Oct 272012

UCI President Pat McQuaid (Stephen Farrand)

Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI, whom Greg LeMond has said should “f##k off  and resign,” apparently thinks Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton are “scumbags.”

Mc Quaid is entitled to his opinion, of course, on these kinds of esthetic character judgments.  But I have to admit that, if given the choice of sitting down for a beer with Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, or Pat McQuaid, I’d be inclined to choose the disgraced doping former cyclists over the current UCI president.

It’s not that I have any particular love for scumbags.  It’s that Pat McQuaid is one of the last people I’d ever trust to pick out the scumbags from any crowd.  Why?  McQuaid, even if he isn’t actually corrupt, may just be irredeemably stupid.  Being a mere scumbag isn’t a bar to an interesting conversation.  Stupidity, sadly, often is.

I don’t know Hamilton, Landis, or McQuaid.  But from what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, McQuaid’s bulb doesn’t burn very bright.

The UCI, in ratifying the USADA’s decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories and ban him for life, admits by that action that USADA’s reasoned decision is persuasive on the question of whether Lance Armstrong won those Tours by cheating and using PEDs.  If it is persuasive about that question, it cannot but be even more persuasive on the question of whether doping was prevalent and widespread during the years Armstrong was racing.  Armstrong himself has never admitted to doping, but riders like Hincapie, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, etc. all confessed to repeated doping, with the assistance of a support network of doctors and directors sportif who looked the other way or encouraged the cheating.

Who was supposed to be in charge of policing these riders and teams?  The UCI.  Clearly, the UCI failed miserably in that mission.  That’s point one.

Point two is that since the USADA investigation was made public and the UCI was forced to strip Armstrong of his victories, Pat McQuaid has done only the bare minimum required to convince the sponsors and fans of cycling that the Armstrong affair won’t just be another repeat of the 1998 Festina affair, where a big stink was made about doping and then everyone got right back to it when the fuss died down.  He’s giving every appearance of kicking and screaming the whole way.

Point three: Pat McQuaid refuses to drop his lawsuit against Paul Kimmage.

Point four: Pat McQuaid publicly accuses Landis and Hamilton of being “scumbags” at the very moment that the problem of an omertà in the professional cycling peloton is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.  That, Pat, will do nothing to squelch that rumor.  It would be stupid of you not to realize that.

Point five: Pat McQuaid, after finding the USADA reasoned decision persuasive enough to strip Armstrong’s titles and impose a lifetime ban, goes on about how flawed the USADAs investigative techniques were, about how the USADA report included “animated or overstated language,” and implies that the USADA had a conflict of interest in investigating Armstrong. “It would have been better that the evidence collected by USADA had been assessed by a neutral body or person who was not involved in collecting the evidence and prosecuting the defendant.”  REALLY?  The USADA is the neutral body who was investigating Armstrong, because the conflicted body, the UCI, wasn’t doing it.  The breathtaking stupidity of this statement boggles my mind.  Travis Tygart of the USADA responds succinctly: “We set forth our position on why they were conflicted in this case on many different grounds. They accepted money from him (Armstrong), they accused us of a witch-hunt (without seeing any evidence), they sued the chief whistleblower, they discouraged witnesses from participating. They simply are trying to divert attention away from their own failures in this whole sad saga, and those that love the sport of cycling and clean sport should not allow that to happen.”  Exactly.  But Pat McQuaid says the USADA is the conflicted party.  That’s not just defensive; that’s stupid.

Point six: Pat Mc Quaid, if he wasn’t so stupid, would realize that the cloud of mistrust and suspicion that hangs over the UCI will not go away if he, Pat McQuaid, does not resign.  His failure to see that is the stupidest thing he’s done so far.

Tyler Hamilton may be a scumbag; I don’t know.  I’ve never met him.  But he’s certainly correct about the Armstrong affair and the role of Pat McQuaid: “Pat McQuaid’s comments expose the hypocrisy of his leadership and demonstrate why he is incapable of any meaningful change,” Hamilton said in a statement released on Tuesday.  “Instead of siezing an opportunity to instill hope for the next generation of cyclists, he continues to point fingers, shift blame and attack those who speak out, tactics that are no longer effective. Pat McQuaid has no place in cycling.”

