Back when I was a kid, the local stations would have the creature features with the horror host on Friday and Saturday night, but they’d also show them on Saturday afternoons for the kids. It’s Saturday Afternoon. Are you ready for The Giant Spider Invasion? It stars, sorta, Alan Hale Jr. as the sheriff — he’s better known as the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island.

The first lines of dialog:

Young man: “Sheriff!”
Alan Hale Jr: “Hi, little buddy!”

Because of course they are.

Other notable facts: it takes place in northern Wisconsin, but none of the residents seem at all perturbed at finding tarantulas all over the place. Just the usual house spiders, I guess.

The big bad monster is cheesy and fake, but by the standards of low budget horror/skiffy of the day, it’s actually not too bad. They do a good job of framing it with the camera so you can’t see the puppeteers wiggling the legs and moving it along. I want one.

Also by the standards of the genre, they did an OK job imitating the chelicerae of a mygalomorph.

The story ends with an abrupt deus ex machina, but it’s really an excuse to show buckets of multi-colored goo and slime oozing out to an excessive degree from the dead spider puppet. Young me would have appreciated it.

Hello again to another Friday… oops I mean Saturday! Having trouble keeping track of days? Well, we all are. My mostly-optional Zoom online class schedule is the only thing that’s really keeping me aware these days. Anyway, apologies for the lateness. First, I have just a few COVID-related stories that are good reads and not …

That’s bad advice, since in my experience museums tend to be full of excited, eager disease-carriers — I mean, children — and a lot of museums are currently closing their doors and laying off staff. There are still museums with an online presence, though. Here’s a spider expert answering questions at the Burke Museum, and the Bell Museum has video tours of their exhibits. Tell your little disease-carriers kids to sit down and pretend they’re visiting a museum!

Hey, also, when this is all over, and when your finances have recovered…become a member of your nearest museum. They’re all hurting right now, too, and we should appreciate and support our local resources.

I think the title is a double entendre in Australian, but it’s not a language I am fluent in. Anyway, a paper in Nature describes an assortment of organisms found in amber from Australia and New Zealand, ranging in age from 230 million years to 40 million years. It’s lovely stuff.

Significant bioinclusions of plants and animals in Southern Gondwana late middle Eocene amber of Anglesea, Victoria. (A to B) Liverworts of the genus Radula (Marchantiophyta: Radulaceae). (C) Two stems with perfectly preserved phyllids or leaf-like structures of mosses of the genus Racopilum (Bryophyta: Racopilaceae). (D) Juvenile individuals of spiders. (E to F) Springtail of the living genus Coecobrya (Entomobryomorpha: Entomobryidae) in two views. (G) A Symphypleona springtail. (H) Light photograph of large piece of yellow amber with two dipterans, Dolichopodidae at left and Ceratopogonidae at right, and at top of image a mite of the living genus Leptus (Arachnida: Acari: Trombidiformes: Erythraeidae). (I) Dipterans of the family Dolichopodidae (long-legged flies) in copula. (J) Worker ant of the living genus Monomorium or a “Monomorium-like” lineage (Hymenoptera: Formicoidea: Formicidae).

I don’t know about you, but I was most interested in D, the two juvenile spiders.

Wait, I do know about you — you’re most interested in I, the two flies caught in the act. So here’s a closeup.

Count yourself lucky. Now if you want to take a pornographic selfie, you just whip out your phone, capture the moment, and go on with your life. Forty million years ago, you had to say “Freeze! Look sexy!” and wait for a drop of sap to ooze over you, and then you had to hold the pose for tens of millions of years.

Let’s get it all out of the way at once, OK? I’ll write a few things about the pandemic, and then anything else I write today will be exclusively non-plague related.

  • In David Brin’s The Postman (skip the movie, read the book), one of the things that struck me as true was that the thing you have to worry about most in the post-apocalypse is the people — especially the militias, the religious fanatics, the conspiracy theorists who make it their life’s mission to make the chaos worse. Well say hello to sick conspiracies endorsed by the likes of QAnon.

    A train engineer at the Port of Las Angeles was arrested on Tuesday after he deliberately derailed a train and crashed it near the Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy over his suspicions that the ship was part of a government takeover, according to a Justice Department statement about the incident.

    Or how about nurses being attacked by racists?

    “A man elbowed my rib, intentionally pushing me to the side, the female partner then shouted racial abuse saying: “at least we are whites you f***ing c***.”

    You might be wondering what the actual pseudo-military militias are thinking right now. It’s not good.

    If COVID-19 sticks around for a while maybe it will snap people out of this false sense of entitlement culture we live in, put your phones down and talk to one another, hold respectful interactions.. a real gut check into what is important, a snap away from our lemmings like existence on earth. a breath of fresh air amid the chaos.

    There will definitely be pros to this experience in addition to the cons. There has certainly been another uptick in new members on here since this has begun.

    Yeah, because the real problem is people spending too much time on their phones, when they should be strutting around town with their AR-15.

  • Would you believe that conspiracy nuts in the UK are claiming that 5G wireless causes COVID-19, and that when that network is activated, everyone is going to die? People are attacking cell phone masts over these baseless fears.
  • Just a thought here. We’re currently seeing a total failure of the supply chain producing PPE gear, and Boy Wonder Jared Kushner is making it worse with his penchant for grabbing at anything not nailed down, or things that are nailed down and committed to other buyers, and hoarding it and saying “mine!” He doesn’t seem to understand how to do the job at all.

    But wait a moment, I thought, I wouldn’t know how to do that job, either. For decades, Republicans have touted the virtues of electing people with business experience, and for once, I can see where someone who was familiar with the principles of keeping goods flowing in an efficient supply chain would be perfect to manage that kind of job, and ought to be appointed there.

