Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eloquent Confusion

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is a great example of eloquent confusion. The Amendment reads, in its entirety: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

It sure sounds impressive, but what the heck does it mean? The Amendment was written by some pretty smart guys who undoubtedly spent a lot of time hashing out the wording. Even given that it was written a long time ago, and the language has evolved, it still is undecipherable.

People have argued for decades whether they're talking about individual rights or collective rights of a militia to bear arms. The Supreme Court decided today that it means that individuals do indeed have the right to arm themselves. It's a narrowly constructed decision and there are lots of caveats that will encourage a steady stream of lawsuits to further flesh out what was meant.

One simple reminder I've taken away from this case is that the legal profession thrives on resolving the meaning of poorly drafted documents. I wish that I had spent a little bit more effort paying attention in my English composition classes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is Golf a Sport?

Following up on my post last week: Is Tiger The Best Athlete?, I ran across a great article today by Michael Lewis which questions whether golf is a sport at all.

Just to give you a flavor of his argument, he talks about how Tiger Woods played the US Open on a broken leg. He says, citing those who defend golf as a sport: "A golfer is proving once and for all that our game is a test of deep character and physical courage.

See: Golfers play hurt!

See: You can even get hurt playing golf!!!

Well, you can get hurt playing darts, too. Or hiking. Bowling can be seriously hazardous, if you don't know what you're doing. Play with enough passion and you can even injure yourself in a spirited game of Monopoly. (I once cut my finger grabbing Park Place.)

It's absurd when you get hurt bowling, just as it is absurd when you get hurt playing golf -- or would be if golf assumed its rightful classification among curious outdoor hobbies, on the same mental shelf as scuba diving and tai chi chuan".

If you like, you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Well, this kind of resonates with me. I also wonder about whether synchronized swimming is a sport. How about a whole bunch of other activities that people who don't speak English as a first language play or root for, like bocce ball?

I don't really know what it takes for an activity to be defined as a sport. So, I looked it up. Sports can be defined as "an active diversion requiring physical exertion and competition". Under this definition, I guess that all the activities cited are sports. I'm just not so sure.

Surely, all True Americans would argue that baseball, football and basketball are sports. And all Canadians and at least 20,000 fans in each NHL city in the U.S. would have no problem declaring that hockey is a true sport. But, in the case of basketball and football, those participating in the sport have to be pretty large. In fact, they're not normal humans at all.

I think we should modify the definition of sport to say that it has to be played by normal sized humans to qualify. Professional football and basketball can then be classified as spectacles to be watched for their performance qualities, much like opera or professional wrestling.

I could go on and on with this. I've clearly drifted off of the question that started this entire screed. I just don't know whether golf is a sport in the same way that I think baseball and hockey are sports. If this is the case, I'm further inclined to believe that, in answer to the question I posed last week, Tiger Woods is not the greatest athlete.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Atheists and Agnostics Believe in God

I'm not making this up. According to a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported today, one of every five people who identified themselves as atheist and more than half of those who identified as agnostic said they believed in God. You can read about the entire survey by clicking here. Another review of the survey is located on this site.

I'm absolutely stunned. Do 20% of the atheists not know that the definition of atheist is:"
one who believes that there is no deity"? Do more than 50% of the agnostics not know that the definition of "agnostic" is: " a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable"?

Either they're incredibly uninformed about their lack of religion or they are just telling the people who call them what they think is politically correct. If it's the latter, then the whole phone survey business may be in substantial doubt.

Usually when the phone rings at dinnertime, it's one of two callers. One, an "affiliate" of some credit card company from which I neglected to opt out of receiving calls. Or, two, it's a political survey asking for my opinions (and usually a contribution to someone's campaign).

If those receiving the calls are like me, they terminate the "affiliate" calls pretty quickly. However, I wonder if people are just too nice to hang up on the friendly people who conduct the surveys. Perhaps they agree to take the survey, but don't always tell the honest truth about sensitive subjects. Religion is certainly one such subject. Others are gay marriage and whether they will vote for a person of color. Both of these topics are of current interest to pollsters. Could polls on both be in error?

