The Electoral College and Election Mathematics

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as one of the most controversial presidents-elect in US history. 1 Because it was a complicated election and Clinton won the plurality of votes, many protesters characterize Trump’s election victory as “illegitimate”, and (as in most elections) there is a lot of grumbling that the Electoral College system is flawed.  The underlying assumption seems to be that this system must be “outdated” since it is centuries old, and that only a one-person / one-vote rule would be fair.

Police talk to Trump protesters, downtown Los Angeles, 11/12/16

As a math instructor who has taught lessons in political science, my simple message today is this:  There is no such thing as a perfect election method.  Every conceivable system has inherent unfairness or even contradictions.  The only principle that’s really essential is that all parties agree to the rules before the election.

Here’s an example to give you an idea of how a voting system can be paradoxical.  Consider a three-candidate race among Arthur, Buchanan, and Cleveland.  The presidency will go to the candidate who receives the plurality of votes, i.e. more votes than anyone else.  A survey (which we will consider accurate!) reveals these voter preferences:

10,000,000 voters prefer Arthur 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Cleveland 3rd.

8,000,000 voters prefer Buchanan 1st, Cleveland 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

4,000,000 voters prefer Cleveland 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

If the election were held that day, Arthur’s 10 million votes would win him the election.  Cleveland would come in last place.  Discouraged by the polls, Cleveland announces at the last minute that he is dropping out of the race.  But then something very interesting happens at the election:  Cleveland’s 4,000,000 votes go to Buchanan.  Buchanan now wins the election, 12 to 10 million!

That doesn’t seem fair.  The winner changed just because the loser dropped out.  To look at it another way, the three-man election wasn’t really fair either. More people preferred Buchanan over Arthur but, with Cleveland in the race, Arthur would win.  This hypothetical election violates the “Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives” criterion of fairness.

Political theorists have a handful of other criteria for what makes an election fair.  They have names such as the Majority Criterion, Universality, Monotonicity, and Citizen Sovereignty.  I won’t bore you with the details here, but they are basic conditions that most of us would agree seem fundamentally fair.

Now here’s the kicker.  In his 1951 PhD dissertation, a Columbia student named Ken Arrow proved mathematically that no election system can possibly satisfy all of these fairness criteria all of the time!  It’s an idea now called the Arrow Impossibility Theorem.  OK, there is one exception to this rule.  In a two-candidate race, “Majority Rules” is perfectly fair.  However, while the US has two major parties, there are several minor parties too.  If we insisted that our elections be perfectly fair in every way, we would have to eliminate minor parties … and that already isn’t very fair or democratic.

I often say, “Life is 90% great, 9% imperfect, and 1% terrible.”  This is part of that 9% that we just have to accept.  Since there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system, we have to pick one and deal with its quirks.  In the case of the Electoral College, it is possible to get a national winner with a relatively small fraction of individual votes.  What is vital is that everyone agrees to the election system before the votes are cast.  Gray areas and surprises will happen.  We want them to be resolved by a rulebook that everyone knew they were playing by.

That’s why the part of this election cycle that bothered me most was when the Republican party was still debating its nomination rules just a few weeks before the convention!  If you recall, there was a rule from 2012 requiring a candidate to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be considered as a Republican nominee.  As the convention drew near, dark horse candidate Trump was the only one who had met that threshold.  He started to gloat about it, but other candidates were saying, “Wait now; there’s no guarantee that rule will apply to this convention.”  I was stunned.  I would have thought the party had firmed up its nominating rules years earlier.  In fact, though, those rules were only decided one week before the convention!  That’s a problem, because rules can be crafted for or against specific candidates at that stage.

The Electoral College has some legitimate strengths and weaknesses.  The constitutional purpose was to let each state decide how to determine its electors.  Every state starts out with two votes (that’s fair when counting states) and then an additional number of votes proportional to population (that’s fair when counting voters).  On balance, the system is biased toward small / rural (presently Republican) states.  For instance, blue California has a population of 40,000,000 – as much as the 19 least-populous red states combined.  That red bloc has 36 more electoral votes than California, for the same number of people.  That’s why you actually don’t hear much talk about California in national campaigns.  It has the most diluted votes in the nation.

If we switched to a one-person / one-vote system, we would bypass the states.  It would then be essentially a race of Democratic cities versus Republican countryside.  That could pose its own challenges; for instance, it is much easier to organize and to campaign in dense cities than in sparse counties.  We would also lose the sense of regional interests.  Here is an incredible map that shows “where the voters are” as granularly as possible.  Each county’s population is represented by area, and its Republican : Democratic ratio is represented on the red / blue spectrum.  It’s hard to see any sense of party identity other than the urban / rural divide.  (Large cities are concentrated on the coasts).  Here you can see that the country as a whole is pretty evenly split.  The new “swing” areas are the most medium purple; you see a lot in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Northeast.

Trump can credit his victory to a handful of counties where he out-campaigned Clinton. 2 In a popular vote, the candidates would have learned how to “game” this system instead of the state-based electoral one.  Trump said so himself.

So, sure, the Electoral College system has its wrinkles.  But so does direct popular voting.  To drive the point home, the unfair Arthur / Buchanan / Cleveland example above was a popular vote.  The Electoral College is not perfect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and as good a system as any.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump duly won the election.


  1. Mark Murray, “Trump Enters Office With Historically Low Approval Rating”, NBC News (1/17/17), (accessed 1/17/17).
  2. Charles Mahtesian, “How Trump Won His Map”, Politico (11/09/16), (accessed 1/19/17).
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Logic Problems involving others’ minds


Sometimes to solve a puzzle you must think about what other people are thinking. In fact, the very skill of logic could have served the evolutionary function of outsmarting others.

Many scientists believe that the evolutionary purpose of logical thinking is to outsmart other people.  This Christmas vacation, my family was mulling over a logic puzzle that requires thinking about what other people do or do not know, and what they can or can not figure out based on their knowledge.  I realize that this problem has two forms, easier and harder, but they both involve the same backstory, something like the plot to the opera Turandot:

Prince Peter travels to a nearby kingdom to ask the king for the princess’s hand in marriage.  Unfortunately, two other princes are also there to make the very same request.  The king takes advantage of the competition to marry his daughter off to the smartest prince; he pits them against each other in a battle of wits.  The king seats the princes at a round table and blindfolds them.  “I have five hats,” he tells them.  “Three of them are white, and two are black.  I am placing one hat on each of your heads, and I will hide the other two.”  As he does so, he tells the princes that he will shortly remove their blindfolds.  “The princess will go to the first prince to correctly identify the color of his own hat,” he explains.  “If you guess incorrectly, I will kill you.  If you cheat by looking at your hat directly or in a mirror, I will kill you.  Don’t answer until you have correctly surmised the color of your own hat!”  He then has his assistants remove the blindfolds simultaneously.  The princes look at each other’s hats.  None of them offers an answer for several minutes.  Finally, Prince Peter laughs with delight.  “Of course!” he cheers.  “My hat is _______________ !!”  He and the princess live happily ever after.

The hard version of the question leaves off here, and simply asks, “What color was Peter’s hat, and what colors were the other princes wearing?”  You can try your hand at this question first, and if you’re stumped, peek at the clue in the easier version.

To view the clue, highlight the blank area below this line:

The “easier” (but still hard) version of the question adds, “Prince Peter saw that the other two princes were both wearing white hats.  What color was Peter’s hat?”

In order to arrive at the answer to this question (which I’m not going to post today), we have to give some thought to what the other princes would know / think, and how they would react, if they saw certain colors.  We have to assume that the princes are acting rationally (because of the high price for random guessing) but that the others have either less information or less intelligence than Peter.


This problem reminds me of a moment when I was listening to the radio at about age 12.  The DJ announced that he would award a cash prize to the 10th caller.  My first thought was, “If I wait enough time for nine people to call, then I can call and be the tenth.”  But then I realized, “Wait a minute.  Everyone else will be playing by the same strategy!  They are all going to wait and try to be the 10th caller.  Since nobody will even start to call for ten minutes, I’ll wait for 20.”  This turned into an infinite regress: “But wait.  Everybody will think the same thing again, so they will all wait 10 minutes longer, so I should delay longer … on and on to eternity!”  I wondered how this game could possibly be won.  I was flabbergasted when the song ended four minutes later and there was already a winner!  People had rushed to call!  That wouldn’t make any sense unless they hadn’t thought it through — or unless they knew that at least nine other players wouldn’t think it through.  I learned that sometimes to win a game, you have to be irrational or to assume that you are playing against unintelligent or irrational competitors.


Finally, we come to the hardest logic problem I have ever heard.  In this problem, the rules are that each player is infinitely intelligent (but not clairvoyant).  The judge selects two different natural numbers, m and n.  (The natural numbers are the counting numbers:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …).  The judge reveals the numbers’ sum (m + n) to Player 1, and he gives their product (mn) to player 2.

“I do not know what the two numbers are,” says Player 1.

“Neither do I,” says Player 2.

“Oh, then I do know what the two numbers are!” says Player 1.

“Then so do I!” says Player 2.

What are the two numbers?

In an ideal world, I won’t have to reveal the answers to these puzzles because someone else will in the comments below.  Is that a rational assumption?  😛

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Historic Place Names Quiz


The world as Europeans knew it in 1670

When I was growing up, it was not too hard to find books lying around full of stories predating the world wars.  I read plenty of Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, and 19th century ghost stories.  It intrigued me when they related to places so exotic that I couldn’t even find them on a map.  Now that I’m researching the empires of the last few millennia, I am coming across these names again.  It’s a challenge to connect old place names to new ones, to understand exactly where they were.  It’s even more interesting to know when and why they changed.  See how you do on this quiz.


Byzantium / Constantinople


The Forbidden City


New Amsterdam

The Ottoman Empire








Click here for answers





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We need to stop terror, not just terrorism


One of LA’s most intriguing corners symbolizes the nation’s fears and divisions over the War on Terror

This September 11, I feel compelled to write a few words about the War on Terror.  It is an important issue this year as Americans make big choices.  We all know that emotional thinking can cloud judgment – and the War on Terror is one of the most emotional issues of our time.  When you look at it objectively, though, you reach a striking conclusion.  Yes, terrorists are definitely evil.  But in the grand scheme of things, they are not very deadly to Americans.  When you compare the cost of this war to its benefits, it is very hard to justify on its present terms.

American conservatives describe the War on Terror as a “Clash of Cultures”.  This characterization is an ideological belief, not a fact, and it is not productive.  A look at worldwide terrorism deaths reminds us what the fight is really about:  instability within the Moslem world.  Of the roughly 20,000 terrorist deaths worldwide in 2013, a majority of them were in Iraq or Afghanistan.  90% of them occurred in 10 African / Asian countries that are home to terrorist groups.   1 These groups are militias aimed at local governments or other sects.  Most of these groups don’t target outsiders.  ISIS and al Qaeda are the main exceptions.  The US and other countries engage them directly in combat, and they strike back at our civilians.

From 2001 – 2013, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks was about 3,000.  Outside of 9/11/01 itself, that number is about 400, and of those only 50 were on US soil. 2 That was a whole decade’s worth of casualties.

By contrast, on a typical day (based on annual rates), 90 Americans are killed by guns at home or in the streets – by angry acquaintances, accidents, or suicide. 3  Another 90 Americans are killed in car accidents.  4  The overwhelming majority of preventable deaths in the US – 2,000 per day – are caused by our own stupid decisions to smoke, drink, overeat, and abuse drugs. 5

Terrorism is not even close to our biggest problem.

Nevertheless, more than half of Americans are “very concerned about Islamic extremism.” 6  That’s a higher rate than in Pakistan!  This disconnect is not surprising.  People don’t think with statistics.  We think with emotions.  Lifestyle-related deaths are not as evil or terrifying as terrorist attacks.

The emotionally-driven political response has been vastly out of proportion.  This war has cost trillions of dollars 7 , killed perhaps a million people 8 (wow), and sacrificed 7,000 US soldiers in combat 9 to avenge our 3,000 dead.  Not only that, but ironically most of those 400 American civilian deaths since 2001 have resulted from counterattacks against our War on Terror.

This conflict means less to the US, but more to the world, than most Americans realize.  The US needs to downscale its response, make it more efficient, and share it more evenly with its allies.  Our trillions could be much better spent on intelligence, police, and security.  Better yet, the responsibility and the budget should be spread among many nations.  The global solution to the problem is a very interesting discussion, and beyond the scope of today’s post.

As for the upcoming election, the two presidential candidates, for all their mudslinging and difference in style, have roughly similar platforms on the War on Terror.  Some of the key differences include:

  • Trump has expressed his desire to remove the US from NATO.  This would be counter-productive, as the solution needs to be international.  Trying to shore up the entire Moslem world would stretch America far too thin.  Then again, he has also spoken in favor of coalition support.
  • HIllary Clinton wants to work with Moslem Americans as a “coalition at home”.  10
  • Clinton supports stricter gun control for people on FBI watch lists.
  • Trump wants the US military to grow even larger.  Clinton supports a sustainable military with enhanced cyber capabilities.
  • Trump opposes arming Syrian rebels.  Secretary Clinton supported arming them, but Obama tried that and it backfired.  She does not include arming rebels in her presidential platform.

The more serious difference between the candidates and their supporters is their outlook on the conflict.  Trump buys into the “Clash of Cultures” storyline.  He and his voters see ISIS as first and foremost out to get America.  That outlook doesn’t get us any closer to the real problems in West Asia and their solutions.  Trump is riding on the coat tails of American fear, perceiving the terrorist danger as so large that it threatens the entire nation.

FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yoda was just as wise when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  For Americans right now, it is just as important to conquer our terror as to conquer the terrorists.

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This website reminds us why terrorists attack in the West

Tornado GR4 Attack on Libyan SCUD LauncherIt surprises me that even to this day, when there are terrorist attacks on the US or Europe, people still wonder why.  “Why do they hate us?!” they ask.  They often come up with self-pleasing answers:  “They hate us because we’re free.”  “They’re attacking our way of life.” “They have the wrong religion.”

No.  ISIS attacks “us” because we attack them.  Sure, we may be on the right side of the law, but at least we should acknowledge our part in this two-way cycle of violence.

Time and again, terrorist attackers make their motives clear.  When Jihadi John beheaded US hostages, he specifically said that it was a punishment for US airstrikes.  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, did not choose Paris at random.  The French military had personally targeted and tried to kill him the month before.  Why did ISIS take down a plane full of Russian passengers?  It’s not a coincidence that Russia had just begun a series of airstrikes against Syria.

And if ISIS wants to retaliate, what else can it do?  Our military is invincible and invisible.  ISIS cannot strike down drones.  We have no soldiers to shoot.  Its only option is to strike at “us”, the people, in hopes that we will cave in and implore our governments to leave ISIS alone.  Welcome to 3rd-millennium warfare.

Islamists’ war was not about us until we intervened.  Jihad is fundamentally about Asian / African governance.  ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Hamas, and Hezbollah are primarily interested in toppling secular dictators, changing borders, and establishing a caliphate.  Some of them have serious problems with Israel.  Beyond that, they don’t really care about the outside world.  In fact, ISIS is the only one particularly active outside its territory.  They only attack outsiders to keep us out of their turf, especially in retaliation for intervention.

Our news cycles are dominated by terrorist attacks.  Somehow, we don’t seem to be as aware of our side of this fight.  ISIS is being pummeled on a daily basis, reports Chris Jennewein of the Times of San Diego.  Some airstrikes are more justified than others.  Last month in Iraq, coalition bombers killed 300 ISIS militants, one of the most successful air attacks to date.  But last week, an errant US airstrike killed maybe 100 innocent civilians in Syria.  One way or the other, these attacks are sure to breed counterattacks.  The cycle never ends!

The website AirWars is a very interesting journalism project keeping track of coalition attacks.  You can find breakdowns by coalition country or by year, and even daily news.  I think it is important to stay apprised of our own activity.

Right or wrong, this is the cause of terror attacks against North America and Europe.  It’s not just random cultural hatred or religious insanity.  It’s a cycle of violence.  At the very least, we should understand the reason for these retaliations.  Only then can we decide what to do about them.

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Why do we have Leap Year?

Why is Leap Year necessary?

Leap Year is necessary because our clocks (based on Earth’s rotation on its own axis) and our calendars (based on Earth’s revolution around the sun) are incommensurate, based on unrelated cycles.  We need to fudge one system or the other every now and then to keep them synchronized.  Leap Year is just the system we have historically adopted.  Actually, even the Leap Year needs tweaks of its own.  This video discusses the first, second, and third order corrections to make clocks and calendars agree as precisely as possible!

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US diplomacy with Iran, Cuba

The ongoing saga of the “Iran nuclear deal” is difficult to follow for the casual news watcher.  It never seems to end.  Israelis, Saudis, and US Republicans oppose it without explaining which terms they are against, or what they would like to propose instead.  The opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba is also hotly debated.  But these are positive developments in two ways.  First, in the true spirit of a contract or treaty, the Iran nuclear deal offers something positive for both sides.  Second and more broadly, this recent trend indicates an opening of communications between geopolitical enemies.  Obama’s belief in “talking to the enemy” has been one of the most controversial elements of his presidency.  With a perspective outside of political bias, I agree that it is the right course.  Communication is healthy for international relations just as it is for personal relations.  This has already been proven by Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan.  At the very least, communication humanizes the enemy.  The US and the West should continue the policy of talking openly to its adversaries – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and more.