Pat McQuaid should do as LeMond suggests.  Resign.  Perhaps it won’t save cycling and its fans from his corruption, but it will save them from his stupidity.



Oct 262012

Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Surprise!  Like the booming real-estate market of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the contemporaneously glorious cycling career of Lance Armstrong has been revealed as an elaborate fraud.  Who would have possibly thought that Armstrong’s Tour victories, like Goldman Sachs’ mortgage-backed derivatives, would turn out to be a scam that unjustly enriched the most ruthless and dishonest players, and that made the people charged with officiating the enterprise, the financial regulatory agencies and the Union Cicliste Internationale (UCI) look so hopelessly corrupt, or just so hopelessly incompetent and stupid?  How could we be suffering through two such similar and spectacular episodes of systematic deception and dishonesty by people who only yesterday were towering heroes at whose feet we were so eager to throw flowers?

The Armstrong story is fascinating.  Just like in the financial industry, the cheating in cycling was widespread and pervasive, carried out in an environment where the supposed regulators found ways to ignore the problem.  Both cases demonstrate, I think, that the more we fetishize and glorify and financially compensate winners, the more that players will be tempted to do whatever it takes to win.  It’s a tradeoff.  Lying and cheating just aren’t as tempting when the rewards aren’t as great.  Professional cyclists like Lance Armstrong, just like investment bankers, profited hugely from their frauds.  There will always be some small number of people who will cheat no matter what, but when the rewards of cheating get bigger, the number of cheaters goes up, and the resourcefulness of the cheaters to avoid getting caught gets deeper.

We can see this temptation to cheat in other areas where the rewards of success are outsized.  American higher education has become one of the few ways to escape the erosion of the middle class that defines our modern economy.  And so, unsurprisingly, there is evidence that cheating is widespread in higher education.

One of our unexamined and most pervasive myths is the unalloyed goodness of meritocracy.  People like Christopher Hayes have started to critically examine this myth and have pointed out ways that meritocratic regimes can become pernicious.  We should add to the risks of meritocracy the risk of widespread and pervasive cheating.  Armstrong and his doping cronies in professional cycling are not one-offs; they’re predictable kinds of characters that we’ll continue to encounter so long as winning remains the overriding goal of what we do.



Oct 262012

UPDATE: I agree with Matt Stoller’s case against Obama.

I voted for Barack Obama four years ago.  I don’t plan to do it again.  And I live in Colorado, a swing state.  So I’ve had to think through my decision thoroughly, because presumably my vote may actually matter in this election.

Most of the advice I’ve read comes down to: “Obama hasn’t done what he’s promised, but he’s the least bad of two alternatives, so it would be irresponsible of you not to vote for him again, because OMG, Mitt Romney would be so much worse; he’s not even human.”

I’ve heard this argument before.  In fact, we seem to hear it every four years, even as the actual policies of the democratic and republican candidates draw closer together.  We are constantly told, in spite of enormous evidence to the contrary, that the worst of the two major candidates is SO HORRIBLE (in comparison to the other horrible major-party candidate) that we have no choice but to hold our nose and pull the lever for the lesser of two horrible candidates.

I’m sick of it.  I call bullshit.

Put sharply, the question is this: is there ever a time when it is proper to withhold one’s vote from the least-bad of two horrible presidential candidates, when doing so may incrementally increase the chances that the worse candidate will win the election?

I think the answer is yes, there is such a time, and that now is that time.  Voting for Obama in the face of his record will, at best, delay the necessary reform that we need domestically and legally, and will likely increase the likelihood that future administrations will be even less responsive to those who think it’s important that we live under the rule of law.  A vote for Mitt Romney would be a worse choice, yes.  But we have other alternatives than just these two, including a vote for one of the third-party candidates or voting for a write-in candidate.

Obama, let’s be clear, is a thoroughly unattractive candidate.  It’s not just that Obama has proven that he is not committed to resisting the ever-rightward policy drift that has plagued us for the past forty years.  It’s because Obama has actively assented to the increasing government and private-sector lawlessness that was pursued with such zeal by the administration of George W. Bush.  Obama supports executive assassinations, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detentions.  Obama, not George W. Bush, is responsible for institutionalizing and mainstreaming these policies that were under Bush, at least, controversial.  That Obama is insufficiently committed to preserving the eroding domestic economic safety net and far too enthralled by a Tim Geithneresque deference to an unfettered financial industry only adds to my reluctance to actively assent to a second Obama term.

