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SithThere was a time – not too long ago – when a new social media contender appeared on the horizon.  It was supposed to be the first real threat to Facebook, and it was called Diaspora (I’m not really sure what they were thinking when they chose the name.  While the word technically can simply mean a scattering of people, it’s common usage implies a scattering that takes place against the people’s will).

At first, Diaspora got a lot of press.  The guys proposing it hyped it as a privacy-minded alternative to Facebook – a social network that wouldn’t sell off our private data to the highest bidder.  This proposal was well received.  The developers asked the world for money for startup costs via Kickstarter.  They initially asked for $10,000.  They ended up receiving more than $200,000.  All this without writing a single line of code.

I watched Diaspora with interest, as it sounded like a fine idea to me.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I thought the world could use an alternative to Facebook.  I was also intrigued by the fact that Diaspora intended their code (when they finally wrote it) to be open source, thereby allowing us to run it ourselves on our own servers if we so desired.

But then Google+ hit the interwebs.  It was immediately given the title of Facebook killer, and it seemed like everybody was talking about G+ for weeks.

And nobody – but nobody – seemed to be talking about Diaspora anymore.  I even asked about it a couple of times, at Google+ as well as at Twitter, but no one seemed to have heard anything from or about Diaspora since Google+ launched.  As far as I could tell, the project seemed to be pretty much dead in the water.

Until Diaspora reappeared, just a couple weeks ago.  I first noticed activity on the official Diaspora Twitter account, shortly after which I received an email inviting me to join in on the beta.  Of course, I did so.

And I have been greatly disappointed.  Not by the software but by its user base.  See, Diaspora had a real shot at the limelight, and if they had just gotten off the pot after they received twenty times the funding they asked for, they may have given Facebook a run for its money.  But Google beat them to the punch, and it was a serious beating.

Fact is, the overwhelming majority of Facebook users are really quite happy with Facebook, warts and all.  When it comes to all the various privacy issues, the average user just doesn’t give a crap.  And for most of those who do give a crap, Google+ serves as a perfectly adequate alternative.

So when Diaspora finally hit the scene, they were no longer the only alternative to Facebook.  In fact, they were now just a feature-poor substitute offered by a relatively unknown company with comparatively no resources at their disposal.

And their pickings were pretty slim.  Of the many, many people who actually want to participate in some form of social network, Facebook had already sewn up the majority of the pie.  Of the remainder, Google+ met the needs and/or desires of all but the most rabidly paranoid of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd, who (sadly) have flocked to Diaspora and claimed it as their own.

As you may have guessed, finding a rational discussion at Diaspora is virtually impossible.  Like previously mentioned Quora, Diaspora’s narrow and esoteric user base has led to Rule By Douchebaggerati.  I have tried a few times to engage people at Diaspora, and the universal response has been attempts to pick fights with me.  Kind of sad and laughable at the same time, especially the latest instance.

Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of the ‘discussion’ at Diaspora revolves around Facebook- and/or Google- bashing.  My latest exposure to extreme douchbaggery occurred when a guy claimed to ‘know’ of Google’s evil, due to the vast amount of ‘research’ he’s done on the subject.  I politely (really – I worked at it) asked him to share his research.

I got no response from the Google scholar, but I did get numerous responses from the rest of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd.  Their eventual consensus was (I’m not kidding) that the ‘truth’ about Google is only meaningful to those who do the research themselves.   Seriously.  One of them even went so far as to reference a series of ‘scholarly’ works on the subject of research and how it only really ‘works’ when we do it for ourselves (I’m not really sure how this works.  How far back along the research trail do we have to go ourselves?  Should I start each day by inventing language?).  So it’s not that they can’t back up their claims, but that they choose not to.  For my own good.  And they were quite happy to explain ad nauseam the reasons for this choice.  I don’t know if they’re intensely dumb or if they just think I am.

Which got me to thinking (about Google, that is).  I have, in fact, wondered about Google.  About whether or not it is evil.  My initial assumption was that it is.  I mean – it stands to reason, doesn’t it?  It’s an enormous, ridiculously wealthy and powerful corporation – how could it not be evil?

Being the kind of guy I am, though, I took the time to look into it.  I figured an enormous, wealthy, powerful evil empire would leave some sort of conclusive, verifiable proof of evildoings.  So I looked for them.  And I didn’t find any.  So I looked harder.  And I still didn’t find any.  So I looked even harder.  And still nothing.

What I found was a company that has made a fortune off of advertising.  One way in which they have done this is by gathering data about their users (us) and selling it to the highest bidder.  As far as I can tell, Google has never tried to hide this.  And while the data they gather (data we freely hand over to them, by the way) is – technically – private data, it’s not private in the way most people think.  Google doesn’t sell our account numbers to anyone.  Nor do they sell our email addresses.  In fact, they don’t sell anything that could be called PII (personally identifiable information).  Not even here in Massachusetts, the home of insanely stringent PII legislation.  The kind of data Google gathers and sells about us is data that we generate but that we don’t generally have a use for ourselves.

Years ago, my mother was a regular participant in the Neilsen Ratings.  Every so often, she would get a package in the mail from Neilsen.  It would contain some forms, a pencil and a ridiculous fee (I’m pretty sure it was $1).  For the following couple of weeks, she would religiously (and painfully honestly) record every television program watched in our household.  When the forms were completed, she would send them back to Neilsen.  The idea behind this was to find out what shows people were actually watching so that programming and advertising dollars could be spent appropriately.  I don’t know if the system actually worked, but it came close enough to make all involved happy.

