The Power of Losing Positively

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“Into each life some rain must fall.” Do you recall when you first heard this time-honored adage? Recording artists from Ella Fitzgerald to the Ink Spots to Queen have crooned serenades featuring this famous phrase. It was referenced in Steve Martin’s movie “My Blue Heaven.” But the true source of this inspired wisdom harks back to the early America of the nineteenth century. For it was, in 1842 – undoubtedly on a dark and dreary day – that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down at his desk and penned his classic poem “The Rainy Day.”

What might have moved Longfellow to write these words? Perhaps he still mourned the loss of his first wife Mary, who died in 1831. Maybe he had become despondent over his near decade long courtship of Frances, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. What ever the source, the expression packs power. It’s the kind of power the Continue Reading “The Power of Losing Positively”

How to Convince Everyone You’re Really Smart (Without Actually Doing Anything Really Smart)

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Confirmation bias is a terrible thing to waste. So don’t.

If you’re the least bit curious about what I just said, then this column is written just for you.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ recent book Win Bigly defines confirmation bias as “the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting your beliefs, even if the evidence is nothing more than coincidence.”

Have you heard the expression “First impressions are lasting impressions?” A simple explanation shows the truth of this adage. It goes like this:Continue Reading “How to Convince Everyone You’re Really Smart (Without Actually Doing Anything Really Smart)”

Did Shirley M. Collado March in the Women’s March?

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While last year’s Women’s March reflected a strictly partisan nature, organizers purposely tried to broaden its appeal by focusing on the current #MeToo campaign against sexual assault. Granted, some continued to view it as strictly an anti-Trump event, but others did not. You no doubt saw in your FaceBook feed a picture of a local resident marching in Washington DC’s march carrying a pro-life sign. If that isn’t a sign of inclusiveness, I don’t know what is.

All across America and Canada (at least), the #MeToo movement permeated the event. Speeches referenced the proliferation of sexual harassment stories coming from Hollywood, Washington, and high-profile media personalities. It’s a theme that unifies across the political spectrum, from conservative to liberal. Perhaps that’s why so many participated in the Women’s March this weekend.

One person, however, who should not dare include herself among the participants in any Continue Reading “Did Shirley M. Collado March in the Women’s March?”

2017 in Review: The (non) Story of the Year

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There’s a common adage among skeptics the world over: “Who watches the watchdog?”

Decades ago I had the honor of serving on the HFL School District’s newly formed “Technology Committee.” This group was tasked with the job of trying to determine the best way to integrate the then new technology of personal computers (and related software) into the learning environment. We quickly saw one of the greatest advantages as the enhanced ability to conduct research from direct sources. Librarians saw this as an opportunity to free up rare shelf space by replacing printed (and quickly outdated) encyclopedias with their digital (and instantly undated) equivalent.

For every upside, however, there’s a glaring downside. In this case, it was the credibility of the source. Britannica curates its encyclopedia, so there’s reasonable assurance the facts it presents have been thoroughly checked. But what about the vast amounts of uncurated raw content spawning fast (even then) on this new thing called the “world wide web”? Who checks those facts.

As diligent adults trained in research integrity – no matter what our varied professional background – we understood this to be a potential problem. Back then, the decision among educators was to create a “white list” of acceptable mass media sources. This included the usual names of popular and well-known print, radio, and television companies.

Unfortunately, a dozen or so local folks with excellent insight and the best of intentions couldn’t stop the juggernaut that would become Facebook, Buzzfeed, and YouTube. It soon became quite evident that anyone could upload anything in a fast and furious fashion. And no one could control that process. Nor would they want to. This was the living example of the First Amendment and our Founding Fathers would have been proud to have had a hand in laying the foundation of such a free and open society. Everyone with a modem and a keyboard had a right to say whatever they wanted, just as two centuries ago everyone with a printing press, paper, and ink had a right to say what they wanted.

