Yeah, but show me a *big* name in running who’s doped!

The No True Scotsman logical fallacy remains a dominant theme in professional track and field (and many other sports). It doesn’t matter who gets flagged for a positive doping test or how often such things happen; the typical track fan is somehow able to dismiss each case as an outlier. When the scandals start happening at increasingly shorter intervals, people can somehow pretend they never even heard about the previous one.

Ben Johnson in 1984? Oh, well, everyone already *knew* he was on ‘roids but he was an exception.
Carl Lewis? Well, he just got a warning for a low-grade stimulant, not a suspension.
Flo-Jo? No evidence.
Dieter Baumann? Well, his toothpaste story has a ring of truth to it.
Linford Christie? Old and trying to hang on. What a douche anyway.
Merlene Ottey? Gimme a break, she was like 45 when she retired.
Dennis Mitchell? LOL! Funny story about the booze and the women.
Marion Jones? Hey, at least she admitted it on Oprah, unlike others.
Mary Slaney? Eh, she was probably clean for a while when she was younger.
Regina Jacobs? No one liked her anyway.
Bernard Lagat? His “B” sample cleared him, moron.
Donovan Bailey? Didn’t he have some weird disease> Plus he’s Jamaican and everyone there but Usain Bolt is dirty.
Yohan Blake? Wasn’t he like 18 though?
Justin Gatlin? Hell, he served his time and at least has the balls to be out there now.
LaShawn Merritt? I *knew* you couldn’t trust ExtenZe!
Rita Jeptoo? Damn Italian agents must have corrupted her. Good thing we have so many Africans to root for.

The insane thing is that, whenever the toopic of PEDs comes up, the apologists are often the first people to scream that a particular athlete who hasn’t been caught is as dirty as they come. They bellow that Paula Radcliffe’s vocal anti-drug stance reeks of doth-protest-too-much bullshit, and when someone points a finger at Salazar’s group, they insist that their neighbors, Schumacher’s stable, are much more likely to cheat. When the body count inevitably piles up, they shake their heads at the “rogues” who pissed all over their coaches’ and teammates’ trust.

But I get it. The sport at the top level remains a fundamentally clean one. I mean, this isn’t pro football, for fuck’s sake, or bodybuilding, or cycling, or weight lifting, or baseball, or Nordic skiing, or wrestling, or triathlon. Running and in particular distance running has little in common with these sports. In fact, most cross-country athletes make the honor roll and the dean’s list in college.

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Has it really gotten THAT bad?

How stupid do telemarketers think people are?

Today I answered my phone while driving to pick up a friend from her job, an ignominy I manage to steadfastly avoid. I thought it might be her so I didn’t look at the number, which was 303-415-2514 and is owned by New Mark Telecommunications on 4450 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder.

“Hal-looooooou?” (Me being formal as always.)

“Hi there! How are you today?” (Hmmmm. My friend doesn’t have a Spanish accent.)

“Uh, good. Whom are you calling?” (Getting suspicious, yeah.)

“I am looking for the owner of this phone number!” (Optimistic as hell.)

“Oh. Well he ain’t fuckin’ here!” (No longer so jaunty.)

She was still babbling after I said this and was in the process of hanging up.

Seriously. I ask who the call’s for and if someone basically says, “Oh, anyone!” I’m expected to show interest? And this leaves aside the fact that it pisses me off that I get any bullshit calls to begin with (not to mention the occasional hello from bill collectors looking for my number’s previous owner, whom I believe to be in jail).

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The LGBT crowd’s *real* goal — to take over the world!

The State of Minnesota has ruled that transgender high-school boys can participate in girls’ sports.

The flood of ignorant and hysterical comments about this from the usual suspects was inevitable, but after I got tired of seeing incoherent rants about freaks and homos and perverts and the mentally ill (because apparently, anyone who hasn’t been a straight man or women since birth can be described an all of these ways) I got into an argument with someone (actually many someones) about this on a site I should probably avoid just for sanity’s sake, and provoked the following comment. From this comment, as you will see, I learned (from a supposed chemistry teacher, no less) that 1. “real” transgender people are all of those, and only those, who are born with both penises and vaginas; 2. There are all sorts of people out there who are only pretending to be transgender because of the obvious societal pay-off this guarantees; 3. LGBT fundamentally want nothing more than for everyone in the world to be LGBT; 4. Any sort of emotional disquiet that has its roots in hormonal imbalances can and should be squashed with exogenous hormones; 5. The whole basis for transgender boys wanting to play girls’ sports, have gender-reassignment surgery, and otherwise live the lives of women is malicious intent and untrammeled mental illness, and society shouldn’t coddle them and their suicidal intentions.

