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Original Source

Robotics season and new work means I have to run a repeat.  This one, while a bit dated, has a message that needs to be repeated anyway.

The internet is a wide, rolling river of information. It can be treacherous and dangerous to wade into if you’re not careful. If you’re looking for a cool drink of truth, the muddy brown of this mighty Mississippi of data often has a harsh stench of bias bubbling along with the waves. What can a reader thirsty for knowledge do?

The answer is to seek the source – the cool, clear stream that feeds into the torment at the headwaters. I call it the “Urquelle”, a German word meaning “original source” favored in the mountains and rolling hills that are the source of so many great rivers in Bavaria and Bohemia. This process of seeking out primary sources is valuable not just for writers, for whom primary sources have long been a staple of good, useful prose. As surely as reading is writing, today’s discerning reader should also seek the Urquelle.


Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. The water is cool and clear.

Many big stories take on a life of their own on the ‘net. The process works through and around the mainstream media where people are paid money for the purpose composing a story into useful information. Sometimes their sources are eyewitnesses or original documents found on the internet. But people often take off from the professionals, adding their own comments before sharing the story on social media. These might feed back to the mainstream eventually.

Information strays away from the truth for many reasons once it leaves the primary source. A professional writer may not have time or space to say everything they need to. People with one perspective may use what they find to push one part of their agenda, even as propaganda. Without the Urquelle it’s hard to tell just what potential problems there are.

To use one example, the situation in Ukraine is an important story that has many people’s attention. But the Urquelle for much of the information is not in English originally and very far away from people in the US. That doesn’t stop people from offering their own comments and perspectives to secondary sources and hear-say despite some obvious difficulties.

The flow of information from Ukraine quickly becomes as rolling and brown as the Dnieper River flowing past Kiev.

The recent protests in Kiev.  Note the blue and gold flag of Ukraine alongside the blue with gold stars of Europe.

The recent protests in Kiev. Note the blue and gold flag of Ukraine alongside the blue with gold stars of Europe.

In order to make sense of one aspect of the story, I went back to the moment when the protests started on 21 November, which was when a treaty with the European Union was rejected. What was in that treaty? I pulled up the original source, the treaty itself and the conferences that shaped it. Those sources served as the Urquelle for one perspective that has to be illuminating, even from very far away. And, more to the point, it is one that has hardly ever been discussed in the mainstream media.

Many big stories like this look very different from the original source. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, it’s best to see if there is an original source that backs up the claims of any given site on the ‘net. That has to start by determining if there are any primary sources in an article. If there aren’t, it’s probably not worth repeating.

Stories like that often make their way back to the mainstream, too, so it’s not just blogs that you have to watch carefully.

Another good example of stories that take on a life of their own are polls, a subset of scholarly work that might have many potential conclusions buried in a mountain of data. Many people like stories based on polls because they have the allure of hard, scientific fact. But the very least you have to expect is a link back to the original report on the data. A statement about how valid it is reported to be is also important, especially when a difference noted is within the margin of error. Without the original source, the validity of a poll cannot be verified and it should never be taken as some fact, despite the allure.


We are all writers, of a sort.

Good writers have long looked for primary sources. But in today’s internet world links are shared by readers on twitter and facebook, and are often further amplified in blogs. If you share a story without the Urquelle, you are contributing to the mud in the great river of information.

What is the Urquelle to a reader, writer, or sharer on social media? It is nothing less than the cool, clear original source of information. It can be a scholarly article, an eyewitness account, or a big long treaty. It may be a mountain of data or a properly formatted chart that includes where it came from.

In any case, the original source should be used whenever possible. Without that Urquelle there is little available for the seekers of truth to navigate on the rolling brown waters of a big story flowing through the ‘net.

16 thoughts on “Original Source

  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and had no idea where it comes from. If it sounds too good to be true it probably isn’t is what goes through my mind half the time. Maybe that’s more if it sounds too bad to be true when reading on the net. I wish more people would look for good sources

    • Yes, if it sounds too (stupid, ridiculous, bad, crazy) to be true it probably is. Caveat Lector, let the reader beware. Common sense still works – if only most of the writers out there had some!