    Except — and this is not something I often think about — “businessperson” is not a catch-all occupation. There are diverse roles within a business. And some roles are not at all useful in most situations. A slumlord doesn’t work with supply chains. Neither does a guy who runs casinos into bankruptcy. Neither do Wall Street bankers and insurance company executives. Those are actually the most useless possible qualifications for anybody to do anything other than leech off other people’s money. And who are we putting in positions of power in our country? You guessed it, the leeches and parasites.

  • Don’t read this story. A woman can’t see her dying husband in quarantine, so she has to watch him die over FaceTime. She plays their wedding song to him as he goes. He was only 42.
    And this is where we are.

  • Trump is still president.

I’m done for the day. I’m going to grade exams and listen to the birds sing outside my window.

Only two more puzzles to go! Here is today’s puzzle…..

2 mothers and 2 daughters go out for lunch. They order 6 slices of pizza and can share the slices equally between them.

How is this possible?

Yesterday I posted this puzzle….

What phrases are represented here….

1) sta4nce

2) Give Give Give Give Get Get Get Get

3) 1245safety78271

If you haven’t tried to solve it, have a go now. For everyone else, the answer is below….

1) For instance

2) Forgive and forget

3) Safety in numbers

Follow the blog for more daily puzzles. See you tomorrow!

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to! Transcript: Hey friends, welcome to week 4 (ish?) of quarantine — for me, at least, because I live in a city that took COVID-19 seriously way back when it was just a baby epidemic. And …

The snow is back. Not much of it, but it was mixed with freezing rain and now everything is covered with a thin glaze of extraordinarily slippery ice, so I guess Nature is enforcing the stay-at-home order.

These scofflaw birds don’t care at all, though. My yard was covered with sparrows for a while, and the birdfeeder in my front yard has become the most popular meeting spot in the area. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. STAY INDOORS. Stupid birds.

By Laura Geggel About 90 million years ago, West Antarctica was home to a thriving temperate rainforest, according to fossil roots, pollen and spores recently discovered there, a new study finds. The world was a different place back then. During the middle of the Cretaceous period (145 million to 65 million years ago), dinosaurs roamed Earth and sea levels were 558 …
By Madeline Holcombe and Stephanie Gallman Officials from the health care and federal and state governments have promoted social distancing as a powerful tool in the fight against coronavirus. But of the 39 states that have implemented stay at home orders, 12 make exceptions for religious gatherings. A revival held at a church resulted in …
By Hemant Mehta Here’s some good news in the midst of our national chaos. It starts with a question: Who has legal authority to perform a wedding ceremony? In most states, the answer includes certain government officials like judges (if you’re getting married in court) or religious ministers. It’s not like your best friend could …
By Andrew L. Seidel Religious liberty is threatened in America, but not in the way you’ve been told. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as it stands right now, poses a very real threat to the religious freedom of every American. The CARES Act allows businesses and nonprofits to borrow money from …
Back in January my wife received a gift from Scandinavia. A sourdough starter from an actual Copenhagen bakery, smuggled in by a brave friend. I assume it counts as smuggling. I’m not actually finding anything about the legality of bringing sourdough starters into the US, but some sourdough aficionados are giving advice online on how …

Here is today’s puzzle…..

What phrases are represented here….

1) sta4nce

2) Give Give Give Give Get Get Get Get

3) 1245safety78271

Yesterday I posted this puzzle….

Yesterday I went fishing.  I caught a fish that had a length of 30 inches plus half its own length.

If you haven’t tried to solve it, have a go now. For everyone else, the answer is below….

If the fish was 30 inches long plus half its length, then half of the fish must be 30 inches, making the whole fish 60 inches long.

Follow the blog for more daily puzzles. See you tomorrow!


This article is a preview from the Spring 2020 edition of New Humanist

We can all do the calculations, at least up to a point. First, some scientific calculations: if we carry on pumping out greenhouse gases at the present rate, then global heating will soon be out of control, and several million people will die as a result of floods or droughts, and millions more will be left without homes or livelihoods or anything much to eat or drink; after which, things are likely to get worse and worse, ending perhaps with the obliteration of most forms of life on Earth. Next, a few political calculations, such as: capitalism may be the root of the climate emergency, but given that there is no time to lose, it will also have to be part of any solution. Then we can turn to moral calculations: for instance, every new human life puts further strain on the planetary eco-system, so you should not have any children; and given that air travel is a massive part of the problem, you’d better cancel your longed-for holiday in the sun.

When it comes to climate change, we can, it seems, calculate to our heart’s content. But if David Wood is right, calculation will never bring us to the heart of the matter. In his deeply impressive new book, Reoccupy Earth, Wood argues that our everyday intellectual resources are not equal to the task of comprehending the present crisis. Calculation is not enough, he says, and what we need is a good strong dose of philosophy.

Wood is well known for his cool and witty advocacy of the kind of “continental philosophy” that some people hate and others love with a passion. Over the years he has written lucidly about such notoriously disruptive thinkers as Nietzsche, Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, and above all Heidegger and his mercurial disciple Derrida. And he believes that, while none of them explicitly discussed the prospect of globicide, their work may be indispensable in the struggle to prevent it. One of the main features of the impending calamity is, after all, that it arises not from deliberate destructiveness or nihilistic malice, but from misplaced technological optimism, or even public benevolence gone wrong. The road to climate disaster is paved with good intentions, decked out in fine words like “progress”, “prosperity”, “nature” and “humanity”. Wood’s aim in Reoccupy Earth is to use the techniques of continental philosophy to dismantle such concepts.

