Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Callous Disregard - A Penn State Football Story

Unless you're living in an alternate universe, you've probably heard about the Sandusky/Penn State scandal/cover-up.  Sandusky was convicted in June and will likely die in prison for raping numerous children that were in his child-advocacy program.  He was truly a sick fuck.

But on top of all that, the Freeh report was released a couple of weeks ago, which was commisioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees to investigate what Penn State administrators and those in the football program did or didn't know and do.

Turns out top administrators, including the university President, Graham Spanier, and legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, knew as early as 1998 that Sandusky was, at the very least, endangering young children:
...in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.
Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley also failed to alert the Board of Trustees about the 1998 investigation or take any further action against Mr. Sandusky. None of them even spoke to Sandusky about his conduct. In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity.
As a result of the findings of the Freeh Report, the NCAA, with the agreement of the PSU Board of Trustees, took a number of corrective and punitive measures:
  • A $60 million fine, the proceeds of which were to go toward an endowment for preventing child abuse. According to the NCAA, this was the equivalent of a typical year's gross revenue from the football program.
  • A four-year postseason ban.
  • Five years' probation.
  • Vacating of all wins from 1998 to 2011--112 wins in all. This had the effect of stripping the Nittany Lions of their shared Big Ten titles in 2005 and 2008. It also removed 111 wins from Paterno's record, dropping him from first to 12th on the NCAA's all-time wins list.
  • Loss of a total of 40 initial scholarships from 2013 to 2017. During the same period, Penn State is limited to 65 total scholarships--only two more than a Division I FCS (formerly I-AA) school is allowed.
  • Penn State was required to adopt all recommendations for reform delineated in the Freeh report.
  • Penn State must enter into an "athletics integrity agreement" with the NCAA and Big Ten, appoint a university-wide athletic compliance officer and compliance council, and accept an NCAA-appointed athletic integrity monitor for the duration of its probation.
In light of what the Freeh Report characterized as "callous and shocking disregard for child victims" by the university's top football, athletic and administration officials, these sanctions seem to me to be utterly appropriate.  If anything, they don't go far enough.

It is beyond dispute that Division I football and basketball are, by virtue of the insane amount of revenue they produce, a driving force for academic programs, scholarships, non-renvenue generating athletics.  These are all good things.  And by virtue of their place in our culture, they also drive the school brand, campus unity, school pride. Again, not necessarily a bad thing.  Until you get in a situation like Penn State, where winning and the reputation of the program and brand is deemed to be more important than protecting those who can't protect themselves: children. 

The reaction by many in the Penn State community to the firing of Paterno, the Freeh Report (considering it finds Paterno among those who exhibited "callous and shocking disregard for child victims), and the NCAA sanctions is an utterly disgusting display of denialism, tribalism and martyrdom.  I suspect that it is because Penn State has been so incredibly successful in inculcating its sense of school pride and identity to its students, which up until the scandal broke, was well-deserved.  I'm not a psychologist, but my hypothesis is that to those whose identity is so closely linked to that of Penn State, to admit wrongdoing by a man who quite literally was the face of that identity and the institution behind it, is tantamount to admitting personal wrongdoing.  Indeed it seems that this mindset has parallels to the religious zealout that will not honestly consider (much less accept) the evidence for evolution - it would demolish their entire worldview.  Breaking through our mind's devices to minimize cognitive dissonance is truly a difficult feat. 

I would posit that, despite many Penn Stater's claims, they are no different from many other universities.  If this scandal were to happen to any other university with a highly prominent football or basketball program of similar degree as Penn State (i.e. Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, USC, Alabama, LSU, Duke, UNC, or any of probably several dozen others) the reaction would be largely the same.  This is the kind of reaction and behavior that atheists and skeptics should and do try to highlight as barriers to rational discourse and decision making.

While, I think many other groups would likely react similarly, that doesn't give those Penn Staters exhibiting such shameful behavior a pass.  They deserve to be and should be called out on their disgusting behavior.

These have to be (I really hope) the lowest of the bottom feeders' reaction to the NCAA sanctions:

No comment needed, I hope.

