# WEBLOG

### The Return of Three-Card Monty

"'Three-card Monty*' is the name; three-card monte is the game!" he shouted to the passing crowd on the boardwalk. Monty caught the eyes of a young couple: Jack, and his date, Jillian. The couple approached the large cardboard box that Monty used as a table. Monty took out a deck of cards, spreading it out face up on the box, and assured them that it was a standard deck of playing cards. Then, gracefully gathering the cards together, he riffled through the deck with the faces towards him, and pulled out three cards. He dealt the three cards face down in a row on top of the box.

"Listen close, whatever you do," he said to them, pointing to the row of cards, "to the right of a King is a Queen or two."

"To win or not to win, there's the rub!" he added, "a Heart or two are to the right of a Club."

"If you want to win, here's the thing," he continued, "to the left of a King is another King."

"And here's the most important part: there's a Heart or two to the left of a Heart."

"Now, listen to the final clue," Monty concluded, "to the left of a Queen is a Heart or two."

"Are you ready to find the lady?" he asked them, "find a gent, you won't win a cent!"

Which card should Jack and Jillian pick to win? Be careful! When Monty says that a card is to the right or left of another, he doesn't necessarily mean the immediate right or left. Also, right or left is from the point of view of the two suckers―I mean, the nice young couple.

* If you haven't met Montgomery Banks―not his birth name, I'm sure―he's a trickster who always speaks the truth and nothing but the truth, but he doesn't always tell the whole truth. Moreover, he never uses sleight-of-hand or gimmicked cards. Monty doesn't manipulate cards; he manipulates minds. For previous puzzles involving Monty, see:

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### Blurb Watch: Megalopolis

It's been almost a decade since I posted a "Blurb Watch" entry, that is, an entry looking at contextomies or outright fabricated quotes from reviews used in advertisements, usually for movies. I used to post these regularly, not because movie ads were especially guilty of such crimes, but because they frequently quoted critics and, also frequently, quoted them out of context. Misleading ads for movies may seem trivial, but they serve as an example of a practice that occurs in more important areas, such as politics1. Moreover, I'm interested in movies and for many years perused all of the ads for them in the newspaper. About ten years ago, as newspapers and movie advertising in them continued to decline, I posted the last "Blurb Watch"2―until now.

A trailer for the new movie from director Francis Ford Coppola, Megalopolis, exhibits blurbs from several critics, though surprisingly none are about the movie itself3. Rather, the blurbs are allegedly quotes from reviews of Coppola's previous movies, including The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. The reviews quoted are uniformly negative, which seems like an odd approach to advertising a new movie by the same director.

The thought behind the trailer appears to be that some of Coppola's past movies had received bad reviews at the time they were released, even though they are now well-regarded. This suggests that Megalopolis itself is being negatively reviewed, which turns out to be the case, as we shall see. So, the trailer is trying to convince you to ignore the bad reviews: they've been wrong before, so they're probably wrong now. In that vein, the narrator of the trailer says the following in a deep, portentous voice:

True genius is often misunderstood. One filmmaker has always been ahead of his time. From visionary writer and director Francis Ford Coppola comes an event nothing can prepare you for. Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis.

Coppola is a "visionary" and a "true genius" who is misunderstood and ahead of his time, the trailer is telling us―perhaps the movie should have been called "Megalomania". Ignore the fact that its current rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, is a "rotten" 53%4, and its Metascore at Metacritic, another such site, is 59, a "Mixed or Average" score5, and go see the movie, the trailer is saying.

In a plot twist more suited to an M. Night Shyamalan movie than a Coppola one, it turns out that almost all of the negative quotes in the trailer were made up6. Why make up quotes for the trailer that denigrate Coppola's previous movies? You might think that it must be because there were no negative comments to quote, but you would be wrong.

For instance, critic Andrew Sarris' review of The Godfather7 is falsely quoted as calling it "a sloppy self-indulgent movie" that "doesn't know what it wants to be". The review is actually rather ambivalent, praising the performances of some of the actors―though notably not Al Pacino―but complaining about "fuzziness in the development of the narrative" and calling it "an intellectual's daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability". Why didn't the trailer quote these actual comments?

