Archive for August, 2012

News Media Reaches Down; Potentially Finds a Pair? Multiple Outlets Call Paul Ryan Out on Convention Speech Falsehoods

It’s early to be optimistic, but something beautiful has happened over the last few days: a politician running for office told a bunch of lies, and some media publications actually called him a liar, in print.

How cool is that?

For the less politically-minded of you out there, Paul Ryan is the guy Mitt Romney picked to be his running mate, which is super confusing because he shares a name with both Ron and Rand Paul, and Rand Paul also shares a name with Ayn Rand, the anti-government rape fetishist that Paul Ryan claims to be an ardent philosophical devotee of, except for the parts where she hates religion and likes contraceptives and abortion.

So Paul Ryan, the new Republican running mate. All those other people, not. We got it?

Onward: Paul Ryan, this VP hopeful, gave a speech on Wednesday in which he told a lot of lies.

It’s important to be clear that we’re not talking about half-truths, spin, misdirection, or any of those other words we use to mean “yeah, he basically lied to us, but he kept some plausible deniability so let’s pretend he didn’t mean to.”

We’re talking about lies. Provably false statements of fact.

This has, of course, been going on for months. Just this week I threw up my own hands on this very blog, saying that we were all just going to have to get used to a post-factual campaign. No major news outlets, beyond a few leftie blogs, seemed inclined to actually come out and say “guys, the Romney campaign is lying. These things just aren’t true.”

Until yesterday.

It’s not really surprising when somewhere like The Rachel Maddow Show‘s MaddowBlog puts out a headline like “Paul Ryan stands on a foundation of lies.” They’ve been on top of even minor falsehoods for a while now, aggressively enough that even I would categorize some of their “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” claims as petty, and picking on minor differences of perspective rather than bald falsehood. I expected them to beat the Paul Ryan convention speech like it owed them money, and they did.

Likewise, the Romney campaign has openly said that they don’t care what fact-checkers think, and PolitiFact has had enough egg on its collective face lately that their “False” rating for a few of Ryan’s convention speech claims won’t make a lot of ripples.

But a lot of people outside the far left and/or politics junkie circles read the Huffington Post (if only for the sideboobs), so their “Paul Ryan Address: Convention Speech Built On Demonstrably Misleading Assertions” carries some weight. It also looks back far enough to rap the Romney campaign for the entirely false claim that Obama ended the welfare work requirements, something they’ve mostly been getting away with so far:

It was just one of several striking and demonstrably misleading elements of Ryan’s much-anticipated acceptance speech. And it comes just days after Romney pollster Neil Newhouse warned, defending the campaign’s demonstrably false ads claiming Obama removed work requirements from welfare, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

Jonathan Bernstein in the Washington Post editorial page goes further, leading his piece “Paul Ryan fails — the truth” off with the phrase “It was, by any reasonable standards, a staggering, staggering lie.”

Ezra Klein wrote an almost touchingly saddened piece (“A not-very-truthful speech in a not-very-truthful campaign“) looking back on his mostly-unsuccessful attempts to make an earlier “The true, the false, and the misleading: Grading Paul Ryan’s convention speech” column longer on “true” and shorter on “false,” in the interest of even-handedness.

And, miriable, Fox News contributor Sally Kohn described “Paul Ryan’s speech in 3 words” as “dazzling, deceiving, and distracting,” elaborating under the second heading that

to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.

Now, Ms. Kohn tends to play the role of the token liberal when she comments for Fox News, but they did run it, and that tells you something.

It tells you that maybe, just maybe, “one of the two campaigns for the Presidency of the United States is based heavily on outright lies” has finally become a news story.

I’m amazed that it took this long.

A Fond Farewell to Tamora Pierce (with adorable hedgehog pictures)

No, not the author of your childhood memory. She’s still kicking as far as I know.

This Tamora Pierce is a hedgehog! She has been boarding with me for the last week or so while her owner was out of town.