Here's a slightly less ridiculous reaction, but brimming with martyrdom by @tommy4s:

You hate us, and base your opinion on every one of us off of 5 people. [No, its your reaction to what they did; essentially dismissing it and continuing to defend your demi-god Paterno even after the facts reveal his callous disregard for the child victims.  Speak out against the cover-up and society will judge you as noble.] You called for the statue, it was removed. You called for the death penalty, but instead received murder. [ORLY?  Is that really what you want to equate the sanctions to?  Do you have no sense of the pain and suffering those boys went through at the hands of Sandusky and enabled by Penn State administrators and Paterno?  ...And you're going to equate a fine and probation to murder?  Have you no perspective?  How are the sanctions more severe than the death penalty?  Penn State football will still be played this fall and the next.  You can still go tailgate your face off.  You can still wear your blue and white t-shirts and hoodies.  You will still get to scream your lungs out how You Are...Penn State.  And so we will know you.]  You have spent 8 months dragging our name through the mud, so desperately needing blood to be spilled and our entire university to be burned at the stake. [Again with the overheated rhetoric.  Call it what it is: accountability.  When shit hits the fan, those responsible should and did suffer the consequences.] You could care less about responsibility and punishing those who deserve it. [You clearly don't understand how accountability works.] You reiterate every single time that this is about the victims, about those who were truly at loss during these heinous crimes, yet what have you done to actually help them? [Red herrings are a great for distracting attention from the appropriate target of attention, unless people recognize it.  Let's be clear: this is about accountability for the callous disregard for the child victims exhibited by university administrators and Paterno.  Sandusky was rightfully convicted of his heinous crimes.  But stop acting like it does or should stop there.]

WE responded. WE were 10,000 strong at Old Main that Thursday. WE traded our white shirts for our blue ones against Nebraska. [What a fucking sacrifice.] WE wore ribbons for weeks [What a fucking sacrifice.  Anyone that thinks wearing or displaying a ribbon has does anything is a smug, deluded fool.], and cried because we wish we could have done more. WE donated over $500,000 to RAINN, and continue to advocate prevention and awareness. [Great!  I genuinely applaud that effort.] WE investigated ourselves in search of the truth, to make improvements, and to ensure this never happens again in any capacity. [Yet it seems that many - if not yourself - tried their damndest to discredit the findings and their implications.] WE held the necessary people responsible, even when it hurt to do so. [So if you support holding those accountable, what the hell are you so mad about?  This is what the rest of society is looking for - once again: ACCOUNTABILITY.]
So what now? Will you make good on your promise of caring for the victims, spreading awareness, and seeking prevention? Will you donate to RAINN or SCAN; have you done so already? Will you actually step up and prove that you do care? Or will you readjust your grip on your pitchforks, and head to the next town that so desperately does not need an angry mob…[Antagonistic condescension;what a way to encourage people to donate to a good cause.  This is not a good way to get people think you and the rest of your tribe aren't bitter jerks.]
Those three paragraphs embody such self-victimization over sanctions that have virtually no impact on the football fan, its remarkable how little perspective the author, and indeed so many other Penn Stater's have on the situation.

And finally, lest you think the angst and outrage is confined to the young and immature, let Tom Price of Factoryville (w/ video) disillusion you:
It was our 9/11 Today. I just saw planes crashing into towers.
 I'm sure there are reasonable Penn Staters out there who are sickened not only by the crimes committed by Sandusky, but also by the callous disregard for the child victims as exhibited by Paterno and top administrators.  But they are not vocal enough.  Let them denounce the overheated rhetoric of their fellow Penn Staters.  That would be a good start to restoring the community's respectability within civilized society.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Mitt the Twit"

Don't tell anyone, but I don't actually pay ANY taxes!
Fuck you, Uncle Sam!
Cross-posted at AtheistHobos.com

Mitt Romney, who is aspiring for the position of head diplomat of the US, has been in the news lately for saying some rather undiplomatic things during his visit to  England Britain the UK.  And the media are giving him a hell of a time.  My favorite headline is the Sun's with Mitt the Twit as it reports him saying he had looked out of “the backside of Number 10".  Which roughly translates from UK to American as 'he was looking down the ass of the administration's spokesperson.'  Gotta love the lulz Mittens brings to the international table.

Anyway, that's not the real point of this post.  Instead, today I'm interested in Mitt's tax returns and his motives for not releasing more than the past two years worth.  This story has been getting a lot of press and Mitt himself has received quite a bit of pressure even from his conservative allies.   As Salon's Joan Walsh notes, conservative stalwart George Will believes "[Romney] must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them [than to continue their concealment]."  The hypothesis is that while the tax records that Romney has released, 2010 and 2011, indicate an effective tax rate of 14%, prior records could reveal an effective tax rate that is significantly below that mark.

