Tuesday, August 13, 2013


In ancient times, people believed that the sun and moon revolved around the earth.  The prevailing concept of the heavens was that the sun and moon and the stars moved in fixed, perfect circles across the sky each day and night above a firm and fixed earth, the immobile home of all life in the universe.

As technology advanced and the science of astronomy developed, and more specifically the closeness and care of observation of the heavens grew more rigorous, certain inconsistencies in this model of the universe became apparent.  For example, certain "stars" appeared to wander across the sky rather than moving in a fixed path.  These "stars" came to be known by the term planetae, the Greek word for "wanderers," and they are today what we call planets.

Around the time of Ptolemy--although certainly before him--the state of science was such that the motion of the planets could be described through a somewhat complicated but reasonably consistent system of "deferents" and "epicycles."  To understand what is meant by the term "epicycle," consider a small circle or wheel rolling along the surface of a larger wheel (the deferent).  A given point on that circle will vary from the path of the edge of the larger wheel by a small amount (from zero to the diameter of the small circle) and thus "wobble" as the smaller wheel rolls along.

As it turns out, that description--dubbed the "Ptolemaic System"--is reasonably accurate to describe the motion of the planets through the night sky from a vantage point on Earth.  It is wholly inadequate to explain why the planets appear to move through the night sky, but that's all right.  The Ptolemaic System persisted as the prevailing theory of planetary motion for more than 1,000 years.

Over that time, however, more and more detailed observations--culminating in the discovery by Galileo Galilei that Jupiter has moons that orbit it rather than the earth--it became clear that the Ptolemaic model wasn't adequately describing the universe as we all knew it to be, with Earth at the center.  After all, to hear some people tell it, the Bible makes it clear that Creation centers on a fixed Earth.  And yet Ptolemy's system wasn't accurately predicting the position of Mars, for example.

At that point, the people who spent time thinking about these things--astronomers, physicists, philosophers, and other scholars--had a decision to make.  The Ptolemaic System could be revised to add finer detail--epicycles on epicycles, in an increasingly complex Rube Goldberg creation--or, maybe, the central thesis of geocentrism was to blame.

Some decades before Galileo, Nicolas Copernicus, a Polish philosopher (and many other things; he was, like Leonardo, a polymath, proficient in a wide array of disciplines), had posited a theory of planetary motion what was heliocentric--sun-centered.  Galileo, a gregarious personage of the 16th century who moved in impressive circles (he was a personal friend of Pope Urban VIII, the most powerful person in the world at that time) and perhaps the most famous scientist of his day, became a champion of heliocentrism.

At that time, the Catholic Church was not wholly opposed to heliocentric theory, but Urban, aware of Galileo's work in the area, asked that the book Galileo would write on the subject treat other theories with equality on an even-handed basis.  Galileo's work, now treated as foundational to physics, was presented as a dialogue between advocates of geocentrism and heliocentrism.  Despite Galileo's efforts to be even-handed, the character who advocated geocentrism came off as a fool.  Even worse, Galileo put some of Urban's words in the mouth of this character.  This bit of suspected heresy earned Galileo a trial before a formal inquisition and ultimately cost him his freedom; he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Galileo would be vindicated by the work of Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, who between them developed and derived the laws of motion and the mathematics necessary to conclude that the sun is at the center of our solar system.  That did not stop some lesser lights, who persisted in the drawing of ever-more-complex systems of epicycles well into the 19th century before dying out.

The lesson of epicycles and the demise of the Ptolemaic System is an important one for scientists and philosophers, and for people generally.  When the observed facts do not match up with our understanding, it is our understanding that has to give way in favor of something new, not the facts.  Holding on to first principles where they are contradicted is lazy.  We have to be willing to question our prior conclusions, no matter how dearly they are held.

We don't know everything about the universe--far from it.  In fact, the more we know, it seems the more we realize that we don't know.  Some people use this as an excuse to believe in the supernatural, leading to a peculiar sort of "proof" of things.  My 9th-grade geometry teacher referred to this as the "miracle theorem," a special rule that would solve all problems whenever it was invoked.  It most often shows up in a particularly difficult proof, as something like this:

1. Given A, B, and C.
2. Given that A = B, and given that C=60.
3. A miracle occurs.
4. Therefore, B > C.  QED.

Of course, that's not proof of anything.  After all, if the miracle theorem can be invoked in any proof, it can be invoked in every proof, and there is no point in learning anything or thinking about anything.  Which might be what the people who advocate this kind of philosophical structure have in mind, come to think of it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cutting the cord

Tonight I'm spending about my 15th night in Arizona so far this year.

2012 was worse; I spent a whole month, broken up into pieces, in Arizona in 2012.

