Saturday, January 26, 2013

I will run marathons, but probably never the Boston Marathon.

Today, I ran 22 miles as part of my training for the February 17 Livestrong Austin Marathon. For the first time, I felt certain I could have completed the full marathon distance. Elated, I contemplated running in future marathons, which has always been the intent, provided this first one isn't overly brutal. My wife asked me if I wanted to ever try Boston. I decided to check the required qualifying times.

Not happening. Today, I ran 22 miles in a few minutes over the time I would have needed to qualify for Boston. I might get faster eventually, I guess--but I'd basically have to run a full marathon like I currently run a 5k, at a pace of about a 7:03 minute mile. Sometimes, I suppose it's good to recognize one's limitations.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns Kill People

I try to stay away from political subjects. I find that, when discussing politics, people tend to reduce complex issues into narrow soundbites, and quickly become angry. I prefer to avoid the subject all together, to avoid discord. (I'm a lawyer who dislikes conflict--I know how strange that sounds). I also tend to think that people overestimate the degree to which politics impacts one's everyday life.

Still, I feel compelled to collect my thoughts around one narrow part of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. (I can barely stand to refer to the events in all but the most oblique terms). Various individuals--pundits, and social media users--immediately began to incorporate political arguments into discussion of the tragedy. Gun control and religion in schools seemed the two most popular angles. Some handled this better than others.

My initial impulse was to scream, "shut up and mourn!" However, I retreated from this view. Politics are important, despite the extent to which they are debased by pundits and practitioners. Many political issues may not truly matter, but some do. And, here, I think, we have a situation in which real policies (i.e., meaningful gun control) might have prevented a tragedy. I do not, ultimately, think it is disrespectful to the victims or the tragedy itself to examine how such tragedies may be prevented in the future. One might even argue that earnest efforts to prevent future tragedies gives their deaths some measure of meaning, while ignoring difficult questions about causation and prevention only renders their deaths more senseless. (I say "one might even argue" because, to me, the murder of kindergartners is so horrific as to remove it from platitudes about "meaning.").

My own feelings about gun control are pragmatic. I have no moral beliefs either way. A gun is a tool that people use to enhance their coercive force. Coercion is necessary in both the public and private spheres, however much an idealistic pacifist may wish otherwise. A gun can be a force for justice in the hands of someone trying to protect his or her family, or a force for evil in the hands of a different individual, such as Adam Lanza. The gun does, however, increase the destructive capabilities of anyone who takes the gun in hand. In the end, I put my faith in probability and statistics. If reducing access to guns (moderately to severely) would, ultimately, save lives, then I favor strict gun control. If more people are saved by the deterrent of owning a gun, then I think more law-abiding citizens should buy one. I'm not here to debate the statistics, at the moment.

That brings me to an anti-gun control argument--more a talisman or motto, though people take it seriously--that is bereft of logical or persuasive force. Yet, despite its intellectual bankruptcy, the argument is advanced by fairly reasonable people on a regular basis: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Garbage.

Let's first look at this argument from a strictly causative perspective. The argument is false. When a perpetrator murders a victim using a gun, both the gun (and the bullet) are causative agents, as well as the perpetrator who pulled the trigger. But-for the gun, and the bullet, the victim would still be alive.

Now, a more sophisticated anti-gun control advocate might suggest that the perpetrator might find another tool. That might be true. Still, in the strict sense, we're talking about a counterfactual. The perpetrator did not use some other weapon. The perpetrator chose a gun. Thus, you can't dissociate the gun from the murder when arguing causality

Next, to wrap up the other major defense of the "guns-don't-kill-people" mantra, we come to volition. I would agree with this position in the limited sense that a gun is not morally blameworthy. But, then, neither are all sorts of items that we do not hesitate to ban (crack cocaine isn't morally blameworthy for ruining the lives of those who abuse it, either). However, acknowledging that a gun is not morally blameworthy just begs the question: can one separate the object of the perpetrator (the murder) from the modality of the murder (the gun)?

