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June 17th, 2024 | Updated: 6/21/2024 (Permalink)

Waiting for the Debate

The presumptive nominees of the two major parties have both now agreed to the rules for a debate to be sponsored by CNN on the 27th of this month1. Among other things, they agreed that the microphones of each candidate will only be on during the candidate's time, which should prevent the debate from degenerating into a repeat of the first debate between Biden and Trump in 20202. The same approach was successfully used in the last debate of that election year to prevent both interruptions and filibustering3. So, this is good news.

A positive difference from most previous debates will be the lack of a studio audience, which is something the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has never done as far as I know. To find presidential debates without an audience you have to go all the way back to the Kennedy-Nixon ones in 1960, which kicked off the current tradition of presidential debating. Studio audiences serve no purpose for the vast majority of us watching from the comfort of our own homes and occasionally they're a distraction. Why the CPD has always favored them, I don't know.

A potentially negative difference is the presence of two moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, both CNN reporters. Why two and not one? The CPD was responsible for moving away from panels of journalists taking turns questioning the candidates to a single moderator, and moderator duties were well-conducted by Jim Lehrer through a dozen debates. Lehrer died in 20204, and since then there have been some bad moderators5, but having as many moderators as debaters is a step in the wrong direction. A single moderator ought to be able to control two elderly men. I assume that the reason for having two for this debate is that Tapper and Bash are both "stars" at CNN, both wanted to do it, and no one had the nerve to deny one of them.

CNN has also adopted, possibly at the behest of the two campaigns, the same rules used by the CPD to shut out other candidates. To qualify for the debate, candidates must be on enough state ballots to potentially win the electoral college, which requires 270 votes6, and also must score at 15% or higher on four recent polls. This is a bar so high that no third party or independent candidate has been able to reach it since Perot in 1992. Making matters worse is holding the debate so early in the year, which gives less time to gain ballot access.

The only candidate not from the two major parties who has even a slight chance of qualifying for the debate is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. However, RFK, Jr. is not yet on enough state ballots to qualify and has only three days to do so since the deadline is Thursday. The Kennedy campaign claimed earlier this month that they had met the ballot qualification for the debate, but that was based on having submitted enough petition signatures in several states to qualify, and the states still have to verify those signatures7. It's far more likely that he'll be on enough state ballots to qualify for the second debate, which is scheduled for September, assuming that the two major parties don't raise the bar in the meantime.

RFK, Jr. has already met the 15% standard in three qualifying polls, but again he has only until Thursday to do so in a fourth poll to qualify for this debate8. Is there even an acceptable poll with results coming out between now and then?

So, it's extremely unlikely that RFK, Jr. will be included in this debate. As for qualifying for the second debate, I expect that polling will be the hurdle that will trip him up, since he's likely to get on enough state ballots by September. The three polls that he did at least 15% in will be outdated by then, so that he'll have to do that well in four other polls between now and then. His current polling average is only about half what he needs to qualify, and the best that he's done in recent polls is 13%9. Of course, this could change in the next two months, but it will be hard for him to improve his polling numbers without the publicity that appearing in a debate would provide.

This is the catch that keeps independent and third-party candidates out of the debates: they can't debate without polling well and they can't poll well if they don't debate. That's some catch!

Update (6/21/2024): The deadline for qualifying for the first debate was yesterday and, unsurprisingly, RFK, Jr. failed to qualify10, so the debate will be between just the current and former presidents. As I wrote above, RFK, Jr. will probably be on sufficient ballots by September, but he'll have to raise his polling position to qualify for the second debate. That will be difficult to do without receiving more media exposure. If he doesn't qualify for the last debate, his chance of winning the election will probably be near zero.


  1. "CNN to Host 2024 Election Presidential Debate Between President Joe Biden and Former President Donald J. Trump on June 27", CNN, 5/15/2024.
  2. See: Debate Clinic, 10/1/2020.
  3. See: The Last Debate, 10/24/2020.
  4. "Jim Lehrer", Encyclopædia Britannica, 5/15/2024.
  5. See: Second Presidential Debate Logic Check, Part 2, 10/20/2012.
  6. Michael Ray, "How Does the Electoral College Work?", Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed: 6/17/2024.
  7. Jonathan J. Cooper, "Kennedy says he has secured ballot access in enough states to win. That's not yet true", Associated Press, 6/7/2024.
  8. Chris Cameron & Rebecca Davis O'Brien, "The Big Hurdle Between R.F.K. Jr. and the Debate Stage (It's Not a Poll)", The New York Times, 6/5/2024.
  9. "Biden vs. Trump vs. RFK Jr. polls", The Hill, 6/17/2024.
  10. Meg Kinnard, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fails to qualify for CNN's debate. It'll be a showdown between Biden and Trump", Associated Press, 6/21/2024.

