An Attack on Us All & Words ≠ Violence
In case you haven't heard the news, earlier this month Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage by a knife-wielding assailant and severely injured1. He's expected to survive but may lose sight in one eye. The attack was almost certainly an attempt to execute the death sentence pronounced upon Rushdie a third of a century ago for writing a book2. This incident should be a wake-up call to all of us. Rushdie himself seems to have become complacent in recent years, as have we. It may need to be pointed out that even if Rushdie survives, this will not be the end for him: it's only a new beginning. There are no doubt other would-be assassins out there, sharpening their knives. And they're patient.
- Tom Slater, "The attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on us all", Sp!ked Online, 8/13/2022
For more than 30 years [Salman] Rushdie has lived under an execution order. On 14 February 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him and anyone involved in publishing his ‘blasphemous’ fourth novel. He went into hiding for nine years. The book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991. Its Turkish translator narrowly escaped an Islamist arson attack in 1993, which claimed the lives of 37 others. …
Now–quite probably–Rushdie has finally paid a most awful price for his right to freedom of expression. One cannot overstate the significance of this. Islamist intolerance has spread like cancer since 1989. Yesterday it may well have come perilously close to chalking up one of its most symbolic victories. The attack is a reminder of how barbaric, backward and yet also pathetic this ideology is. …
Enough. We have put up with this evil for far too long. First there was the fatwa. Then there were the Danish cartoons. Then there was Charlie Hebdo. Then there was Samuel Paty. Even where guns and knives and bombs aren’t involved, we see Islamist censorship being meted out in Western societies with alarming effectiveness. …
Worse still, we don’t just give in to the sensitivities of Islamists, for fear of violent reprisals. We’ve internalised them. Our cultural elites pretty much share in them. … If you too stridently criticise or mock Islam, you’ll be accused of Islamophobia–a term popularised by Islamists. …
This censoriousness is not just some foreign import, of course. The Rushdie affair exposed the West’s homegrown culture of censorship and its drift away from liberal values, towards an ideology of multiculturalism that patronises the very groups it claims to protect, treating Muslims as though they are fundamentally unlike us, incapable of being tolerant, free citizens. Across the West, the conviction that words wound and that heretics must be dispensed with has fostered a climate that is almost absurdly censorious. People often say The Satanic Verses wouldn’t be published today. Which is almost certainly true. But if we’re being honest Harry Potter probably wouldn’t be published today, either….
The Islamist vengeance that Rushdie has suffered shows us where you end up when you abandon free speech. When giving offence becomes a moral crime. When you say that speech is violence. You end up with violence and unreason and terror. So to all those who have looked at their shoelaces as this poison has built up, it is time to pick a side. Those who believe in freedom and humanity need to speak up for Salman Rushdie–and all the other heretics. And do not even think of saying ‘but…’. The attack on Rushdie is an attack on us all.
I've edited some throat-clearing out of the following excerpts. We don't need to defend Rushdie from the accusation of being anti-Muslim to denounce the recent attack on him for what he wrote decades ago. It's just dumb luck that he survived. Let's not be mealy-mouthed in defending both freedom of speech and the right not to be assassinated for exercising that freedom.
- Adam Gopnik, "Salman Rushdie and the Power of Words", The New Yorker, 8/13/2022
The terrorist assault on Salman Rushdie on Friday morning…was triply horrific to contemplate. First in its sheer brutality and cruelty, on a seventy-five-year-old man, unprotected and about to speak…. Second, it was horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people. Authorities did not immediately release a motive for the attack, but the dark apprehension is that the terrorist who assaulted Rushdie was a radicalized Islamic militant of American upbringing…who was executing a fatwa first decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, upon the publication of Rushdie’s novel "The Satanic Verses." The evil absurdity of the death sentence pronounced on Rushdie…was always obvious. … Finally, if more locally, it was horrific because it had seemed to those who knew him that the fatwa had faded in significance and threat, that it had become the subject for retrospective memoir….
