A Big Deal

First, a few quick status updates, if only because my blog as a whole tends to be lacking in that regard.

I’ve been going to the gym for just about 2.5 years now.  I feel better for it, and those of you that actually see me in person have noticed the difference that losing roughly 60 lbs makes.  I intend to lose more, and the big deal that follows will likely help.

A little over a year ago I aborted my attempt to become a math teacher.  My main motivation for becoming one was to increase, if only slightly, critical thinking in our society.  But I ran into multiple examples in my first week of classes of how critical thinking needs to be discouraged in the teacher just to cope with the pressures (of teaching and of taking classes to become a teacher).  I realized that my own capacity for critical thought would be severely damaged if I continued.  Fortunately, Lesley University graciously refunded my tuition and fees.

As to what else I will do with myself after that aborted effort, after several months languishing aimlessly I’ve started an effort to develop my programming skills sufficiently that I might return to work that way, but who knows how that will go at this early stage.

Now for the big deal.

For some time now, my bike has been sitting quietly in a corner next to my computer desk, gathering dust.  The corner was getting more and more blocked by other items, making the bike look more and more abandoned – until a couple of weeks ago when I removed it from the corner as part of an effort to rearrange my desk.  With the bike more accessible, and the weather warming (far too slowly), I decided that today I would take it out for a spin.

So I spent a couple of hours this morning working on the bike, first finding all the bike maintenance kit I’d not used in a long time and, second, actually working on the bike.  It needed the seat replaced (I had a spare sitting around for some reason), the dust wiped off, and the front derailleur adjusted, but then it felt ridable.  And so I took it out for a spin!

I can’t recall when last I rode the bike – it’s likely the first time this decade.  It felt good to feel the wind, and comforting that I still could intuitively pop my foot into the pedal strap without looking.  The replacement seat needed adjusting before it felt close to right and it still feels more solid than I expect.  Also the pedal straps likely will need to be replaced because they catch too easily on my current sneakers.  And while I adjusted the derailleur to get it usable, it still seems slightly out of alignment in a way that I didn’t figure out how to fix.

But overall, the bike works and I used it and I feel good for doing so.  YAY!

Posted in Health, Personal | Tagged | 1 Comment

Self generated musing…

The path to wisdom is an endurance race against the sprinters of pride and arrogance, and when you cross the finish line, you lose.

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Scott Brown: Hypocrite, Old Boy, and Proud to be Both

In Massachusetts, our Senate race is between Scott Brown, the incumbent, and Elizabeth Warren, and is too close to call.

Scott Brown’s campaign slogan is “Vote the man, not the party.”

It marks him as a hypocrite because if he truly believed that sentiment, he’d run as an Independent, but he isn’t.  To emphasize this point, his campaign ads almost exclusively talk about his bipartisan record, in clear further attempts to divorce himself from his party in the eyes of the voters.

It also clearly demonstrates gender discrimination.  If he were at all sensitive to the issue, it would say “person” instead of “man”.  Yet he chose to emphasize he’s male instead of go for an alliterative, and thus more catchy, slogan.

He has this slogan on his campaign bus.  It’s about as prominent as a slogan can be.

Would it surprise you to learn that Brown is a Republican?

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Armstrong and doping in cycling

Last week, USADA published their “Reasoned Decision” regarding the Armstrong doping case.  I’ll admit, before reading what little of it I have, my opinion was basically, “Well, if he did, he got away with it.”  Well, it’s more nuanced than that now.

Let me first explain my understanding of the oversight involved – any differences from reality are my own fault.  First off, unless a drug is specifically illegal in the country(s) containing a race, the only prohibitions against using it are the regulations imposed by the race organizers.  To keep things sane for all involved, races affiliate themselves with one or more organizations and adhere to the guidelines from those organizations.  Also, the riders agree to binding terms, likely equivalent to a contract, outlining testing protocols and when race results can be overturned due to various offenses.  Other than that high level summary, I make no pretense of understanding the rules riders must adhere to when racing.

Suffice it to say that while various and numerous medical enhancements are strongly discouraged, the sanctions that can be imposed according to the various rules seem to have some amount of discretion.

For example, Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour de France in 1996, admitted in 2007 to using banned substances for that win – his victory has since been confirmed, but with an ‘*’ due to his offenses.  Yet, Floyd Landis placed first in the 2006 Tour de France, but had his victory stripped due to a positive drug test result.

However, the difference could simply be that in Landis’ case, he failed a drug test made at the time, while in Riis’ case, he did not fail one at the time and admitted his guilt later.  My understanding is that this could be a crucial difference due to the riders’ contracts, but I don’t know for certain.  It could also be due to the time that passed, equivalent to a statute of limitations.

So, with that background, what do I make of USADA’s report?

In short, it’s very damning.

I only read the statement regarding the report and then 5 of the riders’ affidavits (which can be found on the “Appendices and Supporting Materials” tab).  The riders’ affidavits I chose to read were four riders that I felt had good integrity in cycling and Landis’.  To my mild surprise, all of them admitted to doping while on Armstrong’s team (tho’ perhaps it would be more fair to call it Bruyneel’s team).

