Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hoaxes, Performance Art, and Crazy Liberals

A news article was recently making the rounds on the Internet. The news article concerned a senior undergraduate at Yale University who majored in art and who apparently has a penchant for causing a scene. You see, my friend Jacob forwarded the article from the Yale Daily News to myself and to a few other college friends with the following disclaimer: "I'm really embarrassed that she is one of my peeps, and possibly a distant relation to [ Matt ]."

By that, Jacob meant that this woman was Jewish, and that her last name was an iteration of my last name, [ last name deleted for Google purposes ]. I read the following article with disgust. The headline: "For Senior, Abortion a Medium for Art, Political Discourse." The article went on to discuss a girl whose senior art project was "a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself 'as often as possible' while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these of forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process."

Of course, I was absolutely disgusted and mortified that anyone would do this. I remembered from my undergraduate days that there are some fairly crazy, wacky liberals out there, but this absolutely took the cake. My friend Ryan fired back a reply: "I don't know what to say. That may well be one of the worst things I've ever heard. I think she's a vile human being, unfit for -- and undeserving of -- that title."

I responded as well: "I almost cried when I read that article. I cannot believe such a person exists -- and I hesitate to even dignify her with classification as a person."

I forwarded the article around to other friends, and the expression of disgust was universal. Liberal or conservative, nobody could believe that she would do this, or that Yale University would allow a public exhibition of the project, as the newspaper article stated.

The Drudge Report picked up the student newspaper article, and from there it spread like wildfire. The Washington Post, CNN, the London Times, every major news outlet throughout the world picked it up. And so the shock and outrage spread internationally.

But something didn't quite sit right with me. After my initial emotion fueled sadness and shock and anger, my rational side kicked in, and I sent the following e-mail to my friends:
I was thinking, and I cannot imagine this is real. This has to be a hoax. I cannot believe even Yale would okay a public installation of her blood and videos of her miscarriages. And I find it very hard to believe that she could successfully pull off these miscarriages (come on, let's call them what they are, abortion) multiple times with herbs, without either being unable to abort the child, or without causing major damage to herself.

"The to pull off a hoax, all she really had to do was trick the Yale student paper. From there all the other media would pick it up and it would take off with very little additional verification. She'd simply get some cohorts to corroborate it via e-mail, and Yale would be silent for a while as they tried to figure out what the truth was. If you look at the original Yale article, they weren't even able to talk to her adviser.

"She will probably justify the whole thing as performance art, or ' hoax art in cyberspace' or something.

"Then again I could just be rationalizing all this because I don't want to believe anyone is that evil."
Well, my friends, it appears my Bullshit Detector is functioning properly. Yale University later released a statement:
"Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art. Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. the entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguities surrounding form and function of a woman's body. She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art. Had these acts been a real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns."
I am glad that I was right. It brings some level of satisfaction and even some vindication among friends who claimed that as much as they wished it were a hoax, they feared it was real. It also makes me feel relieved that such a horrible, heinous person does not exist in reality.

That said, Ms. Shvarts is still a vile human being. Not quite as vile as she was, but anyone who would purposely try to mislead the world about such a sensitive and delicate matter, and be so cavalier about the whole thing, all in the name of "her art," deserves only marginally more respect than one who would purposely and repeatedly impregnate and abort.

Moreover, I am dismayed that the Yale University office of public affairs is so quick to defend this woman, under the flimsy rationale that "she is an artist" and she has "the right to express herself through performance art." Calling oneself an artist does not give a free pass to act as irresponsibly and insensitively as one desires, all in the name of art. It does not free one from the bounds of civility and decency that characterize a healthy society.

I am all for artistic expression, but pulling a massive hoax and calling it "performance art" meant to "draw attention" to the function of a woman's body is disgusting, and reminds me why I joined the conservative student newspaper while at college. Academia is a crazy place, and they believe some messed up things inside those ivory towers. I am glad to no longer be a part of that, but dismayed that the insanity continues.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why I Like My Job, Reason #238

I get to come up with wry headlines and leads like this:
South Carolina Scratch-Off Lotto Losers Also Certification Losers, Trial Court Finds

A group of plaintiffs claiming their lottery tickets could not win the advertised "top prize" -- because it had already been won -- similarly could not win class certification in a South Carolina trial court March 31.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why Michael Johns was eliminated from American Idol (hint: American voters are not crazy)

I would like to take this opportunity to analyze the recent American Idol "shocker." Everyone's favorite Australian, Michael Johns, was eliminated in a strangely upside down proceeding in which three of the best singers were ranked at the very bottom. (I am not talking about David Cook or David Archuleta, of course, who are likely to be the last two standing, but rather about three very talented singers who are superior in every way to that horrible country singer, Kerry Cook or whatever her name is. She deserves to be dragged out to the place where cows receive their airgun blasts, and if not given an airgun blast herself, at least be branded as a Loser.)