Recent exit polls during the Democratic Party presidential primary voting often showed substantial differences from the actual results. It seems to me that the simple answer is that people don't always tell the truth.

By the way, if you'd like to watch a totally politically incorrect answer to the question of religion, I recommend George Carlin's classic routine. Click here to view it. I caution you about his choice of language.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Remembered

As opposed to my feelings last week when Tim Russert passed away, yesterday's demise of George Carlin left me feeling not remorseful, but in a mood to remember his best rants.

One of my earliest memories was the "Hippy Dippy Weatherman". In it, he forecast that tonight it would be "dark". He said that it would become somewhat "lighter" in the morning.

His more recent comments on saving the planet and man's true purpose on earth may have some truth. He said man's' purpose was not procreation, but the invention of plastic. If you've got some time to spare, you can check it out by clicking here.

Beware, however, that you may fall into the trap of saying: "I'll just watch another one" and find that like most internet searches, you've blown half an hour and not learned a heck of a lot. Also, he uses some pretty salty language.

One more comment on George Carlin. He was incredibly bright and articulate. I always marveled at how he could remember long strings of words and long rants. I think he'd been clean for a long time, but I wonder if his earlier drug use finally did him in. He was an interesting character.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Do We Age?

I've read that the purpose of life is to reproduce and continue our species. Darwin says that we have evolved to that purpose. So, if that's all true, why do we age?

When we meet an attractive person, all our instincts say: "reproduce". And, especially for men, it says: "do it now, before the opportunity is lost". But, as we get older, we age and our attractiveness to the opposite sex wanes.

The logical reason for this is that the likelihood of having healthy offspring is enhanced if we mate with someone who is physically fit. One major indicator of health is that you look attractive.

But, wouldn't it be better for the continuation of the species if we didn't age at all. The mating would continue for that much longer with all of these attractive people continuing to meet each other. Then, one day, when it was no longer advantageous to the species, we could just expire.

I'm just asking.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Should Cheating Be Legalized?

It seems to me that cheating has been a part of sports since they began. The basic concept is that if you don't get caught, it's not a crime.

I'm sure that everyone drives faster than the posted speed limit now and then. However, do you think of this as a crime? I suspect that most people would say no if it's only slightly above the speed limit and they feel they are not driving unsafely. But legally, they are breaking the law, even if it's just a technical matter.

Well, in sports a similar mindset can (and does) lead to fudging on the rules. As long as you don't get caught, why not try to get a competitive advantage? We just wink or nod, and sometimes actually smile when we learn about the attempts.

For example, baseball is replete with cases where players have tried techniques that clearly are violations. Pitchers used to routinely throw doctored balls. Now, it's rarer, but it still happens. A fielder will frequently throw up his glove and show off a ball, claiming to have made a catch when the ball has already hit the ground. Batters use corked bats or claim to have been hit by a pitch when they haven't. Perhaps the most famous baseball case of cheating is when the 1951 NY Giants rigged up an elaborate system using binoculars along with electronic and hand signals to steal and relay to the batter the catcher's signs to the pitcher. That scheme remained a secret among the perpetrators for over 50 years.

In hockey, players use illegal sticks or routinely clutch and grab when the referee's vision is blocked. Holding and push-off techniques that are hard for officials to spot are employed in football and basketball. The New England Patriots were caught videotaping their opponents' signs. In soccer, players should get Oscars for their performances when faking injuries. I could go on and on. For most sports, there is a continuing quest to gain an edge using various physical ploys that are outside of the rules.

Beyond all this and topping the list of current concerns, the use of chemical "enhancers" is now perceived to be rampant in all sports. This is thought by many to be far more pernicious than the physical schemes since it may leave the user with permanent side effects.

But do we really want to ban all attempts at cheating, or do we actually enjoy this as a separate facet of the game itself? Does it add a little more intrigue?