So far what I have learned about hedgehogs is that:

  • They don’t like being woken up.
  • They really don’t like being woken up when it’s still daytime.
  • They like baths, but tend to poop in them.
  • Little things love the shit out of their running wheels, but only use them at night, all night. Squeak-squeak-squeak.
  • They are possibly the solution to all energy problems, as the laws of physics would have to be broken somehow to generate that much poop from that little kibble.

But they are awfully cute little critters (so cute, in fact, that I’m filing this one under “Fuzzy Ponies” even though Tamora is neither fuzzy nor a pony, on the grounds that people who are searching for fuzzy ponies will probably appreciate hedgehogs too).

Here she is being grumpy at me:

That is what they look like if you wake them up when they don’t want to be woken up. Also they make little huffy grunts, adding to the overall image of a fussy old lady muttering about kids these days.

And here’s the actual Tamora Pierce, who, it must be said, looks a little bit like a hedgehog herself.

I will miss my spiky little friend! She was a pretty cool houseguest, and excellent blog fodder. I will put a few more pictures below for people who like to overload on adorable animals:

That is all for today. Writing about hedgehogs is very hard work and I need to take a break.

Women in Combat: A Bad Idea, Just Like Men in Combat

Political party platforms are curious animals.

I’ve sat through the making of one, at the state level, and the process is a fascinating mix of wonky parlimentarianism, curmudgeonly back-in-my-dayism, and church-basement coffee. You take your opinionated retirees, your NGO activists, and your Campus Democrats (or Campus Whatevers), which are the only groups that care enough to sit through the most boring part of a convention, and you let them wrangle about semicolon placement.

For hours. By popular vote.

Given the ideological dedication (or morbid curiosity) required to be part of a process like that, it maybe shouldn’t surprise us that party platforms tend to have some weird stuff in them. Molly Redden did a good post for The New Republic online highlighting six of the oddest beasts in the platform drafts being batted about Tampa this week; it’s worth a read in full.

But perhaps the oddest one to me is the on that reads “We support military women’s exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions.”

Really?

I realize that the Republican Party platform is not the place to look for ideological consistency. But what is it about the armed services that makes language like that possible? I mean, try to imagine the furor if the plank read “We support financial-sector women’s exemption from direct trading,” or “We support female teacher’s exemption from lunchroom duty,” or any other kind of sex-specific division.

The only way to justify a position that openly biased is to say that there’s something unique and special about either the duty (direct ground combat) or about women that makes the two incompatible. I don’t think you can make much of a case for the latter (not that that will stop the Todd Akins of the world from trying), so what is it about the former that so chills the heart of the Republican Party?

If it’s that direct ground combat makes you more likely to die, and that we feel that’s a bad thing, it’s hard to wrangle your way into a justification for why men should be doing it. Really, if you plumb the depths of this one you come to one of two sticky bottoms almost immediately:

  • Either A, the Republican Party officially believes that ground combat duty and infantry battalions are bad things and we should have less of them,
  • or, B, the Republican Party officially believes that women aren’t as good as men at the duties involved in ground combat and infantry battalions.

The former seems difficult to reconcile with the party’s overall hawkish foreign policy. The latter is offensive in the extreme and unsupportable by any kind of logic or evidence.

My heart of course hopes for the former. I’m personally of the opinion that killing people is always a bad idea, and that we shouldn’t be asking anyone to do it, much less to risk their own lives in the process, but I somehow doubt that’s what’s underlying this party plank.

And if it’s not, I’m amazed that it can pass with so little challenge, given how heinous a sex-specific prohibition on certain jobs would sound if you proposed it for any other governmental office.

Confessions: What I’ve Always Really Wanted to Write

I have a confession to make.

I’ve always wanted to write a Star Wars novel.

Not in a “writing drafts in my basement” kind of way, which would be creepy. But everyone has authorial daydreams of one sort or another and if — somehow, someday — I happened to be doing decently well for myself writing pulp books of one kind or another, the ultimate fulfillment of the daydream would be getting tapped for a Star Wars book.

The dream has lost some of its shine since my very early days of wanting to be a writer (which as near as I can peg them started around fourth or fifth grade). What’s referred to as the “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars, i.e. everything beyond the core movies, has gotten a lot more expanded.

