We Must Revel In Our Eloquence

For the past six months, Hamilton: An American Musical has been on repeat in my car.

The musical, written by the uber-talented Lin Manuel-Miranda, combines a lot of things that I love: American history, storytelling, and catchy beats. If you have listened to it (or have been lucky to see it) you can understand why tickets for his last performance were going for upwards of $20,000.

Once you get past getting swept away by the songs and the lyrics, the story that lies at the heart of this musical is the story of Alexander Hamilton, a boy born in the Caribbean, who essentially wrote his way out of poverty to end up in New York where he helped to shape a new country.

After a hurricane hit the Caribbean, he wrote a latter to his father to explain the devastation caused by the storm. This letter was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette. The letter so impressed those who read it that community leaders took up a collection to send him to the mainland to get a proper education.

Think about that: his writing was so eloquent, those who had the means to do so collected money to put him on a path toward a better life.

Through writing and words, alone, he improved his lot in life and became someone, avoiding a fate (read: early death) that many men in his situation would face.

Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and the world is gonna know your name

As we enter 2017, I can’t help but think that we are on a downward trajectory, as far as respect for the written word and proper grammar.

I know very successful people who write Facebook posts and e-mail that my would cause my daughter to shake her head in disbelief. I can’t help but wonder how they advanced so far in life without proper communications skills.

It has gotten so bad that even our soon-to-be president sends out tweets that are riddled with punctuation errors and misspellings, and he is the person who represents our country.

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Has grammar become so unimportant that we won’t even hold Donald Trump to a basic standard? Is it too much to ask that he use spellcheck during one of his early morning tweetstorms? He is the leader of the free world. But he comes across, at best, as a high school freshman when he attempts to use words to express a point.

For all of his perceived failings, President Obama, at the very least, was eloquent in his speech and communication. You may have hated him, but you cannot deny that he understood the importance of how language can play a role in an administration. I feel more comfortable about leadership when they can succinctly tell me what I need to know, rather than ramble on until we lose the thread of the message.

As we prepare for a major shift in how this administration will communicate to us what we need to know, it’s imperative that we understand the importance of communication.

For the past 240 years, this country’s direction has been guided by a written document that has stood the test of time.

It would be a disservice to our founding fathers to ignore the power of writing.

The Thing About Cancer

They say it’s not the cancer that kills you, but the complications that arise from the cancer. The disease is just the impetus. While you are treating it with chemotherapy and radiation, something else sprouts up and gets you. That’s the damned thing about this disease.

***

It’s been four months since my wife was blindsided by her breast cancer diagnosis.

No family history. No high risk factors. But she got early-stage one cancer at the age of 36. Thankfully, it was a type highly susceptible to the chemotherapy drugs we have to fight it. My aunt, who is an oncologist said, “Nobody wants to get breast cancer. But if I were to get breast cancer, I would want the kind you have.” Um. Thanks?

This Tuesday will be her last chemotherapy treatment. She has had to go every three weeks for six rounds. I’ve heard of other patients going every week. So, in that regard, I think she got off light. Still, it’s chemotherapy. It makes you feel like shit, you lose your hair, and your body has a difficult time battling even the common cold when levels are at their lowest in the days following treatment.

But, again, my wife seems to have gotten off easy. She never had any bouts of vomiting or periods where she couldn’t get off of the couch. Overall, this chemotherapy treatment has just seemed like an inconvenience, rather than something that could potentially save her life. It feels weird to say that when you’re talking about a loved one battling cancer, but that is just how it feels.

In less than a month, though, she will undergo a double mastectomy to (hopefully) ensure that the cancer doesn’t come back, since this type is very aggressive. And I have a feeling that this is when we will feel the full brunt of what this disease is capable of doing. It’s easy to go to a cancer center and sit in a chair and watch crappy daytime television while your body is pumped full of chemo drugs. It’s quite another thing to have both breasts removed and be incapacitated for weeks on the couch while you rely on others to help you do basic things like bathing. But that is the going rate for curing cancer nowadays.