The affidavits of Zabriskie and Leipheimer are rather mundane, tho’ in Zabriskie’s case, it’s hard to be sure with so many pages failing to scan.  Tommy D’s affidavit drives home just how strong the pressure was from the team for him to accept enhancement.  In his case, he says he rode pure before joining Armstrong’s team, stopped accepting the help while still on the team due to health concerns with the whole process, and left the team as a result.

I read Landis’ affidavit to see what he said about his failed drug test in the 2006 TdF.  I thought if he explained how he enhanced for that, perhaps I might view the rest of his affidavit with equal integrity. But he essentially said nothing of interest about the 2006 result.

Hincapie’s affidavit is, I think, most important because it describes the initial pressure he and Armstrong felt to start enhancing due to their perceptions of how many competitors were already enhancing and the differences they observed as a result.  Also, all of the affidavits make it fairly clear how widespread efforts were among many, but apparently not all, teams to enhance their riders’ athletic performances.

The USADA report makes clear in my mind, Armstrong doped.  Likely too, so did many of his best competitors.  USADA wants to overturn Armstrong’s victories, but it’s not their call.  It’s the UCI’s.  And it’s possible the UCI could be restricted from doing anything about it, other than a notation akin to the one for Bjarne Riis.

But suppose for a moment that the UCI can strip Armstrong of his titles.  My question is this: is it fair to do so?  As a friend said about this earlier today, paraphrased, if all of his main competitors enhanced similarly, or at least had equal opportunity to do so, however unsavory that is, who’s to say the result isn’t fair?  I can’t think of any reason to dispute that point of view.

My take on it is that if you want to be strict and fair, then before Armstrong is stripped of any titles, it’s necessary to examine just as thoroughly every rider who placed after him to find one who didn’t enhance.  Then award that race’s win to that rider.  That’s likely to be a massive undertaking, since I recall reading somewhere, quite possibly apocryphal in nature, that the best placed rider in the 2005 TdF with no doping allegations historically against him finished, as best I recall, 23rd.

Here’s another question: do I really care if Armstrong doped?  A little, more-so because he won’t admit to it than that he did it because that speaks to his overall integrity.  But not at all with respect to my enjoyment of the sport itself, because what makes each race fun to watch is the complex interplay between personal ability, team tactics, physical constraints and emotional desire.  In that light, doping definitely skews the results, but matters not one whit to the thrill of wondering if a breakaway will succeed, or watching a daredevil 70mph descent down mountain roads, or the pain and heartbreak from an accident or bonking (or see here).

Update (10/26): The UCI’s decisions regarding Armstrong and Le Tour’s results.  I think they’re remarkably fair, well-reasoned and appropriate.

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The First Invention?

I’ve been musing about this the last week or so.  I think the most important invention of humans is this: creation, of durable things, for the benefit of others – in other words, making.

Think about it a little.  We humans are not the only species that uses tools, and it’s not just some other species of apes, there are some species of birds (crows come to mind) and I’m sure a few others as well.  But as best I understand current investigation, no other species has ever created a tool for future use as opposed to finding something close enough to the needs of the moment and then perhaps modifying it for the moment.

The closest I think other species comes to making are the construction of birds’ nests, or sleeping nests some apes use in the trees, or spider webs, or maybe prairie dog tunnel systems.  But they don’t have the same feel of creation and invention that I’m picturing. 

And it need not be specific to tools.  Cave paintings count as creation too, creation of something that endures past its initial moment of use for the benefit of, or at least observation by, others.

Somewhere along the way in our long history, someone made a figure in the sand to illustrate something, or put together some sticks and foliage to help carry another, or used a dead animal’s stomach to carry water.  Who knows?  Likely they didn’t even realize they had made something no one had ever made before.  Almost certainly, it was made too by others, and somewhere along the way the idea of making took hold.

Without it, we could never be what we are now.

Whoever that person is, certainly now forever unknowable, who first made something, I give thanks.  By sharing, she or he enriched us all.

Now, just imagine if that first creation had been patented.

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Why I don’t take notes

So I’ve started working as a course assistant. For those of you not in the know, I’m looking to leverage my mathematics experience to transition into a career teaching high school math. And now, in addition to taking classes to learn how to be a teacher, I’m also assisting for a course. The course in question is about teaching arithmetic.

My primary responsibility is grading the homework, but I also participate some during class time. So while I’m sitting in the classes, I notice that every time the professor asks a question of the class, many of the students look up from their notebooks and pause. I can’t help but see that as shifting gears from carefully writing what they’re being taught to thinking about the material so they can address the question. After all, it’s what would be going on in my mind had I been taking notes.

That need to shift gears is one reason I don’t like taking notes. You see, I learned in 9th grade that the only thing I learn when I take notes in class is how to take notes in class.

