Aug. 26, 2012: A Tainted Legacy

We’ll start this week by considering the tumultuous tale of Lance Armstrong, who won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999-2005 after recovering from testicular cancer. As I previously noted, Armstrong’s miraculous feat drew heavy scrutiny from the start, even though he reportedly underwent hundreds of blood and urine tests during his cycling career and never had a single positive test result. This year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) launched a fresh wave of doping allegations against Armstrong, based largely on testimony from other cyclists — who themselves had positive test results — that they had seen Armstrong use the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) as well as steroids, and that he also trafficked and administered the same performance-enhancers to others. The USADA claimed to have over a dozen witnesses ready to testify against Armstrong in arbitration, although the USADA never officially revealed their identities, claiming that Armstrong had previously engaged in witness intimidation.

As Armstrong argued, there was “zero physical evidence” to support the USADA’s claims, which he said were based solely on the words of disgraced athletes and trainers trying to take him down with them. The USADA, on the other hand, claimed that they had also taken blood samples in 2009 and 2010 that were consistent with the claims of EPO use. On Monday, a judge dismissed Armstrong’s lawsuit against the USADA that would have forced the organization to drop the charges, saying that the USADA would maintain its jurisdiction over the matter and that Armstrong would have to deal with the matter in their venue.

Things came to a head on Thursday, when the 40-year-old Armstrong announced that he was tired of the “unconstitutional witch hunt” and declined to address the issue through the USADA’s arbitration process. His former team manager, John Bruyneel, added that he was “disappointed for Lance and for cycling in general that things have reached a stage where Lance feels that he has had enough and is no longer willing to participate in USADA’s campaign against him.” While Armstrong steadfastly maintained his innocence, though, his refusal to fight the charges was interpreted by USADA officials as an admission of guilt.

Most in the media agreed with the USADA’s assertion that Armstrong only abandoned the case because he knew the truth about his longtime lie — some neglected to mention Armstrong’s insistence of innocence altogether — although others sided with Armstrong’s claim that he was the target of a vendetta in which the USADA was changing the rules as it went to make the very question of whether or not he cheated irrelevant.

Although Armstrong challenged the USADA’s authority to impose sanctions, Travis Tygart, the organization’s CEO, proclaimed that Armstrong would be stripped of all seven Tour de France titles and face a lifetime ban from the sport. Mere hours after Armstrong’s announcement, the USADA made those sanctions official, a stunningly quick resolution which lent some credence to Armstrong’s claim that this was what Tygart and the USADA had planned all along. As Tygart explained, “Any time we have overwhelming proof of doping, our mandate is to initiate the case through the process and see it to conclusion as was done in this case.” The USADA is directly associated with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which immediately upheld the USADA’s decision and said that Armstrong’s records would be “obliterated.” As WADA chief John Fahey aid, “He had the right to rip up those charges but he elected not to, therefore the only interpretation in these circumstances is that there was substance in those charges.”

At the very least, Armstrong’s achievements will be forever branded with an asterisk, placing him alongside other fallen heroes like Pete Rose and Marion Jones. Even as Armstrong’s legacy looks to be ruined, his seven vacated Tour de France wins remain in serious question. After all, most of the other top finishers from 1999-2005 were later caught doping themselves, so officials might have to go way down the leaderboard to find another athlete who could receive those titles. On the other hand, shamed riders like Armstrong’s longtime rival Jan Ullrich may be given Armstrong’s wins anyway, as none of them faced such extreme sanctions as Armstrong’s lifetime ban and stripped wins. (Ullrich was implicated in the infamous “Operación Puerto” case but maintained his 1997 Tour de France victory, his only win in cycling’s biggest event. His 2005 third-place finish was expunged earlier this year, however, and the retired cyclist was retroactively banned.)

