tagliano enters the witness protection program and asks to be sent to Norway. Despite the peaceful surroundings, it’s not long before Frank strays from the straight and narrow.

I dig it and I’m awarding it an “A-“. Full-disclosure, I lived near Lillehammer for a few months five years ago and have fond memories of a ski weekend there, a memorable dinner party, and a school visit where I was the guest teacher. I’m smitten by the setting so adjust your grade at home accordingly. The scenes of the train station, the white farm houses against the snow, the shops in town, the countryside, the ski jump, the Birkebeiner cross country ski race all take me back to that time.

Besides the distinctive and extraordinarily beautiful setting which makes it worthwhile alone, the show works because of the wonderfully authentic and quirky Norwegian cast. Incompetent cops are played out in American television comedies, but their Norwegian counterparts are good for a new and steady stream of cross-cultural laughs. It’s well written, moves at a nice pace, thoughtfully explores cross-cultural differences, and is decently acted.

I deducted half a grade because Steven Van Zandt, of Soprano fame, is too much of a caricature of an American mobster. He could and should be much more nuanced and subtle. Related to this, it will be interesting to see whether Netflix has learned the lesson of the Sopranos. Somehow, despite Tony Soprano’s incredibly flawed nature, he was likable. He could have a guy whacked, or whack him himself, and cheat on his wife. Then when he walked into the kitchen you’d cheer the fact that his favorite pasta was ready and waiting. An unsolvable television mystery.

Four espisodes in, Frank Tagliano or Johnny Henrikssen, isn’t as likable as Tony. I’m not sure whether he has the necessary charisma and charm to compensate for his buffoonery. Also, his romantic relationship with a much younger woman fails the believability test.

Despite those flaws, I’m looking forward to the next four episodes.

Soprano-related postscript—Is there a more powerful portrait of an addict on television than Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie?

Tech Notes

Personal record for links in this post.

By the time you read this, I hope Steve Jobs will have changed personal computing again with Apple’s long awaited tablet. I invest in vanilla bond and stock index funds, except for one stock, AAPL. Wednesday night, I expect the value of my AAPL shares to be flat or slightly down due to the Obama-effect, unrealistic, unmeetable expectations. More importantly, I’m hoping the tablet makes reading even easier and more enjoyable, makes flying more tolerable (via a mobile library or t.v./movie viewing), is as simple as a toaster to use, and enables me to reduce my personal tech footprint. Bonus points if it drags me into the 21st Century cell-phoning, texting world.

I recently purchased a desktop computer which, four or five years ago, I swore I’d never do again. At that time, I didn’t factor in my worsening vision. One complication is keeping the university’s laptop and my personal desktop in sync. Apple’s MobileMe program was okay, but I didn’t want to pay $100/year for it. So I resorted to thumbdriving, which is a hassle. Then I read this. Love it. Hard to believe the Late Adaptor is cloud computing. Check it out if you’re digital life is out of sync.

I also joined the DVR-world recently, Tivo more specifically. What was I thinking trying to watch t.v. without Netflix and Tivo? To quote my previously brilliant/illuminating review, “love it.” One unintended benefit. Fourteen is watching a lot more t.v. That translates into worse grades, which translates into a less expensive college. Genius. Sometimes I amaze myself.

The New York Times has announced plans to charge nonsubscribers for some content in about a year. Others have tried this unsuccessfully and I predict this effort will fail too. There’s simply too much competition, meaning substitutes. Tonight in the tub I’ll read an article from GQ and the Atlantic Monthly. That reminds me, I also hope the tablet is water proof.

Lastly, if you fancy yourself a runner, swimmer, or cyclist, check this blog post out. The triathlete author is a blogging and technology savant.