Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gender Transition in Competitive Sport

Recently, a story has been making the rounds of the usual news outlets about Mack Beggs, a teenager in Texas who won the female state wrestling championship. Generally not national news, but in this case Beggs was born female and is transitioning to male.
Let's start with the facts (according to the link above, which I have no reason to doubt). Beggs was born female, but has chosen to transition to male. The process started a year and a half ago, and includes testosterone injections. According to Asa Merritt, a reporter in West Texas, Beggs "...wants to compete against boys" but isn't allowed to due to a Texas school rule that students must compete as the gender on their birth certificate. Thus, Beggs competed against girls. And as it happened, won every match on the way to a state championship.

That rule about competing as the gender on your birth certificate sounds familiar - it's similar to the North Carolina Bathroom Bill that caused such an uproar last year. But I think there's a significant difference here. There's no competition involved in using a bathroom, but in sport the competition is the main focus. While I see the bathroom question as a discrimination issue, I think in sport the issue is about maintaining a level playing field for the other participants.

If anyone else took a performance-enhancing drug while participating in competitive sports, the rules would prohibit them from competing. (Or at least put them in a more appropriate category, if one exists. In this case there's probably not enough born-female-but-testosterone-enhanced participants to have such a category.) It seems to me that the only reason we're even hearing about this issue is that the drug was taken as part of a gender transition.

I don't have any problem with someone making a life choice that is appropriate for them (even if I don't understand it, which in this case I certainly don't). But I also think we need to recognize that every life choice that a person makes opens some doors and closes others. No choice should cause discrimination, but it also should not infringe on the rights of others. In this case, the right to compete fairly against other similar participants. We all make choices on a regular basis that affect our opportunities, and while this one is a bigger decision than most, it shouldn't be treated any differently.

When Beggs chose to take testosterone, that should have closed the door to participation in competitive wrestling (and likely, any other sport). The reason for taking it shouldn't matter, only that it was a free choice made by the athlete which caused an competitive imbalance.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Representative Justin Amash Town Hall - Hastings, February 2017

I've been to a few town hall meetings held by my district's representative in Congress, Justin Amash, over the last few years. I remember one where no more than about a dozen people attended, and another where there were maybe fifty. Things have changed! In Hastings this weekend, a hall rated for 200 was completely filled, with several dozen more waiting outside. I arrived 15 minutes early and was still stuck near the very back - many of those who arrived later didn't get in at all.
Hard to tell, but that's Rep. Amash in the center. Getting closer for a better picture was out of the question, too crowded.
I've said it before and it's worth repeating - Justin Amash is one of the most professional, polite public speakers that I've ever seen. As a politician it's important to be polite to voters, of course, but that doesn't stop some from either losing their cool or avoiding public forums entirely. Amash consistently holds town hall meetings when he's here in Michigan, even now when the public temper is decidedly unsettled and contentious. He never gets angry with even the most inane (in my opinion) speakers, and answers everyone seriously, even when it's clear they're trying to bait him. In this town hall, scheduled for only an hour, he stayed for almost 2.5 hours so more people had an opportunity to speak. I greatly respect the way he goes about doing his job.

Having said that, I certainly don't agree with a lot of his policy positions, and judging from this town hall I'm far from alone. You expect opposition at public forums, of course...those who disagree are more interested in being heard by their representative than those who are happy with how things are going. But in the past town halls that I've attended, when comments about conservative hot topics (repealing the ACA aka Obamacare, environmental regulation rollbacks, balanced budget amendment, etc) came up, most people clapped and otherwise expressed support. This time, there were a whole lot of boos for those kinds of topics, and a lot of support for what are generally considered liberal positions (expanding Medicaid, federal oversight/support for schools, etc).
This is what it looked like from the entryway just before start time. There's more people behind who can't get in, and the police were turning away more at the door.
A lot of the speakers were clearly interested mostly in venting, going on for minutes at a time about one particular aspect or another of an issue. Topics ranged widely, but a few issues came up repeatedly: health care, education, environmental regulation, and inquiries into the behavior of the current administration. Everything I heard from Amash on these topics was pretty much what I expected based on what he's said on social media and in the news. One thing that does deserve special mention is that he supports independent inquiries into ethical issues, such as conflicts of interest in the administration.

