Saturday, May 07, 2016

journalists and prediction 2

Prediction 2
In the sciences, the ideal of prediction is given by a test. A guess – a hypothesis – is made about a situation. The situation is tested in some way and the prediction about the results of the test are based on assumptions about the causal compositon of the situation, what factors are in play, and whether one has assigned them a correct value. Naturally, there are levels of causal consistency. Two factors can, separately, have different effects than they do when combined.
In journalism, there is definitely a reference to science, but more for the prestige than the method. More important in the shaping of public opinion is to make predictions that exclude any radical change in the current order. In other words, predictions are instruments for making the order seem inevitable.
This is correctly intuited by the citizenry. For some, this is reassuring. Often the majority will prefer inertia to the risk of change, even if the order itself is changing in such a way that they are exposed to more and more risks anyway. Journalism at the national level is conducted by people who, at least officially, suffer from none of the woes that they often go out and describe. They officially have insurance. They officially have savings. They officially are not addicted to drugs. They officially are not dodging debt collectors or relying on high interest credit cards to get by on a weekly basis. In actuality, none of this is necessarily true. Neal Gabler, a high profile writer, recently published a piece about his poor financial state. The only point of the piece was to say that one of the top ranked non-fiction writers was not in the official state. It was shocking to the extent that the code is mostly kept. The comments to his article were what you expect, people rushing in blaming him for his plight. The blamers don’t attach their own credit card statements or savings account data to show us what state they are in, but they feel pretty free to heckle, since otherwise, it might turn out that it is not an individual’s fault, but the fault of a system that cannot control life style costs like education or healthcare, and that uses technology not to spread wealth and leisure more equally, but to concentrate it ever more at the top.
The code among journalists, which comes out in their careless us of the “we” word, is that they are on the side of the successful. Radical change, of course, challenges the very canons of success.
That kind of change is what predictionis made, implicitly, against.
The deeper level of this use of prediction is to annex, journalistically, the future to the temporal dimention of the news – the contemporary. It is to press an image of a faux eternity on the forehead of the leviathan who represents our current power arrangements.

The critics of the newspaper recognized that the news “thins” life out – it undermines temporal depth by creating a sort of depthless contemporaneity. From this perspective, we can see not only why the press likes to predict, but why it is so naïve about the motives  for the impulse to predict. 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

