The Curse of the Non-Voter

Since 2000, over 40% of eligible voters have not voted. Here is some information about how big an issue non-voting is, why individuals don’t vote, and what we might do about it.

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What Do You Mean by Socialism?

It seems like you can’t have a political discussion without someone using the word socialism, sometimes affectionately and sometimes disparagingly. At least with words like Hitler and Nazi, you know the intent.

Socialism is a defined as a political/economic system in which the means of production (machinery, tools, and factories used to produce goods for society) are owned and controlled by a democratically-run state but private-property is allowed. In contrast, communism, implies that all property is owned by the state. In capitalism the means of production are owned by private interests rather than by the state, and they are operated to generate profit for the owner. But what do Americans think socialism is?

Gallup conducted polls in 1949 and 2018 asking what respondents understood socialism to be. The results are shown in the following table. In 1949, about three-fifths of Americans thought of socialism as the dictionary definition of government ownership. One-fifth thought it referred more to equality. By 2018, three-tenths thought of socialism in terms of equality and another tenth thought of it in terms of social services. Only two-tenths thought of socialism in terms of government ownership. Three-tenths had some other unique understanding.

When the word socialism comes up in a political discussion today, its meaning is rarely clear. Sometimes, it refers to the dictionary definition, although not as often as one might suppose. Sometimes it just refers to government control. And sometimes, it takes on a more modern definition of democratic socialism or social democracy.

In democratic socialism, government ownership is much more limited than in traditional socialism. Democratic-socialist governments also aim to benefit the populace rather than the state. In social democracies, ownership is mainly private but government regulates the owners. Resources accrued through taxation are used to benefit the populace. Social democracies develop by reforming the harsher aspects of capitalism.

In the U.S., democratic socialism is limited. The government owns the postal Service (USPS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Amtrak, the National Parks, and a variety of other non-government entities. But these entities are operated for the benefits of the populace rather than the state as they would be in a traditional socialist government.

Social democracy, on the other hand, manifests itself as government support for two beneficiaries—people and business. Corporate socialism includes: direct payments to businesses; tax breaks; data and scientific research; management of broadcast, transportation, and national resources; maintenance of roads, waterways, and ports; foreign-trade agreements, tariffs, and regulation of imports; and protection for intellectual properties and foreign operations. People socialism includes: Social Security; Medicare/Medicaid; federal anti-poverty programs; public education; public transportation; local law enforcement and emergency services; public parks and libraries; nonprofit corporations, and many more examples.

In 1949, half of Americans believed that some aspects of the government were socialistic. In 2018, only two-fifths believed that despite there being many more social programs. The public perception of socialism in the U.S. has been greatly influenced by opinions expressed by politicians and partisan organizations.

“Republicans, who are overwhelmingly negative about socialism, tend to skew toward seeing socialism as government control of the economy and in derogatory terms, while Democrats, a majority of whom are positive about socialism, are more likely to view it as government provision of services.” – Frank Newport, Ph.D., Gallup, Inc.

So if you are going to talk about SOCIALISM, whether good or bad, be sure you explain exactly what you mean by the word. You might save yourself from getting some nasty replies.

Nine Ideas for Blocking Writers Block

There’s a lot of advice about how to avoid writer’s block. You know what they are. Here are some things you might not have heard.

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Attacks on Conspiracy Theories Are a Conspiracy

And some of those conspirators don’t even know it.

Mockingbird photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

A conspiracy is a plot by two or more people to do something unsavory. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain something unusual. Some conspiracy theories are false, some are unproven, some are unprovable, and some have turned out to be true. Closely associated with conspiracy theories are mysteries and unexplained phenomena, like UFOs, Bigfoot, and out-of-place archeological artifacts, which are sometimes the subject of conspiracy theories. Urban legends, fanciful tales told to evoke trepidation, often revolve around conspiracies. Conspiracy theories have the power to induce extreme lunacy in both proponents and critics alike.

Conspiracies are Real

Conspiracies are obviously real. Prosecutors use them all the time in court. On the other hand, there are “crazy” conspiracy theories that are ridiculed as not supported by sufficient evidence. They are dismissed as unlikely. However, many “crazy” conspiracies theories have turned out to be true. Baseball had the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the steroid scandal of 2004, and the sign-stealing scandal of 2017-18. Watergate, Iran-Contra, My Lai, weapons of mass destruction, warrantless wiretapping, and tortour at Abu Ghraib are also well-known examples. Pedophilia was confirmed in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, and now the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking ring. Business conspiracies that affected the lives of so many include: medical crimes of tobacco as a cause of lung cancer and Johnson & Johnson (asbestos in baby powder causing mesothelioma), environmental crimes of Union Carbide (Bhopal), Volkswagen (emissions fraud), and Kerr-McGee (Karen Silkwood), and the financial crimes of Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, Halliburton, Tyco, and Lehman Brothers. All of these conspiracies started as “crazy” theories that were ignored by authorities and society in general only to be proven true once people started to believe.

Some Theories Have Been Proven

Some conspiracies are so obvious, they are immediately accepted even without proof. The badminton competition at the 2012 London Olympics is an example. In other cases, a conspiracy theory is so far-fetched on first hearing that people shake their heads and forget about it. Those theories are neither believable nor entertaining. But, some of those theories are true:

  • Operation Snow White, the Church of Scientology infiltrated 136 government agencies, foreign embassies, and private organizations to purge unfavorable records about Scientology in more than 30 countries.
  • Fruit Machine, Canada was so paranoid about homosexuality in the 1960s that it developed a “gaydar” machine and used it to exclude or fire more than 400 men from government service. This hardly compares to Canada’s Indian residential school system scandal.
  • Operation Paperclip, the government secretly brought more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States after World War II.
  • MK ULTRA, the CIA’s mind control experiments conducted illegally on unsuspecting human subjects.
  • COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to illegally infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt American political organizations.

