Like Talking to a Brick Wall

 


The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”



The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.


Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Q81486
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.

The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.

Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.

In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.

If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition.
— Vita

 

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You Don’t Have to Do This

 

Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.

 

To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

Ilhan Omar speaking at worker protest against Amazon (45406484475)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
— Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

 

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Coloring Within the Lines

 

To maintain the integrity of a supplied drawing, people usually color as much as they can within the lines. Some people use crayons, while others use markers or pens. When it comes to using electromagnetic spectrum in the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of allocating bands within the spectrum and making sure everyone stays within their specified lines. The NTIA does its work within the Department of Commerce.

 

The Department of Commerce also oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which in turn oversees the National Weather Service (NWS). Independent of all these Department of Commerce agencies is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the parts of the spectrum allocated for its oversight by the FTIA, such as radio, television, and cellular phone frequencies. Beginning late last year, the FCC has been auctioning spectrum to mobile phone companies for them to use in their 5G networks. When the FCC auctioned off spectrum in the 24GHz (gigahertz) band, they raised alarm within the NOAA since that agency uses the 23.8GHz band in its weather satellites to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, a key component in its ability to forecast the weather.

January 2016 Spectrum Wall Chart
This image of an outdated January 2016 Spectrum Wall Chart from the NTIA is only useful as an overview of just how tightly packed bandwidth allocation is in parts of the spectrum, based on the jumble of colors. For a better view, download a PDF (Portable Document Format) of the chart from the NTIA website, though even then it can be a strain on the eyes without higher magnification.

Now anyone who has ever manually tuned a radio receiver with a dial knows the radio stations do not stay exactly within their spectrum lines at all times, and depending on the power of the transmitters the different stations use and atmospheric conditions and the varying state of the ionosphere, some stations can occasionally push into the territory of other stations. That is what worries NOAA administrators about the 24GHz band proposed for 5G use by mobile phone companies and their man in the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai. NOAA administrators believe 24GHz is too close for comfort and may occasionally interfere with its use of 23.8GHz, which it cannot change because it is determined by the physical law of water vapor’s behavior. They believe the interference could cause as much as a 30 percent drop in forecasting efficiency, akin to stepping back in time to 1980.

This inter agency squabble isn’t even necessary, it turns out, because if the FCC and American mobile phone companies followed the European model for ensuring minimal interference with weather satellites, they would simply add greater restrictions to the transmitting power of 5G antennas in the higher bandwidths and rely more extensively on mid-range bandwidths that are not only better for 5G transmission, but also safely removed from the vicinity of crucial weather data transmissions.

A May 2019 news report from Sky News in London, England.

There will be a World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt in October and November, where attendees will set international standards for 5G. Considering the attitudes and policies of the current presidential administration, the American delegation will probably resist the European model and go its own incautious way in order to serve the interests of the major telecommunications companies. It’s possible the American model may turn out fine eventually, but considering the drawbacks of being wrong, wouldn’t it be prudent to heed the concerns of weather forecasters, at least until more field testing proves without a doubt the safety of using the 24GHz band of the spectrum? To satisfy the greed of telecommunications executives and the desire of some smartphone users for faster loading Facebook feeds, is it worth having a hurricane drop in on us unexpectedly? A real hurricane, that is, not one drawn with crayons, however neatly.
— Techly

 

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We Gotcha

 

Anyone who uses the internet regularly has likely encountered a CAPTCHA or reCAPTCHA gatekeeper at a website requiring a login, and the puzzles they present to the user are meant to distinguish human visitors from bots, which is a good idea. Another good idea from the standpoint of Google, or Alphabet or whatever they’re calling themselves these days, is the use of unpaid labor from solvers of the puzzles to train artificial intelligence for tasks such as digitizing books or driving cars.

Waymo self-driving car side view.gk
A Waymo self-driving car on the road in Mountain View, California, headquarters of Google, or Alphabet or whatever they’re calling themselves these days. Waymo is a division within the technology behemoth, and logically it would be filed under “W”. Photo by Grendelkhan.

 

Ten years ago, internet users mostly encountered CAPTCHAs, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. CAPTCHAs were text-based puzzles, and Google put people to work solving them in the interests of both internet security and of training artificial intelligence to recognize letters and numbers in all sorts of peculiar configurations, such as might be found in all the books Google was digitizing. Now reCAPTCHAs are more common, and they are handy for training self-driving cars because they are image-based, and the images are most often of street scenes.

