7 February 2019 – This is not the essay I’d planned to write for this week’s blog. I’d planned a long-winded, abstruse dissertation on the use of principal component analysis to glean information from historical data in chaotic systems. I actually got most of that one drafted on Monday, and planned to finish it up Tuesday.
Then, bright and early on Tuesday morning, before I got anywhere near the incomplete manuscript, I ran headlong into an email issue.
Generally, I start my morning by scanning email to winnow out the few valuable bits buried in the steaming pile of worthless refuse that has accumulated in my Inbox since the last time I visited it. Then, I visit a couple of social media sites in an effort to keep my name if front of the Internet-entertained public. After a couple of hours of this colossal waste of time, I settle in to work on whatever actual work I have to do for the day.
So, finding that my email client software refused to communicate with me threatened to derail my whole day. The fact that I use email for all my business communications, made it especially urgent that I determine what was wrong, and then fix it.
It took the entire morning and on into the early afternoon to realize that there was no way I was going to get to that email account on my computer, find out that nobody in the outside world (not my ISP, not the cable company that went that extra mile to bring Internet signals from that telephone pole out there to the router at the center of my local area network, or anyone else available with more technosavvy than I have) was going to be able to help. I was finally forced to invent a work around involving a legacy computer that I’d neglected to throw in the trash just to get on with my technology-bound life.
At that point the Law of Deadlines forced me to abandon all hope of getting this week’s blog posting out on time, and move on to completing final edits and distribution of that press release for the local art gallery.
That wasn’t the last time modern technology let me down. In discussing a recent Physics Lab SNAFU, Danielle, the laboratory coordinator I work with at the University said: “It’s wonderful when it works, but horrible when it doesn’t.”
Where have I heard that before?
The SNAFU Danielle was lamenting happened last week.
I teach two sections of General Physics Laboratory at Florida Gulf Coast University, one on Wednesdays and one on Fridays. The lab for last week had students dropping a ball, then measuring its acceleration using a computer-controlled ultrasonic detection system as it (the ball, not the computer) bounces on the table.
For the Wednesday class everything worked perfectly. Half a dozen teams each had their own setups, and all got good data, beautiful-looking plots, and automated measurements of position and velocity. The computers then automatically derived accelerations from the velocity data. Only one team had trouble with their computer, but they got good data by switching to an unused setup nearby.
That was Wednesday.
Come Friday the situation was totally different. Out of four teams, only two managed to get data that looked even remotely like it should. Then, one team couldn’t get their computer to spit out accelerations that made any sense at all. Eventually, after class time ran out, the one group who managed to get good results agreed to share their information with the rest of the class.
The high point of the day was managing to distribute that data to everyone via the school’s cloud-based messaging service.
Concerned about another fiasco, after this week’s lab Danielle asked me how it worked out. I replied that, since the equipment we use for this week’s lab is all manually operated, there were no problems whatsoever. “Humans are much more capable than computers,” I said. “They’re able to cope with disruptions that computers have no hope of dealing with.”
The latest example of technology Hell appeared in a story in this morning’s (2/7/2019) Wall Street Journal. Some $136 million of customers’ cryptocurrency holdings became stuck in an electronic vault when the founder (and sole employee) of cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX, Gerald Cotten, died of complications related to Crohn’s disease while building an orphanage in India. The problem is that Cotten was so secretive about passwords and security that nobody, even his wife, Jennifer Robertson, can get into the reserve account maintained on his laptop.
“Quadriga,” according to the WSJ account, “would need control of that account to send those funds to customers.”
No lie! The WSJ attests this bizarre tale is the God’s own truth!
Now, I’ve no sympathy for cryptocurrency mavens, which I consider to be, at best, technoweenies gleefully leading a parade down the primrose path to technology Hell, but this story illustrates what that Hell looks like!
It’s exactly what the Luddites of the early 19th Century warned us about. It’s a place of nameless frustration and unaccountable loss that we’ve brought on ourselves.
19 December 2018 – I generally don’t buy into utopias.
Utopias are intended as descriptions of a paradise. They’re supposed to be a paradise for everybody, and they’re supposed to be filled with happy people committed to living in their city (utopias are invariably built around descriptions of cities), which they imagine to be the best of all possible cities located in the best of all possible worlds.
Unfortunately, however, utopia stories are written by individual authors, and they’d only be a paradise for that particular author. If the author is persuasive enough, the story will win over a following of disciples, who will praise it to high Heaven. Once in a great while (actually surprisingly often) those disciples become so enamored of the description that they’ll drop everything and actually attempt to build a city to match the description.
When that happens, it invariably ends in tears.
That’s because, while utopian stories invariably describe city plans that would be paradise to their authors, great swaths of the population would find living in them to be horrific.
Even Thomas More, the sixteenth century philosopher, politician and generally overall smart guy who’s credited with giving us the word “utopia” in the first place, was wise enough to acknowledge that the utopia he described in his most famous work, Utopia, wouldn’t be such a fun place for the slaves he had serving his upper-middle class citizens, who were the bulwark of his utopian society.
Even Plato’sRepublic, which gave us the conundrum summarized in Juvenal’sSatires as “Who guards the guards?,” was never meant as a workable society. Plato’s work, in general, was meant to teach us how to think, not what to think.
What to think is a highly malleable commodity that varies from person to person, society to society, and, most importantly, from time to time. Plato’s Republic reflected what might have passed as good ideas for city planning in 380 BC Athens, but they wouldn’t have passed muster in More’s sixteenth-century England. Still less would they be appropriate in twenty-first-century democracies.
That subtitle indicated that Tankersley just might have a sense of humor, and enough gumption to put that sense of humor into his contribution to Futurism.
Futurism tends to be the work of self-important intellectuals out to make a buck by feeding their audience on fantasies that sound profound, but bear no relation to any actual or even possible future. Its greatest value is in stimulating profits for publishers of magazines and books about Futurism. Otherwise, they’re not worth the trees killed to make the paper they’re printed on.
