Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Powerball Fever

It's Wednesday, and while that day is celebrated in offices around the world as “hump day”, here at Chez Keith it is better known by the appellation “garbage night”, for this is the day that heralds the weekly chore of lugging the trash to the curb – although, in truth, the plastic bag is seldom heavy enough to be “lugged”, the curb is a mere five feet away, and while ostensibly still a “chore”, the task requires more thought than effort. But today is also lottery night, and with the Powerball Jackpot having surpassed the half-billion dollar mark, Wednesday night has taken on an entirely new dimension.

I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I searched the Internet to learn where I could purchase lottery tickets. The better question, it seems, would have been Where can't lottery tickets be purchased? In a land where one can search in vain for affordable health care or an honest politician, lottery tickets were literally available on every street corner.

My next obstacle was the cost. I had no idea what these pieces of blue sky sold for, and wondered if I had enough change in my pocket. I was surprised to learn Powerball tickets cost $2 a piece. This presented a budgetary quandary – it would mean forgoing my nightly Cadbury Dark Chocolate candy bar. Besides the obvious pleasure of enjoying one of the most important food groups, a single Cadbury Dark Chocolate bar provides 100% of the minimum daily requirement of chocolate. Purchasing a lottery ticket would entail sacrificing my health and nutritional needs, but so be it.

Next, I had to choose the numbers. I had researched this online, as well, and found “expert advice” advising me to avoid 3, 7, and 14 because those numbers won most often and were chosen frequently, and would likely lead to my having to share my $650 million winnings with others. I pondered the warped logic of why it would be better to choose losing numbers and keep nothing all for myself than to select numbers that might actually appear on the winning ticket, even if it meant receiving a paltry $325 million. It seemed to me, I could do quite well with only $325 million. In fact, $1 million would improve my circumstances considerably, but apparently this was chicken scratch to the Internet guru.

The online expert also recommended buying lots of tickets because that would increase the chances of winning. I suppose, were this a question on a statistics exam, I would have to agree the odds might be nudged infinitesimally, but real life doesn’t work that way. The odds of winning are calculated at 175 million –to-one. Now, I know my math is off, but if I wanted to knock those odds down to the odds of an all-or-none coin toss, how many tickets would I have to buy? 80 million? At $2 a piece. And then, I ‘d still have a 50-50 chance of walking home without a dime. No, random means random. I think I’ll have just as much luck as anyone else if I buy one ticket. The guy in front of me buying 100 tickets and I will have one thing in common tomorrow—neither of us will be $650 million richer, but I’ll only be $2 poorer.

Of course, if I did win the lottery, I would soon be approached by long-lost friends who suddenly added me to their Christmas lists, distant relatives who discovered me via genealogy software, and enough charitable donation seekers to make a pack of Girl Scouts armed with cookies seem a welcome sight. Most lottery winners end up losing friends, squandering the money, finding new (or expanding on existing) vices like alcohol and hookers, committing suicide, or even being murdered.

I stared at my winning lottery ticket. (I’ve learned that every lottery purchaser believes he or she has acquired the holy grail, that single slip of paper that will ensure a “happily ever after”). I tucked it neatly in the plastic bag, tied the drawstrings, and lugged the garbage bag to the curb, secure in the knowledge that I had won the Powerball lottery and had emerged unscathed.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Elephant in the Bubble

The Elephant in the Bubble - Part Two

If America's decline began with Fox News permeating its airwaves, it was exacerbated by the "perfect storm" of talk radio and the creation of the Internet. These three outlets became ubiquitous throughout American society: Everyone was online, watched TV, and listened to the radio in their cars.

As music migrated to the FM band, AM stations, seeking a product to draw listeners, stumbled onto the concept of talk radio. It was cheap to produce (one blowhard and one microphone) and easy to create controversy -- attracting attention and listeners, which translated into ratings and advertising dollars. Invariably, the most ardent listeners turned out to be the angry right-wing, so naturally the radio stations pandered to that audience, launching the careers of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and Laura Schlessinger, among other conservative talk show hosts.

