27 August 2012

Brain droppings of the weeks.

Now that the great Chicken War has ended, Americans have moved onto the next outrage. Apparently this is rape semantics. I'm not sure Akin's apology clarified much serving as an explanation of his views. As he did not withdraw the most abhorrent anti-scientific portion but merely the word "legitimate" to be replaced with "forcible" . To be honest, I don't much care about this controversy either. The idea that there's a solid cohort of Republicans who don't think that abortion should be acceptable even in conditions of rape or incest is not news, nor is it much of a problem (it's not even a majority of Republicans). The circumlocution that politicians must go through to achieve electable status in a country that for some reason has a modest "we shouldn't do this*" outlook on abortion but suddenly finds it acceptable when there are rape or incest complications (a logically inconsistent position but the one that the public polls on believing consistently) is an odd game of political jujitsu to be sure. But it's actually not that interesting to catch a politician espousing the views of the pro-life/anti-choice extreme right whereupon there's this odd game of trying to define away the possibility of rape such that the exemption for rape becomes less and less strident politically without having to make the unpopular moral framing of saying that a rape victim must carry to term a pregnancy. That they might slip once in a while and drop the pretenses is not news because I think it can be acknowledged this position makes no sense unless we view it from the perspective that only male concerns in pregnancy matter (that is: things like ensuring paternity lines). Which is an interesting framing, if stupid, to look at the case, but was not how Akin framed it (from the perspective that only "legitimate" or forcible rape is actually rape). That framing has some disturbing patriarchal baggage, but not as much as the general public's agreed compromise has. Either the public needs to get on board with the idea that a woman may decide against the public's wishes to terminate a pregnancy, especially at an early stage, or the pro-life portion of the public needs to start making more sense and just say outright that the rape exemption is meaningless morally to them and oppose it. Otherwise, this is not news either. It isn't even a new phase of the abortion debate.

What it is is just a Senate seat now probably staying Democratic when it could have been had. Republicans have been there before (Delaware). I think of it as just a cost of being in bed with the Tea Party if one is a Republican and wants a greater coalition of power. Perhaps this will show that cost more explicitly, or show that the Tea Party isn't just a bunch of deficit hawks who don't understand the economy and don't like Obama, but is basically just re-branded social conservatives.

(* That has no implications for whether or not the public thinks abortion should be illegal in non-rape related cases. Generally that it should be legal, a further curious note on the politics, and generally the public thinks that some forms of limitations are acceptable because the public isn't very knowledgeable about how they work, who they affect, and how, and sees such proposals as in line with their vague sense that abortions are wrong. To me that is where the problem and the debate is with abortion rights in this country. Not debating the anti-scientific wackos like Akin or Willke who appear to imagine how the female reproductive system operates rather than examining it and ignore substantial amounts of actual research on pregnancy, the sexual functions of the female body, and so on).

(Clarification #2. I don't think there's a strong reason to draw a distinction between violent sexual assaults and other legal forms of rape. I think the usual distinction pro-life types look at is statutory rape, but there's also a more noxious version that looks upon women as lying about rape, or their reported rapes for date rape, marital assaults, etc as some other version of widespread deception, something Akin's initial followup also hinted at being his ideas. This is repellent and also false. Even if there is a non-insubstantial quantity of reported rapes that are some variety of this, there are far more rapes that go unreported, including violent assaults of the variety they try to limit exemptions to legally and morally. They're far better off on message just ignoring the rape exemption altogether because they come off as total clowns who don't understand the violation of rape of any kind. Rape is rape. Move on.)

On to other matters. I've been observing the election and the policies and platforms as they unfold. I think the selection of Rep. Ryan may be a shrewd gambit if the economy becomes more sluggish instead of tepid as it is now but otherwise I don't see the upside (and in truth, if the economy goes down, it would be because of Europe's fiscal and monetary crisis, which wouldn't be pretty for us regardless of who became President). There are at least two major problems with this gambit.

1) Ryan isn't a foreign policy guy, and neither is Romney. There are many ways that can slice but the most logical conclusion for an independent to draw is that their foreign policy agenda will be set by the Republican establishment, at least initially (which, in case one is wondering, is not ideal for anyone not already a neoconservative hawk). The fact that they can't point to much that actually differs from the policies of President Obama here is not helpful (for either side in my view). A further issue herein is to essentially concede for most voters that Obama has done, as they see it, a capable job on foreign policy and to argue instead against him on other grounds (eg the economy, possibly some social issues if framed properly). Which may be more tactically fruitful, but rely heavily on factors outside of any American control. Which then can be spun to imply to voters they're precisely the sorts of things that foreign policy successes might be perceived to influence.