Trees, after all and as a group, make a huge contribution to all facets of human life. Like, for instance, breathing. Breathing is of incalculable value to humans. Trees make an immense contribution to breathing by absorbing carbon dioxide and pumping out vast quantities of oxygen, which humans like to breathe.
We like trees!
Futurists, not so much.
Tankersley’s little (168 pages, not counting author bio, front matter and introduction) opus is not like typical Futurist literature, however. Well, it would be like that if it weren’t more like the Republic in that it’s avowed purpose is to stimulate its readers to think about the future themselves. In the introduction that I purposely left out of the page count he says:
“I want to help you reimagine our tomorrows; to show you that we are living in a time when the possibility of creating a better future has never been greater.”
Tankersley structured the body of his book in ten chapters, each telling a separate story about an imagined future centered around a possible solution to an issue relevant today. Following each chapter is an “apology” by a fictional future character named Archibald T. Patterson III.
Archie is what a hundred years ago would have been called a “Captain of Industry.” Today, we’d refer to him as an uber-rich and successful entrepreneur. Think Elon Musk or Bill Gates.
Actually, I think he’s more like Warren Buffet in that he’s reasonably introspective and honest with himself. Archie sees where society has come from, how it got to the future it got to, and what he and his cohorts did wrong. While he’s super-rich and privileged, the futures the stories describe were made by other people who weren’t uber-rich and successful. His efforts largely came to naught.
The point Tankersley seems to be making is that progress comes from the efforts of ordinary individuals who, in true British fashion, “muddle through.” They see a challenge and apply their talents and resources to making a solution. The solution is invariably nothing anyone would foresee, and is nothing like what anyone else would come up with to meet the same challenge. Each is a unique response to a unique challenge by unique individuals.
It might seem naive, this idea that human development comes from ordinary individuals coming up with ordinary solutions to ordinary problems all banded together into something called “progress,” but it’s not.
For example, Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook as a response to the challenge of applying then-new computer-network technology to the age-old quest by late adolescents to form their own little communities by communicating among themselves. It’s only fortuitous that he happened on the right combination of time (the dawn of a radical new technology), place (in the midst of a huge cadre of the right people well versed in using that radical new technology) and marketing to get the word out to those right people wanting to use that radical new technology for that purpose. Take away any of those elements and there’d be no Facebook!
What if Zuckerberg hadn’t invented Facebook? In that event, somebody else (Reid Hoffman) would have come up with a similar solution (Linkedin) to the same challenge facing a similar group (technology professionals).
Oh, my! They did!
History abounds with similar examples. There’s hardly any advancement in human culture that doesn’t fit this model.
The good news is that Tankersley’s vision for how we can re-imagine our tomorrows is right on the money.
21 November 2018 – Regular readers of this blog know one of my favorite themes is critical thinking about news. Another of my favorite subjects is education. So, they won’t be surprised when I go on a rant about promoting teaching of critical news consumption habits to youngsters.
Apropos of this subject, last week the BBC launched a project entitled “Beyond Fake News,” which aims to “fight back” against fake news with a season of documentaries, special reports and features on the BBC’s international TV, radio and online networks.
In an article by Lucy Mapstone, Press Association Deputy Entertainment Editor for the Independent.ie digital network, entitled “BBC to ‘fight back’ against disinformation with Beyond Fake News project,” Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group, is quoted as saying: “Poor standards of global media literacy, and the ease with which malicious content can spread unchecked on digital platforms mean there’s never been a greater need for trustworthy news providers to take proactive steps.”
Angus’ quote opens up a Pandora’s box of issues. Among them is the basic question of what constitutes “trustworthy news providers” in the first place. Of course, this is an issue I’ve tackled in previous columns.
Another issue is what would be appropriate “proactive steps.” The BBC’s “Beyond Fake News” project is one example that seems pretty sound. (Sorry if this language seems a little stilted, but I’ve just finished watching a mid-twentieth-century British film, and those folks tended to talk that way. It’ll take me a little while to get over it.)
Another sort of “proactive step” is what I’ve been trying to do in this blog: provide advice about what steps to take to ensure that the news you consume is reliable.
A third is providing rebuttal of specific fake-news stories, which is what pundits on networks like CNN and MSNBC try (with limited success, I might say) to do every day.
The issue I hope to attack in this blog posting is the overarching concern in the first phrase of the Angus quote: “Poor standards of global media literacy, … .”
Global media literacy can only be improved the same way any lack of literacy can be improved, and that is through education.
Improving global media literacy begins with ensuring a high standard of media literacy among teachers. Teachers can only teach what they already know. Thus, a high standard of media literacy must start in college and university academic-education programs.
While I’ve spent decades teaching at the college level, so I have plenty of experience, I’m not actually qualified to teach other teachers how to teach. I’ve only taught technical subjects, and the education required to teach technical subjects centers on the technical subjects themselves. The art of teaching is (or at least was when I was at university) left to the student’s ability to mimic what their teachers did, informal mentoring by fellow teachers, and good-ol’ experience in the classroom. We were basically dumped into the classroom and left to sink or swim. Some swam, while others sank.
That said, I’m not going to try to lay out a program for teaching teachers how to teach media literacy. I’ll confine my remarks to making the case that it needs to be done.
Teaching media literacy to schoolchildren is especially urgent because the media-literacy projects I keep hearing about are aimed at adults “in the wild,” so to speak. That is, they’re aimed at adult citizens who have already completed their educations and are out earning livings, bringing up families, and participating in the political life of society (or ignoring it, as the case may be).
I submit that’s exactly the wrong audience to aim at.
Yes, it’s the audience that is most involved in media consumption. It’s the group of people who most need to be media literate. It is not, however, the group that we need to aim media-literacy education at.
We gotta get ‘em when they’re young!
Like any other academic subject, the best time to teach people good media-consumption habits is before they need to have them, not afterwards. There are multiple reasons for this.
First, children need to develop good habits before they’ve developed bad habits. It saves the dicey stage of having to unlearn old habits before you can learn new ones. Media literacy is no different. Neither is critical thinking.
Most of the so-called “fake news” appeals to folks who’ve never learned to think critically in the first place. They certainly try to think critically, but they’ve never been taught the skills. Of course, those critical-thinking skills are a prerequisite to building good media-consumption habits.
