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.
β€” 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.”

 

The Tariff of Abominations

 

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
β€” excerpt from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States.

Southerners called the 1828 tariff which had the effect of raising prices on imported manufactured goods while decreasing income from exported agricultural products the “Tariff of Abominations” because it hit hardest in the South. When President John Quincy Adams signed the bill into law, he assured his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election. The 1828 tariff prompted South Carolina to propose the principle of nullification of federal law by the states, and the friction it set up between North and South was instrumental in leading to the Civil War more than 30 years later.


John Tenniel - Illustration from The Nursery Alice (1890) - c06543 05
This color version of a John Tenniel illustration is from The Nursery “Alice” (1890), with text adapted for nursery readers by Lewis Carroll from his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. From the collection of the British Library. Carroll created in the Queen of Hearts, pictured at left, a model of imperious, irrational behavior.

The current president’s tariffs have exacerbated economic tensions within the country as well, this time not between North and South, but between rural, agricultural areas and urban, technological and industrial areas. They are his tariffs because over the past century Congress has ceded more and more authority to impose them to the executive branch as a matter of pursuing foreign policy, an authority which the current president, with his autocratic nature, is happy to exercise. He likes nothing better than to pronounce decrees, particularly ones that appear to punish Others, particularly foreign Others, and most especially darker skinned foreign Others.

He and his followers may not fully understand the possible ramifications and unwelcome reverberations of tariffs throughout the United States and world economy. It doesn’t matter to him or to them. What matters is the feeling of appearing to punish the Other for sins real and imagined against Our Kind, and of feeding off negative energy generated by acting on impulse rather than putting in the grinding, hard work necessary to build positively toward equitable trade agreements. It’s a lot of stick, and very little carrot.


Tariffs have always been used to further domestic political aims and foreign policy objectives as much as they have been used to generate revenue, which makes them somewhat more loaded than other taxes. The latest tariffs are no different, and their implementation echoes the 1828 tariff, an irony no doubt lost on the current president despite his exaltation of Andrew Jackson over all other American presidents. Jackson and his supporters opposed the 1828 tariff. Jackson nonetheless drew the line at allowing South Carolina to flout federal authority by proposing nullification. Jackson contemplated sending federal troops into South Carolina to uphold the law. Free trade advocates and protectionists reached a compromise with an 1833 tariff soon after the South Carolina legislature enacted nullification, averting a crisis and imposing an uneasy peace for the next 28 years.


From the 1951 film Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring in this scene Peter Ustinov as Nero and Leo Genn as Petronius. Nero probably thought of himself as a stable genius, and had Twitter existed in his time, he no doubt would have used it as a political tool to share his addled observations with the world.

 

The political calculations behind the current president’s tariffs go beyond punishment of the Other which enthuse his base of followers to improving his prospects for the 2020 election in key Rust Belt states he narrowly won in 2016. Tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other industrial products appeal to manufacturing centers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the states that tipped the Electoral College vote balance for him in 2016. Since the United States is a big exporter of agricultural products, it is no surprise that retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries in the trade war have hit farmers hardest. Many of those farmers live in Great Plains states with relatively few electoral votes, and at any rate the current president has a cushion of support there to absorb losses of the disaffected. To make sure disaffection doesn’t become widespread, the current president has bought off farmers with subsidies so that he can continue to pursue his trade wars as personal vendettas, rather than as maturely considered policies leading to equitable prosperity for all. To borrow a phrase from the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”
β€” Vita

 

Witnesseth

 

Witnesseth: Old English, meaning bear witness to the following or take notice.
β€” 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.
β€” Techly

 

Hey, Stupid!

 

Donald Trump (40238321295)
Photoshopped picture by Taymaz Valley.

Hey, Stupid! takes your questions about weather, or climate or whatever.

Questioner asks: Last week was bitterly cold throughout much of the U.S., and of course you chimed in about that on Twitter. This week, high temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast are forecast to rebound above freezing, and in Washington, D.C., where you can sometimes be found when you’re not on a golf course, are forecast to be in the 50s, 60s, even 70s. That’s pretty warm for mid-winter, even in D.C.. Will you be making any follow-up comments about that on Twitter?

Hey, Stupid! responds: Pffft! Sounds like good weather – or climate, or, you know, whatever – for hitting the links. Nice to get in 18 holes without having to go all the way to Mar-a-Lago this time of year.


Q: Just what is the difference between weather and climate?

HS: It’s the difference between owning the libs by throwing red meat to my base and another slow news day. Next question!

Q: As an erstwhile casino owner, couldn’t you view weather as individual wins and losses, and climate as long term profits assured by the house edge?

HS: You think you’re real smart, don’t you? Security! Interns!


March for Science NYC (22362)
A demonstrator at the April 2017 March for Science in New York City. Photo by Rhododendrites.

Q: Haven’t you taken practical, business measures to ward off the effects of climate change privately, while denying there are any such effects publicly?

HS: I like walls, that’s all! Border walls, sea walls, all sorts of walls. You keep asking smart aleck questions and you’ll be looking at prison walls.


Doonbeg 14th hole
The green at the 14th hole of Doonbeg Golf Club, now known as Trump International Golf Links and Hotel, Ireland. Photo by Terrance Siemon.

Q: Does your public denial of climate change have anything to do with protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry?

HS: What a dumb question! You’re always asking dumb questions! Of course it does.

Q: When you say “throwing red meat” to your base, what exactly do you mean?

HS: I mean I know what they like, and what they like is anything that gets a rise out of pointy-headed, know-it-all liberals and scientists. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Facts are irrelevant. What matters is reassuring them in their ignorance.


Q: My, that’s a remarkably cogent and well-spoken analysis coming from you. Did someone write it for you?

HS: Nah. But mostly I prefer saying how I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. People like the optics of that.

Q: So it doesn’t make any impact on your base of support to point out how climate change will affect everyone, even them, and especially theirΒ kids and grandkids?

HS: First of all, nothing ever affects everyone equally. The rich will always manage to skirt the consequences of their actions. It’s the poors who will suffer the worst effects – and I’m not saying there will be any, because you know it’s a Chinese hoax – anyway, the poors will suffer if there are any problems, and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, get what you can today, Make America Great Again, and let the Chinese worry about tomorrow if global warming is such a big deal to them.


Q: It’s hard to believe you’re openly admitting to contempt for the poor, instead of merely implying it as you always have. Aren’t a fair amount of your supporters working class or poor?

HS: Yeah, but they all imagine they could be like me one day. The people I’m talking about, and they know who they are and my supporters know who they are, are the Other ones, the ones who are looking for government handouts and are rapists and druggies.


Trump Welcome Parties in Greensboro (37312332750)
Supporters of the current president turn out to welcome him on a fundraising trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, in October 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider. The same flubs and ignorant or hateful remarks that dismay Democrats and even some Republicans serve as badges of solidarity for these people.

Q: Ah ha. So getting all this straight now – the cold weather last week was an opportunity to beat up on the libs and the scientists for the benefit of your base, who don’t care whether climate change is real or not because people they resent stand for it’s reality, and your base prefers to take the immature position of opposing whatever those other folks are for, regardless of the merits, and they are either ignorant of or do not care about how they are being used by you and your cronies in the corporate oligarchy. Does that sum things up?

HS: Yup, that’s about the size of it. You forgot to mention jobs. Dangle jobs in front of them and they’ll go for anything, never mind whether the jobs materialize or not, because when they don’t, it happens down the road. They have short memories, these people, Lord love ’em. By the time the temperature hits 70 later in the week, they won’t make any connection with my comments from last week. That kind of critical thinking is for people wearing pointy wizard’s hats, not good ol’ MAGA hat wearing Americans like my people, the Second Amendment people – they’ll only remember the rosy glow of how I outraged the libs and scientists and got them sputtering mad over my very stable genius remarks. Never mind the change in the weather. Or climate or whatever.
β€” Izzy

 

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’.
β€” Ed.

 

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.” β€” 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.
β€” Vita

 

Not Buying It

 

The departure of advertisers from Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News after a boycott of their products and services was proposed by David Hogg, the Parkland, Florida, shooting survivor Ms. Ingraham gratuitously mocked on Twitter, is not censorship, as Fox News executives claim, but the simple economic result of a self-inflicted wound. No one disputes Ms. Ingraham’s First Amendment right to make hateful, idiotic remarks. Furthermore, no one claims that Ms. Ingraham cannot disagree with Mr. Hogg on gun control. As a public figure, however, with a forum that allows her to generate revenue through television viewership ratings that are often as not in her case driven by the outlandishness of her hateful, idiotic remarks, and ad hominem attacks on those she disagrees with, she cannot expect there will be no repercussions. Boycotting her advertisers is simply hitting her where she and Fox News are most vulnerable.

 

Rosaparks
Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the background. Ms. Parks was instrumental in starting the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Photo by the United States Information Agency (USIA).

There’s a world of difference between the costs paid by Ms. Ingraham for her free speech and that paid by someone such as Juli Briskman, the woman who lost her job after flipping off Supreme Leader’s motorcade last October. Ms. Briskman was not a public figure at the time, and she undertook her action on her own account, with no connection made by her between that action and her employer. Still, her employer, a federal contractor, fired her after it became widely known she worked for them. Ms. Briskman had no thought of ginning up popularity and revenue for her or her employer, far from it. People like Laura Ingraham are well aware their speech will generate controversy, because controversy translates into money. Ms. Ingraham and other public figures like her are the television wrestlers of punditry, throwing metal chairs and bellowing insults while they stomp around the arena doing their best to incite the crowd.