2) Ryan seems to have a far better grasp of the relevant fiscal policies they want to set than Romney does. The idea that the number 2 guy is the guy with the plan might be a problem for Romney moving forward. There are lots of problems here. The VP isn't a very good position for the ideas man (see Cheney, Dick) or for the country. It's also not been well-associated with clever and thoughtful people (see Quayle, Dan or Biden, Joe), suggesting that any ideas coming out of there might be best disregarded rather than followed (in fairness, Biden I think has had a far better view of an appropriate foreign policy agenda than Obama has had). Finally, Congress is where any such plan or vision must go to get implemented. The exact place where Ryan could have held a lot more influence over matters budgetary. I'm not even sure why Ryan took the offer as a result.

19 August 2012

Random insight of the week

I get the impression that human beings in rich countries spend so much money on health care not because it provides them with health, but because it alleviates their fear of death.

Following this logic, the foremost expenditures in health care are a) mostly preventable diseases that require interventions of surgery or constant life long treatment from pharmaceuticals (diabetes or heart disease, lung cancer, etc), that could be avoided entirely by patients taking some initiative on lifestyle choices with healthier diets and exercise and not smoking or drinking excessively, all of which no doubt their doctors will advise them of repeatedly over a lifetime or b) terminal illnesses or episodes that require extremely expensive interventions to extend life a few extra days or months in most cases.

Most of the latter expense could be removed if people took steps to understand the limits of modern medicine by talking with their doctors ahead of time, assembling a living will, and informing their loved ones (or at least their immediate family) of their wishes or the location of said living will in the event of a tragic illness or accident. The reason we don't do most of that is that people tend to avoid thinking of their mortality, or especially that of their friends and families. We instead expect medical professionals to spare us the pain of death in our lives.

To a certain extent this is an entirely reasonable reaction. Modern science and medicine has come up with vaccinations, antibiotics, and advanced surgical techniques (organ transplants for example), and large medical corporations will market these surgical departments and, especially, pharmaceutical treatments that can alleviate all manner of health concerns. Got high cholesterol, take this pill. And so on. The modern consumer sees that death is no longer a daily concern where it might have been much more present barely a hundred years ago with much higher rates of death during pregnancy or delivery, infant and child mortality, accident rates, and various dread diseases that were far more common. Plague used to be a common occurrence for some cities to have to manage. Now we get common colds that still spread around but, for the most part, epidemics are rare.

I think this suggests that human societies used religion far more extensively to deal with death and fear of such and may explain some of the decline or changes in religious purposes (such as prosperity gospels), but I also think it explains a chunk of the run up in health care expenses across the globe. If fear of death is an immediate and daily concept, religion is a far cheaper and immediate way to service those fears through its promises of immortality or reunification with loved ones, and its use of ritual to balance and order daily lives. If death is a distant, far away concept, then we will look to the things that appear to have caused that change (from the more frequent and thus "natural" state of man) to save us when it does occur.

There are a myriad of other causal explanations for health care expenses (third party payment, first dollar health care coverage, etc), but this one would be fascinating to examine.

13 August 2012

New blue eyes?

I'm not sure what the probable gain for Romney is to pick Ryan other than that it puts the Ryan style budget front and center and he now creates a further "technocrat" aura around his campaign. There are a lot of problems with this approach.

1) Ryan's Congressional record isn't very promising for technocratic budgetary sense. He voted for the whole mess of Bush-era bloat that increased deficits rather than decreased them. His justifications are partisan (I was being a team player), which are not reassuring for the supposed Romney-ish view of doing effective things instead of partisan things.

2) Some economists like some of the more important conservative annoyances (TARP or the auto bailouts) that are being overlooked by those same conservatives now and while I don't like the particulars in the Ryan budget proposals (for instance it hands-offs the defence budget from cuts and doesn't do much actual tax reform in favor of tax cuts), I do like having someone around who seems willing to approach the third rail topics of entitlements and long-term deficits.

2a) It makes more sense to leave a wonkish person like that in Congress, where they can help pass legislation being on a budget committee in the House and not in a useless ceremonial position as the VP.

3) There isn't a constituency for technocratic views or its counterpart of governing competence in evidence on the right and left-leaning voters motivated by such things are apt to be more skeptical of either Ryan or the GOP in general or live under the (somewhat) misguided notion that Obama cares about such things and is only being stymied by the GOP's obstructionist views. There is little crossover gain to be had here and little enough in terms of actual conservative rallying to be gained. Wonky views and complicated talking points aren't likely to inspire crowds of conservatives.

4) It might put Wisconsin in play for Romney now but I'm not sure Wisconsin is significant enough to matter to the general election this year. Most evidence suggests it was Ohio or Florida or Virginia that are the cornerstone states in play, with states like Colorado at interest and risk for Obama and for which Ryan does nothing to assist (he's a more ardent drug warrior for example on the Colorado problems for Democrats, he doesn't do anything for Florida, and Ohio's a weird place).

