"Marathon Ball"

It was reported that, during the longest rally in tennis history (see yesterday's entry), the Rossetti brothers had hit the hair off the ball, leaving a bald ball that sometimes spun wildly during the final stages of the rally.

Realistically, no tennis ball could survive 25,944 strokes in over fourteen hours. Not even the so-called "Marathon Ball" Penn plans to release to the market next January. The ball is said to last 22% longer than standard balls. This, by the poor standard of today's tennis balls, is not much.

Given that players of the game cannot do without tennis balls, which, by design, do not have a long playing life as performance is greatly affected after the hair comes off and the internal air pressure is reduced, the product has always been a profitable consumable for the manufacturers. In recent years, however, the quality of tennis balls, like that of many other commodities, has steadily been compromised. The balls become less and less durable. "So what?" said the tennis shop owner I am familiar with when he heard me grumble about the situation. "Can you stop buying them? Are you going to quit playing?"

The "Marathon Ball" sounds appealing, but I seriously wonder whether it will live up to its billing. I seriously wonder whether it can play as well as the balls that I used to know. And how much will it cost? How good a deal the new ball is remains to be seen.


The longest tennis rally ever

Tennis anyone?

How about playing for over 14 hours?

And in one single rally, too.

No kidding. This was exactly what two identical twin brothers in the US did in 2008.
In last year’s Wimbledon, we had the longest tennis match ever, which was an 11-hour-and-five minute epic which spanned over three days (see my entries on 24 and 25 June 2010).
What Ettore and Angelo A. Rossetti performed was an equally jaw-dropping feat. On 9-10 August 2008, they broke the official Guinness World Record for the Longest Tennis Rally by playing a 25,944-stroke rally which took over 14 hours and 31 minutes. This was certified by video, eye witnesses and a Guinness World Record official adjudicator.

The event was for charity and a five thousand US dollars were raised. 


We're not all bad

Not all news stories are depressing, such as the one I mentioned yesterday.

I wondered if it was an intentional arrangement by the newspaper, but alongside the story about the man injuring four baby kittens by swiping them to the ground with a broomstick was another one about how a kind woman saved some puppies’ lives.

The news story reported that after the woman saw some hawkers selling puppies for people to cook and eat, she secretly filmed the process and uploaded the video clips onto the Web. She also bought two puppies to save them from being slaughtered.

The woman is indeed an animal lover. She has been running a haven for stray animals since 2005. She is presently taking care of over 100 cats and 70 dogs.

When we are saddened by stories of animal abuse like the one I wrote about yesterday, we are also comforted by heart-warming stories like this one.


Sad eyes

What do you see in this pair of eyes? Certainly not happiness. I am deeply saddened by the story and image of this poor mother, who had just lost four of her five newborn kittens. 

According to the news story, the female stray cat and her five newborn kittens lived on the awning of an old building. The tragedy was uncovered when a passerby witnessed a man living in the flat above the awning poking at the kittens with a broomstick and swiping them to the ground. The man probably had found the noise produced by the kittens unbearable. Four of the kittens were badly injured and were later collected by the SPCA. Only one managed to escape. The photo was taken when the mother loitered around looking for her lost kids upon finding out what happened. The sadness and fear in her eyes are enough to dispel any notion that animals do not have emotions.

One of the newspapers covering the story, in typical yellow journalism fashion, branded the man a jerk. There were times when I would agree with such an accusation and feel fully justified in wishing the culprit the worst. Gradually, I have learned to see that there might have been some previous experiences that turned the man into someone who would commit such an act. As the book Mindfulness in Plain English says:

“… people can appear very cruel and wicked, yet we must realise they are not that way by nature. Circumstances in their lives make them act in unwholesome ways.”

The book teaches us to not only stop harbouring animosity such people but also bless them, and here is how we should pray for them:

“May my adversaries be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to them, may no difficulty come to them, may no pain come to them. May they always meet with success.”

This is what the book calls “loving friendliness”. Sound noble, but by no means easy to do.