In case you have never been here, or are unfamiliar with the concept of a desert, it is quite hot in Arizona in August.  At the rental car counter this morning, the clerks were marveling to each other that it was "only" 80 when they were coming in to work today.  One fellow said, "I didn't even turn on the air conditioner."

I had to run an errand this afternoon, which I will talk about in just a moment, and the thermometer in the car said 109 at one point.  I realize that the National Weather Service has not placed official rolling thermometer gear in rental Ford Escape SUVs, but I can attest to today's mind-altering heat.  If what I experienced wasn't actually 109, I want no part of the real thing.

"Just wait," the rental car guy said, "it's going to get really hot this weekend."

If it were regularly that hot in Arkansas, the suicide rate would skyrocket. The principal difference between Arkansas and Arizona is the relative humidity.  ("It's a dry heat," people always say to me when I get back from Arizona, to which I always reply, "so is my oven, but I don't crawl inside.")  Summer in Arkansas routinely brings 90% humidity, while Arizona stays around 10-20%.  In case you were wondering, the relative humidity percentage is the amount of water vapor in the air relative to the maximum amount of water vapor that air can hold at that temperature.  Warm air can hold more water vapor than can cool air, for complex physical reasons that I could explain if you wanted to be even more bored than you were five minutes ago.  It's not that important.

The consequence of all this, though, is that the body's natural cooling process tends to work really well in Arizona and not so well in Arkansas.  When sweat evaporates, it absorbs heat energy from the skin, thereby cooling the skin.  On a humid day, the air can't hold much more water, so your sweat just lies there on your skin, like a lazy teenager on summer vacation.  So, if you find yourself in Phoenix in August, as long as you can get out of the direct sunlight and have occasional access to a/c, you stand a really good chance of not accidentally dying of heatstroke.  The same couldn't be said of 109 degrees in Little Rock.

All of this information is by way of telling you that I'm on another business trip.

I recognized something really important about myself today:  without my phone, I am a little lost child searching for his mommy in JCPenney.

My phone, which as Louis CK reminds us is a bona fide miracle, is both my connection to the work I do and the source of all my knowledge about how to do things. Example:  I'm hungry, so I can use my phone to find a nearby In-N-Out Burger, where I can obtain a very reasonably priced double-double, animal style, add chiles, and a strawberry shake.  I don't need to KNOW where In-N-Out is.  I can find out in 10 seconds.

Even more importantly, my phone keeps me from being bored during the 90% of time on business trips that is wasted on something other than actual business. Today was a typical business trip:  Pack my bags the night before so I don't have to get up when I would rather be going to sleep.  Rise at 5 a.m., shower and get dressed.  Out the door at 6:10 (a little late, but within my margin for error), drive with Michelle to the airport.  Check in at 6:30.  Go through security.  Sit at the gate for my boarding number to be called.  Ride the airplane for 3 hours.  Wait in line at the rental counter.  Get my car.  Grab some breakfast.  Drive to the first appointment.  Spend 30 minutes there.  Drive to next task.  Fail.  Drive to hotel. Wait for them to see if they have an early room.  Check in.  Find my room.  Return three phone calls.  Make notes for my 2:00 hearing.  Iron my shirt.  Change into a suit.  Go to the courthouse.  Wait in the courtroom for the judge to arrive.  Spend 8 minutes in the hearing.  Grab lunch.  Go back to the hotel.  Change into comfortable clothes.  Run three more errands.  Grab a large limeade at Sonic (gotta rehydrate).  Back to the hotel.  Write a blog entry.  Do more work, return phone calls and emails.  Grab a late dinner.  Do more work.  Facebook for a half hour.  Then go to bed, exhausted.  Up first thing in the morning, then back on a plane to Little Rock.

In a 24-hour day, I will have spent roughly one hour doing things that I could not do at home, but because I am not at home, the other stuff I do takes longer and is harder to do.

But I am used to it.

What I am not used to is having my phone die in the middle of all that.

I have been having trouble getting my phone to charge up.  I plug it in; it sometimes charges, sometimes not.  Most of the time it gets in my face by cycling between charging and not charging.  Every time it switches from one mode to the other, it sounds a little beep.  "Duh-dee!" it exclaims, when it feels the warmth of five volts of electromotive force coursing through its circuitry.  "Dee-duh!" it cries, when the power is cut and it contemplates its eventual death.

I don't understand why it makes these noises.  I do understand that they drive me nearly to the point of murder, if not of humans, at least of electrical devices, especially when--as I assume everybody does--I am charging my phone at my bedside in the night while I sleep.

