Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of "The Walk
New York, NY – September 26, 2015 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Philippe Petit at the Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of TriStar Pictures’ “The Walk”.
I lie against this narrow strip of unknown land, looking up, until I comprehend: it is a landing field for extraterrestrial vessels. No! A takeoff field: the clouds give it direction – a limitless runway into heaven. It is definitely not man-made, nor of any use to us humans. So uncertain is its length – call it height – and so alien its design, the dreaded word has now infiltrated my heart: Impossible! Impossible! Impossible! it pounds. I can no longer breathe. (From the book, To Reach the Clouds)

The Frenchman looked straight up and knew he had no choice – he had to lay a wire across the two towers of the World Trade Center, and walk into the void.

I just saw the film, The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on one of my favorite books, “To Reach the Clouds“, by one of my life heroes, Monsieur Philippe Petit. I watched as if in a dream.

Philippe Petit color

Philippe Petit is not an Olympian, but he is an athlete nonpareil. The wooden balance beam that a female gymnast leaps and flips on is four inches (10 cm) wide. The steel cable that Petit walks is steel braided cable 5/8″ in diameter – essentially a toe or two wide. A woman on the balance beam would stand four feet (1.24 meters) above the floor. Petit danced on his wire 1,368 feet (417 meters) above ground. He crossed the 138 feet (42 meters) expanse between the two towers, not once, not twice, but 8 times. Petit traipsed, bowed, stood one legged, spun 180 degrees on this very highwire on that August 7 morning in 1972….for 49 minutes.

The “Coup”, as Petit has called this act of defiance and triumph, has a degree of difficulty unthinkable in any competition at the highest levels.

The Walk, as a movie, was a technical masterpiece. It is the first time in my mind that 3D and IMAX have come together with narrative and directorial vision to produce a story telling event of such visceral impact that you feel suspended a quarter mile high. (Yes, in the scenes depicting “the Coup”, my palms were sweating, and the nerves in my rear were tingling.)

the walk joseph gordon levitt
Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Walk
Petit is an inspiration. People can say “Do the impossible”. But Petit did.

It starts, as it does with all incredible achievers, with a dream.

You need dreams to live. It is as essential as a road to walk on and as bread to eat. I would have felt myself dying if this dream had been taken away from me. The dream was as big as the towers. There was no way it could be taken away from me by authority, by reason, by destiny.

Watch an interview of Philippe Petit from this fantastic documentary by Ric Burns called “New York – The Center of the World“, a history of the World Trade Center.

Sazae-san_I'm Against Price of Bath Going Up

Japan’s economy is not terrible. Nor is it robust. Generally speaking, the Japanese economy has been pushing hard against the weight of deflation with little result. GDP has dropped, and so have average wages. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, through his mixture of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms, so-called Abenomics, is striving to get momentum rolling the other way, driving inflation and wages up, and getting people consuming and the economy pumping.

In the early 1960s, the economy was booming. And while inflation didn’t appear to be getting out of hand, at least according to the numbers, people like Machiko Hasegawa felt it. She wrote about it in her comic strip, Sazae-san. In the strip above, from the book, The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, Hasegawa-san is able to reflect the average citizen’s perception that the price of everything is going up.

And in the strip below about people commuting on a bus, Hasegawa-san is showing that everybody was feeling the pinch.

And yet, it wasn’t by no means a desperate time for Japan. It was indeed a time of optimism and hope. After all, the Olympics were in Japan.

Sazae-san_Not Much Inside

roger jackson own the podium
Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium

To be the best athlete in the world often means overcoming overwhelming fatigue, excruciating pain, and suffocating fear and anxiety. As described by Olympic swimming champion Dick Roth, pain not only must be tolerated, it must be befriended.

I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?

I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.

“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”

Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”

Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.

Jackson, Roger | Hungerford, George
Canada’s Roger Jackson and George Hungerford celebrate their gold medal win in the rowing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (CP Photo/COC) Roger Jackson and George Hungerford du Canada célèbrent leur médaille d’or au deux d’aviron aux Jeux olympique de Tokyo de 1964. (Photo PC/AOC)

“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”

“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”

Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?

Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.

Flushing Meadows_five
Me, several years after the closing of the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.

First things first. Novelist and futurist, Isaac Asimov had a caveat. If the world is destroyed by a thermonuclear war, his predictions would be meaningless. Got it.

isaac asimov
Isaac Asimov

Since there has been no nuclear war of significance, here are a few of the predictions Asimov made in the New York Times in August, 1964. Asimov visited the huge, big-tent event in the world that year that was not the Tokyo Olympics – the World’s Fair in New York, which happened to be in my backyard of Flushing, Queens.

By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button. A quick search reveals that available in the marketplace is electroluminescent advertising displays (which are paper-thin flexible panels), electroluminescent paint, electroluminescent wallpaper, and something more commonly known, electroluminescent fashion.

There is an underground house at the fair which is a sign of the future. Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common. The reason Asimov gives for this idea is Man’s urge to control its environment, as well as expand the amount of land to grown more food to feed a growing world population. But another reason will be the Mega-city Trend, the continued massive migration to big cities that puts tremendous pressure on the infrastructure. Singapore, where I lived for a few years, has a population of 5.5 million people on a land mass of 710 square km, a country half the size of Los Angeles. The Red Dot, as it is affectionately called, will be considerably more dense as the government predicts the population to grow to 7 million in the near future. Singapore has built upwards with its skyscrapers, and outwards with land-fill areas, but is now planning underground working facilities on a scale not commonly seen. Designs for the 300,000 square-meter Underground Science City will be 30 to 80 meters below the surface, with plans to hold a working population of over 4,000.

Singapore Underground Science City
The planned Singapore Underground Science City

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. The way Asimov describes robotics, and I suppose, artificial intelligence is far less aggressive than his imagination in his novels. I haven’t read that many Asimov works, but I do know that he was one of the most significant minds behind a philosophical framework or set of rules regarding the relationship between Man and Robot: The Three Laws of Robotics. Additionally, I recall his brilliant character, Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation Series, a man who developed psychohistory, a precursor, to me, of what we now call Big Data.

If you want to watch something historic, as well as geeks geeking out, here’s an incredible video of IBM’s Watson beating two humans at Jeopardy. The two humans are Jeopardy champions.

Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains” vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other. Two obvious parallels to today’s technology: self-driving cars, which are all the rage, as well as maglev technology. By 2020, there are some who claim that Japan will have significant driverless transportation on the roads when the Olympians arrive.

The maglev train, which is already operational in Shanghai, will connect Tokyo to Osaka in an hour, achieving a speed of 500 kph, although it won’t be in operation until 2027.

Pictograms for Women and Drinking Water
Pictograms used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”
If you don’t speak Japanese, travelling in Japan is a challenge. You’re in a train, you pull into a station, you peer through the window as the train decelerates desperately trying to figure out what station you’re at, scanning for English, any English at all.

The next best thing to words are symbols. The signs for men and women’s toilets come in a gazillion varieties, but they are most often a variation of a theme. Symbols, if done right, can cut to the chase.

foreign friendly pictograms

With a continued increase in foreign tourists to Japan, and a spike in international guests in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics expected, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) released a new set of map symbols which they believe will be more intuitively understood by visitors. The old map symbols included an “X”. In the West, “X” may mark the spot of treasure, but in Japan, it meant police station. The old map represented a temple with a swastika, which is too much of an emotional jolt to many with its strong association with Nazism, despite its far longer association with Hinduism and Buddhism.

Fortunately, the GSI decided not to replace the symbol for onsen. The three wavy steamy lines bathing in an oval is a personal favorite.

onsen symbol

The pictograms of today were born out of the pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These Games were the first to be held in Asia, and Japan realized they had a language problem. In addition to translation, designers figured that use of symbols would be a powerful and efficient way to get foreigners to the right place. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics proved to be filled with design opportunities for the best in the country as the ’64 Games were essentially the first time an Olympic Games systematically used pictograms to represent each of the sporting events, or direct people to places.