How can you get in the habit of thinking critically about news stories you consume unless you’ve been taught to think critically in the first place? I submit that the two skills are so intertwined that the best strategy is to teach them simultaneously.
And, it is most definitely a habit, like smoking, drinking alcohol, and being polite to pretty girls (or boys). It’s not something you can just tell somebody to do, then expect they’ll do it. They have to do it over and over again until it becomes habitual.
Another reason to promote media literacy among the young is that’s when people are most amenable to instruction. Human children are pre-programmed to try to learn things. That’s what “play” is all about. Acquiring knowledge is not an unpleasant chore for children (unless misguided adults make it so). It’s their job! To ensure that children learn what they need to know to function as adults, Mommy Nature went out of her way to make learning fun, just as she did with everything else humans need to do to survive as a species.
Learning, having sex, taking care of babies are all things humans have to do to survive, so Mommy Nature puts systems in place to make them fun, and so drive humans to do them.
A third reason we need to teach media literacy to the young is that, like everything else, you’re better off learning it before you need to practice it. Nobody in their right mind teaches a novice how to drive a car by running them out in city traffic. High schools all have big, torturously laid out parking lots to give novice drivers a safe, challenging place to practice the basic skills of starting, stopping and turning before they have to perform those functions while dealing with fast-moving Chevys coming out of nowhere.
Similarly, you want students to practice deciphering written and verbal communications before asking them to parse a Donald-Trump speech!
The “Call to Action” for this editorial piece is thus, “Agitate for developing good media-consumption habits among schoolchildren along with the traditional Three Rs.” It starts with making the teaching of media literacy part of K-12 teacher education. It also includes teaching critical thinking skills and habits at the same time. Finally, it includes holding K-12 teachers responsible for inculcating good media-consumption habits in their students.
Yes, it’s important to try to bring the current crop of media-illiterate adults up to speed, but it’s more important to promote global media literacy among the young.
7 November 2018 – During the week of 22 October 2018 two events dominated the news: Cesar Sayoc mailed fourteen pipe bombs to prominent individuals critical of Donald Trump, and Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue because he didn’t like Jews. Both of these individuals identified themselves with far-right ideology, so the media has been full of rhetoric condemning far-right activists.
To be legally correct, I have to note that, while I’ve written the above paragraph as if those individuals’ culpability for those crimes is established fact, they (as of this writing) haven’t been convicted. It’s entirely possible that some deus ex machina will appear out of the blue and exonerate one or both of them.
Clearly, things have gotten out of hand with Red Team activists when they start “throwing” pipe bombs and bullets. But, I’m here to say “naughty, naughty” to both sides.
Both sides are culpable.
I don’t want you to interpret that last sentence as agreement with Donald Trump’s idiotic statement after last year’s Charlottesville incident that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
There aren’t “very fine people” on both sides. Extremists are “bad” people no matter what side they’re on.
For example, not long ago social media sites (specifically Linkedin and, especially, Facebook) were lit up with vitriol about the Justice Kavanaugh hearings by pundits from both the Red Team and the Blue Team. It got so hot that I was embarrassed!
Some have pointed out that, statistically, most of the actual violence has been perpetrated by the Red Team.
Does that mean the Red Team is more culpable than the Blue Team?
No. It means they’re using different weapons.
The Blue Team, which I believe consists mainly of extremists from the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has traditionally chosen written and spoken words as their main weapon. Recall some of the political correctness verbiage used to attack free expression in the late 20th Century, and demonstrations against conservative speakers on college campuses in our own.
The Red Team, which today consists of the Trumpian remnants of the Republican Party, has traditionally chosen to throw hard things, like rocks, bullets and pipe bombs.
Both sides also attempt to disarm the other side. The Blue Team wisely attempts to disarm the Red Team by taking away their guns. The Red Team, which eschews anything that smacks of wisdom, tries to disarm the Blue Team by (figuratively, so far) burning their books.
Recognize that calling the Free Press “the enemy of the people” is morally equivalent to throwing books on a bonfire. They’re both attempts to promote ignorance.
What’s actually happening is that the fringes of society are making all of the noise, and the mass of moderate-thinking citizens can’t get a word in edgewise.
George Schultz pointed out: “He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides.”
I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that fanatics get to run things because they care enough to put in the effort. Moderates don’t because they don’t.
Both of these pundits point out the sad fact that Nature favors extremes. The most successful companies are those with the highest growth rates. Most drivers exceed the speed limit. The squeaky wheel gets the most grease. And, those who express the most extreme views get the most media attention.
Our Constitution specifies in no uncertain terms that the nation is founded on (small “d”) democratic principles. Democratic principles insist that policy matters be debated and resolved by consensus of the voting population. That can only be done when people meet together in the middle.
Extremists on both the Red Team and Blue Team don’t want that. They treat politics as a sporting event.
In a baseball game, for example, nobody roots for a tie. They root for a win by one team or the other.
Government is not a sporting event.
When one team or the other wins, all Americans lose.
The enemy we are facing now, which is the same enemy democracies face around the world, is not the right or left. It is extremism in general. Always has been. Always will be.
Authoritarians always go for one extreme or the other. Hitler went for the right. Stalin went for the left.
The reason authoritarians pick an extreme is that’s where there are people who are passionate enough about their ideas to shoot anyone who doesn’t agree with them. That, authoritarians realize, is the only way they can become “Dictator for Life.” Since that is their goal, they have to pick an extreme.
We love democracy because it’s the best way for “We the People” to ensure nobody gets to be “Dictator for Life.” When everyone meets in the middle (which is the only place everyone can meet), authoritarians get nowhere.
Ergo, authoritarians love extremes and everyone else needs the middle.
Vilifying “nationalism” as a Red Team vice misses the point. In the U.S. (or any similar democracy), nationalism requires more-or-less moderate political views. There’s lots of room in the middle for healthy (and ultimately entertaining) debate, but very little room at the extremes.
Try going for the middle.