I agree that these problems will probably get marginally worse under a Mitt Romney administration.  But we cannot reverse this trend by voting for the marginally better Obama.  A vote for Obama simply makes it more likely that four years from now we’ll be faced yet again with a choice between two evils that are marginally worse than the two evils we’ve been told to choose between this year.  We should not wait any longer to demonstrate to the major parties that our votes cannot be taken for granted.

To start with, one counterargument should be easily dispensed with.  The argument goes like this: “Obama isn’t perfect, but it’s naive to think that any candidate ever really is.  Withholding your vote from the least-imperfect candidate is foolish.”  I fully realize that there has never been a perfect candidate, and that it is absurd not to expect certain disappointments from whichever candidate assumes office.  The argument that Obama isn’t perfect, however, was never the reason why this question about whom one should vote for this time was interesting.  The argument is that Obama is actively bad.  All versions of the “inevitable disappointment” or “no one is ever perfect” arguments are not helpful.

A stronger argument is made by people like Erik Loomis.  Let’s call it the “white privilege” argument, which in its several variations states that only privileged white men can afford the luxury of ignoring how much more horrible Mitt Romney is on issues that concern labor, women, gays, and poor people.

A similar serious argument is the one made by Robert Wright.  It boils down to pointing out that Mitt Romney is worse than Obama, and asking us to consider the real consequences of electing a President who might be worse than Obama has been:

Suppose that President Obama was what he in fact is: a drone-striking, civil-liberties disregarding president. Suppose you could be pretty sure (as I think you can, though Friedersdorf disagrees) that Mitt Romney’s policies on drones and civil liberties wouldn’t be any better. And suppose that — through the magical powers that are permitted in thought experiments — you knew that if Romney were elected he would start a needless war that would kill 100,000 people, and would also inflame the international arena in ways that led America (through the irrationality that has become its hallmark) to deploy more drone strikes, and disregard civil liberties on an even larger scale. . . .  Is there any point at which you’d concede that casting a vote that increases the chances of a Romney victory is the wrong thing to do?

Jedediah Purdy, somewhat incoherently, praises the audacity of the Obama 2008 campaign that overcame the “anointed” Hillary Clinton, but then argues for a resigned, defensive fight against the worst of two bad choices in 2012:

It’s time to fight like hell for the party of the center-right, represented by Barack Obama, against the party of the far right. There is no alternative. . . .  If he[Obama] doesn’t win, things will get worse, quite possibly much worse. The White House will spend four years eroding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, even if Congress can’t repeal it. Environmental protection will be history. The next Supreme Court will be staffed with people who would have invalidated the health-care law outright, and, by the way, love Citizens United and money in politics generally. People who think we aren’t fighting enough wars in the Middle East will have President Romney’s ear.

All these arguments are variations of one theme: Mitt Romney is so much worse than Obama that to withholding your vote for Obama now is simply a short-sighted and self-indulgent vote for a much more repellent future under a Mitt Romney administration.  I don’t buy it.

First, Mitt Romney has always just been a pandering, centrist politician.  He’s not actually been the kind of whack job that Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum have been.  The case that he is an inhuman monster is based on his unsurprising pandering to the right wing base during the primaries, and on the traditional media-driven hype following the conventions.

But for the sake of argument, I grant that Romney will be significantly worse than Obama.  But to indulge one’s fear of a Romney administration by casting a vote for Obama is a short-sighted vote for continuing passivity in the face of a dangerous and and worsening destruction of crucial rights and practices necessary to our existence as a democratic nation.  A vote for Obama is to acquiesce to our continued march towards authoritarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy.  It does nothing to change this dynamic; it gives us no attractive endgame in which this slide toward despotism might be stopped.  It simply reinforces the idea that the American people will not resist authoritarianism.  And so the authoritarianism will continue to get worse.  This is an argument about strategy.  On one side is the strategy of delaying tactics that leads to no hope of victory; on the other side is the strategy of playing to win, even at the expense of some marginal short-term pain.

