Cordial Deconstruction

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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

NPR Chooses Not to Employ Me (or Juan Williams)

Posted by Karl Withakay on October 22, 2010

In case you’re not aware, NPR fired Juan Williams after he made some anti-Muslim remarks on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News.  Probably the most significant statement he made was the following:

“But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

I’m not going to discuss what I think of what Williams said, and I’m not going to discuss whether or not I agree with NPR’s decision to terminate his employment with them.

I am going to discuss some of the reactions to NPR’s decision.  In this post on the Fox News web site, numerous people are crying censorship and are demanding an end to federal funding of NPR.

Here are a couple of quotes from the article:

Newt Gingrich:

“… the idea that that’s the excuse for National Public Radio to censor Juan Williams is an outrage and every listener of NPR should be enraged that there’s this kind of bias against an American,”

Mike Huckabee:

“NPR has discredited itself as a forum for free speech and a protection of the First Amendment rights of all and has solidified itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left,”

Let’s be clear here.  NPR has a right to determine who they want to employ and who they want to represent them.  NPR is not obliged to provide Juan Williams a venue on which to appear anymore than they are obliged to provide one to me.  NPR is not preventing Juan Williams from appearing on Fox News or anywhere else; he is perfectly free to speak his mind anywhere someone will give him a microphone.  NPR has not violated Juan Williams’ First Amendment rights in any way.  NPR is not a public access soap box that every American has a right to utilize.  Is NPR violating my First Amendment rights by preventing me from using NPR to broadcast my insights?  No, clearly not, and neither are they violating any First Amendment rights of Juan Williams.  I am not constitutionally entitled to a job as an on air personality at NPR, and neither is Juan Williams.

Let’s all be clear and honest here.  If you object to NPR’s decision, fine.  If you object to the continued federal funding of NPR, fine.  Go ahead and campaign to end their funding, but don’t do so on the invalid argument that NPR is engaging in censorship or the suppression of free speech.  That demonstrates either an ignorance of the First Amendment and censorship or intentional dishonesty:  you either don’t understand the concepts, or you are lying to better sell your position to the ill-informed.

Posted in Criticism, Media, Public Radio | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly Throws Muslims Under the Bus

Posted by Karl Withakay on October 14, 2010

I believe Bill O’Reilly believes in what he says.  When he recently said, “Muslims killed us on 9/11“, I believe that he believes that we were attacked by the Muslim religion itself  (ie: we were attacked by the Muslims) rather than just that the persons who carried out the attack were Muslims.

I also believe he is dead wrong.  Though it is technically correct to say that 9-11 was carried out by Muslims, it is also technically correct to say 9-11 was carried out by heterosexual men.  In either of these cases, the statements serve no useful purpose and only serve to deceive and mislead by making false implications and encouraging erroneous inferences about responsibility for the attacks.  As a heterosexual man who did not participate in the attacks, I wish not to be incorrectly associated with those that did, and I imagine many Muslims feel the same way.

I could provide various statements about  things that were done by (people who happened to be) Republicans or Christians that I’m sure Bill O’Reilly would freak out about if you said them to his face, but I think I’ve already made my point.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Media | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Deconstruction of an Article on Automobile Hacking

Posted by Karl Withakay on September 1, 2010

I’d like to Cordially Deconstruct just a couple of items from and article I read today titled, “Cars: The next hacking frontier” by Elinor Mills.  The article is about the potential of hacking in today’s increasingly computerized and networked automobiles.  It’s generally a decently written article, but there’s a couple points I want to address.  The first is statement from a report by a team that managed to hack a wireless tire pressure monitoring system of a vehicle.  The article author included the following quote from the report:

“While spoofing low-tire-pressure readings does not appear to be critical at first, it will lead to a dashboard warning and will likely cause the driver to pull over and inspect the tire,” said the report. “This presents ample opportunities for mischief and criminal activities, if past experience is any indication.”

Listen, I don’t dispute that the lack of security in the TPMS displays a seriously concerning lack of attention to the concept of wireless communication security by automotive system designers, but I think the study is over blowing the seriousness of this particular vulnerability to make their point.  I seriously doubt that many drivers would pull over if this light displays on their dashboard.  Most drivers don’t even know what the light means.  I certainly dispute the notion that it “will likely cause the driver to pull over and inspect the tire”.  46% of people surveyed didn’t even know the icon was supposed to be  tire treads, and anyone who knows what the indicator is will likely know they don’t need to worry about it until they get to a service station.  Every time it gets cold, the pressure in my tires decreases in accordance with the ideal gas law, and the indicator lights up on my dashboard.  If my experience is remotely typical, many drivers with cars new enough to have the indicator are already accustomed to ignoring it until they have a convenient moment to deal with it, and certainly wouldn’t pull over right away to inspect their tires.

