Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In Which I Ridicule 9/11 Conspiracies

Wow, the 9/11 Truthers are really coming out of the woodwork this month. I've seen two separate celebrities accosted by them in viral videos.

First, Bill Maher threw people out of his studio after they wouldn't stop shouting "What happened to building 7?"

Then Bill Clinton responded to a similar rant by a heckler:

Unfortunately I'm personally familiar with people who believe in these conspiracy claims suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were planned by our government and not by terrorists. At one point these people called the Atheist Experience several times and got very mad at us when we wouldn't take them seriously. Matt once spoke dismissively about the conspiracy theories on The Non-Prophets, and we got multiple emails that repeated the inane phrase "Oh, so you believe the CONSPIRACY THEORY that our GOVERNMENT promotes?"

Besides that, 9/11 truthers infest the phone lines for the Washington Journal morning show on C-SPAN (which I often watch while getting breakfast), and various Air America hosts are constantly bombarded by demands to swear loyalty to these ideas. There is a two hour amateur documentary out on the internet called Zeitgeist. We keep getting email about this movie all the time, and my blood pressure goes up a couple of points every time I see yet another message about it. Zeitgeist starts with a semi-interesting story arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus, and then degenerates into 9/11 "truth" claims about the World Trade Center attack being an inside job. For good measure, they also throw in some stuff about how federal income taxes are illegal. Riiiight.

I confess: I haven't watched Zeitgeist all the way through. I've tried a couple of times, but it is a fairly awful bit of film making, and I didn't have the patience to sit through two hours of it. I gave it another chance today, just so I would have more to say about it. Tried turning it on and listening to the audio while I worked. The problem is that most of the "shocking revelations" require the movie to clear the screen of any action and display text for several seconds while ominous music plays. So I can't follow the thread of the story unless I sit in rapt attention staring at the screen for the full two hours.

Attention, budding filmmakers: Movies are not the right medium for text. I'm fine with reading a long article, and I'm fine with watching a movie, but don't mix the two. People read things at different speeds. The advantage of a movie is that it presents a sequence of entertaining visual images and compelling sounds. The advantage of text is that you can go through it at your own pace, and you can jump backwards to reread something you missed. A movie with lots of text combines the worst of both formats: The movie is boring, and the text is hard to read. Most of the text is too slow and you have to sit there staring at something you've already read, but if you take your attention away from the screen, you'll miss something and never see it again.

DON'T DO THAT! Watch a Michael Moore movie sometime for an example of how to do it right. Even if you think that Michael Moore is a big fat jerk, and everything he says is a total lie, the guy knows how to make an entertaining movie. You don't get an academy award for putting a full page of text on the screen every thirty seconds.

I have a lot of reasons for thinking that the "inside job" explanation of 9/11 is bullshit, but here's what it really comes down to. Big conspiracies don't work. The bigger they are, the less likely they are to be successfully covered up. Franklin said it best: "Three can keep a secret if two are dead."

It should be no surprise that I'm not a big fan of Team Bush, and I believe their actions have led to the deaths of thousands of innocents, in various ways. But IMHO, these deaths have mostly come about due to apathy and greed, not deliberate attempts to kill American citizens.

It's not that I think Bush and company are a bunch of swell guys who would never harm a living person. It's that I find it completely ludicrous to think that they could plan something this elaborate and make it work without a hitch. Look at Iraq. The Project for a New American Century folks were planning that one for decades, and yet it seems like they sincerely believed that we would be greeted as liberators and have candy and flowers thrown at us when we arrived. Slight miscalculation on their part, no?

The conspiracy dreamt up by 9/11 "Truth" ("You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means") is massive in scope. Whether they're claiming that explosives were planted inside the buildings, or that the government fired missiles at the Pentagon, or that all the news videos released were actually fake... all these ideas require an insanely large number of people to be in on the conspiracy. Let's see, there's the people who planned the actual attack, and much of their staff; the people at the airport; the news organizations that collaborated in spreading fake videos; etc, etc. You can say that some of them were dupes who didn't know the whole plan, but in a scheme this big and this well-executed, you need a LOT of people to have a significant portion of The Big Picture in order to handle their jobs correctly. I think my Project Management professor will probably agree with me there.

