Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cheating on an Olympic Scale

Pity poor NBC. The network paid a ton of money to get the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and the trailer for the games looks like a Greek tragedy, or maybe a French farce.

Every day we read about an unfinished venue. There's no certainty even the Olympic stadium will be ready on time. Cost overruns are rampant in a country on the brink of economic collapse. The government, serially corrupt, is barely functioning.

There is poverty and crime behind the beachfront facade, more places to avoid than visit. Security is said to be lax, with untrained novices manning terrorist checkpoints. Pollution is everywhere, the harbor laden with untreated sewage. And, to top it off, Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. Young people of child-bearing age -- athletes and spectators alike -- are staying away in droves, avoiding Rio like the plague it apparently is. Tickets are being given away to fill empty seats.

Could things possibly get any worse? Actually, yes.

The integrity of the games themselves is being challenged. In a stunning development that has unfolded over the past several months, Russia was caught red-handed running a government-controlled doping program. Under pressure to boost its medal count, a Russian agency was instructed to shoot up its athletes, particularly the track & field team, but others as well. This is not a few zealous trainers. This is wholesale cheating orchestrated by Mother Russia herself.

Now lest this sounds sanctimonious, let's admit doping is not new. The East Germans did it for years, putting asterisks beside track and swimming records set in the Cold War era. And in front-page news, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught in Seoul, testing positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters.

To some degree, everybody does it -- usually individuals, not countries. U.S. shot putters and weight lifters often get caught. My wife and I cheered Marion Jones to victory in the 100 and 200 meters in Sydney in 2000, only to see her stripped of her medals for doping. Some of our best male sprinters have served suspensions for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

What country does it best? Outside of Russia, my guess would be Jamaica. Testing there is lax, and its runners are always under suspicion. How can you tell? Historically, track times are reduced in small increments, tenths of a second in middle distances and hundredths of a second in the sprints. Runners toil for years to gain world-class status. When an unknown bursts on the scene with absurd times or when a pedestrian sprinter suddenly muscles up and starts breaking records, chances are he or she has been juicing.

Here's an example. In the 2012 London Olympics, the Jamaican men, two of them virtual unknowns, swept the 200 meters. With a world full of very fast runners, what are the chances of a tiny Caribbean island going 1, 2, 3 in a headline event without serious chemical help?

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican world record-holder at 100 and 200 meters, was recently interviewed about the Russian doping scandal. He said, "If you have the proof and you catch somebody, I definitely feel you should take action." Not whether they did it, but whether they got caught.

How does doping work? It helps athletes train longer and harder and speeds recovery from injury. And Bolt is right. The key is not getting caught. Stay ahead of the testing by using drugs for which there is no analysis (an extra methyl group on the steroid) or, even better, know when blood or urine sampling is scheduled and stop doping in time for the drug metabolites to clear your system. Or, if all else fails, switch samples.

The problem may be getting worse. We recently learned 45 more athletes, 31 of them medal winners, were caught, testing positive after samples from the 2008 and 2012 summer games were reanalyzed. Little wonder there's cynicism about international sports.

What will happen in Rio? The Russians will be there, at least some of them. Confronted with evidence of national cheating on an unprecedented scale, the International Olympic Committee ducked responsibility and left decisions on who can compete up to individual sports federations -- swimming, track & field, gymnastics, etc.

It was a cowardly punt, but not unexpected. Russia is a global power and a big Olympic spender. Putin threatened to withhold funds if Russia was excluded altogether, and the IOC backed down.

In the weeks ahead, expect platitudes about protecting clean athletes and lots of huffing and puffing about the integrity of the games. But also expect a big Russian contingent in Rio.

NBC will have its work cut out for it. Its cameramen will have to crop out the poverty and pollution, and its announcers will have to sugarcoat the cheating.

And I'll still watch it on TV. All of it. Like the IOC, my standards aren't very high.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Fracking and Common Core

