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March 28th, 2020 (Permalink)

March Madness

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.1

I've been puzzling about how to respond to recent events, and whether it's even a good idea to respond at all. Part of our current predicament is the constant media over-attention to the coronavirus pandemic at the expense of all other news, even when there's really nothing new about the disease to report, and I don't want to contribute to that. So, maybe, the best thing to do is to ignore the whole subject.

On the other hand, I can't stop the news media from obsessing about coronavirus, nor President Trump from giving a lengthy news conference every day. So, I did move up my monthly "Recommended Reading" post to try to draw attention to some measured, non-hysterical recent articles. Now, I'm going to discuss in some detail just why I think we over-reacted to this threat.

Just as the proper response to the pandemic is somewhere between inaction and panicked over-reaction, the correct response is for me to neither ignore nor obsess about it, as so many are doing. Hopefully, this entry will fall somewhere in between.

I am not a physician, epidemiologist, or medical scientist of any sort, so I'm not an expert on viruses or epidemics. Moreover, at this point in time, part of the problem we face is uncertainty: even the experts don't know exactly what is going to happen. However, as a logician, there are some logical matters related to the current pandemics of coronavirus and of fear of coronavirus that, hopefully, I can shed some light on.

It should be obvious that at least some of the reaction to the pandemic in the United States is unwarranted. For instance, along with toilet paper, hand sanitizer has been a victim of panic-buying with some stores being cleaned out2, and some news sites providing instructions on how to make your own3. However, washing your hands with soap and water is a better way to prevent the spread of a virus than using hand sanitizer4. Obviously, one reason for this sort of behavior is ignorance, but given the saturation news media coverage of the coronavirus, why are people still ignorant?

It's impossible to be sure exactly what else is contributing to this over-reaction, and this period will be much studied in the near future to figure out how to prevent a re-occurrence. But in the absence of sociological and social psychological studies into what produced the pandemic panic response, I will make some educated guesses about what factors have contributed to it:


  1. H. P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature", 1934
  2. Jeff Ferrell, "'Panic Buying' blamed for hand sanitizer shortage", KSLA News, 3/4/2020
  3. Boone Ashworth, "How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer", Wired, 3/12/2020
  4. "Good luck finding hand sanitizer; CDC says soap is still king", Associated Press, 3/3/2020
  5. Julia Belluz, "80,000 Americans died of the flu last winter. Get your flu shot.", Vox, 12/20/2018
  6. Pien Huang, "How The Novel Coronavirus And The Flu Are Alike…And Different", National Public Radio, 3/20/2020
  7. "Cases in U.S.", Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed: 3/28/2020
  8. Amy McKeever, "Coronavirus is officially a pandemic. Here's why that matters.", National Geographic, 3/11/2020
  9. "What is a pandemic?", World Health Organization, 2/24/2010
  10. Gary D. Friedman, Primer of Epidemiology (2nd edition, 1980), p. 11
  11. "WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19―3 March 2020", World Health Organization, 3/3/2020
  12. For instance: Jamie Ducharme & Elijah Wolfson, "The WHO Estimated COVID-19 Mortality at 3.4%. That Doesn't Tell the Whole Story", Time, 3/9/2020

March 23rd, 2020 (Permalink)

Book Review: Cold Warriors

Title: Cold Warriors

Subtitle: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War

Authors: Duncan White

Date: 2019

Quote: Orwell took [Animal Farm] to [publisher] Jonathan Cape. … The signs were auspicious as…the chief reader of fiction…recommended publication. In May [1944], Orwell met with Cape, who agreed to publish. … On June 19, though, Cape wrote to [Leonard] Moore [Orwell's agent] to tell him he was not going to publish after all. …[T]he real reason for the rejection was…sinister. During negotiations, Cape told Moore that he wanted, "as a matter of policy" to consult a "senior official" at the Ministry of Information. What is remarkable is that this official then followed up with a letter in which he told Cape that publishing Animal Farm would damage relations with the Soviet Union and therefore undermine the war effort. The pressure applied by the official caused Cape to crack. … What Orwell did not know at the time, but came to later suspect, was that there was more going on than weak-willed capitulation to political censorship. The Ministry official who warned Cape against publication was Orwell's old acquaintance…Peter Smollett―or, to give his real name, Hans Peter Smolka. … It is disputed when Smolka first began working for Soviet intelligence. …Smolka…was given the code name "Abo"… Agent Abo's intervention did not kill Animal Farm but delayed its publication, and subsequent impact, by as much as a year.1

Review: Cold Warriors is a book about how a large number of writers, and their books, were used for propaganda during the Cold War. Sixteen writers are listed in the chapter titles, and many others are mentioned in passing. Here's how White says he chose them:

One of the biggest challenges of this book was deciding which writers to focus on. Some selections seemed obvious for the indisputable influence they exercised over the Cold War: George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example. Another criterion for selection was writers who had lived through various stages of the Cold War and therefore could provide a throughline to the book: Graham Greene, Mary McCarthy, and Stephen Spender fit this profile. Others have less space dedicated to them but have compelling, essential stories to tell: Ernest Hemingway and the end of the Second World War; Anna Akhmatova under late Stalinism; Howard Fast during the Red Scare; Richard Wright at the Bandung Conference; John le Carré at the Berlin Wall; Vaclav Havel leading the Velvet Revolution.2