What 9/11 truthers are suggesting is that every one of these people was an intentional accessory to the murder of nearly 3,000 people. Now, you can call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I just find it beyond the limits of my credibility that among all those people, not one of them grew a conscience enough to let slip a little information about what they saw.

Think about it... who's promoting the conspiracy? People who would actually be in a position to know anything about it? Government workers, airport workers, aids to important people? No... college kids who are meticulously studying the frames of grainy video footage, and theoreticians pontificating on how the laws of physics prevent smashed up burning buildings from falling down.

Yes, Bush was negligent in following up on credible threats. Yes, he and others like him have done a fantastically good job of exploiting the tragedy at every possible chance. But this looks to me much more like a case of answering opportunity when it knocks, not getting hundreds of American citizens intentionally involved in the murder of thousands.

Conspiracy nuts, give it a rest already. The fact that everyone you contact hangs up on you and doesn't listen is not "censorship," nor is the fact that you were thrown out of a private studio for disruptively yelling at the host. I hang up on you on our cable access show because you are annoying and sound silly.

If you want to read more amusing stuff on the 9/11 conspiracy theories, may I recommend:
  1. Bill Maher again. This is the video that inflamed those people into harassing Maher in his studio in the first place. "New rule: Crazy people who still think the government brought down the Twin Towers in a controlled explosion, have to stop pretending that I'm the one who's being naive."
  2. Matt Taibbi: The Hopeless Stupidity of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. BUSH: "So, what's the plan again?" CHENEY: "Well, we need to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. So what we've decided to do is crash a whole bunch of remote-controlled planes into Wall Street and the Pentagon, say they're real hijacked commercial planes, and blame it on the towelheads; then we'll just blow up the buildings ourselves to make sure they actually fall down."
  3. The Best Page in the Universe (their title, not mine): "Now we're expected to believe that the same government that was able to commit the largest terrorist operation in history--with military precision no less--is suddenly too incompetent to sniff out and shut down a little website set up by some college losers within days, if not minutes of its creation?"

Comic strip triage

Since I keep filling up my Google feed reader with more stuff than I have the will to slog through, I'm deleting a few comic strips from my feed rolls. If you read comics, you can follow along with me.
  • Goodbye, Doonesbury. I've always sort of liked Doonesbury, but only in a "That occasionally makes me smile" kind of way. Most often, when I'm a week or more behind on my comic strips, it's Doonesbury that has the most unread entries. I presume that if there is a Doonesbury cartoon that's especially insightful, someone will point it out to me. In the meantime, I'm bored of reading about veterans in counseling and Mike's whiny college-attending daughter.
  • Goodbye, Fox Trot. I think there's an unwritten law of comic strips that says that by the time a cartoonist goes into semi-retirement, they already suck so much that it's too late to recover. Fox Trot was once one of my favorite cartoons, but I could already see the writing on the wall before Bill Amend decided to transition from a daily cartoon to a Sundays-only strip. One of the side effects of having idiosyncratic characters who never age is that eventually you start telling the same jokes over and over and over again. Jason is still a little geek who deliberately makes simple tasks more complicated with advanced math. Paige is still obsessing about making a splash in her freshman year, every single year. The mom still insists on making healthy food that everybody hates. Ha ha! Bye bye, Fox family.
I went through another round of comic strip triage last year and it was oddly liberating. Back then, I got rid of
  • Dilbert. I should have seen that it jumped the shark YEARS ago. Not that it was ever truly hilarious, but somehow I failed to notice exactly when the office humor stopped being slightly interesting. Besides, there's so many Dilbert strips on office doors around the IBM buildings, that reading the strip just feels like actually working. And also, Scott Adams is a creationism promoter, and an obnoxious one at that.
  • Non Sequitur. Used to be a truly funny cartoon in the spirit of The Far Side - which, by the way, was authored by the much smarter Gary Larson, who quit while at the top of his game. Non Sequitur went into a slow tailspin when it started doing multi-strip story arcs. The tailspin accelerated massively when the story arcs were all about Danae. Even now, as I look at it today, the story is about god damn Danae again. I'm glad I gave up that habit.
  • Calvin and Hobbes. Sadly, I had to finally let go of this one when it occurred to me that I've already read all the reruns like, five times. I'll miss you, Bill Watterson.
I still have plenty of comics to keep me amused, though, and here's what survived the RSS-eliminating scalpel this time around:
Wow. I just realized... with this latest round of cuts, I now officially read NO daily syndicated cartoons that get printed in actual newspapers. It's all online.

