Saturday, June 24, 2006

Anatomy of a propaganda attack

Anybody heard about this one?

There was this dad in Lexington, MA, David Parker, who has embarked on a crusade to protect his seven year old from hearing about gay people. The son brought home in a reading bag with books about different types of families, including gay families. He complained to the school board - which is fine with me. I don't agree with his attitude, but I suppose he should have the right to opt out. In this case, he carried his protest so far that he refused to leave the school grounds and got arrested.

Then a few weeks later, this story pops up: Seven-Year-Old Beaten at School For Father's Stand Against Homosexual Activism.

I first encountered the story on alt.atheism last week. Naturally, every right wing media outlet picked it up as fast as they could and used it as a bludgeon. You can probably guess what they said, along these lines: "Shameful! These so called 'tolerant' liberals support physical assault to intimidate believers in family values! Why won't the liberal media pick up this story?"

The first question that springs to my mind is, "How do they know that the beating had anything to do with the dad's anti-gay crusade?" The second question is, "Seven year olds are really THAT concerned with gay politics?"

Here's the school's side of the story:

Some of you may be aware that the press has received a news release related to a playground incident at Estabrook. The Estabrook principal has investigated the issue over the past two days, talking to the adults and children involved. The following are the facts as she understands them.

On May 17, several first graders were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria. As a result, upon going outside one child took another by the hand and brought him to a third student in an area of the playground that is somewhat difficult for the adults to see. (The student who was hit said that he went willingly.) All children who saw agreed that the third student then hit the student who had been brought to him two to four times in the chest/abdomen (children’s accounts vary) and he fell to his knees. The student who was hit says he was hit when down; the other children say he wasn’t. One child reports that one student held the arm of the student who was hit; however, the child who was hit and the other children did not report this. The children involved named five children who were nearby watching but not directly involved. Several other students were close enough to see a cluster of students but not close enough to see what was happening. The student who did the hitting suggested that others also hit, but none of them did so. Based on the children’s accounts, this all may have happened in under a minute. The aide on duty saw a group of children gathering, and as she walked toward them was approached by a child that said someone was being bullied. When the aide inquired what was going on, the child who was hit identified one student who hit him, and the other children agreed. The child who was hit said he was not hurt and did not want to go to the nurse. He reported that his feelings were hurt, because the child who hit him was his friend.

The child who did the hitting was sent to the assistant principal’s office and while talking with her acknowledged his behavior. As a result, he filled out a “think sheet,” to reflect on his behavior and choices, missed recess on two days, and wrote an apology. In addition, the classroom teacher called both sets of parents and a class discussion was held about not hitting and speaking up when there is a problem on the playground. The teacher indicated that both parents took the matter seriously and seemed satisfied with the outcome. Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date.

On May 31, the parents of the child hit casually inquired of the assistant principal as to the consequence given to the other child, and they were told that the child’s parents were informed and a consequence given. Other than this brief interaction, between the time of the phone call by the teacher to the parents on May 17 until June 14, there were no complaints of injury or dissatisfaction with the process to the teacher, nurse, or the administrators. On June 14, school administration received a call from a local paper stating that they had received a press release that a child had been assaulted at Estabrook.

In this case, we followed all of our usual procedures and worked with both sets of parents to resolve this issue. We are surprised that it has resurfaced in a press release issued by a group calling itself Mass Resistance without any prior contact with the school. The press release states that the incident was "fueled and incited by adults (and yes, school officials).” We have found nothing in our investigation that would support this allegation in any way. Nonetheless, in the interest of an open and thorough review of the incident, the matter has been referred by the superintendent to the Lexington police, District Attorney’s office, and the Department of Social Services for independent investigation.

At Estabrook, playground safety and student behavior are school improvement goals each year. The school, like all of the schools in Lexington, works hard to establish behavioral expectations, teach students social skills, and provide strong supervision on the playground. In the seven years that Joni Jay has been principal, we have more than doubled the adults watching students on the playground and our coverage ratio at Estabrook is at or above all other Lexington elementary schools. We have separated older and younger students and have fewer students on the playground at one time. We have trained and hired skillful aides who stay actively involved with children, equipped with walkie-talkies and actively walking around identifying potential problems and working through them with students. The Open Circle program, adopted this year, has provided students with skills to help them resolve problems verbally. Administrators discuss with children the reasons for what happened, the consequences, and future alternatives every time there is a problem. We involve parents and teachers when a child has broken school rules, and if the nurse treats a child due to a playground incident. Each incident is documented, and referrals are made to the counselor and other support personnel when appropriate. As a result of the efforts of staff and parents working together, physical altercations on the playground have been reduced significantly.

A major goal of the Lexington Public School system is both to help all children feel safe as well as to help the child who has erred learn. We are continuously looking to improve the playground experience for children and welcome your input.