No doubt the engineers and executives at Google count themselves as quite clever for employing digital security puzzles to help amass the enormous amount of data necessary to train artificial intelligence without spending a penny, at least for labor. It’s a good bet most internet users are unaware of their exploitation at the hands of that technology behemoth or of other ones, like Facebook, which uses photographs uploaded by its users to train facial recognition software. Of those who are aware of what’s going on, some may not care. The technology companies, in that case, have little concern for the possibility of a public outcry over their exploitative practices; people are so eager to hand over their personal data for purposes they perceive as benefiting themselves that they don’t notice or don’t care how the companies are using the mountains of freely given information.

Artificial intelligence requires so much data to be effective that not even all the free data sneakily gleaned from internet users is enough, and therefore the technology companies have to pay some laborers, however poorly, to do the monotonous tasks necessary to train artificial intelligence for every imaginable scenario. The weakness of artificial intelligence, being nothing more than an extremely powerful computer, is its incapability of imagining scenarios outside of logic, or of imagining anything at all. Powerful as it is, it is still only a number cruncher.



John Cleese in conversation with Appian CEO Matt Calkins at a technology conference in 2018. In another video, John Cleese demonstrates the leaps of imagination and intuition that set the human brain apart from artificial intelligence.

 

Google’s reCAPTCHA sometimes gets the wrong message from its images, for example by insisting a diagonally striped no parking zone is a pedestrian crosswalk. There is no arguing with it. All the internet user can do in order to move on then is play along with the error or try reloading a different image. One has to wonder if training one’s replacement for free is not enough of an indignity without also suffering the insult of having to humor an insufficiently intelligent automaton that is nonetheless a humorless and dully unimaginative know-it-all.
— Techly

 

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Witnesseth

 

Witnesseth: Old English, meaning bear witness to the following or take notice.
— paraphrased definition from Black’s Law Dictionary.

When teams of scientists and engineers worked together for years to bring out the first ever image of a black hole last week, some of the excitement was drained off by internet trolls belittling the contribution of one computer scientist, a woman named Dr. Katie Bouman. Dr. Bouman was initially credited online by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she had earned her master’s degree and doctorate, with an outsize role in the great work, probably due to nothing more than an excess of exuberance for the achievement of one of their own when they first heard the news. If Dr. Bouman had been male, it is doubtful the trolls would have seized on MIT’s innocent overstatement and launched their campaign of vitriol geared toward minimizing her contribution and smearing her character.


Female scientist from DAST
From the 1983 Draw-a-Scientist Test, one of the relatively few depictions of a female scientist. Photo by Yewhoenter.

The time for minimization of online trolling has long since past. The usual advice to ignore them has not worked. The situation with trolls is like what happens in an eighth grade classroom when a cadre of unruly boys – they are almost always boys – sits at the back of the class disrupting the learning the majority of students and the teacher would like to conduct peacefully and constructively. Has ignoring those jackasses ever worked? No, it has not. The only remedy that works is invocation of real consequences for their actions. The online world is no different. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube claim they are not interfering with free speech rights when they give free rein to trolls, but they are ignoring the unique qualities of the internet megaphone.

Almost all trolling is anonymous, and making personal attacks while hiding behind anonymity calls up a gray area in slander and libel law. The Tweeter-in-Chief obviously makes all his egregious political and personal attacks without anonymity, and in some tweets he barely conceals incitement to violence against people he dislikes for political or personal reasons. Still, Twitter has not shut down his account. It used to be that one vile person could pollute only a small portion of the world with odious views; now that vile person can disseminate ugliness over the entire world in an instant, and millions more can take up the banner of sexist, racist, or white supremacist internet comments within a day or two. The opposite is also possible, of course, and good things can come about. To make internet freedom rights work, there have to be referees protecting the interests of the majority who would prefer good outcomes without the distraction of constant juvenile disruption, just as in a classroom where a teacher backed up by the school administration and by parents can rule counterproductive behavior out of bounds, restoring the peace and order necessary for instructive dialogue.
— Techly

 

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Leave It to Google

 

People go out of their way to use the Linux operating system on their desktop and laptop computers for all sorts of reasons, and it’s a fair guess that among them is the desire to stay clear of the tentacles of major technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Microsoft has never made any pretense of being anything but evil, while Apple has pretended to be above the fray, and perhaps the least trustworthy of the three is Google, which tipped everyone off to their evil intentions by sanctimoniously proclaiming at one time “Don’t be evil”. Any individual or organization professing to abide by moral certainties that should not even be in question is not to be trusted.