Anyway, people are under the impression that America has lost its collective mind, the stars are in screwy positions, and cats and dogs will soon be living together. I am here to assure you, fine reader, that all is well and good in the American voting psyche. The latest American Idol shocker is actually just the latest in a long line of similar voting incidents. Let me explain:

Michael Johns is best described as a blues style rocker. David Cook is best described as a very fashionable rocker. David Cook is also widely regarded as the superior of the two. So what clearly happened is that David Cook took Michael Johns's votes. This is different than in past seasons where two similar performers will split the vote, and neither of them will end up on top; in the present situation, David Cook is a similar performer but also far superior. So he took Michael Johnson's votes: anyone who would have considered voting for Mr. Johns almost certainly voted for Mr. Coke instead.

This is why Mr. Johns got the fewest number of votes. In this case, a getting the fewest votes does not mean that he is the worst contestant (that distinction goes to Ms. Cook). It simply means that he was slightly less popular than David Cook, and because of the way the voting system works, David Cook ended up getting all the votes. Mr. Johns got none.

This happens all the time in politics. Look at the 2000 presidential election: all things equal, people who were inclined to vote for Al Gore might also be inclined to vote for Ralph Nader. They simply liked Al Gore better, and they thought that he had a better chance of winning. That Ralph Nader got less than 5% of the vote did not mean that he was the worst politician, or horribly unsuitable for office; it simply meant that Mr. Gore took all of the votes that Mr. Nader would otherwise have received.

Note that this is, as I explained above, a slightly different phenomenon than that in which two candidates will split the votes, and therefore both end up on the bottom. This happens often when you have two similarly situated contestants, such as two equally good rockers, two equally good R&B performers, etc.

And there you have it. That Michael Johns was at the very bottom of the totem pole is not reflective of his level of talent, but only reflective of his relative popularity compared to David Cook.

For the record, I am a huge David Cook fan, and fully expect him to win. Now that that fact is known, I hope there will be no allegations of undisclosed bias in this analysis. My bias is hereby disclosed. :-)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Local Man Sets 5K PR!

WASHINGTON, April 6 -- On a windy, rain-soaked morning in our Nation's Capital, a tired yet strong 28-year-old stood in the 5K Run/Walk corral about a block from the Washington Monument. As the bearded redhead hopped up and down, running in place to stay warm before the race began, he still didn't know quite what he was doing here.

"Everyone talks about the adrenaline rush I would get on the morning of the Big Race," Matt told me the next day over a plate of grilled chicken and steamed-in-the-bag vegetables, "but I never got an adrenaline rush. The whole thing was just too surreal. I was on 4 hours of sleep, and all I kept thinking was, 'I'm running a what, now? Who signed me up for this? Why am I not in bed?' I didn't know 8 a.m. actually existed on a Sunday morning!"

But early hours did exist on Sunday, as Matt found out when his cell phone alarm went off at 6, waking him from a fitful slumber that had only taken hold after 1 a.m. He pinned his number (20076) to his long-sleeved technical shirt, downed a cup of orange juice and a handful of Cheerios, and headed out the door. He arrived at the National Mall around 7:30 -- a full 70 minutes before his starting time.

"It appears somebody miscalculated," Matt said, cursing the efficiency of the DC transit authority. "Anyway, it was really neat down there, almost a carnival atmosphere. The whole thing was just like July 4th, except everybody was running!"

Having arrived so early, Matt had no choice but to walk around, sometimes jogging lightly to keep warm. By the time the 5K race was set to start, Matt had been warming up his legs for about an hour.

There was no "On your mark, get set, go!" that Matt had envisioned in his dreams. The only way Matt knew the race had begun was that everyone in front of him started slowly shuffling forward. It took about 90 seconds to cross the starting mats, and then Matt started.

To Walk or Not to Walk

"Everyone had warned me about starting too fast," Matt recalled. "They said I would get caught up in the excitement of running with a thousand other people. They said I should slow down! So I did. But not enough."

MILE 1 | 3:07 + 3:00 + 3:07 + 3:10 = 12:24
MILE 2 | 3:54 + 3:32 + 3:51 + 3:26 = 14:43
MILE 3 | 3:26 + 3:48 + 3:23 + 3:14 = 13:51
0.11 | 1:21

Indeed, as evidenced by Matt's unofficial mile splits, he hovered between 4.9 and 5.0 mph for the first mile. That speed, he says, would have been fine had he taken walk breaks from the beginning. But because of his excitement, he felt he was strong enough to run the first mile without walking.

