Long Reads & Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories
- Kaiser Fung, "The unspoken rules of visualisation (and when to break them)", Data Journalism, 1/29/2020.
The visual medium excels at conveying a large amount of information in multiple dimensions efficiently. Such efficiency relies on a set of unspoken rules and conventions, shared implicitly between producers and consumers of data graphics. … Designers of data visualisation can exploit these conventions to simplify their graphics, removing unnecessary explanations. Recognising these unspoken rules helps avoid unintended misunderstanding.
A somewhat technical article about charts and graphs, aimed more at the creator than the consumer, but informative for the latter. Not for novices, but lots of pretty pictures. See also:
- Molly Young, "Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?", Vulture, 2/20/2020.
I like Anna Wiener's term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It's more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener's garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don't think about it except when we're saying that it's bad, as I am right now. But unlike garbage, which we contain in wastebaskets and landfills, the hideous nature of these words―their facility to warp and impede communication―is also their purpose. Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.
Very funny article, at least if you've ever worked in an office. Contains a barnyard epithet. As someone who's actually read most of a Marianne Williamson "self-help" book, I especially liked this part:
Here's how [one] company describes itself…:
We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world's consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success.
You can probably imagine the rest. In the words of a lecturer at Harvard Business School, the prospectus "reads like a Marianne Williamson self-help book," which might be insulting to Marianne Williamson.
So, utilize your Empowerment by drilling down into this Value-added development Opportunity. In other words, read the whole thing. See, also:
About Us, 4/6/2006. The Fallacy Files' prospectus.
- Daniel Jolley & Pia Lamberty, "Coronavirus is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories―here's why that's a serious problem", The Conversation, 2/28/2020.
The novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, with new cases being reported all the time. Spreading just as fast, it seems, are conspiracy theories…. [T]his has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself. … [C]onspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in…moments of crisis in society―like terrorist attacks, rapid political changes or economic crisis. Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. These are the same conditions produced by virus outbreaks, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories in relation to coronavirus. … People who endorse medical conspiracy theories are less likely to get vaccinated or use antibiotics and are more likely to take herbal supplements or vitamins. Plus, they are more likely to say they would trust medical advice from nonprofessionals such as friends and family. In light of these results, people who endorse conspiracy theories about the coronavirus may be less likely to follow health advice…. Instead, these people may be more likely to have negative attitudes towards prevention behaviour or use dangerous alternatives as treatments. This would increase the likelihood of the virus spreading and put more people in danger.
Conspiracy theories are a sort of mental version of a virus, and we need the mental version of a vaccine to protect ourselves from their spread.
Some lengthy but worthwhile readings:
The "Where's the harm?" department:
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.
- 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.
- Carl S. Ehrlich, "Ararat", in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan (1993).
- The usually unscientific study of unidentified flying objects; see The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, note 1, above, for full citation.
- For one example, see: Some Experts, 3/15/2006.
- The most ballyhooed case of alleged ark wood turned out to be a hoax, see: Leon Jaroff, "Phony Arkaeology", Time, 6/24/2001.
- 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.
- David Mikkelson, "Noah's Ark Discovery", Snopes, 9/6/2015. You can see a photograph here of the "ship-shaped" formation.
- 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.
- Arkaeologists, 7/3/2006.
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
- 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.
- "Read the full transcript of the South Carolina Democratic debate", CBS News, 2/25/2020.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
- Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 9: Agree about what you disagree about!, 10/20/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 10: Attack or defend claims!, 11/12/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 11: Make your arguments relevant to claims!, 12/?/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 12: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence!, 1/21/2020.
- If you are not then your human rights are being violated.
- See: Chris Higgins, "The 35th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre", Mental Floss, 11/8/2012.
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?
- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), pp. 212-213.
- 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.
- See: Doublespeak Dictionary, 1/14/2010.
- "'At hope' bill dies in Washington state committee", The Columbian, 2/6/2010.
Title: Cold Warriors
Subtitle: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War
Author: Duncan White
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.
- Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019), pp. 10-11. All subsequent page citations are to this book.
- Though Nikolai Yeshov, nicknamed "the bloodthirsty dwarf", could easily be a villain from a James Bond novel; see, esp.: pp. 107, 111 & 133-137.
- Pp. 66-67. Perhaps ironically, Koestler died by his own hand many years later; see: "Arthur Koestler", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 2/13/2020.
- 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.
And Then There Were Seven, Again
A couple of debate-related news items:
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Nate Ashworth, "Andrew Yang Makes New Hampshire Primary Debate Bringing Stage to Seven", Election Central, 1/27/2020.
- Zach Montellaro, Sally Goldenberg & Christopher Cadelago, "DNC overhauls debate requirements, opening door for Bloomberg", Politico, 1/31/2020.
- See the update to the following entry for a discussion of this requirement: Wake up, Marianne!, 8/16/2019.
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:
- The victim was not the last person to arrive at the cabin.
- Whichever of A and C arrived at the cabin later was not the killer.
- The murderer was not the first person to arrive at the cabin.
- Whichever of B and C arrived at the cabin earliest was not the victim.
Who was the victim and who the murderer?
Here's a hint: Given that only three people came to the cabin, and that each arrived at a different time, there are only six possible orders in which the three arrived―mathematically, 3!, that is 3 × 2 × 1. One way to solve the puzzle is to check each of these six orders against the clues.
Solution to Who Killed Whom?: B killed A.