At the time when I stopped reading new Star Wars novels as they came out, the timeline novelists had to work in ranged from very shortly before the first movie to about fifteen years after the last one. Some YA books played around a little later than that with the children of Han Solo and Princess Leia (twins, if you were wondering), but mostly the novels all followed the pretty predictable arc of Rebel vs. Imperial forces as the leaderless Empire falls reluctantly apart.

That was then and this is now.

Starting in 1999 the Star Wars novels took a turn for the unrecognizable, at least for people only familiar with the movies. An alien race from outside the Star Wars galaxy invades, to no good effect on the already-campy canon at all.

Riiiiight about here is where things turn shitty.

Novels about the prequels and the years before them also started appearing, and I’ve always privately wondered if there wasn’t some behind-the-scenes jockeying involved to at least get those, rather than having to write the alien-invasion stories. But who knows.

End result is there’s not much unclaimed space in the Star Wars timeline. We may even be heading for a reboot soon, though probably not until George Lucas dies. So I’m not sure there’d be a Star Wars novel left for me to write even if I did somehow get to a position in the industry where it was offered.

But it’s kinda fun to carry that embarrassing little adolescent dream with me in my career. There are worse things to want as a young writer, all in all.

Fact-Checking in a Post-Factual World

I travel in somewhat wonky circles these days. People I talk politics with have usually read at least the headliner blogs of choice for their particular political slant, and in a few cases even the non-partisan news aggregator sites like Wisconsin’s Wheeler Report (a daily link farm of political news in the state).

As a result I occasionally have to remind myself sternly that none of this information matters electorally.

We are quite frankly living in a post-factual political world. It does not matter what the jobs report says, it does not matter what happened under Obama and what happened under Bush or under Romney as governor; it does not matter how much oil we are or aren’t drilling right at this particular second.

The campaigns you see on TV are going to be about talking points with no grounding in fact.

“The economy got worse under Obama.” Well, no, it didn’t, not by any sane measurement. It’s not going gangbusters, but it’s better than it was at the start of 2009, and saying anything else is false. But that won’t change that narrative, or the massive slice of the population that believes it’s true.

“The Affordable Care Act provides real universal coverage for the first time in American history.” Well, no, it doesn’t. At the very best it’s a band-aid on our hemorrhaging health care costs, and sustaining an ultimately unsustainable way of running the business to boot. But that, too, won’t change the narrative, or the wide swath of the voting public that takes it as gospel.

It is unquestionable that Mitt Romney is worse about this (or better about it, if we take post-factual campaigning as the new political model in which you sink or swim, in which case he is Michel fucking Phelps). The loveably, deludeably, fact-faithful liberals at MaddowBlog have been running a “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” series for months now, which you’re welcome to check out if you want to get a better sense of scale for just how often his campaign puts out things that are proveably false. It is a little startling if you’re not familiar.

But that’s not really the point.

It doesn’t matter how many Pinocchios or Pants on Fire Mitt Romney gets, and it doesn’t matter how many times clever people like the staff of The Rachel Maddow Show point them out. No one’s reading that crap. They’re reading

ROMNEY: ECONOMY WILL CONTINUE TO GET WORSE UNDER OBAMA

and either nodding their heads or frothing at the mouth. And that’s the period, end of story, no further fact-checking thank you please.

Politifact and FactCheck and all their various imitators were a good idea. But ultimately, they’re an MMORPG for people who want to roleplay as journalists, and just like any MMO, no one outside the game cares about your high score.

Welcome to post-factual campaigning.

 

Sitting on a Park Bench/The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

It’s another one every damn week, ain’t it?

From the Huffington Post:

A prominent Louisiana-based Christian pastor known for his anti-gay stance was convicted of obscenity yesterday after being caught masturbating at a public park near a children’s playground last year.

It makes me want to create some sort of public resource — at this point we need a professionally-catalogued website just to keep track of all the people who criticize sexual behavior and then get arrested for performing some sort of illegal sexual behavior. Or who just get outed for performing a legal sexual behavior that they’ve criticized, for that matter; it’s not like most of these guys (and I notice it almost always is guys, as in with a penis) limit themselves to railing against currently-criminalized behaviors.

