Friday, May 18, 2007

Better Living Through Chemistry

Oh. My. God.

It all starts sanely enough. Floyd Landis finally gets his day in court, and the case begins to unfold before an arbitration panel. The question at hand is a very technical one, and no one in the media is paying close attention to the arguments, with the exception of a handful of obsessives. [raising hand] I admit to some curiosity. If it can be proved that the labs were grossly negligent, then the positive test result is called into question. The first three and a half days of testimony are fairly routine. Dull as dust, but going pretty well for Landis and company. They make a few salient points. LNDD's chain of custody is pretty shoddy. They have a fairly relaxed understanding of blind testing, and when it comes to the press they leak like a sieve. Does any of this seriously compromise the test results? That's for the arbitrators to decide. Be that as it may, things were looking pretty good for Team Landis.

But then, things gurgled noisily down the toilet when Greg LeMond took the stand.

Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France, and one of only eight riders to win it three times or more. His reputation has suffered of late because of numerous criticisms he's laid against Lance Armstrong. Nevertheless, he knows wherefrom he speaks, and he cannot be dismissed out of hand.

What he actually had to say was not especially interesting, in a sense, since LeMond claimed months and months ago that Landis had implicitly admitted doping in a private phone call. This much is old news, old enough that I'd forgotten it. The bombshell was that, the night before, Landis' business manager had left LeMond a voice mail, obviously intended to intimidate LeMond. I shan't go into the sordid details of that message, they're easy enough to find if you're interested. But the implications are shocking. And it's made me think.

This is a huge unforced error for Landis' team. Greg LeMond is a cyclist, not a scientist, and can not possibly have anything to say relevant to laboratory testing protocols and procedures. So why bother contacting him at all? Especially when your case seems to be going well so far? Mind you, the bombshell does bugger-all to further USADA's case. Yes, it was a reprehensible and dishonorable thing to have done. Yes, it was a felony under California law.Yes, it proves conclusively that Landis' manager is dumber than a bag of hammers. Yes, LeMond's testimony might be thrown out anyway as being irrelevant to the case. But...

It makes me think back to that day in July, and look more critically at what took place.

Testosterone has a fairly short half-life within the body. The kidneys process out any excess fairly rapidly, generally in a few hours. This short half-life is what cheaters rely on. If you only use a little bit, and drink plenty of water, the evidence is left on a roadside somewhere. And, testosterone use actually does have some short-term benefits: it increases aggressiveness, and energy.

Looking back, what I remember seeing was a man on fire, face lined with rage, drinking a seemingly endless supply of water. "Hydrating like King Neptune" was a phrase I remember a commentator using that day.

Well, hell. The circumstantial evidence starts to look pretty bad at this point, doesn't it?

Which means exactly squat, as far as the hearing goes. The hearing isn't about the circumstantial aspect, it's about the physical evidence, and the test results. But now, even if he wins the hearing, Landis' public relations case has taken a hit at the waterline.

Because, seeing what I've seen and knowing what I know, it's awfully hard for me to come to any other conclusion but that he's guilty as charged.

Brave New World?

Every so often, I get to wondering about the future, and how things will be. My overall impression is that while things are never going to be quite as nice as some futurists would have you believe, neither will they be quite as bad as the doom-criers say. We'll muddle along, much as we always have. Well, maybe...

Because, every so often, something happens that forever changes what follows.

For example, the last hundred years changed two fundamental facts about the human condition. For most of our history, no one ever moved faster than a horse could gallop. And for most of our history, doctors were pretty much confined to treating the symptoms of disease. In the last hundred years that has changed. Now, at least in the industrialized world, we have unprecedented mobility: cars, planes, trains, you name it. Also, many diseases can be treated quite effectively with modern medicines. Doctors can fight back against disease now, and win more than they lose, these days.

This has changed us in ways we don't often think about. Our cities look vastly different, now. They're sprawling and decentralized. It's easy to tell a city that grew up before the automobile. It's got a well-defined city center, and people still live there. It's got a great subway system. And almost no one drives. As much as people bemoan urban sprawl, that bell isn't likely to be un-rung. People like living in the suburbs, and like the convenience of driving, for the most part.

Anyway, what will the next hundred years bring? Charles Sheffield is a science fiction author, which means he speculates on the future for a living. He's got some interesting conjectures. Money quote:

Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.