This is the sort of data Google gathers.  The kind of data advertisers really care about, but that is not terribly meaningful to most of us average users.

And Google doesn’t force this upon us.  If you don’t want to give them your personal data, all you have to do is refrain from using their products and services.  There are other search engines out there.  There are other email providers (actually, if you want to use Gmail but don’t want Google to gather your personal information while you do so, all you have to do is pay for it.  It’s the free version that gets paid for though data).  On the other hand, if you’re willing to let Google gather and use your personal data, all those products and services are the payment you receive for the deal.

The other thing I found in my travels is scores – no, hundreds (possibly even thousands) of people who know that Google is evil.  They know because they’ve seen proof.  They’ve walked the walk, they’ve done the research, and they know – beyond doubt – that Google is The Evil Empire.  And every time I have encountered one of these people I have made the same simple request:  that they share this knowledge with me.

Not a single one of them has done so.  In fact, most of them get quite angry as part of the process of not doing so.  Usually I get told how painfully obvious it is – how the universe is practically littered with the proof of it – but no one has actually gone so far as to show me the proof they profess to have, or point me to the proof they profess to have seen.  Other times (like the recent one mentioned above) I get lengthy justifications as to why they are not sharing what they know (always that they are not – never that they cannot.  An important distinction).

At first I wondered if Google was just that good at covering up their evildoing.  They’d have to be better at it than the CIA (who’ve been eating and drinking cover-up for generations), but that wouldn’t be impossible.  Just unlikely.

But that didn’t make sense in light of all the people who have seen evidence of Google’s wrongdoing (they have!  Really!).  Instead, it would mean that of all those people, not one of them was willing to put their money where their mouth is (I mean, they’re all able to, right?  It’s that they’re not willing to).  Of all those people who know how evil Google is, not a single one of them is willing to produce any real proof of it.  Not a single conclusive, verifiable piece of evidence.  Not one.

Of course, the other possibility is that they’re all a bunch of asshats and Google is just a legitimate business.

Zombies

In my time, I’ve seen my share of Zombie films.  Some of them I’ve enjoyed (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), some I’ve actively disliked (28 Days Later), and many others have fallen somewhere in between.  Until recently, though, there was one aspect of zombie films that confused me greatly:  I couldn’t figure out why zombies displayed a form of social cohesion.

I mean – we’re talking about mindless, shambling, ravenous, flesh-eating monsters here.  Why do they run in packs?  Why do they work together?  Why, I wondered, do they cooperate?

It just seemed inexplicable that zombies would exhibit a tendency to strive toward a common goal.  I expected more anarchy and less teamwork from the shambling masses.  Just the other day, however, I began to understand the complexities of zombie social dynamics.  Unsurprisingly, this onset of comprehension coincided with my latest foray into the seedy underside of the Social Web.

It occurred to me that zombies were not born zombies but were, in fact, once human.  Therefore, their behavior patterns (both within the narrative and without) would logically fall into line with normal human behavior patterns.  And most humans, I think, are less likely to form a community and more likely to form a mob.  You know – a large group of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.

I take a great interest in the Social Web.  On some level, I guess you could say I am a student of it.  Because of this, I am quick to study any new movement/website/idea of the ilk that comes down the road.  This often results in membership and a trial of the newest fad, but not always (see my posts on Facebook.  Sometimes my research shows me that membership is a step I’m unwilling to take).  The Social Web is not terribly different from many other aspects of life – sometimes the best way to get to know it is to just take a deep breath and dive in.

Which is what I did with the latest fad to appear on my radar: Quora.  Quora bills itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  On the surface, this sounds like a good idea (unfortunately, the reality is nothing of the sort.  The general consensus over at Quora seems to be that ideas need to be edited in order to have value.  It’s more like the Ministry of Truth than the Social Web).  So I joined, looked around a bit, then posted a question.  I checked back now and again over a week or so, until I found that someone had edited my question.  Curious as to what I had misspelled, I went to have a look, and discovered that an entire paragraph had been removed.  This made me wonder about the person who had done the editing, so I clicked upon his name to check out his profile.  What I saw disturbed me a bit.  The profiles on Quora show users’ activities on the site.  Specifically, the numbers of questions asked, answers given and edits provided by the user.  This particular user had asked 6 questions, given 8 answers, and provided 1,122 edits (you read those numbers correctly).

Naturally, I assumed I was dealing with some sort of Quora troll.  Being the fan of crowdsourcing that I am (see any of my posts discussing OpenStreetMap), I leapt to the erroneous conclusion that the community’s ability to edit each others’ questions was geared toward fixing errors (like spelling and/or grammar).  It never occurred to me that other users would feel free to radically alter the content of a question.  Such behavior would seem to negate the point of posting questions at all.  How could you expect to get answers to a question if anyone could easily change its meaning?

So I posted a couple more questions to Quora.  The first simply asked if the user base was aware of this sort of thing (it turns out that they were.  Worse – they approve of it).  The second (which, of the two, I thought was less likely to offend) asked whether Quora should have more robust filters in place.  Since Quora provides space to further elaborate, I used it to describe the aforementioned troll and my desire to automatically block such users.

Enter the horde of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.  I was stunned by the vitriolic response my second question inspired.  While I am quite aware of the speed with which any group of humans will mutate into the Howling Mob (there’s a reason they make us read Lord of the Flies in school), I am often caught off guard by the seeming innocuous things that serve as catalyst.  I forget that the average human is a quivering mass of insecurities, and that their desperate need to belong often causes them to lash out at any perceived threat against the pony to which they’ve hitched their wagon.