In contrast, while Pauline Kael is misquoted as saying the movie is "diminished by its artsiness", her review is in fact enthusiastic8. The trailer includes some one-word comments attributed to critics that flash by so fast on the screen I had to slow the video down to read them. Among those words, Kael is quoted as calling the movie "tragic", which could also be said of Hamlet or Antigone. The word "tragic" actually occurs in Kael's review in its final sentence: "'The Godfather' is popular melodrama, but it expresses a new tragic realism." This may be the only contextomy in the trailer.

Stanley Kauffmann, the movie critic of The New Republic, panned The Godfather9, so it ought to be easy to find a negative quote. Instead, all we get is a word that doesn't appear in the review: "awkward". How about "commonplace", instead, from the following sentence: "Because the picture has so much of the commonplace, it escapes being called commonplace"? If the creators of the trailer were looking for examples of critics who didn't recognize a work of genius when they saw it, Kauffmann is exhibit A.

About Apocalypse Now, Vincent Canby is quoted as calling it "hollow at the core" and "impossible"―whatever that means―neither of which occur in his review10. Yet, that review has plenty of negative comments, such as referring to "its profoundly anticlimactic intellectual muddle".

Of the three movies trashed in the trailer, Coppola's adaptation of Dracula reminds me of the old children's song: "One of these things is not like the others." Both The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, despite mixed reviews when they came out, have achieved classic status, deserved or not. Dracula had similar mixed reviews, but its current reputation is far below that of the earlier two movies.

Roger Ebert is quoted as calling it "a triumph of style over substance", which does not occur in his review11, though it could perhaps pass as a summary. However, he gave the movie three stars out of four, writing: "The movie is an exercise in feverish excess, and for that if for little else, I enjoyed it." The trailer makes Megalopolis look like such an exercise, which may be why Dracula was selected for comparison.

Similarly, Owen Gleiberman supposedly called it an "absurdity" and "a beautiful mess"12, which summarizes his stated opinion accurately. Gleiberman grades the movie with a B-, commenting that Coppola "…has dressed up a classic tale in mesmerizing visual overkill without coming close to its dark heart."

Why did whoever was responsible for the trailer make up these quotes? Was it just laziness? The fact that the quotes were made up was discovered shortly after the trailer was released, so it certainly seems to have been foolhardy. It was particularly foolhardy to quote Owen Gleiberman, who is perhaps the only one of the critics still alive.

Artificial intelligence is now being blamed for fabricating the quotes13, which certainly sounds plausible, but I wonder if it isn't just an excuse. A marketer responsible for the trailer has been fired by the studio, but perhaps he attempted to shift the blame to AI. Also, the trailer was supposed to be removed from online, but you can still see it on YouTube at the time of this entry.

In any case, not bothering to check AI-generated quotes is still lazy, especially given that current AI seems to be at the mental level of a young child who doesn't understand the difference between truth and falsehood. Unfortunately, a lot of adults don't seem to understand it either.

Notes:

1. For many examples, see: Familiar Misquotations, 10/23/2015.
2. Blurb Watch: Truth, 10/23/2015.
3. If it's still available you can watch the trailer here: "Megalopolis Official Trailer 2 (2024) Adam Driver", YouTube, 8/21/2024.
4. "'Megalopolis'", Rotten Tomatoes, accessed: 8/23/2024.
5. "'Megalopolis'", Metacritic, accessed: 8/24/2024.
6. Bilge Ebiri, "Did the Megalopolis Trailer Use Fake Movie-Critic Quotes?", Vulture, 8/21/2024.
7. Andrew Sarris, "Films in Focus", The Village Voice, 3/16/1972.
8. Pauline Kael, "Alchemy", The New Yorker, 3/10/1972.
9. Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Godfather' and the Decline of Marlon Brando", The New Republic, 4/1/1972.
10. Vincent Canby, "'The Screen: 'Apocalypse Now':Faces of War", The New York Times, 8/15/1979.
11. Roger Ebert, "Bram Stoker's Dracula", Roger Ebert, 11/13/1992.
12. Owen Gleiberman, "Bram Stoker's Dracula", Entertainment Weekly, 11/13/1992.
13. Matt Grobar, "'Megalopolis' Cuts Ties With Marketing Consultant Behind Trailer Debacle; Fabricated Critic Quotes Were Generated By AI", Deadline, 8/23/2024.