The Iran Nuclear Deal in a Nutshell

Iran has a large nationwide program of uranium enrichment.  Enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear power plants or (at much higher concentrations) nuclear weapons.  Obviously, nobody would like to see Iran develop an arsenal of nuclear bombs.  Thus, the primary interest in the West is to keep Iran free of weapons-grade uranium.

To put pressure on the Iranian government – for nuclear activities and other reasons – the US has “boycotted” Iran with trade sanctions since the revolution of 1979.  The UN and EU followed with major sanctions in the 21st century.  Other nations have imposed minor sanctions as well.  The sanctions have had their primary intended effect of making it difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  However, they have also had a major impact on Iran’s overall economy, including high inflation and a current unemployment rate of well above 20%.  After four decades, these actions directed against the Iranian government have made life very difficult for ordinary people throughout the entire country.  This is bad not only for Iran, but for perpetuating Iran’s negative perception of the outside world.

For decades, the US and Iran’s mutual strategy was to be strong-headed and hope to win a battle of wills.  The US hoped that sanctions would eventually cripple Iran to capitulation; lifting sanctions was not an option.  Iran felt that it had no choice but to arm itself into a stronger position; nuclear enrichment was non-negotiable.

Diplomatic overtures began in 2003.  Iran offered to negotiate a middle ground.  The US refused, after which Iran vastly increased its nuclear enrichment program.  A decade later, after UN and EU sanctions had strained Iran even further, a tentative agreement was reached between Iran and a multinational coalition representing the US, UN, and EU.  The gist of the agreement was very simple.  In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would limit its uranium enrichment to peaceful purposes, and open its nuclear energy program to international monitoring.  The 2013 agreement gave Iran and its negotiators time to work out a “framework,” and then the details of execution.  A framework for such a deal was reached last week, in April, 2015.

The agreements of 2013 and 2015 are historic and significant.  This is the first time that Iran has offered any sort of concessions on its nuclear program.  The agreement-in-progress includes important provisions allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iran’s uranium industry closely.  Easing of sanctions would make life better for average Iranians.  It would also start to open the Iranian market to many importers and exporters around the world.  Until Iran proves its commitment to the deal, the most important sanctions (those related to uranium and military imports / exports) would remain in place.  In short, there would be clear benefits for the global economy and safety.  This is an important step forward.

As the deadline for the framework approached, the “nuclear deal” became hotly controversial.  Iran’s greatest regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the idea of negotiating with Iran.  They are not part of the current talks.  In the US, the Republican Party follows Israel’s lead.  Interestingly, opponents of the talks are very vague about exactly what they oppose.  Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the deal would only favor Iran, “without receiving anything tangible in return.”  He does not acknowledge the value of Iran’s changing stance, from defiance to compromise.  US Republicans complain vaguely that the deal is not tough enough, that it should insist on more enrichment curtailment while offering less sanction relief.  Essentially, what they are arguing for is a repudiation of negotiations altogether; they believe in principle that the US should continue opposing Iran with brute force instead of diplomacy.  I have not heard Republicans propose specific alternatives to any of the deal’s terms.  Keep in mind that congressional opponents are not the same people who are involved in talks.  The negotiators have had years to get to know specific Iranians, their attitudes, needs, and points of flexibility.  Third parties are expressing opposition for opposition’s sake.   Israel and Saudi Arabia’s stance is apparently, “If Iran is for it, we’re against it,” while Republicans feel, “If Obama is behind this, we won’t allow it.”  Some Republicans raise a legitimate point about which branch of government should be involved in the negotiations.  That’s for Congress and the White House to wrestle over.

Cuban Diplomacy

The relationship between the US and the Castros has always been rocky.  After Fidel Castro’s first few aggressive years in office, the US imposed a particularly strong embargo against Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties.  It can be said that this only made matters worse.  Shut off from the US, Cuba turned to the USSR for oil, money, and defense, setting the stage for the particularly bad crises of the 1960s.  Even after the USSR collapsed and Cuba went into depression, neither nation made a move to mend fences.  Talks have only resumed under Raul Castro’s administration.  A trickle of trade is now being allowed, and there is talk of reopening the embassies.  An open channel of communication could even lead to an easing of the embargo in exchange for Castro concessions.  Again, there could be something good in it for both sides.  Nevertheless, of course there is some opposition to these gestures of peace too.