As you probably know, this is not the first time I have encountered the Howling Mob online.  In fact, it seems to happen to me with alarming frequency.  Considering my own personality type, this is hardly surprising and it doesn’t actually bother me.

It did get me to wondering, though.  Since human nature is what it is, and since every aspect of the Social Web is necessarily teeming with humans, why is it that I’ve never been assaulted by the Howling Mob at my particular favorite corner of the Social Web:  Twitter?  What is it about Twitter that makes it so different from my other experiences with the Social Web?

Of course, this launched a discussion on Twitter.  After much discussion and even more thought, I think I finally figured out what the difference is:  it’s a question of exposure.  See, Quora does new users the disservice of immediately throwing them into the middle of the mob, there to claw their way to whatever position they can attain (Quora is by no means alone in this behavior.  In fact, most of the Social Web functions this way.  Just look at the stats and/or titles attached to users in any forum/group/site on the internet).  Just like in high school, newcomers are forced to find their way in an environment where all the social lines have been drawn and all the camps have been populated, their leadership positions filled.  Sometimes online communities can be open and accepting of new members.  Usually, though, the Lord of the Flies mentality prevails.

Twitter does it differently.  When you first join Twitter, you enter into their universe all alone, and you remain alone until you do something about it.  Until you start following other users, the mob doesn’t really know you exist.  And because you choose who you do and do not interact with on Twitter, the mob only enters into your life if you invite it (I’m pretty sure Facebook works in a very similar fashion, but I‘m not positive.  For obvious reasons).

Something else that sets Twitter apart is its general lack of score-keeping.  As far as I know, Twitter tracks precisely three things:  how many people you follow, how many people follow you, and how many times you have ‘Tweeted’ (posted a message).  And that’s it (again, I think Facebook is similar in this).  While this information is tracked and is accessible, it doesn’t appear as though Twitter actually does anything with it.  There never comes a time when you are ‘Super-Followed’ or become a ‘Global Tweeter’.

Herein lie the important differences.  The small area of the Social Web that works for me is the one where the group I spend time amongst is a group of my choosing.  More importantly, it’s the area where people aren’t necessarily trying to prove anything.  Where it’s more about connecting and communicating than about score-keeping and imagined popularity.

So thanks but no thanks, Quora.  If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on your Howling Mob and just stick with my neighborhood pub.

Internet Kill Switch

As you probably know, Egypt has been going through some crazy political shit as of late.  In a nutshell, the general populace of Egypt decided they weren’t very happy with their sitting government.  In fact, they pretty much concluded that they would prefer it to be a getting up and running away government.

Mubarak, of course, felt differently about this.  Being a reigning scumbag is rather habit-forming, and he obviously desired to keep his personal status as quo as possible.  Toward this end, he thought it would be a good idea to prevent his people from talking to each other.  This, to his thinking, was the crux of the problem – as soon as any group of Egyptians started talking together, the conversation invariably turned to everything that was wrong with Mubarak’s regime.

The solution was elegant in its simplicity.  To stop the conversations, all he had to do was plug the pipes.  To accomplish this, he turned off the internet in Egypt.  In response to which Egypt – well – exploded.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about Tahrir Square.

When all was said and done, Mubarak was out of power and Egypt began a series of political seizures that still haven’t finished playing out.

After watching these events unfold, some members of our political leadership started to revisit the idea of a U.S. government-controlled internet kill switch.  Seriously.  And these people are running the show.  What were we thinking?

Of course, this idea has surfaced before.  The rationalization is that the government may someday have to shut down the internet in the interest of National Cybersecurity (leaving aside the reality that by the time our government actually became aware of such a need it would be far too late).  I haven’t heard an explanation as to why the government would need to shut down the entire internet to achieve this, rather than just their pieces of it.  I assume this is simply because no one who works for our government actually knows anything about the internet, but it could be that they just don’t want to admit that the only real use for an internet kill switch is the one Mubarak employed.

The problem here in the U.S. is that We The People have all those pesky Constitutional rights.

When the Founding Drunkards were drawing up the documents that rule our lives, they produced a Constitution, which they swiftly followed with the Bill of Rights.  There was much arguing over the Bill of Rights (specifically, whether there should even be one), but eventually the majority decided that the document should be ratified.

It is curious that the Constitution – the document intended to serve as the foundation of our nation – was so quickly amended.  Not once but ten times.  It could be that they wanted to drive home the point that the Constitution is meant to be amended.  It’s the whole idea behind the document – that it be something that can change and grow along with the change and growth of the United States of America.

I also think it’s possible that the Bill of Rights was the Framers’ way of saying:  “These are the big ones, folks.  If you don’t have these freedoms, then you are not free.”

I bring this up because I think it’s important to note that an internet kill switch would be seriously flirting with infringing on our Constitutional rights.  Specifically in relation to the First Amendment.

You thought I was talking about Freedom of Speech (more exactly, Freedom of Expression), didn’t you?  Well, I’m not (although that argument could be made).

No, I’m talking about another First Amendment right:  Freedom of Assembly.  This, my friends, is what we do with the internet:  we assemble.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace – just to name some of the big guns – for many people, these are the internet.  These days, it seems more and more that the internet exists solely to give Social Media a place to hang out.  In case you haven’t noticed, what most of us do with the internet is connect, reconnect, and stay connected with each other.

