What's the Point?

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” - A.J. Liebling
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”- Buddha
“On rèsiste à l'invasion des armèes; on ne rèsiste pas à l'invasion des idèes.”- Victor Hugo (popular translation: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”)

I was not a particularly early user of the internet. I believe I got my first dial-up account around 1998, the fact that I don't remember exactly when it was is probably more telling than what year it actually was.

By the time I got broadband internet access (in 2003) things had changed a bit. I'm not sure that having internet access was an absolute necessity at that point, but being willing to pay a premium every month for faster access meant that there had been a shift in my priorities. Money often does speak louder than words, and whether I was vocalizing it or not, the internet was becoming more important to me.

In 2008 I did something that I should have done much earlier, but hadn't. I got my own web domain. The rationale for it was simple enough. My wife and I bought a house in a different part of town and we had to switch ISPs (internet providers) because of the move. I have always been annoyed about losing my email address just about every time I move (I have webmail addresses but don't tend to use them for my primary email address). I decided that I was not going to have to change my email addresses ever again, we were getting our own domain and it was a one-time thing and it was going to be done. It was easy enough to get a domain and get a web hosting company and set up the email addresses. We had plenty of friends (since we know lots of other “computer” people) who had gotten their own domains and were doing similar things, for similar reasons.

I have been using the internet for research purposes for years. I have been doing online stock trading since 2001, the last several years I have spent a lot of time on financial blogging sites like Seeking Alpha and Zero Hedge. In addition to doing research for profit, I have also done a lot of research for fun. I use Wikipedia all the time, and for genealogy research I use sites like Find A Grave and Ancestry.com (Find A Grave is absolutely free but will accept donations to sponsor memorials if you are so inclined, Ancestry costs between $12.95 to $29.95 a month depending on how long you sign up for and what collections you want access to, there is one price for the U.S. collections and another for the world collections which include records from Europe).

And then there is Google. Google is amazing. They are not the only search engine, certainly. But I have been using them for years and know some of the tricks, and once you're comfortable with something you tend not to switch. If a sparrow falls (metaphorically speaking) somewhere on the internet, Google will index it sooner or later.

The default mode for a google search is to just look for all the terms you type in on one page or in one document. Sometimes that's fine, other times it's useless. Also, Google will suggest alternate spellings for terms that it thinks you might have mistyped. Good for those times you actually misspell something but otherwise irrelevant.

If you bracket your search terms with double quotes or precede them with a plus sign, Google's search mode changes to a literal string match. One thing this is useful for is looking for specific people in historical records that might be online or in cemetery listings. If you try searching for someone's name in the order first name followed by last name and you don't find anything, you can switch it around to last name comma space first name and try again to see if you have any better luck. I know this stuff works because I've found names online that I was looking for this way. Occasionally I even find live people this way.

Where I'm going with this train of thought is that anything that goes online is potentially viewable to the entire online community. If I can find something online that is so obscure that I do a literal google string match and only find a couple of pages that match those criteria, then anybody can find anything that exists online if they know how to find what they are looking for.

This is ultimately why Google had to pull out of the Chinese market. The Chinese government's need to control the access of information coming into China is diametrically opposed to what Google sees as its mission, which is to index everything that is online (in an unsecured form) and provide access to that information to anyone who is online.

By the way, I'm not trying to pass judgment on the Chinese government here, at least not for that action. They are obviously doing what they think they have to do in order to maintain order and prosperity. Whether they will succeed (long term) is another question. Great Firewall or not, there are certain challenges you face trying to let in only ideas that you approve of while filtering out ideas you deem to be subversive. Censorship, while regrettable, is sometimes justifiable. What happened at Tian'anmen Square on June 4, 1989, on the other hand, is something I have still not forgiven them for.

Anyway ... enough political digression (at least for the moment). There is a lot of information online. There is also a lot of garbage online. And no, I'm not moralizing here. If people want to see online smut or stuff like that, it's fine with me. I don't choose to look at that kind of stuff, but if someone else wants to look at it, they have every right to do so. Don't tell me what I can see and read, and I won't tell you what to view and read.

What I mean by online “garbage” is, to put it quite simply, false or misleading information. I'm not too worried about honest mistakes, we're all entitled to a few of those. I'm on a lot of genealogy sites and I find mistakes all the time. Most of those mistakes were not done on purpose, they were done by carelessness or ignorance or sometimes just because there was no way not to make a mistake. If you walk into a graveyard in the midwest and start copying down names and dates off of headstones, you are going to misread some of the information or type it in wrong, especially if you are looking at 150 year old headstones that are overrun by lichen.

