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.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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

As turkey day approaches…

I’m busy with a final project for my first course in 15 or so years. I’m actually relatively frantic at it, coding and designing and debugging about 7 hours a day. It’s almost like a job.
Mind you, I’m taking the course as the first of a series on the road to a masters degree, all so that I might have a better chance at getting a job. Having not worked in 8 or so years, I feel the need to do something.
And Mom asks me what is special about this therapist that has me improving so markedly this last year. Not that I can answer that, but I can say that I’ve not yet seen this therapist a whole year.
I can also say that there’s a chance I might stop therapy as soon as December – but that’s up in the air.
Mom will be visiting over the weekend, sharing my hermit’s nest for a few days. And I’ll have to do my best to ignore her so that I can focus on my project. But not Jim, because Fidget, their dog, isn’t quite himself atm, and they don’t think he should be left alone the whole time.
Turkey day will be at my cousin’s home. Never been there before and according to Mapquest, it’s about an hour away from here.
And what’s the point of this ramble? Well, just to get an update out there really. I think I’m doing well with life’s curves and that deserves some recognition. And I’ve joined a gym. I don’t think there was much in the way of reasoning about that decision, I just felt like doing it, felt ready, willing, able and in need.
Yes, it’s hard, but so far, I’m enjoying it. Never thought I’d say that about a gym. Oh well, it’s said.
And other news, MIT has decided, or rather, Prudential on MIT’s behalf, that I’m no longer disabled. Here, I am, at a day that I once feared, the day when someone else says of me, “He’s ready to work.” and I’m still not ready for it. I find I’m not ready, not because of still being in need of help, but because I didn’t plan for it when I started the course or started the gym. So yes, I’m not ready, but I’m not ready in what is likely the best way possible.
Oh, and should you find yourself seeing me in person sometime in the future, don’t offer me a pepsi – I’ve gone cold turkey, no more caffeine, so no more pepsi. Yes, I now I could get caffeine free pepsi, but my decision was actually based on having started at the gym. All that sugared water, seemed counterproductive. So I stopped.
What more can I say?
My final project is a game for the iPad, not an original game, but with some original twists. I treat solitaire mahjong (I think it’s also called taipei), not as a solitaire game to be played quickly, but as a puzzle. A puzzle with a solution that needs to be found and deduced. I have until Dec. 9 to get it working – I probably won’t get implemented all the features I have in mind, but I’m confident it will be solid at what it does do.
And that’s that for now. May thanksgiving be a good day for you.

Posted in Personal, Programming | Tagged | 1 Comment

< 3 hours and 4 seconds

So I’ve been absent a while. My course started about 6 weeks ago, and I’ve been busy working away at the assignments. Acing them, mostly due to my previous experience, and partly due to my copious free time. In spite of the introductory nature of the subject, I have been learning.
Learning mostly about how various techniques, methods and algorithms are so well documented out in the internet, if one just takes a little time to search. It’s perfect for my own abilities to be able to say, “I need to know how to do this” and just go find out how.
Now, the latest assignment had, as part of its requirements, the goal of writing a solver for sudoku puzzles. And that taught me all about the notion of an exact cover and how it’s useful for solving sudoku puzzles. Since I suspect none of my readers knows what an exact cover is (I didn’t at first either), I’ll briefly give an example.
Suppose you’re organizing a bake sale, and you have 10 potential contributors, each of which will want to bring her/his two or three best baked goods. You want every imaginable kind available, but no repeats – that is, every possible baked good shows up once and no baked good shows up twice. How do you choose who to ask to bring baked goods? Your answer, if there is one, is what is called in mathematics an exact cover.
Now I suppose that you, my dear reader, are curious about where I’m going with all this. Well, two Christmases ago, I received a puzzle as a gift. Ok, make that a fiendishly hard puzzle as a gift. I worked on it, off and on, for a while, before setting it aside. It involved attempting to construct a 5x5x5 cube, perfectly filled, using 25 identically shaped pentominoes (think dominoes, but with 5 cubes instead of 2).
Well last night, during a common bout of insomnia, it occurred to me that that puzzle is perfect for solving using the techniques I learned for the sudoku assignment. In other words, I had a programming project ahead of me, and one that I was quite happily itching to do.
Less than three hours later, my program was done. No, I didn’t construct the whole thing from scratch in that time, I used parts of code from the sudoku assignment that I’d already put together for that purpose. Still, with under three hours of effort devoted solely to solving this puzzle, I had a working program.
I ran the program.
Less than 4 seconds later, I had an answer.

Posted in Computers, Mathematics, Personal, Programming | Tagged , , | 1 Comment