Category: current events

How I Evaluate the News

I imagine it’s because I’m a trained librarian, and so people are curious about what I think about various information sources, but for whatever reason, I actually have a fair number of friends ask me about news articles now and then. I had one instance this morning, and I sent back a detailed response. After writing it, I thought it might be something the rest of you would find interesting, especially these days when “the news” so often seems more like “the opinion,” as opposed to anything resembling fact (from some sources.)

So first, the question. What did I think of this article?

For teaching purposes, I’d encourage all of you to click through to that article and read it for yourself and ask yourself the same question. What do you think of it? More importantly, why do you think that? Is it an article to be trusted or dismissed? Why? This will be more valuable if you come to your own conclusions first, I think.

Ready?

For those of you who just decided to keep reading and ignore my helpful advice, the article is about how Obama might have been a plant by nefarious anti-American sources, designed to ruin our country. For the purposes of this exercise (and for all news source evaluations), I think it’s important to distance yourself from what you personally might believe about the topic. Face the fact that your preconceived notions might be wrong, and approach it as objectively as possible.

People come to librarians all the time, asking us questions. We can’t laugh at them if we think their questions are silly. Our job is to find the information they’re looking for. So for this question, I treated as “Do you think this is a reputable article? Why or why not?”

Here’s what I responded:

Hmm. My first step is to look at the source. Both the publication and the author. The publication (Washington Times) is quite a conservative source that sometimes pushes the envelope when it comes to fair reporting. (http://www.allgeneralizationsarefalse.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Media-Bias-Chart_Version-3.1_Watermark-min.jpg). This is an editorial in that paper, so it’s under no obligation to present anything “fair” at all. I’d treat an editorial on MSNBC about the same way.

Then there’s the author. From his bio on the Times’ site: “Todd is a contributor to Fox Business, Newsmax TV, Moscow Times, the New York Post, the National Review, Zero Hedge and others.” I’m not going to touch the Moscow Times reference. Newsmax is hyper-conservative nonsense; New York Post and Fox are borderline, and the National Review is a site I’d actually read and give some credence to. (Yes, you can critique the chart I’m consulting. I know there are quite a few conservatives who see where Fox shows up on that and immediately start accusing it of being biased. But I really believe Fox is put at about the right spot on that chart, just as I believe most of the other sites are placed in the general correct vicinity. I think a lot of the discrepancy of opinions people have about current events can be traced to this sort of bias. Which sources to believe, and why. But anyway.)

Going beyond that, L. Todd Wood helpfully has his own website we can read to see what his views in general are when he’s not tied to any particular news source. He lists his publications, and they’re recently almost all from The Washington Times, and they’re all squarely in a single worldview. From his biography (http://ltoddwood.com/l-todd-wood-biography/), he studied aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy, became a pilot, got a Masters in Engineering Management, served in Kuwait, became a Captain in the Air Force, branched out into investment banking, traveled internationally, became an author, and now splits his time between living in NYC and Moscow.

His publisher is Ice Box Publishing, which from what I can quickly gather is basically a company that only puts out books by Wood. It’s an LLC, and my guess is he started a company to publish his own books.

So I find very little reason to actually give him any credence whatsoever. He’s an ex-military engineer/finance guru turned author. Most of his claimed expertise comes from the hazy 17 years he was with an investment bank. “During this second career he became highly knowledgeable in Emerging Markets Fixed Income and traveled a great deal internationally with a focus on the Caribbean.  He has conducted business in over forty different countries.  He became acutely aware of the consequences of economic decisions and their effect on national and economic security.” I’m not sure how his focus on the Caribbean prepared him to become an expert on Iranian and Russian relations, but that’s where his focus seems to be now.

In the end, taking everything into account, I think Wood’s article is a biased, selective hack job–fairly easy to dismiss.

End of my response.

That’s my answer to the question. What would yours have been? How would you approach it? I’m curious if you’d do it differently, and why.