Anyone who sets great store by the word “humanism” will find some of the argument hard to take. For Wood, humanism involves not so much a generous and inclusive attitude towards our fellow human beings as a determination to think of ourselves as the crowning glory of God’s creation or Darwin’s evolution – a “masterful subject”, as he puts it, glorying in a sense of absolute entitlement to “planetary dominion”. Humanism in this self-aggrandising sense is not just a philosophical theory, of the kind you can take up or abandon at will: it is what Wood calls a “habit”, built up from layer upon layer of fantasies, phrases, stories and images reaching down into the unconscious and back into the past. “Memories of the campfire die hard,” he says, and when we contemplate the smoke drifting across a starry sky to disappear without trace, we will draw the obvious conclusion that the natural world is like an indulgent parent or a faithful servant, forgiving all our insults, clearing up our messes and making sure that when the tide comes back in, or a new day dawns, or spring comes round again, everything will return to normal, we will all be forgiven and the world will smile on us again.

Philosophy, as Wood defines it, is essentially “the enemy of habit”, and it has a particular bearing on the habits of humanism. In the first part of a three-stage argument, he takes up Derrida’s notions of “deconstruction”, “differentiation” and “undecidability” and applies them to our customary self-image as an isolated fortress of humanity surrounded by something called “nature” or the “environment” or an “external world”. He starts from one of Derrida’s comments about 9/11: that most Americans thought of the attacks as issuing from an undifferentiated elsewhere – an all-embracing “enemy without” – thus blinding themselves to the possibility that this “outside” might in fact have been manufactured in the US. Wood suggests that our habitual interpretations of human existence involve much the same process of “homogenising differentiation”, through which we imagine ourselves as encircled by unbiddable non-human objects which are essentially “different from us” and therefore, as we incuriously assume, “similar to one another”. But a bit of probing reveals chinks in the conceptual armour, and Wood thinks that with the help of what he calls “econstruction” we can train ourselves to see nature not as an undifferentiated externality, but a miscellany of more or less autonomous entities forming tangled webs of relations.

Following this rather abstract critique of humanist conceptual habits, Wood moves on to consider humanist forms of experience. We tend to think of perception as a passive process in which our body responds automatically to the stimulus of external objects – starlight entering our eyes, the chirping of crickets in our ears, smoke up our nostrils, wine down our throat, wind on our skin. But phenomenological theorists from Husserl onwards have urged us to recognise the world as essentially a “human world”, which would not exist unless we had actively endowed it with structure, and built up a sense of ourselves as individuals leading our lives within it. Wood proposes to extend this analysis by developing what he calls “eco-phenomenology”, which will teach us to see the world as “populated by beings of various sorts” – not just human beings – “that . . . open worlds, open onto worlds, and open our eyes to possible worlds by interrupting this one”. Some of us may see eco-phenomenology as a threat to the pleasure we take in the thought of human uniqueness, but Wood promises that it will compensate us with a growing appreciation of diverse “modes of selfhood” and “manifold ways of world-making” which, provided we can snap out of our habitual defensiveness, will fill us with “non-possessive delight”.

The final section of Reoccupy Earth brings together econstruction and eco-phenomenology in order to investigate the implications of the fact that we share our planet with others. Immanuel Kant once observed that human history might have worked out better if the Earth had been flat and unbounded rather than spherical: there would then have been ample space for everyone, and hence no disputes over parcels of land and no such thing as war. The argument is of course a bit simplistic (as Kant no doubt knew), and Wood illuminates the issue by exploring the nature of “place” as opposed to “space”. Space, as he defines it, is an abstract geometrical framework stocked with the sorts of things that are susceptible to objective measurement, whereas place consists of territories saturated with personal significance – the place you went to school, the place you lay down and wept, and above all the place, if there is one, that you call home. The feeling for home is of course entwined with fond memories and sweet sentiments, concerning for example the marks on the wall recording the stages by which a child grew tall, or your mother’s dear old chair by the window. But it can also foster hostility. If you love your home – or for that matter your village or city or country – then you will be inclined to defend it, with violence if necessary, from what you see as encroachments by strangers. Despite the efforts of classical political philosophers from John Locke onwards, this old problem of property – that one person’s wholesome claim to a home is liable to condemn others to wretched homelessness – has never been resolved, either in theory or in practice; and it becomes even more hair-raising if, as Wood maintains, we need to consider the interests not only of our fellow human beings, but also of all our non-human fellow world-makers.

Rather than trying to solve the conundrum, Wood warns against imagining that a definitive solution will ever be found. Classical political philosophy has worked on the assumption that social action ought ultimately to be grounded in respect for eternal principles and universal rights, which will provide us with a basis for working out the right thing to do; but the climate crisis reminds us that our planet is, as Wood puts it, a “historical singularity”, and that timeless universals may never be sufficient to guide us in our choices. On top of that, traditional political philosophy tends to assume that human history is, on the whole, a tale of general improvement, where apparent disasters are really no more than setbacks that will in the long run be redeemed. It also encourages us to take our political orientation from “the future”: to assume that political action is essentially directed towards a better tomorrow and to expect our political heroes to strive for a happier world that they may not live to see. But if the climate continues to deteriorate then the long run will soon be a thing of the past, and tomorrow will never come. Perhaps it is time to abandon all hope, or – as Wood suggests – to seek consolation in a remark attributed to Kafka: that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope; but not for us”.

The problems that imminent global catastrophe presents to the political imagination are, it would seem, unprecedented. Religious believers have often spoken about an “end of days”, but what they really have in mind is not so much an end as a new beginning – a rebirth, a rapture or a transfiguration. And when scientifically minded Victorians convinced themselves that the sun was about to cool down and die, so that, as Darwin put it, “all sentient beings are condemned to complete annihilation”, they were at least spared the torment of thinking that human folly was to blame. The dread of nuclear war that overshadowed the 1960s may seem to bear a closer resemblance to present premonitions of climate disaster, but when Bertrand Russell asked, “Has man a future?”, the implied answer was yes: he expected us all to listen to the voice of reason, and persuade our rulers to ban the bomb; and in the unlikely event of nuclear conflagration, he did not seriously suppose that it would lead to the extinction of the human race.