Nevertheless, I still read Comics Curmudgeon daily, so I won't completely lose touch with the world of crappy corporate comics.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Education = terrorism

The conservative group "Family Security Matters" has let us know just how afraid they are of educated people. And also bloggers. On their list of "The Ten Most Dangerous Organizations in America," "Universities and Colleges" came it at number two. Not any particular university or college, mind you. All of them.

Speaking as an educated person AND a blogger, I would like to know when I will have the opportunity to make my acceptance speech.

A floating libertarian dictatorship

Pharyngula linked a story today about Freedom Ship, a proposed libertarian paradise that would be a floating version of Galt's Gulch.

Apart from creationism, there are few things I enjoy reading more than a good rant about libertarian fantasies. As weird as the whole story is, this one part caught my eye in particular.

On Freedom Ship there will be a jail, a “squad of intelligence officers,” and a “private security force of 2,000, led by a former FBI agent, [that] will have access to weapons, both to maintain order within the vessel and to resist external threats.” And while technically the law applied would be that of whichever state lends its flag, Freedom Ship officials make no bones that “the captain’s word will be final.”

Zoinks! Who the hell is going to be stupid enough to sign up for that?!?

I think this little detail is a perfectly distilled example of what is wrong with libertarianism. In stripping away a planned government, which includes detailed rules and restrictions on what the government may not do, they have simply pared away all possible civil protections in order to reach the smallest possible government: one guy. One completely unaccountable guy who makes all the rules.

Look, what people call "big government" exists for a reason. The United States has an elected, distributed, multi-faceted government, composed of different people who do not agree and who do not have absolute power. This in itself is the best way to ensure that people are not ruled for long by petty tyrants. Richard Nixon expressed the opposite point of view in its most pure form:

FROST: "So what in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them, where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation or something, and do something illegal."
NIXON: "Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal."

Yep, that's what Nixon said, right before he resigned in disgrace. (He gave his farewell speech exactly one month to the day before I was born. As my dad once said about himself and Mussolini, "He must have seen me coming and figured the jig was up.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A trifecta of suck

I just want to point out that over on Daily Kos, DHinMI has been running an interesting series of posts drawing connections between three things I frequently write about with derision: Blackwater, Amway, and Bushies. It's worth a look.

"Bush Authoritarianism: Blackwater+Amway=GOP"

Also linked from the latest entry, there is a great piece about Amway magnate Dick DeVos, whom I mentioned in my Blackwater post.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Suggestions wanted: Scary stories for five year olds

One of Ben's friends has his birthday on Halloween, so Ben will be attending a combination birthday/Halloween party this year. My wife has asked me to be the teller of scary stories at this party.

I have "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" volumes 1-3, but only a few of those stories seem appropriate to the audience. I also fondly remember the story of La Llorona from my childhood in Santa Fe, when I used to listen to Joe Hayes.

Just wondering if anyone can link me to any good sites or books with stories that are scary, but not TOO scary.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Evan Almighty: Blessed are the fictional

I watched Evan Almighty on video last night, even though I didn't particularly love Bruce Almighty. It was what I expected, a cute but corny lightweight comedy with a little touch of preachiness and some enjoyable special effects. The Bible story of Noah is watered down a lot, so six billion people don't actually die in a global flood. Steve Carell is acceptably funny, but it's not like his hilarious performance in 40 Year Old Virgin.

