Northwestern Football Players and Unionization

imagesnrlbRecently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) granted permission to a group of Northwestern football players who were asking to form a union. The NLRB didn’t grant them the union status – that is something that must be done by a vote, but in order to even get to the point of requesting a vote, the players had to get the NLRB to recognize the players as “employees”, something the NCAA and Northwestern (and all colleges) dispute.

Amidst all the hubbub surrounding this, I thought it would be worth showing what items the Northwestern players actually want to bargain for. Here is a link to their demands with descriptions, but here is the brief itemized list.

  1. Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.
  2. Raise the scholarship amount.
  3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
  4. Increase graduation rates.
  5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.
  6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.
  7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.
  8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
  9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.
  10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
  11. Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.

None of these items, by the way, are “pay for play” – i.e. the players don’t think they should be paid in cash money for playing for Northwestern. The players freely admit that they are being paid – it is their scholarship.

If you look at these 11 items, they are completely and utterly reasonable. They are the kinds of things that I bet you would be surprised don’t already exist. Like, I bet you would be surprised that if a student gets an injury playing football, they might have to pay for fixing that themselves.

The one thing I’ve always said about unions, and I’m a big defender of unions, is that… well…. I don’t really like them. I’ve had one union job in my life, when I was a “courtesy clerk” (the politically correct term for “bag boy”) at a grocery store. I was paid 10 cents over minimum wage at that job, and the union required me to pay one hour of my pay each pay period as union dues. Now, the union was never going to go on strike for a bunch of courtesy clerks demanding better treatment, so this seemed like a lot of money to go out to get nothing in return.

Note, though, that while this was true (the union wouldn’t go on strike for me), the union did provide a way for courtesy clerks to move into cashier jobs, which could lead to much more pay. While the grocery store may have decided they would do that anyway, the fact that the union existed meant that the checkout clerk’s wages did not face the downward pressure to be more like courtesy clerk’s wages.

In any event, I’m also embarrassed by unions sometimes. You can find anecdote after anecdote about some union leader somewhere doing something illegal. But I’m kind of embarrassed by… my embarrassment. It always has troubled me that when a union person does something bad, we group that as “unions” being bad thing, but if the CEO of Enron does something bad, we don’t assume the CEO of, say, Walgreen’s Drug Stores is also “bad” and that the job of CEO should be eliminated.

OK, I’m drifting off a bit here. What I really wanted to do is talk about why I think unions exist, even though I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of them.

Unions exist because, well, management screwed up. Unions spring up because the management of an enterprise has decided not to give some benefits to people because they don’t feel they have to. They are, in many ways, an allergic reaction to bad management behavior. Like an allergy, you don’t want itchy eyes and you don’t want to be sneezing, but that is your body telling you there is a lot of crap in the air that is bad for you. The allergic reaction is the sign that something bad is going on and you need to do something about it.

When you look at the list of demands the Northwestern players are making, it is almost hard to believe they have to be made. It is shocking to think that if you get injured, you might have to pay out of pocket for that injury. It is shocking to think that if you are permanently injured, say, as a sophomore, your scholarship can be yanked, which most likely means you will have to leave the school. It is shocking how many restrictions are placed on the student-athlete to get a legitimate job in the offseason out of a fear of “cheating”.

Brief aside: I remember, anecdotally, a story of a basketball player at my alma mater (University of Michigan) who was getting an aeronautical engineering degree. For one, I was shocked that anybody could be pursuing engineering with the schedule of games and practices a basketball player would have. Secondly, as an engineering student myself, I knew implicitly how important summer internships and co-ops were for my future career, yet this was off-limits to the basketball player. I mean, this guy was not going to the pros. Yes, he had a scholarship, but he was put at a severe disadvantage with future employment opportunities because of NCAA rules!

One of the things I have said about unions, is that they aren’t needed if management behaves properly. If the NCAA had a rule that if you give a kid a scholarship, that’s a 4 year commitment and you can’t yank it if the player doesn’t perform well, there would be less complaints to form a union. If the NCAA had a rule that said you couldn’t yank a scholarship due to a career ending injury, there would be less complaints to form a union. If the NCAA had more flexibility with job seeking opportunities, there would be less complaints to form a union. And on and on.