White can write about whomever he wants to, but some of his inclusions as well as omissions puzzle me. For instance, Fast, a once bestselling author of potboiler novels made into movies, is probably little read today. White writes of Fast:

Fast's ability to build tension marked him out as an excellent storyteller, and in Spartacus he deployed an ambitious flashback structure, but the novel slipped too easily into overripe prose and melodrama to be considered a work of serious literary merit. It was Fast's gift as an author to be able to write in a way that carried a broad appeal even if that appeal did not last more than one reading.3

Though I've never read Fast, I found his story in Cold Warriors interesting, but it seemed that it could've been better told in a biography, and perhaps it has been. For an example of a writer who is not included, but arguably should be, consider William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a spy novelist with a personal background in espionage, like Greene and Le Carré. Buckley had much more influence on American foreign policy, especially during the Reagan administration, than either Greene or Le Carré seem to have had on British policy. Reagan's policies probably contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, and thus to the end of the Cold War. So, Buckley may have had more influence on the course of the Cold War than any writer discussed in this book, with the exceptions of Orwell, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn.

I suppose that Buckley could be rejected on literary grounds, but so could Fast. Alternatively, it may be that Buckley's political influence was largely due to his magazine editorship, newspaper columns, and television show, rather than his spy novels. Or, perhaps, White just doesn't like him, but likes Fast. Fair enough, but then we readers should be told that the writers are included for subjective reasons, rather than based on historical influence or literary merit.

As far as I can tell, all the writers selected for inclusion were or are left-wing anti-communists, with the possible exception of Solzhenitsyn. This may explain Buckley's exclusion, as well as that of the most famous spy novelist of all, Ian Fleming. I don't know whether Fleming is read much nowadays, but his character, James Bond, is alive and kicking in the movies. When was the last time a movie was made based on a Mary McCarthy or Howard Fast novel?

This is a very long book, and I could have done with less of some of the minor literary figures such as Fast. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet whom I'd never heard of before and don't care if I never hear of again. The chapter could easily have been left out without affecting the book's "throughline"; I suggest skipping over it if you've never heard of her.

The book is a series of short biographies of writers, focusing on their political lives, embedded in a literary history of the Cold War. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, if you aren't familiar with and interested in the writers, you probably won't find their stories very interesting. The chapters on Orwell, Koestler, Isaac Babel, Akhmatova, and Solzhenitsyn, are exceptional. I've never read Babel or Akhmatova, and I'm not sure that I want to, but their life stories are fascinating.

At its best, the book reads more like an elaborate spy novel, such as those by John le Carré4, than a scholarly history. At its worst, White gets bogged down in uninteresting and confusing historical details5. He often doesn't seem to know the difference between the telling detail and the useless detail.

Unfortunately, I don't think I learned much about literary propaganda from this book, except for the interesting fact that the United States used balloons to drop copies of Animal Farm behind the Iron Curtain6. What I'd really like to know, though, is did this sort of thing do any good? Of course, the Soviet Union prohibited the publication of the book, otherwise smuggling in copies would make no sense, but was the book really a danger to the Soviet state, or was its prohibition simply the result of an irrational paranoia? One won't learn the answer to such questions from this book, but perhaps no one knows. White quotes the little-known―at least, in America―Russian writer Yulii Daniel, who was put on trial for anti-Soviet writing:

Daniel himself questioned the whole premise that literature could be used as a weapon in the Cold War. "As regards the harm done to our state," he said, "I do not think a couple of books by us, or even a score of books, could inflict any considerable damage on it."7

Now, Daniel was trying to defend himself and his writing during a show trial, but I think he made a good point. Despite quoting this, White doesn't seem interested in the issue himself. Clearly, both sides in the Cold War acted as though novels and poems could be dangerous things, but were they really? I'd like to believe that Orwell's novels contributed to bringing down the Soviet Union, but I suspect that the main reasons for its decline and fall were economic. White's book, despite its great length, supplies little evidence to think otherwise.

The Cold War was a long and, as evidenced by this book, exceedingly complicated series of events, which leads to a sprawling and sometimes hard to follow work. White does not do a very good job of explaining the complex political background that's necessary for understanding the events related, but then he had his work cut out for him. I lived through the latter half of the Cold War, and I've read a good bit about it since, yet there were times when I was lost trying to follow what was happening in the book. Too much is included and too much is left out.

I found parts of Cold Warriors engrossing, but it could've been more interesting as a whole if it had been shorter, with its cast of characters trimmed down to a more manageable size. Even without cutting out some of the lesser writers, the book would've been significantly shorter and an easier read if White didn't so often get bogged down in petty details. There's a good 500-page book inside these 700 pages.

The book is well-proofread, and I noticed only a few typographical and grammatical errors. However, it could have used a ruthless editing to cut it down to size and shape it into a clearer story. No doubt history is complicated and confusing, but that's no excuse for history books being so.

Recommendation: If you're locked inside your house due to the current mass hysteria outside it and you need something long to read, you could do worse than this book―or you might finally get around to War and Peace. Recommended for those who have read or are interested in one or more of the writers covered, and such readers might skip over chapters dealing with ones that they're less interested in, but what's your hurry? Who knows when you can go out again? Those not already familiar with the history of the Cold War should start elsewhere.


