That does not compute

adding machine

Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping computers. They’re all around us… a constant part of our lives… even if we don’t realize it. They are marvelous tools when used correctly. The laptop, desktop, tablet and the smartphone are the most obvious examples of computers we tinker with daily. They may be the only ones you think of when you hear the word “computer”.

The first computer wasn’t electronic, nor was it connected to a power source. Essentially, a computer is, by definition, “a device that computes”. In addition to your Mac or PC, a calculator fits that description. So does an adding machine and an abacus.

Years ago, I had a cool coin bank that had four tubes, one each for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. When I dropped a coin in the slot at the top of the bank, it would roll down a chute until it fell into the proper tube. Markings on the sides of the tubes told me how much money was collected. This was an ingenious and accurate machine that computed the amount of cash I had saved.

But let’s say I purposely dropped a fake coin in the slot, a piece of metal that was the same size and shape of a quarter but not a product of the US Mint. Although it was worthless, it would take the place of a real coin and mislead me into thinking I had saved more than was actually on hand.

In that case, I provided false data to a computer. I lied. I told the device that I was entering a quarter although I knew that was not true. There’s a common phrase to describe that action: “garbage in, garbage out”. In other words, if you, dear human, put in the wrong information… the computer will give you the wrong answer. But then, a computer is nothing more than a tool created by the ultimate device: the human brain. Our brains work on the same concept. Given false information, we are likely to repeat it, often without realizing that the data is incorrect.

Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and inventor who is called the “father of the computer” because of his pioneering work envisioning a programmable computing device once said, “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”  In other words, if you start with a lie, don’t expect anything else at the end.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the internet, especially on places like Facebook. There, you can tell a lie and your friends will not only “like” it, they’ll repeat it, often with a few embellishments of their own.

Politics and current events seem to be the most common topics of those who spread these wildfire stories. If it weren’t for the world wide web, I doubt any of us would have heard that President Obama was born in Kenya (false), that Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons (not true), or that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Donald Trump for president (not yet… and not likely). But there are plenty of people who hate Obama and the Clintons and, for reasons that defy all known boundaries of common sense, support Trump. For them, these and similar stories reinforce their closely held beliefs. Trying to convince them otherwise is a monumental task. It would probably be easier to convince Niagara Falls to flow uphill.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine explored the difficulties of changing minds. People with long-held beliefs resist information that conflicts with their already established opinions. We tend to settle into a comfortable narrative and refuse, possibly aggressively, to accept anything that doesn’t fit the pattern. So, if you have a history of partisan politics — maybe you’re a lifetime member of a party and usually vote for its candidates — you’ll tend to accept as fact anything that reinforces your stance and looks bad for the other side.

It’s our instinct, our human nature, to strive for success… to win… to be right. When faced with the chance of being proved wrong, we often avoid even the most logical facts and focus instead on a storyline that makes us comfortable. Over time, we feel more at ease accepting as truth anything that conforms to our beliefs, no matter how ludicrous. And if the guy on the radio or the lady on television says out loud what we already believe, even better.

Con men and cult leaders — am I being redundant? — gain the confidence of their victims by telling them what they want to hear. Is it any wonder that many political careers are built on the same foundation?

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald June 2, 2016.)

What a long strange trip it’s been

thumb drive

I spend a lot of time in my car. Driving for work or for pleasure, many miles and many hours go by behind the wheel. I’m always looking for something to help keep me alert and focused. Depending on my mood, sometimes I’ll crank up the volume on some classic rock. Recently, you’re more likely to find me listening to podcasts. Science, history, true crime, politics, sports, pop culture… there’s tons of listening options floating around the internet just waiting to be downloaded.

Some are little more than a guy with a cheap microphone giving his opinions about this or that — much like an audio version of this column, right? — while others are professionally produced with quality talent.

One of the latter, and one of my current favorites, comes from the journalists at ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog. The organization was founded by statistician Nate Silver, who still serves as its editor-in-chief. If the name is familiar, it’s probably because Silver correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 presidential election in 49 states… and topped that in 2012 when he accurately forecast the results in all 50 states plus Washington DC. Silver’s staff at FiveThirtyEight is comprised of economists, statisticians, and empirical analysts. These guys know their stuff.

But not always.

Recently, iTunes somehow decided to update my podcast subscriptions with an old episode from last summer… a discussion that aired immediately before the first Republican presidential debate. The panel took turns giving their way-early projections on the candidates’ chances of nailing down the party’s nomination. The contenders most frequently mentioned as having the best chance were Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker… all of whom have since taken their lumps and withdrawn from the race. One of the pundits went so far as to say that Donald Trump had a “minus ten percent” chance of ending up at the head of the Republican ticket.

