The Death of Maggie Roche

Oh, hell. Maggie Roche of the folk rock vocal group, the Roches, died of cancer on January 21, 2017. She was 65.

I didn’t see that before. Maybe there was too much other news that day. Actually, there was. It was the day of the big Women’s March and the day after a certain presidential inauguration.

The New York Times printed a nice obituary, which includes remarks from her sister: 

She was … too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent…. She was smart, wickedly funny, and authentic — not a false bone in her body — a brilliant songwriter, with a distinct unique perspective, all heart and soul.

“Speak” is one of her songs. She wrote the words and music:

The time has come for me to speak
Uh oh the time has come
And while the silence picks on me
I pray to not be dumb

So I am hunting for the words
Just wait til I find some
I need some syllables do you
Know where to get them from

When I am in my house alone
My speeches take a week
But from my lips when you are near
A sound will seldom leak.

There’s that feeling when someone younger than you dies and you think, well, after all, she was X years old.

Death is the ultimate form of escapism. The internet has nothing on death.

Those TV People Are Arguing Again

I stopped watching television news during the Clinton administration (the real one, not the administration Comey killed in its cradle). I got sick of lengthy, supposedly balanced coverage of the Whitewater non-scandal and the Clinton/Lewinksy episode. But from what I hear, TV news has gotten even worse during the past 20 years. Vox has a little bit of text and a six-minute video that helps explain why:

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

… CNN’s fixation on drama and debate has turned the network’s coverage into a circus of misinformation. CNN’s [DT] supporters derail segments critical of the president, misrepresent [his] positions to avoid tough questions, and peddle false and misleading information on national TV while being paid by the network. In many cases, CNN’s [DT] supporters repeat the same lies and talking points that CNN’s serious journalists spend all day trying to debunk….

All of this would be fine and normal for a [sports] network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

The video is interesting in a train wreck kind of way. Everyone who watches CNN should watch it.

But so should everyone who wants to better understand what the hell’s going on in our modern world. The Vox thing reminded me of Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published way back in 1985. Here’s a quote from Mr. Postman:

… television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

And it’s gotten worse since then. Here’s the video.

So DT It Is Then

He may have won the Electoral College, but that doesn’t mean I have to refer to him by name. It’s not because I’m afraid to say it like Harry and the gang wouldn’t say “Voldemort”. It’s because using someone’s name is a matter of respect and if there’s anyone in the world I don’t respect, it’s him.

Of course, I’m not alone here. It’s one reason he has acquired so many nicknames, almost all of them disrespectful. They are legion. For instance:

Putin’s Puppet
Cheeto Jesus
Fuckface Von Clownstick
Toddler-in-Chief
Short-Fingered Vulgarian
Agent Orange
Man-Baby
Whore of Babble-on
Amgry Creamsicle
Hair Hitler
SCROTUS (So-Called Ruler of the United States)
Boy President
Orange Menace

If you want more, there are plenty out there.

Now, I’m partial to “Orange Menace” and may still use it occasionally, but for everyday use it would be better to have something shorter and closer to his real name. So far, I’ve either used or considered:

Donnie (he supposedly hates it)
Drumpf (his old family name)
Drump (easier to type and anatomically evocative)
Donald Drump (sounds like “Donald Duck”)
Don the Con (what should be stamped on his forehead)

45F (he’s the 45th President and was able to find a doctor who agreed to say he was unfit for military service or “4-F”)

and simply:

T_____

But I really want something else. Something that will make sense and also be disrespectful.

Of course, we have a tradition of referring to Presidents by their initials. There was FDR, JFK, LBJ. The person who should be President today was sometimes known as HRC. So in theory I could use DJT.

But DJT is too respectful. It even sounds a little friendly. So that’s out. 

But it’s very close. Instead of the full DJT, I think DT will work just fine. It’s short. It’s related to his real name. And it’s creepy. Why?

Consider that DDT (short for Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a dangerous pesticide that’s been almost totally banned for years. The Bald Eagle, our symbolic national bird, is coming back because we stopped using the stuff. Also, DEET (diethyltoluamide) is a common insect repellent. It’s nasty stuff you don’t want to inhale or get in your eyes.

Furthermore, the DTs is the common expression for delirium tremens, a terrible state that sometimes results from alcohol withdrawal. Its symptoms include shaking, confusion, high blood pressure, fever and hallucinations. It can be fatal. Fortunately, it’s rare.

Unfortunately, DT isn’t rare at all. It seems like he’s everywhere, a noxious cloud that can’t be avoided. But now I’ve got a name for the problem: DT for general use and the DTs for what we’re going through as a nation. And maybe Deet will catch on and be good for conversation.

Now all we need is a nice name for the DT/Russia connection.

Our Bubble Is Bigger and More Porous Than Theirs

The Columbia Journalism Review is a magazine for professional journalists. It’s been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1961. Like it or not, it’s a relatively reliable source of information.

So it was interesting to read about a study they conducted. They analyzed “over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day”. They “analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election”. They answered questions like: “If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times?”

This is what they found:

… a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season (my emphasis).

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.

