5 Hacks for Identifying Legit (or not) News Sources

A friend asks, “How do I know what news sources are legit?  Like, ThinkProgress, for example?  Do they suck?  I know many sites, but I have no idea which ones are regarded as actually having good information.”

This is a good question, and I wish more people would ask it.  The growing ideological segregation of Americans is shutting down the immune system of the body politic, driving us further and further apart, and sending us (slowly) down the path that led (in the 19th century) to civil war.  One of the biggest contributors to ideological segregation is the fact that many of us – especially the most politically passionate – get all or most of our news from sources which are strongly aligned with our own ideology.  Progressives do not get news from FOX.  Conservatives do not get news from Salon.  (We even have competing, parallel entities, Media Matters and NewsBusters, dedicated to categorically discrediting the other sides’ sources.  The mind-virus now has its own antibodies.)

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Net Neutrality: A Sorta-Technical Overview

This is the text of a talk I recently gave at the monthly meeting of Twin Cities Catholic I.T. Professionals, Inc..  It is aimed at computer professionals who want to get a deeper understanding of net neutrality, and goes into much more technical detail than a general audience would want. Also, there are no helpful pictures or links in this one. For a less technical overview, aimed at my fellow political conservatives, see my original blog post, Why Free Marketeers Want To Regulate The Internet.  Otherwise, please enjoy!

Thanks everyone for coming.  I am James Heaney, and my talk is on network neutrality.  I can’t claim any particular credentials on this topic, the way our past speakers have been able to.  I did write a blog post about the economics of net neutrality that got picked up by TechDirt and retweeted by Vint Cerf, which was maybe the coolest thing that ever happened to me, but my interest in it is amateur: net neutrality sits at the crossroads between technology, economics, law, and public policy, which rings pretty much all my chimes.  My presentation will start with tech, where you’ll probably know most of what I’m talking about, and move toward policy, which hopefully is a little more educational. Net neutrality a hugely complicated issue, and – while I do have an opinion – I think this is one of the few policy issues where this is no single right answer.

That said, let’s see how the room shakes out.  Based on whatever it is you know – no matter how vague –  do you think the FCC’s proposed regulations on network neutrality go too far, don’t go far enough, or are just right?  And, yes, you have to decide, no matter how irresponsible your opinion.  Don’t worry: I won’t tell the FCC.

Cool.  And, just out of curiosity, do you think your opinion is fairly well-informed, or not?

So, let’s start with the basics.  Net neutrality is about how data traffic is handled on the internet. What’s the internet?

(TED STEVENS IMPRESSION) “It’s… it’s… it’s a series of tubes!”

Heh heh.  I love that one.

But, seriously, Senator Ted Stevens was basically right.  The Internet is a bunch of computers stuck together with tubes.  All of them want to send data over the tubes to everybody else.

When a home user connects to the Internet, he typically connects to an Internet Service Provider, or ISP.  This ISP – let’s say Comcast – owns what is called a Tier-2 network.  You give them money, they let you connect to every other computer in their network.  Right now, Comcast will sell you “unlimited” access, which is actually 250 gigabytes per month, with 20 megabit-per-second-service, for around $80.

But Comcast isn’t connected to everyone on the Internet.  In fact, it’s not really connected to very many people at all besides other Comcast customers, which is just a subset of other people in the United States.  And they call it the Internet, not ComcastAmericaNet, so they must be doing something to get their users connected to the rest of the world.

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Translations of Some Church Documents, #1

I am Catholic, and I care a lot about the intricacies of Catholic teaching, so, from time to time, I am forced to look up very old, not very prominent Church documents, from papal allocutions to Decrees of the Holy Office. These documents are almost always found somewhere in the great compilation Enchiridion Symbolorum, by Denzinger, but, as the Vatican Printing Office continues its near-criminal profit-mongering with the Deposit of Faith, large chunks of Denzinger’s great work are not actually online — at least, not in English.  (If you are a wealthy person, feel free to send Ignatius Press $65 for their up-to-date translation of Denzinger.)