Efforts will be made, are bound to be made, to somehow equalize or level the acts of Rushdie and his tormentors and would-be executioners—to imply that though somehow the insult to Islam might have been misunderstood or overstated, still one has to see the insult from the point of view of the insulted. …[T]he right to be insulting about other people’s religions—or their absence of one—is a fundamental right, part of the inheritance of the human spirit. Without that right of open discourse, intellectual life devolves into mere cruelty and power seeking. … Our commitment to…what is quaintly called freedom of speech and liberty of expression…must be as close to absolute as humanly possible, because everything else that we value in life, including pluralism, progress, and compassion, depends on it. …
Also democracy. Without freedom of speech, democracy is a charade.
The idea—which has sprung to dangerous new life in America as much on the progressive as on the theocratic side of the argument—that words are equal to actions reflects the most primitive form of word magic, and has the same relation to the actual philosophy of language that astrology has to astronomy. Sticks and stones really can break bones. Words can never hurt you, just challenge your mind and categories. … Everyone has a right to be offended by whatever offends them, and everyone on earth has a right to articulate their offense. No one has a right to maim or kill someone because our words offend them. Blasphemy is not a mighty category demanding respect but a pitiful invention of those who cannot tolerate having their pet convictions criticized. It demands no respect from anyone; on the contrary, it requires solidarity among all decent people in opposing it. An insult to an ideology is not the same as a threat made to a people. It is the opposite of a threat made to a person. To assume the criticism of ideas as assaults on people is the end of the liberal civilization. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression—it is close to the whole of what we mean by civilized life.
All of the above should go without saying. That it's necessary to state it at such length is a sad commentary on the state of the world. Words are not weapons. Knives are weapons. Words are the tools that we use so that weapons won't be necessary.
- Nouran Salahieh, "Salman Rushdie recovering from 'life changing' injuries after he was stabbed on stage. Here's what we know", CNN, 8/15/2022
- Steven Vago & Ben Kesslen, "Salman Rushdie attacker praises Iran’s ayatollah, surprised author survived: jailhouse interview", New York Post, 8/17/2022
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In the excerpts above, I've sometimes changed the paragraphing. The last ellipsis in the first excerpt is in the original; all others are mine.
I've discussed previously the tendency of legislators to name large and complicated pieces of legislation in a way designed to sell them to the public1―for instance, such enormous bills as "the USA PATRIOT Act", "the No Child Left Behind Act", and "the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", which is more honestly known as "Obamacare". Who could possibly oppose protecting patients or affordable care, and who would want to leave any children behind?
The most recent example of this sort of moniker is the recently passed "Inflation Reduction Act". Given that inflation is now at a high level that hasn't been equaled in forty years, who wouldn't want to reduce it? Who would dare oppose an act the very purpose of which, in its name, is to reduce inflation? The problem is that there's little reason to think that it will actually do so.
The act is really "a slimmed-down version of the [so-called] Build Back Better bill2", but even "scaled-down"3 it's still an almost half-trillion dollar grab bag of various unrelated measures that raise corporate taxes, increase funding for tax collection, extend Obamacare subsidies, and create tax credits and subsidies to supposedly fight climate change.
Analyses by the Congressional Budget Office, the Tax Foundation, Moody's Analytics, and the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, all found that the act would do little or nothing to lower inflation.4 Moreover, all of the "fact check" articles by news media that I've been able to find have concluded that the act will have little or no effect on inflation5.
Meanwhile, Vox, a left-leaning media outlet6, asked three economists to defend the bill against these negative analyses and the best that they could come up with is: "The bill's net impact on inflation…is likely modest, and may not be felt for a while given how long many of these policies will take to go into effect….7" Even the most optimistic of the three economists said of the bill: "It is not primarily, notwithstanding the name, focused on measures that would tamp down inflation."
Calling this legislation "the Inflation Reduction Act" is the political equivalent of putting the label "Cancer Cure" on a bottle of snake oil. The act barely passed the Senate along straight party lines, with the Vice President casting the tie-breaking vote. Would it have passed if it had been labeled honestly, or at least not dishonestly?
- Unspeakable Acts, 10/15/2018.
- Kelly Anne Smith, "The Inflation Reduction Act Is Now Law—Here’s What It Means For You", Forbes, 8/23/2022.
- Carlie Porterfield, "Inflation Reduction Act Passes: Senate Approves $430 Billion Climate And Healthcare Bill", Forbes, 8/7/2022.
