Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Decline of the Indy 500 (and our culture)

When I was growing up the Indianapolis 500 was always considered one of the year's major sporting events. I can't think of any sporting event other than the World Series which so captivated people's imaginations.

Yet, this morning when SportsCenter had a long fluff piece on it, praising its great tradition, the piece just rang hollow. Only when I realized the race was going to be on ESPN's partner ABC did I realize the point behind the piece. ESPN was simply trying to boost the ratings for the ABC broadcast of the race.

What has happened since my childhood? Today the race seems irrelevant to anything. In fact, I heard that they were having trouble getting a full field of 33 cars for the race, and the racetrack itself was going to finance some teams so that a full field would race.

Obviously, NASCAR has taken over. It is not hard to see why. The contraptions which run at Indy are in no way cars, in fact, I don't know of any name for them, it is simply called "open-wheeled racing". NASCAR, by contrast, has vehicles which actually look like, and are, cars.

But the real question here is why auto racing is so popular in the U.S. It certainly is not a sport, as the result is determined not by the drivers, but by which team has the best group of engineers. This is shown by the fact that it is not the driver who qualifies for a race, but rather the car.

And it is virtually unwatchable. All it is is a group of cars parading around a track in circles. What is there to watch in that? It comes down to the fact that the only reason to go to a race is the chance of seeing a spectacular wreck. In fact, recently a driver apologized to the fans after a race that there weren't more wrecks to watch, and he said the race should have continued until fewer than half of the cars were left!

This fascination with gore and violence permeates other sports as well, a clear sign of the deterioration in the culture of this once-great country. Football has a serious crisis, with former players suing by the hundreds over the head injuries that have rendered their post-NFL lives practically useless. The "bounty program" of the New Orleans Saints illustrates the depravity of this sport.

Basketball is little better. It used to be that a player had to dribble if he was moving with the ball. Now, he is allowed to take 6-7 steps if he is going to the basket, and mayhem ensues. It is more like rugby than it is like real basketball.

And of course there is hockey, where players are allowed to fight with little effort made to prevent the fights. It is what the fans come to see, because otherwise hockey is unwatchable.

And then there is mixed martial arts, in which the object is to destroy the other person.  All of these illustrations show the depravity to which our culture has sunk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Illusion vs. delusion

Recently I was reading an essay by the great writer Joan Didion, considered on of the pioneers of what's called the New Journalism, in which the writer injects his or her own personal feelings and thoughts into coverage of the story. At one point I expected the word "illusion" to pop up, but was surprised to find instead that the word used was "delusion". Obviously I did  not appreciate the difference between these two words, so I decided to investigate.

The difference turns out to be fairly straightforward. Both words refer to false perceptions, but "illusion" is a false perception about something outside of ourselves, while "delusion" refers to a false perception about something within ourselves. Think of "optical illusions" regarding the former, and "delusions of grandeur" regarding the latter.

The actual passage, from the essay "On Self-Respect", is that "innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself". The dictionary definitions of "illusion" are broad enough to allow that word to be used here, but accurate usage does require "delusion" here, so Ms. Didion is correct, because she is referring to a false perception within ourselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

About those "high" gas prices

Americans are typically whining about gas prices believed to be "high". A number of issues come to mind regarding this phenomenon.

First, gas prices in Europe have long been roughly double those in the U.S. Yet you don't hear Europeans constantly whining about it, they just live with it, organize their lives so as not to be so dependent on scarce fossil fuels.

America used to be infused with a "can do" spirit among its people. If there was a problem, we would roll up our sleeves, get to work, and figure out how to surmount it, and then do it. Now, it seems that the response to any setback is to complain about it, to point fingers at those deemed to be responsible. A more sensible approach would be to return to the way we used to be, with a "let's solve this problem together" attitude.

Second, studies have shown that the true cost of a gallon gas in this country is $12 a gallon, factoring in all the costs involved, including military costs required to maintain the Middle East supply of oil. Those who like to complain about high taxes and too much government might want to consider whether they are willing to pay the extra $8 a gallon over what they are paying at the pump.

A third observation on this subject is that many Americans imagine that producing more oil in this country would solve the problem, or at least help the problem. Republicans chant "drill baby drill", which sadly is being done in all seriousness. The fact is that oil prices are determined by the world oil market; that's just the way it is. A marginal increase in production in the U.S. would have a negligible effect on world oil prices, hence would not change gas prices here.

