Archive for Culture

Ferguson, MO – Media use of isolated factoids fosters anger not helpful discussion

This USA Today snippet on the number of blacks killed by white police officers isolates a single data point, without context. The viewer/reader is left without any sense of cause or even useful correlations. This treatment is representative of the mass media approach to every complex issue – sensationalism vs informing the public.

While issues of race are top-of-mind in this incident, they are not the only issue. We don’t even know if they have the greatest influence. Militarization of police forces; varying crime rates among geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic groups;  even the media influence on various cultures all likely play important roles. But we don’t get a sense of any of this from USA Today.

The media’s obligation to inform the public is arguable, but the media’s effort to do so is non-existant. If the “investigative reporter” in the video is even moderately professional, and is not an idiot, I can’t imagine the stress of having your investigative work narrowed down to the single most sensational sound byte and then having to pretend that you’ve done something serious.

Is it any wonder that, among the most thoughtful people I know, very few of them pay attention to mainstream mass media anymore.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations. They’re everywhere. Cable news, “venerable” news sites, blogs and, of course, the twitterverse. Every time something sensational happens we’re inundated with out-of-context, misrepresented, isolated factoids trotted out as meaningful insight. Now, thanks to Tyler Vigen, we have a whole website dedicated to useless, pointless statistical relations. Polemics everywhere should rejoice.

Spurious Correlations

Old-school medicine marketing

Bayer Heroin and Aspirin adLooking back at old advertisements is a great way get perspective on how much advertising has changed while staying the same. Internet marketing gets a bad rap for all the worthless get-rich-quick schemes, but the reality is that advertising has been filled with outrageous claims since it was first invented. Here’s a rousing look at early medicinal ads brought to you by Pill Talk. Weed, booze, heroin, cocaine — it’s all here. Including Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for teething children, which apparently contained 65mg of morphine per fluid ounce. Ha, and we think Red Bull is bad

7 steps to fixing the auto industry

The Hindenburg burnsLike most things the government does, its approach to “fixing” the auto industry/energy/environment problem is broken. Badly broken. Wrong-headed. Misguided. Appallingly stupid. And sad. It always amazes me that when we have an industry more-or-less crippled by poorly thought out government regulation, the answer to fixing it is in more government regulation. What a concept.

Recent polls show that only 26% of Americans think the government’s plan to bail out GM is a good idea, and only 42% of GM car owners are even “somewhat likely” to buy GM again. Clearly, most of us don’t think we’re on the right track for fixing this mess. But there are things that can be done, and the industry can survive and progress without massive government meddling, spending, and regulation.

So here’s my 7-step plan for addressing the auto industry/environment/energy situation. Amazingly, there’s not one single step that requires new regulation or money for the auto industry. Read More→

My manhood is severely challenged

fireplace_castironLast Christmas (aka National Retailers Holiday) I received this lovely Charbroil Cast Iron Fireplace as a gift. I’ve never used it because, well, because I had to build a patio for it first – you can’t set something like that just anywhere. I had to make a suitably safe spot for it. But this year I did that and as the weather is cooling off I decided to set it up Monday night.

I don’t have a wood-burning fireplace in my house, nor any need for firewood, so last night I stopped at the local grocery and picked up a couple of bundles of firewood to test it out – supposedly only the finest hardwoods, seasoned for even burning. Two bundles for $8. Such a deal. How hard could it be, right?

I mean, I’ve watched Bear Grylls start a fire in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, using nothing more than two stones and a tiny handful of dead grass. But not me, no sir. I bought asbestos firewood. I bought the only two bundles of flame-proof hardwood on the planet. I used newspapers, dried twigs and straw, chipped off small bits for kindling. It all burned and then died.

I got a pint of lighter fluid ($3.49 and another trip to the corner market) and soaked everything good and tried again. The fluid flamed up, burned off and died. I used the entire pint of fluid to keep everything burning. I fanned the flames, I readjusted the logs, I turned them and blew on them and squirted more lighter fluid. It was like some scene from “Jackass, The Movie” with me about to be blown up. But nothing.

I finally went to the shop and got a blow torch. I used an entire can of MAPP gas. You can weld metal with this stuff, but it wouldn’t set those goddamn logs on fire. By this time I’d spent more than an hour and a half trying to light this fire. I had a firepit full of ash, carbonized twigs, newspaper, and soot – and four sooty, impervious, defiant logs staring at me.

I finally broke down and went, again, to the store. I bought a case of those ready-made, artificial, fireplace logs – the kind made from sawdust and some sort of slow-burning organic glue that holds it all together. All you do is set the wrapper on fire on walk away and it burns merrily for 3-4 hours.

I put two of them in the firepit and arranged the satanic logs over, under and around them. Then I set the wrappers on fire. In short order I had a blazing little bonfire in my fireplace. It was 11:30pm. I now had to stay up another four hours, until it burned itself out, before I could safely go to bed. I wasn’t about to douse this damn fire.

The list of things that offends muslims

Yet another growing list of evidence that there is little actual difference in what we westerners call “moderate” islam and “radical” islam – there are merely varying degrees of apathy that determine the level of action.

An Inconvenient Truth

If a truth is ugly and inconvenient, is it still a truth?

If a truth is offensive to you or might hurt someone’s feelings is it still a truth?

If you just don’t like a truth, does pretending it’s false make it untrue?

What Are The Risks of Letting Others Write In Your Space

In the last couple of weeks I had someone come on this site and post, via anonymous comments, a series of diatribes that were a serious attack on another individual and company. The information was detailed but utterly unsubstantiated. The tone was extremely angry. The allegations ranged from deception to outright fraud. I also did a little IP address tracing and determined that the person had gone to some lengths to hide their address.

Within a matter of hours I contacted people who knew something about the companies and person involved, cogitated on what to do, and decided to remove all posts from that individual. I did so without compunction and didn’t think anything else about it. I don’t normally remove comments, in fact that was only the second time in the four five years I’ve had this site. But I guess this kind of thing is going to become more common and we’re being forced to deal with it.

Recently a blog author I follow has been forced to withdraw from blogging and even cancel personal appearances due to death threats received via comments on her blog. The story has received major news coverage, making CNN, the New York Times, and BBC News among others.

Kathy Sierra, author of Creating Passionate Users wrote a nice, user-centered blog about keeping users engaged and had a wonderful sense of graphics and graphic usage. It was good stuff. But somewhere someone got ticked off and began a campaign of vile and serious threats against her.  I find this almost incomprehensible. I didn’t have much to say that hadn’t already been said, and I didn’t feel like adding to the long list of people linking to the murky, disturbing post that describes it all from Kathy’s perspective. But there, I’ve linked to it, as I can’t really talk about this without doing so.

In response to the Sierra fiasco Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Publishing) came out with a Blogger’s Code of Conduct that has created it’s own little tempest in a teapot, as bloggers debate what is censorship, what isn’t, what are we liable for, what is protected speech, etc. I was reminded of all this today when I came across a post by Michelle Lintz at the writetechnology blog:

The Blogosphere Grows Up a Little

Everyone has growing pains as they progress from toddler through to adulthood. The blogosphere is a living, dynamic thing and it’s no different. It was inevitable, of course. That’s not to say it’s not painful for some, and emotional for many.

I debated on even mentioning it, but when it was picked up by the New York Times and the BBC (here and here), I had to investigate further.

To understand it, you have to acknowledge that as in any industry or field, there are certain high-profile folks. In the blogosphere, we have our own “stars” or “celebrities.” People like Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, Kathy Sierra, just to name a few. These folks are incredibly high profile, speak at many events, are public figures that express their views on widely read and well respected blogs. The rest of us are just regular bloggers and the rest of us make up the majority of the blogosphere. In fact, for many of us, these blog stars exist on the periphery of our blogging existence, if at all. So, why are their problems important?

As the blogosphere, or at least the high-profile part, reeled from all this, Tim O’Reilly (yep, the guy who puts animals on his tech books) decided to step in. I concur with many bloggers out there that his actions as “hall monitor” are slightly misguided, no matter how well intentioned. O’Reilly has issued a draft Blogger Code of Conduct and suggests blogs have badges – those who subscribe to the Code of Conduct and those who have an “Anything Goes” badge. Basically, Anything Goes means that any sort of comment can be posted on the blog.

