Monday, October 29, 2012

Lost Songs: Five Forgotten Tracks from the 1980s

Let’s concede that sometimes the world moves too fast. Time, to our mortal frustration, never stops. And down on a personal level so much of our limited time is taken up with the big chunks of real, mundane, responsible stuff that constitutes our everyday lives; and then there’s our daily turning off for sleep.1 The upshot of this is that even the most alert, astute, inquisitive, energized, wired…[fill in your adjective here]…of us can barely keep up with even the most momentous peaks of that uninterrupted wave of complex, countless happenings that make up our world. And this is reality.

This little preamble is my way of saying that we’re mostly stuck to follow the flow of events. I doubt you’ll want to follow me down this path of philosophical rumination, so let me do a quick left turn and apply this line of thinking to something a lot more fun, pop culture. Now is a glorious time to be a fan. What with the internet, blogosphere, youtube, television channels and websites dedicated to every form of entertainment, twitter, facebook, etc., and the endless parade of commentators and critics ready to make sense of it all. This is the age of entertainment variety and specialization. And I don’t think us fans of pop culture (a fairly frequent subject of this blog) would want it any other way. In fact, if anything, we probably want our special tastes even more catered to. But as any economist will tell you, life is about compromise and trade-offs. Specialization and variety are accompanied by scattering and diffusion. I may get to enjoy my favored entertainments better than ever, but at the loss of all the other things that I’ll never even know were there to be experienced. And this is reality.

So, here is the first in a new series of pop culture posts that represent my battle against the uninterrupted wave of time. To paraphrase a famous American conservative, this is my standing athwart history and yelling "stop". Or at least asking you to take a few moments to experience some bits of pop culture that you may have missed. The subject of this post is five “lost” tracks from the 1980s. I’ll touch on movies, TV, books, etc., and other decades in future posts. Before I get to the songs, let me note upfront that these tracks aren’t supposed to be my version of a “best of” or a shrill screed against a culture that failed to recognize the excellence of so-and-so 20-plus years ago. It’s just a list of relatively unknown songs that I think have aged well, and that you might like.2 It’s all meant in the spirit of fun, so enjoy.

Conroy’s Five “Lost” Tracks from the 1980s (in no particular order):

"Pure" by Lightning Seeds. This is pure 80s, what with the heavy synth backing, melodious, upbeat rhythm, and distinct way the English have of singing a pop song.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inside USADA’s Armstrong Doping Report

Lance Armstrong had a great story. World class athlete is struck low by metastasizing cancer and given only fifty-fifty odds to live. He suffers through surgery and chemotherapy. He survives. And then he thrives, his body leaner and stronger, his mind and will hardened. He returns to his sport and dominates the most grueling athletic competition in the world. He stakes his claim as one of the great athletes in history and in the process inspires millions the world over with his legend of fight, survival, and triumph. He founds an organization in his name and becomes a tireless crusader in the battle to eradicate the illness that nearly ended his life. His is a hero. But this great story was too good to be true.

Rumors of doping have swirled around Armstrong since he won his first Tour de France in 1999, but like Teflon, nothing seemed to stick. Armstrong never tested positive for drugs – or so he claimed – and he was never caught with drugs or paraphernalia or anything else that could link him directly to doping. He denied ever using illicit substances and even claimed that as a cancer survivor he would never put potentially dangerous substances into his body. (You can read about Armstrong’s career here, and see my post from last spring detailing the many doping rumors that have plagued him since at least his first Tour de France victory.)

The release of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) Armstrong Report1 seems to have converted rumor to fact, and it’s no longer credible to label Armstrong a great champion or a hero, at least not for his exploits on a bicycle. The Armstrong Report – all 200 plus pages of it – lays bare Armstrong’s career-long record of doping. But it goes further. According to USADA, not only did Armstrong dope but he was the leader in his team’s sophisticated doping program, a program that he was central in developing, managing, and enforcing; while, of course, repeatedly and forcefully denying it ever existed. Armstrong maintains that he has a clean record, never once failing a drug test or demonstrating any dubious spikes in performance. The Armstrong Report tears these arguments to shreds.

From the Armstrong Report:
“The evidence is overwhelming that Lance Armstrong did not just use performance enhancing drugs, he supplied them to his teammates. He did not merely go alone to Dr. Michele Ferrari for doping advice, he expected that others would follow. It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required them to adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced. He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it. Armstrong’s use of drugs was extensive, and the doping program on his team, designed in large part to benefit Armstrong, was massive and pervasive.” – Pages 6-7

The Armstrong Report also exposes Armstrong’s fundamental character flaws: his tendency to deny his actions, malign his accusers, threaten witnesses, turn on friends, and do anything to win. Even Armstrong’s ardent defenders must concede that he’s a tough man and you cross him at your own risk. It’s his character traits that make his cheating all the more believable. Indeed, it’s likely that for Armstrong doping was just one more activity he needed to master to become the best cyclist. If everyone else was cheating – or if cheating would get you ahead – then Armstrong would cheat, just like he would train harder than anyone, or become the finest tactician in the peleton.