  1. Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019), pp. 212-214. All subsequent page citations are to this book.
  2. P. 12.
  3. P. 324.
  4. Unfortunately, Le Carré's life is much less interesting than his novels.
  5. Here's an egregious paragraph from p. 127:
    …"Etienne" introduced Agelhoff to a playboy by the name of Jacques Mornard, who claimed to have deserted from the Belgian army. Mornard seduced Agelhoff, buying her expensive gifts and taking her to sophisticated restaurants. Mornard was not really Mornard, though―he was Ramon Mercader, a highly trained NKVD agent. Mercader had been recruited at some point in 1936 by Leonid Eitingon, who ran the Barcelona NKVD station during the Spanish Civil War. Eitingon was the lover of Caridad Mercader, a radical Spanish leftist and Ramon's mother, and he arranged for her son, who then commanded a Republican army unit, to receive instruction in guerrilla warfare. Ramon was a keen student and helped train foreigners recruited by the NKVD―including, it is speculated, David Crook, the Englishman who spied on Orwell. In the summer of 1937, Ramon traveled to Moscow, where he received further training.

    Got that? There will be a test later. If you think that this passage is taken out of context, you're right, but it's not much better in context, which is why I marked it as a horrible example.

  6. Pp. 1-3.
  7. P. 514.

Debate Watch
March 17th, 2020 (Permalink)

And Then There Were Suddenly Only Two

Sunday night there was another so-called debate between candidates for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. The previous one had seven contenders1, but only two are left standing: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders2. Agatha Christie would not have plotted it this way. I have a few procedural comments about the event before getting into a substantive issue:

Now, on to the substantive point. During the forum, Bernie Sanders addressed Joe Biden, asserting: "You have been on the floor of the Senate time and time again talking about the need to cut Social Security, Medicare and veterans programs." Biden then denied it5. This exchange provides an example of a common political fallacy.

At least with respect to Social Security (SS), Sanders here is using the word "cut" in the political doublespeak sense of a smaller than requested, scheduled, or expected increase6. What Biden was talking about was lowering the automatic cost-of-living increases of SS. In other words, these would not have been "cuts" in the usual sense of the word, but lower increases. For this reason, Biden was right to deny that he had called for cuts to SS.

This may well have been the last forum for Democratic candidates for the party's nomination in this election cycle, since the Sanders boom seems to have fizzled out. If so, the next one will be between the two party nominees―presumably, Biden and Trump―and will be run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, instead of the DNC. Hopefully, the commission will do a better job than the DNC has done.


  1. Debate Watch: And Then There Were Still Seven, 2/26/2020
  2. Mark Z. Barabak & Melanie Mason, "6 takeaways from the Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders Democratic debate", Los Angeles Times, 3/15/2020
  3. "Tulsi Gabbard rips Dems, DNC for ignoring fact she is still in 2020 presidential race", USA Features, 3/10/2020
  4. Logic Checking the Last Debate, 10/20/2016
  5. "Democratic debate fact check: Examining claims from Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders", Associated Press, 3/15/2020
  6. For a couple of previous examples, see: More is Less, 10/21/2004

Recommended Reading
March 10th, 2020 (Permalink)

The Panic Virus

I usually wait until the end of the month to post these reading lists, but given the current state of borderline mass hysteria on the subject of the new virus spreading around the world, I'm putting up this one earlier than usual. So, if you've barricaded yourself in your house until the news media say it's safe to come out, you might as well read something to pass the time. All of the following readings are from experts of one sort or another.

March 7th, 2020 (Permalink)

Beyond Innumeracy

Former NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams has a show on the MSNBC cable "news" network―who knew? Williams was driven from his anchor chair five years ago1 because of a long history of self-aggrandizing falsehoods2. Apparently, MSNBC is NBC's version of Siberia, where disgraced NBC personnel are sent to die.

Judging from a segment of yesterday's episode, it would seem that Williams' mathematical abilities are as bad as his memory. This has already received a lot of publicity3, so you may have heard about it. In case you haven't, you can watch it here:

In their defense, they were only off by a factor of a million! But this was really beyond ordinary innumeracy; it's innumeracy times a million. I suspect that this was the result of what Douglas Hofstadter calls "number numbness"4, which is the paralyzing effect that large numbers have on some people's brains. Throw in the word "million" and they can no longer divide. How else can you explain the fact that it never struck them that giving a million dollars to each American citizen would equal more than 500 million dollars? A lot more.

It's remarkable that no one caught this mistake before MSNBC aired it. It's not just Williams who was at fault here. There was the original Nitwitter, whose innumerate blurt was shown on screen. Then, there's Mara Gay, the oblivious young woman that Williams is interviewing, who's apparently on the editorial board of The New York Times, which could explain a lot. Also, there must be some writers, editors, and producers behind-the-scenes who should have stopped Williams before he became a public laughingstock. Perhaps all of the above people attended the Costello School of Math, see:

Keep this incident in mind if you're ever tempted to watch MSNBC. You can learn much more from Abbott and Costello movies, though they're not as funny.


