No Fun on the Day of the Sun

By Mike Cronin

Disclaimer: I currently work for the US Air Force. The opinions expressed below are mine alone.

What’s all the fuss about with North Korea? They are always making threats.  Why do things seem more dangerous this time around?

Every year on this date (April 15th) while Americans are contending with getting their tax returns postmarked on time, North Korea celebrates “Day of the Sun,” in commemoration of the late Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Kim Il-sung was the founder of North Korea, and is still the Head of State and officially revered as the “Dear Leader,” a god in all but name.  The birthday celebration is the biggest “holiday” in North Korea, and is celebrated with military parades and usually some form of demonstration of military might, such as missile test-launches.

North Korea has announced it will do something spectacular this particular Day of the Sun; the concern is that the “something spectacular” will be the underground detonation of a nuclear device, in violation of UN sanctions.

In addition to celebrating the “Day of the Sun,” North Korea also has a habit of stirring up diplomatic and military trouble to see what they can get away with whenever there is a new US President. The current North Korean regime, led by Kim’s grandson, Kim Chong-un, has been testing Mr. Trump’s administration by launching missiles over the Sea of Japan.  Given that North Korea is believed to have chemical weapons and has allegedly test-detonated nuclear devices before, and that they claim to have produced nuclear warheads that can fit on a missile, these launches have been extremely provocative to South Korea, Japan and the United States.

You may recall the recent launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for the Bashad Regime’s use of chemical weapons against rebels, and the use of the “MOAB” bomb to destroy an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan.  Those actions have not escaped the North Koreans.  The first demonstrated that President Trump favors action over diplomacy as a direct response to aggression, and that US cruise missiles can hit their targets, even when they have to go through heavily defended airspace (such as North Korea’s).  The second demonstrated that tunnels and underground bunkers (such as the North Korean military favors) are no guarantee of safety from conventional US weapons.

USS Carl Vinson battle Group Steams Towards Korean Waters

Kadena AB “Elephant Walk” 

Osan AB “Elephant Walk”

A US aircraft carrier battle group is steaming towards the Korean Peninsula, and there have been two no-notice “elephant walk” show-of-force exercises at Kadena and Osan air bases in recent days.  On top of that, the rhetoric is escalating, making for a tense situation.

Perhaps the most serious indication of trouble is that China has announced it will move 150,000 troops to the region of its border with North Korea, and is calling for cool heads to prevail.

The North Korean regime is like a crime family headed by the selected Kim heir.  They are hideously brutal to their own people and bellicose to the rest of the world. I would not mourn their loss. The trick is to demonstrate US resolve while leaving Kim a way to de-escalate without losing face. Not that he deserves to be let off the hook, but if we leave the North Korean regime with no options, their response could leave our administration without options – and that could ultimately put us into conflict with China.

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More Comfortable Lies and Painful Truths

By Mike Cronin

Comfortable Lie: Healthcare is a right. The US is the only developed country without universal healthcare. Obamacare reduced the gap. We must close that gap, but the Republican just tried (and failed) to open it back up.

Painful Truth: We have the right to life, but not the right to live at the expense of someone else. We have no more right to use the coercive power of government to take our neighbors’ money than we do to rob our neighbors in person, regardless of whether the loot is to be used to pay for healthcare.  Universal healthcare has been made to sound wonderful by the people who stand to gain the most power by implementing it; and it has been made to sound ghastly by the people who stand to gain the most by not having it. The fact that the US is the only developed country that does not have universal healthcare is irrelevant. We have been the first, or only, country to do, or not do, many things – one of which is to be the first nation established on the principles of individual liberty and freedom – which require individual responsibility and self-reliance. Reliance on the state leads to stagnation and mediocrity and the erosion of liberty and freedom.

Comfortable Lie: “fake news” and “alternative facts” are a recent phenomenon born of the 2016 election and social media.

Painful Truth: All news is fake; some news is useful.  This has been the case since the days of the town crier and before. Events that make the news involve, and/or are witnessed by, people – some of the least effective or reliable data recording and play-back devices known! (Remember the game called “telephone” from grade school?  Line everyone up and whisper a story into the first kid’s ear, then have him whisper it to the second kid, who whispers it to the third, and so on.  By the time the story gets to the last kid, it’s unrecognizable.) Sometime the “fakeness” of the news is due to misconceptions; sometimes it is deliberate, as mentioned in previous posts.  Sometimes the reason for the deliberate fakery seems not worth the effort, as when, in the days long before Photoshop, Life magazine retouched this shot of the infamous 1970 Kent State incident. Were they worried that somehow the public would assume the girl is screaming because a fence post seemed to be growing out of her head (right) in the original, and not because her friend lay dead in the street?

