Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election 2008: Bias in the Media (Viewers)

Charges have been swirling recently (i.e., over the last twenty years... or perhaps decades) that the American media are biased. Here's one journalist's response to those charges.

All in all, it's hard to come up with a quantitative measure of fairness or bias, although some studies have tried.

Instead, let's look at a related question: Are the consumers of media biased? Let's play around with Google Trends.

Fox News is associated with visits to rushlimbaugh.com, newsbusters.org, weeklystandard.com, and searches for Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity.

MSNBC is associated with newsweek.com, the Huffington Post, Keith Olbermann, and Daily Kos.

NPR is associated with tnr.com, thinkprogress.org, and talkingpointsmemo.com.

(Yes, I know some of the associations are personalities associated with a given media outlet.)

Whether or not the media outlets are biased, it does appear that the viewers (or readers) tend to travel in disjoint communities. I'd opine that the Fox News community is characterized by conservative pundits, while the MSNBC and NPR communities have liberal pundits.

MLB Cheated the Phillies Out of a World Series Win

Last night's baseball game was called due to rain in the middle of the sixth inning. The Rays had just scored a run to tie the game. Any regular baseball game would have been called earlier, as the field was unplayable due to the heavy, steady rain. (A rain-soaked field greatly increases the chance that players will make game-changing errors or, worse, injure themselves.)

The umpires clearly waited until the game was tied before suspending it. To see why this is a biased decision, consider a game in which you flip a coin ten times. At the end, you declare "heads" or "tails" the winner, depending on which side came up more. But then you add a new rule that if "heads" and "tails" are tied at any point, you will suspend the game. You will find that you get a lot of tie games with this new rule. The rule biases your flipping in favor of tie games.

The umpires waited until the Rays tied the game before they suspended it. If they had suspended it after, say, five innings, the Phillies would have been declared World Series champions. There is no question that the game should have been called earlier based on field conditions.

It's very reasonable to assume that the umpires were collaborating with the baseball commissioner in their decisions. Why would baseball bias its own World Series? Hard to say, but just speculating, here. It's all about money. An anti-climactic Phillies victory in a rain-shortened game damages the image of the game. Allowing the Rays to tie, and perhaps to play games six and seven, also gives networks much more time to play lucrative advertisements.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Country First" Is a Slogan for Two White Guys

From Politico's Playbook for October 26th: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), top McCain adviser, on why he would have preferred Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for V.P.: "I was pushing Joe because it would transcend politics as we know it -- two people who put country ahead of party."

Hmm, interesting. That "Country First" campaign slogan, which is so awkward for the McCain/Palin campaign, makes a bit more sense for a McCain/Lieberman ticket. Instead of sounding like some arbitrary nationalist slogan, "Country First" would imply that McCain/Lieberman were transcending the boundaries of political parties to do what's best for the USA.

"Country First" would have been a positive, rather than a negative theme, emphasizing new political approaches and shared sacrifices to improve our common standing. A McCain/Lieberman "Country First" campaign would have emphasized the sacrifices needed to "win the war" in Iraq. By placing the good of the country over party affiliations, McCain would also distance himself from his own party affiliation to President Bush.

If this speculation is true, something odd must have happened on the way to the VP selection. Maybe the pressure of flagging polls forced McCain to pick a VP who appealed more to his base, and they decided to keep the slogan anyway. But with Palin's appeal to traditionalists, the slogan has more of a nationalist, than a reformist, ring.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sarah Palin's Religious Views

Andrew Sullivan finds cause for alarm in a recent New York Times article that questions whether Sarah Palin holds dangerously radical Christian beliefs. That New York Times article is rather badly researched fear-mongering. It dangles threatening terms, such as "spiritual warfare," before the reader without giving any concrete information. "Spiritual warfare" is a term widely used throughout Christianity, often meaning something as benign as "we'll pray for you because we're worried."

It is possible that Palin's religious beliefs may be so radical and militant that Americans would be horrified if they knew what she thought. It is also possible that she is a milktoast pew-sitter who would fit comfortably in most churches in the country. And this is where the New York Times and Sarah Palin have failed us. Folks, if you're going to make a big deal about religion, then do your research and let's talk about relevant facts! (That includes you people who are running on Presidential tickets.)