A fourth observation is that Americans seem willfully oblivious to the need to conserve our dwindling supply of fossil fuels. If you walk up and down the street in almost any American town, you see more vans, SUV's, and trucks than compact cars. Too many people seem to think they need to drive gas-guzzlers, when with a little ingenuity and creativity they could make do with smaller vehicles. People buy gas-guzzlers, and then complain when gas prices rise to half of what people in many other countries pay.

A fifth observation is that our love affair with cars has contributed to a breakdown in our national health. The obesity problem continues to get worse and worse, and yet we still drive to places that we could walk or bike to. Along the same lines, cars have contributed to a breakdown in a sense of community, as we zip from place to place, rather than traveling in a more leisurely way that would enhance community instead of destroying it.

A final observation is that, sadly, gas prices on election day will probably go a long way to determining the results of the 2012 presidential election. This says a lot about the sorry state of our politics, but that is a subject for another post.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Florida woman gets 20 years for firing in the air to ward off an abusive husband

The story on this is found at

The judge said he had no discretion under the Florida mandatory sentencing law. Mandatory sentencing has been thoroughly discredited, as it gives the judge no discretion to consider the circumstances surrounding a particular crime. This is another example of the right-wing fear-mongering that has lead to a serious decline in our culture.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Different Justice for Rich and Poor?

I say yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Over the years I have noticed over and over that certain prominent people get prosecuted for acts which would go unnoticed by the criminal justice system if committed by ordinary people. Two recent examples come to mind, with two trials which started in the U.S. on the same day two weeks ago.

The first is the John Edwards trial. This is the only example I have ever heard of where someone being blackmailed gets prosecuted, and the blackmailer gets off scot-free. Surely this would never occur if a prominent person was not involved.

The second case is Roger Clemens. Here is the only example I know of where someone gets prosecuted for denying he committed a crime.

Just to be clear, I think both of these individuals are despicable people, but being despicable is not a crime. (For my view of Clemens, see my post of 2/07/08). Surely our justice system has better ways to spend its limited resources.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Case of the Found Lottery Ticket

This Arkansas case is really unusual. A woman discarded a lottery ticket into the trash when she mistakenly thought it was not a winner. Another woman fished it out of the trash and collected a million dollars. Now it is in court and the women who threw it away was deemed to be the rightful owner. Details of the story are at

Normally when property is abandoned, you lose your right of ownership. This is why law enforcement is allowed to search your trash without a warrant, because you are deemed to have abandoned it. There must be some wrinkle in the Arkansas lottery law which supersedes the general rule.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rachel Maddow vs. Alex Castellanos on Meet the Press

In the weekly roundtable discussion last Sunday, Rachel Maddow made the point that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos continually interrupted her, which Rachel calmly called him on. Then, having been warned about this interrupting, he finally let Rachel finish and then said, “I love how passionate you are. I wish you are as right about what you’re saying as you are passionate about it. I really do.” Rachel responded, “That’s really condescending." And she was absolutely right about that. Kudos to Rachel Maddow for responding in a mature and articulate way to the crass Castellonos, instead of losing her cool, as I no doubt would have done.

This exchange illustrates the drawback to these "discussions", which have to be squeezed into a limited portion of time, with the result that no in depth analysis can take place. This subject probably needs several hours of time to explore adequately. I have no doubt Rachel is correct about her stat, as she is a top-notch journalist, but we need to then analyze the stat to make any sense of it.

 Years ago I heard a stat which explained a lot about this issue. That stat was that "never-married women make as much as never-married men". This shows rather conclusively that it is the injection of family into the equation which leads to the disparity. Another study looked at couples in which both partners had careers, and who were committed therefore to sharing household duties equally. The study found that early on the couples were fairly successful at this. However, once the first child was born, it changed dramatically. Therefore, the problem should be said to be caused by the decisions couples make to divide up household duties after the children start coming, and not to a problem with the employment market.

The points Castellano made about men working more hours per week and going more into fields that pay well compared to women were probably valid, but a more nuanced analysis would go much deeper than this, and look at choices women make compared to men, regarding their career path. This explains the so-called "gender gap", not some meaningless statistic thrown out without any context or explanation.

My sister sometimes says, "Do your want the facts, or do you want the truth?"  I don't know all the dynamics at play in the gender pay gap, but I do know this: if you tell me that women make on the average 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, you have told me the facts, but you have told me nothing about the truth.