To quote Victor “Animal” Palotti in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla:“C’mon. It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun!”
6 November 2018 – Below is froma press release I received yesterday (Monday, 11/5) evening. It’s of sufficient import and urgent timing that I decided to post it to this blog verbatim.
There’s been a lot of talk about cybersecurity and whether or not the Trump administration is prepared for tomorrow’s midterm elections, but now that we’re down to the wire, former White House CIO and Fortalice Solutions CEO Theresa Payton says it’s time for voters to think about what they can do to make sure their voices are heard.
Theresa’s six cyber tips for voters ahead of midterms:
Don’t zone out while you’re voting. Pay close attention to how you cast your ballot and who you cast your ballot for.
Take your time during the review process, and double-check your vote before you finalize it;
It may sound cliche, but if you see something say something. If something seems strange, report it to your State Board of Elections immediately;
If you see suspicious social media personas pushing information that’s designed to influence (and maybe even misinform) voters, here’s where you can report it:
Check your voter registration status before you go to the polls. Voters in 37 states and the District of Columbia can register to vote online. Visit vote.org to find out how to check your registration status in your state;
Unless you are a resident of West Virginia or you’re serving overseas in the U.S. military, you cannot vote electronically on your phone. Protect yourself from text messages and email scams that indicate that you can. Knowledge is power.
Finally, trust the system. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s imperfect. But it’s the bedrock of our democracy. If you stay home or lose trust in the legitimacy of the process, our cyber enemies win.
Theresa is one of the nation’s leading experts in cyber security and IT strategy. She is the CEO of Fortalice Solutions, an industry-leading security consulting company. Under President George W. Bush, she served as the first female chief information officer at the White House, overseeing IT operations for POTUS and his staff. She was named #4 on IFSEC Global’s list of the world’s Top 50 cybersecurity influencers in security & fire 2017. See her profiled in the Washington Post for her role on the 2017 CBS reality show “Hunted” here.
Last week I spent a lot of space yammering on about how to tell fake news from the real stuff. I made a big point about how real news organizations don’t allow editorializing in news stories. I included an example of a New York Times op-ed (opinion editorial) that was decidedly not a news story.
On the other hand, last night I growled at my TV screen when I heard a CNN commentator say that she’d been taught that journalists must have opinions and should voice them. I growled because her statement could be construed to mean something anathema to journalistic ethics. I’m afraid way too many TV journalists may be confused about this issue. Certainly too many news consumers are confused!
It’s easy to get confused. For example, I got myself in trouble some years ago in a discussion over dinner and drinks with Andy Wilson, Founding Editor at Vision Systems Design, over a related issue that is less important to political-news reporting, but is crucial for business-to-business (B2B) journalism: the role of advertising in editorial considerations.
Andy insisted upon strictly ignoring advertiser needs when making editorial decisions. I advocated a more nuanced approach. I said that ignoring advertiser needs and desires would lead to cutting oneself off from our most important source of technology-trends information.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into that subject because it has only peripheral significance for this blog posting. The overlap with news reporting is that both activities involve dealing with biased sources.
My disagreement with Andy arose from my veteran-project-manager’s sensitivity to all stakeholders in any activity. In the B2B case, editors have several ways of enforcing journalistic discipline without biting the hand that feeds us. I was especially sensitive to the issue because I specialized in case studies, which necessarily discuss technology embodied in commercial products. Basically, I insisted on limiting (to one) actual product mentions in each story, and suppressing any claims that the mentioned product was the only possible way to access the embodied technology. In essence, I policed the stories I wrote or edited to avoid the “buy our stuff” messages that advertisers love and that send chills down Andy’s (and my) spine.
In the news-media realm, journalists need to police their writing for “buy our ideas” messages in news stories. “Just the facts, ma’am” needs to be the goal for news. Expressing editorial opinions in news stories is dangerous. That’s when the lines between fake news and real news get blurry.
Those lines need to be sharp to help news consumers judge the … information … they’re being fed.
Perhaps “information” isn’t exactly the right word.
It might be best to start with the distinction between “information” and “data.”
The distinction is not always clear in a general setting. It is, however, stark in the world of science, which is where I originally came from.
What comes into our brains from the outside world is “data.” It’s facts and figures. Contrary to what many people imagine, “data” is devoid of meaning. Scientists often refer to it as “raw data” to emphasize this characteristic.
There is nothing actionable in raw data. The observation that “the sky is blue” can’t even tell you if the sky was blue yesterday, or how likely it is to be blue tomorrow. It just says: “the sky is blue.” End of story.
Turning “data” into “information” involves combining it with other, related data, and making inferences about or deductions from patterns perceivable in the resulting superset. The process is called “interpretation,” and it’s the second step in turning data into knowledge. It’s what our brains are good for.
So, does this mean that news reporters are to be empty-headed recorders of raw facts?
Not by a long shot!
The CNN commentator’s point was that reporters are far from empty headed. While learning their trade, they develop ways to, for example, tell when some data source is lying to them.
In the hard sciences it’s called “instrumental error,” and experimental scientists (as I was) spend careers detecting and eliminating it.
Similarly, what a reporter does when faced with a lying source is the hard part of news reporting. Do you say, “This source is unreliable” and suppress what they told you? Do you report what they said along with a comment that they’re a lying so-and-so who shouldn’t be believed? Certainly, you try to find another source who tells you something you can rely on. But, what if the second source is lying, too?
That’s why we news consumers have to rely on professionals who actually care about the truth for our news.
On the other hand, nobody goes to news outlets for just raw data. We want something we can use. We want something actionable.
Most of us have neither the time nor the tools to interpret all the drivel we’re faced with. Even if we happen to be able to work it out for ourselves, we could always use some help, even if just to corroborate our own conclusions.
Who better to help us interpret the data (news) and glean actionable opinions from it than those journalists who’ve been spending their careers listening to the crap newsmakers want to feed us?
That’s where commentators come in. The difference between an editor and a reporter is that the editor has enough background and experience to interpret the raw data and turn it into actionable information.
That is: opinion you can use to make a decision. Like, maybe, who to vote for.
People with the chops to interpret news and make comments about it are called “commentators.”
When I was looking to hire what we used to call a “Technical Editor” for Test & Measurement World, I specifically looked for someone with a technical degree and experience developing the technology I wanted that person to cover. So, for example, when I was looking for someone to cover advances in testing of electronics for the telecommunications industry, I went looking for a telecommunications engineer. I figured that if I found one who could also tell a story, I could train them to be a journalist.
That brings us back to the CNN commentator who thought she should have opinions.
The relevant word here is “commentator.”
She’s not just a reporter. To be a commentator, she supposedly has access to the best available “data” and enough background to skillfully interpret it. So, what she was saying is true for a commentator rather than just a reporter.
Howsomever, ya can’t just give a conclusion without showing how the facts lead to it.
Let’s look at how I assemble a post for this blog as an example of what you should look for in a reliable op-ed piece.
Obviously, I look for a subject about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say. Specifically, I look for what I call the “take-home lesson” on which I base every piece of blather I write.
The “take-home lesson” is the basic point I want my reader to remember. Come Thursday next you won’t remember every word or even every point I make in this column. You’re (hopefully) going to remember some concept from it that you should be able to summarize in one or two sentences. It may be the “call to action” my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Langley, told me to look for in every well-written editorial. Or, it could be just some idea, such as “Racism sucks,” that I want my reader to believe.
Whatever it is, it’s what I want the reader to “take home” from my writing. All the rest is just stuff I use to convince the reader to buy into the “take-home lesson.”
Usually, I start off by providing the reader with some context in which to fit what I have to say. It’s there so that the reader and I start off on the same page. This is important to help the reader fit what I have to say into the knowledge pattern of their own mind. (I hope that makes sense!)
After setting the context, I provide the facts that I have available from which to draw my conclusion. The conclusion will be, of course, the “take-home lesson.”
I can’t be sure that my readers will have the facts already, so I provide links to what I consider reliable outside sources. Sometimes I provide primary sources, but more often they’re secondary sources.
Primary sources for, say, a biographical sketch of Thomas Edison would be diary pages or financial records, which few readers would have immediate access to.
A secondary source might be a well-researched entry on, say, the Biography.com website, which the reader can easily get access to and which can, in turn, provide links to useful primary sources.
In any case, I try to provide sources for each piece of data on which I base my conclusion.
Then, I’ll outline the logical path that leads from the data pattern to my conclusion. While the reader should have no need to dispute the “data,” he or she should look very carefully to see whether my logic makes sense. Does it lead inevitably from the data to my conclusion?
Finally, I’ll clearly state the conclusion.
In general, every consumer of ideas should look for this same pattern in every information source they use.
Every morning we’d gather ’round the desk of our compatriot Ron Held, builder of stellar-interior computer models extraordinaire, to hear him read “what fits” from the days issue of The New York Times. Ron had noticed that when taken out of context much of what is written in newspapers sounds hilarious. He had a deadpan way of reading this stuff out loud that only emphasized the effect. He’d modified the Times‘ slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print” into “All the news that fits.”
Whenever I hear unmitigated garbage coming out of supposed news outlets, I think of Ron’s “All the news that fits.”
These days, I’m on a kick about fake news and how to spot it. It isn’t easy because it’s become so pervasive that it becomes almost believable. This goes along with my lifelong philosophical study that I call: “How do we know what we think we know?”
Early on I developed what I call my “BS detector.” It’s a mental alarm bell that goes off whenever someone tries to convince me of something that’s unbelievable.
It’s not perfect. It’s been wrong on a whole lot of occasions.
For example, back in the early 1970s somebody told me about something called “superconductivity,” where certain materials, when cooled to near absolute zero, lost all electrical resistance. My first reaction, based on the proposition that if something sounds too good to be true, it’s not, was: “Yeah, and if you believe that I’ve got this bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn to sell you.”
After seeing a few experiments and practical demonstrations, my BS detector stopped going off and I was able to listen to explanations about Cooper Pairs, and electron-phonon interactions and became convinced. I eventually learned that nearly everything involving quantum theory sounds like BS until you get to understand it.
Another time I bought into the notion that Interferon would develop into a useful AIDS treatment. Being a monogamous heterosexual, I didn’t personally worry about AIDS, but I had many friends who did, so I cared. I cared enough to pay attention, and watch as the treatment just didn’t develop.
Most of the time, however, my BS detector works quite well, thank you, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to divine what sets it off, and what a person can do to separate the grains of truth from the BS pile.
Consider Your Source(s)
There’s and old saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”
First off, never believe anybody whom you’ve caught lying to you in the past. For example, Donald Trump has been caught lying numerous times in the past. I know. I’ve seen video of him mouthing words that I’ve known at the time were incorrect. It’s happened so often that my BS detector goes off so loudly whenever he opens his mouth that the noise drowns out what he’s trying to say.
I had the same problem with Bill Clinton when he was President (he seems to have gotten better, now, but I’m still wary).
Nixon was pretty bad, too.
There’s a lot of noise these days about “reliable sources.” But, who’s a reliable source? You can’t take their word for it. It’s like the old riddle of the lying blackfoot indian and the truthful whitefoot.
Unfortunately, in the real world nobody always lies or always tells the truth, even Donald Trump. So, they can’t be unmasked by calling on the riddle’s answer. If you’re unfamiliar with the riddle, look it up.
The best thing to do is try to figure out what the source’s game is. Everyone in the communications business is selling something. It’s up to you to figure out what they’re selling and whether you want to buy it.
News is information collected on a global scale, and it’s done by news organizations. The New York Times is one such organization. Another is The Wall Street Journal, which is a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Company, a division of News Corp.
So, basically, what a legitimate news organization is selling is information. If you get a whiff that they’re selling anything else, like racism, or anarchy, or Donald Trump, they aren’t a real news organization.
The structure of a news organization is:
Publisher: An individual or group of individuals generally responsible for running the business. The publisher manages the Circulation, Advertising, Production, and Editorial departments. The Publisher’s job is to try to sell what the news organization has to sell (that is, information) at a profit.
