The continuing education of a half-decent linguist, wannabe philosopher, and diy tech enthusiast. #100days
14,205 words

21: The Fourth

It's the 4th of July. There are going to be a lot of really self-righteous thinkpieces on the internet, but you won't find one here. Happy 4th, everyone. Stay safe, drink some beer, and go shoot off some fireworks!

20: Making ChromeOS Just a Little Better

When it comes to everyday computer use, I tend to use a Linux machine. I've never liked Apple products, and Windows has never done much for me either. I tend to go for more open source stuff. That said, I will be the first to admit that Linux might be overkill for the way that I use a computer a lot of the time. It isn't so much that I don't like the features, it's just that I don't use a lot of them.

That's where ChromeOS comes in handy. There is just something nice about having a device in between a full computer and a smartphone. I know a lot of people fill that gap with a tablet, but again, I don't like Apple products. Anyway, to get back to the point, I really like ChromeOS for its speed and its ability to do the kinds of light, browser-based computer work that a lot of us do.

All that being said, I will also admit that it is pretty limited. It's great for things like checking websites, social media, light reading, email, etc., but it is very hard to get serious work done on something that limited. The whole "built around the browser" thing is wonderful up until the point that you need to run an app or want to do something offline. So what are you gonna do?

From what I can tell, Google has tried to address this issue in two ways. The first is simple enough. They added support for the Play Store and allow you to run Android apps. The second is a little more complicated. They also have an option that gives you a Linux terminal and the ability to run Linux apps. If you really know what you are doing, you could probably have done both of these things on a Chromebook for years, but what I mean here is that there is now official support for these from Google. For a Chromebook user with less technical knowhow, it just makes things a lot more accessible.

All of this is to say that Google has realized the limitations of their OS, and they are trying to fix the problem. I've personally tested out both solutions at this point. Despite being a big fan of Linux, my recommendation for improving ChromeOS is actually the play store and the android apps.

There are some reasons why. First, Linux on ChromeOS is in beta right now, and my goodness does it show. It's highly unstable, and it's got tons of bugs and quirks about it. From a user experience perspective, it feels like you are using something experimental. Personally, I don't mind that, but it might be a bit too rough of a ride for the average user.

Second, Linux apps themselves are a little strange on the OS. ChromeOS is a Linux operating system, so you would think it would all be fine and dandy, but some of it is just slow. In my experience, it has also been hard to run more than one Linux app at a time. I mean, this is a problem with ChromeOS in general, but it is particularly pronounced with the Linux apps.

There's also the persistent storage problem. Very few Chromebooks have a huge amount of internal storage. They aren't really built to have things stored locally, so they just don't run that way. It makes Linux apps not work really well.

So those are my main complaints with Linux for ChromeOS. Most of these issues are solvable with Android apps. There are, of course, still some issues with Android, but the main thing you get if you use the Play Store on a Chromebook is support. It's not in beta, so it's not going to have the bugs and issues that you get with Linux. Obviously, some things that are built for a phone just won't work properly on a computer, but in general Android will be more user-friendly. Also, if you already use an Android device, most of it will be familiar for you.

Unfortunately, no solution is going to be perfect. While Android apps will help extend the utility you get out of a Chromebook, the main function of ChromeOS is still going to be web browsing and email. For a lot of folks, that's going to be plenty.

For those of us looking to make ChromeOS a little better, at least for now, Android is the way to go. I hope to see Google do more with Linux in the future, but for now, Android just works better. We'll see what the future holds though. I would love to update this post to say that Linux works better, but that might be a long time coming.

19: Coding Takes Work

I read this article yesterday morning. If you want me to save you a click, it's called "Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex," and it is about the rhetoric around coding. I agree, broadly speaking, that coding is presented as a tad too accessible. I only speak as a beginner, but coding does have a really steep learning curve. It probably isn't something to take up lightly.

That said, it's a lot like any other skill. I'll give an example. When I was a young boy, around 14 or so, I heard Eddie Van Halen on the radio. I had never heard anything like it, and to my 14-year-old self, it was mind-blowing. So I did what any 14-year-old will do. I saved a little allowance money, got a first job at a local farm, and I bought an electric guitar. It was only after I tuned the thing up and started to learn a few chords that I realized something: guitar is easy to pick up, but it's really, really difficult to play like Eddie Van Halen.

This was distressing when I was 14, and while I didn't give up on the guitar, I never did learn to play the way that Van Halen can. Or to put it another way, the enjoyment I got out of learning the guitar was not really worth the effort I would have to put in to play well. Guitar is really easy to pick up and learn a few chords so that you sound good. It is incredibly difficult to really master it, takes years and years of study, dedication, and above all, practice. I just didn't put in the practice.

