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Monday, September 15, 2008


Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Well, I provide the statistics (kind of), the politicians provide the lies and the damned lies. I've laregly abandoned blogging since last year (real life and other hobbies put blogging on hold) but I got some inspiration for a post from this election season.

Last week, I was having a heated discussion with a friend and co-worker at lunch over the presidential candidates. I'm an Obama supporter, and my friend is a fiscal conservative who is not wild about McCain, but is still not voting for Obama. He's since been leaning towards McCain after Sarah Palin was picked as his VP, but that's not the point of this post.

When I tried to argue why McCain and Palin are less trustworthy than Obama and Biden due to the fact they've been putting out more lies and falsehoods, he countered with the assertion that all politicians lie anyway. Of course that's true, but shouldn't we look to see who's more willing to tell us complete falsehoods rather than just exagerations and shadings of the truth? As Hilzoy said recently:

When politicians lie -- and here I mean not just putting the best spin on things, but out and out lying -- they might as well walk up to each and every one of us and say: Hello! I have no respect for the value of your time! You might have other things to do -- work, playing with your kids, taking a long hike in the mountains, whatever -- but I don't care. I'm going to put you in a position where you're going to have to research everything I say, or else just give up on your civic duty. You don't get to assume that my words are, if not exactly true, at least somewhere in the general vicinity of the truth, and decide whether or not to vote for me. If you want to be an informed citizen, you'll have to become obsessive, like hilzoy.

They might as well add: I have no respect for democracy. In a democracy, citizens listen to what each side has to say and decide who to vote for. To work, it requires that what each side says bears some resemblance to the truth. If I cared about democracy, I'd respect those limits -- maybe stretching the truth every now and then, but generally maintaining some sort of relationship between what I say and reality. But guess what? I don't care about democracy! If winning requires that I make things up out of whole cloth and hope that I'm successful enough to frustrate the popular will, then that's what I'll do. Don't like it? Think democracy is a good system, one that we should cherish? That's just too bad.

Anyway, one thing my conservative friend and I have in common is that we both trust factcheck.org as an objective non-partisan website that cuts through politicians' spin and exposes exagerations, falsehoods, and lies. So I told him I'd be willing to bet that since the primary season ended in early June, the count of McCain falsehoods called out on factcheck would be at least 2 to 1 against the count of Obama falsehoods. He brushed that off and didn't take my bet, but I was curious and took a little time this weekend to count up the claims myself.

Well, I'm glad he didn't take my bet, because I was wrong. But the ratio was still lopsided. I found 30 articles discussing falsehoods attributed to McCain or the RNC, and 18 articles discussing falsehoods attributed to Obama or the DNC (I didn't include articles from unaffiliated third parties, like the false charges about Obama's birth certificate from Jerome Corsi, or the internet whisper campaign against Sarah Palin). This is a ratio of 1.67 to 1, so not quite 2 to 1, but still significant. Furthermore, if you count the individual claims mentioned in the bullet points of each article's summary, the ratio becomes 65 to 34, a ratio 1.91 to 1.

Of course, factcheck.org isn't comprehensive, and doesn't claim to have tracked every statement and ad of the campaigns. So make your own conclusion as to whether this is a representative sample. Also, it might be relevant to compare the number of falsehoods the candidates have provided to the full number of statements and ads they've produced to compute some kind of truthfulness rate. For all I know, McCain could be putting out 1.67 or 1.91 times more statements and ads during the campaign, so his truthfulness rate would be the same as Obamas. I find this possibility unlikely, but I have neither the time or inclination to collect and process each candidate's every single word. Anyone else want to take that task?

Another site that tracks politician's statements is Politifact.com. They score candidate's statements on "truth-o-meter" scale from true to half-true to false to "pants on fire" false. Their site is not comprehensive either, but they may represent a better sample since they track both true and false statements. Take a look at the candidates' truth-o-meter ratings:

ObamaMcCainBidenPalinDemocratic TicketRepublican Ticket
True39 (34%)
25 (22%)
7 (27%)
4 (50%)
46 (33%)
29 (24%)
Mostly True24 (21%)
20 (18%)
4 (15%)
1 (13%)
28 (20%)
21 (17%)
Half True21 (18%)
19 (17%)
5 (19%)
3 (38%)
26 (19%)
22 (18%)
Barely True12 (11%)
21 (19%)
4 (15%)
0 (0%)
16 (11%)
21 (17%)
False18 (16%)
22 (19%)
4 (15%)
0 (0%)
22 (16%)
22 (18%)
Pants on Fire0 (0%)
6 (5%)
2 (8%)
0 (0%)
2 (1%)
6 (5%)

