Letters To The Editor
Letters from subscribers about the editorial content of The Browser should be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We may edit letters for relevance and clarity — Robert
22nd January 2024
I have to take issue with the second story you've linked to here - and in particular the way you have phrased it: Scientists think 195 miles is “the magic number where women become faster than men”.
I'm afraid that is really nonsense. Firstly, no scientist thinks this - the quote is from the head of research at a website that analyzes running shoe data and race numbers, not a scientist. In fact there is very little data (not enough to be reliable in any way) from these extreme events because very few people do them - and the fact that a woman (amazing though she is) has won a few races outright does not mean that women are faster than men. It means the woman who won it was better prepared than the men who were in that race field.
When Jasmin Paris won the Spine Race outright the same thing happened (I actually wrote a piece about it in the Guardian) - people started proclaiming women were faster than men over ultra distance. This year a man - Jack Scott - won the Spine Race over 10 hours faster than Jasmin's course record.
I have a bee in my bonnet about this because I think female athletes are amazing enough without having to be constantly compared to men or asked when they are 'as fast as' men. It's a bit sad I suppose, that that's the bit that grabs the headlines, not the performance in itself.
Anyway, bee in bonnet expunged!
- Kate Carter
Billions And Trillions
14th January 2024
RE: The Browser, 12th January 2024
In the article, “Paying People to Have Children", Technium, Kevin Kelly, January 1, 2024, the author states:
"Last year there were about 3.6 million babies born in the US. If each family was paid $1 million dollars per child that is 3.6 billion dollars in cost.”
The correct answer is 3 trillion 600 billion dollars in cost. One thousand times as much as the author calculates.
With arithmetic like that, the rest of the article isn’t worth reading. Zero credibility.
Thanks for the Browser. I love it. Keep up the good work, please.
- Geoff Hoyl
Publisher's note: meanwhile, the article was corrected on 15th January, and now reads '3.6 trillion dollars'.
Further correspondence: 26th January 2024.
Really, the more interesting mistake that Mr. Kelly makes in his article is unconditionally extrapolating the current population trend for 100 years.
In 1798 Thomas Malthus made the same extrapolation mistake in the opposite direction. As did Paul Erlich in his book “The Population Bomb” in 1971. And as did Karl Sax in his book “Standing Room Only. The Worlds Exploding Population” in 1983. None of these predictions were even remotely accurate.
Kelly gives a grudging nod to one of the flaws in that kind of extrapolation hubris when he says, “…...nless (sic) something changes, the population goes to zero in another century.” Who among us thinks that something will NOT change? And, therefore, is it a good idea to pay people millions of dollars to have a child?
- Geoff Hoyl
About Nick Tosches
18th October 2023
From Johnny Spingola to Robert Cottrell:
Nick was my good friend. A brother to me. He was the real deal and didn’t “preen”.
Nick detested poseurs. His vocabulary was immense and he treated the English language as a holy thing. A giant Oxford English Dictionary had a prominent place in his apartment.
His books are enlightening, entertaining as hell and very educational. One most definitely knows their subject upon conclusion of them through his intense research. Nick put everything he had at the time into his work resulting in the best that he could do at that time.
He was a damned good writer who knew himself and understood the darkness and was not afraid of it. On the fourth anniversary of his passing, he should be celebrated.
From Robert Cottrell to Johnny Spingola:
My bad. I was thoughtless with my words and I apologise. I loved Country and I meant the joshing affectionately, but I am not one percent of the writer that Nick Tosches was and I have not lived one percent of his life.
I was trying to tell Browser readers that I enjoyed Country, and to interest them in it, while also trying to signal that it might not be the sort of book that they were used to, that the character of the author was a big part of the book, and that there were going to be dissonances, this was not going to be easy listening. But what seems amusing when you are writing it doesn't always seem amusing when you are reading it.
If it sounds as though I am trying to make nice, that is because I am trying to make nice. I am frankly awestruck that you, a friend of Nick Tosches, would write to me and talk to me directly about a writer who is to me a legend.
I don't want this to sound like I say something and then I run away from it. Yes, I said what I said about Country. I own the words. I was careless but I wasn't dishonest. There are times when I have similar thoughts about Ernest Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson, to give some sense of the class in which I place Nick Tosches. I do sense vanity in the writing, but when you are Nick Tosches you are right to think of yourself as somebody special.
So basically, thank you again. I took a liberty, it wasn't mine to take, you are right to push back, and I will join you in thinking of Nick Tosches at this time.
22nd September 2023
Re: Suspended in Contemplation, Editor's letter 20th September 2023
I don’t find the idea that my mental self is part and parcel of the universe any more ennobling or comforting than the satisfaction that materialists seem to derive from their proclamations that we are all made up of stardust. Both ideas point to our ephemeral and insignificant nature. You miss the mark by arguing that Eire tries to simulate a pragmatic approach for the existence of God that would be better argued directly. Eire looks to miracles to show that there is something else to us that does not require another unconvincing philosophical argument for the existence of God. While there is reason to be skeptical, unexplainable experiences, whether gently reassuring or tumultuous and life-altering, are surprisingly common. Religious experiences have also been known to coincide with the unexpected healing of a physical or psychological condition. John Fleming’s, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, is a well-written example of these phenomena.
It seems to me that William James in Varieties makes a similar attempt to show that there is something more to us when he writes, “We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.” In countless ways, the ineffable is made known to us, and its pursuit is the only reason the study of the humanities is essential. It is why other justifications ring false and why Northrop Frye finds that the most insightful criticism of art relates it to religious mythology. “The full blaze of truth,” Augustine writes, “shimmers beneath the surfaces of the Liberal Sciences.”
