Friday, March 20, 2009

Is the NFL recession proof?

Here's a prediction: while you may hear many MLB and NBA teams lose money in 2009 and over the next few years, most NFL teams will remain profitable and recession-proof, in spite of selling increasingly more expensive tickets and merchandise.

The reason? The NFL has taken full advantage of one of the most basic economic principles: scarcity. They're mostly withholding one of the most popular entertainment products in America, and all indications are people want more. The MLB gives you 162 games, the NBA gives you 82; the NFL gives you a mere 16. On top of this, the NFL network, now broadcasting several games a year, is largely unavailable to American audiences, as is the NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV. You want more football, but you mostly can't get it.

This demand is clearly borne out in the ratings, and the NFL should remain tremendously profitable as long as it continues to subscribe to this ideology. Whether or not they should sell such highly-priced tickets while accepting huge sums of public financing for their stadiums is another issue, and one I'll deal with in a later post.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who Decided the Definition of Life?

In the wake of President Obama lifting the Bush administration's bans on stem cell research, the ethics of "destroying life" to save lives has been discussed ad nauseum. Typical of the rhetoric being produced is this article by the Tribune's John Kass. After comparing the use of embryos to help treat degenerative diseases to a dying man, Kass closes with an open ended remark: "And what happens to us, as we take other lives, in order to live?"

I think the most pertinent issue here is what our operating definition of life is. Clearly, what Kass and many theologians and political conservatives refer to is human life. At the same time, we're discussing the ethics of scientific research, and in its most reduced form, all life is sustained by the metabolic processes of the living cell. From a scientist's perspective, life is defined by the ability of the cell to efficiently sustain these functions.

However, if this is our operating definition, then what we take as life, and the protections we offer it, has to be extended much further than human life. In terms of the cell, the difference between human cells and those of animals, plants, bacteria, and other organisms is not much more than variations in genetic and protein content. And yet, we don't have much of a problem destroying bacterial, yeast, plant, and animal life for the purpose of scientific research. Our understanding of life would not have been made possible without these experiments, and so we tolerate some destruction for our ultimate benefit.

What, then, makes human life different from other life? Almost all religions have a concept of soul, which is the standard in differentiating humans from everything else. This is usually what the counter arguments to stem cell research, and the sanctity of human life, refers to. And yet, in a secular society, this isn't an acceptable operating standard. Not all religions limit the concept of soul to humans only; in Hinduism, essentially every organism, from the merest Protista to the most complex animal, contains some sort of soul. On the other hand, atheists deny such a concept entirely. It would be un-Constitutional to use one soul standard over another in the United States.

Given that, our official definition for life should more closely resemble the scientific one. Stem cell opponents will argue this will lead to all sorts of human experimentation and human cloning, the sort of behavior we associate with science-fiction stories. I don't buy this. Humans appear to have built-in moral sensors, and appear to find reprehensible any experimentation involving a human well-developed enough to resemble one of our species (there are exceptions to this, and it is that minority that has helped create this debate). With stem cells, we are utilizing a mass of cells that represents about 4-5 days of growth post-fertilization. The mass can hardly be differentiated from a colony of bacterial cells, and yet contains the potential to improve the quality of life of many fully-formed human beings.

We tolerate the destruction of life continuously to benefit our species. Is this sacrifice not worth the outcome? Don't take my word for it; next time you meet a sufferer of diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease, or Parkinson's, ask them how they would enjoy a life without these debilitating afflictions.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sports and Religion

When I first decided to blog, I resolved not to be merely reactionary, which is the modus operandi for most bloggers. My feeling is those blogs that can actually offer something new and refreshing, whether that be a product or an opinion, were those that would add the most value for consumers in this Internet Age. This is an exceptionally cynical approach and, rather than embracing it, I would encourage the rest of you to continue doing something for yourself (as most blogs and networks like facebook do).

Either way, I hope to offer something new here all the time, and I've yet to do so. The title of this post is hardly indicative of that; the role of religion in sports has been discussed ad nauseum. But that's not the direction I'm going in here.

The concept of sports fanatic is a fairly new one. In the 20th century, being a sports fanatic became an acceptable thing to be. A person can obsess over sports; it can be his or her lifeblood. Cloaking yourself in the official garb of your favorite team and player and proceeding to act like a gibbering idiot at sporting events is quite an acceptable past-time. In fact, it can endear you to a large group of people who share the same feelings for that team or player. Large gatherings of 10,000+ people who share these emotions occur frequently and are socially-embraced events.

Conversely, it is quite acceptable to openly despise those who passionately follow other, opposing teams. Watching your team triumph over another on the field, diamond, pitch, or court vindicates your personal faith in the possibility of that outcome, and enables you to continue to be a jerk to those who supported the other side On the other hand, watching your team lose to the other can be a humbling, even humiliating experience (particularly when copious amounts of alcohol and testosterone are involved). Prolonged losing can lead a fan to openly question his or her own faith, and some may even jump the bandwagon (or convert) to a "winning" side.