Here's some questions that Sarah Palin should be answering in detail. If she refuses to answer them, then (hint to the Times) these would be good starting points for a journalist to research. If she refuses to even issue statements on them, then I suppose each of us may assume the worst. (The same goes for other political candidates.)

I want to know...

Broadly: Do you believe that an Executive should use her power to enforce activities that a significant fraction of Americans would consider to be a matter of religious preference? What issues, particularly?

What specific statements does your religious tradition make about contemporary political figures?

Do you consider any political (economic, military, etc.) leaders to be morally corrupt and/or evil? If so, how do you interact with such people?

What are the essential components of a well-rounded education that students should receive in public schools?

Specifically: Do you hold any religious biases that could be construed as "anti-intellectual?" For example, are you suspicious of seminary (or other higher) education? Have you ever "spoken in tongues?" What is your opinion of systematic theology?

Do you believe non-Christians are destined for Hell? If so, what can you say that would encourage non-Christians to vote for you?

Some people say that evangelism is the top religious priority, while others argue that helping the needy takes precedence. What do you think are the top three priorities for Christians to accomplish in the world?

What specific steps do you think America should take to alleviate the tremendous suffering in America and around the world, especially in developing countries?

Many sections of the Christian Bible promise (or even require) punishments for unbelievers. Do you believe that you have any role in carrying out those divine commands and/or prophecies?

Do you believe that God works through human governments? If so, in what ways specifically would you want to be used by God? How would God use you in ways that he would not use an atheist politician?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Country First" Is No Slogan for a Maverick

Dear McCain campaign,

Bottom line: "Country First" is a terrible campaign slogan. Unfortunately, it's probably too late to change now. But when you start up the McCain campaign machinery for another run in 2016, you may want to reconsider it. Here's a few reasons why.

1) Your campaign slogan should not evoke nationalism. Lots of people associate it with militarism, unchecked governmental abuse, and ethnic intolerance.

2) Your slogan should not contradict your actions on the campaign trail. For example, if you choose a VP candidate who is almost universally viewed to be unqualified, this could be viewed as putting your campaign ahead of your country.

3) Your slogan should not contradict other catchy slogans that are popular with your voter base. As heard on NPR: "When Palin ran for office, did she put her 'Family First' or her 'Country First'?" (And what about "God First," for the religious voters?)

4) Your slogan should not alienate voters who want to hear an optimistic message. Frankly, I'm not that excited about being a cog in the machine that makes the USA a great and terrible force to be reckoned with. I have other priorities.

5) Your slogan should not raise difficult questions about your motivations. If 300 million Americans subordinate their individuality to the abstract entity we call the "USA," won't the people who benefit most be the Washington politicians who wield all that concentrated power?

6) Your slogan should not expose your own shortcomings. Do you really have nothing better to offer or promise Americans than allusions to nationalism? Is "Country First" the most creative slogan your team could come up with?

Fortunately, nobody pays any attention to campaign slogans, right?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Racism-Tinged Debate Over Colin Powell's Endorsement of Obama

Drudge kicked off the "race-based endorsement" meme this morning with the bold headline "Powell for Obama: It's Not About Race." Drudge is obviously asking, "Was it about race?" And according to a story posted on Politico today, Rush Limbaugh has directly dismissed Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama as being influenced by race.

"Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race," Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail. "OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."

I want to carefully state that this quote is drawn from an internet story referencing an email I haven't seen. It is therefore possible that these are not Rush's actual words. The following argument therefore addresses the stupidity and toxicity of these words, and not any particular person.

1) These words suggest a race-based litmus test for endorsements. The words "inexperienced, liberal" are just a smoke-screen; Powell explained his rationale for supporting Obama, including his concern that the Supreme Court could become too conservative. Limbaugh is not responding to Powell's stated reasons, but instead is suggesting that if one African-American endorses another, something fishy is going on.

2) And what's wrong with race playing a role, anyway? If Powell had said, "You know, one of the many factors in my decision is that I think having an African-American President would demonstrate that the US government truly represents everybody," would there be something wrong with that? Is Rush suggesting that African-Americans should feel guilty about voting for Obama? Should whites (or Scottish-Americans) feel guilty about endorsing or voting for McCain?

