Rowling's new book not getting great reviews

Slate.com has a summary of the responses to the Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's new adult-genre book, the first of her work to come out since Harry Potter ended. What they're saying isn't good.  Or, it's not great -- it's mostly pretty lukewarm, and a lot of it sounds a bit like they're complaining that it's not a children's book.

In the New York Daily News, Sherryl Connelly echoes this sense of diminishment. “J.K. Rowling has gone from Potter to potty-mouth,” she says, before announcing the new book “isn’t dreadful. It’s just dull.” The prose feels joyless, shot through with a strangely belligerent realism.

Oh well.  I'm still looking forward to reading it -- not everything has to be an epic battle of good and evil featuring only the most worthy characters.

I guess bacon isn't actually going away

(via Boing Boing) Slate.com reports that the rumored bacon shortage, coming out of the National Pig Association of the United Kingdom, is (at best) an exaggeration.  What's actually going to happen is prices for most or all meats are going to go up.

Hence, the “bacon shortage”—actually a global increase in meat prices as a slightly delayed downstream consequence of the increase in corn prices.

Such an increase will, of course, be unpleasant for households used to buying as much cheap bacon as their hearts desire, but there shouldn’t be any actual shortages preciselybecause prices will rise. Shortages arise when price controls lead to a situation in which consumers want to buy more of something than actually exists, which can lead to government rationing. In our economy there will still be plenty of bacon on the shelves, just priced high enough to deter some people from eating as much of it as usual.

[...]

So American consumers will be able to adjust to higher prices by shifting to burgers, poultry, and other kinds of pork products—possibly even including the stuff the Brits call “bacon”—rather than breaking into mass panic and bacon riots.

Frankly, I think this is a shame.  I also hope that it doesn't affect my earlier points, that global climate change is going to drive off the ability of Western society to keep farming animals on the irresponsibly massive scale we do. It does imply that people will eat less bacon, though.

Paul Ryan is a crazy person

It's been widely reported that Paul Ryan's acceptance speech for the Vice-Presidential nomination was full of crap.  Even Fox said so.  That's the sort of thing I tend to expect from conservative politicians these days, though.  Jay Smooth went into detail about how the GOP deals with facts just the other day:

I mean, I was surprised when I found out that Mitt Romney believes that global climate change is happening.  He's still being useless about it -- complaining that we shouldn't have to do anything because China keeps using fossil fuels -- but it's a big step that he's at least acknowledging the observed fact of climate change.

Paul Ryan, on the other hand, took his denial of reality a step further when he defended his acceptance speech, claiming that the things he said weren't actually lies.

"Read the speech. What I was saying is the president ought to be held to account for his broken promises," Ryan said in a reference to a closed GM assembly plant in his hometown.

In his Republican National Convention speech in Tampa, Fla., Ryan pointed out then-candidate Obama's visit to the plant in 2008 but did not mention the plant had already been closed when Obama arrived.

I do wonder whether there was once a time in American politics when both parties believed true things, and who differed on real, core philosophical positions.

Trust Me, I'm Lying

I'm catching up on Gweek, Boing Boing's podcast -- and I'm listening to the episode featuring Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.  The book -- or, at least, the conversation -- is mainly about blogs, and the ways in which blogs are manipulated to skew the truth, and how the blogs themselves skew the truth to maximize pageviews. He draws an analogy between contemporary blogs and yellow newspapers, the ones sold by kids shouting on the street.  The ones that were full of dishonest, sensationalist crap.

"You've got to read three blogs, and [...] triangulate the truth between them." -- Ryan Holiday

I'm a big supporter of blogging as the future of news, but I do agree with Holiday's points.  I've complained about sensationalist headlines and manipulative spin in news content before, and it really is one of the big problems with major blogs.

That said, especially since this is being pointed out, I think it's a good sign.  When newspapers were reasonably new, they were full of dishonest, sensationalist crap.  Just like a lot of blogs are now, and just like our mainstream TV news is now.  But in the dirth of good information, the people demanded better media.  We want better media, and I think blogs will become better media.

I will definitely look into buying this book.

Dishonset Politician mythology

It's true that politicians sometimes lie.  It's true, in fact, that they may even lie more than most people in public -- though, probably, only because most people don't have the opportunity to talk in public quite as often.  But nearly regardless of politicians' actual adherence to the truth, the idea that politicians tend to lie is a serious cultural problem. The problem is that the belief that politicians generally lie makes it nearly impossible to make informed decisions about politicians.  It affects both sides: whatever is important to you, you can assume that the candidate you support doesn't really mean it when she contradicts your views, and the when that candidate's main opponent says something you support, you can assume he's concealing his actual motives.

There are a number of other important possibilities one should consider in the first place:  That the politicians are honestly repeating a lie that they have been told, that they genuinely don't understand the issue, or, most importantly, that they actually believe the things they say, and intend the things they say they intend.

I don't want to make this a partisan argument, but I want to write an example.  So I'm going to make up some politicians, and use policy debates that don't exist at any significant level in America.

Ann is running for the Moose Party.  She claims to support adopting the Alternative Vote method for electing candidates, because she thinks it's more fair.  She also publicly supports the repeal of the Lollipop Act, which subsidizes the presence of lollipops for children in doctors' offices and banks, because she thinks it's wasteful.

Fred is running for the Polar Bear Party.   His platform is that the Alternative Vote is a bad idea, based on the argument that it will decrease voter turnout and increase errors in voting due to confusion.  He publicly supports the Lollipop Act, and promises that if he's elected he will block attempts to repeal it.

Now, I support the Alternative Vote, but I also support the Lollipop Act.  Of the two issues, I think the Lollipop Act is much more important.  I've voted for the Moose Party in the last three elections, though.

Conveniently, though, I know that politicians lie all the time.  So I know that the politician I identify with probably believes the same things as me.  Besides, voting for the Moose Party has always gone well for me in the past.

So it feels safe to assume that Ann is lying when she says she's against the Lollipop Act.  Sure, some fringe elements in my party believe that, and she has to pander a little bit.  That's just politics.  But she'll never actually do anything to pursue that campaign promise.

Besides, Polar Bear candidates are all the same.  Their political philosophy is wrong, so nothing about it is likely to be reasonable.  The things they say that I agree with are inconsequential at best, but more likely outright dishonest.

The dishonest politician mythology that pervades American political attitudes degrades the quality of our discourse, and undermines the possibility of an informed electorate.  You can't inform a group of people who discount whatever evidence they dislike.

Of course, we do sometimes need to discount evidence. But there are ways to do so that don't automatically reinforce your initial views.  Relying on credible sources is a good one, although the credibility of mainstream news isn't what it used to be (if it ever was what it's supposed to be.)

But in most cases, you can generally take a politician at their word.  They probably aren't lying as much as you wish they were.

American Belief Statistics

Browsing EurekAlert, I noticed an article titled Canadians Overwhelmingly Believe Climate Change Is Occurring.  The article claims that only 2% of Canadians deny the existence of climate change.  The survey report breaks it down further:

Canadians most commonly (54%) believe that climate change is occurring partially due to human activity and partially due to natural climate variation. One third (32%) believe that climate change is occurring due to human activity while one in ten (11%) believe that climate change is occurring due to natural climate variation or that climate change is not occurring at all.

Comparatively, according to a Gallup report this year 15% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, and another 15% say that its effects won't occur within their lifetimes. About half of Americans believe what scientists in the field are saying about the heat lately:  global warming is already happening.

Reading this, I got curious: what are the percentages of some other conspiracy-style, anti-sense beliefs in the US?

According to Wikipedia, somewhere in the area of 15-30% of Americans believe that the US government at least had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans, and chose to let it happen.

As of 2001, somewhere between 6% and 20% of Americans believe that the moon landings didn't happen.

In 2011, after the release of his long-form birth certificate, about 10% of Americans still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States.  Among only Republicans, it's at 23%.

Also in 2011, a health poll conducted by Thomson Reuters and NPR concluded that 21.4% of Americans believe that vaccines can cause autism.

