Journalism is destroying itself.

Christine Stuart of ctnewsjunkie.com has focused my attention onto a key problem of what passes for journalism now. A study published by the American Press Institute finds that Americans don’t support what it calls core values of journalism:

  • Oversight
  • Transparency
  • Factualism
  • Giving voice to the less powerful
  • Social criticism

This misguided list goes along way to explaining what’s wrong with journalism and why it is destroying Americans’ trust in it. Specifically, who said these values are what journalism is about?

Journalism is essential

Ironically, the American Press Institute website itself clearly says what journalism should be: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. So, to the extent the first three values fall within the truth umbrella, they’re okay, but the last two are not a justification of contemporary journalism but a confession of bias.

Let’s start with the truth and why journalism is important.

Truth is hard. Politicians lie, press representatives spin, bureaucracies cover up. The reproducibility crisis in science dates back to at least 2005. The average citizen does not have the training or time to dig through claims to sort out fact from spin from wishful thinking from outright lying. We need journalists to view claims skeptically, to interview multiple sources (especially those who disagree with promotors of a viewpoint), review public records, and fight for access to those records (Freedom of Information). Our society and democracy depend on vibrant journalism.

Journalism is losing its way

If journalists think their mission is to Give voice to the less powerful or social criticism they have ceased being journalists and become advocates. There is nothing wrong with advocacy, but being an advocate while pretending to be a journalist is counterproductive: it’s inevitably transparent to the conscientious reader and, rather than convincing anyone of the righteous of the cause will simply cause the reader to discount anything the journalist writes.

I currently subscribe to Journal Inquirer, Washington Post and Wall Street, have access to NY Times via a library, and read ctnewsjunkie.com. It’s highly informative to read stories about the same topic or event from multiple sources. Such an exercise makes clear how a journalist can write entirely true things while slanting a story one way or the other. While partisan readers may wholly buy one version or the other, in 2021 we can easily find other viewpoints. As Connecticut Senator Blumenthal foolishly proclaimed [1]because he lied about “serving in Vietnam,” a point critics were quick to remind him after he rolled the quote out. in 2018, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything). Failure of a journalist or publication to scrupulously neutral in their reporting will simply cause us readers to just not believe what they write.

Spare us the melodrama

One of the modern conceits of journalism is Good stories have strong central characters.

Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.

Charles Dickens

No. Stories with “strong central characters” simply reek of spin. Substituting “human interest” for facts. There are seven and half billion people in the world, three hundred million in the USA, and three and half million in Connecticut. Trotting out one to five poignant stories isn’t going to convince me of anything. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good story as much as anyone, but that is what fiction is for. When I’m reading news, I would like facts, thank you very much, and the longer you go on about some persons misfortune the likelier is I’m just going to stop reading and move on.

We’re not stupid

Another conceit is that Good stories provide context.

No. Good stories provide facts. Using the example in the link above, I don’t need you to tell me What is Medicare. I’m old and haven’t been living under a rock my whole life. Even I don’t know what Medicare is, it’s 2021. I can find out if I want to: Wikipedia, Medicare (United States).

“Explaining” what Medicare is probably going to come across as condescending, overly simplified, and possibly biased. Tell me what I don’t know, not what you think I need to know as background.

References

References
1 because he lied about “serving in Vietnam,” a point critics were quick to remind him after he rolled the quote out.

Mask confusion

I’m seeing a lot of posts on social media showing confusion about the wearing of masks in public.

Here’s the short version: Wear a mask in public if you can, not because it protects you, but because you’re not a a-hole.

Why?

Public health experts believe wearing a mask will help limit the spread of the virus by reducing transmission from presymptomatic and asymptomatic individuals with SARS-CoV-2.

What the left gets wrong

Unfortunately, there are too many on the left who not only are willing to do the right thing (good), but need to act with moral superiority to others. They post memes like:
If you hate wearing a face mask you're really not going to like the ventilator

and
protesters and woman in scrubs with 'See you soon' sign.

implying that folks who don’t wear masks or follow other mandates are risking their own life. People under 60 or so with no health conditions don’t get severe COVID-cases.
By promoting a false narrative, well meaning individuals are actually sowing confusion, not compliance.

What the right gets wrong

The are too many people on the right saying mask wearing doesn’t work.

They point out that initially health authorities did not recommend masks, and studies show mask wearing doesn’t protect the wearer against contracting COVID-19.

The second point is easiest: No informed individual thinks it does. Since the recommendation to wear them came out, CDC has been consistent in its message. A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.

As to the changing recommendation, isn’t it reasonable to change your mind as you get new information? Yesterday’s weather forecast said little chance of rain today. This morning I see dark clouds, I will go back inside and grab my umbrella.

When the pandemic started, scientists didn’t know much about it, and much of the information came from a totalitarian government. Recommendations were based on what was known about similar viruses. As knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 increases, guidance changes.

Citizens guide to COVID masks

If in public spaces near other people, wear a mask if you can. Keep it clean so it doesn’t make you sick. If you see someone without a mask, be a decent human being and assume they have a health condition that contraindicates mask wearing. If you are concerned because you are high risk, just don’t go there.

Do something useful

George Floyd is dead. Freddie Gray is dead. Tony Timpa is dead. The list goes on.

Because Floyd’s slow death by four police officers was caught contemporaneously on video, we are properly outraged. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Stupid stuff

  • Let’s black out social media pages.
  • Let’s post statements of solidarity.
  • Let’s tell black folks we feel their pain.
  • Let’s tell white folks they’re racist because they were born white.
  • Let’s argue over which slogan is the most apropos. (BLM? ALM?)
  • Point out other causes of death (black on black crime, et. al.)

Whatever.

The crux of the matter.

It’s not a competition for who is most oppressed. Citizens are dying at the hands of the people we empower and pay. For years we could live in ignorance. For years many of us unconditionally believed the “got injured resisting arrest” coverups. (Of course police will have to use force in some situations and people will get hurt. Not what we are talking about.) The age of video everywhere has brought an end to the illusion.

The abuses and coverups happen because we do not hold individual officers accountable for their misconduct.

  • Qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible to legally hold officers responsible for what common sense should tell us is immoral behavior. The Supremes had already started looking at it before the Floyd homicide. It is based on law, not the constitution. Congress needs to act. You need to tell them to. Contact your federal and state representatives today.
  • Police unions make it nearly impossible for good police chiefs to fix the problems. Again, contact legislatures to demand changes in union contracts. Better discipline and more transparency. (No, this is not an anti-union screed. If police officers want to negotiate overtime pay and the like, there is nothing wrong with that. But discipline and firing of bad apples should not part of contracts.)

Do those two things and maybe you have done something actually useful.

Stay on target

The Freedom riders movement was successful in part because Americans of all races joined together to fight oppression. If you think the death of George Floyd was wrong and we as a nation need to take steps to fix it, don’t fret whether a potential ally has a different emphasis than you. It is counter-productive: the most likely outcome of splintering into groups based on political philosophy or political party is nothing meaningful will change.

If you’re white and feel your accident of birth imposes extra responsibility on you, that’s fine. If you reject the notion that you are inherently a racist because you were born white, that’s fine too. Police caused deaths have occurred with black Democratic presidents and white Republican ones. They have happened with police chiefs of all races by officers of all races.

Many will attempt to hijack our outrage for monetary or political purposes. Our politics of the moment should focus on demanding legal changes to the system. The other issues can wait for another day.

Down the rabbit hole

If you want to pursue the cause and effect of our police and community becoming estranged with each other, consider the deleterious effects of the following:

  • Politicians are fond of raising money using selective back door taxes. Red-light cameras. Revenue from citations. Asset forfeiture. Sin taxes. Eric Garner was choked to death for selling black market cigarettes. Had the politicians and anti-smoking zealots not imposed ruinous taxes on legal cigarettes, Garner would not have been there in the first place. (Smoking might kill over years, choke holds kill now.) Demand that government be funded with direct taxes.
  • You don’t call an electrician to fix a water leak. Using police to fight the medical condition of addiction is using the wrong tool for the job, and makes people who are ill criminals. End the war on drugs. Smoking has gone way down since I was a kid without criminalizing it. Education, education, education.

If you pursue this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you’ll end up being a libertarian, of course. (Except for their naive on foreign policy.) Maybe that’s too far for you to go. That’s fine. Just start with contacting your legislators about unqualified immunity and police unions.

There they go again

So President Trump had a rambling press conference where he said:

A question that probably some of you are thinking of if you’ll totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, uh, whether’s it ultraviolet or just very powerful light. And, I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it? And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do, either through the skin, or, ah,  in some other way. And I think you said, you’re going to test that, too? Sounds interesting. (unintelligible response). And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that? Uh, by injection inside, or, or almost a cleaning, because you see it get in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that. You’re going to have to use medical doctors. But it sounds, it sounds interesting to me. So we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light the way it kills it in one minute, that’s pretty powerful

The immediate reaction was to spin this as ‘Trump is stupid!’ ‘Trump said to ingest Lysol!’

No. Listen again. Don’t believe the transcripts published elsewhere because they have failed to properly convey the words, turning questions into statements.

In a nutshell, Trump said:

  • There are some interesting areas of research.
  • They’re going to test them out.
  • They’re going to use medical doctors.

Yes. President Trump is advocating scientific testing of ideas by medical doctors. Clearly he is unfit to be president.

Incidentally, the idea of ingesting poisonous substances to treat a medical condition is just crazy, right? Oh, no, wait’s that’s actually chemotherapy.

The idea of using ultraviolet to treat infections inside the body? So crazy the Obama administration granted a patent on it:

https://patents.justia.com/patent/20160114185Publication number: 20160114185
Abstract: A device and method is proposed to enable the treatment of interior of bodily hollow organs and other interior cavities of a body for a number of harmful virus, fungal, and bacterial entities and autoimmune conditions by internal short wavelength ultraviolet light by use of specially equipped endoscope-like devices.

Lacy Gallaway Mankin

So, please, spare me your outrage, your out of context memes, your spin. Yea, you don’t like Trump. You’ll get lots of yuks and likes from you fellow Trump dislikers and you can mutually reinforce the idea that Trump supporters are stupid.

The problem is we can all watch the video ourselves and form our our own conclusions.

I think what my liberal friends simply don’t get is:

the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

Salena Zito

A final thought. It must be tiring getting outraged at Trump on a regular basis. Maybe take a vacation? Election is months away, we know it’s going to be Trump vs. Biden, and we know the election will be shaped by the state of the pandemic months from now, but we don’t know what that will be.

Coronavirus

Given the shortage of toilet paper and stupid opinions, I thought I’d add mine. (Opinion, you’re on your own for toilet paper.)

Science is hard

The first thought is: Science is hard. While I’m not a research scientist, some of my best co-workers are. I’ve attended presentations on the culmination of five years of work by really bright, hardworking people, where discovering a tiny fact about a tiny part of cell is a major accomplishment.

One of the many stupid opinions I’ve seen was saying Sunlight was used to treat the 1918 influenza epidemic. 1918? In 1918, we didn’t even known what caused it, Crick & Watson’s DNA paper not having been published until 1953. There were no HEPA filters until WW II. And so on. A coronavirus is about 0.00005 inches big. That microscope you used in high school?

Remember this?

Ain’t gonna see no coronavirus with that. Too small. Requires a scanning electron microscope. So that we know what it is, that we’re developing tests and treatments for novel coronavirus just months after discovery, is amazing.

Nonetheless, the truth is … there’s a lot we just don’t know. Community transmission is science-speak for “Heck if we know.” Because of asymptomatic transmission, we really don’t know how widespread the virus is. So take any analysis by self-proclaimed math experts with a grain of salt.

Best pieces

The two best pieces I’ve read thus far on coronavirus are from The Atlantic:
Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful: no one cared much about coronaviruses before now.
Anthony Fauci’s Plan to Stay Honest: “If you have an overwhelming pandemic, there’s almost no degree of preparedness that can prevent all the suffering and death.”

Politicians

I’d like to say I’m disappointed by politicians using the crises as a coat rack for … whatever. But today’s political world, at least the vocal part, is dominated by who see moats but not beams. I remain hopeful most folks realize we’re in this together (while staying apart) and do what they can to help minimize the death and suffering.

Stop with the memes and the advice

That cute graphic you’re sharing with vast oversimplification or bad math (let’s compare two geographical areas different populations, area, and/or political systems and pretend it’s meaningful!). Ain’t helpful. Best resources:
US: Center for Disease Control
World: World Health Organization

Prediction (certainty)

One thing I do know. When’s this is all over, the world will be full of critics and experts who will rant about how bad the response was. Books will be written, documentaries will be made. Two possibilities:
It turns to be really bad: It was obvious! They should have ordered full lockdown as soon as the news from Wuhan starting coming out.
Mitigation/science works: They totally overreacted and destroyed the world economy! The threat was overblown.

Microscope photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Stupid “math” tricks

I was a high school math teacher. A former student asked me my opinion on a social media post asking what

8 ÷ 2 (1 + 3)

is, with the common answers being 16 and 1.

I’m sort of a “math person.” Not Phd math solving a Clay Institute math prize get a million dollars math person, but I can do reasonably well through differential equations and teach physics for part of my living. I also write computer code for a majority of a living. So my answer to what that is: It’s a context free meaningless computation, written poorly.

It begs the questions — why are you adding one and three? What do they model? Are there any units on those values?

What’s Math

If we have the concept of counting, and values of one, three, and four, along with the concept of addition, then one plus three equals four, regardless of whether we use words or 1 + 3 = 4 or uno más tres es igual a cuatro.1 That’s math, it’s always going to be true. That’s the way the universe was made.

1. The equation in Spanish, according to google translate.

What’s not Math

Writing the calculation with the plus sign between the numbers is a convention called infix, and it’s what normal people expect.

Infix isn’t the only choice — the postfix expression of that equation would be:

8, 2, 1, 3, +, *, ÷

which means put the four numbers in a pile (a “stack”). Then replace the last two with their sum, making the stack 8,2,4. Next multiply the last two, yielding 8, 8, then do the division to get 1. Calculators that work that way are called Reverse Polish notation (RPN) and I still own (and use) the HP-11C I bought in 1979 or 80.

HP 11C, shinier than mine

So, back to the original question — because of the ambiguity of infix, there’s a generally accepted convention for what to do first, called order of operations. For a programming language, it can run fifteen levels deep (computer nerd link). In the US, this often taught as “PEMDAS.” 2 But this is just a convention, followed sometimes: according Wikipedia, different calculators might calculate the expression differently.

2I hate PEMDAS, but that’s a separate blog entry.

Back to math

Adding some trim

I’m replacing some trim on a cabinet like so:

The wood is $8 / ft, but it’s twice the width I need, so I can cut it in half. Let’s write the equation:

Cost of trim

So now I have some units and, because my goal is to communicate clearly, even if just to myself, I’ve written the first division as a vertical fraction rather than the linear form. This makes it obvious we’re going to end with $16 of trim.

Friends for pizza

So you and your partner are going to invite 3 couples over for pizza. A pie has 8 slices. How many will each person get?

Pizza per person

So now I have some units/labels and, again, the layout of the equation makes the computation clear: each person gets 1 piece.

Math education and social media

Unfortunately, math is too often “taught” as a set of arbitrary rules to memorize than what it is: a cool and fun recognize of patterns in the universe. Addition: beauty. “PEMDAS:” bleh.

Then we get social media posts which really have nothing to do with math, and are just math abuse so some people can feel superior to others because they can memorize some rules better than others. What I hope the two examples above show is this: If you’re actually doing math — solving problems with a context — then the order of operations should just make sense. If you take the effort to write equations clearly, then the reader doesn’t have to rely on some memorized rules to understand what you mean.

Writing:

8 ÷ 2 (1 + 3)

then sneering if someone doesn’t come up 16 doesn’t make you “smart.” It makes you a jerk.

Common core math isn’t that stupid

People who think common core math is “stupid” are, in fact, …. misinformed.

For example, this guy:

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=591840841261387

makes fun of a teacher explaining in great detail a method of multiplying 35 x 12 by showing how much quicker it is to do longhand.

So what. It’s 2019. Use a calculator. Ask Siri or Alexa, or use your Google search bar to come up with 420.

The students of the “stupid” teacher are learning:

  • Notions of place value
  • Distributive property of multiplication
  • Algebra

Algebra? Where’s the algebra, you might wonder. Simple. A student who knows how to multiply 35 * 12 as (30 + 5) * (10 + 2) isn’t going going to have trouble multiplying (30 + x) * (10 + y). The “quick” student who is taught multiplication is a mechanical sequence of steps may, or may not, grok the algebra, depending on how much insight they’ve picked up along the way.

Of course students shouldn’t be taught to always do it the long way — just enough until they get the concept.

Trouble with the core

Is common core math perfect? No. It started well with good intentions — get smart math people to focus on which concepts (not techniques) are important to life long understanding of math, with the idea that if students learn them initially, it won’t require relearning later.

The difficulty is the concepts then went to textbook and curriculum companies, who too often boiled them down to a set of mechanical steps (“first draw a box”) that’s not much better than the pen and pencil method it’s replacing. Assessment is difficult — hard to see what’s in a kid’s brain — so evaluation becomes whether they do the unimportant stuff (drawing boxes) “correctly.” Naturally, students who get the idea will become frustrated when force to repeat it overmuch.

There’s also the human element. We expect our elementary teachers to be superhuman — to handle the difficult emotional management of all sorts of kids, deal with the nightmare of educational bureaucracy — because of course our common core math learning must be documented, and be subject matter experts on myriad subjects. It’s not a realistic expectation. I’m not trying to diss elementary school teachers here, just the system that dumps so many expectations on them.

Please don’t follow

On Facebook, sometimes you’ll see comments that say Follow or following, which allow the poster to be notified on new comments. There’s actually a built in way of doing this, which just takes two clicks.

Find the three dots to the right of the post, and then click Turn on notifications from this post.

This will allow you to be notified of changes and make it easier for allow of us to follow the flow of conversation.