Here’s part of the comment:

“I have no problem with people who, through their genetics, manifest both male and female genitalia. What I do have a problem with is people who are born fully male or female who demand that we adapt to and in some times fund their mental illness because their ‘hormones’ demand it. If it is hormonal then it can be treated with hormones right? We can push back against emotions with those hormones that are natural to their body. But I’m sure you and your ilk would never go for that. Emotions rule your every action. If someone ‘feels’ female then we just have to adjust to their feelings right? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand that a person should have the state pay for their operation and hormone injections through the ADA and then turn around and say they are not mentally ill. The argument of the left is always that they are unhappy and might kill themselves out of despair if they don’t get the operation or are allowed to compete with girls. Sorry but that is just further evidence of their mental illness. If they want to get injections and mutilate their bodies let them pay for it themselves and stay the hell out of sports and bathrooms they do not belong in. But the LGBT crowd is all about increasing their numbers at whatever the cost to society.”

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Since no one’s going to read this anyway…

I produced the following in the fall of 1998, shortly before I started actually getting paid for stuff I’d come up with concerning running. In those days I was a de facto columnist for Cool Running, which long ago scrapped all of my and others’ material in its purposeful transition from a homey New England-first site to a far-reaching virtual shitstain that sold out to the assholes at Active.com. I particularly like this one; you can explore the whole lot of them here thanks to the intrepid generosity of the Wayback Machine.

Don’t Go There

We runners are explorers. Except for the treadmill crowd, the very nature of what we do makes us wanderers and seekers, postmodern pioneers. All but the most regimented yearn for the variety offered by new routes; fresh landscapes and changes of scenery help spike our motivation, forestalling the drudgery that inevitably creeps into our training programs.

Vacations serve as opportunities to travel through virgin territory, guided by our whims rather than travel brochures. Instead of viewing the passing scenery through the porthole of a tour bus or rental car, we live it, feel it, in fact become a part of it. To the resigned dismay of family and friends, we prefer to run, for example, around the perimeter of Disneyworld rather than immerse ourselves in the mouse-eared attractions therein. Accusations that we make bad traveling companions are difficult to deflect.

But we spend most of our time at home, where excursions into the unknown require resourcefulness and effort. To the city-bound, novelty is often offset by banality: “fresh” scenery might include a new strip mall or, almost as offensive, loosely-organized bands of brooding crackheads. (After spending one high-mileage summer in Atlanta, I came to know many of these types by name.)

Those of us in the ‘burbs and beyond are more fortunate. No matter how intimately we know our environment, there is always somewhere new to run. An old logging trail, shooting off into the netherworld from a familiar road, catches our eye after years of inexplicable concealment; we are inspired to explore the sloping lanes of an apple orchard after a decade of regarding it as just another tract of land.

Inherent in the discovery of off-road routes is the certainty of becoming an unwanted guest. Admit it: you’ve seen the signs, the ones that read “PRIVATE PROPERTY” in plain English, and you’ve ignored them, unable to resist what lay beyond in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) their admonitions. “Hell, I’m just a runner,” you tell yourself. These signs explicitly discourage hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, dirt bikers, unicyclists, out-of-control Canadian truckers and Kenneth Starr, but never runners, who pose no threat to flora and fauna. Therefore, “NO TRESPASSING – THIS MEANS YOU” must apply to someone else.

Running into the relative unknown infuses me with a certain arrogance, a sense of self-reliance; I may be on unfamiliar ground, but, buoyed by past experience, I know I can find my way home. Through my willingness to tolerate swamps, thorns, and righteously barking dogs, I gain perspectives on my world that the couch-bound cannot: a glimpse of scampering deer, or, beneath a sky gloriously streaked and bronzed by a sunset, a view of the sparkling waters of the Merrimack River from an isolated, long-forgotten hilltop.

Serene as it sounds, I’ve gotten myself into trouble this way.

During my Dartmouth days I frequently took to the woods around the town reservoir. One day I became convinced I could find a shortcut back to campus by striking out overland. After negotiating some brutal thickets and crossing a sizable creek, I came upon a field and could hear the telltale hum of traffic on nearby Route 120, the road I had hoped to find. Too smug to be cautious, I breezed by a sign nailed to a tree, noting only the first word: “ATTENTION.” A few minutes later a series of rifle reports did indeed capture my attention, and I did a prompt about-face toward the reservoir. This time I read the sign’s fine print: “ATTENTION: Dartmouth biathlon training range. Firearms in use.” In a typical display of wisdom, I returned a few months later. “Must be a seasonal thing,” I reasoned, immediately before another spate of gunfire sent me thrashing into the sanctity of the woods once again.

Sometimes my disregard is even more callous. About once a year, I run to the top of Oak Hill, my hometown’s highest point. A tough one-mile climb of some 500 vertical feet up a decaying road once maintained by the Forest Service leads to an ancient, sixty-foot-tall observation tower formerly used to spot fires. The public is invited to “CLIMB AT YOUR OWN RISK,” which is considerable, since the structure is older than Stonehenge. But its rickety wooden steps lead to a rewarding vista, so I can’t resist the ascent.

