Rand Paul, keeping the customer happy

Rand Paul, speaking to Wolf Blitzer (emphasis mine):

Well, the thing is, we’re all interconnected. There are no rich. There are no middle class. There are no poor. We all are interconnected in the economy. You remember a few years ago, when they tried to tax the yachts, that didn’t work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making 50,000 and 60,000 dollars a year lost their jobs. We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people. So just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone. Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending.

What I’d like to know is, for which rich people does Rand Paul work, and to which ones is he selling? Personally, I like my Congressional representatives not to sell, but to legislate.

P.S. My husband offers the following:

  • Does Rand Paul seriously believe the entire economy should be in service of the rich?
  • Taxation is not punishment. It’s how we get things (like the military, police departments, and roads) done.

NYT asks Stewart, “Don’t shoot the messenger!”

The New York Times decided to take the bull by the horns, and tackle Jon Stewart’s accusations of poor reporting by the media. Unfortunately, David Carr’s Rally to Shift the Blame comes off as a poorly argued, disingenuous attempt to separate the media from the message.

Carr writes, “[Stewart’s] barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.” What Carr should know—and if he doesn’t, why is he writing for the New York Times?—is that the medium is the message. (Surely Carr has heard of Marshall McLuhan?) What the media sends out is the message we get, whether through the television, the internet, the radio, or paper.

Here’s Carr’s first attempt to make the distinction of message vs. messenger:

It was a beautiful day on the Mall, and who doesn’t like kicking the press around, but speaking of ants, media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court —seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands.

The problem is that Stewart never said the press was responsible for unemployment, war, or hatred. What Stewart said is that the press makes it very difficult to effect change in any of these areas, because it’s driven by ratings. From the speech Carr complains about:

We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.

Stewart is absolutely right. I don’t see Tea Party rallies in person, I see what the news channels share of them; I don’t see the administration’s press conferences in full, I see what the reporters and cameras share of them. When politicians make claims, I don’t see investigation into whether the claims are credible; I see “he said, she said” coverage of claims that, if true, must come from alternate universes, since they’re radically incompatible with a shared reality.

The heart of the Stewart/Colbert message

What many media commentators, Carr among them, seem to have forgotten is that the very structure and content of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is to provide satire and critique of the media. Sure, it’s comedy, but it’s the comedy of the court jester, mixing hard truth with silliness. Truth is relatively easy to say in comedy, and relatively hard to say in the 24/7 news cycle.  That’s probably why news coverage quality has devolved into its current state. (What does the media at large think inspired Colbert to coin “truthiness” as a word, and why do they think so many people immediately appropriated it?)

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are highly aware that the medium is the message, and equally aware of what drives media coverage. This rally was an attempt to expand coverage of their message by creating an event the news media could not ignore. That media might not understand their message or represent it as clearly as Stewart and Colbert would like. Still, those of us tired of seeing the media allow itself to be used by people, parties, and corporations they should be holding in check, were pleased to see that same media forced to cover an event calling them on it.

It’s all cable TV

Carr also argued against Stewart’s observation that, “We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.” Somewhat disingenuously, Carr responded:

But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.

I call this disingenuous because since everything went digital—since broadcast news ceased to be aired and had to be obtained via cable companies—it’s all cable TV. If it’s not, it’s online, (frequently obtained through cable companies as well), and is driven by either TV channels, stations, or online “newspapers.” And more people than ever are watching the news one way or another, according to the Pew Research Center.

There are many more ways to get the news these days, and as a consequence Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade. Digital platforms are playing a larger role in news consumption, and they seem to be more than making up for modest declines in the audience for traditional platforms. As a result, the average time Americans spend with the news on a given day is as high as it was in the mid-1990s, when audiences for traditional news sources were much larger.

