Monday, March 31, 2014

Calendar August 2014

Here is an e-mail I received from a friend recently.  It’s pretty typical of the kind of information (and misinformation) that circulates daily in e-mails, tweets, Facebook and other sources both on and off the Internet.

Well, Feng Shui or not, this is wrong.  August has 31 days and whenever it starts on a Friday, it will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays.  Doesn’t it make sense that August has just as much of a chance of starting on a Friday as on any other day of the week?  That would be about 1 in 7, not 1 in 823.  This is crazy!

By checking a perpetual calendar it’s easy to see that August has started on a Friday 16 times since 1900.  It will happen this year and again in 2025, which is easily within the lifetime of most people.  This is not rocket science; it just requires a few minutes of research.

This is a harmless example of misinformation, but think about the other serious misinformation supposedly rooted in ancient Chinese wisdom or some other new-age authority, not harmless at all, misinformation about immunization, dietary supplements, genetic engineering, fluoridation of drinking water, paranormal events, get-rich-quick schemes, or quack remedies, misinformation about subjects that affect our health, safety, and financial security.  This is clearly not an all-inclusive list. 

That is why critical thinking is so important.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nag, Nag, Nag!

I rarely use purely personal stories in these bi-weekly examples of behavior, instead looking for reliable news sources as unbiased observations of typical American behavior, but this will be an exception.  Call it a pet peeve, but one I think more and more people can identify with.

Since we live just outside city limits, we must arrange for and pay for our weekly trash collection.  The cost is not too high and the taxes are a little lower, so it all evens out (Economic Understanding).

Right before Christmas and for the two weeks following, we had terrible weather here in the Midwest.  It was unusually cold and snowy.  This probably only added to the problems of my trash collection company.  They had old equipment and they were apparently just keeping their heads above water financially.

Between the holidays and weather, they managed to make the scheduled Thursday pick up on the following Monday.  Then they disappeared.  Trashcans and bags lined the streets with no sign of relief.  When the local news became involved we found out that they had closed the doors.  This poor communications with the customer was probably just another symptom of why they went out of business.

The main problem was not that they were no longer around.  Most of their customers found a replacement provider within a couple of days.  Also, uncollected trash in the dead of winter is not the nuisance it could have been in the heat of August.  The main problem was that they billed in advance and had collected $50 or so from many customers with no ability to fulfill their obligation.  Hundreds filed complaints with the state Attorney General hoping to recover.

One day it occurred to me that I still had one of their assets in my garage, a 90-gallon trashcan.  Perhaps I wasn’t at such a loss after all.  I wondered how much it was worth, so I went on line to price large wheeled trashcans.  I found it was worth more than my potential loss, so I figured that shifted the power equation in my favor.  They should want to recover from me more than I owed them.

BUT – and here’s the kicker – I now get, two or three times a week from the Home Depot, an e-mail saying, “We’ve got what you want!” featuring a picture of a trashcan.  This is the peeve.  No matter what we look up on the Internet, for no matter what reason (sometimes even to gather examples of bad behavior for this blog), no matter what it is, the Amazons. Home Depots, Kohls, and Wal-Marts of the world think you are in love with the idea of buying whatever you researched (or even hovered the cursor over) and will keep pestering for God knows how long.  That’s the downside of this digital world!  They think they have us all figured out.

Monday, March 24, 2014

No Soliciting

Many people post a “No Soliciting” sign near their front door to discourage unwanted salespeople.  They are trying to avoid an unwelcome interruption and the uncomfortable confrontation of politely sending away a persistent solicitor. 

It’s easy to keep the front door under control or to block pop-up ads on the Internet, another source of unwanted solicitation, but it’s more difficult to control all the other ads coming at us from every direction.  Social media and other free websites make their money through advertising, and they know all the tricks to get us interested.  No solid information exists on how often we are exposed to advertising messages.  Estimates vary between 250 and 3000 times a day with some reputable sources saying 5000 for city dwellers, who see more billboards and ads on every passing taxi or bus.  This probably does not even count the logos and symbols on almost every article of clothing.  No matter the number, we must be mentally ready to resist the bait, lest we end up buying a bunch of stuff we don’t need and, in retrospect, don’t even want.  (Note:  No advertising on this site.)

