Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Concussion - the story of real courage standing up to the industry of the NFL

“Concussion” is a very good and disturbing movie about Dr. Bennett  Omalu, the pathologist who discovered the brain damage caused by playing football. His story of courage, honesty, and persistence is inspiring. This is a very human story about very human people caught in this difficult truth about football.  Oscar nominations for the movie and for Will Smith should be forthcoming.

Short version – football damages the brains of its players.  Not too complicated.  The human brain was never developed over millions of years of evolution to be jarred up against the inside of the skull over and over and over and over again in a game that football players practice and play for years and for decades. 

Is it just the big concussions where a player loses consciousness the problem? No. The bigger problem is the countless sub-concussions that come from every block, every tackle, every bounce of the head off the turf, pretty much every play that every player plays.  That’s the problem.  Blocking and tackling, or, the game itself.

The movie is about the scientist who discovered the brain damage to one of the game’s greatest players  - Mike Webster of the famous Pittsburgh Steelers multi-Super Bowl victory team.  Hall of Famer.  Center.  Block block block block block block …
How does it work?  Apparently what happens during sub-concussions is that a protein known as tau forms around blood vessels in the brain, tau is released into the brain after an event (each and every block or tackle during a game, or during practice, etc.), then more of that protein is released the next time, and more, and more.  The blood vessels become more and more impaired and constricted by the protein and eventually the brain becomes deformed, brittle, dramatically impaired.  The result is CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  (See the symptoms and tragic human results later in this post)

So, as I have written often, I simply do not enjoy watching football anymore because all I see is brain damage.  I was a big fan back in the Mike Webster days.  Not anymore.

What to do?  I think football will just fade away.  As Will Smith, star of the movie, said in an interview on the Charlie Rose show, his son played football in high school, and Will Smith was completely unaware of this danger to his son.  I believe parents will refuse to allow their sons to play football as they come to understand the consequences.  I believe others will be like me (and Will Smith and the director, Peter Landsman, who played high school and college football) and we will simply stop watching simply because it is not fun to watch people inflict brain damage upon each other.

This is a strangely American problem because football is such a representation of the American notion of “Manhood” – being tough, strong, impervious to pain, courageous, playing hurt, hyper aggressive, punishing, bulling, pushing, conquering, dominating  - all tests of and proofs of “Manhood.”  In many ways football is a representation of the mind set of military warriors, and we all admire the military and their mindset.  They protect us and we are grateful.  But football actually is not war, and the brain injuries last a lifetime and progress to greater and greater damage as ex-players age.

Maybe it’s time to come up with some new ideas about what it is to be a man, what real courage is all about, valuing thought and feeling as well as action and will, valuing mastery but not domination.  Actually, basketball was invented as an alternative to the savagery of football by Dr. James Naismith over 100 years ago. We could watch that instead?

See the movie - if you dare. But you may start to wonder how you can enjoy watching men do so much harm to each other.  I know we have parts of ourselves who a enthralled by watching gladiators fighting to the death, or Christians being fed to the lions, in the Roman Coliseum, but is that who we want to be today?

The film dramatizes the tragic effects of CTE on players.  For your reference, the Mayo Clinic lists these symptoms of CTE:
"Symptoms of CTE are like those of other conditions that involve progressive loss of function or structure of nerve cells (neurodegenerative diseases…
Signs and symptoms of CTE usually begin eight to 10 years after repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. These include:
·         Difficulty thinking (cognitive impairment)
·         Impulsive behavior
·         Depression or apathy
·         Short-term memory loss
·         Difficulty planning and carrying out tasks (executive function)
·         Emotional instability
·         Substance abuse
·         Suicidal thoughts or behavior
Over time, memory and executive function may become worse, and other signs and symptoms may develop, including:
·         Irritability
·         Aggression
·         Speech and language difficulties
·         Motor impairment, such as difficulty walking, tremor, loss of muscle movement, weakness or rigidity
·         Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
·         Vision and focusing problems
·         Trouble with sense of smell (olfactory abnormalities)
·         Dementia
Researchers use the following stages to describe the progression of CTE symptoms:
·         Stage I. Headache, loss of attention and concentration
·         Stage II. Depression, explosivity and short-term memory loss
·         Stage III. Decision-making (executive) dysfunction and cognitive impairment
·         Stage IV. Dementia, word-finding difficulty and aggression
They have also created four stages to describe the process of damage to brain tissue.
CTE causes ongoing pathological changes that once are started, continue to have an effect for years or decades after the original traumatic brain injury or after an individual retires from a sport. Symptoms progress throughout an individual's life.
CTE progresses in two patterns. In younger people, it may begin with behavior and mood changes, whereas in older people, it may begin with cognitive problems that progress and may lead to dementia. It's not known whether there are two different disease processes or if the process changes over time."
It makes me wonder about the endless stories of hyper-aggressive behavior of football players like Ray Rice and O.J. Simpson.  Not to excuse their behavior, but do they suffer from CTE?  I would like brain autopsies on them when they finally pass.  I wonder…

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"The Big Short", or why Wall Street predators should be jailed

The movie, "The Big Short" is a great, entertaining, funny and fun movie about a very serious topic, the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 resulting in the near total collapse of the world economy.  It is a nice two hour education of the essentials of our Great Recession. It shows the crisis in this country of greed and avarice, and their necessary corollaries - heartless indifference to the consequent suffering of the many millions of middle class and working poor.  

