Book review: Levels of the Game


While the jet stream obstructed JetBlue’s progress toward San Francisco I read Levels of the Game from start to finish. In the era of HDTV the idea of reading a prose description of a U.S. Open semifinal tennis match that happened 46 years ago does not seem compelling. However, the fact that the description was written by John McPhee makes all the difference.

The match was between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. McPhee covers the path that enabled these guys to reach the top. Here was Graebner’s:

Behind every tennis player there is another tennis player, and in Graebner’s case the other player is his father. Clark grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, and played tennis as a boy in Lakewood Park, at Lakewood High School, and at clubs in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. Paul Graebner, Clark’s father, grew up in Lakewood, and played tennis as a boy in Lakewood Park, at Lakewood High School, and at clubs in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. He was the state high-school tennis champion—a title his son would win three times. He was on the tennis team at Kenyon College and played briefly on the tournament circuit in the Middle West. He went to dental school at Western Reserve University and then went into practice with his own father, Clark’s grandfather. From then until now, the major diversion of Dr. Graebner’s life has continued to be tennis. His week revolves around Wednesday-afternoon and Saturday doubles games. When Clark was a beginner, however, Dr. Graebner completely gave up his own tennis for five years, and every Wednesday and Saturday and at all other practicable times he took Clark to a tennis court and patiently taught him the game.

When Dr. Graebner first hit strokes back and forth with Clark, they did not use a net. Dr. Graebner wanted Clark to hit a good flat stroke with follow-through, and not to worry about its altitude.

“He taught me everything. I don’t think he wanted to make me a champion. He just wanted to make me as good as I wanted to be. He hit balls at me for hundreds of thousands of hours, as if he were a Ball-Boy machine.”

Dr. Graebner says. “I wasn’t trying to build a champion. I was trying to get him interested in something he could do all his life.”

Ashe’s path was prepared by a medical doctor, rather than a dentist:

Dr. Johnson had built his court in the mid-nineteenthirties, when tennis had come to assume a priority in his mind second only to medicine. For him, this was the ultimate game in a lifetime accented with sports. … He took his training at Meharry Medical College. When he began his practice in Lynchburg, he was thirty-five. “I knew, from medicine, that I had built up big heart muscles and that they had to have exercise to avoid fatty infiltration. This is why athletes drop dead. I didn’t want to die that way. I tried a little basketball. That didn’t pan out. Then I went all out for tennis. I was self-taught. I learned by watching white players. Tennis was the hardest game to master that I had ever contacted.

Above the techniques of the game itself, he held certain principles before them as absolute requirements —in his view—for an assault on a sport as white as tennis. Supreme among these was self-control—“no racquet throwing, no hollering, no indication of discontent with officials’ calls.” Since players call their own lines in the early rounds of junior tournaments, he insisted that his boys play any opponents’ shots that were out of bounds by two inches or less. “We are going into a new world,” he told them. “We don’t want anybody to be accused of cheating. There will be some cheating, but we aren’t going to do it.”

If the Junior Development Team had a motto, it was “No horseplay”—the Johnson code. They learned to make their beds properly. Without fail, they hung up their clothes. When a lady came into a room, they got up, or wished they had. They learned an advanced etiquette of knives, forks, and spoons. “I want you to be accepted without being a center of attraction,” he said. “I want you to be able to take care of yourself in any situation where habits or manners are important, so that you don’t stand out. We are going into a new world.”

Year after year, two of them went to Charlottesville, and though “slaughtered” and “humiliated” were no longer the terms for what generally happened to them, none got particularly far. Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson got a call one day in 1953 from Ronald Charity, a recent graduate of Virginia Union, in Richmond, and a ranking player in the men’s division of the A.T.A. Charity said he had been working part time teaching tennis in a public park, and for several seasons he had been hitting the ball with a small boy whose physique was not prepossessing but who hit the ball well and seemed to care a great deal about playing tennis. Charity hoped that although the boy was only ten years old the doctor would let him come to Lynchburg. Dr. Johnson said, “All right, Ronald. I’ll take him for a while, if you want to carry him up here.” Charity drove to Lynchburg on a Sunday, and introduced Dr. Johnson to Arthur Ashe, Jr.

Ronald Charity, who taught Arthur Ashe to play tennis, was himself taught by no one.