The prospect of obliteration through climate change is different, and Wood brings out its uniqueness by floating the idea that everything might be better – “better for all concerned, and better for all the values we most care about” – if “we gracefully bowed out”; in other words, if, for the sake of non-human forms of life on Earth, we agreed to commit collective suicide. If you are an unreconstructed humanist, you will find the suggestion preposterous: you will say that our supposedly unique capacities for reasoning, reflection, consciousness and self-consciousness trump all other claims to a share of the Earth’s resources. (Humanity first! Make humanity great again!) But if you find Wood’s arguments persuasive, you will be impressed by his observation that we must try to be impartial: if we were birds, after all, then we would be boasting about the transcendent value of unaided flight, and if we were fish we would be convinced of the supremacy of living underwater. Perhaps we need to realise that our tendency to favour human beings is just another case of narrow, self-serving prejudice.

Wood ends up by tacking back to a special kind of humanism – “critical humanism”, he calls it, as opposed to the “narcissistic” variety – which, while respecting the world-making claims of non-human beings, and accepting that we humans are to blame for trashing planet Earth, maintains that in spite of everything we can still bring something special to the planetary party. Building on Heidegger and Derrida, he suggests that our saving grace consists in a capacity for “wonder and metaphysical insight”. We are, he says, the only creatures who can ask questions about why there is something rather than nothing, or what it means to be alive and to face death; and what is more we are alone in being able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and dependencies, and to practise “attentiveness to the very different ways and shapes of other creatures and forms of life”. Wood admits that he suffers “a hive of doubts” about this last-minute reprieve for humanism – and he wonders if he may have lapsed into a “myopia of species self-promotion”.

I must say I share his doubts: what value does the wondering human have from the point of view of a fish or a bird? Having spent several months absorbing and digesting this profound and unsettling book, I am inclined to cast my vote with Kafka, and conclude that if there is still any hope, it is probably not for us.

“Reoccupy Earth: Notes Toward an Other Beginning” is published by Fordham University Press


Anti-Semitism and the Left (Amberley) by Ian Hernon

Bad News for Labour (Pluto) by Greg Philo et al

The fact that the Corbyn project is over does not mean that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is dealt with. It did not begin with the Corbyn leadership – his predecessor Ed Miliband was beset by it – and it will not end with the Corbyn leadership. The new leader has work to do.

Ian Hernon’s book is the third major study of anti-Semitism on the British left in four years and by far the best. Hernon is an experienced political journalist, a former staffer at the left wing magazine Tribune, unmistakably a man of the left who writes with authority about its history. So although Hernon is as unsparing of the left as either of the two previous writers on this subject – Dave Rich and David Hirsh – he is not vulnerable to the charge which has been credibly levelled against them: that they are not willing to hold the right to the same standards as those to which they hold the left. In fact, he writes: “The most virulent ant-Semitism has over the last few years or so come from the far right, the British establishment, the aristocracy and home-grown bigots of all classes.” That makes left wing anti-Semitism even more unforgiveable, for it is a betrayal of the equality for which socialists ought to stand.

By contrast, David Hirsh seemed puzzled and dis­tressed by Labour’s progress leftwards. “There is a rich and exciting fantasy” he wrote “that Corbyn can sweep to power with his new radicalism.” But “if Labour cannot win with an Ed Miliband, and it has lost interest in winning with a Tony Blair, then perhaps it is ready to lose courageously and honestly with a Jeremy Corbyn.” This is a respectable, though controversial, political analysis, but what is it doing in a book called Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism? Its presence there feeds the illusion, still current on the left, that accusations of left wing anti-Semitism can be dismissed as a plot against Corbynism.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, feeds this notion regularly. Pollard is a man of strongly conservative views which he expresses trenchantly in right-wing newspapers. Here he is in the Daily Mail, celebrating Labour’s 2015 election defeat: “Even the union barons’ darling, doe-eyed Andy Burnham – who has spent the past five years trotting out left-wing platitudes about greedy capitalists and asserting his knee-jerk hostility to the private sector at every given opportunity – is now saying how big a fan he is of business.” This provides perhaps some context for Pollard’s description of Labour as “a party of bigots and thugs.”

When Ed Miliband was Labour leader, the Daily Mail ran a stunning attack on his distinguished late father Professor Ralph Miliband, a Jewish socialist who fled to Britain from Belgium to escape the Nazis. It is full of sneering references to his immigrant status in Britain and lack of British-ness. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has been unsparing about Corbyn, considered sending a mild protest to the editor and decided against.

You can see why the Corbynistas think it’s all a Tory plot. But it isn’t, and Ian Hernon proves it. He shows that left wing anti-Semitism has deep roots and a long history. Karl Marx himself wrote: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” Keir Hardie wrote in 1900 about “half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities.”

Labour’s first Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald seems to have been an odd mixture of Zionist and anti-Semite, contrasting Jewish settlers in Palestine, whom he admired, with “the rich plutocratic Jew…whose views upon life make one anti-Semitic…He is the keenest of brains and the bluntest of consciences. He detests Zionism because it revives the idealism of his race…”

Left wing anti-Semitism focuses on supposed Jewish control of international finance, and also – since the 1917 Balfour Declaration – on Palestine. It’s not inherent in Labour politics, but it’s something Labour leaders have to be watchful for.


I understand this perhaps more than most. My late father John Beckett, who rightly gets rather more than a walk-on part in Hernon’s narrative, began his political life on the left, just after the end of the first world war. Like many ex-soldiers in 1918, he reserved his bitterest loathing for the war profiteers – the men who had made money out of armaments – and came to identify them as Jews. This helped take him to the far left of British politics, and eventually to Parliament as a Labour MP from 1924 until 1931.