What does this have to do with the topic? Well, I've found learning code to be the same way. The initial steps of learning something like HTML, for instance, are stupidly easy. Anyone to remember this kind of thing:

<b>this is bold</b>
<i> this is italic</i>
<u>this is underlined</u>

Then you add stuff like CSS to the mix and it gets more complicated:

body {
  background-color: black;
  font-family: monospace;
  font-size: 14px;
  color: white;

And not long after that, the learning curve just ramps right up. If you are only looking at the beginning steps of any kind of code, it does look simple. It looks like an easy process that you could just pick up on a weekend, but it gets so much more complicated after that. Those examples are also just HTML and CSS which are actually straightforward to learn, and even those are complicated.

So yes, coding is hard. It is a lot of work, and it takes some complex thought processes, but there's a second question in that article: is learning to code fun?

Absolutely! It requires an interesting mix of logical thought and problem solving, and even though the learning curve is steep, it's pretty worth it. I get the feeling though that the main issue about coding being presented as this fun and easy thing to learn is not so much that the claims about it being easy are false. What is really the trouble is that it gets people into coding who, just maybe, don't have a reason to put that much effort into something.

To get back to my example, I could have taken guitar lessons and gotten better if my ultimate goal was to become a guitarist and/or rockstar. At the time, I just had different plans for my future. Without that goal, I didn't really have a reason to put much effort into my guitar practice. A lot of people probably get into the initial stages of coding without a clear goal in mind too, so when they eventually encounter how steep the learning curve is, I'd bet a lot of people get burned out.

In other words, as it is with most skills, you need some kind of a goal in mind when it comes to learning to code. While I do value learning for its own sake, I also just want to be able to make stuff. It's maybe a bit of a lame goal, but it's at least enough to keep me learning to code.

So in conclusion, I don't have much to conclude. Coding is fun, but it's not easy to learn. It's empowering in a lot of ways, but a lot of people just won't do it. It's probably going to become one of those basic life skills like reading, writing, and math, but at the moment, people can still get by without it. The article I linked above is worth a read if you are in the beginning stages of learning to code, but you should also keep in mind that to really learn something, you should make sure you have a goal in mind.

18: Sunk Cost

Whenever you are making decisions, you have some things to consider. This is true for major decisions like buying a car or voting for a particular candidate and it is equally true for minor decisions like what to have for lunch. The trouble is that as a whole, we tend to be really bad at the "considering" part. That said, there are a few good ways to get better at thinking things through.

I've been thinking a lot about the sunk cost fallacy lately. It probably requires a more extensive definition, but the nutshell version is this: when you are making a decision, the only thing that matters is prospective (or future) costs. Seems easy right? Well, it is except for the fact that there's another side to it: costs in the past are irrelevant to the decision at hand.

Here's an example: let's say you are planning to go eat at a restaurant. The last time you ate there, you got food poisoning. In other words, that trip to the restaurant cost you the discomfort of food poisoning. So you are hesitant about eating there again, and that is an understandable reaction. The trouble here is that the really natural shortcut that your brain takes goes something like this:

The last time I ate at this restaurant, I got food poisoning. If I eat there today, I could get food poisoning again, so I shouldn't eat there.

I don't think there is anyone who would fault you for thinking that way. However, it is still a fallacy. You are basing your decision to eat at a place on circumstances that applied the last time you ate at the restaurant. The same circumstances may or may not apply this time. And that's really where the trouble is when it comes to decision making. The past is irrelevant to the decision at hand, but it is incredibly difficult to ignore.

So let's go with that example again. Maybe the restaurant changed its practices recently. Maybe a bad chef got fired. Maybe they were inspected and told they had to clean up. There are tons of things that would factor into the decision to eat at the restaurant now that are relevant. They are just a little harder to see, so we take shortcuts instead. The decision making process should actually look like this:

The last time I ate at this restaurant, I got food poisoning. I should check to see if anything has changed that would help me avoid food poisoning this time, and base my decision off of what I find out.

It's harder to do, and it requires more legwork on your part, but the thinking is actually better in this situation because you are taking new circumstances into account. You also aren't relying on the the sunk cost of past decisions to help you make this decision.

All of that seems like a silly example, but the sunk cost fallacy applies broadly to all sorts of decisions. Minor ones like that can seem unimportant, but we make exactly the same mistake when it comes to major decisions too. I have a feeling that this has a huge part to play in how stupid American politics has become lately, but that is probably a post for another day.

For now, all I have to say is that any decision you make could be a lot better if you keep this kind of fallacy in mind.