  2. I was reading more about Bernie Sanders. Seems like he has a lot of good experience. I am impressed.

    • Thanks! Context is everything today – very few outlets make a point of finding it and I do believe that is what is most important today. “I don’t break news, I fix it!” 🙂

  3. Regarding current politics I tend to think that having a sort of political party within a political party does not work well. Sanders is a s socialist. Trump and Cruz are know nothing party and tea party respectively. The tea party people can have their own party. I don’t like the tea party people. Some of them are kind of racist and anti-immigrant. I like a party where I like the candidates. Candidates like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and John Kline.

    Having a party within a party might be interesting to independents, but you know, if you are truly an independent they should run their own candidates and parties.

    One thing on Romney. There are some people who dont like Mormons so they contributed to his loss in 2012.

    • Little was said about any anti-Mormon backlash in 2012, but I have trouble believing it wasn’t an issue. I do wonder how many evangelicals left the top spot on the ballot blank. Since there is drop-off below that where people don’t vote it doesn’t look like any, but I agree that had to be an issue for some.
      The “Big Tent” parties are based on an idea that appears to be antique at this point – which is difficult. Our whole system is based on the idea that our politics can be compressed into two parties. A strong president form of government simply does not allow for a large number of parties – but that does seem to be where we are going. Things are fractured in politics as they are everywhere.
      I honestly don’t know the answer but I do agree – the “party within a party” tendency is at least going to be a serious change.
      Centrist or even Rockefeller Republicans? Well, I don’t know where you can go today. Rubio never seemed to have a chance – but I would have bet that in November he would play well. That’s really pathetic. Sanders? One solid round of red-baiting and he would fold up quickly in a system that requires 50%.
      I really don’t know about the long term for politics. What I do know is that taking things in 2016 sets up the 2020 redistricting and if I’m right at all, even a little, about things starting to move forward whoever is in power from this election will get a lot of credit and be in power for a long time. Thanks to Trump the Democrats should have a great claim to power – I swear he even puts the House into play. It’s huge.

  4. Setting aside the idea of a breaking the republicans into 3 or so parties, the republican primary system should use more sophisticated voting systems where people would be asked who their 2nd choice is.

    Also I think the vice president should be popularly selected in the primary season and convention to reflect combinations of the wings of the party, so the different wings could feel happier with each other.

  5. It’s kind of obvious but still worth noting that labor activists don’t like free trade. Something like NAFTA is not something the AFL CIO likes.

    The other thing to note is that Democratic presidents since FDR do not everything that labor likes. Maybe they do some things. So to call FDR a socialist is sort of true and very not true at the same time. You could ask well what did FDR do on health policy. Then you ask what did Truman try to do on health policy. Some of those Truman years are when the British national health service. Then you ask well was John Kennedy a progressive? How progressive was Hubert Humphrey in 1960. I would have to check.

    I was reading that the AFL didnt back McGovern. But the article didn’t explain why so I would have to check.

  6. Under FDR the secretary of labor was Frances Perkins. She worked on major domestic policy initiatives.

    In 1962 she gave a speech on the roots of social security which included this excerpt

    “”At any rate, that was the situation when Roosevelt was elected and we went to Washington.

    Before I was appointed, I had a little conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn’t want me to be the Secretary, of Labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance. I remember he looked so startled, and he said, “Well, do you think it can be done?”

    I said, “I don’t know.” He said, Well, there are constitutional problems, aren’t there?” “Yes, very severe constitutional problems,” I said. “But what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems? Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn’t be solved.”

    “Well,” he said, “do you think you can do it?” “I don’t know, ” I said But I wanted to try. “I want to know if I have your authorization. I won’t ask you to promise anything.” He looked at me and nodded wisely. “All right,” he said, “I will authorize you to try, and if you succeed, that’s fine.”

    “Well,” I said, “that is all I want.” I don’t want you to put any blocks in my way. We’ll see what we can do. There are plenty of people,” I said, “who want it badly and will work for it.”

    This was the way it all began.””

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