USADA’s Specific Allegations and Evidence
The USADA has charged Armstrong with (1) use of prohibited substances, (2) possession of prohibited substances, (3) trafficking of prohibited substances, (4) administration of prohibited substances to others, (5) “assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up, and other complicity involving one or more anti-doping rule violations”, and (6) “aggravating circumstances…justifying a period of ineligibility greater than the standard sanction”. To back up these charges they have detailed a remarkable catalog of cheating by Armstrong and his team, which includes:

Witness testimony. Much of USADA’s charges are based on the sworn affidavits of 26 people connected with Armstrong throughout his career including 15 professional cyclists and 11 former teammates. The teammates includes admitted dopers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, who Armstrong has denounced as biased and “proven liars”, but also George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Jonathan Vaughters, and Christian Vande Velde, each of whom have no axe to grind, and in fact have much to lose from admitting their own past doping. Hincapie, especially, has always been close to Armstrong, referring to Hincapie as “like a brother”.

These 26 witnesses provided USADA with first-hand accounts of their doping while on Armstrong’s teams, his own doping as witnessed by them, the leadership position Armstrong assumed in his team’s doping programs, and the logistical and material support he provided for his doping and that of his teammates.

Chronology of cheating. USADA lays out a compelling timeline of specific events and activities that demonstrates rules violations, doping, trafficking, and related activities for every year from 1998 through 2005, and then again in 2009 and 2010 when Armstrong returned from his first retirement. The Armstrong Report details where Armstrong was when he doped, be it in competition or in training, who he was with, what drugs he used, and how those drugs were transported and distributed

Blood doping
Drug use and doping. The Armstrong Report includes intricate details of Armstrong’s extensive use of the blood booster EPO, testosterone, steroids, and Actovegin, to name only the major drugs. USADA shows Armstrong’s use of blood doping, which consists of getting a transfusion of your own blood weeks or months after that same blood was removed from your body for the hemoglobin boosting effects. The report includes lurid details like Armstrong having a secret refrigerator in his Spanish apartment where he stored blood (and not just his own) for future transfusions, of he and teammates going on a training ride shortly after having blood removed and being so weak they could barely pedal, and of Armstrong organizing covert rendezvous on remote European mountain passes to receive drugs or medical/doping advice from his long-time doctor Michele Ferrari (see below)

One of Armstrong’s most repeated claims is that he never once failed any of the 500 to 600 drug tests he received throughout his career. USADA demonstrates that the actual number of tests was only half as many as claimed, and in fact Armstrong did test positive on a number of occasions. Armstrong’s “B” urine samples from the 1999 Tour were tested along with many other samples by a French lab in 2004 after a test for EPO had been developed (the test results became public in 2005). Tests for EPO were not available in 1999. Six of his urine samples from the 1999 Tour tested positive for EPO. This could not be used officially against him because the corresponding “A” samples had been destroyed per standard procedure, but there is little scientific reason to doubt the test results. Armstrong tested positive for cortisone during the 1999 Tour, which he explained away at the time as resulting from a topical cream used to treat a saddle sore. In fact, the prescription for cortisone cream was written by the team doctor after the positive test (and backdated) and the actual test results were consistent with a drug injection and not a topical cream. Further, during the 2001 Tour de Suisse, one of Armstrong’s blood samples tested positive for EPO, but at the time the testing results indicated only a “probability” of doping and not a “positive” result.  Under today’s standards it would have been a positive result (more on this below).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner's Historic Fall

Felix Baumgartner ready for his record jump

Earlier today Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner fell from the edge of space. Or more accurately, he jumped from a higher altitude than anyone ever has, setting records for the highest balloon ascent, highest skydive, and fastest descent (watch a few minutes of video here). The successful mission was the culmination of more than five years of effort by Baumgartner and his Red Bull-sponsored team. Baumgartner had initially planned to jump a few days ago, but poor weather delayed the attempt. However, today the morning in Roswell, New Mexico dawned clear and calm. By mid morning the sky was crystal blue and Baumgartner was ready. He boarded his gondola/capsule under the colossal silver bulge of the helium balloon that would carry him to the stratosphere. At about 11:30 AM EDT the balloon was released and Baumgartner left the ground.