Since both VP picks have much fewer statements, I added them with the presedential candidates to produce total scores for each ticket (the rightmost 2 columns). You can see that both with and without their VP picks, McCain's been telling more falsehoods than Obama, with 6 "pants-on-fire" rulings to Obama's 0. Biden has 2 "pants-on-fire" rulings, but one is more of an insult to President Bush than a lie, and the other is a distortion of Rudy Giuliani's record made in October of 2007, long before he was selected as VP. I didn't go through all of the individual articles for each candidate, so you be the judge whether each of the candidate has committed just lies or damned lies. Be sure to also check out Politifact's flip-o-meter to see how the candidates have flip-flopped. This looks about even for both sides.

Also see a similar analysis done by another blogger based on Politifact articles, but only focusing on each campaign starting from the beginning of August.

Finally, I was debating whether or not ot make this a blog post until I saw these two articles here and here (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) about "Republicans fault both campaigns for negative ads." It takes real gall for Karl Rove and Rudy Giuliani to complain about the campaign's negative tone, when it's clear that the Republicans bear most of the blame. And to add insult to injury, Rove used the pants-on-fire rated charge that Obama called Sarah Palin a pig as his example from the Democratic side. Sigh.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007


The Joy of Transformers

Hello, I'm Big C, and I am a Transfan. What a Trekkie (or Trekker) is to Star Trek, a Transfan is to Transformers. The Transformers toy line, cartoon, and comics debuted in 1984, when I was 8 years old. I have been in love ever since. Unlike other pop culture phenomena, Transformers has been percolating in relative obscurity since its initial popularity faded in the 80's. Yes, for the last 23 years the Transformers toys, comics, and cartoons have continued to be produced in one form or another (see several Japanese iterations, Generation 2, Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Robots in Disguise, Armada, Energon, Cybertron, Dreamwave comics, and lately IDW's new "Ultimate" Transformers comics), but even with these successful continuations, it has never quite broken out onto the pop culture A-list. With the new movie officially released in the US today, that is about to change.

Of course, being a hardcore rabid Transfan, I have mixed feelings about this event. I want Transformers introduced to a wider audience, and I want them to appreciate it like I do. However, at the same time, I've watched Transformers evolve from its thinly-disguised toy commercial roots into a legitimate sci-fi epic in both the fan community and officially licensed fiction, and I'd like that evolution to be preserved as it transitions to mainstream pop culture icon status.

I'd been following the steady drip of information about the movie's production on the Internet for the past year, and I've had many of the same fears and criticisms that other fans had. The complete redesigns of the robots looked ugly and overcomplicated. The movie was going to give way too much screen time to the humans and the Transformers would be little more than generic movie monsters rather than legitimate characters. Bumblebee isn't a VW bug!?!?!?!

So I was both excited and a bit anxious as I went to see the first 8pm advance showing yesterday evening. I had already heard lots of positive reactions from those lucky fans who had seen the movie early either in other countries or at the Transformers BotCon convention last weekend, so I was cautiously optimistic. So here's my review from a decidedly hardcore fan's perspective.

Quite simply, the movie blew me away. It rocked. It captured the spirit of the original Transformers and put it into a real summer blockbuster action/adventure/comedy. The visual effects and action sequences were amazing. I admit I was wrong about the redesigns. The animation of the robots was very natural and fluid. When they battled, the action sequences were a treat to behold. The Autobots got plenty of screen time, dialog, and characterization. Especially Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. Optimus Prime was the anchor for this movie. He was the iconic Autobot leader we remember from the original series: noble, honorable, heroic, self-sacrificing. I'm really glad the movie-makers listened to the fans and cast Peter Cullen (the original voice of Prime from the cartoon) back into his old voice-acting role.

The human characters were well-portrayed. Shia LaBeouf stood out as Sam (Spike) Witwicky, the central human caught in the middle of the robots' conflict. The other human characters moved the story along very well, and didn't steal the spotlight from the Transformers themselves. And there was a surprising amount of comedy that worked very well with the rest of the movie.

There were also several nods to the original series in the dialog of the movie that warmed my heart. For example, Megatron (the main villain) refers to the humans as "fleshlings" which was the pejorative term for humans the Decepticons used in the original Transformers comic books. Also, Optimus Prime delivers his signature motto, "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," and calls out Megatron at the end of the movie with his famous line from the original animated Transformers Movie in 1986: "One shall stand, one shall fall."

There was a lot to love about this movie, and I'm hoping I can get a chance to see it a couple more times in the theater this summer before I buy the DVD in the fall. It was the definition of a fun, action-packed, serious-but-not-too-serious, summer event, special effect-laden blockbuster movie. I'm biased, but I think the movie works both as a celebration of the original Transformers for fans, and a great action movie for non-fans. I brought 11 of my co-workers with me who were not die hard fans, and they all loved it.

Okay, so I've given a lot of praise, but I wouldn't be an obsessive fan if I didn't catalog all the criticisms, right? The movie overcomes its weaknesses, but there ARE weaknesses and flaws to this movie. Here's a detailed list arranged according to how much they annoyed me as a Transfan (MASSIVE SPOILERS follow; read at your own risk!):

Major disappointments:
Minor annoyances:
Plot Issues:
All of these criticisms are things that are being echoed by other Transfans. I'm hoping the movie-makers will continue to listen to the fans and address some of these issues for the inevitable Transformers sequel. Especially the lack of focus on the Decepticons as characters. I would love for the sequel to have subplot revolving around a power struggle in the Decepticon leadership with Starscream trying to take over and Megatron making a miraculous return from the dead to put Starscream back in his place. Also, I'm hoping they can feature Soundwave as Megatron's trusted right-hand bot who is instrumental in reviving his deactivated lord. Maybe even work Shockwave into the mix too. Given the bar they set for the movie in terms of the robot designs and special effects, they'll have to up the ante in the sequel with additional transformation gimmicks. I'm betting on seeing the triple-changers and/or combiners to feature prominently in the sequel. While I love the Dinobots, I don't see a way to work them into the live action universe that would make sense. I'd love to be proven wrong though.

If I may make a few wild predictions:
If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but I hope these predictions come true. Regardless, as a Transfan, I'm a very happy guy right now.

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Monday, June 11, 2007


Back From Outer Space

After 8 months I've managed to get a little time to get back to blogging. Several things happened that conspired to keep me from the keyboard. We got a new baby last fall, who is thankfully now sleeping through the night, and I got a Nintendo Wii for my birthday :) Okay, so maybe I could have come back to blogging a bit earlier. Oh, well.

In other exciting news, I was selected to appear on the TV game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" I taped the episode last November (2 weeks after our new baby arrived), and it will air next week over 2 days, Wednesday 6/20, and Thursday 6/21. I'll see if I can get a video up on YouTube after it's on TV. It was an amazing experience. Maybe I'll get to providing more details in a future post after the show airs.

Finally, I'm going to expand the focus of my humble space on the blogosphere a little. I've recently been reading a lot of blogs by people of color (POC) that touch on many important issues. I realized that here on my space I haven't said much of anything about important issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression that are all too common to our society. As a person of color myself (specifically an African-American man), in future posts I'd like to rectify that. As a start, I'll just point to some great voices in the blogosphere who can say things much more eloquently than I ever could (in no particular order):
This is just scratching the surface, but those blogs have really got it going on. Check them out for insightful, thought-provoking material and discussions. I need to get around to adding them to my blogroll too.

I'm not going to make any promises about posting frequency, since I could never keep them, but hopefully I'll post more regularly than once every 8 months!

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Sunday, October 08, 2006


"Weird Al" is back!

There were lots of things going on in the last couple of weeks. Former President Bill Clinton went on the attack regarding his record on terrorism. The leaked National Intelligence Estimate shows that the Bush administration's record on terrorism isn't all it's cracked up to be. The US legislature has now passed a bill that all but gives the president the authority to torture and suspend habeas corpeus with impunity. Mark Foley has disgraced himself, and revealed how the Republican leadership in Congress apparently put politics above the safety of its teenage pages. And it seems we're going backwards in Afghanistan with the resurgence of the Taliban.

I got kind of busy, but I wanted to write about more than a few of these topics. However, there was one bit of news that I couldn't ignore. "Weird Al" Yankovic has a new album out! Al is apparently a bona fide computer geek, so check out his web site and the new music videos he's put up on YouTube here and here. Weird Al's popularity has waned since the 80's, but he always seems to come back with fresh parodies of current songs. They're always funny, and sometimes are even topical and insightful. I bought the album this weekend, and I give it the Unsolicited Opinions official Unsolicited Endorsement.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The Pathology of Denial

The Give Up Blog has a post cataloging the tactics of denialists. Denialists are people who, for particular ideological reasons, dispute the consensus on certain subjects despite the overwhelming evidence that supports that consensus. Denialists come in many flavors: evolution deniers, HIV causes AIDS deniers, holocaust deniers, etc. Despite the particulars of what well-supported finding they deny across these groups, they all seem to draw from the same box of flawed reasoning and use of logical falacies to support their denial belief.

I've discussed this before with respect to a particular lesser-known denialist belief (Einstein denial), and Seth at Whiskey Before Breakfast has been ruminating on this with several posts trying to work out how and why this denial "memeplex" gets propagated.

As I commented on Seth's blog earlier, I think "denialism" can be adequately explained as a subset of credulous thinking. There's little difference between denying specific conclusions that are based on overwhelming evidence like evolution, AIDS, etc., and accepting pseudoscience like UFO abduction stories, astrology, and psychic phenomona with no supporting evidence. The latter enthusiasts of such credulous beliefs simply deny the overwhelming evidence that these things (UFO's, astrology, psychic powers) don't exist. And they use the same flawed reasoning and logical falacies to ignore all the evidence that points to more mundane explanations.

Still, it's illuminating to see all the common arguments laid bare for future profiling.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Ed Brayton is Reading My Mind

There's no other explanation. How else could he have written a post on his blog that so clearly echoes my own thoughts? He knew I was ruminating on the recent brouhaha going on at The Panda's Thumb regarding Ken Miller and PZ Myers (see his relevant blog posts here, here, here, here, and here), and that I was planning to comment on the whole thing. He just had to put his well-written post up before I got a chance to type those thoughts out on my own blog. What a jerk!

Or, it's all just a coincidence and we just reached the same conclusions from similar viewpoints about the futility of ideological battles. OK, so I was wrong about there being no other explanation, but I like my theory better (which probably means it's wrong).

Ed's post has generated a large amount of comments, and it seems some folks are misunderstanding Ed's arguments, at least as I see them. A few points that I would focus on had I actually gotten to write my essay on this topic:

You don't have to respect someone's religious beliefs, the religion they subscribe to, or even them as a person. You do have to (at least under the 1st Amendment in the US Constitution, but I think it's a good general rule for non-Americans as well) tolerate their right to hold a religious view (or any other view or opinion) and express it freely, just as they have to tolerate your right to call their belief ludicrous.

It's counterproductive to label people who may have differing religious views/opinions than yours, but the same views/opinions on liberty, freedom of thought and expression, science, and separation of church and state, as enemies that should be excluded, ostracized and ridiculed. Unfortunately creationists, theocrats, and neo-conservatives have largely learned this lesson and put it into action with their "big tent" strategy. Of course their goal is not to encourage freedom of thought but rather to limit everyone's civil liberties and force us all to adhere to their particular moral code and religious viewpoint. They frame their struggle as one of good religious folk versus the evil atheists/secularists to somewhat successful political and cultural gain, despite the fact that all those different religious sects disagree on lots of points. As long as you subscribe to any religion, you're with us, and you're against those bad atheists. When over 80% of the US population claims to be religious, this strategy can create real political power.

We need to reframe the struggle as one of those who believe in freedom, liberty, and fairness, regardless of religious views, versus those who seek to impose the authoritarian hierarchy of their particular doctrine on everyone else. I'd be willing to wager that if the battle lines were drawn this way, the folks on the side of liberty and freedom would be the vast majority.

So I think it's unhelpful when some atheists don't distinguish between making fun of religion or the religous, and painting all people with religious beliefs as the enemies of reason, or at best, stooges or patsies of the theocrats. So it's perfectly reasonable for PZ Myers to criticize Ken Miller's views on how he blends his religious beliefs with science and rationality, even to mock it and call it ridiculous. But I think it's a mistake for Myers to label Ken Miller as a creationist and a stooge of the religious right (Myers has since backed off from his original characterization of Miller's views; good for him!).

Conversely, it is also unhelpful for some liberals to admonish their liberal atheist allies to stop attacking religion on the grounds that it hurts their efforts to get other Christians to the accept liberal values and join our own version of the "big tent". Freedom of expression is a fundamental principal, not just a liberal talking point that can be expediently discarded for short-term political gain. Atheists (and everyone else) have a right to criticize, mock, and insult any idea or person they choose. And it's hardly atheists' penchant for pointing out the absurdity, contradictions, and harmful effects of religious belief that makes them the most reviled minority group in America. Unscrupulous religious and political leaders have been demonizing atheists, and the media has been dutifully echoing their attacks, for years. Atheists and "secularists" are evil, selfish people who want to destroy your religion, steal Christmas, and remove all restrictions of morality on human behavior. This false and dishonest rhetoric is the major cause of people's distrust of atheists, not the actual views of atheists themselves.

I realize people might read the two paragraphs above and conclude that I have just made a glaring self-contradiction. How can I simultaneously complain about atheists demonizing religious people and then turn around and chastize liberal Christians for complaining about the same thing? Well, here's where I see the fundamental difference:

My position is that atheists (and anyone else) have a right to freely express their criticisms and dislike for religious views and to call out religious people on the contradictions in their religious views, even to the point of outright mockery. However, it is counterproductive for some atheists to label religious people who agree with you on issues of freedom of thought and expression, liberty, and fairness as either enemies of reason, rationality, and liberty or the unwilling patsies of those enemies. To build a "big tent" we should focus on the common ground we share. We do not ignore the places where we have fundamental disagreements, nor do we shy away from expressing those disagreements. However, we recognize that those disagreements about religion are less important than our agreements on freedom and liberty.

The position I perceive some liberal Christians taking is that we should tell our liberal atheist colleagues to shut up about their dislike of religion, and stop attacking religious views and people, so we can molify the religious folk who may have some liberal views but are wary of joining us in the "big tent." Atheists merely expressing their opinions about religion is toxic, and they should be "seen but not heard" until the Democrats win the next few elections.

I think my position is a reasonable request for a modicum of civility (that applies equally towards atheists who demonize all religious believers as well as religious people who demonize all atheists) towards building a broad coalition, while the second position is an unreasonable demand on limiting one group's freedom of expression. The goal of building a coalition is the same, but the strategy is based on a faulty premise.

Having said all that, let be me clear in stating that the problem of a very few atheists demonizing reasonable people with religious views is infinitesimal compared to the widespread demonization of atheists by religious and political leaders and the general negative attitude towards atheists in the United States. Claiming that this negative view is derived from atheists being too "militant" in stating their views seems to me like blaming the victim.

Everyone who believes in liberty and freedom, regardless of whether you are religious or not, should be willing to avow that most atheists, like most any other group of human beings, are decent, honest, moral people who contribute to society like everyone else. Liberals who want to hide atheists away as their "dirty little secret," by showing how they are "ashamed" of the atheists who support them, tacitly accept the way the Religious Right has framed the struggle of religious (good) versus secular (bad).

We need to reject this framework entirely, and form our own "big tent" around the ideas of freedom of expression, liberty, fairness, and scietific integrity. The real struggle is between those who believe in these ideas, and those who would pay lip service to those ideas but would replace them with their authoritarian doctrine as soon as they gained enough power.

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Monday, September 11, 2006


Remembering 9/11

Today is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Like many Americans, this was a defining moment for me and I can clearly remember exactly where I was and what I was doing as those horrible events unfolded that day. Orac has a post up that echos some of my own feelings and expresses them better than I could. Ed Brayton also recalls the reaction of such esteemed religious leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (blame the liberals, what else?).

It's ironic that the politicians spouting rhetoric about "not letting the terrorists win" are the ones most guilty of using the fear of more terrorist attacks to goad Americans into voting for and re-electing them, and are also guilty of using 9/11 as a justification for reducing our civil liberties. Don't the terrorists "hate us for our freedom?" Isn't reducing that freedom letting the terrorists win? Why has dissent of the policies and actions of our current administration morphed into the strawman of wanting to "appease" the terrorists?

I think Benjamin Franklin said it best:
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Remember and honor the victims of 9/11. Stand up against terrorism and extremism. But also stand up for liberty and freedom. Stand up for accountability not only for the extremists, but for our political leaders as well. Shouldn't we beware that we don't sacrifice the very freedoms we stand for, nor that we become like the terrorists themselves in fighting them?

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