And yet, here we are.

To the surprise of many, a television personality with no apparent hands-on management experience and who has never been a political candidate is on the verge of entering a head-to-head match-up in our next presidential election. With Sen. Ted Cruz the most recent casualty, Trump’s victory in the Republican race is a foregone conclusion.

It’s as if we’re living in an alternate universe where a Kardashian has just been selected as the next pope.

Naturally, the steady thinkers of what remains of the Republican party are throwing their hands up in frustration. An exasperated George Will, the award-winning and long-respected conservative columnist, wrote a piece in the Washington Post calling for his own party to prevent Trump from ascending to the Oval Office. Will argued that conservatives must assure Trump’s defeat in all fifty states as a means of “preserving the identity of their 162-year-old party” while simultaneously trying to prevent the damage a Trump-led ticket will likely cause to down-ticket races across the nation.

Will isn’t the only voice of reason. Mark Salter, Sen. John McCain’s long-time chief of staff and co-author, tweeted out a message of disgust with Trump’s juvenile behavior and ended with “I’m with her”, a slogan used by supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Sadly, the words of Will, Salter, and many others are falling on too many deaf ears. Motivated by years of simmering distrust of government combined with a growing disdain of organized politics and, perhaps, an overwhelming urge to just try something different, Americans have been turning out in fairly large numbers to cast their votes for Trump. It’s too bad so many of them are clueless about how our nation’s elections work.

Take the recent primaries in New York and Pennsylvania. Both states follow the “closed primary” election form, in that only members of the two major political parties can vote for the respective candidates. However, boards of elections in both states were inundated with complaints from citizens who were unable to cast ballots. Why? In many cases, voters who were registered independents didn’t realize that they couldn’t just show up and choose one of the parties’ ballots. Many others had simply never bothered to register at all. This was not limited to the Republicans; many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders learned too late that they couldn’t vote for their candidate because they had failed to join the Democratic party.

I know this may sound eerily similar to the Jim Crow literacy tests designed to deny African-Americans their right to vote, but I think people should be required to display some basic knowledge of the electoral process before they are handed a ballot. In these days of 24/7 news channels and Google at your fingertips, there’s no excuse for not knowing what you need to do to become eligible to vote.

Unfortunately, in an age when the willful disregard of facts is embraced by so many people, those of us not embarrassed to use our brains will just have to muddle through.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald May 5, 2016.)

Don’t call it political correctness

manners

If you’ve ever watched the Disney classic animated film “Bambi”, you certainly remember the title character’s friend Thumper, the young rabbit who laughed at the newborn deer’s first, unsteady attempts at walking. He was quickly shushed by his mother, who reminded him of his father’s lesson on manners: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”.

Pretty good advice, don’t you think?

As I was growing up, my father taught me a lot about manners. Not so much with the direct instructions that Thumper received from his father, but more from the way he acted toward others. By watching him I learned that you should hold doors to allow others to pass through, to be willing to provide a helping hand if someone is struggling with packages, and to treat others with a level of politeness and respect that you would want in return.

These gentlemanly arts, and many others, shouldn’t be viewed as extraordinary. On the contrary, they should be as commonplace and automatic as saying, “Bless you” when someone sneezes.

My father wasn’t perfect. He had his share of bad days. But he did his best. Same with me, and I can take pride in knowing that it really doesn’t take much effort to be nice. Or does it? Anymore, it seems like such common courtesies are a thing of the past.

Before you think I’m too nostalgic, longing for a simpler time… it’s much more than that. I’m not naive enough to suggest that everything was better in the past. To do so is to ignore both a history filled with disappointments as well as the improvements that have come with the passing of time. The last thing I’d want to do is turn back the clock. But that’s my viewpoint.

In recent years, I’ve been hearing more and more talk about how some people would like to reverse a few of society’s trends. They seem to feel that changes have been imposed on them, changes that somehow subtract from their personal enjoyment. Actually, that kind of floral language is a bit too gentle. What people are really doing is complaining, a lot, that they’re losing their rights. And that, to me, makes no sense. Unless…what they are losing is their “right” to be selfish. That may sound harsh, but let’s take a look at one of the most common complaints expressed by the grumpy crowd: the growing hatred of political correctness.

