Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Mad Science: Exploring the Impossible

This week’s theme, Exploring the Impossible, is a theme that’s near and dear to my heart.  As an engineer, figuring out what can and cannot be done is kind of what I do.  With that in mind, what I would say about the impossible is this—impossible things cannot be done.  No matter how much we might want to do them or believe that they’re possible, reality is that if something is impossible, that, by definition, means that it can’t happen.  Or, when speaking about the past, it can’t have happened

In general, I think that the sooner that we recognize the impossible for what it is and start accepting reality, the better off we’re going to be.  That doesn’t mean we need to give up on the difficult.  It merely means that when one means of finding success proves impossible, another method must be found.

See?  Now this is a logo.  I need one
that looks like this.  But with an exploding
lightning bolt-brain.
You’ve probably heard that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released its evidence against Lance Armstrong this week, and that the evidence—some 1,000+ pages, including a multitude of interviews from former teammates and associated professional collaborators—was damning. 

From the USADA statement (via NYT):
“The U.S.P.S. Team doping conspiracy was professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices.  A program organized by individuals who thought they were above the rules and who still play a major and active role in sport today.”

The affidavits from teammates were probably the most damning pieces of evidence, at least in the court of public opinion.  The worst to me was the one from George Hincapie, who retired from cycling this year after riding his 17th Tour de France and who was at the time of his retirement perhaps the most well-respected American riding in the pro tour (ibid).

“Early in my professional career, it became clear to me that, given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them.  I deeply regret that choice.”

Hincapie went on to note that he had used illegal drugs through 2006, at which point he felt that the sport was clean enough and he’d achieved enough success to be able to ride professionally without them.  Since then, he claims to have worked to convince younger riders to try to make it without illegal performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), though there’s no way to prove this, of course. 

At this point, you may be wondering why, after all this time, is the government still pursuing this.  There are two reasons.  The first and probably most important reason is that Floyd Landis, the disgraced American cyclist who appeared to be Armstong’s successor only to have been caught using PEDs during le Tour and stripped of his own Yellow Jersey because of it, filed a Whistleblower Lawsuit against Armstrong on behalf of the government, and that’s the kind of thing that the government can’t ignore.  The thing is valid because at the time of his PED use, Armstrong was riding for the U.S. Postal Service team and was therefore an employee of the U.S. government.  Thus, his PED use can be considered a form of fraud, and Landis, under the terms of the Whistleblower Act, would be entitled to a percentage of any monies that the government succeeds in recovering because of it.  As you might imagine, Landis has therefore been after this thing like a dog with a bone, and considering that Landis and Armstrong are both pretty famous, the whole thing is hard for the government to just pretend away.  So the USADA is instead doing its job and investigating.

The other reason that the government is still interested is the nature of the alleged offenses.  Which is to say that there are laws that you can break, and then there are laws that you can’t break without risking jail time.  So, for example, from the standpoint of a criminal prosecution the government really doesn’t care if you dope to win a bike race overseas.  In fact, in all but the most egregious cases, they don’t seem to care about doping in sports at all.  However, Armstrong is alleged not just to have doped, but to have engaged in a conspiracy to enable others to dope en mass and to have pressured the unwilling to dope to further his own personal agenda.  Thus, the allegations are not just use of PEDs.  They’re conspiracy, drug trafficking, and professional intimidation—all serious matters for the Federal government.  Of course, the government dropped the criminal investigation last year, but that’s not the point.  The point is that there’s a reason why these guys are still interested ten years after the fact.

All of this leads me to my point, which is this: None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.  This question, “Did Armstrong dope?” was never legitimate.  The things he did were impossible, they were demonstrably impossible, they were well outside the range of even superhuman performance.  Forget cancer.  Armstrong claimed to have beaten seven years’ worth of super, hyper-talented guys who were confirmed dopers, and he didn’t just beat them, he destroyed them.  Utterly.  The idea that he could have done that and been clean is laughable.  I’m sorry, but it is, and the fact that they didn’t have a testing regime sophisticated enough to detect his methods doesn’t change anything.  The impossible is still impossible, and wishing it weren’t doesn’t change it.