When I last climbed Oak Hill, I noticed a new man-made encroachment: a cell-phone tower over twice as tall as the observatory. It was serviced by a ladder and looked climbable. Figuring it would offer twice the view of its older companion, I clambered gingerly over the concertina wire girding this edifice (“surely they don’t mind runners inside”) and made it about fifty feet up before I realized the bitter winds up there were quickly turning my gloved fingers to stone. Frozen in place momentarily, I was suddenly more curious about the proposed link between electromagnetic fields and various cancers; I swore I could hear the conversations of pimps, drug dealers, and their lawyers being transmitted through my fillings and directly into my brain. Wondering what Sir Edmund Hillary would have made of such folly, I slithered back down to earth. It bears mentioning that while I was flailing around on the tower, a vicious house fire attracting firefighters from fourteen towns was raging away no more than four miles from my dubious perch. The fact that I didn’t see the blaze from a point expressly chosen for detecting such disasters categorically eliminated at least one career option. I did put in nineteen miles that day, though.

I do a lot of running near the hospital where I work. Behind the medical center, a network of trails – soon to be replaced, I understand, by acres of pavement and a nursing-home complex – is surrounded on all sides by private lands and homes, offering ample opportunity to explore and trespass. Having lost track of time and my bearings one morning, I was searching for a shortcut back to the hospital, hoping to avoid tardiness, when I saw a pair of hunters, one wielding a bow and the other an ancient-looking musket. I think the average paintballer could have taken out this pair; still I was aghast – this was hospital property, and signs forbidding hunting abound. “Can’t these idiots read? Have they no respect?” I asked myself in disgust, picking my way over a chain-link fence into someone’s back yard. I just made it to work on time.

I had my most remarkable experience along these lines last month, when I decided to do a hill workout on an open slope I discovered after considerable effort. To find it, I had to cross an interstate highway on foot and run about three miles along a set of railroad tracks. To this day, I cannot pinpoint this hill’s location on a map within a mile, but when I saw it I knew it was there just so I could punish myself in style. The slope was grassy, but not slick; it was evenly pitched, with a grade of perhaps fifteen percent, and two hundred meters long. Best of all, I was far enough away from everything and everyone so that no one would hear me puke toward the end of the workout. I don’t mind doing speedwork in public, but hill workouts are private things, the dirty laundry of anyone’s training regimen. There is no grace or dignity in them, even on the finest of days.

Reflecting afterwards, I could not recall any signs indicating that this land was off-limits. Then again, its owner could not have expected anyone without antlers or wings to violate it from the railroad-track angle. Parachuting in would have been easier. Still, the fact that I had to breach a barbed-wire fence in order to access my perfect hill should have been a clue that I had again overstepped my bounds.

Anyway, after my third or fourth trek up the incline, with the effort taxing but not yet brutal, I glimpsed a figure standing as still as a statue, fifty yards beyond the summit and right in my path, toward lands unknown. He stood within a copse of trees, where branch-scattered sunbeams woven among shadows played havoc with my vision and made me wonder if I was imagining things. Disturbed but not truly afraid, I jogged back toward the base of the hill for my next dose.

But after the next repeat he was still there, and he had moved closer. Now I could see that he was wearing grease-stained overalls and holding a pitchfork. But this was no Rockwellian figure; he looked downright foreboding, his lack of an expression heralding something more sinister than simple indifference. My gasping breath caught in my throat, and I again made tracks for the bottom of the hill. But I’d be coming back up again. If this guy wanted to watch, fine. But unless he specifically ordered me away, I was determined to finish the workout.

Repeat number six came in went, fire rushing up and down my throat. At the top, I resolved not to look up this time, but was unable to keep this pledge, and I saw that the man had taken up a position on a nearby berm. He had swapped the pitchfork for a banjo, which he strummed – poorly – for a few seconds before smashing it to smithereens against a birch tree, Pete Townshend-like. I shook my head and lurched down the hill. For the first time, I dwelled on the possibility that oxygen starvation might be responsible for my “spectator.”

After the seventh ascent, a grunting, arm-flailing, knock-kneed affair that bore all the elegance of an epileptic donkey, my presumed landowner was wearing a pilgrim’s hat and a sundress, and was smoking a suspicious-smelling substance out of a gigantic hookah. He also held a sign: “CLIMB AT YOUR OWN RISK.” But I couldn’t – just couldn’t – stop at seven hills. Not with eight on the agenda. Just one more.

My final dash up the hill was a horrific struggle that seemed to leave even my fingernails hungering for air. I ignored the Drano sloshing about my leg veins for what seemed an eternity. At the top, beaten but exalted, I collapsed onto my hands and knees on a carpet of pine needles. Rolling over a moment later, I saw the man looming over me. He had shed his ensemble and wore the greasy overalls again. And a scowl. Unable to do more than suck in great gasps of air, I waited for his tirade to begin.