- Willis Renuart
20th September 2023
Surely, wisdom consists in knowing the difference between a linguistic peccadillo and a linguistic degradation. I do hope the following exhibits that wisdom, but I'll leave it to my betters to judge.
The topic of this note appears in the blurb summarizing Ralph Leonard's "Against the Death Penalty" (from the Wednesday, September 20 edition). That blurb contains this description: "Well-articulated summary of the arguments around capital punishment, with the writer concluding that there is no practical reason for a state to conduct judicial killings." I would like to direct your attention to the preposition "around" as it is used in this example — and, indeed, as it has been increasingly used throughout the English-speaking chattersphere.
When I studied the German language at university, one of my teachers would advise us to look to prepositions of a language for insight into the tacit Weltanschauung of its speakers. For example, while an English speaker would say one goes to an island, a German speaker would say one goes onto an island. Underneath the German usage is the image of one's hopping from one stone and alighting on another. That archetypal picture, or something like it, lies elementally deep within the native-speaker's outlook.
Similarly, I am afraid the use of "around" in phrases such as "arguments around capital punishment" or "discourse around intersectionality" betokens a tacit Weltanschauung, creeping and unsavory. According to this outlook, discourse swirls around something, but is not actually about it. There is a froth of takes, and takes on takes, but none is about exactly the same subject matter. Interlocutors talk at one another, or perhaps past one another, if they are not talking simply to draw attention to themselves and their own talking. Discussion around something is for little more than eliciting a frisson of fervor from Us and of insult from Them.
I would assume careful writers and thinkers would quietly resist this development by declining to use "around" in place of "about."
- Eric Walker
Sins of the Salmon Kings
20th July 2023
Interesting that Norwegian Salmon barons are being literarily roasted for non-aquaculture activities. Is this a cultural plot to further damage the image of them and their farms? I ask because, here in Canada, our indigenous folks are attacking salmon farms for providing breeding places for sea lice which then infest and kill smolts (young wild salmon). The natives, here, are struggling for attention to this issue and seem to be losing the battle between encouraging sustainable healthy wild conditions versus the thriving, but seemingly destructive farming industry. Maybe if a couple of our indigenous novelists would pen some potboiler stories about our fish farmers, it might do them damage. We Canucks are puritans in comparison to the scandalous Scandinavians, eh. Just think of it as a “if you can’t get them on the farm, maybe you can nail them in the bedroom” kind of strategy.
- George Roberts
A Rose By Any Other Name
22nd May 2023
Thanks for sharing Elizabeth Winkler's article about the authorship of 'Shakespeare's' works which was fun. As I read the comments below the article however, I couldn't help wondering 'does it actually make any difference who wrote the plays?' They'd still be as wonderful, rich, complex, infuriating and inconsistent as they already are. I always used to think that the New Critics went too far in rejecting any biographical information in considering a work of art, but I will be in their camp when I next open the First Folio.
- Nick Metcalfe
On Googols And Other Numbers
14th May 2023
Re Sunday Supplement Puzzle, 13th May 2023
Here I am again when the names of numbers crop up, although I admit I ought not really question Alex Bellos when it comes to them. However, I sensed a slight sigh in his comments about "ten googol" being the preferred largest example of a number with nine digits in that it sounded like those Go-Ogle candidates were trying too hard without thinking, or being clever, enough. My reasoning?
Even a cursory search reveals that if we are looking for created names of numbers, there are several very large examples with the surname of their originator: Skewes, Graham, and Rayo for instance. All of these are much larger than a googol and therefore will outstrip it by far if we accept, say, "ten Skewes", "ten graham" or - and this is considering a "Rayo" is claimed to be the largest named number - "sixty Rayo".
But then Skewes, Graham or Rayo weren't offering jobs or conducting the interviews, so there was no need to try and crawlingly impress a future boss by using a name that sounded like the company. I'm such a cynic...
However, such names are used in rarefied circles at best and may even be considered tenuous by "non-believers." So, interesting (to me at least) examples of nine-letter (in English) numbers that are larger than 96 and have a poetic feel are "five score", "five shock" and "five gross". "Octillion", "nonillion" and "decillion" are neat, but to be perhaps too smart about things, "centillio-" is neater, as it prefix to numbers such as "centillio-illion" that clearly indicates a number in its own right.
As a final thought, "googol" is, in itself, laziness. The number existed before this name did as "ten trillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentillitrestrigintatrecentilliduotrigintatrecentillion" or "Ten thousand millisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillion" or "Ten millisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentillisesexagintasescentilliard" depending on you scale and place in the world. This means I could claim whatever the very largest number ever becomes and call it the "syeardley", thus being the answer to the original problem.
Then again, "nonfinite" is a nine-letter word that indicates a number so large it can't be quantified. "Ten googol" indeed; it's for beginners!
- Stephen Yeardley
24th April 2023
Did you know that in Vietnamese, although first person pronouns exist, they are only used in formal settings? Most of the time, you refer to yourself as "big brother," "little brother," "nephew," or some other familial relationship term -- even with strangers, in which case you have to make your best guess which one to use based on your age or status relative to the other person.
Obviously people in Vietnam have just as much self-consciousness as everyone else. But interesting given the argument below.
Monkeys and Abracadabra
3rd April 2023
In the April 2 puzzle on a monkey, a typewriter, and abracadabra, the solution says:
Imagine that the monkey has typed "abracadabr". If it then types "a", we have "abracadabra". If it types "x", we have "abracadabrx". If it types any other letter, the sequence is broken for our purposes and we start afresh.> But consider again the situation in which the monkey types "a". While completing one "abracadabra" sequence, it has also put in place the first four letters of a new sequence which might be completed as "abracadabra" or "abracadabrx". So each "abracadabra" makes it slightly more likely that an "abracadabrx" will emerge next; whereas each "abracadabrx" does nothing to improve the likelihood of an "abracadabra". Hence the bias in favour of "abracadabrx".
This seems too one-sided. Beginning with "abracadabr" and considering suffixes only is not a neutral starting point. If we also consider possible prefixes, they have a chance of being "abraca", which would yield "abracadabra" much more easily than starting from scratch. By contrast, there is no prefix yielding "abracadabrx" from "abra". Compared to your suffix-oriented argument, looking at prefixes would lead to the opposite conclusion.
Surely the relative frequencies must not depend on whether the typewriter moves forwards or backwards? I wanted to sleep well tonight so I had to check. Iwrote a short program to simulate a similar 4-letter process, finding 'dacda' and 'dacdx' instead of abracadabra and abracadabrx. If overlapping words are counted, they seem to have the exact same frequency. (If overlaps are not counted, dacdx is more common; some word-matching algorithms built into common programming languages do not count overlaps by default.)
I offer the following competing model. In any eleven-letter window, the probability of either abracadabra or abracadabrx is 1 in 26^11. The expected count of either word is the sum of expected counts over all 11-letter windows. This holds regardless of whether those windows overlap, because E[X+Y]=E[X]+E[Y] even if X and Y are not independent. The long-run frequency of all eleven-letter words, not just abracadabr's, is the same.
I hope this is fun enough to waste time on, and I'm interested to hear your take. Thanks for considering!
- Eric Kernfeld
26th March 2023
Re The Sunday Supplement Puzzle, 26th March 2023:
Problem: Add any standard arithmetic signs to this equation to make it true:
3 1 3 6 = 8
I found an alternative solution to the puzzle, although it might be stretching the definition of "standard arithmetic signs." My solution was sqrt(1+3)^(sqrt(3+6)) = 8. The square root of 1+3 is 2 and the square root of 3+6 is 3, and 2^3 = 8.
– David Egan
Ambulances in the US
10th March 2023
Thanks for the excellent article on ambulances in the US. I'm an American who fortunately never dealt much with my own medical billing in the US, but I have an anecdote related to ambulances and emergency services:
A few years ago, I caught a very bad case of the flu and had several fainting and seizure-like episodes. I was living with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, who is from Germany. He called my (American) parents in a panic, asking if he should call an ambulance or take me to the emergency room. They advised him that an ambulance was out of the question and an emergency room was a last resort, and only to be considered if I worsened considerably.
I recovered at home after a few days, but the episode left a lasting impression on me and especially my partner. I was between jobs and paying for an Obamacare insurance plan, which meant that emergency services would likely have been expensive, but not ruinously so given my savings. But the menacing opacity of medical care costs in the US permeates the culture and poisons trust in health care providers, until even very loving parents like mine are willing to run the risk that their child will recover without a doctor.
I live in Germany now. While there are certainly problems with the system here, it was an enormous relief during a difficult pregnancy last year that I could concentrate solely on my physical and mental well-being, without ever worrying about the impact on my finances. These days, I wouldn't hesitate to call for an ambulance.
An American friend in Berlin recently told me, "In the US, people make fun of me for being taxed at 40%. But here I get something for my taxes...health care, unemployment benefits, parental leave, etc. In the US the middle class is taxed at 30% and gets nothing."
Wolf's Hall, Dr Evil and Statistical Comparisons
4th March 2023
This week, you featured Joanne Paul’s London Magazine article on tax collector Edmund Dudley, one of Henry VII’s "ravenous wolves". To make the point that he was a ruthless and efficient instrument of the monarchy, Ms. Paul reports that “In all, Edmund Dudley raised some £220,000 (about £150 million today) for the king […]” Really? That just doesn’t seem like very much. If I win the lottery, I hope it will be more than that. Was that really enough to get London’s burghers to plot his downfall and eventual execution by Henry VIII?
I am reminded of Dr Evil in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and his famous “Throw Me a Frickin’ Bone” scene. He suggests holding the world to ransom for the outrageous sum of $10m, an amount that was big when he was frozen 30 years before but, by the late 1990s when the film was made, it just wasn’t that much.
So what’s the right way statistically to think about Edmund Dudley’s tax collecting prowess? When Henry VII died in 1485, GDP in England was roughly £3.5bn in 2023 prices (Footnote). £150m was 4% of GDP at that time. UK GDP today is running about £2.2 trillion, so 4% of UK GDP today would be about £95bn.
So now we can rewrite that sentence "In all, Edmund Dudley raised some £220,000 (about £150 million today) for the king […]” as "In all, Edmund Dudley raised some £220,000 for the king. That was about 4% of GDP, or the equivalent of about £95 billion today.” That’s a sum that would make any oligarch proud and, in that light, it makes a good deal more sense that Dudley should have come to a sticky end.
– Charles Taylor
If you want a footnote: OurWorldinData.org says GDP in England in 1485 was £2.37 bn in 2013 prices. £1 in 2013 is worth £1.47 today, so the value of GDP in England in 1485 in today’s pounds is £(2.37 x 1.47)bn or roughly £3.5bn.