I want to leave you with another thought experiment. Many industries, such as mine which makes silicon computer chips, don’t have unions. Why is that?  Well, generally speaking, we are very well compensated. We get very good vacation packages. We get great health care packages. I don’t have a time card. I can take long lunches if I want. I can work from home some days if I need to. Every 7 years, I get a sabbatical of 8 weeks, fully paid.

Now, what if my company, and all its competitors, looked around and decided that this was way too much compensation going to their employees?  They could demand that everybody punch in with a time card. And that we only get a 30 minute lunch. And that we should lose 1 of our vacation weeks. And that our salary should be 2/3 or 1/2 as much. And that the sabbatical program should be killed. if that happened across all the companies in the field (completely unlikely), a union movement would start in my industry so quickly your head would spin. And the people at the front of the line to create that union would be some of the people in neighboring cubes, who consider themselves libertarian and think unions are “communist”.


Fighting Anti-Vaccination Idiocy

Sigh… I don’t know why I’m doing this, because the anti-vaxxers don’t seem to care about facts. I tried to post this on a FB page of people railing against vaccines on behalf of a friend who wanted a counter-opinion, but I kept getting an error.  (quitting FB didn’t help… restarting the browser didn’t help… restarting the computer didn’t help…) Maybe the post was too long. Maybe the owner of the page doesn’t want long posts.  I dunno.  So, I posted it here and hopefully can link it to the FB article.

Facebook "anti-vaxxer" page...

The picture at right shows up on the FB page for a mommy blogger person defending not getting their child vaccinated. First off, any article that shows a baby getting a shot with what looks to be a double shot glass full of whiskey or urine or some glow-in-the dark substance should be considered suspect. That is an idiotic picture clearly made to pull on your emotions and should immediately render the article irrelevant.

Secondly, before I point out how utterly insane the anti-vaccination crowd is, let me also point out that I probably would be liked by a lot of anti-vaxxers, because like them, I try to eat very healthy and try to have my children eat healthy. As a single male in my 20s, I probably went through a gallon of animal-vaccine laden milk in a week and 2-3 Big Gulps from 7-11. Now, in a family of four, we only drink organic milk (no steroids or animal vaccines), the size of a half gallon, and it lasts about 3 weeks (many times we have to throw it out). We eat very little gluten, the kids don’t drink any soda (they will have it occasionally, and they won’t finish it, say it tastes like sugar, and don’t like the “fizz”). They have barely eaten McDonald’s and don’t actually care for it (daughter thinks the taste of chicken nuggets is, to quote, “gross”).

Point is, don’t any of you anti-vaxxers even dare to throw out “you just believe what for-profit corporations say and you don’t look at the science.” Because you will sound stupid.

OK, to start off, if you read the article, all you see about this is an apologetic approach to anti-vaxxers with claims of a vast media conspiracy – “86 cases in 2000, 189 cases in 2013 somehow this is an epidemic Stupid media!” (I’m paraphrasing). What this person left out is that this is about triple the normal rate, and almost all the cases where from people who had brought the disease back from overseas and spread it. We have about 60 cases of measles per year, but those cases are almost always somebody who went overseas where measles is present, and (thought many of these people are vaccinated) got sick. They didn’t come home and spread it. Now, more than ever, they are spreading it, because we have many more people who aren’t vaccinated (because they get their medical advice from Playboy playmates and people like this blogger). And this creates more opportunities for it to hit vaccinated people – it, gasp, “spreads”. Spreading is what makes it an outbreak. An outbreak is not some term that means it has to be like the 1995 movie with Dustin Hoffman where a town is quarantined.

Secondly, in reading the article, all you hear are apologies – well, don’t go to a doctor where somebody got the vaccine, because… “shedding”. You used to get one shot, now you get 3! Basically, using scientific facts (the virus does shed, people do get more shots), and somehow implying that it is a friggin’ conspiracy theory or some such idiocy. She never mentions that the original vaccine for measles was for one strain (viruses mutate, you know), and that it used to be given with human immunoglobin (which had side effects). In other words, this dip weed wants you to believe that companies are making the vaccine to just shove in your kids like a shot of whiskey, and not that the vaccine is safer, with fewer side effects, and protects against more strains. No, it is “big Pharma”, and they just want to “poison” your kids. /facepalm.

