Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Socially Acceptable Child Abuse Alert

In the wake of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder case and the success of the pageant-themed black comedy Little Miss Sunshine, the view that childhood beauty pageants are profoundly creepy exercises that prematurely sexualize young girls and are likely to be harmful to the process of healthy psychological development has become widespread - and rightfully so. In my opinion, anyone who enters their daughter in such a pageant is committing child abuse. Why, though, is a five year old weightlifter any more acceptable? The linked article takes the "wacky human interest story" angle on the boy, with no more than a nod at the elephant in the room (the line about how weightlifting "may be unhealthy" for a five year old).

I'm not a pediatrician, but even I know there's no "may be" about it - lifting heavy weights is not a healthy activity for a young child to engage in. It's bad enough for an adult - whose bones are fully grown, whose joints have hardened, and whose soft tissues have reached their adult strength. For a child whose body is still growing, it runs an intolerably high risk of serious injury, and if it's continued, is extremely likely to cause serious health problems later in life. And that's without even getting into the psychological effects being involved in such a ruthlessly competitive activity at an early age may have. Is this kid taking his Juicy Juice laced with HGH? Will his next round of shots include a cycle of anabolic steroids in addition to polio and tetanus vaccinations? Seriously.

I don't object to this being a news story, but it should be reported as what it is - a case of irresponsible parenting bordering on abuse - not a cutesy "kids get involved in the darnedest things" throwaway piece.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The High Cost Of Glory

Findings like the ones detailed in this Malcolm Gladwell article, which have become ever more frequent in recent years, make me glad I quit playing football in high school. While I never suffered a serious injury, I did get my bell rung a few times, and that was playing against players who were mostly smaller than I was and not particularly fast. I shudder to think about how I might have damaged myself if I'd stuck with football through college, as my coaches wanted me to, and spent four years banging heads against larger, faster players.

I have a feeling that football is headed for trouble in the future. Modern training methods have produced players that are far larger and faster than those who played in the old days, and it's probable that a full-speed collision between Ray Lewis and Brandon Jacobs produces more concussive force than one between, say, Jim Brown and Dick Butkus would have. The improvements in protective equipment that have been made in the interim have thus been at least partially erased. Sports medicine and concussion awareness have both increased dramatically in recent years, but that hasn't reduced the number of players who suffer head injuries each year, and I don't doubt that thirty years from now we'll be reading stories about the sad fates suffered by some contemporary players. The fact is, no matter how much lip service is paid to the issue of brain injuries in football, they will persist unless serious structural and/or rule changes are implemented. And with more people than ever playing the game nowadays, their number is likely to increase.

There are two primary mechanisms for this, one psychological and one economic, and the higher the level of competition, the more powerful they become. The sport's built-in warrior ethos, which the article explores at length, is certainly a factor - it's a punishing game and any player without a high pain tolerance won't last long in it, even at the high school level. It's also a game in which success demands rigid discipline and teamwork. Toughness and and a military-like sense of devotion to the team are among the most prized attributes a player can have in the culture of football, and every player feels pressure to fight through physical setbacks so as not to wimp out or let down his teammates. Combine this with the delusions of immortality common in young men, and the fact that the sort of brain injuries cited in the article may not be noticed when they are incurred because of the delayed or subconscious nature of the symptoms, and it's unlikely we'll convince players to start taking themselves out of the lineup just for taking a hard shot. In the NFL, where careers are short, contracts are non-guaranteed, and getting labeled as "soft" or "injury prone" is pretty much a death knell for a player's prospects of striking it rich, it'll be pretty much impossible. The sad but true reality is that most athletes who are driven enough to make it to the professional level will risk their long-term well-being for the sake of a ten million dollar signing bonus and a brief few years in the spotlight, and with a few exceptions are happy to do so.