### Summer of the Cocaine Shark

If you're old enough you may remember the "summer of the shark", a name given to the summer of 2001 because of a series of shark attacks that received a lot of attention from the news media1. We learned the next year that there were actually fewer shark attacks in 2001 than the previous year2, so it wasn't really the summer of the shark but the summer of a news media feeding frenzy over shark attacks.

Just when you thought it was safe to read the news again, the summer of the shark is back, but with a difference: the sharks are on cocaine! If you weren't already scared enough, the thought of coked-up sharks swimming offshore should keep you out of the water.

These supposed cokehead sharks made their debut last year in a documentary aired during the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week"3. The show floated the idea that sharks might be exposed to the drug via bales thrown into the ocean by smugglers around the Florida Keys. So, the researchers involved in the documentary threw some bales of fake cocaine into the water to see how sharks would react4. Apparently, some showed interest in the bales, but none actually broke one open and snorted the contents. Presumably, it's at least possible that a shark might bite a bale of real cocaine open, and even swallow or perhaps take in through its gills some of the contents. However, the researchers did not test any sharks off the Florida coast to see if they had been exposed to cocaine.

Assuming that sharks might actually bite floating bales of cocaine open and be exposed to the drug―and further assuming that such exposure might have some kind of ill effect upon the fish―what can we do about it? Perhaps we should ask drug smugglers to douse their bales with shark repellent.

This summer, a different set of researchers, perhaps inspired by last summer's experiment, did test several wild sharks for cocaine. However, the testing was done off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, over 4K miles to the southeast of Key West5. According to an article in Scientific American (SciAm):

The drug had never previously been found in wild sharks. But that doesn't mean these fish are unique; scientists just hadn't previously tested any shark for coke.6

If wild sharks have never been previously tested for cocaine, how do we know that they haven't always had cocaine in their bodies? Rio de Janeiro is on the same continent where coca, the source of cocaine, grows7. Now, most coca is grown on the western side of South America, whereas Rio is on the east coast, but many of the coca growing regions are in the watershed of the Amazon river, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean8. The mouth of the Amazon is far north of Rio, but can we rule out that cocaine makes its way south, or perhaps it's the sharks that migrate down from the north? So, we can't compare the amount of cocaine currently found in sharks with that in sharks of the past, since no one thought to test past sharks for cocaine.

The New York Times (NYT) report on the research explains:

This was the first study to analyze cocaine in sharks, following various studies on smaller species, including mollusks, crustaceans and even eels. All 13 sharks examined were found to have unfiltered cocaine in much higher concentrations than in previous studies on other animals, indicating chronic exposure to the drug.9

In other words, the sharks aren't just casual users, they're addicts! But exactly how much cocaine are the sharks being exposed to? SciAm answers the question:

[The researchers] found an average cocaine concentration of 23 micrograms per kilogram in the sharks' tissue…. This is a fairly low level: studies on the impact of cocaine in humans tend to use doses of around 0.4 milligram per kilogram of body weight (one milligram equals 1,000 micrograms).

Stated in terms of "milli-" and "micro-", these amounts are hard to compare. A milligram is a thousandth of a gram and a microgram is a thousandth of a milligram, or a millionth of a gram10. So, 0.4 milligrams is 0.0004 grams and 23 micrograms is 0.000023 grams.

The NYT also explains: "The levels of cocaine found in these sharks were reported to be as much as 100 times higher than in previously observed marine life." Since sharks are at the top of the food chain in the ocean, it's not surprising that the amount of any chemical in the water will accumulate in their bodies at much higher levels than that in their prey. Still, whether this amount is anything to worry about, who knows?

To its credit, the NYT actually did some reporting on this story, rather than just rewriting the press release as is usual, asking a scientist not involved in the research to comment:

…[T]he study examined only a small sample, leaving many questions about whether the exposure harms the sharks or the humans who eat them. "I thought it was pretty remarkable that they got it published even with just 13 animals," said Daniel Snow, the director of the Water Sciences Laboratory at the University of Nebraska, who did not participate in the research.

Obviously, this was too good a study to turn down.