Prior to Baumgartner, the highest skydive was made by American Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger who successfully jumped from over 102,000 feet as part of Project Excelsior in 1960.1 Kittinger was brought on as a consultant for Baumgartner’s mission and was active today in walking the Austrian through his pre-jump checklist. It took Baumgartner more than two hours to ascend in his small capsule as his helium balloon expanded in the thinning air.2 Mission control released some helium from the balloon to stop it rising at about 128,000, or just a bit higher than 24 miles. Baumgartner and his equipment were under constant observation from ground-based cameras and a small mission control center that gave to whole undertaking the look of a miniature NASA operation. The balloon carried Baumgartner 26,000 feet higher than Kittenger’s 1960 jump altitude, and almost 15,000 feet higher than the previous manned balloon ascent record set by Navy Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather, Jr.,3 in 1961.

Balloon and capsule leaving Earth
The project tagline as a “mission to the edge of space” is a more  marketing slogan than reality as the actual height of 24 plus miles is less than half the altitude of true outer space, which is traditionally recognized as starting at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above the Earth. Nevertheless, the air pressure at 128,000 feet is only about five one thousandths of that at sea level, which as far as humans are concerned is a virtual vacuum. Baumgartner’s capsule and suit were pressurized and oxygenated. The view from that height reveals the curvature of the Earth and a black sky overhead. The entire mission was broadcast live on the internet and when Baumgartner’s capsule door opened and he scooted into jump position it sure looked like space with the eastern New Mexico landscape appearing as a faded brown surface far below.

Baumgartner moved onto a step outside of the capsule and I imagine he must have experienced a jolt of vertigo as he looked down farther than anyone who isn’t an astronaut has ever looked down. With a simple salute he tipped forward off of his perch and into free fall. Jumping into such a diffused atmosphere, Baumgartner met virtually no air resistance, nothing to slow his fall. At more traditional skydiving altitudes, say 10,000 to 15,000 feet, air resistance prevents jumpers from exceeding a terminal velocity, typically about 120 miles per hour. At higher altitudes jumpers can reach much higher speeds. Kittinger set the record of 614 miles per hour during his 1960 jump. Baumgartner’s stated goals included breaking the previous speed record and breaking the speed of sound. Within a minute he had, reaching a maximum speed of 834 miles per hour.  The speed of sound varies based on air density and temperature, but it has been confirmed that Baumgartner’s maximum speed, reached at about 98,000 feet above sea level, was supersonic.4 A little more than three minutes later Baumgartner released his parachute ending his free fall,5 floating safely to the dry, scrubby ground.6

Felix Baumgartner - the "supersonic" man
So today Felix Baumgartner has taken mankind higher and faster than we’ve ever been outside of a plane or spacecraft. I don’t know how long it might be before someone goes higher or faster, maybe it will take another 52 years (i.e., it's been 52 years since Kittinger's jump), but it was pretty cool to see someone jump from the “edge of space” and reach speeds as fast as a fighter jet. Congratulations to Felix Baumgartner and his team on his historic fall.



1. I’ve written about this jump and other successful attempts by man to go higher and faster in this earlier post.

2. The balloon would expand to a maximum of some 30 million cubic feet. Imagine a spherical balloon with a diameter of almost 400 feet.

3. Prather tragically died after the successful ascent. The balloon landed in the Gulf of Mexico as planned, but during their recovery Prather lost his grip and slipped from the helicopter hoist. He was weighed down by his suit and drowned.

4. On video it was impossible to hear a sonic boom and in fact the air at 98,000 feet was probably too thin for there to have been much of one.

5. In total Baumgartner’s free fall lasted about 4 minutes and 22 seconds, which is actually twelve seconds less than Kittinger’s 1960 jump, so Kittinger still holds the record for the longest (by time) free fall.

6. The perception of floating down on a parachute is a bit misleading. A person descending under a parachute is still falling at about ten miles per hour, which can lead to painful or even injurious landings. I can attest to this as on my first and only skydive I landed in tandem with my instructor. His legs slipped and we fell hard on our butts. Fortunately, the pain was mitigated by the adrenaline coursing through my body still thrilled from the jump.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Insidious Influence of Political Polls

Electoral votes based on recent polls
The U.S. Presidential Election is just a month away, and if you’re at all curious about how the election may go, you’re in luck, just turn your attention to the latest political polls. You can compare the national approval ratings for president Obama and (former) Governor Romney, how favorably they’re viewed by “likely” voters, and who’s leading who in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. You can note which has the advantage on issues like unemployment, foreign affairs, and government debt. You can survey how the candidates compare among young voters, retirees, minorities, and women. You can follow how the race is tracking on a day-to-day basis. If you’re interested in just about any measure of how Americans may vote on November 6, there’s likely a poll for it. They’re all just a Google search away, knock yourself out.