If you would have told me four months ago that this would be our situation in early 2017 after receiving the diagnosis, I think we would have gladly taken it. Less than two weeks after the first treatment, our oncologist was confident the tumor was gone. That goes back to the fact that this type of cancer was treatable. But like a course of antibiotics, you have to see the treatment through to completion. So my wife will bravely go under the knife in less than 30 days to have healthy breast tissue removed from her body in the hopes that we never have to encounter this God damn fucking disease ever again.

Getting cancer in your 30s is not fair, but my wife has handled it with a fight and determination that I always knew she possessed, while I sat by and watched in awe.

The least I can do for her is help her take a bath.

Fake News Was Harmless. Until It Wasn’t.

Just because something we read on the internet isn’t classified as “news” doesn’t make it any less dangerous than fake stories that try to be passed off as real.

A few years ago, two images were making the rounds on the web. In fact, I bet you saw these images on your Facebook feed.

One image showed a picture of the crowd during the announcement of Pope Benedict’s election. As you can see, there only a few mobile devices in use.

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The image below shows the crowd during Pope Francis’s election, eight years later. Notice the difference?

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Someone put both of these images together to show how, in a few short years, the use of mobile devices to capture events went from practically non-existent to practically necessary.

And, indeed, the pictures do a great job of illustrating this point.

These pictures hit a chord with social media users, who shared them, perhaps ironically, with their social media communities to backhandedly admonish us for relying so much on technology (I guess).

Two separate events. One location. One message. Powerful.

Except there was one problem: The first image was taken at Pope John Paul II’s funeral procession, not the anointment of Pope Benedict. As the Washington Post puts it, the moods for these events could not have been more different, so it’s understandable that, perhaps, less people were inclined to use their devices, even if they brought them with them.

[Editor’s Note: In 2005, Facebook had yet to open to the public, Twitter wasn’t even an idea in Jack Dorsey’s head, and both Instagram founders were still matriculating at Stanford. So, to share these photos as proof that technology has boomed since ’05 sort of misses the point because even if we had devices back then capable of taking images as we do now, there was nowhere to post them. But that might be another blog post.]

Of course, nobody actually took the time to deem both images genuine because, well, what was the point of it? Who has time to fact-check what they post to someone through a medium as innocuous as Facebook? Who cares if the image is misleading if the message is solid.

We shared the image to show how quickly things can change in eight years, with the actual purpose of the event secondary. But in doing so, we set a dangerous precedent that haunts us to this day.

Most would argue that posting something like this, even if it’s false, is harmless becuase it still conveys the message we want to convey. But that’s how most terrible things start: with something harmless.

What started as teens in Macedonia trying to make a buck by writing and sharing fake news has gotten to the point now where a man walked into a restaurant in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago and fired a rifle because of something he read online.

This man believed the pizza place was a haven for a child abuse ring. The main point of the conspiracy theory, dubbed “Pizzagate”, is that high-level politicians are involved in secretive child abuse and trafficking ring.

The source for this theory? A single white supremacy Twitter account citing unnamed NYPD sources.

We have now entered a time in the course of human evolution where a single anonymous tweet causes a man to arm himself and try to get to the bottom of the case on his own, just in case it is true.

And just last week, conspiracy theorists have named other pizza parlors as participants in the cover-up, even though this is the most ridiculous conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard.

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As we prepare to endure a Trump presidency that will come with its own set of challenges, we now take on the added responsibility of ensuring that the content we share on social media is accurate, to the best of our abilities.

We can no longer afford to post content now and ask questions later.

As we’ve seen with Pizzagate, there are very real (and very dangerous) repercussions attached to what we share with our friends on Facebook and Twitter. While it may not seem like a big deal to post without doing the proper research, there is always someone out there who is ready to take erroneous action.

If you want to know what you can do to help to ensure we don’t fall down a black hole of conspiracy fodder and untruths in a post-truth world, taking five minutes to do the proper research is a good place to start.

The Plight of the Well-Informed

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There is a man named Paul Horner who writes fake news on Facebook for a living.

Some of his best work includes convincing others he is the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy, or writing that President Obama signed an executive order for an election recount and revote on December 19th.

Horner taps into our greatest fears and biases and makes a nice little profit, while gullible users do the legwork for him by sharing these stories with their family members and friends, often without doing proper research. The stories spread like wildfire and, before too long, they are accepted as truth.

(Editor’s Note: For an excellent primer on how fake news goes viral, read this case study.)