This story raises the question: Why does the news media want to scare us? The answer is simple: scare stories attract our attention, and the news media sells our attention to advertisers, who then sell their products to us. I doubt these "cocaine shark" stories will scare anyone who actually reads them, though they might make the reader laugh.

Notes:

1. For Time magazine's special report from the issue whose cover is shown, see: "Summer of the Shark", Time, 7/30/2001.
2. "'Summer of Shark' scary but not record", Associated Press, 2/19/2002. See, also: Amy Dempsey, "'Summer of the Shark' was a story media could sink their teeth into", Toronto Star, 8/28/2016.
3. Kim Luciani, "Are sharks feeding on drugs dumped off Florida coast? 'Cocaine Sharks' on Discovery investigates", USA Today, 7/21/2023. I haven't seen the documentary, so my description is based on reports such as this.
4. Caitlin O'Kane, "'Cocaine sharks' may be exposed to drugs in the Florida Keys, researchers say", CBS News, 7/24/2023.
5. "How far is Key West from Rio de Janeiro?", Wolfram Alpha, accessed: 8/20/2024.
6. Stephanie Pappas, "Sharks in Brazil Test Positive for a Surprising Contaminant: Cocaine", Scientific American, 7/25/2024.
7. "Cocaine", Encyclopædia Britannica, 8/16/2023.
8. Jennifer Murtoff, "Amazon basin", Encyclopædia Britannica, 8/16/2023.
9. Sarah Hurtes, "Not Afraid of Sharks? Well, Now They're on Cocaine.", The New York Times, 7/25/2024.
10. E. B. Uvarov, D. R. Chapman & Alan Isaacs, The Penguin Dictionary of Science (1973), under "SI Units".

### The Fate of the Second Debate

The replacement of President Joe Biden by Vice President Kamala Harris as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president has placed the second presidential debate in question. Originally, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) scheduled the usual three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, but the two campaigns decided to ignore the CPD for some obscure reason. Instead, the candidates―Trump and Biden, at the time―agreed to two debates, the one that was held June 27th and led to Biden's downfall, and a second to be held September 10th1, which is now in doubt.

The second debate was agreed on privately between the Biden and Trump campaigns, but now that Biden has dropped out of the race and Harris taken his place, the status of that agreement is unclear. The former president has announced that he will not attend the September 10th debate and gave as one reason that he's suing ABC, the scheduled host, for defamation. However, the lawsuit in question was filed in March of this year2, months before Trump agreed to the ABC-hosted second debate, so that just seems to be an excuse.

Trump one-sidedly suggested a new debate on the fourth of September, to be hosted by Fox News instead of ABC3. The Fox moderators are, of course, likely to be friendlier to Trump, and less so to Harris, than the ABC ones, so this may be the real reason for Trump's attempt to switch debates.

Shortly after Trump's offer, the Harris campaign responded that she would appear on the tenth as scheduled4, with or without Trump. It's not clear whether this constitutes an outright rejection of Trump's offer of the earlier debate, but it's obviously not an acceptance. It's not out of question that there could be two, or even three, debates between Trump and Harris before election day since the traditional debating season is still about a month away. It's even possible that the two campaigns could agree to a revised CPD schedule of debates, the first of which was supposed to be held September 16th5.

In addition to moving the date up and changing hosts, Trump also wants the debate to be held before a live audience. I'm on record as opposing audiences since they add nothing of substance to a debate6, and they can be difficult for moderators to control.

Harris is infamous for rambling, semi-coherent comments7, which might be a reason for her to avoid debating. However, it should be possible for her to memorize answers to likely questions from the moderators, and even if an unexpected question is asked, non-answers appear to be acceptable to at least some moderators8.

The current debate about the debate, with public posturing, is standard pre-debate positioning. Whether the two campaigns think it will be in the interest of their candidates to debate will probably determine what happens. Currently, the two candidates are within the statistical margin of error (MOE) of each other in the most recent polls9, though this may be partly due to Harris' "honeymoon" with the press10.

Will there be a Trump-Harris debate? As long as the candidates remain tied in the polls, there's a strong motive for each campaign to try to break that tie by debating. So, the thing to do is to watch the polls: if the candidates stay within the MOE of each other, I expect they'll eventually work out an agreement to debate, despite whatever public wrangling they engage in during the meantime.