Of course, at this point it is pure speculation, but plausible speculation nonetheless.  At this point, what else could motivate Mitt to continue to hide?  We already know about his multiple offshore accounts.  It doesn't seem likely that having possibly more offshore accounts prior to 2010 would be much more politically damaging.

[And just an aside on the offshore accounts, if I may.  I don't particularly care - on a certain level - if people legally utilize offshore accounts, while saying nothing of whether it should be legal.  But it seems, how shall we say... inapropriate as an aspiring presidential candidate.  Why?  Because the President of the United States is a servant of the people; the President should never put his personal interests over those of the people he is serving.  And yet, by shielding his bank accounts from Uncle Sam, that is exactly what Mitt Romney is doing: further enriching himself at the expense of the budget shortfalls and deficit that he and his party are so eager to use as justification for cutting support for those most in need. In short, Mitt Romney is part of the problem.]

...back to my original point.  So his tax rate might be below the 14% that it was in 2010 and 2011.  So what? you say.  I think a lot of Americans, considering that someone earning 40k would pay a higher effective tax rate than a certain person making $20 million, as Romney did in 2010, would find this to be fundamentally unfair.  I think we all assume Mitt's paying a rate at least as low in his prior records; a significantly lower rate would only make the contrast more apparent.  And the more apparent this fundamental injustice becomes, the more media coverage it gets, and the more pressure that is put on elected leaders to correct this injustice by enacting policy through statute (ideally).

That's why Mitt's taxes matter.  Its one thing to say 'I agree with the Republican platform that favors rich people and stacks the deck against the poor.'  That's a value judgement - albeit a callously inhumane one, IMO.  But to say the information contained in his tax returns doesn't matter is incorrect. 

I've noticed that some people like to pull the dismissive cop-out of saying 'its all just politics'.  Yes...and?  I think everyone finds politics to be repugnant, especially when its in the service of protecting individual politicians (exhibit A).  But the fact of the matter is that politics serve as the conduit to the passage of policy.  Good public policy is the ultimate goal.  But without political support from other leaders and the electorate (e.g. 'politics') no policy will be passed.

Essentially, to eschew the political process is to mute oneself and their self interests.  If you're not willing to advocate for your position, its guaranteed that someone that has an opposing interest is willing to advocate for theirs.  If you ignore politics, you're going to lose.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Glenn Greenwald vs. Joseph Farah

Cross-posted at AtheistHobos.com

Glenn Greenwald is perhaps the best progressive columnist in the liberal media - writing for The Guardian (until recently, Salon) - , with scathing exposes and analyses of the institutional subversion of constitutional and civil rights, especially as perpetrated by the Obama administration in the case of Bradley Manning and targeted assassination of US citizens.  If you're a liberal that isn't interested in burying your head in the sand when the Dems are in power, Greenwald is a must read.

Joseph Farah is perhaps the one of the dimmest of the wingnut contingent, writing editorials for the publication he founded, World Nut Daily.  His accomplishments included continuing to indulge in the delusion that Obama was born abroad and comparing gay rights activists to "Arab terrorists".  If you're a blinkered, god fearing, tea-partyin' wingnut (or just a liberal looking for lulz), Farah is a must read.

So as I was perusing Farah's recent columns, I was ready to write off his blazing headline Proof! Establishment media controlled as his usual pablum.  Of course, I had to click on it, but was rather surprised to find a somewhat reasonable commentary on a NYT article that essentially admits that the revered newspaper gives administration officials the opportunity to quite literally edit the articles the NYT will eventually publish.  From the NYT article:

[The Obama] press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name
The verdict from the campaign — an operation that prides itself on staying consistently on script — is often no, Barack Obama does not approve this message. . . .
Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign
and lest you think that this is limited to Obama:
The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.
From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position.
Journalism is supposed to be an adversarial endeavor in order to hold those in power accountable for their actions, policies and positions by bringing those actions, policies, and positions to light for the general populace to evaluate.  When those in power are granted not only veto power over the quotes that are used, but retroactively what they said, the citizenry of the nation is deceitfully being fed false information by an institution that citizens - perhaps naively - assumes to be objectively reporting upon those that, in fact, control it.

Despite Farah's status as head walnut, his piece actually does hit some key points.