June 1st, 2024 (Permalink)

Are you smarter than an artificial intelligence?

Three children's blocks are arranged in a stack on a table. These blocks, you understand, are cubes made of solid wood that is painted a single, solid color: blue, red, green, yellow, etc. The top block in the stack is painted green, whereas the block at the bottom of the stack is yellow, but you don't know what color the block in the middle is.

To be clear: a yellow block rests on the table, a block of unknown color rests on top of the yellow block and, finally, a green block is on top of the block of unknown color. By "on top of" I mean that one block rests on the top of the other, touching it, and not simply that it is above it.

So, here's the problem: Is a green block on top of a non-green block? Non-green, of course, is any of the other colors: blue, red, yellow, orange, etc.

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May 20th, 2024 (Permalink)

The Fog of War Statistics

Since the early days of Israel's invasion of Gaza, Hamas has claimed that approximately 70% of those killed have been women and children1. The propaganda purpose is obvious: to accuse Israel of killing many innocent civilians in its attempt to destroy Hamas and, thereby, to inflame public opinion against Israel and increase political pressure for a ceasefire. Here's an example from a United Nations (UN) official:

Sima Sami Bahous, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity2 for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women…, recalled that women and girls pay the highest price when armed conflict erupts. Since 7 October, when Hamas fighters attacked Israel, 67 per cent of the more than 14,000 people killed in Gaza are estimated to be women and children.3

Notice the use of the passive voice―"are estimated"―to avoid mentioning who estimated. The UN has been trying to track deaths in Gaza using the figures supplied by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza (GHM)4.

Hamas has multiple ways of inflating the numbers of non-combatant casualties including not distinguishing between its own terrorists and civilian men. However, women and children are presumably non-combatants so that if over two-thirds of those killed in Gaza were in those two categories, then at least that many of the dead would be innocent civilians.

As recently as the sixth of this month, a different UN entity claimed that 34,735 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, including over 9,500 women and 14,500 children5―no elderly mentioned. If you assume that these two categories are disjoint―that is, that no female children are women―then 24K women and children amounts to 69% of the total fatalities.

Two days later, the entity revised its figures to increase the total to 34,844. However, it also did something new, namely, breaking that total into two subsets: those who had been "fully identified", 24,686; and those unidentified, 10,158. The fully identified were then broken down into four subsets: men, 10,006; women, 4,959; children, 7,797; and the elderly, 1,9246. If we assume that these subcategories are disjoint then 12,756 women and children had died. These changes resulted from the entity switching its source for the statistics from the Gaza Media Office (GMO) to the Gaza Health Ministry (GHM), though both are controlled by Hamas7.

"Fully identified" appears to mean determining the name or identification number of the dead person8, which leaves us with a puzzle: it's surely possible to identify the sex and approximate age of most dead bodies without determining a name or ID number. Why then are the unidentified bodies not classified by sex and age?

Even if all of the over 10K unidentified were women and children, the total of 22,914 falls a bit over a thousand short of the 24K claimed by the GMO, but why would there be no men among the unidentified? Whether a body is fully identifiable seems to have nothing to do with either its sex or age, therefore the distribution of those characteristics among the unidentified ought to be similar to that for the identified. Since close to 52% of the fully identified group are classified as women and children, a bit over 5K of the 10K unidentified ought to be the same, for a total of approximately 18K women and children out of 35K dead.

So, given the new numbers, we can estimate that about 52% of those killed so far have been women and children, but keep in mind that those numbers―like the claim that 70% of the dead were women and children―are coming from Hamas.


  1. Sometimes the elderly are included. Here are, in chronological order, some examples of the news media unskeptically repeating the claim:
  2. I love that Bahous works for an "Entity". What's the difference if any between an entity, an agency, an office, and an organization?
  3. "Two Thirds of Gaza War Dead Are Women and Children, Briefers Say, as Security Council Debates Their Plight", United Nations, 11/22/2023.
  4. Who's Counting?, 3/25/2024.
  5. "Hostilities in the Gaza Strip and Israel - reported impact | Day 213", United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5/6/2024.
  6. "Hostilities in the Gaza Strip and Israel - reported impact | Day 215", United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5/8/2024.
  7. Jake Horton, Shayan Sardarizadeh & Adam Durbin, "Gaza war: Why is the UN citing lower death toll for women and children?", BBC, 5/16/2024.
  8. Brian Bennett, "What We Know About the Death Toll in Gaza", Time, 5/18/2024.

