No bias. No bull. No information.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t consume much mainstream news, particularly the televised variety. Having dinner with my CNN-addicted in-laws a few days ago exposed me to an episode of Campbell Brown: No Bias. No Bull.

The particular segment to which I paid attention focussed on the U.S. government’s impending interventions into the auto industry. To the show’s credit, they did seem to give more air time than the average show to a single topic. Unfortunately, they didn’t fill it with much other than prattle. There were some words you heard repeated over and over, such as “bailout” and “billions”. One word that I didn’t hear at all, however, was “loan”. (I looked for transcripts of this show to verify this, but couldn’t find any. Leave a link in a comment below if you know where they are kept.) You couldn’t be blamed for concluding from the coverage that the government was contemplating giving free money to GM, rather than providing them the federal loans that they are actually requesting. You know, loans that would mean we’d be getting the cash back, with interest. Now, while giving loans to GM is stupid enough on its own, it doesn’t need any media trickery that makes it sound like something stupider, like just giving them free money.

Given that the auto-industry is a powerful lobby, it may turn out that they can weasel out of these loans at some point in the future, so maybe no one actually believes the idea that these would be loans. But if so that is the story, and you’d expect at least a passing comment on it.

While the difference between a loan and gift seems rather fundamental to me, mainstream media seems to either not understand the difference, not care, and/or assume that their audience doesn’t know or care either. They (and this particular CNN show is far from alone here) appear to be happy essentially screaming “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” over and over for a bit, then cutting to a talking head who screams “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” a bit more. When covering the “$700 billion bailout” the government is engaged in now, nearly every media source I watched or read seemed to go out of their way to give the impression that this money was just being pissed away. Some of it surely will be, but mostly the idea is to buy things. While the government will probably overpay for these assets—hard to tell for sure, because the main problem is no one really knows what they are worth—but they are certainly worth more than zero. Most of the money buys instruments that are ultimately backed by houses. This might force the government to be something like a landlord to get value out of these assets, which, gee, seems like a fairly important story for journalists to cover to me. Or, how about the story that, while the plan calls for buying things (and thus, the possibility of recovering losses), the lawmakers that did as much as anyone to cause this mess in the first place are now screaming that this money shouldn’t be used to buy things, but rather to just give money to citizens who can’t add in order to allow them to shirk their obligations. That seems like a good story, too.

Or, how about a story detailing people that saw this collapse coming and how Wall Street will never look the same again. That would be interesting.

Or even just pieces that help inform the viewer, such as a metaphor for what’s causing the credit crisis or what the hell these freaky instruments are that caused all the trouble. Those would be welcome stories as well.

Fortunately, such stories exist. You just won’t find them on television.

Election update

Care-O-MeterToday, I am upgrading my Care-O-Meter for the 2008 U.S. Presidential race from its previous rating of “slight” to “moderate”. The world seems to be more enthusiastic.

Most interesting to me were the results in my home state of Colorado, which I consider to be a litmus test for the nation. (I’m not the only one, by the way. Colorado has been used to test market products for decades, thanks to its mix of race, urban and rural population, blue and white collar, military and civilian, Christian! and Christian and not-quite-so-Christian, Republican and Democrat, even mountain and plain. I experienced the joys of Crystal Pepsi, for example, before most of you.) Colorado drifted Democrat in the big races this year, but the ballot issues were more interesting.

One of them attempted to change the definition of “person” in the state Constitution to start at the moment of conception. I’m not surprised that this was defeated, since it was called by some “unreasonable, inflexible anti-abortion extremism”; however, given that it got on the ballot at all, I was surprised to see how universally it got thrashed. Equally interesting, the so-called “end affirmative action” initiative is still a dead heat at the time of this post.

Blame

In the film Rising Sun, Sean Connery’s character claims that “the Japanese have a saying: ‘Fix the problem, not the blame.’ Find out what’s f—- up and fix it. Nobody gets blamed. We’re always after who f—- up. Their way is better.” While this is not universally true (sometimes fixing the problem does mean assigning blame), it’s true enough: Americans, particularly American media, are much more fixated on pointing fingers than solving problems. With the current financial crisis, there is no shortage of culpability to go around, and the standard blame orgy is in full swing. Unfortunately, almost no one, least of all the media, is even mentioning one of the largest culprits: the American consumer. Far from assigning even a tiny bit of the blame there, most noticeably exclude them from analysis. In the debate last night, McCain went so far as to call them “innocent victims of greed and excess”.

Wrong.