Aside from some matters of asylum, political prisoners, and allying with other dictators, the Castros have not actually posed a threat to the US since at least 1980.  They have just been corrupt dictators in their own nation.  Most of the pressure to shut them out comes from two sources: Cuban-Americans who have family left behind on the island, and those who once again misunderstand the purpose of communication.

To communicate does not mean to condone.  Yes, Fidel Castro wrongfully took his country by force, seized US assets, and harbored Soviet nuclear weapons.  By all accounts, the Castros and their government never should have been in power.  But let’s face it, they are awfully entrenched there.  What are we going to do about it?  Ignoring them has not proven very effective at accomplishing anything.  The US embargo, like the sanctions against Iran, has a strong grip on Cuba.  It is obviously not squeezing the Castros out of power, and is hurting ordinary Cubans more than the government.  The UN recommends lifting it.  The embargo’s greatest value now is as a bargaining chip.  In this century, the US’s main goal is to see a Cuban transition to democracy, at least after the Castros’ death.  Maybe the best way to get Raul to listen to what the US has to say is for the US to listen to what he has to say.  It sounds like he could be willing to negotiate some democratic reforms in exchange for some economic relief.


If a man were having serious problems with his boss, a neighbor, or his wife, most people would give the same advice:  Talk to her!  Whether it may be at the dining room table or in pre-trial litigation, at some point they need to figure out how to end the conflict without hurting each other.  That’s still true if the neighbors-at-odds are governments – even bad governments.

The alternatives to communication are recalcitrance, failure to understand each other, demonization, retribution, and violence.  Negotiation can be difficult, because it requires compromise.  But the very act of negotiation, even the willingness to negotiate, can facilitate a mutually agreeable position.  And communication does not necessarily have to mean negotiation or validation.  Formal discussions force each side to identify specific points of contention, rather than reacting emotionally to each other.

Iran is willing to cap enrichment and open its nuclear industry to inspection.  That’s worth an easing of sanctions.  The Castros have not threatened the US in decades, and they are willing to normalize relations.  That’s worth meeting them in the middle.  I think we’d all prefer to have international seats at the table when discussing a post-Castro Cuba.




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Humorlessness is no laughing matter

When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I worked on campus at the Red Door Café.  It was a popular hangout for grad students, post-docs, and faculty.  Those strata are highly international at Caltech; I informally counted about 50% non-native-English speakers.  It was an interesting chance to witness diversity and to observe cultural differences.  After working there for several months, I noticed a very striking pattern.  I discovered the “International Sense-of-Humor Line,” dividing a jocular western world from a stern east.  People from west of the line were much more carefree and lighthearted.  Westerners would stop to chit-chat or joke about how many calories were in our desserts.  I could give them a hard time about how predictable their orders were.  Those from the other side of the Humor Line were not into small talk.  They were there to study or do their job.  Jokes would bounce right off of them without eliciting a smile.  I also noticed that the International Sense-of-Humor Line was strongly coincident with the erstwhile Iron Curtain, right down the middle of Europe.

International Sense of Humor Line Iron Curtain

The International Sense-of-Humor line is a funny but sad reminder of how personality is shaped by culture.

Yes, I know, this is a generalization.  I don’t have any quantitative data to back up my characterization, and of course there are exceptions.  But to me in that particular environment, the overall pattern stood out pretty prominently.  I realized that maybe the dimension of humor / humorlessness can be measured as a personal or cultural value.  I had grown up in a very fun-loving environment.  I wondered why some persons — or peoples, even — would prefer to be stiff.  This little pseudo-study has made me mindful of humorlessness ever since.

In my culture, I have come to feel that a good sense of humor is a sign of mental health and social grace. I’m not talking about comic brilliance. A sense of humor is a social interest in joking around, making light of life’s imperfections, talking about trivialities, imagining and pretending, poking fun at ourselves and others. It indicates an elasticity of spirit.  It puts others at ease. Humorlessness is just the opposite — rigidity, a focus on serious topics, nervousness around others, lack of charisma. When someone is humorless, it indicates that he isn’t particularly interested in me. Then I don’t feel like talking to him for very long either.

