Today’s Headlines

Today I’m going to examine the current top headlines on Google News, not so much for what their covering as for why they are covered.

I’m viewing the site without a Google Account, though they still may be applying location data based on my connection’s IP address and/or other tracking being done. Let’s start with some basic numbers:

  • 34 headlines
    • Six in Top Stories
      • Three of the six related to tragedies surrounding Celebrities
      • Four related to death and sickness
      • Two related to political struggles
    • Five in World
      • All five about Leaders of factions, nations, etc.
    • Five in U.S.
      • Two related to death and sickness (one historical)
      • No leaders or celebrities directly mentioned
    • Two in Business
      • One about an investigation into corruption
      • One fluff piece about a famous/historical restaurant
    • Five in Technology
      • Of the seven companies mentioned in Technology (not including the names of the companies hosting the articles), two are mentioned eight times (three times and five times), with the rest being mentioned once each.
    • Two in Entertainment
      • Both heavy on the Celebrity, of course
    • Five in Sports
      • Two about trades/hires
      • Two on future success chances
      • One about a labor dispute
    • Two in Science
      • One on a company selling flights to the moon
    • Two in Health
      • One on fighting childhood obesity, the other on treatment for depression
  • Ten mention someone of Celebrity in the headline

Ah, the news. The soap opera of our world. Teaching us that if you want more than your immediate family to take interest when tragedy or success comes your way, it’s either got to be weird or you’ve got to be famous.

Celebrity is a problem. Whether it’s a member of some cultist royalty, a political leader, military leader, sports star, musician, or just a yokel elevated to celebrity status by a hyperactive media, it’s a problem.

It’s even a problem in the open source/free software community, when people like Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman are given heightened attention not for what they say, but for who they are.

I don’t care where Guido van Rossum (inventor of Python) works, though I’m very happy to use the language. I hope his life is good, but no more than anyone else.

When Stallman talks about an issue (such as the recent Free Software Foundation: Blogs: Richard Stallman: 7 December 2012: Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?), I’m not concerned about his past endeavors or opinions. I read that essay with the goal of evaluating the ideas. Now, knowing something of his background helps to charitably parse his argument. But that’s the general case of having a feel for an individual’s ideas.

The problem comes when people feel one way about the man and therefore automatically gravitate to one side of an argument. The problem comes when people confuse success with merit (eg, in admiring a political, religious, or athletic figure). If Michael Jordan is the best damn player in the history of the National Basketball Association, I’d better get his shoes.

Celebrity is toxic. It lets us look past the character flaws of a leader, for no good reason. If a leader behaves badly in one way, they aren’t necessarily unfit, but their achievements do not absolve them.

The news media (both mainstream and niche) focuses on celebrity. It does this because it’s an easy sale. If someone walks into your delicatessen and you offer to sell them some exotic meat on some exotic bread, they might try it. But you’ll do the bulk of your business with standards like the BLT and reuben on rye. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry ice cream. Cheese pizza.

There are vegetarians and vegans, but at present there aren’t really any celebrity-free news junkies or sources. You can’t get political stories without the (R) and (D) plastering. Technology to the media means gossip about a small number of high-profile firms.

For most of the news, my answer hasn’t wavered in years: no thanks, I am not hungry (for that). I’d rather eat ideas than celebrities.

Misleading Maths

We all know that the incorporated politicians and the incorporated media are not doing their jobs properly. They are twisting every aspect of reality in an attempt to wring out every last ounce of money and power they can get. All without a thought toward their long-term profitability.

But one key to their deception is found in mathematics. Not high-level holy-cow-you-can-do-THAT kind of math, but just a trick so simple that you’ve probably been graded down a hundred times for doing it on accident.

That trick is leaving things out. Oops, you forgot to carry the one. Your answer is wrong. -1. But when they do it, they seldom get marked off. They are bold enough to dispute everything.

One example of this I’ve seen lately is the math of activity-impacts on climate change. Whether it’s calculating that an electric car pollutes more than a combustion car, or that bicycling is worse than the combustion car, or that the average car moves at so many miles per work-hour.

To calculate these things is an exercise in aggregation. And it’s easy to leave some out. It’s difficult to not disclaim the result, or discuss why you may be wrong. And that’s the bit the incorporated entities leave out. They leave out the humbleness of humans. They act like the math is so obvious that it couldn’t possibly be wrong.

