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Sunday, March 29, 2009


Now that Fargo is facing an epic flood, one can only wonder if North Dakotans will go on a looting rampage similar to the one that occurred in New Orleans after Katrina in 2005. (The media at the time suggested that the looters were merely after otherwise unobtainable essentials like food and water, but the news footage I saw showed many of them carrying away designer jeans and the like.)

True, the disasters are on a different scale. But both nonetheless shine a light on the character of the locals.

Will the mayor and a sizable percentage of the police force desert Fargo?

When rescue helicopters arrive, will the citizens of Fargo shoot at them?

If many of the newly homeless from Fargo are relocated in another city, will the crime rates in that city suddenly spike?

Most importantly, if the mayor and governor fail to institute proper evacuation procedures, once the flood is over and the human and economic costs are totaled, will the media then blame President Obama for what happened?

Saturday, March 28, 2009


During the Viet Nam War, it grew increasingly apparent that the Viet Cong simply had more grit than we, or the South Vietnamese, did. The Viet Cong would sometimes live in dirt tunnels for months at a time, not seeing the light of day once during that entire period. Meanwhile American soldiers lived in air conditioned barracks, went to whorehouses in Saigon, and got high on a regular basis. (Can you imagine the Cong sneaking into Saigon to sample the fleshpots or search for the best ganja?)

Perhaps the best examples of this quiet resolve were the Buddhist monks who would immolate themselves in the street to protest American policy.

I can't help but be struck by the parallel between those Buddhist monks and the current crop of suicide bombers. The bombers are, of course, far more dastardly, since they commit mass murder as well as suicide. But both are willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause.

Bill Maher lost his talk show "Politically Incorrect" because he said that the suicide bombers who steered those planes into the World Trade Center were courageous (as well as evil). In the political climate of the time, it was simply unacceptable to say anything positive about the bombers, true or not. (Maher long ago apologized abjectly for this, his one true foray into political incorrectness; he has has since landed on another talk show, where he is as predictably liberal as ever.)

But Maher's original statement was in fact on target: very few Americans would willingly go on a suicide mission. And no matter how superior our technology, in the long run no one can win against an enemy who simply won't give up.

When Americans join the military, it is usually because they want their college tuition paid for, or because they need a job, or because they want to learn a marketable skill. There are some who enlist out of a sense of patriotism, or because they actually want combat experience, but they are the minority. When Muslims take up jihad, it is for the greater glory of Allah, and because they have a hatred of the United States that is bred into their very souls.

They're tougher than we are, period. We may inflict more casualties, but they'll outlast us, especially with the war being fought on their home turf.

Time to cut our losses, and let them kill each other instead of us.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Keep the money, boys

I was as outraged as anyone (see earlier post) when I heard of the AIG bonuses. But this afternoon I read in the local paper that ACORN had held a protest against AIG in my hometown.

About thirty protesters were bused in to stand in front of AIG financial products headquarters. They chanted, "Who are we? ACORN! What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!"

Another chant was, "AIG gets bailed out, the people get sold out!"

All of a sudden I had a little less desire to see those bonuses returned.

Put yourself in an AIG executive's shoes. What would you do if given, say, a half million dollar bonus? You had been promised this money a year ago, before the sky came falling down, and you are legally entitled to it. In fact, this is part of the reason you stayed at AIG rather than taking a job at JPMorgan. You work in the financial products division, but you had nothing to do with the credit default swaps which brought AIG down. So far you've managed to save $2.7 million, including the equity in your house. This would give you a nest egg of roughly three million, after taxes. In the meantime, it's not clear if you'll even have your job six months from now, and if you do, it certainly won't pay as much as it does now. You have three children, one currently in college and the other two on their way. AIG has just suffered about the worst publicity any company ever has, and if you do lose your job, at age fifty there are no guarantees you will be able to find another. Would you give the money back?

I'm not sure that I would.

And I would like to thank ACORN for helping my thinking evolve on this matter.

This, of course, begs the question of whether or not, as an AIG employee, that choice should be up to you. If the firm had been allowed to go bankrupt, wouldn't those contracts for the promised bonuses have been abrogated? So should they be honored now? (No, they shouldn't.)

Perhaps more to the point, should all those contracts with Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, et al, also have been honored at one hundred cents on the dollar? None of these contracts were given even the slightest of haircuts. All of the firms which took out credit default swaps with AIG were sophisticated financial entities which essentially made a bad bet. (When you make such a large bet, you're also betting on your counterparty's creditworthiness.) The government simply should not be in the business of bailing out people -- or firms -- who made bad bets.

But if they are, I want to be compensated for my stock market losses. Where do I get in line?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Just an excuse to boast

I've always found world records more impressive than Olympic gold medals. The Olympics are a big meet, well publicized to be sure, but winning gold just means you're the best on a particular day. (Maybe the best athlete had a virus, or was injured, or distracted by his personal problems, or at the wrong stage of her menstrual cycle.) If you're the world record holder, on the other hand, you're the greatest of all time.

