Friday, August 18, 2017

Most Trusted



I'm writing up a new intro for a "fake news" talk I'm giving in San Antonio last week. Two of my main interests are politics and online technologies. It's always fascinated me how news in general has become decentralized, and also custom tailored to the people watching it.

One of my earliest memories of being aware of news media was seeing Walter Cronkite on TV. I was reading about Cronkite's career, and I kept seeing he was called "The Most Trusted Man in America." That seems like an awfully lofty title to me, so I looked into that and found that it was based on an actual national survey, where people were asked who they trust the most. Cronkite won handily, in at least a couple of different years -- there was a poll in 1974 and another 1985. Admittedly, the number of options in the polls were somewhat limited, but still, the narrative of Cronkite as "most trusted" has persisted.

And I thought that was odd, because the question "Who is the most trusted person in America?" doesn't seem to even have any clear meaning in 2017. Back then, there were three major networks which ran nightly news; today we have thousands of websites that people follow and curate based on how much the sites say things they like to hear.

Still, I looked into this further, and found that a similar survey was done in 2013, and boy, are the results revealing. The most trusted man in America is... Tom Hanks.

Second is Sandra Bullock. From there the list goes:

3. Denzel Washington
4. Meryl Streep
5. Maya Angelou
6. Steven Spielberg
7. Bill Gates
8. Alex Trebek
9. Melinda Gates
10. Julia Roberts

So obviously a bunch of things jump out from these results. Five of the top ten are actors. One is a director, one is a game show host. The first person on the list who is not an actor is Maya Angelou, who is a lovely and interesting person, is primarily known in the public consciousness as a poet, so she's still sort of in the "entertainment" category. So that's eight out of ten who are entertainers, with Bill and Melinda Gates presumably being trusted at least as much for their charitable foundation as for Bill's history as a software magnate.

There's something weirdly, ironically interesting about a list of "the most trusted people in America" being more than 50% composed of people (if we include Spielberg) who make pretend stories for a living. (That's not an insult. I love movies, and I respect actors and directors. I just don't primarily think of them as people to go to for advice and information.)

Nobody who investigates or reports news is anywhere to be seen on the top ten. I know some people would conclude this means that journalists are inherently untrustworthy, but I think that's a little oversimplistic. Instead I'd point out say that that the way people get their information in an extremely fractured way now. As individual, you may trust or listen to one set of voices, but no matter who those might be, there are almost certainly a lot of people who actively, aggressively dislike them and think they are the biggest liars on the planet.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Quick check-in on my life

Hey folks. I don't know if anyone still follows this blog, but it's something that's been on my mind every once in a while this year.

When I look at the final few posts of the blog, it seems a little embarrassing. Like a lot of people, I wrote a number of confident posts pointing out that Donald Trump couldn't possibly win the election, because he's unpopular and terrible. I was in good company, but I was incredibly, comically wrong, and just writing a post to acknowledge that fact that is a big hurdle that I've taken this long to get to.

No, I didn't die of embarrassment or scurry off to a cave to disappear from society. It's just that the fact that this blog still exists, and what to use it for, didn't wind up being a terribly high priority for me.

The election sucked, but also at the end of last year, I got hit in the face with a lot of stuff to deal with at once. My work became significantly more challenging -- I've been writing back end software to build up the Fireside Gatherings website, and it's a real beast. My career is actually going quite well. It's been nine years since I completed my Master's degree, and it took me a long time to settle in to a permanent job, but I've been working for Blizzard for three years now. It's a fantastic company, and I've grown a lot as a software engineer. But the downside is, the more I've focused on work, the less energy I've had to sit down and do things like writing long posts.

On another front, I'm in my second year as president of the Atheist Community of Austin. It's pretty far from a full time job, but it's stressful enough to contribute to the same lack of desire to write posts. It's not a position I went after, but once I was in, I wanted to take some serious steps towards making the organization financially solid, improve donations and build up the TV show that I've been involved with for the past 17 years.

Also, my son Ben is now 15 years old. He's starting his sophomore year of high school, and he's learning to drive. I've always found parenting very rewarding, although raising a teenager is every bit as challenging as I've heard.

When I send personal email, I have a signature line to the various online places where I post stuff. That includes this blog. My main purpose in writing a new post was to make sure that I have a clear acknowledgement that I made mistakes in predicting last year's political outcome, although I still believe in the basic principles behind what I said. Trump was a dangerously ignorant and unqualified candidate, and as a president those qualities have made him even more dangerous. He was unpopular then, and he's unpopular now, but the people who do like him are very dedicated, and that's a reality we have to face in this country.

But also, I've noticed that I'm spread pretty thin in terms of online presence. Blogging doesn't hold the prominent place that it used to in our worldwide discourse; most people have moved on to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and I'm no exception. I guess a lot of the time I scratch my writing itch by tossing off a quick witticism or comment on a news in a few paragraphs. Beyond that, as a regular host/cohost of The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets, I have lots of opportunity to trot out my opinions on some topics, and reach a pretty broad audience. None of that feels exactly the same as when I used to blog regularly, but again, I have a more limited supply of attention to devote to those things than I used to.