There are a few “best of” type websites that highlight entertaining cases, like Ranker’s “Top 10 Anti-Gay Politicians Caught Being Gay” (problematic title, that), but nothing comprehensive that I’ve found. Possibly because the sheer volume of data is unmanageable on a hobby level? This might be the sort of project that needs an actual business plan and professional staff.

But I think at the very least we can develop the beginnings of a thesis here:

The more public statements someone makes condemning other people’s private behavior, the more likely it is that he or she feels guilty about his/her private behavior.

The lady doth protest too much, only it almost never seems to be a lady in these stories. Mostly balding white men. That could point to an inherent media bias that’s just missing the similar stories when they occur among less “newsworthy” demographics like women and men of color, of course, but that’s the trouble with media bias — you can never know what’s an actual absence of news versus what’s overlooked news.

Back briefly to our lead story here, though, the publicly-masturbating pastor:

Storms has been a very vocal critic of the gay community and tried to get the gay pride festival, Southern Decadence, shut down after he videotaped man participating in sex acts and masturbating in the street. (WWA, via Huffington Post)

The Om Nom Nom Fork

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate how delightful this fork is:

Yes, it’s a fork that says “OMNOMNOMNOM” all over the handle.

(“Om nom nom,” I should probably mention for my older readers, is a cutsey, onomotopoetic “eating” sound popular among entirely-too-precious people. I think it comes from anime or something.)

Alas, the fork doesn’t actually say OMNOMNOM; it says NWONWONWO. But laid out on a table it reads just the same.

The “NWO” comes from “Northwest Orient,” which is kind of a fun bit of advertising trivia in its own right: from around the 1950s up through their merger with Republic in the 80s, Northwest Airlines went by “Northwest Orient” in all their advertising materials, even though the company’s official name never changed.

(Incidentally, it means the fork, which came from a drawer in a cabin my parents rented, dates back to at least 1986.)

If Northwest had stuck around I’m sure someone would have forced a name-change for reasons of political correctness by now anyway, but NWA (or NWO if you prefer) got snapped up by Delta years ago, saving us one more nomenclatural slap-fight on the cable news. So that’s your airline/advertising trivia for the day.

Om nom nom nom nom.

I Want a Manual Everything

I am ready to admit that my computer is better at catching spelling errors than I am. That benchmark was passed a long, long time ago in our slog toward the Singularity. A man knows when he’s beat.

That said, the computer can damn well wait until I ask it to start checking.

I mention this because I got to borrow a very nice new computer this week (and really, it is pretty damn slick), and apparently the newer Macs come loaded with their very own internal autocorrect.

Not spellcheck, mind you. It doesn’t underline words in red when it thinks they’re wrong. It changes them into the word it thinks you meant to use, and then helpfully underlines the word in blue in case you want to overrule the change.

This is a Bridge Too Far in my relationship with machines.

Cars that turn the headlights on when the car thinks it’s dark enough to need headlights. Computers that preemptively correct my spelling without being asked. All this crap that does things for me is not more convenient than doing it myself.

Forget about insulting, forget about bad for our already feeble human brains; it’s just not practical. Sometimes there are good and solid reasons for wanting your car’s headlights out, in the dark, while the engine is running. Sometimes those reasons involve telling trucks that you’re going to let them pass you on the highway and sometimes they involve not being stabbed to death by smugglers — who knows which one might come up in your life?

Going back to correct your autocorrect defeats the whole purpose of an autocorrect. And don’t get me started on the limitations of the spellchecker’s dictionary, because I already started on that topic years ago.

You know how no one actually likes those vibrators with like forty speeds that change their pulse setting every ten seconds? The same thing holds true for the rest of technology. Don’t make it do shit until we tell it to.

GIGO is fine, but it has to come with a NINO antecedent — Nothing In, Nothing Out.