Imagine they held a televised competition to see who could get up Mt. Everest the fastest. Who would be greater, the winner of that race or Sir Edmund Hillary? Of course it would be Hillary, because he was the first: he had done what no one else had ever done before. This is essentially what any world record holder can say: that he was the first to high jump eight feet, or run a marathon in less than two hours and four minutes, or do whatever it is that he did.

Obviously, the popular consensus is that an Olympic gold medal is the crowning achievement of sport. And as long as the public perceives it that way, it is, for that reason. To aficionados, Michael Phelps may have been the greatest swimmer of all time after the World Championships of 2007. But until he had the imprimatur of eight golds at one Games, the public still regarded Mark Spitz as king.

I never came remotely close to doing either, so for me the debate about which was more impressive was purely academic.

Until yesterday.

Thank goodness for masters swimming, which keeps track of world records in every swimming event, for every five year age group, in both 25 meter pools and 50 meter pools. When you have that many records, they obviously become severely devalued currency. But they are still wonderful vehicles for ego trips.

Yesterday I set the world record for the 55-59 age group in the 200 short course meter butterfly. The old record had been 2:21.90; I went 2:19.72. I had told myself beforehand that in order to get the moral victory I had to beat the record by two seconds, since I was going to be wearing a new generation (Blueseventy) suit, which previous record holder Greg Shaw had not (the new suits weren't available in 2007 when he set the record). I was genuinely surprised when they told me my time, because it had felt more like a 2:24; I had felt awkward and weak. This would indicate the suit was worth more than two seconds. On the other hand, I had felt great while warming up, and the reason I felt awkward and weak during the race was because the suit was so constricting. So I'm not sure where I stand on the matter. Flyers in particular need to feel fluid and loose during their events, so I can understand why five of the eight finalists in the 200 fly at Beijing wore only leggings, even though the full body LAZR was then available.

The Ancient Mariners, the masters team who host this meet, have always been particularly gracious. Five years ago I made an attempt at the same record for the 50-54 age group at the same meet (and missed by less than a second). Jason Crist, a member of the club seeded in the next lane, asked me beforehand how fast I wanted to take it out at the 100. When I told him 1:06, he obliged by going out exactly that fast himself, even though the aggressive early pace meant sacrificing his own race. Yesterday, Jeff Roddin, another Ancient Mariner who is a great all around swimmer and better than me even in my best event, actually sat the race out because he figured it would be better for me to have the next lane empty rather than have someone kicking water in my face. (He claimed he was using me as an excuse not to have to swim a 200 fly, but I don't buy that: he swam the event three times last year.) You're supposed to ask for three backup timers if going for a world record, but I was too embarrassed to do so. (How foolish would I have looked if I missed by a lot? And since I hadn't swum a race in nearly two years, I wasn't sure what to expect.) Jeff understood that, and asked for me.

[An aside: Crist and Roddin have a teammate, John Feinstein, the well known author. Feinstein, an excellent sprint butterflyer, competed in the 400 meter freestyle in a masters meet several years ago. One of the competitors in his heat was a woman in her early thirties who was visibly pregnant. She beat him. Feinstein's teammates, naturally enough, teased him unmercifully afterward. I happened to witness one such incident, after which Feinstein wailed in mock outrage, "It was no fair -- it was two against one!" The perfect response.]

Masters swimmers in general are a very congenial lot, partly because what they share is a labor of love. (After working on Wall Street, where the subtext of every handshake is "I want your money," I found this a refreshing change.) Nobody wants anything from you, so all friendliness is without agenda. And since only pride is at stake, even the most competitive rivalries tend to be friendly ones.

It's easy to think, what's more pathetic than a 55 year old trying to recapture lost glory? (Especially when that glory existed only in his own mind.) But then when you actually go to a masters meet and see all the fit, attractive people there joking with each other and having a good time, the natural reaction is, I have to do this more often.

I drove down to Maryland for the meet by myself. But during the drive back to Connecticut, I had my new record to keep me company; and I have to admit, it was very good company, at least for the first couple hours.

(I had in fact held one record previously, for the same event in the 45-49 age group; that one was such delightful company it actually prevented my feet from even touching the ground for the first forty-eight hours after I made its acquaintance -- as pathetic as that sounds.)

I suppose the appropriate comparison here would be with a gold medal at the World Masters Championships.

I'll take my record, thanks.

I swore when I started this blog that it would not turn into a diary. I've tried to stay true to the original idea of writing only about things that others would find interesting, and not just my personal obsessions. So I apologize for this slip. (But I'm not that sorry, of course, otherwise I would have deleted it. Sometimes I just have to boast -- my personal form of Tourettes.)

Addendum: an article which appeared about me in the local paper:

(I'm afraid the writer, John Nash, made me sound nicer than I am.)

Addendum II, 4/16/09: As an example of the type of friendly rivalry you find in masters swimming, several days ago I got the following email from Greg Shaw, whose record I broke:
"Hey John, I saw recently that you got the 200 SCM fly record and didn't just get it, but creamed it. Glad to see that you are in such great shape. It's a tough one, as you know. The LCM 200 fly record [also Shaw's] is right there too. I expect to see you get that this summer....What you did is fantastic. Congrats."