5) He is young and thus appealing on that front, but a young idealist with muddled Randian notions isn't likely to appeal to independent voters. It might appeal to some Paulite voters, but Ryan's civil libertarian views are so poor that this is unlikely. It's possible that his relative silence on his social conservative views will mean those issues could go ignored, but I doubt it. They've already been issues front and center throughout the campaign and Obama is a capable campaigner unlikely to ignore any issues that he might draw an advantage. Younger independent voters likely to respond to a fresh face (as they did with Obama), aren't socially conservative (for the most part) and are thus turned off by the impression of the GOP as such a party.

10 August 2012

The big trade, the sporting news

My first reactions stand upon further analysis. I think people are overvaluing the Howard acquisition by LA and ignoring the potential improvements by Philly and Denver here.

Here's where the teams are going
LA - Adds Dwight Howard. Throw-ins of Chris Duhon (backup point) and Earl Clark (NBDL)
      - Loses Andrew Bynum, potentially a mid to late first round pick, and a backup throw-in player (Vujecic). Update: Also Josh McRoberts, a backup forward, and another throw-in player (Eyenga)
The advantage here for them is mainly that Howard is historically healthier (much, much healthier really) and a little better defensively in exchange for being not very great on offense versus Bynum who is really good in the low post and a better foul shooter. The problem is they still have two low post players (now Howard and Gasol) and need to get Kobe to stop hogging the ball so Nash can run the game (especially in crunch time). I'm not sure this will happen. So I'm not convinced they're now a title contender in the role of Oklahoma City or Miami or maybe even Boston or Chicago. They will be improved next year but not by that much. Main gain is that they didn't give up much to do this.

Philly - Adds Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson
         - Loses Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkess, mid to late first round pick.

Giving up Iggy is pretty steep, but they Harkess wasn't very good projected, and Richardson and Bynum give them the two things they were most in need of last year, a 3 point shooter who can run and a center (a very good one at that). Richardson isn't nearly as skilled a defender and ball-handler, but they now have a better offensive game to go to instead of relying solely on forcing turnovers. It also means more playing time for Evan Turner, new addition Dorell Wright, and playing Thad Young at a more natural position for him than power forward (if it means more playing time for Nick Young then they've got problems, and I'm still not sold on Jrue Holliday). I'm not sure they're much better either, but if they can keep Bynum, they should at least be contenders for a while with a young core. Maybe not title contenders, but at least Atlantic Division contenders. Boston can't play with their team forever and that's a lame division (Toronto sucks, Brooklyn and NY didn't get that much offseason wise. Brooklyn won't be terrible and will be a playoff team isn't the same as saying they're now a contender). Maybe not as a lame as Miami's division now that Atlanta and Orlando are dumping their players, but it's pretty ugly.

Denver  - Adds Andre Iguodala
             - Loses Aaron Afflalo, Al Harrington, mid-late first round pick.

These guys got a lot better. Afflalo is not a dynamic offense/defence player and Harrington is a high volume three point shooter in a power forward's body. Both were overpaid and neither fits well with how Denver likes to play. They could keep Iggy or let him go for cap room next year to pursue some other free agent. I like the move the best for them this next year, and definitely moving forward for the next couple years.

Orlando - Adds Afflalo, Harrington, Vucecic, 3 mid to late first round picks. Update: Also McRoberts and Eyenga.
              - Loses Howard, Duhon, Richardson, Clark.

To boot they traded away a better 3 point shooting power forward who actually gets rebounds (Ryan Anderson) earlier in the summer instead of Harrington who they now have instead. I guess they got something for a superstar who was about to depart, but it's hard to believe this is all they could have gotten. Even Bynum straight up for a year would have been better. In relieving Richardson's mildly crazy contract, they took on Afflalo's insane one, didn't get any likely lottery or unprotected draft picks to improve moving forward, and thus virtually guaranteed they will be a non-factor in the NBA for about the next decade (the length of time it took for them to go from the Shaq-Penny era to getting Howard and surrounding him with shooters to upset the Cavs a few years ago in route to losing in the Finals). Way to go.

06 August 2012

Olympic villages and such

The Olympics are an odd event for me.

I don't generally get into the whole "ra-ra-America! fuck yeah!" type rooting. If some Russian or Chinese gymnast or diver or swimmer is the best in the world, or Usain Bolt is running, I have no concern about country, I want to see something I haven't seen before done in a sporting event in front of millions of spectators around the globe. This is, for me, why people should watch and follow sports. The possibilities for some marginal achievement in athletic prowess and domination of an event flowing from years of training to focus on excellence of a single skill allow most of us to see what that would look like if we applied ourselves to some individual task or set of tasks for years of dedicated effort. I think most people follow these things for Cold War era nostalgia and expressions of "our team is better than yours", but they do at least see somebody doing something at a high level in their pursuit of this odd nationalistic quirk.

