Truth vs. Truthiness

I alluded in the last entry to a problem in modern “journalism:” the apparent need to balance a story about party A lying with a story about party B lying, in order to preserve the superficial appearance of impartiality. Even if Party A does lie more than B, we’ve reached a point where this can’t be pointed out without claims of bias surfacing from party A, and being echoed by party A’s loyal mouthpieces, which is enough to muddy the water and prevent any real discussion of the mendacity.

This approach has allowed one party — the GOP — to basically say and do whatever they wanted, knowing full well their lapdogs at Fox would protect them, and knowing mainstream journalists NOT owned by major donors would be too timid to point out that “hey, these guys lie WAY more than the Democrats!”

A logical outgrowth of this is something like the Politifact Lie-of-the-Year thing, where a factually true statement (the GOP sought to end Medicare as we know it) is instead presented as a massive falsehood precisely because the ledger at previously-trustworthy Politifact is so full of Republican lies already that people were claiming Politifact itself was biased.

And, as Krugman points out, this is par for the course today.

Exit Politifact

Politifact, in naming the Dems’ claim that the GOP was seeking to end Medicare their “Lie of the Year,” have basically destroyed any credibility they had. That’s a damn shame; they’ve basically allowed themselves to be bullied into picking a Democratic point (a true one) as their “lie of the year” to avoid appearing biased, since the vast majority of their analysis suggests that the GOP engages in regular and shameless mendacity. The fact, as they say, have a well-known liberal bias.

Briefly, they’re calling it a lie because, if the GOP got their way, there would still be something called “Medicare.” It just wouldn’t have much in common with Medicare as it’s known today — but hey, if it’s got the same name, it must be the same thing, right?

Washington Monthly has more, as does MediaMatters.

Politifact, for its part, just doubled down, not unlike certain douchebag “marketing” professionals we could name.

Advice for Millionaires, from a Deranged Millionaire

John Hodgman Lays It Out For You.

At one point on my book tour, I was approached in the airport by a former banker.

He told me he was a life long Democrat and a huge fan of The Daily Show, but he also felt that Jon and the show had it all wrong.

(Because he was a multi millionaire, he has the right to just start critizing anyone in the airport he wants.)

He said that the bankers were not the bad guys in the subprime mortgage scandal and near financial collapse that they had everything to do with. They were just doing what the government allowed them to do.

And so: he felt it was unfair and hurtful to make the bankers out to be the bad guys.

I was very happy to finally have the chance to say this to someone’s face:

I told him that as a freelance person, I had no idea how much money I would make this year. I never do.

But during the previous few years, due to hard work and exceedingly strange circumstance, I had made more money than I had ever conceived of making in my life. I had also paid a huge bucket of local, state, and city taxes, and that was JUST FINE WITH ME.

Because I knew that I had very little to worry about when it came to providing for my family and me this holiday season. And I suspected he didn’t as well.

But there are many, many people who are VERY worried about this. And out of consideration to them, it seemed to me a little unseemly for wealthy to care so much about the names they might be called.

“From my point of view,” I said, “I think you and me and other wealthy people should just suck it in and take it.”

I have never said anything like this out loud to a stranger before in my life, never mind a stranger who has money; but as I am now a Deranged Millionaire, I now have that right to speak my mind.

Go read the whole thing.

Dear Congress

It’s no longer okay for you people to be completely clueless about technology. KTHXBI.

We get it. You think you can be cute and old-fashioned by openly admitting that you don’t know what a DNS server is. You relish the opportunity to put on a half-cocked smile and ask to skip over the techno-jargon, conveniently masking your ignorance by making yourselves seem better aligned with the average American joe or jane — the “non-nerds” among us. But to anyone of moderate intelligence that tuned in to yesterday’s Congressional mark-up of SOPA, the legislation that seeks to fundamentally change how the internet works, you kind of just looked like a bunch of jack-asses.

[...]

But the chilling takeaway of this whole debacle was the irrefutable air of anti-intellectualism; that inescapable absurdity that we have members of Congress voting on a technical bill who do not posses any technical knowledge on the subject and do not find it imperative to recognize those who do.

Merry Christmas. The Government Says It Can Kill You And Not Say Why

Both JWZ and BoingBoing point us to this post about a Freedom of Information request filed surrounding the assassination, by us, of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

The source blog’s title is worth noting: “For Christmas, Your Government Will Explain Why It’s Legal to Kill You” — except, of course, that it won’t do that, either.

Here’s their summary, quoted in full:

Summary:

  • The government dropped a bomb on a U.S. citizen,
  • who, though a total dick and probably a criminal, may have been engaged only in propaganda,
  • which, though despicable, is generally protected by the First Amendment;
  • it did so without a trial or even an indictment (that we know of),
  • based at least in part on evidence it says it has but won’t show anyone,
  • and on a legal argument it has apparently made but won’t show anyone,
  • and the very existence of which it will not confirm or deny;
  • although don’t worry, because the C.I.A. would never kill an American without having somebody do a memo first;
  • and this is the “most transparent administration ever”;
  • currently run by a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

I’d really love for someone to explain to me why I shouldn’t be utterly terrified by this.