Only, today, there are more people, and more keyboards, and you don’t even need a modem like you did two decades ago.

That being said, just because we all understand and accept that no one in America can prevent another person from their free speech (no matter how obnoxious), we also understand we are not obligated to believe everything we read. In other words, “free speech” can never be curtailed, but “free listening” must act as our own personal and individual “curator.”

Which brings us to so-called “fake news.” The term itself is fake. There is no such thing as “fake news,” as anyone well-studied in the art of rhetoric can attest. Of late, blaming “fake news” for all the ills of the world has become a favorite parlor game. To counter such fake news, several states (by coincidence, all controlled by the same political party and, by further coincidence, all following the 2016 election) have begun efforts to mandate “media literacy.” They’ll soon no doubt discover the problem with such government intrusion, as Facebook infamously (and recently) did.

Immediately following the 2016 election (again, by coincidence), Facebook, standing accused as allowing itself to be an enabler of “Russian Collusion,” grandly announced it would create a plan to address its role in the spread of “fake news.” One news executive was quoted by another news organization as saying, “Facebook has been under fire for this fake news flap. They obviously needed to do something. A lot of these elements seem like they’re logical steps to kind of help with the fake news scourge,” (“Facebook unveils new plan to try to curb fake news,” CBS News, December 15, 2016). Facebook created a reporting system and brought on partners like ABC News to vet suspected fake news.

A year later, Facebook, its tail between its legs, scrapped the program (“Facebook fail: Social network scraps ‘disputed’ flags on ‘fake news’,” USA Today, December 21, 2017). It turns out, as any behavioral psychologist would have predicted, flagging “fake news,” rather than discouraging readers, only encouraged them. But this wasn’t the only problem with Facebook’s effort. The problem ran much deeper, and well beyond Facebook. The problem was with the White List itself.

It turns out, the news media no longer prides itself on “curating” the news. Instead, at the behest of the usual bean counters, and despite what professional journalists say (and even believe), what matters most are clicks, audience count, and Nielsen Ratings. And what’s the best way to gin up these numbers? Why using the same click-bait tactics employed by the much despised purveyors of fake news.

Worse, these former White Listers have not only shunned the concept of curation, they actively pursue the opposite – the purposeful creation of news. Call this the “Woodward-Bernstein Effect.” It seems (by coincidence since the 2016 election) every reporter and editor today wants the head of a president mounted above their fireplace mantel. This obsession drives their day-to-day research, every narrative they write, and all the stories they publish. It’s no longer about the news, its about pushing an agenda in search of a Pulitzer (see “Newsroom Pros Reveal Candid Truth About Media Bias,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, October 19, 2017).

I’m sure you see what I’m talking about (assuming you still partake of mass media news consumption). You see it every time the organization brags about its prowess in “investigative” reporting. While this is a laudable goal, it breaks down the moment the organization fails to curate and instead promotes an advocacy position. Then, as we have seen over the last year, you see only one point of view – and a lot of missed opportunities.

So, the biggest story of the year is the one that was never printed. All the King’s investigative reporters and all the King’s editors (and a special prosecutor) couldn’t uncover any real evidence of any sort of illegal collusion, despite a year of trying. Yet they’ve managed to write, publish, and broadcast an endless font of stories on the subject, including several notable ones that had to be almost immediately retracted. What stories did they fail to uncover in the process? Those are the stories of the year.

‘tis the Season

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If the forecast is correct, there may be snow on the ground by the time you read this. Still, even if the dullish green grass and crumpled brown leaves remain, there’s no denying we’ve entered that special time of the year – the Christmas Season.

There. I said it. I said “Christmas” instead of “Xmas,” instead of “Holiday,” instead of “Winter.” instead of “Xmas.” I don’t say “Christmas” to ignore practicing Jews, who celebrate Hanukkah beginning on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev (which falls on Tuesday, December 12th this year) and lasts for 8 days (December 20th this year). I say “Merry Christmas” because that’s what my family celebrates (and has celebrated for generations). If my family had celebrated Hanukkah instead, I would be wishing everyone a “Happy Hanukkah” rather than a “Merry Christmas.”