But today, after a particularly frustrating series of en plane Candy Crush games had drained my battery to the low 20s, percentage-wise, by 9 a.m. (Mountain STANDARD Time; this is Arizona, where Daylight Saving Time is viewed as a communist plot) when I plugged it into my trusty car adapter, expecting to hear the familiar song of intermittent power up my device's USB hole.

Nothing.  Oh, moving the phone around produced the occasional rapid-fire duh-dee, dee-duh.  But nothing that would slake my phone's power hunger over the long haul of a day about town.

There are three things that drain my phone battery faster than anything:  Video of any type. Candy Crush (why? why?).  And GPS.  Obviously I am not going to be watching video or playing games in the car.  But GPS is a real necessity.  Even though I know Phoenix pretty well, or at least the layout of the city (which is pretty easy; it's more gridded than nearly any place on earth), I couldn't tell you where to find, for example, the offices of the Arizona Republic, or a convenient UPS Store.  (I did find those by dead reckoning today, however.)

Knowing that my day would be filled with telephone calls, emailing, texting, bluetoothing (I can't resist it in the car; I love to be hands-free when driving), finding the "Store Locator" button on various web pages, and GPS, and realizing that I needed to conserve power wherever possible, I spent most of today in a low-grade panic.

By the time I finished my "must do" tasks today, I was ready to scream.  I don't do well when I can't instantly satisfy my desire to know weird things that the Internet knows, like, for example, is it possible to raise the window-side armrest on a 737?  (If not, why not?  There is a 2- or 3-inch space on that side that's completely wasted.)

And let's not forget those hours of just sitting and waiting, that could be filled with a couple dozen attempts to get past level 147 on Candy Crush.  (Why is it so hard? Why?)

So, at the end of my workday, I bit the bullet and went to the nearest AT&T store.  I explained how my beautiful Samsung Galaxy S III, miracle though it normally is, had worried itself all the way dwn to 2% battery and simply wouldn't accept a charge, no matter which of the three cables I brought with me I plugged it into.  Couldn't be the cord(s), right?

"I trust you," Amber the clerk said, "but they make us verify with one of our cords."

"No problem," I replied.  "You'll see."

Amber plugged it in with some sort of magical cable that was just lying on the desk there, all magicky.  "Looks like it's charging."

"Of course it is," I said, "because you're obviously using some sort of magic cable.  Try it with a regular cable."

She dug through a drawer and pulled out four or five cables of varying lengths, sturdiness, and ages.

"Duh-dee," my traitorous phone chirped each time it sluttily accepted one of these foreign cables.

(As though it were saying, "F--- you!  F--- you!"  Because that's how it rolls.)

Amber started filling out a form, smiling in that way that 100-pound 20-year-old wireless telephone store clerks smile at old dudes who can't manage to get any juice into their phones with the equipment they have on hand.  "We don't keep the replacement phones in this store.  You'll have to go over to Paradise Valley, but they will swap it out for you."

"Oh," I said.  Paradise Valley is 100 miles away, on the other side of Phoenix from where I was. Not literally 100 miles, but a long way.

"They have equipment there that they can use to test your phone," she said, helpfully.

"The thing is, I don't live here, and I really just want get my phone charged for the ride home tomorrow, so could you maybe sell me one of your magic cables?"

"No, not one of these," she said.  My eyes fell.  "But I can sell you a different one."  Fifteen dollars plus tax later, and I was back in business--but not after she tested my new cable to make sure it had the same magic as the ones from her drawer.

I saw from the edge of my comfortable world, even for just a few hours, what it would be like to be without the umbilical-style connection that modern smartphones provide, and I didn't like it, not one tittle or jot.

I worry that I'll never be able to cope if I ever have to go back to BEFORE, when we all stumbled around, ignorant and stupid because we had no way of getting facts quickly or getting in easy, cheap contact with others.

CODA:  As I hit "publish" on this post, my phone's screen lit up.  "Charging completed successfully," it said.  Indeed.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Coming out

I'm coming out.

(Not as a homosexual. Sorry, boys, but I still like girls.  This is something different.)

When I was a little boy, perhaps 7 or 8, I came to recognize that there was no Santa Claus, and that it was my parents who were supplying the gifts on Christmas morning.  I don't remember how I learned it--maybe I just figured it out and asked my parents, because they cautioned me against ruining the magic for my brother.

Around the same time, my next-door neighbor, a kindly old man, died of a probable heart attack late one evening.  He was the first person I'd ever known who had died. I'd seen him on the last day he was alive.

I was a little bit older, about 9 or so, when my mother sat me down and explained human reproduction to me.  It was an eye-opening experience that took a couple of hours and focused a lot on the biological aspects of it.