Some theories people don’t WANT to believe because they are so disturbing or had horrifying consequences, such as:

  • Gulf of Tonkin, the government deceived the American public about events that led to the U.S. entering the Vietnam War.
  • Project SUNSHINE, the AEC and USAF procured over 1,500 samples from recently deceased children without prior permission to measure the global dispersion of Sr-90.
  • Tuskegee experiment, the United States Public Health Service conducted clinical studies of untreated syphilis in African-American men between 1932 and 1972.
  • Prohibition poisoning, between 1926 and 1933 the government poisoned alcohol to keep people from drinking, killing more than 10,000 Americans. Fifty years later, the State Department supported Mexico spraying Paraquat on their marijuana fields.
  • War on drugs, Nixon’s declaration of a ‘War on Drugs’ targeted blacks and anti-war activists.
  • PRISM, the NSA’s illegal program of spying on civilian internet users.

These cases all started out as “crazy” speculation until they were found to be true. Even urban legends, like Cropsy, Charlie No-Face, and the North Pond Hermit, turned out to be more than campfire entertainment.

Sometimes it’s not so much an event or action that is a conspiracy, it is an effort to hide the event or action in a coverup. Some of the events covered up involved nuclear accidents, which could have resulted in untold deaths. The Watergate burglary was such a minor political conspiracy that Congress decided not to investigate it before the 1972 election held four months later. However, the coverup of the burglary was huge, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. There are too many political coverups to mention.

Some Theories May Yet Be Proven

Other conspiracies that are often discredited actually have scientific or statistical evidence supporting them, including:

They might be proven one day but it’s difficult to gain momentum to investigate with so many close-minded naysayers blocking the way. Some of the theories, like those concerning climate change and 9/11, have considerable evidence that is mischaracterized and discredited in the press so the public doesn’t know what to believe.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

The most believable conspiracy theories are those in which there is evidence based on:

The makings of the Watergate scandal began in 1967 with the creation of the Vietnam Study Task Force, which was tasked with writing an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War.” Their 1969 report, called colloquially the Pentagon Papers, revealed that the Johnson Administration conspired to lie to Congress and the public about their role in expanding the Vietnam war. The report was leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, who was a member of the Task Force. He was charged for his leak under the Espionage Act of 1917 but the charges were dismissed. Members of the Nixon Administration conspired to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in 1971 to find information about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. Finding nothing of importance, they conspired to plant listening devices in the Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. The five burglars were caught. The story was pursued by reporters from the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, aided by whistleblower Deep Throat, eventually leading to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. The whole conspiracy was insane; it was totally unbelievable. Most people didn’t pay any attention. It was all just politics as usual. Then on the night of October 20, 1973 came the Saturday Night Massacre. After that, the public consensus was to “Impeach the Cox Sacker.” As unbelievable as it was, it would have made a compelling novel. As a true story, it devastated the Nation.

While all of these types of evidence can be altered or even totally fabricated, mostly they are just interpreted in different ways based on preconceived notions. However, they can also provide legitimate proof of a theory if they are authentic.

While popular in courtrooms, eyewitness accounts are too often the products of defective memories or coercion to be of much value in discussing conspiracy theories. They may provide hints to the truth or hide it. They are far from proof. Judges and juries may reach life-or-death verdicts based on eyewitness accounts but society holds proof of conspiracy theories to a higher standard.

The same is true of expert opinions. What is accepted in court holds, or should hold, little sway in proving a conspiracy theory. This belief is asymmetrical. Critics and proponents of a theory will believe experts who support their claim but not those who refute it. Professionals in law enforcement, the military, commercial aviation, and government service are thought to be the most believable of observers until they report seeing a UFO or a cryptid.

Experts may have impressive educational credentials or unique experience profiles, but they are subject to the same human failings as everyone else. They can make professional mistakes, fall victim to psychological biases, and even succumb to intimidation and inducements. As a case in point, Darrell Huff, who wrote the best-seller How To Lie With Statistics, was paid by the tobacco industry to discredit the theory that cigarettes cause lung cancer. He even testified before Congress. As we all know, that conspiracy theory has proven to be true.

Obfuscation is Real Too

Just as many conspiracies are true, so too is the concerted effort to disparage certain conspiracy theories so the public does not take them seriously. That effort is a conspiracy theory in itself, called Operation Mockingbird. Operation Mockingbird is allegedly a decades-long CIA program aimed at manipulating public discourse on sensitive topics. It operated by funding individuals, Mockingbirds, in the media, student groups, and cultural organizations. The Mockingbirds were convinced to disseminate information critical of whistleblowers who expose government conspiracies. The CIA support of Mockingbirds was exposed when a 1967 article in Ramparts magazine reported that the National Student Association received funding from the CIA. Later, in 1975, the Church Committee Congressional investigations exposed secret, illegal wiretapping, bugging, and harassment of American citizens, including reporters, government officials, Supreme Court justices, and most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. Outspoken critics of some conspiracy theories may, in fact, be Mockingbirds.

Techniques used to censor proponents of conspiracy theories include: targeting, mischaracterization. defamation, denialism, misdirection, and cover up.

Targeting

When detractors talk about conspiracy theories, they ignore the thousands of true and possibly true conspiracies and instead focus on the few that are clearly disprovable, like the moon landings being a hoax, claims of a flat or hollow earth, Holocaust denialism, or Reptilian replacements. Life is short so I won’t comment on astrology, real or not. They are easy targets; they serve to discredit ALL conspiracy theories.

Mockingbirds focus on specific conspiracies involving the government. They don’t care so much about conspiracies in the private sector unless they affect the stock market or a key political donor. That may be the reason why it seems that a greater proportion of business conspiracies are exposed compared to government conspiracies.

Mischaracterization

One commonly used weapon of theory critics is the strawman. They’ll focus on one interpretation or aspect of a theory and ignore more relevant parts. Critics of anti-vaxxers focus on the autism connection and ignore the concern about harmful ingredients and side effects. Critics who proclaim, or deny, that there are coordinated efforts to sway elections confound voter fraud, which involves the rare instances of an individual voting illegally, with election fraud, which refer to the too-common, coordinated efforts to prevent or change many votes, by voter caging, purges of voter rolls, making voter registration difficult, spreading flyers with misinformation, deceptive robocalls, voter intimidation, voter ID laws, and closing polling places or restricting their hours. Critics of Bernie Sanders mischaracterize his platform as socialism, which he DOES NOT advocate, instead of democratic socialism, which he DOES advocate. The unfortunately named movement, Defund the Police, which isn’t about doing away with law enforcement as is alleged by critics, but instead about reprogramming some funding from law enforcement to social support. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter as detractors suggest.

The result of mischaracterization by theory critics is the creation of enough confusion that many people don’t understand what is being discussed.

Defamation

Another tactic theory critics use is defamation, an ad hominem argument. Nobody believed Linda Tripp when she disclosed the affair between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton because she was defamed as a dishonest publicity-seeker. Whistleblowers like Sibel Edmonds, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner were portrayed as unpatriotic lawbreakers. Witnesses of cryptids and UFOs are described as confused, unreliable, inexpert, dishonest, or even inebriated. Many sightings are never reported, especially by professionals, for fear they will be derided and ostracized.

Academia is a hotbed for slight-of-hand defamation. There is study after study after study by psychologists who analyze why people believe some of the least likely conspiracy theories, then they generalize back to the much larger portion of the population who believe only more reasonable theories. They never study prosecuting attorneys for why they claim conspiracies in court. What this does is paint ALL open-minded people with the broad brush of derangement that they identified in a few individuals based on their own biases. That is false guilt-by-association

Denialism

The first three things anyone involved in a crime will do are deny, deny, deny. Critics of conspiracy theories will always deny that a theory is likely or even possible. There is always the chance that the proponent of a theory will second-guess themselves, lose interest, or just give up. Police initially don’t believe many reports of sexual assault, missing persons, and police misconduct on the off chance that the claim will be dropped. That’s why initial reports of conspiracy theories are met with disbelief rather than curiosity. Whistleblowers have to be incredibly persistent. How many levels of an organization do they have to complain to before they get any attention? That’s why some whistleblowers leak directly to the press where they’re more likely to be listened to.

Denialism has consequences. How long did Jeffrey Epstein and his friends molest young women before he was finally brought to justice? How many of the 250 American gymnasts who were abused by Dr. Larry Nassar over 24 years had to report him before USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University took action? How many individuals died of AIDS before the government finally addressed the crisis?

Initial denialism is the accepted approach in society, as perhaps it should be. None of the great paradigm shifts in the history of science were adopted without long periods of discussion and debate, during which they were first ignored and defamed before they were finally accepted and assimilated. It’s called the Semmelweis Reflex. Gullibility isn’t a virtue but there’s a limit to denialism.

Misdirection

Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes use misdirection to derail arguments by theory proponents. Misdirection is sometimes called red herrings or whataboutism. South Park fans know it as the Chewbacca Defense. Sometimes the misdirection is overt, like just changing the topic of an awkward discussion. Sometimes the misdirection is buried in obfuscatory details.

For example, Dr. David Robert Grimes of Oxford University calculated how long a large (5,000+ person) conspiracy is likely to remain a secret before it is leaked. Ignoring external whistleblowers, like journalists and independent investigators, assuming there is no witness intimidation, and assuming all the conspirators had full knowledge of the scheme (i.e., there was no compartmentalization), conspiracies are likely to be exposed in a decade. Smaller conspiracies would have a lower probability of exposure, and take longer to be revealed. In the real world, with compartmentalization, intimidation, and destruction of evidence, a conspiracy theory may never be exposed. It’s like voting for entry into a sports hall-of=fame, if a theory hasn’t garnered a reasonable amount of support in a decade of consideration, it’s not likely to.

Grimes’ calculation is supposed to show that conspiracy theories are unlikely because otherwise they would have been exposed by one or more conspirators. People who cite Grimes to claim that conspiracy theories can’t be true because conspirators don’t come forward, ignore the fact that whistleblowers come forward all the time—Smedley Butler, Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Serpico, Mark Felt (Deep Throat), Karen Silkwood, Sibel Edmonds, Joseph Wilson, “Bunny” Greenhouse. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner. These individuals all came forward to expose conspiracies and were ignored, criticized, demeaned, intimidated, and even prosecuted.

Cover Up and Whitewash

It seems that no information is released from the government without a cover up. There are many possible ingredients for a coverup: ignore claims; fabricate, withhold, alter, or destroy evidence; block, delay, constrain, or hijack investigations; file legal challenges; intimidate or harm participants and opponents; and hire agents (Mockingbirds) to refute the theory. They have become so common that people don’t even recognize them anymore.

While the terms are often used interchangeably, cover-up involves withholding incriminatory evidence, while whitewash involves releasing misleading evidence.

Wikipedia

These actions are applied to virtually every conspiracy theory involving the government (except the ones that they create). Government cover-ups have involved: Watergate; warrantless wiretapping; Iran-Contra; My Lai; the use of white phosphate in Iraq; and tortour at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in violation of the Geneva Convention. Think also of how the government has covered up or whitewashed 9/11 events or UFO sightings, landings, and crashes. It makes you wonder why they are so sensitive about those “unproven” theories.

People are concerned about misinformation. They experience it daily, both online and offline. Some countries are less misinformed than the U.S., some are more misinformed. Domestic politicians are the single most frequently named source of misinformation, though people who self-identify as right-wing are more likely to blame the media. The media, particularly television, began changing in the late 1970s when they turned to profit-driven news divisions. This paradigm-shift in news reporting was exacerbated by Reagan’s 1987 revocation of the Fairness Doctrine and Clinton’s Bill Clinton signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Fake news has been around for hundreds of years but the internet has turned a campfire into a raging inferno. Most people think that it is the responsibility of  media companies, technology companies, and government to do more to combat misinformation. Still, it persists. The days of Walter Cronkite are over.

Debunkers Are Bullies

When a conspiracy happens, nobody knows about it until some insider writes a book or gets the attention of the media. That’s when the discussion starts. Acceptance is another issue. Conspiracy theorists are routinely derided as crazy by the cancel culture. Some are never investigated because of societal ignorance or apathy. Most conspiracy “theories” are ignored for years before even being discussed openly. That’s what opponents want; they want to control the discussion, and so, everybody’s lives.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

People who oppose conspiracy theories are portrayed in the media as heroes. They’re not. “Reputable” debunkers are not always reputable. Take the cases of Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Darrell Huff, and outdoing them all, Donald Trump. Their supporters lined up to bolster their false claims.

The status of being considered an expert by society does not equate to being infallible. Experts are subject to the same human failings as everyone else. They can make professional mistakes, fall victim to psychological biases, and even succumb to intimidation and inducements. Darrell Huff isn’t the only example. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. coined the term biostitutes to brand scientists who misrepresent research or commit fraud to serve a benefactor or to make a personal gain. He was specifically criticizing Dr. Paul Offit for his ties to drug companies.

Our government is not alone in doing shady things to discredit conspiracies, and then getting caught. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouge medications. Powerful people silence victims of sexual assault and abuse. Foreign governments attempt to sow discord in the U.S. through social media. Systemic injustices and cultural prejudices hamper some people’s ability to succeed in our society.

[Debunkers] are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority–that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them.

Daniel Engber in FiveThirtyEight

Maybe some debunkers are really just trying to publicize conspiracy theories, bringing them to the public’s attention hoping for a backfire effect.

Proof Not So Positive

Some responses to conspiracy theories are actually just misinformation pushed by legitimate sources. They are called the official explanations. Those official explanations, which are meant to be accepted by the public, are sometimes unlikely, even ludicrous. These “crazy” official explanations virtually guarantee that there will be conspiracy theories.

Take the 1947 incident near Roswell, NM. The first official explanation was a UFO. Then, it was a weather balloon, which all those people in the military who were involved knew it wasn’t. Then 47 years later, the Air Force claimed it was a “balloon” from Project Mogul. But unlike weather balloons of the day, the Mogul balloon was a massive combination of several balloons that contained unusual types of reflectors, lightweight structural supports, metal foil, and other materials. It was meant to spy on Russia. The debris may not have been the result of the crash of an alien craft, but with all the confused disinformation, how could conspiracy theories not develop. Now, more than a few other countries are also investigating UFOs.

Roswell was a single event. Consider Project Blue Book. It wasn’t the first or the last investigation of UFOs by the Air Force, but it is the most well-known. Blue Book investigated 12,618 cases of UFO sightings, 701 of which couldn’t be explained.  were never explained. The problem was that the project became a PR vehicle to discredit UFO sightings, using such reasons as hoaxes, misidentified aircraft, birds, weather balloons, weather and astronomical phenomena, contrails, and even swamp gas. The project’s only scientific consultant, astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, came to realize that there was “… virtually no scientific dialogue between Blue Book and the outside scientific world … The statistical methods employed by Blue Book are nothing less than a travesty.” Again, debunker efforts backfired.

Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is. The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility. … does not an obligation exist to say so to the public—not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists?

Dr. J. Allen Hynek,

There are many other examples in which the official explanation is as unlikely, if not more unlikely than the conspiracy theory it is trying to debunk. Is the official explanation of 9/11, that 19 minimally-trained conspirators led by a Saudi millionaire living in a cave in Afghanistan, much more likely than the alternative conspiracy, that the US government and some co-conspirators had the attacks conducted within the framework of the al-Qaeda plan?

Furthermore, the official investigations of conspiracies are not always satisfying; they are often partisan, superficial, or inept. Was JFK assassinated by a lone gunman? The 1964 Warren Commission thought so but the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations thought there was evidence of a conspiracy. The investigation conducted by the 911 Commission, was rushed, underfunded, partisan, superficial, AND inept.

Hiding the truth only served to create more lies.

Why So Much Outrage

A conspiracy theory is only relevant if people care about it. Conspiracy theories that are so improbable that they are laughable should just be laughed off. They should be experienced as entertainment, silly but fun to experience like the X-Files, Harry Potter, and fan fiction. So why do some people rail against conspiracy theories so fiercely? Are they like Karens, grammar Nazis, the Holier-Than-Thou, or other type of control freaks? Do they believe they are protectors of science, the authority of government, or societal common sense?

Would finding out that the government participated in a 9/11 conspiracy to start wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be more surprising than when they used the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy to expand the Vietnam war, or sold weapons to Iran in the 1980s during an arms embargo, or started the War on Drugs to target blacks and anti-war activists.

People who rail against ALL conspiracy theories are really no different from people who espouse the craziest of the crazy theories. They come to a conclusion and can’t be swayed. One is no less “crazy” than the other. Maybe they suffer from cognitive dissonance or lack open-mindedness or are unable to think critically. Maybe they are just insecure bullies. Then again, maybe they are part of a conspiracy against conspiracies—Mockingbirds.

“Mockingbird Aerial Display” by TexasEagle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Sasquatch 2020

Why You Wouldn’t Want Me To Curate Your Medium Article

If you are a member of the blog site Medium, you get recommendations for articles to read based on the topics you say you’re interested in. For me, most of these recommendations fall flat. They don’t hold my interest. It’s not always the content (or lack thereof), or the voice, or any of the things blogs on writing tell you to do (or not do). It’s formatting and graphics. I find plain text to be mind-numbing.

How I Got So Out-Of-Whack

I grew up reading comic books thanks to Stan Lee and my very understanding parents. I certainly didn’t read them exclusively, but comics were way more engaging than anything I found in the library. My post high school education was in science (geology) and math (statistics). That gave me near-fatal damage points to start off with. I worked for 42 years, 16 for the federal government, writing technical reports that management never read. I told myself that that was OK since I still got paid. At my first job, I was lucky to have a mentor, Ed Saltzberg, who broke me of the bad habits I learned in school and sent me on a decades-long exploration of technical writing. I eventually published “How To Write Data Analysis Reports In Six Easy Lessons” to end my quest. I wrote a book too, but that’s another story.

During those years, I read mostly non-fiction—technical reports, text books, how-to books, coffee-table books, backs of cereal boxes, instructions for completing government forms, and the like. Formatting and graphics were everything. Blocks of text in even the most fascinating statistical report would cause me to check my eyelids for pinholes. Even today, two years from writing those hard-core technical reports, I still crave headings, and bullets, and images, and most of all, charts and graphs. While I love @Daylin Leach on Medium, even his captivating commentaries require me to take rest stops.

In the technical reports I wrote in the past, I followed the old admonition of Aristotle, Dale Carnegie, the military, and others, “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.” I would first develop an outline that told the data’s story, assembled all the tables and graphics I needed, then did the writing. Once I found Word had a function to insert a Table of Contents, over a decade ago, I put one in all my reports. That encouraged logical and frequent headings.

My aim in writing those reports was to devote as much area to visuals as to text. I broke up text with lists, indents, and text boxes. Just as importantly, I tried to make each paragraph efficiently convey a coherent thought, or even connected thoughts, without rambling. I didn’t tell many personal stories because technical reports are about data stories. I also never used any dialog balloons although I thought of it at times.

What I Would Look For

If you read a lot of fiction, your blogs probably look like a novel even though they are likely to be non-fiction. They are a train of block paragraphs. Hopefully the blocks are different sizes and maybe even separated by headers but maybe not. It is, however, what you’re most familiar with know and what most blogging sites are set up for.

But, if I were to curate your Medium article, this is what I would look for:

  • First Glance. In the first minute of my curation, I’d notice:
    • Title. Is the title less than one line and engaging enough to make me want to read more?
    • Length. Long is OK depending on the topic. I just need to get some coffee if there’ll be too much scrolling involved.
    • Headings. Long blogs should be broken up with headers. My rule-of-thumb is a heading for every 300 words or so. The organizational breaks need to be somewhat uniform and make sense given the content.
    • Visual Impact. This is my decision point. If it looks more like a comic book than a novel, I’ll keep reading.
  • Writing. OK, now I actually have to read the article. This pisses me off. I’m retired; I should be watching Netflix. So, the article better be free of any more than an occasional typo. Grammatical errors get a strike; you’ll get three. Hopefully you’ll avoid all the shameful errors the grammar Nazis warn you about—to/too/two/tutu, your/you’re, their/there/they’re, its/it’s, assure/ensure/insure, who/that, which/that, and so on. Lead/led isn’t the same as read/read. For some reason, using less/fewer incorrectly really sets me off. Don’t do that. I’ll ignore the things I do wrong all the time. It’s OK to boldly split infinitives. Passive voice is used by many. Nobody gets who/whom right. And, I could go on forever about comma splices and run-on sentences.
  • Content. My blood sugar is high so I’m already falling asleep. Now I have to concentrate on what you’ve written. This is irritating. The content has to be truly engaging. If it’s a data story, it better be logical, consistent, and complete. Jargon is OK if you tell me what you think it means. How-to articles have to have clearly delineated steps that actually work. Personal stories are fine if we have some common interests. I don’t want to hear about your dinner, or your vacation, or your kids. Pet stories get a pass even if I don’t read them.
  • Graphics. This is where I would make most people hate me. For me, blog graphics are diamonds radiating their information from the dull groundmass of text. Photos are probably the most common graphic bloggers use, though they aren’t necessarily the best. Tables usually pack more information but they can cause mental overload. There are also: Visualizations involving plots, charts and graphs; Infographics with diagrams, flowcharts, and visualizations; Drawings, illustrations, schematics, clipart, comics, and memes; and Text Boxes with quotes or formulas. Make sure the graphics are attractive and add to the story.
  • Formatting. I like interesting and sensible formatting to keep my interest. Unfortunately, Medium’s utility for writing blogs has limited formatting capabilities. You can’t indent, change typefaces, add highlighting and font art (except for drop caps), or use subscript, superscript, small caps, or strikethrough. You’re left with headings, drop caps, quotes, block enlarge and reduce, separators, bolding, italics, and links. Do what you can.

So, stop complaining about Medium’s curation. It would be much worse if I were a curator.

The Coronavirus Testing Conundrum

Medical testing is the foundation for any response to the Coronavirus crisis, on both an individual and a societal level. When you get a medical test, whether it’s for pregnancy, drugs, or Covid-19, there’s a chance that the results will be incorrect. It’s a matter of biochemistry and statistics. Without knowledge of the prevalence of the disease in the population, test results cannot be interpreted unambiguously. The ways our government and society have reacted to the infection has made the collection of quality data and their interpretation problematical if not impossible.

There are Many Tests

There are two general types of tests for Covid-19 — genetic tests and antibody tests. Genetic (AKA viral or molecular) tests detect active infections from nasal swabs. They cannot tell whether someone has had the infection and has since recovered. Antibody tests (AKA serological) detect antibodies in the blood from a past infection.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reports that, as of June 2020, there are 37 antibody tests for Covid-19 that have been approved for diagnostic use in the United States, 18 tests that have been approved for diagnostic use in other countries, 29 tests that have been approved for research or surveillance purposes only, and 36 tests that are still in development. The U.S. has developed (or is developing) 27 of the antibody tests, including 2 with China and 1 with Switzerland. China has developed 7 tests on its own. Germany, Finland, and South Korea have also developed a test. Thirty companies have developed (or are developing) these tests. Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics Inc. has six tests, and InBios International, Inc. and Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise Co., Ltd. have two tests each.

Each of these tests has different performance characteristics. Genetic tests are highly capable of detecting an infection so long as the swab effectively collects the virus, however, they can indicate infections where there are none. Antibody tests may indicate an infection has not occurred when it actually has but it is unlikely to miss an infection that has occurred. Using both tests, in sequence, is considered an effective strategy. Patients who receive positive detections on genetic tests are retested with antibody tests to control the possibility of false results.

It is, of course, more complicated. If a test is done too early in the disease progression, there may not be enough of the virus or enough antibodies to be detected by a test. Furthermore, biological differences between individuals may influence the probability of a false result. Some individuals may be more likely than other individuals to have a false positive or false negative result. It’s the Harvard Law—under the most carefully controlled conditions of light, temperature, humidity, and nutrition, a biological organism will do as it damn well pleases.

Tests Aren’t Equally “Good”

Why do we need 37 tests; shouldn’t just one suffice? That’s true in an ideal world, tests should be 100% accurate, but in the real world of complex biochemistries, they aren’t. No test is perfect. They all produce errors.

There are two concepts that characterize a test’s performance ability. Unfortunately, the concepts go by many terms:

  • Ability of the test to detect an infection. This is called the test’s sensitivity or its True Positive Rate (TPR) or its probability of detection. It is the tests’ ability to avoid false positive results. The false positive rate (FPR)is the probability that the test will produce an incorrect positive result. Sensitivity equals 100%-false positive rate. TPRs tend to be above 90%; FPRs tend to be below 10%.
  • Ability of the test to detect the absence of an infection. This is called the test’s specificity or its True Negative Rate (TNR) or its probability of nondetection. It is the tests’ ability to avoid false negative results. The false negative rate (FNR)is the probability that the test will produce an incorrect negative result. Specificity equals 100%-false negative rate. TNRs tend to be above 80%; FNRs tend to be below 20%.

Genetic tests tend to have high sensitivities but lower specificities. Antibody tests tend to have lower sensitivities but higher specificities. A test’s ability to avoid false positive errors and false negative errors, that is. the rate of correct test results, is called the test’s accuracy.

Results May Not Mean What You Think

Sensitivity and specificity are statistics that characterize diagnostic tests. Predictive Value is a statistic that characterizes test results. It is based on test sensitivity and specificity, and incorporates the rate of infection in the population being tested. It is calculated using Bayesian statistics. Positive predictive value (PPV) is the probability that a positive test result really is positive. Negative predictive value (NPV) is the probability that a negative test result really is negative.

In traditional statistics (called frequentist because probabilities are based on frequencies), the probability that a positive test result is true is the sensitivity or TPR. Another way to interpret test results, though, is through Bayesian statistics. Bayesian statistics allow other knowledge of conditions to modify the frequentist estimate of probability. To interpret Covid-19 test results from a Bayesian perspective, you must know 3 things:

  • The false positive rate for the test or the test’s sensitivity
  • The false negative rate for the test or the test’s specificity.
  • The percentage of people in the population who have the disease, called the prevalence.

The Bayesian probability that a positive test is correct (i.e., you have the infection and the test says so) is equal to:

The following chart shows the Bayesian probability that a positive test truly indicates the presence of an infection, for five combinations of sensitivity and specificity, over a range of prevalence rates in the population. In the chart, the vertical axis represents the calculated Bayesian probability that a positive test is correct, that is, the PPV. 100% on the vertical axis means all the tests are likely to be correct. The horizontal axis represents the prevalence of Covid-19 in the population (whatever the population might be). The prevalence axis ranges from 0% to 25%. One study found prevalence rates from 0.222% to 47%, mostly below 4%. The five curves represent tests with different sensitivities and specificities. The red line at the top of the plot represents a near-perfect test having a sensitivity and a specificity of 99.99%. The probability of such a test providing correct positive result would be 100% unless the prevalence was below about 2%. The yellow line at the bottom of the plot represents the test with the lowest sensitivity (84%) and specificity (64%) reported by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. The probability that a positive result on this test is correct is only 10% if the prevalence is as high as 5%. The remaining three lines represent tests having sensitivities and specificities of 90%, 05%, and 98%.

What the plot shows is that even the best tests available, with sensitivity and selectivity over 98%, will provide incorrect positive results in almost 20% of cases if the prevalence of the infection in the population is less than 5%. Half of the positive test results will probably be false if the prevalence in the population is 1%. In general, the rarer the disease is in the population, the lower the probability that a positive result indicates a real infection, despite a test’s high sensitivity. This means that many people who test positive for Covid-19 may not have the infection after all.  Stories of spontaneous recoveries after a positive test result may actually be a reflection of imperfect tests. On the other hand, if you are in a captive population where the prevalence is high—like a prison or nursing home—your positive results are likely to be correct.

And it gets even more convoluted.

Covid-19 tests are not readily available, unlike, say, pregnancy or drug tests. Not everyone who wants or needs a test can get one. People who have Covid-19 and people who don’t have Covid-19 are not equally likely to be tested. Consequently, data on the rate of infection in the population doesn’t apply to all the people in the country (or other demographic), but rather, applies only to the people who took a test. They constitute the population. Furthermore, another assumption is that the tests of the individuals in the population are independent of each other. This is certainly not true. Some individuals—politicians, celebrities, medical professionals, professional athletes, wealthy elites—are tested repeatedly. The prevalence in the population may actually be much different than is estimated because of the replicate testing. Without more complete data, there is no way to correct for these duplicate tests.

The Testing Conundrum

No Covid-19 test is perfect but most are pretty good, at least when their performance is evaluated under controlled conditions. Even under the most carefully controlled conditions, individuals present unique challenges to testing. This introduces uncontrolled variation into results. The lower the rate of infection in the population, the lower the probability that a positive result indicates a real infection. Consequently, it is essential to know the rate of infection is in the population. Testing resources are limited so they cannot be applied throughout the population when sought. This means the population being tested is not the same as the general population. Furthermore, tests are repeated on preferred individuals so that testing is neither unbiased nor independent. Therefore, statistics used to characterize results in the population may be misleading. This is a conundrum.

The first steps in solving any problem are to acknowledge it, define it, and understand the context in which it occurs. Most people don’t recognize that Covid-19 testing is problematical. Some do but don’t understand the details. Only a few recognize how the actions of government and society are exacerbating issues involving covid-19 testing, and as a consequence, the pandemic itself. At a time when there is so much information (and misinformation) available about the virus, it is paradoxical that our understand of issues involving testing, the very foundation of any solution to the pandemic, are so lacking.

THE INEXPLICABLE PENTAGON

You’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle. Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Bennington Triangle, the Bridgewater Triangle, the Big Lick Triangle, the Lake Michigan Triangle, the Ossipee Triangle, the Nevada Triangle, and the Alaska Triangle. But, I’ll bet you’ve never heard of the Inexplicable Pentagon.

The Inexplicable Pentagon in the U.S. is so peculiar and so geographically and culturally disperse that it can’t be confined to a triangle. It is bordered approximately by Boston, MA, Miami, FL, Brownsville TX, Los Angeles, CA, and Seattle, WA. Here are a few examples:

  • A bakery in Charleston SC wouldn’t put “Summa Cum Laude” on a graduation cake because they thought it was a sex thing.
  • More than 5,800 Americans gave up their citizenship in the first six months of 2020 compared to the 2,072 Americans who renounced their citizenship in all of 2019, an increase attributed to the actions of President Donald Trump, how the coronavirus pandemic is being handled, and the political policies in the U.S.
  • A Washington DC computer scientist analyzed more than 5,000 tweets to define the phrases “hot as balls” as 84 degrees and “cold as hell” as 48 degrees.
  • “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” in Florence OR is named for the November 12, 1970 dynamiting of a beached 45-foot, 8-ton sperm whale.
  • 85 people who visited a bar outside Michigan State University have tested positive for coronavirus.
  • A Benton County WA woman received an Ancestry.com DNA result indicating her real father was her mother’s fertility doctor.
  • A Washington, D.C. court clerk thought that New Mexico was a foreign country and refused to issue a marriage certificate to a groom who presented a New Mexico state ID.
  • Paycheck Protection Program funds, which are supposed to enable businesses with ten or fewer employees to maintain their payrolls, have been given to members of Congress, billionaires, family members of executive branch officials, celebrities, and big businesses, thus depriving true small businesses of the resources.
  • Not to be outdone by the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America declared bankruptcy after numerous cases of pedophilia were committed by Scout leaders.
  • Massive swarms of Mayflies, big enough to be seen on radar, have been invading areas along the Mississippi River.
  • Four St. Petersburg FL men were arrested for selling an industrial bleach solution as a Covid-19 cure in defiance of a prior court order.
  • A Ventura County CA men who vandalized “Black Lives Matter” signs work for sheriff and DA.
  • A Chicago IL dad posed as a referee to help son’s high school football team win playoff game.
  • In 2018, the people of Hawaii got a false alarm emergency text alert saying “Ballistic missile threat inbound . . . this is not a drill.” Civil defense outdoor warning sirens were also sounded.
  • Researchers at the University of Nevada Reno have found that individuals who claim knowledge of fake religious concepts are more supportive of religious aggression, while individuals with accurate religious knowledge are less supportive.
  • 100 Goats, which escaped from a company that rents them for landscaping purposes, ate gardens and left droppings in a Boise ID neighborhood in 2018.
  • 15 adults in AZ and NM were hospitalized for methanol poisoning after consuming hand sanitizers as a cure for Covid-19.
  • A Portland OR writer who wrote a blog titled “How to Murder Your Husband” in 2011 was arrested in 2018 for murdering her husband.
  • In 2018, a man shot himself in the groin at a Walmart near Phoenix AZ when the gun he was carrying in his waistband slipped into his pants.
  • The average member of Congress spends less than 2% of their career working at any blue-collar job.
  • Skittles are all the same flavor but they are scented to make us think they taste different.
  • The National Park Service advised Americans not to run from bears, climb trees, or push slower friends down in an attempt to save yourself.
  • A Christian Church near Pittsburgh PA has skirted state Covid-19 restrictions by meeting at Walmart.
  • A man in Las Vegas was caught on video stealing 3-foot, 40-pound rubber dildo from adult entertainment store.
  • Two Texas men were killed in 2019 when they attempted to jump the gap of the open Black Bayou Drawbridge in Lake Charles, LA.
  • The U.S, military spent $22 million over five years ending in 2012 to study UFOs in their secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
  • Students in Tuscaloosa AL have been holding COVID-19 parties, the first person to catch the virus wins a pot of money.
  • Five cars and a semi-truck got stuck for ten hours in a 30-foot-tall wall of tumbleweeds near Yakima, Washington.
  • A Fort Myers FL mother, who took her 17-year-old, immunocompromised daughter to a church event where she contracted coronavirus, treated the girl at home with unproven drugs and therapies when she got sick.
  • A naked Grand Rapids MI man was arrested for multiple home invasions, felony assault, and resisting a police officer.
  • The cause of a 2018 Arizona wildfire was an explosion created at an illegal gender-reveal party on state land that resulted in $8 million in damages.
  • As of May 1, 2020, it is legal to compost human remains in WA.
  • Burger King made a sandwich with a green bun for Halloween and found that it increased customers chances of having nightmares.
  • A family living near Houston were attacked in their backyard by a 12-foot, 600-pound alligator.
  • A Roseville CA woman was arrested for urinating on the floor of a Verizon store after refusing to leave for not wearing a Covid-19 mask.
  • A Hempfield PA man murdered his 92-year-old father because he believed his father was a vampire.
  • Two men rob convenience store outside Richmond VA wearing watermelon rinds as disguises.
  • The libertarian Ayn Rand Institute applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan of up to $1 million under the CARES Act despite their philosophy being that “the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.”
  • Newport Oregon Police had to remind residents not to call 911 if they run out of toilet paper
  • A woman was bitten twice by an octopus near Tacoma WA after she placed it on her face, causing a painful infection that sent her to the emergency room.
  • A Florida man donned a “Grim Reaper” costume and walked along the state’s crowded beaches to warn beachgoers about COVID-19.
  • A Philadelphia PA man was caught on video pouring a flammable liquid on a house and accidentally setting himself on fire.
  • A Chattanooga TN lawyer was arrested for public intoxication when he showed up to court smelling of alcohol and acting erratically while representing a DUI defendant.
  • The Trump administration is looking into having Trump’s face added to Mount Rushmore.
  • A Starbucks in Philadelphia PA had two black businessmen arrested for trespassing as they waited for a colleague.
  • Thousands of 10-Inch “Penis Fish” washed up on a beach near San Francisco CA in 2019.
  • A 43-year-old Paragould AR man, who drove through a cemetery doing donuts, was arrested for causing in excess of $25,000 damage, leaving the scene of a crime, and driving on a suspended driver’s license.
  • Man arrested for swimming in a 13,000 gallon indoor aquarium at a sporting goods store near Shreveport LA.
  • A Houston TX man illegally used $1.6 million of Paycheck Protection Program funds to buy a Lamborghini Urus SUV, a 2020 Ford F-350 pickup truck, a Rolex watch, real estate, and visits to strip clubs.
  • Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte was expected to be a flop when it did poorly with focus groups in 2003.
  • The toilet of a woman in Fort Collins CO was found to be clogged by a four-foot corn snake. After the apartment complex maintenance man removed the snake, she adopted it.
  • Portland OR police arrested a suspect fleeing in a stolen car after he crashed into an intoxicated woman driving another stolen car.
  • Virginia Republican Denver Riggleman, who authored a book titled “Mating Habits of Bigfoot and Why Women Want Him,” was elected to the House in 2018 by a 6.6% margin.
  • The Kent District Library in Grand Rapids, MI has pleaded with patrons to stop microwaving its books as a method to prevent the spread of coronavirus
  • Two West Palm Beach FL men were arrested for stealing 93 eggs from the nest of an endangered sea turtle.
  • A Florida man dressed as Fred Flintstone and driving the car that he converted into a replica of Fred’s prehistoric vehicle, was pulled over for speeding and arrested for acting in an unruly manner.
  • Full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the U.S.
  • South Central High School in Farina, Ill has a Drive-Your-Tractor-To-School-Day
  • Ice volcanoes form on the shores of Lake Michigan where water shoots through holes in thin sheets of ice.
  • An intoxicated 66-year-old black man who waved a gun with one hand and had a beer in the other as he walked along a road near Tampa FL was arrested by police without being shot.
  • No Governor, Supreme Court Justice, or President has ever risen from the working class.
  • A 2018 study by Ohio State University found a strong correlation between the number of an individual’s past partners and their mother’s.
  • A rural ME man who installed booby traps around his property to deter intruders was shot and killed after he opened a door that he rigged to fire a handgun when it was opened.
  • A Miami FL man illegally used $3.6 million of Paycheck Protection Program funds to buy a Lamborghini 2020 Huracan, merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue and Graff, and services at luxury resorts in Miami Beach.
  • A traffic stop of two black men by Chicago Police for having an air freshener hanging in their car was ruled legitimate by the court.
  • A Waukesha WI woman performed a spiritual ritual on a dead opossum in the road, then pulled out a Green Bay Packers lawn chair from her vehicle and urged the animal to “repent.”
  • The Finance Director of Harrisburg PA, a former city councilman, resigned after being charged with three misdemeanors for naked gardening.
  • Augusta ME Police arrested a man riding a lawnmower on city streets while intoxicated. This apparently is not uncommon.

In Defense of Mask Avoidance

There are at least ten reasons people give for not wearing masks. Research suggests that there are at least four root causes, psychological and biochemical, for these responses. Whatever the root cause of mask avoidance might be, it’s probably more complex than just ignorance or resistance to authority. Society should recognize that individuals have their own motivations for what they do and don’t do in their personal lives. Individuals should recognize that they are a member of a society and they are bound to follow the rules and necessary conventions of that society, particularly when their actions affect the well-being of others. Mask wearing is a clear case of “all for one and one for all.”

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We Are Addicted

An addict will do anything he can to get his fix. He’ll take the easiest path to get it, often committing illegal acts in the process. His high is bliss. Then one day he’ll overdose so his friends will have to take him to the ER. He’ll be saved and his friends will convince him to go to rehab. He’ll go and get clean. Then he’ll get out and relapse. He’ll do this again and again. One day, he’ll overdose and be at the brink of death. He’ll recover, and when he gets out of the hospital, his friends will care of him, again. Ultimately, though, he’ll relapse and get high, again. The pattern repeats over and over.

Americans are addicted to political ignorance. They’ll do anything they can to avoid following politics. They’ll be too busy with their family, or their jobs, or their vacations and hobbies, to care. They’ll ignore the poverty, homelessness, and injustice all around them. Then a corrupt politician – a Nixon, a Bush, a Trump – will get elected and devastate the country. They’ll ignore him, even support him against their own best interests, just so they can stay ignorant. Ignorance is bliss. Then things go from bad to intolerable. They’ll pay attention for a moment to vote him out of office, but then, return to their ignorance until the next intolerable politician comes along. Life never gets appreciably better; it just cycles between bad and intolerable. The pattern repeats over and over.

The election of 2020 shouldn’t just be about going from intolerable to bad. All that will do is let everyone go back to their political ignorance while things stay bad. That’s what we’ve done for the last forty years. The cycle must be broken. That’s what I will vote for in November.