Well, maybe I’d still say “Merry Christmas.”

Why? Because, despite efforts by Christian groups to deny this and by anti-religious Continue Reading “‘tis the Season”

Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?

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They say the world is made up of two types of people. They’re wrong. The world consists of three types of people, but two of those types get all the press.

Journalists like to frame issues in a binary fashion – one side against another. That’s simple. It’s black and white. It’s A versus B. Reporters don’t do this because they can’t handle the complexity of multiple opposing points of view. They structure their stories as a duel between competing interests because readers find those stories easiest to digest. The audience finds such pairings quite familiar. Literature is replete with examples: Ahab vs. Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, and Bambi vs. Godzilla, to name a few.

It’s not just drama. Philosophy often has an attraction to complimentary combinations. We see this most markedly in the Taoist notion of “dualistic-monism” as expressed in the Continue Reading “Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?”

A Bully Tactic: Give Them Something to Deny

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If you knew me in high school, you’d know I engaged in a never-ending battle against AP English. It’s ironic, then, that my most thoughtful memories of high school come from those very classes I disdained. This story begins with one of those memories.

I don’t remember the context, but I do remember the lesson. It may have been during our review and analysis of The Scarlett Letter, where guilt is a major theme. The teacher, Mr. Polito, wrote on the board the following phrase: “Give them something to deny.”

This bewildered most of the class. He then mentioned it as an allusion to a made-for-TV movie thinly disguised to mimic the events surrounding Watergate. With Washington DC as its political backdrop, the movie’s antagonist was asked repeatedly how to defeat an Continue Reading “A Bully Tactic: Give Them Something to Deny”

The Joys of Celebrating Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day (Traditional)

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Those of you old enough to remember, remember this: Columbus Day is celebrated every year on October 12th. It’s not the second Monday of October, but a specific date. We’re not the only country to celebrate Columbus Day, although the exact date of celebration may be different. The specific date varies for the same reason the specific date of George Washington’s birthday varies. Based on the Julian Calendar, widely in use in 1492, Columbus and his crew finally sighted the sandy shores of San Salvador on the morning of October 12th, five days after they observed flocks of birds, indicating they were near land.

A century after Columbus discovered America, Pope Gregory XIII decided he had had Continue Reading “The Joys of Celebrating Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day (Traditional)”

Back in the Saddle Again!

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Ah, the joys of sitting atop the multiple horse equivalent of internal combustion, casually doing ovals around a track of flowing (and growing) green. Now that the boy is safely ensconced in university environs (if you can call doing a term project in Panama “safe”), I am now able to return to my weekly therapy. Others may call this a chore, but I look forward to mowing the lawn and the wonderful thoughts awaiting me as I go round and round from here and back again.

Besides, to paraphrase Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, “I love the smell of freshly cut grass in the morning” (or afternoon, whatever the case may be). And while Francis Ford Coppola may have been calling his inner Joseph Conrad while making Apocalypse Now, I can’t help but call my own inner Gene Autry as I mount up and ride Continue Reading “Back in the Saddle Again!”

The Virtues (and Vices) of Deadlines

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What kind of student were you? The kind that got all your homework done before school ended so you could play guilt-free the whole weekend, or the kind that played all weekend and crammed your homework assignment in that space of time between Sunday dinner and bedtime?

Sorry if I just caused tonight’s nightmare for you. No doubt these questions bring up horrible memories for those who the phrase “no more pencils, no more books…” was last uttered decades ago. Similarly, those still subject to the school bell probably wish to avoid these questions the same way they want to avert their eyes from the coming weeks’ advertising circulars trumpeting all their “back to school” sales.

It could be worse folks. I could write just another ad nauseum piece on the latest hearsay Continue Reading “The Virtues (and Vices) of Deadlines”