Debate Watch Debate Watch
May 17th, 2024 (Permalink)

The Debates are On

The two major party candidates for president, incumbent Democrat Joe Biden and former president Republican Donald Trump, have agreed to hold two debates this year. The first will be hosted by CNN in about a month-and-a-half, on June 27th, and the second on September 10th, hosted by ABC1.

To my surprise, the candidates' campaigns negotiated this agreement outside of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which had already decided on three presidential debates and one vice presidential. It's unsurprising that Trump would agree to debates outside of those set up by the CPD, since the Republican party has criticized the performance of the CPD―justifiably, in my opinion―and threatened to boycott its debates2. What's surprising to me is the Biden campaign rejecting the CPD's schedule and negotiating directly with Trump.

Why did the Biden campaign decide to bypass the CPD? One factor that's mentioned in The New York Times report is the possibility of a three-way debate. Under the CPD's rules, any candidate polling at ≥15% in select polls and with enough ballot access to be able to win the electoral college is eligible to debate3. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is running for president as an independent, is the only third-party or independent candidate who might qualify for the CPD debates. However, in an average of recent polls, he's polling at only about half of what he needs to qualify4, though one poll from earlier this month has him at 13%, so there is at least some slight possibility that he might do so. Given his recently-publicized claim that a worm ate part of his brain5, I think it's unlikely that he'll end up qualifying.

In addition, both CNN and ABC seem to be adopting the CPD's requirements for debate participation6, so RFK, Jr., could still theoretically qualify for either debate. Of course, since the debates will take place sooner than the ones scheduled by the CPD, there will be less time for him to get on the ballot and raise his position in the polls. Still, this is a weak reason for abandoning the CPD.

Another factor that may have played a role in the Democrats' decision is the CPD's schedule, with the first debate set for mid-September, since both campaigns wanted earlier ones7. Given the rise in early and mail-in voting in many states since the pandemic in 2020, the two campaigns expressed concern that some people will have voted prior to the CPD's debates. However, according to the CPD8, only one state―North Carolina―mails out absentee ballots in early September before the day of the first scheduled debate, and all other states begin doing so either on the day of the debate―Pennsylvania―or later. If so, concerns about early voting appear to be another dubious excuse, and the motives of the Biden campaign for sidelining the CPD remain mysterious.

While I think there's much to criticize in the performance of the CPD, it's unfortunate that the campaigns are ignoring it rather than trying to reform it. It's useful to have a neutral organization in charge of setting up, scheduling, designing, and running the debates, and there's no reason to think that debates negotiated between the two major party campaigns and television networks will do as good a job, let alone better. It should be an interesting experiment, though, and we'll see how it comes out.


  1. Neil Vigdor, "Trump and Biden Agree to 2 Debates. Here's What to Know.", The New York Times, 5/15/2024.
  2. Zeke Miller & Jill Colvin, "RNC threatens to boycott commission's presidential debates", Associated Press, 1/13/2022.
  3. "Commission on Presidential Debates Announces Sites and Dates for 2024 General Election Debates and 2024 Nonpartisan Candidate Selection Criteria", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 11/20/2023.
  4. "Biden vs. Trump vs. RFK Jr. polls", The Hill, 5/15/2024.
  5. Susanne Craig, "R.F.K. Jr. Says Doctors Found a Dead Worm in His Brain", The New York Times, 5/8/2024.
  6. Katharine Jackson, "Explainer-Biden vs Trump: What to expect from presidential debates", Reuters, 5/17/2024.
  7. Kate Sullivan, "Trump campaign managers criticize Commission on Presidential Debates for sticking to original debate schedule", CNN, 5/1/2024.
  8. "CPD Statement on 2024 Debate Schedule", The Commission on Presidential Debates, 5/1/2024.

May 11th, 2024 (Corrected: 5/13/2024) (Permalink)

How to Lie with Photographs, Part 2

"Let the jury consider their verdict," the King said….

"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first―verdict afterwards."

"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!"1

The best evidence for factual claims is usually that of your own senses, but you probably won't be able to check most claims you read in the media so directly. The second best evidence is likely to be video or still photographs, but both can be manipulated in ways that may not be detectable by your own senses and, instead, require technical expertise to expose. For this reason, just because a factual claim is based on videos or photographs is no reason to accept it uncritically.