3) What about the other endorsements that Obama has received from Republicans, conservatives, and white Americans in general? Is Rush suggesting that race played a role in their decisions? Was the Washington Post editorial staff driven by racial considerations in their endorsement of Obama? If not, why is Powell being held to a racial standard that isn't applied to white people who "cross the aisle" to endorse Obama?

The bottom line is that if Rush had left race out of it and said he was surprised that Powell was endorsing an "inexperienced, very liberal" candidate, then we would be having a political discussion. But by injecting race into his statement, Rush is discrediting Powell's endorsement on racial grounds.

Powell can argue that Obama's experience, advisors, and temperament qualify him for the Presidency. Powell can argue that Obama's political leanings and policies are an ideal match for America's current needs. But Powell can never change the fact that he and Obama both have African ancestry. And that is perhaps the most insidious aspect of these words attributed to Rush Limbaugh: because Colin Powell is African-American, Rush would deny him the respect his endorsement deserves. And there's nothing Powell, Obama, or anybody else can do to change that.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What Warren Buffett Didn't Say

In the New York Times, Warren Buffett says he's buying American stocks, and he urges others to do the same. His argument for this recommendation is rather vague, saying that over time, stocks will go up, and the time to buy is when everyone is afraid. (Frankly, I think everyone has been afraid for some time now.) Buffett's statement doesn't sit well with some folks, who point out that he has much to gain from improved investor confidence. He's already heavily invested in stocks, and therefore some of his fortunes depend on whether Americans decide to invest themselves and boost (or rescue!) Buffett's investments.

Buffett's editorial is particularly misleading because he fails to mention that his stock investments are often different from those that ordinary people would make. When Buffett buys billions of dollars of stocks, you can bet that he gets a better deal than you or I would.

For his $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs, Buffett receives preferred shares, which means that if Goldman ever goes bankrupt, he stands ahead of ordinary stockholders in the line to pick up the pieces (assets). Buffett also gets a 10% annual dividend on his shares. (Wouldn't that be nice?) Furthermore, he has the option to buy more stock at a fixed price in the next few years; a no-lose situation for him. Finally, Buffett knows that Goldman has a lot of connections in the US Treasury department, and Obama has mentioned that Buffett is one of his financial advisors. It therefore seems likely that Goldman will be on the inside track to get any further government assistance it may need.

I have nothing against Buffett; in fact he seems to be a rational, no-nonsense investor. I do have a problem with the New York Times editorial he published. I have no idea whether the market is about to rise from its lows, but I am certain that my monthly paycheck won't be able to buy stocks on the same favorable terms that Warren Buffett receives.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Asymmetric Evangelism

Bilinda Straight writes about "Killing God" in the latest volume of Current Anthropology. In this case, the "god" was a Kenyan divinity named Nkai. In 1935, an Anglican missionary, Charles Scudder, fired his gun into the cave where Nkai was believed to reside. Nkai was thought to have been vanquished, and the worship of Nkai ended at that site.

Straight also recounts tales of John Williams, a British missionary to Tahiti and the Society Islands. Williams gathered the sacred relics and "gods" of different communities, then publicly humiliated them in his chapel. The "gods" were publicly exposed, hanged, burnt, and possibly shipped back to England as curiosities.

Straight points out that there was a double standard at work in these Christian missions. On one hand, they relied on brute force and sometimes science to demonstrate the invalidity of the religions they opposed. The native gods could not stand up to modern technology, and were therefore defeated. On the other hand, the missionaries simultaneously claimed that their Christian god was above scientific scrutiny.

Nkai was defeated by a rifle shot, but if someone were to physically attack a crucifix or other Christian artifact, Christians would respond that it means nothing; "God is in heaven." On the other hand, when fervent prayers appear to succeed in diverting threatening weather, that is the immanent hand of God. In Christian worship and sacraments, "God is with us." In short, Christian theologians have formulated a god who cannot be assailed by the arguments missionaries use against other divinities. Is this evidence of the superiority of the Christian god, or is the Christian theology of God instead driven by an evangelistic need for superiority?

This type of "asymmetric evangelism" shows up in other scenarios. Perhaps we'll hunt down some examples in the near future.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Brief History of the Next 20 Years of Presidential Politics

The Obama administration of 2009-2013 was mostly forgettable. It was initially crippled by the economic recession it inherited, and was further staggered by the collapse of the American "traditional energy" industry. Inspired by community-based gun-control programs, American oil companies began offering free SUVs to anyone who would trade in and destroy their electric cars; the program had few takers. The collapse of "big oil" undermined the relationship between the USA and the oil-rich countries that were financing its economic bailout, with disastrous effects on the flailing US economy.