 

It’s ironic then that because of some holes in Linux development such as lack of drivers for some peripherals, usually printers, Linux users may find themselves forced to rely on Google services as workarounds. In the case of printers, incompatibility with Linux has become less of a problem over the past 20 years as Linux has climbed in market share to around five percent. Microsoft’s Windows is around 75 percent, with Apple’s Mac operating system at about 15 percent, although it seems no one can agree on the exact numbers. Google’s Chrome operating system makes up most of the remaining percentage in use for desktops and laptops, and because it has access to all Google services built in, including Google Cloud Print, printing from Chrome OS is never a problem even if proprietary drivers are not available from the printer manufacturer.

 

MagpieOS infofetch
Magpie OS is an Arch-based Linux distribution, developed by Rukunuzzaman, a Bangladeshi developer. Screenshot by Kabirnayeem.99. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different Linux distributions, enough to suit anyone’s preference.

Some printer makers still do not provide drivers for Linux, and in cases where generic drivers won’t work the Linux user is confronted with either turning their incompatible printer into a doorstop or falling back on workarounds like using Google Cloud Print. It’s an efficient service that comes in handy. It’s also free. Free often comes at a price, however, and in the case of Google, like many other technology companies, that means turning the user of the free service into a product sold to marketers. Google is perhaps no worse in this respect than companies like Facebook, only more pervasive by its utter ubiquity. It’s nearly impossible to escape Google entirely and still get along in today’s technological world. Google’s Chrome OS may bring up the rear among major desktop and laptop operating systems, but its Android OS for smartphones leads the next highest competitor, Apple’s iOS, by a huge margin at around 85 percent to 15 percent.

Printer manufacturers appear interested mostly in configuring their drivers for the two biggest desktop and laptop operating systems, Windows and Mac, and Linux is generally an afterthought. Chrome can fend for itself, and to some extent Linux can as well, but not without having to resort to using Google services occasionally. Linux developers are volunteers, and they can’t keep up with the myriad of proprietary configurations for all the printer models hitting the market each year. Much of the proprietary nature of printer drivers has nothing to do with actually making the product perform its basic functions, but rather with marketing gimmicks like greeting card suites.

Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III, a 1990 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Not that large technology companies are necessarily comparable to the Mafia, but to some people their grasp may feel similarly inescapable.

Now more than ever people need a reliable printer at home. About the only way left of obtaining tax forms is to download them from the internet and print them at home. Using the internet and printing out web pages has become a major factor in children’s schoolwork, and their parents need to print out receipts and coupons or run a home office. Getting along without a printer, or having to jump through hoops in order to get one to work properly, can no longer be part of how most people cope with the modern world. For most people, the 90 percent who use either Windows or Mac computers, compatibility problems are rare to nonexistent; for the 10 percent minority, and particularly those who wish to go against the flow with Linux, incompatibility between operating system and printer should no longer be an issue if manufacturers want to sell their wares to all consumers and ensure the same ease of use long enjoyed by the majority. It’s about time for proprietary drivers to go into the desktop trash can.
— Techly

 

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This Just In

 

Website headline writers like to insert the word “just” in their copy for the sense of immediacy it conveys. They have room to insert the word because website headlines are usually sentence length descriptions rather than the terse summations newspaper copy editors used. Longer descriptions can be good teasers and also boost the rank of a website post in search engine results because that’s the way Google has decided sites and posts should be ranked, and Google sets the bar for search engines and for the internet generally. Ask them why.

 

Search engines don’t like the short headlines common in newspapers. The reason many headlines on the internet read the way they do is because writers are responding as much to what search engines like as they are to what they believe their readers like. It’s not easy keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only way websites can do it is to couch everything in terms of immediacy, as if it were all breaking news worthy of readers’ attention. To generate clicks on their posts and get them ranked highly in search engine results, website writers must tease about the content using descriptive headlines, and then make sure to give whatever they’re describing a sense of happening moments ago by tossing in “just” at least once.

War Ends
Residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square on August 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of three main sites of the Manhattan Project, and was responsible (though those working there did not know it) for refining uranium to be shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be fashioned into atomic bombs. Photo by Ed Westcott, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The newspaper headline “War Ends” might not fly with today’s internet and social media news headline writers, who would be tempted to write “War Just Ends”, even though it would be open to multiple interpretations.

The tendency is to hype everything, even inconsequential matters. Add news sharing on social media, and the hype gets amplified to 11, as a member of the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap observed. Trust and references build credibility on social media, even if common sense and a little digging into sources reveals there are no grounds for credibility. Google hones search results based on what they know about users, and Facebook and Twitter follow Google’s lead while juicing results further by adding the finer details they know about their users. Facebook and Twitter set the bar in social media for how posts get pushed to the front for sharing on their platforms, and as long as readers keep clicking the wheels keep rolling, no matter how worthless are the posts everyone shares.