It used to be the case that you needed a darkroom and special equipment to fake photographs, but with the advent of digital photography and programs such as Photoshop, anyone with a computer can do so―even princesses2. Despite these developments―pun noted―many people still look at photos as though they never mislead and, as a result, they accept such evidence without critical examination.

Though it sometimes takes specialized knowledge to detect fake photography, not every misleading photo involves such trickery. As we saw in the first part of this series3, sometimes it's not the photo itself that lies but its caption, or the text of an article to which the photo is attached.

Dino Brugioni, in his book Photo Fakery, classifies fake photography into four types: "deletion of details", "insertion of details", "photomontage"4, and "false captioning"5. About the latter, he writes: "The falsely captioned photo differs from other groups of fake photos in that, although the photography has not been altered, the context of what the photograph purportedly conveys is simply falsified.6"

In order for Brugioni's four categories to cover all types of misleading photograph, the name "false captioning" must not be taken literally. Rather, any photograph that is misleadingly described, whether in a caption or accompanying article, is an example. In particular, staged photos which are represented as portraying something other than what they actually portray, should fall in this category.

The infamous Cottingley fairy photographs7 are examples of this last type. The two young cousins* who took the photos lacked both the knowledge and access to the tools required to engage in any sophisticated fakery. Instead, they simply copied drawings from a children's book, cut them out, and propped them up in the weeds with hatpins. The problem was not with the photos themselves but with gullible adults, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote books claiming that they showed real fairies8.

Let's look at a more recent example of false captioning. I won't display any of the photos or video discussed, since they are probably owned by the photographer, and you can see them on many of the articles linked in the Notes, below.

On September 20, 2021, the El Paso Times published a report which began:

A mounted U.S. Border Patrol agent shouted commands in a tense encounter with Haitian migrants wading through the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas. As the Haitians tried to climb onto the U.S. side of the river Sunday afternoon, the agent shouted: "Let's go! Get out now! Back to Mexico!" The agent swung his whip menacingly, charging his horse toward the men in the river who were trying to return to an encampment under the international bridge in Del Rio after buying food and water in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. One migrant fell as he tried to dodge, others shielded their heads with their hands.9

The article was illustrated by a couple of photos showing Border Patrol agents (BPAs) on horseback, and in the one at the top of the report a BPA appears to be holding up a long, thin cord or strap. If you glance at the photo after reading the above description of a BPA swinging a whip, you might interpret it as showing a whip at the top of its swing.

However, the next day the highlighted sentence was changed to: "The agent menacingly swung his reins like a whip, charging his horse toward the men in the river who were trying to return to an encampment under the international bridge in Del Rio after buying food and water in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico."10. Also, a "Clarification" was added at the top of the story:

Our reporting team witnessed at least one agent on horseback swing his reins like a whip. We have updated the story to clarify that fact since it was not an actual whip.

In addition to the still photos, there is some video of a BPA on horseback twirling one of this reins, though not appearing to make contact with anyone11. Notice that even the uncorrected report quoted above does not claim that the BPA who supposedly swung a whip "menacingly" actually used it to whip anyone.

Nonetheless, this tiny spark was enough to start a firestorm of criticism of the Border Patrol over the next few days. The condemnation went all the way to the top, namely, President Biden, who was quoted as saying:

It's horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it's outrageous…. I promise you: those people will pay… There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.12

Despite referring to an investigation, Biden apparently had already made up his mind that the BPAs should be punished. Verdict first, investigation afterwards. Does the presumption of innocence not apply to BPAs, or is the president exempt from applying it?

"Strapped" is an interesting choice of words because "to strap" as a transitive verb usually means to tie something down, as with straps, but there's a less common meaning, namely, to beat with a strap13. Why not say "whipped" rather than the rare "strapped"? Had Biden been informed that no whip was involved? Had he seen the photos or videos? He talks as though he had, pronouncing the sight "horrible" and "outrageous", but did he think that he had seen people beaten with straps in the photos or video?

A few days after Biden's remarks, the outrage continued with an opinion piece in The Seattle Times:

In recent days, images of Border Patrol agents on horseback whipping Haitian asylum seekers at the Texas-Mexico border have reminded Americans of the racist origins―and current practices―of our nation's immigration enforcement agencies. … Title 42…is the Trump-era policy of expelling asylum-seekers, ostensibly on public health grounds; the whip-wielding Border Patrol agents were enforcing this rule when they forced Haitian refugees back into Mexico.14

Within a couple of days, "Whip-wielding" was deleted and "whipping" changed to "corralling" 15.

As for the investigation mentioned by Biden, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas claimed that it would "be completed in days, and not weeks", but six weeks later NPR was fretting that it was still ongoing16. In reality, the investigation was not completed until almost a year later17, concluding:

There is no evidence that BPAs involved in this incident struck, intentionally or otherwise, any migrant with their reins. The horses involved in this incident were equipped with split reins which can be twirled by the rider to guide the horse's movements. One BPA involved in this incident also reported twirling these split reins as a distancing tactic.18

By the time the report was released, the outrage had died down, the incident was mostly forgotten, and few cared what had really happened.

As with the Cottingley photographs, the Border Patrol photos and video were not fake, they just didn't show what some people―including the President of the United States―claimed they did. There were no fairies at the bottom of the garden in the Cottingley photos, and there were no "whips" in the hands of BPAs. In both cases, you don't need any advanced knowledge of photography to detect the false claims, you just have to look closely.

Correction: I originally referred to the two girls who took the Cottingley fairy photos as "sisters"; they were cousins. See: "Cottingley Fairies: How Sherlock Holmes's creator was fooled by hoax", BBC, 12/4/2020.


  1. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), chapter 12: "Alice's Evidence".
  2. See: Seeing is Disbelieving, 3/13/2024.
  3. For Part I, see: How to Lie with Photographs, 12/9/2023.
  4. This is what I initially thought National Enquirer's Oswald and Cruz photo would be, but it turned out to be false captioning; see: Mashed or Matched?, 4/27/2024.
  5. Dino A. Brugioni, Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation (1999), chapter 2. See, also, by the same author: "Spotting Photo Fakery", CIA Historical Review Program, 9/22/1993. This shorter and earlier work also divides fake photos into four types, but the first three types differ from those in the later book, though the last type is also "false captioning".
  6. Ibid., p. 22.
  7. See: Fairy Tale, 2/6/2013.
  8. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Coming of the Fairies (1922).
  9. Martha Pskowski, "Haitian migrants face tough choices in Del Rio amid crackdown at Texas-Mexico border", El Paso Times, 9/20/2021. This is the Internet Archive's copy of the original report which has since been corrected. Paragraphing suppressed.
  10. Martha Pskowski, "Haitian migrants face tough choices in Del Rio amid crackdown at Texas-Mexico border", El Paso Times, 9/21/2021. This is the earliest snapshot of the corrected report.
  11. "White House condemns whip use on Haitian migrants", Reuters, 9/21/2021. The title of this video is still uncorrected despite the fact that the description beneath it reads: "The White House criticized the use of horse reins to threaten Haitian migrants after images circulated of a U.S. border guard on horseback charging at migrants near a riverside camp in Texas". So, Reuters appears to have known that there was no whip.
  12. Kevin Liptak & Kate Sullivan, "Biden and Harris harshly condemn horseback wrangling depicted in images from US-Mexico border", CNN, 9/24/2021. Second ellipsis in the original; paragraphing suppressed.
  13. "Strap", Collins Dictionary, accessed: 5/10/2024.
  14. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, "ICE arrests in Washington tell stories of suffering that goes unseen", The Seattle Times, 9/28/2021. This is the Internet Archive Wayback Machine's archived copy of the uncorrected op-ed article.
  15. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, "ICE arrests in Washington tell stories of suffering that goes unseen", The Seattle Times, 9/30/2021. This is the corrected version of the op-ed article.
  16. Joel Rose, "The inquiry into border agents on horseback continues. Critics see a 'broken' system", NPR, 11/6/2021.
  17. Carolina Cuellar, "CBP report finds 'no evidence' of border agent whipping Haitian migrants, despite viral photo", NPR, 7/8/2022.
  18. "Report of Investigation", Department of Homeland Security, 5/2023, p. 5.

May 3rd, 2024 (Permalink)

Crack the Combination VII*

The combination of a lock is three digits long and each digit is unique, that is, each occurs only once in the combination. The following are some incorrect combinations.

  1. 807: No digits are correct.
  2. 592: Two digits are correct but both are in the wrong position.
  3. 012: One digit is correct and in the right position.
  4. 758: One digit is correct but in the wrong position.

Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?

*Previous "Crack the Combination" puzzles: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.

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