Many in the cycling world hope that Armstrong’s punishment will ultimately help the sport by showing young athletes what happens to cyclists who cheat. Some of Armstrong’s competitors, on the other hand, have voiced their support for him, saying that the former champion was the victim of an “unjust” legal case tried in a series of kangaroo courts where athletes are deemed guilty before any arguments are heard. If anyone came out ahead from this process, it was ironically Armstrong’s own charity, Livestrong, which saw its donation volume multiply by 25 after the USADA’s announcement. Many still see Armstrong as a hero for his cancer survival, athletic feats and charitable works, and applaud his open defiance of the USADA’s ruling by participating in another bike race yesterday. He is also expected to participate in a marathon later today.

All of this brings about some interesting questions. Obviously there’s the matter of whether or not Armstrong really was guilty, but that’s an obvious one to ask. If Armstrong did, indeed, cheat his way to victory, is he still a hero? Let’s say that his victories were, indeed, all the result of performance-enhancing drugs. In that case, if he never used performance-enhancing drugs, he therefore would never have won. He then would never have raised $325 million for charity, and cycling itself might never have recovered from the disastrous 1998 Tour de France (widely called the “Tour de Doping”) that saw roughly half the field abandon the race or be disqualified after vehicles full of drugs were located. Of course, Armstrong also earned a great deal of glory that his runner-ups would have cherished, but he nonetheless channeled much of that fame into admirable charity. When good things are done on the basis of a lie, can we still praise them? Can a generous act outweigh its own tarnished foundation?

It’s also interesting how other numerous other top cyclists had positive tests and were handed temporary (e.g., one-year) bans; Armstrong never had any positive tests and received a lifetime ban. That and the speed with which the USADA and WADA made their decisions does seem to lend some credence to Armstrong’s “witchhunt” claim. Of course, there remains quite a bit of circumstantial evidence against Armstrong, even if physical evidence of doping during his historic run was absent. It certainly makes one question what the anti-doping agencies’ motives really were, and it ought to make us question ourselves, to be living in an age when any great achievement automatically draws skepticism — is sports heroism even possible in this day and age, or will the public reject any modern athlete who achieves greatness?

Of course, Armstrong is hardly the only athlete facing such punishments, even if his case has garnered more attention than others. On August 15, for instance, San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, who earned MVP honors in the National League’s 8-0 All-Star Game win earlier this year, was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for testosterone infusions. Cabrera immediately admitted his guilt in an unusual display of honesty for a cheater caught in the act, ending any real chance of him landing a nine-figure contract as a free agent this offseason — along with the All-Star Game honors, he was also leading the National League in hits and was second in batting average in his first season with the Giants, which would have made him attractive to many teams. With those achievements tarnished now, most clubs may be scared to take a chance on what he can do when he’s not doping. In any case, Cabrera’s 50-game ban will carry through the remaining 45 games of this season, with the remaining five to be served next year or, if San Francisco earns a playoff spot, in the postseason.

This past Wednesday, exactly seven days later, Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon earned a 50-game suspension of his own after also testing positive for testosterone. Colon, who won the American League Cy Young award in 2005 as the league’s best pitcher, will miss the remaining 40 games of this season. Colon’s contract expires at the end of 2012, so unless Oakland makes a deep postseason run, the remainder of Colon’s punishment would be served in a future season — and only if he garners another major league contract. Needless to say, the two high-profile players have been getting blasted in the press and on social media sites by former and current players, with Johnny Bench in particular saying that cheaters ought to have their contracts completely voided.

And then, of course, there’s Roger Clemens, the disgraced pitcher who was nonetheless deemed not guilty of perjury for telling Congress in 2008 that he had not taken performance-enhancing drugs. The 50-year-old hurler returned to baseball last night, starting for the Sugar Land Skeeters in an independent league game against the Bridgeport Bluefish.

A few commentators continue to admire his “passion for the game” and say that he is bringing some positive attention to the area. Most, on the other hand, are either angrily throwing their hands in the air or asking, “Who really cares?” As it happens, though, baseball fans might have to start caring soon, as at least one major league team sent scouts to watch Clemens’ performance. I know the Houston Astros are struggling, but really? Really?