Common Core has become a rallying cry for the right. Fracking has become a rallying cry for the left. Red flags in front of political bulls. The sad thing is that neither side understands what it’s opposing.
Most Republicans don’t understand Common Core, except that President Obama favors it (that must make it bad), and most Democrats don’t understand fracking, except that environmentalists tell them they should oppose it (it causes climate change and poisons our drinking water).
The willful ignorance on both sides is astonishing. Let’s look at some facts.
Common Core was developed by Republicans. Crafted by governors (largely Republican) for the benefit of American business (largely Republican), it is not and has never been a federal mandate. Washington has nothing to do with it.
Here’s the background. Faced with declining quality in public education and a hodgepodge of state criteria, the National Governors Association in 2009 set out to develop a single set of rigorous standards: the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The goal was to make all children “college- and career-ready,” using the same yardsticks in Mississippi as in Massachusetts.
The key was establishing a common denominator in learning — what students should know at each level in math and English language arts, the “common core” of education. Standardized tests were meant to track progress toward meeting those benchmarks.
What Common Core has never done is tell states or school districts how to get there. That’s up to them. It doesn’t establish curricula or prescribe textbooks.
Embraced by most educators, Common Core was adopted by 45 states in 2011. Then the trouble began. In an effort to boost public education, the Obama administration underwrote a portion of the funding to draft standardized tests. And it provided grant money, 14% based on efforts to “enhance standards and high-quality assessments.” A gentle push toward improved learning.
For the far right, that was all it took. The Tea Party had a new cause. “Government dictating what our children read.” “Obama usurping local control.” “Obamacore.” “Government lobotomizing our students.” And worse. It became a snowball rolling downhill.
Staunch supporters of Common Core began to bail. Business leaders hid under the table. States, including Republican strongholds like Texas and Oklahoma, withdrew approval. And Common Core became a rallying cry for the right: “a national takeover of our schools.”
You hear it today. Conservative groups in Collier and Lee Counties equating Common Core to government brainwashing. The Collier County Republican Executive Committee putting all of its chips on school-board candidates sworn to oust Common Core.
Where do things stand? Nationally and in Florida the pendulum has swung back. Today 45 states have Common Core-like standards (the name has been changed in many states to provide political cover). In Florida, the dreaded Common Core name was dropped in favor of Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. Some 90% of the standards and testing criteria are the same.
Okay, enough on Common Core. What about the other bogeyman, fracking, a celebrated cause of the left? Like Common Core, fracking evokes a knee-jerk response. It has become synonymous with air and water pollution, a driver of climate change.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First, let’s understand what fracking is. It’s shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — use of water, slurried with sand and a small amount of chemicals, to fracture under high pressure and hold open tight underground formations to free trapped oil and natural gas. It is often accompanied by horizontal drilling — turning the drill from vertical to horizontal to extend the production reach from a single platform.
Fracking isn’t the only game in town but, rather, one of many “enhanced-recovery” possibilities. Others include acidizing in carbonate formations, microbial treatment to fluidize heavy oil, carbon dioxide injection to cut oil viscosity, surfactant/water sweeps to scrub residual oil, gel emplacements to enhance oil and retard water production, and many others. Most of these procedures have been used for over 50 years.
The point is “fracking” doesn’t cover everything. To ban fracking and allow everything else makes no sense. It’s important to know what you’re opposing.
How widely used is fracking? Economical since 1998 and now a common tool in the oil patch, fracking will provide “the majority of U.S. oil and gas produced over the next few years.” It has revolutionized the energy business.
Early on there were serious pollution problems. Most of those have now been addressed, and many have been solved.
- Proper completion procedures have sharply reduced methane leakage.
- Improved containment has cut spillage runoff.
- New filtration systems have allowed recovered water to be reused for fracking, reducing strain on freshwater supplies.
- Green chemicals, including food additives and biodegradable polymers, are increasingly used in injection recipes.
Fracking has neither led to widespread harm to drinking water nor promoted global warming. In fact, replacement of coal-fired power plants with those using natural gas from fracking has led to a huge drop in carbon dioxide emissions. Locally, no environmental damage resulted from acidizing the infamous Collier Hogan well (the well was never fracked).
Still it’s wise to be cautious, particularly in Southwest Florida, where any drilling upset could damage our quality of life and chase away tourists.
The answer is not to demonize, but to understand. The sensible approach is a moratorium on all enhanced-recovey procedures until a study of effects on local groundwater can be carried out, preferably by the Department of Environmental Protection. Then stringent statewide regulations should be imposed.
We’ll all benefit from a better understanding of Common Core and fracking. And who knows? It may turn out neither one is so bad after all.