26th February 2023
Re The Sunday Supplement Quiz, 26th February 2023
Q: Given the Earth's curvature, what is the maximum range at which the radar on a ship's mast has can detect an oncoming ship or low-flying aircraft?
A: The maximum is 20 kilometers, according to information in the public domain, though who knows what classified technologies may be hidden from view. Aircraft are in a much better position, obviously: An F-35's radar can "see" up to 150 km. But radar has a big downside. A radar beams out so much energy that a suitably-equipped enemy object can detect the radar field before the radar has the strength to localise and track the enemy.
The answer is highly dependent upon the height of the radar mast and the height above sea level of the object to be detected. In almost all cases, any reasonable heights would yield detection ranges far in excess of 20km. Visual LOS would be about 20km for a mast height of~100ft and an object at sea level.
- Richard Masterson
20th January 2023
The article “When the Doctor Doesn’t Listen” by David Tuller would present a nice counter to your recommendation from a few weeks back “What Long Covid Means” by Peter Robinson. In his piece, Robinson ignores the latest science showing that Long Covid likely has a physiological process as a root cause for the majority of patients. Instead he invokes psychosomatic disease, refuses to carry out further tests, and to some, might be seen as portraying patients as hysterics - particularly women ("She had screamed at me a few months prior"), who are more affected by Long Covid according to the data. This is harmful to patients as further stigmatises, discourages research, and would change/delay the way we monitor and treat them when we know there are biological reasons for their suffering.
In “When the Doctor Doesn’t Listen”, David Tuller offers a more cautionary and compassionate tale. Through the harrowing story of a young woman who passed from ME/CFS, he addresses the long history of the medical establishment ignoring patients with unexplained symptoms. He hopes that Long Covid might bring about a global shift to that:
It might also interest you to know that there was recently a similar article to Robinson’s published in The New Republic, which also suggested Long Covid might be a Functional Neurological Disorder. Over 200 journalists, researchers, physicians, and people living with Long Covid, ME/CFS, and other infection-associated illnesses sent the following letter in response, demanding corrections and an apology for the misinformation spread by columnist Natalie Shure. Perhaps less publishable by you than the above Tuller article, but a good read nonetheless.
Arguing about God
17th January 2023
Regarding 'The Best Arguments for God's Existence', shared on 17th January 2023:
Those who criticize the New Atheists for ignoring theologians are missing the ir mark. Theologians are not the right people to argue with. That the New Atheists “win” such an argument proves nothing.
Instead, why not argue with someone who has a hard life to live?
To keep things simple, lets suppose that this person is a Christian. He or she might start by saying, “Well, Christ was poor and had a hard life and a terrible death (like some I know) and he seems more likely to have something to say that is useful to me on how to live than some lab jacket with a PhD.”
The reason Christ’s life and teachings seem so important is that they are metaphor that matters: that observation of the human condition would suggest that they are good metaphor — or in other words they are in an important sense true; and that the importance of the difference between metaphoric and non-metaphoric truth is somewhat overstated when it comes to making sense of life as it happens.
As an aside, one of the common spurious tropes repeated here is that a great deal of evil has been done in the name of religion. Can’t argue with that. And so religion is likely to be bad. Can argue with that, though. Lots of things that are either neutral or good often get perverted to an evil end. Nuclear energy and sharp kitchen knives come to mind. Doesn’t mean that nuclear energy or good knives are bad though.
So, focusing on “good" religion that can guide people to a “good' life, I would argue that it is true, even if not amenable to statistical validation, and relevant — often far more relevant than any number of scientific insights.
– Charles Taylor
Cats and rats
27th Dec 2022
In the "Sunday Supplement" of Dec 25, 2022, you shared the following "Problem of the Week":
"If three cats catch three rats in three minutes, how many cats will catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?"
As you explained, this problem has no single unambiguous answer. However, I felt that your explanation as to why that is was less lucid than usual.
Here's my attempt. There are two ways to interpret the problem:
- Gang: The three cats gang up; the gang catches rats at the rate of 1 minute per rat
- Lone cat: Cats hunt on their own; a single cat catches rats at the rate of 3 minutes per ratIt's kind of surprising that these two interpretations give a different answer. Everything is linear, so why would it matter if cats hunt as a gang, or individually? Do these cats become ruthless hunters when they gang up & turn into lazy kittens when left alone?
No, that's not it. The reason is some technical mathematical weirdness, and a graph makes it clear why:
As we can see, under the "gang interpretation," a rat is caught every minute. We have a step function in which the "number of rats caught" increases by one every minute.
Under the "lone cat interpretation," though, things are different. We now have a step function that goes up by three units... but only every three minutes.
Here's what happens around 100 minutes into the hunt:
Under the "gang interpretation," the cats have caught exactly 100 rats after 100 minutes of hunting. However, under the "lone cat interpretation," we are still at 99 rats!
These graphs illustrate the root cause behind the ambiguity: The "gang" & "lone cat" interpretations are not great physical models of rat catching. For example, under the "gang interpretation," 59 seconds into the hunting, the gang has caught zero rats, but 60 seconds in, it has caught one!
Realistically, what we have in mind when we say things like "it takes three minutes to catch a rat" is "on average, it takes three minutes to catch a rat." Sometimes it's two minutes, sometimes it's four, but on average, it's around three.