By 2012, Americans were ready for a dramatic change. At their first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin renounced their political parties and announced the formation of a new unity ticket. After a warm hug at center stage, Hillary and Sarah led the audience (and 80 million television viewers) in an inspiring, thirty-minute sing-a-long. Afterward, they announced their joint campaign slogan -- "Dance, dance, dance!", which was later amended to "Dance, Baby, Dance!" -- and a unique power-sharing agreement in which the two would swap presidential authority every two weeks. Clinton/Palin won in a landslide in 2012, and was followed by a Palin/Clinton victory in 2016.

By 2020, Americans had tired even of the traveling Clinton/Palin roadshows. Clinton's bold acoustic medleys (and Palin's folksy piccolo accompaniments) no longer appealed to a generation of jaded voters who were tired of singing "Imagine" at every state function, hockey match, and wedding. The duo briefly experimented with a more "electric" sound before declaring that they were dropping out of the 2020 election. It was once again "time for a change."

The dissolution of the Democratic and Republican parties under Clinton/Palin led to the formation of hundreds of small, independent political organizations. Over the course of the 2020 primary season, these parties coalesced into two major factions, which came to be known as the "Red" and the "Blue" parties. Both parties had learned the lessons of recent history: Americans demand election campaigns that are abstract and impersonal. The Red and Blue parties therefore agreed that they would not present their candidates in person to the voting public. The 2020 campaign season was the first to be conducted entirely by video feed and internet chat.

By 2023, Americans began to suspect something was amiss. Journalists were unable to uncover any documented case in which the President had been seen in person. Meanwhile, the US budget included a $2 trillion surplus, mainly due to profits from a stock trading account managed by White House staff. The Secret Service had recently hired several high-profile computer hackers, and people around the country were reporting that their household appliances were acting strangely. In early 2024, a Romanian hacker announced that the US President had been "haXored!!!", and the Secret Service scrambled to roll back and reboot the White House servers. It was now clear that, despite a wide array of institutional and Constitutional safeguards, Americans had unintentionally elected a software program to the highest office in the land. It was equally clear that the President's term was the most popular and successful of the last century.

No pretensions were made about the nature of the 2024 election. Congress rushed to amend the Constitution to allow the election of "artificial intelligences of US origin." As late as August, the Red-party incumbent was highly favored to win the election, but a reconstituted Green party made a late -- and wildly popular -- push with an open-source candidate designed under a "free software" license. The Green party platform called for monthly elections to determine which code updates should be applied to patch the President; all Americans were encouraged to submit their own code snippets for consideration. The strength of the open-source platform was evident in the first debate. The Green candidate performed flawlessly, while the Red and Blue candidates required frequent assistance from their handlers to offset deficiencies in their speech-recognition algorithms. During the second debate, both the Red and Blue candidates were hacked and had to be rebooted. The open-source Green candidate, with a secure, UNIX-based OS kernel, performed flawlessly. The third presidential debate was cancelled, and President "Green2024.1.0" was elected in a landslide.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everybody Knows: The Debate System is Broken

No need to run a poll for this claim: last night's presidential debate was boring. Even more boring than the VP debate, and even more boring than the first presidential debate.

I am outraged. (Yes, it should come as no surprise that someone named "Edgy the Anticlown" is subject to the full spectrum of human emotion, and more.)

There was no reason for this debate to be so boring. It was a "town hall" setting, and candidates had the opportunity (in principle) to interact with real, live voters. Whatever you may think about the way Brokaw moderated the debate, he did try to ask some pointed questions. (Although those questions were full of silly false dilemmas: "Do you think Russia is more like a giraffe or a pumpkin?")

I am outraged that the political system has come to the point where it is to both candidates' advantage to avoid answering any questions or giving any specific statements, because they are afraid anything they say will be used against them.

We are electing one of the most powerful positions in the world. Yet the two top candidates refuse to communicate directly with each other, except to utter repetitive talking points and bland platitudes. Sometimes, they entirely ignore the questions posed to them. Meanwhile, their campaign operatives (and related groups) snipe at each other in television commercials and on the internet.