This clip from Sesame Street could serve as a metaphor for what the internet and social media have become.

A word such as “just” is a fine, serviceable word in most cases. Unfortunately, once some influential writers, platform arbiters, and readers on the world wide web and in social media adopt it as a manipulative expression it gets overused, abused, and misused on its way to becoming trite and tiresome. Just sayin’.
— Ed.

 

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Obsessed with Bugaboos

 

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” — John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

There has always been a strong strain of paranoia in American political life, and it erupts occasionally in official policy, from the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law in 1798 by John Quincy Adams’s father, President John Adams, to the Patriot Act of 2001, signed by George H.W. Bush’s son, President George W. Bush. In the early days of the republic, when the Adams family was prominent in national politics, there was of course no social media or Fox News to whip up hysteria about The Other, though there were plenty of locally circulated broadsheets that made little effort at objectivity.

 

Now the media landscape is far different than it was in 1798, and people who feel threatened by cultural changes which erode the power and influence of white conservatives have platforms like Fox News, Twitter, and Facebook that reach far and wide. As the self-styled Silent Majority slips to Ranting Minority status, their paranoid hysteria ratchets up in intensity to the point that Fox News is not a strong enough salve for their imagined wounds, and they turn to fear mongering websites like InfoWars. The information available in the bubble in which angry, old white conservatives live can’t exactly be called news, but more a drug that reinforces feelings, thoughts, and ideas they already dwell on resentfully, nursing their grievances like mean drunks wallowing in self-pity.

Brooklyn Museum - Here Comes the Bogey-Man (Que viene el Coco) - Francisco de Goya y Lucientes crop
Here Comes the Bogey-Man, an aquatint print from the 1799 set of 80 known as Los Caprichos, by Francisco Goya (1746-1828).


Pooh Bear has a bad dream.

They tend to lash out angrily, these constant consumers of spoon-fed rage, and because they tend to be more conscientious about voting than other groups in American society, their views make it into government policy more than the views of less paranoid people, at least when they coincide with the interests of corporate and political leaders. And then support for those policies among the general populace becomes tied to patriotism in the minds of these people, because they have bestowed on themselves the mantle of True Americanism. True Americans want to build a wall along the Mexican border. True Americans don’t want gays marrying each other. True Americans believe climate change is a liberal hoax, and therefore no steps need be taken to restrain the fossil fuel industry. That particular list goes on and on. There is another list about what True Americans believe and want, and it starts with changing the definition of who they are to include everyone who lives here, not just one group raging and warring against all The Others.
— Vita

 

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To Tell the Truth

 

Investigative journalist Robert Parry, founder and editor of the website Consortium News, died on January 27 after a series of strokes precipitated by pancreatic cancer. He was 68.

Adding “investigative” to Mr. Parry’s job description of journalist gives an insight into the principles he applied to his work. Aren’t all journalists investigators in some way or other? No. Some are content rewriting press releases. Robert Parry was not one of those, and for that he paid a price in getting pushed out of working for mainstream media outlets. He would never be one of those television talking heads claiming journalist credentials while making millions of dollars for asking trivial questions of celebrities about their plastic surgeries. He came by his credentials through hard work looking into things that matter.


Reagan meets with aides on Iran-Contra
President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office on November 25, 1986, with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, Attorney General Ed Meese, and Chief of Staff Don Regan, discussing remarks he intended to make at a press briefing on the Iran-Contra affair.

Robert Parry was best known for breaking the story in the second term of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s that eventually became known as the Iran-Contra affair. The Contras were Nicaraguan rebels or terrorists, depending on point of view, who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Earlier in the decade, the United States Congress had passed legislation making it more difficult for the Reagan administration to meddle in Nicaraguan politics by supporting the Contras. The administration circumvented the law by selling arms to Iran, a purported enemy, and funneling the profits to the Contras.

Mr. Parry also wrote about how the CIA appeared to be enabling drug trafficking by the Contras in order to give them more material support, though it was another investigative journalist, Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News who explored the story in greater detail in 1996. In the early 1990s, Mr. Parry wrote about another aspect of the Reagan years that remained in shadows, which was the possibility of a deal between Reagan’s campaign team and the Iranian government to delay releasing the 52 American hostages Iran had held from November 4, 1979, until after the U.S. presidential election in 1980. Iran released the hostages on January 20, 1981, when Reagan was sworn in as president. Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election in large part due to the poor economy, and at least in small part due to the continuation of the hostage crisis.

