A Philosopher's Blog

The Future Strikes Back?

Posted in Metaphysics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2009
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While watching the Colbert Report, I learned that two physicists have put forth the theory that the hypothetical Higgs boson particle might be so abhorrent to nature that creating it would cause a temporal backlash that would prevent such a vile spawning. This was put forth as an explanation why the Large Hadron Collider suffered a mechanical failure that put it out of operation for about a year.

Interestingly enough, these two physicists are well established in the field. They are Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan.

They have written papers on the topic such as “Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal” and “Search for Future Influence From LHC,” Of course, the idea that time is not a one way street is nothing new and some physicists claim that such time events are quite possible. Obviously enough, the idea that the discovery of an abhorrent particle would cause such a backlash is something new (at least outside of science fiction).

Interestingly enough, Nielsen predicts that all machines intended to produce the Higgs boson will suffer from bad luck.  He even asserted that “well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God” and “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.” This prediction provides an empirical way to test their claim. After all, if all machines intended to do this suffer from “bad luck” at a rate that differs in a statistically significant manner from the norm, then there would be grounds to suspect that there is some unusual causal factor at work. Of course, “bad luck” would need to be properly defined and a proper baseline would need to be set for determining what would be a statistically significant deviation.

In terms of the evidence for this claim, the Hadron machine suffered that rather serious failure and the United States Superconducting Supercollider (also intended to search for the Higgs boson) was canceled in 1993 after a fortune had been spent on it. More recently, a scientist who works on a collider experiment was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy with Al Qaeda.

Of course, it is rather common for things to go wrong with large projects and large machines and these failures can be explained without some sort of odd temporal backlash. For example, human attempts at space exploration have been marked with some very serious disasters, yet these can all be explained in perfectly mundane ways. Likewise, the problem with the Hadron seems to be explainable in mundane terms and there seems to be no compelling reason yet to go beyond the mundane.

Naturally enough, if all machines intended to to produce the Higgs boson fail, then there would be good grounds for believing a causal factor is in play that is well worth considering. However, the notion that there is some sort of temporal backlash would be but one possible explanation and the mere repeated failures of such machines would not conclusively show that this specific hypothesis is correct. After all, alternative explanations could be given. To use a science fiction one, perhaps benevolent aliens are sabotaging such projects because they know that producing a Higgs boson would destroy the world. Or perhaps the aliens are doing it to keep us from advancing. Or any other of a number of odd explanations.

Of course, sitting around and waiting for more failures will take time. So, Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Ninomiya have suggested a test that can be conducted now. This is, oddly enough, a luck test in which the folks at CERN would play a game of chance to check for bad luck radiating back from the future. They claim that if the outcome of the game was adequately unlikely, then this would indicate that machine would not work or, if it did work, not function well enough to produce the Higgs boson.

Obviously enough, luck and bad luck are not exactly scientific concepts. However, they could no doubt be properly defined in terms of statistics (something I have written on elsewhere). In this case, bad luck would be negative events happening that consistently exceed what would be statistically expected.

However, even if “bad luck” is properly defined, there is the obvious question of whether this bad luck affects anything related to the collider or just the operation of the collider. To be specific, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the alleged bad luck would affect such a game of chance. Suppose, for example, people decided to play Monopoly on the site-would everyone roll really badly? Or would people lose at cards if they happened to be thinking about making a Higgs boson detecting machine? It is, of course, not clear how all this would work. Finally, even if the game went badly, there is still a probability that things can happen against probability (that is, the possible is still possible even it is incredibly unlikely).

When I first heard of this hypothesis, I assumed that it was a clever joke. After all, it seemed to involve attributing to nature a purpose that smacks of Aristotelian teleology-something that has been out of fashion in science since the Renaissance. At the very least it does propose some sort of intent and seeming intelligence to the universe-that it takes action against certain events and has the capability to target specific things like magnets and also to influence human decision making. I suppose that a suitable tale could be told trying to show how nature could do all this with no real purpose or intent-perhaps by drawing an analogy to how a body’s immune system destroys invading disease agents without any conscious intent. Of course, in this case nature is said to be ridding itself of a contaminate before it even exists, which is a heck of a trick.

I’m still sort of waiting for these two clever fellows to say “just kidding.” But, I’ve seen enough bizarre stuff in philosophy and science to suspect that this is no joke at all.

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Birthers, Again

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2009

In yet another act of the theater of the absurd, the birthers brought a case  to the federal court claiming that Obama is not eligible to be president .

The judge, David Carter, issued a 30 page ruling that can be summed up in a single sentence: his court lacks the jurisdiction to rule on such a case. This seems to be quite accurate-the constitution specifies the legal procedures for the removal of a president from office and a U.S. District Court lacks the legal power to do this.