My thoughts so far
1) Team USA basketball still has not figured out how to stop a pick and roll, or at least didn't play the personnel that would have helped (Chandler or Davis, as a back line shot blocker). A team with hyper athletic basketball players should be running 4 guys around like crazy on the perimeter with one or two to help down low and ought to force turnovers like crazy as a result. They did force a lot of turnovers, but they didn't stop anyone from scoring the other night either. In general, I would say that that game ought to put to rest a lot of the "we could have beaten the Dream Team" trash. Lithuania is a very good basketball country, but they've not gotten much better over the last two decades either (in terms of raw talent). The 1992 team would have destroyed their squad, as they had the perimeter defenders and size and shot blockers to do it.

2) Usain Bolt is a freak of nature. Michael Phelps I guess is too, but I have to admit I find watching swimming incredibly dull. It's difficult to tell what is happening live without a ton of CGI glop on the screen and really all I'm watching is a lot of splashing water and some human shaped blobs moving along at what seems like a high rate of speed. I'm not saying that this means the achievements are less impressive, but it loses something in the translation to spectating that track does not lose for me. I have talked to people who used to swim competitively, and they seem to see things that interest them in those events, but that's not most of us. Watching a 100m race with 8 of the fastest human beings ever assembled. Where had one of them not pulled up lame all would have been sub-10 second times, and then watching Bolt blow right past that field, absolutely crush it, and still pull up short in the final steps with something extra in the tank, that's insane. I think it is apparent that an 80,000 seat arena for the track events (where over 2 million people applied to get tickets to the 100m final, and thousands were thus standing), versus the 20k for swimming venues, demonstrates that the general public consumes these events in roughly the same way I do here. Track has some events that follow the same confusing spectator roles as swimming (long jump seems that way), but by and large it is easy to follow; people are obviously moving rapidly or jumping far or throwing things far. Swimming only has that effect on much longer races. Which then take several minutes of suffering through watching people swimming. I'd rather watching diving as a result, where it can be pretty clear what is going on.

3) I have to admit also that I find gymnastics mostly uninteresting too. I think this has partly to do with the Cold War nostalgia factors that do not resonate for me (I don't care if "Romania" or "Russia" or "China" wins instead of "us"). I did however watch the vaults the other night, and it was, interesting, to see the favourite (the American) after a surprising fall, and her reaction. This was, I think, on the level of USA basketball losing in the gold medal game (something that's only happened once, and under suspicious circumstances) because she was so heavily favored. And you could read the disappointment and anger in her face afterward. That was an interesting taste of what it must be like to expect perfection as an ordinary event, and then realize one's human frailty in one quick swoop.

4) I find the arbitrary decisions in some sports (but not all) to exclude members of a national team from qualifying to a final on the basis of 2 or 3 person per country limits in the finals to be strange. I don't see a monetary basis. Most of the countries that could sweep a particular event are very large powerful countries that could sign very large TV rights (USA, China especially). Most of the sponsors of a particular event would also benefit from greater exposure, and more opportunities to sponsor the perceived successful athletes instead of less skilled athletes who get in on the basis of some kind of affirmative action by nation system. This rarely raises up as a significant issue that one country absolutely dominates some event. Table tennis is rather famously in this case because of limits put in for these games, such that China doesn't sweep the medals, and the USA (along with several others) could have had three competitors a piece in the finals for gymnastics all-arounds. I think I am spoiled because track certainly does not do this. I come to expect to see 3 Americans and Jamaicans in every sprinting final as a result because those are the sprinting powerhouses (right now, Trinidad used to be up there too). Fundamentally I don't understand the rule. The best athletes should be competing for a title. Period. And I'm not sure what the probable gains are to the Olympics and its board to do otherwise. Occasionally it means some random person from Italy or Brazil wins a medal or some random person qualifies to compete for a medal (and doesn't). Odd.

5) Watching Pistorius run the 400m with his prosthetic legs was a good story and I think he was somewhat disappointed in how he finished in the semis (he had already run well enough to be a considered as a possible finalist, but not medalist). What interests me in it moving forward are questions of transhumanism. I'd be fascinated to see how we would deal with a system where people might want to remove ordinary human legs (or arms) in favor of artificial ones to increase their speed or power or jumping ability. That's a different question than the status of performance enhancing substances, but mostly in form and extremes.

6) I really do not get the appeal of a tax break on Olympic medal winnings for US Olympians. It seems somewhat arbitrary to decide these people shall get a tax break for doing X. One supposition is that it is somehow a service to the country to do X. I'm not sure how true that is really. But as practical objections. There are already adequate incentives financial for Olympians to win or medal in events such that we don't need to give people more of them (sponsorships and commercials and publicity) and we already do way too many economic incentives for equally strange things (housing, health care insurance) through tax breaks.