 

Because of Mr. Parry’s habit of pursuing stories like that, he wore out his welcome with the corporate media outlets he had been working for, such as Newsweek and the Associated Press, and in 1995 he started Consortium News, possibly the first independent online news site written and edited by a reputable, professionally trained journalist. Since then online news sites have proliferated, which has been both good and bad for readers. It has been good for the obvious reason that more choice means a discerning reader is likely to find a trustworthy site delivering quality journalism, and bad because more choice means the non-discerning reader is likely to find a site masquerading as news that serves up opinions which reinforce existing prejudices. Add to that the algorithm of a social media platform like Facebook which ensures readers see more of what they want to see, and it’s an uphill battle for the truth.

Kerry report cover
Cover of the Kerry Committee December 1988 final report of an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations into the possible role of the Nicaraguan Contras in drug trafficking.

Robert Parry surely understood the maxim that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. He also understood that some facts, known collectively as the truth, were unpleasant for all kinds of reasons, chief among them that they afflicted the comfortable, another maxim. And to underscore how old school was his journalistic integrity, never mind his early appearance on the digital frontier, Mr. Parry knew his first job was to tell the truth, and if that meant he wasn’t invited on the Washington, D.C. cocktail club circuit, then so be it. People like him don’t end up making millions of dollars, and don’t realistically expect to, but to the readers who valued his services he was one in a million.
— Ed.

 

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Once Bitten, Twice Shy

 

In a surprising development, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ), recently introduced a bill, called the Honest Ads Act, that would impose the same types of regulations on internet political advertising that have long held sway over political ads in print, radio, and television. What’s surprising about it is why it took this long to regulate online political advertising, and that until now there hasn’t been regulation of the same sort as in other media. A reader of online news could be forgiven for having assumed that internet political ads were subject to regulations similar to what has existed in other media for decades, such as disclosure within the ad of who paid for it. Not so.

What took Congress this long? Congress has been behind the curve for years on technological developments, and so in this case the more relevant question is why are they acting now. The answer is presumed Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, and specifically the placement of advertisements as well as so-called news stories on social media sites that the Russians allegedly intended to influence the election results. All that has yet to be sorted out in ongoing investigations, but in the meantime it will be a positive development to have online political advertisers more openly accountable.


March for Truth (35076251785)
A demonstrator in a Trump mask at one of the March for Truth rallies that took place around the country on June 3, 2017. Photo by kellybdc.

Much has been made over the past year especially, because of the election, of the effect of “fake news” on the electorate, the majority of which now appears to get its news through social media feeds on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those sites have made noises about doing a better job monitoring the reliability of news sources, but ultimately they cannot effect a major reduction in fake news without entangling themselves in issues of censorship, and consequently losing user trust even beyond the drop in trust they experience when another fake news story makes the rounds.

Forty and more years ago, when there were three national television news outlets and one or more print, radio, and television news outlets in every middling city or larger throughout the country, all of them reliant on a few news service gatekeepers such as the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters, the daily news reached a consensus that most people plugged into. There were drawbacks to such centralization, of course, but in general there existed a set of generally agreed upon facts from which disputants could diverge.

Now the news has atomized to the point that someone with a large Facebook following can spread a story with no basis in fact, and those followers will spread the story some more. There are no editors sitting on the story until it is verified. The engineers at Facebook and Twitter are not interested in the job, nor do they seem to think it should be their job. Their job is to watch what their customers watch so that they can boost their company’s revenue by effectively targeting advertising based on those results.

It is as if a newspaper’s staff printed almost everything that came across their desks, with little or no editorial judgment on the contents, and focused most of their energies on the advertisements. A newspaper could not do that because of physical limitations on paper, ink, and space, but an online news feed has no such limitations. A reader can scroll on forever, if so inclined. It’s a buffet that the social media sites are serving up, and it’s in their interest to try to specifically please each person they serve, a task made possible by the interactive nature of the web, where each user click is tabulated as a vote in favor.

From the 1976 film The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau shows the foolishness of making assumptions based on limited information.

There’s only a limited amount then that the news feed providers can and should do to monitor the reliability of the content they provide. Every little bit helps, which is why it’s good news that Congress is belatedly getting around to at least subjecting political advertisements to regulations that would alert interested readers to the provenance of online political advertisements, therefore allowing the readers to judge for themselves the veracity of the ads.

Ultimately people who read news online from a multitude of sources have to exercise critical thinking more than ever before in evaluating the reliability of what they are reading. The days of passively accepting the news in predigested form from trusted sources are over, and that’s all for the good really, but it also means being on guard and skeptical more than ever, much as people want to indulge their lazy tendencies toward confirmation bias, or believing what they want to be true.
― Techly

 

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