  1. "NBC removes Brian Williams from 'Nightly News'", Chicago Tribune, 6/18/2015
  2. Paul Farhi, "NBC News finds Brian Williams embellished at least 11 times: report", Chicago Tribune, 4/25/2015
  3. For instance: Reed Richardson, "Watch MSNBC's Brian Williams and NYT Editorial Board Member Both Fail Basic Math on Bloomberg Ad Spending", Mediaite, 3/6/2020
  4. Douglas R. Hofstadter, "On Number Numbness", Metamagical Themas (1985), pp. 115-135

March 1st, 2020 (Permalink)

Quirks Vs. Anti-Quirks

You've heard of quarks, of course, but you may not have heard of quirks. Quirks are a type of subatomic particle recently discovered by physicists, together with their anti-particles, anti-quirks. Quirks got their name because they're quirky: they're strangely unreactive particles. In contrast, anti-quirks are highly reactive.

Quirks and anti-quirks always collide in pairs. Also, if you put a bunch of quirks or anti-quirks together, they will eventually collide. Whenever two quirks collide, they just bounce off each other and go about their business. When two anti-quirks collide, they annihiliate each other. However, when a quirk and an anti-quirk collide, the quirk is destroyed, but the anti-quirk continues on its merry way.

Quirks, it turns out, are easily made, but it takes massive amounts of energy to create anti-quirks. So far, only 23 anti-quirks have been created, and are kept in 23 magnetic bottles on a shelf in the basement of the Extremely Large Quirk Collider (ELQC). No quirks or anti-quirks can escape from the ELQC; they just bounce around in there colliding with one another.

What would eventually happen if all 23 anti-quirks were released together into the collider with an unknown number of quirks?

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Recommended Reading
February 29th, 2020 (Permalink)

Long Reads & Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

Weird Science Fantasy
February 28th, 2020 (Permalink)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

"Arkaeology1" is a silly name given to a silly pastime, namely, the search for the remains of Noah's legendary ark. It's a fitting name, too, since most professional archaeologists don't waste their time hunting the ark, so that almost all of the searchers are non-archaeologists. In other words, arkaeology is pseudo-archaeology.

Most of the past ark-hunting that I'm aware of has focused on Mount Ararat in Turkey as the alleged resting place of Noah's boat. The story of Noah in Genesis, however, says that the ark came to rest on the mountains―plural―of Ararat2. Rather than a specific mountain, Ararat was a mountainous region that includes the current mountain of that name3. So, we don't know from Genesis exactly what mountain the ark was supposed to have come to rest on; just the general area. Why, exactly, that particular peak came to be called "Ararat", and the ark legend fastened to it, I don't know.

Arkaeology is rather like ufology4 in that much of its focus is upon eyewitness reports, though instead of unidentified flying objects in the sky, the witnesses claim to have seen the ark on Ararat. Just as there are blurry photographs of flying saucers, there are occasional out-of-focus photographs that are supposed to be the ark5. Also, as with the case of UFOs, there is seldom any hard evidence of the ark found, such as pieces of wood6, let alone the big boat itself. Nonetheless, based on the eyewitness reports, numerous expeditions have set out to try to find the ark and have returned empty-handed, often blaming their failure on the weather or the political situation in Turkey.

With that background, we can turn to the latest supposed discovery of the ark:

The location of the real Noah's Ark may have been confirmed by relic-hunters in a remote mountain range. Experts claim they've snapped underground images of a mysterious ship-shaped object discovered half a century ago in eastern Turkey. … Now a film crew led by long-time ark hunter Cem Sertesen say they've image [sic] whatever's down there…. The team claim they'll reveal the pictures, obtained by "sending electric signals underground via cables", in a forthcoming documentary about the Ark. "These are the actual images of Noah's Ark," said Sertesen, who previously released a documentary about finding the ark in 2017. "They are neither fake nor simulation. They show the entire ship buried underground." … A popular focus of many searches is…a 150-meter-long formation among the mountains. Some creationists claim the bizarre object is the remains of Noah's ship buried deep underground, while scientists argue it is a natural formation. Now 3D scans of the object may prove once and for all whether…[it's the ark]. They were created by computer engineer and archaeologist Andrew Jones, as well as geophysicist John Larsen, in a bid to study the strange object. Jones and Larsen shared their discoveries with Sertesen, director of the 2017 documentary "Noah's Ark". Sertesen admitted that the images aren't necessarily of Noah's Ark, and could be of another ship entirely. "It's a ship, but it's too early to be called Noah's Ark," he said. That seems unlike[ly] considering the spot is over 50 miles from the nearest body of water. The ship-shaped site was discovered in 1959…. It's not clear when Sertesen's documentary will air.7

Sertesen contradicts himself here, first quoted as saying "these are the actual images of Noah's Ark", then that "it's a ship, but it's too early to be called Noah's Ark", yet he just called it that! Moreover, the headline of the quoted article, "BIBLICAL FIND Real Noah's Ark 'buried in Turkish mountains' and experts say 3D scans will prove Biblical ship's existence", is misleading if "it's too early to be called Noah's Ark", according to the man promoting it.

Why would the ark be "buried deep underground"? If the flood is supposed to have buried it, then the ark would've had to sink before the flood water subsided so that the water could cover it in silt. That the ark sank would, I think, be heresy to biblical literalists, who are the only people who take the story seriously.

If you look at photographs of the site you can see that only one end is, in fact, "ship-shaped". Photographs of the site that I've seen on articles promoting it as the ark have all been taken from that ship-like end. If it's actually a ship, the other end appears crooked and broken, which would at least fit in with the theory that the ship sank during the flood and was buried in silt.

