Why is America experiencing a frenzy of Russophobia?

Note: While writing this post I came across Cathy Young’s op-ed at Forward.com: Red Scare: Trump and Democrats Alike Fan Paranoia Regarding Russia. I suggest reading Young’s thoughts on the issue for an alternative analysis. I will weigh in below with my own perspective on the Russia affair.

There has been an upward trend of anti-Russian sentiment among the American public, growing at an unstoppable pace since news first broke last June of Russia hacking the DNC. Morning shows, newspaper front-pages, hashtags on social networks: the propaganda machine is at full-steam driving the renewed national phobia of the great threat and evil known as Russia. There are at least three largely overlapping but distinct interest-groups which are central to the anti-Russia info-wars.

Democrats are seething after being obliterated on all fronts in last November’s election, losing the House, the Senate, the presidency, and several state governorships. They are therefore engaging in an all-out campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Trump administration. Democrats are also upset at being hacked, with emails revealing the level of corruption at the core of the DNC and their shameful treatment of Senator Bernie Sanders. Quite paradoxical is the bitterness that Democrat supports reserve toward Russia, and the complete silence regarding the fraudulent actions of their party leaders at the DNC. This pattern of turning a blind eye one oneself and spewing virulence toward political opponents is consistent with the la-la land doctrine of “good guys” versus “bad guys” that dominates partisan America.

Antagonizing Russia to undermine Trump is an unsurprising and understandable political strategy. It is also neither new nor likely to be particularly fruitful. The Tea Party and similar elements adopted an identical strategy when challenging Obama’s legitimacy via the birther movement circa 2010. Conspiracies about his Kenyan/Islamic/Martian origins, led in no small part by Trump himself, were endless. Birtherism became a national amusement. Republican media, spearheaded by Fox & Friends, thrived by fostering a culture of mean-spirited and destructive accusations toward Obama. I cannot count many democracies where undermining the legitimacy of political opponents is common and accepted practice.

The foreign policy establishment. (Aside: I believe that what meager information we read in the media and press about the inner working of current government is <1% accurate and representative of actual events, so the following is pure speculation.) The Trump administration has surprised Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which for decades has been led by neoconservative politicians and lobby groups, by significantly marginalizing the State Department. Neoconservatives, who count both prominent Democrats (e.g. Victora Nuland, Obama’s great choreographer of the Ukrainian theatre) and Republicans (Sen. John McCain has been leading the fear-mongering recently) among their ranks, are playing second fiddle to Trump’s military generals at the Pentagon. My sense is that they are fabricating a foreign policy crisis with Russia in an attempt to revitalize their own political relevance.

In the meantime, the Americans, Russians, and Turks are engaging in security coordination against ISIS and Syria’s civil war. While coverage of the deployment of 400 Marines into Manbij, Syria has been scant in US media, it is a significant military and diplomatic breakthrough signalling a change in US attitudes toward a solution in Syria.

The national news media. People enjoy hating on Russia. It serves as an external enemy to vent against, and to confirm the exceptionalism of our democratic principles and moral character. Under the Orwellian slogan of “War is Peace”, this tactic is unsurprising. Particularly relevant is that, under the capitalist system, media houses are for-profit corporations acting under severe pressure of financial survival and political agendas. If stories about Russia continue to sell pageviews and drive up viewership, then they are guaranteed non-stop coverage. The longevity of the Russia connection is tied only to how long the media can keep up interest. The saga will be drawn out with series of unexpected twists and turns. But interest will soon wane, and then our attention will be moved to worry about the next earth-ending crisis.

I am not an expert on Russian culture, principles, or ways-of-life. As a non-citizen of Russia, and having no connection to the country or daily experiences of its regular people. I do not believe we are empowered to make value judgments about their political system and values. It is tempting to label other regimes as dictatorial and antagonistic, but I believe this judgement is only for people to make about themselves.

Trump knew it, Hillary blew it — the failures of polling

Election season has come and gone. Donald Trump pulled off what has been repeatedly characterized as a “stunning upset” over bitter rival Hillary Clinton. The web has gone rampant with postmortem analysis about the failures of election polling. But was it really that stunning?

Several polls conducted in the lead up to the election reported on the virtually deadlocked race, all well-within any reasonable margin of error:

Quinnipiac University reported on the situation in key battleground states (Nov 2)

Democrat Hillary Clinton’s October momentum comes to a halt as she clings to a small lead in Pennsylvania, while Republican Donald Trump moves ahead in Ohio, leaving Florida and North Carolina too close to call.

Probability forecast models on the other hand were remarkably off-mark and predicted Clinton well-ahead just the night before the election:

  • New York Times Upshot: Clinton 84%, Trump 16%
  • FiveThirtyEight: Clinton 66.9%, Trump 33%
  • PredictWise: Clinton 89%, Trump 11%

I was watching the blitz of last-ditch rallies held by Trump and Clinton the night before election day, to learn about the sentiments they were expressing about their chances. Here is a revealing segment from Trump’s penultimate war cry in New Hampshire (8pm on Nov 7):

We are going right after this to Michigan, because Michigan is in play… The polls just came out: we are leading in Michigan; we are leading in New Hampshire; we are leading in Ohio; we are leading in Iowa; leading in North Carolina; I think we are doing really, really well in Pennsylvania; and I do believe we are leading in Florida.

In the meantime, according to the New York Times:

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was so confident in her victory that her aides popped open Champagne on the campaign plane early Tuesday.

Either way, each candidate and their popular base was clearly happy to live in their own reality right up to the wire. Some personal take-aways from this whole affair:

  • Polling and forecasting is a messy, complex, empirical problem which next-to-nobody understands. I doubt it is statistical.