The concept of religious fanatic... er, excuse me, devout follower is quite an older concept, perhaps 5000+ years in age. I believe the dawn of modern religion occurred when the first caveman clubbed his caveman brother on the head with a primitive mace, causing the caveman brother (not brotha, that would have been a hate crime) to see stars; this caused him to believe he was perceiving the divine, and eureka, you had religion. Quite possibly a similar event occurred repeatedly throughout history in various forms, creating the dawn of every major and minor theology known to man.

In any event, the concept of being a fervent follower of religion has been quite an acceptable thing to be for many thousands of years. A person can obsess over religion; it can become his or her lifeblood. Cloaking yourself in the official garb of your religion (skullcap, burka, robes, or nothing) and titillating yourself into a manic rage at your local church/temple/mosque is quite an acceptable past-time. In fact, it can endear you to a large group of people who share the same fervent emotions for that deity/idol/inanimate object. Large gatherings of these people occur frequently at churches, temples, and in front of rocks and are socially-embraced.

It is also quite acceptable to openly despise those who follow other deities/idols/inanimate objects. Although no physical evidence exists to support any philosophy, verbalized "pimp slaps" of one faith against others vindicates your personal faith in the possibility of being "saved" upon your death (after all, the Earth is a pretty shitty place, what with all these "other" religions and all), and enables you to continue to condemn followers of all other religions to hell. On the other hand, watching another religion triumph over yours can be a humiliating, even beheading experience (just ask the Jews circa 600 AD). Prolonged losing can lead a devotee to question his or her own faith, either on his or her own or by the sword of an opposing devotee, and some may even "convert" (or jump the bandwagon) to a "winning" deity, or risk losing their heads (or even private parts; of course, converting to a religion can also lead to loss of portions of private parts, so you're kinda screwed either way).

This provides with an interesting hypothesis about our species' behavior. The same sort of emotions govern both sports fanaticism and religious fervor, and similar physical outcomes can be achieved via both obsessions. The implication is that humans are inherently obsessive as well as insecure, and require some sort of following to be able to function normally. In an era where religious fervor has faded somewhat, it would seem sports fanaticism has stepped in to fill the void (or are the two related? Hmmm. Perhaps that is why the NFL plays its games on Sunday). Of course, sports is an easy example; people around the world have a variety of obsessions, and the concept could easily be extended to, say, pop music, culture, and political ideology (which could explain the popularity of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Rush Limbaugh). Either way, its not an encouraging sign for our civilization. The solution? I recommend Xanax.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Excrement from the Right

Charles Krauthammer, come on down! Your columns continue to provide me with blog-fodder. His latest piece, "Obama's Science Fiction", is in tone more reasonable than his previous swill, but no better in content (except to fertilize my lawn with, perhaps). I didn't want to be merely reactionary in this space, but the recent spate of conservative bilge has prompted my hand.

Krauthammer continues to assume scientists lack moral values. I can't credit him with authorship of this; I've heard these arguments from the right for years, and Bush made it part of his public policy. I find the following statement particularly vapid.

"Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible."

Actually, scientists agonize over ethical decisions all the time. In fact, it's a fairly significant component of all grant applications, which provide the lifeblood of scientific research (that's money). However, this is the usual argument from conservatives, that morality and science are mutually exclusive. While oversight of all major decisions is important, and I think ethical review boards have a lot of value, the implication that people intelligent enough to author such research lack the same brain power to consider ethical implications is hogwash. Of course, there is always a small minority that ruins things for the rest of us, although the South Korean researcher a few years ago who claimed to have cloned humans successfully was proven to have made a fake claim.

It's also worth mentioning the Obama plan doesn't allow federal funding for unfettered stem cell research. Government funds cannot go to expanding the number of stem cell lines; rather, they can go towards experiments involving lines that have been obtained from privately-funded research. This was what was banned by Bush, and was effectively the United States' stem cell policy under Clinton.

The impression one gets from reading Krauthammer is that he opines that Bush's arguments (if they can be justified as such) were substantive and "morally serious" while Obama's are flippant. If that's indeed the case, perhaps the Post should consider a stricter drug-testing policy for its employees.

Not quite Stupidity 101...

...but I'm sure you didn't take these courses while at school. And finally after all these years, I can prove Underwater Basket Weaving is a course.

Stewart vs. Cramer

John Stewart's evisceration of CNBC's Jim Cramer is great entertainment, and fulfills the one component of television news commentary that is missing these days: accountability. Here is the interview, broken into 3 parts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Apparently, science is amoral...

...Or, at least, scientists are, or so claims a Slate columnist.

The whole premise of the article (comparing George Bush's use of torture to Obama lifting the ban on stem cell research) is a joke. In particular, I found this paragraph particularly vile.

"The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it."

This is fairly typical conservative spin. It represents all that is wrong with right wing of America: they'll defend you until you're born, and then you're on your own. In reality, we should be doing all we can to fight debilitating degenerative diseases. Lifting the bans on expanding the lines of available stem cells is a critical first step, but we still have a long way to go.