The last thing I’ll say about this topic is that doping is still going on, and we shouldn’t pretend that because we have sophisticated testing regimes, that those regimes are necessarily more sophisticated than the doping regimes being followed by top-tier athletes in high pressure professional sports around the world.  Truth is, athletes will dope to win a pair of socks at a charity race.  Hell, they’ll dope just to look good, and that’s with literally nothing on the line, not even bragging rights in some local competition.  The idea that high-level professional athletes—who represent substantial investments for corporations and sometimes even governments, not to mention the literally mind-numbing commitment that they themselves have made to their individual sports—would race clean without absolutely being forced into is ridiculous.  It’s ludicrous.  It’s literally insane.  I mean, yeah, there are some good guys, I’m sure, but there are also—a lot—of folks for whom the finish line is the only line that matters.

At a certain point, winning is everything.  That’s just a fact of life.


“Many people liken drug kingpins to corporate CEOs, and there’s something to the analogy. Cartel bosses manage the organization’s talent, promoting plaza bosses who hit their revenue targets while demoting those who fail. They also need to spot business opportunities, like diverting oil from Mexico’s state-owned pipeline with equipment stolen from Texas. The CEO comparison, however, misses an important point. A drug kingpin doesn’t keep his organization together with an innovative business vision or an eye for synergies—he has to scare the bejeezus out of people. Drug trafficking organizations aren’t like corporations, which seek stability and predictability. Warring internal factions, neighboring crime groups, and the government keep cartels in a constant state of crisis, and terror is the successful kingpin’s stock in trade. A good kingpin is far more important to a cartel than a qualified CEO is to a legitimate business.”

Needless to say, I liked that article about the virtues of drug kingpin leadership a lot, but I also found it disturbing.  After all, it implies that your boss would be more successful by becoming even more ruthless and dictatorial and by making frequent, painful examples of those who underperform.  Yikes!

The last issue of Marvel’s latest volume of The Defenders ships next month.  The series, whose heroes are dedicated to defending the world from “the Impossible”, is one of my favorites.  So, of course, it’s suffered from chronically low sales.  And since writer Matt Fraction has a ton of other stuff going on right now, well, this is it.

Cover art for issue #12 of The Defenders
I talked to my local comic shop guy about the end of the series, and he said that he thought the problem was that The Defenders didn’t tie into what’s going on in the rest of the Marvel Universe.  For example, most of the characters were involved in some way in the Avengers vs. X-Men story event—on both sides!—but the Defenders as a group were totally invisible, and the series itself ignored the event in its entirety.

But that was what I liked about it!  I hate all those cross-over events, and I really like cool sequential comic storytelling regardless of how it ties into any outside continuity.


I understand that the big events boost sales, and that when your favorite title is able to ignore those events, that means that your favorite title is outside of the mainstream.  That’s fine.  I would counter-argue that comics in general are at this point little more than a loss leader for other, more profitable products—like movies, toy tie-ins, and video games—that are made by the same corporate conglomerates that own the comic publishers.  With that in mind, comic producers would be well-advised to sponsor awesome new ideas first and foremost as a way of developing and eventually pitching future primary revenue engines—i.e. movies.  For example, Blade has never been a successful comic book for Marvel, but the Blade movies made tons of money for the studio that made them, and the comics—regardless of their profitability when published—were useful when it came time to make the films.  First, they helped develop the concepts that the movie incorporated and provided a blueprint for the eventual screenplay.  Second, they provided a small but real basis for positive buzz at the grass roots level because only serious nerds knew who Blade was before the movies were released, but that’s the kind of obscure cultural referent power that studios are looking for these days.  And third, the execution of the comics helped sell the movies to the finance guys by showing in a visual way what the potentialities for the story were.  In many ways, this is the most important thing that comics are doing anymore—they’re showing bankers what these films might look like without the expense of filming even a “sizzle” reel.

Anyway, I don’t know if The Defenders could have worked as a movie or even if that’s what I really wanted to see.  I do know, however, that I liked the book, that I thought it was weird and cool and totally unpredictable, and that I’m sorry to see it go away.
Finally, it seems impossible for the New York Giants to beat the San Francisco 49ers this weekend.  Says Giant’s DE Justin Tuck:

“The fact of the matter is they're a good football team and they're playing well, and I think if I was a betting man and didn't have anything to do with this team, I would probably pick them as favorites, too.”

Ugh.  Still, if the Titans can beat the Steelers, I suppose anything can happen.  You can bet your ass I’ll be watching the game.

That’s all I’ve got.  Have a great weekend.

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