  • Well-informed voters do not derive the bulk of their information from cursory reading of social or national news media. They are vigilant about critiquing every aspect of information they consume. Otherwise, they are very, very sad.

Everything you need to know about … headlines!

There used to be a time when journalism was a profession. In the information age, however, the production and consumption of public media has become a long gone art. Data streams chaotically and continuously from all directions through the social networks — Facebook, Witter, Slacks, SMS — and it is a mystery how anyone can distill a meaningful signal from the noise. One might rather call it the mis-information age.

One can also write a volume, critiquing the sloppiness in today’s written content. For this post, let us focus right at the start; headlines. The purpose of a headline is to serve as a useful, succinct summary for the content of an article.

Many headlines on the web are instead extremely predictable, repetitive, and often appear to be pulled right out of a book called “Click Bait 101”. I recently browsed through the front page of Google News, and selected an assortment of representative headlines that echo some of the most recurring motifs.

Everything you need to know about …

These articles are a hold-my-hand guide through a dangerously oversimplified presentation of some complex issue. They usually receive very high number of comments and page views. I attribute most the blame for the success of this headline to the intellectual laziness of readers, who wish to quickly be knowledgeable and form opinions about a topic that society agrees is important.

It is also troubling that the writer is confident that they are telling you “everything you need to know about…” It would be more honest and accurate to rephrase as “some things we want you to know about…” Here are some examples.

  • Everything You Need to Know About Britain’s New Prime Minister. ABC
  • Everything You Need to Know About K2, the Drug Linked to Mass Overdose. NBC
  • Everything You Need to Know About Today’s GOP Rules Committee Meeting. ABC
  • Everything you need to know about the net neutrality debate in India. India Times
  • Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Brexit nightmare in five minutes. Politics UK

The last one is the exemplar — promising a comprehensive coverage of the Brexit in five minutes of your valuable time.

[someone] just did [something shocking]!

Intended for maximum shock and urgency. The [something shocking] event is typically a straight-out-deception of something trivial. The primary purpose of the headline is rather to make a statement about, or build a persona for, the [someone]. Examples:

  • Bernie Sanders Just Made Jill Stein The Most Powerful Woman In American Politics. Huffington Post
  • The FDA Just Declared War on Cookie Dough. Smithsonian
  • Putin Just Created His Own Personal Army. Daily Caller
  • Vladimir Putin just invited Kim Jong Un to visit Russia. Really. Washington Post

Even though a given reader may not read much about Putin, glancing through enough headlines like these work to build the negative, dictatorial character that is widespread in the West today. And who has the remotest idea about who is Jill Stein? Maybe she is too busy working in the Earth’s core and shifting tectonic plates…

[Yes, No, Sorry], …

These headlines sound like bitter responses in an argument on a Youtube comment forum. For each of these examples, consider how much more readable and professional the title would be, without the silly bolded words.

  • No, Bernie Sanders Did Not Sell Out by Endorsing Hillary Clinton — Just the Opposite. Forward
  • Sorry, You’re Just Going To Have to Save More Money.​ Wall St. Journal
  • Sorry 538, La Taqueria is delicious — but it’s also fatally flawed.​ Vox
  • Yes, Clinton is sinking in the polls. No, you should not panic. Here’s why.​ Washington Post

Some similar prefixes to look out for the future are “Right,” and “Wait,”. It is pretty surprising they have not been picked up already.

Conclusion

The next time you come across a headline along these lines, think about why the writer chose that particular pattern, what emotional or intellectual reaction they are trying to evoke, and how it contributes to their propaganda.

Enough urban legends about QWERTY

Over the past few years there has been much on and off talk about the origins of the QWERTY keyboard. Here is a Google Trends plot showing the “interest” (based on search volume?) of the term qwerty vs dvorak.  Screenshot from 2016-02-14 21:51:47 I am not sure why Google believe that internet users were suddenly interested in this topic for one day in August 2010 after zero search traffic for half a decade. But the key point is, news headlines (and sometimes “tidbits” at a dinner conversation) now and again keep reminding us of some fables about the much maligned keyboard layout. Some of the best anecdotes are
* Bars collided and jammed together in early typewriters, so qwerty designer Christopher Sholes arranged the most common letters in the worst possible locations to slow down typists.

  • The qwerty keyboard arose from telegraph operators who used morse code (a Japanese study looks into the whole prehistory) and found it to be the best arrangement, in comparison to earlier keyboards based on alphabetical order.

  • Salespeople pushed for qwerty because they could type the word T-Y-P-E-W-R-I-T-E-R without having to cross their fingers over one another (a key selling point, of course, because typewriter is a very common English word and our tools need to be specially optimized to type it …)

  • The Illuminati popularized qwerty, in collaboration with the CIA, to slow down Russian spies infiltrating NASA during in the Space Race. Regardless of the “true” history (which probably is not that interesting) the worst part about all this coverage is the portrayal of qwerty as an historic tragedy which we are now doomed to suffer with forever. Some studies look into the

efficacy of keyboard layout and suggest that the current design is not optimal. College students who are experts with dvorak smirk at their classmates with pride for their superior typing abilities. It is time to put an end to all this boring droll. So what if we type 3 fewer words per minute? Let us eliminate this great inefficiency for once and for all, and watch as labor productivity, youth employment, and gender equality rise to unprecedented levels, while crime rates, the GINI coefficient and CO2 emissions plummet. The next time Google News suggest an article about qwerty I am changing news sources.