Despairing of the Labour Party, in 1933 he joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. There, the dim-witted major generals and right honourables who attached themselves to Mosley grafted onto my father’s left wing anti-Semitism their own right wing anti-Semitism. The two coalesced in my father’s energetic but impressionable mind, to form a toxic mix which poisoned his thinking for the rest of his life. In the 1930s it was certainly the right where anti-Semitism flourished. In 1938 Conservative MP Robert Tatton Bower shouted at Jewish Labour MP Manny Shinwell: “Go back to Poland.” Shinwell punched Bower in the face.

Anti-Semitism was behind the firing of Leslie Hore-Belisha as war minister in 1939. Collin Brooks, editor of Rothermere’s News Chronicle, wrote in his diary of how much the military top brass disliked “this pushing Jew-boy”, and how, when Hore-Belisha visited the front, they hid from him the fact that they had a proper lavatory, so that he had to “excrete in extreme discomfort.”

The spiritual home of anti-Semitism is on the right, not the left, and Hernon is at his best when telling the sad story of how it came to be identified with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. It would not have been so if Jeremy Corbyn had engaged with the issue. He held one meeting with the Board of Deputies during his leadership. Corbyn sat in silence throughout while his communications chief Seumas Milne ranted about Israel. Which helps explain why, as Greg Philo and his colleagues in the Glasgow Media Group report in Bad News for Labour, between 25% and 40% of the respondents in a poll believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism. The real figure was far less than one per cent.

In December last year, Labour went down to its worst defeat since 1935. Jeremy Corbyn is said to have told colleagues that this was all down to “the mainstream media”, but Philo does not take this easy way out. Though sympathetic to Corbyn, and deeply distrustful of the media which they have studied for decades, the Glasgow Media Group understands that the Corbyn response fell several hundred miles short of adequate. “The Labour leadership lived constantly in the hope that a line could be drawn under the crisis” they write.

That’s putting it mildly. I contacted Corbyn’s office about the chapter on anti-Semitism in my book on Corbyn. None of my questions were answered. Instead, there was a cross phone call from Seumas Milne to my co-author Mark Seddon, complaining that we were mentioning the subject at all.

By Ann Gibbons In 1974, the world was stunned by the discovery of “Lucy,” the partial skeleton of a human ancestor that walked upright—and still spent time in the trees—3.2 million years ago. Later discoveries revealed her species, scattered throughout eastern Africa, had brains bigger than chimpanzees. But a new study of an ancient toddler …


This article is a preview from the Spring 2020 edition of New Humanist

Mailman (Granta) by J. Robert Lennon

Like many people raised in the early 1990s, my introduction to postal literature came via Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman, or, Other People’s Letters (1986). Appealing to children’s innate fascination with prying on private words, the book invited readers to spy on letters addressed to famous fictional characters: an apology from Goldilocks; a solicitor’s note to The Big Bad Wolf. As a student, I endured Charles Bukowski’s altogether less child-friendly Post Office (1971). Only later, immersed in adulthood and its attendant disappointments, did I discover J. Robert Lennon’s Mailman (2003). In this madcap, clammy novel of misanthropy and misfortune – with its themes of failure, competition and (mis)communication – I felt I had found “the one”.

Recently re-released by Granta as an “outsider classic”, Lennon’s novel is set in Nestor, New York and tells the story of lonely, disappointed (but determined) middle-ager Albert Lippincott, whom we come to know simply as “Mailman”. He does his job with diligence, but likes to siphon off letters here and there, steaming them open to read before they eventually reach their recipients. It all seems rather harmless, but when Mailman holds on a little too long to a potentially life-saving note for a suicidal artist, who dies without receiving it, his world starts to quake. Hounded by a tell-tale neighbour and sensing the authorities closing in, he sets out on the run – from himself, his failings and the postal powers that be.

The novel opens in the year 2000 and we learn of Mailman’s dysfunctional family (his disturbingly sexualised bond with his sister), his sad academic career (in which a manic episode of seeming epiphany leads him to try to bite his supervisor), his failed relationships (multiple), and his micro-frustrations (manifold). One such frustration is the decline of decent communication. Indeed, Mailman harbours an almost Habermasian concern for the public sphere. He is troubled by the death of conversation (“just a couple of unconnected monologues”), let down by his local paper, and rails at the inanity of bumper stickers (“people choose to voice only those opinions that can be summed up in a four-by-sixteen-inch space and cannot be refuted or debated, since they are . . . on the back of a moving car”). One dares to wonder what he might today make of social media and safe-space culture; he is most certainly – to use a bumper sticker-esque term of the type he would loathe – “problematic”. However, he is also strangely sympathetic; fragile, alone, wanting more.

According to the anger therapist to whom he is referred by his employer, Mailman holds within him a “cesspool . . . of unfulfilled ambition”. Indeed, his sister fears that he might “go postal”, which, it turns out, is no joke. The term refers to anger-turned-violence in the workplace and emerged in late 20th century America, after a series of cases in which postal workers shot and killed their colleagues. But whilst Mailman dislikes aspects of his work and realises the “fact of his expendability – of the interchangeability of all mailmen”, he ultimately holds hope that it has meaning. In this, he sits somewhere between the miserable mailman of Bukowski’s autobiographical work, which opens with the words, “It began as a mistake”, and the proud, real mailman John Fuller, featured in Studs Terkel’s oral history triumph Working (1974): “I feel it is one of the most respected professions . . . You’re doing a job for the public and a job for the country.” Indeed, when Lennon’s Mailman joins a Peace Corps mission to Kazakhstan, he harbours secret hopes of reinvigorating its postal service on the side: “what democratic nation could exist without a postal service,” he wonders, rhetorically.