Another point i will make is based upon a recent experience. Our school just sent us a notice that our daughter needs to get her Tdap booster. I found this a great opportunity to look into Tdap, because one of my FB friends was all over FB ranting about vaccines and autism (he since got so annoyed with me pointing out how stupid his anti-vaxx stance was that he dropped me as a friend.)

He pointed to a recent study that showed the Tdap vaccine with thermiosol (the mercury preservative Jenny McCarthy’s cleavage started her anti-vaxx crusade with), over a large group of people, had a doubling of autism cases. This sounds alarming. But, wait… the data showed that the increase was from 0.0001% to 0.0002%. This is ridiculously small. It would mean that for every 10,000 kids, there was one additional case of autism.

OK, you say, well, that’s one extra I don’t want, so… NO Tdap PLEASE! But, let’s put this in perspective. If you are 20 years old and decide you want a baby, you have a 1 in 1,667 chance of having a baby with down’s syndrome. that’s 10 times greater than getting autism from a Tdap vaccine (assuming this data is even reproducible, which ALL autism studies from vaccines have proven to not be reproducible). If you are 35 years old, you have a chance of having a baby with down’s if 1 out of 385 times, which is, wait for it, 25 FREAKING TIMES HIGHER! If you are 35, thinking about getting pregnant, and looking into vaccinations, and you decide to not get your kid vaccinated due to a 1 in 10,000 chance of autism (again, assuming this study is reproducible), but you don’t give a flying fig about a 1 in 385 chance of down’s syndrome, then, I have to say this, YOU… ARE… AN… IDIOT. You would have decided to drive across country rather than fly, because there was a plane crash 2 years ago, even though a drive across country has a massively higher chance of you dying in an accident.

Next, let’s talk about these scientific papers that are claiming to show a link. This whole anti-vaxx thing started based upon one article in a British journal. This one article was based upon self-reported cases from parents (i.e. not double blind or in any way scientific). It was based upon an incredibly small number of people (not in any way statistically significant). It was based upon the doctor, who hated vaccines anyway, seeing kids with a digestive problem (not even autism related). And, it was discovered, he lied. He changed the answers of some of the self-reporters who said they had no digestive problems or autism, and he said they did.

This is what kicked the whole… mess… off. This paper has since been discredited about 1000 times over, but the anti-vaxxers still hold onto it (because the original “doctor” still holds onto it), and again, the apologists and conspiracy theorists come out, claiming the CDC is bought off, big Pharma controls government, blah blah blah. I bet if you look hard enough, you will probably be able to prove Merck assassinated Kennedy.

Additionally, as far as scientific papers go, yes, there are papers showing links between autism and vaccinations. These links are incredibly specious, and are never reproducible. And, they are in the vast minority of studies. Something like 1%. What the anti-vaxxers don’t understand is just because a study comes out that matches your point of view, that doesn’t mean you get to discount everything else and just hold onto that. You will find, in fact, scientific papers, written by people with PhDs and peer reviewed, that will find that smoking causes no increased chance of lung cancer, and that the earth is actually really young (only 6,000 years old). You actually can find these “studies”. They do exist. What you have to understand is that scientific studies that are in the minority are produced all the time, because as long as they use strong scientific and mathematical analysis, they pass “peer review”. These kinds of studies must be published, even if they seem “crazy”, because that is how scientific knowledge advances. A minority opinion can become a majority opinion, and the only way this can happen is for things that follow good scientific protocol to be published so that why can be confirmed or disproven.

So, if you are holding onto your 1% of scientific papers that show links between autism, and saying that is “proof”, what you are doing is  cherry picking data. You might be right, but then again, so might the young earthers. Do you really want to be in that camp?

I will end this with one more comment about scientific papers. About 1% of the scientific papers that are published show that there is no link between human activity and climate change. The Republican party in the US uses these studies as a way to not adopt public policies for more solar, wind, geothermal, etc., and to keep giving tax subsidies to oil companies to poke holes in the ground and gas companies to explode cracks in rocks underground that cause earthquakes and poison water wells.