…The net impact of digital platforms supplementing traditional sources is that Americans are spending more time with the news than was the case a decade ago. As was the case in 2000, people now say they spend 57 minutes on average getting the news from TV, radio or newspapers on a given day. But today, they also spend an additional 13 minutes getting news online, increasing the total time spent with the news to 70 minutes. This is one of the highest totals on this measure since the mid-1990s and it does not take into account time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices.*

I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

The media should take responsibility

That same Pew report noted that, “About eight-in-ten (82%) say they see at least some bias in news coverage; by a 43%-to-23% margin, more say it is a liberal than a conservative bias.” Jon Stewart isn’t the only one to see skewed coverage, he just had a larger platform to speak out about it. It’s not bias that’s the problem, though, it’s the choice of what’s covered, the style of presentation, the lack of critical evaluation of the data being presented.

Sure, we like seeing conflict and meltdowns. It’s sad but true that it’s more exciting to see someone rudely yell “You lie!” at the President, than to learn whether it was or was not a lie. Whatever side you’re on, you’re more easily engaged by the strong emotions of outrage or support. But shouldn’t at least as much coverage as the video clip be provided about the truth behind the furor? It shouldn’t be necessary to dig deeply online while watching the news to discover the truth behind the news. If it’s not informing us, it’s less news and more entertainment.

My personal plea to the news media: We are fully capable of being engaged and enlightened at the same time. Please, don’t turn a necessary critique into another conflict. Help us be the educated populace we need to be to defend ourselves against those with more power and bigger pockets.

* The increased attention to news is good for the New York Times web site. From the Pew Research Center: “This year, 17% of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006.”


12 September 2010. Americans Spending More Time Following the News, Pew Research Center.

Carr, David, 31 October 2010. Rally to Shift the Blame, The New York Times.


Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the NYT

My husband and I watched the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on TV, curious and hopeful. Along the way, I checked in on different media coverage, including the New York Times’ live blogging of the event. The blogging was sarcastic and impatient, but I was less upset with snide remarks than with what wasn’t said.

The New York Times, along with NPR, ABC, and others, refused to allow reporters to attend the non-partisan rally for sanity, on the grounds they might appear partisan. Such is the sanity of the media. But when the media elides criticism of itself without showing the elision (via “…” or some-such), that’s pretty low. My respect for the paper of record has plummeted in just one day.

Here’s the bit I’m talking about:

2:50 P.M. | Now, a Moment of Sincerity

“What exactly was this?” Mr. Stewart asks. “This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith. Or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.”

“Not being able to be able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate.”

A sharp eye might catch the end quote marks on the first paragraph, but that’s the only clue that a significant rant against the media has just been left out. I commented with the missing words (below), and they posted the comment, which is good.

Under “now, a moment of sincerity” (which by the way, implies the rest was not sincere, an implication I don’t believe), you completely skip the rant against the press and media, without showing the elision. You leave in the bit that shows the importance of the press (“the press is our immune system”) – but below are the words that every news media outlet should take to heart, (with the end and beginning of the two paragraphs you provide above, for context).

“…And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. [Applause.] The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen – or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire [Laughter] – and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. [Applause] There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to be able to distinguish…”


Science funding shouldn’t depend on ignorance

Physics World editor Hamish Johnston blogged about the difficulty of public perception, research funding, and scientists commenting on God and religion in the public square. Most recently, Stephen Hawking spoke out about M-theory making God unnecessary. From Johnston’s blog:

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

I could see why Johnston was concerned. A BBC video, linked in the Physics World post, had this in the descriptive text:

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that he sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe and that philosophy is dead.

Things like this just make me shake my head. Hawking is so, so brilliant, but perhaps not very wise.

Johnston’s concern was driven by the possible adverse effect such pronouncements could have on science:

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

I know he’s right. Personally, I find this situation both sad and frustrating. That science’s direction and funding can be at the whim of the public; that scientists and philosophers don’t speak of and to each other with respect; that willfully ignorant people end up pitting people of good will against each other (read the comments in any blog touching both science and religion)—this kind of particularly human screwball black comedy just seems, well, wrong. I know, I know—I’m not the only one.

I commented, of course. Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth (the comment was still in moderation as of this writing):

Personally, I wish science fell into the same category as infrastructure and education when it came to funding: a must-have, something without which a society cannot thrive.