It's easy to model this more realistic alternative. Let's assume that a cat catches a rat with a probability of 1/3 per minute (that ensures that, on average, a cat catches a rat every three minutes). If we have 3 cats, that means the cats catch, on average, one rat per minute.
That gives us a nice linear relationship between hunting time & rats caught:
Under this, in my view, more realistic interpretation, it takes exactly three cats to "catch 100 rats in 100 minutes" (on average!). And, importantly, it does not matter if cats hunt as a gang or individually.
– Simas Kucinskas
Ambassadors and authorship
24th Nov 2022
Kids, it is time to grow up. You must be among the last people on the planet to still think that Bill Burns (now US Director of Central Intelligence and twelve years ago US Ambassador in Moscow) wrote the famous leaked telegram from the Moscow Embassy about a wedding feast in Daghestan. (“The Browser” November 24, 2022)
As is the case with most countries (the UK included), the name of the ambassador or current chief of mission is at the bottom of every outgoing message from an embassy; as is the name of the Secretary of State or current Acting Secretary at the bottom of every message which leaves the State Department. This does not mean they wrote them or, indeed, even that they actually read more than an infinitesimal number of the messages with their names attached. This is standard.
The Foreign Service Officer who did write the "wedding cable" is known to me, as he worked under my benign editorial supervision in Moscow during an earlier posting, as I worked for Bill Burns in Moscow during one of his earlier postings. He now lives in retirement near Paris, so surely the “Guardian” must know who he is. I thought everyone did.
Burns is a fine writer but not a literary one. Frankly, he has far too much to worry about to concern himself with prose style. Fortunately, others can and do.
— E Wayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Europe & Eurasia, American Foreign Policy Council
4th November 2022
In a letter to Browser subscribers this week I recommended novels that I had found enjoyable as "comfort reading". All were by white men of a certain age: Richard Ford was 62 when he published Lay Of The Land in 2006; Anthony Trollope was 56 when he published The Eustace Diamonds in 1871; John Le Carré completed Silverview in 2020 before his death at the age of 89.
A number of subscribers wrote to me expressing surprise and dismay that I had recommended novels by men only. One letter which gave me much pause for thought came from Mary Ann Sieghart, this year's Chair of Judges for the Women’s Prize For Fiction. With her permission, I reproduce our exchange below.
— Robert Cottrell
From Mary Ann Sieghart to Robert Cottrell, 2nd November 2022
I enjoyed your Browser email on comfort reading, but I can’t help pointing out that you’ve only recommended fiction by male authors. I’m sure this wasn’t a conscious decision, but as the Chair of Judges for the Women’s Prize For Fiction this year, I can assure you that women make very great novelists!
One of my bugbears, as I set out in my book, The Authority Gap, is that while we women will read just as many books by men as by women, men tend not to return the favour. On average, they read four books by a man for every book by a woman. Why? Women are just as good writers as men, and research by Goodreads finds that men actually give slightly higher ratings to books by women than to books by men. So it’s not as if they won’t or don’t enjoy them. This summer, I launched a #menreadingwomen campaign in the The Guardian.
Perhaps you could redress the balance by writing your next newsletter about your favourite books by women? You might, by the way, love this year’s Women’s Prize winner: The Book Of Form And Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. It’s clever, funny, original and philosophical. — Mary Ann Sieghart
From Robert Cottrell to Mary Ann Sieghart, 3rd November 2022
Thank you for writing. I have followed the reception of your book with admiration. I agree with everything that you say here (and there).
I didn't develop the point about old white males in this particular piece only because I felt (and, I see now, wrongly) my shortcoming was so painfully clear. For comfort reading, I am at home with old white males because I am myself of that demographic. These books are all, to some degree, tales of old white male privilege.
For reading and writing in principle and in general I want universality, because I value honesty above all, and I think a writer can only be honest about the life which they know and the world in which they live. I want to read people writing about the identity that they feel.
I saw on every page my own bias towards male writers when I was editing The Browser on my own until 2019. I did not want or intend to favour male writers and yet I did so.
Happily, since Caroline Crampton took over as editor-in-chief, and I have become her colleague, I hope between us we have been achieving a better balance.
My weekly letters generally go out only to a small group of Browser subscribers who have asked to receive them; I think on this occasion I pushed a wrong button and sent the letter to everyone. My record has been better over time than this isolated letter might suggest. Most of my previous letter was about books by Caroline Elkins, that of the week before was largely about a book by M.E. Sarotte.
I may even be an outlier from your general rule, in preferring novels written by women over novels written by men, at least in new literary fiction. By "preferring", I mean, more willing to give a book a try, more willing to make a speculative purchase, with a greater expectation of enjoyment. In recent weeks I have been reading Lauren Oyler, Hermione Hoby, Jenny Offill, Jenny Erpenbeck, Rebecca Goldstein, Katie Kitamura and Kate Atkinson. I have discussed books by Goldstein and Atkinson in recent letters; likewise Iris Murdoch's novels, which I appreciate no longer count as "new"; but I do wonder, when I read Murdoch, whether I am encountering in her fiction a mirror-image of what a female reader might feel when reading a book by a male novelist — in the case of Murdoch, with respect to her male characters, the outer behaviour is plausible, but the inner life does not really add up.