"This was a race," Matt said. "I was supposed to push myself. I would have felt like a total idiot following Galloway's advice and taking walk breaks every few minutes."

However, after pushing himself for a mile, Matt -- who had originally signed up for the 10-mile run -- needed to walk.

"I was strong enough to run the first mile," Matt said. "But then I needed to slow down." For the next mile, he took minute-long walk breaks every 2-3 minutes.

At the 2 mile mark, he decided to try to push himself harder. "I had read somewhere that on a 5K my heart rate should be around 90-95% most of the time. Well, I generally was at around 170 for the few minutes at a time that I could maintain a run, but on my walk breaks I gradually dropped down to 150. I decided that I was going to only walk until my pulse hit 160, and then I'd pick it back up again."

So Matt's walk-breaks grew shorter. And yet, short as they were, whenever Matt walked, something ominous happened...

Battle with the Race-Walkers

"The entire race was a battle between me and the race-walkers," Matt recalled, poking at a microwaved baby carrot. "I noticed them as I ran past in the first mile. And I noticed them again as they walked past at the beginning of the second mile."

For the rest of the race, they would be lingering just behind, in the shadows, waiting to take the lead.

"There's nothing more annoying than a damn 50-year-old woman grinning giddily, holding her elbows high and pumping her arms as she marches past me while I am briefly recuperating at 2.5 mph."

2.5 mph?

"I'm a slow walker."

The battle continued until mile 2.5 or so, when Matt picked up the pace.

"If you look at my quarter-mile splits, you'll notice that the walking basically stopped with a half mile to go. Sure, I walked for a few second here and there, but I really wanted to give it my all."

With a half mile left, he left the race-walkers in the dust.

'Looking Strong, Number 20076!'

"People on the sidelines kept saying, 'You're almost there! It's just around the corner!' And I was still under 40 minutes, and I figured I might actually be able to meet my arbitrary goal of 42ish minutes."

"As I turned the corner, the cheers grew louder. I could see the banner in the distance. I had about a quarter mile left to go, and I vowed to finish without walking. I took off my hat and glasses and just steamrolled forward. My pulse was at 171, 172, 173, and around then I felt my entire body flush. I have felt this before at very high efforts -- I am positive it is my body switching from aerobic to anaerobic."

What does anaerobic energy production feel like?

"Like I said, it feels like a flush is overcoming my entire body. Everything suddenly feels warm -- my arms, my chest, my legs -- it's just different. It comes with a really hard effort, and when I feel that flush, I know I won't last more than another minute or so.

"With about a block to go, I closed my eyes and dug deep inside for the effort to keep going. As I opened my eyes I noticed that I had just passed a camera man -- he had snapped a picture of me as I entered the mental part of the race. Now that's a picture I'll pay money for!

"The finish line was 50 feet in front of me. I heard the announcer say, 'Looking strong, number two-zero-zero-seven-six!' It was like my winning raffle ticket had just been called. 'Yes!' I shouted, pumping my hands in the air. With a final burst and a huge smile, I crossed the finish line."

Matt's final time was 42:29 -- a pace of 13:41. It was his fastest 5K effort to date.

Final Thoughts

"I'm pretty happy with the time," Matt said, finishing his chicken and veggies. "It's about six minutes faster than I had ever traversed 3.1 miles before, and do you know why? Because my calves didn't tighten up at all. The past two months, almost every time I tried to run more than 1.7 miles, my calves would get extremely tight to the point of cutting off blood flow to my peroneal nerves, and then the entire front of my shins and top of my feet would go numb! This time, for whatever reason, that didn't happen. Maybe it was the frequent Stick massages, or maybe it was the flat course, or maybe it was hour-long warm-up. All I know is that finally, my legs worked as they were supposed to."

Matt has signed up for the Detroit Half Marathon on Oct. 19, which he plans to run with his good friend Diana. He already has a general plan for the next 6 months.

"I'm really going to have to focus on weight loss," he said, sipping a glass of filtered water. "I was 182 when I started law school; I'm 212 today. I was essentially running with a 15 pound dumbbell in each hand. Imagine how much easier this would be -- how much faster I could get -- if I just dropped the dumbbells."

Matt plans to consistently eat healthy, add regular strength training to his fitness plan, and exercise at least 5 days a week. He will start "officially" training for the half-marathon sometime in June.

"People ask me why I run, when it is so difficult for me. What they don't understand is that they've already answered their own question: I run because it is difficult. I run because I want to get better at it. It's a noble goal in itself, and it will bring me so many side benefits: more health, more discipline, more confidence. I run because I cannot... and I run because I can."

Matt and Heather after the run