Or: What return on investment did the publishers of TV Guide gain by grafting Oprah Winfrey’s head onto Ann-Margaret’s body?  Did they think a genuine picture of Oprah would not sell as well at the check-out stand?

Comfortable Lie: The “experts” know when to raise interest rates, “inject liquidity,” or otherwise enact some control over the economy.

Painful Truth: An economy is an incredibly complex interaction between independent agents, the items they wish to buy and sell, and the relative scarcity of those items. “The economy” is impossible for even the most brilliant humans to understand at a level sufficient to make effective control decisions.  Invariably, those that try end up making small problems bigger and big problems into disasters. They also manage to steal from us by devaluing the currency we have left after paying taxes.  Consider: The humble candy bar cost a nickel a century ago, now it costs $1.25. The chocolate didn’t become 25 times more valuable in that time; our dollars have lost 75% or more of their buying power!

Not so Random Matter?

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By Mike Cronin

I started out thinking I had several disparate items for this week’s post, but they all seemed to tie together:

It’s science-project season at my son’s school.  He brought home an information/instruction packet.  He had to get a parent to sign the first page – which is a letter to parents explaining that the kid has to do the science work on his own, but parents can help with the non-process portions of the project (e.g. helping the kid get materials) etc., etc. On the reverse of the first page is a progress tracker.  The kid has to get his parents to sign each time he hits a milestone on the project.  My son got dinged on the first milestone because I didn’t sign it.   The first milestone is to have a parent sign the letter to parents.  Yes, that’s right: The purveyors of the science project’s hand-out material failed to notice they are requiring a parent sign the back of a form in order to certify that the parent signed the front of the form…and they make the kid take the hit if the parent doesn’t jump through the hoop.  On a science project. You know, Science?  The subject where they teach kids logic, critical thinking, precision, peer review, attention to detail, right? Little things like that.

Speaking of science, I work in a small office with five other people. All five are scientists and/or engineers. Our office serves as a kind of internal think-tank. We do quantitative and qualitative analysis, among other things. I am the only one in the office who does not have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  My colleagues can run rings around me on any kind of math-based reasoning or problems.  On the other hand, I usually get the better of them when it comes to verbal expression.  I like to tease them that they are all experts at qualitative reasoning, while I am the quality. At any rate, our work sometimes involves (mathematical) models and simulations. Someone in the field once quipped that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Given the public’s current fascination with the phenomena of “fake news,” I think an adaptation of the “models” aphorism is apropos as a guidepost for judging the efficacy of anything in the media: “All news is fake, but some news is useful.” Two cases in point:

Some right-wing media sources are reporting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, as much as revealed that the UN’s plans to combat climate change are really a set of blinders to hide the real agenda: the destruction of capitalism. While the UN is no friend of capitalism, context matters, as does the thing that is not being said.  Figueres undeniably advocates for the alteration of the global economy when she says:

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,”

Note that she stops short of stating that the current global economic development model that must be changed is capitalism (it isn’t, by the way – it’s a mix of capitalism and controls), or describing what model should obtain.  I would not be surprised to learn that Figueres is indeed anti-capitalist, nor would I be surprised to learn that UN efforts to combat global warming are indeed a smokescreen to hide the destruction of capitalism, but Figueres’s statements fall short of being a smoking gun – more like an eyebrow-raiser. The subject bears watching.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the fake news spectrum, we have the New York Times’ headlines for Friday’s attack at the Louvre in Paris by a “lone wolf” Islamic jihadist. Their first headline read: “Louvre Museum Evacuated after French Soldier Opens Fire.” At best, this headline leads you to believe the incident revolved around the actions of a French soldier. At worst, it leads you to believe a French soldier went nuts and started shooting up the Louvre.  A few hours later, the headline had changed to read: “Assailant Near Louvre Is Shot by French Soldier” Again, the French soldier’s actions seem to be the focus.  As mentioned previously, context matters, and what is not being said matters. What the vaunted New York Times neglected, or purposely refused to highlight in their headlines, was that a man shouting “allahu ackbar!” (i.e. “God is great” in Arabic) and wielding knives attacked some French soldiers and was shot by one of them in response.