Thanks for reading!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

On Harlan Ellison, and Behaving Badly

Harlan Ellison passed away yesterday. He was quite a well-known science fiction author, but I don’t think I’ve personally read any of his work. Why not? Because the first time I was really made aware of him was when I watched him in person as he groped the breast of Connie Willis, a writer whose work I had read and admired. This wasn’t done in the corner of some late night party. It was done in the middle of the Hugo awards ceremony, the sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the Oscars. Here’s video of it:

I recognized his name at the time, but I just sat and watched him make an ass out of himself in the middle of the awards ceremony, and then casually sexually assault a woman on stage. I get that he may have been “trying to be funny.” I just found him tiresome, and I was shocked more people didn’t object at the time to what he had done. Perhaps they didn’t because they thought it was scripted (it wasn’t). Or because he was who he was. (So what?)

In most cases, I try to separate the art from the artist, recognizing that the relationship I have to a book or a movie or a performance isn’t the same as a relationship to the creator of that thing. I know someone can be a failure as a human and still make fantastic art. In fact, sometimes it’s the people who are messed up the most who can somehow create the most interesting things. (Connected? Not sure. That’s a thought for a different time.)

But as I read all the eulogies about Ellison in the wake of his passing, I found myself unable to really separate the art from the actions I had personally witnessed. I don’t know Connie Willis, and I haven’t read a ton of her books. This was a single incident, 12 years ago, but it stuck with me. And as I thought on it further, I found a pattern in me. When I’ve personally had something happen to me or in my presence, I do a pretty bad job at forgiving and forgetting. It sticks with me.

I’ve interacted with editors personally, watching how they treat other people. I’ve met several authors over the years, some of them really nice and gregarious, some of them standoffish, and some of them brusque and harsh. Those personal interactions stay with me much longer than anything I read about people or hear about them. Something to keep in mind as I interact with people at signings myself. Personal connections can go a long way toward making fans or not.

I’m not angry at people who are Harlan Ellison fans. I still believe in separating the art from the artist when you can. But after thinking this through, I also can understand where people are coming from when they’re unable to do that. When they can’t look past the actions of the person in question to be able to enjoy the work that person created.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

 

Looking for an Excuse to Ignore

It feels to me these days like more and more people are looking for excuses. For reasons they can simply ignore people who disagree with them instead of actually engage them in a real dialogue. Some of this comes down to labels. “Trump supporter.” “Social Justice Warrior.” Slap a label on a person who you don’t see eye to eye with, and suddenly you’re not dismissing an individual, you’re simply ignoring a person who’s obviously wrong.

This thought started when I got a political ad in the mail yesterday. A candidate was bragging about how he was the “Only Trump Supporter” among other Republican candidates running for Senate. I looked at the ad and couldn’t help but give it a mental eye roll. “How to guarantee I’ll not vote for you,” I thought to myself as I threw it away. “Trump supporter” was enough for me to dismiss the person without a second thought. On the other hand, clearly there is a non-insignificant portion of the state for which being an avid supporter of the President is an asset, not a liability.

Then you’ve got the case of Roseanne. She Tweeted a racist joke and had her hit TV show subsequently canceled hours later. In response, some people are very pleased. Finally! A consequence for saying awful things. Some people are quite upset. Comedians make fun of Trump all the time, they say, and yet there are no repercussions to them. They see this as liberals being hypocritical, wanting to silence speech that offends them but not caring when their speech offends others.

In still other situations, you have some people looking at society today and seeing continued discrimination toward minorities, women, and LGBT issues. Meanwhile, you have white men clamoring that *they* are actually the ones being discriminated against.

Honestly, the list continues from there, but that’s enough for now. In each case, both sides are polarized to the point that they can’t even see the other side’s point of view to engage with it. In each instance, both sides feel the matter is cut and dried. That there’s no room for any view other than the one they hold.

What’s caused us to get to this point?

Some of it is due to the 24 hour news cycle. News stations are on all day, and they need to fill that time with something, and so having it be a constant argument between differing sides is one way to do that. At the same time, they’ve also discovered they get better ratings by pandering solely to one side or the other, presenting a view of the world that at best downplays the other side and at worst ignores it or demonizes it completely.