You see, the Drunkards were well educated folks.  They had read their history and were quite aware that most revolutions begin in pubs.  They were also aware that this is not due to the presence of alcohol (although it certainly doesn’t hurt).  The reason drinking establishments so often serve as birthplaces for insurrection is that they are public venues where people are able to come together and speak openly.  Where We The People can assemble to discuss our grievances.

Which is precisely what Mubarak feared and tried to stop.  He wasn’t just trying to keep people from talking – he was trying to keep them from talking to each other.

internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.

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Wonderland A couple events of interest to the geospatial community occurred recently.  The first was the release of the Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model, the second (following close on the heels of the first) was GISCI’s reaction to it.  Both are interesting and worthy of deconstruction.  Let’s begin with the latter.

The GISCI release states:  “Portfolio-based certification made sense in 2004, when no authoritative specification of geospatial competencies yet existed. The Department of Labor’s recently issued Geospatial Technology Competency Model helps fill that gap, and sets the stage for serious consideration of competency-based GISP certification.”

I’m not buying it.  If portfolio-based certification actually did make sense in 2004 due to a lack of an “authoritative specification of geospatial competencies”, shouldn’t the provision of such an “authoritative specification” have been the absolute first responsibility of GISCI?  Shouldn’t an organization that aspires to be the source of GIS certification have played a more active role in the specification of geospatial competencies than simply waiting until someone else did so, and then chiming in with “What he said”?

Actually, GISCI didn’t even go that far.  In true bureaucratic fashion, they have instead formed a committee to discuss whether to advise GISCI to stand behind the Department of Labor and say “What he said.”  Now that’s leadership.

In fact, GISCI would be well served to ignore the Department of Labor’s model (for reasons we’ll get to in a bit), but I’m certain they’ll end up embracing it, because the Department of Labor and GISCI both start with the same fundamental mistake.  Both GISCI and the Department of Labor are laboring under the misconception that geospatial technology (hereafter referred to as GIS.  Because I feel like it) is a discipline narrow enough to certify in toto. As stated previously, this is a ridiculous assumption.  The field is just too damn broad and the skill sets too varied.

And if we ever needed a perfect example of this, the Department of Labor thoughtfully provided it with their Competency Model.  I have to say I had trouble believing it wasn’t a joke (I’m still not thoroughly convinced).  The model is shown as a sort of pyramid, upon which “Each tier consists of one or more blocks representing the skills, knowledge, and abilities essential for successful performance in the industry or occupation represented by the model”, and we are informed that “At the base of the model, competencies apply to a large number of occupations and industries. As a user moves up the model, the competencies become industry- and occupation-specific.”  Tier 4 is where we’re supposed to get to competencies specific to GIS.

Okay.  Are we ready to climb the tiers?

I’m pretty much going to get kicked off the pyramid at the outset, since the first item on the first tier is Interpersonal Skills.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a likeable enough guy, but there’s a good reason I didn’t go into the service industry.  People just annoy me too much.  The rest of the first tier I’ll be okay on.

The second tier I can dance through easily, but I have to linger long enough to argue.  This tier is supposed to represent generalized academic competencies that should apply to the majority of fields.  Both ‘geography’ and ‘science and engineering’ have been placed on this tier, and I don’t believe either of them actually belong.  The average worker in many industries (maybe most of them) doesn’t need to know squat about these.

I’m running into trouble again on the third tier.  Teamwork is a tough one, but I’m actually a rather good team player if I get to be captain, so I might be able to sneak by.  I’m hitting the wall at ‘business fundamentals’, though.  And frankly, this one should be removed from the pyramid altogether.  This is why we have business schools.  So that we can hire people who know how to do business to handle that end of it while we make maps.

The fourth and fifth tiers (the last detailed – the remainder left ‘intentionally blank’) make some sense, but cover far too much ground.  Possessing just a fraction of these competencies would suffice to function rather well in a large variety of GIS capacities, and in many a narrowly focused skill set is actually desirable.  And some of these competencies are nice to have in your tool kit but aren’t actually necessary (such as coding.  You don’t have to know how to build a car in order to drive one.  It does help when it breaks down, though).

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again:  while I think the geospatial technology industry would benefit from some sort of certification process, the people who seem to be going about it are getting it wrong.  Instead of searching for one large ‘blanket’ certification to spread across the entire profession, the smart move would be to build a model similar to the one used for IT.  GIS would be much better served by a large number of small, narrowly-focused certifications rather than one uselessly large one.

Instead of trying to develop an over-arching definition of our profession, why don’t we just make a list of the things we actually do?  Then we can figure out who can do which ones.  Or does that make too much sense?

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anonymous There is an old, informal anthropological term that has always amused me:  Bongo-Bongoism.  A Bongo-Bongoism is the refutation of any argument by asserting:  “Well, the Bongo-Bongo do it differently” (where ‘Bongo-Bongo’ is replaced with your obscure culture of choice).  This is usually employed by an anthropologist who feels a need to underline the fact that there are blessed few characteristics shared by all cultures.  If I remember correctly, there are 2:  language and incest taboos (some cultures actually do allow for incest, but only in special cases, like for royalty.  Kind of asking for it, leadership-wise).

Until fairly recently, Bongo-Bongoism was well on its way to fading into obscurity.  Even among anthropologists, the ability to give a crap about such nit-picking was on the fast track to obliteration.