It would not do to depart from The Narrative by highlighting yet another attack by a Muslim against Western targets, even as the militant arm of the “tolerant” left is convulsing over President Trumps’ recent “anti-Muslim” immigration restrictions, now would it? Instead, the “Newspaper of Record” felt it must mislead readers with deceptive headlines. I’m not suggesting the Times should have gone with “Islamo-Fascist Nut-Job Takes Knives to a Gun Fight in Paris; Wins Darwin Award Nomination,” but something like “Assailant Shouting in Arabic Shot by Soldier At Louvre” might have hit the right balance between not jumping to conclusions about the attacker’s religion, intentions, and connections, and the response of the soldiers.  All news is fake, some news is useful.

Three Tips for Filtering the Feed

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By Mike Cronin

Last year I wrote about the war on Christmas. This year the election of Donald Trump has overshadowed the usual brouhaha over nativity scenes at City Hall. So this year I thought I’d go with something a little more practical. The guiding purpose of this blog is to make sense out of the vast array or “manufactured truth” that we are constantly bombarded with. Here are a few tips and tricks to deal with it every day:

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  1. Consume news skeptically: the first thing you need to remember about the news media is that their first concern is to sell advertising. Their second concern is often to reinforce a narrative or advance an ideological or even partisan agenda. Running in third place is actually informing you about the new events of the day. There has been much ado recently about fake news. Given the first and second criteria just outlined, almost all the news is fake to one degree or another. When there is some crisis happening, such as 9/11, and the news “breaks in” to tell us about the event as it’s happening, they haven’t had much time to adapt it to their preferred narrative. In those cases we are usually getting real news, even if some of the details are inaccurate while the debris is still falling or the smoke is still rising. As soon as one of these stories acquires its own theme music, it’s no longer breaking news. At that point you must start taking it with a grain of salt. In reality, the best way to glean something of the truth may be to examine headlines from multiple news sources, to include some foreign outlets such as the Economist, BBC, and perhaps even Al Jazeera or Xinhua.  Even so, while those sources may tell you what’s happening and why, they seldom articulate what it means and what will likely happen because of it. Personally, I like to scan the news headlines, but I also like to read intelligence. One of my favorite sources is StratFor; a private “intelligence” firm that uses the lens of geopolitics to explain the world.

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  1. Geopolitics, as you might have guessed, is not just about geography or politics, but about how geography enables or constrains political and/or economic action between nations and other actors. For example: The United States is largely regarded to have the largest economy and the most powerful military, and we are generally thought of as being the world’s only superpower. But it is not only our military might or our form of government that has led us to this condition. The United States is this way in part because of where it’s at and what it has. The most striking example of this is our river and coastal waterway system. “The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.” (From StratFor’s “The Geopolitics of the United States.”) Give these advantages, it would have been a shock if the US had not become an economic powerhouse! By way of contrast, consider the difficulties faced by a landlocked country. Afghanistan, for example, is estimated to have over $1 trillion worth of natural resources in the form of valuable ores and minerals. Yet owing to the difficulty of getting to and from Afghanistan and navigating within its borders, and the fractured nature of its tribal society, Afghanistan has never realized its economic potential, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Where the United States has abundance of access, Afghanistan has a dearth. Geography has dealt a difficult hand to landlocked countries, but there is at least one way to overcome that difficulty: adopt a Western form of governance that recognizes individual rights and promotes liberty. Switzerland is the epitome of a country that can overcome geographic isolation by staying neutral in the conflicts of its neighbors and giving its people freedom.
  1. Like most, I’ve had geography classes, and classes on US. Government, but I never had a “geopolitics” class per se in my formal education. Our schools are set up to teach material as discreet subjects, but our brains are not set up that way. We learn and make memories by association. Another example might be economics. The word economics conjures up thoughts of central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, changing interest rates and conducting “quantitative easing.” Those elements of economics were among the set popularized by John Maynard Keynes, and “Keynesian Economics holds sway among the vast majority of economists today.  9i7jfxdepbiuxmllhv6wxoykazrjmeynuapn20ngnu0But in a broader sense, economics is the study of human activity. This goes hand in glove with geopolitics, as does history. Come to think of it, so does psychology. What if there was a way of learning economics (and other subjects) in a way that more closely mimics the way the human brain learns? Under such a rubric, there would be far fewer barriers between what we think of as the traditional subjects. Such a field exists.  It’s called “praxeology.” In short, praxeology is the study of volitional human action, and it is a basis for the Austrian school of economic thought.  We can borrow the concept to help us understand the world without trying to become economists ourselves.

Using these three tools (skeptical news consumption, understanding how geography can enable or constrain political and economic action, and removing the artificial barriers between “subjects,” and examining human action holistically), we can better learn to Filter the Feed.

The Fake News Furor

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By Mike Cronin

The comentariat would now like us to believe that Trump won the election due to fake news promulgated on social media, mainly Facebook.  To be sure, there is plenty of fake news to go around.

There are entire sites that publish nothing but fake or exaggerated news.  They craft lurid headlines that allege massive conspiracies, celebrity deaths, and imminent global crises.  They are the internet equivalent of check-out lane tabloids.  They are click-bait.

But what are we to make of the elite media machines, such as the New York Times or CNN, when they fake the news?

Sometimes, the culprit is a single reporter, such as the plagiarist Jayson Blair at the New York Times, or the embellisher Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News.

Other times, a piece of bad journalism corrupts an entire reporting team, up to and including a star anchor, such as the CBS debacle over unverified Air National Guard memos regarding then-presidential candidate George W. Bush’s background, which ultimately led to Dan Rather’s ignominious departure, or NBC’s  fabricated 1992 story about Chevy pick-up trucks that catch fire in a side impact (when the have been appropriately rigged to do so at the behest of the news crew).

Occasionally, a network reports accurate facts of a story, but gets caught creating phony drama and “atmospherics” for no discernible journalistic purpose, as when CNN was covering the Jodi Arias trial. Reporter/commentators Asleigh Banfield and Nancy Grace were televised conferring on a split-screen as if they were linked by satellite across the continent…when they were in fact mere yards apart in the same Phoenix parking lot.

Most recently, CNN “contributor” Donna Brazile introduced a new wrinkle to the fake news follies by trying to ensure a story would unfold the way it had been pre-ordained by giving debate questions to the Clinton campaign in order to help cement Hillary’s election as the first female president.

More often, though, the main-stream media is not so brazen as to completely fake the news or plagiarize stories. Yet they are still not the “fair and balanced” purveyors of fact they would have us believe. More often than they would like us to know, they are just guilty of not digging into things, or of regurgitating proffered talking points, or of going with the flow.  Why do more work than you have to?

You do so because sometimes peoples’ reputations, or even their lives, are at stake.  The Duke Lacrosse players.  The Rolling Stone – U. Va false rape case. Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, MO Police Dept. Geraldo Rivera’s antics in Iraq.

Even when others’ lives aren’t at stake, the media have to know that their own credibility is.

5 Ways to Fight Hobgoblins

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By Mike Cronin

I often refer to H.L. Mencken’s “hobgoblins” quote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” We see this every day, often with the enthusiastic pot-stirring of the main stream media.

Take today’s headlines, for example.  Rising tensions with Russia over the imbroglio in Syria. Hurricane Matthew. Gold prices. Stock prices. Jobs growth. Giving up control of the internet.  Hillary’s scandals. Trump’s crudities.  Duterte’s bombast. NFL ratings. Crazy clown sightings.

How is all of that really important? How can we ignore the hobgoblins and glean the “ground truth?”

A few rules of thumb can be useful:

  1. Always keep Mencken’s quote in mind, together with Thomas Sowell’s observation:1931497_10156430011180515_9052930332313088412_n
  2. Get your news from a variety of sources. Journalism has evolved, or more precisely, de-volved, in the face of 24/7 cable news cycles, citizen-chroniclers, and the web.  According to the authors of Blur, the old media’s apex occurred at about the time of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. CNN came online shortly after in 1980, and the 24/7 news cycle was born. The term spin as euphemism for truth-shaping entered the lexicon at about the same time. Consumers have had to contend with an ever more clamorous, ratings-driven media ever since. Every outlet is biased, but some do a better job of admitting what their bias is (my own, for example, is for individualism, reason, and laissez-faire capitalism) and/or mitigating for it (this reporter, for example, does a commendable job on reporting from Washington D.C. without interjecting his ideology). Alternately, check out the US news from a foreign source, such as BBC, Al Jazeera, or Xinhua.  They are biased as well, but perhaps not about the same things we are. It can be enlightening.
  3. Once the main-stream media have added unique theme music to a particular story, it’s not breaking news anymore. They are trying to turn it into a cash-cow and milk it for ratings.
  4. Most mainstream media operations lean left/liberal/progressive/Democrat, while Drudge, Breitbart, and Fox News (at least until the recent departure of Roger Ailes) tilt right/conservative/Republican – but what if both of those factions are two sides of the same coin? In order to see liberals and conservatives as opposites, you are supposed to accept a left-right political spectrum model with socialism on one end and fascism on the other. To the subjugated souls living under either, there is no practical difference. As the saying goes: All models are wrong, some models are useful.  A left-right / liberal-conservative model keeps you scared of the hobgoblins.  What if we look through a different lens? What if we put individual liberty on one end, and absolute tyranny on the other?  I contend that on such a model, “liberal” and “conservative” establishment politicians are continuously dragging us closer to the tyranny cliff, with only the flavor of tyranny at issue. Using a better model might get us closer to “ground truth.”  Who will lead us to liberty or drag us to tyranny?
  5. One kind of real hobgoblins we must watch for: luminaries with enough wattage to force the public eye to “look away.” Such wattage could come in the form of personal charm or charisma, whereby the figure is judged by their reputation instead of earning a reputation based on considered judgement (e.g. President Obama’s anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize), or via “wagging the dog” (e.g. President Johnson’s incandescent “Gulf of Tonkin” lie).

 

Trolling by Polling

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By Mike Cronin

Now that the presidential campaign season is in full swing, we are being treated to the usual inundation of “demographic” polling results (i.e. how are “soccer moms,” Hispanics, gays, white men, etc. going to vote?)  Taken individually, as they are usually reported, the vast majority of these polls tell us nothing useful.  Piolls that tell us how a state will vote are getting closer to valuable.

Consider: This page at Real Clear Politics lists numerous polls with entries similar to this one:

Race/Topic: State X:         Poll : Qunipiac                Results  Trump 44, Clinton 38                            Spread: Trump +6

Trump is up by six points over Clinton in State X.  Sounds dire for Clinton, right?

You still might be getting “trolled.”

Regardless of how you’d like the race to go, we need to remember how presidents get elected: by winning the Electoral College vote.  The popular vote heavily influences the Electoral College, but the nature of that influence is determined by state laws. As we’ve seen as recently as 2000, it is possible to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote and the election. In terms of polls: It means that generic surveys of this or that demographic, such as the one cited above, are almost useless by themselves for telling us how an election might go, especially in “solid” red or blue states. It makes no difference if a candidate’s poll numbers go up in a state that was already going to vote for them.  It makes a great deal of difference if a candidate’s numbers change in a battleground state with a lot of electoral votes, such as Florida or Ohio – such a shift could move electoral votes from one column to the other, perhaps enough to get to 270.

Thus, even taken in aggregate, “demographic” polls aren’t much of a barometer.  A much more instructive product would tell us how every state is currently trending, with caveats for the states (Nebraska and Maine) that are not “winner take all.”  Such a tool would give us a much better predictive assessment of the electoral college votes likely to go to each candidate.

Such a beast exists: http://www.270towin.com/. They have broken down the race several ways.  If we look at their map that “kluges” current polling data with expert forecasters’ opinions, Mrs. Clinton already has 272 votes in her camp, two more than are needed to win.  But  if we look at their chart that displays the accumulation of polling data only and omits “expert opinion,” then Clinton has about 200 electoral college votes in her camp (out of 270 needed to win), while Mr. Trump has 163.  Either situation sounds much more troublesome for him than “Trump up by six” sounds for Clinton, doesn’t it?

If “demographic” polls vice “electoral vote” polls do little to predict the outcome of the Electoral College race, why publish them? At least two possibilities come to mind:

  1. There’s nothing like stirring the pot in order to keep you tuned in and watching advertisements.
  2. To shape voters’ behavior in some way favorable to whomever commissioned the poll. Example one: Clinton’s current lead only translates to victory on Election Day if enough voters actually go to polling places and pull levers.  If you want Clinton to win, maybe you paint her as losing ground in the polls in order to generate a hint of doubt. Maybe that will motivate folks to go vote that might have stayed home if they felt comfortable she was going to win. Example two: If you want Trump to win, you might commission such a poll in order to generate enthusiasm by painting him as an underdog coming from behind and pulling ahead – a narrative that always does well in America.

Manifestly, Donald Trump still has an uphill battle.  In his best case scenario, he has to take 107 more votes and keep Clinton from gaining, while in his worst case he needs to take at least three of Clinton’s existing votes away!

Despite being much more instructive than run-of-the-mill poll reporting, even such tools as the “270towin” charts are not infallible, nor is the sentiment recorded today going to be the same on election day.  Clinton’s recent bout with “pneumonia,” clumsy messaging regarding her overall health, and “deplorable” commentary on Trump supporters certainly helped Trump’s polling tick up a bit, but did it affect the electoral vote trend?  Time will tell – and we still have to get through the “October Surprise.”

While such and event or revelation may yet upend the race, there is sure to be a battle over the next few weeks for the remaining available electoral votes. Poll results that don’t tell you how that aspect of the election is going are probably not worth your consideration.