Monday, July 25, 2011

Baby, We Were Born to Run

Just finished Christopher McDougall's wonderful book, Born to Run. Part travelogue, part lesson in human evolution, part runner's spiritual guide, and part inspirational tale, it's a fast-paced read filled with some of the most interesting characters ever committed to page.

McDougall's personal quest to become a better runner serves as the everyman's intro into the fascinating--and insane--world of ultrarunning. The narrative is a journey that takes us from Leadville, Colorado, back in time to the dangerous savannas of pre-historic Africa, and to Copper Canyon in Northern Mexico, where the reclusive Tarahumara (Raramuri) people live, entirely cut off from the modern world.

The athletes that populate McDougall's tale are runners in the most extreme sense. Several of the characters competed in the Leadville 100 (that's 100 miles), and the book is capped off with what McDougall refers to in the subtitle as the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a mere 50-miler through the sweltering heat, up and down the tricky passes of Chihuahua, Mexico.

My favorite thread of the book deals with man's evolution into a long-distance runner and persistence hunting. I first encountered this theory way back in college and wasn't quite sold. But McDougall, and the scientists he introduces us to, make a strong case for it in this book. The idea is this: before man was intelligent enough to create throwing weapons, he chased his quadruped prey over long distances, till said prey was too crapped out to run any farther. Without going into the specifics of why this might have been so, I will say it's an intriguing theory--that man evolved not to run fast, but to run far. It sounds crazy till you hear about those long-distance races pitting human beings against horses, with man typically emerging the victor.

Another interesting thread in the book is the barefoot running trend. I won't bore you with the specifics, but I got the itch to give it a try. The immediate change in my mechanics while running barefoot was scary, and scarily instinctual. Almost like I was meant to run that way...

Inspiration drips off every page of the book as the characters push themselves beyond all reasonable limits. If, by the end, you don't feel like going for a run, then you just ain't human.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Something in the Water in Northern Ireland?

How is it with a population of 1.68 mill (according to wiki) does a country the size of Connecticut produce three different major champions in golf in the span of thirteen months?

First Graeme McDowell took the US Open last year, then his buddy Rory McIlroy won it last month, and now their forerunner of Northern Irish golf, Darren Clarke, got to hoist the Claret Jug today after winning the Open Championship at age 42.

I've always been a fan of Darren Clarke, and his win today comes as something of a surprise. It was widely thought his best years were behind him, but somehow he managed to put four great rounds of golf together at just the right time for his first major championship. Clarke's a good guy who lost his wife to breast cancer a few years ago. Since then, his form's been understandably off but he never gave up the dream of winning the Open Championship. And obviously that romantic stubbornness has finally paid off.

So what is it about Northern Ireland and its golfers?

I'd like to say it has to do with perseverance. The Northern Irish have had to endure a lot in the past century and it has undoubtedly hardened them. You need to be able to weather the storm of bad luck and bad bounces inherent in the game, especially so in the two Open championships, in order to claim victory. The Northern Irish, to me at least, seem to have a wonderful appreciation for irony and an ability to laugh off the bad breaks. They're also gutsy. It's these qualities that go a long way in the game of golf.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Hangover Meets Hitchcock

I checked out the new flick Horrible Bosses this weekend. It boasts a solid cast, including Kevin Spacey, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell, who nearly steals the movie with criminally-limited screen time. But I didn't go to see it for those actors, I went to see it for Charlie Day, who's part of the awesome yet still relatively unknown ensemble cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (For all you It's Always Sunny fans out there, Charlie's great in this movie.)

Boiling down the premise to its essentials, Horrible Bosses is The Hangover meets Strangers on a Train. In fact, you can almost see the screenwriter pitching the idea to the studio in just those terms: R-rated raunchy comedy about three guys planning to murder the bosses who've made their 9 to 5 lives a living hell. And the film even has one of those meta-moments, where the characters pause for breath long enough to realize their plan is lifted straight out of a Hitchcock story.

The three career-frustrated characters are little more than archetypes, and the comedy leans heavily on vulgarity and pop culture references. Hearing that you might think it's a bad movie, but it's not. In fact, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Seth Gordon, the director who brought us the brilliant documentary The King of Kong, pulls off the difficult task of making murder funny. The plot zooms along--and it has to or else the sheer absurdity of the story would come crashing down on the audience--and the three leads make the material work. (I'm no Saturday Night Live guy, so I'm new to Jason Sudeikis but thought he was great in this.) There was also a lot of overlapping jokes and asides from the three leads, giving the story a lot of comedic energy, so I'll bet this one's got some replay value, which will bode well for its theatrical run and DVD sales. It's dark, but not too too dark. Some critics have complained about that, but for me, I prefer dark humor when it's in a drama as opposed to a comedy. I want my comedies light, fast, and fun.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What's Next for NASA?

Earlier today, Atlantis lifted off in what is NASA's final shuttle flight of its thirty year program. The general scientific consensus seems to be a begrudging admission that the shuttle program achieved mixed results overall. I'm no scientist, so I can't chime in one way or the other intelligibly, but the idea of humans journeying into space was always cool and admirable to me, regardless of the mission.

I wonder where NASA goes from here? It seems like the wise money will be spent on unmanned probes and satellites and on things like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which looks like it's going to replace The Hubble.

I'd like to see the government spend more on research into interstellar space flight. I know that we theoretically can't travel faster than light, but it'd be good to be able to reach some of these potentially habitable exoplanets in a reasonable, and practical, amount of time. Call it manifest destiny if you want, but I think it's imperative the human race colonize other, already habitable worlds. Because the odds are long we'll be able to effectively terraform any of the other bodies in our solar system, and as a species we don't want to keep all our eggs in one basket. If you've read The Road, you know exactly what I'm talking about.