Fact is, it is very likely I will be voting in November for a candidate that I have never heard answer a single question with candor and real, specific, detailed information. The whole system is stacked to discourage candidates from giving such answers.

Perhaps it's time to shake things up a bit by allowing some third-party candidates to participate in these debates. You can see why the major parties don't want this; candid, sincere answers from one person on that stage would force everyone else to come back to the sanity fold.

Then again, a good case could be made that sanity is not a trait we value in our elected officials.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why Do Voters Identify with Palin?

Charli Carpenter over at The Duck of Minerva is offended that people who mispronounce the word "nuclear" represent America to the world. This got me to thinking... representation is an interesting thing. For example, McCain and Biden both look and act like they could be members of my family. But I would prefer to be represented by Obama, because I'm more sensitive to other aspects of Obama's personality; I do not rank my own ethnicity and mannerisms as high priorities in a candidate.

But let's get to the interesting stuff. Why do religious conservatives feel that Palin represents them? To answer this question, I reach deep into my bag of experiences, back to the days when I myself was associated with religious conservatism.

First, religious conservatives aren't concerned with impressing the world at large. They've been marginalized and ridiculed so much that they've learned to be suspicious of anyone who doesn't have church cred.

Second, there's a strong anti-intellectual streak in conservative churches. It's the kind of thing that is bound to happen when you've been publicly arguing for a century that the world is 6000 years old. To religious conservatives, the awkwardness of Bush and Palin is evidence that they are genuine people.

Finally, religious conservatives are extremely issues-oriented. These are people who form and break relationships based on the interpretation of (often ambiguous) Bible verses. Whether we're talking about the literalist/fundamentalist (evangelical) camp or the traditionalist (Catholic) camp, religious conservatives are serious about propagating their religious opinions. They believe Palin offers them a chance to do that.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

You're Either With Me, or You're On the Slippery Slope

The fallacy of the "slippery slope" is an attempt to argue that if we do not remain in a place of safety, then we will inevitably slide down the chute and land in a very bad place (perdition, a bucket full of snakes, etc.). This type of argument is a fallacy because... well, it's really just fear-mongering. If you want to tell someone they're on the road to hell, you need to at least pay them the courtesy of explaining why they wouldn't have the common sense to get off that road at the next intersection.

The slippery slope fallacy is a staple of religious rhetoric. "If you do X, then you will be in great spiritual danger!" is the common refrain. (Fill in your own "X".) It has also become common in politics, especially when religious issues are involved. "If we allow X to be legal, then family life will be destroyed!" This time, Edgy will fill in the "X"; how about "gay marriage," "single parenting," or "card-playing, dancing, and drinking the demon rum!"

We seem very willing to accept such fallacious arguments in politics. Edgy wonders if religion is being used as a training ground to make people more susceptible to bad arguments. In some ways, religion itself is the ultimate slippery slope... the band of true believers will be gathered up to heaven, while the rest will slide down into hell.

Edgy will now be blunt. Slippery slopes are infantile. We are all stuck here together in a world that has problems. When anticlowns grow up, they learn that often you get stuck in situations where there is no perfect solution. There is no use pretending that you can live in a safe place. Instead, you make the best decision you can, dig in, and hold your position. And here is where religion has an opportunity to be most helpful. Instead of teaching us to make decisions out of fear, it should be teaching us how to make decisions that are wise, well-informed, and beneficial for all.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cartels Clearly Don't Understand Capitalism

The BBC is reporting another huge judgment against nine firms accused of operating a cartel, presumably in an attempt to fix prices. (Why don't these stories get much play in the American media?) Apparently, Shell Oil blew the whistle on the group, which included Exxon (USA) and Total (France).

Edgy is shocked that such large, prestigious companies could do something so self-destructive. We have all learned that a free-market economy motivates everyone to act in their own self-interest, and forming monopolies and cartels is clearly self-destructive because... um, ... because you'll get fined by the European Commission, of course.

Unless it was actually excess government regulation that forced these otherwise-innocent companies to unite to cheat consumers. That must be it. Clearly, the European Union should free up the market by legalizing cartels and monopolies. In turn, companies would voluntarily avoid forming cartels because it would umm, somehow make them more money.

There are people who actually believe this stuff, you know.