Circulation: A group of individuals responsible for recruiting subscribers and promoting sales of individal copies of the news organization’s output.
Advertising: A group of individuals under the direct supervision of the Publisher who are responsible for selling advertising space to individuals and businesses who want to present their own messages to people who consume the news organization’s output.
Production: A group of individuals responsible for packaging the information gathered by the Editorial department into physical form and distributing it to consumers.
Editorial: A group of trained journalists under a Chief Editor responsible for gathering and qualifying information the news organization will distribute to consumers.
Notice the italics on “and qualifying” in the entry on the Editorial Department. Every publication has their self-selected editorial focus. For a publication like The Wall Street journal, whose editorial focus is business news, every story has to fit that editorial focus. A story that, say, affects how readers select stocks to buy or sell is in their editorial focus. A story that doesn’t isn’t.
A story about why Donald Trump lies doesn’t belong in The Wall Street Journal. It belongs in Psychology Today.
That’s why editors and reporters have to be “trained journalists.” You can’t hire just anybody off the street, slap a fedora on their head and call them a “reporter.” That never even worked in the movies. Journalism is a profession and journalists require training. They’re also expected behave in a manner consistent with journalistic ethics.
One of those ethical principles is that you don’t “editorialize” in news stories. That means you gather facts and report those facts. You don’t distort facts to fit your personal opinions. You for sure don’t make up facts out of thin air just ’cause you’d like it to be so.
Taking the example of The Wall Street Journal again, a reporter handed some fact doesn’t know what the reader will do with that fact. Some will do some things and others will do something else. If a reporter makes something up, and readers make business decisions based on that fiction, bad results will happen. Business people don’t like that. They’d stop buying copies of the newspaper. Circulation would collapse. Advertisers would abandon it.
Soon, no more The Wall Street Journal.
It’s the Chief Editor’s job to make sure reporters seek out information useful to their readers, don’t editorialize, and check their facts to make sure nobody’s been lying to them. Thus, the Chief Editor is the main gatekeeper that consumers rely on to keep out fake news.
That, by the way, is the fatal flaw in social media as a news source: there’s no Chief Editor.
One final note: A lot of people today buy into the cynical belief that this vision of journalism is naive. As a veteran journalist I can tell you that it’s NOT. If you think real journalism doesn’t work this way, you’re living in a Trumpian alternate reality.
Bang your head on the nearest wall hoping to knock some sense into it!
So, for you, the news consumer, to guard against fake news, your first job is to figure out if your source’s Chief Editor is trustworthy.
Unfortunately, it’s very seldom that most people get to know a news source’s Chief Editor well enough to know whether to trust him or her.
Comparison Shopping for Ideas
That’s why you don’t take the word of just one source. You comparison shop for ideas the same way you do for groceries, or anything else. You go to different stores. You check their prices. You look at sell-by dates. You sniff the air for stale aromas. You do the same thing in the marketplace for ideas.
If you check three-to-five news outlets, and they present the same facts, you gotta figure they’re all reporting the facts that were given to them. If somebody’s out of whack compared to the others, it’s a bad sign.
Of course, you have to consider the sources they use as well. Remember that everyone providing information to a news organization has something to sell. You need to make sure they’re not providing BS to the news organization to hype sales of their particular product. That’s why a credible news organization will always tell you who their sources are for every fact.
For example, a recent story in the news (from several outlets) was that The New York Times published an opinion-editorial piece (NOT a news story, by the way) saying very unflattering things about how President Trump was managing the Executive Branch. A very big red flag went up because the op-ed was signed “Anonymous.”
That red flag was minimized by the paper’s Chief Editor, Dean Baquet, assuring us all that he, at least, knew who the author was, and that it was a very high official who knew what they were talking about. If we believe him, we figure we’re likely dealing with a credible source.
Our confidence in the op-ed’s credibility was also bolstered by the fact that the piece included a lot of information that was available from other sources that corroborated it. The only new piece of information, that there was a faction within the White House that was acting to thwart the President’s worst impulses, fitted seamlessly with the verifiable information. So, we tend to believe it.
As another example, during the 1990s I was watching the scientific literature for reports of climate-change research results. I’d already seen signs that there was a problem with this particular branch of science. It had become too political, and the politicians were selling policies based on questionable results. I noticed that studies generally were reporting inconclusive results, but each article ended with a concluding paragraph warning of the dangers of human-induced climate change that did not fit seamlessly with the research results reported in the article. So, I tended to disbelieve the final conclusions.
Does It Make Sense to You?
This is where we all stumble when ferreting out fake news. If you’re pre-programmed to accept some idea, it won’t set off your BS detector. It won’t disagree with the other sources you’ve chosen to trust. It will seem reasonable to you. It will make sense, whether it’s right or wrong.
That’s a situation we all have to face, and the only antidote is to do an experiment.
Experiments are great! They’re our way of asking Mommy Nature to set us on the right path. And, if we ask often enough, and carefully enough, she will.
That’s how I learned the reality of superconductivity against my inbred bias. That’s how I learned how naive my faith in interferon had been.
With those cautions, let’s look at how we know what we think we know.
It starts with our parents. We start out truly impressed by our parents’ physical and intellectual capabilities. After all, they can walk! They can talk! They can (in some cases) do arithmetic!
Parents have a natural drive to stuff everything they know into our little heads, and we have a natural drive to suck it all in. It’s only later that we notice that not everyone agrees with our parents, and they aren’t necessarily the smartest beings on the planet. That’s when comparison shopping for ideas begins. Eventually, we develop our own ideas that fit our personalities.
Along the way, Mommy Nature has provided a guiding hand to either confirm or discredit our developing ideas. If we’re not pathological, we end up with a more or less reliable feel for what makes sense.
For example, almost everybody has a deep-seated conviction that torturing pets is wrong. We’ve all done bad things to pets, usually unintentionally, and found it made us feel sad. We don’t want to do it again.
So, if somebody advocates perpetrating cruelty to animals, most of us recoil. We’d have to be given a darn good reason to do it. Like, being told “If you don’t shoot that squirrel, there’ll be no dinner tonight.”