Guess they haven’t learned anything from the math that sank the markets only a stone’s throw back.

But it is the humility, the acquiescence to reason and margin for error, that marks the true champions of our species. The incorporated have no humility for the masses. They are there to sell. A sale cannot be predicated on an admission of doubt, for then caveat emptor (may the buyer beware). Can’t have that.

Or can we? I question with only mild reservation the sage wisdom that politicians must follow that line, where the candidate cannot honestly say, “maybe my opponent is your better choice for you. I believe I’m better, and I will make that case, but I may in fact be wrong.”

I question the wisdom that the climate skeptics and deniers try to sell, that we ought do nothing. Any who will say, “though you may be in grave danger, do nothing until such time as blood is drawn,” must either be kin to the undertaker, of a sadistic bent, or simply deluded.

Indeed, if there had been humility leading to the war against Iraq, it might have taken a far different course, as if there had been the same skepticism applied to the claims of that administration as there are to the science of the climate.

Bad Titles in Social Media

Did you read the title to this post?  If you’re like me, you read titles.  There’s so much data every day, and a title, like an email subject, lets you quickly acquire the context for that item.

But there is a problem in the Social Media realm (I’ll get to the rest of the media shortly) whereby many users are able to submit or title content without giving it much thought.  The main issue from where I stand is the users do not take their audience into account.  That is, some types of titles are appropriate in some communities.

Humor communities often rely on the surprise of the punch line, and so it’s still appropriate to put some of the set-up in the title without giving a full title that would indicate the type of humor or content explicitly.

Communities centered on a particular viewpoint (eg, video games) need not avoid opinion in titles.  If their community agrees that bans on violent games are ill-conceived, they don’t have to avoid that (“Idiot politician wants to ban fun!” might be fine there).

But even in these places, ongoing responses to previous items should provide at least some context.  If there’s been a series of posts and you happen to have been busy that week, it’s a lot like coming out of a coma to find out that the robots have won.

And then there’s the media at large.  Often they have experience in making headlines that push agendas (mainly the agenda that you buy their media or keep watching it).  And they use that to the detriment of their readership.  That’s quickly becoming part of Social Media, too.

The solution I follow in dealing with bad titles is to ignore those items, just like I do items from unsavory sources and spam.  I’m pretty sure that’s the best way, as bad titles aren’t going anywhere, but they shouldn’t be encouraged.

Even if the content of an item is worthwhile, it’s like buying something packaged in that horrendous clamshell plastic: not worth it.  Either someone will submit the item in good packaging, or you’ll spend your money and time on something else.

In closing, I’ve recently got my drawing tablet to work in Linux, so here’s something I drew:

Mishmash of shapes and colors...

ALL FANATICS MUST DIE!

Heavy days that weigh on us all.  Some call it evil, others call out television, video games, or political rhetoric.  Would a rose by any other name shock the conscience as much as random acts of violence do?

Let me be clear: I believe the actions of the mentally ill are only tangentially attributable to outside sources.  The actions of a sick person are the actions of the illness.  Anything could trigger it; George Carlin once did a bit that went something along the lines of, “Have you ever sent anybody a bottle of Scope [mouthwash]?”  The image he followed with was that of a mentally ill, violent person receiving a bottle of said mouthwash, taking it as an attack on his person, and that final straw sends him on a violent rampage.

That’s not as far from the truth as that humorist might have hoped.  For people with severe mental problems, the most benign stimuli can cause severe mental turmoil that does result in major reactions, including violence.  As such, we cannot blame inane rhetoric by the likes of media profiteers (and I’m not limiting that to any side of any aisle, any particular feathered appendage, etc.).  Their rhetoric is deplorable in and of itself, and it should be replaced with something more meaningful, but it is not blameworthy for the actions of the mentally ill.

I also believe that in this case the young man had begun to plan, and at some point in that process he had internalized his plan to the point where only direct intervention in his life would have stopped him.  In that he is no different than our media and politics: the media has committed itself to a particular persona and will only change if it sees no way to salvage its current lifestyle.  Same for our politics.

We desperately need a shift in the media and politics in this country, but not because we might find salvation from violence.  Because we might actually build a country that can handle violence and can treat the mentally ill with the dignity they deserve and give them a chance to pursue happiness with the rest of us.  But if you look at the reactions, you probably fear as I do that we still aren’t headed in that direction. They still don’t get it.