- Danielle Battaglia, "Does the Inflation Reduction Act live up to its name? Fact-checking the campaign claims", The News-Observer, 8/25/2022.
- In addition to the one linked in the previous note, they are, in chronological order:
- Konner McIntire, "Fact Check Team: Will Biden's latest spending bill reduce inflation?", KOMO News, 8/1/2022
- Louis Jacobson, "The Democrats’ overstated claim that the Inflation Reduction Act curbs debt, inflation", PolitiFact, 8/19/2022
- Joedy McCreary, "Fact check: Will the Inflation Reduction Act actually reduce inflation?", CBS 17, 8/26/2022
- "Vox", Media Bias/Fact Check, 8/7/2022.
- Li Zhou, "Would the Inflation Reduction Act actually reduce inflation?", Vox, 8/4/2022.
Zeroing in on Inflation
The day before yesterday, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, made the following remarks:
Before I begin today, I want to say a word about the news that came out today relative to the economy. Actually, I just want to say a number: zero. Today, we received news that our economy had zero percent inflation in the month of July. Zero percent. Here’s what that means: While the price of some things…went up last month, the price of other things went down by the same amount. The result: zero inflation last month. But people are hurting. But zero inflation last month.1
One might well assume that Biden misspoke or misread his teleprompter, given that he often does so, except that on the same day the Vice President said: "Today, we learned that last month our economy had zero percent inflation."2 Moreover, the administration's spokeswoman bleated:
We just received news that our economy had 0% inflation in July. While the price of some things went up, the price of others, like gas, clothing, and more, dropped.3
So, what's going on here? Clearly, Biden wasn't simply misreading or misspeaking; instead, this is a considered public claim made by his administration. Yet the rate of inflation is currently 8.5%4. There were, of course, immediate accusations that the administration was lying, but it's hard to believe that it would lie in such a brazen, easily-debunked fashion.
Inflation is the loss of value of money over time, that is, a dollar today will buy less than it did in the past5. As a result, the rate of inflation is a ratio, usually expressed as a percentage, between what money would buy in the past and what it will buy today. The percentage you usually see is the difference between the past value and the current value; for instance, the current rate means that a dollar today is worth 8.5% less than a dollar a year ago. This percentage decrease is calculated using the same formula for percentage change explained in the entry from earlier this month6.
It's seldom mentioned that the rate of inflation is calculated as an annual rate, that is, it's the percentage decline in the value of money over the course of a year. However, it is possible to calculate a monthly inflation rate, and this is what the Biden administration has done. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is what is used to calculate the annualized rate, was unchanged last month, which means the monthly rate was 0%. As explained in the press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)7, which calculates the CPI, this was largely due to the decline in the price of gasoline last month offsetting increases in the cost of other products and services.
The press release itself did not calculate a monthly inflation rate―in fact, the BLS seems not to announce a rate itself―rather, it just reported the CPI for July. It's the Biden administration that decided to announce this as "0% inflation in July". Notice the careful wording of the President, V.P., and spokeswoman, all of whom mentioned the month.
Phrases such as "inflation in the month of July" are ambiguous between the annual rate in July and the monthly rate for July. Technically, the monthly inflation rate for July was 0%, so the administration was not literally lying in saying so. However, it's at best a half-truth, and wholly misleading to say so without pointing out that this is not what most people mean by the inflation rate.
- "Remarks by President Biden at Signing of S. 3373, 'The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022'", The White House, 8/10/2022.
- "Remarks by Vice President Harris at the United Steelworkers Constitutional Convention", The White House, 8/10/2022.
- Karine Jean-Pierre, "We just received news that our economy had 0% inflation in July.", Nitwitter, 8/10/2022.
- Rob Wile, "Consumer prices rose by 8.5% year over year in July as the summer of inflation wears on", NBC News, 8/10/2022.
- See: Inflation and "Record-High" Gas Prices, 6/26/2022.
- See: The Incredible Shrinking Economy, 8/4/2022.
- "Consumer Price Index Summary", Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8/10/2022.
Rouge or Rogue?
WARNING: The following post may make sensitive readers gag, and cause immature readers to giggle.