The Internet, meanwhile, allowed anyone to create a Website and fill it with their opinions or what they claim to be facts -- without the traditional journalistic filters of fact-checking editors or journalistic responsibility. Because of the great weight of the printed word, many believe anything in writing to be true; hence the meme, "I read it on the Internet; it must be true."

This trifecta, this unholy triad of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the Internet, spawned two phenomena: the Echo Chamber and the Bubble.

The way humans form opinions is to receive information from a variety of sources, evaluate the data for relevance and veracity, discard what they deem irrelevant or untrue, and finally accept what remains. Often, they are presented with two or more opposing conclusions and must reach their own conclusions after careful perusal and analysis of the evidence. This process necessitates an openness to receiving new information. For example, if Helen is short-tempered and moody when you meet her, you might conclude she is not a nice person. However, after a friend informs you Helen is under tremendous stress because she is going through a bitter divorce, her son is dying of leukemia, and she has recently lost her job, your brain will process this new information and cause you to re-evaluate your initial conclusion.

When we limit the flow of information to only one source, we exclude the possibility of new information being presented by others. We also eliminate the presentation of conflicting data. This creates a "bubble" insulating us from outside sources of information. In our bubble, we hear the same data on TV from Fox News; from talk radio; and from others sharing these views gathering on, and posting to, conservative Websites. Soon, it becomes easy to believe everyone lives in the same bubble, because everyone you see on TV, listen to on radio, and talk to online agrees on the same talking points. In fact, because the same talking points are regurgitated among the unholy triad, it generates an Echo Chamber, constantly repeating and reinforcing these messages. As Marshall McLuhan said,  "The medium is the message."

This is why so many Republicans -- including Mitt Romney himself -- were shocked when Barack Obama won re-election. They lived in the bubble and believed the artificial reality that had been created within it. In the bubble, the Kenyan-born, Socialist president had been destined to lose by a landslide to Romney. Data from outside the bubble was ignored or dismissed. But as the Coyote taught us in those old Road Runner cartoons, you can ignore the law of gravity by running off the cliff, but gravity still exists, whether or not you choose to accept it.

"The Elephant in the Bubble" isn't an attack on Republicans or the Right Wing. Had Murdoch swung left, it could well have been the liberal segment of American politics that fell victim to the phenomenon. Instead, it is an indictment on the corruption of the state of what passes for journalism today and the gullibility of Americans. As H. L. Mencken said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Murdoch knew this.

It is a perfectly valid choice to be a member of any political party or affiliation that represents your beliefs, be it Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Tea Party, Progressive, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative, or Green Party. I might disagree with your opinions, but I respect individuals who have studied the issues, analyzed the facts from a variety of sources, and drawn their own conclusion because such people care about the issues that affect their country and their fellow citizens. What I don't respect, and will continue to rail against, are individuals and organizations that propagate misinformation and propaganda, either by design or ignorance, parroting talking points without acknowledging and considering facts from outside the Bubble to inform their opinions. As Harlan Ellison said, "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

Thus, our current social and political divide, which has split families and set brother against brother with passions not felt since the Civil War, is a wholly artificial creation with its roots in greed. The only hope to reverse America's decline is to tune out the propaganda that serves only to enrich plutocrats like Murdoch, educate ourselves with facts derived from a myriad of legitimate sources  instead of talking point or political propaganda, and then work together -- with the same spirit of unity we employed to climb out of the Great Depression, to win WWII, and to put a man on the moon -- and rebuild our country and restore its preeminence.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Elephant Man Cometh

The Elephant in the Bubble - Part One

Whoever controls the public's access to information can shape it, and thus controls public opinion. America's decline began in 1996 with Keith Rupert Murdoch's introduction of FOX News to American television.

Murdoch's motivation has always been power and money, not political ideology. Had he thought he could make more money by introducing a left-wing propaganda network instead of a right-wing one, he would have. After all, this is the man who backed the Australian Labor Party on a social platform that included universal free health care and free education for all Australian citizens. Murdoch's forays into journalism had been limited to tabloid trash and titillation, scandal and sensationalism, and manipulation of public opinion. Anything other than what Jack Webb used to intone as "Just the facts, ma'am."