A few points of interest in the story:

  1. David Parker claims that "a group of 8-10 kids suddenly surrounded Jacob and grabbed him." The school says that it was one kid who actually hit him.
  2. In the conservative media story, "According to Mr. Parker, school authorities determined from an investigation into the assault that the beating was indeed planned and premeditated." While according to the school, they had not determined any such thing. Rather, the kids "were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria."
  3. Despite the allegedly severe beating, the parents declined to file a complaint with the police. Apparently, filing a complaint with a local right wing mouthpiece was enough... two weeks later.
  4. "Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date."

My conclusion? Unfortunately, kids get in fights. This is a bad thing and should not be excused in any way. The little brat who attacked Jacob Parker should be (and seemingly was) disciplined.

But the father seems to have used his status as a loudmouth political activist to act like his child was a victim of anti-bigotry-bigots. The conservative press jumped all over this claim without even bothering to verify that he had any evidence.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


My grades have probably been posted for longer than I realized, but I finally figured out where to look yesterday. I did, in fact, get straight A's in my first semester at school.

This is the only time in my life that I have EVER had a 4.0 grade point average. I don't necessarily expect it to last, but I'll savor the moment.

It looks like the curve was pretty generous in some spots of my Data Mining class. I got 19 out of 40 on my midterm exam, but the median grade was something like 19.01, so I didn't get killed on that as badly as I had expected. On the other hand, the professor sent out an email saying that this was an unusually weak class, and the curve reflected that by giving a lot of low grades. So I guess by one way of reckoning, that makes my A worth more.

My homework grades were consistently above average, but not tremendously so. It was my final class project and paper topic presentation that gave me the huge boost I needed. I had to give three public addresses in one weekend of two classes. Thanks to my public speaking experience, both of them killed. I mean, the class laughed at my jokes and asked questions that indicated they were interested in the subject. What more can anyone ask for?

Software Validation and Verification was an odd class. There was a simply enormous volume of technical papers that we were supposed to read in the month between each class. I tried, but the subject was fairly dull and it was very tough to slog through a few of them in any given month. Then, in the month before my last class, I realized something amazing: there WASN'T GOING TO BE A FINAL. In other words, reading the papers was mostly useless. There was a 20 minute "quiz" that was like a midterm; there was one homework assignment; and there was the paper topic. And I had managed to round up an excellent team of four students to work on a project that was basically my idea. There was lots of communication and meetings, and everybody seemed to share fairly equally in the work.

The professor was kind of new, so I suggested to him that it might have been constructive to give a few take-home quiz questions on selected paper topics. It would have meant more work for me, but without that kind of feedback, I definitely didn't feel like I was getting what I was supposed to out of the reading.

No, I wasn't that annoying kid in class who says the teacher forgot to assign enough homework. I'm a grownup now, dammit. I paid $X0,000 so that I could learn things.

I think I said before that I'll be posting my final papers on my web site soon, in case anyone is interested. I recently upgraded my very old hosting account from 50 megs to a gig, for very little extra money. So now I can actually put stuff on my site freely without worrying about quotas. I'll do that someday soon.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More thoughts on Ann Coulter

Jeff, Denis and I had a very interesting discussion about Ann Coulter this weekend on the Non-Prophets this weekend. I'd say it lasted a solid half hour, and Jeff gave me a new perspective on what her motives might be in naming the book "Godless".

In her latest train wreck of a column, Coulter complains that people aren't getting properly offended by the central thesis of her book.

My book makes a stark assertion: Liberalism is a godless religion. Hello! Anyone there? I've leapt beyond calling you traitors and am now calling you GODLESS. Apparently, everybody's cool with that. The fact that liberals are godless is not even a controversial point anymore.

To Coulter, "godless" is a worse insult than "traitor." And she's frustrated that this isn't what bothers people.

Jeff Dee wrote a blog entry a year ago that addresses what this issue is all about. Like many things I write, some of this post is a wholesale ripping off of ideas that he gave me.

First of all, the reality. Most atheists do in fact vote Democratic. It's simply a fact... somewhere around 70-80% of the atheist vote went to Gore, and then to Kerry.

But of course, most Democrats are godful. Not all Democrats are atheists; many are liberal Christians, or wiccans/pagans/new agers/whatever. This reflects that fact that Democrats are actually a highly diverse coalition of people and interests. The godless and the laid back religious form one issue oriented segment; then there's gay rights advocates, pro-choicers, environmentalists, pro-science people, anti-war people, civil rights pinkos, and so on. Many times these interests converge, but not always. Democrats have varying individual agendas and tend not to move in lockstep. Being "liberal" on one or several issues is no guarantee that you'll agree with the rest of the party platform.