The article then goes on to mention another report where researchers

“tested how easy it would be to compromise a system by connecting a laptop to the onboard diagnostics port that they then wirelessly controlled via a second laptop in another car.”

Surprise, they were able to control all sorts of computer controlled functions like the anti-lock brakes, engine computer, speedometer display, etc.  The article author concedes,

“Granted, the researchers needed to have physical access to the inside of the car to accomplish the attack. Although that minimizes the likelihood of an attack, it’s not unthinkable to imagine someone getting access to a car dropped off at the mechanic or parking valet.”

OK, and it’s also possible they could plant a GPS tracker, wireless microphone, or bomb in your car, or cut the brake lines and cut a notch in your fan belt as well if they have physical access to the vehicle, all without touching the car’s computer or network system, what’s the point?  The real security concern is the wireless (hands off) vulnerability; just stick with that topic, please.

One area where I think the article author actually underplays a concern is when she writes,

“The threat is primarily theoretical at this point for a number of reasons. First, there isn’t the same financial incentive to hacking cars as there is to hacking online bank accounts.”

Actually, there is a financial incentive in hacking cars; if you could successfully hack a GM car’s On Star system, you could potentially not only disable the alarm, but also unlock and start the vehicle and disable the ability of GM to track and disable the vehicle via On Star, so there’s a minor fail in the other direction for the article.

It was a generally well written article, but a few points were a little sub par.  It may seem like nitpicking, but I usually feel that stretching points and using unnecessary hyperbole to enhance an  article degrades the overall quality of an article, and I needed something to blog about today.

Posted in Criticism, hacking, Media, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cryptosporidiosis Is Not A Bacterial Infection

Posted by Karl Withakay on August 25, 2010

While I drive to and from work each weekday, I listen to the local NPR affiliate, KWMU, a generally excellent source of broadcast news.  During my drive home from work today, I caught a story on an outbreak of a diarrheal illness, crypo in some St. Louis county day care centers.  The report mentioned that crypto is short for cryptosporidiosis and explained that cryptosporidiosis was a bacteriological illness spread through contact with infected feces, usually in swimming pools and day care centers.  The same story was reported on the Post dispatch web site with virtually identical information.  (The story broadcast on KWMU may have even credited the Post Dispatch for the story, but I didn’t catch it.)  The PD story stated:

“The bacterial illness, cryptosporidiosis, is spread through contact with infected feces, most commonly in swimming pools and day care centers.”

The problem with the story as reported by both KWMU and the PD is that cryptosporidiosis is not a bacterial illness, and Blythe Bernhard, the author of the Post Dispatch article, could have learned that with a few seconds of fact checking on the internet.  (See also the CDC’s site if you don’t trust Wikipedia.)  Cryptosporidiosis is instead a parasitic infection caused by a protozoan parasite, Cryptosporidium.

I know this because some years ago I saw an episode of (I believe) Forensics Files regarding an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee after a rainstorm caused untreated sewage to overflow the sewage treatment system and spill into the same water source a water plant got its municipal water from; an outbreak of  cryptosporidiosis was the result.

As soon as I got home, I rushed to the computer to confirm my knowledge because no mater how sure I am of something, I like to be able to confirm and support my position; I try not to assume that I recall something correctly, even though in this case I was sure cryptosporidiosis was parasitic in nature and not bacteriological.

It’s not a major gaff per se, but neither was it in any way difficult to research either.  Cryptosporidiosis is not bacterial and cannot be treated like a bacterial infection.  In fact, there really is no treatment for cryptosporidiosis other than supportive care (you just have to let your immune system fight it off).  In immunocompromised individuals, it can become a lifelong, chronic condition that can also be fatal.   One would think the reporter would have looked up cryptosporidiosis to get more information on the disease.  Sure it was just a quick, breaking news blurb, but

A. wouldn’t it be good to be sure you have the facts straight BEFORE publishing,


B. wouldn’t it be good to have some background info on the disease in case the story gets bigger and you have to revisit it?

