Archive for March, 2013

A QUOTE FOR OUR TIMES

March 30, 2013
“Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
-Edmund Burke

HOW FOLKS GET THEIR NEWS

March 29, 2013

“Why do you lay these troubles on an already troubled mind?”
Grima Wormtongue

Newspaper circulation and ratings of news shows continue a downward plunge, with very few exceptions.  This is met with glee by conservatives, and a bit of puzzlement as well; why won’t these news organizations change their behavior?  Why do they seem to be even more slanted than before, why do they go out of their way to avoid covering huge pulitzer prize-caliber stories?  And why, with less and less actual audience to these news organizations seem to continue to have so much influence?
There’s a study that was done by Marcus Prior at Princeton University (pdf file) which helps make sense of all this.  He compared the audiences of various news shows (cable and network) with the general voting population and discovered something pretty basic: so few people watch these things that they cannot be the source or even a major contributing factor in public understanding of issues.
Sure, the hardcore news junkie and fanatic will watch these shows and study them, but the general public just doesn’t.  Fox News, for example, is the highest-rated news channel in the country, and on each average night, bout 0.7% of the population of the country watches it.  That’s several million people so it seems like a lot, but compared to 315 million, it just doesn’t add up.  Adding up all the cable news channels combined still isn’t a very big number:

The share of Americans who watch cable news at a rate of 10 minutes or more per day is probably no larger than 10-15 percent of the voting age population and rises modestly when an exciting election approaches.