By sprinkling this content around the internet from a handful of different web sites he owns, Horner makes upwards of $10,000 a month just from AdSense. Not a bad return for making stuff up.

But in an election year that was like no other election year, fake news stories had serious implications.

It’s fun to poke fun at your Aunt Margaret from upstate New York who liked to share obviously fake stories about Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the election, but Aunt Margaret wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of thousands of people were doing the same thing, and it had a real impact.

The spread of falsities stop being cute when they begin to have a real impact on the future of our country.

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A big part of my job involves monitoring the media for one of our financial clients.

I wake up early each morning and peruse the news of the day, then share the articles I deem important in a report that is shared with their leadership.

While the articles I clip focus on automotive and banking, I’m sifting through The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to find those articles, which means, whether intentionally or not, I’m retaining the top news of the day.

And, during the election, there was a lot of news. About both candidates. So I took a lot in. Because of this, I’d like to think I was well-informed when it came time to vote on Election Day.

But then I started doing something you should never, ever do: I started reading the comments on the articles and paying attention to what Americans were saying on social media.

Bad move.

I had no idea how ill-informed people are about important topics. For every article being shared by reputable publications, there were a handful of articles that were dubious, at best.

In other words, the truth could’ve been gleaned easily with a bit of research, but nobody, it seems, has time for that.

As someone who prides himself on being up-to-date and knowledgeable about current events, I’ve become paranoid that the well-informed among us will soon be in the minority, fighting every day to ensure that our brothers and sisters know what’s fake and what isn’t. But I don’t think that’s a war we will win any time soon.

Call us “the elites” or whatever you like, but being well-informed is everyone’s duty.

***

In the face of everything else that is happening in our country post-election, it might seem trite to complain about how news is being reported.

This country was founded on the principle, though, that there should be no infringing on the freedom of the press. But every time we share a false article from a false news source, we lose a little bit of that freedom.

If we are lazy about being informed, then it becomes easier for politicians to muzzle that freedom, because we will then have become so disenchanted with what the media tells us that we will welcome the shutting down of “biased media”.

But a true and fair media is a protection given to us that many around the world don’t have the ability to enjoy.

In a Q&A with the Washington Post, Horner himself admitted that he’s part of the reason Donald Trump is the president-elect.

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

No matter who you voted for, I think most of us expect some element of truth to guide us on a daily basis.

There should be cause for concern when lies rule the day.

Election Proves Twitter Still Has Value

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Twitter has had a rough year.

With layoffs and a perceived lack of direction of what the company actually wants to be, the microblogging service that burst on to the scene nearly ten years ago (has it been that long already?) is having a mid-life crisis, in as much that ten years can be considered “midlife” in today’s tech environment.

But on Election Night, something happened.

As America watched the returns come in, Twitter saw users send 75 million election-related tweets to their networks, shattering the previous record of 31 million tweets.

The fact that Donald Trump scored an improbable victory probably helped drive people to tweet their feelings, but it also showed that Twitter is still a place where people gather online to react with others during big events.

And, if you’re a social networking company, isn’t that what you strive for?

Unlike Facebook, which tends to be dominated by static conversation that gets lost amid all of the algorithm changes, Twitter is still the go-to source for providing real-time information, often providing news faster than the traditional news sources we’ve leaned on in the past.

Twitter is the first place I go when I get a whiff of important news. In the days since the election it has proved invaluable as a resource, if not a depressing resource.

Still, you can begin to see where Twitter’s value lies: as a gathering spot for humans to interact when major events occur. Sure, false news also runs rampant, but the truth tends to overcome as facts are confirmed.

Sometimes I like to conduct thought experiments where I wonder how we would’ve reacted had Twitter been a thing when Kennedy was assassinated, or when 9/11 occurred.

I’m not saying we would’ve reacted any differently, but, I think, we may have found comfort.

Twitter obviously has value. The numbers back it up. For all the talk about users dropping, we’ve seen people return in droves when they are emotionally invested in something.

And now, with news coming out about President-elect Trump’s appointments, it’s imperative we have ways to talk openly with others, but that’s for another post.

For now, Twitter has shown that its allure lies in bringing people together by the hundreds of thousands.

Seems like a pretty good reason to stick around and see where it goes from here.