So, not infrequently, I find myself reading a Vatican document, encountering a citation that records nothing but a Denzinger number, and then spending an hour searching the internet for an English translation of that number.  When that fails (and it usually does), I have to go to the Latin text (which is online, albeit illegally) and translate it for myself.  This can take hours.

From now on, as my contribution to the Internet, whenever I translate one of these obscure documents, I am going to post the Latin text and the translation to this blog.  Those of you who are regular readers will find these posts disjointed and deadly dull.  But those of you who are finding this blog because you’ve been wandering around Google for an hour trying to find a reliable translation of Denzinger 2795… you’ve come to the right place!  The translations are not literal, and I can make no guarantee that my Latin is accurate; I only studied it for five years, and never became fluent.  (I would welcome corrections.)

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The Average American Wants BOTH Gay Marriage AND Extreme Abortion Restrictions

One of my occasional themes here at De Civ has been the fact that one of the most common, most influential tropes in American politics is completely wrong.  Most commentators think that abortion and marriage are politically linked: if abortion restriction gets the upper hand, then say good-bye to same-sex marriage, and vice versa. Major Republican politicians regularly complain that, because Republicans have lost on the definition of marriage, therefore Republicans should surrender on all social issues, or they will lose all elections forever.

This is an analysis of the political landscape, not an endorsement of it. Feel free to read this entire post in Frank Underwood’s voice.

At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there’s a certain truth to the trope: the Christian Churches that generally make up the backbone of the anti-abortion movement also make up the backbone of the anti-marriage-redefinition movement. And the Supreme Court justices who claim that abortion — at any time, for any reason — is a constitutional right are exactly the same justices who claim the same for same-sex civil marriage.  And so on, throughout the extreme bases of both movements.  Pundits spend most of their time talking to extremists, because extremists are the people who get engaged, get involved, and get important.  It would not be unreasonable to argue that every single person who lives on the inside of Interstate 495 is, compared to the average American voter, a radical extremist.  And so extremists set all political narratives, including this one.

But elections aren’t decided by extremists.  They’re decided by the average voter.  And the average voter is a strange duck.  A new set of thorough, state-level polling data jointly released last month by YouGov, CBS News, and the New York Times makes this clear in a way that most pundits haven’t come to appreciate yet.

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A Quick Note of Agreement with Mike Masnick

I don’t check my pingbacks very often, because I know everyone who reads this blog (all seven of you!) and so pingbacks don’t usually tell me much.  So I quite failed to notice that my recent piece on net neutrality attracted a little attention outside the usual septet, and only saw Mike Masnick’s piece on Techdirt tonight, while I was up late working on a new post (working title: “S.2876: Making the War on Women Work for You!”).

Overall, Mr. Masnick agrees with me (and I with him).  He has one quibble with my presentation: its title (“Why Free Marketeers Want To Regulate the Internet”).  He writes:

…[T]he underlying claim about all of this [is] that Title II is somehow “regulating the internet.” It’s not. It’s never been about that at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s about choosing which form of regulation internet infrastructure will be ruled by. The anti-net neutrality crew like to make this mistake (and they make it often), trying to pretend that internet infrastructure is the internet. It’s not.

This is a good point.  Internet infrastructure is just a “series of tubes“, and it tends toward natural monopoly.  The actual Internet — perhaps, more properly, the World Wide Web — is an infinite space where any entrepreneur can hang out his shingle to sell any good or service, with no permits, no regulation, and no limits except his imagination.  It is closer to the fabled “perfectly competitive free market” than anything else mankind has ever seen… probably ever will see.