I will read the Ruth Ozeki, of course. The only book I have so far read from your 2022 Prize shortlist is Louise Erdrich's The Sentence, which was wonderful, so if the Ozeki tops that, I have a treat ahead. Of last year's list I loved Piranesi, if not quite as much as I had Jonathan Strange; and in some ways I enjoyed the Patricia Lockwood more. From years gone by, Naomi Alderman's The Power made a tremendous impression on me, one of those books which changed the way I thought about the world. — Robert Cottrell
Mary Ann Sieghart to Robert Cottrell, 4th November 2022
I’m so glad you enjoy contemporary female novelists. I didn’t have you down as one of those men who only read books by men, which was why I was surprised and felt I had to write to you. I agree with you about Iris Murdoch, by the way, except that I find the inner life of her female characters as implausible as that of her male ones! — Mary Ann Sieghart
The Endowment of Princeton
3rd October 2022
Editors - As an enthusiastic daily reader of The Browser’s recommendations, I was disappointed to see the truly appalling Malcolm Gladwell piece, not only linked in the first place but also highlighted in the Sunday quiz.
The Browser’s summary in the quiz reads “The endowment of Princeton is now approaching $39 billion, from which the annual income alone would be enough for the university to educate all its students for free and still bank an unspent surplus of about $2 billion each year.”
Oh dear, no! Here are the two big mistakes in Gladwell’s calculation:
- Gladwell relies on a historical average return, without adjusting for inflation – that is, a nominal return. If Princeton continues to earn that same nominal return and spends it each year, it will maintain its nominal spending constant but will not keep up with inflation. This is a particularly serious problem in higher education, where it is well known that costs grow faster than average because higher education does not benefit from the technological improvements that drive down the costs of smartphones and flat-screen TVs. The Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) has had inflation of 3% or more in recent years (before the pandemic and global resurgence of inflation) so at least this much must be subtracted from Gladwell’s return if one wants to calculate the spending that Princeton can indefinitely sustain.
- Gladwell uses Princeton’s average return over the last 20 years, rounding down slightly to 10%. This ignores the fact that the prices of all long-term assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) have been driven up during this period by a massive decline in long-term real interest rates from about 4% at the turn of the millennium to a negative value in 2021 when he ends his analysis. The decline in real interest rates is a sign that future returns will be lower than normal, not higher as they temporarily were during the transition. Certainly one cannot expect another 4 percentage point decline in interest rates to boost returns in the next 20 years – that particular piece of luck has run out. Most US universities assume they can earn a 5% real return going forward, and in my view even that is too optimistic: 4% would be more reasonable.
Of course, correcting Gladwell’s calculation doesn’t alter the fact that Princeton is a very wealthy university. Even 5% x $37.7 billion = $1.885 billion which is roughly Princeton’s current operating cost. But the final problem with his article is that he thinks people give money to Princeton and similar universities to pay for current operations. No, they make donations to expand the operations of the university, creating new buildings, research institutes, etc. There is no reason why that should not continue even if Princeton has a large enough endowment to cover its current operating costs indefinitely.
Finally, I strongly object to the tone of writing like this:
“This breakthrough happened quietly, as many epochal events often do, buried in a press release issued by the school on October 29, 2021. Why was the breakthrough ignored until now? I cannot say for certain, except that perhaps few observers of America’s educational system are as unhealthily obsessed with the fine print of Ivy League press releases as I am.
But when I read the news, I will tell you in all candor, I gasped in shock. For years I’ve been quietly predicting that this moment would someday come. And now it has.”
Malcolm Gladwell wants you to believe he’s a solitary genius who can see things that escape others. He doesn’t ask himself if he might just be out of his depth. I’m sorry that The Browser gave so much free publicity to this inferior and irritating piece of work.
- John Campbell, Morton L. and Carole S. Olshan Professor of Economics, Harvard University
The Naming of Numbers
12th December 2021
Editors - Regarding the Sunday Supplement puzzle, 12th December 2021 -
"If you list all the number from zero to infinity in alphabetical order, what would be the second number..." is interesting because it automatically leads you to assume something when you look at the answer: that you mean whole numbers and whole numbers only. Then the answer makes sense. Unless...
If you THEN start to think about how whole numbers are named, especially around the world, it means you need to include "billiard" when talking about either the long-scale trillion or short-scale quadrillion. I acknowledge it is only used in English very rarely, but it's still worth considering if you love numbers. So "eight billiard" comes before "eight billion".
But what if you start to include fractions? Well, then I believe you have to think again. Depending on how you write a number, with, for example, "two and a half", "a third" or "a hundred" being fairly standard, you instantly have a number of numbers that fit between eight and eight billion (or indeed eight and eight billiard). "Eight and a..." will be after "eight", and I feel that "eight and a billionth" (if you are going to discard "billiard") comes next.
Of course NOW we have to consider the fractions between zero and one and the way they are written, e.g. "a half", in which case we move rapidly away from anything to do with "eight" - being "an eighth", "an eighteenth", an "eightieth" and so on - and shift to some very small numbers such as "a billionth" or indeed "a billiardth". If you allow both of these then I think "a billiardth" is first and "a billionth" is next (even I am going to bypass phrases such as "a billionth billionth" as there is a correct word for it).
However (and at this point you'll be VERY glad to hear, almost finally) if anything to do with "billiard" is out of bounds but fractions ARE included, then I think (but am happy to be proved wrong, as are all good scientists) that "a billionth" is first and "a centillionth" is second.
I do have to accept all of this is academic if you write fractions as, say, "two and one half" or "one third" (i.e. "one" in place of "a"), in which case we are back to "eight" and "eight billion", which I am pretty sure why "billion" isn't the first number as it is classed as "one billion" rather than "a billion" or just "billion" on its own. Indeed if you happen to post this, I can already imagine the snorts of derision at me assuming "a" can be used instead of "one" in numbers of any kind.