A Painful Lesson

In a course I took in summer (the first time in a long, long time I was interested in a course of study), I learned that while past definitions have emphasised merely the absence of disease or illness, modern definitions view health as more holistic, involving overall physical, psychological, emotional and social state of well-being. The World Health Organisation definition of 1948, that health is "a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity", is a good example.

Disease, an unpleasant experience with outcomes ranging from discomfort to loss of life, is something dreaded, something to be prevented at all costs. Of course, nobody welcomes disease, but according to a Chinese article forwarded to me by a friend, disease serves an important purpose. Through instigating pain in the body, disease tries to correct our mistakes. The pain means we need to change.

I think this is very true. Look at how many diseases, or even deaths, are absolutely preventable. It is amazing how a change of lifestyle or diet can help prevent or, in some cases, revert diseases. It is even more amazing, however, how most people resist the change even though they know they will pay a heavy price or have already done so. Even the painful or even fatal lesson that disease tries to teach is not enough to make people change. Such is the appeal of the unhealthy diet and lifestyle.


An unwelcomed "second spring"

On the same day, two news stories from two different parts of the world reported different pieces of evidence that point to the same conclusion - that the Earth is really getting warmer.

The first story, from the BBC, reported that a US scientific group has found the same warming trend seen by the world's three most important and established groups. Using data from 40,000 weather stations around the world and developing a new way of analyzing the data to plot the global temperature trend over land since 1800, the Berkeley Earth Project produced a graph which was remarkably similar to those produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the US and the Met Office of the UK. 

"Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK," said project leader Professor Richard Muller of the University of California.

The second story, from a local paper, reported the various observations of C.Y. Lam, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory, that are clear indications of global warming. He talked about how the high temperature of 28 degrees celsius in October has induced trees to have a "second spring", bearing flowers and lush green leaves instead of ones with darker colours at this time of the year. "The trees have got it wrong," said Lam. "They cannot distinguish spring and autumn." The growth of trees in forests have also "moved upwards" from the slopes of hills to the peaks. Lam expects the such modification to deteriorate and affect other species. As eco balance cannot be maintained, humans will suffer.

While the issue of global warming has been raised for decades, many people, especially those who seek to maintain their extravagant way of living, challenge its magnitude or even deny its existence. As more compelling evidence are becoming available, not least the various calamitous natural disasters that arise from the extreme global climatic conditions, the global citizens have to face up to the facts and seek immediate remedies. The situation may still be reverted before the tipping point is hit, but we would have to act fast.


Think before you click

What the Psychology Tody article Porn-induced Sexual Dysfunction Is a Growing Problem said about how a growing number of young, healthy Internet users with a serious pornography/masturbation habit are having erectile dysfunction and not able to be turned on by real partners anymore. According to the article, these young men, irrespective of cultures and backgrounds, have two things in common: heavy use of Internet porn and increasing need for more extreme material.

This unfortunate phenomenon is no news to me. I read about it sometime ago from Norman Doidge's excellent book The Brain that Changes Itself, in which a chapter was devoted to talking about the plastic influence of Internet pornography on adults and the extent to which their brains are shaped by it.
During the mid- to late 1990s, when Internet pornography was exploding, Doidge treated a number of men whose story was essentially the same as those referred to in the above-mentioned article. According to Doidge, these patients were not fundamentally immature, socially awkward men but pleasant, generally thoughtful ones in reasonably successful relationships or marriages. They all reported spending more and more time on the Internet, looking at pornography and masturbating. Many of them also reported increasing difficulty in being turned on by their actual sexual partners. Instead of using their senses to enjoy "lovemaking" with their partners, they were increasingly interested in "fucking", fantasising that they were part of a porn script. Their sexual fantasy lives were increasingly dominated by the scenarios that they had "downloaded" into their brains, and the fantasy scripts often became more primitive and more violent.

While such cases are most fortunate, I am not so much interested in WHAT happened as to HOW it happened, and Doidge provides in couple of clues. In his book, he refers to a "social shift" whereby, thanks to the Internet, the use of pornography is not only increasingly public but also treated more casually. What used to be regarded as soft porn is now freely available from the different public media, and what was considered hard core pornography is now just taken as soft porn.

