Monday, March 20, 2006

Ancient History... 3 Weeks Ago

OK, I started writing this immediately after the Olympics closing ceremonies, but got Overcome By Events and never finished it. I know it's ridiculously out of date by now, but I can't bear to throw out my golden words , and anyway, I was put right back in the Olympic mood by something I did this weekend. More about that in a minute, but first my dusty old Olympic opinions:

Well, the Torino Winter Olympics have come and gone, and we've heard all the predictable naysaying: Ratings were down, Americans behaved badly, we didn't win enough medals, nobody cares about these so-called sports anyway, blah, blah, blah....

I have a slightly different take on a lot of this. I love the Olympics, and I particularly love the Winter Games, sometimes because of the same things the critics carp about. A few thoughts about the just-completed Torino games, in no particular order:

  • Obscure Sports: OK, admittedly most Americans don't care about most Winter Olympics sports other than hockey, figure skating, maybe alpine skiing, and the new darling, snowboarding. For most of us, these two weeks every four years are not only the only time we see, but the only time we even think about, sports like ski jumping, cross-country skiing, and speedskating... never mind even more obscure sports like short-track speedskating, biathlon, or curling. Do we care that short-track is the national sport of South Korea, or that biathlon is huge in northern Europe, or that curling is more popular than hockey in Canada? We do not, anymore than we care about how much the rest of the world loves soccer.

    But friends, this is a feature, not a bug! If you're any sort of sports fan at all -- or any sort of TV fan -- it should delight you to have spread before you a buffet of something different, in the same way that a literal buffet of new and different foods would. Like exotic foods, some of the Winter Games sports may not be to your taste, and others may be interesting only as an occasional diversion... but their very unusualness is a gift all its own. I probably would never watch most of the Winter Games sports regularly, the way I do baseball or college basketball, but for 2 weeks every 4 years, what's not to love? I'm old enough to remember the early days of ESPN, when it was primarily a sports news network and didn't yet have broadcast rights to many (if any) major sporting events. To fill the time between SportsCenters, they televised a variety of weird and wonderful sports, from hurling and Australian rules football to competitive aerobatics. Even earlier, ABC's Wide World of Sports used to "span the globe" to bring to U.S. TV the "constant variety of sport"... including many of the same "obscure" sports (like skeleton) that now grace the Olympic Winter Games. Sure, it's not steak-and-potatoes sports... but isn't it fun to at least sample some reindeer meat every now and then?
  • Medal Counts: Much was made of the U.S. team's poor medal performance, and to be sure there were many U.S. medal hopefuls who failed to reach their potentials... but the key words here are "hopeful" and "potential." In fact, while the popular press was trumpeting hopes of record medal hauls, the more analytical sports press was more realistic: Historically nations experience a significant drop in medal count (on the order of 40 percent) in the Games immediately after they host an Olympiad, and while many U.S. athletes were capable of threatening for medals, fewer were actually predicted to finish on the podium. Take Bode Miller (please!): All the buzz going into the Games was that he might medal in all 5 alpine skiing events... but Sports Illustrated's pre-Games analysis actually only predicted a medal in one event, the alpine combined. Viewed that way, his undeniable collapse seems somewhat less epic.

    As it happened, the U.S. finished second in overall medals (with 25, 1 behind Germany's total) and tied for second in gold medals (with 9). It was our second-best performance ever, behind only the home-field Salt Lake City games, and actually better than most countries do right after hosting their own games. The public's perception of a disastrous performance by the U.S. team has much more to do with pre-Games expectations -- which the U.S. Olympic Committee has admitted it mismanaged -- than with objective reality.
  • "Ugly American" Athletes: OK, so Bode Miller partied, Lindsay Jacobellis showboated, and Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis spent the whole fortnight glaring at each other. Get over it: Part of the package with world-class athletes is a certain degree of arrogance and self-focus... it's an inherent ingredient of what drives them to be the best. It's extraodinarily rare to find the fierce competitiveness of a world-class champion living side-by-side with selfless altruism in the same human body.

    Rare, but not unheard of: For every story like the ones mentioned above, there's a Joey Cheek, who turned over his medal bonuses to charity without even thinking twice... or an Apolo Anton Ohno, who, after seeming somewhat selfish himself in Salt Lake City, apeared to have an almost spiritual appreciation of pure sport this time 'round... or a Lindsay Kildow, who grittily continued to compete despite injuries that made it impossible for her to win... or an Evan Lysacek, who shook off the disappointment of a disastrous short program in men's figure skating to give the performance of his life in the long program and nearly claim a medal... or a Shaun White, whose sheer boyish charm and joy in what he does must have won over even the most curmudgeonly despiser of snowboarding.

    In short, I think we Americans have far more to be proud of than to apologize for.
OK, that was my post-Olympic take. Now as to why I was feeling Olympic again this weekend... I attended an open house at the Norfolk Curling Club this weekend. When I first saw it during the Salt Lake City games, I thought curling was the coolest imaginable sport, not least because it seemed like middle-age fat guys like me could actually make the Olympics in this game. Well, this time 'round the guys all seemed disappointingly young and buff, but the game was every bit as fascinating as I remembered it. I'm hooked.