I'm not a particularly big fan of President Obama right now. I think he's arrogant, inexperienced, thin-skinned, and not nearly as wonderful as he seems to think he is. And he doesn't understand priorities. That being said, I have seen the most amazing twaddle being spouted about him and seen it repeated online. Is he a muslim? I don't think so. Is he covertly importing millions of muslims into the country so they can take it over? I don't think so. And why all this furor over muslims, for Allah's sake? Islam is not my favorite religion, but I don't think most of those people are any worse than anyone else. Some sects of Islam are pretty kooky, but so are some Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and ... well, you should get the point by now. Getting back to Obama, he is ultimately not doing any more damage to this country than our corrupt, venal or otherwise incompetent congress has been doing to us and the multitude of other bad presidents we have had since Eisenhower. But if you believed everything you read online you would think he was the Antichrist.

So obviously some of the far right people have some issues not only with the truth, but with plain old common sense. That being said, the lunatic fringe on the left has given them plenty of fodder to work with, I have no patience with radical feminists who think that all marriages between men and women are state-sanctioned prostitution. And, I'm sorry, but I don't think you can blame the collapse in the housing market on the greedy banksters alone (but they do deserve their share of the credit!), there is no way the government should have been telling those in the business of extending credit who they should be extending credit to based on ethnicity, gender, or anything other than their ability to pay back the loan they took. And people that took out Liar Loans and actually lied to get them (imagine the thought!)? I don't care what their nationality, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever was, if they committed fraud they should be prosecuted.

The United States Constitution guarantees equal opportunity and equal treatment. It does not guarantee equality. Any attempt to level the lot of everyone in this country is doomed to failure and the impulse, if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy any chance the American people have of a better future.

Let's forget about the left and the right for a second, okay. Those are just labels anyway. Let me give you a name, and some facts. I wish I had bookmarked this video on YouTube, I may go looking for it later and include a link here. The video was not a debate per se, but it did involve the presence of Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts and a gal who was setting herself up politically to go against him. There were people eating in the background, so whatever the event was, it involved people getting together for a meal and listening to Barney Frank and other people talk.

At the time this video was taken the financial crisis of 2008 had already occurred, and Barney Frank got up at one point to say that he had voted against the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act. Glass-Steagal, for those of you who don't know, was enacted in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, to make sure the banks didn't foul up again and destroy the economy. It was repealed in 1999 with bipartisan support by the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act , which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Oh, and by the way, Citibank spent around $200 million dollars to lobby Congress to pass Gramm-Leach-Bliley. This is the same Citibank that had to get bailed out under the TARP program a couple of years ago, by the by.

I listened to these comments from Representative Frank and I don't remember what sparked me to look it up, but something did. I used my finely tuned internet search techniques to look up the voting record on Gramm-Leach-Bliley. I can't even remember the site I found it on but I did make sure I could find it again, I edited the Wikipedia article on Gramm-Leach-Bliley and added a link to the site that had the voting records.

You want to know how Barney Frank voted on Gramm-Leach-Bliley? He voted present. Not yes, not no, but present. Is this a semantics problem, or a memory problem, or an inability to understand the English language? I'm not going to go to the trouble of moving to Massachusetts so I can vote for Mr. Frank's opponent in the next election, but I sure hope the people of the Great State of Massachusetts understand who is representing them in Congress and what his memory is like.

Just to prove to you that I don't have an ax to grind with just Democrats (Mr. Frank, by the way, is a Democrat), I can tell you why I didn't vote for Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for Governor of California. And I will.

Governor-Elect (and past Governor) Jerry Brown is someone who I don't particularly agree with politically. But I do respect him for some things. For one, he is known as being honest, and so far I haven't seen anything to change that perception. I also respect that he did everything he could to do away with the death penalty in California, something which I heartily agreed with. (And no, it's not that some people don't deserve to be put to death -- some do. I just don't trust the government to do it to the right people, and once you've done it to the wrong person there's no way to bring them back to life).

Meg Whitman didn't lose the election because she was too far right for people in this state. She lost the election because she ran a sleazy campaign, and people knew it. She ran attack ads against him that repeated 18 year old lies about Brown (ah, the chutzpah of recycling those old interviews that Bill Clinton made when Brown was his opponent, that Bill Clinton even says now were lies, er, I'm sorry, not lies, found out later to be incorrect!). And then she had the stones to say that Brown was in the pocket of the public sector unions, when she had already made a back-room deal with the police officers' union to get their support by promising to keep their pensions off the chopping block. I have just one word for you, and the word is hypocrisy. Oh, and Whitman accused Brown of running sleazy lying attack ads against her. Oh, the humanity!

In my case, when I found out that Whitman had worked for Goldman Sachs and had done insider trading with information they provided her, she lost my vote. I don't believe that voting the kind of people into government who destroyed the economy through their actions in the financial industry is good public policy.

People who think that elections are getting dirtier, they're wrong. I've studied the history of this country, going back a long ways. The last clean election we had was George Washington in 1792. Ever since political parties coalesced in the early days of the Republic we have had mud-slinging and hair-pulling. Politics is war without lethal weapons. You can see how the Athenians did it 2400 years ago and it wasn't much different then either.