“I guess by that time I was about the best in Richmond—you know, black tennis player,” Charity continues. “One day, Arthur asked me if I would show him how to play. He had had no tennis experience. I put the racquet in his hand. I taught him the Continental grip. That’s what I was playing with. At first, I would stand six feet away from him, on the same side of the net, and throw balls to him while he learned a stroke. The little guy caught on so quickly. When the stroke had been taught, I would cross the net and hit it with him. We practiced crosscourt forehands, forehands down the line, crosscourt backhands. We played every summer evening. There was a little backboard there. All day long, he would practice. We had a club—the Richmond Racquet Club, all grown men—and we let him join it.

Behind Dr. Johnson’s house is a combined garage and tool shed that contains a curious device. From a bracket on the floor to a beam above runs a vertical elastic cord, drawn fairly taut. About two feet off the floor, the cord passes through the center of a tennis ball. The height of the ball is adjustable. The developing tennis players hit this ball with pieces of broom handle cut twenty-six inches long, the exact length of a tennis racquet. The device, known as the Tom Stow Stroke Developer, was invented by the teacher of Sarah Palfrey, Helen Jacobs, Margaret Osborne, and J. Donald Budge.

The Junior Development Team has generally had eight or ten members. In recent summers, white boys have applied for admission, and Dr. Johnson has let some in.

What about money in the sport? It was a little different than today!

The Junior Development Team functioned in part on contributions from interested people in the A.T.A., but Dr. Johnson put thousands of dollars of his own specifically into Arthur’s career. Three white businessmen in Richmond—an insurance broker, a department-store executive, and a legitimate-theatre executive—contributed significant amounts, and Arthur’s father gave more than he could afford. Arthur once overheard him saying that he was a little sorry his son had chosen a sport as expensive as tennis. The cost of equipment alone was more than a thousand dollars a year.

His summation of the whole of Arthur’s development as a tennis player is “It hung me for some money.” His present landscaping and janitorial businesses grew out of odd jobs he took to help pay for Arthur’s tennis. He cut grass, scrubbed floors, washed windows, and when he still didn’t have enough he borrowed from the Southern Bank & Trust Co., whose branch banks he now keeps clean. Asked why he bothered to do all that, he gives an uncomplicated answer: “Why? Because Arthur was out there doing good.” He told Arthur, “Do what you want to do, as long as you do it right. But the day you slack up is the day Daddy is going to slack up with his money.”

Graebner lives in an apartment on East Eighty-sixth Street with his wife, Carole; their one-year-old daughter, Cameron; and their infant son, Clark. Graebner spends much of his time selling high-grade printing papers, as assistant to the president of the Hobson Miller division of Saxon Industries,

Ashe is an Army lieutenant, working in the office of the adjutant general at the United States Military Academy. He is a bachelor, and during tournament time at Forest Hills he stays at the Hotel Roosevelt.

Ashe and Graebner are both extraordinarily conscious of the stock market, and each thinks he is a shrewd investor. An amateur tennis player at their level can have something to invest, since he can collect in expenses and sundry compensations as much as twenty thousand dollars a year.

Attitudes toward skin cancer were apparently different back in 1968:

Graebner, for his part, sincerely wishes that he could play with his shirt off. He is aggressively vain about his tan. “After we played in San Juan two years ago, I was as dark as Arthur,” he says proudly. When he is sunbathing, he will snap at anyone who stands between him and direct sunlight for as much as three seconds.

What about fashion?

Love beads hang on a hook on the door. Ashe looks extremely contemporary when he goes off to New York for a date wearing the beads, a yellow turtleneck, and what he calls his “ru” jacket.

How about skin color?