- Stephen Yeardley
15th November 2021
Editors - Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s polemic against global capitalism seems to me a bit unbalanced. As a one-time professional economist, I would agree that capitalism was in the room when many of the social, economic and ecological problems we face today were coming to the boil, but as in any who-done-it, being in the room is hardly enough to prove guilt.
Besides, it was also in the room when a number of positive developments were playing out. The fall in global poverty rates over the past 40 or 50 years as noted many times by the World Bank and the fall in global violence over a longer period as noted by Stephen Pinker.
And there are some inherent positive characteristics to global capitalism, or “free markets,” as its less harsh critics sometimes refer to it. It is diverse and decentralized. It allows for variety and individual choice.
That is not to say that inequality and the other problems Chaudhary lights upon aren’t real. But what is his solution? I really couldn’t figure that out. Some capitalists are quite powerful, but nothing like as powerful as state actors can be: witness Xi’s recent crackdown. In fact, capitalism has been a counterweight to tyranny as often as it has been its bedfellow.
The conventional economist’s response to our current global woes may be less eye-catching than a lusty polemic — more like keyhole surgery and less like decapitation. It is a combination of regulation, and taxes that address inequality and externalities. A modified capitalism; what you might call free markets with guard rails; freedom constrained by politics and policy to the minimum extent needed to address inequality, environmental degradation and our other ills. That involves a massive change agenda with many hurdles to be overcome, but it also offers a more positive vision of our destiny than simply ranting against the world and implying that the way forward is to destroy everything we have.
– Charles Taylor
5th September 2021
Editors - Regarding the Sunday supplement quiz, 5th September 2021 - Sorry, but it's not in Normandy. Proust’s Illiers, now officially known as Illiers-Combray, is about 20 miles from Chartres, in the Eure-et-Loir department, about 70 miles SW of Paris. He did write a good deal about a town in Normandy he called Balbec, based on Cabourg—which is (thank you, Google) 166 miles west of Illiers-Combray.
- Laurel Wilson
18th August 2021
Editors - Whist certainly one to make some incredibly noisy music (Yo! I Killed Your God) calling Marc Ribot a noise guitarist (Poet, Place, Noise, Mars, Rays) is a great disservice to his incomparable contributions to jazz and avant garde music.
From Los Cubanos Postizos to The Lounge Lizards to his Shoe String Symphonettes he's continually shown that his guitar playing is extremely versatile and among the best around. Pigeon holing him as a noise guitarist serves to diminish his incredible musicality and technical ability.
Bringing Up Baby
18th July 2021
Editors - I am enjoying the latest developments to the Sunday edition of The Browser, and note with some delight that I am able to make a slight factual emendation to the second of the week’s quiz questions (The Sunday Supplement, 18th July): by the dialogue in Bringing Up Baby, it seems that three days have passed with Susan following the dog around her aunt’s estate before she is able to retrieve the missing ‘intercostal clavicle,’ which ended with the dog presenting Susan the bone in question as a gift. Only then does she come to the workplace to deliver the news that a) the bone has been found, and b) the million dollar gift to the museum will be made after all. Declarations of love are then exchanged, and only then does the brontosaurus skeleton collapse, leaving our leads in the scaffolding.
14th July 2021
Editors - I'm a regular reader and just wanted to check the provenance of the Romanian hay article. I ask because cone shaped hay bales are common across northern Europe, and it's not clear from the article what the special significance of the Romanian approach is? See for example, http://katewritesandreads.blogspot.com/2016/07/a-time-to-reap-2-how-to-make-haystack.html?m=1 or http://deborahheal.com/making-hay-1788/
- Amit Kamal
Battle of Talas
27th June 2021
Editors - Regarding The Sunday Supplement quiz, 27th June - Sorry to point this out but it was the Abbasids who won at Talas, their general (probably not an Arab) had helped oust the Ummayids shortly before.
Their army was largely composed of Persians and Turkic groups. They were allied with the Tibetans against Tang expansionism.
Violent crime vs. Murder
28th June 2021
Editors – The homicide/crime graph below is an example of misleading statistical presentation. In the form of an annualized line chart, the reader is led to believe that the prior year there was 10% Homicide but in 2020 there was 25% — that’s 2.5x the amount of murder and we should be terrified! In fact, the chart represents that in 2020, the annual change from the year prior was +10%. In 2021 it is +25% from the year before, but drawing a progression line between the two does not show the change in rate of homicide, but rather the 2nd derivative of homicide rates (the rate at which the rate of change is changing)… it’s useful or statistical analysis but 2nd derivatives are designed to grossly exaggerated a trend for analysis.
Futhermore, the chart is ambiguous as how the 2021 figure is determined. Is it a projection based on current rates? Is it where we already are in 2021? Or some other formulation? We can’t actually answer these questions because the original source linked to for the chart does not cite its own methodology or link to a data set beyond broadly crediting “FBI”.
– Andrew Cafourek
2nd May 2021
Editors – In your reference to the podcast “Little Boots” (Rhodes, Punk, Caligula, Strike, Pox) the emperor in question is not Nero, but Caligula, a name that translates as little boots.
Thanks for a most useful and informative service.
– Barry Bedrick
30th April 2021
Editors — As a reader working in the energy industry, I always love to see related content coming through in your excellent curation. I also enjoy that you don't hesitate to recommend non-mainstream viewpoints.