Not all of the garbage on the internet is really harmful to anyone, or is likely to be a matter of life and death, or even affects how the country is run. There is a really petty thing I see from time to time that bugs me, but I have found no way to eliminate it. It is a quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, that keeps cropping up on financial blogging sites and other places on the internet.

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”

It really is a lovely quote. I actually agree with the sentiments, now. The only problem is, the quote is a hoax. Jefferson might have actually said those words ... if he lived in the 1930s. The reason the quote is so obviously a hoax is that it uses terms in contexts where they were not used in Jefferson's lifetime, and in fact not until the 1930s, over 100 years after he died. Inflation was not used to refer to the monetary phenomenon until the late 1830s, twelve years after Jefferson's death. The term deflation was not used to refer to the monetary phenomenon until 1920. In Jefferson's time inflation would have been referred to as currency debasement, and a deflationary depression would have been called a panic.

Jefferson did write the following in a letter to John Taylor on May 28, 1816:

“And I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

You can see the evolutionary trail from one quote to the other, but the historical context shows that the longer quote was someone putting words in Jefferson's mouth a century after his death. And, I'm sorry, that annoys me. Jefferson can't just write them a letter or send them an email and say, “Hey, dude, I never said that ... ”. Or even, I wish I'd said that, but didn't.

Where I'm going with all of this, is that I am doing my best on this site to tell the truth. Is it biased? Undoubtedly. But I am not afraid to do a little digging and some research to find out if there are inconsistencies between what people are saying and what they are doing, or have done. And what they wrote, or could have written, or almost certainly did not write.

I don't believe everything I read and neither should you. But the internet is not the only repository of incorrect information, I can find you all kinds of books, magazines, newspaper, etc., that are full of mistakes. I remember the good old days when books had mistakes in them but the grammar was good and spelling was good because copy editors actually did their jobs. A side effect now of the prevalence of word processors and spell checkers is that all kinds of bad grammar or incorrect words slip into print because people just spell check the darned stuff instead of actually reading it. Their instead of there, it's instead of its, through instead of thorough, I'm sure some of you have been annoyed by some of the same things.

Don't even get me started on government statistics, that's a nightmare in and of itself ...

Oh, and by the way, if someone tries to tell you how bad Wikipedia is ... ask them if they have ever really used the site or written or modified an article on it. If they're being truthful they'll say no. Ninety-nine percent of the people who complain about Wikipedia have never even used it. I've written a few articles and edited a few hundred articles and I can tell you that Wikipedia is far from perfect, but there are a lot of people spending a lot of time trying to improve it, even if most of them aren't getting paid to do it. I know that several years ago Encyclopedia Britannica commissioned a study that purported to prove how inaccurate Wikipedia was vis a vis other sites (such as Britannica). Maybe, maybe not. But I can tell you there are articles on Wikipedia that I have enjoyed reading that will never show up on Britannica. Wikipedia is definitely a work in progress, but it's free and it's growing. I just noticed a couple of days ago that an article on Wikipedia that I wrote a year ago about a Russian ship of the line that sank in 1857 now has a Russian language version of the article. I don't know if their article exists because of mine or if someone composed it independently. Either way, my article is still better, at least for now. I'm hoping the Russian language version gets up to the same level as mine. It was a ship in their navy, they should have as good an article on it as we have ...

I'm going to end this with an observation that I hope is wrong, but probably isn't. In the election that just passed (2010) which I've already talked about, I was looking at the election results the next day, and I noticed something interesting. I was looking to see how the Libertarian Party candidates for statewide office did because I voted for some of them. It was a bit sad, most of them didn't do better than 2-3% in the polling. Still, I never feel like I wasted a vote when I vote for a third party candidate, one day when people figure out that the Republicrats are two faces of the same beast they will understand that people like myself were ahead of the curve. However, I noticed the Libertarian candidate for Lieutenant Governor managed to poll 6%, far and away the best standing of any third party candidate for any of the statewide offices. Her name: Pamela Brown. I really, really hope she got those votes because she ran a good campaign and really knew what she was doing -- but why can't I shake the feeling that the reason she got those numbers was because her last name was Brown, and some people got confused, didn't notice they were on the Lieutenant Governor slot and voted for her in addition to voting for Jerry, the Democratic candidate for Governor? Nothing against her personally, I was rooting for the Libertarians in a lot of these races. And I did vote for her for Lieutenant Governor, but I knew that she was a different candidate for a different office than Jerry Brown the Democrat. Oh well. I guess it's just my cynicism showing. I would love it if the electorate were smarter than I give them credit for. But that's not the way the smart money tends to bet.

I will leave you with a final quote, this one is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill. And please, please, if anyone finds any errors of fact in anything I've written here, I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU! Grammatical errors, spelling errors, anything. Just don't complain about my politics or my religious beliefs, because that won't get you anywhere.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.”

November 7, 2010

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