It raises valid questions. Are bloggers responsible for the comments posted to their blogs? Can we censor the comments, and is it censorship? What information do we actually own, when it comes to our blogs, and how accurate are we expected to be? Should we allow anonymous commenting? Are we responsible for the people who choose to remain anonymous? […]

I had some discussions with a lawyer friend when the untoward comments appeared on my blog. He advised that I might expect a cease and desist letter, which he admitted would be a monumentally stupid thing to do on the part of the company’s attorney (he knew what I would do with it.) But we agreed that corporate attorneys don’t get paid for being smart, they get paid for being lawyers. We also agreed that such a letter would have little legal standing other than possibly causing me a little inconvenience. Ultimately, fear of lawyers had nothing to do with my decision.

What did affect my decision was the fact that some yahoo had come on my site, using my weblog and its (admittedly minor) traffic to propagate their personal vendetta. I don’t need O’Reilly’s Code of Conduct to help me understand that people don’t get to do that here.

I am not the government. I am a private individual and therefore cannot, by definition, engage in censorship. I have no obligation to protect anyone’s speech. I have a vested interest in allowing people to post comments challenging my views, questioning my conclusions, forcing me to justify and defend my positions. But I don’t have to let just anyone write just anything they want. Not now, not ever.

I really don’t understand this whole censorship argument. Freedom of Speech and censorship are principles that apply to coercive forces, like governments. If the government didn’t have the power to imprison and execute there would be no need for laws mandating protected speech. I don’t have the power to do either of those things and therefore am not subject to such constraints. I’m just a guy who doesn’t have to play with people who don’t follow the rules of common decency and good sense.

So comment here all you want. I allow anonymous comments as long as no one abuses it. I don’t mind if you disagree with me as long as you do so in a way that makes some sort of sense, and I won’t delete comments unless there is something truly objectionable and unwarranted. But please, refrain from personal attacks, name-calling, making unsubstantiated allegations of illegal behavior, or engaging in other libelous diatribes. I just don’t have the time or patience for it.

Private Intelligence and the Sovereign Individual

In The secret service for the rest of us, Matt Mower writes:

I’ve often wondered how feasible it would be for us to setup an intelligence service to watch them (most recently I was wondering whether there are intelligence services at work in Second Life). After all; What is an intelligence service other than an organization that collects data from the edge and analyzes it for the benefit of its customers?

Blogs and other read/write web tools give us all the ability to gather data and, in our own fashion, analyze it and pass it on. We are each miniature intelligence services for a varied clientelle and, although we too are biased, our bias can be adjusted for since it is more easily determined (over time).

More than a decade ago two futurists – James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg – wrote of the coming breakdown of state-based security and the growth of independent, individual security forces in their books “The Great Reckoning” and “The Sovereign Individual.” They were ridiculed pretty widely at the time and the books were considered fodder for bunker-dwellers, albeit rich bunker-dwellers. Much of what they projected was based on cultural and social models already visible at the time in Latin countries dominated by drug cartels. 15 years and the meteoric rise of technology have changed the landscape of what can be done but, if anything, the predictions of Davidson and Rees-Mogg seem more tangible than ever. If they were guilty of anything, it was merely being too far ahead of their time.

Current futurists and military analysts like John Robb (my source for the original story) are busily deconstructing the projected fall of the nation-state, peak oil,  the rise of non-state entities, etc all of which is important. But no one seems to be thinking about my problems in the way that Davidson and Rees-Mogg did – deciphering what all this chaos means to the individual – and more importantly what to do about it.

How do we predict the unpredictable? How do we assess probability and impact? How do we, as individuals, make the right choices for where to live, where to put our money, how to prepare for the unexpected, how to protect our family, our friends, ourselves? Packing the basement full of survival rations, bottled water, duct tape and gas masks is a shallow, and rather ineffectual, approach.

What we really need is analytic intelligence for the individual. Governments – no matter who’s – are unreliable sources of information for the individual (if they can be considered reliable sources for anything at all save waste and corruption.) But to get such intelligence will be very difficult. Matt is right, current social software tools provide a glimpse of what may be possible, and many of the tools are being deployed within intelligence communities. But that is the key. Could we, as individuals, build our own intelligence communities?