In other words, there are bubbles and there are bubbles. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, Republican orthodoxy has increasingly conflicted with reality. Since journalism at its best tends to reflect reality, fewer “conservatives” have been willing to get news and commentary from the most professional sources. This explains the growing popularity of right-wing propaganda sites like Fox News. They’re a comforting alternative to what the right began calling the “mainstream” or “lamestream” media. 

This means that a sizable minority of Americans are now convinced that the most objective sources of news are unreliable. The result is that right-wing politicians can get away with murder. Their supporters are immune to the truth. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive politicians don’t get the credit they sometimes deserve and those of us who pay attention to the traditional media are left wondering how so many people on the right can be so out of touch. 

I’m not saying that newspapers like The Washington Post and programs like CBS Evening News always get it right. Hardly. But the people who work at places like that at least try to get it right. They aren’t committed to supporting one political party at all costs. The result is that if you get your news and commentary from a variety of respected sources, you’ll probably have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on in America. You’ll realize that the Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a “disaster”, for example, and that the American economy is in much better shape than when President Obama took office.

Some will say that we all live in bubbles and we’re all equally biased. It’s easy to express that kind of cynicism, but it’s not born out by the evidence. As the study says, “pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets”, while “pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets”. There’s a reason that more than 99% of the major newspapers in the United States, hundreds of them, even papers that always endorse Republican candidates, endorsed the Democrat for President, not the Republican. The people who run newspapers and write editorials get their news from a variety of credible sources that at least try to be objective. 

The good news is that most Americans are still open to journalism that does that. The bad news is that millions of right-wingers, including some with too much power, aren’t. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of the Columbia Journalism Review article:

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans … continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient … by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.

And then what? Knowledge of the situation is a necessary first step, but what comes next? There will always be a market for fantasy. I suppose all we can do is stand up for reality.

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Apple Core! Baltimore!

Finishing my apple this morning, I remembered what used to come next. If you were with a few of your friends, someone would yell “Apple core!” Somebody would respond with “Baltimore!” Next there’d be a question: “Who’s your friend?” At which point, one of us would name somebody else in the group, for example, “Mike!” Then the person holding the apple core would throw it at Mike. This was funny stuff.

I assume this was a fairly common experience for young people in Southern California fifty or sixty years ago. Or maybe my friends and I were the only idiots who did it. I’m wondering now because a brief survey of people who grew up on the East Coast didn’t find anyone who remembered it. (It’s not the kind of thing a person would tend to forget, even after fifty or sixty years.) Presumably, if nobody did it on the East Coast back then, nobody is doing it here now. 

I can’t remember which person in the group called out the opening “Apple core!” or who responded with “Baltimore!”. Nor do I remember who had the honor of naming his “friend”, i.e. the target. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t work the way Donald Duck and either Chip or Dale did it here:

Assuming this was a widespread practice on the West Coast, but not the East Coast, it’s yet more confirmation that the West Coast is the Best Coast. (I’m leaving out the Gulf Coast for obvious reasons.)

For the sake of completeness, here’s the full 1952 Disney cartoon. It’s called “Donald Duck Applecore” and includes Donald’s jazzy theme song under the opening credits.

Finally, for completeness, I should point out that the “Apple core, Baltimore” rhyme appeared in an earlier, feature-length Disney movie called “Melody Time”. It was part of a dance number in the Johnny Appleseed segment. But it apparently took years for the Disney people to invent the best part (throwing the apple core at someone like Mike).

PS: The other Donald still sucks.

“You’re On Your Own”

Every now and then, you might find yourself wondering “What’s the deal with these people?” Why are four Republican Congressmen sponsoring a bill that would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency? Why does the President think financial advisers should be free to give advice that favors themselves, not their clients? Why did a wealthy relative of mine strongly resent paying taxes for public schools?

Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, nicely explains the guiding principle behind actions and attitudes like these:

President [D]rump is not an ideologue — not because he’s open-minded, but because he has little in the way of particular beliefs about policy. He does, however, have impulses, inclinations and prejudices. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the other hand, is an ideologue, as are many if not most of his compatriots in Congress.

Put that Congress and this White House together, and you get a Republican government with a clear and coherent ideology, one you can sum up in a short declarative statement:

You’re on your own.

This is the driving principle behind nearly everything the Republicans are trying to do in domestic affairs…

He then offers examples. They make very interesting reading if you’ve been trying to understand how people like Drump and Ryan manage to consistently choose the wrong side of every issue.

Corporate Life As Depicted On My Old Bulletin Board

There were four cartoons on the bulletin board in my office for many years, back when I was paid to help the wheels of finance capitalism turn. Maybe there was a theme that united them. Of course, not everyone liked them as much as I did.

The first one was by Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, who recently announced he’s leaving that job. It’s the most famous one he drew.

how-about-never

The other three were by Gary Larson, who drew The Far Side for 15 brilliant years.

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So is there a theme here? We have a businessman subverting standard practice; a gorilla who sees himself as more complex than his peers; someone in a horrible situation who thinks it’s worth stating the obvious but is afraid he might make things even worse; and two spiders with very high hopes doomed to failure.

It was a “successful” career, but no wonder I still have bad dreams about the place.