This is as contrasted with the Republican party, which by and large demands complete loyalty on all issues. Sure, they have the "enrich the rich" big money guys on one hand and the very poor rural theocrats on the other. But the poor rural theocrats have also been persuaded to believe that eliminating the estate tax is in their interest; while the big money guys regularly use hyper-religious language to woo the rural theocrats. In short, Republicans have managed a kind of cohesion that Democrats don't have.

Ann Coulter's nasty routine tries to drive a wedge into the already tenuous alliance among Democrats. Liberal Christian Democrats are driven to say "We're not Godless, you mean lady! Look how much we love God!" And then they try to find ways to make the Democratic party more overtly religious.

Then what happens? It alienates the atheists, of course. We atheists -- who make up a not insignificant fraction of the party's base -- see that the Democrats are starting to pander to the religious left, and we get discouraged, and the votes start to fall off.

THIS is what Coulter and her ilk are really after. Internal rifts in the Democratic party. With the last two elections being won by less than five points, a chunk of 10-20% of Democrats becoming convinced that there's no difference between the parties could ensure Republican victories for a long time to come.

If Democrats were smart, their reaction to being called Godless would be one of unambiguous solidariy with atheists. Easy for an atheist to say, right? But they don't have to agree with our position. They could say, "You know, most of our party are not godless, but we gladly accept people of all religions and no religion. We understand that there are differences among individuals, but we celebrate those differences." The people who find "godless" to be an automatic insult will avoid the Democratic party, but they already do that anyway.

Monday, June 12, 2006

For IBM Help, please do NOT call...

The correct number for IBM internal support is 1-888-IBM-HELP.

As I learned today, the number is **not** 1-800-IBM-HELP. That appears to be a phone sex line.

Using, I learned that the same numbers also spell 1-800-4-ANGELS.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I'd rather be Godless than insane

Sometimes -- not often, mind you -- I wonder about Ann Coulter. She seems to be a potential soul mate for Fred Phelps (the "God hates fags" guy). Both of them appear to be in the business of saying things that are as offensive as possible, and then playing the victim when people react to them. Fred Phelps makes sure NOBODY likes him, so he can make money by suing people who take a swing at him. Coulter, on the other hand, sells books, so clearly she actually has a target audience. However, the stuff she says is so stupid and insulting that it's hard to believe that even she believes it.

So I wonder about her. I haven't ruled out the possibility that she's deliberately created a character for herself, like Stephen Colbert. If she is a walking satire, she's not that funny and really, REALLY dedicated to it.

Take her latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Now, I happen to be a liberal AND godless, so the subject matter doesn't bother me as much as it undoubtedly will bother some other people. In fact I'm quite looking forward to seeing excerpts from the end of the book, most of which is supposed to be spent on Intelligent Design, and the usual tiresome charge that I worship Darwin. I'm sure the web will be rife with hilarious take-downs, and that's something I always enjoy reading.

Speaking of hilarious take-downs, recently Keith Olbermann devoted a segment to pummeling the crap out of a clip of her being interviewed. Watch the segment. I guarantee it won't disappoint you.

This is what Keith Olbermann was responding to. Coulter's book goes on a rant about the four "Jersey Girls" -- 9/11 widows who have become prominent political figures criticizing Bush on national security. They were at least partly responsible for the formation of the 9/11 commission.

Matt Lauer (reading from Coulter's book): "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, revelling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' death so much."

Coulter: Yes.

Lauer: Because they dare to speak out?

Coulter: To speak out using the fact that they're widows. This is the Left's doctrine of infallibility. If they have a point to make about the 9-11 Commission, about how to fight the war on terrorism, how about sending in somebody we're allowed to respond to? No, no, no, we always have to respond to someone who just had a family member die.

Ann, of course, is completely full of shit. There is absolutely NO REASON why she wouldn't be allowed to "respond to them". I wouldn't hesitate to disagree with widows, if I didn't completely agree with them anyway.

Except that in Ann Coulter's twisted mentality, "respond to" is a synonym for "slander the character of." It's all that she has ever known how to do. And she is completely stymied by the Jersey girls, because when she attacks them, she sounds like a bitch from hell. Ann asks, "And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling, they'd better hurry up and appear in Playboy." Cute. Classy. No, wait a minute, that makes her sound FUCKING EVIL.

But in a way, that's what she's complaining about. She's used to making character attacks and being basically shielded and supported by her fans, but when she says crap like this, nobody likes her. So that's how she came to the conclusion that she "can't respond to them" -- she lost the ability to "respond" in the only way she knows how: by screaming at them.

And she can't stand it. She doesn't know the difference between a legitimate discussion and a screech fest. She interprets this lack of support as inability to hold a discussion with them. But in fact, the reality is that she is incapable of holding a serious discussion with anyone.

Putting this shrew on TV only dignifies her. "Enjoying their husbands' deaths" indeed. In a sane world, the only possible response to that would be "Go fuck yourself." The fact that any other response is expected, frankly mystifies me.