Another crucial factor regarding how these men became hooked is that many of them started by visiting some harmless sites and clicked on the suggestive ads that redirected them to risque sites from which they acquired a taste for a kind of pornography that troubled or even disgusted them, had a disturbing effect on the pattern of their sexual excitement, and ultimately affected their relationships and sexual potency.
This was a journey of no return. And it is worth noting that, in so many cases, this journey began with a click at a rather innocent-looking ad in a rather hamless site. Such ads, and the doom they lead to, are becoming more and more pervasive, thanks to the Internet.

So think before you click.


"Carve the grooves into the cerebellum"

Following the blog entries of the last two days, today I would add that the royal road to mastery of skills and knowledge is not “gear, gear, gear” but “practise, practise, practise”.
Christopher Bergland, in his Psychology Today article No.1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect, explains why, as the title of his article says, practice makes perfect. The “#1 reason”, he argues, is the cerebellum of the human brain.

Bergland learned about, and developed his fascination of, the cerebellum from his father. Although the cerebellum, or the “down brain” as Bergland calls it (in Latin, it means “little brain”), is much small than the cerebrum or, to use Bergland’s term again, the “up brain”, it holds more than 50% of the brain’s neurons. Because of this disproportionate distribution of neurons Bergland father always said of the cerebellum, "Whatever it's doing, it's doing a lot of it."

When the father taught the son to play tennis at a young age, his coaching was based on an understanding that muscle memory is stored in the cerebellum, and one has to do the same thing again and again and again to hardwire it into long-term muscle memory that is stored in the cerebellum. So his tennis coaching mantra to the son was "Carve the grooves into the cerebellum". The whole rationale was that the cerebellum is the house of the intuitive "subconscious mind". To create super fluid performance, one has to harness the intuitive powers of the cerebellum and have his actions spring from there. One also has to avoid being too analytical because, as Arthur Ashe said, "there is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis'." Thinking too much not only blocks the cerebellum from working but also leads to over-excitement or even, in some bad cases, choking.

But this is easier said than done. It is because the cerebrum, the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking, is so big and powerful that it is hard to keep it quiet.
The only way to do it is, you've guessed it, practise, practise, practise.


Hong Kong has GAS

Being a materialistic society, Hong Kong is a place where money speaks (and so do those who have it aplenty). The people here have much faith in money, generally believing that there is not much it cannot do and not many problems it cannot solve. Being an affluent society with one of the world’s biggest reserves, Hong Kong is in a good position to put this faith to test. A good example is the quest to promote information technology in education, which began towards the end of the last millennium. Those who have been put in charge of the initiative have always focused predominantly on procuring the hardware and the software, as though setting up the IT infrastructure alone is enough to enhance of quality of education. Little thought is ever given to how IT may add value to teaching and learning and may be used to motivate or inspire students. "The sad truth is that students can learn just as badly with a class full of computers, interactive whiteboards and mobile technology as they can with wooden desks and a chalkboard," an education consultant in the UK was quoted by a BBC article as saying. Unfortunately, this is something that the promoters of IT in education here are unaware of. That is a clear manifestation of GAS (the Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

The general public have this belief, too. They believe in buying gear and services to help improve their mastery of certain skills and knowledge. Parents who can afford it, and there are many who actually can, are more than happy to splash out on tuition and equipment just to get their children to excel in their academic or non-academic pursuits.

More significantly, the syndrome has a wider range of symptoms here, to the extent that GAS may be re-defined Gadget Acquisition Syndrome. According to a recent survey on the affluent consumers of the Asia Pacific region, the rich consumers of Hong Kong own far more HD TVs, digital SLR cameras and expensive watches than those in the other ten countries or regions being studied. So long as the rich Hong Kong people have the means, they do not hesitate with their shopping. Obviously, they believe that acquiring gear and gadgets not only improves their mastery of something, it also enhances their status.


I have GAS!

What is GAS?

This is not a question about physics. Nor is the answer intended to be what the high officials of the HKSAR Government say on a daily basis.