Update, 8/9/2024: ABC News is reporting that Trump has now agreed to the September 10th debate after all11, and Harris has reiterated her intention to attend12. Trump is still proposing the earlier debate on Fox as well as one on the 25th of the month to be hosted by NBC News, but the Harris campaign has already declined the Fox debate while leaving open the possibility of further debates after the one on the tenth13.

So, it appears that there will be at least one debate next month between the two major party presidential candidates, but what about the vice presidential candidates? When she was still a vice presidential candidate, Harris agreed to a debate with Trump's running mate―this was before Senator J.D. Vance had been selected―hosted by CBS News and held on July 23 or August 1314. Obviously, the former day is already past and the latter is next Tuesday, so that's probably too soon. As far as I can tell, no new date has been agreed upon.

Is there any chance that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or some other minor party or independent candidate would be included in one or more of the debates? RFK, Jr. is polling in single digits in the latest polls15, as are all other third party candidates, so it seems unlikely that any will meet the CPD requirement of ≥15% in four polls before next month.

Update, 8/15/2024: It's just been announced that the two major party vice presidential candidates, Republican Senator J.D. Vance and Democrat Governor Tim Walz, will debate on the first of October hosted by CBS News16. There's reportedly also an agreement for a second Harris-Trump presidential debate later that month, but the details haven't been worked out yet.

Once again, the CPD has been snubbed as it had a vice presidential debate scheduled for the 25th of this month17. However, at the end of June it released the host college from its contract, so it would probably be too late now in any case18. Perhaps its role as sponsor of presidential debates is over. This is a strange election year, and it may be that the CPD will get back on track in 2028, but I'm beginning to wonder.

Update, 8/24/2024: RFK, Jr. has now officially dropped out of the presidential race19, so there's no chance that the next debate will be anyone other than Harris and Trump.

Notes:

1. See: Waiting for the Debate, 6/17/2024
2. Michael M. Grynbaum & Jim Rutenberg, "Trump Sues ABC and Stephanopoulos, Saying They Defamed Him", The New York Times, 3/18/2024
3. Anna Gordon, "Will Donald Trump Debate Kamala Harris? Here's What We Know", Time, 8/4/2024
4. Brenton Blanchet, "Donald Trump Agrees to Fox News Debate in September as Kamala Harris Sticks to ABC Debate Plan Even If He Doesn't Attend", People, 8/3/2024
5. "Statement on CPD's 2024 General Election Debates", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 6/24/2024
6. See: And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming, 6/25/2020
7. Cami Mondeaux, "Kamala's North Korea blunder latest in long line of awkward gaffes", Washington Examiner, 9/29/2022
8. See: After the Debate, 6/29/2024
9. "Latest Polls", Real Clear Polling, accessed: 8/5/2024
10. Kellen Browning & Maggie Astor, "Harris Looks to Maintain Momentum as 'Honeymoon Phase' Winds Down", The New York Times, 7/29/2024
11. "Trump says he has agreed to offer from ABC News to debate Harris", ABC News, 8/8/2024.
12. David Bauder, "Game on: ABC News says Harris, Trump have agreed to presidential debate on Sept. 10", Associated Press, 8/8/2024.
13. "Election 2024 updates: Harris, Walz visit Southwest for events; Trump to Montana", ABC News, 8/9/2024.
14. Kevin Liptak, Jeff Zeleny, Kate Sullivan, Kit Maher, Betsy Klein, Michael Williams & Kristen Holmes, "Harris agrees to debate future Trump vice presidential pick", CNN, 5/17/2024. It took seven people to write this article!
15. "Latest Polls", Real Clear Polling, accessed: 8/9/2024.
16. Simon J. Levien & Maggie Astor, "Tim Walz and JD Vance Agree to Vice-Presidential Debate", The New York Times, 8/15/2024.
17. "Commission on Presidential Debates Announces Sites and Dates for 2024 General Election Debates and 2024 Nonpartisan Candidate Selection Criteria", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 11/20/2023.
18. "Statement on CPD's 2024 General Election Debates", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 6/24/2024.
19. Rebecca Davis O'Brien, Simon J. Levien & Jonathan Swan, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Endorses Trump and Suspends His Independent Bid for President", The New York Times, 8/23/2024.