Algae and Politics, Florida Style

The latest outrage in the Lake Okeechobee mess is not the algae bloom — which is widespread, toxic and damaging to health and tourism alike. No, that was predictable.
The latest outrage is Governor Rick Scott’s assignment of blame. In a remarkable political tanda, he blamed septic tank runoff. That’s right! Septic tank runoff that just happens to be in the sugarcane fields of Clewiston.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Scott’s allegations would be laughable if this were a laughing matter. But it’s not. It’s a massive problem that is being politicized, and everyone in South Florida stands to lose.
Let’s consider three things, all factual.
1. The pollution problem in Lake Okeechobee is not caused primarily by septic tank runoff. It is caused by the agriculture industry. It is due almost entirely to high nutrient levels — dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus — in fertilizer runoff, fertilizer needed to make sugarcane and other crops grow in the nutrient-poor soil of South Florida. The nutrients feed the algae and, voila, you have coagulated blooms that spread and clog and poison. And they don’t go away. They sink into the sediment of waterways and then reappear.
2. Buying land around Lake O — enough of it to make a difference — is not going to happen. That’s tilting at windmills. The environmentalists want to buy some U.S. Sugar land south of the lake, create reservoirs to hold water outflows, clean up the water and send it into the Everglades — nice and tidy, a three-point play.
All it takes is money. If only the feds would ante up or Tallahassee would release funds from Florida Forever, then our problems would go away. But it’s not that simple. The pollution isn’t coming just from land south of the lake or even from the east or west as well. Nutrient pollution is also rampant to the north. To make an impact, a massive land purchase would be needed, costing billions of taxpayer dollars.
And not all of that land is up for sale. An option for 47,000 acres south of the lake expired in October 2015. Another option would require an all-or-nothing purchase of 184,000 acres south and east of the lake at market prices — a staggering expense.
3. The only realistic hope is to tighten and enforce water-quality standards. That doesn’t take billions of dollars. What it does take is action by the state Department of Environmental Protection and some political will. Requirements to maintain low nutrient levels in all state waterways, if enforced in Clewiston and the surrounding area might, just might, cut pollution in Lake O and reduce algae buildup in South Florida.
Is it likely to happen? No. Big sugar has a lot of political clout. And the balance of power in Tallahassee is not going to change anytime soon.
What is likely to happen is more cries for federal aid, more calls for land purchase and more finger-pointing — none of which will lead anywhere.

GOP Shoots Itself in Foot

The local Republican Party is self-destructing. At a time when there should be unity — with Clinton corruption running amok — the GOP is, instead, coming apart. Perhaps not everywhere. But certainly in Collier County.
Here’s the latest outrage. The Collier County Republican Executive Committee, after years of supporting all GOP candidates, is now  anointing some and throwing others under the bus. And it’s backfiring. The candidates snubbed by the GOP pooh-bahs are furious and so are their supporters.
Nothing like misplaced endorsements to rip apart a party.
In most communities, the purpose of the local Republican Party is to support Republicans — all of them. To help elect them — all of them. But Mike Lyster’s gang sees things differently.
Here’s what’s happening.
To the delight of the Naples Daily News, the CCREC picked Dwight Brock in the contentious Clerk of Courts race. That automatically turned many of Hiller’s supporters in District 2 against the GOP establishment. Unnecessary collateral damage.
Then it endorsed Matt Hudson (Senate District 28), Byron Donalds (House District 80) and Bob Rommel (House District 106). Backers of their opponents were incensed.
In a final stumble, the CCREC picked winners and losers in the county commissioner race. The anointed candidate in District 3, Ron Kezeske, is fine, but so are Russell Tuff and Burt Saunders, who were summarily flushed away. The same applies to District 5, where a perfectly acceptable Randy Cash was chosen over equally good candidates Bill McDaniel and Doug Rankin.
Endorse one, lose two. It makes no sense.
These foolish moves are the latest in a series of missteps that began when the CCREC threatened to censure fellow Republican Kathleen Curatolo because she didn’t kowtow to the far right on the Collier County School Board. She wasn’t Republican enough. Wiser heads prevailed, and the censure vote came up short.
Then the wise men decided to endorse Louise Penta and Lee Dixon, two new candidates for the school board. How did that turn out? The local Democrats coalesced behind their opponents, Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter (also Republicans), formed a PAC to bolster their funding and flooded the Daily News with supportive letters. The CCREC did nothing. Penta and Dixon were hung out to dry.
Why is the CCREC getting involved in the first place? Why not support all Republican candidates, as it has in the past, and let the voters decide?
Mike Lyster, head of this feckless group, was quoted as saying some members felt the quality of GOP candidates in 2014 was not up to snuff. “So we wanted to see how we can do better. It can be contentious, but I’m pleased with it. I think we have some outstanding candidates.”
No. What we have are endorsements by self-appointed experts who don’t have a clue what the rank-and-file voter wants. We have a split and very angry Republican electorate. We have past supporters who now won’t give a dime to the local GOP. I’m one of them.
Instead of uniting the local Republican Party, the Lysterites have torn it apart. My Democratic friends are ecstatic.
Let’s see what the CCREC has accomplished.
- It has infuriated the backers of Georgia Hiller, Kathleen Passidomo, Russell Tuff, Burt Saunders, Bill McDaniel, Doug Rankin, Joe Davidow and Lavigne Kirkpatrick.
- It has pitted Republican against Republican in a year when unity is essential.
- It has unified the Democrats in Collier County as never before.
- It has sealed the fate of Louise Penta and Lee Dixon.
My wife says don’t pay any attention to these guys. The  CCREC has no standing. The voters are smart enough to judge the candidates on their own merits.
Maybe. It’s certain the Democrats won’t benefit. Collier is a very red county. Republicans — good, bad or indifferent — will be elected. Misbehavior of the GOP establishment won’t matter here.

But I doubt it would be tolerated anywhere else. Alienating half of the Republican base in a crucial election year is a very bad practice.