Because Ashe is black, many people expect him to be something more than a tennis player—in fact, demand that he be a leader in a general way. The more he wins, the more people look to him for words and acts beyond the court. The black press has criticized him for not doing enough for the cause. He has repeatedly been asked to march and picket, and he has refused. Militant blacks have urged him to resign from the Davis Cup Team. Inevitably, they have called him an Uncle Tom. Once, in Milwaukee, he was asked to march with Stokely Carmichael but said no, and on the same day he visited a number of Milwaukee playgrounds, showing black children and white children how to play tennis. The demands of others have never moved him to do anything out of character. He will say what he thinks, though, if someone asks him. “Intrinsically, I disapprove of what black militants do. Human nature being what it is, I can understand why they have such a strong following. If you had nothing going for you and you were just a black kid in a ghetto, you’d have historical momentum behind you and it would be chic to be a black militant—easy to do, very fashionable. You’d have your picture and name in the paper because you’d be screaming your head off. They sound like fire-and-brimstone preachers in Holy Roller churches. But you must listen to them. You can’t completely ignore them. Their appeal is to the here and now. If I were a penniless junkie, I’d go for it, too. I’d have nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up. But you can’t change people overnight. If you took a demographic survey of blacks, you’d find, I think, that the farther up the socio-economic scale you got, the fewer people would be behind Stokely. I’m not a marcher. I’m not a sign carrier. I’m a tennis player. If you are a leader in any field, and black, you are a hero to all blacks, and you are expected to be a leader in other fields. It’s beautiful. People in Richmond look upon me as a leader whether I like it or not. That’s the beautiful part of it. The other side of the coin is that they expect the same of some lightheavyweight boxer that they do of me. But he doesn’t have my brain. He tries to get into politics, and we lose some leverage.

Progress and improvement do not come in big hunks, they come in little pieces, and the sooner people accept this the better off they’ll be.

We’re outnumbered ten to one. We’ll advance by quiet negotiation and slow infiltration—and by objective, well. planned education, not an education in which you’re brainwashed.

One of the saddest parts of reading the book was reflecting on the fact that Ashe died before his 50th birthday, a victim of heart disease and HIV. He had been influential in many areas of public life.

More: Read Levels of the Game

Nikon D810 sensor performance versus Canon


DxoMark has tested the new Nikon D810 and it has even better dynamic range than the D800. The ability to hold detail simultaneously in highlights and shadows is the main limitation of digital cameras (compared to film) and Canon continues to stagnate while Nikon and Sony pull ahead. Check out this comparison on DxOMark of Nikon, Sony, and Canon.

Netflix in hotel rooms


I’m at the Mark Hopkins here in San Francisco cheerfully billing $15 per day in Internet fees to a consulting client (on top of $600/night for the room by the time California taxes are added in?). At 9 pm yesterday the Speakeasy Speed Test measured the connection at between 0.3 and 0.5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. This morning it is a symmetrical 25 Mbps. From this can we conclude that nearly every guest is trying to stream Netflix and similar? Or maybe that the hotel just has a single 25/25 line?

Kids on Computers Update



Back in 2013, I wrote a post with an end-of-year charity idea of donating to Kids on Computers (the Gittes Family Lab is now up in running in Oaxaca as a result of my own donation (at least one person follows the advice in my blog!)). The most important thing that happened as a result of that posting was that a reader, Javier Henderson, stepped up to contribute his decades of network engineering experience as well as considerable organizational talents.

This posting is to remind readers that Kids on Computers is a useful resource when you’re trying to find a use for an unneeded laptop (e.g., if Windows 8 has inspired you to buy a MacBook). Also that the group is heading to Morocco in October and you might want to take your computer (and Arabic language?) skills there with them.

Insurers finding a clever way to exclude preexisting conditions despite Obamacare rules


A friend in the healthcare biz told me that insurers have found a way around the Obamacare requirement that customers be welcomed despite preexisting conditions. The government left insurance companies and doctors the freedom of association. For conditions that are expensive to treat the insurance company will limit reimbursement to a handful of specialists with inconvenient locations, hours, and availability.

If it takes more than a year in Massachusetts to see a primary care doctor for a regular exam (see the end of my Bad Pharma review), just imagine how long it will take expensive-to-treat patients who choose one of these carefully crafted plans to see the specialist who can prescribe them a $100,000 per year medication!

The Chicago Garry Winogrand


If you share a love of Garry Winogrand’s work (see this blog posting and this book review), you’ll probably enjoy seeing the work of his Chicago-based doppelganger: Vivian Maier (1926-2009). See her online portfolios, for example, and this three-minute BBC video.

[Separately, it seems odd that the folks trying to make money out of this woman's work by selling prints are doing them in a 16x20-inch size (link). A lot of street photography seems to work better if printed smaller, especially if originated with a 35mm film camera.]

Government: Unemployed person = helpless victim or lazy criminal, as situation demands


A friend’s daughter is doing some research on divorce, custody, and child support litigation. Today I took her over to the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court in East Cambridge so that she could see what was happening. It turned out that we were there on “Department of Revenue (DOR) Day” where the Commonwealth itself sues deadbeat dads on behalf of mothers who had previously been successful custody and child support plaintiffs but hadn’t received the amounts ordered. This saves the moms from having to retain and pay attorneys; the lawsuits are handled by taxpayer-funded attorneys.

The first guy to appear was, not to put too fine a point on it, a genuine bum. He appeared to be in his 50s, with graying hair, shabby clothing, and a physically disabled posture that might have been due to the fact that he was in handcuffs and ankle chains. He had last worked at a biotech company in Massachusetts back in 2010, but it wasn’t clear in what role. He paid child support to a trim, well-dressed plaintiff while he was working and continued to pay child support while collecting unemployment. When that ran out and he still hadn’t found a job he fled to Idaho and worked as a caretaker in exchange for a free place to sleep. “How did you eat?” asked the judge. “Food stamps,” he replied. During this period he called the three children (current ages: 17, 20, and 22 (in Massachusetts it is possible to collect child support for children until they turn 23)) but didn’t send any money to their mother. “Where are you living now?” With his mom in Billerica, it turned out. The DOR attorney railed against this loser who had “abandoned his responsibilities” and “refused to work” and asked that he be imprisoned for 60 days and fined $5000 on top of the $41,000 that he owed his former plaintiff and the money that he continued to owe for the two adults and one minor child. Throughout the proceeding the chained deadbeat was surrounded by five armed sheriffs, each of whom was probably costing the taxpayer $250,000 per year (salary, benefits, pension, etc.). The judge asked him a few questions about the efforts he was making to get a job, e.g., “How many resumes have you sent out?” then lectured him on how it was obvious that he could and should get a job. She ordered that he be imprisoned for 30 days and fined $2000. The deadbeat did not seem surprised by or object to this. The five sheriffs added some additional shackles to his wrists and ankles, then escorted him out.

The second guy was apparently at an earlier stage of the process because he was not in chains. His plaintiff did not appear because, she had written to say, driving made her “anxious”. The subject of the child support obligation was an adult (over 18 but younger than 23). This child lived full time with the father, but the plaintiff mother still had a child support order in place from when the child lived with her at least part-time. It seemed that a second woman had been unwise enough to select this man as the father of her children and he had two preteen girls living at home with him and, due to his lack of employment, there was not enough money to pay the mother of the adult child as well as put food on the table for the adult child (living with him) and the two minor girls. He did not ask for the “adult-child” support to be eliminated going forward, on the grounds that the adult lived with him, but only for it to be reduced and for the judge to order a gradual payment plan for the arrears (more than $10,000). He received a stern lecture on how it should be straightforward for him to find a job and then was allowed to leave without handcuffs.

Based on what we heard and saw, for these guys to get a job, America’s employers would have to

  1. hire all 9.5 million currently unemployed people
  2. entice another 6 percent of the population back into the workforce so that the labor force participation rate was up towards a historic high
  3. fund $1 trillion in unsuccessful robotics research
  4. be under the influence of both drugs and alcohol on the day that these two prize specimens came in for their interviews

The human tragedy aspect of the cases was first and foremost in my mind but after we were out of the courthouse, I thought “Hey, wait a minute. If you are a long-term unemployed person one government agency will tell you that this situation could not have been avoided, it is not your fault in any way, and here are some tax dollars so that you can make ends meet. But if the same long-term unemployed person owes child support, even he is at the extreme end of the spectrum of demonstrably unemployable, employees of the same government but at a different agency will tell him that he could easily get off his ass and earn enough money to support himself plus have enough left over to pay $41,000, after taxes, to the person who sued him two decades ago.”