17: My Hobby

I think it's important to seek out and read opinions that you don't agree with. It helps remind you why you believe what you believe, and it keeps your critical thinking skills sharp. I'll be the first to admit though that it is kind of difficult to do without seriously annoying yourself.

I think I've found a solution though. I've found myself reading a few conservative sources, at the recommendation of some people that I know. If you really want to have a good time with conservative readings, I've found it's best to imagine them writing about the Revolutionary War.

I'm not sure where I came across the idea, but I definitely read something about the ongoing protests here in the U.S. and thought you could pretty much copy and paste the ideas directly into the 18th century. The most amusing part is that rather than being the patriots that the conservatives imagine themselves to be, it pretty much turns them into loyalists. Quite ironic.

Keep reading, everyone!

16: Medium Kind of Sucks

I've hopped around blogging services a few times so far. It's a bad habit that doesn't help my search rankings at all, but somehow, I just don't care. I'm here for the writing. Not the ranking.

That said, one that I tried out and quickly got sick of was Medium. It presents itself as the absolute best place for writers who are looking for a minimalist blogging platform. It also has a lot of promotional stuff about getting smarter, expanding your mind, etc.

In reality it's just a bunch of self-help garbage for entrepreneurial types. I get the feeling that there are a lot of people out there genuinely looking for that kind of thing, but I really am not. After some of my work experiences, I've become pretty cynical of the entrepreneurial types anyway, so for me, it was a hard no.

There's another issue with it though. It suffers from the same self-aggrandizement that is common on social media services. Now anyone who does some kind of content creation can fall victim to that, but it seems like that's actively promoted on some corners of the internet, whereas it just isn't a big deal on others. Medium just seems really bad for that. Part of me thinks that it's that way because they attracted all the business-y types. I guess if I owned a business, I would be constantly thinking of how to market it too.

Still, it makes for difficult reading. I don't really like company blogs anyway. I've written about that before, but my overall take on them is that they are just not worth reading. Most of Medium is like that. It's the kind of soul-crushing, vapidity that you get reading celebrity news, but it's paraded around like people learning about things.

Now that's not to say everything on that platform is bad. There are some genuinely good writers on there and a few solid blogs, but the vast majority of the content on there is just not worth the time.

So Medium was not the blogging platform for me. I definitely still prefer things here.

15: Company Blogs

If you have ever used any search engine at all, you have probably come across a company's blog at some point. But here's a question for you: of the company blogs you've come across, how many did you return to?

If you're like me, the answer is very few, but why is that?

I've got a few theories. In my writing career, I've done some freelance work for tech companies in my area. It's hard to get paid to write, so freelancing is kind of a good idea. Also tech folks love to have a blog associated with their website, but the trouble is that many of their blogs are just hot garbage.

There's not really a nice way to say it. They are just bad. Somewhere between the SEO keywords and the call to action, the actual expression of writing is entirely lost. There's a whole lot of writing that goes in between those two that your average lame-ass CEO is too boneheaded to care about.

I think it's a mistake. I would be willing to bet that with some time and effort, any company could actually develop a readership. There could probably be intelligent and interested people coming back again and again for a company's content. But here's the thought process of the lame-ass CEO: where's the value in it?

Anyone can see the value of having traffic directed to their website, so they hire an SEO manager to think about how to manipulate the Google bots to send people to the blog. The writer, usually a contract worker at best, is a secondary concern.

Or to put it another way, in the machinations of the lame-ass CEO, the Google bot reading the blog is more important than the human. And even more important than that is manipulating the Google bot so that the company blog is the first search result. Well that way you get every lizard-brained dumbass that will only click the first thing on Google. Congratulations, you have successfully pandered to the lowest common denominator.

Unfortunately, another way to think about company blogging is that you, the reader; you, the potential customer; you, the human on the other end of the screen do not matter. You're a secondary audience. The Google bots are actually the primary audience. That's why company blogs sucks so much.

One of the best things about blogging is that there's a communication between reader and author that you don't get in other written mediums. Certainly not in books and old media like journalism. That life is completely sucked away from the company blog, and it reads like it was written for robots by robots. It's soulless drivel a lot of the time.

But hey, who am I to judge? The value of an engaged and intelligent readership is one of those intangible things that lame-ass CEOs struggle to see. Because, you know, how do you attach a particular dollar value to the things people do for fun?

To put it bluntly, you can't. But that doesn't mean it's not important. There is a really significant portion of human existence that is done for intrinsic value. Basically things like art, games, philosophy, hobbies, and learning have nearly no extrinsic value. That doesn't mean they aren't important. Arguably, it means they are more important than anything else. They have value in themselves that can't be assessed with the rubric of dollar amounts.