If you thought that cheating was limited to athletes, you’d be wrong. Two weeks ago there was a shocking cheating scandal at the National Scrabble Championship — yes, you read that right — in which a young player was caught palming the two blank tiles instead of placing them inside the bag to be drawn. His opponent, upon discovering the transgression, called over a tournament official, at which point the boy dropped the tiles to the floor in an attempt to hide his malfeasance. It didn’t work, and he was immediately ejected; his previous opponents were retroactively given forfeit wins.

The culprit was not publicly identified since he is a minor, although tournament officials announced the ejection on Twitter in order to be as transparent as possible. It’s an unfortunate blow to the Scrabble world, which lacks the attention or prize money of other sports and which typically only gets media attention for scandals like this. (Heck, even chess tournaments, which themselves are unprofitable for all but a few elite players, have more of a following than the Scrabble world.)

And cheating even happens at colleges. But I’m not talking about students cheating on tests or plagiarizing papers. No, I’m talking about the universities themselves. Earlier this week, Emory University announced the results of a three-month review into its own reporting of admissions data. According to the university, incoming students’ ACT and SAT scores were willfully misreported for more than a decade to such organizations as the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. News & World Report in order to artificially inflate the school’s ranking. While top university officials were unaware of the practice, staff members throughout the admissions department — including two admissions deans — knew all about the discrepancies. In particular, the staff was told to report the scores of all admitted students instead of just those who accepted offers to attend Emory. Given that many top admitted students chose to attend elsewhere instead, this willful reporting error resulted in a substantial SAT/ACT increase. For 2009 and 2010, the two sample years that Emory released in its report, SAT scores for the 25th and 75th percentiles were 40 points higher in the misreported data. The worst part is that Emory isn’t even the first school this year to make such an admission; in May, Claremont McKenna College reported similar boosting of SAT scores and other data over the past several years.

Okay, let’s change gears. Tragedy struck New York on Friday as a laid-off worker fatally shot a former colleague near the Empire State Building before turning his weapon on two police officers. The officers gunned down 58-year-old Jeffrey Johnson, who about a year ago was downsized from an apparel company. Nine others were wounded in the incident, although none of their injuries appear to be life-threatening. Early reports suggest that all nine were inadvertently struck by police gunfire. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly emphasized that Johnson gave the officers no choice but to shoot Johnson, who had ten bullet wounds in the chest, arms, and legs from the officers’ 16 shots.

If there’s any solace to be taken from the incident, it’s that it does not seem to have been an act of terrorism despite the high-profile location, but a simple workplace grievance gone too far.

Still, it’s just the latest in a series of deadly rampages in the past few weeks, the worst of which was James Holmes’ movie theater massacre. Prosecutors in his case say that Holmes told a classmate four months before the shooting that he wanted to kill people, and that “he would do so when his life was over.” At roughly the same time, Holmes began receiving a high number of packages at his home, many of which presumably contained the thousands of rounds of ammunition that he ordered off the internet. He also reportedly threatened a professor on June 12, at which point prosecutors say he was forbidden to return to campus and began a voluntary withdrawal from his Ph.D. program in neuroscience. (The university, it should be noted, is disputing the claim that Holmes was banned from campus. On Monday, Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester refused to lift the gag order that prevents the university from releasing their records on Holmes, as such an action would damage any prospect of a fair trial.)

Holmes’ defense team, on the other hand, is arguing that their client was mentally ill when he killed a dozen moviegoers and wounded 58 others, an argument strengthened by the revelation that Holmes saw three different mental health professionals at the University of Colorado prior to the incident. His name had also been brought to the attention of the school’s Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, and even the University of Colorado police were asked to conduct a background check on the 24-year-old. Nothing ever came of it, however, despite all the warning signs.