As this blog post states, “…for such a huge national event, needless to say the design side of things was very important too and it engaged the talents of the industry heavyweights at the time.” One of the heavyweights was Yoshiro Yamashita, who designed these event symbols.

events pictograms 1964

The symbols that represented facilities were said to have been created by a team of ten designers.

pictograms at Tokyo Olympics_The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Report
From the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”

Sazae-san_Looking Out for the Sad Student

I really didn’t expect to see such a dark scene in a Sazae-san comic strip. But there it was.

Sazae-san notices a sad student walking out of the school grounds where exam results were posted. Sazae-san is so concerned that she follows the student, and is relieved to see her return safely home. What was Sazae-san worrying about? Maybe this young woman would be so distraught she would try to do harm to herself.

In Japan, these exam results determine whether you get into the school you want: Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Keio University or Waseda University, for example. Graduating from those prestigious schools will likely determine your short-term career, as well as your long-term life prospects. Parents, grandparents and the children themselves realize that a lot is riding on their chances to pass these university exams.

Japan has always had relatively high suicide rates, as you can see in the chart below. These days, Japan’s rate is about 60% higher than the global average. Back when Machiko Hasegawa was penning these Sazae-san cartoons, the suicide rate was significantly higher.

Suicide deaths per 100000 trend

So suicides were a concern of the day. And while it is unclear whether there was a strong correlation between suicides and young people under tremendous academic pressure, it certainly was in the cultural conversation. Here are two more cartoon strips from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, illustrating the fear that one student has just trying to learn whether he passed a university exam or not, and another showing the level of deception that Sazae-san’s brother Katsuo is willing to go to in order to explain how he is doing in school to his father.

Sazae-san_I passed telescope

Sazae-san_I Passed

sebastian coe_head of IAAF.png

How do you clean up corruption when it is perceived that all parties are steeped in it?

According to this powerful opinion piece by Juliet Macur of the New York Times, better to go with the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

She writes how the head of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), Dick Pound, has consistently been blunt and hardline with regards to corruption in athletics, particularly as it relates to doping. (She cites in the article a hysterical quote from Pound about a famous cyclist’s testosterone levels as a case in point.) But for some reason, when it comes to the fate of IAAF leader, Sebastian Coe, Pound somehow found it in his heart to praise and support, not tear down. As Macur wrote, “What had WADA done with the real Dick Pound?”

Coe took gold in the 1500 meters in 1980 and 1984, was elected as an MP in the British Parliament, and has been a leader in the International Amateur Athletics Federation since 2007, recently becoming the head of the IAAF last August. To be honest, it’s a lousy time to be the head of the IAAF, which is under a dark cloud of suspicion.

SEbastian Coe wins gold in 1500 in Los Angeles
Sebastian Coe wins gold in the 1500 meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games

There are allegations of gifts made in exchange for awarding the 2019 world track and field championships to Doha, Qatar. There is the state-sponsored doping program in Russia that was conveniently ignored by the IAAF but eventually exposed by WADA, resulting in Russia’s track and field being banned from international competition, including the Rio Olympics in August. There is the suspected doping of Kenya’s runners, whose performance at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last August was so superlative, they topped the medals tables for the first time ever.

And finally, there is Coe himself, who very reluctantly disassociated himself from his long-time paid association with Nike. The IAAF awarded the 2021 Athletics World Championships to Eugene, Oregon in the US, with apparently a formal bidding process. Oregon is definitely a hotbed for track, so Eugene’s selection is not a surprise. But Oregon is also the home to Nike. There’s no real indication that Nike, and thus Coe, had anything shady to do with the selection process. But taken all together, the IAAF is not currently a poster child for transparency and ethical decision making.

But as Macur explains, “It can be difficult to find purity at the top of international sports. In track and field, Coe, the former middle-distance star and Olympic champion, just might be the best option. He should serve his punishment for not speaking out against pervasive doping in track and field. His sentence: to clean up his dirty sport.”

Macur goes on to quote 5,000-meter runner and champion, Lauren Fleshmen as saying that Coe probably didn’t know all the corrupt things going on in the IAAF because of its