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Apr. 30th, 2015

05:34 pm - On the "Left-Wing Media"

Yesterday I sent out a widespread e-mail blast about the introduction into the House of Representatives of a Constitutional amendment to roll back the effects of Citizens United. One of its recipients came back with a “yeah, but …” expressed thus:

The big money is being spent by both parties so why is the media so slanted left?

This red herring sent me right up the wall again, and this is what I shot back:

Take a look at the nature of the TV news coverage. Do you hear “This is what Hillary Clinton thinks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated in secret?” or “Here’s where Jeb Bush stands on the issue of the 16,000,000 illegal immigrants living in this country?”, let alone “And here’s what they said last year on the same subject” or “This differs from what these other 2 contenders from their own party are saying”? That is, anything that could help the average viewer become an informed citizen capable of casting an informed vote?

No! What you hear is “Who’s ahead in this poll or that survey” or “Look at this picture of a candidate ordering a taco” or “Maybe Joe Savior will jump into the race” — all trivial superficialities, no depth, no context, no substance, but each and every one designed to suck in short-attention-span eyeballs with “Real Housewives of New Jersey” scandal-sheet irrelevancies that, not at all incidentally, also help boost their ratings and the fees they can charge for advertising.

And don’t give me that crap about it being “left-wing media”. Not only are they all dumbing down the real news in pursuit of the holy dollar, whatever political biases they’re allowed to let glimmer thru the MTV-level cavalcade of trivia are being dictated from the top by their owners, who (you may notice) don’t comprise a lot of sandal-shod, tree-hugging Earth mothers wearing peace medallions. Instead, they all belong to the “Big 6” multi-national media conglomerates, the poorest of which is CBS Corp., with its measly $13 billion in annual revenue.

Powers behind a couple of these thrones are Rupert Murdoch at Fox and Sumner Redstone at CBS, also not exactly paragons of leftist politics.

TV is the worst, but newspapers are headed down that same road, due to the awful Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed by corporatist President Bill Clinton, husband of current corporatist front-runner Hillary Clinton), which essentially lifted the lid off the ability of huge conglomerates to monopolize all the media outlets — TV, radio, newspapers — in a given market. That squeezed out all the small, locally owned and operated, independent operators and homogenized not only the news but also the entertainment available to us over the public airwaves.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I put in 3 years working for The Spectator back at UW-Eau Claire and at one time even toyed with the idea of a career in journalism. I’m devastated to see the sorry state this once noble profession has been reduced to.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.
— John Kenneth Galbraith, American economist

Apr. 29th, 2015

02:24 pm - Big Thanks to Rep. Mark Pocan

A huge “thank you” goes out to Wisconsin’s 2nd CD Rep. Mark Pocan for being 1 of 6 co-sponsors of House Joint Resolution 48 — the “We the People” Amendment — which would amend the US Constitution to specify unequivocally that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and regulation of political spending is permitted under the law.

It’s been 5 years since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision — including Justice Anthony Kennedy’s incredibly fatuous, naive, and totally unevidenced claim that it would lead to neither corruption nor the appearance of corruption — opened the floodgates to massive infusions of cash into the political process, drowning out the voices of us common citizens with giant megaphones purchased by billionaires, corporations, unions, churches, and (for all we can tell in the absence of disclosure laws) foreign governments.

It’s well past time that we put a stop to it, and the only effective way to do that in the long term is to overrule the Supreme Court by reinserting sanity into the supreme law of the land.

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
—Big Brother

Corporations are people.
Money is speech.
Citizens United

Apr. 21st, 2015

01:07 pm - On High-Stakes Testing

Voice of the People contributor Eric Thompson asks how we can measure academic success without testing. As someone with a great respect for the scientific method, I have to agree that testing hypotheses against reality is the sine qua non of sorting out fact from fiction (or even fondness, in the case of things we wish were true).

But let's ask "in service of what end?". What are we testing, the kids’ learning or the schools’ teaching? Ideally it should be both, but it’s only the kids who pay the price if their test scores come back low. What do we do when that happens? Do we try to adjust our teaching to aim more squarely at their demonstrated level of preparedness and interest, or do we just slap a “slow learner” tag on them and ship them up the line, with lowered expectations, to the next grade?

The sad fact of the matter is that the primary determinant of what we teach our kids is not what they want to learn, or are ready to learn, or would be useful for them to learn, it’s their birthdays. If you were born in Year X, that makes you Y years old, and therefore we will place you in Grade Z and treat you exactly the same as everyone else born in Year X, because you’re all essentially identical little square pegs, and we’ve got a whole bunch of identically sized square holes you’ll exactly fit into. Good at English but bad at math? On to the next grade anyway; sorry about that math thing. Or maybe we’ll hold you back a year; sorry about that English thing. In an era where we have beaucoup computing power to customize our treatment of highly individual children, we’re still treating them all like mass-produced fenders working their way down a conveyor belt in an auto plant.

And why is it that we measure “success” based exclusively on a child's facility with math and English, simply because those are most readily reduced to simplistic true-false questions that are easily quantified into even more simplistic 3-digit test scores? How do we measure “success” in art, music, philosophy, critical thinking, history, honesty, community service, or other abstruse subjects we hope the schools are also inculcating in our young people? And even other things that we can measure — like gymnastics, punctuality, or driving a car — don’t count toward a student’s supposed 3-digit “worth”, yet aren’t they valuable as well?

The point that the opt-out folks are making, Mr. Thompson, isn’t that tests are worthless, it’s that they’re way too limited; way, way overvalued; and have way, way, way too much emphasis being placed on them (thus the phrase “high-stakes”, which is not a compliment) in lieu of trying to produce well-rounded, responsible adults.

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As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.

— bumper sticker

Apr. 4th, 2015

11:59 am - The Easter Challenge

Dan Barker, former child evangelist and now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a simple challenge for Christian believers: “What happened on that very first Easter morning?” To answer, they must use only the accounts found in the gospels of the New Testament, but they must use all of them — no cherry-picking — to compose a complete, coherent narrative.

You’d think that this would be a trivial task for anyone working off a book supposedly inspired by an omniscient, infallible deity, and that ardent Christians would be leaping at the opportunity.

To see why they’re not, I've prepared a 4-page columnar document which lays out the 4 gospel accounts of the “resurrection” side by side. It's too complex for me to render here on this website, but a PDF copy of it is available to you upon request to Richard S. Russell.

Apr. 1st, 2015

01:31 pm - How Bad Is Rick Scott's Florida?

I know that lots of my fellow Wisconsinites think we’ve got it bad with Gov. Scott Walker, but he’s arguably only the 4th or 5th worst governor in America. Topping the list of awfulness has to be Florida’s Rick Scott, who, prior to aspiring to elective office, was CEO of a major medical company when it was hit with the largest civil fine in US history for Medicare fraud. Unlike Richard Nixon, he provably was a crook.

Florida is, you will recall, the state that provided angry white men with a legal excuse to gun down young black men with its “stand your ground” law and which has fired state environmental-agency employees for daring to utter the words “climate change” in public.

And now it’s on the high-stakes-testing bandwagon promoted by publishers of high-stakes tests (duh); proprietors of for-profit “academies" who dearly love to paint the public schools as “failures” using whatever tenuous, filmy evidence they can dredge up; and minimal-government types who just don’t want to see any public good being provided via taxpayer money.

Guess who’s already figured out that this latest “reform" is a massive scam. No, not necessarily any of Florida’s elected officials. Turns out to be one of our hopes for America’s future, 4th-grader Sydney Smoot.

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You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.

— George W. Bush (1946- ), 43rd US president, explaining his education policies, 2001 February

Mar. 10th, 2015

05:31 pm - Daylight Savings Time. Why?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight asks Daylight Savings Time: Why Is This Still a Thing?

A question I've been asking for years. Best response I ever heard was from syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry in his 50th-birthday column "25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years":

#2: You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe Daylight Saving Time.

True in 1997 when he wrote it; still true today.

Mar. 1st, 2015

11:23 pm - A Little-Noticed Anniversary

We went sailing right past January 18 without anyone, including me, noticing that it was a significant anniversary. But better late than never, so here:

200 years ago, 1815 January 18, the British withdrew their troops from Louisiana after the Battle of New Orleans. There has not been a hostile soldier’s boot on American soil for 2 entire centuries. Think about that for a little while. What an astonishing record that is!

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If you can read this, thank a teacher.
If you're reading it in English, thank a veteran.

Feb. 26th, 2015

03:28 am - Wisconsin Republicans Lie about "Right To Work"

Wouldn’t it be nice if Republicans were held to the kind of “truth in labeling” requirements that we expect of cereal, detergent, and medication manufacturers? But no! They can label their legislative proposals with any kind of deceptive feel-good wording they want, so as to disguise their true regressive character. For example, during the 21st Century they’ve given us legislation masquerading as the ...
  • Clear Skies Act
  • Healthy Forests Initiative
... and on subjects which they characterize as ...
  • "partial-birth" abortion
  • tax “relief"
  • tort “reform”
And now they’ve come up with “right to work”.