An important tool in this battle is knowing the difference between persuasion and conviction.  People are convinced by facts and logical arguments.  They are persuaded by appeals to their feelings.  Facts are boring; appeals can be exciting and enticing.  That’s why we more often buy cars based on color, appearance and image.  Packaging is so important, whether it’s for a product or a political candidate.  As one consulting group boasts on their website:  “A good campaign doesn’t just offer the right product to the right consumer. It gets them emotionally stimulated to buy or at least investigate the advertised product or service.”

Two quick examples involve sleeping pills and Barbie’s infiltration of the Girl Scouts.

This USA Today article discusses the increased use of sleeping pills in our increasingly rushed, stressful and sleep-deprived world.  They also acknowledge:  “One obvious reason for the increase: two decades of marketing for the latest generation of pills.”  Advertising, not logical arguments, leads to more sales.

In another case, the Girl Scouts are facing pressure to end their relationship with Mattel.  The company gives them financial support, but also offers and promotes “a Barbie-themed activity book, a website, and a Barbie participation patch.”  Putting aside the controversy about whether this Barbie association is healthy or not for young girls, we all know that Mattel (or any other corporate sponsor) does not do this out of the goodness of their heart.  They are relying on young girls to be easily persuaded that they must have a Barbie doll, along with the many accessories.  They are counting on parents not having taught their daughters about advertising tactics, and furthermore counting on parents to succumb to the constant nagging that will result from this clever persuasion. 

Knowing the difference between conviction and persuasion is similar to knowing the difference between wants and needs.  Not understanding this difference is how we end up with houses full of junk and no retirement savings.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Our freedom of speech is threatened not by brutal government policies but by common outrage.  Outrage replaces civil discourse in any number of areas.

Years ago Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard expressed the possibility that young men were naturally more gifted in STEM subjects than young women.  According to the Harvard newspaper, he said that underrepresentation of women in sciences “may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said the remarks have been taken out of context in an ensuing national media frenzy.”  In science this is known as a hypothesis, a guess at reality that should be tested before it’s accepted as true.  Set up an experiment, do a survey or otherwise look into it to see if the facts support it.  Was this the way his statement was treated? – Of course not.  Instead the women’s rights groups went ballistic, demanding an apology, demanding his resignation, setting off a “media frenzy”, all due to his expressing a thought that was “taken out of context”, easily refuted logically and did not necessarily reflect a personal opinion.  Using the weapon of outrage, his critics managed to shut him up, forcing him to apologize and quite possibly affecting his later career.

This came to mind as I read about a more recent example.  An AP story tells of University of Iowa President Sally Mason who has taken serious steps to reduce violence on campus.  She hired “an administrator to coordinate help for victims and mandated prevention training for employees.”  Years ago she even personally experienced an incident as an undergraduate.  “Yet one statement she made last month - that ending sexual assault was probably unrealistic ‘just given human nature and that's unfortunate’ - ignited a firestorm.”  Is this a woman who hates women, or could she merely have been expressing some degree of frustration with the enormous job of trying to guarantee everyone’s safety on campus?  No time to find out.  Outrage erupted with accusations of hurtful speech and insensitivity, causing uproars among activist groups “from California to Massachusetts.”  Critics even went so far as to complain that the university “put too much focus on the victims by warning women not to walk alone or to binge drink – and not enough on perpetrators.”  Is that any more insensitive or uncaring than reminding people not to leave their cars running in the driveway or to lock their doors when leaving the house because there are bad guys out there?  Of course she too was forced to apologize.

It’s not only women’s groups who use this tactic.  Minorities, religious groups, animal rights activists and many others use it to squelch conversation, to put their opponents on the defensive, to win an argument without presenting a counterargument.  As a result things are never resolved and others feel intimidated to express an opinion or make a controversial hypothesis for fear of getting the same treatment.  Firestorms and media frenzies don’t solve problems; they bury them.