If you think global warming is real, and one of the arguments you use is “look at the sheer scientific data that says humans are causing global warming”, then, I’m sorry, you are not allowed to be an anti-vaxxer. The phrase I would use is, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. You do not get to use the scientific process where you are in the majority, and simultaneously cite “scientific process” when you are in the minority. If you trust scientists one way, you have to trust them another way. Science, my friends, is not something you get to use for your political hobby horse. It is either right, or it isn’t. It isn’t right when you want it to be and wrong when you want it to be.

Just like with global warming, you can’t make a “personal choice” to make the problem better. You can’t decide that we’ll be OK as long as you personally drive a Prius, or install solar panels, or make your own biofuels. We can only change the course of climate through collective action. Your personal actions won’t affect jack squat. Similarly, we can’t let every person decide, on their own, whether to get vaccinated or not. Lots of non-vaccinated people running around will spread disease, even to the vaccinated, so “personal choice” is not an acceptable criteria.

OK, I lied…. one more thing. How come all you anti-vaxxers want to go off on “big Pharma” all the time? You seem to want to discount everything they say because… “profit” or something. Have you ever put that same spotlight on all your favorite anti-vaxx writers and lecturers? You know, these aren’t exactly non-profits doing all this talking. There are people that make incredible sums of money every year flying around the country peddling their anti-vaxx crap. Their model, in fact, is very similar to the religious leaders like Joel Olsteen – hawking their conspiracies and gospel of truth, fleecing you for money. If you are going to question somebody’s profit motive, you need to question ALL of it.

Get your F***ING KIDS VACCINATED, or move to a country where they don’t care if you are vaccinated. I do not want my kid to grow up with measles scars or be stuck in a wheelchair due to polio because of you idiots, even though he was vaccinated.  I hear Somalia is really nice this time of year, weather wise.

The (Hopefully) Salvageable Technology Behind BitCoin


As you all know, I think BitCoin is a horribly stupid idea.  It is thriving in the community of male libertarian internet nerds.  I have been very vocally against it, as I consider the rise in its price to be nothing short of the kind of scams that were the dot-com bubble in the late 90s and the mortgage security bubble of the late aughts that destroyed the world economy.  I feel it will collapse, the early adopter hedge fund type people will walk away with all the money, and normal people will be hurt.

However, that doesn’t mean that the technology behind BitCoin is bad.  In fact, the technology behind it has absolutely nothing to do with trying to create an alternative currency.  And I had a perfect example on how the core technology behind BitCoin – the “decentralized ledger” – is great even though BitCoin is stupid.  This decentralized ledger is the amazing technology behind BitCoin – a problem that computer science has been trying to solve for years.  Banks, Paypal, eBay, etc. have a “centralized” ledger.  The ledger is like a spreadsheet – it says who owns what.

This morning, my company attorney sends out a power of attorney document for 3 inventors (I was one of them) to sign. Even though it is 2014, and we all want “paperless office”, the document has to be printed out, signed by all of us, scanned in, and e-mailed. We actually did this by one person signing it, and walking down the aisle to the next guy with a yellow sticky on it saying to sign it and give to the next person, etc. (We could all have printed our own copies and signed them and then scanned them all in separately and e-mailed back – but you get the idea on how “ancient” this is).

With the decentralized ledger, a document like this can be tagged in the ledger as belonging to the attorney. She sends it to inventor #1 so the ledger indicates inventor #1 has it.  (In BitCoin, this is how BitCoins are transferred – the ledger indicates user #1 had one, and now user #2 has it).  They send to inventor #2, again, with an update to the ledger, they send to inventor #3, and then finally back to the attorney.

The ledger knows who has it, and the “block chain” shows how it transferred through the 4 people. Thus, a full record of a transfer of ownership, with a clear intent to send to the next person (thus power of attorney granted). This all happens electronically – no printing, signing with pen, scanning, e-mailing. (Obviously, I’m skipping a step here, which is that from a legal standpoint, something like this ledger/transfer mechanism is recognized as legally binding).

That is the future. That is the technology that BitCoin uses that should be celebrated. That is the technology that *needs* to live on long after all these stupid crypto-currencies die the death that needs to happen. My fear is that this technology will get stunted, much like peer-to-peer file sharing technology is somewhat stunted because of the first (and still prevailing) usage model – media piracy.  Peer-to-peer networking and file sharing has nothing to do with trading Beyonce songs, but since that is all people really think of when they think of peer-to-peer, it keeps the technology from being more widely distributed.