Time after time in his answers, Amash expressed his belief that the federal government should pull back from direct involvement, and instead allow the state/local governments and/or free market to work. This was not a popular position, to put it mildly. I suspect part of that may be the ineptitude of our state government here in Michigan, incapable of fixing roads and presiding over disasters like the Flint lead-water debacle.

Even more than simply not trusting our state government, though, I think there's an underlying assumption about human nature that differs between Amash (and many conservatives) and the town hall crowd (and many liberals). If you believe that authorities will deal fairly with everyone in their domain (regardless of race/religion/sexual preference/social status/etc) then the idea of pushing control down to state/local levels makes a lot of sense. It minimizes overhead and bureaucratic waste, provides opportunity for diversity based on different local preferences, and follows the principals of limited government. On the other hand, if you believe authorities will play favorites, doling out benefits to certain groups and refusing to address the issues of others, then it makes much more sense to have a strong central leadership that can ensure equal treatment. I definitely fall into the latter group, and while our federal government leaves much to be desired in terms of maintaining equality, it's better than some of the things we see state and local governments doing.

(Edit: I've gotten several replies to the above paragraph which are along the lines of "why do you think a strong central authority is better for equal treatment than smaller local authorities?" My belief is that the wider and more diverse the constituency that the authority must answer to, the better that authority will be at providing equal treatment. In the long run, at least - certainly not every individual election bears that out, as we saw last year. I'm not saying that the federal government is inherently any better than state or local authorities, but it is more likely to have the best interests of the most people in mind since more people have a say in its makeup.)

I'd like to thank Representative Amash for spending his time to conduct these town hall meetings. A lot of politicians pay lip service to the idea of listening to their constituents, but Amash is one of the few who actually does it on a regular basis.

Life Is Strange

While it is certainly true that life is indeed strange, this post is about the video game, not the philosophical observation. Life Is Strange is an episodic adventure game (similar to the various Telltale games). Note: It's pretty much impossible to completely avoid spoilers when talking about this kind of game, but I'll try to keep it minimal.
Life Is Strange cover.jpg
The protagonist in Life Is Strange is Max, a photography student recently returned to the town of her childhood in order to attend the prestigious, private Blackwell academy. She almost immediately discovers that she's somehow gained the ability to rewind time. Her first use of this power is to save her friend Chloe, who she hasn't seen for years, from being shot. Max proceeds to use her abilities to solve problems from the mundane (saving the occasional small animal, moving a fellow student to avoid a puddle splash) to the remarkable (saving lives, finding missing persons).

Life Is Strange has two main drivers: a missing-person mystery and the relationship between Max and Chloe. The missing person is Rachel, a girl from Blackwell who was Chloe's friend and went missing just before Max came back to town. Max had dropped out of contact with Chloe after moving away, but they rediscover their friendship as they work toward finding out what happened to Rachel. Chloe has had some terrible life experiences and has reacted by becoming a prickly, difficult-to-like rebel. But she and Max genuinely care for each other, and the game does a great job of showing that relationship.

The game touches on quite a few modern social issues while moving through the mystery-solving and relationship-building. Chloe's step-father is an ex-soldier struggling with reintegration into civilian society. There are several instances of bullying at Blackwell, including one that leads to a suicide attempt. Drug use is rampant among the students. It's fairly heavily implied that Chloe is lesbian or bi-sexual, but unwilling to be open about it. Max does have some opportunity to help in these areas, though she can't always find a resolution..and sometimes attempting to help makes things worse. Much like real life.

Storytelling in Life Is Strange is uneven, particularly early on, but it does get better later. At first, everything you encounter seems mundane and unimportant. Max mostly wanders around Blackwell and discovers a whole lot of standard teenage drama, occasionally using her time powers to harass a bully or smooth out a relationship. I might have been tempted to give up, had I not heard good things from friends about the game. It wasn't until the third episode that I felt the story really picked up, but once it did I was hooked and anxious to finish it out. The storytelling may not be smooth, but in the end I found it to be well worth the effort to get through the rough patches.