The Opra-fication of America Continues

WSJ [subscription required]. Sue Shellenberger, in her April 26 Work and Family column titled Read This and Weep: Crying At Work Gains Acceptance, writes:

Crying at work has long been seen as verboten. But there’s evidence that a growing number of workers, especially those in their 20s and 30s, see it differently. Some think it’s old-fashioned to hide your emotions. Others are quick to cry over negative feedback. And many find themselves at odds with managers who grew up with a more repressive definition of professional conduct.

crying_manCast my caveman vote for keeping it verboten. Thanks to Opra, Jerry Springer, The View, and loads of other cultural schlock we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that wearing our emotions in public somehow makes things better. It doesn’t. In fact, it makes things worse. Carried to its logical conclusion this whole absurd idea is at the heart of much of the social violence and conflict we have. Yes, I know. I’m a caveman. But you tell me, what’s the difference between the crying, sniveling whiner and the disrespected hoodlum who’s about to blow your head off because you happened to look the wrong way? Not much. Both have lost all context for emotional outbursts.

On the one hand, you have some bosses who probably aren’t very good managers and lack people skills (I have worked for some of those.) On the other hand, you have employees who are lousy workers (I’ve been saddled with a few of those.) Many years ago I was a plant manager for a large prepress company. I had a successful track record, had good relations with most of my employees, and had a very productive plant. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone thought I was a great guy, but they were all very happy when the plant went from losing $1 million a year to turning a $500k profit and they got substantial bonuses. And no one was worked to death, no one was abused, no one was treated unfairly. We just identified problems, agreed on solutions, and put them into action. Everyone was involved, and everyone shared the load.

Because of this I was asked to move across the country to take over a plant that was in trouble. I walked into the new plant expecting things to be rather mucked up, but I figured there would be some good people there who could get the job done with the right tools and expectations. What I found was entirely different. I found a plant full of people who wanted to do everything just as they’d always done, even though the plant was on the verge of closing. The slightest suggestion of change was seen as some sort of personal insult:

Gen-Yers — who, it is often noted, are accustomed to lavish praise from their parents — are often ill-schooled in taking criticism and burst into tears at negative feedback, Dr. Twenge says. Kathy Lyle, 55, owner of a Chagrin Falls, Ohio, accounting firm, was dismayed when an employee in her early 30s cried in response to a request to install software on a computer. “When I asked her why, she said, ‘You scare me,'” Ms. Lyle says. Startled, Ms. Lyle told her to pull herself together.

This mirrors my experience — perfectly reasonable, rational requests treated as terrifying challenges. Being deemed a tyrant for merely asking another to do something they haven’t done before. What sort of logic is that? A big problem is we have failed to teach our children how to be good losers, how to accept criticism, how to take a bad performance or mistake and make it a learning experience. For that matter, we’ve failed to teach them anything at all about accepting challenges. The vast majority expect to be praised for little more than turning oxygen into carbon dioxide. As Jeffrey Zaslow write in his April 20 WSJ column The Most Praised Generation Goes To Work:

You, You, You — you really are special, you are! You’ve got everything going for you. You’re attractive, witty, brilliant. “Gifted” is the word that comes to mind.

Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking — by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools that used to name one “student of the month” and these days name 40.[…]

[…] Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands’ End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation.

And so we have two sides of the same coin — a generation that cries at the slightest negative word or challenge, or shoots you for a sideways glance. Is that really what we want?

It’s not what I want. Sure, there are times when emotion is appropriate, but getting things out in the open is far from a universal cure-all. If your emotions aren’t based in some fact, if you can’t prove your point in some real way, if you don’t actually have a grievance other than something just isn’t fair, then exactly what are you crying about?

Life is not fair, never has been. I’ve tried to teach my children that the dirtiest four-letter word is F-A-I-R. It would be great if life was fair, but it’s not. Some people win, some lose. Some live a long time, some die young. Some get all the good stuff, some slog away in poverty. All we’ve done with this insistence on fairness and self-esteem and gratuitous flattery is teach our children to base their lives on shallow emotion. We haven’t taught them to achieve, to accept challenges head-on, to do the things that generations before have done to be successful.

It’s no wonder we have such social turmoil. It’s what happens when you stop accepting life on its own terms and working to change yourself, instead spending your days in a fantasy-land of fairness and hoping everyone else changes to suit you.