In my lifetime, government has provided a few mandates that have improved so many lives. There’s the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia ruling, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and many more. Each of these actions were designed to end hardships faced by many Americans, though not without controversy. Each of these advancements continues to be challenged by those who seek to revert back to a time before these fairness laws existed. It’s as if they feel that life was better when people were free to prevent others from enjoying the same rights and privileges, that the only way they could rediscover happiness is to be able to deny the same to someone else.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You think I’m being mean. But hear me out.

We’re experiencing a wave of discontent right now. People are lashing out. Some of them are goaded along by politicians, or newspaper columnists, or like-minded people on radio and television. The common phrase we are hearing now is, “I’m tired of being politically correct.”

They think that government and society have gone too far; that they’ve lost something because others have gained. But look deeper. What they’re really saying is, “I’m tired of being nice. I want to say what I want and do what I want whenever I want and if that hurts someone else… I just don’t care.”

They want to fly their rebel flags, use offensive slang terms to attack someone else’s race or religion, to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness… and they want to do so without being told that they’re wrong.

It used to be that these people were cast off by society as troublemakers. We used to see rejection of such abusiveness. Today however, those thoughts and actions are embraced, even encouraged. We’re seeing politicians for the highest office in the land taking advantage of this growing discontentedness. Even some faith leaders are joining in.

Is this the kind of country we want? Where hatred and discrimination are allowed to take control? Maybe you would say “yes”. Maybe you think that we’ve gone too far to be nice to each other, that we need to reverse the trend.. But I think otherwise. I think we can do even better.

And I think my dad with agree with me.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald April 6, 2016.)

If it quacks like a duck

white-duck

As I wrapped up this column, the early results of the March 1st Super Tuesday primary/caucus states were coming in. While it’s still way too early to say that any one candidate has it in the bag, it’s also very clear that Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in the battle for the Republican nomination. Think about that: a man primarily known for product huckstering and reality television is actually being considered as a contender for the position of Commander in Chief of the most powerful military known to mankind. That right there should be enough to keep you up nights clutching your security blanket.

Over the course — so far, that is — of his run for the presidency, Mr. Trump has relied on little more than his brash persona to rise to the position of frontrunner. He consistently outperforms his rivals in public opinion polls, a fact he gleefully shares with every open microphone. In the debates, he has used a combination of insult, innuendo, and interruption to further dominate the field.

Trump has used his time in the spotlight to attack not just his opponents, but also members of the media, Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled, and puppies. (Okay, he hasn’t attacked puppies yet, but the campaign isn’t over.)

Okay, fine. That’s his style. Trump likes to get in your face, to put you on the defensive from the start. If it takes a personal attack, he’ll go there in order to gain the upper hand. Maybe that works in the most cutthroat aspects of the business world, but is that what we should expect from the leader of the free world?

Sadly, Trump’s style is rubbing off on his opponents. They’re peppering their own speeches with insults and crass one-liners. People who want to be taken seriously in the race for the highest office in the land are reduced to making jokes about the size of their opponent’s… hands. What’s next… “Your mama’s so fat”?

We expect to hear candidates taking the low road when talking about the opposing party. But these frenzied attacks within the Republican party are absolutely juvenile.

I find it hard to believe that clear-thinking members of the Republican party want a man like Trump as their nominee. And yet, many do. Maybe you’re one of them. And that’s your right. You can and should vote for the person you think is right for the job.

But be sure you know what that vote means. You see, when you vote for a candidate, you’re endorsing everything they say. Everything. Oh, sure. You may not agree with every comment, every position, every fiery insult. But when you plant a political sign in your yard or slap a sticker on the back of your car, you are saying that you are 100% behind that candidate… no matter what. Even if that candidate can’t bring himself to immediately and unequivocally reject the Ku Klux Klan. But that’s exactly the type of person who is leading the way for the Republican nomination.

How does the GOP expect to be seen as a party that welcomes people of all races and faiths, yet the head of the pack fumbles something so easy as disavowing the Klan? Maybe Trump’s not a bigot. Maybe he’s just willing to accept support from anyone no matter how despicable.

Republicans like to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan. I never voted for Reagan; I disagreed with many (but not all) of his policy stances. But I thought he was a good man, loyal to his party yet pragmatic enough to know that sometimes you have to give a little to get what you want. Ronald Reagan would never have stood for the shenanigans we’ve seen in this campaign. You never heard Reagan insult and ridicule his opponents on the debate stage. You never saw Reagan mocking others for their disabilities. And you absolutely did not see Ronald Reagan hesitate to condemn those individuals and groups who espouse bigotry and hatred.

In fact, when the KKK publicly endorsed him in 1984, he wasted no time in slapping them aside:

 

”Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse.

”The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.”

 

But that was over three decades in the past. Ronald Reagan probably couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican party.

In this election, support whoever you wish. Just remember that the sign in your yard, the bumper sticker on your truck, the name printed on your ballcap… tells people a lot about you as well. Choose carefully.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald March 3, 2016.)

 

My home sweet home

god-bless-america

I consider myself a lucky man. I was born in what I am convinced is the greatest country on earth… and I’ll bet you feel the same. In fact, no matter what differences we may have, I’m sure that’s one piece of common ground where we will mostly agree. I say mostly because, just like no two snowflakes are alike, no two people have exactly the same opinions on every single topic.

But that should not be surprising. We are humans, not machines, and each one of us is unique. Each of us is shaped by personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We have our own likes and dislikes, our own strengths and weaknesses.

Part of what makes each of us so different… and so special… are the influences of our surroundings. Where we were born, where we were raised, where we have lived, learned, worked… each of these places has given us opportunities to grow, to expand and enhance how we make decisions in life.

Each one of us is different, yet each one of us is uniquely American. So why are so many people trying to drive us apart?

In recent history, we’ve heard many politicians talk about “real Americans”, as if some of us are more worthy than others because of where we live. During the 2008 campaign, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in an appearance in North Carolina, referred to the “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America”. She later apologized for suggesting that certain places were more pro-America than others, but the message was delivered: Palin and others like her were clearly saying that some of us are less patriotic because of where we live.

Typically, it’s the small towns that tend to get the good vibes from such politicians, while our nation’s cities are pointed out as examples of what’s wrong. And that’s not entirely fair.

Sure, it’s easy to look in the urban areas of America and find fault. Every city from coast to coast has its less pleasant neighborhoods: rundown housing, abandoned businesses, areas you would rather avoid. But I challenge you to take a closer look in your own hometown. I’m sure you’ll find the same kind of decrepit homes, empty storefronts, and piles of garbage. It’s just that the cities have more people living closer together… more people per square mile than the rural areas… so we’re more likely to turn a blind eye to the problems close to home. Does the happenstance of such negatives in the cities make the people there less worthy of the label “American”?

Some folks say that the problems are found mostly along our East and West Coasts, and they’re partly correct. But the reason is because those areas are where you find the highest concentration of people. Naturally, you’d expect to have more concerns in areas of larger population. It’s just plain common sense. But is it fair to blame the cities?

Sen. Ted Cruz must think so. Recently, his campaign ran an attack ad against fellow Republican candidate Donald Trump. In it, Cruz points out the differences between himself and his rival by saying that Trump represents “New York values, not ours”. Clearly it had an impact, because Cruz credits that ad for helping him defeat Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

I have to chuckle at the irony: Ted Cruz was once the beneficiary of a Sarah Palin endorsement, but now that she’s a recent addition to Team Trump, she finds herself in public opposition to a man she once strongly supported. Oh, how quickly they turn on each other!

But what’s so bad about “New York values” anyway? Isn’t the Big Apple the same city that we all looked to with admiration through tears on 9/11? Didn’t we all feel the pain with the devastation of the terrorist attack? Didn’t we all feel the sense of pride and determination as the city not only recovered but has flourished in the years since? Don’t we all point to the rebirth of the area that once was the home of the World Trade Center towers and say, “This is what we Americans do: we bounce back, better than ever”?

But demonizing the biggest city in the nation is exactly what Cruz did, and it worked.

Isn’t it time we bring an end to this divisiveness? Shouldn’t we stand up to people like Palin and Cruz and tell them we’re sick and tired of being told that some of us aren’t as good as the rest?
We’re all Americans. We’re all, each and every one of us, part of the greatest country on the planet. We come together when one of us is attacked by a foreign enemy; we likewise should support each other when one of us is condemned by a mere politician.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald February 4, 2016.)

About my newspaper column…

As you may have noticed, some of my blog posts are tagged with a line that reads “Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald” and you may have wondered why those columns aren’t available right away on this site.

It’s common practice for a publisher to have first dibs on materials submitted to a newspaper and, as a courtesy, I delay posting those columns for a week.

If you appreciate seeing my column in the Morrisons Cove Herald (it appears on the first Thursday each month), please let them know by sending an email to publisher@mcheraldonline.com or drop a letter to:

Of course, you can also contact me directly via email: snotragdave@gmail.com

Bias in the media?



While some argue that media bias is a myth that is blown out of proportion, I’m here to confirm that it not only exists, but it’s widespread.


First things first, let’s set aside a few obvious examples. Fox News is clearly in the tank for the Republican Party, as are a majority of the most recognizable talk radio personalities. For the most part the opposite is true for MSNBC, with that channel’s assorted pundits primarily taking on a supportive role for the Democrats.


There, we’re not even one hundred words into this column and I’ve told you something that you already knew. But the truth behind the news media’s efforts at taking sides is simultaneously much more complicated and much more undeniable.


To shine a light on the subject, we must explore a few uncontested facts about the news business, at least how it relates to prioritizing how the news is presented to the average citizen.


In newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors are constantly striving to determine which stories will attract a larger audience. For newspapers and magazines, it’s the desire to sell more copies of the latest edition and, hopefully, increase the number of subscribers. For radio and television, the hope is to capture a larger immediate audience as a means of boosting ratings. In each case, the ultimate goal is to make the medium more attractive to advertisers by showing the size and loyalty of the consumer base of that medium. More readers, listeners, and viewers means more advertising revenue. Therefore, those compiling the news are often drawn to sensationalism in order to expand their audience.


So what works? There are two major categories of news stories that are guaranteed to instantly grab the attention of a large crowd: sex and violence. Just a few whispers of a sex scandal is a sure-fire way to encourage people to want to hear more. Same goes for an accident with injuries. Who among us doesn’t rubberneck at the scene of a crash? Sex and violence… two constants in the world of news.


But where does the bias fit in? And how does this apply to politics? Ah, here is where the consistency wavers.

At the beginning of this column I highlighted a handful of known examples of bias that essentially do not change. Put those aside and focus instead on the rest of the media world. In order to simplify this examination a bit, we’ll limit our study to television news coverage.


The bias is for what the reporters think is the most interesting story, one that is considered more likely to grab the attention of the average consumer. There are lots of examples in recent history. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 nomination over a crowd of better-known candidates. Carter as the incumbent losing four years later. The opportunity for a son to follow his father into the White House. In 2008, the election of an African-American man defeating an old white man was more unique than the other way around.


Am I saying that national reporters intentionally sway their coverage to favor one candidate over another? That’s not so easy to prove. But I am saying that those reporters at least subconsciously are driven to bring to their audience a viewpoint that would encourage voters to lean a certain way. But before you point fingers and try to lump selected reporters into one political camp or another, you should understand that political coverage changes like the tides. It’s all about the reporter’s perspective. What outcome makes for a more interesting story?


Mid-term elections are a great measurement of this. No matter who controls the White House, if the opposite party has a chance to take over Congress you can bet that the news media in general will excitedly cover that angle. Conflict between the two parties is the best way to generate major news stories, so the chance for the Republicans’ conquest of the Senate majority was a gift dropped into the laps of every major news organization. A Congress that gives a president everything he wants is not at all as exciting as having the two parties constantly clashing over even minor issues. It’s all about trying to cover stories that are going to boost the ratings.


Of course, there are times that a reporter or pundit has a vested interest in the outcome. Rush Limbaugh became hugely famous — and rich — during the Clinton presidency. His audience can expect to be more entertained when he rails against Democrats in power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Limbaugh actually voted for Obama.

So, yes, there is bias. But it’s neither liberal nor conservative, at least not in a way that conforms to a certain political ideology. It’s all about ratings… and money.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on December 4, 2014.)

So it begins…

Here there be monsters…

Finally, all of my musings are to be gathered in one forum. Here for your reading pleasure you shall find those thoughts that rise from deep within my personal cabinet of curiosities.

No subject is off-limits. I spent too many years holding back on my opinions… for the sake of my business, or because of some internal self-restraint gnome. That time is long gone.

I don’t believe in lashing out recklessly… and I don’t think that’s what you’ll find here. Instead, my opinions are based on facts and I’m not afraid to express my opposition to those who seek to distort reality.

Politics, religion, entertainment, science… whatever is on my mind will be exposed before your very eyes on these pages.

I hope you’ll enjoy what you read… and that you’ll share these posts with others.

As for the content, aside from any sourced quotes (and I will endeavor to provide permalinks where possible) the words here are my own. Unabridged and unfiltered.

Feel free to disagree, but come prepared.

“Oh boy, is this great!” – Flounder, Animal House (1978)