There are also some technical and mechanical issues with the game. I noticed several places where the video and audio weren't properly synced up. There were more than a few times when I had a hard time maneuvering Max and/or the camera view so I could select a particular item or other interaction. Nothing game-breaking, but certainly annoying.

The player never gets an explanation of how Max got her powers. We do learn eventually that she has limits, and her abilities might even be causing some of the very catastrophes that she's trying to prevent. I didn't mind that the writers chose to leave that part of the mystery unrevealed, largely because it doesn't really matter where the time abilities came from. The way the story unfolds, it wouldn't make any difference whether it was magic or future technology or anything else.

Playing through Life Is Strange was a very interesting experience. It may not be the most polished game, but I thought the characters came alive, and the story was engrossing once it got going. Well worth the 10-12 hours of playtime.

Monday, February 20, 2017


After watching Travelers, I was in the mood for more time-travel sci-fi, and Netflix's recommendations turned up Continuum.
Like many time-travel-based stories, Continuum gets its start in a dystopia future. The protagonist isn't usually trying to preserve that future, though. The heroine of Continuum, Kiera Cameron, is part of the private police force in a future controlled by corporate power. The villains are terrorists trying to change things to prevent the corporations from taking over and causing indentured servitude or death for millions. It's an interesting tension, where the viewer isn't always sure which side should win.

I thought the first two seasons of Continuum were very well done. The viewer is kept guessing as to which side is winning, or whether either side is having any effect on their future at all. The characters have plenty of personal issues to keep things interesting, in addition to the big picture. But I was less enthusiastic about the third season and the short six-episode fourth season, largely because the writers introduced actual timeline changes. In most of the first two seasons, the viewer was never sure if anything in the future had actually changed, or if everything we saw was just part of a big causality loop. At the end of the second season and into the third, though, it's very clear that things are actually changing. Once that started happening, I felt that a lot of the suspense went out of the plot. (Also the ending is fairly sappy, but I don't hold that against the show since they had to wrap everything up in that short final season.)

There's a lot of the usual suspects in the plot of Continuum: nearly magical future technology, lots of hiding from present-day characters, future people trying to protect their ancestors, and so on. For the most part I thought all that stuff was handled well, if not in a particularly original manner. That's OK, since the real originality of Continuum comes from how the characters change their views about what the future should be like over time.

For anyone who loves sci-fi based dramas, Continuum is worth watching. It's really good at the beginning, and by the time it starts to slow down you'll likely be invested enough in the characters and plot to forgive the weaker portions of the later seasons.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good Dental News

As far as teeth go, 2017 is already a much better year than 2016.
I had my first cleaning visit of the year this week. Not only did they not find any problems, but my hygienist actually complimented me on how well I've been doing with tooth care. I'm used to hearing how my flossing isn't quite up to par, or I need to pay more attention to my gums, etc. Apparently I've been doing everything right lately, though.

That's a far cry from last year, when I got the news that I needed a half-dozen fillings during my first cleaning visit. Leading to my least favorite dental experience yet a couple of months later, a root canal, later capped off with a crown. I still get the occasional ache in that tooth, but they did a small adjustment to it so maybe that'll go away too.

I suppose maybe that terrible experience last year is the reason that I got the clean bill of mouth health this time around. Going through the root canal process gives you a solid incentive to follow all the appropriate dental guidelines, so as to avoid ever having to do it again. So far, so good on that front.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The House of Daniel by Harry Turtledove

The House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ballThe House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ball by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a lot of baseball in The House of Daniel, but not the kind you may be familiar with. The book is set around the time of the Great Depression, which for baseball players meant that a lot of the lower-level minor league professional clubs folded. Semipro teams featuring local players who happened to live in the area were the norm, as well as barnstorming traveling teams - some with big-name players since they didn't get paid millions like today's stars. Outside of one organized tournament, the baseball in this book is the kind played by a traveling team against a different small-town semipro team every day.