Anyway, the movie does deliver kind of a bland religious message, which got me thinking a bit last night. I think I'd be right to say that in just about every movie where God appears in person (as it were) in modern times, there is this obligatory scene where the main character has to be skeptical for a few minutes. You know the scene I mean:
God: "Hi, I'm God."
Mortal: "No you're not! You're a crazy old man who bears a striking resemblance to Morgan Freeman/George Burns/Alanis Morissette/etc."
God: "No seriously, I'm God."
Mortal: "I'm not talking to you anymore."
God: "Here, watch this trick."
(God does various impressive feats in which demonstrates uncanny knowledge and/or screws with the laws of physics.)
Mortal: "Stop! Uncle! I guess you are God."

Of course other characters remain skeptical, because God decides to be a complete dick by not revealing himself to anyone except for the guy he's inciting to crazy behavior. By the end of the movie, though, something remarkably improbable has occurred that makes it clear to everyone that the guy who talks to God was right.

This formula is loosely based on the Bible story of Doubting Thomas. Similar form:
Jesus: "Hey Thomas, it's me, Jesus."
Thomas: "Nuh uh! You're dead!"
Jesus: "No, seriously, it's me. Touch me. Poke your fingers through the stake holes in my hand."
Thomas: "Whoa."

And then there's the punchline.
Jesus: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

In the story of Doubting Thomas, and Evan Almighty, it turns out to be a good idea to believe in God. But only because they inhabit a fictional world in which God is real and reveals himself through evidence.

And there's the problem. At least part of the point of these stories is to serve as an inspirational example for those of us who live here in the non-fictional world. But in the real world, God never does these tricks for real people. So instead, we're encouraged to base our faith on "evidence" which occurs in fiction.

I'm reminded of an M.C. Escher print of a dragon who is "trying" to get out of his two dimensional world, but fails.

Of this picture, Escher wrote:

"However much this dragon tries to be spatial, he remains completely flat. Two incisions are made in the paper on which he is printed. then it is folded in such a way as to leave two square openings. But this dragon is an obstinate beast, and in spite of his two dimensions he persists in assuming that he has three; so he sticks his head through one of the holes and his tail through the other."

Like the dragon, people seem to try really hard to make God real by having him demonstrate his powers over and over again. Yet however much this god tries to be real, he remains a character in a story.

I'll give Evan Almighty two and a half stars out of five. It was cute, it wasn't a complete waste of time to watch, but it wasn't a must-see comedy.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cresting that hill

Now I'm mostly ignoring a lecture in my Software Engineering class. This weekend is the midpoint of my final semester. I've done one midterm, and I have one more scheduled for the afternoon. My report draft was finished earlier this month. After tomorrow, all I'll have left is one or two homework, finalizing my thesis, and the finals. I feel like I'm getting over the top of a very long, slow rollercoaster, seeing the track ahead, and getting ready for the downward ride.

My graduation ceremony is December 8. I don't expect anyone to come except my family, but you can email me if you want to be there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Be all that you can be in the mercenary reserves

Conservatives and libertarians alike generally claim that anything that "The Government" does is bad more or less by definition, and that a smaller, leaner government which manages fewer services is better.

One notable exception, at least where Republicans are concerned, is the military. The one truly legitimate function of government, as far as they're concerned, is in maintaining a kick-ass defense force that can take on the world. In fact, according to this source, the U.S. currently spends more of its budget on the military than the next fourteen countries combined, and that accounts for about 43% of all the military spending in the whole world.

So conservatives hate government but love the military, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's had a pulse at any point in the last 25 years. And I'm not going to pass a value judgment on the relative amount we spend on the military, at least not in this post. All I'll say is that there are lots of things in the world that can kill people, and foreign armies are only a few of them. Like, say, hurricanes. Collapsing bridges. Poverty. Those kill people too.

That's not to say that people don't die from military attacks as well. I'm just saying, you know, if the purpose of spending money on the military is to prevent Americans from dying, then what you've got is a minimax problem: save the most lives for the least dollars. And I find it hard to believe that for our current spending rate, you couldn't save a few more lives by doing something else with the cash we could save by reducing our total military spending a bit. Say we used only 40% of the total world expenditures on military. Say we only spent as much as the next 12 countries combined. That's a lot of repaired bridges, know what I mean?

