Today’s Round Up

1. Sid Miller cannot stop spreading lies and bullshit
Another posting on Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s Facebook wall has been shown to be BS. Either a lying asshat has hacked Miller’s Facebook, or he is a lying asshat. I know what my selection is, your selection may be different.

2. Donald Trump’s lies have a purpose
This article, like an earlier one from George Lakoff, explains that Trump’s lies, far from being directionless and random, exist to serve a purpose (mostly related to the self-aggrandisement of Donald Trump). As the article explains, the media has to decide if they want to pander to Trump, or report correctly on his utterances.

3. The media fallout from the 2016 Election
The election has been a mess for the US mass media, who had no coherent response to an electoral campaign where misinformation, bullshit and fakery became the norm. This consolidation of 86 articles provides some interesting and sobering reading.
While we are on the subject of media performance, here is a withering article by Rick Perlstein about the asymmetry in media coverage between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 election.


Long distance migration experts #2 – The European Eel

I wrote some time ago about a species of bird, The Bar-Tailed Godwit, that migrates an astonishing distance every year.
Today, I am writing about a species of fish that engages in an equally arduous migration. The species is the European Eeel.
The Eel spends most of its life in fresh water, but when it reaches sexual maturity, it migrates back from its home body of fresh water to the ocean. This pattern of return to the ocean to spawn is the exact opposite of the life cycle and breeding action of the Salmon, which begins its life in freshwater, matures in the ocean, then returns to fresh water to spawn and (like the eel) to die.
What happens to migrating eels after their return to the ocean has never been entirely clear. In the late 19th Century, scientists finally established that juvenile eels were in fact the second larval stage of the species, developing from the first larval stage before the juvenile eels reached fresh water. By a process if extrapolation, scientists postulated that eels spawned in the Sargasso Sea, and that the larvae then traveled back to Europe via the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents.
This recent scientific paper, using modern tracking technology, largely confirms prior scientific theories about the reproductive process of the European Eel. Eels migrate up to 5000 km back to the ocean to spawn, living off stored food reserves. After spawning, they die, since they cannot feed any more.


The fallacy of the Great Person theory of leadership, accountability and personal agency

Over the next 4 years, if it becomes apparent that Donald Trump was the wrong choice for POTUS, we can expect to see people who voted for him attempting to deny accountability in several different ways:

1. They will forget or deny that they voted for him or supported him in the first place (The Amnesia approach)
2. They will protest “when I voted for him I didn’t think he would really do all of That Dumb Stuff!”
3. They will blame Other Actors for sabotaging his presidency (“those Other Forces did not allow him to do what he really needed to do so it’s not his fault”)

(1) is not particularly sustainable in the internet age. I can, for example, fairly easily mine Facebook postings to determine which of my Facebook friends were Trump supporters in the election cycle. (2) and (3) are more arguable, but I usually respond to (2) with some variant of “if you didn’t take him seriously when he promised to do that stuff, more fool you”.
Currently, I am part way through reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance, which is a memoir of a guy who grew up in Appalachia and Ohio in a deeply dysfunctional family, embedded in areas of the United States that have lost out to the last 40+ years of globalization and employment shift.
While the areas that JD Vance grew up in are indeed economically deprived, and many people are suffering badly financially and socially, one of the points that Vance makes consistently in interviews and articles is that the blame does not rest entirely with the “outside forces” that many people in those areas rail and rant against on a daily basis. He was also totally unimpressed by Donald Trump’s candidacy, describing his promises to “bring back coal” as part of a pattern of what he calls an opiate fix for the people in Appalachia.
One of Vance’s central points is that people have agency, and the victim-centered attitude of what he terms “learned helplessness” reduces the chances that the economically deprived areas of the USA and their populations can improve their conditions.
The idea that people are not responsible for what happens to them and their country is also a viewpoint that many historians outside of Germany have focussed on when dealing with the history of the rise of Naziism in Germany. The view outside Germany tends to focus on the claimed charisma, oratory and power of a few bad men (Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Josef Goebbels et al) and rather less on the underlying reality that Adolf Hitler came to power by being elected democratically, and that Naziism was wildly popular in Germany right up to the point that it began to become obvious to the German people that they were losing World War II. Inside Germany, historical analyses of Naziism focus rather less on the individual Nazi leaders and more on answering the awkward question of why and how the German people collectively signed on to the Nazi worldview and philosophy.
Most Germans have learned the hard way that their ancestors, for a period of a dozen or so years, enabled great evil. They are, by and large, determined to not allow that to ever happen again.
This leads us back to today, with Donald Trump as the President-Elect. While people and the media focus to a great degree on Trump’s personality, worldview and policies, the underlying reality is that his espoused views do reflect the attitudes of a lot of Americans, and he was elected by a significant percentage of Americans who thought he was the best choice to be President.
Those people, whether they want to see it that way or not, had agency when they voted, and voted for Donald Trump. They are therefore accountable and culpable, collectively, for the outcome of that decision.
The bottom line is that electors who voted for Donald Trump are culpable for enabling not only his actions, but also the worldviews and attitudes underpinning those actions. And if the outcomes for the United States are negative, I will have no hesitation in pointing that out to them. We all own the consequences of our decisions.