He's extrapolating the convergence of two technologies here: the ubiquity of GPS technology, combined with the ubiquity of mass storage. The social changes this will bring about are quite astonishing, when you sit down to think about them. Further, Andrew Sullivan linked to a rather interesting line of research being pursued at a university in Germany. Apparently, your brain is very nimble when it comes to interpreting new sources of sensory data. You can learn to "see" by touch-sense input on your back, even on your tongue. Wild ... And there's more, like the compass belt Andrew mentions in the snip that he listed. If you always know which way is north, the world begins to look different to you.

As an engineer, I tend to see tools as the means by which we shape our environment. I tend to think about shaping tools to solve a particular problem at hand. But to what extent do our tools shape us? And is this something we should start worrying about?

Or should we just embrace it?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

And Then There Were Two

Sad news today: Wally Schirra is dead of a heart attack today, age 84.

Only two of our original seven Mercury astronauts are left alive: John Glenn, 86, and Scott Carpenter, 82. Wouldn't it be somewhat ironic if Glenn, the oldest by far of the original seven, would also be the longest-lived?

Grissom was the first to go, in his prime, at the relatively young age of 41. He was only 33 when selected. Could anyone even qualify today, at age 33? It was a different world, then, and many of the most qualified test pilots either didn't meet NASA's requirements (Yeager) or just didn't want the job (Crossfield). Grissom was also the only one of the seven so far not to die of natural causes.

Deke Slayton was next, in 1993, of a brain tumor. Then Alan Shepard died in 1998 of leukemia. Gordo Cooper, one of the more colorful and interesting characters in the Mercury story, died of Parkinson's in 2004. And now, Wally.

Which is inevitable, of course. Time catches up to everyone, eventually. But it's still sad, and still diminishes us, when living minds who witnessed such great things are no longer with us. But we who are left behind can remember, and teach our children to remember.

Because hereoes never really die, as long as their stories are freshly re-told.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What Can We Do?

If there is one perfectly predictable result from the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, it's that lessons would be learned almost immediately, and that they would be the wrong lessons. Dr. Pournelle wrote much the same after the Columbine shootings, and not much has changed in our body politic since then.

Predictable response number one: calls for more gun control.

And this would have helped ... how? Virginia Tech was already a gun-free zone, and there's already a law against murdering your classmates. Besides, "gun-free zone" derives from the ancient Sanskrit phrase meaning "target-rich environment." A bit of prompt return fire might have cut his spree short, don't you think? But any time is a good time for the usual suspects to take more weapons out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. Feh.

Predictable response number two: super-vigilant crackdown on "suspicious writings."

While this makes sense on the surface, and comes a little closer to the mark, it still doesn't address the root problem ...

Generally speaking, I detest "root problem" arguments. They're a shuck, a dodge. They allow an intellectual to bloviate, pontificate, and otherwise wax eloquent, looking very in-touch and knowledgeable, without any messy necessity to actually try to solve the problem at hand. But at the same time, band-aid solutions are scarcely any kind of solution at all, when we're talking about problems of behavior that have roots that are decades deep. Cracking down on students who turn in works of "creative" writing full of violent fantasies isn't going to help much. The roots of what's going to cause him to snap run deeper than that.

But what can we do about it? Because we all know what the problem is, don't we?

We have a kind of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" acceptance of bullying in our schools. Boys will be boys, and all that rot. After all, any TV program about high school will show you that there are the cool kids, and then there are the nerds, and of course the nerds have to be ridiculed and humiliated.

If he'd had one real friend, just one, would he have gone off the deep end like that?

Mind you, he might have: sometimes something's just not right with the wet-ware. Wet-ware problems scare people. We don't understand them, and really don't know how to deal with them. Sometimes we can treat them with medication, sometimes not. Sometimes we can identify a physical cause and remedy, sometimes not. Sometimes they just go away, as mysteriously as they came.

But sometimes, monsters are made, not born.

But what can we do? As parents, we can do our best to insist that our children not mistreat their peers. Tell them, and show them by our actions, that making fun of the weird kid is not OK. Encourage them to befriend them instead, and be nice to them. Be the one who makes their lives better, not worse. And for those of us who are teachers, stress the same things with your students. But I don't have to tell you that, do I? You see it every day, and surely know the situation far better than I.

The only real answer here is one of the most difficult things that I know of: loving the unlovable, and becoming instruments of mercy and grace. Love is the only thing that can heal the wounds of bitterness and hatred. As it was written so long ago: "And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13)