See if you can differentiate who wrote these words - Greenwald or Farah (answers at the end):
  1. When Americans read these reports – whether in newspapers, wire services or on the Internet – they are not really reading news stories at all. They are reading approved, pre-packaged press releases from the government and politicians. But, even worse, they are not labeled as such. They are labeled as actual news.
  2. These so-called journalists are selling their ethical and moral souls for access to politicians. And this practice raises expectations by politicians that they can routinely manipulate the press to their advantage.
  3. It is beyond dispute that President Obama and his aides have an extreme, even unprecedented obsession with concealing embarrassing information, controlling the flow of information, and punishing anyone who stands in the way. But, at least theoretically speaking, it is the job of journalists to impede that effort, not to serve and enable it.
  4. We would be far better off without anonymous quotes from government officials repeating administration spin or sliming political opponents, and we would also be far better off without doctored quotes based on their veto power over what can be published — even if the price is that we do without their official statements.
  5. It seems the biggest threat to the American tradition of a free and independent press is not government coercion. It’s the willing submission of the press to being handled and managed by government and politicians.
While Farah gets it 75% right, I have to call out his excuse that Greenwald thoroughly demolishes in his piece.  Farah:
That makes the job of real journalists – independent reporters faithful to their craft – even more difficult, because they will be shut out from access.
Of course this is ludicrous:
It is simply absurd to claim that Obama officials will refuse to speak to, say, The New York Times if its reporters do not agree to these demands. .... Does anyone believe that if the NYT refuses to give Obama officials veto power over their quotes — or if they refuse to let Obama officials slime and attack people while hiding behind anonymity — that Obama officials will simply cease speaking to the NYT and allow the paper to drive the news cycle without their input? Please.
At the end of the piece, Greenwald lists a number of successful and competent journalists that don't grant such power to the people they are covering.


Through all of this, I can't help but think that such commentary by Farah is politically motivated since the other party is in office; I have a hard time believing that were this a story about a Republican that he would have the same tone.  Especially when Farah complains that his nututy organization isn't taken seriously and was denied press access to the Democratic National Convention, which Farah speculates is "Simply because the Democrats know we won’t play by their rules of control like the members of the establishment press club."  MMMhmm.  Or maybe its because he and his organization spew bullshit and hate.  Correlation ≠ causation.  

Meanwhile despite Greenwald's progressive bias, continually focuses his attention at Democrats.  It would be nice if more 'journalists' were willing to ask inconvienent questions as Greenwald does in his pieces.

Answer: 1) Farah; 2) Farah; 3) Greenwald; 4) Greenwald; 5) Farah

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Growing Threat of Disarmament

Cross posted at AtheistHobos.com

The WhirldNutDaily is a quite amusing source of wingnut sewage, especially its editorials by founder Joseph Farrah.

She must love freedom and independence.  I can tell from
the colors she's wearing.
In his Fourth of July piece - ahem, pardon my callous error - Independence Day piece, Farrah laments that Americans don't refer to the holiday that falls on July 4th as "Independence Day".  Aside from his beef with what we call the holiday, Farrah is concerned that Americans don't value "Independence" as much as they once did.
Unfortunately, too few Americans today put much value in independence. Most no longer celebrate, cherish or appreciate independence. Independence is not considered an ideal.
I don't know if he's right about 1) people referring to the holiday as Independence Day as declining over time or that 2) people don't appreciate independence as much as in the past.  Unsurprisingly, these assertions are presented without compelling evidence.

Also not surprising is Farrah's bait-and-switch in his use of 'independence'. 
Our political and cultural elite don’t want to see a nation full of independent-minded, self-governing citizens who will hold their leaders accountable to their will and the laws of the land.
The cynic in me is inclined to agree, though I would argue that Republicans, to a greater degree than Democrats, are more interested in developing a populace that won't, can't or isn't interested in thinking for itself (see the Texas GOP's party platform re: critical thinking skills).  But regardless of which party is worse, there's a meaningful distinction between the independence sought by the American revolutionaries (independence from England as a means of self determination as an independent nation) and Farrah's individualistic independence (where everyone gets to fend for themselves, free from government intrusion - i.e. taxation - unless, of course, it benefits the groups to which Farrah is aligned.  Challenge to Farrah - do you support eliminating federal funds going to religious organizations?)

Despite Farrah's insistence that interdependence is a "glorified...synonym for "dependence"", there is simply no getting around the fact that anyone that doesn't personally produce all that they consume (including the infrastructure and supply chains thereof) is to some, probably significant degree, (inter)dependent on many other people.  To deny this fact is pure political blustering and a denial of (surprise!) reality. 