The American public, that is currently raising such a stink about this crisis, did as much to cause it as anyone. They are not the sole cause, to be sure, but they are not innocent and it disgusts me they they (we) are getting a pass. One of the few to even mention this is Chris Plummer, who recently provided a menu of blame that included the general public, twice:

Consumers

Railing against greedy thieves in the financial industry ignores how readily Americans availed themselves of the cheap credit that same industry offered them. If there’s honor among junkies, it’s that they don’t blame their drug dealer for their addiction.

American workers

Employees across all industries suddenly fear for their jobs and resulting financial hardship as the nation appears headed into a recession of considerable depth. The ones most at risk are the millions who lived beyond their means and failed to steer earnings into savings for just such potential emergencies. They sadly face just desserts for feasting high on the hog.

That may be harsh, but it is largely true. It’s clear that the trigger for this crisis has been home loans made to people who ultimately couldn’t pay them back. Yet, in a society of finger pointing, somehow no one seems willing to even mention that, just perhaps, the people that agreed to take such loans might have, just perhaps, helped to totally screw us all.

The common rebuttal to this is “but there was criminal, predatory lending! Those people didn’t know what they were getting into! They were being lied to!” But, even if there was outright fraud in every single case, “those people” still signed the paperwork. Essentially, this rebuttal is saying that consumers who suck at math and reading comprehension are automatically innocent. This argument doesn’t hold up in any other venue. I’d like to believe that a small outlay of cash to a rich Nigerian in exile would net me millions but, if I fell for this scam, no one would call me an innocent victim. They’d say I got what I deserved for being so stupid and greedy. Blame certainly falls on the scammer, but also on the willing participation of the scammed. It takes two to tango.

When you are out and about, and a bomb set by a complete stranger goes off and kills you for no reason, you are an innocent victim. If you willingly enter a contract that fully explains what will happen, you are not innocent, no matter what anyone told you the contract said. That isn’t how contracts work. If you don’t understand a contract, you don’t sign it. Especially for something as large and important as a home.

You hear a lot of demand for “accountability” from the public, the media and politicians regarding Wall Street, government, the banking industry and so on. But this same public seems pathologically unable to be accountable themselves. We demand responsibility from others, but shown none ourselves. Why would we? We have no end of talking heads telling us we are the innocent victims.

Now, as mentioned, “Main Street” isn’t the sole culprit in this. There are a lot of other forces at work (which samaBlog lucidly explained). The point of this post is not to lay the blame solely at the public’s feet, but rather to act as one of the only places that assigns them any blame at all.

I tend to agree with the sentiment from a bad Michael Crichton movie that started this post, that blame just isn’t particularly useful. But, if you must point fingers, make sure you point them in the right direction.

Evil genius

The year is 2035. Joe Smith stands in front of the United States Senate, subject of a confirmation hearing for the post he has sought all his life:

Camera cuts to Senator Archibald Huffenpuff [R], looking self-important and slightly bored.

Huffenpuff: Mr. Smith are you now or have you ever been a member of the web site called [checks notes] MySpace.com?

Cut to Joe Smith, in a sharp suit.

Smith: Yes sir.

Huffenpuff: In what capacity?

Smith: Well, while running for office several years ago, we used myspace.com/joe-smith-in-30 as part of our grassroots campaign to…

Huffenpuff: Have you ever used any other usernames on this site?

Smith looks moderately confused by the question.

Smith: I don’t particularly recall, Senator.

Huffenpuff: Have you ever used the name el-guapo-suave?

Smith smiles.

Smith: Ah, yes. I used that name during school.

Huffenpuff: Do you recall comments made then about circuit judge Mary Jones?

Smith blanches, clearly confused

Smith: Back then? I didn’t even know who she was then, Senator.

Huffenpuff: Let me refresh your memory. In 2008, she was fifteen years old and went by the user name meow1kittens15.

Smith: Uh…

Huffenpuff: You left comments on her page when she posted a picture of herself in her cheerleader uniform.

Sensing Smith’s discomfort, the camera slowly zooms in.

Smith: Uh…

Huffenpuff: Specifically, you said of the then underage Mary Jones, and I quote “I’d tap that” and “omfg u r so h0ttt!!!11!1”. Are these your words, sir?

Smith: Uh…

Camera cuts to a closeup of a white cat with blue eyes and a diamond necklace, being pet by Rupert Murdoch (indirect owner of MySpace) in his orbiting space station.

Murdoch: Bwah-ha-ha-ha! You should have paid up, Mr. Smith.

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are already being used for blackmail, but I can’t help but suspect that blackmail is actually their entire reason for existence. This is the only reason I can find to explain why Faceberg still gets investment capital in spite of having no visible business plan or prospects. It may also explain why Facebook removed a third-party application that let its users stab each other: it was cutting in on Facebook’s action.

Expect to see this type of thing show up in government more often, along with services that will eliminate incriminating web evidence. One interesting aspect of this will be the collateral damage created. For example, in my fictional example above, a plot intended to take down Smith would probably also take down Mary Jones by also exposing her teenage escapades.

Things that existed when Obama was born that didn’t exist when McCain was born

  • August 29, 1936 – McCain born
  • 1936 – electric guitar
  • 1937 – jet engine
  • 1937 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • 1937 – U.S. criminalization of marijuana (at the behest of DuPont)
  • 1938 – ballpoint pen
  • 1938 – fiberglass
  • 1938 – Superman
  • 1939 – helicopter
  • 1939 – View-master
  • 1939 – automated teller machine
  • 1939 – World War II
  • 1941 – Turing complete computer
  • 1941 – Citizen Kane
  • 1942 – nuclear reactor
  • 1945 – the Slinky
  • 1945 – microwave oven
  • 1945 – fission weapons
  • 1945 – United Nations
  • 1946 – bikini
  • 1946 – mobile telephone service
  • October 26, 1947 – Hillary Clinton born
  • 1947 – transistor
  • 1947 – Pakistan
  • 1948 – Israel
  • 1948 – NATO
  • 1948 – House Committee’s Investigation of Un-American Activities
  • 1948 – Apartheid
  • 1949 – People’s Republic of China
  • 1950 – U.S. approves standard for broadcasting color television
  • 1951 – Nash equilibrium
  • 1951 – the term “rock ’n’ roll”
  • 1951 – “the pill”
  • 1952 – fusion weapons
  • 1953 – discovery of DNA’s structure
  • 1955 – Velcro
  • 1958 – integrated circuits
  • 1958 – communication satellite
  • 1958 – implantable pacemaker
  • 1959 – statehood of Alaska and Hawaii
  • 1960 – LISP
  • 1960 – laser
  • 1960 – Psycho
  • 1961 – ICBM
  • August 4, 1961 – Obama born

Most dates from Wikipedia.

Harnessing mass fraud

The plague of reality television has spawned some unexpected phenomena over its decade-long life. Most interestingly, shows that allowed public voting demonstrated that people had both the desire and the means to organically organize to rig elections on a massive scale. Once again, the internet demonstrates its core competency, connecting strangers in weird ways, in this case through nexus sites like Vote for the Worst.

The question that’s been bugging me this morning: how to harness this ability? Any thoughts?

The black horse

Now that idiot thugs are refusing disaster relief and rice shortage prophesies are being self-fulfilled, it won’t be long until famine starts to rear its head. While many people are busy dying, those that aren’t will be spreading blame around. Blame will fall on bad weather, bad crops, bad luck, even on Al Gore. But the truth will be none of these. While starvation is (obviously) caused by a lack of food, famine—that is, widespread starvation over a large area—is the result of bad government.

As far as food goes, governments fail their people in two ways: by failing to plan for bad times and by bungling (or, all to often, profiting from) crises when some external event triggers a food problem. Usually, famine involves both. In its 2002 coverage of Ethiopia entitled “Bad weather, and bad government”, the Economist said:

Bad weather is rarely enough, on its own, to kill large numbers of people. Famine usually requires bad government, too…. In Ethiopia, the food crisis has been aggravated by the legacy of a senseless border war with neighboring Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. It killed tens of thousands, forced 350,000 to flee their homes, blasted both countries’ infrastructure and prompted foreign donors to freeze a lot of aid. In all, it cost Ethiopia an estimated $2.9 billion—almost a whole year’s output for every farmer in a country where 80 per cent of the population lives on farms. Such a monumental man-made disaster has made it harder for the country to cope with a natural one.

The millions of Chinese that starved from 1958 to 1961 also owe their deaths more to their government’s response to natural disaster than to the disasters themselves, even by that governments own admission. Research into other famines by Amartya Sen reached similar conclusions. Even black swan events, such as fungus unexpectedly killing potatoes needs bad government to become the Irish Potato Famine.

Our modern reaction to famine in other countries is to send relief aid and “keep them in our prayers”. This probably saves a few lives (at least in countries where the government isn’t stealing the aid), but treats the symptom, not the disease. You will continue to see famine in country after country until we change this “we sympathize” tune we sing into an accusation of incompetence against the government causing the problem, even our own (especially our own). Some, for example, are taking the World Bank to task, claiming it created policies that encourage governments to create famine. This is a step in the right direction, but a better step would be to also blame the governments themselves.

Art “Four Horsemen: Famine” by Greyskin666.