I have no problem with Hawking or anyone else pronouncing on God or religion. They are scientists, so I take their opinions in this area to be that of lay people in the field, much as my opinion in it is. I’m not offended, but I do wish they would formulate such comments with more of a “it’s my opinion that [insert sweeping religious view here]” attitude.

The same goes for evangelicals and fundamentalists of any religion who proclaim their ignorance of science loudly and proudly. Please, take a moment to reflect. Surely a creative God would want his thinking creations to view his work accurately and clearly, and support an unflinching, honest appreciation and understanding of the universe? What artist doesn’t want their craft appreciated? Therefore, fund science! Promote it! Support it in the name of understanding the world God gave you clearly and without fear.


It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief

The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof put the fear of Islam into a historical context in his latest column, Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? He pointed out the many times U.S. citizens have rallied against various religious or national groups, using much of the same language used today when speaking about followers of Islam.

Sadly, many of the comments seem oblivious to his point, and actually repeat the very mistake he’s pointing out. So I had to comment myself:

Religions go in cycles. There was a time not too many centuries ago when Islam was a more tolerant religion than Christianity – when Jews sought refuge in places like Turkey to escape the Inquisition.

I keep reading comments that argue Islam is different from Christianity and Judaism because it is “political” and seeks to harm us. Clearly these people have forgotten that Christianity and Judaism have extremely active political elements in the U.S., and that there are many countries who presently have some flavor of Christianity as a state religion. Clearly they’ve forgotten the Christian element in Ireland’s decades of terrorism, or abortion clinic attacks, or the mostly Protestant KKK (mind, most Protestants do not support the KKK – but most KKK members believe a Christian God is on their side).

While the United States may pride itself on constitutional separation of church and state, the reality is very different, as we can see from the constant efforts by a vocal minority of U.S. Christians to inject their version of Christian concepts and language into law, government buildings, and schools.

I’m also a little disheartened by those claiming that religion as a whole is dangerous. People can be broken and dangerous with or without religion (e.g., Stalin was an atheist, KKK members are primarily Christian), and outstandingly good with or without religion (Desmond Tutu and Clarence Darrow). Danger occurs when people use any institution, be it church or state, to rationalize and cloak sloppy thinking and fear-driven bigotry.

It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief.

Kristof, N. Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? The New York Times, 7 Sep. 2010.


I’m so embarrassed Joe Barton is from Texas

The New York Times covered Congressman Joe Barton’s apology to BP for our asking them to pay for their damages, and then his retraction. I commented, and so far 114 readers have recommended – a new record (previously it was 14). To put that in perspective, though, the most-recommended comment is sitting on 332 recommendations.

I know, it’s not all about me, but I like the illusion of validation.

As a native Texan, I am sadly more and more embarrassed by certain factions in the state I love. Let’s hope that this makes all politicians think twice before favoring a rapacious foreign company over the people of the U.S., and the environment of which we are all stewards.


Zombie ideas

In 1974 Robert Kirk wrote about the “zombie idea,” describing the concept that the universe, the circle of life, humanity, and our moment-to-moment existence could all have developed, identically with “particle-for-particle counterparts,” and yet lack feeling and consciousness. The idea is that evolutionally speaking, it is not essential that creatures evolved consciousness or raw feels in order to evolve rules promoting survival and adaptation. Such a world would be a zombie world, acting and reasoning but just not getting it (whatever it is).

I am not writing about Kirk’s idea. (At least, not yet.)

Rather, I’m describing the term in the way it was used in 1998, by four University of Texas Health Science Center doctors, in a paper titled, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will not Die” (pdf). Here the relevant aspect of the term “zombie” is refusal to die, despite being killed in a reasonable manner. Zombie ideas are discredited concepts that nonetheless continue to be propagated in the culture.

While they (and just today, Paul Krugman) use the term, they don’t explicate in great detail. I thought it might be fun to explore the extent to which a persistent false concept is similar to a zombie.