Political polls are everywhere in the run-up to every major election, they’re quoted by the media, consulted by the campaigns, and, they’re bad.

To explain why this is, I’d ask that you first consider a question: Why should you, a voter deciding on how to cast your ballot come Election Day, care at all about political polls?

Polls Aren’t Science
Pollsters, and there’s a bunch,1 will tell you that their polls are scientific and accurate. This is not true. Their argument is that their methodology ensures that a statistically representative sample of voters is used in every poll. The overall number of responders, the political leanings of those responders, the questions asked, etc., are carefully calibrated to give an outcome that is accurate within a small margin of error. This gives the sheen of science to the whole effort, as if polls are just another demographic study based on heaps of concrete data. They’re not. It’s certainly true that over the decades pollsters have learned how to better sample the population. Gone are the days when polls showed Alf Landon2 beating FDR. But at the end of the day, polls are based on the responses of people, and when it comes to people and politics, you can throw science out the window.

Consider the emphasis in the following question: “Do you agree that President Obama has done a poor job in addressing unemployment?” Admittedly, this is a very simplified example of obvious bias, which is supposed to be scrubbed from all modern poll questions. An unbiased question would better read: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the economy?” But here is an actual question from a Washington Post poll from late last month: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” Would you call this question unbiased? Maybe you think it is. Or maybe you consider terms like “reduce the gap”, “wealthy”, and “less well-off” as loaded and apt to nudge responders in a certain direction. What if the question were reworded this way: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to shift wealth from those Americans better-off to those less well–off?” Which wording is more biased and are they likely to elicit different responses? This shows you just how hard, and maybe impossible, it is to actually extract bias from any political discussion. If you can’t take bias out of the questions, how can you have an unbiased poll?

Then there is sampling and response bias. Most polls are conducted by calling people with landline phones, which is becoming an increasing anachronistic approach in the era of mobile communications. Consider the constantly shifting demographics (age, sex, economic background) of people that use landlines as opposed to cell phones. What groups are over- or under-represented in surveys conducted in this manner? Further, when are the surveys conducted, during what days and at what times (i.e., who is home when the calls are placed?)? How might this affect the bias of the results?

With response bias people may answer in a manner contrary to what they believe or refuse to participate at all. After all, how honest are people when talking to strangers about politics, a sensitive subject for many? What type of person is willing (and available) to participate? How representative is that person, or that aggregated group of people, of the voting population at large? These questions aren’t easy to answer or dismiss.

Here’s a good example of how these factors can combine for bad polling. Back in 2004, pre-election polling showed a very close race in Virginia between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. And this seemed to be confirmed on Election Day when exit polls indicated that Kerry was performing very well. Yet when the actual votes were counted, Bush led Kerry by a wide margin at all times (he won comfortably 54% to 46%). The networks didn’t call Virginia in Bush’s favor for many hours after the voting ended based on the strength of the inaccurate pre-election and exit polls.3

Polls are bandied about as accurate and unbiased. In other words as a useful indicators of how the public is likely to vote. But they’re often neither accurate nor unbiased. What’s the practical difference between a bad poll and the daily political spin issued by a campaign? Intentional or not, aren’t they both forms of misinformation?

Politics is Not a Spectator Sport
It’s hard not to see the same relationship between political polls and politics as we see between sports and sports statistics. Professional and college sports are one of the tent poles of the vast and growing American entertainment complex, and statistics are the drug of sports enthusiasts;4 the careful tracking of performance, the rankings, the orderly measure of players, teams, and leagues. There’s long been a cottage industry built around baseball statistical research; fantasy football, which is all about statistics, is one of the most popular recreational activities in America; the essence of entire sports are based on standings and rankings, and a player’s worth is determined in hard data. As a nation of spectators we love to watch sports – you could probably argue that the next Superbowl will be a more watched event than the upcoming election – and statistics give us more to talk about and discuss. It seems weightier to parse a team’s statistics and analyze performance based on numbers than to simply describe and appreciate the physical competition. It’s the data-science companion to the physical action-art.

For some, politics is the sport of choice. But of course politics isn’t a sport, it’s not entertainment. At its core politics is about how as a society we choose to live together, and it involves complex, convolved issues. Issues that are hard to fully understand yet have an important effect on everyday life. It’s hard to understand the current tax structure and the implications of changes to the tax code; health care is a confusing tangle of doctors and medicine, hospitals and insurance, regulations and paperwork; unemployment, gay marriage, abortion, education, government debt, the European financial crisis, war in the Middle East, they all dominate the headlines but none of them have easy solutions. The real societal issues of the day, the issues that make up the political landscape, all require strenuous discussion and wearisome compromise. It’s hard, not fun; it’s tedious, not exciting.