One thing the article doesn't make clear is that the site is not on Mount Ararat, but ten to twenty miles to the south8. As I mentioned, most of the supposed eyewitness sightings of the ark place it on the mountain itself, often half-buried in a glacier rather than in the ground. If those sightings are correct then this isn't the ark, and vice versa.

A little over a year ago, another report was published:

Researchers from the Bible Archaeology, Search & Exploration Institute claim there is strong evidence that the ship is on the mountain of Takht-e-Suleiman. … "Is it the remains of Noah's Ark? The BASE Institute does not make the claim that we have found Noah's Ark. We'll let you draw your own conclusions. In our opinion, it's a candidate. The research continues."9

This report is about the same group I wrote about over thirteen years ago10, and as far as I can tell there's nothing new in it. Apparently, no progress has been made in over a dozen years, so why was a new article published? The site in question is, again, not on Mount Ararat and, in fact, not even in the Ararat region, but about 500 miles to the east. Both articles appeared in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun almost exactly a year apart, yet there's no mention of the earlier story in the more recent one, or that the ark was supposedly found in a different country.

Both of these alleged finds cannot be the ark unless it broke in two, contra the Biblical story. Moreover, if either of the current groups of ark-hunters are correct, then all of those eyewitnesses who placed the ark on Mount Ararat must have been mistaken, the fuzzy photos must have been of something else, and the past expeditions climbing the mountain in search of the ark were looking in the wrong place.


  1. Some spell it "Arkeology"; see, for instance: William F. Williams, General Editor, The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy (2000). I prefer the longer spelling as a silly word should have a silly spelling.
  2. 8:4.
  3. Carl S. Ehrlich, "Ararat", in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan (1993).
  4. The usually unscientific study of unidentified flying objects; see The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, note 1, above, for full citation.
  5. For one example, see: Some Experts, 3/15/2006.
  6. The most ballyhooed case of alleged ark wood turned out to be a hoax, see: Leon Jaroff, "Phony Arkaeology", Time, 6/24/2001.
  7. Harry Pettit, "BIBLICAL FIND Real Noah's Ark 'buried in Turkish mountains' and experts say 3D scans will prove Biblical ship's existence", The Sun, 11/20/2019.
  8. David Mikkelson, "Noah's Ark Discovery", Snopes, 9/6/2015. You can see a photograph here of the "ship-shaped" formation.
  9. Alahna Kindred, "Explorers are convinced they've found Noah's Ark on top of a mountain in Iraq", The Sun, 11/18/2018. Note the headline: the ark is alleged to be on a mountain in Iran, not Iraq.
  10. Arkaeologists, 7/3/2006.

February 26th, 2020 (Permalink)

Debate Watch: And Then There Were Still Seven

My nursery rhyme theme for these Democratic "debate" entries is not working out well, since the party seems incapable of winnowing out the also-rans from the viable candidates. Just about the time a candidate drops out of the race, another one will jump in to take the empty place. I skipped a couple of them, yet we're still stuck at seven on the stage. I've read comments from pundits who watched last night's event complaining about the failure of the moderators to keep order, which in my opinion is their main job. Here, for instance, is Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post:

…[W]hile the two-hour debate in Charleston, South Carolina, had its enlightening moments, a viewer couldn't help but feel that the whole thing had careened, more than slightly, out of control. The worst of it was the yelling and crosstalk by the seven candidates, some of whom were making a desperate last stand in their campaigns. That dynamic often made it impossible to know what was being said.1

I haven't even begun to read the transcript2 of this so-called debate, and I'm not sure I will bother to do so. A transcript filled with speakers interrupting and talking over each other is not a rewarding read. Here are Sullivan's suggested reforms:

There must be a better way. I can think of two possible reforms, neither of which I like very much. The first is simple enough: Moderators should have the ability to shut off the microphones of candidates whenever they refuse to respect the time limits. Granted, this would be an extreme measure, one that could come off as disrespectful and jarring. But it might be preferable to the shoutfest. The second is to have consequences―sanctions, if you will―for repeated offenses, and to clearly explain them in advance and enforce them during the debate. For example, a candidate might lose time to talk later by failing to abide by the rules. I don't like this either. It feels far too much like disciplining unruly toddlers by sending them to the timeout corner.1

I agree with Sullivan's two reforms, but only as last resorts. I think most of the problem can be fixed by the two simple reforms I have been advocating this election season: fewer candidates on stage and fewer, better moderators. The moderator should be selected for his or her ability to moderate, and not just because he or she happens to work for the network airing the forum. Most of the current crop of moderators have probably had no previous experience in moderating, so it's not so surprising that they do a bad job. Moreover, the more candidates on stage, the harder it will be to control them. The Democratic National Committee (DNC), the sponsor of these debates, should find one or more good moderators and stick with them, rather than throwing new, untried gladiators into the arena with the lions.

However, if the DNC for some reason cannot bring itself to raise the entry barrier to eliminate some of the lesser candidates, or to insist upon experienced moderators, then the candidates should be threatened with the kind of punishment Sullivan suggests. The prospect of public embarrassment ought to keep them in line.