That would do it.
Our brains are full up with all kinds of ideas like that. When somebody presents us with a novel idea, or a report of something they suggest is a fact, our first line of defense is whether it makes sense to us.
If it’s unbelievable, it’s probably not true.
It could still be true, since a lot of unbelievable stuff actually happens, but it’s probably not. We can note it pending confirmation by other sources or some kind of experimental result (like looking to see the actual bloody mess).
The real naive attitude about news, which I used to hear a lot fifty or sixty years ago is, “If it’s in print, it’s gotta be true.”
Reporters, editors and publishers are human. They make mistakes. And, catching those mistakes follows the 95:5 rule.That is, you’ll expend 95% of your effort to catch the last 5% of the errors. It’s also called “The Law of Diminishing Returns,” and it’s how we know to quit obsessing.
The way this works for the news business is that news output involves a lot of information. I’m not going to waste space here estimating the amount of information (in bits) in an average newspaper, but let’s just say it’s 1.3 s**tloads!
It’s a lot. Getting it all right, then getting it all corroborated, then getting it all fact checked (a different, and tougher, job than just corroboration), then putting it into words that convey that information to readers, is an enormous task, especially when a deadline is involved. It’s why the classic image of a journalist is some frazzled guy wearing a fedora pushed back on his head, suitcoat off, sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, maniacally tapping at a typewriter keyboard.
So, don’t expect everything you read to be right (or even spelled right).
The easiest things to get right are basic facts, the Who, What, Where, and When.
How many deaths due to Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico? Estimates have run from 16 to nearly 3,000 depending on who’s doing the estimating, what axes they have to grind, and how they made the estimate. Nobody was ever able to collect the bodies in one place to count them. It’s unlikely that they ever found all the bodies to collect for the count!
Those are the first four Ws of news reporting. The fifth one, Why, is by far the hardest ’cause you gotta get inside someone’s head.
So, the last part of judging whether news is fake is recognizing that nobody gets it entirely right. Just because you see it in print doesn’t make it fact. And, just because somebody got it wrong, doesn’t make them a liar.
They could get one thing wrong, and most everything else right. In fact, they could get 5 things wrong, and 95 things right!
What you look for is folks who make the effort to try to get things right. If somebody is really trying, they’ll make some mistakes, but they’ll own up to them. They’ll say something like: “Yesterday we told you that there were 16 deaths, but today we have better information and the death toll is up to 2,975.”
Anybody who won’t admit they’re ever wrong is a liar, and whatever they say is most likely fake news.
12 September 2018 – The Front Page was an hilarious one-set stage play supposedly taking place over a single night in the dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. I’m not going to synopsize the plot because the Wikipedia entry cited above does such an excellent job it’s better for you to follow the link and read it yourself.
First performed in 1928, the play has been revived several times and suffered countless adaptations to other media. It’s notable for the fact that the main character, Hildy Johnson, originally written as a male part, is even more interesting as a female. That says something important, but I don’t know what.
By the way, I insist that the very best adaptation is Howard Hawks’ 1940 tour de force film entitled His Girl Friday starring Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant as the other main character Walter Burns. Burns is Johnson’s boss and ex-husband who uses various subterfuges to prevent Hildy from quitting her job and marrying an insurance salesman.
That’s not what I want to talk about today, though. What’s important for this blog posting is part of the play’s backstory. It’s important because it can help provide context for the entire social media industry, which is becoming so important for American society right now.
In that backstory, a critical supporting character is one Earl Williams, who’s a mousey little man convicted of murdering a policeman and sentenced to be executed the following morning right outside the press-room window. During the course of the play, it comes to light that Williams, confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue speaking in a public park, accidentally shot the policeman and was subsequently railroaded in court by a corrupt sheriff who wanted to use his execution to help get out the black(!?) vote for his re-election campaign.
What publicly executing a confused communist sympathizer has to do with motivating black voters I still fail to understand, but it makes as much sense as anything else the sheriff says or does.
This plot has so many twists and turns paralleling issues still resonating today that it’s rediculous. That’s a large part of the play’s fun!
Anyway, what I want you to focus on right now is the subtle point that Williams was confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue.
Soapboxdemagogues were a fixture in pre-Internet political discourse. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment explicitly gives private citizens the right to peaceably assemble in public places. For example, during the late 1960s a typical summer Sunday afternoon anywhere in any public park in North America or Europe would see a gathering of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 hippies for an impromptu “Love In,” or “Be In,” or “Happening.” With no structure or set agenda folks would gather to do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. My surrealist novelette Lilith describes a gathering of angels, said to be “the hippies of the supernatural world,” that was patterned after a typical Hippie Love In.
Similarly, a soapbox demagogue had the right to commandeer a picnic table, bandstand, or discarded soapbox to place himself (at the time they were overwhelmingly male) above the crowd of passersby that he hoped would listen to his discourse on whatever he wanted to talk about.
In the case of Earl Williams’ demagogue, the speech was about “production for use.” The feeble-minded Williams applied that idea to the policeman’s service weapon, with predictable results.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century.
I haven’t been hanging around local parks on Sunday afternoons for a long time, so I don’t know if soapbox demagogues are still out there. I doubt that they are because it’s easier and cheaper to log onto a social-media platform, such as Facebook, to shoot your mouth off before a much larger international audience.
I have browsed social media, however, and see the same sort of drivel that used to spew out of the mouths of soapbox demagogues back in the day.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s really nothing novel about social media. Being a platform for anyone to say anything to anyone is the same as last-century soapboxes being available for anyone who thinks they have something to say. It’s a prominent right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In fact, it’s important enough to be guaranteed in the very first of th Bill’s amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
What is not included, however, is a proscription against anyone ignoring the HECK out of soapbox demagogues! They have the right to talk, but we have the right to not listen.
Back in the day, almost everybody passed by soapbox demagogues without a second glance. We all knew they climbed their soapboxes because it was the only venue they had to voice their opinions.
