Saturday, November 22, 2014

Everyone gets death threats online: Bill Cosby edition

In September I warned the human race that the Internet is a place where casual, death threats happen to everyone, and that someone who receives them has not been vindicated or elevated. Online threats are a bad thing, but they are a near-universal bad thing and they don't "prove" who is on the right side of an argument.

But foolishly, many of you didn't listen and just went about your lives. Students continued to attend classed, fishmongers still went about hawking their wares and silly blogger kept trying to conjure up outrage posts by dredging the Internet for death threats.

Enter Gawker media's Jezebel blog.

The writer decided to present Rose Eveleth as a victim for the backlash she received for a series of Tweets she made criticizing scientist Matt Taylor's glossy pin-up girl shirt that he wore in an interview. But, despite the headline and lede paragraph claiming Eveleth received death threats, the only examples the writer could cobble together that made any reference to death were "Please kill yourself" and a "Jump off a cliff. Please", which was directed at one of her supporters and Eveleth was merely tagged in it.

The rest of the people named-and-shamed were critics. Some of their remarks were rude and uncalled for, but not threatening. Others were downright meek, such as "Why are you objectifying a man by basing your opinion solely on his appearance, and not his contribution to society?" and it is "just a shirt, mi lady". Also note that not one example came from the same day as the original remarks: The writer had to dredge through a lot of posts to find these.

I wanted to show you how useless this type of argument is, so I collected Twitter remarks with threats against Bill Cosby, who has been accused of rape in the media but has not been charged with any crime. Here's a few I found:

We've seen plenty of viral posts where people did this, such as as saying a major earthquake in Japan was justice for Pearl Harbor. All they really prove is that there are indeed some stupid people online. Please note that my Cosby image, and the Pearl Harbor one, has emboldened key words. That reveals that I had to use the search tool to find them using combinations like "Kill Cosby" and "Stab Cosby." This implies that view isn't mainstream, but is something someone has to go out of their way to find.

Under Kevin Drum's Law, that means we are essentially disproving our own position when we have to idiot hunt examples. When I searched for "Kill Cosby" most of the results were Cosby defenders saying the stress will kill him, and a few others predicted he would die from suicide. I had to search a lot to find my five examples, and "shoot Cosby" failed to return any legitimate examples.

It's clear that there is no real trend where Bill Cosby is receiving death threats, but if someone wants to play the death threat victim game, they will have to add Bill Cosby to the roster of cherished snowflakes deserving of our support because of what people wrote online.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Legislative noisemakers can never be satisfied

Some protesters like to go to house and senate sessions to make a ruckus, either to draw attention to their cause or to make it impossible for the elected officials to vote. I find them obnoxious in all contexts, but this new one on the Keystone Pipeline has me confused.

The American Indian singing and childish chanting were from people who approved of the vote, so why make a negative spectacle and force Elizabeth Warren to get you ejected? Did they think the pipeline was going to pass so they prepared sore loser antics, but loved them so much that they didn't want them to go to waste? This is like sports fans rioting whether their team wins or loses.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

George McGovern's brush with regulation

Do yourself a favor and read Marc Andreessen's excellent interview with New York Magazine. That's excellent in term of the answers, not the questions per se, which got rather tedious and were bogged down with Rousseaun opinionated counters.

The Netscape co-founder turned venture capitalist mentioned a decades-old Wall Street Journal piece written by former Democrat congressman George McGovern that is worth reading. Andressen's summary is more pointed and straightforward than the actual piece, so first here's his summary:

In 1992 he wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal which told the story of his life after he left politics, when he bought an inn in Connecticut. And he said, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize.” And the “Oh my God, I didn’t realize” was: I did not realize what a layered impact 50 or 100 years of regulations and laws applied on small-­business owners actually meant.

The article is still available online. Here's a snippet:

My own business perspective has been limited to that small hotel and restaurant in Stratford, Conn., with an especially difficult lease and a severe recession. But my business associates and I also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never have doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: "Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape." It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators...

Today, despite bankruptcy, we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant. Despite these injuries, not every misstep is the fault of someone else. Not every such incident should be viewed as a lawsuit instead of an unfortunate accident. And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.

Our Connecticut hotel, along with many others, went bankrupt for a variety of reasons, the general economy in the Northeast being a significant cause. But that reason masks the variety of other challenges we faced that drive operating costs and financing charges beyond what a small business can handle.

There's always a market for political traitors, people who fought for years for one side and then lamented it all. Lee Atwater comes to mind, as does Alan Greenspan. Keep in mind, McGovern, Atwater and Greenspan did not shift entirely to the other party, but did provide their opposition ammunition to pound one issue that they had worked for.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Looks like the Satanists won

I've been trying to figure out exactly what the Satanic Temple is, and as far as I can tell it started from left-wing atheists who donned the mantle of a fictional Satanic church to push Christian displays out of government buildings and public institutions, but its members stay in character and won't admit it is satire. To complicate it further, the organization has attracted real satanists, who were allowed to join.

Village Voice writer Anna Merlan did a great investigation on the organization. She reveals that the group started as a film project where actors pretending to be satanists gave a public demonstration in January 2013 to thank Florida Governor Rick Scott for allowing students to lead prayers in school assemblies. This idea was to make christians wince and realize it opened the door for satanic prayers as well.

This May the group unveiled a statue of a goat-headed figure it threatened to install in the Oklahoma Statehouse to accompany a Ten Commandments sculpture. Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner, under the assumed name of Lucien Greaves, said they didn't really want to put it there, but if there's going to be a Christian statue than the law demands all religions be able to place their own statue there.