The nuclear viewpoint in the article you listed is common (popularised by Freakonomics) where typically non-energy experts make the case for nuclear in a variety of ways, but start by glossing over the assumption that we need it. In this article it was done with the following sentence:
"Nuclear power is the sword that can cut it: a scalable source of dispatchable (i.e., on-demand), virtually emissions-free energy. It takes up very little land, consumes very little fuel, and produces very little waste. It‘s the technology the world needs to solve both energy poverty and climate change"
This is not really true. The short answer to why we don't have lots of new-build nuclear power is that we now have alternatives that are cheaper and do the job better.
It would be great to see that opposing viewpoint come through in a counterpoint to help inform other readers, since it's commonly misunderstood (understandably - a lot of energy content out there is written by entrenched interests and it's not easy to find good analysis from objective viewpoints). Let me know if you would like specific recommendations on articles. Otherwise, the clues to look for are "dispatchable renewables" and "why baseload generation is a myth".
– Andrew Payne
Economic Freedom In China
5th March 2021
Editors — Matt Ridley's take on innovation in China (Discourse) is astonishingly bad. The author claims that:
— China no longer copies intellectual property (no nation or company outside China would agree);
— that China leads the world in Internet use (sure, as long as you’re happy to use the domestic Internet, because the prominent non-Chinese apps and websites and services are all blocked inside China);
— that Chinese infrastructure development is the envy of the world (if so, that is a by-product of complete state control and the unfettered use of eminent domain);
— that there is general acceptance of a work ethic in which entrepreneurs flog their employees 9:9:6 (ask the workers about that);
— that a Chinese entrepreneur "faces almost none of the delays and restrictions that a Western one does. He is not required to get permits, licences and go-aheads from multiple beadles and bureaucrats of the state. He just gets on with it: hires new researchers, builds a new production line, sets up a new company".
This last claim is ludicrous. The enormous Chinese bureaucracy and the administrators of its well-developed legal system would surely disagree.
America And China
2nd February 2021
Editors — The Longer Telegram (Atlantic Council) was a fascinating article. Thank you for including it. However, it also left me thinking: "As a non-expert, I could easily be swayed by this forcefully and authoritatively stated argument. I need to find a counter argument". Daniel Larison, in American Conservative, provides a thought-provoking counterpoint.
The Limits Of Cynicism
25th January 2021
Editors — A different editorial direction seems to be needed if you have reached the point of including someone like Curtis Yarvin (Gray Mirror) as deserving of a hearing. Yarvin is a fairly standard-issue neo-fascist. His supposed "cynicism" that "allows no place for the possibility of virtue or sincerity in others" is the least of his offenses, and makes him sound merely misguided or mistaken.
The world is becoming a tinderbox in which forces gathered by Yarvin and people like him are exceptionally dangerous. With irreparable and catastrophic damage from climate change looming along with the need for collective action, there is no remaining room for error or lost time. Writing like Yarvin's should not be indulged and platformed just because it seems amusing or clever, which it isn't. It is time for writing that is serious, not for writing that merely seems novel, fresh, clever or even eloquent.
Britain And Europe
17th September 2020
Editors — Edward White (Paris Review) is incorrect to say that the British people voted in 1975 to enter the EEC. In fact they voted to stay in the EEC. Prime Minister Edward Heath had taken the UK into the EEC in January 1973. When Labour won the 1974 General Election Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a referendum to decide whether to remain in the EEC or leave. The majority of people voted to stay in the UK. Hope someone can inform Mr White of his error!
Siege Of The Third Precinct
25th June 2020
Editors — Seizing a police station (Crimethinc) isn't "protest" or civil disobedience. It's a needless act of violence that easily could cause substantial loss of life. I doubt you'd be glorifying such behavior if it spread to your neighborhood. Too bad we forgot how effective non-violence can be. MLK and Gandhi managed to lead two of the most significant revolutions in human history.
Truth And Bellingcat
7th June 2020
Editors — Despite being a lawyer of [many] years experience and having lots of other Establishment-type background, I now find myself much more aligned on the weightier issues from the same kind of perspective as Pilger, Chomsky et al. I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I try to start from basic principles on every question.
So, as to Bellingcat (Guardian) I start from their reportage itself. Much of it on Syria I found wholly unbelievable and simply flying in the face of facts. When I began to dig deeper into the likes of Media Lens, Craig Murray, Ben Norton, Mark Curtis, Ray McGovern, Consortium News, David Graeber etc etc I began to see a broader picture of state interference all over the place.
Consider, for example, the alleged chemical attack by Assad at Douma in April 2018. The Media Lens report on it is telling. Towards the end of Part 1 you can see a trail of points about Bellingcat and Elliot Higgins. Even the Bellingcat website asserts that it works in partnership with the National Endowment for Democracy, which touts itself as “a keystone of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy”.
I could refer you to more pieces, but it seems to me a matter of whether it seems convincing to you at all. If you dismiss such criticisms as part of the “loony left” or “David Icke-type” flat-earthism, then probably not much I can say will persuade you to the contrary. Have a look for yourself and see what you think. The writers I cite above are all worth checking out—they are all serious journalists, academics or ex-government. A quick Google (or DuckDuckGo) search will take you there.
For my part, I see nothing particularly wrong in directing readers to a Bellingcat site, but I think it worth pointing out to them that his views are “contested”, along the lines one sees in Wikipedia articles that are especially disputed.
(Letters concerning Dave Grossman’s “sheep and wolves” theory of policing have their own page here)