But then, of course, the mantle got picked up by the Internet Douchebaggerati (with a hefty assist from Wikipedia).  You know the type – the ones who think their pathological devotion to irrelevant detail will convince the world that they have an above-average intellect, are physically quite attractive, and probably play a musical instrument.  Update:  I just realized why the Douchebaggerati adopted Bongo-Bongoism.  Amongst the Douchebaggerati there are three basic cultures (with many sub-cultures):  Windows, Mac and Linux.  These cultures love to reverse the anthropological process and point to themselves, saying something like “If you used a Mac, you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”  Different ground rules, but still just as stupid.

I bring this up because one such Douchebag resorted to Bongo-Bongoism in a recent discussion of anonymity.  You know – that tired old Facebook crap again.  And the same old bullshit idea came up:  “We have a right to anonymity.”

Um… no.  No we don’t.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that it’s by design.

Here’s the basic difference – Privacy is about personal identity and information and (more importantly) exercising control over personal identity and information.  Anonymity is the lack of personal identity and information.  It’s the difference between unknown and unknowable.

True anonymity is pretty rare in modern society.  The illusion of anonymity, however, is fairly common.  For example, life in an urban setting certainly seems to be anonymous.  It’s quite easy to feel anonymous when walking down the street in the average city.  However, this feeling of anonymity is not a true one.  It’s far closer to apathy than anonymity.  It’s not that the city cannot identify you, it’s that it doesn’t care to.

The same can be said for much of the internet.  While it may feel anonymous, it really isn’t.  Computers are really quite honest and forthcoming when they talk to each other.  Anonymity can be achieved on the internet, but it isn’t easy.  And, for the most part, it’s unnecessary.  Most people don’t really care if they’re anonymous on the internet, and for those who do care, usually the illusion of anonymity is enough.

And I’m pretty sure that modern society depends upon a certain lack of anonymity in order to function.  Allow me to explain:

Human beings are not, by nature, moral creatures.  In fact, most are rather immoral (amoral at best).  In short, the average person is lying, thieving, raping, murderous scum, and the only thing keeping them in line is the threat of retribution.  Don’t believe me?  Just take a look at any situation in human history in which the rules were removed.  Wars.  Riots.  Blackouts.  To a much smaller degree, pay heed to the fashion in which most people behave while driving.  Do you think they’d act like that if they met you face-to-face in the street?  The internet serves equally well as an example of how-people-would-never-dare-act-if-their-noses-were-actually-within-reach.

The sad truth is that most people will only treat their fellow human beings with dignity and respect if they are forced to.  The upside is that forcing them to do so is usually pretty easy.  In most cases, all it takes is the lingering threat that someone may be watching.

And don’t think for an instant that the Founding Drunkards were unaware of this.  They were very (personally) cognizant of the depths of human debauchery, and I’m sure they were also quite aware of the ease with which the average person is controlled from without (far easier than instilling control from within).  I daresay there are damn good reasons the Founding Paragraphs don’t mention privacy or anonymity.  Society functions rather more smoothly if people feel a little more personally accountable.

Believe me, folks.  If real anonymity were to become commonplace and/or easily achieved in modern society, it would spell the end of civilization as we know it.  Because civilization really is just a very thin coat of manners painted onto a bunch of angry barbarians.

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Justice So the next-gen iPhone scandal continues apace.  For those of you scratching your heads, the Readers’ Digest version:

An engineer from Apple reportedly ‘lost’ a prototype of the next version of the iPhone.  An unidentified man ‘found’ said iPhone (I say ‘lost’ and ‘found’ because we have only the unidentified man’s word for the veracity of this scenario).  Despite the fact that the mystery man found a plethora of information about the engineer within the iPhone itself, rather than returning the device (or turning it over to the authorities) he chose instead to sell the phone for $5,000 to Gizmodo.

Gizmodo, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is what is commonly referred to as a Gadget Blog.  Also referred to as Technology Porn, it is one of many such blogs that make their living by gushing over the latest and greatest high-tech gadgets in the marketplace.

Jason Chen is the blogger at Gizmodo who subsequently posted an item about the iPhone.  Gizmodo even went so far as to post pictures of the iPhone in a dismantled state.  And they stepped way over the line by posting the name of the engineer who ‘lost’ the phone (the lie they told to justify this bit of sensationalist crap is that they were ‘protecting’ the engineer because Apple wouldn’t dare fire him after Gizmodo posted his name.  As if Apple wouldn’t just go ahead and fire an engineer who misplaced such a device anyway).

This all raised a pretty big stink out in the interwebs, and much discussion of the issue occurred.  And then it pretty much faded away.  That is, until Friday, when law enforcement officials showed up at Chen’s house with a warrant and took away a truckload of electronics in the form of computers, hard-drives, cameras and whatnot.  Naturally, many assume that Apple is behind the warrant.  Personally, until this development I suspected Apple of being complicit in the whole story in an attempt to garner publicity for their new device (I’m sure they could use some after the lack of excitement over the iPad).

Anyway, you can imagine the gnashing of teeth surrounding the whole affair.  The warrant evidently stated that the gadgetry seized from Chen’s residence may have been “used as a means of committing a felony” or could “show a felony has been committed.”  It seems pretty clear that Chen and Gizmodo knew damn well that they were breaking the law (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t know it was a felony).

Gizmodo, through their COO, is claiming that the warrant was invalid because Chen should be covered by state and federal ‘shield’ laws because Chen is a journalist.  Journalists’ notes, pictures, data and such are not supposed to be seizable by warrant.  Rather, courts are supposed to subpoena the journalist for such items.

