As someone who's a tennis fan I'd actually not wanted to write about the 2021 Australian Open. This is partially because I was very surprised the event was held at all. Because of the pandemic and the nature of Australia's remarkably successful efforts to keep the virus out and the extreme lockdown measures to eliminate it when it did end up spreading in the community I expected a large sporting event that would fly thousands of people in from all over the world to not happen. It just seemed like a lot of risk to take on. This other reason I didn't plan on writing about it is partially because talking to Josh about the Australian Open and tennis in general reminded me that I really should start reading David Foster Wallace's book Infinite Jest which he'd recommended to me ages ago. Anyway thoughts of writing about tennis when considering brilliant writers was making me feel uncomfortable about my writing skills, particularly so if Tennis was the topic1. If you are unfamiliar with his work check out this article he wrote about Federer a while ago.
The temptation here was to pull out from publishing this article to focus more on other articles, a bit like how Federer pulled out of the French Open. Thankfully for me writing, unlike tennis tournaments, can be worked on incrementally and published later or maybe never as is the case with a number of articles I wrote that were too hot to handle. I figured that this article might be worth writing anyway2 since there's a number of observations I had in the lead up to this event that were a nice mirror of life more broadly in early 2021. After bumping into someone I knew today I had commented on how I have this growing backlog of content here that I haven't published, there's at least 100k words in drafts and keeping writing like this without publishing seems somewhat inefficient in a sense, but this feeling is only an illusion that's come about because of a number of annoying mistruths that I've happened to internalize about what constitutes efficiency from my younger years3.
A backlog of snippets of thoughts doesn't really impact me too badly though since I'm not a professional writer and as such there's never really any time pressure to publish anything on a certain date. Early in the year would usually have been an important time for all the people who were working around the Australian open. After all the reasoning given for the enormous public health risk that was created by running this event was the all important "jobs" angle. But jobs are getting automated everywhere and the tennis is no different, it's just that in Tennis the traditionalists hold on to tradition a bit more strongly than other people. Even a sport that values traditionalism so much has succumbed to cost gravity, if only in this a few areas, it just needed a pandemic to build enough momentum for the change to overcome the objections of the traditionalists. This is a sport where things like wearing all white clothing has been upheld at Wimbledon and where the 5 set grand slam matches have been retained despite the highly-lucrative television coverage strongly desiring 3 set matches as they are far more easy to organize in the TV broadcast schedules. It seems the introduction of the shot clock is about the furthest people will comfortable go to appease the television schedulers. The major change I'm referring to here is the complete elimination of the line umpires in favor of technology. I can see why this was done, there is (or should I saw was) a very high umpire to player ratio in tennis in these big events and enough time had passed with the "Hawkeye" system being in place for challenges to line calls for people to get accustomed to the technology. This made me feel very sad for someone I know who's an avid tennis fan and umpire, I thought he wouldn't get a chance to do the line umpiring for the event because I thought the event wouldn't run at all. So it was a pleasant surprise at least on that one specific angle to find out that the event was happening after all, but then finding out he will never be working doing that event ever again was worse. The person I'm thinking about here isn't exactly in an easy position to retrain and take on some other job. And this is the nasty side of automation, jobs get destroyed everywhere, even in tennis and crucially there's no replacement job for many people to go to. But I don't really want to talk about technological unemployment too much here. Like many other things though the naive take here is to say that the Covid Pandemic changed everything, but just like almost everything else these changes started long ago and the pandemic is just a catalyst or an obvious point of reference. Regarding umpiring there have been experiments to replace the line umpires as early as 2017 (and perhaps before that) but the pandemic has perhaps given the cover to make a potentially unpopular change that breaks with the tradition.
In the lead up to the event there was a lot of complaining from many sports players about having to stay in quarantine upon arrival. This frankly made me really think the event was a bad idea on a lot of levels. You could sense the resentment in some of the players, one match I was watching there was an outburst from one of the French players and the interaction with the umpire was very unsettling, the complaints he was raising were clearly carried over resentment from the pre-tournament lockdown. He smashed a racquet and was saying to the umpire "did you spend 2 weeks in lockdown?" clearly the frustrations had started long before he ever got on the court.