journalists and prediction 1

On Prediction 1
Obama, at his last roast, said – on a serious note that was quasi-bogus – that the press should seek for the truth (although of course not too hard – Obama’s Justice department, which has sought more injunctions against the press than any since the Nixon administration, will see to that).
Obama’s statement is in the true grain of American piety. We are always being told that the truth, objectively, is seeking the truth. Although the majority of the population doesn’t believe that at all. As David Bowie sang in Five Years about the newscaster who said the world was ending
“News guy wept when he told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying.”
Of course, this was before we had an inkling that the ice cap in the Antarctic was likely to diminish by half within our lifetimes. News guys have ceased reporting on this news – it is too depressing, so they leave it to NOVA.
In any case, the self-image of the media – that they are truth seekers – is curiously empty when it comes to what the “truth” means and how to find it. This feeds back into the lack of a definition of journalism. What is it exactly? A science? An art? Is it like the courtroom, a forum for competing versions of events? The courtroom, of course, is not constructed to arrive at the truth, but to arrive at a verdict of guilty or not guilty. But the news guys hesitate before embracing that construct. A newspaper that proclaimed that it would sort the guilty out from the innocent would immediately call down a lot of derision upon its head, and make itself liable for losses in court.
And after all, the news doesn’t quite fall into the categories of guilty/not guilty, although a subset of it does.
There aren’t many books that examine this question. Emil Loebl’s Kulture und Presse, written in 1904 and never, to my knowledge, translated into English, is one of the few to venture into the deeper questions of what the media does and how it does it without falling into banality. Myself, I think one way through this sticky labyrinth is to address the place of prediction in the political press. It is of a queerness…
Prediction, like truth, is a manufactured process. In the financial sector, pediction – “expectations” – plays a distinct role not only in reporting, but on the reported on. Every announcement of quarterly earnings is heralded by predictions of quarterly earnings, and when these predictions are exceeded, or ‘disappointed’, the price of the stock changes accordingly. Or sometimes not. In truth, it is a price change that effects only one day of change, although it can inaugurate longer term change – but one has to remember that the flow of prices are effected by a host of opinions, and probably can’t be traced to a single cause – there are times that the exceeded earnings report actually leads to a decrease in stock price as, retrospectively, expectations are adjusted.
Prediction in the political press is also about expectation. But expectation requires a reference groups – after all, whose expectation is it? I have no expectation at all about Air Liquide’s next quarterly earnings report – but there are people who work in banks and stockbroker firms who specialize in just such things. The people whose expectations count in the political press are similarly insiders, narrative creators. The narrative they create determines what is plausible and what is implausible to the journalists. And self-consciously realizing this power, both the journalists and the administrators in the political image industry are continually shifting what is plausible and what isn’t according to standards that are not defined by what is popular among the electorate, or among the broader mix of the electorate and non-electorate. For instance, it is perennially popular, in these insider circles, to insist that we need to cut social security benefits, although outside those circles, this has zero support. So the only plausible stances on social security is the radical one of preserving it as it is or the more popular one of cutting it. Expanding it isn’t even on the plausibilty scale. The notion, of course, is that after the politically accredited have done their work, the political image makers will do theirs, and like Pavlov’s dogs, we will salivate on cue.
Still, even if we grant that plausibility in political circles – circles that include politicians, lobbyists, think tankers, and journalists – takes this shape, it is still not clear why journalists feel the need to predict. Or what constitutes the basis of their predictions.
Prediction has long been coupled to truth in the sciences, although the nexus is metaphysically obscure, since it has to do with that most knotty of issues, induction. Prediction and prophecy have a distinct family tree, and an ancient social function that was not controlled by a  philosophically credible theory of truth. Prediction was, and is, partly magical, just as the future is partly magical. Our subjectivity, I think, will always cause the future to be partly magical, to seem to bend towards our wishes or prejudices. I can’t go on I’ll go on is not a truth many of us can bear – we were not born to be Beckett characters, for good and ill. Magic has a prestige that is lent to prediction. In, say, economics, this becomes a justification for the whole discipline – at least of the mainstream, where Milton Friedman’s flatheaded positivism is still the ghost below the boards. Oddly, economists are notoriously bad at forecasting. It is a standard joke in the business world to compare the forecasts economists make at the beginning of the year with the national data collected at the end of the year.
However, economists at least have models. Journalists rarely do. This is all the more true with the explanationist, the current crop of hip journalists who have spread out over the face of the land, from Slate to Vox to Upshot (on the new york times) to Politico. These places are manned by second order men – and it is a heavily male phenomenon, which perhaps explains the way explanationists often seem to be mansplaining on a more industrial scale – and their explanations are not so much research heavy as tone heavy. Although any journalist at these places should have access to the universe of scholarly journals at JSTOR or EBSCO, one rarely feels that the explanatory pieces are well researched. In fact, the explanationists are the heirs of the previous decades contrarians. The craze for contrarians rose and fell with the reputation of Christopher Hitchens, and his deep support for the Iraq war. Myself, I felt like Hitchens, during the decade of his celebrity, traded in his rather elegant prose style for the kind of programmed barking that conservative American columnists perfected in the sixties – the sound emitted by James Kirkpatrick whenever the name Martin Luther King Jr. was uttered.
Contrarianism lost its luster, but its moves were taken up, with less barking, by the explanationists, who form a sort of core prophecy group in American journalism.

I’m going to continue this reflection tomorrow. 

250 years after the slaveholder's republic was founded, the pundits discover racism in high places