GAS is a new acronym I learned today. It is something that has much relevance to my life and, I believe, the lives of many. It stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

According to Jeremy Sherman, writer of the article Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS): Confessions of a Guitar Shopaholic, the term probably originates in the realm of music. Sherman said that there are millions of “weekend warriors”, himself included, who keep their dream of musical mastery alive but unfulfilled by shopping for instruments more than they practise them.

“GAS isn’t limited to musicians,” Sherman said. I only have to form a mental picture of the tennis racquets kept in a box under my bed, some of which have never been played with, to testify to this. After reading the article, I also took the trouble to check the number of pairs of tennis shoes yet to hit the tennis court. Three. Not too bad, it seems, even though that is a supply for a good three years.

I could easily defend or pardon myself with the fact that I only buy second-hand or when there is a big discount. Most of my tennis shoes, for example, all flagship models of my favourite brand, are bought at half the retail price. But that is exactly the trap that I have fallen into. I have always looked for good models, feeling that they can help improve my game, and the fact that I can get them at very reasonable, even attractive, prices seem to justify the almost impulsive shopping, and I end up spending lustily but guiltlessly.

Sherman’s confessions that his pursuit for musical mastery has always been distracted by the search for better tools and that his musical instruments are more than adequate can be turned into mine, too, with the change of one word. Fortunately, he is now enlightened enough to have “sold off a small orchestra’s-worth of musical instruments” and focus on becoming a better bassist. I guess I should also start selling my tennis team’s worth of racquets and focus on becoming a better baseliner.


Congregation? No, thanks!

"Congratulations on your successful completion of studies at... On behalf of the University, I cordially invite you to attend the 2011 Congregation and share this joyous moment with your fellow graduates."

Thus began the letter which I almost immediately shoved away. I have never attended any such congregations for all the degrees I have ever obtained, and I am not about to change a way. An old dog doesn't like learning new tricks. I know it is my idiosyncracy, but I can never feel comfortable with ceremonies, especially with myself being the main character. Two people get married because they love each other so why should they follow all those customs and common practices and entertain other people by behaving and dressing like idiots? How much of the romance between the two people can and do those guests at the raucous banquet really share? Likewise, one studies for the knowledge and the pleasure, not the outward manifestation of the qualification. I used to shudder at the typical sight of students posing for photos in their gowns and mortarboard, holding a stuffed toy or a bouquet of flowers with one hand and making a V-sign with the other. As I grow older and more mellow, I have become less cynical and have come to accept that how other people celebrate their achievement and happiness is their own business. Still, I can't see myself ever wearing that academic dress.

Or attending that congregation.


Internal conflict

As a farewell gesture, I recently had lunch with a colleague who was about to retire. Reaching another major milestone in life, he was naturally rather pensive. Twice he mentioned that a simple, unconspicuous life is what he always prefers.
Ironically, though, it was during that same lunch hour that he also expressed his fury against his supervisor who did not give him the promotion he felt he deserved by giving him a good appraisal report. Obviously, it was something that he felt had marred his career, "I am shamed," he lamented. Not wanting this to keep haunting him when his working days are over, I advised him to let go of his disappointment and his ill feelings against his supervisor.
It is a sad fact that we human beings are imbued with such internal conflict but are not not very good at seeing, understanding and handling them.


What is common between procrastination and the Mancs?

I was going to start another round of web browsing. After all, there are so many things I have achieved today that I felt I could spoil myself a little. But then I remembered my commitment to taking on procrastination. The checking of the score of the match between Liverpool and our archrivals the Mancs can wait.

We are so prone to give ourselves easy excuses to push back something we are supposed to do excuses in which we make ourselves believe that we will get to the task after just a few minutes of doing something else, usually something which gives us instant gratification. The unfortunate fact is that what is meant to just take up a few minutes usually end up lasting a long time, and by the time it finishes, we either have pushed the original task to the back of our mind or have so exhausted our energy or motivation on that other engagement that we will not do the original task any more.
Procrastination, like the Mancs, is a formidable rival, but one that we have to try to beat at all costs.

Now what's the final score?