Listen, I’d be 100% slam-dunk in favor of a real right-to-work law, if that’s what the Wisconsin GOP were really pushing. An honestly labelled right to work would mean that anyone who really wanted a job would be guaranteed of one, with the government serving as the employer of last resort, the way it was in the Great Depression, when millions of unemployed people were put to work by the New Deal’s “alphabet agencies" like the WPA, PWA, CCC, and NYA. This would be an excellent way to provide everyone with the dignity of gainful employment while simultaneously getting cash circulating in the economy at the local level, where it’s needed most.

But no. They’re lying about it. Again. Their so-called “right to work” legislation is nothing of the sort. It’s being pitched as promoting “worker freedom”, when really it’s all about “right to fire” for the employers and “I got your freedom right here” for the workers.

Corporations do not lack control over their workers. They have almost all of the power as it is. About the only thing counterbalancing them is the collective will of society, expressed thru legislation, that common people should not be taken unfair advantage of. If only the Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature were working on behalf of the common people who elected them, instead of the fat-cat corporations and millionaires who finance their campaigns, my beloved Badger State wouldn’t be marching steadily backward toward peonage and feudalism.

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Q: How come corporations are cutting way back on lobbying expenses?
A: They've decided that, long-term, it's cheaper to own than to rent.

Feb. 23rd, 2015

03:36 pm - Why "$" but not "%"?

Dear Skeptical Inquirer:

Charles A. Reichardt and Ian A. Saari performed a valuable service with their research into “When Don’t the Highly Educated Believe in Evolution?”, and Skeptical Inquirer is to be commended for publishing it.

I am writing because the article was festooned with the word “percent” — occurring 6 times in the opening big-type paragraph alone and many more times thereafter. References to percents of the population are only to be expected in analyses of shifts in public opinion, and I have no problem whatsoever with their usage in such a context.

What continues to drive me up the wall, however, is their formatting — always as the spelled-out word “percent”, never as the more efficient and more readily apprehended symbol “%”. See it right there, the capital “5” on your keyboard, chummy next-door nabor to “$”, the capital “4”, which nobody ever seems to have any problems using, and only 3 doors down from the hugely popular "@"?

So why does Skeptical Inquirer, along with all major newspapers and magazines, continue to eschew the “%” in favor of the “percent”? The answer should be an embarrassment to any group dedicated to critical, forward-looking thinking and not being dragged down by the heavy chains of tradition and cultural conditioning. It’s the same reason we’re all still stuck with QWERTY keyboards: a relic of the technological inadequacies of a bygone era.

Christopher Sholes invented the awkward QWERTY key layout back in 1873 for the express purpose of slowing down early touch typists, so their mechanical keys wouldn’t keep jamming all the time. And the Associated Press Style Book insisted on spelling out the word “percent” because the lowest-common-denominator teletypes of the 1930s and 1940s didn’t have that symbol as part of their character set. Teletypes! Hell, you can hardly even find a fax machine any more.

Just as the NFL has no excuse for continuing to use Roman numerals for the Super Bowl when Arabic numerals are available and easier to translate, just as the US has no excuse for obstinately clinging to ACHU (the accidental collection of heterogeneous units) when the rest of the world has gone metric, so too does Skeptical Inquirer have no excuse for using “percent” instead of “%”. You guys, at least, should be open-minded enuf to do something about it.

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If God had wanted us to use the metric system, he would have given us 10 fingers.

— Ashleigh Brilliant

Feb. 13th, 2015

02:20 pm - Not My Kinda Guy

I am an atheist.

So is Craig Stephen Hicks, who on Feb. 10 murdered, execution style, 3 young students at the University of North Carolina, ostensibly because he hated religion in general (and Christianity in particular) but for whatever reason felt compelled to take it out on Muslims.

Let there be no mistake about my own reaction to this:
 • I respect the right of anyone to believe any damfool piece of cockamamie horse manure they want.
 • This does not mean I have to respect the people who believe it.
 • It certainly doesn't mean I have any respect for the horseshit itself.
 • But under no circumstances should anybody ever, ever, ever go out and bully, harass, discriminate against, torment, threaten, harm, or kill anyone else because of their beliefs. Never! Always wrong!

I condemn the despicable actions of Craig Hicks in the most emphatic terms possible.

He does not speak or act for me or any other atheist I know.

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