I'll give Sullivan the last word because I agree with it:

…[N]early all the debates have been marred by a setup that encourages petty infighting, superficiality, and "gotcha" moments yet fails to provide voters with what they need: A true sense of the candidates and their positions―not from the safety of a TV ad or the softer focus of a "town hall," but in real time and under pressure. Understand, I don't want these debates to be abandoned. I just want them to be better. … Tuesday night's painful free-for-all should be the last of its kind.1


  1. Margaret Sullivan, "The moderators let the Democratic debate spiral into chaos and crosstalk. There must be a better way.", The Washington Post, 2/26/2020.
  2. "Read the full transcript of the South Carolina Democratic debate", CBS News, 2/25/2020.

February 24th, 2020 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 13: Think for yourself!

The motto of enlightenment is…: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!1

To end this series of rules, I want to return to something I quoted at the end of the first one: "Sapere aude!", which I translate as: "Dare to think for yourself!" I quote this again at the end because, if you do your best to follow the previous rules you will have earned the right to think for yourself, that is, to make up your own mind about what you have thought about.

If you have appealed to reason2 and were ready to change your mind based on it3, focused on claims and arguments rather than those you argue with4, made your claims as definite as possible5 and as precise as necessary6, defended your position when challenged7, did your best to be objective8 by considering all the evidence9, pursued agreement about the focus of your disagreement10, attacked and defended claims instead of people11, used relevant arguments12, and proportioned your beliefs to the resulting evidence13, then you have every right to your opinion. Have the courage of your well-earned convictions!

The phrase "Sapere aude!" comes from philosopher Immanuel Kant's essay "What is enlightenment?" There, Kant explains:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. … Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men…gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. … The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous. … Thus it is difficult for each separate individual to work his way out of the immaturity which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown fond of it and is really incapable for the time being of using his own understanding, because he was never allowed to make the attempt.…1

Now, I'm not suggesting―and I don't think Kant was, either―that you should go to the "university of Google" or spend a few minutes reading an article on Wikipedia, and then dare to think for yourself about quantum mechanics, or even bicycle repair. No, I'm talking about doing your due diligence, which includes the twelve steps that I have outlined throughout this series. But it also means learning whatever background information or skills you need to have an informed opinion on a subject. When you're ignorant, admit it, most of all to yourself. As I mentioned at the end of the previous lesson, don't be afraid of these three one-syllable words: I don't know!

Of course, as a human being you have the moral and, hopefully, legal right to think for yourself. But not only do you have such a right, you have a duty to do so if you are a citizen of a free republic who has a say in how the government is run14. As Kant went on to write:

For [public] enlightenment…, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all―freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don't argue! The officer says: Don't argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don't argue, pay! The clergyman: Don't argue, believe! … All this means restrictions on freedom everywhere. … The public use of man's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men….1

Why do I need a rule encouraging you to think for yourself? Who is going to think for you if you refuse to do so for yourself? The answer is, obviously, someone else, namely, those people that Kant refers to as "the guardians". They will gladly think for you, but who will think for them? In the end, some will have to think for themselves, so why not you?

There are two reasons why people fail to think for themselves:

  1. The Desire to Conform: Human beings are social animals, and the desire to fit in to your tribe can be strong. You may be tempted to follow the leader, or follow the herd, letting others think for you instead of doing it yourself. It can be easier to drink the Kool-Aid, even if you know that it will kill you, than to refuse it when everyone else is drinking it15.
  2. The Danger of Non-conformity: There will be those who will attempt to trick you or intimidate you into thinking as they do, who will use lies and propaganda, or threats and even force to do so. If you don't drink the Kool-Aid voluntarily, they may try to make you drink the hemlock, instead.

It's because of your strong desire to be accepted socially, together with the danger you may face for not conforming, that it may well take courage to think for yourself. Hence, Kant's aude, the Latin word for "dare", from which we get our English words "audacity" and "audacious". So, have the audacity to think for yourself!

Of course, I'm not asking you to think for yourself just on my say-so, or even on Kant's say-so―that would be paradoxical! I'm just asking you to think about it.


  1. Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?'", 9/30/1784. For the Latin phrase "sapere aude", see: Eugene Ehrlich, Veni, Vidi, Vici: Conquer Your Enemies, Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin (1995).
  2. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
  3. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
  4. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
  5. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
  6. Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
  7. Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
  8. Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
  9. Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
  10. Rule of Argumentation 9: Agree about what you disagree about!, 10/20/2019.
  11. Rule of Argumentation 10: Attack or defend claims!, 11/12/2019.
  12. Rule of Argumentation 11: Make your arguments relevant to claims!, 12/?/2019.
  13. Rule of Argumentation 12: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence!, 1/21/2020.
  14. If you are not then your human rights are being violated.
  15. See: Chris Higgins, "The 35th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre", Mental Floss, 11/8/2012.

February 18th, 2020 (Permalink)

The Euphemism Treadmill

People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on. … The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people's minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long.1

Here's another attempt to use word magic to make a problem disappear:

The term "at-risk youth" was commonly used in both penal and education codes in California―until now. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1 that officially wiped the phrase from the state's language. The phrase will now be replaced by "at-promise youth."2

Ten years ago there was an attempt in Washington state to replace the phrase "at risk" with the meaningless one "at hope"3. "At promise", like "at hope", is barely meaningful, simply replacing a "negative" noun―"risk"―with a "positive" one, without bothering to change the preposition. If you want to refer to a youth who shows promise, you can call him or her a "promising youth", which is already well-established English usage. To say that we regard a youth with hope is more difficult, since to call him or her "hopeful" would be ambiguous: is it we or the youth who hopes?