Despite the title of my piece, free marketeers don’t want to regulate the Internet.  We want to regulate the infrastructure that undergirds the Internet precisely in order to preserve the freedom of markets and peoples who are actually on the Internet.  The distinction is important, it is too often forgotten, and it has recently been exploited by ISPs making the specious argument that invoking Title II against Internet infrastructure providers (say, Comcast) would force the FCC to also invoke it against World Wide Web content providers (say, Google), destroying the freedom and innovation of the online marketplace.  The reality is just the opposite: if we don’t regulate internet infrastructure, the infrastructure monopolists will attack the online free market… and win.

Mr. Masnick goes on to observe that internet infrastructure has always been both regulated and heavily subsidized by governments at all levels.  As free marketeers know, government subsidies are just another form of regulation, no less disruptive to markets than price controls.  The big ISPs are only discovering the beauty of markets now that regulation might hurt their bottom line. I don’t know that that adds anything to our economic case — I doubt it — but it sure does make me feel less guilty about throwing the book at them.

The only other thing I’d like to mention from the pingbacks is that, contra the good folks at Engine.is, I am not Cleveland State University Lecturer Dr. James J. Heaney – although, looking at his publications list, I’m certain we’d get along famously.  I am the mere Mr. James J. Heaney, Minnesota software developer, founder and director of the James J. Heaney Institute for the Inquiry into Natural Philosophy and Science-y Things, and Star Trek audio drama producer (and, yes, that site is long overdue for an upgrade).

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Why Free Marketeers Want To Regulate the Internet

This article provides a broad overview of the case for Title II reclassification.  It was aimed specifically at a handful of senior citizen Republicans who worked with me during a recent campaign — good people who don’t know too much about computers.  

If you are more technical-minded, you may prefer my recent presentation to a group of local Catholic I.T. professionals, Net Neutrality: A Sorta-Technical Overview, which covers a lot of the same points in greater detail.

Like most Americans, conservatives do not know very much about Net Neutrality.

…just like every public utility.
(Image credit: DaddyChief.com)

What they do know about it makes it sound like a terrible idea: a bunch of Silicon Valley elites, backed by the Google panopticon and the Mozilla jerks who publicly executed Brendan Eich over his quiet support for traditional marriage, are demanding that the FCC impose sweeping regulations on the companies who bring the Internet to your door.  With help from their close ally President Obama, these shysters have made tremendous forward progress against the so-called “evil” corporations who (in reality) own, develop, and generally manage the series of tubes that make up the Internet – corporations who have, in short, ushered in the entire Internet Age and all the good it entails.  The only people in this drama who are holding off the regulators are the valiant heroes at the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, who are not afraid to stand athwart the regulatory agenda yelling “stop!,” demanding free markets and free peoples and not an iota less.

Given that narrative, it seems odd for a conservative – whether an old-guard big-business Bush-era conservative or a new-guard Paulite libertarian conservative – to support Net Neutrality.

Except I do Internet for a living, and I am one of the lucky ones who actually knows what Net Neutrality means and what it’s responding to.  And, folks, I’m afraid that, while L. Gordon Crovitz and Rich Lowry are great pundits with a clear understanding of how Washington and the economy work, they don’t seem to understand how the Internet works, which has led them to some wrong conclusions. Continue reading

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Re: Your Ire Is Misdirected

Hi, Gerv,

I’m sure you’re inundated, and you sure as heck don’t know me, so there’s no need to respond to this.  But I really appreciated your post the other day, and wanted to share my reaction with you.  Perhaps it will be of some use in figuring out Mozilla recovers from this catastrophe.

As I see it, there are still two big reasons why I and people like me — broadly speaking — are going to have to withhold support Mozilla for the foreseeable future, even after our current anger subsides:

(1) In your post, you give the public your assurance that Brendan really did leave of his own accord; that he really wasn’t forced out; that the Board actually fought to retain him as CEO.  The problem is that your assurance is not a very strong authority outside Mozilla’s walls, and it has to be weighed against the evidence.  This certainly looked, from the outside, like a standard corporate decapitation, where the Board decided to fire the CEO and allowed the CEO to “resign” only to retain his own dignity.

We saw Brendan promising never to resign just a couple days before he did.  We watched Robert George predict — to all appearances accurately — how this was going to play out. We heard the dead silence from the principal players.  (Why hasn’t Brendan said a word in defense of Mozilla since he left?) We noticed that all other accounts of his resignation say the Board tried to retain Brendan as CTO — but pointedly not as CEO. Above all, we read Mitchell’s (very unfortunate) blog post on Resignation Day.  In that post, she seemed to concede that Brendan never should have been hired, that “equality” trumps free speech in this case, and that Mozilla’s biggest takeaway from all this is that, given the chance to do it all again, they’d have fired Brendan even faster.

In this light, your anonymous sources are just not very convincing, even given your bona fides as Mozilla’s last public marriage traditionalist.  (Perhaps especially given those bona fides: what happened to you two years ago would seem to support the suggestion that Mozilla’s commitment to inclusion is skin-deep at best.)

(2) Even if you are absolutely right, and leaving was entirely Brendan’s idea, it still sends a terrible message to the world: “Mozilla can be bullied.  We cannot protect our leader from a bunch of petty thought police on the internet.  We will leave him on the front line, alone, to take 100% of the incoming fire, and then we’ll thrust the blame on ‘outsiders’ when the wounds take him out.”  If that’s the case, then perhaps Mozillans really do still believe in the radical inclusion the project was founded on — but it hardly matters, because Mozilla is no longer calling the shots.  The bullies have taken control, and Mozilla is impotent to resist their imperious will.

In either case, Mozilla is not something many of us feel we can be a part of — or should be — right now.

You mention forgiveness.  If Mozilla wants forgiveness (and I am not even convinced that it wants to be forgiven as forgotten right now), I think it will have to demonstrate some level of repentance and some level of autonomy.

First, repentance: Mozilla must recognize that what happened was not a causeless tragedy that mysteriously destroyed the co-founder like a bolt of lightning.  This happened because the entire community failed.  It wasn’t just the few who raised their voices in protest against Brendan.  It was also those who were publicly ambivalent and conflicted (there were so many!), and even those who supported Brendan but refused to put their foot down and demand that he be retained.  The community either openly attacked or (more often) simply failed to defend either the principles of the project or the concrete policies that give those principles life.  The community’s reluctance to close ranks around the project – not the CEO or his particular beliefs, but the whole concept of an open-source browser that everyone can be part of — was the key fact that made the subsequent media bonfire successful.  It was a sin by the entire community, and it needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the whole community, not just in individual “I feel sad we lost Brendan” posts on Planet Mozilla.

Second, autonomy: social conservatives need to know that Mozilla not only regrets what happened to Brendan, but that it has the desire and ability to make sure that nothing like it will ever happen again.  That people who have “offensive” political opinions still have a place at Mozilla, that our contributions are valued, and that we can even become leaders within the organization.  That Mozilla has not been conquered by ideological interests at Slate and Salon and OKCupid, but remains a genuinely global project that embraces literally anyone who is willing to work toward the (crucial!) goal of a free and open web.

I don’t know how Mozilla might go about doing this, and (unlike those who waged war last week) I don’t presume to dictate terms.  I only know that Mozilla has done absolutely nothing whatsoever since the resignation to restore our sense that it is a “safe space,” and I know that it cannot ever do that without positive action of some kind.  When a university administration is accused of discriminating against racial minorities, they will often establish programs and endowments to ensure that members of those minorities are hired and are able to contribute to the university project without fear of reprisal or undue discomfort.  Perhaps (perhaps) something along the same lines for ideological minorities would help restore the public trust.

For now, however, I’m afraid I won’t be on my favorite browser, and neither will my clients.  This is written from Chrome, which is gross… but at least I know I could go to Google and have a productive career there despite my private beliefs… even if they harvest all the data about my private beliefs and sell it to the NSA.

I don’t know where the open web goes from here, but, fundamentally, a web controlled by the same forces that led to Brendan’s resignation is not an open web at all — except for those privileged to have the “right” opinions.  That means Mozilla, as it currently looks from out here, as it currently operates, cannot carry forward the open-web ideal — not until this is addressed and corrected.

Maybe this all looks completely different from within the Mozilla community. I don’t know; I’m pretty much just a longtime fan and user and promoter, not a contributor.  And there are my two cents.

Posted in Culture, In Conversation | 39 Comments

Progressive Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Tote Bag

This piece is inspired entirely by Peggy McIntosh’s classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” to which I am immeasurably indebted.

I have noticed lately that my liberal-progressive friends have begun casually adopting the tools of gender and race studies in their daily lives, scrutinizing not just American society as a whole, but their own personal relationships through the lens of feminism and other critical disciplines.  It is more and more common for me to see discussions where an argument is not answered with a counter-argument, but with an accusation of blindness based on the arguer’s “unchecked privilege.”  (I do not deny that I find many of these accusations to be high comedy.  This spring’s anti-microaggression campaign at St. Olaf College – already a bastion of political correctness – was perhaps the silliest thing that has ever happened, ever.)

There’s much truth to be gleaned in all this talk of privilege.  In general, I think it’s easier to be white than black in today’s America.  In general, I think it is easier to be a man in the workplace, and it’s certainly easier to be a male gamer or a male citizen of the Web, given the intense, irrational, and openly evil retaliation against many females who try to occupy those spaces.  Now, I don’t think much of the responses the intersectional Left offers to these problems. Nevertheless, these unearned blessings for some are unearned difficulties for others, well worth pointing out and, where possible, leveling out as well.

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Just The Facts, Ma’am: The Vatican Embassy Closing

Fact-checking is a decadent industry.  Mainstream fact-checkers at the Washington Post and PolitiFact rate politicians’ claims on multi-point scales ranging from “Pants On Fire” to “The Geppetto Checkmark.”  To manage these multi-point scales, fact-checkers must resort to subjective measurements of “relevant information” and “context” in order to determine whether a statement is “true” or merely “mostly true” or somewhere south of true.  Unfortunately, these are fundamentally subjective judgments, and the fact-checkers’ fact-checks more often reveal their own biases than they reveal the truth.  Indeed, all too often, the fact-checkers end up clouding the truth.  Sometimes, they deliberately evade it.

I’d like to try an alternative approach, and so we at the James J Heaney Institute are rolling out a new fact-checking apparatus, which we are dubbing Just the Facts, Ma’am.  From time to time, we’ll grab a quote that is making the rounds.  Then we will tell you whether the quote is true, false, or neither true nor false, aka “debatable“.  (Things which might fall into that last category are opinions, non-assertions, vague claims, predictions, semantic arguments, and unclear assertions.)  No tricks, no context, no mercy.

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The Trouble With Snowden

I have been raising the alarm loud and long on my Facebook page over the NSA’s decision to take up the mantle of the surveillance state that the Stasi laid down twenty-five years ago.  But I haven’t said much here on the blog.

One of the NSA’s many cell phone tracking methods. CREDIT: Washington Post

Today’s Snowden revelation seems almost pedestrian: the NSA is tracking your location using your cell phone. Not “can”. Not “if it suspects you’re a terrorist.” Not “if you’re a foreigner.” Unless you’ve luckily slipped through today’s collection dragnet (you’ll be back in soon enough!), the NSA is tracking your location using your cell phone.  Awesome WaPo infographic on your right.

But this only seems pedestrian because we have lost perspective, inured to the NSA’s behaviour over a long year of revelations.  Three years ago, on the other hand, this was so implausible it was a joke on 30 Rock: there was a character who refused to own a cell phone, because he thought it was a “CIA tracking device.” This established that the character was a nut. I thought it was funny at the time, and of course I agreed that only a fringe lunatic would believe it.

The problem with the Snowden revelations is that they are proving, over and over and over again, that the fringe lunatics have been *exactly correct* about *almost everything* for the past ten years.

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