That intrinsic value just isn't there in company blogging, but I think it could be. If lame-ass CEOs would stop being lame-ass; if the internet would stop pandering to just the dumbest of all behaviors; and if corporations could actually care about people, then maybe things might be better.

As it is now though, company blogs suck. It also sucks to be a company blogger, but that's probably a post for another day.

14: By way of explanation

This is a bit of a housekeeping post. Yesterday and today were some major content dumps on here. I changed a lot of things around, and the main thing I did was I finally closed down another blog that I kind of halfheartedly had going and moved a lot of that content here.

I'm pretty sold on the idea of blogging with Standard Notes and Listed, so I've decided to consolidate a lot of my internet presence into one spot. I'll admit to being a bit of a compulsive writer, and for a bit there, I was writing in a few different places. Now, it's all in one spot. Of course, that required consolidating a lot of stuff and deleting a few things to trim the fat, but it looks like the work is done now.

Unless Listed gets totally shut down, I have every intention of planting myself here and staying around for a while.

13: The Expanse Got Smaller When Amazon Bought It

If you've never heard of The Expanse, I don't blame you too much. My wife and I watched it pretty much on a whim a while ago. We both like the occasional sci-fi show, and we were mostly just browsing when we came across it. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it isn't, but hey, there's a lot to choose on Amazon Prime. So we watched the first three seasons and both of us were blown away.

Not only is it really good sci-fi, it's really good for all the right reasons. Mainly, it's pretty realistic. It presents things as they are likely to be in the future instead of some kind of slightly unrealistic dystopia. I love a good dystopia, but the chances of most of them actually happening are slim. Instead, things will probably continue as they always have: some people are at the top, some are at the bottom, and overall, the struggles between those two groups are at the heart of most conflict.

That alone is a good enough reason for me to like some sci-fi shows, but this one was all about the ideas too. It investigates themes about economics, poverty, our willingness to exploit others, religion, and mankind's place in an ever-expanding cosmos. In other words, it was a really heady show. Just the way I like it.

I did say "was all about the ideas" for a reason. The show was cancelled after season three, and that was a great place for the show to stop. It wrapped up a lot of story lines and left just enough ambiguity to speculate on how things really ended. It was a nearly perfect wrap-up to the show.

Then Amazon bought it.

Amazon produced the fourth season, and while that season is still decent, it is nowhere near the great story that The Expanse was before. I'm not sure if there's a kinder way to say this, but it was significantly simplified when Amazon started working on it.

There are probably explanations for that. New writers maybe, editorial decisions to abandon certain themes, and just generally making something more palatable for a streaming audience. But overall, the result was a much smaller story with a lot less to think about. And this in a story that is, ironically, called The Expanse.

I'll give some examples of what I mean, but first, here are the basic plot points. The story follows the life of James Holden, a relateable everyman that is only trying to work and live in a complicated political environment. That environment just happens to be an interplanetary cold war. Earth, now run by the United Nations, and Mars, a breakaway colony that has established its own planetary government, are not outright fighting, but it is a shaky truce at best.

But those aren't the only groups. The story also has The Belt, a loose confederation of people who live their entire lives between Mars and Jupiter. These people are self-governing mainly, but their representatives are the Outer Planetary Alliance, a group that is some mix of a worker's union and a terrorist organization. The Belt is fighting for its own rights and recognition in the middle of a spat between the superpowers of Earth and Mars.

This creates an interesting theme of class conflict that the story carries through from the beginning into season four though, again, it is vastly oversimplified after Amazon's season.

This would be great fodder for a sci-fi show just on its own, but into this interplanetary conflict you also have the first discovery of evidence that aliens exist. James Holden is caught up in all of through a series of events that eventually leads to him and his crew to uncover an extensive plot to create hybridized soldiers from kidnapped children and the alien technology. You should note here that this is not alien life itself. What they discover is a technology created by a long-dead extra-terrestrial civilization.

There is a lot of intrigue that I am skipping over for the sake of brevity, but in the end, the alien technology forces the main governmental actors in the drama to temporarily set aside their differences and deal with the existential threat of alien existence.

That is where season three ends. Hey look, it looks like I was able to do a mostly spoiler-free summary too. The internet would be proud. Anyway, there's a lot more detail, so I would really suggest watching the show yourself.

Watch season four too, but here's my main critique. Season four took all of what was good about the first three seasons and took a lot of the complexity out of it. Overall, The Expanse is a show about shades of grey. No character is really good. Quite a few are bad. And in the end all that matters is that when faced with the choice, the characters make the best decisions that they can. The show has an interesting take on utilitarian philosophy, and it really is worth watching for that.

But let's talk about season four. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't as deep as the other seasons were. This was clearly the case when it came to the main villain. I highlighted the interesting shades of gray that The Expanse was able to investigate, but these were basically removed for this character. He's just a bad guy. And what makes him bad? Well, he hates the underclass. Anything more complex than that? Nope. He might as well have been twirling a curly mustache and wearing a black hat.

And that wasn't the only area where the complexity was entirely removed. One of my favorite characters in the show is Gunny the (former, at this point in the story) Martian Marine who gets herself caught up in what has got to be the most predictable subplot I have seen in years. She gets involved in a (shock) life of crime after being down and out about getting discharged from the military. She ends up (gasp) in way over her head and gets caught up in a suspicious deal. The deal goes (who woulda thought?) completely south and her boss gets killed. This causes her to (oh no!) go back to her friends for help.

A child could have written that. There were a lot of moments like this. A whole lot of what was really great about the show was just turned into the same bland material that is on any other streaming show. I was disappointed

Overall though, The Expanse is a decent show. I have my critiques of season four, but it ended on a good enough note that I would watch season five. Despite all the negative things about it, there were some genuinely good moments and some really great cliffhangers. It's not irredeemable, but I would really like to see a return to form for the show. Really thought-provoking sci-fi can be hard to find, so I hope the are able to get back to some more of that.

12: Hyrule is Smaller than I Remember

I got an N64 emulator for my PC, so what did I do first? The only thing any responsible person does after getting an emulator. I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

It's always been a favorite of mine, and it was a game I played a lot back in the day. I mainly wanted to see how it held up. It's not a modern game by any means, but in some ways I'm ok with that. A lot of modern games are too demanding for the setup that I have anyway. I enjoy a game every now and then, but I don't enjoy it to the point where I'm going to drop thousands of dollars on a gaming PC.

As for the game itself, it mostly holds up. For a game that came out over 20 years ago, it's still fun to play, and the story is as good as ever. There are a few cringe-worthy moments of writing along the way that I wouldn't have noticed as a kid, but generally the story works as a classic struggle of hero vs. villain. The mythology, lore, and world-building are all aspects of the game that are as intriguing now as they ever have been, so that part definitely holds up too.

As for the gameplay, it's a bit clunky to play on a keyboard instead of a controller, but overall, it works well through an emulator. Apart from some weird video quality things, I had no real issues.

One things that really holds up well is the open world. It's still pretty fun to wander around and see what's out there. Though I did experience one thing that I found kind of interesting. The world is a lot smaller than I remember. I guess this is the video game equivalent of visiting a childhood playground and realizing that the "huge" slide there is only about six feet tall.

But yeah, the map is super tiny. I don't have much to say other than that, but I think I'll keep blogging through my experience of playing the game again as an adult. It's definitely an interesting look back to something I really enjoyed back in the day.

11: Truth, Lies, and Media

It seems like every month or so I have an article come across my newsreader that goes something like this: "I'm a [liberal/progressive/democrat/etc.]. I spent [insert amount of time] reading conservative media, and it was crazy!" The latest of these was this article from The Daily Beast1. While I have no problems with the fact that these articles exist, I take issue with the conclusions pretty much every time.

Just to give you a sense of what I mean, here is one of this author's concluding points from near the end:

there is a big difference between comparing bias to bias when the right relies on baseless assertions and outright lies to deliver their political viewpoint. This isn’t really a battle between biases; it’s one of truth versus lies.

This is where these authors lose me. The people who write these articles always come to the same conclusion: that the difference between right-leaning and left-leaning media is actually a difference between reality and lies.

They go on to conclude that the people who watch right-leaning media are living isolated from reality. Somehow they miss the fact that this is kinda true no matter which "side" of the media echo chamber you inhabit.

There's a lot of bad thinking that goes on here, but the number one issue for me is this: whether you stay in the left-leaning media bubble or the right-leaning media bubble, you are every bit as misled.

And that's what really bothers me. All media has perspective. All media has stance. And yes, all of that means that nobody is representing events accurately. And you're entirely ignorant if you think otherwise. There, I said it. Rhetorical politeness be damned.

But lest this become just another polemic on the internet, let's talk about some reasons why we should doubt all claims about "objective" reporting when it comes to any media outlet.

Number one: audience. Every media outlet has an audience that they write to. They have a core group or demographic that they reach, and that will set the expectations for what they write. The typical Fox News reader will have an expectation of a republican-favoring media outlet. The typical Huffington Post reader will have an expectation for complaints about Trump. The only thing that happens if these expectations are not met is that the media outlet loses readers. The audience expectations themselves are going to skew the reporting because these places are writing to a core group or an in-group.

The point is actually not to challenge your regular readership and make them think. If you do, you run the risk of alienating them and losing that audience to a media outlet that panders to them. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but that's kind of how things go.

