Flattening the Propaganda Curve in the Age of Coronavirus

fake news

I’ve been thinking about propaganda for a long time – how it affects us, how it threatens us, how we can push back against it. The psychological evidence supports the idea that everyone is equally susceptible to propaganda; we appear to be biologically designed in a way that makes us vulnerable. That means it starts with all of us – no one is immune. Which can feel a little hopeless, but also give us power. From a social-activist point of view, we need to find an antidote, because I don’t think it’s an overreaction to call it the biggest threat to democracy since the 1940s.

Most of the articles that help you recognize “fake news” offer good advice, but they usually require EFFORT, and that’s just unlikely given the utter saturation of information that confronts our moment-by-moment wakefulness. Few of us are going to check Snopes.com every time we read a piece of news.

Over the last four or five years, I put together my own list of things to look for when I wanted to validate or dismiss a news article as “fake,” and they’ve been generally helpful. Yet I really struggled to organize these ideas in a compelling way. I have about ten attempts on my C:\ drive to prove it.

Then I read this article at the Washington Post (Coronavirus modelers factor in new public health risk: Accusations their work is a hoax), and the alarm bells went off. Which helped coalesce my thoughts into a reasonably articulate essay. Which you can find here: How to Distinguish Journalism From Fake News. It’s in the very excellent Better Humans publication, and if you’re not following them, you should.

In the meantime, if you’d prefer the Cliffs Notes version, they go like this:

  • If it supports one side and paints any possible alternative as ludicrous, then it is propaganda.
  • If it references an alternative view without mocking it, then it is journalism.

Not all FOX News is propaganda. Not all MSNBC is journalism. And vice-versa. Trust journalism. Ignore propaganda. And we’ll get through this.

11 Rules for Writing Online, Because Internet

Writing for the web takes a certain style, and it’s the clicks that count. To help get you started, here are 11 ways to write great posts online that are sure to make you a cyberstar.

1. Start with a rambling paragraph that serves no function to the reader other than adding to your word count to help meet Google SEO requirements.

2. Entice clicks using unrelated photo of a sexy girl, preferably with nose ring and yoga pants, surrounded by fields of wheat.

3. Put a number in your title so readers can quickly determine how little thinking will be required. Because why should they. Think. Much.

4. Use single word sentences for punctuated emphasis, rather than incorporating any adjective thingies. Like. The. One. Above.

5. Use cutesy words to downplay any pretense of intellectualism, for example thingies.

6. Use “like” a lot. Like, all the time. Also, reference complicated concepts as “a thing.” Yes, this is a thing.

7. Use “fuck” everywhere; it will jar people into reflexive re-tweets like fucking automatons.

8. Use clever word creations like “internety” as if they were legitimate terms.

9. Employ “I” “me” or “my” at about five-words-to-one. I’ve found that in my writing it helps prove my ability to show how awesome I am. Because. I. Am. Awesome.

10. Assume your audience lacks any historical knowledge whatsoever and explain even obvious references. (Ex: World War ll, a clusterfuck between good and bad guys back in the olden days, was a big fucking deal. Really. Fucking. Big.)

11. Make your article about sex. If it’s not about sex, make it about sex. If you can’t make it about sex, find some other internet.

There you go, surefire rules that’ll shoot you straight to the top of the feed. And what’s writing for anyway? So go out and get ’em, keyboard cowboy!

For the benefit of the three or four humans who may recognize this brilliant piece of satire, an earlier version was posted over at Medium a few years ago. So yes, I have shamelessly stolen from myself, for the benefit of the other three or four humans stumbling on this site. What can I tell you, I thought it was funny.

I’ve Fallen In Love (with an E-bike, Silly)

Well, after way too much research, much of it at this awesome site, and also after driving most of the people in my life a little crazy, I took the plunge and bought an electric bike. I picked it up a few weeks ago.

And I think it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I wrote about all this for Better Humans at Medium, which you can read here: How an E-Bike Got Me off the Couch and Back in Love with Exercise. Maybe that article brought you to this little corner of madness. If so, howdy.

What’s not in the Better Humans piece is what I actually bought. But I can share here that I ended up with a 2020 Specialized Turbo Vado 3.0. It’s this one: https://www.specialized.com/us/en/turbo-vado-3-0/p/170305?color=274059-170305.