I'm not a pacifist, though. I believe that maintaining a certain level of military is necessary to the survival of a country. You need to keep the Visigoths from sacking the city, as it were. It's just that reasonable people can disagree on what the ideal level is, and I happen to think the level is substantially less than ten times that of our nearest ally. Speaking of the Roman Empire, bear in mind that they maintained a badass army for a long time before they experienced a financial collapse due to bad management. It was only after that, that the barbarians who had waited politely outside the gates for centuries got to just stroll in the crumbling front door.

Anyway, if there's one thing conservatives like more than spending money on the military, it's privatizing functions that are currently managed by government. After all, everyone knows that when you leave things up to the Stupendous Free Market, you guarantee that they will be done much better and more efficiently than if you, um, took concrete steps towards actually getting them done. Really. Just trust us on this one.

So anyway, under the Bush administration, apparently the military no longer gets a special exemption from this rule. That's why we are now paying for Blackwater, a private security contractor that is now in charge of guarding diplomats. We pay approximately $445,891 per year for the privilege of hiring a Blackwater security specialist. By contrast, a military sergeant costs us around $69,000 per year on the high end, including room and board. See how efficient the private market is?

I was never tempted to join the army. Call me a coward or a spoiled brat, I'll probably own up to it. I'd also probably make a lousy soldier, because I'm not good at unquestioningly following orders. I question tasks a lot at my job, not because I'm trying to be a pain, but because I feel that I can execute a task more effectively when I understand what the intention is behind the task. I'm not saying this to brag or show that I'm in any way "better" than a big tough military guy. I'm just saying that my mindset is somewhat different from what's required in a military role, and they'd have to beat a lot out of me to get me there. I recognize that having an army that is willing to follow order is pretty important, however.

I'm taking a class in Project Management right now -- hooray for the LAST class I need to complete for my Master's! One of the issues that is discussed in the text is that the larger your project gets, the more important it is to maintain a strict structure in your organization. The proverbial "two guys in a garage" can accomplish a small project very well, but a hundred people who all demand creative control over the same project is a disaster waiting to happen. Now apply that to the military, which is arguably one of the biggest freakin' projects anybody could ever undertake. I mean, post-surge Iraq currently has around 175,000 soldiers on the ground, to say nothing of the people at home who are connecting them with the civilian leadership.

I can't really imagine what's involved with organizing so many people, but it's pretty clear to me that if you have a general telling his underlings saying "We need to accomplish X, see that that gets done," and then a colonel below him says "All right men, let's figure out how to do Y, which is a sub-task on the way to accomplishing X," and then some clown of a Lieutenant way down the line says "No, screw this task, I don't want us to accomplish X anyway!" then you've got a problem. It's not because that lowly Lieutenant is necessarily wrong about the quality of the final objectives, or because he couldn't necessarily do a better job of managing the war than the general. The problem is that everybody can't be a general, and if you let all 175,000 soldiers make the decisions then you've got a fine mess, and people are fighting against each other instead of working toward a common goal.

Of course, a military that works as a single unit can do great evil. Of course, a single individual can also do great evil. But there's MORE of the military, so they can do MORE evil because they're acting as a single body. We need a military, because there is this one big task that is necessary to accomplish. Adequate national defense is absolutely vital to the health of a nation in a non-utopian world. So is executing wars, in such cases where war is necessary and right. By which I mean, not this war.

The problem with the military right now is not that it is a military; it's that it's a military in the hands of people who are hell-bent on using it towards nefarious ends. No, strike that. They don't set out saying "Let's all do bad things now." Really. Not even Bush. The key to understanding the Bush presidency is personal cronyism. Bush didn't pick "Heckuva job Brownie" to head FEMA because he intended to put an incompetent boob in the job. No, the chain of events is: first Joe Allbaugh was given the job because he helped run Bush's 2000 campaign, and then Brownie was picked to succeed Allbaugh because he was Allbaugh's old college buddy.

By and large, the members of the Bush administration see government jobs as an opportunity to make money, and to kick more money over to their friends. Other people may get hurt, killed, or impoverished as a result of this focus, but that is a by-product of the official policy, not the intention of the policy itself. What's happening here is that the president and his cabinet all have an attitude that, basically, who gives a crap if government is effective, as long as I'm helping out my friends? And that attitude gets trickled down through the ranks, because people with that perspective will pick friends who often have the same perspective, who in turn pick THEIR friends who have that perspective, and so on.