About halfway through the year, our history teacher was replaced with a long-term substitute. His method of teaching consisted of spending the entire class time writing on the board so that we could spend our entire class time writing it all down. He told us that part of our grade depended on our notebooks. Well, I didn’t give it much weight. I spent the first couple of weeks in class reading and thinking about what he was writing. And I wrote none of it down.

Guess what happened.

First, I was able to absorb the material easily ’cause focussing on it was all I did – there were no distractions. Second, when it came time to give us our grades for the first marking period with him, I got an ‘F’. He based my entire grade on my lack of a notebook.

So I was forced to take notes. And forced to stop understanding the material during class time because my mind just couldn’t spare the effort to think about the concepts/history/facts while also carefully recording it all.

Then, come graduation time, there was a third consequence. Turns out that in my small high school class of 153 students, the students with the two best grade averages were precisely tied, and I was one of them. The powers that be decided that because of my one ‘F’, I would be salutatorian.

Now one could argue that the lesson to take from that experience is the importance of taking notes, but the lesson I took from it was different. The lesson I learned is that other people can’t know what’s best for you, and what’s best for you may even be considered wrong/bad by the rest of society.

Now, back to the subject of this post.

So I’ve been sitting in class for three weeks now, and every time I see the students raise their heads and shift gears, my heart drops a little in sympathy for the professor. He’s not at all like my 9th grade history sub. He engages the class, raises interesting issues, and generally tries to get them all to, in the words of another math professor I’ve worked with, “think deeply of simply things”, though he doesn’t put it that way. And yet, many of them are spending their class time dutifully recording his wisdom, apparently for future reference so they can then understand the material at their leisure.

Which brings me to the second reason I don’t like taking notes.

I can’t perfectly record the intent of any instructor – for two reasons. First, I make mistakes. Second, so does every instructor. So when I spend my class time writing notes, what is on paper will have errors in it. And when I finally get around to looking at it, I’ll most certainly not have the instructor around to help at catching those mistakes.

How do I learn the course material from error filled notes? Very poorly.

This was demonstrated very effectively when I was in grad school studying number theory. Some of the professors regularly used class time to present material that augmented (read: wasn’t in) the texts used. I had to take notes then because the subjects were hard enough that I couldn’t absorb all of the information during class. But when I reviewed my notes, they weren’t any easier to understand – the only thing I gained by having the notes was time, if I had enough to spare, that is.

So now that I’m taking classes again, I’m deliberately, consciously, not taking notes. If I find I can’t completely absorb some idea, I make sure to at least remember enough of it so that I can later look it up on Wikipedia (or the web in general, which didn’t yet exist when last I was a student).

After all, what good is taking a class if I don’t use the class time itself to actively interact with the instructor, when everything I might want to learn can be found these days on the web?

Posted in Education, Learning, Mathematics, Personal | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Only Idiots Trust Fox News

So maybe you watch the Fox News Channel religiously. Or maybe you just watch it occasionally. If you value your intelligence and ability to function in society, please stop watching it now.

Here’s why. On July 13th, on their show “The Five”, Eric Bolling made the following comment:

“Whether they did or didn’t, America was certainly safe between 2000 and 2008. I don’t remember any terrorist attacks on American soil during that period of time.”

Here’s three sources confirming the quote and giving it context: from Huffington Post, from Media Matters, and from The Five’s own web site.

Of course that’s not the whole story. The next day, “The Five” made a correction.

Now, I suppose you might think, “They corrected their mistake, so what’s the big deal?”, but I hope for your sake that you don’t. If you do think that, let me remind you that there were two other domestic attacks in that time period: the anthrax attacks and the unsuccessful shoe-bomber. Also, if Eric Bolling really did mean “post 9/11″, why was he so specific to state “between 2000 and 2008″? Since when is the year 2001 before 2000? If they actually cared about presenting true statements, why didn’t any of the other panel members correct him at the time? And, as you can see here, it’s not the first time for Fox News.

In an interest to be fair, Fox News isn’t alone in propagating false information. Consider this statement from CNN:

For decades, Goldberg traveled back and forth from New York to Los Angeles via private bus. With two drivers, she was able to arrive on the other coast in 23 hours.

But to catch that mistake, you need to know that driving only 23 hours to travel between New York and Los Angeles means her bus averaged roughly 121mph or that the record is 31+ hours.

But I don’t think CNN is aware of their mistake and I suspect their mistake is mostly likely one made by a single journalist and editor. Fox News on the other hand is aware of their mistake and addressed it with more misinformation.

Whether you think it’s a pair of honest mistakes, or deliberate attempts to spread falsehoods, the point of this article is still valid. Given Fox’s clear, unabashed distortion of well-known facts, then even occasional viewing will contort your world view, or at least your ability to correctly compare two similar numbers.

So if you want to continue to function in our society, please stop watching Fox News Channel. Well, ok, you could decide instead to push for everyone to watch it with you, so you’re not alone in your idiocy.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment