A few recent articles on steriods

My position on steroids in sports is pretty well established, but I know how much you all love hearing more about it. So here are a few recent articles.

Lance Armstrong: Victim?

This sounds like a review of the USADA’s prosecution of Lance Armstrong, but really an examination of their power and their role as a quasi-governmental agency that operates without the oversight and Constitutional constraints that a government agency would have.

Roid Age: steroids in sport and the paradox of pharmacological puritanism

Here’s a long and somewhat academic article that goes even deeper into the history of steroids and the ironies of their use. The author concludes:

The irony is that we punish severely the people who could use steroids the most, the athletes who have the most legitimate need for them if they are to recover and perform at the levels we like to watch on television and in stadiums. Using steroids because we no longer get the same erections we once had, or because a middle-aged man has less energy than he did at twenty (or a woman has less libido than considered ideal), is increasingly considered normal, while the list of substances banned for people like Mark McGwire grows longer and longer, the invasive tests intended to expose any transgression more and more extensive. As a society, we suffer from a paradoxical pharamacological puritanism, expecting medical technology to change our lives and yet demanding that it not change our games.


Missing the point on gay marriage

Many religious people who argue against gay marriage fail to distinguish between civil marriage and religious marriage.

As far as I’m aware, all secular arguments against gay marriage have been conclusively proven wrong, most notably in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the Prop 8 case, in which most “experts” withdrew after the initial depositions, and the one that stayed on to testify (from Claremont, natch) ended up admitting that his arguments were baseless. So that leaves religious arguments. Specifically, many Christians tend to argue along the lines of “the Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Regardless of the merit of this claim, its continued existence as an argument confuses me because it’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

When we discuss gay marriage, we’re talking about marriage in a civil context. This is the type of marriage that’s granted in a courthouse, not a church, and may not be a marriage “before the eyes of God” (depending on your particular beliefs). It confers civil privileges: hospital visitation rights, insurance and medical benefits, death benefits, and other such things. In order to get these civil privileges, a religious ceremony is not enough, and is not needed at all. Many people opt to marry without any religious ceremony – should they be denied the civil benefits of marriage? While a religious person may choose to join a church that refuses to condone same-sex religious marriages, this has no relevance to civil marriages. Civil marriage is an issue of equality before the law, and should have nothing to do with religious beliefs (besides, perhaps, loving your neighbor).

I’m far from the first person to point this out –  it was the first “finding of fact” in Perry v Schwarzenegger, and I actually wrote about it in 2008. The distinction is obvious and well-known. So why do people continue to make these arguments?

Lightbulbs and patent trolls

I’m always searching for good analogies that highlight what’s wrong with software patents. I don’t remember where I saw this, but I like it.

We all know the story of how Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. He knew the basics of what he needed to invent: something that would glow consistently when a current was applied to it, but wouldn’t burn up too quickly. The idea for this had been around for fifty years, but no one had been able to make it work practically. He and his assistants tried some 3,000 different ways of making it work, and finally figured out how. And thus the modern lightbulb was born, with Edison as its inventor.

Flash forward to modern software patents. Edison isn’t the inventor, and doesn’t receive the patent or any accolades. Instead, some guy fifty years earlier has the idea for an incandescent lightbulb and describes it without having any practical way of making it work, and just sits back and waits for Edison to come make it a reality. Welcome to the modern patent troll.

Traditional patents are granted for the method by which an invention accomplishes something – the specific filament, for example, or a machine that works in a particular way to do something. Software patents are granted for the concept that the software accomplishes, not the actual code that accomplishes is (that code is still protected by trademark). Amazon’s (in)famous one-click patent doesn’t cover the actual code written to make one-click happen (there are many ways one could write that code), but covers the idea of writing code to make that happen.

If we applied modern patent practices a hundred years ago, Eli Whitney wouldn’t have patented his actual cotton gin, but the idea of using a machine to separate cotton fibers from seeds, regardless of how the machine was designed or built. Edison wouldn’t have had to spend time figuring out how to build a working lightbulb, or patenting the specific method – the vague idea would have been enough.

Edison famously said that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Today’s software (and many hardware) patents are awarded for inspiration, not perspiration.

How important is the 2012 election?

A common theme during this primary season is the importance of the upcoming 2012 election. Will Obama be elected again, or will the Republicans find someone who can challenge him in the general election? When I listen to the Republican candidates, or pay attention to nearly any right-wing media outlet, or talk to my Republican friends and family, I come away convinced of three things. First, Obama is a socialist nutcase and if he’s re-elected, he’ll ruin the country. Second, given that, this is the most important election of all time!! Third, all of the current Republican candidates are woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

With this in mind, I savored this quote in a recent WSJ article surveying the Republican field:

Finally, there are the men not in the field: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour. This was the GOP A-Team, the guys who should have showed up to the first debate but didn’t because running for president is hard and the spouses were reluctant. Nothing commends them for it. If this election is as important as they all say it is, they had a duty to step up. Abraham Lincoln did not shy from the contest of 1860 because of Mary Todd. If Mr. Obama wins in November—or, rather, when he does—the failure will lie as heavily on their shoulders as it will with the nominee.

My guess is that the A-Team decided not to “step up” for two reasons, neither of them having anything to do with their spouses.

First, it’s actually not the most important election of all time. Hyperventilating aside, Obama is a relatively middle-of-the-road President pursuing a relatively middle-of-the-road policy platform. He wants to raise taxes slightly – to levels in line with those during the Clinton administration, which were already low in an historical context. He authored a Heritage Foundation-inspired health care plan well to the right of HilaryCare. He has pursued a militarily aggressive foreign policy, and has instituted a far tougher anti-illegal immigration policy than ever before. GOP candidates are campaigning against a version of Obama that wants to raise taxes to historically high levels, nationalize healthcare, is an “appeaser” when it comes to foreign policy, and has a lax immigration policy. That strawman doesn’t exist, the GOP A-Team knows it, and knew that their policy platform would actually not be much different than Obama’s.

Second, the Republican party has changed dramatically over the last decade, change that has accelerated over the last three years. What has changed? Well, the party has splintered, held together only by its hatred of all things Obama. As Matt Steinglass, writing in the Economist puts it:

Republicans’ disenchantment with their current presidential candidates is not an incidental characteristic of this crop of candidates. It’s a structural feature of a contemporary Republican Party whose pieces don’t hang together.

Steinglass  describes the different factions, then writes (with my emphasis):

These factions have been glued together over the past three years by the intensity of their partisan hatred for Barack Obama, and all of the underlying resentments that antipathy masks. Republicans have buried their differences by assaulting everything Mr Obama supports, and because Mr Obama is a pretty middle-of-the-road politician, that includes a whole lot of things that many Republicans used to support.

Only Romney and Gingrich have been willing to disavow their entire past in order to appeal to the current Republican base. And they are paying for it – everyone dislikes them. I think the Republican A-Team took one look at the current environment, one look at their records, and reasonably decided that running with their records in this environment would be political suicide. Gingrich was already politically dead, so he’s playing with house money (or Sheldon Adelson’s money). And Romney, already the presumed front runner, apparently decided several years ago to totally disown his previous persona. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are both consistent, but neither are serious contenders.

In the end, this is an important election year. But it’s only important because the Republican candidates are so extreme in their views, and the Republican base is so incoherent.