The fact that the media will only even talk about the need for change (but it’s always the other guy that needs the change) in reaction to such an episode is not the problem, but merely a symptom.  There are plenty of symptoms.  The lack of any substantive debate is chief, but the fact that even minor agreement with a point from a colleague is often seen as weakness is also prominent.  Weakness is reviled in our society (which means we stigmatize things like mental illness), when calls to “man up” rule the day.  You might as well say, “show no mercy, take no prisoners, torture the sons of bitches until their last breath if that’s what it takes to win.”

We have fallen from grace, though not in the biblical sense, in the human sense.  Grace, as I learned it, was being happy for your opponent when you lost, and also being happy for your opponent when you won.  It was marching out on the field to tell them you enjoyed the game.  These days our grace is nothing, replaced by bitter sniveling and thoughts of revenge.  We pretend that the other guy is so different that our loss puts us a mere heartbeat from complete collapse.

That in a great nation is unacceptable.  We should have trouble deciding whom to vote for because they would both do a great job.  Instead, the campaign is a game played out in the media, a test that does nothing to prove the ability to actually govern.  And the laws that govern campaigning are then seen as the rules of the road.  If the rules don’t say to try to avoid hitting squirrels, you don’t have to.  They’re worth ten points, fifteen if their heads explode.  For gods’ sakes.

The way out?  Forgiveness.  Cast off your masks and cloaks.  Let the sunlight warm your face and bring gladness to your heart, for this is not the end of the road.  We did not die on 8 January, 2011 or on 11 September 2001.  We still have the choice to make things work, despite the challenges and despite our differences.

The green glow of the exit sign beckons us.  But it requires empathy and understanding.  It requires humility and forgiveness.  There is no magic switch to throw that will preclude Senator Bumble from returning to the gagging speech patterns that have been his bread and butter for two decades, so his colleague will have to forgive him when he does meander.  The talking heads on cable news will be in uncharted waters when they start to speak from the heart and stop trying to dominate their guests.  They won’t always succeed, and will revert to their old patterns.  Forgive them.

It is in forgiveness that we move on.  It allows us to move past the surface and into the meat of the matters at hand.  It allows us to escape playing the same games that got us here.  It disarms their attacks and precludes our own retaliation.  It is an invitation to the former opponent to be a colleague again.  It is the only way we can reclaim our country from the beast of incessant bickering and useless hatred.

Before we were enemies, we joined into a union of states.  Let us forgive ourselves for neglecting that and move forward as colleagues seeking the best for our company, the United States of America.  Play ball.

Hulu: Pay Model?

Various sources (eg, The Guardian: Roy Greenslade: Murdoch’s propaganda campaign to charge for content) reported about hulu.com’s plans to charge for access.

The problem is that corporations tend to overcharge for their content.  Then they complain about an alleged sense of entitlement when their customers supposedly want it for free.  They are reading things wrong: there’s very much a sense of entitlement, but it’s one not to pay too much.  This goes for all forms of content and “intellectual property”: books, news, images, videos, movies, television, music, video games, software, web applications, academic articles, and so on.

Free is less than too much, so free wins over too much every time.

People deserve payment for their creations, but the economics dictate that how much they charge and what they are prepared to deliver (ie, their pricing/business model) will change the composition of their customer pool, determining their revenue.  Before the digital revolution, all sorts of sharing occurred that wasn’t priced in to their model, and yet no one screamed bloody murder over one newspaper getting passed around the coffee shop or office.

The sooner the content creators start moving to alternative models, the sooner they will find the sweet spots, and the sooner they will get paid for their creations.  But if they merely try to copy their old models in the new landscape, they are liable to find themselves with lingering pain for quite some time.

As I did not see specifics on the pricing/business model that Hulu will be using, I will withhold judgment about this move.  But I will say that if they plan on overcharging, they might as well buy some Going Out of Business signs while they’re cheap.

Update: An article on mediamemo.allthingsd.com, How Much Will You Have to Pay for Hulu? Nothing. How Much Will You Pay for “Hulu Plus”? Good Question. states the pay content will be in addition to the existing site, rather than moving some content to for-pay so it doesn’t sound like they are doing anything very dangerous with regard to their business model.  I just hope they get creative and take their time to create a better model that can be mimicked by others.  It can work, if they don’t get too greedy.