Humorlessness is often a byproduct of emotional damage. When a person suffers enough adversity or trauma, it seems that his emotional response ossifies and becomes part of his psyche.  The person becomes coldly serious.  Hot emotions often lie just below the surface and can come out in flashes.  The hot emotions tend toward fear in conservatives (think of apocalyptic survivalists or right-wing alarmists) and anger in liberals (think of protest marches, union strikes, and revolutionaries). Wounded emotions become inflexible, and the person is unable to come back to moderation and take matters lightly anymore.

An overly serious mindset can also be a product of family values, education, peer pressure, or propaganda.  College activists are always upset about something involving race, gender, or socioeconomic status.  In their campus culture, you’re just supposed to be angry about the system.  Meanwhile,  I joke that the notoriously right-wing FOX News stands for …

"Fox News: Fear, Outrage, Xenophobia" coined by Scot Fagerland

For those of us not on the far right, programs like Fox News seem melodramatically fearful and serious.

When I do my own research, I immediately discard sources written with a tone of anger or fear.  Emotions make lousy filters for truth.  I want to learn for the pleasure of it.  Even challenges can be inspiring.  I don’t need to hear someone’s top ten reasons that the world is about to end.

I keep negative nellies and party poopers out of my life.  I’m just better off without them.  Sometimes I’ve taken on a client who gave me that first impression:  “Wow, this person is stiff!  But I need her business.”  Almost invariably, it leads to a personality clash down the line.  As a small businessman, reputation is everything.  It can hurt my business to upset a client, and if a client is easily upset, I have to walk on eggshells.  It distracts me from the more patient and respectful clients.  I have a strict policy now: I don’t need emotionally demanding clients!

What’s downright remarkable is that over-seriousness can become a widespread cultural value.  I have a friend from Iran.  One December day, we were walking around a mall with a Santa’s Village, Christmas music and lights.  “I guess you didn’t grow up with this stuff,” I realized aloud.  “No way,” he said.  “We were never allowed to have any fun!”  He was half-joking.

I believe that Eastern cultures must have a different attitude about levity.  It’s hard to imagine an entire nation where everyone is glum due to emotional baggage.  Besides, the vibe East of the International Sense-of-Humor Line is different from the grumps of the West.  Easterners are not on the edge of anger or fear.  They’re just so darn serious all the time!  I’m sure you know the type – the Russian woman who talks like a drill sergeant, the Indian guy who’s never smiled.  I suppose that in these cultures, seriousness is seen as a sign of mutual respect, whereas in the West we prefer to be easy-going and joke around with each other.  We must also acknowledge, of course, that some of the Eastern countries have had a very bleak history over the last century or more.

Many Eastern cultures are more bureaucratic than Western republics.  Here in the US, the highest value is the right to do your own thing.  I’m no expert on nations like China, Saudi Arabia, or Ukraine, but I envision them as crowded countries with little personal space.  I imagine orders coming from on high, with many government or religious officials telling people what to do.  I imagine social disobedience being a big deal.  If you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, maybe you must guard your privacy more seriously.

I think that dictators are one of the world’s worst problems, and I feel that one of their greatest evils is imposing their humorlessness on their countrymen, from the top down.  Most dictators strike me as being humorless in the Mafioso, psychopathic sense of the word.  Easy-going, lovable guys don’t usually claw their way to the top of a power vacuum … I’m just saying.  And the weight of the bully at the top presses down on his whole national system.  It’s hard to imagine anyone cutting loose in Nazi Germany or ISIS.  I have recently seen videos of Putin at speeches and ceremonies, where he was so puffy-chested as to be almost Mussolinian.  That glimpse of his pompousness, just as much as his policies, really jarred me.  Yikes, I don’t trust a person who takes himself that seriously to be running a country.

The clip below is a pretty damn interesting case study on these effects.  When Gorbachev allowed greater free speech, his people found courage to joke about the government — though this is not exactly Comedy Club material here.  Say what you will about Reagan (and I know that Democrats have many choice words), but he collected these jokes to monitor the Soviet condition.  He also used them to reach out to the citizenry of the USSR, even as he was working to unravel their corrupt and heavy-handed government.  That took some sense of humor.