(Please don't expect that kind of sportsmanship from me when somebody breaks my record. I'm a bit more possessive.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ken Kesey

(Ken Kesey, above and right, around the time he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Ken Kesey grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. From as early as he could remember, his father had him and his younger brother Joe shooting, running, swimming, fishing, wrestling, boxing, and running rapids. Fred Kesey also instilled in his sons the value of self reliance and independence. He must have been proud of Ken, who went on to become a star runner and football player, and a champion wrestler in both high school and at the University of Oregon. (If you're a champion at 174 pounds, as Kesey was, it means you can handle pretty much anybody who comes your way.)

Kesey embodied a certain sort of backwoods ruggedness, and he fully understood the visceral appeal of the macho ethic. But he wanted something more; this is what made him Ken Kesey. So after college, in 1958, he enrolled in Stanford University's graduate writing program, a self-enclosed, arty community.

Tom Wolfe, our greatest living writer, has always had the ability to convey what is admirable about certain people, to make his heroes our heroes. He did this with Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and he did it with Kesey in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Wolfe described the scene at Stanford thus:

"[Kesey] had Jack London Martin Eden Searching Hick, the hick with intellectual yearnings, written all over him....And their cottage on Perry Lane -- well, everybody else's cottage was rundown in a bohemian way, simplicity, Japanese paper lamp globes and monk's cloth and blond straw rugs and Swedish stainless steel knives and forks and cornflowers sticking out of a hand-thrown pot. But theirs was just plain Low Rent. There was always something like a broken washing machine rusting on the back porch....Somehow it was have him and Faye on hand to learn as the Perry Lane sophisticates talked about life and the arts."

Well, we all know what happened next.

Kesey took a job working nights at a mental institution in nearby Menlo Park, where he volunteered to take an experimental drug, lysergic acid, later known as LSD. He often talked to the inmates, sometimes while under the influence of the drug. This was the inspiration for Cuckoo's Nest, a novel of such extraordinary power that it became an immediate hit upon publication in 1962, and has since become a classic.

The book revolves around Randle Patrick McMurphy, a swaggering con who has faked mental illness in order to escape the drudgery of work detail at a regular prison. He demonstrates all the bluster and charm that one senses Kesey had at his disposal. But Kesey also understood and sympathized with the sad and broken creatures most of the inmates of the mental institution were. The book is narrated by one of them, a huge, mute (by choice) Indian named Bromden, disparagingly called Chief Broom by the attendants because of his cleaning job. McMurphy briefly gives the other inmates a taste of freedom and self respect before he is subdued by the machinery of the institution.

Two years later, Kesey came out with Sometimes a Great Notion, about an Oregon logging family, and the conflict between two brothers, one a neurasthenic Yale graduate, the other the personification of backwoods machismo Kesey was so well acquainted with. This book never gained the same popularity as Cuckoo's Nest, but it did achieve critical acclaim.

This book was also made into a movie, starring Paul Newman as the tough brother. Ironically, Kesey himself looked a bit like Newman, minus some prettiness and plus some testosterone. (The movie might more appropriately have starred Kesey as the tough brother and Newman as the Yale graduate.)

After this Kesey became more involved with the nascent LSD movement, and led a group of proto-hippies -- the Merry Pranksters -- on a cross country expedition in a bus called Furthur. It was this expedition that Wolfe devoted the majority of Acid Test to. The group included a couple holdovers from the Beat era, most notably Neal Cassaday, a friend of Jack Kerouac's. But for the most part they were feckless acidheads who would have gotten into trouble on numerous occasions had Kesey not been steering the bus, both literally and metaphorically.

One scene from the book has stuck with me all these years. At one point, the group is partying with some Hells Angels. Sonny Barger, their fearsome leader at the time, calls Kesey out for having casually insulted another Angel ("Nobody -- nobody -- calls an Angel a bullshit person"). Kesey, calm as ever, merely tells Barger that he knew the Angel. Kesey wasn't confrontational about it, but he never lost his starch; he didn't back down from his statement, but he didn't expand on it; and he made his answer just confusing enough to take the volatile Barger aback for a moment, which was enough to defuse the situation.

Throughout the book Kesey constantly plays the role of the friendly, unpretentious, beneficent peacemaker who always seems to be in control of the situation. And he controls it not through intimidation -- though he could have been as intimidating as anyone -- but through sheer force of personality.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad definition of charisma.

Kesey was a superman. He could outmacho the meanest, yet eloquently identify with the weakest. And he used his power for protection (and personal exploration) rather than for aggression. He did it in his writing, and he did it in his personal life.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad definition of a hero.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Frederick Forsyth

Frederick Forsyth, above, is known primarily as the author of such blockbusters as Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War, and The Veteran.

Forsyth started out as a reporter for the BBC, and in 1969 covered the Biafran war. Out of this experience came a book, The Biafra Story, written to alert the world to the plight of the defeated Biafrans. Like most books of its kind, it died a quiet death.