Holiday Travel Update

Wired reminds us that the jury is distinctly still out on the porno-cancer scanners in use by the TSA. Opt out. Every time. And, frankly, fuck the milimeter-wave ones, too — health issues aside, they serve no security purpose.

I imagine him thinking “alright, okay, we can stop for you to play with the weird animal”

Over at MeFi, there’s a great single-link video post of a man having a very, very close encounter with a group of juvenile mountain gorillas in the care of a simply tremenous silverback.

Take five minutes. Watch this. Nature is amazing.

Now, having watched them, realize that the gorillas on this video are unfortunately a statistically significant proportion of the remaining wild population.

“Even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”

Everyone should go read this Vanity Fair piece on airport security, in which the author interviews perennial Heathen favorite Bruce Schneier.

As has been pointed out abundantly before, and by smarter people than I, NOTHING being done “because of 9/11″ is at all useful from a security perspective except these three point:

  • Reinforcing the cockpit doors;
  • Positive luggage matching, such that it’s no longer possible to have your bags fly if you don’t board; and
  • You and I and everyone else reading this knows to resist any potential hijacker, period, full stop.

Literally everything else the TSA is doing — and they spend billions a year, including over a billion on the cancer-and-porno scanners — is a complete waste of time, money, and awareness. The expenditure, both in real dollars and in inconvenience and lost productivity, is far, far out of scale with the potential threat. In the last decade, orders of magnitude more people have drowned in their tubs than have been killed by terrorists. It’s a real “boy who cried wolf” situation — we’re watching the wrong things, at the wrong places, and in so doing making it less likely we’ll notice real threats. Remember, the terrorists’ goal isn’t to blow up or crash airplanes. The terrorists’ goal is to sow terror. Harden airports? Maybe they’ll hit malls.

And, as the title notes, we’re not even making airports secure. (Not that it matters.) Here’s the full quote:

“We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this–and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”

Wise words on strategic default

Go read the whole thing. I’ve never faced the kind of financial black hole that would make such a default a good move for me, but I believe I’d make the same analysis the author has.

We normally say that a company “went bankrupt,” implying that it had no choice. But when, recently, American Airlines filed for bankruptcy, it did so deliberately. The airline had four billion dollars in the bank and could have kept paying its bills. But it has been losing money for a while, and its board decided that it was foolish to keep throwing good money after bad. Declaring bankruptcy will trim American’s debt load and allow it to break its union contracts, so that it can slim down and cut costs.

American wasn’t stigmatized for the move. Instead, analysts hailed it as “very smart.” It is now generally accepted that when it’s economically irrational for a company to keep paying its debts it will try to renegotiate them or, failing that, default. For creditors, that’s just the price of business. But when it comes to another set of borrowers the norms are very different. The bursting of the housing bubble has left millions of homeowners across the country owing more than their homes are worth. In some areas, well over half of mortgages are underwater, many so deeply that people owe forty or fifty per cent more than the value of their homes. In other words, a good percentage of Americans are in much the same position as American Airlines: they can still pay their debts, but doing so is like setting a pile of money on fire every month.

These people have no hope of ever making a return on their investment in their homes. So for many of them the rational solution would be a “strategic default”–walking away from the mortgage and letting the bank take the house. Yet the vast majority of underwater borrowers keep faithfully paying their mortgages; studies suggest that perhaps only a quarter of all foreclosures are strategic. Given how much housing prices have fallen, the question is why more people aren’t just walking away.

Welcome to the Police State

Just so we’re clear, it turns out that it’s totally legal for the cops to roll up on you, search you without any cause, and beat you silly, and you have utterly no right to resist. In fact, they may charge you with a crime, just for fun.

I’m not kidding.

This is, of course, especially true if you happen to be black.

End immunity. Now. No agent of the state should enjoy such protections not afforded to our citizens.

Well, color me surprised

I’ve enjoyed the work of David Milch for years, especially Deadwood. Longtime Heathen also know of my deep affection for the work of Richard Yates, and even that I knew him a little, in the last years of his life, when he was the writer in residence at Alabama during my time there.

It’s only in reading this bit here, about the wildly bizarre connection Richard Yates has with Seinfeld, that I discover something else:

When Yates was teaching at Iowa, Milch was one of his students.

All we’re going to say about Hitchens

The Onion, 2003: Christopher Hitchens Forcibly Removed From Trailer Park After Drunken Confrontation With Common-Law Wife:

Noted author, social critic, and political gadfly Christopher Hitchens was once again the focus of controversy Monday, when he was forcibly removed from Happy Trails trailer park following a drunken confrontation with Noreen Bodell, 39, his common-law wife of 14 years.

