Sunday, May 21, 2017

Electoral college and the shift in online news

Ever try to bring up a news story from some sort of index service only to be greeted by a popup saying:
- You have exceeded your five free articles or
- You have four articles remaining

I do not blame the news services. Print media newspapers and magazines are failing fast. They are trying to move online to survive. However, most citizens cannot afford to join five or ten news services. The result of course is a limitation is choice of news feeds.

Forbes has an article on the largest news services, so does Business Insider. A fairly small number of companies control the majority of the news outlets, print, TV/radio, or online.

When our forefathers created the electoral college, one of the drivers was that the average citizen might not be informed. We think that with the Internet that is ancient history, but day by day the past is becoming the future.

Add to this the possibility an anti-democratic country, say like Russia, is intentionally mucking around with social media as Time suggest and you have a significant problem.

The good news is that the Washington Post and the New York Times are engaged in a full on Newspaper war. Both sides are involved in investigative journalism and scooping each other and democracy in the USA is the winner in this case. BTW honorable mention goes out to the fine folks at CNN and thank you for running this story about the competition.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Maybe the Electoral College was a good idea?

The introduction of this blog post is largely based on the Pro/Con website. "The Electoral College was established in 1788 by Article II of the US Constitution, which also established the executive branch of the US government, and was revised by the Twelfth Amendment (ratified June 15, 1804), the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified July 1868), and the Twenty-Third Amendment (ratified Mar. 29, 1961)."

The "pro" argument, "Using electors instead of the popular vote was intended to safeguard against uninformed or uneducated voters by putting the final decision in the hands of electors most likely to possess the information necessary to make the best decision; to prevent states with larger populations from having undue influence; and to compromise between electing the president by popular vote and letting Congress choose the president."

The "con" argument, "Modern technology allows voters to get necessary information to make informed decisions in a way that could not have been foreseen by the Founding Fathers. Also, while Alexander Hamilton in 1788 saw the electors as being "free from any sinister bias," members of the Electoral College are now selected by the political parties and they are expected to vote along party lines regardless of their own opinions about the candidates."

After careful consideration, I am starting to believe Alexander Hamilton was right when he said, “be not perfect, it is at least excellent”.

At first blush, I am somewhat swayed by the con argument, Modern technology allows voters to get necessary information to make informed decisions. This raises two questions:
- Can voters easily get the necessary information?
- Do voters make informed decisions?

in 2017 it is possible to get information, lots of information, possibly too much information. There are a couple of issues to be considered:

- Media bias. A reporter and their publisher should strive for balanced reporting, but over the years bias has become more pronounced. This site lists some classic problems, some are fairly subtle:

  • Bias by omission – leaving one side out of an article
  • Bias by selection of sources – including more sources that support one view
  • Bias by story selection – a pattern of highlighting news stories that coincide with an agenda
  • Bias by placement – Story placement is a measure of how important the editor considers the story.
  • Bias by labeling - tagging of politicians and groups with extreme labels
  • Bias by spin - when the story has only one interpretation of an event or policy 

- Media bias can lead to confirmation bias. Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.

- Fake news is a type of yellow journalism, (presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines), that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via the traditional print, broadcasting news media, or via Internet-based social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.

Media bias conclusion. With a bit of study, most reasonable people will determine media bias exists, even though modern technology gives us unprecedented access to information, it may be poor quality information. The good news is that FaceBook and others are cracking down on fake news and extreme viewpoint news and there are a growing number of fact check sites. You will have to go on your own search for truth, but this website listing generally unbiased sites may be a place to start.

The second electoral college "con" I want to challenge is: voters make informed decisions? Sorry, it simply is not true. Let's start with investing, most people intuitively know not to buy high, sell low, but they do it again and again. The extreme case is bubbles. I spent the afternoon, (until I got so bored I needed a nap), catching up on the latest on Brexit. 51.9 % of Britons voted for it and now they are slowly discovering the true cost of that decision. Climate change is another, one of the best web sites on the subject is NASA, (at least till a certain political party makes them take it down). Even after they are censured, there will be enough evidence to convince a rational person we should start making changes. I will end with a small and simple example. I have a friend that has a boat and wants me to come and sit on his boat and talk. He is well read and brilliant, but sometimes I cannot follow his conclusions. For one, he refuses to recycle because "Jesus is coming soon to take us all home". I have as much Maranatha in my prayers as the next fellow, but the Kauai landfill is in trouble. News about it is harder to find than  news about VOG, but here is one article, and I quote, "If — and only if — the island can successfully implement an aggressive series of recycling programs geared at achieving a 70 percent waste diversion rate by 2020, the Kekaha landfill has about 10 years of life left."

Voters make informed decisions conclusion. I could have gone on for page after page. I work in cybersecurity and I am amazed at the people that fall for phishing attempts which open up their families or companies to all sorts of grief from ransomeware to data breaches. How is it possible they keep falling for these. P.T. Barnum may or may not have been the person to come up with the phrase, "There is a sucker born every minute", but it is true and as they grow up, they vote.

Conclusion: I am with Alexander Hamilton. The electoral college is not perfect, people will and should challenge it. However, given the evidence at hand, in a world of extreme perception management,  it is at least excellent.

Pepe? Is that you?

From Slashdot, May 08, 2017: "The creator of Pepe the Frog has symbolically killed off the cartoon frog, effectively surrendering control of the character to the far right. Matt Furie, an artist and children's book author, created the now-infamous frog as part of his "Boy's Club" series on MySpace in 2005. Pepe took on a life of its own online as a meme, before being eventually adopted as a symbol by the "alt-right" in the lead-up to last year's U.S. election. In September, Hillary Clinton identified Pepe the Frog as a racist hate symbol, and Pepe was added to the Anti-Defamation League's database of hate symbols. Furie launched a campaign to "Save Pepe," flooding the internet with "peaceful or nice" depictions of the character in a bid to shake its association with white supremacy and antisemitism. But he now seems to have conceded defeat, killing the character off in a one-page strip for the independent publisher Fantagraphics' Free Comic Book Day. It showed Pepe laid to rest in an open casket, being mourned by his fellow characters from Boy's Club."

The Guardian reports, "Furie had been attempting to wrench back his “peaceful frog-dude” – whom he has often said he imagined as an extension of his personality – for more than six months. Pepe’s passing has been interpreted of his ceding control of the character."

RIP Pepe: