Monday, June 27, 2016

Shark Week: Stanley Cup

Virginia Is For Burghers

Late last week, Virginia Montanez--the Pittsburgh-based social media pioneer otherwise known as PittGirl and on Twitter as @JanePitt--announced that she is ending her column in Pittsburgh Magazine and ending regular updates to her blog.

I won't lie--this makes me a little sad, although it's hardly unexpected.

Those of you not from Pittsburgh may not understand the Book of Virginia. She started out as a sort of anonymous thorn in the side of the mayor's office, back when it was held by the unfortunate Luke Ravenstahl. When Virginia's anonymity was breached, she lost her job over it, and in short order catapulted to Pittsburgh stardom She used her blog and social media presence to be funny and witty and made us make a better city and feel uncomfortable about watching movies with Joe Manganiello while with our grandparents.

Since then, in addition to being a creatively awesome person, she's been a tireless advocate for the Haitian and Syrian refugees and other charities. She was an unrelentlessness fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates even for those many, many seasons in which it was completely justifiable to deny their existence. She's organized the Make Room For Kids program every year. She writes Pittsburgh-based Christmas guides and researches fascinating and curious details about the history of the city. She's been such an icon to the city for so long she even had a day declared for her by the new, non-sucky mayor, Bill Peduto. And through all this, she's been in tune with all of the cultural touchstones in Pittsburgh and somehow been consistently and wickedly funny doing it.

Many years ago, Virginia was kind enough to include me as one of her top Twitter followers. I was taken aback, flattered, and (admittedly) a little embarrassed, because I was mostly sending out tweets about 1) me eating food and 2) me being a total idiot.  It's not a secret that her encouragement is a large reason as to why I'm still actively writing today. I was finally able to meet her about five years ago at a local podcasting conference Looking back on that weekend, I wrote in my blog that she was "singularly sweet and strikingly awesome," an assessment I am happy to say still applies.

She's taking a break, and her reasons are valid. But she doesn't owe anyone an explanation; she's done far more good in this world than most of us would in our lifetimes. (And Pittsburghers are awesome, but can be a salty lot, and sometimes you gotta flush that salt out.)

You can forget about football stars or actors or reality TV singers; Virginia Montanez is the quintessential Pittsburgh Badass. Hell, forget the superlatives; she's just a badass.

And regardless of whether it is temporary or not, she will be missed.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Reading and Drinking

It was recently announced that Barnes and Noble, the venerable bookseller chain--and by "venerable" we mean "the last existing holdout in a rapidly disintegrating industry"--will begin service alcohol in their stores.

Well,. some of the stores. It's a pilot program that will sell wine and beer (sadly, not hard alcohol), apparently trying to crack open the "bored housewives who also watch UFC" demographic.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm wondering if there are other, better ways to entice new customers into an old industry. Such as:
  • Every day you don't read, a librarian comes to your house to shake her head disapprovingly at you.
  • Start a rumor on Alternet and ScaryMommy that Kindles and other e-books are actually made out of GMOs.
  • Develop immortality serum and secretly administer to J.K. Rowling. (Or use magic, I don't know.)
  • Establish a Read It! Program, but for adults, with the prizes involving Game of Thrones spoilers and free oil changes.
  • Re-brand reading as "The Reality TV Of Words."
  • Limit Stephen King to, like, eighteen books a year so someone else gets a shot
  • Increase revenue by making all books into clickbait slideshows.
  • Deliberately but secretly release information that every book published has a spelling error, and watch as millions of butthurt internet wizards scour all the books so they can gleefully point out the mistakes to generate their own false sense of self-importance. 
  • 3-D books. (I know they're already 3D. You know what I mean.)
  • Never show The Thorn Birds ever again so people don't think that all books are as horribly, dreadfully boring as that piece of shit.
  • Make Instagram a book and sell that. We can do that, right?
  • Marvel's Anne of Green Gables
  • Burn all the warehouses down and rebuild, exclusively selling paranormal romance and Ann Coulter books. Or paranormal romance Ann Coulter books. She's about 4/5th vampire anyway.
  • Edible books. 
  • Better yet, cookbooks where you cook the actual book after reading the book on how to prepare the book.
  • Inform people a broadly educated and literate population is the cornerstone for a healthy and advanced civilization, and necessary for the betterment of humanity. LOL! Just kidding. Just hand out free poppers and beef jerky with every book.

Brexit Calling

I am going to write about Brexit because I don't want to write about all the other garbage going on. Brexit is far away and only tangentially related to our lives, so we can safely have strong opinions about something no one knew anything about until two days ago.

Brexit--for those who are unaware--was the recent referendum asking the UK population if they wanted to leave the European Union. Everybody expected it to fail, because the UK derives a huge amount of benefit economically from being in the EU. Of course, this means that the UK voted to leave, which threw a monkey wrench into nearly everyone's plans.

The vote was non-binding, but it might as well be--the Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised to abide by its result, and backing out would cause a huge firestorm of criticism--and since an MP was recently assassinated over the issue, the threat of a full-scale riot or civil unrest is, while unlikely, no longer off the table.

Of course, it seems a lot of people are having second thoughts. (The immediate 5% drop in the value of the pound probably didn't help.)  While the vote was close, there isn't a whole lot of room for error, and so even if a small chunk of people retroactively changed their minds it still leaves most likely 40-45% of the people strongly in favor of leaving. That's not nothing.

Anyway, a lot of people are predicting the end of the world, but I think it's all mostly an overreaction.

The UK will be OK. The markets hate uncertainty, and this is absolutely an uncertain time. But while the details will change and no doubt there will be some rough structural transitioning,  by and large the UK will continue to be a top-5 economy regardless of whether they are in the EU or not. (The details are in flux, of course, but while they will lose a lot of trade with the rest of the EU, it's not going to disappear...and it's also going to open up new markets (like India) that they couldn't really compete with before as well as loosening up some regulations that really don't fit the UK economic model.) They hadn't bought in to the Euro, so there isn't much change there.

Culturally, it's a little different; this will end a lot of the universal movement laws in the EU, which will be a pretty big headache. It's not insurmountable, of course. The biggest issue for the "Leave" side of things is immigration, and that remains to be seen as to its effects.

In any case, from an economic standpoint I think this isn't going to be nearly as big a deal as people think it is.

However, I *do* think that the breaking apart of the UK will be trickier--Scotland has already made noises that they want to vote on independence, and Northern Ireland will most likely do the same. And the Conservative Party in the UK is in for a rough decade or so--even if they somehow miraculously power through this political disaster intact, there's a good two-year span while the exit is negotiated that will make things difficult for them.

Of course, it's always possible they *do* back out and not leave the EU, which I think is a non-trivial chance. And that will be a circus to see. Sadly, it looks like we're putting a show on ourselves here in the US, so we'll see.

Friday, June 24, 2016

One Jerk On The Internet

I have developed a new theory I like to call the “One Jerk On The Internet” theory.*

A lot of things frustrate me, but one of them at the top is logical fallacies. The internet is full of people’s opinions, which is good, except that the vast majority (including, uh, mine) tend to fall into several easy traps that often either invalidate or destroy the logic of the opinion. And the ultimate test is when one doubles down on said fallacy--it tends to make people look like hypocrites.

In today’s social media landscape, that’s a lot of hypocrites.

One of the more common fallacies, which I based my theory around, is the Strawman fallacy—basically building up the viewpoint that opposes yours in such a way that it’s easy to knock down. This is incredibly easy when you make assumptions, impute unrelated aspects into the argument, and fixate on certain elements that you particularly hate. It’s easy to debate, say, a conservative, or a liberal, when you can simply paint them up when all the stuff you hate and knock them down with a single blow, even though most people, even on the extremes, tend to have very complex approaches to their opinions. 