The military privates aren't part of this tree of mutual back-scratching. Demographically speaking, if they were well-connected then they probably either wouldn't be signing up (like me), or else they would be signing up as lieutenants rather than privates. But the privates are following the orders of people in the back-scratching tree. Orders to do annoying things like "treat prisoners humanely" and "follow the Geneva conventions" and "Please don't kill civilians if you can help it" ultimately need to come from the top of the command chain, and the problem is that those orders aren't coming. It's not because the kids signing up for the military are bad people. Rather, doing those things to improve international relations is harder than not doing them, and everyone has the capacity to do evil and then rationalize it, given the right circumstances and enough peer pressure. I believe that this probably includes many of the very fine and moral people here, myself as well. But for people who voluntarily joined the military, gave up many of their civil rights, and accepted a program of unquestioningly following orders, maybe it's especially true. I don't know.

But really, the problem is the lax attitude at the top, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in Blackwater. Blackwater is given that sweet deal that nets them over 400 grand a year. They are paid by the US government as if they were a military force, but they are not subject to the military code of justice. In essence, there is no law governing them, which goes some of the way towards explaining why they keep getting involved in incidents like this recent one where they gunned down 14 Iraqi citizens in cold blood.

If the Blackwater employees were soldiers, they would be directly accountable to the their commanding officers and the US government, who still at least have SOME standards of behavior, and have the authority to court martial and imprison the offenders in extreme cases. But no one has any such authority over Blackwater. Even though we're paying them with our tax dollars, they are not required to do anything we ask them to.

And astonishingly, the Bush administration is standing behind them and refusing to give anyone the go-ahead to investigate this incident. Nuri al-Maliki, the US-picked prime minister of Iraq, now wants to ban Blackwater from his country. Only Bush doesn't want to let him.

It's worth pointing out that the head of Blackwater is a member of an evangelical political group called "Christian Freedom International", and is well-connected in politics by virtue of being related by marriage to Amway magnate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. See? It pays to be connected. Ahhh. Good old Amway.

So, you know, don't blame the military. While lots of bad things are done by military grunts who are required to do whatever they are asked to, even worse things are being done by people who have no orders to follow. They're given free reign of the place, they're not required to follow any international codes of conduct whatsoever, and their only real objective is to do their job in such a way as to loot as much money as possible. Both from Iraqis and from Americans.

The fact that military personnel do bad things does not mean that the institution of the military is the problem. Just like the fact that corrupt crony governments doing bad things does not mean that "government" is the problem and should be abolished. The problem is that we have some really bad leaders right now, who are turning a blind eye towards violations of ethical conduct, if not outright endorsing it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

First draft completed

Yesterday I brought my thesis report up from 23 pages to 45 pages before calling it a night at midnight.

It's not the most spectacular writing I've ever done; it'll need lots of proofing and major details are still missing. But a friend of mine told me "It's better to have a thesis report that's DONE than one that's GOOD." So, I'll reread it a bit tonight and then send it to the appropriate people.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Longest Saturday ever...

And it's not over yet.

I thought I'd just wrap up a few things this morning with the program and then spend the rest of the day writing. As it turns out, the steps to analyze the data are actually non-trivial and require some thought and more programming. Who'd have thought it?

The good news is that I'm done collecting all the results I want for this draft. I have a big spreadsheet made of sites going in one direction and topics going in the other, and each cell has a "weight" given to that topic by a site. That way I can compare the weights and see if there are any interesting patterns.

To be honest, nothing about the table is as interesting as the results I commented on from Digg. For example, USA Today, which has sort of a "Newspaper of the common idiot" vibe about it, does indeed have an excessively high amount of stories on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. But the point I was making on Digg is that if Digg users accurately represent ordinary newspaper readers (which, you might reasonably argue, they don't) then taking "entertainment" and calling it "news" is not really an appropriate strategy.

A few other unusual results I found: New York Times gives a relatively high amount of attention to Paris Hilton also. Not in their top few stories, but distinctly in the top half.