In political news, Todd Akin continues to distract voters from the presidential election. Despite pleas from fellow Republicans to drop out of the U.S. Senate race, including presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the Missourian vowed to continue his campaign, even after last Sunday’s highly controversial response to an interview question on whether his anti-abortion stance included rape victims. Here’s what he said about pregnancies resulting from abortion:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

While noted Ohio doctor John C. Willke, who wrote the influential Handbook on Abortion in 1971, indeed espouses such ideas, most of the medical community treats the notion that a raped woman can control “ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg” is foolhardy.

Within hours, Akin backpedaled from his original statements, claiming in an E-mail that he “misspoke” during the interview. It was not enough, however, to prevent the GOP from pulling funding from his campaign, leaving the candidate with no support from his party and little chance of unseating the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill. All his now-futile campaign seems to be accomplishing is preventing Romney from making headway on Barack Obama’s narrow lead in the presidential election.

Maybe that’s part of why Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate — an event that typically grants a challenger at least a small boost in the polls — has made no effect on the race. The most recent Associated Press survey has 47% of voters supporting Obama and 46% siding with Romney. Really, neither candidate has much momentum, as we haven’t seen any wild, double-digit swings as the race has progressed. If anything, Romney has slowly climbed toward Obama, percentage point by percentage point, but neither seems to be making any major moves to pull ahead. Frankly, any shifts in the past few months are well within most polls’ margins of error. The only shocking poll number thus far was a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal figure that showed Obama garnering support from 94% of African-American voters and Romney taking a whopping 0%. That demographic has long been a key part of the Democratic voter base, but almost every Republican candidate has earned at least some support from black voters. George W. Bush, for instance, earned 9% and 11% in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and even John McCain, running against Obama in 2008, managed to get 4% of the vote. But perhaps the Democratic hold on the group is stronger than ever with Obama sitting in the Oval Office — or perhaps the roughly 100 black voters sampled in that NBC-Wall Street Journal didn’t quite represent the entire population. We’ll see.

One way or another, the country needs some solutions, especially given the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) recent report that our country “would be plunged into a significant recession during the first half of next year if Congress fails to avert nearly $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts set to hit in January.” If Congress fails to act, the CBO expects the U.S. to see a 2.9% drop in our gross domestic product, or GDP, in 2013. Employers are expected to cut workforces and spending to deal with the tax hikes, which would also push the unemployment rate back up to an estimated 9.1% by the end of the year.

Recent Congressional acts like the barrage of stimulus programs, temporary tax cuts, and emergency benefits extensions prompted the CBO to offer a gloomier report than the earlier forecast from last January, particularly since the budget deficit from this fiscal year alone is now expected to hit $1.1 trillion. Even if Congress cancels the changes that would take effect in 2013, the CBO only projects meager growth; the GDP would increase by a weak 1.7%, while the unemployment rate would merely dip to an even 8%. But their office sees that as a better alternative than the “fiscal cliff” which otherwise awaits.

Let’s turn our attention to the Mars rover for a bit. After its amazing landing on the Martian surface, scientists remotely upgraded the Curiosity’s flight software in preparation for its first test drive. The rover rolled 15 feet, turned at a right angle, and briefly moved in reverse across the Gale Crater. The craft’s only significant problem seems to be a broken wind sensor, which is remarkable given the intensity of the one-ton craft’s landing process.

The success of the mission — at least thus far — should make NASA’s planned return to Mars in 2016 less than surprising. But with substantial cuts to scientific funding in the past few years and public fascination by space exploration dwindling, it makes one wonder whether future generations will share any interest in interplanetary travel, a stark contrast with the thrill of the unknown from decades past.

And the joy of following Curiosity was further tempered by a historic loss yesterday. 82-year-old Neil Armstrong died from complications following heart surgery. The Purdue University graduate is best known for commanding the Apollo 11 mission and being the first human to walk on the moon in 1969, widely considered the Space Age’s brightest moment. While Armstrong was considered an American hero and a symbol for space exploration himself, he was a reluctant hero who described himself more as a nerdy scientist than a daredevil explorer. Either way, the man who captivated humanity over 30 years ago will be sorely missed.

