Just when I was despairing of finding an appropriate topic for this week, I received an email that hit the spot. Of course it is a political statement.

To keep the record clear about what follows, I am not an active Hillary supporter, and I certainly do not support the Bush policies. Other than that, I am watching the electoral process with interest to pick the best candidate. This disclaimer is necessary because the letter I received attempts to pillory Hillary by listing a series of quotes supposedly taken from her speeches and then forming them into a quiz in which the multiple-choice answers to who said the quotes are typically Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, etc.

Since I first received this letter, I have been exposed to several variants; some of them come across as authentic, even giving dates and locations of the supposed quotes. Being rather lazy myself, instead of checking out the original sources, I did the obvious thing and went to Scopes. See this for an in-depth analysis of this supposed Hillary quiz. The bottom line is that some clever anti-Hillary people cobbled together out-of-context statements, and when that was inadequate, they juxtaposed partial quotes to shade the implied meaning more toward making her look like a real menace.

Is this simple fun and games as usual in the political arena? Probably. However if a reader does not check with Scopes, would that potential voter be swayed? On the other hand, if voters recognize the distortions, will they tend to support the slander victim? My betting is that hit pieces like this are depressingly effective at garnering votes from casual readers. After all, if they did not work, we would expect them to disappear as new tools evolve.

This is an example of distortions applied against a single candidate, but supporting or defeating any given candidate is not what this column in about. My goal is to help people make decisions more rationally than they might otherwise. No party or candidate has a monopoly on distortions, hit pieces, or dirty tricks. They have been with us since we gave up (more or less) choosing our leaders by who was still standing after hand-to-hand combat.

But I speculate that hit pieces have another important role besides simply enticing people to change their vote. Probably very few voters will change their mind after reading the Hillary quiz. But people who are already opposed to her will more readily believe the distortions and in that belief strengthen their determination to oppose her. That is, hit pieces are more effective at keeping the already committed in line than in converting new believers. It is a well-known psychological principle that once a person makes a decision based on inadequate data, newly acquired data is more likely to be interpreted to support the decision that it would have been otherwise.

We experience a relative of this condition when we buy a new automobile. Few of us are absolutely sure of why we buy what we do, but after we buy a new car, we suddenly become much more aware of how many of that model are on the road. “There is a car like ours — it looks pretty good, doesn’t it?” Similarly, do you notice the short-comings of operating systems you do not use — maybe that is a bad example!

So for at least the next year, I need not fear about not finding topics suitable for discussion here. I can always find some political tidbit to analyze. Maybe next week I can look at anti-Rudy literature so I can claim to be fair and balanced.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.