His tentacles are far-reaching. In his native Australia: The Adelaide News, The Sunday Times, The Daily Mirror, The Herald and Weekly Times, and a host of other tabloids; in New Zealand: The Dominion, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph; in Great Britain: The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, and satellite network Sky Television; in Italy, controlling interest in satellite television Sky Italia; in Hong Kong, Star TV (broadcasting from Hong Kong to India, China, Japan, and more than 30 Asian countries); in the United States: The San Antonio Express-News, The New York Post, an interest in 20th Century Fox, and Metromedia television stations which became the basis of the Fox Broadcasting Company. Murdoch also owns the Website and magazine The Weekly Standard, 34% of Direct TV's parent company, and the Fox movie studio. Oh, and he bought Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and SmartMoney.

Rupert Murdoch is obviously an opinion shaper. But while there have always been newspaper magnates -- on a significantly smaller scale, such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer -- who attempted to manipulate public opinion on their editorial pages, Murdoch has gone further, manipulating public opinion through the presentation of the news itself, and then by presenting commentary and analysis as news, and finally by offering fantasy as fact. But it was Fox News, in combination with two other forces, that split the American social and political fabric in a way not seen since the Civil War. I'll talk about that in my next post.

Next: "The Elephant in the Bubble - Part Two"

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I hope everyone reading this in America had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere unfamiliar with our holiday, it's like Christmas without the presents but with twice the food.

I've just returned from Thanksgiving dinner, where my precocious eight-year-old niece asked, "Uncle Keith, are you still being an author?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Are you still writing books?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Are you famous yet?" she asked.

I shook my head. "Nope."

She placed her hands on her hips and sternly asked, "How many years have you been doing this?"

That kid's going to make someone a fine ex-wife, in about 20 years.  ;)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hate and Loathing in America

I've been observing a disturbing trend this week on social media. My personal Facebook page (not the public one you guys see) has been flooded with an outpouring of post-election hate. What's particularly disturbing, is this hate speech is coming from my personal friends (people I know and like), and friends of theirs (their social circles).

One man complained "the government should not spend money on useless minorities." The man's uncle, my friend, reminded his nephew that he was gay, and thus one of those "useless minorities."

One friend commented on a post quoting 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith with the pithy reply: "Sounds like jew propaganda to me." The two-page quote about economics never mentioned religion. But why pass up an opportunity to bring in an anti-Semitic remark in a discussion about money?

A friend of mine asked: "Dow down over 300 points... what happened?" Based on my experience as a former stockbroker and having earned an MBA from one of the nation's top MBA schools, I gave a reasoned, non-political  response: "European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said the debt crisis is starting to hurt Germany (the lynchpin holding up the EU economy). Add to that Apple's continued descent into bear territory (more than 20% decline from $703 to $563 in one month) and uncertainty about the so-called "fiscal cliff" and traders are bailing out of long positions. I expect a few rocky months ahead with some good buying opportunities on the dips and a rebound in early 2013." His friends chimed in with more simplistic, Tea Party-like (but incorrect)  response : "Wrong guy won." and "Wrong guy won - an understatement at best."

This kind of thinking is called a syllogism: a type of logical argument in which the conclusion is inferred from two events: Obama was re-elected and the stock market fell. But it is also what's called a logical fallacy because there is no evidence to connect the two unrelated events (for example, if Obama as president were bad for the Dow, it would not have doubled during the first four years of his presidency, so if anything, his retention as president should be viewed as favorable for the Dow's prospects), while there is evidence pointing to the true causes of the market decline. We call such evidence "facts". People who make emotion-based arguments (haters) ignore facts (logic). And when you present them with the facts, they tune it out. I'll discuss this tuning out of reality in my next post. But for now, I think we have to ask why there is so much more hate and ignorance rising to the surface of the American zeitgeist.