Anyway the event started with play happening in front of a crowd even though the stands were uncharacteristically much less than full. As someone who had been in previous years I was part of the audience but I myself would not have felt safe booking a ticket to the event this year. Part of it is that for over a year Melbourne has had intermittent lock downs and we have had draconian rules to limit the number of people attending events to small numbers. Once you get used to this reality going to sporting events with thousands of people in attendance isn't the first thing that comes to mind. And if it does come to mind you have to strongly consider the chances that you won't be able to attend when the time does come due to some pandemic restrictions. Perhaps another part of this low attendance is that the event started later in the year that usual and less people were on holidays. And anyone who was on holidays somewhere else in the world couldn't fly out to attend the event anyway due to the pandemic.
That said enough people had probably started to pull out of the pandemic thinking and there were some healthy crowds at the event. Then suddenly in the middle of the tournament there was a lockdown in Melbourne announced in the middle of the day on Friday the 12th of February and the crowds were turned away effective tomorrow. This really reminded me of the situation I wrote about with the 2020 World Snooker Championship, where there was at the very last moment a change where the event continued without the crowds. The first day of no crowds was very quiet on the TV coverage and honestly I kinda liked the broadcast being true to the event. It reminded me of watching premier league (Snooker premier league was never played in front of a crowd, even pre-pandemic), or any number of small events I'd watched in person. I couldn't help but wonder if there would be some last minute attempt to add canned audience audio to the tennis broadcast. Then just one day later there was, perhaps the tennis is better organized with canned applause waiting as part of some contingency plan? In any case canned audience sounds were indeed added to the TV broadcast. The canned audience sounds in the World Snooker Championship were of an almost farcical quality. The higher quality tennis sounds added to this uncanny valley feeling of unreality, this certainly wasn't humorous and made the whole event have this fake or simulacrum feeling to it. But I guess the reality of the pandemic situation is one many people are just outright avoiding thinking about so these attempts by the broadcasters to deliberately misrepresenting the reality of the situation perhaps should not come as a surprise (after all they are good at this). After the snap lockdown was over the crowds came back, and I was greatly relieved to not have this absurd Kafkaesque canned applause reminding me that there's a global pandemic going on while I just wanted to chill out by watching some sports.
What perhaps surprised me most is that quite a few people expressed a preference towards the fake audience sounds (some of the terrible economic arguments put in favor of running the event would have surprised me more were it not for years of people ignoring externality pricing being beaten into my thick skull, I now have a sense of resigned understanding that the vast majority of people don't understand economics now). According to some the event was "better" to watch with the canned applause. But to me it had that same jarring feel as watching some sort of show that had excessive canned applause, it just felt noticeably fake. And I don't watch pro sports for fakeness, if I want fiction I'll watch a show/movie/play/series/etc. I'm watching some sports to not think about the pandemic and all the world events going on but yet that's exactly where my thoughts went when the camera slowly pans over the empty stadium while canned applause is being played in the background. All all this reminds me that someone said the series of Mash without the canned applause track is a vastly better show, I have a lot of time to watch some stuff now so if I can find that I might watch a few episodes. Or perhaps this is the time to finally commit and dig into reading Infinite Jest...
I do happen to particularly enjoy footnotes though, something that you may have noticed if you've read some of my other articles. For the most part there's no complicated grand narrative in these footnotes, often just some extra details and bits and pieces that I can't figure out how to fit neatly into the article bodies. But perhaps there's some nugget of insight there into the workings of the human mind and literature more broadly? Why does the article text need to flow in a nice orderly linear manner? As we see with events like this Australian open life is messy, narratives are complex and a lot of things just don't neatly fit into a linearized narrative. Even discussions about the chronology of events leading up to this tournament wouldn't be so nicely discussed in a chronological timeline like the one that you might see on some sort of social media site that lists out events in a chronological manner. Well except perhaps for the fact that these sites don't event bother to give you a chronological ordering anymore and the curated "feed" that they feed you like cattle being fed something is merely a simulacrum of the old chronological timelines. And I use the word simulacrum very deliberately here because on many sites these days there isn't the ability to get a truly chronological ordering of posts anymore. The incentives of curating the feed are just too tempting for the sites to pass up on. "Eyeballs" and "engagement" at all costs are the order of the day where people are not to click away or even avert their eyes at any cost. Against this backdrop the humble footnote seems outrageous or even revolutionary as your eyes are tempted to move to somewhere else, your focus is offered a chance to engage and most of all your short term memory is called upon to remember more than just a sentence at a time. While people have wrote that the complexity of written writing has ebbs and flows over time, we are definitely at a low point in terms of the complexity of many written documents. But it goes a lot further than this, if your attention is to be stage managed very closely then complexity is to be avoided, it's maybe even jarring to a lot of readers and I know that people will complain to me about the footnotes in this article, of which I have wrote quite a few that have quite a "messy" structure. ↩