“Son,” he said, waggling a gouty index finger and fixing me with a baleful stare, “you lengthen the recovery interval between repeats like you’ve been doing, you’ll lose the anaerobic benefit. Keep it steady.” With that, he spat out a tooth, turned and ambled away.

That’s when I knew my visitor was a phantasm.

Still, making my way back to civilization, I was shaken enough to make an inner promise: no more misguided runs into areas I didn’t belong. There’s something to be said for familiarity, the old saw about it breeding contempt notwithstanding. Enough was enough.

I couldn’t help but notice an odd looking sign along the railroad tracks, though, one of those funky black-and-yellow jobbies with the little triangles. Passing by it, I read a single word: “BIOHAZARD.”

Surely what lay beyond was not a place where a runner would be welcome.

But as I sit here safely in front of my keyboard, contemplating my next run, another old saw occurs to me: it never hurts to be sure.

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Have a point, even if I don’t (yet)

Friends can disagree, for the most part amiably, about politics. I would never reconsider maintaining a friendship with someone merely because he or she supports or rejects something related to public policy that I may not; many of these issues are strongly nuanced, and I can hardly claim to have encyclopedic — or in some cases even superficial — knowledge of all things being bandied about the public sphere.

I cannot, however, broker meaningful relationships with genuine wingnuts of any stripe. There’s no objective definition of a wingnut, of course, but if you can’t recognize one at a glance, consider corneal transplants. The classic example is people who base their entire world views on immoral mythical beings. These folks are wingnuts because they are not merely demonstrably wrong about a great many things, but are fiercely dogmatic, which is even worse. Often, but not always, the thought processes of wingnuts are damaged in ways that bleed into their everyday behaviors, leading to dealings that they’re as apt to find as miserable or pointless as you do, unless they’re trying to “save” you. Also, people who expressly go looking for their adversaries are going to find them, and will generally make irritating companions. Racism, sexism, true religious persecution, class warfare and other solecisms are very real and deeply troubling problems, but if you spend your days looking and high and low for them and screaming about them without any trace of offering solutions, you are virtually certain to be spreading unhappiness in your wake. I can’t think of a time when my own life was going really well and I was filling my spare time looking for people to get pissed at — which, of course, isn’t the same as turning a blind eye to injustice and strife.

With a black Democratic president in the White House, most of the more vocal and dissatisfied wingnuts these days are conservatives — or so they say. Most of them consider themselves right-leaning, but for the most part they’re apolitical save for their normative outbursts about guns and illegal immigrants and the Nanny State, and in that main they are grimly, almost parodically uneducated.

This blog post is a superb example. The anonymous clown who wrote this is an idiot, but deserves a smidgen of credit for at least having a goal of some sort: He believes that veterans should have improved access to health care. Never mind that his idea of a zero-sum game in this — a wider range of contraceptive options for women *or* medical care for vets — is a fucking shambles; despite his crippling biases, he seems at least vaguely attuned to the idea that realities beyond simply trying to get under others; skin exist.

Which brings me to my point. I don’t have time to discuss it at the moment, and even if I did this post is becoming unwieldy, but it relates to this: At least learn to recognize a “pure anti” when you see one. There are obvious examples among current and past politicians, but you really ought to recognize when it’s time to just quit listening to someone, and that your heroes on television or on the Internet are nothing more than animated avatars for you to jerk off to.

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Boulder’s unique flavor of unruly citizen

We’ve all dealt with assholes, and I mean the metaphorical sort, not the anatomical aperture. Most of us have, intentionally but often unwittingly, been one at various times. Some parts of the world are unquestionably home to a higher proportion of obnoxious, rude, or just plain dismal people than others, with most of these cities being, in my experience, in the northeastern U.S. It’s sort of the Asshole Belt. I love the big city in whose far outskirts I grew up, but I won’t pretend that Boston, or large swaths of it, isn’t a teeming display of drunken, racist louts who in the main would rather see the Red Sox beat the Yankees than save the life of a randomly selected newborn baby.

Yet the sneering, overt assholism of Boston, along with New York, Philadelphia, the entire New Jersey Turnpike, and many proud communities I’ve omitted for want of an attention span, if nothing else leaves no room for mystery. If a guy reeking of Budweiser and a series of poor life decisions tells you to get the fuck out of his way because he’s late for his flight, you may wish ill on him and hope that either he misses his plane or it crashes into the ocean en route to whatever asshole-peppered destination he hopes to reach, but you won’t scratch your head over why he acted as he did. He’s just one more person who unabashedly takes out the stressful comings and goings of his life on total strangers, and in some ways it’s even easy to root for him, the thing about the plane crash notwithstanding. Read the rest of this entry »

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Victor Stenger’s talk in Boulder about intelligent life

In 2007, I read God: The Failed Hypothesis by a retired physicist named Victor Stenger. I’ve a read a number of books by scientists and public intellectuals describing various ways in which the notion of a Christian creator is absurd, increasingly as as new evidence about the world we live in comes to light; this was the first that treated the idea of God as a testable hypothesis and proceeded to use scientific principles to shoot it down.

Stenger, it turns out, now lives in Boulder and is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He gave a talk about the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe yesterday, and after the Q-&-A that followed his 25- or 30-minute talk, I’m not sure the “elsewhere” part is necessary. What I didn’t foresee, to my own chagrin, is that this talk wouldn’t be merely a magnet for people who think more or less like Stenger does about the cosmos, including the role of creator deities therein. 

The median age of the crowd of about 30 people had to be 70 or 75, which I didn’t understand. This made everything a little harder to follow because, through no fault of their own, elderly people can’t help but make a lot of noise, knocking coffee cups over and getting up to piss every three minutes and letting fly with inarticulate exclamatory noises at irregular but frequent intervals. 

The talk went on for about 25 minutes and was interesting, though not earth-shattering — the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Hubble has seen out to 13 billion light years and therefore to almost the so-called event horizon, there’s a big chunk of our universe we cannot see directly, and there’s reasonably firm cosmological evidence that there are a staggering number of infinite multiverses in addition to our own, this evidence taking the form of perturbations is the cosmic microwave background discovered in the 1960s and central to much of our understanding about origins (for example, to those who think the Big Bang was “silent,” evidence in the CMB strongly implies otherwise). So, we know that there are maybe a quadrillion planets that could sustain life as we know it out there somewhere, and that Hubble has recently catalogued over 100 planets just in our own corner of the universe. Not all of these are terrestrial, but astrobiologists now believe that a planet doesn’t necessarily need to be “Earth-like” to support life per se. So the chances that intelligent, or sentient, life *does not* exist somewhere seem vanishingly small based on statistics alone, but we have yet to collect any evidence that it does and perhaps never will thanks to the vast distances between planets. 

Little did I know that most in the audience didn’t give a fuck about any of this. They all came in with agendas. The crowd seemed about evenly split between everyday conspiracy nuts who think that aliens are already here or have come and gone and that they could fuck us up at any time, and those who insisted on asking unrelated questions in the area of pseudophysics and metaphysics. For example, one guy asked that since string theory posits the existence of 11 dimensions and we only inhabit four, isn’t it possible that “heaven” lies in on of the other seven? Stenger tried to tell him that even if string theory turns out to be valid, which it probably won’t, it will then follow that in fact we did inhabit all 11 dimensions and that any such “heaven” is by definition beyond the reach of scientific inquiry because it would be supernatural. This only led the guy to repeat the question with greater insistence. This circus of plaintive bullshit and false premises was a theme of the afternoon. It was maddening. One lady said she’d been to China twice and that scientists there knew that we had aliens here in the U.S., so why wasn’t the government letting us see them? Then there was the fellow who asked, all full of senility and hubris, why we were wasting time and money on projects like SETI when there were so many problems to be addressed right here on Earth. I felt like standing up and yelling, “Then why the fuck are you HERE and not back in the soup kitchen, you insufferable prick?”

My one contribution was responding to someone who asked what the closest planet (or star, actually) was that appeared to be a candidate for supporting life. Stenger didn’t remember the name of the star but recalled that it was about 20 light years away. I said that last I knew it was Fomalhaut, a first-magnitude star in Piscis Austrinis (“The Southern Fish”) that is maybe 24 light-years distant. I don’t know if this is still true but it was true a few years ago. Anyway, after this utterance I got up, took a bow, barked “You’re all fucking loopy!” and left the room amid a smattering of appreciative boos and whistles. Or left wishing I had.

Next time I attend a talk that touches even tangentially on the notion of “extraterrestrials,” I’ll be sure to remind myself going in what I should expect.

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Things I wrote today that were not blog posts

I didn’t time how long it took me to write the following e-mail, but it could not have been more than four minutes. I only wish I could generate words and paragraphs that quickly in my other, for-profit and for-creativity writing endeavors. The only context you need is that I was trading messages with someone who was joining me in a pointless but fun tirade about a subset of the generally self-deluded American populace.

I will also take this opportunity to point out that, as grim as it is to admit, having a Facebook account has largely laid waste to my contributing to this blog. I find it all too easy to fling thoughts that used to be the seeds for blog posts into status updates instead, and I can’t really claim that I regret this because in the end I don’t waste as much time. And while blogging is a dear pastime to me, or has been, that’s all it is. I don’t even read them much anymore, much less contribute to my own.

And most of them are still fat, they’re just staying that way through inadequate workouts and a new form of extra calories instead of pure ass-sitting and traditional empty calories.