I’m sorry, but I really have to draw the line at this ‘journalist’ crap.  Calling Gizmodo (or the bulk of the rest of the gadget blogs) ‘journalism’ is pure douchebaggery and an insult to all true journalists in this world.  Have you read any of these blogs?  Their ‘stories’ consist of no more than a few paragraphs (often only one) that take one of two forms:  the first is a direct copy-and-paste from a real article the ‘author’ then links to.  The second is just a hastily-scrawled, poorly written and invariably misspelled blurb (I would like to dispel the fiction that misspelled words in articles posted on the internet can be excused simply by calling them ‘typos’.  Originally, typographical errors described spelling errors that occurred during the type-setting part of the publishing process.  This was a phenomenon specific to printed media, and the distinction was made to point out that the error was beyond the author’s control.  In the case of articles published on the internet, misspellings are solely the responsibility of the author, and are indicative of a lazy and/or sloppy over-reliance on spell-checkers).

Edward R. Murrow was a journalist.  Bill Moyers is a journalist.  Journalists go to dangerous places and take personal risks to report stories that are of actual import to human beings.  Journalism is most certainly not about the latest celebrity break-up.  Nor is it about the latest shiny bauble up for sale.  There is a world of difference between news and gossip.  The business of journalists is news.  Blogs, on the other hand, are most often in the business of gossip.

If, for some bizarre reason, there are state and federal laws protecting gossips (or douchebags), then Chen should enjoy their protection.  If no such laws exist, Chen and the company he works for should get spanked.  Hard. What they do is not journalism, and they should not be allowed to wrap themselves in journalism’s protective blanket just by claiming they deserve it.  That blanket should be reserved for people who have actually earned it.

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internet Living in an area rife with colleges, our lives tend to be awash in free publications.  They vary in quality from excellent to – well – crap.  Yesterday, I was perusing a paper that lands somewhere away from the excellent end of the spectrum, and I came across an article written by a guy who calls himself a ‘parenting expert’.  The oxymoronic nature of this label struck me as being so humorous I felt compelled to tweet a tweet on the subject.  One of my tweeps (not sure how I feel about that term.  On the surface, I kind of like it, but I’m generally ill-disposed toward words that don’t lend themselves to the singular) responded, calling the ‘parenting expert’ a professional delusionist. I asked permission to use the term, and it was granted (thanks, Jason).

Truth be told, I am so fond of the term Professional Delusionist that I am seriously thinking about including it on my business cards and résumé.  I’ll probably put it right after Outrageous Liar.

Anyway, the delusionist oversimplified parenting styles into two oppositional categories,  then went on to explain how his personal theory fit perfectly in the middle.  Having thus proven his idiocy, he finished up his piece with a ‘fact check’ in which he endeavored to “correct some misinformation that is out there”.  This ‘correction’ includes an admonishment to “check the records (not the Internet)”, as well as a brief discussion of how a tidbit of misinformation “ran wild on the Internet”.

Okay.  Let’s see if we can hack this to bits.  A good place to start would be the common misperception that disinformation and the Internet are conjoined twins.  The adage “Don’t believe everything you read (or hear)” was kicking around long before anyone dreamed up the Internet, and for good reason.  People lie.  They do it often, for a multitude of reasons, and in pretty much all media.  Sometimes they do it knowingly, but oft-times they do it because they think they’re doing the exact opposite.  But this is a discussion for another day.

The Internet, unlike most other forms of media, has the ability to correct itself.  It is a constantly-evolving creature (I hear you, Drew.  Allow me a bloody metaphor.  Possibly an analogy and/or simile).  There was a time when only geeks could effectively navigate the archipelagoes of cyberspace, but as times have changed, so has the Internet.  This manifests itself as better browsers, more intelligent search engines, more intuitive web sites and cleaner code.

Translated to human:  The Internet works better than it used to.  And anyone can use it well, if they just treat it as critically as they treat their newspaper or TV.

Allow me to demonstrate.  Open up another browser window, or just another tab.  Go to Google and search for:

Man Arrested for Wearing McCain Shirt at Obama Victory Rally

Those of you who are intensely lazy can just click on this.

Okay.  Let’s look at our results.  The first thing that should catch your eye is that the titles of all the links we’re seeing are very similar.  This is the kind of thing that should throw up warning flags.  What it’s telling us is that all those pages are either A) linking to the same source, or B) linking to each other.

We can put these results to the test.  In this case, we’re looking at page after page that discuss a McCain supporter who was arrested at an Obama victory rally just for wearing a pro-McCain T-shirt! It seems to me that if such an event actually occurred, there would be some mention of it in the news.

Let’s go back to our search page.  At the top left, you see a list:  Web, Images, Videos, Maps, News, Shopping, Gmail, more.  Click on ‘News’ and see what happens.

Nothing.  Not a single mention in the news (not even at Fox!) of this event.  Does this mean that the event did not occur?  No.  Just that it’s unlikely.

Alright.  So here’s what we just did – we started with a rumor (in blue letters above), we found out whether it was being talked about (our first search), then we checked to see if any reputable sources were talking about it (our second, ‘news’ search).  In a nutshell, we came across a rumor and determined that it was crap. And all it took us a couple of minutes.

This, my friends, is the power of the Internet.  But it only works if you couple it with a discerning mind.

Which is what far too few people do.  A friend once told me about a phenomenon he referred to as ‘barroom philosopher’.  A ‘barroom philosopher’ is a person who expresses their ideas in a room full of drunken people.  When the rest of the drunks agree with them, the ‘barroom philosopher’ thinks that they’re actually onto something.  It doesn’t occur to them to question the fact that a bunch of drunks are agreeing with them.