  • A zombie idea is dead. For the vast majority of the world, the “world is flat” is a dead idea. For a few, though, the “world is flat” virus has caught hold, and this idea persists even in technologically advanced cultures.
  • A zombie idea is contagious. Some economists are fond of the concept of “binary herd behavior.” The idea is that when most people don’t know about a subject, they tend to accept the view of the person who tells them about it; and they tend to do that in an all-or-nothing manner. Then they pass that ignorant acceptance on to the next person, who accepts it just as strongly. (More about the tyranny of the dichotomy later.)So, when we’re children and our parents belong to Political Party X, we may be for Political Party X all the way, even though we may barely know what a political party actually is.
  • A zombie idea is hard to kill. Some zombie viruses are very persistent. For example, most people still believe that height and weight is a good calculator to determine your appropriate calorie intake. Studies, however, repeatedly show that height and weight being equal, other factors can change the body’s response. Poor gut flora, certain bacteria, and even having been slightly overweight in the past can mean that of two people of the same height and weight, one will eat the daily recommended calories and keep their weight steady, and one will need to consume 15% less in order to maintain the status quo. Yet doctors and nutritionists continue to counsel people to use the national guidelines to determine how much to eat.
  • A zombie idea eats your brain. Zombie ideas, being contagious and false, are probably spreading through binary thinking. A part of the brain takes in the data, marks it as correct, and because it works in that all-or-nothing manner, contradictory or different data has a harder time getting the brain’s attention. It eats up a part of brain’s memory, and by requiring more processing power to correct it, eats up your mental processing time as well. It also steals all the useful information you missed because your brain just routed the data right past your awareness, thinking it knew the answer.
  • Zombies are sometimes controlled by a sorcerer, or voodoo bokor. Being prey to zombie ideas leaves you vulnerable. If you have the wrong information, you are more easily manipulated by the more knowledgeable. Knowledge, says Mr. Bacon, is power.
  • Zombies have no higher purpose than to make other zombies. Closely related to the previous point. Even if you are not being manipulated, your decision-making suffers greatly when you are wrongly informed. You are also passing on your wrong information to everyone you talk to about it. Not being able to fulfill your own purposes, you are simply spreading poor data.

So we see that the tendency to irony is not just useful in and of itself, but useful in helping prevent zombie brain infections. As lunchtime is nearly over, and I can’t think of more similarities, I’m stopping here to get something to eat.

[Exit Alex stage right, slouching, mumbling, “Must…eat…brains.”]

Cross-posted in UXtraordinary.


Rationalizing inequity and harassment

Comment to Salon’s Military rape a result of “feminist pressures”?:

Yes, it’s fascinating how people rationalize their prejudice. My father served in WWII, Korea, and VietNam; he saw the pre- and post-Executive Order 9981 U.S. Army learn to deal with integrating African Americans into the armed forces. (EO 9981 was Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. military, eliminating all black units and boot camps and requiring equality of opportunity, etc., without regard to “race, color, religion or national origin.”) LtC. O’Neal brought me up to believe what he said he saw time and time again—that bigotry was not only wrong but stupid, that much more was gained through mutual respect and giving everyone the opportunity to contribute.

Nonetheless, people argued back then that it was wrong to expect whites to put up with blacks, and wrong to ask blacks to try to do what supposedly only whites were capable of doing.

Parker’s column is the same kind of self-blind rationalization as that. Women and men both share and differ in our strengths; there are different kinds of adaptation going on than that between white and black. But to say we should deny half the population the chance to contribute, and deny ourselves the benefit of that contribution, is not only wrong, but stupid.

African Americans & Women in the U.S. Army:

Article about female reservists in Desert Storm:

P.S. Funny quote from the third URL. Maj. Gena Bonini talking about supply raids:

“We were able to get every soldier in the battalion brand new hunting-type knives. I personally didn’t understand the popularity of the item, but all the guys thought they were the end-all and be-all of being a tough guy. They just had to have these big — we’re talking 12-inch-long — knives that strapped to their legs.”

Methinks Freud might have had a comment or two on that ;–)