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

Conclusions Should Not Be Made Lightly

I don’t know of a single journalism program out there with a mandatory logic and rhetoric course, but by God there ought to be one.

I don’t say this lightly. I had a professor once who was deeply in love with fallacies and proofs and all that business, and as an academic exercise it’s incredibly tedious. It seems a cruel thing to wish on anybody.

But we can’t go on — we really can’t — with newspapers and blogs and don’t get me started on TV news that routinely uses declarative sentences and straight faces for flights of utter fancy.

I’ve actually floundered a bit as I write this post to pick examples. There are too many and they are too routine to raise eyebrows. It doesn’t matter what the topic is; you will find unsupported and inaccurate conjecture treated as plain fact in more of the coverage than not.

Remember, for example, a couple weeks ago, when Mitt Romney was headed off to Europe? Before he actually went there and started saying embarrassing things, the press coverage dutifully reported that “Mitt Romney will be leaving on a European trip to brush up his foreign policy credentials.”

That was the line and that was what got reported basically everywhere.

Which begs the question — what the hell about that conclusion struck the vast majority of writers and editors out there as provable fact?

The part about leaving for Europe, all right. Other than that, where are we getting our assumptions from? This will burnish his foreign policy credentials? Wonderful! How? I went to Europe for a whole semester and I’m pretty sure it didn’t qualify me to be President. I’m not saying there aren’t ways one could spend six days gaining valuable policy experience, but it’s not a neat if A then B given that going to Europe improves your foreign policy credentials.

And yet that was the narrative so that was the conclusion, never mind the facts. There’s no big scandal in this example — just a casual, routine willingness to cut corners and report assumption as proven fact.

This is everywhere. And it’s a problem. And so far it shows no signs of going away, so really all I can do is rant and rail a bit and then encourage all of you to read more carefully. Here, try an experiment:

Take ten minutes out of your day to fact-check the next news article you read. I’m not saying that everything in it will be lies and misinformation because the Zionist media conspiracy is out to control your mind, but I am willing to lay a fiver that it will contain some kind of unsubstantiated or incomplete conclusion presented as unquestioned fact.

If you want a challenge you can try it with The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times; for a more fish-in-a-barrel hunting experience try Politico or Slate or any of the Gawker family of blogs.

Go on and give it a shot — you can come back and let me know how you did in the comments. Feel free to share the link with us (a sneaky way to foist your favorite news source off on the rest of the world!).

Am I not loving and supportive of my reader community? Off you go, now. And read carefully.

I Hike Without a Towel and I’m Proud of It

Like most people of my generation, I was never actually a hitchhiker. In America, at least, hitchhiking had made the full transition from “a cheap way to travel the country” to “a cheap way to get stabbed in the kidney by a hobo (and/or arrested on suspicion of being a kidney-stabbing hobo)” twenty-odd years before I was born.

The closest most of us ever came was backpacking, which retains the general challenge of carrying everything you could possibly need for all life events on your back while dispensing with the high encounter rate of escaped convicts.

I mention all this because years after reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the recommended age (early adolescence) I still get a little irritated every time I consider or someone mentions packing a towel in preparation for a trip. For those of you that have forgotten (or never read) the relevant passage:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Needless to say, I do not agree with the premise here.

And maybe that’s just generational and cultural differences. Your modern backpacker is unlikely to be borrowing gear off anyone, on account of the bears don’t carry pocket handkerchiefs and don’t much care if you do either, and in the unlikely event that you are bumming off someone your average American is unlikely to be impressed by the presence of a towel. Brits place, I’m told, a higher standard on such creature comforts.

But as far as I go a towel is wasted weight. A spare shirt will do just as well and has the added advantage of being, you know, a spare shirt. A bit of fluffy cloth might be a nice luxury once in a while, but on the triage of “ounces that I will have to support with my own body for weeks on end,” it’s among the first to go.

And maybe that’s just the difference between stupid hiking-related hobbies in Britain in 1979 and America in 2012. I’m willing to accept that.

Just don’t get up in my face about knowing where my towel is. I damn well know where my towel is; it’s back at home in the linen closet where I left it.

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