I've also been doing a number of talks in various places, to Secular Student Alliance groups and local atheist organizations. Next week I'm giving a talk on "Skepticism and Fake News" in San Antonio. I am thinking about writing a new brief introduction, and it occurred to me that I could post it on the blog to solidify my thoughts.

So I have a few purposes in writing this post now. First, I just want to pop in and say, sorry about not blogging much all year, but I'm still alive and well and things are generally fine for me. Second, I just want to clear out some of the cobwebs and own up to my past mistakes. And finally, I want to leave this as a reminder to post some new thoughts about fake news, which I have generally been doing before a live audience, so it's a good idea to have a written record of some of those thoughts.

Until next time! ... Even if it turns out that next time takes another year or two.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

No, Trump won't drop out, and it wouldn't matter if he did.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious here, but Donald Trump will never, ever drop out. Obviously, because he is Trump, his ego would not allow him to admit a mistake. But the Republican party members who fantasize about replacing him with another candidate are not grasping a bigger point: there are
a whole bunch of reasons why replacing Trump wouldn't save this election right now.

No, Mike Pence wouldn't win. Paul Ryan wouldn't win. Ted Cruz wouldn't win. Sarah Palin wouldn't win. Mitt Romney wouldn't win. Maybe some of those people could have hypothetically stood a small chance of winning if they had been the GOP candidate from the beginning, and had some time to campaign, but not now.

The die-hard Trump fans are real. They may not be a majority of the country. They may or may not even be a majority of the Republican party. But they are a substantial group -- let's wildly guess at least 30% of the party -- and they totally love what Trump is selling: putting women, uppity minorities, and scumbag liberals in their proper place. The outwardly more stable elements of the GOP, your George Wills and your William Kristols, they can wring their hands and pay all the lip service they want to how that's not really who they are. But that group of die-hards are the ones who Trump bragged wouldn't quit him even if he shot someone in broad daylight. I think that's true. I don't think it's true of all or even most Republicans, but enough of them.

So here's what happens if Trump is somehow forced to step down, or he just flips a table and stalks out on his own. He takes most of those people with him. Either way, they're going to loudly declare that the Republican party has been taken over by a bunch of pussies and cucks, and hey, screw that Mike Pence bastard anyway for throwing Trump under the bus, Pence can't run a country if he doesn't even respect Vladimir Putin.

This is the corner that the Republican party has painted themselves into. They've spent decades denouncing the concept of experts and intellectuals and fact checking. They've made everything out to be subjective, and all they have left to fill the vacuum is the cult of personality that created this monstrosity of a campaign in the first place.

I'm not telling people to get complacent. You should vote for Clinton, because she doesn't just need to win; she needs a landslide. Even if you're tepid on Clinton as a candidate from a personal point of view, it's important that this country firmly and unambiguously renounce the deplorables. Vote. Donate. Phone bank on election week. Don't just make Trump lose; humiliate him thoroughly for all time.

The next election will probably bring on more of the same. If the Republicans bury their heads in the sand and leave the primary process as it is, there are plenty of other Trumps waiting to take on the mantle. If the Republicans DO change their primary system, they'll piss off the deplorables and be left with a fairly pitiful token opposition without that boost. Either way, they'll lose again. Make it happen.

No, Trump won't drop out, and it wouldn't matter if he did.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious here, but Donald Trump will never, ever drop out. Obviously, because he is Trump, his ego would not allow him to admit a mistake. But the Republican party members who fantasize about replacing him with another candidate are not grasping a bigger point: there are
a whole bunch of reasons why replacing Trump wouldn't save this election right now.
No, Mike Pence wouldn't win. Paul Ryan wouldn't win. Ted Cruz wouldn't win. Sarah Palin wouldn't win. Mitt Romney wouldn't win. Maybe some of those people could have hypothetically stood a small chance of winning if they had been the GOP candidate from the beginning, and had some time to campaign, but not now.
The die-hard Trump fans are real. They may not be a majority of the country. They may or may not even be a majority of the Republican party. But they are a substantial group -- let's wildly guess at least 30% of the party -- and they totally love what Trump is selling: putting women, uppity minorities, and scumbag liberals in their proper place. The outwardly more stable elements of the GOP, your George Wills and your William Kristols, they can wring their hands and pay all the lip service they want to how that's not really who they are. But that group of die-hards are the ones who Trump bragged wouldn't quit him even if he shot someone in broad daylight. I think that's true. I don't think it's true of all or even most Republicans, but enough of them.
So here's what happens if Trump is somehow forced to step down, or he just flips a table and stalks out on his own. He takes most of those people with him. Either way, they're going to loudly declare that the Republican party has been taken over by a bunch of pussies and cucks, and hey, screw that Mike Pence bastard anyway for throwing Trump under the bus, Pence can't run a country if he doesn't even respect Vladimir Putin.
This is the corner that the Republican party has painted themselves into. They've spent decades denouncing the concept of experts and intellectuals and fact checking. They've made everything out to be subjective, and all they have left to fill the vacuum is the cult of personality that created this monstrosity of a campaign in the first place.
I'm not telling people to get complacent. You should vote for Clinton, because she doesn't just need to win; she needs a landslide. Even if you're tepid on Clinton as a candidate from a personal point of view, it's important that this country firmly and unambiguously renounce the deplorables. Vote. Donate. Phone bank on election week. Don't just make Trump lose; humiliate him thoroughly for all time.
The next election will probably bring on more of the same. If the Republicans bury their heads in the sand and leave the primary process as it is, there are plenty of other Trumps waiting to take on the mantle. If the Republicans DO change their primary system, they'll piss off the deplorables and be left with a fairly pitiful token opposition without that boost. Either way, they'll lose again. Make it happen.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Hey Democrats, chill out, we're winning