Some of it is due to anonymity online. It’s much easier to label and ignore people you don’t have to talk to and interact with on a daily basis. It’s even easier when you have no idea who those people are to begin with. Just look at the way I judge people when I’m driving my car compared to the way I judge them in person. (Spoiler: I’m not a very charitable driver . . . )

But it’s one thing to identify a problem. What can we do to solve it?

I tend to think the solution isn’t to be found online. The anonymity and toxic comments from both sides make real discussion almost impossible. Facebook tends to enable real debate to an extent, but I’ve found too often it turns into me playing referee between friends of mine who don’t know each other and so feel a sense of that entitled anonymity kick in.

So for me, I believe the real solution is to be found in the real world. Once you get outside and meet actual people, it becomes harder to dismiss their ideas. I’m not saying we have to get out there and agree with one another. But understanding where the opposite side of the argument is coming from is important. Listening is the first step: being willing to let the other side say what they’re thinking, without attacking them and pointing out all the reasons they’re wrong. The next step is to look for common ground. Find the areas of the the debate where you’re on the same side, and then build outward from there.

I have friends who are Trump supporters. I have friends who are “Social Justice Warriors.” (Sorry. That’s still one of the lamest labels I’ve heard people come up with, and I cringe when it’s used. A topic for another time.) Neither side has a monopoly on being right or on being good. Charges of hypocrisy could easily stick on both sides. But the longer each side tries to just ignore the other, the worse this problem will get. I include myself in that call for toning things down. Playing to an audience might win us views and clicks in the short term, but at a very real cost to civil discourse.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Your Data Goes Way Beyond Facebook

One of the big stories this morning is that Cambridge Analytica, the firm behind the Facebook data scandal around the 2016 election, is going bankrupt. The company has issued a statement, claiming they did nothing illegal:

“Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, which view is now fully supported by [a third-party audit], the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” states the release. “As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the Company into administration.”

Of course, there’s a difference between something being lawful and ethical, and something being the right thing to do. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs behind Cambridge Analytica’s case, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter.

Why does it not matter? For one thing, the damage (whatever it was) has already been done. Even if what the firm did was illegal, it’s not like it’s going to change anything. There’s no big “Do Over” button for elections, so that ship has sailed.

But more important than that is the fact that all that data that Analytica may or may not have abused is still out there. Still being used and abused, and shuttering one firm might make the public feel better, but it does nothing for actually solving the problem.

This all makes perfect sense as soon as anyone stops to think about it. Every time you use Google, the company’s knowledge of you grows. It knows what you’re interested in. What you’re afraid of. What you search when no one’s around. Amazon knows what you shop for. What you search but don’t buy. Uber knows where you travel and when and how often. FitBit knows where you run and how you sleep. Your Echo is listening to every conversation you have around it, all the time.

Each of these things come with conveniences that make consumers tolerate them. It’s handy to just be able to ask your Echo a question and have it respond. And when you think of the normal things companies might do with the data (sell you more stuff, or at least market more stuff to you), it doesn’t seem so sinister on the surface.

But when data gets together, it starts to enable surprising things. For example, analysts can study the behavior of people on a large scale, and they begin to note predictors that indicate how someone will behave in any particular situation. They might see that people who like geckos are much more inclined to vote Republican than not. Or perhaps owners of Ford Mustangs have a propensity to like McDonald’s. At first, that seems quite innocent. It lets advertisers target their audience much more closely. McDonald’s can buy ads that go out just to Mustang owners. But as you think of the implications, you get a clearer picture of what can happen.

Future behavior of individuals at a large scale can be predicted by current behavior. And you don’t even need any data on the individual in question. You can build a character profile for a variety of types, and then ask a random person a few questions (“Do you own a Mustang?” “Do you like geckos?”) that seem unrelated to anything. But once you have those key indicators in place, you suddenly have a very good idea who that person is and how they would behave.

Even if Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple aren’t selling any of this information to anyone, the data is still there. Still waiting to be sifted through and applied. And sure, Google’s old motto is “don’t be evil,” but when you’re talking about data on this scale, sometimes it’s hard not to let a little evil creep into your business practices.