A recent article in The New York Post begins:
Astronauts have been warned against masturbating in space over fears female astronauts could get impregnated by stray fluids. There are strict guidelines over “alone-time” onboard in zero gravity. Scientists have warned even the slightest rouge droplet could cause chaos on board.1
All I have to say to this is: if your droplets are red, you're doing it wrong. See a doctor when you get back to earth.
"Rouge" is the French word for "red". In English, it is a noun, referring to reddish makeup, such as blusher or lipstick. It's not usually used as an adjective, but the online Cambridge dictionary's examples show a few cases, such as "rouge makeup"2.
In contrast, "rogue" is an adjective meaning "solitary", "out of control", and usually "dangerous", as in "rogue elephant"3. So, obviously, the reporter meant "rogue" not "rouge".
The New York Post reprinted the article from an Australian news site4, which has since corrected the misspelling. I quoted the The Post reprint, above, because it is uncorrected as of the time of writing. No reporter is credited on the story, for perhaps obvious reasons.
"Rouge" for "rogue" is a surprisingly common misspelling; I've seen it previously, though I can't remember exactly where. It's also one that your spell-checking program may not save you from since both are English words. Given that "rouge" is usually a noun in English, and "rogue" an adjective, you might expect that a grammar-checking program would be able to flag this mistake, but I tried the offending sentence on several such online programs, none of which objected.
Thankfully, the ever-vigilant Snopes has already debunked the quoted article5―not the rouge/rogue mix-up, but the claim that NASA warned astronauts against orbital onanism, or that a male astronaut might accidentally impregnate a female one. A little thought would indicate how unlikely it is that a "rouge droplet" would manage to float into a uterus, even if the female astronaut were floating about the cabin naked. Rather, the "warning" was a joke on a recent Conan O'Brien comedy show.
Much of what passes for news these days is a joke, and much of what passes for humor is not funny. This supposed news story is, literally, an unfunny joke.
- "Astronauts should not masturbate in zero gravity, NASA scientist says", The New York Post, 7/22/2022
- "Rouge", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 8/5/2022.
- "Rogue", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 8/5/2022
- "NASA scientist explains why astronauts should not masturbate in zero gravity", News.com.au, 7/22/2022
- Dan Evon, "Did NASA Warn Astronauts Not to Masturbate in Space?", Snopes, 7/22/2022
The Incredible Shrinking Economy
Not only is the U.S. economy shrinking1, but so are the items you can buy at the store, assuming you have any money left to spend. A recent episode of the PBS News Hour included a segment on "shrinkflation"2, an ugly word for an ugly practice: manufacturers shrinking the size of a product rather than raising the price, in order to keep up with inflation. Many people may notice when the price of a product increases, but they are unlikely to notice that the product's size decreases when the price remains the same. How many of us pay close attention to the number of ounces listed on a product, or the number of sheets in the rolls of toilet paper we buy? I sure don't, but I think it may be time to start.
This is an important practice to be aware of, especially in these times of high inflation. Decreasing the size of a product without warning is really a hidden price increase, and it may not only fool people into buying the product, it may also deceive them into thinking that inflation isn't as bad as it is.
I commend the PBS News Hour for this useful consumer information, and I recommend viewing the short segment or reading the transcript. However, this is not what I set out to write about.
Near the beginning of the segment, there is the following exchange between the reporter Paul Solman and consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky:
Dworsky: The first one here is kind of an egregious example. Angel Soft toilet paper used to have 425 sheets on a roll. The new one has 320.
Solman: Wow! That's 25 percent. …
Dworsky: I remember the Charmin of the 1960s…and it had 650 sheets on a roll. The biggest one today has 366. It's about 90 percent less.
Can you spot the problem? This brief exchange includes two cases of figuring the amount of shrinkage of the size of the product as a percentage of its previous size, one by the reporter and one by the consumer advocate. Here's a hint: one is correct and the other incorrect, but which?