Embryonic stem cells are those that divide, differentiate, and specialize into all of the cells in our bodies. The brilliance of it comes from the fact that these cells are all genetically the same, and as such receive or produce some signals that cause them to become all of the various tissue types (brain, bone, skin, liver, heart, lung, etc.) in our body. Significant challenges remain to actually getting these cells to divide into particular tissue types, and then finding ways to incorporate them into the bodies of those suffering from degenerative diseases. Should we ever overcome these challenges, we may be able to cure diabetes, Alzheimer's, and MS (just to name a few).

Is this not worth the commitment to the research? The moral argument really doesn't hold here. The embryos are not derived from the eggs in a woman's body that do eventually become a person. Rather, they are derived from in vitro fertilization from eggs given by a donor's informed consent. These cells, obtained after 4-5 days of growth, are developed in a specialized in vitro fertilization clinic; bottom line, these cells are never meant to be people, and are never going to be.

And yet, they consist of the means to cure these debilitating diseases, diseases which cost people their quality of life and certainly have a great social and economic burden to all of us (this impact would make a great follow-up study). This really isn't a question of "Are you with us or against us?" Science will always continue to evolve and improve its methods; if one technique doesn't succeed or isn't allowed, others will be explored (as they have been). The primary objection to this one isn't valid, and kudos to President Obama for recognizing it, and not governing by religious ideology.

Friday, March 06, 2009

More Conservative Bilge...

Apparently I am somewhat of a masochist, because I continue to subject myself to the excrement of right-wing shill Charles Krauthammer.

Among the many objectionable statements Krauthammer ejaculates in this swill of an article, a few stood out as particularly retched.

Chiding Obama for lecturing on not finding energy alternatives: "We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care and education -- importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?)..."

- Every honest expert has declared neither of those represents a short-term or long-term solution to the energy demands of our civilization.

Apparently, one of the problems of our financial crisis is an increasingly educated population: "Indeed, one could perversely make the case that, if anything, the proliferation of overeducated, Gucci-wearing, smart-ass MBAs inventing ever more sophisticated and opaque mathematical models and debt instruments helped get us into this credit catastrophe."

- Wow. Krauthammer appears to have a major problem with access to education in general, admonishing Obama for wishing to provide "universal access to college". Perhaps he would prefer if people remained dumb; they might find his columns insightful, then.

Finally, he reverts to the McCain-Palin (and now, Jindal) tactic of accusing Obama and Co. of fear-mongering, of taking advantage politically of the tenuous economic climate to forward his own socialist agenda.

"Obama sees the continuing financial crisis as usefully creating the psychological conditions -- the sense of crisis bordering on fear-itself panic -- for enacting his "Big Bang" agenda to federalize and/or socialize health care, education and energy, the commanding heights of post-industrial society".

Please. After Bush and Cheney stood idly by while the specter of a recession loomed, and refused to acknowledge this impending economic doom, we finally have an administration offering solutions to the ills that plague America post-Bush. Granted the solutions aren't perfect: the stimulus bills are peppered with a variety of earmark and congressional pork. Folks, that is simply politics as it is played all across the world, and no bill will pass in Congress without some sort of political favors. Indeed, if the Republicans were not so steadfastly ideological, and did not continue to appease their radical right-wing ultra-conservative constitutents, it is likely the bill would be less bad and potentially more useful. Universal access to education and health-care should not be viewed as privelege; they are fundamental human rights, and in every developed society (except one) they are treated as such.

"The Great Non Sequitur" blares as the title of the article. Who knew it refered to the writer, and not the subject?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

As usual...

...Hitch nails it.

The U.N. resolution to prevent defamation against religions - mainly, Islam - is a joke. Cartoons drawn in Denmark or Teddy Bears named Mohammad should not offend people of "faith" - the absolutist claims of all religions rest on the rather shaky ground of the so-called unshakeable faith of its followers, and we should all not be held to such a demand. Neither is it within the jurisdiction of any governing body to protect against these ridiculous claims (not that the U.N. is a governing body, either).

The first two paragraphs from his piece sum up all that is preposterous with Islam (and all religions, really).

"The Muslim religion makes unusually large claims for itself. All religions do this, of course, in that they claim to know and to be able to interpret the wishes of a supreme being. But Islam affirms itself as the last and final revelation of God's word, the consummation of all the mere glimpses of the truth vouchsafed to all the foregoing faiths, available by way of the unimprovable, immaculate text of "the recitation," or Quran. If there sometimes seems to be something implicitly absolutist or even totalitarian in such a claim, it may result not from a fundamentalist reading of the holy book but from the religion itself."

The last sentence in particular nails the essence of the problem: often people wish to separate the religion from the people who follow it, but that is like putting the cart before the horse. Ultimately, a religion cannot exist without its followers, because it is man-made. Until we all come to accept this prerequisite as valid for all religions, such absolutist claims (and the protections offered to defend it) will continue to be perpetrated.