Number two: seeing and speaking. We sometimes think the transmission of information goes in a straight line like this:


If that were true, perfect objectivity would happen all the time. The reporter would see the event and be able to perfectly report all the facts2. Of course, even every day experience will tell you that's not how it works.

Transmitting information actually looks a lot more like this:

[event]-->[what the reporter notices]-->[what the reporter remembers]-->[what the reporter chooses to emphasize]-->[the linguistic system in the reporter's head that they use to store information]-->[the language produced to transfer that information]-->[what the audience notices in the transmission]-->[the linguistic system in the audience's head for receiving information]

Notice something in here: it's already this complicated, and we haven't even mentioned the myriad ways that worldviews can influence all of this stuff. In simpler terms, our very nature prevents complete objectivity in reporting no matter the topic and no matter the source3.

Number three: money. Let's just be honest about this one. Media outlets are advertising platforms that do news as a hobby. Again, that's not a right/left media thing, that's true of all of them. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it absolutely influences what gets reported on, how it's reported, and the writing itself. Blood sold back when they were actually selling papers. These days we would say that blood generates traffic and ad revenue

Number four: partisanship. Not much to say on this one. Owners of media companies have political opinions too. We're fooling ourselves if we think that doesn't matter.

If you really want perspective on just how much of an impact this can have, here's an interesting experiment: choose any given topic that has been important enough to generate news articles4. Then choose two sources on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. Let's just say Fox News and The Huffington Post, since I mentioned those two in an earlier example5. So take those two sources and pay close attention to the writing and even closer attention to the differences between them.

Ostensibly, your two sources are writing about the same thing. I guarantee you they are not writing from the same perspective, and it has a massive impact on how the information is presented. If you just read one article from one source, you could very well come away with very different impressions of an event than someone who read about the same topic from a different source.

And what's truly hilarious is that both writers will claim they were just reporting the facts.

So there are a number of issues with the expectation of objectivity in media, but I think there's a more compelling issue here. We shouldn't be looking to the media for the truth in the first place. And that's true if you talk about media on the right or the left.

Basically, if you live in the conservative media bubble or the liberal media bubble, you are being misled. There is an antidote though. It's this fun thing we call peer reviewed research (and, you know, reading good books). If good, hard, objective looks at reality is really what you're after, then don't waste your time on the news. Read research articles and academic books instead. You just won't find objectivity in the media6.

Oh but that reminds me. The point of these articles isn't to be objective either. The point is to pat yourself on the back and say, "well, I'm sure glad I'm not one of THOSE guys!" Please. The pot calls the kettle black.

1A group I actually liked quite a lot at one point, but their editorial standards just tanked after 2016 or so. Just my opinion, of course, but it seemed like they quickly went from writing thoughtful and compelling commentary to just another mindless click generator on the internet. I'm not really sure why.

2And just the facts.

3Of course, there's always a follow-up question. Is it possible to objective? Absolutely! It just takes more care for nuance than you will ever get in journalism. If you want to read further, I would highly suggest Newman and Genevieve Birk's essay "Selection, Slanting, and Charged Language" from their book Understanding and Using Language

4You probably can't do this with covid-19 right now. It's big news, but the topic is too broad to really see the differences. You'd probably have to narrow down.

5There's not really even a need to go extreme here. You don't have to compare things as far apart as Breitbart and Buzzfeed to see how this works.

6No matter which "side" that media is on.

10: How to Read Reviews

In my review bribe post, I mentioned that it's probably best to ignore five-star and one-star reviews on products. I thought it might be good to expand on that because it's actually an interesting question about how to not get misled by stuff on the internet.

So in brief, here's the problem: if you want a new product, you should read the reviews. It's a good way to make sure you aren't getting something that's total crap. The trouble is that if you look at nearly any product, it will give you a roughly 3.5-4 star rating. Sometimes a bit higher, and sometimes a bit lower, but nearly always in that range.

That means it's hard to make decisions based on the overall rating, so it's a good idea to read the reviews themselves. There's another problem in here too. If you look at most products, reviews are going to be overwhelmingly positive. That's the reason for things like the 3.5-4 star rating. Most of these are not going to be people that have had the product for very long.

So if you glance through five star reviews on almost anything, you'll see a lot of comments on how things look and the overall design. You'll also get my personal favorite: the "I bought this for my son, and he loves it!" review that, frankly, tells you absolutely nothing. I wish Amazon would take those out entirely, but hey, nothing's perfect.

All of that is to say that the vast majority of the five-star reviews won't tell you if a product is actually good (and that's even without the review buying I mentioned in my last post). It will tell you if something looks nice, but that's about it really.

Amazon itself contributes to this problem. It doesn't take long after you buy something that you'll get an email asking you for a review. I get those emails in a matter of days. Most of the time, that just isn't enough time to actually get to know if a product is good or not. I get that they want product information from verified purchases, but most of the time, the first impressions of a new product will be great. It skews the overall reviews upward.

Then there are the times where the first impressions are not great, and these lead to one-star reviews. These almost always have the same complaint: quality control. These aren't actually product reviews a lot of the time. Instead, they're reflective of QC mistake from the manufacturer. Now if there's a whole lot of those, it might be best to avoid the product, but usually that's not the case.

More often than not, one-star reviews are flukes. The other problem is that issues with shipping often end up in here as well. This is especially true with more fragile items that can easily be broken in transit. Overall, the problem with one-star reviews and five star reviews is pretty much the same: neither is reflective of the actual product.

The real place to look for information is in the 3-4 star review range. There are significantly fewer of those most of the time, but that is usually where you should go for real information. The other good thing is you'll occasionally see updated reviews in these areas. Some people will post that initial five star review, and then after a little more time, they will come back and edit it once they are more familiar with the product.

In terms of good information, those might be the best ones to look for because they will show the product without the rose-colored, first-impression glasses.

But I led with this being a good way to not be misled on the internet. I think the idea of ignoring overly positive or overly critical information is a great way to make sure your thought process is just a little more skeptical. It works for product reviews. It works just as well for political candidates, op-ed pieces, or anything where some critical decision making is required. If you ignore the extreme ends, you're more likely to come across better information.

Amazon reviews are a bit of a silly example, but it's a good lesson in critical thought, and I am always on the lookout for those.

9: Review Bribe?

You know what's weird about the internet? The shady, scammy side of it.

I recently bought a new pair of headphones on Amazon. For the record, the headphones are great. They have all the capability that I wanted, and they sound good. I have no issue with the product, but this part was super shady.

In the box there was a $10 bribe for a 5 star review. I'm not even kidding, but I definitely wish I was. Packed into the box along with the headphones was a little card with Amazon's logo on it that said something about getting a $10 gift card. I'd probably ignore that kind of thing most of the time, but again, it had Amazon's logo. It made me take a look.

The card had a few steps on it: Step 1 was to scan a QR code. Step 2, write a 5 star review. Step 3 was to screenshot the review and send it to some random gmail account to get $10.

I don't even know where to start with this one. To the best of my knowledge, this is in total violation of Amazon's terms of service, but even more importantly than that, if this is real, it's pretty slimy. You shouldn't just buy product reviews from people. If you want a five star review from people make a five star product. It's about as simple as that.

After doing a little digging into this, I found out that this is apparently a thing that happens quite a bit. The overall purpose is to push a product higher in the search rankings because apparently nobody clicks on page two of Amazon's search results. It's a pretty bad business practice.

In general, you,re probably better off ignoring five and one star reviews on Amazon anyway. Five star reviews usually come from people who don't know what they are talking about, and one star reviews are often flukes and quality control issues. That said, it doesn't change the fact that buying reviews for any star level is pretty lousy.

But of course, there's another question here. Is this even real? I mean, I'm not sure what the QR code went to or what it had to do with the review. And then there was the random gmail account. Here's the thing: I get a lot of stuff from Amazon. I have never once received an email from them using a gmail account. Even the people who manufacture the product probably wouldn't use a gmail account. It's weird and shady all over.

And then there's this line: "for your Amazon account security, do not attach this card picture on your review when you leave a review." Sure thing. Just keep it hush, hush for you. Right.

Real or not, it's a tad disappointing. I mean, that's pretty gross to be buying reviews like that, but also, is my integrity really worth $10? Please.

So all in all, the headphones are fine, but I don't know about the company. If that's real, that's a bit nasty. If it isn't well then who knows what kind of scam they're trying to pull.

Either way, there's no way I'm scanning that QR code.

8: Debate Revisited

I said in my last post that I would eventually tackle Andrew Sullivan's article, "Is There Still Room for Debate?" Today seems like a good day for that. There are two things that I would like to address: first, the question in the title of the article, and second near-religious fervor, Sullivan was citing.

So first, can we still debate? Yeah, I think we can, though I would be the first to admit that we've gotten increasingly bad at it, especially on social media. I think everyone at a fundamental level recognizes that there are multiple facets to everything and that there is always room for interpretations that are wrong or are missing some parts of the facts.

Most of the time when I've seen or heard someone say something stupid about there being no room for debate for them they are either 1. A child who still has a lot to learn about the world; 2. An ideologue who won't be worth speaking to anyway; or 3. Someone who is actually too stupid to realize that life is complex and full of gray areas. The final two are rare enough that I don't bother. The first has a tendency to grow out of that mindset and get better at thinking and reasoning as time goes on.