A criticism I hear a lot about America, which I personally believe, is that Americans believe that they are not obligated to consider evidence when it conflicts with their views -- that facts are just as subjective and malleable as opinions.  Unfortunately, the broader cultural trends in America seem to reinforce this position.  Mainstream news media's Balance principle pushes them towards giving coverage to verifiably wrong positions, and pseudo-educational media outlets like The History Channel produce shows like UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens and The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon.

Also unfortunately, the web as it's currently structured makes this worse.  Most peoples' major portals to content online, Facebook and Google, filter the content they show the user based on past trends of liking, clicking, and otherwise positively responding.  Then, we all head off into media outlets that target our own demographics, pretty much exclusively.

But, obviously, America is getting it wrong more than the rest of the world.  Our climate change blindness is at 30%.  Canada's is at 2%.

I've depressed myself now, so I'll end it there.

I'm more conflicted than I thought

Yesterday I wrote that I wasn't sure whether analyzing Paul Ryan's suit was frivolous. It turns out, that conflict runs a lot deeper than I realized:  This article started out with the headline, "I'm NOT conflicted about whether this is important," and featured two articles that popped up on my Google newsfeed this morning:

Don't get me wrong, these publications' coverage is horrible, in the case of the E! Online article, it's super fracking[1. BTW, does anyone else feel like it's sort of perfect that the main curse word from Battlestar Galactica is being used to describe a natural gas extraction process that causes air pollution, radioactive water, and earthquakes?] creepy.  But the basic premise, that the style decisions of the super-scrutinized are worthy of analysis, is the same.

There are three major areas of conflict, in my mind:

  • These are all people asking for our attention.  Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, to prove they're capable of doing a massive job at the top of our government; super-celebrities, to make themselves sufficiently marketable that their mere name is enough of an asset to any creative work with which they're involved that they get bigger paychecks.  In both cases, it's awful that this is our relationship to those roles in society.  But in both cases, it's also a feature of our society.
  • The style decisions of the super-scrutinized have resonating influences throughout the whole of our culture.  By this point, the amount of attention we pay to them is good and important, though it's also self-reinforcing.  These people are building the narratives of our culture, and their stylistic choices establish the costumes of those narratives.
  • Directly adjacent to that point, the way we pay attention to the style decisions of the super-scrutinized reinforces the harmful cultural norms of our society.  The Paul Ryan and Robert Pattinson articles are about sexiness and relatability, stemming from their conformity to the norm, and the Miley Cyrus article is about the remarkable fact that at least one person is standing up for a super-scrutinized person trying to resist that norm.

The first bullet-point reminds me of an article I read yesterday about rape culture, called The missing stair.  While I wrote that bullet point, I felt the end of that article itching at me:

This isn't just about individuals, either.  Everyone who says "I don't want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren't safe places" is treating rape culture like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "it's an ugly fact, but only women who don't make trouble make it in this business" is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "I don't like it either, but that's the way things are," and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere. [Emphasis mine.]

And while I wrote the last one, I remembered a Ze Frank video, in his 2006 series, "The Show."

We need these narratives, and these people giving us touchstones to build these narratives.  Life, it turns out, is way too big and complicated for anyone to handle working out entirely from scratch.  But it also seriously hurts a lot of people when we don't question them, or think about whether the narratives we're using tell the truth about the people who fit into them.

This was always a problem for the people moving within the narratives, but I think it didn't used to be such a problem for the people setting the trends -- those people where characters in books, plays, poems and mythologies.  We don't have to worry, for example, about how Romeo feels that everyone on earth imagines him as a hopeless romantic, or whether it hurts Darth Vader's feelings that people only ever see him as the bad guy.

As every child star grows up this generation, it seems like they have to face the impression that their transition from child to teenager to adult is a symbolic struggle on behalf of all culture, whether between innocence and corruption, or childhood and maturity, or stagnation and fluidity.

I know very little about Miley Cyrus and Robert Pattinson, so I can't speak to the nature of their struggles.  But I will say that I'm not 100% certain that it's not important, and shouldn't be noticed.