Apparently I'm not alone: The open house drew somewhere between 150 and 200 people, vastly more than the 20 to 40 they expected. The club is planning a 4-session workshop for new curlers, and I can't wait. In the meantime, here I am doing the newbie drills:

Unit of the Day: The mease (scroll down after clicking) is a unit of quantity formerly used by fishermen, equal to the number of herring in a basket (roughly 620). Try working that into a conversation!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

News from Other Blogs

First, a quick assist to ATalbot, friend of the Spleen and proprietor of the Bye Bye Rob blog. Blogger's comment feature wouldn't let him post the following flyer for this weekend's anti-war rally in Hartford, but I can post in a main entry, so here it is:

ATalbot (I have to ask him if he minds whether I use his real name) also attended Ned Lamont's announcement that he will challenge Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate from Connecticut (maybe he'll give us a report in a comment to this post). He is one of a group of teens -- friends of my daughter's -- who continue to give me hope for the future, because they are so much more involved in serious thought about real issues (politics, the arts, etc.) than I remember being at that age.

Next, I found myself compelled yesterday to comment in a thread at the blog of Steven Berlin Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You. Taking off on the recent reports about Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use, Johnson ponders whether "performance enhancing" substances are really all that different from other performance enhancements, such as laser eye surgery that enhances already good vision. After I added my comment, it dawned on me that I shouldn't have wasted my perfectly good words (OK, that's a matter of opinion, admittedly) on somebody else's blog... so I'm shamelessly plagiarizing myself by repeating my comments here:

The conversation about "performance enhancing" substances/practices reminds me strangely of the controversy over genetically modified animals/crops: They're both based on the same false dichotomy between "artificial" and "natural."

Just as all domesticated plants and animals are really genetically modified, whether through the slow and tedious "natural" methods of selective breeding and culling or the "artificial" methods of the laboratory, so too are all elite athletes "performance enhanced" compared to non-athletes. At first glance, it might seem easy to differentiate between "natural" performance-enhancing measure (i.e., special diets, exercise regimes, training, physical therapy, sports psychology) and "artificial" ones such as drugs and surgical body modification... but on closer inspection, such distinctions can seem pretty arbitrary. During the recent Winter Olympics, several cross-country skiers were temporarily suspended because of elevated hemoglobin levels. My understanding is that these levels might result from illegal doping... but they might also result from "natural" causes, including high-altitude training.

Because the raison d'etre of sports is competition, and some basic standard of fairness is essential to competitive integrity, I think there is a basis for discriminating between performance enhancing measures... but based on equal access, rather than on the imagined moral superiority of "natural" methods: An athlete shouldn't feel compelled to become a criminal in order to have a fair chance of winning, so it's reasonable to ban illegal drugs; an athlete shouldn't feel compelled to risk his/her life for sport, so it's reasonable to ban life-threatening practices. (Note that the latter does not imply that merely unhealthy practices should be banned: By the standards of "normal life," much of what elite athletes do with regard to training and diet could be called unhealthy.)

Under my model, illegal steroids should be banned, NOT because they're "performance enhancing," but because allowing their use would put athletes unwilling to engage in criminal behavior at an unfair disadvantage, and thereby damage the basic competitive equity of the sport. Substances that are legal (e.g., anything you can buy at a GNC store) should NOT be banned, regardless of their "performance enhancing" characteristics, and substances that are illegal but not performance enhancing should not be specifically banned by sporting organizations. (That is, Ricky Williams' fondness for the ganja is between him and the cops, but to my mind no business of the NFL's, unless you can convince me that smoking dope makes him a better football player.)

As for eye surgery and other "artificial" enhancements, I say as long as they're freely available to all and don't present any extreme risks, there's no reason to restrict them.

Of course, I'm the commissioner of exactly nothing! ;^)

If you're interested in the original thread this appeared in, it's here.

Unit of the Day: The newton (yes, named after that Newton) is the metric (SI) unit of force, equal to the force required to accelerate one kilogram at one meter per second per second. This one is familiar to space cadets, because rocket engine thrust is given in multiples of newtons (everywhere but the U.S., where we still use pounds).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Manor of Thy Friend's or of Thine Own

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Not merely the source for well known titles of war movies and novels, this excerpt from John Donne's Meditation XVII is a penetrating insight into the human condition.

That is, it's a penetrating insight into how some of us view the human condition. In ruminating on my noontime political chautauquas with my CCLB and my Fellow Liberal Lunch Buddy (FLLB) [they know who they are, and they'll likely be recurring characters here at the Spleen], I've been trying sort something out: How is it that decent, well-meaning people with similar backgrounds, education, and current lifestyles can hold such diametrically opposed opinions. I like to think I'm a rational person, but I don't flatter myself that I'm noticeably smarter than my CCLB (for instance), so how does his exercise of reason lead him to conclusions that seem so unreasonable to me?