I’m not trying to say we should all go around with tin foil on our heads. I still use Siri and Alexa. I search using Google. I shop on Amazon. But I’ve been very relieved to see the public outcry over what went on with Cambridge Analytica. It’s great to see people take a stand on how data can and can’t be used. My worry is that this will be a single blip, and people will stop paying attention, brushing their hands off and thinking “Mission Accomplished” now that Analytica is gone.

Just because one company has gone under doesn’t mean the data is no longer there, waiting to be used. Continuing to press for laws that govern what data can and can’t be used for, and how it should and shouldn’t be stored, is important.

As if we needed one more thing to be worried about . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Why Government-Enforced Censorship is a Bad Idea

I realize a lot of you (most of you?) read that title and thought right away: “Duh.” We’ve been generally trained to view censorship as bad. This is America. Freedom of speech!

But the thing about censorship is it’s only called censorship when it’s something you don’t want squelched. When something’s being said you strongly disagree with, then it can be really tempting to not use the word “censorship” when you advocate it not being said. This becomes much easier to discuss when a specific example is used.

Rhode Island has just proposed a law that I tend to think a number of you would support.  Internet Service Providers in the state would be required to block all  pornography and sites that have “patently offensive material” unless subscribers pay a one time $20 fee and acknowledge they know the risks of what they will let through their internet. Porn is bad, and this would end porn, so this must be good, right?

I am against this law, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it wouldn’t actually do much to “stop” porn. The internet is huge and sprawling, and new sites crop up every day. A system could be set up where users report porn when they see it, and then the site where they saw it is added to the ban list, but then it turns into an arms race, with pornographers staying one step ahead of the censors. And yet this in and of itself isn’t a reason not to enact the law. Because while it wouldn’t stop all porn, it would certainly reduce the amount making its way through the interwebs of Rhode Island. After all, I’m in favor of stricter gun control measures, even though I recognize that won’t magically stop all shootings. It will help.

No, the bigger reason I’m against this measure is that it places the government in charge of deciding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and it leaves far too much room open for interpretation.

Laws against child pornography are straight forward, but even they have caused some headaches recently, as the teen sexting craze has brought some teens in conflict with the child pornography laws. I’m still in favor of those laws, because they are fairly straightforward to define.

In this case, however, it does make an attempt to define pornography: it’s anything that has “sexual content,” which the state statute defines as “depictions and descriptions of any act of sexual intercourse, whether “normal or perverted, actual or simulated.”” When you get into the Rhode Island law that prohibits obscene and objectionable publications and shows, it quickly devolves into language that makes my librarian spider senses cringe. There are exceptions to the law if the work has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” What does that mean? Who decides? Is it your Great Aunt Zelma? I’m sure she’ll have a very different idea of what’s acceptable than Johnny the Frat Boy.

The thing is, what’s artistic to one person is porn to another. And once the government gets in the business of deciding what is and what isn’t, then you have all sorts of problems that can make things even worse.

I get it. People don’t like porn. They don’t want kids watching it. They don’t want to stumble across it in their Google searches. They don’t want people hurt by it, whether in the production of it (through exploitation or objectification of women) or consumption of it. I’m not writing a blog post saying I want porn to be even more widely available. But these laws aren’t going to do what you think they’re going to do. They start being used for one thing and end up being used for something entirely different.

Is there a parallel here to gun laws? Perhaps. I can see how someone might be alarmed by a law that prohibits “assault rifles” or “assault-style weapons” or “high capacity magazines”, when the devil is in the definition. And how that definition, once legally set, can be gamed by either side. (Though there are plenty of ways these two sets of issues are very different, and I’m not going to get into that here.)

To me, the best safeguard against pornography is a frank discussion with your family. Talking about what porn is, why it’s harmful, and what to do if you stumble across it by accident. The same sort of conversation you should be having about prescription drugs, bullying, guns, and any number of modern day evils. Relying on the government or an ISP to shield you and your family from porn isn’t going to solve it for you. And it might end up hurting more than it helps.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

%d bloggers like this: