Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Liars Are Among Us: Be Forewarned and Forearmed

Yes, liars are among us and always have been. I'm old enough to remember that the publishing world, at least, used its editorial board to sort out the liars--not all liars, mind you. A book or magazine article by an artful liar can actually be a pleasure to read. Editors did try to sort out the sneaky liars, though, the ones who told lies in all their various forms for personal gain, at the disservice to others, the readers included. Anybody can publish on the internet, though, with no "gatekeepers" watching for lies. We need to be forewarned and forearmed.

Examples?
  • Politifact is a non-profit, fact-checking organization. I researched two presidents: Barak Obama and Donald Trump, and here are the results. Obama: 613 fact checks. 19% True (124 checks); 26% Mostly True (167 checks); 25% Half True (164 checks); 11% Mostly False (73 checks); 11% False (75 checks); 1% Pants on Fire (10 checks). Trump: 764 fact checks. 4% True (34 checks); 10% Mostly True (79 checks); 14% Half True (113 checks); 20% Mostly False (161 checks); 34% False (266 checks); 14% Pants on Fire (111 checks).
  • Allsides is a news website dedicated to providing a spectrum (left/center/right) of news articles for current topics. The site's logo states: "Don't be fooled by media bias and fake news. Unbiased news does not exist; we provide balanced news and civil discourse." I think their mission statement is a little over the top, but having a site that seeks to present three viewpoints of any current news topic is a healthy practice. Reading the articles from left/center/right about Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a witness at President Trump's impeachment, who was then later "escorted" from the White House, is one example of how news stories can have different perspectives. 
  • Media Bias/Fact Check is a source for finding non-biased media sources, or for at least determining the status of a news source. It assigns bias from "least-biased" through the left and right ranges and also includes sources classified as "Conspiracy/Pseudoscience." The Des Moines Register, for instance, is gauged to be "least-biased."
  • Searching "fact checking" online results in quite a new resources for determining whether a statement is accurate or not. Online sources beyond those above are also provides, such as the Poynter Institute and Snopes. We can find out the general leanings of any publication source and whether or not specific statements are accurate--if we make it a goal to be a discerning reader. 
Bias, according to the fact-checking entities, is delivered not just be inaccuracies (or fake facts) but often by using vocabulary that has emotional or judgmental overtones. For instance, in the Vindman articles, the words "vengeance" and "appears to be" are used in the left- and right-leaning articles to describe actions and the words of the main players in the story. The center-biased story (written for NPR) reported the actions and quoted the main players, but left the interpretation up to the reader.

Yes, what we read and hear about news events often comes with an agenda. We are forewarned.

I think it ironic that our biggest danger as readers is disinformation on subjects that we agree with the bias. We may agree with the concept or sentiment, and then even though the facts are wrong, we buy in. Having "bought in" with the inaccurate article, our world view is skewed. We become "radicalized," to use a current term. In our innocence, we blindly accept that which we want to believe, even the mis-information. We feel suffocated by too much government and don't have the habit of mind of questioning and discriminating between the validity of sources, then of course the articles about how the moon walks by NASA were faked seem a plausible theory.

It's a wonderful feeling to have someone stand up and loudly proclaim the same emotion we are feeling, even if the facts are wrong and the emotions are suspect. At the very least, as readers and listeners, we should ask ourselves these questions: How reliable is this source? Is this article an opinion piece or a news story? How many "loaded words" am I hearing? And we should especially be asking ourselves whether the emotions some outside source is stirring are our best emotions or our worst. We need to be informed citizens, not unthinking shouters in a mob.

Independent thinking and questioning what we read and hear should be taught in schools. We should gain the habit of checking the source of what we read and hear. And mostly we should be careful to not believe something that we read or hear just because it happens to evoke a warm, fuzzy feeling regarding our view of the world. We need to be more discriminating in our evaluation of the information coming our way. There be liars among us. 

Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds led to chaos because listeners believed Earth was being invaded by aliens. Much of that hysteria was the result, it is felt, of subconscious fears arising from the war in Europe, the feeling by many views that the United States was slowly being pulled into another world war. We need to be more discerning in our acceptance of what we read and hear. We need to question our own emotions and beliefs when the world stirs us up inside. Perhaps we will learn and grow. Perhaps we will not be deceived by those who seek to con us, to take advantage of our gullibility. We need to not assume that just because the tail is wagging that the dog will not bite. Cynicism? No. Healthy skepticism or balanced, independent thinking? Yes.