Preachers had pulpits in front of congregations, so you knew they had something to say that people wanted to hear. News reporters had newspapers people bought because they contained news stories that people wanted to read. Scholars had academic journals that other scholars subscribed to because they printed results of important research. Fiction writers had published novels folks read because they found them entertaining.
The list goes on.
Soapbox demagogues, however, had to stand on an impromptu platform because they didn’t have anything to say worth hearing. The only ones who stopped to listen were those, like the unemployed Earl Williams, who had nothing better to do.
The idea of pretending that social media is any more of a legitimate venue for ideas is just goofy.
Social media are not legitimate media for the exchange of ideas simply because anybody is able to say anything on them, just like a soapbox in a park. Like a soapbox in a park, most of what is said on social media isn’t worth hearing. It’s there because the barrier to entry is essentially nil. That’s why so many purveyors of extremist and divisive rhetoric gravitate to social media platforms. Legitimate media won’t carry them.
Legitimate media organizations have barriers to the entry of lousy ideas. For example, I subscribe to The Economist because of their former Editor in Chief, John Micklethwait, who impressed me as an excellent arbiter of ideas (despite having a weird last name). I was very pleased when he transferred over to Bloomberg News, which I consider the only televised outlet for globally significant news. The Wall Street Journal‘s business focus forces Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray into a “just the facts, ma’am” stance because every newsworthy event creates both winners and losers in the business community, so content bias is a non-starter.
The common thread among these legitimate-media sources is existance of an organizational structure focused on maintaining content quality. There are knowlegeable gatekeepers (called “editors“) charged with keeping out bad ideas.
So, when Donald Trump, for example, shows a preference for social media (in his case, Twitter) and an abhorrence of traditional news outlets, he’s telling us his ideas aren’t worth listening to. Legitimate media outlets disparage his views, so he’s forced to use the twenty-first century equivalent of a public-park soapbox: social media.
On social media, he can say anything to anybody because there’s nobody to tell him, “That’s a stupid thing to say. Don’t say it!”
20 June 2018 – I recently received a question: “Do you use Twitter?” The sender was responding positively to a post on this blog. My response was a terse: “I do not use Twitter.”
That question deserved a more extensive response. Well, maybe not “deserved,” since this post has already exceeded the maximum 280 characters allowed in a Twitter message. In fact, not counting the headline, dateline or image caption, it’s already 431 characters long!
That gives you an idea how much information you can cram into 280 characters. Essentially none. That’s why Twitter messages make their composers sound like airheads.
The average word in the English language is six characters long, not counting the spaces. So, to say one word, you need (on average) seven characters. If you’re limited to 280 characters, that means you’re limited to 280/7 = 40 words. A typical posting on this blog is roughly 1,300 words (this posting, by the way, is much shorter). A typical page in a paperback novel contains about 300 words. The first time I agreed to write a book for print, the publisher warned me that the manuscript needed to be at least 80,000 words to be publishable.
When I first started writing for business-to-business magazines, a typical article was around 2,500 words. We figured that was about right if you wanted to teach anybody anything useful. Not long afterward, when I’d (surprisingly quickly) climbed the journalist ranks to Chief Editor, I expressed the goal for any article written in our magazine (the now defunct Test & Measurement World) in the following way:
“Imagine an engineer facing a problem in the morning and not knowing what to do. If, during lunch, that engineer reads an article in our magazine and goes back to work knowing how to solve the problem, then we’ve done our job.”
That takes about 2,500 words. Since then, pressure from advertisers pushed us to writing shorter articles in the 1,250 word range. Of course, all advertisers really want any article to say is, “BUY OUR STUFF!”
That is NOT what business-to-business readers want articles to say. They want articles that tell them how to solve their problems. You can see who publishers listened to.
Blog postings are, essentially, stand-alone editorials.
From about day one as Chief Editor, I had to write editorials. I’d learned about editorial writing way back in Mrs. Langley’s eighth grade English class. I doubt Mrs. Langley ever knew how much I learned in her class, but it was a lot. Including how to write an editorial.
A successful editorial starts out introducing some problem, then explains little things like why it’s important and what it means to people like the reader, then tells the reader what to do about it. That last bit is what’s called the “Call to Action,” and it’s the most important part, and what everything else is there to motivate.
If your “problem” is easy to explain, you can often get away with an editorial 500 words long. Problems that are more complex or harder to explain take more words. Editorials can often reach 1,500 words.
If it can’t be done in 1,500 words, find a different problem to write your editorial about.
Now, magazine designers generally provide room for 500-1,000 word editorials, and editors generally work hard to stay within that constraint. Novice editors quickly learn that it takes a lot more work to write short than to write long.
Generally, writers start by dumping vast quantities of words into their manuscripts just to get the ideas out there, recorded in all their long-winded glory. Then, they go over that first draft, carefully searching for the most concise way to say what they want to say that still makes sense. Then, they go back and throw out all the ideas that really didn’t add anything to their editorial in the first place. By then, they’ve slashed the word count to close to what it needs to be.
After about five passes through the manuscript, the writer runs out of ways to improve the text, and hands it off to a production editor, who worries about things like grammar and spelling, as well as cramming it into the magazine space available. Then the managing editor does basically the same thing. Then the Chief Editor gets involved, saying “Omygawd, what is this writer trying to tell me?”
Finally, after about at least two rounds through this cycle, the article ends up doing its job (telling the readers something worth knowing) in the space available, or it gets “killed.”
“Killed” varies from just a mild “We’ll maybe run it sometime in the future,” to the ultimate “Stake Through The Heart,” which means it’ll never be seen in print.
That’s the process any piece of professional writing goes through. It takes days or weeks to complete, and it guarantees compact, dense, information-packed reading material. And, the shorter the piece, the more work it takes to pack the information in.
Think of cramming ten pounds of bovine fecal material into a five pound bag!
Is that how much work goes into the average Twitter feed?
I don’t think so! The twitter feeds I’ve seen sound like something written on a bathroom wall. They look like they were dashed off as fast as two fingers can type them, and they make their authors sound like illiterates.
THAT’s why I don’t use Twitter.
This blog posting, by the way, is a total of 5,415 characters long.