Elsewhere, researchers have uncovered a worrying link between obesity and mental health. A study in Tuesday’s issue of Neurology indicated that middle-aged adults suffering from obesity or other metabolic disorders were more likely to face memory and cognitive declines over the decade that followed. Scientists aren’t sure about the exact connection between the two, but they expect that high blood sugar and cholesterol might play a role. Heart disease and inflammation may also be an issue. That’s especially frightening given a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this month which said that almost a third of American adults are obese.

Let’s switch to something a little more fun. According to a new study in the international journal Nature, a protein in semen acts directly on the female brain to prompt ovulation in some species (although not humans). The protein, called nerve growth factor (NGF), also plays a crucial role in the growth and survival of nerve cells. This protein is apparently found in the semen of all mammals, humans included. This discovery of the connection between semen and the brain suggests that sex may serve other as-yet unknown neurological purposes, and it may also open up prospects for the testing and treatment of infertility.

However, infertility in males might serve a purpose. Researchers claim that older fathers are substantially more likely to have autistic children, a major departure from the notion that serious developmental problems instead result from the mother’s age. With more and more couples having children later in life, partially due to advancements in fertility treatments, it is possible that scientists have inadvertently increased the proportion of children suffering from this serious disorder.

The entertainment world has given us some excitement of its own. Early in the week, Avril Lavigne surprised the media by announcing her engagement to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger. The two Canadians dated for six months before Kroeger popped the question on August 8, dropping to one knee with a massive 14-carat diamond, but their relationship had been kept so private that few people even knew they were dating. Their relationship began in February, when the two musicians collaborated on a track for Lavigne’s upcoming fifth album. It will be Kroeger’s first marriage and Lavigne’s second; the latter artist filed for divorce from Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley in 2009, ending their three-year marriage.

Far more shocking in the celebrity scene, though, was Prince Harry’s naked party in Las Vegas on August 17. Apparently the heir to the British throne got drunk and decided to play some strip billiards (and God knows what else) with a group of friends and girls staying in his hotel. TMZ was among the first media outlets to release the photos, while the British media was surprisingly hesitant to even mention the story. Perhaps it was due to palace representatives pressuring the U.K. media not to print them, particularly given public announcements that “the pictures were taken in a hotel suite where the prince would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy.” But even when the photo ban was finally broken, most Britons were less than upset over the incident, largely excusing it due to his age and position — as one resident said, “He’s the prince. He can have any bird he wants!” But Las Vegas was quite upset over the whole thing, given the “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” slogan. The city took out a full-page advertisement in USA Today to call out those who leaked the photo.

This is what happens when you make Las Vegas angry.

Indiana made national headlines earlier this week when a series of overheated food trucks were discovered in the state. Apparently a number of trucks carrying fresh food from Indiana farms were improperly refrigerated, so their contents quickly spoiled during transit. Apparently the problem arose both from the heat across the state, which has overwhelmed some cooling mechanisms, as well as the fact that some truckers are temporarily shutting off the refrigeration in order to save fuel during the drive. Cantaloupes were a particularly bad problem, as produce from Gibson County made its way to 21 states and caused a salmonella outbreak across the country. It’s little wonder that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered all cantaloupes from southwest Indiana to be destroyed, as at least 178 people across all 21 of those states are now ill.

Cantaloupes weren’t the only issue, though. Police pulled over a truck in Bartholomew County on Tuesday and found 90 pounds of sausage, eggs, and sour cream completely ruined; its cargo ultimately had to be destroyed. Two more food trucks were stopped near Lafayette, and over 1,000 pounds of meat and dairy products were seized. We ought to be thankful for that, since much of the contaminated food found its way into area restaurants instead.