I've decided that the only explanation is that he and I -- and conservatives and liberals generally -- start reasoning from fundamentally different beginning assumptions. Before you say "Duh! That's pretty obvious!", bear with me: I don't think it really is all that obvious to most people, and I think much of the acrimony in our current political discourse springs from the failure to understand this basic principle.

Here's what I think I now understand: Conservatives are fundamentally anti-social. Now wait... I don't mean that word in its typical pejorative sense; rather, I mean that at some level they don't believe in society, at least not in the same way liberals do. An old antagonist of mine on a space bulletin board used to argue whenever I would use the word "we" in talking about the space program (e.g., "we went to the Moon"; "we've sent spacecraft to every planet but Pluto"; etc.), on the grounds that I hadn't personally participated in those activities. For a long time, I thought he was being deliberately obtuse, for no other reason than to pick fights. Actually, I still think he was doing that, but I eventually figured out there was more to it: I was saying "we" meaning humankind, or in some cases the United States, with the understanding that as a human and an American, I did participate in those activities. He was having none of it: To him, there was no such thing as society, and if you hadn't done something in your own person, you hadn't done it at all. He did not believe that "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," and he certainly didn't believe that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

To him... and I suspect to conservatives in general... society, as an integrated whole, does not exist, and what goes under that name is really just a collection of individuals, each ultimately responsible to (and for) him/herself alone. This is, I've come to believe, at the root of many political arguments about such issues as tax policy, public education, and government programs in general. It also may explain why conservatives consider socialism such a dirty word!

With this philosophical chasm in mind, it's easier to understand why the health care/health insurance issue has been so intractable in U.S. politics. To understand why it's so important, and get a good (if somewhat disheartening) overview of what we should -- but probably can't -- do about it, check out this article from the New York Review of Books (thanks to the Altercation blog for highlighting this). It's a long read, but well worth it if you're at all interested in public health care policy.

Unit of the Day: The sabin has nothing to do with the discoverer of the oral polio vaccine; it's a measure of sound absorption used by acoustical engineers, equal to the absorption of one square foot of a perfectly absorbing surface. Now a perfectly sound-absorbing surface sounds like a pretty useful thing, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Peppering of Birdshot

Once again I've let too much time go by between posts, what with one thing and another. I've got a few longer posts in the works, but in the meantime here's a 28-gauge blast of random thoughts:

Sweet Home, South Dakota... As a follow-up to my thoughts on South Dakota's abortion ban, which Governor Mike Rounds has now signed into law (to less than rave reviews at home and abroad), I note the following from a CBS News web report: "Lawmakers said an anonymous donor has pledged $1 million to defend the ban, and the Legislature set up a special account to accept donations for legal fees." I suppose I just never thought about it, but I didn't realize states could accept private donations to defend laws against legal challenges. Now that I have thought about it, I think it's a bad idea: I can't come up with a legal theory for banning the process, but in principle I'm concerned that it has the effect of isolating legislators from responsibility for the laws they pass. If the state's taxpayers were footing the bill for all those millions of dollars in legal costs, their representatives might think twice before passing a patently unconstitutional law whose real purpose is to advance a national political agenda. As it is, the South Dakota legislature is now a regiment of mercenaries, fighting someone else's battle in the pay of outside money. If it were my state's legislature, I'd be pissed... regardless of how I felt about the issue at hand.

Blogstyles of the New and Clueless... I finally got caught up reading my daughter's blog (with her permission; I'm not snooping), and I see she initially took offense at my previous comments about high-schoolers' blogs. She quickly figured out I didn't mean to insult her and her friends -- she's a very smart kid -- but I wanted to say publicly that my comment about kids being interested in the minutiae of each other's lives was in no way intended as a putdown. It's one of the special magics of that age that your life should be so intimately connected with those of your friends; revel in it while you can. In any case, I'm new (and clueless!) at this whole deal, while she has just celebrated the second anniversary of her blog. If there were any conflict between our blogging styles, you'd have to give her way precedence!

These Dadgum Newfangled Computers... Along the same lines, at work today my Cranky Conservative Lunch Buddy (CCLB) was holding forth about how modern communication technologies like voicemail and e-mail have caused people to stop talking to one another. Me, I don't buy it. No doubt new technologies can present challenges to social behavior, but since we're stuck with them it's useless to wring our hands about how awful they are. In any case, I think computer-based communication enhances rather than degrades sociability. My CCLB was talking about how careful he and his wife are to police their kids' computer usage, so they will go out and play with other kids face-to-face instead. My perception, though, is that my daughter and her friends use blogging, e-mail, IM, and the web to add to, not replace, their face-to-face interaction. They spend plenty of time together in "meat-space"; the computer just helps them arrange it. And IM makes for great virtual study groups, too. I say bring on the pixels!

Do (Hungry) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?... If they make a sequel to Splash, do you suppose Daryl Hannah will play this part?

Unit of the Day: The mickey, used by computer programmers, is the length of the smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse (mouse... mickey... get it?) or similar input device. Its absolute size depends on the specific equipment, but roughly 0.1 millimeter would be a typical value.