Here's the supposed rationale for the change:

Assemblymember Byron Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles), who penned the passed legislation, says the measure will change the negative connotation that comes along with the "at-risk" label. "I learned that words matter―and once they were called 'at-risk,' they almost were in the school-to-prison pipeline automatically," Jones-Sawyer said. Jones-Sawyer says the negative narrative has the greatest effect on young people who are a part of minority populations.2

Jones-Sawyer may be getting the effect cart before the causal horse: isn't it more plausible that the reason these young people were called "at risk" is because they were already "in the school-to-prison pipeline"? Wasn't the purpose of the label to make it possible to identify such children so that steps could be taken to help them? Of course, it's easier to just change the words to hide the problem than to actually do anything substantive to help "minority populations".

The article supplies the following anecdote:

Battling expectations is something Alejandro Galicia Cervantes is all too familiar with. … Cervantes says he's proud of his family, but he knew he wanted a different life to break the cycle―though he says quickly it became clear the road would be difficult. "I joined different programs and that's where the label started to be used," Cervantes said. He was in high school the first time he was referred to as "at-risk." "It just felt like, damn, I'm like really at-risk? That's the path I'm heading towards? It felt like there was no empowerment in it." So Cervantes took the power into his own hands, joining youth programs like "Improv [sic] Your Tomorrow" that helped him get to college. But he knows he's one of the lucky ones.2

It sounds as though Cervantes was actually motivated by being deemed "at risk" to take "the power into his own hands". Why does he think he was "one of the lucky ones"; didn't he make his own luck? If he had been told that he was "at hope" or "at promise", would he have taken the hard road he took or the easy one? I suppose that Cervantes might have felt better if the state of California had reassured him that he was the hope and promise of the future, but would he have joined the youth programs and gone to college? It seems that the label "at risk" worked exactly the way it should in Cervantes' case, so why is it presented in the article as an argument for the language change?

If this change doesn't die a quiet death as the "at hope" one did4, then a decade or two from now California will have to replace "at promise" with a new euphemism. Legislators such as Jones-Sawyer will keep treading on that euphemism treadmill and getting nowhere, but whoever said that they were supposed to get anywhere? Why do anything about real problems when you can just change the words you use for them?


  1. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), pp. 212-213.
  2. Laura Haefeli, "Term 'At-Risk Youth' Replaced With 'At-Promise Youth' In California Penal Codes", CBS Sacramento, 2/13/2020. For some reason, the article includes the following piece of trivia: "In California, there are 650 young people in operated juvenile centers―with 87 percent being black or Latino, according to the Division of Juvenile Justice [DJJ]." 650 sounds like an extremely low number for the entire state, but the DJJ only incarcerates the worst youth offenders. According to its website:
    The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) provides education and treatment to California’s youthful offenders up to the age of 25 who have the most serious criminal backgrounds and most intense treatment needs. Most juvenile offenders today are committed to county facilities in their home communities where they can be closer to their families and local social services that are vital to rehabilitation. As a result, DJJ's population represents less than one percent of the 225,000 youths arrested in California each year. This population has committed serious and/or violent felonies and requires intensive treatment services conducted in a structured and secure environment.

    How this relates to the rest of the article is a mystery to me; see: "Division of Juvenile Justice", California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, accessed: 2/17/2020.

  3. See: Doublespeak Dictionary, 1/14/2010.
  4. "'At hope' bill dies in Washington state committee", The Columbian, 2/6/2010.

Cold Warriors
February 13th, 2019 (Permalink)

Cold Warriors

Title: Cold Warriors

Subtitle: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War

Author: Duncan White

Date: 2019

Quote: Cold Warriors is the story of the writers who dealt with the consequences of having literature become a Cold War battleground. In the United States, depending on your politics, you could find your voice silenced, or it could be amplified in publications all around the world. In the Soviet Union, if your work was considered ideologically orthodox, you could find yourself a national hero, published by the millions, with a dacha in the countryside and a cushy lifestyle. However, if you deviated, or dissented, you could find your books disappearing from libraries, your name excised from encyclopedias, and end up yourself in the labor camps or executed by the secret police in the basement of the Lubyanka prison.1

Comment: Like last month's New Book, Duncan White's Cold Warriors may not be the sort of thing you'd expect to see here. This is a history of a particular aspect of the Cold War, which ran roughly from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its focus is not just the narrow one of propaganda, but the even narrower one of the role of novelists, poets, and their literary works in the propaganda war. Because the Cold War was "cold"―that is, it wasn't a "hot" shooting war, though there was some shooting involved―it was conducted at a more intellectual level than most wars, and propaganda played a big part.

I'm interested in political propaganda, and also a big admirer of the English writer George Orwell, who appears to play a substantial role in the book. The book is divided into eight parts, the first of which deals the Orwell's experiences in the Spanish civil war in 1937, along with those of his fellow writers Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender. In addition to Orwell, Koestler, and Spender, the book also has chapters on Graham Greene, Václav Havel, Ernest Hemingway, John le Carré, Mary McCarthy, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

As you can see, despite its title, the book does not limit itself strictly to the Cold War period, but begins in the 1930s with the civil war in Spain and the Moscow show trials in Part 2. Part 3 covers World War II, and it's only in Parts 4 through 8 that the Cold War proper is discussed.