I cite these three events in my life, all of which occurred within about eighteen months (at least in my memory, which may be faulty), because each one of them represents my awakening to some aspect of human existence, from a child's perspective to that of an adult.  These are three lies that parents often tell their children, or that children tell themselves:  That Santa Claus is real, that people live forever, and that babies come from storks or magic or some such.

I don't want to cast my parents as liars. They're not. But these events have a common theme, which is that not everything that parents, or adults generally, say to children is necessarily the whole truth. That is no surprise to anyone, I should think.  But it had a powerful impact on me for another reason.

I grew up a Presbyterian.  I wouldn't say we were a devout family in the sense of having a tremendously spiritual life, but missing church was a rarity.  My brother and I sang in the children's choir.  My parents were involved in church activities and leadership, teaching Sunday School and leading the youth group.  We pledged and gave regularly. It was not a small part of our lives for the entire time I lived at home.

I believed, and still do, that churches have the power to be a tremendous force for good in our society. The church I grew up in, at the time I was a member, did things the right way:  It had a real social conscience, centered on alleviating poverty and obtaining social justice (instead of a pretend conscience that focuses on homosexuality and abortion and opposing Islam).  It was open and unpretentious most of the time. It did not teach or tolerate hatred.  Even though we moved away when I was 12, I have friends from that time that I still talk to, and they are almost uniformly good people who try to live their lives according to the greatest commandment of all: love God and love your neighbor.

But at that small age, 7 or 8 or 9, I wondered why it was that God never spoke to me.  It is not as though I didn't have a conscience--what people refer to as a voice inside themselves, helping them make decisions. I heard that "voice" loud and clear.  The problem was that it sounded like me.  And when it became clear to me that sometimes people lie, sometimes even people you trust, even for the best of reasons, it became possible to understand that they will lie about important things, like hearing God. 

I believe that what most people call "God" is actually themselves--which explains why people so often are able to discern that God's prejudices conveniently match their own.  I believe that people who say that God speaks to them are speaking merely metaphorically at most. I believe that most of the people who say that do so out of worry about what people will think of them if they do not. More maliciously, some people who claim a direct hotline to God do so to give their words more importance than they themselves could muster.

I have a very distinct memory of being a young boy of that age and wondering to myself whether religion was simply an elaborate ruse, wrought for some unknown and perhaps nefarious purpose.  It must have been about that time that I read the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, and the parallels could not have been more striking.

At that age, prayer was even more of a mystery to me.  By "prayer" I am referring to supplicative prayer, not prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, or confession.  If you are going to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God, it certainly makes sense that you would want to pause in whatever you are doing to pray in those ways.  But a prayer of supplication, of asking God to do something or not to do something, for yourself or for someone else, was beyond my understanding, and it still is.

It is not in my nature to ask for things, and never has been.  I have a strong sense of doing for myself, and when there are things that I cannot do myself, I have always tried to find ways to earn my keep at least in trade. Praying for something strikes me as a useless exercise.  If God exists, and God is genuinely omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent, then there is no need for me to pray for something.  In that circumstance, God is here, He knows what I want, and He is going to do what He wants regardless.  Perhaps prayer is intended to be an exercise in self-discovery, in organizing in your own mind those things that are important enough to bother God with.  But it is hard for me to imagine a God who says, "I was going to do this nice thing (help you get a job, or help poor kids get a meal, or make your grandma not have cancer), but since you didn't ask me nicely, too bad."

I suppose it's possible to pray for understanding, enlightenment, or guidance.  I have done those things, and I have found that understanding, enlightenment, and guidance mostly come from carefully considering facts with a critical eye, and from observing how people respond to various stimuli, not from prayer.  So I don't find that helpful, either.

It strikes me as extraordinarily insincere much of the time when, on Facebook for example, I read people post that they are praying for someone who is having a tough time.  I know that for some people that is a sincere statement, but it comes across as an advertisement:  "Look at me, and how good a Christian I am, because of the thing I am doing 'for' you that has no consequences for me at all other than I don't play Candy Crush for a few seconds while I do it."

I won't lie--it does feel good to hear that someone is thinking about you when the chips are down. When my grandfather died last year, a dear friend who knows what my true beliefs are reached out to offer her prayers, and I meant it when I said that it meant a lot to me and to my family at the time.  But to hear it repetitively thrown out there, in a cheap and tawdry way, for inconsequential things, is tiresome.  It is also contrary to what the Bible says about prayer. I like the New Living Bible's take on Matthew 6:5:  "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get."  Facebook is the modern street corner.

It seems to me that if you genuinely believe in the power of prayer, the way to accomplish it is to do it without telling people you're praying, because the only one it matters to is God.