So, assuming banning football is off the table (which as a multi-billion dollar business it is for the forseeable future), what options are there? Certainly we ought to continue to promote awareness. Guidelines dictating medical care that puts the well-being of players first and enforces strict standards for allowing recovering players to return to action, of the sort the NHL has implemented in recent years, are a good idea at all levels of football. Recent rule changes prohibiting even inadvertent blows to the head of an opposing player are also an improvement. And making it mandatory for players to wear the most effective headgear possible should have happened yesterday. But I have a feeling even these steps may not be enough - we may need to think more radically, imposing weight limits or limiting substitutions to reduce the amount of high-speed mass on the field. One thing we should not be doing, as the NFL is considering, is increasing the number of games in a season.

Football is probably, all things considered, my favorite sport, and I'd hate to lose it. But the enjoyment I derive from it is tainted by the thought that despite the compensation the players receive it remains a bloodsport as it is played right now. I have no doubt the Romans found the spectacle of armed slaves fighting each other to the death fantastically entertaining, but they ultimately concluded that the practice was immoral and discontinued it. I hope that we will not have to do the same with football.

Monday, October 19, 2009

It's Super-Freaky

Super Freakonomics, the sequel to the 2005 best-seller Freakonomics, is getting quite a drubbing in the press and the blogosphere for its shoddy statistical analysis, and it would appear rightfully so (as Matthew Yglesias points out, it's really not that difficult to fact check something as simple as the color of a typical solar panel). As someone who found Freakonomics provocative in spots, but prone to the same sort of logically dubious contrarianism being pointed out in these posts, I'm wondering what took so long. Many of the conclusions Leavitt and Dubner put forth in their first book were, at best, debatable, and I was surprised reviewers and pundits didn't pick them apart more vigorously back then. Better late than never, I suppose - one of the biggest dangers of mistaking science for a body of established facts rather than an ongoing process of inquiry, something to which our culture seems increasingly prone, is the possibility of elevating poorly reasoned and weakly supported supposition to the status of gospel truth just because it's uttered by a respected public figure with a high profile and lots of advanced degrees. This is particularly true of disciplines which have acquired all the authoritative sheen of science without any of the pesky falsifiability, such as economics, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology. Intense intellectual scrutiny ought to be de rigeur for any book making conclusions as sweeping as those presented in Freakonomics, and while I'm skeptical such a standard will ever be met (I doubt very much that the slipshod logic here would have drawn such attention were it employed in making the conventional case in favor of the climate change hypothesis, for instance), it's an ideal worth shooting for.

Along a similar line, this is a reminder that reflexive contrarianism can be just as dangerous to clear thinking as going along with the crowd - on any given issue, the conventional wisdom is the conventional wisdom for a reason, and at least some of the time that reason is a good one. If we are really dedicated to seeking the truth, we ought to be as skeptical of our own intuitions as we are of those of other people.

On a lighter note, the whole thing reminds me of the old joke about economics:
A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are shipwrecked on a desert
island. Starving, they find a case of canned pork and beans on the beach, but
they have no can opener. So, they hold a symposium on how to open the cans. The
physicist goes first:
"I've devised a physical solution. We find a pointed
rock and propel it at the lid of the can at, say, 25 meters per second
The chemist breaks in:
"No, I have a chemical solution: we heat the
molecules of the contents to over 100 degrees Centigrade until the pressure
builds to --"
The economist, condescension dripping from his voice,
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have a much more elegant solution.
Assume we have a can opener..."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pointless Link Of The Day

Cool retro-style movie posters. I particularly like the 1930's-esque "Spider-Man", the Cubist-style "Dark Knight", and the "Wizard of Oz" a la Stalinist-era Soviet propaganda.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Question Of The Day

Should blackmail of the sort attempted against David Letterman be illegal? My initial instinct is to say "yes", but this article in the New Yorker did make me think.

Oh, Democracy...

Memo to everyone involved in the healthcare reform debate: it's rather hard to take anything from polls that show that "a majority of Americans favor a public option" when it appears that barely 50% have even a vague idea what a public option is.

Perhaps we ought to focus on educating the public about its government first?