Get it? They are forcing Christian lawmakers to chose between having Satanic images in public, or banning all religious displays.

So enter a school district in Florida that allowed people to pass out Bible. The Satanic Temple created a coloring book to pass out in the same school district, and Mesner/Greaves spelled out their motivation clearly in a press release.

We would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State. However, if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students – as is the case in Orange County, Florida – we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to our youth.

Well, the school board just caved and declared that they won't let anyone on campus to distribute religious materials. I do have to hand it to them, the Satanic Temple set it up so they win either way. If they get to install their religious statue or pass out satanic coloring books, christians who support the Ten Commandment sculpture or Bible  distribution will be exposed as hypocrites and forced to comply by a court. Their only alternative is to prevent the religious materials altogether, like the Florida school district just did.

I think their parody church is being dishonest when they deny being a farce and feign sincerity as a secular satanist group, but then again, they pretty much have to. If they revealed that they are only pretending to be Satanists, opponents could use that against them when they try to pull their next stunt and argue that they aren't espousing actual religious views.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bernie Sanders logic

Here's a real argument Vermont's socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is making. See if you can follow along with his creative interpretation of logic. From his official Facebook page.

If you're not able to view the imagine, it reads:

Here is the defnition of greed: The Koch brothers - worth $85 billion - now want the Republican candidates they funded to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs.

I wasn't sure where he was getting these specific claims that the Koch brothers want to cut Medicare in particular. I couldn't see a confirming link anywhere, but looking through other statements from Sanders turned up a similar social media graphic created by Sanders' office: It read:

Want to know why the Koch brothers are spending hundreds of millions to elect right-wing candidates? Read David Koch's 1980 Libeterarian Party platform. It calls for the elimination of of Social Security Medicare, Medicaid, public eduation and the EPA. Surprise, it also calls for more tax breaks for the rich

There are more related images made by his office to share on social media from his office, but you get the idea. In addition, his official website has a post on this topic detailing his position. Sanders' basic argument is that in 1980 the Libertarian Party as a whole drafted a set of policy positions and chose David Koch as their vice-president candidate, so he much agree with each and everyone one of those views 34 years later, and by extension, so must his older brother.

If that were true, that we should assume all people never change their political views over the course of several decades and political candidates agree 100 percent with their party's stated platforms, than how does he explain his separation Liberty Union Party? That is the Vermont socialist anti-war party Sanders belonged to when he ran for governor in 1976 and in several other elections.

Today members of that part consider Sanders a traitor to their views and refer to him as Bernie the Bomber for his votes to mobilizing the American military on multiple occasion. Clearly, he has changed some of his positions over time and is not in tune with his party's old platform. Fair enough, but why does he wants us to think that David Koch can't change his mind too?


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Being a contrarian conscious consummer

Today I was about to by some roasted red pepper hummus at the grocery story. There were four different brands and for the first time I spotted a little voluntary label on the front of the container from my normal brand, boasting that the contents did not contain any genetically-modified ingredients.

I am a steadfast supporter of GMO technology. The basic idea is that human beings can use science to improve the foods we eat instead of blindly following what nature has provided us. Opposition to GMO's is a hysterical pseuoscientific cultlike movment akin to creationism and alternative medicine. The anti-GMO crowd is the left wing equivalent of global warming denialists.

Suddenly, I didn't want to buy that brand of hummus anymore. It's not that it's dangerous or unhealthy to eat foods that lack genetic modification, but that I was concerned about the message I would be sending as a consumer. I pictured a marketing team combing through sales data and trying to figure out if the GMO-free label brought in more sales.

Sadly, I imagine it does. Looking through the display, I could only find one brand of hummus that didn't declare itself to be GMO-free, and that was Sabra.

Sabra was a little cheaper than the other brands, which could mean it's by a lower-quality product. It could also mean the company isn't wasting money on overpriced organic, GMO-free ingredients, so that issue was a wash.

What did stay my hand was that there were no roasted red pepper containers from Sabra, while the other brands still had them in stock. I contemplated buying one of of the GMO-free brands to get my preferred flavor, but opted not to. I didn't want any market researchers to falsely conclude that I was encourage to buy their product because of the GMO-free label.

I ended up buying Sabra's roasted pine nut hummus instead. I wasn't sure what pine nuts tasted like, but it turned out to be superb.

So tell me, doesn't that make me an ethical consumer? Usually, that label refers to people who buy products with flower power mission statements, such as Seventh Generation Dish Detergent, but why shouldn't the same logic apply to the other end of the spectrum?

For years I've boycotted organic products. That's because organic food production is wasteful, cruel to animals, environmentally damaging and provides no health benefits. That is to say, I consider it entirely unethical to give my money to organic companies and farmers. The higher prices organic merchants charge are just the whip cream on the sundae.

Being a contrarian doesn't mean one lacks principals, it just means that they have a different perspective. I can't see any reason that the banner of "ethical consumers" shouldn't include contrarians like me who oppose the very products mainstream ethical consumers champion.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Steven Pinker on free speech

Last month I made myself a hot fudge sundae. The fudge was legitimately hot, the whip cream was homemade and there were broken candy bar pieces to mix in.

In a similar triple-enjoyment experience, this week a video was released showing Steven Pinker talk about free speech for the 15th Anniversary of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Just like the sundae, each of those three things was a winner on its own, but when combined made someone exponentially more tempting.

Not to give away the ending, but this section really resonated with me:

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

Absolutely brilliant. The people we disagree with and the people we love and respect can indeed be the same people.