Perpetrators choose guns for an obvious reason. Adam Lanza, specifically, didn't bring a samurai sword (or a bow, club, or knife) to that elementary school. He chose a gun. Adam Lanza had a reason for wanting a gun to accomplish his vile purpose: guns are more effective weapons and make killing easier and faster. And, he didn't stop with just any old gun. No, he (legally) procured an assault rifle, knowing that its capacity for mass killing outstripped that of an ordinary gun. In fact, guns are used in more than 60% of all homicides, demonstrating empirically that guns are the preferred choice of murderers in the United States. (

I'm sure that, in some undetermined percentage of gun-caused homicides, the perpetrator wanted badly enough to kill his victim that the attainability of a gun was ultimately inconsequential. The perpetrator would have killed using a different tool. I'm also sure that, at other times, the availability of the gun is a but-for cause of the death or, in a mass-murder, some of the deaths. (The reasons are obvious: it's easier to escape or disarm an individual using a less potent weapon; guns make violence easier). Again, I'm a pragmatist, and I don't pretend to know definitively how many murders making guns harder to obtain would prevent. My objection here is simply the bad argument that so many people seem to embrace.

Guns kill people. A gun is a causative agent of death in the strict sense that the bullet fired from the gun results in a victim's death. More broadly, a gun can be a but-for cause of the death because not all gun-caused murders would occur if guns were more difficult to obtain. Twenty kindergartners died, yesterday, after being shot by a person wielding a gun. I think it's time to dispense with hollow, illogical assertions that have value only as soundbites.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Championships are a form of measurement

A mighty cheer was heard across the nation (especially via Twitter!) these last two weeks as a college football playoff has been planned. I think people are actually more collectively pleased by the end of the BCS than the implementation of a playoff--but that's human nature for you.

Personally, I'm agnostic about the entire thing, despite the fact that one of my two teams (Texas) would have benefited from a playoff in 2008. (Of course, Texas would have had to play an additional game in 2005--but Vince Young sneers at the notion that any other team would have taken home the hardware that year). Some years, there is a clear-cut #1 and #2 team. Other years, not so much.

What I ultimately reject is the idea that any playoff system is designed to crown the "best" team as champion. the champion is the team that the rules of a tournament deem to have won the games that matter most according to the rules of the tournament. That doesn't mean the team is the best.

To take an extreme example, nobody would seriously contend that the Cup champion of a European soccer association is, in fact, the best team in the country. Liverpool won the FA Cup this year in England (the FA cup is England's highest rated knockout tournament). Liverpool, however, finished in 8th--an astounding 37 points behind Manchester City and Manchester United. Both Manchester City and Manchester United had records of 28/5/5. Liverpool went 14/10/14. Forgetting Liverpool for a moment, teams from lower divisions of English soccer (such as Millwall a few years back) have actually made the final and (in the more distant past) eight such teams have even won the cup.

In England, the Premier League Champion is considered the best team in the land. The FA Cup seems generally considered to measure something quite different, such as the ability to rise to the occasion. It captures magic, not excellence. Manchester City were the best team in England; Liverpool caught lightning in a bottle.

Today, Andy Staples--a writer I generally admire--engaged fans on Twitter, ultimately defended the playoff method of crowning champions, suggesting that the Giants (a 9-7 team) were worth champions because they "beat the best teams when it mattered most."

With respect, that's a tautology and, therefore, basically worthless. Any team that wins according to the rules prescribed by that competition will be the legitimate winner, no matter how absurd those rules happen to be. Nobody claims that the Giants did not deservedly win the Super Bowl. The question is, rather, whether the fact that the Giants won the Super Bowl really proves they're the best team. Although we like to think that the better team wins when it matters most, that's simply not true. We acknowledge this "error rate"--if that's what we want to call it--by having multiple-game series in sports like basketball and baseball. Could you imagine a World Series being decided by a one game playoff? In a sport where all but the worst teams win 70 games a year? One might as well throw dice. In football, the best teams do tend to win more often, but Vegas will tell you that even a severe underdog generally has a reasonably decent percentage chance of victory. The odds of "the best" true talent team winning 3 or 4 football games in a row (and thus the Super Bowl) are considerably less than 50%. The Super Bowl champion, then, is *usually* not the best team in the sport.

Championships are determined by rules that attempt, crudely, to measure excellence. Any playoff format in a single-elimination tournament is going to serve as a very crude instrument to measure that excellence. I understand that we can't really have, say, a European soccer league table to determine the winner because the 100+ college football teams don't all play each other home and away. But, there's something to be said for the notion that the worth of a team is better revealed by how it performs all season than in a playoff tacked on at the end.

{roponents of the playoff are confusing accuracy (of "correctly" selecting the best team) with legitimacy (having a system that we feel is fair). The advantage of the playoff system over the BCS is not that it more often selects the "best" team--in fact, I suspect the opposite might be true. Rather, the advantage is that we feel it is more likely to give a shot to teams that otherwise might not have an equal opportunity to compete. The result of a single game might be random, but it is not unfair.

Ultimately, I think that being clear about just what we want out of our champions would improve the discussion. Do we want to select the "best" team? Or do we want the most "fair" process? Championships are tautologies. Any competition provides its own criteria for greatness. Let's be honest, however, about what we're measuring.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Half-Marathon - Complete

I finished a half-marathon today: the Dallas Rock n'Roll. For any interested, it was smoothly run, albeit crowded, as I imagine any of the Rock'n'Roll events are. Public transport to and from the event via the DART functioned surprisingly well. Time was 1:56:27.

I knew my heart, lungs, and muscles would be fine--but I had serious concerns about my knees. They've been prohibitively painful after just 4 miles, lately. I'd strengthened them to withstand about 10 miles, before my soccer-related quad injury, which led to a total reboot of the knee pain. Thirty-one feels older some days than others.

In any event, I took Ibuprofen before the race (I generally do not use it), and the knee pain was never more than an annoyance. I actually progressively quickened my pace throughout the race. By about mile 10, when I felt confident that my knees wouldn't betray me, I actually sped up to about a 7:30 minute mile. The last mile I ran at 7:00.

I still remember struggling to run 2.5 miles--after regular practice--ten years ago. I was much younger, then. I remain curious as to why my running ability has improved so drastically later in life. I quit running at about 24, then resumed at 27--with much improved results. Yet, my joints are more painful, now--and if I kick a soccer ball without warming up, I strain my quads. In most ways, I'm in much better shape. I weigh less, I can run farther, I have better muscle tone. But, part of me wishes I'd had a peak period where I'd taken advantage of my youth.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Difference Between Cats and Dogs

This January, we adopted a new dog, who my children--literalists--named Patches. Patches is my first dog since my only previous dog (Spot--I was once a literalist) was hit by a car when I was 7 years old. In the intervening span, I've had half a dozen cats. I've long considered myself a cat person, for the stereotypical reasons.

Having Patches has reacquainted me with all the reasons why I am a cat person. I actually do like her, and am glad we adopted her, but I'm finding confirmation that I am suited for cats by disposition. An incident that occurred about 5 minutes ago nicely illustrates the point:

I plan to make buttermilk-marinated fried pork chops tonight. This, of course, required me to pour the buttermilk (and cayenne, garlic, and cumin) in a gallon bag along with the pork chops. I had just placed said ingredients in the ziplock bag, when I turned to return the buttermilk bottle to the refrigerator. In this instant, Patches managed to jump up, head on the counter, grab the bag in her teeth, and fling it to the ground, presumably so she could devour the chops. Of course, the buttermilk/cayenne mixture splattered everywhere. I turned around, eyes blazing, and patches instantly went down to a sitting position and started whining. Then she headed to the door, prepared to be cast outside while I cleaned up the mess.

My cat, Zarathustra (or another cat), would never do this. A cat may or may not like people food. But, even if it does, cats seem to engage in strategic reasoning. A cat would first assay the scene. He would triangulate the positions of the desired food object; me; and his own location. He would then measure my preoccupation with other tasks. Then he would calculate the risk of being caught redhanded, weigh that against the possible reward, and finally conclude that, in this instance, the risks of apprehension and punishment were vastly greater than the possible benefits. He would then role over and sun himself in the window, perhaps taking a nap, and dream of an alternate universe in which I served pork chops in his golden bowl.

