Friday, February 10, 2017

Quotent Quotables: This is why I wouldn't have worked out as a scientist.

To set up the scene: two scientists are climbing into a tree platform to spend the night seeing if they can spot a tiger:

A gust of wind bent the tree over and lifted a squad of ants into the air. One of them landed in Robichaud's eye and bit him, sinking its pincers into the soft tissue of the eyeball....

Robichaud was all but blinded by pain and tears. Although his tears had drowned the ant that bit him, the body of the ant still clung there, its mandibles buried in the white of his eye. It felt like a cheese grater on his sclera.  ... Duckworth tried to pluck out the ant.... but [his] thick fingers could not immediately grasp the ant, and they knew they could not continue without the headlamp. They had to blend completely with the quiet darkness lest they spook a returning tiger. ... Robichaud resigned himself to a night of misery.


-- The Last Unicorn, William DeBuys.

i had this moment

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Trumpocalypse 13: Just what is The Trump Presidency (TM) Doing, Anyway?

You may feel like you're totally up on the news and how bad things are getting in America because you know stuff, like you know how Trump ordered government employees to find proof he had big crowds at his inauguration or how Betsy "I Bought This Cabinet Seat Myself" DeVos was barely confirmed as his Secretary of (Killing Off Public) Education, and of course you are completely up on the fact that he nominated someone for the Supreme Court and he banned Muslims from coming into the country, so congrats, you, on being informed.

Except you aren't.

The other day I found myself thinking Who actually has been confirmed on Trump's cabinet? I was surprised to learn we've got a Secretary of State -- Rex Tillerson! -- since I'd heard nothing much about that (seemingly important) Cabinet position.  That, in turn, made me wonder what else I'd been missing as the various real- and fake-media sources went nuts over real news (the Muslim ban) and fake news (the crowds at the inauguration).

There's been a lot going on, it turns out, so much so that I don't know if anyone, including the White House, knows how much has been going on -- like the thing with Steve Bannon slipping in an executive order making himself a member of the National Security Council, something that didn't make the headlines it should because when the ship is sinking it seems like it's less important to also announce the captain has been embezzling money.

The Trump Presidency (TM) has been busy, though, so busy that almost nobody can track it. According to the White House site, Trump has issued seven executive orders (or that's how many are posted there), 12 "Presidential Memoranda," and even two "Proclamations," which you have to imagine are Trump's favorite.

That's 21 Executive Actions according to The Trump Presidency (TM)'s own website. But according to Business Insider, as of February 3, he'd taken 22 such actions, so which one is missing from the official government website?

Or are the White House and Business Insider inflating things? Fox News' list as of February 3 contains what it says are 19 items, but actually the count comes to 14, depending on how you count them.

Wikipedia, meanwhile, lists 23 such actions already, while USA Today has an incomplete list but does note that one form of Trump order is an entirely new creature: the "national security presidential memorandum." And to top things off, there is at least one order signed by his chief of staff that has the force of an executive order from the president.

While some claim it's the most prolific executive action yet, Wikipedia has 23 such actions by Obama as of the first week of February 2009, so it's not clear even whether the media has as much information as, say, a website voluntarily maintained by anonymous people who get their information primarily from other websites.  (If there is an official listing of all executive actions anywhere, I haven't been able to find it.)

Most of the articles that discuss this at all simply list the orders, with no analysis or explanation or context, which means that the media is again not doing very much to help people understand how their government works (or doesn't) and is focusing on the high-profile stories like Betsy DeVos, but that raises the question: are these stories high profile because they are important? Or are they high profile because they are interesting to talk about and easy to understand?

I'm going to look at the specific executive actions going forward, on and off, but in the meantime, ask yourself: whatever the number of executive orders is so far (7, 14, 21, 23?) how many Trump Presidency (TM) actions can you list off the top of your head?

The vast majority of people in this country have little information and less understanding of how government actually works and what government actually does. That's why it's so easy for Republicans to hijack the political process (with at best the complacency of the Democratic Party and at worst the Democrats' own efforts to use 'social issues' to distract from the real issues.)  If even the best-informed and politically motivated people have only a vague clue as to what is going on, how can we hope to have people who aren't as energized about the political process to grasp the realities of the situation.

I have a rule for charitable giving that I think makes a lot of sense: if I spend money frivolously -- by buying something that is a pure luxury, like plants in my Plants Vs. Zombies 2 videogame -- I try to match that with a charitable contribution in the same amount, so that if I use $1.99 selfishly I use another $1.99 unselfishly.

I think that applies to politics and information, as well. So try this: every time you click on a story about Donald Trump's Twitter beefs, ask yourself what you know about what he's done that day that matters, and then go read up on that, too.