In technology news, the Department of Justice (DOJ) seized several domains where pirated Android apps were being distributed, marking the first time such an action has been taken to prevent copyrighted mobile app infringement. No word has been given on whether any arrests were made. The seizure of the three domains — applanet.net, appbucket.net, and snappzmarket.com — was coordinated with French and Dutch authorities since some of the servers were located outside the U.S. The FBI claims that its representatives downloaded “thousands of popular copyrighted mobile device apps” from the three sites. Those domains now display a seizure banner much like that placed on Megaupload which, as I reported earlier this year, was also shut down over copyright infringement claims.

Apple made very different headlines this week. First, the company has been working to expunge its controversial “Genius” ads from the internet. If you hadn’t heard of them, the gist of the matter is that Apple showed a boy genius assisting middle-aged users with simple software, in an attempt to demonstrate how helpful the “Genius bar” feature was. But the commercials ended up making users look like idiots, and in the face of substantial public backlash, the entire campaign was pulled from television after just one week. In their desperation to make the public forget about the whole thing, Apple representatives are deleting them from their website and Youtube channel, as well. But that might not be enough to completely win back consumer support, especially if the campaign survives through unofficial video postings or even an internet meme.

On the other hand, Apple scored a coup in its lawsuit against Samsung, as the Korean electronics maker was ordered to pay Apple about $1.05 billion for infringing on Apple’s patents. The jury sided almost entirely with Apple’s claims, finding Samsung guilty on six out of seven counts. Samsung was simultaneously suing Apple, but the jury found that Apple had not infringed upon any of Samsung’s patents. However, Apple won less than half of what it sought in damages, although the amount could later be tripled under U.S. federal law. An Apple spokesperson said that “the evidence showed that Samsung’s copying went far deeper than we ever knew,” while Samsung representatives retorted that the verdict “should not be viewed as a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer” due to less innovation and higher prices.

The verdict is likely to have a substantial effect on the mobile phone industry. Samsung will obviously have to be much more cautious in how it designs products in order to avoid future claims of copying Apple, and the other producers of the Google Android are likely to be affected, as well. In fact, the case could be interpreted as a battle between Apple and the Android, as the verdict may prompt smartphone designers to shy away from the Android software if they fear that the operating system could be subject to sanctions. On a broader scale, most smartphones look like a slab of glass and metal with a transparent screen because that was how Apple designed the first one, and others followed the industry trend. In the future, we may see much greater differentiation among smartphones.

As a last bit of tech news, Adobe is having a great deal of trouble with its Flash Player. On August 14, Adobe published patches for several critical vulnerabilities that would have let hackers take control of Windows systems and execute malicious code. Within a week, however, six new critical vulnerabilities were uncovered, so the company had to release a brand new set of patches. Granted, Adobe tried to present the second round of updates as a means to help developers better use hardware acceleration, but the string of vulnerabilities and incomplete fixes has to be worrisome for anyone who makes active use of Flash Player 11.

That’s plenty for this week. With all the major news items throughout August, one has to wonder what excitement September will bring….

Other articles of interest:
Norway Mass Killer Gets the Maximum: 21 Years
Norway monster Breivik apologizes to ‘militant nationals’ for not killing more
Dell Forecast Misses Estimates As PC Sales Continue Slump
Facebook Unveils New Campus: Will Workers Be Sick, Stressed and Dissatisfied?
The Windows 8 ‘tutorial’ is a joke
Women still have a bad lie
Domalewski family to receive $14.5M
Joyce’s character shines in lifesaving moment
The Office Closing Up Shop After One More Season
Apocalypse Not: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About End Times
ACT, Inc :60 Percent of 2012 High School Graduates At Risk of Not Succeeding in College and Career
Research Group Says Amelia Earhart Crash Evidence Found in Underwater Footage
Cosmonauts to Take Spacewalk Outside Space Station Today
Infants given antibiotics could become overweight kids
Tiny Green Bug May Be First Photosynthetic Animal
New Species of Insect Capable of Photosynthesis-like Process; Sun Light Helps Produce Energy for the Pea-Sized Bug
T-Mobile cuts the strings on new data plan, goes fully unlimited

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