Also, Fox News gives a surprising amount of coverage to serious news. When I included "Blackwater" in the results, I found that Fox News is the only paper that has recently given that topic higher priority than all the others. However, when I looked deeper into the individual stories they reported, I noticed that mostly they weren't by Fox reporters: they were stories that originated with the Associated Press, and then were just relabeled as "Fox News" and pasted on their site. I don't think anyone even filters it. In fact, Fox News has a much higher presence on Google News than more serious news organizations does, and it seems to be because they just automatically repost anything that comes their way.

I dunno, maybe I shouldn't stretch too hard to look for excuses to bash Fox. If I throw out theories like this then the paper won't seem very objective.

The paper today stands at 26 pages, of which 12 are actual substantive text. I have a long way to go - my eventual target is around 50 pages (including the padding), but I'll be happy with 30 or so pages for this draft. Luckily, I have a lot of tables and graphs to paste in; I have lots of material to steal from this blog; some philosophical discussion of user taxonomies that I can borrow from my term paper this summer; and I can always throw in code samples when I'm describing the program. I think I'll make it, but it's going to be a long night and another long day.

And after that, I get to start studying for my two midterms! Yay!

More 9/11 about 9/11 Rudy 9/11 Giuliani

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the data analysis for my Master's Report indicated that some of the most well-beloved topics on Digg.com are about how much Rudy Giuliani sucks. But why does he suck so much?

One of the top recommended stories on that front search page, currently sitting at 2,796 diggs, is a blog entry entitled "Mr Giuliani Please Stop Mentioning 9/11". But give Rudy a break, he can't stop mentioning 9/11 because he has absolutely nothing else to run on. He wasn't a particularly popular leader until, like Bush, the photo opportunity of a lifetime fell in his lap. (The photo opportunity also fell in Bush's lap, I mean. I don't mean that Bush fell in Giuliani's lap.)

Since then he has exploited 9/11 in virtually everything he says and does. Like most of the other Republicans, Rudy talked about 9/11 constantly during his address at the 2004 convention. One of his supporters recently hosted a fundraiser for him asking for donations in the amount of $9.11. When told about asbestos hazards at the site of the World Trade Center, he told reporters "I was at ground zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers ... I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them."

A couple of weeks ago Rudy gave a speech for the National Rifle Association. Trying to convince NRA members to support him even though he was a strong gun control advocate when he was mayor, he explained: "I also think that there have been subsequent intervening events — September 11 — which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment and Second Amendment rights. It doesn't change the fundamental rights, but maybe it highlights the necessity for them more."

But wait, that's not all. During that speech, he pulled a ham-handed political stunt by (in my opinion) pretending to take a phone call from his wife while he was talking. He said some cutesy stuff to her at the podium, and then said "I love you honey," receiving approving applause from the assembled crowd. Later, when Giuliani was asked in an interview why he took that call, he explained: "quite honestly since Sept. 11 most of the time when we get on a plane we talk to each other and just reaffirm the fact that we love each other."

That's adorable. Even more so when you consider the fact that on September 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani was married to a different woman. (He married his current wife, Judith Nathan, on May 24, 2003.)

And Rudy is the Republican front runner. Right now he's the favored candidate to win the nomination by a significant margin. As much as people apparently love to read stories that bash Giuliani, that means the other candidates are considered even worse.

Speaking as a partisan Democrat, I think that's totally awesome.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Starting to collect results

So far I've managed to scan every Digg.com story that relates to my chosen topics. When you search Digg for a story, you get a list of all the stories that were ever submitted to Digg with the search words appearing in the title. First somebody submits a page, and then other people come along and recommend the page. The page winds up with a "score" that indicates the total number of people who recommended the same site.

Collected below is output from my analysis that shows how many stories appeared, followed by the average score of all the stories.

