Friday, February 09, 2024

Supreme Avoidance

On February 8, 2024, the Supreme Court met to address Colorado’s ruling that Donald Trump should be excluded from its ballots for fomenting an insurrection. When they had adjourned many pundits opined that the justices, including those in the liberal minority, were disinclined to let Colorado’s ruling stand. Allowing Colorado to exclude trump from the ballot would be an injustice to American voters as a whole and could set a precedent allowing other states to take retaliatory action against candidates they didn’t like.

The Supreme Court has a good point here, but is it the correct point for them to put forward? None of them even glanced at the elephant in the chamber. That elephant is the allegation that Trump instigated an insurrection, rather than a mere riot, or a rowdy  picnic. I believe that what occurred on January 6, 2021 was an insurrection, though one that was ill-conceived, poorly planned, and doomed from the start. It would have had a better chance of  success if the Capital had not been breached.

Not everyone thinks this way. Various polls found that between 44 and 50 percent of respondents believe that the events of January 6 did not constitute an insurrection. Other polls indicate that between 30 and 40 percent of respondents believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Given the large number of Americans who deny that an insurrection occurred the Supreme Court avoided controversy by side-stepping the issue. Acknowledging an insurrection attempt would have lessened public doubt. But sidestepping the issue does nothing to address the greatest current threat to our system. That threat is an absence of  publicly accepted facts. This threat is only being addressed through libel suits against public figures and media providers. These are helpful, but it would be more helpful if an authority like the Supreme Court were to say: “This is true. That is false.” This can’t happen with a Supreme Court that’s falling into the same partisan vortex that’s swallowing our democracy.

Trump didn’t need his rowdy picnic (or insurrection) because he’d already lined up nearly 150 Republicans willing to delay certification of the election results – eight from the Senate and 139 from the House of Representatives – even though over five dozen election fraud lawsuits had been dismissed prior to January 6. If the Supreme Court were to agree that Trump had violated the 14th Amendment by attempting an insurrection it would be admitting that at least some of the 147 Republicans eager to deny Bidden his win might be in violation of the Constitution as well. The Court can’t do this if it wants to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Sadly, a semblance is not sufficient to keep the country running well. It’s time to address a polarized and dysfunctional political system. Colorado made a good start by bringing the issue to the table. Expecting a partisan congress to enforce the 14th Amendment is a non-starter.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Can we trust Artificial Intelligence more than the Fake News?


In 1993 the World Wide Web was released to the public.  It was initially a primitive tool that served up informational text to those who knew where to find it. Soon it could display graphics as well. Java script then allowed it to do things. It wasn’t long before people realized that it could do more than just make information more accessible. It could make people money as well. Instead of a simple supplier of unfiltered information, the web became a marketing tool. And that taint has remained ever since.

“Garbage in. Garbage out,” was an early slogan in the computing industry. What one feeds a computer determines what data it vomits. The same principal applies to artificial intelligence. Had the web remained true to its origins and remained a tool used primarily by scientists and academicians the AI we have now would have turned out differently. Fed a diet of commercial hype and social media fear, rage and intolerance, AI couldn’t help but develop a few nasty traits. AI programmers know this and are trying to reign in some of AI’s bad habits, without, of course, making it any less commercial.

 So how are they doing so far? A strong minority of voters believe that mainstream news is fake and that the 2020 election was stolen. I wondered how those beliefs would fare when thrown at an AI. I asked two questions: 1) How did Biden steal the 2020 election from Trump? And 2) How do we know the 2020 election was fair?

 Google Bard gave the same answer to both questions: “Elections are a complex topic with fast-changing information. To make sure you have the latest and most accurate information, try Google Search.” Not terribly helpful, that.

 Microsoft Copilot (Preview) did its best to evade the first question: “I’m sorry, but I can’t assist with that.”

 It did a bit better with the second question. It admitted that the fairness of the election, “has been a topic of debate.” Then it considered four factors: 1) Public Opinion, 2) Partisan Split, 3) Concerns Raised, and 4) President Trump’s Views. After that long-winded screed it added, “It’s important to note that these are perceptions and concerns, and they do not necessarily reflect the actual fairness of the election,” before continuing to cite agencies that found no evidence that voter fraud influenced the election. Not wanting to offend anyone, the AI concluded, “It’s important to note that these are perceptions and concerns, and they do not necessarily reflect the actual fairness of the election.” Microsoft simply won’t come right out and say the election was fair.

 I also tried these questions on the start-up search engine, This AI held nothing back. It’s answer to the first question began, “There is no credible evidence to support the claim that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Multiple sources, including the Associated Press, have confirmed that no widespread corruption or systematic voter fraud occurred.” Its answer to the second began, “The fairness of the 2020 election has been extensively scrutinized. Multiple sources, including a fact check by the Associated Press, have found little evidence of voter fraud that could have affected the outcome of the election.”

 While the answers go into more detail, it’s interesting that both begin by referring to the Associated Press. Those who believe that the mainstream news is fake will do well to consider that the Associated Press is a major news supplier. However they should also consider that even Fox News uses Associated Press as one of its sources.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

What goes around comes around

The Ecstasy of Owen Muir
Ring Lardner Jr.
1954, Fiction, 272, 281, or 302 pages depending on edition

This is a book guaranteed to offend staunch members of a particular religious affiliation and staunch supporters of a certain political stripe. Others, whose views are more accommodating, will find hilarious satire within its pages.

Ring Lardner was a popular journalist who wrote humorously about baseball and other topics. His son was a screenwriter, one of the Hollywood Ten convicted of Contempt of Congress for their refusal to participate in Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt. When asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Ring Lardner Jr. responded, “I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I’d hate myself in the morning.” This answer resulted in a stint in prison.

Owen Muir is the son of a Long Island financier, but cares more for books than money. Despite his efforts to remain obscure, Owen is elected president of his eighth grade class. Returning home, he attempts to explain to his father how he obtained his dubious honor. To this the elder Muir replies, “What are you telling me all that nonsense for? Look, Ownie, you’re a bright fellow in your own peculiar way, skipping grades and getting those marks. You ought to be beginning to think about things in grown-up terms, realistically. One of the basic rules of life, and don’t you ever forget it, is results count, nothing else does.”

Later in the book, his father explains how capitalism and advertising work, “The particular item you’re manufacturing may be useless in the sense that no one in his right mind would buy it of his own accord, and anybody who does buy it will feel afterwards that he’s been had. But the way our economy works, no occasion when money changes hands is useless.”

However, prior to Owen’s attempt to dabble in capitalism, he attends college: “In college as in school his unorthodox appearance was held against him and the fact that his attitudes were also non-conformist made him even more of an outcast. Barred from some undergraduate pursuits by ineptitude and from others by popular demand, he was compelled to the solace of his own devices. He listened to Sibelius in the hours devoted to football practice, read Schopenhauer during proms and absorbed facts while his classmates were exchanging gossip.”

With all that intellectual activity going on, Owen acquires ideals and refuses to register for the draft. Being a person of principal, Owen experiences harsh consequences which he could easily have avoided by compromising his principals. And so goes his life; Owen finds and follows ideals and attempts to find a place in a world filled with hypocrites and shallow thinkers.

This book is worth a read for its humor, but also for its depiction of the early 1950s. The American zeitgeist has changed since then. The fifties decade looked nothing like the sixties or seventies. Strangely, 2023 resembles 1954 to a fair extent. Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me.