One of the ironies in Donald Trump’s elevation to something more than presidential candidate – to a veritable Trumpope – is that he was the best of the 17 guys vying for the nomination.
It is easy not to see this under the impression of misogyny and racism that he naturally projects. But compare him to his rivals, and it soon becomes apparent.
As Cruz astutely put it (in tones that would have made Uriah Heep blush), Trump has long been a Democrat on the issues that tickle the cold dead heart of the usual GOP constituency. Trump will be, in public, a horrible misogynist, treating women the way, well, Cruz’s elbow treats his wife. But on policy issues, Trump is actually much better for women than his rivals. His opposition to abortion is a conversion of convenience; where his rivals talked of shutting down Planned Parenthood and maybe lynching the people who work for it, Trump doesn’t care.
On race, of course, Trump has shown himself to be the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace. But again, his rivals, the mealymouthed Minis, whilst giving lip service to white Euphemism culture, have long been fully on board the vote suppression policy. It is not Trump, but GOP governors, who have been wildly promoting IDs for voters and cutting funds for voting. We already know how Jeb Bush handled the voter issue when he was governor of Florida – with exemplary corruption.
On immigration, Trump’s hallmark issue, he is of course a fascist. But the temper of the fascism of his rivals can be measured by how quickly they picked up on his proposals – from the Rubio who turned his back on his only (little) achievement in Congress to Cruz, they have all pledged to be hunters of the immigrant, expellers of the immigrant, and sworn enemy of “anchor babies”.
Trump’s penchant for turning a dog whistle into a Bronx cheer has turned the heads of the pundits, put them in a sweat. Many have written that Trump represents a never before seen white nativist political phenomenon.
Hmm. I’ve actually seen this white nativist political phenomenon before. It was both parties before 1965. And it has been the standard and pundit accepted factor in GOP victories since 1968.
It is this that makes me think that Trump is playing a part not in some Shakespeare comedy, but in an Ibsen melodrama, in which the community’s repressed but vigorously pursued life is suddenly put on display, for all to see. Ghosts. The GOP and a goodly portion of the Dems have been racist and sexist for years – in fact, all those years trickling back to the foundation of this slaveholding republic.
We can’t pretend, at the moment, that this ain’t so, hence the weird media panic. Which is, it should be noted, a very white panic. This has not been a secret to African Americans, with the exception of Judge Thomas.

So I am relieved that Clinton’s opponent, on the off chance that she loses, is going to be Trump. Cruz or Rubio would really have been alarming.  

Monday, May 02, 2016

revery of the catalogue

Pour l'enfant, amoureux de cartes et d'estampes,
L'univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah ! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes !
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit !

I was that child, a maniac for maps (although less interested in prints). In place of prints, there were catalogues. My memory just touches on my earliest conscious self, the one that couldn’t get enough of catalogues – behind that it is all white noise. I was told by my parents that they could quiet me in my crib by giving me a Sears catalog. I still have a sensual memory of the little insets of tractors (it was a farming catalogue – at one point in its corporate existence, Sears had a strong rural presence, more about which anon). For some reason, there was something incredibly alluring about the array of things that one could get. Not of course that I had any infant inkling of the cash nexus. But I had an early inkling that the charm in life was that the diverse things that constitute it exist each in their own picture in a catalogue.
I’ve always preferred the catalogue image to the real thing – it is a form of consumer perversion that, I think, I share with many. We live now in the hypotrophy of catalogues, from QVC channel to the internet, catalogues fill our cribs, and it is evident to me that a special form of scopophilia is the name of the game. We don’t desire to see our neighbor nude, we desire to see our neighbor’s things, especially if our neighbor lives in a gated community and we suspect that he has a marvelous and very expensive kitchen with one of those granite table islands.
“Catalogue”,  the OED tells us, derives from the Greek, kata, down, and legein, to sort or choose or pick. Down, the direction of the list. Pick or choose, the function of the finger. At least, down as the direction of the list impinges on the logocentric west, where the alphabet is a hybrid of image and musical note. The finger marks the page, descends from one item to the other, while the eye scans – such, at least, is the hieroglyph in the catalogue.
Lists have attracted a good deal of anthropological attention. Jack Goody wrote an exemplary essay on the list, which he believed were one of the great cognitive tools invented in the ancient world – in either Mesopotamia or Egypt.  Goody’s list thesis was published in the 70s; in the last ten years, the study of lists has become hot. A whole issue of Isis, the history of science journal, was recently dedicated to “listmania”. Umberto Eco curated a sort of list exhibit, for which he wrote the catalogue essay, An infinity of lists. A catalogue is, of course, a variety of list, which gives us a list of lists.
Goody’s thesis is that the list is primarily a graphic tool. Listing happens orally – in fact, Adam gives  vent to Homeric lists quite often, of his friends, of superheros, of figures printed on his tee shirt, etc. Goody, who did field studies in, I believe, Madagascar, encountered people who could list a whole geneology.  Still, Goody wants us to understand that the affordance of the list to fix, in graphic form, an enumeration of object references, is uniquely tied to the written. The written word begins as a listing device. In fact, most of the archaeological textual finds of such ancient past cultures as Assyria is concerned with  listing items. It is with the list, Goody thinks, that the world and the word begin to separate. Here’s the wheat. Here’s the sheep. Here’s the slaves. And here are their representations, and number. It’s all a book of numbers, ultimately.
Yet the utilitarian provenance of the list cannot exhaust the list’s linguistic force. It’s romance, so to speak. That wheat, those sheep, those slaves tend to migrate into grander narratives. And this is the basis of that ‘love’ for maps and prints that the Baudelairian child experiences. It is not only a matter of the specific item, but of the possibility of plentitude, of items unknown, that links the catalogue to the voyage.
In the American context, the primal catalogue, the legendary catalogue, is not one listing the ships bound for Troy, but the one listing bonnets, plows, and plates – the Sears catalogue. Sears now has an antediluvian ring – there are American children who will grow up and never enter a Sears store or see a Sears catalogue. The towers of Illium, or at least of the Sears building, have, metaphorically, fallen.  However, in the early twentieth century, Sears – and certain rivals, such as Montgomery Ward – were powers in the land. Certain of Sears’s yearly catalogues have been published in their own right – for instance, the 1897 Sears catalogue was published in 1968 with an introduction by S J Perelman.
Sears was not the first companny to bring advanced urban consumerism to the outlying territories. That honor belongs to Singer Sewing company, which sent its salesmen through the entire Republic and sold its machine on the monthly payment plan, introducing credit into the heart of the American family. But it was Sears – and its rivals – that made consumerism part of the dreamlife. They combined the sale of the essentials – the plow, the hammer, the sewing machine – with the sale of domestic non-essentials, like Chutney, or curtains. Singer’s sewing machine could be justified both as a source of peripheral income and as a product that would save on the cost of clothing, in as much as one could now repair clothing in a professional manner, or make it. But chutney or curtains – curtains. Curtains were outside the circuit of durables; curtains were ornament. Already, windows were a sign of bourgeois aspiration (an overdetermined sign, granted). But curtains, which modified or negated the function of the window, from the inside – curtains made the inside something different, gave the inside a vaguely theatrical cast. We jump, with curtains, to another semiotic level. One strand of this is waste – since to close the curtains is a kind of potlatch, a deliberate destruction of the view, and of light itself.
This form of potlach loses its celebratory nature in today’s American suburbs. The wanderer at midday in the housing estates outside, say, Clarkston Georgia will pass street after street of houses turning a blind, curtain wearing eye to the world. The shades are down, the curtains drawn, and the house exists, there, in a sort of magic fortress mentality. The thief, rapist or murderer – for who else would have time and inclination to wander down a suburban street at midday? – will not be able to peer in.
To return, however, to the catalogue. Adam has now reached the age when his “vast appetite” realizes itsle in coyly making requests, most often of things having to do with superheros – the spiderman mask, the Captain America shirt, the Batman shoes. The requests are made deliberately enticing by being put in the vague future – someday could you get me Batman shoes? After I pick Adam up at school, we often walk the stretch on Wilshire between Whole Foods and our house, and the whole continuous reel of the street is broken apart by a sort of primitive commodification. The bus, the yogurt smoothie, the basketball, the scooter – anything can be picked out for such a request. These requests pepper our entretien, which otherwise concerns songs, tales of who pushed who on the playground, and, if I press very hard, info from the week’s lessons. Last week, all the lessons were derived from Earth Day, which is how the kids received a very instructive reading about earthworms from Miss I. Among the amazing facts about earthworms is that some types have up to five hearts. This has translated in Adam’s head as the fact that he – Adam – has up to five hearts. Usually he has three. He proves this, whenever I disagree, by counting on his fingers – one two three. This feat of logical dissociation, I should point out, is still of a markedly higher intellectual caliber than anything offered in the 16 GOP presidential debates we all had to suffer from this spring.
Although Adam has been present at hundreds, maybe a thousand, buying transactions, he is still too little to grasp the meaning of money. Of course, I myself am uncertain in my own graps of the meaning of money. Its many meanings. But he does associate it with adult power. Although that power is more than countered, when he is in full imaginative flight, by superpower. Super power works by crushing things. Money works by facilitating the non-crushing of things. And this is the state of our semiotic balance of powers, here in Santa Monica in the Spring of 2016.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...