Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Planck's Constant Times Two

Both my first and my last name start with the same letter: H.

I like my initials. They have a symmetry and they look good together.

For several years I have signed my emails with my initials. For even longer, I have signed non-legal documents like this.

Recently I learned that white supremacists often use my initials, or the numerical equivalent of my initials as a short hand high-five. In chat rooms and text messages, these jackasses type one H and then another as an abbreviation of the Nazi salute to Hitler.

Let me just start off by saying that I hate Nazis and white supremacists. There is nothing more pathetic than white people complaining about the "raw deal" history has dealt their race.

If you think you are at a disadvantage because you are white, you are a stupid person.
You are actually at a disadvantage because of your stupidity. The color of your skin has nothing to do with how miserable a failure you have become. You have failed to achieve your goals because you suck at being a person.

Now, by calling white supremacists stupid miserable failures, I know that I have shut off any potential debate that might have led to a better understanding between myself and those who don't see these things the same way I do.


I do not want to share ideas with people who think the white race is superior to other races. I don't want to associate with people who believe Hitler had some good ideas.

When I hear the bile these idiots spew, I am reminded that some people cannot learn. There are people who are hopelessly stupid. There is no reason to even acknowledge their voices. We have to let them speak in a democracy, but we don't have to engage them.

Shut them out. Their ideas are not useful.

All that said, I do have to deal with something these hopelessly small-minded and insignificant people have shat out onto the internet. In some circles my initials are interpreted as a symbol of hate. I am not sure if I should react to that. Should I switch to HMH when signing emails? Should I just use Hogan? Should I ignore the connotation and stick with my old signature? I'd like to ask my readers what they think.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Messy Discourse

The aftermath of the Financial Crisis is finally beginning to take shape. The populist anger aimed at Wall Street and Washington has not not gone away. So with the SEC's lawsuit and the proposed Financial Reform Bill in the news, people are following stories that include terms like "collateralized debt obligation."

I am very interested in what it takes for a person to follow a debate when that debate involves unfamiliar subject matter. As a composition instructor, one of my goals is to teach students how to join a new and unfamiliar discussion. After all, most freshmen cannot tell you what professional community they plan to join when they finish college. So part of my job is to teach them how to evaluate the discussions of a community all by themselves - how to evaluate and then join those discussions.

The continued development of the debate about Wall Street and Washington has had my attention for a while. I've leaned heavily on two NPR outlets in order to stay informed. This American Life has done a bunch of shows on the subject, and they turned me on to the podcast, Planet Money - a bi-weekly show that explains economic issues in everyday language. I accept that NPR has a reputation for being left-of-center, but even the National Review has stepped in to praise the reporting coming from these shows. Anyway, they're the reason I don't click away when a news stroy mentions CDOs.

Now that CDOs are at the center of the Goldman Sachs lawsuit, however, it seems that a larger audience is going to have to come to grips with the term. That's no easy task. Jon Stewart had some fun on Monday showing pundits trying (and failing) to explain what Goldman is accused of. But all kidding aside, if the American public is going to try and follow this story, then the media has a hell of a job ahead. The story is bound to get political. The information involved is difficult to understand. The solutions are going to conflict with the interests of some powerful people. In other words, there is going to be a lot of mindless shouting and ranting. It's what they call a noisy channel in information theory.

The noise is already out there. In an effort to discredit the President, the Washington Examiner and bloggers have put together a lazy analogy comparing the Goldman suit to the Enron crisis.

Note to the Examiner: Trying to compare Goldman to Enron in order to score political points is not a good idea... unless your readers will believe a poorly constructed argument that omits relevant details.

The campaign donations from Goldman are there, true. But the SEC vote to sue Goldman was down party lines - 2 Dems voting to sue, 2 Republicans dissenting, & the Obama-appointed independent siding with the Dems.
The Examiner suggests that Goldman's connections/donations should get them preferential treatment, but it's fairly well-known that the practices at Goldman were happening elsewhere on Wall Street. Why is the SEC going after Goldman first? That does not strike me as preferential treatment.

Beyond that, the Enron analogy has other holes:
1) Enron's rise and its push for deregulation were both aided primarily by Republican administrations. Goldman's rise, by comparison, has utilized political connections from both sides of the aisle.

2) Back in 2001 - the year the Enron scandal took shape and unfolded - Enron representatives consulted with the Bush Administrations' Energy Task Force on multiple occasions at the White House. Compare that to the new scandal - Goldman (et al.) assembled the high-risk CDOs, mislabeled those investments, and sold them to unwitting investors somewhere between 2005 and 2007. The President, while not shrinking from the politically difficult task of cleaning up the mess today, didn't serve on any Senate committees that oversaw financial regulation, nor did he preside over any regulatory bodies while Goldman (et al.) assembled those high-risk CDOs.

3) Finally, the Examiner seems to have forgotten an important detail in its update that connects key people at Goldman to key people in the Obama administration. Hank Paulson was Bush 43's pick for Secretary of the Treasury AND a one-time partner at Goldman.

I am all for a vigorous investigation into what happened on Wall Street leading up to the Financial Crisis, but I don't want to see that investigation get mucked up by cheap shots out of the blogosphere or a free Daily with a narrative to sell.

I don't suppose I'll have much of a choice though. Here's to hoping.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Close Encounter of the Meme Kind

Misinformation is thick on the interwebs today.

This morning I was invited to a Facebook Group called "Proposed 28th Amendment to the U S Constitution."

I also got a viral email suggesting the 28th Amendment has already been ratified and that the Congress is in violation of the Amendment via health care reform.

The note on the email said, "something to remember in November."

At my own peril, I will ignore the Guy Fawkes reference, but I feel compelled to use my tiny blog in an effort to shut this meme down.

The Proposed 28th Amendment is a hoax/falsehood. There is no need for this proposed amendment. Civil servants and elected officials are citizens. They enjoy the same rights and have the same responsibilities as everyone else in the country.

Looking into this meme brought me to some of the web's crazy places.

The Facebook group's page refers to "Now the End Begins." They have a web page. They are a special kind of kooky. Here's their banner.

I want to believe this group is a hoax - a spoof of sorts, but I'm afraid someone assembled that banner without satire in mind.

These people are on the fringe, and their ranting should be considered harmless. But this 28th Amendment meme makes me a little jittery. The Facebook Group has +100,000 members. The email went viral. These ideas have gained an odd kind of traction. The arguments in each message are based on blatant falsehoods and crackpot ideologies. People should dismiss this stuff out of hand, but the messages have seeped into two of my inboxes somehow.

I hope people will realize how silly these ideas are and stop proliferating this kind of garbage.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Muddied Waters

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last week's post was far too long, but the issue of a functioning public discourse is important to me. My little rant was an attempt to illustrate two things I strongly believe:
1) Informed public discourse is crucial in a democracy, and...
2) The current output of the US media is doing little to help keep the public informed - if anything the large media outlets have muddied the waters.

Today point number 2 was made clearer. The image above actually made it depressingly clear.

I woke up this morning to learn about the leaked video out of Iraq. The screen shots here show that I should have learned about this last night when I checked the top US headlines before going to bed.

It was at about 10pm CET, and I remember reading about Tiger's return. That's embarrassing to admit, but it was the most eye-catching headline (this coming from a reader who closely follows news about the wars).

As a consumer of news, I would now like to know why Tiger was the top story last night. How is it that a sporting figure's return trumps the kind of military misconduct that costs innocent lives, fuels the anger of our enemies, and puts our troops at greater risk?

How can Americans have a real conversation about the wars we are engaged in if we are not informed of the implications those wars have?

We deserve a better media.

To Reuters' credit, they have been attempting to get access to this video for some time - two members of their staff were killed in the attack. Their efforts to expose this were very public, and I count them as part of the mainstream media. Nevertheless, the story has already disappeared from Google's top headlines.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Stay on Target. Stay on Target.

People do not argue about politics today. Instead, they pick sides and snipe at each other without ever engaging in a real argument. As a guy who teaches students how to write strong arguments, this is frustrating.

Last week, my friend Dan and I got into a discussion about this problem. We were taking a look at events surrounding an appended column by Paul Krugman. Bloggers were making a big fuss over a piece of Krugman's supporting evidence, but they were ignoring his actual point. This was extra frustrating because no matter how you interpreted the supporting evidence, Krugman's larger point remained valid.

One of my roles as a composition instructor is to help students read, interpret, and eventually write complex arguments. Instructors are charged with this task because universities believe that for any community to tackle big issues, the members of that community need to be capable of expressing and analyzing complex ideas.

It might be helpful here to look at an example a bit less complicated than US politics. There's a fun essay on about the great geek debate, Star Wars versus Star Trek. It illustrates how a strong discourse community functions. Participants are informed and enthusiastic. Opinions are respected, but they are not the end of the debate. Members of each camp do not hold a homogenized view (Who is cooler, Han or Lando? Kirk or Picard?) And most importantly, good arguments do the following: organize evidence into larger points that support one side or the other. Participants in the Great Geek Debate do all these things.

Sadly, when we tackle issues of arguably larger significance, there is a lot more interference. Political debates are all too often a hotbed of cheap rhetorical tricks that keep people away from the real issues.

Yesterday Dan sent another example of this. Krugman is involved once again. A blog targets one item within a Krugman column, contests the truth of the item, and presents the item as though it represents the entire argument.

1) Krugman objects to violence-themed rhetoric from the mainstream right, including a Sarah Palin Facebook post. He states that the mainstream left does not do such things.
2) People on both the left and right reacted to Palin's post (btw, whoever does her PR is an ace).
3) The blogger found examples of diagrams used by the mainstream left that are similar to the diagram Palin used.
4) Hah ha! The left uses similar rhetoric!
5) But there are differences between the diagrams.
6) Wait, what were we talking about?

This is what gets me. The Palin Facebook post is one piece of supporting evidence Krugman used to make a larger point. Pundits (on the left and right) have jumped on this one item, only to ignore Krugman's larger point.

It's gotten to where no one can assert a complex argument. And let's face it, Krugman's argument was not terribly complex. Here it is: An image of Nancy Pelosi in flames, stating that Pelosi is on "the firing line," or putting cross hairs on congresspeople are all examples of violent rhetoric characteristic of the current mainstream right.

Is that true? Well, no one cares, because now we are having a semantic battle over Palin's Facebook page.

And speaking of semantic battles, the blog post even acknowledges its own flimsy logic: the image of a target is different than cross hairs. That seems like splitting hairs, but there's actually good reason to split that hair. Allow me to put on my language geek hat.

To target something is not necessarily a militant expression. Corporations target certain markets. Teachers target certain students. Media outlets target certain demographics. Are these militant expressions? Well, I say no, but... Damn it!

You see what happened there? I got sucked into that stupid argument. I found myself wanting to explore the difference between the image of a target and the image of cross hairs. I even went off to the OED and read all the definitions of 'target' just now. Can you believe that?

Without even noticing, I am no longer focused on Krugman's analysis of the public discourse. Arrgh.

I want to find effective ways to keep my students from following these kinds of tangential arguments, but I have to acknowledge, once you get into debate mode it's hard to distinguish between the issues. To stay focused, one needs to take time for reflection. That is what makes the act of composition all the more important today. Reflection is an essential part of the composition process, and as channels of communication continue to speed up, writers and thought leaders need to emphasize that portion of the process more than ever.