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Thursday, February 6, 2020

2020 Iowa Caucus: First-time Impressions

Media impressions of the 2020 Iowa Caucuses has not been positive, especially with the flawed app for reporting results. This was my first time (even at sixty-eight years of age) to an Iowa Caucus, and prior to the event I was both encouraged and cautioned regarding the process. I am reporting that my experience was positive, unifying, and--how can I phrase this?--a glance back in time.

Arriving at the caucus site at my town's local convention center in SE Iowa, 451 Democrats showed up to represent my ward. I had arrived thirty-five minutes early, had signed in to confirm that I was a registered Democrat, and then received a number that I stuck to my shirt to verify my registration. I wandered around the center "unaligned" area, chatted with a few friends, a former student, and then sat down in my group with some friends.

There were some formal organizational procedures--the temporary ward leader-designate read a statement from the state organization, explained the early organizational steps, and then we moved forward: electing a presiding officer for the caucus, a couple of other officers, and then listening again to the protocols.

Heading to the first counting of supporters for candidates during a thirty-minute time period (there were three counts), the various captains brought the totals up to the presiding officer, the mathematician counted to determine if the various groups added up to 451, and when that number was verified, we all realized only two candidates (Sanders and Warren) were "viable" in that they had received at least sixty-eight endorsements, fifteen percent of the 451 total. Supporters for those two groups filled out first-run pledge cards. Then there was a time segment allowing the other non-viable candidate groups to see if they wanted to combine. I was in a viable groups and just watched that for a while, but the process didn't seem to be going much of anywhere. I couldn't participate in the second accounting because my candidate was already viable and I couldn't switch.

I left early, not feeling ready to participate in choosing delegates for the state meeting or for hammering out our platform requests. It was my first caucus, and I thought I'd leave while I was ahead.

Listening to NPR Iowa radio on the way home, it was announced that at five A.M. the next morning, the results would be announced. I happened to wake up at five and turned on the radio, where I learned that the new app for submitting results had failed and that there was a lot of mean-mouthing by media about Iowa and the Iowa Democratic Party. I listened for a while, then shut off the radio.

Later in the day, I turned the car radio back on and heard NPR Iowa hosting a call-in segment, which included folks speaking of their positive and negative experiences on Tuesday night. There was also some analysis of why some folks think Iowa shouldn't be the first primary in the nation, chief among the ideas presented that Iowa demographics don't represent those of the nation. I get the point, but then I wonder what state will represent the entire nation--our four corners and middle, our races, ethnicities, age and gender, rural and urban, and wealth or lack of it. As an Iowan, though, I acknowledge the point and am certainly willing to listen and learn.

My experience at the caucus was good. Let me iterate the reasons.
  • The procedures and protocols were clearly explained, and the process went smoothly. While in the room, I scanned the make-up of the group and feel the leaders and participants were truly representative of our nation--age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
  • People were polite, respectful, attentive, and willing to discuss without sledgehammering others with their opinions. I thought folks showed up willing to share, listen, and respect. 
  • Because of the inclusive vibe of the evening, I enjoyed the process of chatting with friends and candidate advocates early in the evening. It was different talking to neighbors and community members rather than just reading articles, web posts, and listening to media talking heads. It was nurturing, coming together as a community, agreeing on the democratic idea of working together to choose a candidate, and that although we maybe didn't agree on who was the best candidate or perhaps weren't happy with the evening's results, I thought there was still a unity of democratic purpose. 
I had voted in primaries before when living on the West Coast, but I can see how the caucus process fits with the history and geography of Iowa. Iowa has many small communities, pretty much evenly distributed across the state. Back in time, let's say a hundred years ago, one can imagine farmers coming to local caucus centers, say the local grange hall, where they would share what they had read and heard, where more knowledgeable individuals could speak about the candidates. The level of rural isolation would encourage more sharing and discussion in the community.

I arrived for the caucus with my list or candidate priorities, but my choices certainly weren't carved in stone, in part because I felt the candidates all had good strengths. Therefore, I enjoyed the early general discussion and the further in-group discussions. In many ways, the caucus process for me was both a political and social affirmation. It wasn't a perfect experience; the after-glow certainly didn't last long. Iowans humbly and responsibly have worked through the experience, even though the glitch has ticked off the media--have to meet those broadcast timelines, you know!

Once I stepped away from my technology, all that babble just went away. Iowa made its choices, worked through its glitches, and now its everybody else's turn. My attention now is turning to patiently waiting for spring, my garden, and a little silence and sunshine.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Messiah Has Come, So Whaddya Think?--A Review of the Netflix Series

Sometimes it's not what we know that's a big deal but rather what we don't know.

In Netflix's Season 1 of Messiah, that is certainly the case. Individuals, the media, organizations, religions, and nations are gathering information and trying to figure out who the heck this guy is. Here is the IMDb's description of the streaming series.
"When a CIA officer investigates a man attracting international attention and followers through acts of public disruption, she embarks on a global, high-stakes mission to uncover whether he is a divine entity or a deceptive con artist."
The writers of the series do a good job of providing information about this mystery man, known as Al-Masih, in such an even-handed manner that just as soon as the viewer begins to arrive at a conclusion, the scales balance again. In the series, individuals and leaders of the main religions in the Middle East have opinions about this man. This review is not going to discuss the religious connotations of a second coming. Messiah is, after all, just a TV show. So how good of a show is it?

I'm going to include two references to the TV series, not really spoilers but more information to provide perspective. At one point, Al-Masih states, "I walk with all men," generalizing his spiritual path and refusing to be identified with any one religion. In a later episode, he challenges those listening to him to realize that he is not the important focal point--that each of them should be considering who they are rather than focusing on who he is.

This is really the point of interest of the series for me. The writers focus on those characters who, for various reasons and with different motivations, have been pulled into Al-Masih's orbit of influence. Al-Masih remains the constant in the series, even when we gain new information about him and his past. His behavior and message remain constant. However, the characters around him are pushed and pulled from within and without, and that creates significant tension in the story. A few come to believe; all come to question.

Those "acts of public disruption" are significant to the storyline. Social evolution implies change, and when change arrives, then the possibility of growth occurs. The powers that be and individual characters in the series (and the TV viewership) are forced to wonder if this process of introducing disruption to the social norm will produce positive or negative long-term changes. Is Al-Masih a social anarchist or a spiritual master?

Even though this TV show is not the story of Jesus, there are subtle parallels to the life of Jesus: the attraction of followers and then attention of the existing governments and religions. Crowds listening to Al-Masih's preaching . . . and the disruption his message and their need to believe cause. Is the United States the new Rome in the series? Is there a Mary Magdalene, a Judas Iscariot? How will the characters of Season 1 change in the second season?

The secret of enjoying this show, I think, has its metaphor in chemistry. Don't pay attention to the catalyst. Pay attention to the solution into which the catalyst has been introduced. As both Jesus and Al-Masih--and many other seers and prophets--have said, it's not about the messenger. It's about the people who hear the message. Netflix describes this show as a "fictional story not based on true events." Perhaps they should have used the word "factual" instead of the word "true."

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

125 New York Library Years--and the Books Checked Out the Most

Children in the Bronx visit a New York Public Library bookmobile in the 1950s.
The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The library system has 92 locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. As part of its celebration, it recently announced the top 10 all-time books with the highest circulation. The story about which books have been checked out most is not as straightforward as it might seem.

First of all, most of the top ten are children's books because they are shorter and are checked out more frequently (and finished more quickly). The number one book checked out in the library's history is The Snowy Day, a children's book written by Ezra Jack Keats. A 1963 Caldecott Award recipient, it has been checked out 485,583 times. A Wall Street Journal article mentions that the book has remarkable diversity, having a main character that is black and a longevity that has spanned generations.

As an aside, Margaret Wise Brown's children's book Goodnight Moon was not on the list. Here's why, according to a National Public Radio story.
"The library also awarded an 'honorable mention' to Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. That book might have been a contender for the all-time top spot, but NYPL children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore so disliked the 1947 book that the library didn't carry it until 1972. That late entry kept the book off the top 10 list — for now."
 Two dystopian novels are on the list, Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The only non-fiction book on the list was Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

First edition cover
One of the greatest novels I've ever read is on the list: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. There aren't many recent works on the list because time in circulation is a significant factor. However, R.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made number 9 on the list.

It would be interesting to find out more history about the NYPL's books and this list. For instance, was Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ever banned by the library, and for how long? This is a novel that has alway been controversial, one that I taught as a classroom teacher, and even wrote an essay about: "Is Huck Finn an Archetypal Hero?" I think it would also be interesting for the library to issue a list of the top 10 novels, if possible.

The Snowy Day was the first picture book with an African American protagonist to win a major children’s award.
[Martin, Michelle H. (2004). Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children's Picture Books, 1845-2002.]

Here is the list of the top 10 books checked out in the history of the New York Public Library.
  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: 485,583 checkouts
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss: 469,650 checkouts
  3. 1984 by George Orwell: 441,770 checkouts
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 436,016 checkouts
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 422,912 checkouts
  6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White: 337,948 checkouts
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 316,404 checkouts
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: 284,524 checkouts
  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: 231,022 checkouts
  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle: 189,550 checkouts
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Saturday, January 11, 2020

"A Discovery of Witches," "Shadow of Night," and "The Book of Life": A Review of Deborah Harkness's Trilogy

Goodreads, Discovery of Witches
What if our world were composed not just of ordinary humans but also vampires, witches, and daemons? And what if these additions to the human world were developed not as fantastic creatures but as other alternatives to evolution, such as the neanderthals, but with still paranormal abilities?

Deborah Harkness entered into the gothic realm of the supernatural novel about six years after young adult author Stephenie Meyer splashed into our awareness with her novel Twilight. It would not be inappropriate to mention similarities: handsome vampire, Romeo/Juliet romance, and if not sparkle, then at least a bit of glimmer. However, Harkness plants her feet more firmly in science and the adult world. The female protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a scholar albeit a witch who has renounced her abilities. Vampire Matthew Clairmont is a doctor and researcher who is pulled into the world of "creature" politics by Bishop's inadvertent discovery of a historically potent book of spells and knowledge, the Book of Life, also catalogued in an Oxford antiquities library as Ashmole 782.

Author Deborah Harkness is a scholar and professor of history, and even though her trilogy surfs the vampire fad of the early 2000s, she adds historical credibility and detail to the romance and bloody bosom-bearing passages. I checked the trilogy out of my local public library, and at about 1,600 pages of reading, I have to honestly say that if the narrative did not drag, it did at times bog down in excessive minutiae of plot, perhaps a scholar's fascination for reconstructing history? The overall arc of the plot, though, which is both globe-spanning and time-spanning, does introduce a fascinating variety of settings and characters. Sir Walter Raleigh, anyone?

One powerful tool Harkness uses in her trilogy is science. The vampires and the witch tradition have existed long enough in the series to allow for a lively interaction between the advancement of scientific knowledge and the hidden existence of the magical "creatures." How do they exist, and why? What is their place in the world in relation to plain old humanity? The interplay between ancient lore and modern science promotes quite a bit of the novel's drive.

Another strength of the trilogy--and I have to say that I admire Harkness for this skill--is the author's ability to create and develop a wide range of interesting and unique minor characters. Sometimes the main characters become foils to highlight the fascinating personalities of the minor characters. Some of these characters are historical and some are creations of the author. I found them all enjoyable and couldn't get enough of them, especially since these minor characters not only became themselves on the page but also came to define through example the characteristics of vampire, daemon, witch, and human. And, yes, some of the most dynamic minor characters were human.

Finally, this series would be just another foray into the twilight without the underlying thread of discrimination, persecution, and intolerance that laces the story together. Humanity is a study of these cruelties, and the novels intelligently weave man's inhumanities along with devoted love and objective science to create a perspective, I think, that transcends the genre. Deborah Harkness has added another novel to the trilogy--Time's Convert, which continues the saga, continuing to utilize the organizational structure of combining present action with the characters' past actions. I plan to give the series a bit of a rest, and then I'll pick up the fourth book and give it a go.

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