After that, Forsyth decided to write instead for money, and in 1971 came out with Day of the Jackal, a fictional account of a failed assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, which he reportedly wrote in 38 days. The book was a bestseller, and was followed in quick succession by The Odessa File, about a German reporter who tries to track down a Nazi concentration camp commandant, and The Dogs of War, about a mining magnate who hires mercenaries to overthrow an African country.

While reading Day of the Jackal in 1974, at age 20, I found myself occasionally looking at the picture of Forsyth on the inside back flap. There was just something about the no nonsense prose of the book, combined with its occasional sly humor, which gave the impression that the author himself was pretty formidable.

The picture on the inside cover of the book showed a three quarter view of a lean man gazing off to the side focusing on something in the distance. Not particularly handsome, but hard-looking. (It wasn't the photograph above; I couldn't find the original one on the internet). The copy read:

"Frederick Forsyth was born in 1938 and was early attracted to a life of adventure: at six he tried to hitch a ride to the D-Day invasion on an American tank; at sixteen he was soloing in a Tiger Moth biplane; at seventeen he became an aspiring matador; and at nineteen he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force."

After reading his first three novels, I didn't think much more about him, though those three books always occupied a preferred place on my bookshelf.

Then in May of 1978 I happened upon a Newsweek article headlined The Forsyth Saga, featuring the same photograph of him from the book's inside cover. This immediately attracted my attention. The article summarized a longer article which had appeared in the previous Sunday's London Times:

"According to the Sunday Times, Forsyth put up nearly $240,000 in 1972 to overthrow President Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's most ruthless dictators.
Forsyth's chief operative, the paper said, was a Scottish mercenary named Alexander Ramsay Gay, whom Forsyth had met in Biafra when the writer was covering the region's attempt to secede from Nigeria. For the Guinean caper, Gay supposedly ordered a small arsenal -- including automatic rifles, light machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and 40,000 rounds of ammunition -- from a prominent Hamburg arms dealer. In the southern Spanish resort of Fuengirola, he found his troop transport, a 64-foot fishing vessel called the Albatross. He recruited thirteen other mercenaries and lined up 50 former Biafran soldiers who would join the invasion at the last moment. According to the Times, Forsyth's 'objective throughout was to provide a new homeland for the defeated Biafrans'."

But the mercenaries were arrested by Spanish authorities off the coast of the Canary Islands in December of 1972, so the coup never happened.

[The Dogs of War is a thinly veiled account of the actual coup attempt, with the only difference being that the fictional coup was successful, and had been motivated by a desire to get at the fictional Zangaro's mineral wealth instead of to help the Biafrans.]

The true story emerged when one of the mercenaries Gay had hired was killed by the police, who then had come upon his diary which had detailed the plot.

Forsyth of course denied the story, and authorized his former literary agent, Bryan Hunt, to deny it as "a load of old codswallop." Hunt went on to say that Forsyth could not have organized the operation since "at the time he was reportedly forming this army, around the summer of '72, he was actually in my London flat, sick for three weeks with a stomach virus." Hunt also said that Forsyth was too tightfisted to fund such an operation, adding, "To imagine Freddie giving anyone tenpence would be amazing."

Let's examine that statement for a moment. If Forsyth actually had been staying with his agent for three weeks while sick, it can only be because they were good friends. (Most of us wouldn't stay for three days, let alone three weeks, with people who weren't good friends.) And no good friend would tell the press what a skinflint you are unless he were doing it to cover for you.

It was that discrepancy which convinced me the story was true.

Gay himself later said, "I'm not denying my part in it, but I won't comment on anyone else involved."

The original Times article itself was more detailed, and reported that Forsyth had originally met Gay while covering the Biafran war, that the two were good friends, and Gay had actually been the model for the title character in Day of the Jackal.

So Gay had been covering for Forsyth as well.

Two of the most admirable qualities are intelligence and toughness. Either without the other becomes infinitely less appealing. Forsyth embodies both.

A more recent update: A year ago I took out an audio version of Forsyth's 2001 book of short stories, The Veteran, from the local library. One of the longer stories was a love story, a departure from the blockbusters about international intrigue Forsyth is known for. It was quite well done; I found it moving.

Most recent/older update: While searching for an appropriate picture of Forsyth on the internet for this post, I stumbled across an old photo from the early 1970's showing Forsyth with Faye Dunaway, then at the peak of her beauty:

This picture did not detract from my admiration for the man.


A.I.G., the black hole which has already swallowed more than $170 billion in taxpayer-funded bailouts, is paying its top executives $165 million in bonuses today.

A.I.G chairman Edward Liddy said that the firm was contractually obligated to pay out these bonuses since they had been agreed to before.

[If the firm had gone bankrupt -- which it essentially has -- would it still have been obligated to pay these bonuses? And a "bonus" is supposed to be an extra payment given at the end of the year for a job well done in a profitable year for the firm.]

The bulk of the bonuses are for employees at AIG Financial Products, the branch of the company responsible for selling credit default swaps, the very instrument which drove A.I.G. under.

Liddy explained, "We cannot attract the best and brightest talent to lead and staff the AIG businesses....if their compensation is subject to....arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."