This is just classic American bullshitting of each other and ourselves. Remember when we were in college and fat became the devil? All of these fat-free foods hit the market, and it was supposed to mean epidemic weight loss and nirvana for people who embraced these new, magical snacks. Problem is, they still have a lot of calories (many non-fat desserts have even more calories than their fat-rich counterparts — ice cream sometimes does).

So the U.S. continued to bloat, and it was back to the bullshit drawing board, and WOW! Carbs are the problem, that’s it! Shoulda fuckin’ known it all along! So people went the way of your cottage-cheese-slathered co-worker, and they lost some water weight, but their moods blackened and in the end most of them were still big slimy tubs of goo. Whoops! Looks like that one didn’t work out either. NOW what the fuck? We’re out of macronutrients to pick on and target for isolated destruction!

So most of the people on [Web site redacted] seems like dumbasses, and while this is true, unfortunately they’re pretty representative of the American middle class — educated enough to ignore the stink of their own self-righteous shit, but only smart enough to be dangerous instead of visionary. Christ, how much insight does it take to realize that people stayed fit and lean well before all of this paleo and vegan trendiness arose? I even have evidence — photos of thin people from the 70s and 80s! Not photoshopped. And they did NOT do it by trying to fit a 60-minute cardio session into 5 minutes or taking the right combination of nutraceuticals and yoga classes.

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Correlation, Causation, Violent Crime and Guns

Perhaps you’ve come across this argument recently: The UK has a higher violent crime rate than the USA. And you know what else they have? Gun control! The argument hinges on a simple pair of coincident facts and a not-too-keen “connection” between them. Basically, the idea is that the violent crime rate is higher in the UK than in the USA because, in the UK, people don’t have guns to protect themselves. Further, a criminal in the USA doesn’t know whether or not a potential victim is carrying a firearm, and subsequently, is more cautious about attacking. In other words, the argument is you’re safer if there are no laws prohibiting or limiting gun ownership or where said guns may be carried.

Yes, it is true that the UK has gun prohibitions that the USA doesn’t. Does that explain the violent crime rate difference? What other correlations exist between the two countries? Well, the UK does have national health care and the USA doesn’t. Also, they love soccer and rugby instead of American football and baseball. Maybe that’s it. No wait, maybe the correlation is the number of non-white heads of state. (Sound of exploding conservative brains.)

The thing is, far from being an argument against gun control, this factoid is a very strong argument in favor of it. Consider two societies that are similar in many respects: a common language, a shared history, the same economic system, similar political systems, similar distribution and consumption of books, films, video games, etc., yet one country appears to have higher violent crime rates. The interesting rub is that this is not an across-the-board rate. While a rough estimate puts the overall violent crime rate in the UK at twice that of the USA, gun related homicides are roughly 50 times greater in the USA than in the UK. All other factors being equal, one would expect the gun-related homicide rate to echo the overall rate but this is not what we see. Clearly, though, all other factors are not equal. And what’s the most unequal factor? Why, the fact that it is very difficult for individuals in the UK to get their hands on firearms as compared to individuals in the USA. In other words, even if you have a desire to commit a violent crime with a gun, if you can’t get your hands on one, it becomes extremely difficult to pull that off. In other words, it’s an effective deterrent to said crime.

While it is true that some places in the USA have strict gun laws, the USA has never had sweeping country-wide laws regulating gun sales and gun ownership at anything beyond a token level and/or for relatively short spans of time. It is hardly “gun control” if, for example, a city bans handguns outright but with a short 10 minute drive to a neighboring state you can purchase firearms of a vast quantity and variety. This sort of patchwork is not the situation in the UK.

So it seems to me that an (admittedly imperfect) experiment has been performed. We have two similar societies. One has strict gun laws while the other does not. The one with the gun laws has a gun-related homicide rate that is 2% of the country without. This is not rocket science.

 

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Paul Campos and his enablers in the media — a new low

(What follows is a virtual duplication of a comment I posted earlier today to a column in today’s Denver Post. )

Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post has written a badly misguided column, bordering not only on excessive and unabashedly biased cheerleading for someone Carroll once in some sense supervised, but also on irresponsibility from a public-health standpoint.

I’ve written about Paul Campos’ off-kilter “analyses” of fat science many times on this blog. That he has been energetically pursuing his scientifically vacuous crusade for over a decade now does not make him a “debunker.” He is an attorney by training, someone whose job is to argue, not seek truth. The former he does admirably well; in the latter he is a dismal failure.

His latest piece in the New York Times has been thoroughly and expertly fisked by medical professionals (who, the columnist might have noted by now, are conspicuously absent from his various irrational screeds about the “hysteria” surrounding the “exaggerated” claims about obesity). Please see this piece by David Katz, M.D.