Carter is not the first judge to have dismiss the claim presented by the birthers. In response, the birthers have “have attacked the judiciary, including every prior court that has dismissed their claim, as unpatriotic and even treasonous for refusing to grant their requests and for adhering to the terms of the Constitution.”

The  birthers do have a right to express their views and even a legal right to bring up spurious law suits that waste time and resources. However, the fact that they can bring up such wasteful suits does not mean that they should be doing so. While they clearly do not agree with Obama, their lawsuits have no basis whatsoever. As such, they are merely wasting valuable court time and hence taxpayer money and this is hardly patriotic.

Now, if Obama was truly not eligible to be president or had committed some act worthy of removal, then proper action should be taken. However, he is clearly a natural born American citizen and has done nothing that would provide a legitimate basis for his removal. While people do disagree with his views and actions, doing things that some folks disagree with is not grounds for removal.

Finally, the attacks made by the birthers upon the judiciary are indeed ironic. The birthers are basing the attack on a legal point about citizenship and yet they call the judiciary unpatriotic and treasonous for following what is specified in the Constitution. In short, the birthers are calling on the judiciary to break the law so as to rule that Obama broke the law. Obviously, the birthers seem to lack a clear grasp of the notion of consistency (or irony).

While there are good grounds on which to be critical of Obama, the birthers’ nonsense merely provides ammunition with which to dismiss critics as suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome. The birthers would better serve their cause by dropping their absurd claims and focusing on presenting legitimate criticism and getting ready for 2012. Then again, perhaps they could join up with the Flat-Earthers, Hollow-Earthers, 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists, and other such folks and start their own political party.

H1N1 Shots & Prisoners

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2009
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As most folks know, people are supposed to get the H1N1 shots. As folks also probably know, the vaccine is in very short supply (despite promises to the contrary). One thing that has stirred up controversy is that some folks in prison will be getting their shots before some other people who are in need.

On one hand, the furor over this does seem to be justified. After all, the people who are in prison would tend to be bad people who have harmed society. As such, to use society’s limited resources to protect them from H1N1 at the expense of protecting people who have not harmed society seems to be morally incorrect.

On the other hand, the distribution of vaccines is based on risk-those more at risk get moved up towards the front of the line. Since prisoners are in highly confined spaces and exposed to large numbers of people, they can be at much higher risk of H1N1 than the general population. While it might be tempting to say that they deserve to suffer because of their crimes, their punishment is to be in prison and not to become infected with a disease. As such, a case can be made as to why the prisoners would get the shots ahead of certain non-prisoners.

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Plato’s Werewolf

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2009
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Put rather simply, a werewolf is a person who has the ability to transform from human form into wolf form (or a hybrid wolf-human form). The werewolf is typically cast as a monster whose taste for human flesh is exceeded only by the amount of fur that he (or she) sheds.

Throughout the years, folks have offered various explanations for the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific ones point to mental illnesses. Those based in the supernatural tend to point towards vague curses. However, my objective is not to hash through these various theories. Rather, I am going to present a completely made up account of the werewolf using Plato‘s theory of forms. This is, of course, not intended to be “serious” philosophy but rather a little Halloween fun.

While there are different interpretations of Plato’s theory of Forms, the general idea is that the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. Most importantly, all the particular things in the imperfect realm (that is where we hang out, at least while we are alive) are what they are in virtue of a mysterious participation in the Forms. For example, take a particular being, namely me. On Plato’s view, I would be a man because I participate in the Form of man. Likewise, I am a runner because I participate in that Form as well. And so on, for all my properties.

As is rather evident, the particular things here in this realm lack perfection. For example, while I am obviously damn manly, I am not a perfect Man. Likewise, while I am, according to my mother, a handsome fellow, I obviously do not possess perfect Beauty. Plato explains this lack of perfection, at least in part, by the fact that particulars participate in the Forms in various degrees. He also seems to indicate that a particular entity might participate in “contrasting” Forms. For example, a particular person would participate in both Beauty and Ugliness (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that ugliness would be a Form). Thus, the person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a “mix” of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful (or ugly) over the course of time, this mix can presumably shift or the degree of participation can change.

At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with the werewolf. Not to worry, grab some candy because I am getting to that bit right now.

So, if we assume that a thing is what it is because of its participation in Forms and that the Forms can be “mixed” in a thing (or rather, their instantiations), the werewolves are easy to explain. Plato’s werewolf would be a being that participated in the Form of Man but also the Form of wolf. As such, the being (let us call him “Lon”) would be literally part man and part wolf. When Lon is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, his form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.