How "best and brightest" can these employees be if they are the ones responsible for socking the taxpayers with a $170 billion bill? And that argument about how the employees might go elsewhere if not richly compensated is wearing a bit thin: there are very few elsewhere's for them to go to anymore.

"A.I.G." must stand for Always Incredibly Greedy.

[All Income Governmental?]

Expect the townsfolk to come out with their torches and pitchforks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Actors on steroids (III)

(Left, Edward Norton in Primal Fear, 1995; above right, in American History X, in 1996)

While I was on the subject of great actors earlier I forgot about Ed Norton, who is definitely one such. He got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his very first movie role, in Primal Fear, in 1995. A year later, he got a nomination for his starring role in American History X.

It used to be that actors accomplished physical transformations via rubber bodysuits, costume, carriage, and so on. The transformation above was brought about by more than just hairstyle, facial expression, tattoos, and a few push-ups. There seems to have been something much more organic at work.

(And yes, this is jealousy talking. After a lifetime spent at the gym, I have not come close to what Norton appears to have accomplished in one year in the picture on the right; I still resemble the "before" picture at left.)

This is a short three part series, by the way, which you'll read in the reverse order that it was written. There are many more actors who have taken steroids than those mentioned here, but these are three of the more obvious cases. (I won't dwell on actors who have admitted steroid use, like Stallone or Schwarzenegger; it is more fun to out those who have never confessed.)

Actors on steroids (II)

(At left, Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, 1987, at age 23; above, in undated photo from mid- 1990's)

Nicolas Cage has always been more a whiny parody of a good actor than a real actor. He took that whininess to an extreme in Peggy Sue Got Married, directed by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola. (Nicolas changed his name from Coppola to Cage early on to obscure the nepotistic roots of his career.) He must have felt particularly free to indulge himself in that particular movie knowing that his uncle wouldn't fire him. Luckily, Coppola had the good sense to also hire Kathleen Turner, who saved the movie.

Around the time of his appearance in Con Air, Cage's entire bearing changed, and he became a parody of an action hero. He started carrying himself like Cameron Poe, the war hero he played in that movie, not the spoiled graduate of Beverly Hills High School he himself actually was. And like almost all men with newfound muscle, he became a bit of an exhibitionist. (Whatsamatter Nic, couldn't afford shirts with sleeves?)

My guess is that Cage's new muscles were store bought.

Men who juice are very similar to women who get implants: they are prouder of their voluptuousness than those who came by it naturally.

Actors on steroids (I)

(Left, Brad Pitt at age 28 in Thelma and Louise; above, at age 41 in Troy)

Brad Pitt has always been more of a pretty boy than an actor. At his best, he is good at acting cool, as he did in the Oceans series. He is also proficient at underacting, an underrated talent. He did this creditably in Seven and elsewhere. He has certainly made the most of his good looks, parlaying that handsomest-boy-at-his-high-school face into international stardom.

He is evidently doing his best to make the most of his body, as well, making the jump from looking like an ex-high school swimmer (which he was) to looking like a professional wrestler.

After a lifetime of watching people develop and change physically, I can assure you that this is not the normal pattern of change from age 28 to 41.

The photographs above force you to one of two conclusions: either Pitt the Younger was anorexic, or Pitt the Elder is juicing.

(He was never anorexic.)

One of the side effects of taking steroids is that your own natural testosterone production shuts off, which is why men who go off the juice become impotent and sometimes even grow breasts. Pitt now lives with a woman many consider one of the most desirable in the world, yet when he's not juicing, his testosterone levels -- and therefore his desire to have sex -- must be minimal.

How does this affect Pitt's relationship with Angelina Jolie? Might this possibly account for the put out expression she normally seems to be wearing when photographed with him?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dara Torres

The three Olympians: Dara Torres top in 2008; center in 2000, and bottom in 1988.

While we're on the subject of performance enhancing drugs (see previous post), Dara Torres has been in the news recently too. She had her first post-Beijing race last weekend (she won the 50 at one of the Grand Prix meets). I've never believed her stories about how the transformation of her physique has been due to exercise and diet. A similarly skeptical friend sent me this set of pictures. Below is a post that I originally made on another website right before the '08 Olympic Trials:

Does anyone remember what Torres looked like from 1984-1992? She had a very pretty face, and also a feminine body which was always covered by a discernable layer of fat. She was strong, and there was -- and is -- no denying her talent (she still holds the 13-14 NAG record in the 50 yard free from 1982, a point in her life when she was undoubtedly clean). But it seemed at the time -- because of her feminine look -- that she had more female hormones (or at least fewer male hormones) than the average champion female swimmer of the time. (Of course, the average female champion of that era was East German, but that's a different story.)

When Torres came back in 2000 she had a totally different look: muscular and hard. It's possible to lose the baby fat through diet and exercise -- I've seen plenty of women who look fitter as 40 year olds than they did as teenagers -- but those are almost always women who didn't exercise as teenagers and then got religion later in life. Torres swam for Florida in college and certainly swam at least as much yardage back then as she did swimming with the Stanford program in '00, and certainly far more yardage than she is now swimming for Michael Lohberg in Coral Springs. So if the exercise doesn't account for the lack of fat, what does? Diet might, but it's almost impossible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time if you're dieting, and Torres definitely looked much more muscular in '00 than she did in her earlier incarnation.