I think we are always at the risk of losing the capability for debate as people become increasingly comfortable with authoritarianism, but at the moment, I think there is still room to disagree and to come to different conclusions. For example, I try to do my part for anti-racism, but I have no intentions of putting black squares on my social media. I disagree with that part, but I don't disagree with the overall aims of the current protests.

Overall, I suppose I end up in a more hopeful position than Sullivan. Debate and disagreement are being pushed down a little bit, but everyone is angry right now. Cooler heads will eventually prevail, but it's worth keeping in mind that we are still the same country that dumped a lot of tea into the Boston Harbor over a tax increase. Some things just don't change all that much, and I'm sure there were perturbed people in Britain and America wondering when we could get back to the mental work.

I guess I just think there's a time for both. There's a time to think and a time to act. There's a time to reflect and a time to move forward. There's a time for debate and a time for a revolution. This just happens to be a time for the latter, so those of us that might prefer a bit of a debate are getting our collective jimmies rustled. And I get it. I wish we would all sit down, have a nice, logical conversation and all come to the collective conclusion that we should disband the police.

I just also think we might be the wrong country for it. Again, tea. In the Boston Harbor. Because taxes. See where I'm going with this?

But then there is a side issue, and that is the fact that we are all so cozy with authoritarianism these days. And let's make no mistake here, this is not just because Trump and his circus of fools are in the whitehouse. It's a problem that runs deep in America.

Sullivan thinks that this takes on religious undertones. I generally agree, but I think it's not so much about religion as it is about how comfortable we are with the government walking all over people. We're ok with unjust surveillance as long as it helps us stop terrorists. We're on-board with the government forcing us into lockdown and economic freefall as long as we are kept safe from Covid-19. We're fine with Trump as long as the libs are getting owned. We're ok with publicly-funded colleges banning speakers as long as it keeps students mentally safe. An actual socialist was nearly a candidate for president this year.

These seem unrelated, but I think the thing that draws them all together is that they are all examples of the extent to which we've become comfortable with authoritarians. We seem to have lost or laid aside the view that says "we shouldn't consolidate power into one branch of government because there will eventually be a bad person in there that will abuse that power." Instead, we've allowed people to abuse political power all in the name of some abstract cause. After all, the thinking goes, if we just have someone good hold absolute power, then all our troubles would be fixed.

But good luck ever finding anyone that is completely good. So while I don't agree with all of Sullivan's conclusions, I do agree that we can definitely get worse. The more we slide our way down the slope of authoritarianism, the worse and worse our debate will be until we have nothing but the bottomless pit of dystopian, state-mandated groupthink. On the other hand, this trend is reversible. We always have a choice between rational debate and getting the State to stomp our enemies. The more we choose the former over the latter, the better off we will all be in the long run.

But don't just take my word for it. Read the article yourself and come to your own conclusions.

7: Debate

This is something I would like to spend a little more time with, but I don't have the time today. In the meantime, here are some interesting highlights from Andrew Sullivan's article "Is There Still Room for Debate?" This is definitely a challenging and interesting read.

On the one hand, I've found the kind of performative activism a little gross at times, but on the other, I kind of think he takes his argument a bit too far. Obviously if he can still publish an article that challenges predominant worldviews, then there is totally room for debate.

Like I said, I'd like to spend more time with this when I can, but I've somehow ended up with a really busy Sunday. I'll be back with more thoughts later!

Sullivan says:

In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.
That’s why this past week has seen so many individuals issue public apologies as to their previous life and resolutions to “do the work” to more actively dismantle “structures of oppression.” It’s why corporate America has rushed to adopt every plank of this ideology and display its allegiance publicly. If you do this, and do it emphatically, you can display your virtue to your customers and clients, and you might even be left alone. Or not. There is no one this movement suspects more than the insincere individual, the person who it deems is merely performing these public oaths and doesn’t follow through. Every single aspect of life, every word you speak or write, every tweet you might send, every private conversation you may have had, any email you might have sent, every friend you love is either a function of your racism or anti-racism. And this is why flawed human beings are now subjected to such brutal public shamings, outings, and inquisitions — in order to root out the structural evil they represent.
If you argue that you believe that much of this ideology is postmodern gobbledygook, you are guilty of “white fragility.” If you say you are not fragile, and merely disagree, this is proof you are fragile. It is the same circular argument that was once used to burn witches. And it has the same religious undertones. To be woke is to wake up to the truth — the blinding truth that liberal society doesn’t exist, that everything is a form of oppression or resistance, and that there is no third option. You are either with us or you are to be cast into darkness.

Read the whole article here.