As of 7:30PM local time, the story on the PD website has not been updated, which tells me nobody has gone back to check the facts after getting the breaking news published to the web, although someone did post the diarrhea song in the comments section.  🙂

UPDATE 8-26-10

As of 9:00AM the next day, the story on the PD website is still unchanged, though the diarrhea song has been deleted from the comments, and someone else posted a comment regarding cryptosporidiosis not being bacterial in nature.  However, the story was repeated on the air on KWMU this morning, this time without any mention of a bacterial nature.  Maybe KWMU actually read my E-Mail.

EDIT II 8-26-10

Apparently the PD website put out a nearly identical replacement article omitting the bacterial infection part, but left the original article in place for some reason.   Maybe he app they use to deploy breaking news stories does not allow edits after publishing.

Posted in Criticism, Media, Medicine / Health, Public Radio | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Educate Yourself About Cell Phone Science

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 21, 2009

Maine is considering requiring cancer warnings on cell phones.  I could take the time to write a lengthy deconstruction regarding cell phones and non-ionizing radio frequency radiation, but why bother remaking the wheel when Steven Novella has already done an excellent job addressing the subject?

There’s just no science to support the hypothesis that cell phone use can cause cancer:  There’s no biological science to show a mechanism for cell phone use to cause cancer, and there’s no observational science to show cell phone use correlates to an increased risk of cancer.

What we have instead is an unsupported and mostly  implausible hypothesis that because non-ionizing radio frequency radiation from cell phones causes measurable biological effects and ionizing radiation can cause cancer, that cell phones probably cause cancer.  Give that to a politician who cares more about being seen to act on what is perceived to be (or can be promoted as) an important issue than they do about being genuinely productive (or about taking the time to properly educate themselves on an issue before acting), and you get proposals for new, unneeded, unscientific laws.

Indoor light is non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation with far more energy than the radio frequency radiation of cell phones, and it too produces measurable biological effects, but nobody seems to be proposing cancer warnings on light bulbs.  Oh, snap!  …  Never mind, set your hair on fire and run for the hills.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Heads Up, Media, Medicine / Health, Science, Skepticism, Yahoo Features | Leave a Comment »

Deconstruction of a Million Dollar Story: Part I

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 17, 2009

The other day, I came across an article in the on line version of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, titled, “One man’s hunt for the truth behind a $1 million bill” by Todd C. Frankel that I found doubly worthy of Deconstruction.  In this post, I will focus on the reporting; I may follow up with a post on the story itself on another day.

The article relates the story of Rodney Dukes, an East St. Louis man who found what appeared to be a one million dollar bill in a phone booth outside a gas station.

The article includes a sidebar regarding the article that includes the following statement:

“Reporter Todd C. Frankel spent more than two months following Dukes on his odyssey.”

Unless the reported was incompetent, he discovered that the million dollar bill wasn’t legit with less than five minutes of research on the internet, if he wasn’t already aware that the note was fake.  One merely has to google one million dollar bill to find the information needed to answer the question.  Additionally, the bill had the following words printed on it in the same size print as the similar words on real US currency:


I assume a competent reporter would have examined the bill close enough to discover this text.

The next statement in the sidebar is an implied admission that Frankel did indeed know the bill wasn’t real:

“As with any news story, Frankel avoided interfering with the course of events, so that the story could unfold as naturally as possible.”

As with any news story?  Like the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of Watergate?  What a load of self-righteous BS.  Does the Post Dispatch really expect us to believe that reporters would withhold evidence in a murder or kidnapping story in order to avoid interfering with the course of events?  This statement is nothing more than a self serving justification of Frankel’s withholding the truth from Mr. Dukes regarding the one million dollar note for more than two months solely so that he could have a better, longer story to report on.  Journalism isn’t Star Fleet with a Prime Directive of non-interference.  Occasionally, jury trials get moved to a different venue precisely because the news media does not hold their reporting to avoid contaminating the jury pool and affecting the course of events.  Does the Post really expect us to believe that if there was a chance the bill was real, that the paper would not have published the preliminary story the minute they got their hands on it to avoid influencing the course of events?  Sure, reporters sit on million dollar stories all the time to keep the story pure.

As much as I found the story of Mr. Dukes and his lack of reason and critical thinking itself worthy of Deconstruction, I was more strongly compelled to comment on what the Post Dispatch apparently considers journalism these days.

Shame on you to Todd C. Frankel and shame on the editors the St. Louis Post Dispatch for encouraging and publishing this shameful excuse for a story.  Did you have a good chuckle in the office with the other reporters each night as you strung along Mr. Dukes in his quest for his million dollar answer which you already possessed?  Where do you draw the line on this reporter’s prime directive of non-intervention you claim to have?

Posted in Criticism, Media | 2 Comments »

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