The thing that really threw me was seeing how she was doing her lifetime best 200 lcm free after just one year of training at age 33. Now I could maaaaaybe believe that someone who's been keeping their swimming muscles fit could do their best 50 at age 33. But the 200 is an entirely different animal, it requires a lot of background yardage and a lot of cardiovascular conditioning. And over the course of seven years out of the pool you're going to lose a lot of that, a lot of your capillaries are simply going to close up from lack of use. Yet after just one year of training, Torres broke two minutes for the first time. The real shocker came when she broke the AR in the 100 lcm fly with a 57.59 after never having broken a minute in her earlier career. And, to be honest, I have a hard time believing that someone is going to come back after seven years away from the sport and do a lifetime best 50. (This is why all the "a's" in the maaaaaybe above.) You do sometimes see masters swimmers who will do lifetime best 50's in their late twenties or early thirties, but these are usually swimmers who never swam those events in college, other than on the way out to a 100, and none of these swimmers were world class when younger. You simply don't see it with world class swimmers for whom the 50 was their best event. (I'm not talking about the swimmers these days who hang on much longer but have stayed with the sport the entire time.)

I remember hearing people say she kept fit by doing tae bo during those years, but that's ridiculous -- it simply doesn't keep your swimming muscles fit. I did karate seriously for four years in my early thirties, and even swam two 2000 yard workouts a week during that time, but when I stopped the karate and tried swimming competitively again, I had lost a lot. Think about all the ex-swimmers you've known who tried running a marathon: were any of them nearly as fast in the pool afterwards? (Cross-training is one thing, but totally dropping swimming for another sport is another.)

I remember seeing a photo Torres had posed for for Speedo in '00. She was standing in a relaxed pose and you could see the veins coming out of the front of her shoulder and upper pectoral muscle. This is an area where most people don't have veins, and the people you see who do are usually the 'roid monsters you see on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine etc. (Another abnormal area where 'roiders sometimes show veins is on the sides of their quadriceps.) What happens when you take steroids is that as the muscles thicken and grow, there is simply less room for the veins, so they pop to the surface of the body, where they become visible right below the skin. Those of you who are clean, look at the front of your shoulder/upper pectoral area. You won't see veins there the same way you do in your forearm or hand. Yet bodybuilders have them there all the time -- and it's not because they do a lot of cardio training.

Torres was supposed to have been close to Quick in '00, and Quick's name supposedly appeared on the Balco list. (Why else would he have had to leave Stanford so suddenly?) And why did Jenny Thompson dislike her so intensely? Torres certainly seems personable enough when interviewed on TV.

Everything I've said here is either circumstantial evidence or hearsay. Do I have an actual smoking gun? No. Then again, nobody ever has a smoking gun unless they've witnessed someone taking PEDs, and who ever does that? And add up all the circumstantial and hearsay, and it's pretty overwhelming. Then throw in a dash of common sense and the experience the rest of us have had aging, and it's very hard to believe she's clean.

Athletes and steroids

(Top, Michael Johnson; on left, Usain Bolt)

The New York Times had a small article two days ago about how Usain Bolt is ready to start his campaign this spring. One of the most amazing things about Bolt is that not only is he the greatest sprinter of all time, but he actually seems to be clean. He has none of the signs of steroid use that characterize so many other top athletes in track and other sports.

He is relatively slim, with arms that are downright skinny. A lot of the top sprinters have abnormally muscled upper bodies, with convex trapeziuses (the muscles that go from the top of the shoulder to the neck, commonly referred to as traps), convex yet muscular stomachs, and huge arms.

There are people who are just naturally muscular. Mike Tyson at age 21 was very thickly muscled, but pictures of him as a 13 year old reveal a similarly muscular build. Michelle Obama has traps like a world class sprinter, but I'm guessing she is clean as well (she has no reason to juice). The key is, they were always that way.

Another side effect of steroids is that because they thicken the muscles, the veins are often squeezed to the surface of the body, and you will see veins in places where most people don't have them, like the upper pectoral muscle, or the front of the shoulder, or the side of the leg.

Bolt had no such displaced veins.

Another thing you see with steroid users is that their movements become less fluid. People who abuse them for long periods sometimes end up moving somewhat stiffly, like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots.

Bolt ran with an loose, rollicking gait, even leaning to each side just a bit.

Another sign is behavior. Juicers often fly into steroid rages. While these tend to occur in private, off camera, there is often a noticeable change in the general mien of those who take male hormones. They take on a much more forbidding air, engage in macho posturing, and will wear what is referred to as a "game face."

Bolt, by contrast, was always the picture of playfulness, clowning around even in the starting blocks in Beijing.

Finally, one thing you see with steroid users is a sudden improvement in performance, often suspiciously late in their careers, well past the age when you'd expect them to be getting better naturally. This usually goes hand in hand with a sudden change in their build.