[Separately, we went to the records department and sampled some cases. Here are two parents in the midst of a divorce lawsuit coordinating the exchange of a three-year-old via text message:


(background: Ivy League graduate wife sued husband after four years of marriage, ultimately winning a free house, roughly half of her attorney's fees (despite a prenuptial agreement that said each side would pay his or her own), 100% of the child's expenses, including a full-time nanny, paid by husband, $50,000 per year in taxable alimony, and nearly $94,000 per year in tax-free child support through the toddler's 23rd birthday (the plaintiff would take care of said child, with the assistance of the nanny, for slightly more than half time))]

Related: Divorce in Denmark (the scenes that played out in front of us in Middlesex County probably would not have happened in Denmark because when a parent cannot pay the $2200/year minimum child support the government steps in to pay it without expecting to be paid back, a source of irritation to middle-class taxpayers; the text message exchange also might not have happened due to the fact that the maximum child support obtainable is about $8000 per year)

Matt Guthmiller on the last leg of his round-the-world trip


Check out and (FlightAware) to track Matt Guthmiller in his single-engine Bonanza on his final leg home (16 hours from Kona to San Diego). [See my earlier posting on this project for more background.]

Separately, it looks as though my idea (in that original posting) of a record-breaking around-the-world trip in an airplane that can do the job effortlessly has been adopted. A 31-year-old woman named “Amelia Rose Earhart” took a Pilatus PC-12 NG and a co-pilot and, on July 11, 2014 became the “youngest female ever to circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine airplane” (keep in mind that the “single engine” is a $1 million Canadian-built Pratt and Whitney turbine and that this pressurized airplane, fully equipped with autopilot and lavatory, can climb up to 30,000′, crack any ice off its wings, melt ice off the prop and windshields, etc.). See Wikipedia for more about the modern-day Amelia Earhart and the Pilatus factory site  to learn more about the Swiss-made PC-12.

[Separately, note that Pilatus is the company whose engineering and production prowess, combined with the superior efficiency of Swiss aviation regulators, put Beechcraft, founded in Kansas in 1932, into bankruptcy in 2012. The Beechcraft King Air could not compete with the PC-12. The Beechcraft military trainers could not compete with the Pilatus PC-7 , PC-9, and PC-21 (though Beech licensed the Swiss design and produced a plane called the "Texan II" for the U.S. military to buy at a substantial markup).]

Update: He made it! We need to give him a hero’s welcome when he returns to East Coast Aero Club.

Killing oneself for career, English-style


I’m reading The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling under the pen name of “Robert Galbraith” (I was not a fan of the Harry Potter books and thought that I should give the world’s most successful writer a second try). The plot concerns a private detective who takes a break from his usual work of helping women turn their marriages into cash by searching for a missing writer: “Strike had recently helped several wealthy young women rid themselves of City husbands who had become much less attractive to them since the financial crash. There was something appealing about restoring a husband to a wife, for a change.” The prose style can be peculiar: “And by the same power of will that in the army had enabled him to fall instantly asleep on bare concrete, on rocky ground, on lumpy camp beds that squeaked rusty complaints about his bulk whenever he moved, he slid smoothly into sleep like a warship sliding out on dark water.”

So far the paragraph that has struck me the most is this one, about what it would mean to have a demanding job in England: “Robin was twisting her engagement ring on her finger, torn between her desire to follow Matt and persuade him she had done nothing wrong and anger that any such persuasion should be required. The demands of his job came first, always; she had never known him to apologize for late hours, for jobs that took him to the far side of London and brought him home at eight o’clock at night.” [emphasis added]

Can Google Chromecast do a simple slide show?



We’re hosting a Glastonbury Festival party at our apartment tomorrow evening (music by Kasabian, Dolly Parton, Massive Attack, et al; “hog roast” and Strongbow cider, which the beer expert at the Fresh Pond liquor store said is better than the American brands despite being one third the price). The photos that I want to show are in a Google Plus directory so I thought that it would be simple to show them on a Samsung “Smart TV” (perhaps it is a bad sign when a product includes the word “smart” as part of its name). As soon as I turned the TV on, however, the software updated itself and removed the Picasa app that can grab photos from Google Plus. I thought “no problem; I will use Chromecast from my Android phone.” The Google “Photos” app sort of works except that it doesn’t tie in with the TV remote for going to the next slide and, more distressing, the pictures are terrible quality (low res? oversharpened?). So I’ve reverted to exported JPEGs 1920 pixels wide to a USB stick and plugging that into the back of the TV.

Am I missing something simple? Can it be that Google Chromecast is incapable of doing this with reasonable image quality?

Thanks in advance.

[Update: pork roasting photo gallery; the 14.4 lbs. was all consumed by 9 pm so I think we can declare victory on the roasting front.]

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