We have plenty of evidence that the delaying option — voting for the least-bad candidate — has repeatedly failed.  For the past thirty years, the two major parties have been tacking ever further to the authoritarian right.  Every four years, the democrat has been preferable to the republican, but over the course of these past forty years, the trend has been that the democratic candidate has been less preferable to the democrat from the previous election cycle.  As we have moved from Carter to Clinton to Obama, we have seen the Democratic party and sitting president withdraw support from the domestic safety net, erode civil liberties, pursue a more aggressive and militaristic foreign policy, and show less respect for the rule of law.  True, the sharpest rightward lurches over this period have occurred under Republican administrations (chiefly those of Reagan and George W. Bush), but in each case, when a Republican president has been succeeded by a Democrat, that administration has failed to fight for a return to the policies that were in place before the prior Republican administration shifted them to the right.  Whether one examines the overall course of tax rates favoring the elite, the erosion of welfare benefits for citizens who face misfortune in their lives, the war on drugs leading to increasingly harsh and inequitable criminal justice policies, the erosion of corporate and consumer safety regulations, lax antitrust enforcement, free-trade policies that erode our democratic control of economic and environmental rules, expensive foreign interventions and ruinous war-fighting, the trends are all inexorably rightward, and inexorably more authoritarian

The one exception is the improving cultural and legal environment for gay people and other historically mistreated minorities.  But the exception here proves the rule.  Except for the improving legal environment for gays, much of the improvement for historically mistreated segments of the population has been cultural, and not legal.  Racism is less and less tolerable culturally, but the continuing war on drugs and “small government” fetishism of the two major parties has meant that being black in this country is still an obstacle to the free pursuit of happiness.  And gays, remember, are subjected to the same authoritarian erosions of due process as everyone else.

Like Robert Wright, I’m a consequentialist when it comes to voting strategy.  I simply disagree with Wright about the assessment of the consequences of voting for Obama.  My experience convinces me that we are more likely in the future to pursue ruinous wars, such as the war with Iran that Wright finds so horrifying (rightly so in my opinion), by continuing to play the game we’ve been playing, voting for the marginally less war-mongering candidate in the democrat/republican horse-race that we are presented with every four years.  Meanwhile, war-mongering gets more uncontroversial with each election cycle.

I think we should think about the concept of local vs global minima and maxima.  We should think about the concept of path dependence.  The question should be, “can we see a path to our desired outcome — respect for the rule of law and a domestic economic safety net that allows all of us to participate in the market economy fairly — by continuing on the path of voting for the marginally better of the two major-party candidates?  Over the long term, I don’t think we can get to where we want to go without decisively abandoning this path.  Neither party will take anyone seriously who can’t credibly demonstrate that unless their policies change, the votes won’t be forthcoming in the next election.  The lesser of two evils strategy leaves us unable to issue our parties these ultimatums that they so sorely need to face.

Oct 222012

Kilian Jornet summarized his 2012 season today.  17 trail-running wins in 19 starts, with 2 third-positions, is pretty much the definition of “dominant.”  No one else is even close.

Coincidentally, I completed my first explicit trail-running season yesterday, and so I thought I’d summarize it, because I really do want to be just like Kilian.

Yes, I do think of 2012 as my first trail-racing season.  I’ve been running trails for fun and fitness for a long time, since the late ’90s.  I’ve entered trail races before, primarily the Pikes Peak Ascent (in 1996) and the Pikes Peak Marathon (in 1999, 2000, and 2001), but these races were just something I did as one-offs because I thought they’d be fun — they weren’t part of a conscious attempt to be a trail-running athlete.  I didn’t enter many other races, and I didn’t do any explicit training.  I was primarily a college student, then a medical student, then a law student, then an emergency medicine resident.  I was “in training,” but not as an athlete.