Before we answer these questions, let's do a short refresher on percentage change. There are two ways that the size of something can change: either it increases or it decreases. Both ways can be measured in terms of a percentage, and the way to do so is the same in each case: first, subtract the old size from the new one, then divide by the old size, and finally multiply by one hundred to convert it into a percentage. In mathematical symbols:
x% = n − o⁄o × 100
Where "x" represents the percentage change, "n" is the new size, and "o" is the old size. So, n − o is the new size minus the old size―that is, the difference between the old and new sizes in ounces or sheets or whatever units―which is the amount that the item's size has changed. Dividing this difference by the old size gives the ratio of the change in size to the original size. Finally, multiplying by 100 converts this ratio into a percentage. If the resulting percentage is positive, then that indicates growth; whereas, if it's negative, that means it has decreased in size.
Now, let's use the formula to calculate the two percentages from the interview. Angel Soft used to have 425 sheets, which means that o = 425, but now it has only 320, so n = 320. Therefore, n − o = 320 − 425 = −105. So, the roll has decreased by 105 sheets. −105/425 = −.247, which is the ratio between the amount of decrease and the original size. −.247 × 100 = −24.7%, or −25%, rounding to the nearest percentage point: this is the amount of decrease as a percentage of the original size. So, Solman was right.
I'll leave it to you to calculate the percentage change for Charmin. According to Dworsky, o = 650 and n = 366. If you plug these numbers into the equation, you should get about: −43.7% or −44% rounded off, which is considerably less than 90%.
Calculating percentage change can be confusing because there are two numbers involved, one for the size before and one after the change, and it's easy to forget which is subtracted from which, as well as which divides into the result of that subtraction. Still, it's possible to develop your number sense so that you'll notice when a percentage change claim just doesn't seem right.
If something decreases by 50%, then 50% of it is left; that is, take away half, and half is left. In general, if something decreases by x%, then 100−x% of it is left. This is enough to raise doubts about the claim that the size of Charmin had decreased 90%, because that would mean that the new Charmin was only 10% the size of the old one, which is implausible. Moreover, if you look at the two numbers, the new size―366 sheets―is approximately half the old size―650 sheets. So, you can tell that 90% must be too high, and that the actual decrease is closer to 50%. Moreover, you can do all this in your head, without putting pencil to paper or using a calculator.
An important consequence of the fact that 100−x% is left after an x% decrease is that nothing can decrease by more than 100%. If something decreases by 100%, then it's gone―that is, if you take 100% of it away, that leaves 0%. Nonetheless, percentage decrease is so confusing that you'll occasionally see people claiming decreases greater than 100%. For instance:
June represented a new low for disclosed ransomware attacks in the U.S. this year, which have been steadily declining since the end of March. …[T]he number of reported ransomware attacks in the U.S. hit its peak in January and its low in June. Comparing just January to June, there was more than a 300% decrease in the number of reported attacks.3
A. K. Dewdney discussed a similar claim in which an electric company advertised that "by installing a metal halide fixture the consumer is…promised an amazing savings of '200 percent on energy'.4" That really is amazing: apparently, the fixture would be generating more electricity than it was using!
- See: Yes, We Have No Recession, 7/28/2022.
- Paul Solman & Diane Lincoln Estes, "Manufacturers use ‘shrinkflation’ to pass costs on to consumers", PBS News Hour, 7/29/2022.
- Peyton Doyle, "Public sector still facing ransomware attacks amid decline", TechTarget, 7/7/2022.
- A. K. Dewdney, 200% of Nothing: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Math Abuse and Innumeracy (1993), pp. 3-5.
Crack the Combination IV
The combination of a lock is three digits long. The following are some incorrect combinations:
- 532: Two digits are correct but each is in the wrong position.
- 241: One digit is correct and in the right position.
- 751: Two digits are correct but each is in the wrong position.
- 347: One digit is correct but in the wrong position.
Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?
Explanation: 5 must be part of the combination, since it is the only digit that clues 1 & 3 have in common, and it must be the last digit in the combination because it is in the wrong position in both clues. 4 cannot be in the combination by clues 2 & 4, since it cannot be in both the right and wrong position. Similarly, 1 cannot be in the combination, by clues 2 & 3. So, 2 must be in the combination, by clue 2, and in the first position. Finally, 7 must be in the combination, by clue 3, and in the middle position, by elimination.
WARNING: Do not operate heavy machinery while working this puzzle.