Bolt was great from the time he was a World Junior champion at age 15, competing against athletes up to four years older.

Athletes who take steroids seem to be more susceptible to injury as well. Thus far Bolt has remained injury-free.

A friend suggested yesterday that Bolt had to be juiced, otherwise how could he be beating so many juiced athletes? It's true that Bolt is so good he made the other sprinters in his Olympic finals look, well, Caucasian. But as long as there is no other circumstantial evidence, he should get the benefit of the doubt.

Michael Johnson is a different story. He made the Olympic team in 1992 but didn't do well in Barcelona. At the time he was a perfectly respectable 20.0/44.2 sprinter with a somewhat skinny build. Four years later in Atlanta he was a different man, with a much thicker trunk and upper body muscles so well defined that when he settled into the starting blocks you could see every last muscle striation in the front of his shoulders. In his quarter finals and semis he looked as if he were jogging to times in the low-44 second range in the 400, then unleashed a 43.39 to win the finals. He was even more impressive in the 200, setting a world record of 19.32 which at the time put him .34 ahead of the second fastest runner in history. Johnson's later career was beset by injuries. He did set a world record in the 400 in 1999 (I was in the stadium for the race) and won the event at the 2000 Olympics, but even at that meet he was unable to run in the 4 x 400 relay.

Johnson never tested positive, but a lot of athletes seem to have fooled the testers.

I once knew a guy who competed for the US as a wrestler in the 1988 Olympics. His parents went to watch him in Seoul, and while they were there they went to watch the track and field competition one day. They happened to sit next to Mr. and Mrs. Ashford, parents of Evelyn, the sprinter whose world record in the 100 had been beaten by Florence Griffith Joyner. Mr. and Mrs. Ashford told the wrestler's parents that every single sprinter on the US team (from 400 meters on down) was on steroids except for their daughter and Edwin Moses, the great 400 intermediate hurdler.

The wrestler's mother asked, "Even Carl Lewis?" Yes, came the reply.

Flojo, by the way, had won a silver medal in the 200 in 1984 with a 22.5. She retired for two years and then made a comeback. In her new incarnation she came back much more muscular, and much faster, setting a world record of 21.34 in the 200 which has not been touched since. Asked to explain her newfound muscularity, she said at the time that she had taken up weight lifting. (She also had a noticeably deeper voice in 1988; it is as yet unclear whether it was the squats or curls which caused that.)

Track, baseball, cycling, power lifting, and football have all gotten reputations as dirty sports, but my own sport of swimming is certainly not immune. There were the famous state sponsored cases of doping in East Germany from the 1970's to the 1980's and in China in the 1990's. Because of those, Americans are often (understandably) willing to point the finger at swimmers from China and former Eastern bloc countries. But Americans seem to generally turn a blind eye to many cases where American swimmers have obviously been juiced. Some of these swimmers were never been caught and thus still enjoy golden reputations.

One such is Lenny Krayzelburg, who always enjoyed fawning press. In 1996 he competed at the NCAA championships for USC as a 20 year old junior and swam the 100 yard backstroke in 50.2 and the 200 back in 1:48.8 -- respectable times, but hardly world class. One year later he competed at the same meet and went a 46.5 and 1:40.6. That kind of one year improvement would be hard to believe if it came from a 17 year old who was still maturing physically. But from a 21-year-old?

Krayzelburg was always described as having been a "skinny youth," yet when he burst onto the world class scene in 1997 he was muscled like a cartoon superhero. Skinny boys almost always turn out to be relatively skinny young men, just as well muscled young boys turn out to be well muscled young men. And so on. It's possible to change your physique somewhat through diet and exercise, but it's not possible to undergo a wholesale change in physique that makes a mockery of your genetic heritage unless you've had some artificial help.

After 2000, Krayzelburg's career was hobbled by injuries, though he did manage to make the Olympic team in 2004.

There have been others who have undergone similarly remarkable transformations, but there isn't space to list them all.

When obvious juicers are asked if they are doing so, the answer is always, "Oh, I'm on a new weight-lifting program," or "I take lots of protein powder," or "I'm working with a new dietician who's helping me put on more muscle."

Even when the athletes test positive, none ever say, "Okay, you caught me. I did it." It's always, "The testing procedures are flawed," or "The second bottle must have been tampered with," or "Someone must have spiked my water bottle."

Given the weaker moral (if not muscle) fiber of those who juice, perhaps this is not so surprising.

The next time you hear such a denial, don't listen. Just look at the evidence instead.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Roaring Twenties, RIP

For those of us who follow the stock market, it sure feels like the end of the world. The Dow is now at less than half of what it was in October 2007. The stock market has a life of its own, often semi-independent of the economy, but this time it seems they're crashing in unison. No one younger than seventy has ever seen anything like this before. It feels as if a way of life is coming to an end.

A bad market can take down the stock prices of good companies. A bad enough economy will take down the companies themselves. Much of Wall Street was run by arrogant people with no thought for the systemic risk they were exposing the world to. Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers, and AIG all richly deserved to fail. But now even Toyota Motors, long an exemplar of a tightly run, very consumer-friendly company, has been reduced to asking the Japanese government for aid.