Rural disdain of “elitists”

There has always been a deep disdain of people described as “elites” in the Western world. In the USA, Richard Hofstader wrote about the phenomenon in his 1964 book.
This article in Salon discusses the paradox that while there seems to be an often-expressed animosity from rural people towards “elites”, they seemed quite willing to vote for Donald Trump, a city man born into family money who, in every respect, behaves like an elite business leader. There are also numerous other politicians who, while they occasionally pretend to be outsiders, in no way meet that definition. As the article points out, Newt Gingrich is, by any logical definition of the word, part of the East Coast elite.
What seems to be the case is that there is a distinction that people can make between people who are part of the elite (who they do not necessarily dislike) and people who they consider elitists, who they do dislike.
The conclusion of the article, which backs up Hofstader, is that the view of intellect that many Americans hold is a functional one, measured by capitalist success. For example, Donald Trump is not an “elitist” because he is assumed to be a successful businessman. On the other hand, college professors and scientists are “elitist” because they appear to demonstrate intellectual capacity, including reading books (which a significant percentage of Americans never do) and seemingly not much else.
I continue to find that worldview both strange and self-defeating. I was raised in a blue-collar household in public housing in the UK, by two parents whose educations had been disrupted by World War II. My father left school at 14, and could barely read, and wrote non-cursive all of his life. Yet neither of my parents sneered at “elitists”, and they persistently and consistently encouraged me to gain a high-quality education. I never heard hostility to intelligence and education from them. I am becoming more and more convinced that they must have been outliers, given the reflexive sneering hostility that so many people seem to have acquired in the USA towards education and intellect.
I intend to write more about this whole area in future.


So Facebook distributes fake news? Well, what a surprise

There seems to be a groundswell of surprise and disappointment at the realization that Facebook’s approach to newsfeed creation means that a lot of what is now being defined as “fake news” is appearing on Facebook news feeds.
None of this should be a surprise to anybody who has even a superficial understanding of Facebook’s business model.
There seems to be an implied expectation that many people suddenly have about Facebook that Facebook can and should screen newsfeeds for some combination of truth and usefulness.
This Is Not Going To Happen. (emphasis mine).
You can see how Facebook operates by looking at their process (such as it is) for dealing with people posting racist, eliminationist or hateful content on their own pages.
Facebook is deeply reluctant to intervene. I have reported Facebook pages containing clear threats to the safety of the POTUS in the past. Facebook’s bland canned-email response to me in both cases was that the postings did not violate their content guidelines. Facebook rarely suspends users for any reason.
People who have any expectation that Facebook is going to snap into action and begin to validate news feeds and articles are, sadly, going to be disappointed.
There is a very important underlying reason for this.
Facebook is positioned as a common carrier, in large part so that they can never be held liable for content that they host. That is a fundamental barrier to them becoming a media company. In order to be a credible media company, they would have to apply due diligence to content from external entities that they accept onto their platform. That is not part of their business model. The entire Facebook model is based on gaining as many free users as possible, since traffic equal advert revenue and data that can be sold to analysis companies. Screening out poor quality content or removing bad actors will negatively impact their user base, reducing their revenues.
On a broader front, the enmeshing of Facebook in the media world will not necessary improve it’s ability to provide useful content about the world. As this article shows, the tendency of media outlets to be dominated by information of questionable truth and usefulness is a wider trend, aided by the democratization of information dissemination. The Internet has driven the cost of publication down to almost zero, and dissemination location is irrelevant. All you need to do is generate content and promote it virally, and you can soon make money. Whether the content is useful is largely irrelevant, as long as you can activate the confirmation bias of the consumers.
In the medium term, Facebook, like all free platforms in social media, is doomed. It will decline and wither because of what i term UseNet Syndrome. This is the tendency of any online, free, unmoderated social media platform, over time, to become dominated by a combination of spam and utter morons. Facebook will not be immune. I use Facebook right now because it (just about) makes sense as a communication vehicle. It makes no sense as a discussion and learning tool, except for private groups, which is where I spend most of my time. The signal to noise ratio is becoming steadily worse. So, at some point, just like UseNet, I will leave.
In the meantime, I will continue to ignore all Facebook news feeds. You can find the same content using other methods. Anybody who relies on Facebook for their news feeds and worldview deserves to be poorly informed about the world.