The points that Carroll raises in a desultory attempt to lend Campos’ arguments credibility are tired canards by now. Just because the BMI is not a perfect tool at the individual level doesn’t mean that people carrying an excess of body fat aren’t at increased risk for certain health woes (and one of Campos’ favorite tricks is to use obvious outliers like hypermuscular NFL linemen to “prove” that the BMI is meaningless, when anyone with a pulse knows that the overwhelming majority of people with a BMI over 30 are not fit, they’re simply heavy).

Collins also observes that “Campos has never dismissed the danger of being seriously obese.” So how is it that thin folks and really obese ones have a higher health risk as a result of how they are built than people who just happen to represent the majority of people who read the anti-scientific rants that Campos — who also happens to be portly but not fat, or at least this was the case when I was trading barbs with him years ago on a now-defunct running forum — unflaggingly excretes?

But this is perhaps the worst: “When he began addressing the topic, he noted, alarmists were predicting declining longevity in the U.S., which hasn’t occurred.” This is a neon-sign-caliber straw man. No credible health professionals have ever asserted any such thing. Life expectancy has been rising steadily for decades. Does that mean that the health risks of HIV, cancer and playing with live hand grenades are overstated as well?

Finally, life expectancy per se is hardly a stand-alone measure of a society’s health. Consider this:

“[N]ew research from Eileen Crimmins, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Hiram Beltr??n-S??nchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, shows that average ‘morbidity,’ or, the period of life spend with serious disease or loss of functional mobility, has actually increased in the last few decades.”

Thus the fact that we can ably keep people with diabetes, CAD, severe hypertension and other chronic diseases alive without relieving much of their debility does not spell a lack of a negative impact of obesity on America’s health profile.

I should add in conclusion that arguments concerning how overweight people are portrayed in the media, personally maligned both consciously and subconsciously, etc. are completely independent of medical facts and should not be conflated with same, tempting as it may be. I abhor the idea of mocking anyone who might already feel intense shame simply because of how they look and always have, as I am very far from perfect in myriad ways myself.

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Milking disinformation for all it’s worth

The other day, I got an unsolicited e-mail that read, in part:

Our site’s production team recently released a short video uncovering the local and global impact that milk has on our lives.
After spending some time on your posts, I noticed you talked about milk and dairy products so I thought I’d email you.
Let me know if you’re interested in checking out the video.

The site in question is InsuranceQuotes.org, which didn’t strike me as the sort of advocacy outfit inclined to agitate against milk consumption (and the above text in the e-mail alone informed me of this group’s stance on milk without me having to even load the video). Even more strangely, the only post I believe I’ve ever made to this blog about milk appeared here last July and was plainly something no anti-milk type would want to use as ammunition for her cause.

So, I reckoned I had been fed a promising opportunity to rip something apart by an unsuspecting pseudo-spammer who clearly doesn’t take the time to read the output of bloggers she assumes from keywords alone might be her allies. So I watched the video, just over a minute long and embedded below. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Dumbest Man in Congress?

Congressman Louie Gohmert on the Sandy Hook shootings:

Is he actually suggesting that the wild west is a great model for a modern, civilized society? This man is about as smart as a box of rocks.

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An archetypal example of spectacularly shitty “research” and even worse reporting

I recently hinted at the fact that surveys are not scientific studies, and should not be treated as sources of useful data when it comes to certain areas of research. I now have a “study” that exemplifies this perfectly.

It’s one thing to ask people yes-or-no questions that are hard to fuck up without conscious effort, e.g., “Who do you plan to vote for for president next week?” It’s a far sketchier matter to rely on self-reporting and self-recall when it comes to something not nearly so black-and-white, such as food consumption.

Therefore, “research” findings that the author of this article suggests are surprising are not startling in the least, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bitter know-nothings are fulfilling their obligation…

…to try to make the entire GOP look like a bunch of howling, ignorant screwballs.

In the course of looking for a detailed county-by-county election-results map, I happened across a blog called “Give Us Liberty 1776,” which is apparently a reference to the year in which a present-day country the blog creators know little about declared its independence from the British Empire.

The first post that caught my eye was titled “Obama did not win a single state that requires photo IDs to vote.” I didn’t have to read a single word of the post itself to formulate a response, but I did, and the level of dishonesty and ignorance in this surreal waste of time and effort is extreme even by the standards of a Wingnut Daily contributor.

I left a comment that most likely will not be approved by the mods. Here it is: Read the rest of this entry »

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Two reasons the general public doesn’t abhor lying

I bring this up because I’m greedy. I’m not intellectually satisfied by Romney’s narrowly losing the election. 48 percent of Americans who voted this cycle chose Romney, and given what a moral-ethical cripple he proved himself to be — not only during his wreck of a campaign but well before it even started — I find this appalling. One may plausibly argue that President Obama didn’t do a bang-up job, even allowing for the unusual level of adversity and contempt he faced when he took office in 2009, but no one can sensibly argue that he is in the same solar system as the Romney-Ryan thermonuclear bullshit plant.