I tried for many years to pretend.  I was active in my church youth group, even as a leader.  I appreciated the ritual of Sunday services, of holy communion, of baptism.  I enjoyed the music maybe most of all. The music I found to be moving in an especially poignant way--but there are lots of secular examples of music I find moving, too, in exactly the same way.  In college, I went to church a few times.  More recently, I embraced a sort of churchless Christianity that focused on emulating Jesus--something that I would hope Christians could appreciate.  I read the Jefferson Bible, a work that consists primarily in telling the moral story of Jesus without the benefit of miracles.

I even thought about joining the United Church of Christ, a famously tolerant brand of Christianity, or the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, a famously tolerant brand of spiritualism that is not explicitly Christian.  I decided that neither of them reflected my values. Mostly, they seem to be focused on being spiritual without being religious.  If anything, what I craved was being religious without being spiritual.  (I was once humorously counseled that if I wanted that, I should consider Catholicism.)

I tried really hard.

And over that time, I saw the kind of Christianity that I thought held the most real value for the world--the kind I had experienced as a child--wane in favor of a new form of radical, charismatic evangelical Paulism* that focuses solely on "saving souls" and taking right-wing political beliefs.

* - "Paulism" refers to Pauline Christianity, which focuses on the teachings of Paul, often (in my view) to the exclusion of the teachings of Jesus.

And I came to wonder why I was pretending.

I titled this post "Coming Out" because after 20 years of hiding it, I'm coming out as an atheist.

I am an atheist.  I don't believe in God. Or gods. Or god. Or spirits. Or souls. Or luck. Or fate. Or anything supernatural.

I "believe" in what can be proven or deduced from what is known.  I'm told that makes me a Freethinker. I'm not sure that is entirely appropriate, but it will do for now.

I'm not a homosexual, so I don't know what it's like to be gay and in the closet, or to come out of that closet.  But it seems the same to me in a qualitative way.  It's really a hard thing to do.  I am part of a religious family.  My wife's family, with whom I have a good relationship, is much more religious than my own.  One of my very good friends is studying for the Episcopal priesthood, or at least plans to (I don't know what the exact procedure is, or where he is in it).  I live in a state where religious belief is the norm, where they still pray before public school football games, where there are more state legislators who are guided by their version of evangelical Christianity than are guided by anything else.  Atheists here are devils incarnate according to the prevailing wisdom. 

Some of my friends already know this about me.  I fully expect that some people who are my Facebook friends, and maybe some of my friends in real life, will disassociate themselves from me as a result of this revelation.  If that's how it has to be, so be it.  I have to view it as their loss, if only for my own egotistical purposes. 

But it's something I need to do, to say, because I'm tired of succumbing to the most insidious form of peer pressure the world has ever seen:  the coercion to religious belief.  I am no longer afraid of what others will do to me because I don't believe in the god they do.  I will take my lumps as they come.

But those of you who do believe in God, whomever you might be, shouldn't be afraid of what I'll do to you.  I have no interest in converting you to any form of atheism you don't already embrace privately.  If you truly feel the spirit of God inside you, please understand that I'm happy for you. And if you want to engage in self-deception because you think it will help you, that's fine by me.

I just don't.

If that disappoints you, I'm sorry.  I tried really hard to make it work for a really long time.

In the end, my disagreement with religion crystallized when I heard someone quoting a Bible verse, Proverbs 3:5:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
The third chapter of Proverbs is a paean to submitting graciously to God, to accepting what God gives you, good and bad, without complaint, and to doing right for righteousness' sake.  It is a beautiful piece of poetry, even in the New International Version (which is not known for its poetic value).  There are even some things I agree with in that chapter.  But I find the fifth verse to be utter nonsense in its implications, and it stains not just that chapter or the book, but the whole Bible.

I have spent my whole life as someone who is thought of as "smart."  My intelligence is really not of my own doing; it's good genes and good upbringing. I have never worked hard at being smart. I was a poorer student than I should have been.  My intelligence has mostly served me well in what I do for a living, and in my relationships with other people, because I have the ability to put myself in others' shoes and to see the world as they see it.  That is an invaluable skill to have when the object is to motivate others, or to manipulate them.  But it is mostly not a skill that I have had anything to do with, and there are many people who are naturally smarter than I am, and many more who worked hard and made themselves smarter than I am despite my head start.

As I see it, though, the practice of intelligence isn't about knowing facts so much as it is about engaging in critical thinking.  And Proverbs 3:5 tells us that critical thinking is a bad thing. I cannot accept that.  My ultimate conclusion, as it stands today, is a product of the realization that I cannot ever accept that.

And if I can't accept that, why try to accept any of it?