Now, when polled, people will give the news channel they tend to go to when they want to see news, but that doesn’t mean they actually watch it much.  Folks who are polled want to sound informed and capable, so they’ll say something just to avoid sounding like a cretin, even if its not really true.  Like people who claim to be churchgoers, but only go to church twice a year (Easter and Christmas) or weddings, that doesn’t make them a news audience, it makes them someone who technically sometimes views a news channel.
Now Prior argues that the present polarization of views in America thus cannot be traced to cable news – Fox News Channel or otherwise – because there simply are not enough people consuming that news to shift an entire culture.  If one of your four buddies watches the news a lot, he’s not the one making the culture change.
Prior points out that when there were only 3 TV channels with news on them, pretty much everyone watched the same evening news and drew their own conclusions.  There was literally nothing else to watch for a couple hours a night on every channel, and people loved them some TV, so they watched.  Now, very few people watch any news and get their ideas from other sources.  Moderates have been pushed in either direction by this, Prior argues.
So where do people get their news?  Not from news sources, but from popular culture and other sources which restate pieces of news.  The expansion of possible entertainment options pulled people away from the network TV channels and away from the news.  Now instead of being locked into network nightly news from 5-7 PM, you could watch a baseball game on ESPN, reruns of Sanford & Son on WTBS, a ballet on Arts & Entertainment, or a show about a drug-addled family of misfits on E!, the alternatives were available by the score.
That’s not to say people stopped getting news and opinions, though. They get their information from ESPN and HBO and comedy shows, from entertainment and sources totally unrelated to news.  Snide comments from reality show stars, wisecracks from sitcom characters and late night comedians, youtube clips of Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh, and Facebook posts about something they saw on ESPN.  When the characters on your favorite drama talk about the horrors of global warming (recent NCIS episode) or mock the Tea Party, or praise gun control, “Obamacare,” or Secretary of State Clinton, that tends to influence your views on the issue.  Endless jokes about evil child-molesting priests have shaped a culture whose kneejerk reaction to anything Roman Catholic is a crack about molestation.  Constant hammering that Fox News is some hillbilly batch of right wing extremists or a mouthpiece for the Republican Party shape people’s perceptions.
And this isn’t done in the form of information or facts, its always done in the form of snide or joking sarcasm and opinion.  Nobody lays out the data and argues a persuasive case, they sneer and mock.  Nobody actually argues why Fox News is evil, they presume it and make jokes about it.
Which is where the old news sources come in.  These shows are written by people, the sports casters and announcers are done by people who have to learn their information somewhere.  And the old news is reaching out to the folks who inform them.  That 20% that watches cable news consists of the really motivated news junkie, the politically driven.
So when you see news sources being even more outrageously partisan and tilted than they ever were, and wonder why on earth they don’t stop doing that to maybe win back readers they’re alienating, you miss the point.  They’re doing so because that’s where their audience is.  The New York Times has several times in the past admitted that they are liberal and biased, and do so because their readers prefer it and agree with them.  In fact, they get lambasted by their audience for moderating even slightly from that position.
So they craft a certain narrative about events, people, and reality.  One perspective on events is reported on, while competing or varying stories get minimized, spun, or ignored.  To this day, almost nothing whatsoever has been published by the New York Times on scandals like the Fast & Furious story.  What has been reported has been essentially a White House press release.  By omitting some stories and pushing others, these news organizations can shape understanding and opinions on issues and people.
For example I know a guy online who is absolutely certain that President Obama is the most hated and abused president in human history, that no president has ever been treated so meanly and been so attacked.  He has no doubt about this at all, and further is unassailable in that position.  Just 5 years ago President Bush was in office, with movies and plays being written and performed accusing him of the most evil deeds imaginable and fantasizing about killing him.  President Bush faced unrelenting hatred and attack from the entertainment community, popular culture, academia, and politicians.  No horror was too awful to believe he was involved in, no hatred too extreme to be piled on him.
Today, President Obama is mocked and derided by right-leaning voters, sometimes with shocking venom and absurd fantasy.  But the difference is extreme: both the voters and the media, popular culture, academia, politicians etc were busy doing so against President Bush.  Against Obama?  Not even remotely close. Nobody has done a play about murdering President Obama to rave reviews.  Nobody has put out an indy film about killing the president that is shown at the Sundance Film Festival.  All you get are angry cranks on facebook and twitter.  There’s no comparison.
But this guy is totally sure.  Why?  Because he is a hard leftist and doesn’t get the news that challenges his assumptions.  He didn’t get the stories about the plays and movies fantasizing about murdering Bush.  He only got the stories supporting the hatred and contempt.  He didn’t see the unbelievable rage and hatred displayed in protests by foaming extremists.  He didn’t get the speeches and comments by loony politicians.  What he does get are pictures of every misspelled Tea Party rally sign, every crank who claims Fox News is a certain way, every facebook post that insists Obama is the most put upon man on earth.  So he has no basis for understanding, that’s all he knows, and further all he trusts.
People who challenge this are extremists, radicals, on the fringe, they have an agenda, they cannot be trusted.  If a Republican does something he likes, well they have a secret evil agenda behind it and should be stopped anyway.
And that’s how the system works.  The news chooses what to report (“the deciders”) and what not to, carefully crafts what is exposed, and puts it out.  The few people who actually pay attention to this then pass what they learned on to the public through various media, using not argument and persuasion but attack and sarcasm.  Michael Savage doesn’t try to convince anyone of anything, he just yells and gnashes his teeth.  Jon Stewart puts on a false display of rhetoric on occasion, but its always just sophistry and sight gags.  These people are about shaping opinion, not persuasion.
So the fact that these news organizations are all but dead on the vine doesn’t matter a bit in terms of their ability to manipulate events and politics.  In fact, they’re more powerful than ever in this, because they are the Wormtongue of modern culture, whispering into the ears of the pundits and opinion makers, slipping their ideas into every possible setting and avenue, just to get people to think a certain way without even realizing it.
Its not so much collusion or design, there’s no secret panel meeting in robes by torchlight under the Hollywood sign.  It more or less fell into place, not by craft but by coincidence; most people behind popular culture and entertainment lean left, so they trust their political allies.  Yes, there’s been a concerted effort over the decades to build a coalition of people in various places who agree politically, but this just happened organically as the effort continued.  Nobody saw it coming, but they all found a way to make it work for them.
MSNBC and CNN don’t really persuade anyone of anything, they tend to only confirm what their viewers already think, but those viewers then reach out and persuade others not through argument and fact but subtle peer pressure, mockery, and unexpected imposition.
*UPDATE: A perfect recent example of how this works.  A recent episode of the show Elementary featured a big snowstorm, and Sherlock Holmes quipped about how storms are getting strong and more powerful over recent years.  This is absolutely false, the opposite is actually true.
However, the writer of Elementary wanted Sherlock to say something smart and informed about the weather, so he put this into the mouth of the actor.  People who don’t know anything about weather, climate, or even science hear it – from the mouth of an alleged expert on all things, no less – and believe it to be true.  After all, Sherlock Holmes….
Why did the writer do this?  Because he’s been reassured by all the “correct” sources that not only is global warming causing horrific weather, but that anyone who doubts this is a knuckle dragging, sister-marrying, Fox news watching imbecile teabagger; never to be heeded.  And so it goes.

A MATTER OF COMPENSATION

March 27, 2013

“The answer to Freud’s famous question ‘What does Woman want?’ is ‘Everything they can lay their lovely little hands on.’”