Welcome to News Miner 1.0.
The database has been opened.
What shall we do today, hmmm?
1. Get monthly news clusters (one topic)
2. Get monthly news clusters (all topics)
3. Explore current clusters
4. Get new Digg scores (one topic)
5. Get new Digg scores (all topics)
6. Generate results table
7. Analyze results
0. Quit

There were 14 topics
topic "Anna Nicole Smith": size 752, mean 3.5226063829787235
topic "Barack Obama": size 756, mean 6.994708994708994
topic "Blackwater": size 358, mean 9.997206703910615
topic "Britney Spears": size 3019, mean 3.1570056310036434
topic "Giuliani": size 1468, mean 18.582425068119893
topic "Gulf Coast": size 61, mean 3.459016393442623
topic "Harry Potter": size 2502, mean 5.09912070343725
topic "Hillary Clinton": size 996, mean 7.945783132530121
topic "John Edwards": size 566, mean 7.80565371024735
topic "Mitt Romney": size 426, mean 7.030516431924883
topic "New Orleans": size 858, mean 5.970862470862471
topic "Paris Hilton": size 2497, mean 3.644373247897477
topic "Rupert Murdoch": size 127, mean 7.52755905511811
topic "Tiger Woods": size 390, mean 3.546153846153846

I've highlighted a couple of interesting numbers in bold italics. Notice that "Paris Hilton" and "Britney Spears" both have a very high numbers of pages, indicating that many people found stories about those people that they considered were worth submitting. (Most of them, by the way, are jokes or empty promises of smut.) But other people either don't read those stories, or don't like them enough to recommend them.

On the other hand, look which topic is far and away the clear winner of the Digg scoring game: Rudy Giuliani with an average of 18.6. In fact, Rudy's average score is more than twice as high as the average of his next political competitor Hillary Clinton.

So that means that people love Rudy Giuliani, right? Ermmm... not exactly. Look at the headlines on the page showing the all-time highest rated stories about Giuliani.

  • Mr Giuliani Please Stop Mentioning 9/11
  • Rudy Giuliani Constitutionally Ineligible To Be President
  • Anger at Giuliani 9/11 fundraiser "$9.11 for Rudy" in poor taste
  • America's Worst Nightmare: President Giuliani
  • Giuliani: "For Me Every Day Is An Anniversary Of Sept. 11" GET OFF IT!
  • Rudy Giuliani: "Freedom is Slavery"
  • Rudy Giuliani's daughter is supporting Barack Obama
  • DIGG this! Soldier to Giuliani: Have you done your foreign policy homework?
  • Reporter Arrested on Orders of Giuliani Press Secretary
  • Giuliani Closed Off Streets to Avoid 9/11 Victims' Families

Um, yeah. Are you noticing a pattern here? They're all negative. Not some of them. All of the top nine stories. Apparently people love to read about Giuliani so they can reinforce how much they hate him.

To be fair, Hillary Clinton's page has a lot of negative stories too, but certainly not all of them. Many of the hits are anti right wing coverage, and people apparently reacted well to her TV spoof of "The Sopranos" with Bill.

Disclaimer: Digg users are not a representative sample of the general public, but they are my stand-ins for them. Digg users are a self-selected group of active news readers. What Nixon referred to as "The silent majority," aka "People who don't pay attention" are not represented here, and I have no way of knowing which stories they would recommend if they were asked.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Google captured me again

D'oh. I've been CAPTCHA'D.

Sitting here in Texspresso after work. I decided to let my program run at top speed. I wasn't sure whether it would take a fixed amount of time to catch me, or whether it's mainly based on the number of page hits. I reduced my sleep time so that I get a new web page every two seconds. It only took them twenty minutes to make me stop, so the speed at which I hit them is definitely a big factor.

Oh well. In that time I managed to collect 1100 new clusters, which finishes off the month of September 2006 (the month that Paris Hilton got arrested, which make some entertaining analysis). But I only managed to pick up 100 stories, so I've got more to do.

Nephlm mentioned a program called Tor that hides your IP address, so maybe I'll try that and see if it works.

Update: Tor works! It works like a charm! Nephlm, I owe you a beer. Come to Austin sometime and I'll pay up.

Tor is a product of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and what it does is rout your web requests through various remote servers so that the Google server can't tell where you're really coming from.

But an amusing side effect is: When I logged in to blogger, everything was in German. I must be sending requests through a host in Germany somewhere, and now Blogger sees my destination and thinks I want the German version of Google.

Oh well, who cares, as long as I'm getting my data. :) "Post veröffentlichen" means "publish this post," right?