The author, Duncan White, is an academic and journalist who has written one previous book, which was about Vladimir Nabokov. While the writing that I've read so far is not quite John le Carré, let alone Ian Fleming2, it reads more like an elaborate spy novel than an academic history book. In fact, a few of the writers discussed were themselves spies at one time or another, including Koestler, Greene, and Le Carré. Here's a short excerpt dealing with Koestler's imprisonment by Franco's Falangists during the Spanish civil war to give you a taste of the lively style:

Koestler spent four traumatic days in Malaga prison. Every moment he feared he was to be executed, but if his captors discovered that he was a Comintern agent, he would be tortured first. He tried to distract himself by scratching mathematical formulae on the wall and making plans to learn a new language, but the sound of screams followed by shots followed by silence swiftly eroded his resolve. He stopped eating and drinking, crumbling bread down the toilet and pouring away his coffee, hoping that he would thereby faint more quickly if tortured. He soon came up with a more radical plan: suicide. He planned to hang himself with his tie, but the only hook in the room was too low to the ground. He discovered a shard of glass in the window and resolved to slit his wrists instead. No longer worried about torture, he ate corned beef and bread and sought comfort in a straw mattress that had been brought to his cell. That night, the guards threw another man into his prison. Koestler knew something was gravely wrong with his new blood-drenched cellmate but could not put his finger on it. He eventually realized that his jaw was dislocated from its socket. He could not speak or eat. Shortly before he was taken out and shot, the man gave Koestler his last two cigarette stumps. Faced with the man's suffering and overcome by a wave of apathy, Koestler abandoned his plan to kill himself.3

I must warn anyone thinking about reading this book that it is very long: almost seven-hundred pages of text. However, I've enjoyed the small portion I've read so far, and look forward to the remainder. I haven't noticed any historical errors, and the sample is well edited4―something that can't always be counted on these days.


  1. Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019), pp. 10-11. All subsequent page citations are to this book.
  2. Though Nikolai Yeshov, nicknamed "the bloodthirsty dwarf", could easily be a villain from a James Bond novel; see, esp.: pp. 107, 111 & 133-137.
  3. Pp. 66-67. Perhaps ironically, Koestler died by his own hand many years later; see: "Arthur Koestler", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 2/13/2020.
  4. I've noticed only one typographical error―p. 68, the word "a" is missing―and a single grammatical one―p. 3, the last full sentence on the page.

Debate Watch
February 4th, 2020 (Permalink)

And Then There Were Seven, Again

A couple of debate-related news items:

  1. Believe it or not, there are three forums for Democratic candidates scheduled for this month, including one this coming Friday, which takes place in New Hampshire a few days before the state primary. Also, believe it or not, this one will include seven candidates, up from six in the last forum, together with three moderators1.

    This, of course, is going in the wrong direction. All seven of the currently scheduled candidates have been in previous so-called debates, so what are they going to say in this one that they haven't said before? For this reason, I may skip it, unless something unusually interesting happens.

  2. All of these so-called debates of Democratic candidates have so far been run by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which sets the rules of entry. Now, it's changing the entry rules to eliminate the fund-raising requirement, which required candidates to have raised a certain amount of money from individual donors in several states in order to participate in the forums2.

    This may make it possible for Michael Bloomberg who, like Trump, is a billionaire funding his own campaign for president, to participate in the forums. Apparently, Bloomberg has vowed not to accept any donations, so he couldn't do what many of the other candidates did, namely, spend a lot of money on fund-raisers to generate sufficient contributions in enough states to qualify3. However, the new rules don't go into force until the second of this month's events, so Bloomberg won't appear this Friday.

    Thankfully, dropping the fund-raising requirement is not the only change the DNC is making to the rules. In addition, the polling threshold will be raised to 10% in at least four polls, which should eliminate some of the lesser candidates. In fact, it may even keep Bloomberg out, who has so far failed to meet the new requirement. Currently, only Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have qualified under the new rules.

    I, for one, would be pleased to see a three candidate forum, which might even occasionally resemble a real debate. Not only that, but I assume that even the DNC and the news media would be embarrassed to have more moderators on stage than candidates, which should get the number of moderators down to three or less. So, while I will probably skip this Friday's event, I may pay attention to the one after that.


  1. Nate Ashworth, "Andrew Yang Makes New Hampshire Primary Debate Bringing Stage to Seven", Election Central, 1/27/2020.
  2. Zach Montellaro, Sally Goldenberg & Christopher Cadelago, "DNC overhauls debate requirements, opening door for Bloomberg", Politico, 1/31/2020.
  3. See the update to the following entry for a discussion of this requirement: Wake up, Marianne!, 8/16/2019.

February 2nd, 2020 (Permalink)

Who Killed Whom?

Three people, known only by their initials A, B, and C, met one day at a remote cabin. Each arrived at a different time, and only two left the cabin alive. It was not suicide; the one who was left behind was murdered by one of the other two visitors.

There were only four clues:

  1. The victim was not the last person to arrive at the cabin.
  2. Whichever of A and C arrived at the cabin later was not the killer.
  3. The murderer was not the first person to arrive at the cabin.
  4. Whichever of B and C arrived at the cabin earliest was not the victim.

Who was the victim and who the murderer?

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