Money, or lack thereof, is a constant theme - unsurprising in a Great Depression-era story. Jake "Snake" Spivey, our narrator, is grateful for his athletic ability to play center field well enough to earn money at it, since other jobs aren't easy to find. Even so, the opportunity for a little extra cash leads him to fall in with the wrong crowd. He gets lucky when the House of Daniel traveling team happens to need a center fielder after an injury, giving him a chance to make better money while also leaving behind some of his own problems.

As is usual with a Turtledove book, there's a lot of actual history mixed in with the more fantastic elements. There was a traveling team called the House of David which formed the basis of the House of Daniel team, and many of the towns and ballfields are based on those that actually existed back in the 1930s. References to the wider world are sprinkled through the book, from mention of the "War to End War" (this being before WW II) to Weeghman Park (our narrator not yet knowing that it was renamed Wrigley Field).

The world of The House of Daniel is also one of magic, where wizards work alongside engineers and vampires roam the night. This affects the story only in fairly minor ways, aside from one big dangerous event around the middle of the book. Most of the time, Jack takes the magical side of the world in stride and describes it no differently than the more mundane aspects. Honestly, I didn't think the magical aspects added anything to the story - you could have replaced it all with equivalent mundane activities without changing much. But it doesn't hurt, either, and I'm guessing Turtledove enjoyed putting in zombies and elementals and chupacabras.

As a fan of both baseball and alternate history novels, not to mention just about anything Turtledove has ever written, The House of Daniel was right up my alley. I had a great time reading about the little details of the team's games as well as following the larger story arc. Those who aren't as much into either baseball or the concept of an alternate history may find that the amount of detail is overwhelming, but that won't bother those familiar with how Turtledove works.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Some Cars

The Michigan Internationl Auto Show is in town this week. A friend and I went downtown to check it out.
A pair of Prii.
If you're not in Michigan, you've likely never heard of this particular show, which is held in Grand Rapids. The much more famous North American International Auto Show takes place in late January over in Detroit, and pretty much every year it makes the national news. Once that's over, the car companies pack up a small portion of their wares and truck them over to Grand Rapids for the smaller Michigan show in early February.
The modern muscle car lineup. None of them transformed, sadly.
I'm not much of a car person, but I like looking at shiny things as much as the next guy. I won't go much out of my way to see a bunch of new cars (say, driving to Detroit) but when it's happening nearby, I figure why not? Especially when the entry was free, since Michigan Radio was kind enough to provide me with a couple of tickets (via a contest drawing).
The modern Meijer would need a whole lot of these to keep the stock coming in.
When you walk in the front gate, you could be forgiven for a bit of confusion since all the cars are old. That's the Gilmore Car Museum collection, which is right in the front hall. There's also a replica of the very first Meijer truck, complete with replica 8.5 cents-per-gallon gas pump. Which gives you an idea of what era was represented.
A small herd of student-built vehicles.
Behind the classic cars was an area with student-built vehicles from local schools. As an engineering school graduate, I found those interesting, even if they weren't the solar-powered types that I remember from my days at Rose-Hulman. One was a restored classic car to be driven in the 2017 Great Race - a student driver, adult navigator, and no modern navigation devices going from Michigan to Florida.
A Great Race vehicle.
Then there was the giant room of modern automakers, showing off all the various current models. I'd say about half were trucks or SUVs, which I mostly ignored except to be thankful that I have no need for such a gas-guzzler. There were plenty of luxury models as well, some in the "you can buy a nice house for that" price range. Makes no sense to me, but some folks have more money than they know what to do with, I suppose. I spent most of my time looking at hybrids and economy models.
Pictured, approximately 2 mansions worth of car.
I found the 2017 Toyota Yaris, which didn't look much different from my 2010 (except cleaner, of course). About the same price and fuel efficiency, and no major form changes. I consider that a good thing, no reason to be anxious about upgrading.

Wandering around looking at all the new vehicles made for a fun couple of hours. Certainly there are plenty of interesting options out there in the market. In the end, though, I mostly was glad that I'm in no immediate danger of going through the hassle of getting a new car.