To Be Fair, "Irony" Is An Awfully Big Word For A Guy Like That

Andrew Sullivan notes that one of the perpetrators in an assault on a gay man in Queens who has the "thou shall not lie with a male" quotation from the Book of Leviticus tattooed on his arm apparently couldn't be bothered to read the next chapter of it:

“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks
upon you; I am the LORD”

You can't make this shit up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The New York Sports Media Strikes Again

In anticipation of the MLB League Championship Series, New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden offers up this truly inane column opining that baseball needs a Yankees-Dodgers World Series matchup to take the game back to its roots and "recover a portion of the trust" that it has lost in the wake of the P.E.D. scandals of the past several years. Say what?!?!? Even for a member of the notoriously egocentric New York media, this statement boggles the mind. How, pray tell, would a matchup between teams starring Alex "A-Roid" Rodriguez and Manny "I was just trying to get pregnant" Rodriguez, two of the biggest fish yet netted in the steroids crackdown, restore trust in the integrity of the game? If anything, a series featuring two superstars who were just busted for using THIS YEAR would remind viewers of MLB's disgraceful recent history of ignoring and/or tacitly enabling steroid abuse. I'm not naive enough to believe that no player on either the Phillies or the Angels has ever used steroids, but as far as I know neither team has a player who's publicly known to have been busted, which is not the case with the Yankees or Dodgers.

Furthermore, Rhoden ought to realize that outside of New Yorkers of the Baby Boom generation or older, nobody gives a New York subway rat's you-know-what about having a World Series that hearkens back to the so-called golden era of the game, when subway matchups between New York teams were a regular event. The 2000 World Series, the one featuring the Mets and the Yankees, was one of the lowest rated on record, which certainly suggests that sports fans outside of New York don't care about New York teams nearly as much as New Yorkers seem to think they do. If the matchup ends up being Yankees vs. Dodgers, it will likely get better ratings than a Phillies-Angels series would, but only because 1.)it would involve the nation's two largest media markets, and 2.)lots of people outside New York (including me) despise the Yankees and will tune in to root against them. History will have nothing to do with it.

As a Philadelphian, of course I'd like to see the Phillies against either A.L. team over Yankees-Dodgers, but even failing that I think I'd rather watch a "Three-Hours-In-Hellish-Freeway-Traffic" Series between the Dodgers and Angels than have to suffer through the orgy of self-indulgent New York baseball nostalgia a Yankees-Dodgers tilt would engender. As for restoring my trust in the sanctity of the sport? I fear that horse has left the barn, but if it is possible, it'll take a lot more than a historically resonant World Series matchup to do it. Like, say, publicly identifying every player who has been caught using performance enhancing drugs since testing was instituted, and banning players who test positive from making All-Star teams, winning postseason awards, being eligible for the Hall of Fame, or otherwise being recognized. I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I am rooting passionately against both the Yankees and the Dodgers, and, thus, I guess, against the best interests of the game, as well as purity, mom, and apple pie. Oh, well. Go Phillies!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Orwell Was Right...

...War Is Peace.

With impeccable timing and an exquisite sense of irony, the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner has approved a modest increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. I'm not sure what would constitute a prudent policy in regards to that country - the place is a mess and if there is such a thing as a prudent policy, it's quite likely it would be impossible to pick it out from what look like at present a very bad set of options without the benefit of a functional crystal ball. But there's no doubt that escalating the American military presence in the country is going to result in a longer war and more people, Afghan and American, getting killed. If these are the actions of the man who's done the most for the cause of world peace in the last year, the cause of world peace is in serious trouble.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Am I Missing Something?

Not to be the turd in the punchbowl or anything, but what, exactly, has Barack Obama done to merit a Nobel Peace Prize, other than be beloved of the international demographic of cosmopolitan liberals that decides the award? The Prizes awarded to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore may have been (alright - were) dubious, but at least those two were devoting a good deal of their time to something that could be construed as conducive to world peace. Obama has not done so. He has not figured out how to pacify intransigent regimes in Iran or North Korea, nor made any headway in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to stop blowing each other up, nor resolved the Mexican standoffs over Kashmir, Taiwan, etc., nor really accomplished much of anything on the peace front. That's not to fault him - these problems have persisted for decades or centuries despite the best efforts of lots of smart, dedicated people for the reason that they're incredibly difficult to solve - but I hardly see how one even begins to justify giving him a Nobel Peace Prize. The award is especially hard to fathom when one considers that with few substantive differences from George W. Bush, Obama has continued to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in some cases more aggressively than his predecessor did. Bush was pilloried as a war criminal and the biggest threat to peace since Hitler by the very same liberal European elites who have now deemed Obama the person who has done the most for the cause of peace this year. What gives?