Another friend said "I did something I've never done before here on Facebook -- I unfriended four people." He explained he disliked the "level of discourse, whether in anger because a candidate lost or whether in trash talking mode because a candidate we like won" that appeared on his Facebook news feed from his friends. As I've stated, I, too, am disturbed by this. But, as a journalist, I find it troubling to censor the speech of others simply because I do not agree with it or find it offensive. If it turns out my friends are not the people I thought they were, but instead, indeed carry such hate in their hearts, then I shall delete them as friends both from Facebook and from my life. But venting from a passionately held political belief is different from racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic remarks.

I replied: "I haven't defriended anyone based on their political beliefs, although I have hidden some of the feeds of some of the more abusive friends, and I have blocked some friends from reading my feed because I knew they are so far from my views that my political posts during the campaign would disturb them. I don't mind political debate and I appreciate those with different views from my own, but there is a segment of the population that is divorced from reality, living in a bubble/echo chamber where only their own views are heard and reinforced, and when you try to have a discussion you are met with rattled off talking points or arguments ad hominem (because they are low information viewers/voters lacking an understanding of the issues, relying on simplistic unfeasible platitudes and solutions to complex problems)."

I added: "As a journalist, I recoil from the idea of shutting off someone's speech just because I don't agree with it or find it offensive. Let them post their rants and whining and most readers will draw their own conclusions. They only make themselves look bad."

One friend of a friend responded "Facebook is my living room, in a sense. I take umbrage to irrational rants stuck in my face (news feed). I invited these friends in... When someone displays what I consider to be irrational or mean-spirited rants within my news feed, I'm not obligated to be fair to them. I'm not running a newspaper here or a government; if I want to unfriend someone, I have that option, and I can show them to the door."

I can appreciate the frustration of internalizing what some of our friends are posting. But, if these are indeed one's friends (and not merely strangers bearing the appellation of "friend"), are we not obligated to be fair to our friends? If you "unfriend" every friend who says something you don't want to hear, you will eventually find yourself with no friends at all. Sometimes, the best friends are those who tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.

I believe it is important to discuss and debate issues of public concern. Such debate may be robust and passionate. The intent should be not to "win" an argument (which Dale Carnegie teaches us is impossible) but to educate the other person as to your viewpoint and try to open his mind a crack for him to consider the subject from your point of view, so he will be receptive to learning new facts that might later alter his position. Such discourse should not include argument ad hominem (personal attacks) or hate speech against specific groups of people. Instead, it should be an intellectual exchange of ideas -- some accepted and others rejected -- that ends with both sides remaining friends, who simply choose to disagree on certain matters.

Over my lifetime, I have engaged in numerous robust and passionate debates with friends from different cultures, different countries and political systems, different religions, different races, different sexuality, and who were proponents of political and economic theories vastly different from my own. I've disagreed with many, learned from many, and in some cases, changed my initial conceptions. But even when my friends expressed views at polar opposites to my own, I never disowned them as friends. At times, I might have questioned their fundamental intelligence or mental stability based on their statements, but never their friendship. Because, as an old cartoon of a skunk once put it, "a friend is someone who knows all your flaws... and likes you anyway."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's Next? Accountability

The election is over. We, the American people, have elected a president, a Senate, and a House of Representatives. Tonight, there will be victory celebrations and the champagne will be flowing, and that is as it should be. But tomorrow, we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. Not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans; not as partisans, but as patriots. We must work together; Congress and the president must work together because the task we face is monumental.

It’s time for the politicians to put aside partisan politics and become statesmen. We face serious problems as a nation, and as individual citizens – the time for childish partisan games has ended. We must hold every member of Congress – Democrat or Republican, regardless of party affiliation – responsible. As voters, we can no longer tolerate purposeful lack of cooperation by any elected official. We have elected them to serve the public good; they had damn well better do it this time, for we will hold them accountable.