One of the things a wise employee examines when they consider a job is the entire package of benefits and pay it offers.  If one job offers $50,000 a year and no benefits while another offers $45,000 a year but full medical and dental insurance plus paid vacation leave and retirement, the latter is the far better job in terms of payment despite its lower dollar salary.
That’s why CEOs get such gargantuan pay at mega corporations, because they’re being paid in stock options and incredible benefits as well as their salary, and that’s all calculated when a story is written about them.  You have to figure in the company jet and penthouse, not just the money.
When I wrote my bit on women, pregnancy, and pay, it generated a lot more interest than I expected.  American Digest, Ace of Spades, even a commenter on Reason linked to the story and its earned quite a few visits, and comments, which I appreciate.  But one commenter brought up a very good point I had not considered in my post:

The point of the articles isn’t how many weeks of parental leave a particular state gives fathers vs mothers. The point is that some employees have the potential to cost employers more via increased benefits, reduced productivity, etc and the employers has every right to consider that during hiring.

What should matter to logical people is total compensation, not just salary. Let’s say you have several workers who all have the same average productivity. It is perfectly fair for Worker A to get a higher salary, while Worker B gets better insurance, Worker C gets more time off, etc. If one worker wants better insurance, time off, flex schedule, and other benefits then she has no right to complain that she gets paid less than another employee who does not take those extra benefits.

In other words, you have to look at the whole compensation package to compare earnings.  If women get paid x dollars per hour plus maternity leave (paid in some states), and men get paid x dollars per hour, that means men are being underpaid because their benefits are inferior.  By this calculus, women ought to be paid less, because their superior benefits make up for the slightly lower pay per hour or salary.  In other words, when you argue women should be paid the same as men, you’re arguing they ought to be better compensated than men.
In fact, when you factor in child care and other costs (insurance, for instance) women typically, but not always, tend to get more benefits than men.  Obviously some men will be more costly or have kids they require insurance and child care for, so that’s variable, but I think the point is clear.
So when you compare women and men in pay, and you want equality and fairness regardless of economic factors, even then women should be paid less.  In the name of fairness and equality.  Assuming that’s what you’re really after.

THE WORLD IS FAIR

March 22, 2013

“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people; and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the student.” -President McKinley

The last World’s Fair was held in Yeosu, South Korea, in 2012.  They aren’t called “world’s fair” any more, they’re just called Expo, as in exposition.  The next one is due to be held in 2015 in Italy, but the last one to be called a “worlds fair” was in the 60s, when the name changed to Expo.  I believe but cannot find confirmation that the Montreal Expo of 1967 was the first one by that name (and where their now-defunct baseball team got its name).
The first was held in 1851, in London of course, as that was effectively the capitol of the world at the time.  Called “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” it was the brain child of Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.  Notable figures such as Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were in attendance.
Among the various exhibitions there was the unveiling of Colt’s Navy pistol, the first real functioning single action cartridge pistol; a prototype to the fax machine by Frederick Bakewell, a Jacquard Loom, and various kitchen appliances.  In essence it was a display of the wonders of the world and new technologies.  The main exhibition was held in a new structured deemed the “Crystal palace” which was essentially a gigantic greenhouse, but it was destroyed by fire in 1936.
As the world’s fairs became a regular event, one of the biggest and most noteworthy that ever took place was in 1939 in New York City.  This is one of the most iconic of the world’s fairs, one which many people associate with the event.  This was the fair with the perisphere and trylon (big orb and tall pyramid).  It was promoted heavily for years before it took place, and tried to focus on new technologies, science, and what the future would likely hold.
Like many of these fairs in the past, it was a place of wonder and innovation.  Converting an ash dump in Queens to a fairgrounds and exhibition center, the plan was to help New York and its citizens through the depression by attracting world dollars.  The fair was set to open on the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, who was sworn into office in New York City. 
The New York World’s Fair opened on a hot April 30th (most of the 1930s were unusually warm, like the 1990s were), and President Roosevelt was on hand as part of the ceremonies.  His speech was broadcast over the radio, of course, but also was televised, and shown on W2XBS, which inagurated regular television broadcast at the event (this would later be WNBC).  Albert Einstein was on hand to give a talk on cosmic rays.  Among the displays and technology present were these:
  • Bell Laboratories showed off the Voder, which through buttons, levers, and dials was able to simulate the human voice talking.  It took months of training to learn to use, but was able to speak in the hands of a skilled operator.
  • Nylon made its first appearance.
  • Fluorescent lights were first seen.
  • Televisions were scattered through the exhibition.
  • Color Photography was first shown at the fair.
  • The Viewmaster made its debut there as well.
  • An automated dishwasher was on display.
  • Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote a special piece for the event called “Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus” and performed it at the Carnegie Hall.
  • Pennsylvania Railroad displayed their new diesel and electric locomotive, which was set on rollers and ran continuously for 2 years at 60mph, according to a dynamometer attached to the display.
  • The electric typewriter was first shown at the fair.
  • An electric calculator using punch cards was displayed.
  • Chrysler had a 3D movie of one of their cars being assembled in a theater – complete with new air conditioning.
  • Borden had a display with 150 cows and a “rotolactor” milking machine which also cleaned the cows.  Modern milking machines are based on this device.
  • The Continental Baking exhibit was shaped like a big wrapped loaf of bread, brightly decorated with colored balloons – which Wonder Bread then swiped and has used ever since for their packaging.
  • Behind the big bread was a wheat field which was harvested and used to bake bread in the fair.
  • New subway lines were built including new stations – now still in use – for the fair.
One of the most astounding displays at the fair was from the General Motors Company, where an entire miniature country, with 50,000 miniature cars driving in it, were on display.  A ride took you through the entire setup, with details on what was being shown.  It was the brainchild of Norman Bel Geddes, and it was called the “futurama” exhibit.  There were mountains and lakes and forests and a city.  More than five hundred thousand individually designed buildings, a million trees of thirteen different species were built over an acre of territory with all the cars in motion around the track.
Futurama was an attempt to show how cars would shape the future of transportation and economy, and how the cities would deal with this increased traffic.  In 1939 cars were still sharing the roads with horse drawn vehicles and horses.  Although gaining rapidly in popularity, there were not the large numbers of automobiles we now take for granted.  Geddes said:

“Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country – across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns – never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy.”

Geddes built highways and showed how the city would cope with this increase, such as divided highways, traffic controls, set speeds, and pedestrian access.  Also predicted were automated highways where the cars drove themselves, rooftop access for flying vehicles, and automated robotic farms.  Almost everything he predicted was either fulfilled or seems to be in the near future.
It was a place of wonders with art, food, entertainment, technology, and more.  The place showcased the near future, and was something I would have dearly loved to attend.  And we just don’t see anything like that any more.
Oh sure, I hear you say “but we have G3 and technological exhibits every day!  Why I have a computer in the palm of my hand!”  And its true, we have a never-ending stream of new entertainment and gadgets coming out of various labs and exhibitions.  But consider: none of them are particularly new concepts; computers have been around for nearly a century (or longer, depending on how you define them).  Television screens were created in the early 20th century.  The microchip was invented in 1959.  Liquid Crystal Displays were invented in 1962.  Touch screens were first created in 1966.
All the newest innovations are either new combinations or smaller versions of existing tech, or faster, fancier versions of what came before.  Sure, the video games of today have graphics that look like the cutscenes of 5 years ago.  But they’re still just video games.  They’re prettier, but they aren’t any different.
Imagine going to a show where an entirely new light source that is dominant today was first shown, when many people still lit their home with a gas lantern?  Imagine seeing highways and traffic systems shown when you still rode a horse.  Imagine seeing television for the first time when you were just getting used to that new wireless.
We simply don’t see that kind of thing any more.  And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect at least part of it is due to us hitting a wall of innovation.  We’re getting to the limits of what our technology and understanding of science can get us.  Its not that we can’t create new ways to use what we know, but nobody is going to discover how electricity acts or invent the cathode ray tube these days.
Further our culture has moved from “can do” and a desire to see if we can’t fix things and make them better to a “gimme” culture which whines at difficulty and demands being cared for by an all-powerful government.  In the place of a people who saw challenges as an adventure and a chance to roll up our sleeves and overcome, we have a people who see a challenge as a violation of their civil rights and throw a tantrum until the government creates a new program to throw money at it.
Then there’s the market pressures.  People aren’t interested in something that makes their work better, they want things that make their fun better.  Focused on pleasure and entertainment, people pour money into things that make them feel sexy and have fun.  Health innovations are focused on “sexual enhancement” and looking hot instead of being healthy.  So there’s no money or demand for anything like nylon or a better dishwasher any more.
And finally, regulation, lawsuits, and economic pressures combine to make innovation not just expensive, but even prohibitive.  Its not just that it costs a lot to try to develop something new, but unless it is politically correct and approved by the powers that be (AIDS research, for example), its actually a struggle to even get the work done.  Animal protesters destroy your lab, lawsuits try to stop you from your work and punish you for completing it, and regulations choke off your options.
Between these forces, innovation is limited when its even possible and you just don’t see it any longer.  Maybe its unfair to compare the two.  The 1939 world’s fair was an astounding combination of events and times.  But the truth is, those times are over and I don’t see them returning for a long, long time.

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