The boycott is a time honored method for expressing disapproval and trying to effect change in public policy or the behavior of public figures. People on both sides of the political spectrum engage in boycotts, as the Reverend Franklin Graham demonstrated recently when he called for a boycott of Target department stores on account of what he sees as their overly liberal transgender restroom policy. Everyone votes with their dollars, for the simple reason that in our capitalist society it is the easiest and most effective way of getting the attention of the powerful. Whether a boycott is undertaken for frivolous or nasty reasons is in the eye of the beholder, but it has to be respected because it too is a form of free speech. The object of a boycott may weather it with enough counter support from people who perceive the boycott as unfair. At any rate, the economic effect is often secondary to the real aim of the boycotters, which is to bring a matter to widespread public attention, causing the boycotted company or public figure to explain or justify their actions, policies, or remarks.

Mahatma Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to explain his view on the right way to conduct non-violent efforts for change. Satyagraha means truth (satya), and grasp or hold onto (graha), or holding onto the truth. When people hold what they believe to be the truth, they actively try to get someone or some group who is obstructing their aims to see that truth as well, so that in the end they will step out of the way without the threat of violence. Of course, we all believe we hold the truth, with the possible exception of media pundits who cynically exploit political arguments for personal gain, in which case it’s hard to say whether they believe their own nonsense or not. It doesn’t really matter.

An assembly of moments from the 1982 Richard Attenborough film Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley, showing some of the Mahatma’s methods and philosophy.

For everyone else, with their own truths (not their own facts), it is important to treat those who disagree by the light of their own truths with respect and consideration during the contest for change. The boycott throughout history has been an instrument of change used by the weak against the strong, and today is no different. It’s unseemly then for the strong to veil themselves in the First Amendment in a cynical attempt to elevate the debate into the same arena where Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez fought for their rights, when they brought this public criticism upon themselves as a consequence of abusing their public forum in the interest of spewing vitriol in pursuit of dollars.
β€” Vita

 

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

 

You can fool most of the people most of the time, and whoever is left will fool themselves the rest of the time. A great many foolish beliefs are relatively harmless, such as the idea that handling toads will give you warts, though the toads may hold different opinions. Other opinions are foolish and yet not harmless, among them the idea that climate change is not a real threat, and anyway it’s not caused by human activity. Again, the toads may have opinions at variance with that.

Don Quixote 1
An 1863 engraving by Gustave DorΓ© (1832-1883) used to illustrate an edition of Don Qixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The caption for this plate is taken from the text, and reads “A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination.”

Scientists and journalists have been tap dancing around the reasons why some folks seem more susceptible than others to fake news stories, especially ones that confirm their beliefs about a subject. They refer to the lack of “cognitive ability” in people who have “confirmation bias”. In plain English, stupid people will believe what they want to believe, and they don’t want to be confused with the facts. Is the Earth flat, despite readily available evidence that it is a sphere? You betcha it is! Is the Earth a mere 6,000 years old, according to some Christians? You know it is, and pay no attention to all those much older fossils – they’re fake news! Is Spanky the Pussy Grabber, aka the Philanderer-in-Chief, getting a free ride from the same white, evangelical Christians who roasted Bill Clinton at the stake for similar behavior 20 years ago? Yer darn tootin’ he is, and he will continue getting a pass as long as he stocks the federal judiciary with anti-abortionists and signs off on tax breaks for rich, white, evangelical Christians.

There’s little anyone can do to convince some folks, roughly a third of the population, that truth, justice, and the American Way exist outside their bubble, and that they’ve been falling for one April Fool’s joke after another much of their lives. Such folks will stubbornly burrow even deeper into their bunkers, popping out occasionally to take pot shots on Twitter at the latest targets of their fevered conspiracy dreams, up to and including schoolchildren who survived a mass killing taking a stand against America’s fetishistic gun culture.

The Smothers Brothers deliver a sideways take on “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha.
As with everything in life, there’s a sliding scale to the relative harmlessness or harmfulness of foolish ideas and impossible dreams. Shades of gray can be difficult for some people to adjust their eyes to, and they would no doubt prefer the ease of differentiating black from white and leave it at that. Believe in the Easter Bunny? Fine; it’s hard to see how anyone’s hurt by a bunny heralding spring. Believe that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president in 2016, was so evil that, based on rumors on internet forums, she was in charge of an indecent criminal enterprise based in a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, and in consequence grab a gun and barge into the restaurant to break it all up? That’s delusional thinking, and combined with some other poisonous ideas, it’s dangerous. Next time, take a little longer to stop and think whether something is impossible, or even likely.
β€” Techly

 

Prick Up Your Ears

 

It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.

 

Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.

Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).

When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.

 

Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
― Izzy

Andrew jackson head
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).

 

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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