Catching my own errors

I tweet links to news stories. Sometimes these stories turn out to be wrong. A while ago, I read this account of a Muslim woman’s report that she had been assaulted and called a “terrorist” in a New York subway station because she was wearing a hijab.

More recent reports say that she made up the story and has been arrested for making a false report.

Which account is true? I don’t actually know. The woman has reportedly “supplied verbal and written confessions to the police,” but police have been known to bully confessions out of people. Certainly the recent news casts serious doubt on her story, and anyone evaluating it ought to know about the recent events.

So I may have reported an event that didn’t happen. This isn’t what I’d call “fake news”; I reported a legitimate news story and checked more than one source to confirm it. Any of us can discover we’ve conveyed inaccurate information; the important thing is to follow up with a correction.

It’s a bit like computer security. You can’t always stop every piece of malware from getting through, so you have to check what may have gotten past your defenses and take corrective action.

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Political violence in New Hampshire

Porcupine 'Dont tread on me' flag
This morning I came across a disturbing news article. Two people were arrested for assaulting a man in Manchester for displaying a flag with a porcupine and the words “Don’t tread on me.” The report says:

The man shot on the West Side over the weekend, apparently over a dispute about a flag bearing a porcupine symbol, is active in the Free State Project, according to movement leaders.

Jarrod Ean-Dixon, 36, was on the ground early Saturday morning when he was kicked in the head and then shot multiple times in the abdomen, according to a police affidavit filed Monday in Manchester District Court.

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The JFK Airport Stampede

I don’t use US airports. The recent stampede at JFK Airport adds to my reasons to stay away. The fact that it was barely news confirms them.

Apparently someone decided that the cheering and applause for an Olympic event on TV sounded like shots being fired. After that, people just started hallucinating armed attackers and spreading panic. Which people? TSA agents.
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The New York Times’ Two-Party Bias Gets Absurd

It’s become a standard pattern in the major news media. Instead of presenting people with a poll of the actual candidates in the presidential election, they offer people an imaginary choice between only Trump and Clinton and report the results. Sometimes, several paragraphs down, they’ll add the results where people are allowed to choose from any of the candidates. With Johnson frequently topping 10%, that’s a huge omission. The New York Times has outdone them all, though.
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News: Downed lines in Nashua, Riverside Dr. closed

Today’s bike ride for a bagel was more exciting than I expected. As I returned home on Riverside Drive, I saw fire trucks across the road. On a closer view, the situation was even worse: Power lines draped over a big trailer truck right at Conway Arena, all the way across the street to where a utility pole was down. The firemen weren’t even allowing foot traffic through, so I had to backtrack to Mine Falls Park and ride to the other side of the turnpike to get home.

Riverside Drive is the only vehicle access point to the Riverside Medical Center and Nashua High School South, so they were cut off from the world till traffic was restored. I don’t know if it has been yet. The traffic light at the entrance to my condo complex was on but blinking, as if its control had been knocked out. There were probably power outages, but they don’t seem to have been widespread.
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Getting actual news with RSS

Just about all news websites on the Internet are terrible. Most of what Google News offers doesn’t even qualify as news, and its advocacy links have an obvious slant to the left. Most news sites’ homepages are full of unimportant sports and entertainment material and pictures that take half a minute to download. If you find an article on a solid news event, it’s usually got more about people’s reactions than to what actually happened. Often headlines can’t even describe their stories correctly. Perhaps lowest of all is the story that consists of Tweets by people nobody’s ever heard of, “proving” that some alarming new trend is gripping society.

A good alternative is well-selected RSS feeds. They lead to the same websites, but it’s far easier to browse through them for the stories that are worth reading. They’re handy for reading blogs that have new posts only once every few days but consistently say worthwhile things.

A lot of the feeds I follow are for specialized tech areas, and I won’t mention them here. Maybe I’ll list them in a future Mad File Format Science post. Here are some feeds I follow that have some general interest:

  • BBC News, Europe. Stories we might not see in the US.
  • Christian Science Monitor. Decent general news coverage.
  • Hit and Run from Reason Magazine. Obvious libertarian advocacy, but also news stories you might not see elsewhere.
  • Mother Jones. Leftward advocacy, but more pro-freedom than many, and again it’s got news stories you might otherwise miss.
  • New York Times, international. A left-establishment slant, but better news coverage than many.
  • Schneier on Security. This veers toward the techie side, but if you’re reading this on the Internet, you should care about its subject matter.
  • Spiegel Online: Schlagzeilen. Good European coverage, in German. (I’m not just being silly; my stats confirm that people from Germany do read this blog.)
  • The Volokh Conspiracy. A legal blog tending toward the libertarian. It often has good analysis that’s missing from other coverage of big stories.

I read RSS feeds on my Mac with Leaf. It’s simpler and more straightforward than most readers, though it’s slower than it should be. I’m open to other recommendations.

If you’d like to share some favorite news RSS feeds, please mention them in a comment.

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How to read the news

Here are some tips, as much to remind myself as anything else, on reading the news.

1. Major news outlets don’t pursue truth as their overriding goal. They’re selling a product.
2. Sources that promote a cause may be painstakingly honest yet still be blinded by their own aims.
3. The desire to please an influential source dampens critical thinking.
4. Be wary of stories that confirm your preconceptions.
5. Always check for two or more independent sources, and check if they really are independent.
6. Headlines are, as often as not, deceptive clickbait.
7. Paraphrases can be gross distortions. Look for actual quotations. But quotations can be gross distortions too.
8. Most reporters and editors know hardly anything about science.
9. Anonymous sources can be found to support anything.
10. On the Internet, stories can be rewritten in place without warning.

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Rand Paul in person

Yesterday I went to Brookline, NH, to see Rand Paul speak. I’d reserved a free ticket for the event on the hope of doing a freelance article, but I didn’t get a response to my query, so I was just there for myself. I still approached it like a reporter.
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The police state in Irving, Texas

The outrage perpetrated by MacArthur High School and the Irving, Texas police has been all over the news, and I don’t want to duplicate what everyone has been saying. Some points which haven’t gotten a lot of discussion jump out at me.

The first is that we know Ahmed Mohamed’s name at all. Normally when 14-year-olds are arrested, their names are kept strictly out of the news. Instead, the Irving police have been saying all kinds of things about their actions, and what they’re saying damns them. From a local news story:
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NBC News panders to religious hatred

A headline on NBC News plumbs the depths of bigoted writing. It reads: “‘Wiccan Ritual Killing’ Leaves Family of Three Dead in Penascola: Police.”

The evidence? Andrew Hobbes, speaking for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, said, “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” He further referred to “The injuries to the victims, the positions of the bodies and also the person of interest right now is also a practitioner.” The injuries were described as blunt force trauma, and the murder weapon was supposedly a claw hammer. Funny, I haven’t heard of claw hammers as a Wiccan ritual instrument of sacrifice before.
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