If you are the owner of any images or videos in this blog and would like me to remove them, just ask.  I make no money from this blog.  And if you don’t have a sense of humor, I apologize for this terribly offensive blog post.  Please don’t bother leaving comments tinged with anger and fear.  Oh, the irony.  >P  

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When I was thinking about pitching TEOH to publishers, I wrote a book proposal to summarize the book and its target audience.  I brainstormed some of the adjectives I would use to describe the book’s point of view.  The first three that came to mind were “Scientific, Agnostic, and Moderate.”  That gave the acronym SAM.  Pretty bland!  In an early draft of my proposal, I wrote,

The book champions a scientific, agnostic, existential, objective, moderate outlook.

Now I was up to the acronym SAEOM, which was unwieldy and didn’t make any sense.  With a little thought, I realized that I was anagramatically close to AWESOME.  I just needed a W word and another E word.  Then it clicked …

Agnostic + Worldly + Existential +  Scientific + Objective + Moderate + Educated =


In our world of hype, the AWESOME voice easily gets lost.  Religion is considered to be righteous, and the irreligious are still lumped in with communists and fringe extremists.  News programs love to interview guests at the far left and far right to get opposing strong opinions.  Political parties force politicians into dramatically polarized teams.  Conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and bitter cynics dominate every online forum.  Nationalism is still a matter of pride, and globalism is viewed with suspicion despite all its clear benefits.

Beliefs, biases, opinions, allegiances, and emotions all have their place.  Yet if your goal is to truly understand the world we live in, you must try to rise above these distractions.  You can’t take sides or get married to preconceived notions.  You have to be agnostic, worldly, existential, scientific, objective, moderate, and educated.

In a series of follow-up posts, I will delve into each of these words and further define what it means to be AWESOME! The plan is for each essay to be about 2,000 words. Altogether, they will form my AWESOME manifesto.

Apply to join the AWESOME Thought Facebook group

A is for Atheist / Agnostic : Posted 6/05/18

W is for Worldly : Posted 4/22/20 (Earth Day)

E is for Existential: Coming next

S is for Scientific / Statistical

O is for Objective

M is for Moderate

E is for Educated

As far as I can tell, the image credit belongs to Yoyo Games.  If you own rights to the image and wish to correct this attribution or remove it from this page, please let me know! 

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Write first, publish later

After writing two chapters of TEOH, I took time off to study the publishing world.  The standard advice for a non-fiction book is to (1) get an agent, (2) submit a book proposal, including two completed chapters, to editors at publishing houses.  That was my intended path for quite a long time.  Eventually, I came to feel that this isn’t the right choice for me.  I am going to write first, publish later.

What is the point of submitting a book proposal to publishers before the book is finished?  For most writers, it is to find out whether the book is worth finishing.  If the proposal does not attract publishing interest, the writer will drop the book and try another one.  I don’t need that kind of approval.  I am committed to writing TEOH whether anybody ever publishes it or not!  It’s a personal life goal for me.

For some authors, a publishing contract provides an advance on royalties — a sizeable up-front payment.  This can help pay for research and travel.  If an author has a good relationship with the publisher, his advance can even buy him six months to a year of free time to focus on the book!  That wouldn’t apply to me, though.  I’m a non-famous, first-time writer.  I’d be lucky to get a publishing deal, let alone an advance.  I would expect my advance to be a nice round number like zero dollars and zero cents.

Chasing down agents — and then publishers — would be hard work.  I have no illusion that publishing is easy.  Rather than spend my time researching agents, calling, emailing, and arranging meetings, I’d rather be building up the book and online presence.

In fact, if I did get a publishing contract, it would instantly create time pressure.  The publisher would probably expect to see a completed draft in a year.  Without an advance, I wouldn’t have the time to devote to that.  I don’t like being hurried!  I would also be handing over artistic control while the work is still in progress.  I’d rather have the luxury of finishing the book on my own time and my own terms.  Then I can pitch it to publishers, with a completed manuscript on hand — and of course explore self-publishing options too.

With that decision made, it was very exciting to finally get back to writing.  “Chapter 9:  The Last Few Billion Years” is now in progress!  Here is my working outline of sections:

  • Oxygen and Eukaryotes (done)
  • Sexual Reproduction, or “The unsexiest lesson about sex that you’ve ever seen.” (in progress)
  • How Sexual Evolution Works
  • From Amoeba to Amphibians
  • Continents and Climate

I liked writing the first and last chapters first.  I’m thinking that I’d like to continue that pattern, writing from the outside in.  That means “Chapter 2:  The Last Few Centuries” would follow Chapter 9.

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