The “economic cliff” looms. The tax code must be completely rewritten. ObamaCare must be transformed into a single payer “Medicare for All” healthcare system. America’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, public transportation) must be rebuilt. America’s once robust manufacturing base must be reconstructed. Voting reform is needed: eight-hour lines at the polls are unacceptable. Climate change must be seriously addressed, not debated. Education must be a priority, not only emphasizing science and technology, but also history, literature, English, and the arts. Financial and consumer regulations must be revamped and enforced. Congress must pass President Obama’s American Jobs Act and put Americans back to work. Congress and the president must work together and take a page out of FDR’s book, bringing back the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Works Agency, the Federal Writers' Project, the National Recovery Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Works Project Administration. These programs pulled us out of the Great Depression; they can do it again.

Political cooperation is not a choice; it is a necessity. We need to do this to save our country, and to show the next generation that, once again, public service is a sacred trust and those we elect to lead us are not the buffoons and clowns we have seen on the national stage of late, but honest, well-intentioned, men and women committed to working together for the common good. That’s how it used to be; that’s how it should be; and that is how we must demand that it become once again.

We must hold the feet of those elected today to the fire. Their free ride is over. It’s time for them to get to work and for us to hold them accountable from this day forward.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's Morning in America - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

It’s morning in America. Wednesday, November 6th, 2012 – The Day After. When you awaken, the election will be over. What will life be like?

If you’re a woman and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will have to work harder than your male coworker to get the same paycheck. Birth control may be limited or banned. Abortion will be illegal in most states and having one or aiding someone in getting an abortion will place you in prison. On the other hand, rape – once a capital offense – will now be relegated to misdemeanor status… provided it is even a “legitimate” rape, and not a “gift from God”.  In those few states not outlawing abortion, you will be required to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound procedure before being allowed to proceed. In other states, if you are raped, you might be forced to give birth to the child and grant your rapist access to the child.

If you’re a senior citizen or disabled and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will no longer be able to rely on the security of government-backed Medicare. You will get a coupon book with vouchers, allowing you to buy private insurance, assuming you can find an insurer willing to write a policy for an 80-year-old.

If you’re a person with pre-existing conditions and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will discover ObamaCare has been repealed and so has your insurance coverage.

If you’re a minority, especially black or Hispanic, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will discover Republican efforts at voter suppression of this growing demographic hostile to their interests were merely a prelude to complete disenfranchisement of minority voters. Can poll taxes and literacy tests to vote be far behind?

If you’re gay or lesbian, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will find homosexuality is once again classified as a mental disorder, and you will be ostracized as child molesters presently are. There will be no gay marriage or civil unions, no gays in the military, and no gay rights.

If you’re a student, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, your student loan guarantees will vanish and your prospects for higher education will diminish, if you lack wealthy parents.

If you belong to a union, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you might find your union no longer exists. But that’s all right, because your job might not be there either.

If you’re a young person, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, get ready to visit new lands, meet new people, and kill them. America will likely be invested in new neo-con wars that will require bringing back the draft to restock the nation’s depleted military forces.

If you’re an investor, and you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you’ll be surprised to learn the economy is once again in freefall, as it turns out while a vulture capitalist might know how to make himself wealthy by buying and disassembling businesses, turning a nation’s economy around is an entirely different matter, requiring a completely different skill set, which Romney lacks.

If you aspire to future wealth and see Romney as the key to achieving it, when you wake up to find Mitt Romney is president, you will be disappointed to learn the billionaires’ club has not reserved a space for you and that Mitt and his "Old Money" friends, while smiling and thanking you for your vote, will look down on you with the same disdain they reserve for the nouveau riche.

But wait! It’s morning in America, but it’s Tuesday, November 5th. There's still time to make a difference. In 2000, a mere 527 votes determined who would sit in the White House and be “the decider” when it came to handling the economy, going to war, and reacting to terrorism or hurricanes. Think what America might have looked like had 528 more people voted. When the alarm clock rings on election morning, it truly is sounding an alarm. Will you answer it, or do you have something more important to do? VOTE the Democratic ticket on November 6th. Vote for your Democratic senator, your democratic representative, your Democratic governor, and for President Obama.

I’m Keith B. Darrell and I approve this message.