It’s interesting to consider the ways in which Mailman’s complex attitude to work and vocation differs from those found in more contemporary American fiction, where we find young people – increasingly, women – disillusioned almost from the get-go. The existentially exhausted protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), reflects, upon leaving her job: “There was no sadness or nostalgia, only disgust that I’d wasted so much time on unnecessary labor when I could have been sleeping and feeling nothing.” Similarly, in Halle Butler’s The New Me (2019), lonely temp Millie numbs herself with boxsets and booze, and thinks, “Better to be sick like I am now than to be out not accomplishing what I thought I might accomplish.” Exhausted by precarity and the tedium of selling the self, these young “protagonists” (the word seems odd, with its presumption of agency) are agonisingly aware of the pitfalls of seeking self-actualisation through tedious, miserable work.

Yet these themes of competition, work and refusal are, of course, nothing new. In J. D. Salinger’s Franny (1955), for example, a young woman despairs that “I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all.” The reply comes: “You sure you’re not just afraid of competing?” In a similar, more reflexive vein, Mailman considers why he never took classes on car repair: “The truth is that he feared being the only intelligent person there, and feared even more deeply that despite this presumed advantage he would be the worst student, thus calling into question the most-intelligent status he so feared in the first place.” He shows deeply human ambivalence towards competing and “opting-in”. In one tragi-comic scene, he listens mockingly to a local radio quiz, before realising that he knows the winning answer. Leaping from his truck, he forces a woman from a payphone so that he can dial in. But when he receives a prize – a camera – it disappoints him. “To think he was excited about winning – what a sucker!” he thinks. Still, it doesn’t stop him from taking pictures. Indeed, Mailman is no neat misanthrope. “I tried to do a lot of things and they didn’t work out,” he says towards the end. “That’s all.”

Reading Mailman today reminds us that the themes associated with “millennial” fiction – anxiety, ambivalence, failure, rage – are not so new after all. Lennon’s novel is vivacious, weird, morally challenging and all the better for it. By the story’s end, unwell and appraising the sum of his existence, Mailman decides that he would not, in fact, “object to a little bit more life”. “Problematic” though he may be, I would certainly not object to a little more Mailman in mine.


This article appears in the Witness section of the spring 2020 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

It is not often we read about temperatures declining these days, but a group at Stanford University published a paper at the start of this year documenting just this phenomenon. It wasn’t about the temperature of our planet, but of the modern human body.

The study, published in the journal ELife, claims to document a decline in the average human body temperature in the US of nearly 1°C over the past 200 years. If true, this calls into question the widely held 37°C norm that was first defined by a German doctor, Carl Wunderlich, in 1851. The analysis used nearly 700,000 human thermometer readings across three large studies. The earliest data was for US Civil War soldiers, the most recent study was conducted between 2007-17.

These observations are more than a curiosity. They could aid our understanding of the astonishing changes in lifespan and health that have occured across much of the globe since the 19th century.

The authors note a number of possible explanations. These include the prevalence of temperature controls in modern buildings, meaning our metabolisms work less hard than when they had to compensate for extreme hot or cold environments. The most compelling explanation is the huge reduction in chronic infection that has occurred across wealthier nations. In the 19th century, two to three per cent of the US population were living with tuberculosis – a thousand times the prevalence of today, with the mass availability of antibiotics in many parts of the world. (The authors weren’t able to look at data from regions where infectious disease is still a significant threat and air conditioning is less common.)

The validity of these findings has been questioned by some. It is impossible to truly control for all possibilities when comparing data across such varied time periods, such as differences in the mode of temperature taking (armpit vs oral) and the characteristics of different study participants. Whatever the case, these datasets represent an exciting opportunity to consider the potential for human evolutionary change over modern time periods.

I can’t believe that we are into a week of puzzle solving already. I hope you are having fun.  Here is today’s puzzle…..

Yesterday I went fishing.  I caught a fish that had a length of 30 inches plus half its own length.

How long was the fish?

Yesterday I posted this puzzle….

My friend Albert is trying to open a safe.  The following numbers are on the safe door….

77 – 49 – 36 – xx

…the next number in the sequence will open the safe.

What number should Albert use to get inside the safe?

If you haven’t tried to solve it, have a go now. For everyone else, the answer is below….

The sequence involves multiplying the two numbers together to get the next number….

7×7 =49

4×9= 36

… and so the number that Albert was after was 3×6=18

Follow the blog for more daily puzzles. See you tomorrow!

Like most parents I know, I started our family’s mandatory hiatus from school due to the COVID-19 outbreak with the best-laid plans. By which I mean the best plans I could come up with in two days – a pretty color-coded homeschooling schedule that I downloaded from a Facebook parenting group. I was going to …

OK, here is the new puzzle…..

My friend Albert is trying to open a safe.  The following numbers are on the safe door….

77 – 49 – 36 – xx

…the next number in the sequence will open the safe.

What number should Albert use to get inside the safe?

Yesterday I posted this puzzle….

Erica has two children. One of them is male. What is the probability of her other child also being male?

If you haven’t tried to solve it, have a go now. For everyone else, the answer is below….

Let’s imagine that Erica has two children. Assuming that they were not born at the exact same time, there are four possible combinations….
Male Male

Male Female

Female Male

Female Female

This will give rise to 50% males and 50% females. However, we know that one of Erica’s children is male, therefore she cannot fall into the last category, thus leaving us with…..
Male Male

Male Female

Female Male

All of these options are equally likely, so the chances of her other child being male is one third.

Any other answers? If so, post them below.

Follow the blog for more daily puzzles. See you tomorrow!


This article is a preview from the Spring 2020 edition of New Humanist

Two small public sculptures at Liverpool Street Station commemorate the Kindertransport, the exodus of 10,000 Jewish child refugees sent to London by their parents between December 1938 and September 1939, before war was declared and the exit barriers came down. “Für Das Kind” by Flor Kent and “The Arrival” by Frank Meisler portray children sitting on suitcases looking anxious and lost. Most never saw their parents again. The last-minute migration was later mythologised as a rare redemptive episode in a savage war which left tens of millions dead. Set against such numbers, the humanitarian gesture of sanctuary was welcome: but in the order of things it was a token gesture.