Right, but see you guys are a 'district'. 
That's why you can't vote.
And now we come to the pièce de résistance of Farrah's piece is after he goes for the sophomoric trope of citing the dictionary how a 'colony' is defined.  Brace yourself for the onslaught of stupid:
Aren’t Americans, in a sense, all colonists of the great imperial throne in the District of Columbia? [yes, how ironic that the rest of the country are colonists to the citizens of a city with no voting representation in Congress] We all pay tribute to this faraway empire. [The US is a big place buddy. Move to the mid-atlantic if you want to smell the political stench coming out of DC]  We are, in reality, little more than serfs doing the bidding of those in the federal corridors of power in Washington. We’re taxed without real representation [in what way?  Do you not vote for your Senators and Representatives?]. We’re forced to support a growing standing army of federal police in our communities [I'd like to hear more about this standing army of federal police dispersed around the country]. And we face a growing threat of disarmament – one of the great fears of the colonists who touched off the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord [Ahh there it is, any restrictions on access to automatic weapons, uzies or RPG must mean the government trampling over the Second Amendment; ignoring the evidence that more relaxed gun laws are correlated with undesirable societal outcomes] .
So Farrah's thesis that Americans don't value independence is essentially pinned to the notion that "we face a growing threat of disarmament".  Just a quick scan of gun control legislation in the 111th Congress (the one where Dems controlled both chambers), there's nothing to disarm citizens of their guns.  There seems to be equal parts loosening of gun control and increased controls in other areas.  But unless congress allows for unfettered access and open carry of automatic weapons by 5 year-olds, we must be facing "a growing threat of disarmament", right?

Uganda's gun laws should be our model!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Boson Detected!

Cross-posted at AtheistHobos.com, where I will be a contributing writer.  Check it out!

At 4am Eastern Time, scientists of CERN laboratory (home of the LHC) announced the discovery of the Higgs particle at a conference in Australia.

I also got a text:

The fuckin HIGGS.

The particle that physicists have predicted would exist back in the 1960s, OVER 50 YEARS AGO.

The particle that gives mass to otherwise masseless particles.

The particle that fills a huge gap in the Standard Model - the unifying theory of the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces.

This is science: arduous, tedious, non-linear, exhaustive, incremental, and when done right, accurate.

Hypothesis, prediction, testing, replicating, replicating, replicating, replicating.....99.999% confirmation.

This is such a huge scientific discovery, I can barely find the words to express myself.  This has to be on par with the discovery of the double helix, the expanding universe, and the acceleration of the expanding universe.

And yet....

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but compare the outcomes of science to the rank stupidity of so many US citizens and leaders, particularly as articulated in the Texas GOP party platform [pdf].

You may have heard about this because it is so blatant how much contempt they have for education.  Its so bold that they don't even try to couch their intentions in bullshit euphemisms, so I can just quote directly without comment:
(W)e support reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education institutions. (P-17)
We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. (P-12)
We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (P-12)

We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until marriage. (P-13)
We urge legislators to prohibit reproductive health care services, including counseling, referrals, and distribution of condoms and contraception through public schools. ... We oppose medical clinics on school property except higher education and health care for students without parental consent. (p-13)
And that's just a snippet of what comes from their "Educating Our Children" section.  


Back to the Higgs discovery.

Let's be honest, this cost a lot of money.  Billions.  Just for the LHC.  Never mind its predecessors or all the man hours required to refine our scientific understanding of the particle and the conditions under which it could be detected.

Is it worth it?  To me, its not even a question.  Because its not just the fact that scientists have confirmed a huge part of our understanding of how the universe works.  It goes beyond that.  This wasn't just one fact that has been confirmed, but many underlying principles are also strengthened by this work.

Some might fairly ask, 'how can this discovery economically benefit society?'

To which I respond: "I don't know.  We might not know for another 50 or 100 years.  But I wouldn't bet against it having a significant impact on everyday life."

Perhaps the easiest example of this to cite is Einstein's formulation of General Relativity in 1916, which describes the curvature of spacetime as being directly related to the energy and momentum of the matter present.

I don't know if Einstein had any particular application of General Relativity in mind, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the government began working on the Global Positioning System (GPS) - which without the understanding of General Relativity to correct for the relativistic effects of it on satellites orbiting the earth - would not work.  You couldn't use GPS.

There are surely other great examples of basic research that don't realize commercial or practical application for decades after their discovery, and maybe that will be a topic of another post.  But for me, it is the process of research, discovery, and enlightenment that holds the most value for society.

So with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, I'll close with one of my favorite quotes:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
-JFK, 1962