It all makes sense as soon as one acknowledges that in the court of international opinion the criminality of an action is determined not by whether it actually violates law or morality but by whether the party responsible has the right political allegiances. See also Polanski, Roman. I love the smell of rank liberal hypocrisy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ridin' the storm out

Sendai (along with the rest of Japan) is currently undergoing a severe battering from a typhoon, by some accounts the strongest in more than a decade. The storm did not result in the cancellation of classes at my school (in fact very few students were absent), but it did crumple the cheap plastic umbrella I took out into it this morning like a piece of plastic wrap, as well as shut down the trains for the day after I'd arrived at school (it's home by bus today). Looks like I won't be doing anything outdoors tonight or tomorrow - maybe I'll finally get around to uploading the rest of my photos from Indonesia.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wanker Alert!

British writer Sebastian Horsley has over the course of his adult life slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of more than 115,000 pounds, a personal history he reflects upon in this rather annoying blog post. There are very few forms of writing I find quite so grating as an overwritten personal essay, and this one (like so many essays on the topic of sex) is overwritten in every sense of the word, with dubious ideas expressed in bloated, inapt metaphors conveyed in prose so purple you could dye a violet with it. Case in point:
In English brothels you shuffle into a seedy room so dim you can only meet
the girl by Braille. But in New York last year I sat on a four-poster bed while
10 girls paraded in front of me one by one, like bowls of sushi on a carousel.
“Hi,” they would say, “I’m Tiffany”, “I’m Harmony”, “I’m Michelle”, and I would
rise and kiss them. It was so touching, so sweet, so kind. There should always,
no matter what, be politeness. It is the way the outside world should work,
selfishly but honestly.
Everything about this paragraph irritates me, to the point where I don't know where to begin in criticizing it. While I suspect that Horsley chose to compare the women he was scrutinizing with sliced-and-diced raw fish precisely because of the de-humanizing ick factor, self-lacerating irony doesn't make him sound any less like a serial killer. And while I agree with his conclusion that prostitution is a selfish-but-honest act, to assert that this is how every interpersonal relationship ought to work is absurd. It says more about Horsley's personal limitations and hangups than it does about society, intimacy, or any other topic that might be worth the reader's time.

This latter problem plagues the entire essay. A good personal essay explores through the window of firsthand experience a situation into which any reader can project sympathies. A bad personal essay is an exercise in smug navel-gazing, and despite Horsley's self-denunciation as a "sleazy bastard", that is precisely what his tract is. It is rather irritating when self-satisfied "family values" types lecture society on the topic of sexual mores, but no less so when a man who's never quite managed to discover the connection between sex and love that exists for most well-adjusted adults asserts that the rest of society is full of shit because it goes on acting as if such a connection is real and doesn't engage in the same disreputable activities he does in order to reject it. Unlike Horsley, I haven't found women with whom I've been involved interchangeable, nor does the prospect of actually communicating with a sexual partner fill me with horror, and observation tells me that this is the case for most people - very few people, after all, eschew pursuing real relationships, with all their talking and companionship and flowers and other aspects which Horsley finds so distasteful, so that they can instead cultivate a taste for hookers. While quite a few people seem to have trouble remaining faithful to their partners, it's never been an issue for me, and though sex for its own sake has its appeal, I find it ultimately a rather empty and transitory pleasure and not one I've ever been motivated to pursue at the expense of all others. The experiences of people like Horsley are obviously different, but the fact that he personally finds monogamy difficult, emotional bonding impossible, and casual sex something worth spending thousands of dollars in pursuit of does not mean that everybody does. And yet from one narcissist's quite obviously anomalous experiences, grandiose conclusions about the state of society and the nature of humankind emerge.