The Internet has a similar phenomenon, and Jason hit upon it last night.  Jason spoke of the Professional Delusionist, but the Internet is populated with a different creature.  What you find on the Internet are internet Prowling amateur delusionists.

Or iPads.

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Great Wall in Winter I studied anthropology in college.  At the particular university I attended, this entailed a certain amount of time spent hanging around the anthro lounge with other students.  There was a grassy corner outside the building housing said lounge where a curious family would occasionally take up temporary residence to harangue the students passing by.  They had a large (about 15’ tall) wooden cross they would hold (usually the father) and they would scream at the passerby about their likelihood of burning in Hell for all eternity.  Apparently, this family thought attending university was some form of especially grievous sin.  Beside the father, the family consisted of a mother and a small boy, probably around 8 years old at the time.

One day, I sat in the lounge while this family stood at their posts screaming invectives.  Dickie, a grad student, entered the lounge and flopped angrily into a chair.  I looked up and noted that he was visibly upset.

“What’s up?” I queried.

“I just feel for that little boy,” came the response.  “I just want to go out and tell him that there’s another way.”

My reaction to this statement was to question Dickie about a few things.  Specifically, why he thought he had the right to tell anyone else how to raise their children, what he thought entitled him to pass judgment on someone else’s beliefs, and whether he liked the idea of someone else telling Dickie how to raise his own children.  I didn’t do it very nicely.

I got to thinking about that family today as I was reading yet another article about China/Google.  I was thinking about them because the elephant in the room reminded me of them.

You see, in all the discussion about this scenario, I have read reams of opinions about human rights (which I’ll get to later), but I have read precious little about sovereignty.  You know – something along the lines of:  Who are we to tell China what to do?  When companies from other countries do business here in the United States (even Chinese companies), we quite rightly expect them to play by our rules.  If they fail to do things our way, we kick them out.  This is right and proper and how it should be.

But not, apparently, when China does it.  When we do it, we are a sovereign nation exercising its right to protect the interests of its people.  When China does it, they’re an evil, tyrannical empire abusing its citizens.

To quote Brian Lewis:  “God bless America. And no place else.”

Just one more damn thing I find tiresome about my country.  Which should not be taken to mean I don’t love my country.  I love my country, and I always have.  I just hold it to a higher standard than most people.

Anyway, a large part of the Great American Idiocy is the unshakable belief that everyone else in the world wants what we have (which contains a kernel of truth, but not of the sort most people think).  Americans inexplicably think that the rest of humanity would really love to have an American form of government, as well as a full set of American rights.  This is inexplicable for a variety of reasons, the largest of which being that Americans don’t even want them themselves.

Don’t believe me?  Are you actually under the impression that Americans are protective of their rights?  If so, I have one question:  Where the hell were you for the first eight years of this millennium?  You know – that dark, cold period in American history when the Bush/Cheney empire routinely erased the rights of the American people, in response to which the majority of Americans stood up and cheered.

And our form of government?  Please.  In the first place, we do not have a democracy in this country, or even anything close to it.  ‘Representative Republic’ is one of the phrases that often gets batted around in an attempt to describe what we have.  Whatever you want to call it, what we do have in this country is the ability to vote.  The actual weight our individual votes carry is an arguable point (and it varies, depending on what, exactly, we’re voting about), but in some fashion it boils down to the fact that we are freely given a real, active and meaningful voice in our government.

And yet, in the last election, only 58% of Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so.  This means that 42% of the Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to participate in the process, despite the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything, is easy to do, and directly and immediately affects their lives.

So tell me – if our form of government is so damned wonderful, why do almost half of the eligible participants choose not to play?  And please don’t try to tell me that all those Americans want our form of government, but just aren’t willing  to ‘work’ for it.  That’s just another way of saying they don’t want it.  Besides, dropping by the polls for an hour (at most) once every couple of years is not exactly work (truth be told, there are only two things that the majority of Americans really do want.  They want to be able to pick up a six-pack on their way home from work, and they want their cable to work when they get home.  If these two things are in place, the average American doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else).  I just don’t understand why we insist on believing the rest of the world wants a piece of our so-called ‘democracy’ when such a large percentage of Americans don’t even want it.  Seems like a bit of a stretch.

Which brings us to the subject of human rights.  We here in the Land Of Silk And Money tend to believe that the government of China routinely violates the basic human rights of the Chinese people.  Personally, I believe this to be true, but not through any firsthand (or even secondhand) knowledge.

What’s unclear to me is why we’re bringing internet censorship into the whole human rights discussion.  This is not to say I am a proponent of internet censorship (or any other sort of censorship, for that matter).  I’d like to think this is obvious.  Censorship in any form is an infringement of the freedom of expression, something I consider to be a basic human right (within reason, of course.  You know – the old saw about not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.  Possessing a right to speak freely does not automatically confer a license to use it recklessly.  Nor does it absolve one from taking responsibility for things said).  What I’m not getting here is why we’re all pretending that the Chinese government is the only government that actively censors the information its citizens receive.  Or why we pretend that censorship only comes from ‘bad’ governments.  All governments censor information – some are just more honest about it (for which they get sent over to sit on the Group ‘W’ bench).