I believe that there are more people like me than anybody realizes, and that many of you share my view but don't want to admit it because you are worried about what others will think about you, and that you will be ostracized from your friends and fellow worshipers.  I understand that, and I feel it.  The hardest part of publishing these words has been the hurt, or at least disappointment, that they may inflict on people whom I care about very deeply.  Ultimately, this is something I have to do for me.  I hope that one day you will find the strength to be true to your own self first.

I also think that a lot of believers are making Pascal's Wager.  Blaise Pascal, a physicist, mathematician, and Christian apologetic of the 17th century, suggested that even if you have doubts about the existence of God, it is better to err on the side of caution and choose to believe, because even if in doing so you guess wrong, you've lost nothing by believing and everything by not believing.

I understand that, too.  But there is an essential flaw in the reasoning.  If you devote your whole life to believing in something that's just the accumulated lies of a thousand generations, and there is no afterlife, you have lost everything, because this life is all that we have, and you will have wasted it on something that isn't so.

I suppose that some of you choose religion because you don't trust yourself to live the life you should without it.  If religion helps you stay right, if it keeps you off booze or pills, or keeps you faithful to your spouse, or keeps you doing the right thing despite your inner desire to do wrong, then you should stick to it, by all means.

And I think that some of you are absolutely convinced that what you believe is true.  If that causes you to think less of me, because I have admitted to you what I am, then that's OK with me.  Admitting to everyone what I am causes me to think more of me.  Perhaps, when you see what I believe and you see the life that I lead, you will not regard me, or my decision to disavow religion, as something evil.  Above all, my choice not to believe as you do is not an attack on your beliefs.  I do not think less of anyone merely because that person chooses to believe.  We have lived different lives, starting at different places and progressing at different rates.  We should all have the opportunity to come to these decisions for ourselves, whatever they might be.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.  I hope it was worthwhile, and I hope you'll find the time and the courage to share your own, whether here or elsewhere.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Is this some kind of joke?

Earlier today, the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, which is the governing organization for Major League Baseball, issued suspensions to thirteen MLB players, most notably including Alex Rodriguez, for their roles in a scandal regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs provided through Biogenesis, a now-closed South Florida designer drug clinic.

Most of the players receive 50-game suspensions, consistent with MLB's drug policy for first-time offenders, and have agreed to waive the appeals to which they would ordinarily be entitled under the terms of the players' union's collective bargaining agreement, persumably in exchange for leniency.

The exception is Rodriguez, who was suspended through the end of the 2014 season, a total of 211 games and who did not waive his right to appeal.  Rodriguez, ESPN reports, will be allowed to play while his appeal is pending.

My initial reaction to this news, at least as it pertains to Rodriguez, is that this must be some kind of joke.

First, a little background on the scandal that led to today's suspensions:  Documents from the Biogenesis clinic that implicated a number of MLB players were leaked by a former worker to the Miami New Times, which published an investigative report some months ago.  MLB officials, who of course have no subpoena power, managed to convince the director of the closed clinic to cooperate by threatening him with a lawsuit over his interference with MLB's rules and drug policy.  MLB's access to those records led to the identification of today's suspended players, and at least one other, as clients of Biogenesis who received PEDs from the clinic.

I am inclined somewhat toward leniency toward players who used PEDs that were not on the banned substances list at the time they were used, or who perhaps unwittingly used such substances as everyone was turning a blind eye--a sort of "first steroids era" that included players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and to a lesser extent, Barry Bonds.  Those guys will not be in the Hall of Fame, in all likelihood, because they chose to engage in what might be described as moral-but-not-illegal cheating.  By the time steroids came to be addressed by MLB, those guys were largely out of the game anyway.

But now that Baseball has a regime for testing and a structure for punishment, I have very little tolerance for people who more-or-less openly flout the rules. 

MLB's reaction to those players' rulebreaking is incomprehensible to me.

Consider Ryan Braun.  Braun won the 2011 National League MVP award.  Shortly after that, it became public knowledge that a urine sample he provided in October of that year had tested positive for extremely elevated levels of testosterone, which only could have originated through the use of a PED.  MLB suspended Braun for 50 games.  Braun appealed, claiming that the technician who collected the sample on a Friday had failed to deposit the sample with FedEx to be sent to the laboratory on the same day it was collected.  Braun suggested that the technician had tainted the sample while holding it over the weekend, even though there was no evidence of tampering.  Braun's appeal, held before a three-arbitrator panel, was successful; the suspension was overturned.

A few weeks ago, however, when it became clear that Braun had been a client of Biogenesis, had lied to MLB, and had lied during his prior appeal, Braun had a sudden pang of conscience (or a vision that the hammer was about to be dropped on it) and reversed course, agreeing to cooperate with MLB's investigation and accepting a 65-game suspension, through the end of 2013.