Even more troubling is Horsley's dismissal of the idea that prostitution might just be exploitative with a glib "I don't believe this", and his accompanying wish that it remain illegal so that he can continue to enjoy the thrill of being a bad boy. Obviously he's never taken a break from screwing to talk to the women he's paid to be with, or he might have been given cause to wonder to himself why so disproportionately many come from backgrounds of abuse and dire poverty. And for a self-proclaimed connoisseur, he seems awfully ignorant of the means by which his favorite product is produced and brought to market, with not a single word acknowledging the fact that prostitution is one of the main drivers in the persistence of human slavery, nor even a nod to the abuse, violence, and psychological ruin that social science suggests inevitably come with it. It is every bit the "squalid power game" he claims it isn't - he's just paid to avoid having to see the squalor or struggle to exercise the power.

It's fine and well to question social norms, and I happen to think there's a credible argument to be made that paying a prostitute to get no-strings-attached sex is less immoral than deceiving a woman in a dating situation to get it. "Less immoral" is not equivalent to "more moral", however - in my view the dishonest seducer and the john are both cads worthy of contempt, with the question at issue being who deserves more. There is a good reason that prostitution elicits disgust from a good portion of the population in even the most tolerant of places. Horsley might have enough self-awareness to understand why his behavior marks him as a dirtbag, but he obviously hasn't given much thought as to why it that the vast majority of society frowns upon it. Writing about prostitution as if it were nothing more than a payment scheme to get him out of the responsibilities that come with intimate relationships or a parlor game that allows him to play the role of an authority-flouting social rebel betrays both deep ignorance of the subject, and an inexcusable indifference to its moral implications. Horsley imagines himself a no-B.S. truth-teller, but what he actually is is a sad and deluded manchild with a pathetic addiction of which he is nonetheless proud. Why did he sleep with 1,300 prostitutes? I don't care nearly as much as he seems to expect that I should.

Friday, October 2, 2009

David Letterman's Very Hot Seat

On the one hand, David Letterman's admission that he's had sex with female employees of his show, a confession forced by the alleged blackmail attempt of a CBS news employee who'd obtained proof of the affairs, is hardly surprising - as we're all well aware by now, lots of powerful people have zipper problems, and while it's certainly not the case that all celebrities cheat on their spouses, you don't have to be a hardened cynic to believe that there are lots of rich and famous people who observe their marital vows somewhat less than scrupulously. That said, it is surprising when certain classes of celebrity whose power and standing depends on their reputation get themselves embroiled in such affairs, and late night talk show hosts, like politicians, are one of these classes. David Letterman has made a living ridiculing powerful people, often for their sexual improprieties (see his tiff with the Palin family from earlier this year), so when he gets caught with his pants down it has a particular whiff of - well, hypocrisy's not quite the right word, but - irony. As is often acknowledged and I've said before, America is certainly a forgiving culture, particularly when it comes to the foibles of celebrities, but I have a hard time seeing how Letterman's career rebounds from this. The next time a John Edwards or a Mark Sanford gets caught sticking his penis where it doesn't belong, Letterman is put into a huge bind. There's no way he can joke about it without reminding everyone watching of his own misdeeds, and that sort of elephant in the room kills comedy. But if he doesn't touch it in favor of sticking to safe subjects, his humor loses its bite and topical relevance. He's really placed himself in a pickle.

In addition, he's now wide open to counterattacks from his targets, as well as sniping from his rivals (no doubt Sarah Palin is smiling a frightening smile of satisfaction on her plasticine face at this very moment, and I'd be surprised if Jay Leno isn't already writing jokes at Letterman's expense right now). I feel bad for Letterman's wife and five-year-old son - nothing makes a tawdry family affair more fun like having millions of people find out about it just after you yourself do. For Letterman himself? Not so much. I've intermittently enjoyed his humor over the years (though I'm far from as big a fan as some people), but it often had a mean-spirited edge that made it uncomfortable, and if that rebounds upon him now, he has nobody to blame but himself.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Not So Fast

So Nike says they haven't signed an endorsement deal with Michael Vick after all, only that they're providing him with free equipment. This leads me to wonder - was the initial report in error, or did someone at Nike re-think the public relations implications of hiring a convicted dog-killer to endorse their merchandise?