I'm conflicted about whether this is important

The Washington Post has published a 700 word analysis of the wrinklyness of Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan's suit.  In it, they explore the possibilities that he's trying to evoke a religious feel, that he's reaching for "Look at me, I'm totally unkempt and messy like normal people, not some plastic corporate executive," that his suit was chosen carefully to balance against Romney's image, and that he just didn't happen to wear a very good suit. I honestly don't know whether this is frivolous reporting.  I mean, it's nice that the media are taking the dramatic implications of subtle narrative choices when it comes to the presidential race, which is very important.  On the other hand, these subtle narrative implications disappear when it comes around to the actual issues these politicians will be governing about.

Is there any way we can pull this kind of pedantic nitpicking into public analysis of policy decisions?

Twitter's horrible ethical call

(via Boing Boing) Having just announced that I'm leaving Facebook, and having listed Twitter as an ethically superior alternative, I feel it would be irresponsible of me not to write about Twitter's blatant ethical breach that the Guardian wrote about last night:

Twitter has suspended the account of a British journalist who tweeted the corporate email address of an NBC executive. The reporter, Guy Adams of the Independent, has been acerbic in his criticisms of NBC's (awful) performance during the Olympics in London.

Adams has posted his correspondence with Twitter, which claims he published a private email address. It was nothing of the kind, as many, including the Deadspin sports blog, have pointed out.

This would be an irresponsible decision even in isolation, but Twitter is partnered with NBC for Olympics coverage, and according to the Wall Street Journal, they're hoping to use this opportunity to expand into a more profitable audience.

If [they don't apologize and reinstate the account], this is a defining moment for Twitter. It will have demonstrated that it can be bullied by its business partners into acts that damage its credibility and ultimately the reason so many of us use it as a platform. And if that's the case, there will be much less incentive to use it.

Guy Adams's account was unsuspended literally while I was writing this post.

The people choking American democracy

If that title seems dramatic, remember that the Citizens United court ruling created the circumstances that allows multibillionaires to flood the airwaves with propaganda for whoever they want through Super PACs. On Tuesday, though, Senator Bernie Sanders named names.

In his new report, America For Sale: A Report on Billionaires Buying the 2012 Election, Sen. Bernie Sanders named names and called out the billionaires who using Citizens United to buy our democracy.

In front of a Senate panel today, Sen. Bernie Sanders outed the 26 billionaires who are members of 23 billionaire families that are using Citizens United to buy elections.Sen. Sanders estimated that these 26 billionaires are the tip of the iceberg. “My guess is that number is really much greater because many of these contributions are made in secret. In other words, not content to own our economy, the 1 percent want to own our government as well.”

The top five are:

  1. Sheldon Adelson, 
  2. The Kochs (David, Charles, and William), 
  3. Jim Walton,
  4. Harold Simmons, and 
  5. Peter Thiel 
Check out the list, spread it around.  These kinds of financial imbalances will break our government.

News organization suppressing the news: Cops attacking protesters

(via Wil Wheaton on Tumblr) CBS's KCAL News at 9 recently reported on a case of police brutality against a crowd of protesters, some of whom were children.  They fired either rubber bullets or bean bags into the crowd, and one officer let loose a dog, who attacked a woman carrying her child.

When that news showed up on YouTube, though, CBS had it removed, via a copyright claim.  I can't embed it, but Occupy Iowa's tumblr has a video, linked here, along with this accompanying message:

The YouTube corporation and CBS have now censored the original video of Anaheim cops shooting at children. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MST4RhWdlMQ

“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by CBS.”

Spread links to the mirrors. Keep firing.

CBS might have removed the video to protect the police officers.  They might have removed the video to protect their ability to make advertising revenue on their content.  Either way, the decision is unacceptable.  News is news.    If it's not available, it's useless.