In 2009 I finished my residency and moved from Chicago to Seattle.  I was no longer any kind of a student and had no plans to start any other formal educational program.  Finally, I was just another guy with a job (instead of just another guy going to school).  I had a deep-seated fear of becoming boring, because in my mind, fairly or not, slogging along at a steady job has always sounded profoundly dull.  I was also feeling that I wasn’t working out in the gym or running as much over the past 2-3 years as I had been.  It seemed to me that I was facing a subtle decision point — to begin a slow, gradual decline to a sedentary middle-age, or …

I think it was some combination of little things that led me to make trail running and racing an explicit project.  I was really enjoying running the trails on Cougar Mountain in my free time, especially in comparison to running flat bike paths in Chicago.  I was reading about the career of Kilian Jornet, Dakota Jones, Anton Krupicka, Nick Clark, and other top trail runners, and looking at pictures on their blogs of some of spectacular mountains that they got to race in.  And I was thinking about moving back to my home state of Colorado after a long absence for law school and residency.  Surely it’d be fun to do the Pikes Peak Marathon again?  All of these things led to my decision in late 2011 start doing trail races, and to start training for them.  2012 would be my first explicit trail racing season.

So how did the first season go?  I raced five times.

1) February 26, Lord Hill Trail Run, 10 miles.  1:36:47.7.  Out of 112 runners, finished 19th (top 17%).  A muddy and fun race that I ran with my dog Pele in the rainy Northwest slop.  Thanks to Evergreen Trail Runs for letting me race with my dog.  Started 5 min after the main field by arrangement with the race director and spent all my time passing people.

Start line, Lord Hill trail race (Yumay Chang)

2) April 14, Squak Mountain Half Marathon.  2:13:41.  Out of 99 runners, finished 19th (top 20%).  Again, Evergreen Trail Runs puts on super dog-friendly races.  They let me start 5 minutes after the field and I raced the whole course with Pele.  Best part was hearing comments from other racers under their breath — “look at how fast that dog goes downhill!”

Finishing Squak Mtn Half Marathon, with Pele (Vernhes family)

3) October 6, Cheyenne Mountain Xterra 5k.    26:18.  Out of 48 runners, finished 8th (top 17%).  A fun race that I entered at the last minute.  Went out too hard.  Lesson: must do regular interval training!

4) October 14, Wichita Prairie Fire Marathon.  4:33:42.  Out of 723 runners, finished 409th (top 57%).  I’ve never hurt quite as much as I did during the last five miles of the Prairie Fire marathon, and that includes all three of my Pikes Peak Marathons.  The pain was all musculoskeletal — ankles, knees, hips.  Aerobically I felt great the whole time.  13-mile split was approximately 1:30, so I may have gone out too hard.  I think the pain was more due to lack of road conditioning, though.  I distracted myself by looking at spectators’ pups along the side of the road — there are a lot of beautiful pups in Wichita!

5) October 21, Boulder Half Marathon.  1:47:44.  Out of 1323 runners, finished 141st (top 11%).  Another road race, this time on mostly packed dirt roads.  I kept the stride length short and felt great up until mile 11, when the leg pain slowed me down again.  My halfway split was just over 55 minutes, so I’m real happy with my pacing.  Beautiful autumn day with yellow leaves and golden sunlight.  It was fun to watch the leaders coming back the other way, running fast.

I feel like I gave a pretty good effort in all these races with the exception of the Prairie Fire Marathon, where the wheels came off in the second half and I ended up walking most of the last 13 miles.

Here’s a few things I’ll take away from this season.  First, it’s true about athletic training that “if you need it in the next two weeks, it’s already too late.”  Probably you could say that if you need it in the next six months, where “it” is a major leap in fitness to competitive levels, it is probably too late.  I had hoped for times in the Prairie Fire and Boulder Half that would qualify me for the first field/wave in next year’s Pikes Peak Marathon/Ascent, but unfortunately didn’t achieve either goal.  There will still be opportunities for me to get these qualifying times, but if I end up having to run Pikes Peak in the second wave next year, so be it.  I’m prepared to wait for 2, 3, 4 years in order to get some really good times in that race.

Second, for an equivalent time spent running, I hurt WAY less when running hilly trails than when running roads.  Road running is so painful on the legs, at least when you’re not conditioned for it.  And I am not.

Third, races are more fun with a dog!

I may do another race or two in 2012, but as the Starks say, “Winter is coming!”  That means everything in the remainder of the year will feel like off-season stuff.  It’ll be my first explicit off season.  How to handle it?  Well, I’m thinking about mountain biking, snowshoeing, maybe some xc skiing, slacklining, and hiking with my dog.

Pele descends Lookout Mountain, Golden, CO