Well, if that's the case, maybe all this stuff should be legalized. Unfortunately, that would create a drastically different game or even total chaos. That's why the rules are there in the first place. But, just to add a little spice, the officials should be rewarded for catching the tricksters more than they are today. Maybe, at the end of the season, the official who detects the most clever violation gets an all-expense paid trip to visit NBA referee Tim Donaghy in his cozy new home.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Airline Business

I wonder what it is like to run an airline. The industry is only a little less unpopular than George W. Bush, your friendly cable company and the IRS. Whatever you do, people complain.

They have one heck of a business model. They are selling all their seats (been on a flight with fewer than 99% of seats filled recently?) and they are still losing money. They have to do something. Well, here's what they are doing.

1. Sell fewer seats. This must be a good idea, I guess, since they're all doing it. At the logical extreme, they each sell no seats at all. Then, the seats can be priced infinitely high. The only minor snag is that there are no planes flying and no seats available to sell. They're obviously assuming that the public will quickly adjust to this minor inconvenience.

2. Unbundle service. Well, first of all, to call these unbundled items "service" is a slight stretch. The list of "services" they are now charging for includes checking a bag, getting a reservation for a seat, being served food or beverages, and, ...well, you get the idea. I suppose the airlines could charge extra if you want a guarantee that the plane will actually land in a specific city that you choose ahead of time. It would be a heck of a lot less bother for the airlines if they could just fill up their planes as passengers arrived at the airport and fly them to wherever was most convenient.

3. Complain to Congress. It used to be that the airlines were regulated. The most successful airlines employed hoards of lawyers with the proper political skills and made lots of money. The downside was that the government decided who could fly a specified route and what price they could charge. Maybe they should return to those days again. There must be hundreds of unemployed lobbyists available now that Obama and McCain have banned them from their campaigns.

I'm sure that there are many more creative ideas that the airline executives could use. Feel free to post any that I've missed. They may pay you if they adopt your idea (although you'll probably have to sue them first).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Tiger the Best Athlete?

On Monday, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open. His win reaffirmed the fact that he is, far and away, the best golfer on the planet. Maybe the best ever. He's being hailed as some sort of super-human being. But is he the best athlete in the world today?

In basketball, even though his team got trounced last night in the NBA finals, Kobe Bryant is surely the best basketball player. In baseball, it's probably A-Rod who is the best. In hockey, this year, and probably for the next several years, it's Sidney Crosby. In tennis, Roger Federer is the man. I can't think of the best football player since the 49ers have been so bad that my mind just freezes up when I consider the NFL. And I have no clue who the best soccer player is since I'm an American citizen.

I simply do not know how you can declare that any one of the players I named is better than the others, since they each have different skill sets that have been honed since childhood in their chosen sport.

You can then argue that since Tiger is so much better than the guy in second place in his sport that he must be the best athlete overall. But, it seems to me that you have to consider the mental skill and athletic ability of the other players in each sport. Perhaps, for example, there are lots of more skilled and athletic players who participate in baseball than golf. Then, is it fair to say that just because Tiger is so much better than the next guy, he must be the best athlete?

I'm not sure that this is the most important issue of our day. However, since I've temporarily given up on solving world hunger, global warming, or figuring out whether Britney will get her children back, it is the top issue of my day.

Addendum added on Friday 6/20/08-- The Wall Street Journal has a relevant article today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

School Is Out

School is out this week. Yes, indeed, I remember that feeling well.

I have few memories from my childhood that are more pleasant than the last day of the elementary school year. Not that I was a particularly poor student. I was just not particularly fond of the drudgery associated with school attendance five days a week for what seemed like an eternity.

I remember feeling like I had been released from prison as I walked, or sometimes skipped, home from elementary school. Summer was a time to read and get geared up for the challenges of the next grade, or so I recall being told.

If that was the goal, I don't remember accomplishing it too often. In fact, what usually happened during the summer is that I forgot most of what I learned during the previous school year. I spent the summers at the beach, riding my bicycle, playing ball, or just sitting around.