I understand and accept that a lot of people will simply pull the lever for the candidate representing their political party of choice without looking any deeper, but even allowing for such a crass and superficial approach to civic proceedings, it is undeniable that anyone who voted for Mitt Romney, especially given his ramshackle choice of a running mate, simply does not care how freely and unabashedly Romney prevaricates. That, or they don’t notice or don’t believe it, which from the standpoint of fitness for voting is just as bad.

Most parents, even those who exhibit a variety of non-nurturing behaviors (excessive drinking or drugging, physical or other abuse, neglect), instill the idea in their kids that lying is wrong. Even parents who consciously tell lies don’t typically want their kids to lie, at least not to them and presumably in general. So Americans can be said to value honesty at some level. Even fundamentalist Christians who spout arrant bullshit about the afterlife and the universe in general aren’t lying; they’re merely wrong.

So why do we put up with it from our own leaders and potential leaders? Do we simply overlook it, or is there some kind of compromise at work? I see two basic reasons: Read the rest of this entry »

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I would have laughed in your face…

…had you told me these things about the present day 20 years ago:

* a black guy who smokes cigarettes will win the presidency — twice — while running against a wealthy, handsome white guy the second time.
* gay people will be legally allowed to get married in numerous states, with the support of a growing majority of Americans.
* something called the Internet will reveal that a horrifying fraction of Americans are functionally illiterate racist misogynist swine. (Well, this one might not have shocked me.)

That is all.

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A Short Story Revisited

Once there was an old man in the twilight of his life. One night he had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful sand beach stretching along the shore of a great ocean. And on that beach was a set of footprints heading off into the distance. In a moment of insight the old man realized that the footprints represented his own journey through life. And so he followed the path they made, re-examining his experiences across the years.

At times the footprints were steady and true. At other times they appeared erratic and deeply embedded in the sand as if a heavy load had been carried. These in particular were the times of great duress during the old man’s life. But light or heavy, always the footprints were alone. And the old man wondered how this could be. After all, he always thought that he had “walked with the lord”. Why weren’t the lord’s footprints alongside his own? So the old man cried out “Lord! Did we not walk together? And why were you not with me when the times were most difficult?”

And the old man listened for an answer but heard nothing. He cried out again but still nothing. No matter how intently he strained to hear, nothing came. And it was then that the old man realized that there was no lord. Rather, it was the old man who had been carrying the burden of an ancient, now useless concept which had made the journey so difficult. It was a concept which had been placed on his shoulders as a child and reinforced by well meaning family and friends as the years went by.

And so the old man straightened himself, cast off his burden, and looking out across the vast ocean, felt at long last a true sense of freedom and relief. He smiled to himself knowing that, truly, tomorrow would be a new day.

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And literacy in New Hampshire is supposed to be quite high

This is the greeting on the Strafford County home page:

Dear Web Reader,
It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to the new Strafford County Website.
If you have any questions reguarding our Site or what is not recorded,
feel free to send us an email to:
SCmailbox@co.strafford.nh.us. We look forward to “seeing” on the Web!

Very Truly yours,

Strafford County Commisioners

It’s not clear what it is these county employees hope to see (or “see”) online, but here’s hoping that they lay their eyes on a grammar and spelling tutorial.

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Bad science blogging: egg-on-your-face edition

“Eggs are Nearly as Bad for Your Arteries as Cigarettes!”

I guess the exclamation point in the title of this post on a militant (hate to recycle that word from the “militant atheists” idiots, but it sometimes fits) vegan blog is supposed to add veracity, or intrigue, or something.  But a survey of several of my friends proves that this is bullshit, and that exclamation points intended to lend support to an idea instead imply that the idea is flimsy at best, laughable at worst. And a survey is as good as a formal study, at least in some people’s view.

Yes, egg yolks contain a lot of cholesterol, and cholesterol has indeed been associated with atherosclerosis and attendant health problems and risks. Smoking’s effects on the cardiovascular system are well established. Good. But the finer points of the “One Green Planet” post are off the mark and signal bias, laziness or both.

Here’s the breakdown. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Pro-life” Arkansas Congress candidate thinks death penalty for “rebellious” children is appropriate

As they say, you cannot make this shit up.

Charlie Fuqua, who has previously served in the Arkansas House of Representatives and wants all Muslims unconditionally deported and also advocates the sterilization of people who have been shown, by some standard, to be unsupportive parents, is now on record of advocating the death penalty for disobedient children.

One would find this a curious stance coming from someone who lists among his top ten agenda issues as “protect the sanctity of life,” but all bets are off with these mindless assholes. In some sub-worlds it makes perfect sense to be a rabid anti-abortionist while seriously advancing the idea that society might be better off if kids who merely sass their parents too much be hanged, shot or given lethal injections.

Every time I intend to mitigate my opinions about certain U.S. states, something like this rolls around and seems to legitimize every harsh prejudice I am apt to cling to.

 

 

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