The lack of seriousness in many voting decisions

Initial digression…
Back in 1991, I found myself in Kuwait for 6 weeks, training staff at the Ministry of the Interior.
In my lunch break and other breaks, I found myself discussing issues with a number of expatriate workers at the Ministry. Included in those workers were a number of IT guys from Pakistan, who were working in Kuwait, not just for the higher salaries, but also because as a Muslim country, Kuwait was aligned with Pakistan.
One issue we touched on in discussions was their view of Christianity. While there seemed to be a whole lot about Christianity that they did not understand (and they understood even less about events in Western Europe, such as the Reformation), one of them said something that stuck with me. (I’m paraphrasing here). “It seems to me that for Western people, your Christianity is only something you do in your spare time. For Western Christians it is almost a hobby, like fishing. For us, Islam is our entire life”. He was trying to explain the total emotional spiritual and intellectual committment to Islam, as part of a debate we were having about the Western tradition of free speech, which, as it turned out, he flat out did not understand.
I was reminded of this discussion when I found myself talking with a person the other day about the whole immigration landscape in the USA. We were discussing the bellicose statements from Donald Trump about deporting 3 million illegal immigrants.
I felt compelled to point out one thing that keeps being overlooked. In order to be able to deport people from a country, you have to have somewhere to deport them to. That usually means another country, unless your plan is to load them onto container ships and have them circling in international waters for ever and a day. What countries would agree to take these 3 million illegals, I wondered.
It was clear that the person I was talking to had never consdered this. His response was bascially “Well, if they came from another country, they should be deported back to that country”.
Well, yes, that all makes sense in a logical fashion. But how will it actually work in practice. Imagine the conversation:

US SoS: Good day Ambassador
Amb: Good day Mr. Secretary
US SoS: Well, we did the math, and we have 234,000 people from your country who are here in the US illegally
Amb: (shrugs)
US SoS: We intend to start deporting them via sea ports next month
Amb: I see
US SoS: We expect you to accept them
Amb: How do we know they are even from my country? You have proof of their origin?
US SoS: Yes, so you will take them back
Amb: And if we refuse?
US SoS: See that picture? (points to wall upon which is hung a picture of a US Navy carrier group)
Amb: I see. Well, there appear to be 10,000 US citizens in our country at this point in time. If you propose something like that, I do not see how we can guarantee their safety. Then there is the little matter of that covert base that we let the CIA set up in the jungle. We cannot guarantee that base’s safety either.
By the way, after I leave this meeting, I am off to lunch with the Chinese Ambassador. I understand that he has an interesting proposition for some economic assistance that may help my country immensely.
(awkward silence)

The idea that the USA can start sending hundreds of thousands of people back to their countries of origin is a cloud-cuckooland fantasy. It is a fantasy because no country in its right mind is going to agree to take them back without a very big quid pro quo. This, folks, is how geopolitics works. This is not building hotels, or casinos. It’s a whole lot more subtle, serious and complex than that.
I eventually suggested to my discussion partner that perhaps Trump would need to have a gate in his wall or fence so that he could open it at periodic intervals and push some of those illegals back to Mexico where they obviously came from.
Folks, this is the problem with most of the ideas that Donald Trump has been throwing out there for the last year or more. Not all of his ideas are stupid (although many of them are). The real underlying issue that they have no plan, no thought-out substance to back them up. There is no “plan” to deport 3 million illegals. It can’t be done in any reasonable timescale, period.
When I find myself talking to people who sign on to cockanamie stuff like this, I know I am dealing with people who are treating politics less than seriously, perhaps like fishing, or watching sport. They have never thought any of this stuff through. Their views are formed from treating issues with a total lack of seriousness, and their conclusions are, as a result, mostly unserious.
This is what I meant when I wrote several times on this blog that politics is a serious subject for adults.

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