I don't have a lot of respect for the Republican party, but there is one thing I've always thought they were really good at: confident bluster.

In the 2012 election, polls consistently showed pretty consistently that Obama was going to win re-election. So this whole alternate reality sprung up around "unskewing the polls". Websites popped up dedicated to fudging the math and nitpicking the demographics of mainstream polls. They proved that Romney wasn't just going to win; he was going to win in a landslide. On election night, Karl Rove was sitting on Fox News stating with certainty that the math showed Romney winning easily.

...Moments before they called it for Obama.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Political lessons from Game of Thrones

This is a repost from my Facebook feed.

One of the reasons I love Game of Thrones -- both books and shows -- is because it provides such great examples of how politics often works. I’ve brought that up often to my friends this election season.

There are two separate areas where any candidate can stand or fall. The first thing is that politicians create policy. Ultimately what we should want most from our politicians is that they will enact good policy. During an election season, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re not just talking about a sports competition, where we hate the other team because they’re our rivals, and their wins and losses make us happy and sad just because they’re part of the tribe.

We want to elect good politicians because we want them to do stuff that matters on a large scale. Build infrastructure. Improve the economy. Keep the populace safe. Make sure the justice system is fair. Etc.

(continued...)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some ambivalent thoughts about democracy

I've been listening to the 538 election podcast talking about the Brexit vote while I wait for my son's band concert to start. Having some weirdly ambivalent thoughts about democracy.

I think one of the most pressing problems in any society is making sure that minorities don't get stripped of their rights. This is a non trivial issue to solve. Appointed rulers (i.e. kings) tend to care about disempowered people very little. Entrenched ruling groups, like an established board of directors for a company, tend to empower people that they like personally, and in practice bring in more people who look and think like them.

But then again, mobs of people don't necessarily make informed decisions, and then they can STILL be indifferent to minority rights when voting. So for example, we have the 1964 civil rights act, which prevents anyone in the entire country from discriminating in various arenas. If it was put to a state by state vote, many states might explicitly give preferential treatment to straight white males. But we prevent them from doing that on purpose, because you shouldn't be able to vote away some people's rights.

I'm not British, so I don't have the most thorough understanding of Brexit. But the sense I get is that those who voted "Leave" are most generally the UK equivalent of Trump supporters -- i.e., cranky xenophobic nationalists. This is probably an oversimplification of both countries, but it's the rule of thumb I'm going with for now. I'm hearing that many Brits are experiencing buyer's remorse, having made a "protest vote" without really understanding the impact of the decision, and having ridiculed and dismissed "experts" such as economists, who universally said this vote would be bad news. In the US it seems like a popular stance to oppose "career politicians" and vote for outsiders who haven't held office before. Donald Trump is like the end game of this strategy.

In politics, as in other areas like science and medicine, I think there is definitely something to be said for weighting the input of experts differently than other people. Sure, power corrupts. But also, it would be great if judgement on a law was made more by people who have had time to study the law and understand the issue better.

But on the other hand, we go back to appointed rulers having likely biases against "commoners." So it's a tough thing to figure out a fair system.

Monday, March 07, 2016

State of the Democratic primary, part 2: Hillary Clinton on LGBT rights

As I said in my previous post, I like Bernie Sanders, and I like Hillary Clinton, and I'd enthusiastically support either of them in their run for president against Donald Trump (the likely Republican front runner at this moment). I also think that Hillary Clinton is probably going to win the nomination, and that's fine with me.

I have heard a lot of people dismiss Hillary Clinton as "pretty good... for a Republican" or say that she's not a real liberal. I totally disagree, and in my next few posts I hope to make a convincing case that Clinton is, for liberals, a pretty good liberal ally, and vastly superior to Donald Trump. (Which, admittedly, is a low bar for me.)