Braun will lose a few million dollars in salary for missing those games, and he's lost at least one endorsement deal.  To most people, that would be a big pill to swallow, but Braun keeps the rest of his contract, and the next one will almost certainly be richer.

Alex Rodriguez will lose considerably more money from his suspension, but he will still have $60 million left on his $275 million deal when he is eligible to return in 2015, unless the Yankees can find a way to void his contract.

I've had my beefs with the job Bud Selig has done as Commissioner--most notably, I find giving home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game to be horrible--but this one takes the cake.

If I were the Commissioner, Braun would have received a minimum 3-year ban, and Rodriguez would be out for life.  Both would be free to appeal, but neither would play while his appeal was being heard.

Rodriguez's behavior in particular is simply inexcusable.  First, he is an admitted prior steroid user.  Second, he stonewalled MLB's investigation into his role in Biogenesis, lied about his involvement, and made the process much harder than it had to be.  He offers MLB no assistance; he can't or won't implicate otherwise unknown cheaters.

MLB has all of the evidence necessary to justify a lifetime ban in the best interests of baseball.  It has no incentive to go easier on Rodriguez than a lifetime ban.  And giving him less than the maximum punishment for impugning the integrity of the game sends a signal to other players that MLB is a paper tiger.

If Rodriguez had agreed to a 211-game suspension without an appeal, I could live with that. But what is the point of giving him less than he deserves if he is simply going to fight it?

PEDs are out of control even where there are strong regimes working against them--see Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones and Tyson Gay (geez, Tyson, really?).  Now that MLB has made it clear that it's ready to give players a great deal even if the players are going to fight, it has virtually no chance of stemming the tide.  It's a joke.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fifty random things about me

My good friend Nick Jones, whose blog Malvie's Musings is linked in my blogroll to the right, has challenged me to follow his lead and write fifty random things about myself. The challenge is that they should mostly be things most people don't know about me.  My life is kind of an open book, except for things I don't want anyone to know, so this might be difficult.  But I shall try.

1. There are few things I am more passionate about than cooking and food.  I really enjoy the science of cooking, and specifically about understanding what makes food taste good and what doesn't.

2. In that same vein, I have perfected the art of grilling steaks.  I have brought women literally to the edge of ecstasy with my perfectly grilled sirloin.

3. I have the dirtiest mind of anyone I know.  For example, I really wanted to make a joke in #2 about pleasing women with my meat.

4. I really wanted to make a joke in #3 about saying "#2."

5. I am really terrible at gambling.  Although I don't believe in luck per se, if there really were such a thing, mine would be all bad.  Which is a shame, because I enjoy betting on horses, blackjack, and roulette.  The last time I went to the horse races, I cashed exactly one ticket--a $2 show bet that paid $2.20.

6. Pink is one of my favorite colors.  I would wear it more often except that my lovely wife has a knack for destroying it in the wash.

7.  Because of my, um, unique body type, it is virtually impossible for me to be anonymous in doing anything.  I'd like to think it was also my personality and charm, but I stand out in any crowd.  I was in the veterinarian's office last week, and the tech asked me if I had eaten dinner at a certain restaurant the week before (I had).

8. Because I am a big guy, children tend to be somewhat afraid of me, like I'm going to hit them or sit on them or something.  Which is funny to me, because I'm very nearly the gentlest person I know.

9. I have, on occasion, used that to my advantage when there were unruly children on airplanes. I admit it.

10. I once made a grown man pee his pants during a telephone conference (he was on the other end of the call).  I rarely get angry when speaking with other attorneys, even opposing counsel, but that jackass needed to be put in his place.

11.  I will read almost anything--books, newspapers, the back of cereal boxes, the fine print on a prescription leaflet.

12. However, notwithstanding #11, I don't feel like I'm very good at reading.  I often have to read something two or three times to appreciate all of the fine points.

13. Sometimes I can't turn off the voice in my head that is reading aloud what my eyes are seeing.

14. I'm doing that right now, even as I type.

15. I am very serious about trivia competitions and have the chops to back it up.  I tried out for Jeopardy! and made the cut, but didn't get picked to go on the air (only about 30% do).

16. I was, however, part of a trivia team that took top prize ($7500) in a major competition earlier this year.

17. When I was in the sixth grade, I was part of a school trivia team that won a national trivia competition.  Don't believe me? Here's the proof. Scroll down to the sixth grade division, and check out the 1988 winner (Pine Bluff, AR).

18.  Earlier that year, Rand McNally had named Pine Bluff the worst city in America.  After we won, the local paper ran an editorial singing the praises of our team, the closing line of which was, "Take that, Rand McNally."