In The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory, historian Jennifer Craig-Morton unpicks the celebratory narrative that made so many politicians and the British population feel good about themselves. They had, one commentator wrote at the time, opened “up their homes and their hearts” to achieve “something worthy of the name of the British nation”. The story was framed as a modern fairy-tale, whereby the kindness of strangers led to lives lived happily ever after. Without questioning the good intentions behind the exercise, Craig-Morton suggests that for many children the resettlement proved traumatic, leaving lifelong scars and bitter regrets.

Why did this much-lauded episode in 20th-century refugee history prove to have so many troubling consequences? As Craig-Morton reveals, all of the organisations involved in the resettlement had a vested interest in telling a story of success, partly to cover up the fact that they were inexperienced in the basic elements of child protection and welfare. Siblings, including twins, were often separated on arrival and sent to different parts of the country, where some foster parents forbade contact with surviving family members. The motives of those offering to provide homes for the young refugees were mixed, ranging from the heartfelt and loving to the shockingly venal. Poor organisation coupled with a suggested obligation on relatives or co-religionists alone to provide new homes undermined the spirit of universal altruism that in other circumstances might have flourished more easily.

In rebalancing the story of the Kindertransport, some will argue that Craig-Morton has over-emphasised its negative aspects, and point to the success stories that emerged. The power of her account, nevertheless, resides in taking the children’s side – then, as now, often ignored. One of the young settlers later recalled: “I came at the age of three and a half. I still don’t know where I belong. I was brought up in the Midlands. I went to a Christian school. I was no longer considered German. I was not considered English. I certainly wasn’t Jewish – my Jewish background was not nurtured. I am neither German nor English. I am neither Christian nor Jew. I would like to know, what is my identity?” At the end of their lives, many were still asking the same question.

Similar mistakes were repeated shortly after, involving British children, albeit in less harrowing circumstances. Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, the government ordered a mass evacuation from vulnerable cities and seaports to the countryside. In total nearly 4 million people, mostly children – including many of the Kindertransport children again – were compulsorily evacuated, and their subsequent story shared many of the same ingredients, one of which was the re-framing of the fostering arrangements as yet another fairy-tale of unalloyed goodwill and selfless generosity.

No doubt many evacuees were treated with kindness and affection. In the 1970s I interviewed a number of former evacuees, and some were still in touch with their wartime foster parents 30 years later, recalling their wartime adventure “in the sticks” with gratitude. Others, though, remembered being taken advantage of: assembled in village halls as if “at an auction sale”, to be picked off by would-be carers, with the older boys billeted out to farmers who were keen for a new source of unpaid labour, and older girls taken in as unpaid domestic servants.

* * *

Craig-Morton finishes The Kindertransport by remarking that “Although it is an uncomfortable conclusion to reach, many carers were more self-serving than selfless, and the instances of truly warm and reciprocally fulfilling placements were much rarer than the mythologies about the Kindertransport have purported.” She suggests that relatives made the least suitable foster carers, volunteer hosts were slightly better, but those who took in Jewish children as part of the national compulsory evacuation scheme “often proved the most caring”. It seems that familial and voluntary schemes were invariably weighed down with ambiguous moral obligations, involving understandings and financial arrangements, to which the children themselves were not party. By contrast, the government’s evacuation scheme applied to everybody equally (including the Kindertransport refugees), and was legally enforced in the national interest, with transparent financial arrangements securing the children’s status as paying boarders. It was also better supervised than many voluntary schemes.

War is a political disaster, but natural disasters produce similar ethical and organisational dilemmas. On 31 January 1953, Britain experienced its worst flooding for centuries, resulting in the loss of more than 300 lives overnight in East Anglia, many of them children. Six years later, Essex historian and County Archivist Hilda Grieve published The Great Tide, a definitive account of the disaster, paying particular attention to the role which volunteers, voluntary organisations and government agencies played in evacuating and resettling thousands of victims rapidly and effectively. What Grieve began to understand was the degree to which the “spontaneous mobilisation” of help and relief she described – and admired so much – owed its effectiveness to organisational links and affiliations developed during the Second World War. Civil and coastal defence bodies, army reserves, unionised railway workers and seamen, the Women’s Voluntary Service, the Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, boy scouts and girl guides, churches, parish guilds and social clubs had all been to an extent militarised during the war, and inducted, however briefly, into the mechanics of disaster relief.

* * *

As both the wartime evacuations and the 1953 flood response demonstrated, in addition to voluntary effort, effective civic organisation proved essential. The absolute failure of civic government was graphically demonstrated in 2005 in North America, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. In her persuasive study of this and other disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, writer Rebecca Solnit excoriates the public authorities for their dereliction of duty. “Thousands of people survived Hurricane Katrina,” she writes, “because grandsons or aunts or neighbours or complete strangers reached out to those in need all through the Gulf Coast and because an armada of boat owners went into New Orleans to pull stranded people to safety.” By contrast, “Hundreds of people died in the aftermath of Katrina because others, including police, vigilantes, high government officials, and the media, decided that the people of New Orleans were too dangerous to allow them to evacuate the septic, drowned city or to rescue them, even from hospitals.”

Solnit’s understanding of this and other “disaster communities”, where success or failure depended on public bodies harnessing the energy and altruism of community support and mutual aid, was confirmed by the recent Grenfell Tower disaster. Here the civic authorities failed to meet their responsibilities, compared with the tireless efforts of friends, family and neighbours to assist in every possible way.