Since Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited with triggering the transformation from man to wolf. Naturally, I have no idea how this would work; but I also have no real idea how participation was supposed to work either. So, let it be assumed that both work and thus Plato’s werewolf is free this Halloween. Naturally, this werewolf would hunger for wisdom and not human flesh, so be sure to keep some philosophy books on hand, should you run into one of this furry philosophers.




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Simple Pumpkin Seed Recipe

Posted in DIY/Recipes by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2009

I’m rather fond of Halloween and carve a pumpkin every year. While Halloween is mostly about the candy, part of my Halloween traditions is the cooking of pumpkin seeds. The recipe I use is very simple, but works for me.

Step 1: Carve the pumpkin and get the seeds. Since I am not squeamish, I find that the best way to get the seeds is to cut an opening in the top of the pumpkin and then just pull out all the seeds and “guts” with my hand. I then scrape the sides to clear out the gunk and round up any stray seeds.

Step 2: Clean the seeds. While some of the seeds will be free of the “guts”, you will most likely have a fair amount of orange strings and gunk mixed up with the seeds. I deal with that by putting the seeds in a colander and then manually removing the gunk. I then wash the seeds with water (just stick the colander in the sink).

Step 3: Oil and flavor. I usually move the seeds to a Tupperware container and add a little olive oil plus some steak seasoning salt. You can, of course, use any flavoring you’d like, from the old standby of table salt to some elaborate mixes of spices and herbs. Some folks even make sweet mixes, but I find that the Halloween candy gives me plenty of sweet. I use the Tupperware container because I can seal it and then mix up the seeds with the oil and flavoring by shaking it.

Step 4: Bake. I spread the seeds over a cookie sheet (the oil on them should minimize sticking, but you can use parchment paper) and bake them for 30-40 minutes at 300 degrees. I stir them every 10 minutes or so (if I remember). When they appear to be slightly browned  and are crisp, they are ready to eat. If they are black and on fire, then it is time to get a new set of pumpkin seeds.

Step 5: Eat.

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Government & Talk Radio

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2009

In 1949 the FFC introduced the Fairness Doctrine that required those with broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a way that was fair and balanced. This doctrine came to an end during the presidency of Ronald Reagen. Not surprisingly, there have been attempts to revive it.

As mentioned in the previous blog, conservatives dominate talk radio and this has lead some folks to think that the government should step in using something like the Fairness Doctrine to force more balance on the airwaves.

If there was evidence that the conservative dominance was the result of questionable means, then it would make sense for the government to get involved. However, it seems likely that existing laws would serve this purpose well enough. Liberal paranoia aside, the mere fact that talk radio is dominated by conservatives is no evidence of misdeeds-no more than the liberal dominance of other media is a clear sign of misdeeds.  Rather, much of it seems to be a matter of consumer choice and this is not something that the state should interfere with, unless this choice is somehow being tampered with in illegal ways.

To use an analogy, if the iPod is outselling its competitors, the government has no obligation or right to step in and try to balance things out-as long as Apple is playing fair. However, if a company is coercing customers or abusing a near monopoly, then intervention would be appropriate.

So, if conservatives dominate the airwaves because that is what people want to hear, then the government should do nothing about that. Of course, if there are some sort of shady or illegal reasons behind this dominance, then action would be appropriate.

My guess is that much of the conservative dominance is due to the hosts giving people what they want and they are doing this in a legitimate way-by outdoing their almost nonexistent competition. But, people should not be punished for winning-just for cheating.

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Fraud, France & Scientology

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2009
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A French court recently convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud. The church is still allowed to operate in France, but has been warned to stay on “the correct side of the law.”

The basis for this case is the fact that Scientologists use a electropsychometer or E-Meter, to “locate areas of spiritual duress or travail so they can be addressed and handled” and then (the plaintiffs claimed) try to sell vitamins and books to those “tested.” Obviously enough, there is no scientific evidence that this device does what it is alleged to do and hence it seems quite reasonable to regard this sort of behavior as fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, the Church is characterizing this ruling as being an Inquisition. This is, of course, hyperbole. Now, if Scientologists were being tortured and killed for their beliefs, then it would be like the Inquisition. Also, the church is not being persecuted because of its religious views. Rather, it was prosecuted for trying to sell people things using what certainly seems to be a  bogus machine.

While religions are generally granted a great deal of leeway in many countries, fraud and other misdeeds by churches are still crimes. The Church of Scientology certainly seems to be committing fraud and hence should be treated like anyone else.