We here in the United States tend to place freedom of expression into the ‘basic human right’ category, I think mainly because our freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and therefore we have more of it than most.  What we forget is just how rare this is.  The overwhelming majority of humanity does not enjoy this right, even many of the people we Americans kind of assume do have such a right – While article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights pertains to the freedom of expression, it contains the conditional: subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, everyone should have a right to free speech, but only insofar as their government wishes to allow (Neil Gaiman wrote a great piece on this a while back).  It also should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights is much like the United Nations – it has no muscles.  It is only enforceable if a government chooses to flex its muscles on the Convention’s behalf.

I guess my point here is simply a repetition of one of the great litanies of my life:  They are all bastards. I don’t really see how asking Google to abide by their rules makes Chinese bastards worse than all the other bastards.

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For DummiesI am a pretty smart guy.  The tests that are usually used to measure these  things tend to place me somewhere in the smartest 5% of humanity, depending on the particular test and what kind of day I’m having.  I am also smart enough to know the flaws inherent in these tests and am very much aware that they are not always accurate (unless, of course, you just want to run comparisons of middle-class, white guys of European descent).

So let’s allow for the less-than-perfect nature of intelligence testing.  Let’s say I’m considerably less intelligent than the tests are wont to place me.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that I actually place just inside the smartest 20% of humanity.

This means that every time I initially encounter another human being, there is an 80% chance that they will be dumber than I am.  Although even the most determined moron isn’t stupid all the time, I think if we took the time to crunch all the numbers (and allowing for the relative nature of stupidity), we would end up with something like a solid 20-25% chance that any time another human being opens their mouth in my presence, something stupid will come out of it.

By now you may be thinking that I am arrogant.  While I feel arrogance is too strong a term, I am the first to admit I possess an ego the size of Louisiana.  However, my ego has nothing to do with with my intellect.  Rather, it is a result of my upbringing.  My family took pains to see that I developed a strong self-image.  They did not foresee the monster they would create.

My intelligence, to the contrary, tends more often to have a humbling effect.

The smartest human being I have ever met (and believe me, children – she’s really fucking smart) once explained it to me this way:  The universe is an enormous place full of stuff we don’t know.  Somewhere in that immensity, we live inside miniscule bubbles made up of our knowledge.  When we learn new things, the size of our bubble expands, but the net result of this is that the surface area of our bubble (the interface where our knowledge meets our ignorance) increases.  Therefore, expanding our knowledge exponentially increases our awareness of just how much we don’t know.

This is why those who posses truly superior intellects are usually not prideful about it.  Real intelligence instills humility.  Real intelligence knows that it has arrived where it is through a certain amount of luck and is thankful for it.  And real intelligence knows what it is – it needs no validation.  This is why most people who are truly intelligent view their intelligence as just another physical attribute, like being tall or having blue eyes.

And then there are those who just think they’re smart.   Those who are, in fact, not smart at all, but they believe otherwise because some test or web site or TV show told them otherwise.  To be fair, they probably clock in at the smarter end of mediocrity, but they don’t actually ever cross over into the realm of intelligence.  And stupidity that thinks it’s smart is the most dangerous form of stupidity.

You know the type – there’s no humility in this crowd.  They’re oblivious to the vastness of their ignorance, mainly because they never look up from the shiny baubles of their amassed ‘knowledge’.  They actually believe that they ‘know’ things.  They speak of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that is ‘proven’ and ‘undeniable’ as if such things actually exist.  And what really drives them crazy is when someone has the gall to question their so-called ‘knowledge’.  This is when they leap to the attack, and their attack always takes the same form:  they must prove you wrong.  This is the only manner in which they can believe themselves to be right.  The fastest – hell, the only – route to intellectual superiority lies in the ability to point to another human being and convincingly declare: You are wrong! It’s kind of sad, actually.

But here’s the thing that pisses off the genius wannabees the most:  that it is unacceptable in our society to walk up to others and say “I’m really smart”.  I mean, what’s the point of possessing a superior intellect if nobody notices? How will everyone else know they are inferior unless their betters point it out to them?

So the wannabees found themselves in a bit of a pickle.  How can they show off their intellectual superiority without just coming out and saying it?

After applying their mediocre intellects to the matter, they eventually decided that the way to show off their brains was to be annoying.  You know – needlessly correcting grammar.  Obsessing on minute, meaningless detail.  Memorizing acronyms and using the complete term instead.  You’ve been exposed to the behavior.  You’ve probably wanted to knee a groin over it.

Eventually, though, they managed to see through the fog of their mediocrity and noticed that all they were accomplishing was to piss everyone off.  While they may have been exhibiting their superiority, the inferior masses were clearly not ‘getting it’.  A new method was called for, and after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, one member of this ‘intelligentsia’ stood up and said “Um…what about this ‘God’ thing?”

After a brief fight, he managed to clear enough space around himself to offer an explanation:  “I meant that we should profess ourselves as atheists.  Everyone knows religion is for idiots.  If we say we don’t believe in God, everyone will know we’re smart.  And society allows us to go around saying we’re atheists.”

The rest – as they say – is history.  Now the creme de la mediocre have adopted atheism as their own personal religion.  And they cling to a few studies that support their primary idiocy, i.e., ‘smart people tend to be atheists’.

But what the mediocre minds really hate most is me.  I show up and declare my atheism in complete (usually well-constructed) sentences, and they welcome me with open arms.

And then I go and ruin everything by explaining a few things to them.  Like evolution is a belief, not a fact.  Like unbelief is as much a matter of faith as belief.  Like atheism is, in fact, a form of religion, as is science.  And my personal favorite, the one they hate most:

The universe is a really big place.  There’s enough room in it for more than one Truth.

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