19.  I love dogs, and dogs love me.  Especially big dogs, who want to get in my lap for some reason.

20.  Although I speed unrepentantly, at least on the freeway, I have (knock on wood) received exactly one speeding ticket in my life.  The circumstances aren't important, I suppose, but I had to attend a defensive driving course to keep it off my record.

21. The same Saturday I attended the defensive driving course, I received my acceptance letter to Georgetown Law in the mail.  Talk about your mood swings.

22. The following Monday, the dean of the law school at Fayetteville called me at home to encourage me to pick his school.  I explained to him that I had gotten into Georgetown and would be going there instead.  He said, "Well, I don't blame you."

23. I married my high school sweetheart, sort of.  I broke up with her after graduation.  She didn't give up, though, and as usual she was right.  We celebrate 16 years of wedded bliss next Friday.  She is reading this as I type it and says that I don't have to say "bliss."  Not sure what to make of that.  She's saying something about "16 years of what doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

24. Some of the closest friends I have are people I've never actually met in person.  The Internet is a strange place.

25. I have seen every episode of a number of television series I am somewhat ashamed of, including Charmed, Little House on the Prairie, and 7th Heaven.

26. On multiple occasions, I took advantage of my Sam's Club business membership, specifically the early shopping hours, to purchase Harry Potter books on the release day before anyone else could get their hands on them.  I think that qualifies me as a hypernerd.

27. On Michelle's and my first date, a football game in Watson Chapel, followed by dinner at Taco Bell (high school high cuisine!), I nearly wrecked the car to avoid hitting a dead Dalmatian that was in the middle of the highway.

28. My first Christmas gift to Michelle was a small Dalmatian statue.  We still have it more than 20 years later.

29. I proposed to Michelle so that she would be less upset with me after I killed her fish (trying to be helpful, I cleaned the tank and let the water get too cold).  At least that's how we joke about it.  I had been planning to ask her anyway.

30. I feel pangs of conscience when I kill a bug.

31. But not mice. I will send them to hell with a broom.

32. When I was young and stupid, I once drove from Little Rock to Sheridan (distance: 31 miles) in 22 minutes.  I might have been racing some other young and stupid classmates home after we met for dinner.  I believe I won, but I was so scared that I had succeeded in getting back to town without being stopped or wrecking that I just went straight home to bed.

33. I might have had (and have) the coolest parents ever.  I never had a curfew.  All I had to do was tell them what time I'd be home, and to call if I was going to be late.

34. However, I was so uptight in high school that I never seriously challenged their policy.  I say "uptight" because one of my best friends from that time, and today, told me recently that I was.  I prefer to think I was just sensible.

35. I have a degree in physics, but I remember almost none of what I learned, and I am certain I couldn't hack the math if my life depended on it.

36. I have filed more lawsuits involving infringement of karaoke-related intellectual property rights than any other lawyer on earth.

37. I am not embarrassed by #36.  In fact, I am sort of proud of it.

38. I have attended 24 karaoke shows in a single seven-day period.

39. My record is 7 in one night.

40. The first time I ever argued at a federal court of appeals, Kenneth Starr argued the case heard immediately before mine.  Also, he was awful.

41. I know all of the words to "Baby Got Back" and have performed them publicly to the great delight and surprise of my high school classmates.  Uptight, my ass.

42. I do not like to ride in cars.  Perhaps it's a control thing, but I would rather drive than ride almost anytime.  I routinely drove the 13 hours between Charlotte and Little Rock, even though Michelle was available to drive (and is an excellent driver).

43. I regret #42 whenever my phone beeps with an email or text while I'm driving, because it takes everything in me not to read it.  (Mantra:  It can wait.)

44.I can speak with a flawless British accent.

45. Okay, #44 is a lie, but I can do a serviceable Russian accent, which I have used to great comic effect at times.

46. Although I grew up in the South, most of the time I speak with a standard Midwestern accent.  The only apparent exception, which I do not hear even in my own voice, is that when I say the word "dollar," it comes out Carolina-style, as "dollah."  That is apparently what 11 years of living in North Carolina got me.

47. When I am trying to be charming, my Southern roots show, though.  My speech gets slower, the accent gets turned on, I start droppin' Gs, and my word choices become more colorful.  This effect is particularly pronounced in the various federal courtrooms of the Deep South.

48. I have lived my entire life south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Which is pretty far north, if you ask me.

49. I started programming computers at age 6, working on a Televideo Systems TS-802 in my father's office.  I never really stopped, though today I work mostly in PHP and Javascript.

50. My favorite city that I've never lived in or near is probably Phoenix.  There's just something about being in a hair dryer that really makes my heart sing.

Well, I didn't think I could do it, but here we are.