After about a month of this, I would get bored. And then the unthinkable happened. I began to look forward to the start of the new school year. What a bummer!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Money, Money, Money and Money

I used to think that I understood money. Well, I've decided that I really don't.

If you want to get a headache, try reading the Wikipedia article on money. It's pretty darn confusing. Did you know that there are four different types of money? There's commodity money, representative money, credit money and fiat money. I'm sure that there's an economist somewhere that's defined a few more versions of money.

The type that really confuses me is fiat money. This is the paper stuff that we carry around in our wallets. In the case of the US, it used to be that you could turn it in to the Federal Reserve Bank and get a fixed amount of gold in return. Well, actually, that was true for foreigners only, since the government made it illegal for US residents to own any gold, except in jewelery. They relaxed that restriction when they canceled their promise to redeem dollars for gold, so it's OK for everyone to own gold now.

If you want to turn your paper money into the Feds today, the only thing they promise in return is to give you more of the same paper money.

How is it possible that we accept these (admittedly attractive) pieces of colored paper as having value? If the government wants to create more money, one simple thing they can do is just print more of it. They have other ways as well, but that would just get us more confused. Nevertheless, I can walk into the grocery store and trade some of this paper for a loaf of bread, no questions asked. I can get a car, or convince a girl to marry me, if I have enough of this stuff. Pretty amazing!

To make things even worse, each government around the world has it's own version of money. Conveniently, they trade against each other in the International Money Market. So anytime the mood strikes you, you can trade your U.S. Dollars for European Euros, for example, if you like. By the way, you don't have to swap your US Dollars for Lira, Francs, Marks, Shilling or a bunch of other obsolete European currencies, like in the pre-Euro days. And, of course, in case you ever worry about their intrinsic value, you guessed it, the Euros can always be redeemed for more Euros.

I think this fiat money is pretty cool. I just don't understand why the government won't let me print up some of my own money. They let the casinos in Las Vegas do it. They manufacture chips and put numbers on the chips and you can buy stuff with it. You can even get some very attractive women to spend time with you if you give them enough of the right color chips.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Passing of Tim Russert

The sudden passing of Tim Russert at the age of 58 last Friday hit me almost like losing a family member. During the past several months, as the Presidential Primary season wore on, his seemingly unending presence on TV became a constant part of my life. I always enjoyed his enthusiasm and expertise.

I wonder why the medical staff couldn't save him. He apparently was attended to by paramedics and was rushed to a hospital very shortly after he was stricken . The reports say he died from a plaque that broke loose in a coronary artery and lodged in his heart. Also, with his wealth, I'm sure that he received good preventive medical care before the fatal event. Yet, the condition persisted.

Besides the pain of loss, I was violently reminded of the reality of my own mortality. In the past, as a result of similar tragedies, usually I resolved to make some constructive action to better my life in some way. But, shortly thereafter, life returns to usual. Somehow, whatever resolve I had fades away. It sure is hard to change.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Baseball Tradition

Today, I'm focused on baseball. I watched my 8 year old grandson play in his final game of the Little League season. I was impressed by how skilled the players had become over the past several months. They also matured to the point where they could stand in the field for extended periods of time. Even though it was an All-Star game, the pitchers walked batter after batter. In the beginning of the year, they would be looking at the ground or playing with the dirt. Now they can keep their attention on the game, only occasionally wandering away from the "action".

Two things strike me about this. One: Why have 8 year olds pitching instead of using a pitching machine? Two: Baseball can be incredibly boring if you don't grow up with it. My father grew up with it. I grew up with it. My son grew up with it. My grandson is growing up with it. The tradition lives on.


This is my first post. This blog will contain opinions that are mine alone. I may be incorrect from time to time, but I will never be in doubt. Feel free to comment, criticize or chastise. Hopefully, the result will be a more informed opinion.

The topics will vary. They will include sports, politics, finance and whatever else strikes my fancy.