* * *

How do people manage to build “a paradise in hell” in the face of such catastrophes, she asks, and what can we learn from these great waves of solidarity and support for the future? Worsening floods and forest fires across the world are producing new disaster communities almost every day. Solnit found one answer to this conundrum in the writings of the American philosopher William James in his 1906 lecture “The Moral Equivalent of War”. James suggested that war appears as a utopia for some by allowing people to attain a dignity in the service of the collective otherwise denied in normal life. He went on to consider other circumstances in which such social altruism might occur.

Six weeks after that lecture, an earthquake struck San Francisco, close to Stanford University where James taught. He quickly saw an opportunity to observe how people coped in the immediate aftermath, and in an essay written shortly after, “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake”, wrote: “Two things in retrospect strike me especially . . . both are reassuring as to human nature. The first was the rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos.” The second was “the universal equanimity” found amongst those most affected. Both seemed then, and still do today, counter-intuitive.

James had only four years left to live, and spent much of that time reflecting on how society could build upon the “slumbering energies” released by war and its moral equivalents, but most particularly natural disasters. Today worsening environmental conditions, war and terrorism are forcing millions of people around the world to flee their homes in search of safety. Sauve qui peut, the French saying goes: save yourself. But what if somebody else has stolen or sold the lifeboats?

“History is a bath of blood,” James wrote in that first essay, arguing that throughout history, war has been celebrated as the apex of human capacities and virtues, embodying strength, courage, collective sacrifice and honour. As a pacifist he asked how these qualities could be marshalled to achieve other ends. One answer was the conscription of young people working for the collective good. The American Peace Corps was later established as a direct consequence, though the same lessons were learned by the powerful civil rights and community organising movements of the 1960s. In a volatile and uncertain future, it is best to prepare for the worst even while we hope for the best.

“The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory” is published by Indiana University Press

OK, here is the new puzzle…..

Erica has two children. One of them is male. What is the probability of her other child also being male?

Yesterday I posted this puzzle….

A camper walks one mile south from their tent. They then walk one mile west and has a little dance with a bear. Then they walk one mile north, and find themselves back at their camp.

What colour was the bear?

If you haven’t tried to solve it, have a go now. For everyone else, the answer is below, along with another puzzle….

The camper had a dance with a white bear because the directions only make sense if he was at the North Pole!

Follow the blog for more daily puzzles. See you tomorrow!

Whether you’re stuck at home with the kids or not, this is a pretty neat experiment to try out–and a great opportunity to have your kids experience the scientific process. Science is not just about knowing how electricity works or what happens when you combine vinegar and baking soda–it’s a process by which we ask …

Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—

Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.

As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to or, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.

So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.

Wishing you all health and happiness,


The post A Personal Note appeared first on Sam Harris.

As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.

I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.

  1. I participated in 10 events organized by Pangburn Philosophy between September 2017 and July 2018. I didn’t always approve of the way those events were staged or marketed, but all of them appeared to be successful.
  1. However, after the cancellation of an August 2018 conference in Auckland, Pangburn seemed intent on running his business off a cliff. He owed a lot of money to several speakers at that point, in the form of unpaid fees and reimbursements. Most egregiously, he seemed less than fully committed to refunding ticket holders for the cancelled Auckland conference.
  1. At this point, I had two more dates on the calendar with Pangburn in 2018: a dialogue with Brian Greene in Toronto (September 5) and the Day of Reflection conference in New York (November 17). I kept my appointment in Toronto because I was contractually obligated to do so. I also didn’t want to do anything that would harm Pangburn’s ability to pay his mounting debts.
  1. After Toronto, however, it became clear that Pangburn could not be trusted to put his house in order. Facing a total lack of transparency, and realizing that Pangburn was using my ongoing association with him to book future speakers, I withdrew from the NYC conference on September 21 (as well as from a Vancouver conference scheduled for March 2019). Legally, I was able to do this because Pangburn was in breach of my speaking contract. Ethically, I had a far more compelling reason to back out: I couldn’t promote or participate in an event for which I believed other speakers were unlikely to get paid; nor could I continue to work with someone who still hadn’t given refunds to ticket holders for a conference that had been canceled more than a month before.
  1. After I withdrew from the NYC conference, my management team asked Pangburn to give us the email addresses of all ticket holders so that we could notify them that I was no longer involved with the event. Pangburn refused to provide this information. However, he assured us that he would notify everyone himself. (I do not know whether he ever did.) He then stopped responding to our emails.
  1. At the time I pulled out of the NYC conference, I assumed that the revenue from ticket sales was still safely in the box office and that Pangburn would be obliged to issue refunds should the conference fail. That’s how things normally work, especially at a reputable venue like Lincoln Center. It hadn’t occurred to me that New York ticketholders might suffer the same fate as those in Auckland.
  1. I was left with a legal and ethical puzzle that I could not solve. Again, I had no way to communicate with ticket holders directly, and discussing the chaos surrounding Pangburn on my podcast never seemed like an option. Several friends and colleagues still had events on the calendar with him, and I didn’t want to do anything to derail them. In addition, many speakers who were aware of my reasons for pulling out of the NYC conference were still signed on and seemed intent on making it work. I couldn’t see anything to do that wouldn’t risk creating further harms.

Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.

I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.

Sam Harris





The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.


Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:


Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood


I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web appeared first on Sam Harris.

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
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Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult


Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial

On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).

The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.

In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of.  The sue was an immediate media security event.  Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law.  In effect, he has his own concierge security service.

Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside.  Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.

The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.


For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.

Best regards / Mvh,

Mark Rees-Andersen
Managing Director,

Dema Games

UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)

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I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.

Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)

Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.

Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.

Minchin states

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

This is indeed a very disappointing decision.

Hats off to Charlie Hebdo. This is tomorrow’s cover:

Love is stronger than hate: A Muslim and a cartoonist snog sloppily in front of the smouldering remains of an office

Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.

Hebdo demo: Support for the magazine has been strong this time round

The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that

In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.

Editor “Charb” said,

We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.

Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.

UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.

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