The best description of how I felt when writing this article and deciding to publish it is like watching a server hit the net then slowly roll over to the other side before being called a let. This article feel like a second chance at writing something, much like a let on the first serve I feel oddly unencumbered to write this in a manner without much hesitation. Much of the rest of this blog has the conservatism of a second serve, even though not too many of the posts feel like an outright double fault there's a lot of tame content on here from the earlier years where I've avoided all risks and just talked about particularly safe technical topics. ↩
I can't help but feel there's this internal conflict I have with writing where the mindset of mathematical optimization conflicts with some form of thinking of a more literary kind. Specifically the sorts of narrow minded objective function optimization where you seek to maximize some sort of throughput as though you as an author are merely a typing automaton who bashes away at a keyboard seems to get in the way of the mindset that allows a higher quality of writing. But for who is this "utility" being maximized for? After all I write this blog for my own entertainment mostly, sure there's the internal excuse that I have which is also a very convenient excuse that this blog helps me get work and showcase my skills, but somewhere in 2020 I just stopped caring about that angle but yet the excuse lingers. Much like how we haven't had (and won't have) a "V shaped" recovery in the economy, in the hypothetical situation that the economy were to somehow magically do this I doubt I would return to writing just as a means to maximize some economic utility. In some sense this blog isn't just a simply objective function maximization exercise where the objective is to turn written words into money. There's much better ways to make money after all and a ruthless money maker is very likely not to write at all, I have the book about the Rise and Fall of Alan Bond in my to-read pile, someone who by all accounts was a ruthless money maker but the book is not autobiographical in nature, Alan Bond would have been far too busy grifting to write a book like that and he was before the era that book writing could have been profitable for an infamous crime figure. I'm reminded of Virgina Wolfe's comment in a Room of Ones Own on how business gets in the way of authorship, people who run businesses tend to not have the time to write at the highest levels even if they had the desire. This is part of what makes Andy Grove's books remarkable, he was engaged in the business of running a tech company but yet managed to write a quality book High Output Management. Beyond the heavy time and energy requirements to run a business I suspect there's something about the mindset of business that makes quality writing harder to do4. A transactional mindset that may be very helpful in running a business seems to be unhelpful in writing content with deeper meaning. With running a business there's certain forms of mathematical thinking around optimization and efficiency that tend to go together quite well. But with writing these approaches seem to but suboptimal for a lot of content. There's a great talk by Kenneth Stanley called "the myth of the objective function", where the rather groundbreaking observation that they came to find is that excellence cannot be planned. And they mean this in a very deep mathematical way, if you set out to try to solve sufficiently hard problems you will fail if you just try to solve them in a objective optimization manner. That excellence comes in unexpected ways seems to be the truth rather than the exception, I'd highly recommend watching the talk to find out more. ↩
And no ghostwriting doesn't count which I feel compelled to comment on since so many people in the corporate world seem to engage in this practice (I get people spamming me with offers to "ghostwrite" my content somewhat frequently), in many ways there's connotations of plagiarism and "passing off" that I see as intrinsic to this practice. Perhaps even to me more repulsive in a way than the plagiarism that Dave Tomar writes about in "The Shadow Scholar", his book about his experiences as a professional essay writer where he would do students coursework in return for money. There's a couple of things that I think make regular run of the mill plagiarism less odious to me as a writer than ghostwriting, the first one is that society has become so credentialist and placed such high stakes on getting these credentials that huge economic incentives are now being created to cheat at school. And the other thing is that people have become so conditioned to replace a sense of education with a sense of achievement that the thought of skipping your education to "achieve" your educational credentials seems like the sort of logical step for an economic automaton, the exact sort of person that this industrial factory line "educational" system aims to create and shape. Against this somewhat dismal backdrop it might not come as a surprise that with such high incentives to cheat that people do cheat, but those works of writing are submitted to someone and not to the general public. The aim here is merely to deceive those who are marking the paper in return for some credential. But with ghostwriting I feel a deeper misrepresentation is being made if the original author is not credited. To me this feels like the concept of authorship itself is being disrespected in a much deeper way. When I worked with a content writer a while back I insisted that her name be on the authors with anything we jointly wrote, anything else just would have felt wrong to me. ↩