Norway does justice right

(via Boing Boing) The New York Times reports on the Norwegian government's decision to treat the trial of Anders Breivik, the terrorist who orchestrated multiple violent attacks in July 2011:

One year ago Sunday, Norway experienced one of the worst extremist attacks Western Europe has witnessed since World War II when Anders Behring Breivik systematically killed 77 people and injured hundreds of others.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s reaction was unequivocal. He declared that Norway’s strongest weapon in responding to this was to employ more openness and more democracy.

Norwegians took up his call. Neither politicians nor the media turned it into a partisan political issue. The public reacted with grief but did not call for extraordinary measures. And the state chose to prosecute Brevik in an ordinary public court with full media coverage.

[...]

Virtually all modern forms of extremism accuse liberal Western democratic systems of being hypocritical and, ultimately, weak. Al Qaeda portrays the West as anti-Islamic imperialists masquerading as promoters of democracy. Right wing extremism suggests the West is committing cultural suicide through its lax judicial system and naïve multiculturalism.

Both have committed horrific acts designed to bait us into betraying our values and making them martyrs. In fact, it is remarkable to see the many similarities between these two sorts of extremism in their disdain for diversity and their indiscriminate violence against civilians.

In this context, it is a mistake to treat crimes committed by extremists as exceptions, subject to special processes. They must be held accountable in accordance with and to the full extent of the law. Hiding suspects from public view merely dehumanizes the perpetrators and undermines any moral or judicial lessons.

By contrast, prosecuting extremists who have committed crimes in a public courtroom makes it all the more shockingly clear that their horrific acts were undertaken by human beings, and that all of us must work every day to combat the ideas of extremism.

The whole article is amazing -- a beautiful outline of the ways in which a country ought to handle tragedy, ways radically in opposition to the way we handle it in the US.  I couldn't help thinking, while I was reading the post, "Wouldn't it be great to live in one of the grown-up countries like Norway?"

Here's a link to the article.

 

SourceFed on Quote Approval

Last week I covered the New York Times revealing that they, and essentially everyone else in the mainstream media, have been granting quote approval to politicians they want to interview.  That means the politicians get to alter or veto anything the journalists want to say they said, reducing the role of the media to a distribution system for press releases. SourceFed posted a video about it today, which I felt I should share because this is a huge deal that needs a lot of attention.  Like, it's really not okay.  The failure of journalists' integrity is a catastrophic loss for our democracy.

Quote approval

The Guardian has an article up about quote approval, which is when the people that a news story is about get to check over the story, and make sure they're okay with everything the journalist is saying they said.  This is unambiguously unethical -- Mother Jones calls it The Evolution of Reporters into Stenographers. From the Guardian:

It's shocking enough for The New York Times to report that it and other news organizations are now giving the White House and campaign sources from both parties quote approval – the ability to clean up, tighten up, tone down, rethink, and kill the embarrassing (and perhaps candid) bits from what they end up saying in print.

It's worse that we're learning of this only now, long after granting quote approval has clearly become standard operating procedure in what we used to call political journalism[.]

I was briefly on a school newspaper, last year.  At one point, I wrote an article about disarmament, and one of the teachers I interviewed about it asked to be allowed to look over the article before I published it.  I was uncomfortable with this, but I agreed.

When I did, he asked to change a number in one of his quotes.  I quoted Gen. Douglas MacArthur, saying that we could do, as a planet, with as few as 100 nukes, at no loss of effectiveness[1. At least, that's the number I remember.  I don't have the paper in front of me.  I suck at keeping portfolios.].  The teacher had given almost exactly the same quote, but had said 1000[2. Again, that's the number I remember.  It was definitely two small numbers compared to the current stockpile, but the teacher's was larger than MacArthur's.].  He wanted to change it, to match MacArthur's estimate.  I tried to argue about it, but ultimately I did change the number quoted.  It felt deeply wrong at the time, and still does.

Now that I'm comfortably writing on my own blog, rather than a school paper, I feel confident in saying that I would not give quote approval to someone I was interviewing for content.  If that meant I didn't get to cover the topic, that will be where I would have to settle.

It's troubling to learn that this sort of ethical failing has become standard practice in the mainstream media.