Of course, if the cat were wrong in his strategic assessment, he would never apologize, unlike the dog. Rather, he would strut away primly, as if to say: foolish human, why did you place those pork chops directly in my path? If I attempted to apprehend him, he would quickly (but in a dignified manner) jump to the highest shelf, and look smugly down at me.

Again, I'm a cat person. I'll take a little condescension over buttermilk-splattered floors any day.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong Il - a brief reflection

I've given serious thought to Kim Jong Il during two phases of my life. First, during high school and college CX debate. You could construct disadvantages with consequences involving nuclear war very easily by invoking the specter of North Korea. And, as every good high school debater knows, nuclear war is the inexorable outcome of virtually any policy resolution.

My second encounter with Kim Jong Il, however, changed the way I thought about the world. I had a U.S.-China foreign relations course in which the professor, Robert Ross, was dedicated toward debunking narratives. Two matters still resonate very strongly. The first involved Professor Ross's observation the week of 9/11: "Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Cruise missiles are the weapons of the strong. Radical Islamists don't have cruise missiles, so they fly planes into towers. That doesn't diminish the personal tragedy of the victims." That didn't entirely sink in at the moment.

Given the subject of the course, our class examined the impact of North Korea on Chinese-U.S. relations in a more routine manner. Professor Ross didn't like calling Kim Jong Il crazy, and he was rather contemptuous of those who did. He scorned political scientists and politicians who fancied themselves capable of divining the mental-state of a human being based on foreign policy. Kim Jong Il engaged in high-risk brinksmanship. Those risks paid off, in the sense that his regime was comparatively stable and he had survived in an era when most dictators had fallen. Sure, the US could crush him. China could crush him. But, neither had--because Kim Jong Il cannily converted his apparent "craziness" into leverage when, by rights, he should have very little. What others labeled "crazy" could very easily be viewed as "rational." Again, Professor Ross thought Kim Jong Il a tyrant. He didn't approve of his brutality or disregard for the welfare of his people. But, he detested the easy narrative that our enemy was a lunatic incapable of acting in his own self interest.

I was largely persuaded at the time. Over the years, however, Professor Ross's teachings have reverberated in my mind when I've considered all sorts of issues. Strip away the narrative. Who benefits from an action? Who loses out? Those questions explain far more of human behavior than most of us would believe. Or, as Curt Schilling more pithily put it, "Aura and mystique...those are dancers at a night club."

I don't know if Kim Jong Il was a madman. Certainly, he was a wretched human being, who lived a life of unimaginable luxury while his people starved. But, in my life, Kim Jong Il was a lesson that profoundly altered the window through which I view the world.

Monday, October 10, 2011

ESPN Exercises First Amendment Rights

Hank Williams, Jr., recently lost out in the marketplace of ideas, at least as far as his employment/royalties are concerned. He, however, feels that his First Amendment right to free speech was trampled. For those who remain blissfully ignorant: Hank compared Obama to Hitler. He was then astonished when ESPN decided to stop playing his Monday Night Football theme song.

I know I'm not the first to make this point, but this common misperception of the First Amendment irks me enough that I don't care:


Thank you for excusing the caps lock. There's a fabulous quote from Larry Tribe: "There are two ways, and two ways only, in which an ordinary private citizen, acting under her own steam and under color of no law, can violate the United States Constitution. One is to enslave somebody . . . . The other is to bring a bottle of beer, wine, or bourbon into a State in violation of its beverage control laws.” Lawrence H. Tribe, How To Violate the Constitution Without Really Trying, 12 Const. Commentary 217, 220 (1995).

No, Hank, ESPN didn't violate your First Amendment rights. Ironically, ESPN merely exercised its own free speech rights. I'm so very sorry that ESPN's voice (pocket, really, but whatever) is louder than yours.