I love, love, love this bike. Mostly because it feels like a “bicycle,” and it looks like one too; the battery is hidden in the frame so it’s not so obvious. I’ve been puttering around on an old Walmart-special mountain bike for years. But this thing is so polished and comfortable, shifts great, very solid and I feel totally in command. And I can hardly hear the motor. Specialized uses a Brose, which some argue is the quiet one (other e-bikes use motors from Bosch, Yamaha, or Bafang, if you’re keeping score). What I do know is that I went through the park, past lots of people, and had to use the bell because nobody looked up or even noticed me coming behind them (and I’m too shy to yell, “Hey get outta the way!). I even turned off the motor support at one point on a flat surface, doing about 15 MPH – no difference in sound.

It does not feel heavy at all. It FEELS like you’re on a lightweight bike. But this is deceptive – heavy is heavy. I came to a rolling stop once and turned onto a sidewalk, and being unused to hydraulic brakes, I hit them hard and I almost went down. So it takes a little while to get the feel of things, especially if you’re an amateur like me.

Honestly, I found the whole e-bike thing seriously daunting — and kind of fun to learn about, too — because there are so many options and e-bikes are still evolving. Seems like each year brings innovations and changes. Not in the price – they are expensive! Which is a shame. Because I think the more people ride them, the better we’ll all be, in a “change yourself, change the world” kind of way.

I’ve done about 65 miles so far. I posted my early experiences on this forum, so read along there if you like – but I’ll also post updates here as I keep learning, adding accessories, and riding – assuming it actually gets above 45 degrees in New Jersey at some point for f$&$‘s sake!

Robert Hunter’s Box of Rain

Thinking about Robert Hunter, who died this week.

Have you ever read the lyrics to “Box of Rain”? I’ve always loved that song. But I only started to understand why after I found a letter excerpt posted online between Robert Hunter and a fan who had asked him to explain the meaning of “box of rain.” Hunter was always reluctant to do this, “because it encourages others to ask about what I had in mind when I wrote a song, and mostly you’d need to have my mind to understand even approximately what I had in it.”

And fair enough. But, in this case at least, he decided to make an exception, and wrote: “By ‘box of rain,’ I meant the world we live on, but “ball” of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so box it became, and I don’t know who put it there.”


So when you read those lyrics now, which were originally written to give Phil Lesh the words to say to his dying father, and help him to move on (“what do you want me to do, to do for you, to see you through?”), they are just heartbreaking, because I don’t know anything that captures the poignancy of living and leaving than the last two lines of that song, which are:

Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there.

It’s such a beautiful thought, and since Robert Hunter is one of the great voices of our time, here’s the full lyric, which reads as well as it sings:

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky –
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before
Maybe you’ll find direction
around some corner
where it’s been waiting to meet you –
What do you want me to do,
to watch for you while you’re sleeping?
Well please don’t be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it’s been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home —
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It’s all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

Just a box of rain –
wind and water –
Believe it if you need it,
if you don’t just pass it on
Sun and shower –
Wind and rain –
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

Robert Hunter

A Conversation with my Daughter, Who Wants a Tattoo

Ursula is fourteen. We were driving.

Dad I want a tattoo.

No way.

Why not? I’m old enough.

If you have to ask that question you’re not old enough.

Silence in the car.

If you did get one (I ask), what would it be?

Little Bear.

(Melting): Ursula. That’s what we used to call you, sweetheart.

Yeah, I know. That’s what my name means.

Do people call you that?

Yeah, that’s what they call me.

(Wiping eyes): Really? I didn’t know they called you Little Bear. God, I loved reading that book to you.

Yeah. So dad, what would you get?

If I got a tattoo?


(Thinking): I’d get Frog and Toad.

The Friars Club is in Trouble

I spent an afternoon there for lunch once; it’s a cherished memory. Oak panels, the Frank Sinatra room; you could almost see the smoke from the Rat Pack lingering. I’d been invited by a close friend, now gone – an ex-boss, one-time band mate, and one of the great people in my life. So when I read about the Friars Club troubles in the NY Times, it was with a twinge.

On my visit, Stewie Stone was working the room, going from table to table, like a tummler out of Grossingers in 1956. Here’s Stewie to a guy decked out in a three-piece suit: “You must be old money.” It was like visiting my favorite uncle, only with better material.

Being there made me feel like a Borscht Belt comedian myself – I guess it’s steeped into the place. Going up the elevator, three young women got in at the second floor, so breaking the silence on our way to the third, my friend Frank and I went into this routine, and he gave me the setup, too:

Frank: So, are you ladies famous?
Them: No (laughing), we just work here. How 'bout you?
Me: Actually I’m infamous
Frank, pointing in my direction: You know the band Rush?
Them (wide eyed): Yeah!
Me: I have all their records

Well, here we are in March 2020 and it’s either gone or it’s not. I hope they find a way through their troubles and make it right. Because the Friars Club is an important link to an Old Hollywood that is well-worth keeping alive in our social memory.