Of course, the Scientologists might see themselves as being unfairly singled out. After all, churches routinely ask people for money and often imply that such giving will win favor from God. Since none of these churches can prove this claim or even that God exists, all that would seem to be fraud as well.

Of course, many of these folks are no doubt sincere in their beliefs. Hence, they are also deceiving themselves. From a moral standpoint, this does seem to be an important difference. After all, if I sell you a holy relic that I think is real and will really heal your H1N1, then I am not engaging in intentional deceit. I am just mistaken and making money from the fact that you are also mistaken. This is like selling medicine that is believed to work, yet actually does not.

But, if I am selling “holy relics” that I make myself and sell them to people believing that it is all bull, then I am engaging in fraud. This is because I know that what I am selling is not really what I claim it is and I am counting on people believing this deceit in order to make money.

So, if the Scientologists truly believe in their E-Meter and are sincerely trying to help people with their ills, then they would not be acting in an immoral way. However, if they know that the E-Meter is a hoax and are using it to push vitamins and such, then they are acting immorally.

Naturally, I am open to the possibility that the E-Meter works and that Scientology is true. I just need proof. As with divine healing, I’d be happy to help set up a properly controlled experiment to test the E-Meter. But, Tom Cruise would not be allowed to jump around on my couch during any testing. That would freak out my pets.



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Talk Radio

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2009
Blogworld Talk Radio
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CNN recently did a series of segments on talk radio. One fact that struck me is that about 90% of talk radio hosts are classified as conservatives. This, of course, puts a number on the liberal perspective that conservatives dominate talk radio. Naturally, conservatives point out that liberals dominate the other media venues, with the obvious exception of Fox News in the TV arena.

Naturally, there has been considerable speculation about the conservative dominance in radio. Over the years, various implausible explanations have been provided.

One poor explanation is that the dominance is due to Rush’s skills as an entertainer. While it is true that he is a master of his craft, this would not explain the success of all the other conservative hosts nor would it explain the dearth of liberal hosts. After all, it is often claimed that Hollywood is awash in liberals and surely someone among these folks would have the talent to make her/his voice heard.

Another poor explanation is that the big corporations are conservative and hence unfairly keep the liberals off the air. Of course, this runs contrary to the fact that there are plenty of liberals with money and the fact that mainstream media is regarded as being liberal, despite also being owned by the corporate masters. Also, there is the failure of Air America-a liberal attempt at liberal radio that was well funded.

A third poor explanation is that talk radio appeals to the uneducated and is not a suitable medium for the complex enlightenment that is liberal thought. While it is true that talk radio tends to be lacking in intellectual rigor, it is also true that liberal ideas can (and are) be pitched at a level suitable for talk radio. Further, to cast the listeners of talk radio as simpletons is to do them a grave injustice.

One hypothesis that has some plausibility is that the conservatives were able to stake out their territory in talk radio and dig in. Since there is only so much air time, for a liberal to get a show would seem to require that they cut into an established radio show. Of course, this explanation does have some weaknesses and does not account for why liberals have yet to succeed in getting more of the market share.

Naturally, it would be well worth considering the differences between the people who listen to talk radio and folks who do not. For example, perhaps their is a factor here relating to jobs. Maybe folks who work jobs that allow them to listen to the radio more would tend towards being conservative (or at least being entertained by conservative talk). Or maybe conservatives are more inclined to like purely audio media as opposed to visual media. In any case, the conservatives are dominating the airwaves.

Another hypothesis worth considering is whether there is a difference between liberals and conservatives in regards to the skill sets needed to be appealing in talk radio. For example, it has been claimed that actors and journalists are more liberal than other folks, so perhaps there is a link between modes of expression and political leanings. So, conservatives might have a tendency towards talk, while liberals have greater visual skills. Or there might be no connection at all.

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Saudi Justice

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)
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When Saudi trials make the news, it tends to make clear the nature of Saudi Society. In a recent incident, a female journalist was sentenced to 60 lashes and a two year travel ban because of her involvement in a Lebanese TV show, A Thick Red Line. This show covers social taboos and the episode that led to the sentence featured a Saudi man bragging about his sexual exploits.

Interestingly enough, the fellow was sentenced to five years in prison as well as 1,000 lashes. As such, his punishment was considerably harsher than that handed down against the woman.

The latest turn in this story is that the king of Saudi Arabia decided to pardon the woman. The king, who is regarded by many as working to modernize his country also pardoned a woman who had been a victim of a gang rape. She was to be punished with six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her.

While I see the appeal in whipping people who go on TV to brag about their sexual antics, the sentencing does seem to be rather unjust. After all, a basic moral principle of punishment is that it should be in proportion to the crime. In the case of the man, five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for bragging about his sexual activities seems quite out of proportion to any harm his actions might have caused. In the case of the woman, she seems to clearly not deserve that sort of punishment-or any punishment at all. As such, the king acted rightly in pardoning her.

Given that Saudi Arabia’s legal system is so harsh, that the country has some “interesting” connections to terrorism, and that it is a monarchy (a system of rule which directly opposes our political and moral philosophy of legitimacy) it is sometimes wondered why we are so closely allied to Saudi Arabia. The easy, obvious and correct answer consists of two facts: they have oil and they have an important strategic location next to other oil reserves.

If Saudi Arabia lacked oil and was located somewhere else, we would have no dealings with them-except, perhaps, to be critical of their legal system. Also, we most likely would have invaded the country after 9/11. Of course, without the money provided by the Saudi Osama Bin Laden, there might never have been a 9/11 attack.

As long as our economy relies on oil and as long as certain corporations (and families) maintain close relations to the Saudis, we will continue to stay allied with the Saudis. Of course, this is a marriage of convenience for them as well. If we did not have the money and power they need, they would most likely have nothing to do with us. After all, the sort of sexual bragging that they punish, we so often reward with book deals and TV shows.


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Fox Fight

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
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While Fox News presents itself as “fair and balanced”, it has recently been the target of intense criticism from other media folks as well as the Obama administration. Naturally, it is important to put this into an historic perspective: administrations have had such tiffs with the media in the past and media organizations have had spats against each other as well. As such, there is really nothing new here other than the players in this particular fight.

The main criticism against Fox News is that it is suffers from a clearly biased perspective. Some critics go so far as to assert that Fox does not really report the news, but that it merely serves to present a political agenda under the guise of reporting. Naturally, folks point out that other media organizations are liberally biased and Fox’s supporters assert that Fox is merely being honest.

While perfect objectivity is impossible, there are clearly degrees of objectivity and fairness. Some journalists are true professionals in this regard. While they are honest about their own views, they are able to consider other viewpoints fairly and present relatively unbiased reports and analysis. Others are clearly true believers and make no attempt to consider alternative views, except to assert how wrong they are. The folks at Fox seem to largely fall towards the unprofessional end of the spectrum. Of course, the same can be said of some other news organizations. For example, MSNBC seems to have some rather significant liberal bias.

I have watched Fox and have tried to be objective in my assessment of their handling of the news. While I do expect the commentators to express opinions (that is their job), the bias is clear and evident. Of course, folks who agree with the Fox agenda will generally not see this bias-they will think that Fox is telling it like it is. This, of course, does provide grounds for dispute and it can be argued that Fox is not biased and is, in fact, the only news agency that is getting it right. Showing bias does, after all, require establishing a baseline of objectivity/neutrality and that point is contested territory.

However, even if a baseline for objectivity is in dispute, a relative baseline can be established. By comparing Fox to the other news agencies as well as independent sources, it is possible to get a picture of relative bias. On this measure, I suspect that Fox will still seem biased.

Also, even without using a baseline, a degree of bias can be discerned by the way the reporters report. To use an analogy, consider the paper I have my Intro to Philosophy students write. One part of the paper is a summary of the Apology and the goal is to clearly, concisely, accurately and in their own words convey the key points of that dialogue. The objective is not to comment, criticize, assess, speculate, or otherwise evaluate and it is rather easy to see when a student deviates from summarizing. The same sort of standard can be applied to reporting in order to check for when a reporter has ceased reporting and is now commenting and presenting a view. The second major part of the paper is an argument section and in this section the students present their position on the issue and argue for it. This, of course, corresponds to news commentary and editorials. However, this is quite distinct from summarizing or, by the analogy, reporting. While journalists do go beyond reporting, they do so in various degrees. The more this is done, the greater chance there is that bias is involved-especially if the commentary has a consistent ideological leaning. The folks at Fox seem to have a significant tendency to go from reporting to commenting without making it clear that they are doing so, thus suggesting the possibility of bias (or at least a failure to understand the distinction between a report and an editorial).

Now, in regards to the administrations fight with Fox, they are ironically helping Fox out. After all, Fox’s viewers will tend to be against Obama and the administration’s words and actions serve to reinforce the views of such people. While Obama and his people have the right to decide which news shows they visit, it does not seem appropriate for the administration to get into this sort of brawl with Fox, even if Fox is distorting facts.

A final remark I have, inspired by the wrestling episode of South Park, is that perhaps Fox is like the WWF of news: it puts on a morality play to entertain the viewers and merely pretends to be a real news agency, just as the pro-“wrestlers” pretend to really be fighters.

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