And here’s where my theory kicks in—the internet has an almost infinite amount of opinions being spouted by anyone. There’s no filter; there’s no editorial judgment to act as a logical clearinghouse. You can immediately go to the internet and literally find any opinion you want. No strawman is needed; no effort is required to find someone you can intellectually knock down. You have a warehouse of world history to pick and choose from at your fingertips to get the opinion you want to destroy.

There’s always One Jerk On The Internet that will say anything about anything. 

That person doesn’t represent a huge number of people, no matter what you want to think or believe. These opinions are most likely in the minority; and there’s a decent enough chance that it’s a troll. Under even the best (or worst) circumstances, they’re approaching an issue from a broadly different worldview under significantly different circumstances than your own worldview. But it doesn’t matter; in today’s world, you only need to find one, screenshot it, claim it represents everyone on the other side of the opinion, and claim victory. 

Even you have math to back it up—by votes or polls or whatever—you still don’t know what mitigating factors are present, or how strongly people believe said opinion, or what probably legitimate checks against the extreme they’ve assumed in their head. You can’t take the most extreme voter and assume all voters think like that person did. 

For decades, many pundits have decried “Bumper Sticker Politics,” where major, complicated issues are reduced down to a catchy phrase you can glue to your car. It’s generally seen as bad, because very few issues are that simple. But social media perpetuates and encourages this; you can’t have a valid political opinion worth any sort of discussion if you can reduce it down to 140 characters or superimposed over a picture of Kermit the Frog. 

The One Jerk On The Internet Theory is like the Washington Generals of social media discourse—they are there to be defeated. And if you’re the Harlem Globetrotters, your wins aren’t really wins, but your putting on a damn fine show. Sadly, most people think that their “show” is serious political business and not obvious pandering, reinforcing the negative feedback loop.

So, avoid the OAOTI. Use these steps if you’re going to post a political opinion on social media:

1. Don't.
2. No, seriously, don't.
3.  If you are absolutely sure that your opinion needs to be shared with the world, don’t be a hypocrite about it. If you could flip the opinion around and not see how the other side could do the exact same thing, there is a 100% chance that you are wrong about it.

In short, don’t be the jerk in the One Jerk On The Internet theory. 

*Fellow Pittsburghers, you are free to call this the "One Jagoff On The Internet Theory" if you wish, since that's it's proper name.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Prohibition Party

Behold, the sad fate of the Prohibition Party.

While I was doing some research about third parties in the US, I remembered an article I had read years ago about the Prohibition Party--the longest third party still technically in existence. The keepers of the flame of temperance, so to speak, knew it was a lost cause, but seem to keep things going out of principle.

And here is their web site, in all its glory. I half expect Angelfire popups to show up. I will admit, though that their choice of political mascot--the camel--is pretty funny.

I had long forgotten about them until I started reading up and...well, it's a little sad.

I get the point of doing things on principle; hell, I'd be willing to do it just for the novelty of the thing. Even though their total in the last election barely cracked 500 votes, there's a little bit of charm upholding an antiquated platform via the centuries-old tradition of mixing participatory democracy and bureaucratic paperwork.

Sadly, though, as I researched more, there's recently been a bit of a schism in the party, all of which appears to be manifest in the fact that there's an $8000 annuity tied to a fund granted to the party each year, and control of that fund has caused a good bit of disturbance, thus throwing a third truly American spin on the party, the wasteful chasing of unearned money that's going to a lost cause.

(I also read through their platform, which largely seems like a standard populist right-wing, Constitution Party clone. However, I was going to make fun of them for saying that alcohol is "America’s #1 narcotic drug problem" but it turns out that alcohol is actually a narcotic. So there's that.)

Anyway, you can easily track the downfall of the party over the past few elections by the location of their national conventions each election cycle. As recently as 1992 they managed to hold their convention in Minneapolis, and then Denver in 1996, but it just goes downhill from there:

"Conference call" is the saddest of all the convention sites ever in the history of America.

Anyway, let's all raise a glass* to the Prohibition Party at some point this election season. We could do worse, and by the looks of things we shall.

*of lemonade