Responding to a domestic-disturbance call, police arrived at the couple’s double-wide trailer at approximately 2:15 p.m. to find Hitchens and Bodell throwing dishes at each other. When the officers attempted to remove Hitchens from the premises, the leftist intellectual became physically and verbally abusive toward the officers, calling them “shitkickers,” “bitches,” and “effete liberal apologists for the atrocities of late-stage capitalism.”

Having consumed what sources described as “a substantial amount of single-malt scotch,” Hitchens then burst into tears, yelling, “That woman never understood me for who I am. I want to talk to [Harper's editor Lewis] Lapham. Lapham’s the only one who understands me.”

Go read it all.

Dept. of Cold, Hard, Truth: Branding is bullshit.

Nobody gives a rat’s ass about your brand.

So HP may or may not be getting a new logo. This is a complete waste of their time. What HP should do to make people care about them is simple: Return to making innovative products that people love, like they did in the 80s and early 90s. They chose not to be that company anymore at some point, and became an also-ran in a field of equally competent printer and PC vendors. Oh, and they do IT outsourcing, which goes about as well as you’d expect, and their fortunes are fading as a result.

So now they’re spending money on a new logo to fix it? That’s sure as shit going to do one thing: line the pockets of starry-eyed marketing and branding people only too happy to cash their checks. It’ll also be nice for the printing companies who do HP’s cards, and the signmakers who do the buildings, but it won’t make one fucking iota of difference to any actual customer, because brand equity is built on experience with the company, not a snazzy Illustrator file and new color palette.

This is very, very close to something people are noticing about magazine treatments on the iPad. Briefly, the Conde Nast or whomever marketers in charge of the interface for Newsstand placement or custom apps are all mad for fancy splash screens that show off the magazine’s logo. And no reader has ever cared about that. They want the content. Popping up a splash screen that eats 2 or 3 seconds every time the user wants to resume reading your magazine says “we care more about Branding than we do about you the customer,” and see above in the value of branding. In this case, aggressive logo displays are DEFINITELY having an effect on how people view the company, but it’s not the effect the crystalgazing marketdroids had in mind.

Branding is to corporate America as fad diets are to those of us fighting the battle of the bulge: a waste, ultimately. To lose weight and be healthy, all you really need to do is move your feet more than your fork. It’s a lifestyle change, not a thing you do once. You can dress it up (more veggies! less meat! more cardio! add yoga!), but that’s it at its most basic point. Switching to an all-lentils-and-spinach diet for six weeks isn’t going to create lasting value or change.

The corporate equivalent of “move your feet more than your fork” is almost as simple: Make good, reliable products that people like. Make sure that, when people have a problem with your product, you take care of them within reason.

That’s it. That’s who HP used to be, but are not anymore. That’s who Apple is now, obviously. That’s who Sony used to be, but aren’t anymore. It’s who Zappos and Amazon are, at least most of the time.

Just like weight loss, there is no silver bullet. You have to do the hard work of actually BEING a good company for people to view you as a good company. Paying a bunch of graphic designers and Flash programmers to rebrand your website is a waste of time if you’re not making real commitments to quality and customer satisfaction — and may still be a waste of time even if you are. Worse, fancy re-branding efforts come off as smoke and mirrors designed to distract customers and investors even if they’re not (and, let’s be honest, frequently they ARE). So skip them.

Do good work.

Make your customers happy.

The brand will follow.

Again, start yelling

Go read this right now.

The current Defense Authorization bill includes some provisions that would make mincemeat of our most basic freedoms:

One provision would authorize the military to indefinitely detain without charge people suspected of involvement with terrorism, including United States citizens apprehended on American soil. Due process would be a thing of the past. Some claim that this provision would merely codify existing practice. Current law empowers the military to detain people caught on the battlefield, but this provision would expand the battlefield to include the United States — and hand Osama bin Laden an unearned victory long after his well-earned demise.

How many did YOU have?

On this list of you-might-be-an-early-adopter-if-you-owned-these over at Wired, I find myself batting .500: I had:

  • a MiniDisc player;
  • A Sharp Wizard;
  • Three Newtons, unfairly maligned as they were;
  • An original Palm Pilot.

I missed both eyeglass displays, and all my modems were at least 1200 baud (and built-in, without acoustic couplers). I’m also pretty sure WebTV shouldn’t be on this list — it was a product for technophobes, not people who actually knew technology.

Followup on the Lowe’s vs. Muslims Funtime

TPM has a rundown that also includes some great quotes from the Florida Family Association, aka the right wing nutjobs who badgered Lowe’s into pulling their ads from the program:

The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.

In other words: “Your show about Mooslims doesn’t show them to be insane freaks like we all know they are! Fix it!”

Wow.

Urged on by the “Florida Family Association,” Lowe’s has pulled its ads from a TLC reality program about a Muslim family in Michigan because the show isn’t bigoted enough.

The FFA said:

“The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish,” the group said about the show, a docu-soap chronicling everyday Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan that debuted last month. “Clearly this program is attempting to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to influence them to believe that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show.”