The short summary is that the financial industry made fortunes by selling bad mortages to unqualified people, passed those bad mortgages along into bond funds called Mortgage Backed Securities made up of mostly highly risky mortgages, had them rated as safe AAA bonds, which corrupt bond traders fraudulently sold high risk investments as low risk safe investments to fools.  Fraud.  Greed.  Fortunes.  Multi-generational fortunes for the predators on the top of the greed pyramid. And they thought it was all fair game, to exploit the ignorance and stupidity of unqualified home buyers, and exploit the ignorance and stupidity of bond buyers, and exploit the ignorance and stupidity of giant financial institutions like pension funds.

Wall Street sucked enormous amounts of money out of the middle classes and payed themselves fortunes.  

The movie is about a small handful of men who saw that the the entire housing industry was a bubble built on fraud, and those men made fortunes betting that the bubble would burst, and the values of the mortgage backed securities would collapse along with the values of all the extraordinarily complex and opaque derivatives of those bonds. They foresaw the inevitable catastrophe.

One of the problems with our financial industry is that there is so much money being made by playing zero-sum games that have nothing to do with financing businesses and funding the economy. When the bright minds in banking spend all of their time creating various derivatives of things like mortgages the fundamental reason for banks seems to have gotten lost.  Rather than funding our capitalist system, they became leaches designed to suck capital out of the economy rather than feed it to make it stronger.

Of course, one of the points of the movie is the obvious truth that Wall Street has not reformed, they have only become more consolidated and powerful.  They had done all they could to gut the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, and continue to pay enormous sums to continue to weaken it whenever they can.  They are coming up with new versions of mortgage backed securities, gulp. They have created flash trading  with super computers that give them insider information that steals more and more money out of the stock market before market moves become public.  They continue to apply their high IQs to the task of transferring money from the middle classes and poor working classes to build their fraudulent fortunes.

But, of course, none of them ever go jail.  They just pay some fines which are no more than the cost of doing business to them.  The greatest crime of all of course is that none of what they do is illegal. Why would it be? they write the laws. They own the politicians.  Who obey them.

Some books that I have read that tell these stories of this predatory greed:
  • "The Big Short" - Michael Lewis
  • "Too Big to Fail - Andrew Sorkin
  • "House of Cards" - William Cohen
  • "All the Devils are Here" - Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera
  • "Liar's Poker" - Michael Lewis
  • "Flash Boys" - Michael Lewis
They all tell the same story - smart guys figure out how to cheat the middle class and steal their savings in order to create their own massive fortunes.

The financial world has been out of balance for a long time.  I think putting some financial titans in jail would be a start to ending this fraudulent mind-set.  When did our brightest Ivy-Leaguers decide that the point of their educations was to become financial predators?

Time for a change.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Trump campaign is really a reality TV show called “Republican Primary 2016”

Trump’s latest headline grabbing shock statement is his plan to kill the families of terrorists:

“The other thing with terrorists—you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives—don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

So, we have a presidential candidate campaigning as a war criminal.  Whew!

I think I have figured out Trump’s campaign.  He knows how to get publicity.  He knows how to grab the headlines. He knows how to drive up his poll numbers. 


It puzzles thoughtful people as to why whenever he says appallingly shocking and disgusting things that his poll numbers rise.  But, the people he is appealing to are attracted to his daring to say shockingly politically incorrect things. It seems to them that he is demonstrating strength, courage.  “Say it like it is!” They think we need a very, very, very strong leader, and anyone who says such outrageous right wing shockers is someone they cheer.

But he’s not being strong or courageous, he’s just getting headlines and ratings.  To him, poll numbers are the same thing as TV ratings. He is a pro - at ratings - not at governing. He’s not in a political campaign, he’s the star of a reality TV show – “Republican Primary 2016”.

The folks who support Trump are facing real problems in their lives as their middle class working lives have been evaporating before their eyes for decades.  So outrageous screeches of anger are expressions of how they feel.  That is very understandable.

But, the problem for Trump is the problem of any addiction.  In the beginning one drink got you tipsy, but in the end it takes a quart of scotch a day to get a buzz.  And then you die of liver failure.

Same with Trump, you start with insulting Mexicans to shock the political system, and have to keep upping ante – calling McCain a loser for being captured in Viet Nam, wanting a data base of Muslims in America, and now calling for the killing of the families of terrorists. Where can he go from here?

I expect he’ll be calling for throwing the terrorists to the lions in Yankee stadium eventually. You live by the shock to get ratings, you die by the shock to get ratings.

He is running out of room to shock.  Then his act gets old - and he “dies”- his ratings drop and his show is cancelled.  Such is life in show business.