We may be headed for another depression. It's not a certainty, but it's definitely a possibility. (Our offspring may yet be Children of the Depression, if you remember that expression.)

Of course, the conventional wisdom says that when people give up hope, that means it's time to buy. Then again, this time is different: we've never had such a leftist President in office. But whenever people say "this time is different," the conventional wisdom says that it isn't. So both cliches indicate that it's time to buy. (Then again, one thing I learned on Wall Street is that there are two expression for every situation, each with opposite messages.) The only thing I know for sure is that I don't have the courage to buy anymore. Which, again, means it's probably time to get long.

From 1968 until 1982, the stock market didn't go up at all. If this this bear market lasts as long, and early indications are that this situation is worse, that means we'll be returning to early 2008 levels in 2022. (How old will you be then?)

I know absolutely no one whose livelihood hasn't been affected by this situation. Perhaps more ominous, I know almost no one who hasn't cut their spending because of it. Every day in the newspapers (at least those which are still in business) there are articles about people taking jobs which they previously would have considered beneath them. And those are the people lucky enough to find jobs. (Who's hiring right now?)

We may finally have found the solution to illegal immigration.

The country may never again be as prosperous as it was at the turn of the millenium, at least not in our lifetimes. Looking back, New York circa 2007 did have a last-days-of-the-Roman Empire feel to it, with all the corruption, greed, pampering, and excesses.

The Roaring Twenties are of course a much better analogy than Rome. The "last days of the Roman Empire" has a more dramatic sound to it (I inherited my sense of melodrama from my daughter), but the USA circa 2007 probably had more in common with the USA of 1927 than it did with the Rome of 400 AD. And Bush had more in common with the uninvolved and uninspiring Herbert Hoover than he did with Nero.)

[C'mon, I could have been even more melodramatic and said the last days of Pompeii. Although seismic activity evidently is picking up in the Yellowstone area, and if Yellowstone -- our largest active volcano -- blows, six states will pretty much disappear.]

During the Roaring Twenties, no one was talking about the Great Depression; they probably weren't even familiar with the term "depression." They were talking about the Flappers, or about how F. Scott and Zelda were partying their nights away before they checked into sanatoriums (what they used to call rehabs). Not all that dissimilar to the way we paid attention to rappers, or to how Britney and Lindsay and Paris were partying.

The point is, just before the changing of an era, people never know it's about to happen.

Another analogy might be Russia in 1917, just as the Bolsheviks took over.

Obama is certainly instituting some much needed reforms (cutting aid to large agribusiness, making hedge fund managers pay taxes at regular rates rather than at capital gains rates, regulating Wall Street, and cutting the influence of lobbyists). But he, like his spiritual cousin Hugo Chavez, seems to have an instinctive dislike of wealthy people. (Or wealthy "folks," as he would say -- my, isn't he folksy).

One senses that Obama would be happy to take ten dollars from rich people if he could give just one dollar to poor people. (Given the usual efficiency of big government, that's about the rate at which it will happen). In any case, one certainly doesn't get the impression that supporting the stock market is his first priority.

And the fact that Obama is trying to do it all at once (the redistribution, the banking bailout, the environmentalism, nationalized health care) makes it seem inevitable that we're going to be left with a gigantic mess.

In the meantime I'd like to say I'm poorer but wiser, or poor but happy. But the fact is, mostly I'm just poorer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Our Liberal Media (II)

Check out the picture of Newt Gingrich on the cover of the New York Times Magazine today. As always when they feature a conservative, he is made to look something like the devil. He's somewhat hunched over, his hands clasped in front of him, with a ghoulish half-smirk (how many pictures did they have to take to get one so unflattering?) Most pictures of the Times' opponents in the culture wars are focused so well that you can see their every last pore and skin blemish, and the preferred angle of viewing is from front and below, so you're looking right up into their nostrils.

Ah, the always subtle New York Times.

Speaking of media bias, how did Democratic states ever get assigned the color blue, while Republican states got red? Exactly who first made that decision during the 2000 election coverage?

Traditionally, red was the color of communism -- the red menace. And politically, it's the Democrats who have always leaned in a more socialist direction, and were generally much more sympatico with the communist countries -- which is why lefties were sometimes referred to as pinkos from the 1950's to the 1990's.

Yet somehow, the media decided to appropriate the color blue for the Democrats since it has much more positive connotations:

A loyal person is known as "true blue."

"Blue skies" are a metaphor for happy times.

Colors which are variations of blue all sound attractive as well: azure, cerulean, lazuline, sky blue, and aquamarine.

Red, on the other hand, has negative connotations:

When you're angry, you "see red." (When a toreador wants a bull to charge, he waves a red cape in front of it.) In fact, when you're angry, you may even turn red.

Red was the color of the Evil Empire itself, the Soviet Union, which collapsed under its own weight after its people grew tired of the communist dictatorship.

A red light means you have to stop.

A red alert means something bad might be about to happen.

And red is the color we see after someone has been killed in a particularly gory fashion.

Tass never really died. It just split into three divisions: ABC, CBS, and NBC.