THE THEAETETUS AND THEE: The fire has burned a lot of acres!


But also, the Theaetetus: We're willing to call it a new "pet peeve." We'd also describe it as a source of instruction, of anthropological insight.

We refer to one of the ways the New York Times and the Washington Post are reporting the runaway fires now burning in the west. This very morning, this is the way the New York Times is describing the Caldor fire:

VIGDOR AND FULLER (8/31/21): A wildfire that had burned through remote areas in the Sierra Nevada for two weeks crested a ridge on Monday and began descending toward the major population centers along Lake Tahoe.

As the Caldor fire intensified amid dry and windy conditions, thousands of people along the lake’s southern and western shores were ordered to evacuate. Crews of firefighters sped to put out spot fires only miles from South Lake Tahoe, Calif.


Public safety officials warned that the Caldor fire, the latest to grip California during a particularly unforgiving summer for fire crews in the West, showed no signs of relenting. It had scorched more than 186,000 acres and was 15 percent contained on Monday.

As of Monday, the Caldor fire had scorched "more than 186,000 acres!" But is that really a lot of acres, or is it maybe a little?

Just a guess! Very few readers could translate that account of the fire's extent into a more recognizable unit of measure. That said, the Times includes that account of acreage in its second headline:

Evacuations Ordered Near Lake Tahoe as the Caldor Fire Chokes Region
The fire had spread to more than 186,000 acres and was 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Readers can likely discuss the meaning of  "15 percent." Can they intelligently discuss the meaning—the size, the sweep, the extent—of "186,000 acres?" 

We're going to guess that very few can. But the Washington Post adopts the same "acres only" approach in its reporting of the Caldor fire this morning

Yesterday, in an earlier online version of this morning's report, the Post threw in an apparent language error, offering this account:

LEONARD (8/30/21): But on Sunday, the flames moved aggressively under extremely low humidity and gusts. Since midnight, the fire has consumed nearly 170,000 acres and is 13 percent contained.

"Since midnight?" We assumed the writer meant to say something like "as of midnight," or "as of Monday morning." In this morning's print editions, the language has been cleaned up.

Friend, do you know how large an area 170,000 acres is? We're going to guess that you don't. 

Can you translate that to a more familiar unit of measure? We're going to guess that you can't.

The Post and the Times don't seem to be concerned about that. Only the Associated Press reported the extent of the fire by including a unit of measure—square miles—which would probably be more familiar to most American readers. 

You can see the AP provide that service in this news report.

For the record, 170,000 acres is equal to roughly 266 square miles; that could be an area of 13 miles by 20 miles, with six more square miles thrown in. We know that because we journeyed to this acres-to-square miles conversion site, where we gained the kind of knowledge we could understand and use. 

As of this morning, the Caldor fire had consumed something like 280 square miles of California acreage. We're amazed, and yet not amazed, to think that our brightest newspapers deprive their readers of such basic information.

In our view, it's instructive to see the way the Post and the Times have handled this basic point. It's instructive in the anthropological sense. It's a window onto the nature of the species.

As a species, we just aren't enormously sharp. This is especially true at heavily partisan times like these, when we humans are strongly inclined to divide into tribes and start creating Mandated Tribal Dogmas—mandated proofs of a person's membership in the embattled tribe.

At present, this tendency is on full public display in what's left of the national discourse:

Rather plainly, there's nothing so dumb that many members of the red tribe won't end up believing it. Then too, there's the way our own blue tribe tends to deal, at the present time, with matters of gender and race. 

But also, the Theaetetus!

Our own blue tribe's peculiar behaviors have surfaced a bit of late. In truth, there's nothing so dumb that we won't affirm it, just so long as it supports mandated beliefs concerning those areas of heightened concern.

Then too, the Theaetetus!

We've come to see that there's little point in discussing such incidents. It's the nature of Runaway Tribal Belief that its dogmas can't be amended or addressed by traditional means.

It's also true that we the people are basically on our own when it comes to such rolling behaviors. In last weekend's C-Span event, Steven Pinker mentioned some groups which are forming to address this growing problem within the academy, or at least so he said

For a few brief shining moments, Pinker had us believing in Camelot all over again.  But where has the cavalry been until now?

Consider the Theaetetus! Also, consider the traditional, generally reasonable formula according to which knowledge can be thought of as justified true belief.

Rachel Nichols seems to have had a certain belief concerning a certain decision by her bosses at ESPN. Plainly, her belief may have been true. (We have no way of knowing.)

As an insider at ESPN, she may even have had good reasons for her apparent belief! But when the mob runs in the street, such analysis goes on vacation.

Where the heck are the logicians, the brightest lights of our culture? We're badly in need of intelligent help but, to borrow from Jackson Browne,  they're "nowhere to be found."

Last weekend, Jonathan Rauch's new book led us back to the Theaetetus. In the next few days, we'll try to force ourselves to discuss Nichols' recent cancellation at ESPN, as opposed to the way her cancellation has been reported in the New York Times.

We'll definitely show you what we found when Rauch led us back to the Theaetetus! Pinker and Rauch to the side, our scholars walked off their posts long ago, as the later Wittgenstein is sometimes said to have found.

Tomorrow: Rauch describes the Theaetetus

A skeleton key to this report: Our tribe's treatment of acres can still be discussed. 

Not so with our mandated treatment of matters of gender and race 


  1. "In last weekend's C-Span event, Steven Pinker mentioned some groups which are forming to address this growing problem within the academy, or at least so he said. "

    Meh. In the unlikely case that there are indeed 'groups', make no mistake, dear Bob: they will be dealt with by your liberal-hitlerian zombie cult. Because Academia is well under your cult's control.

    Academics are useless for your purpose, dear Bob; bet on the ordinary people. They are the ones with common sense.

    1. It's no fucking wonder Republicans are working overtime to keep them from voting.
      Common sense is the opposite of Republican ideology.

    2. Without suppressing votes, Republicans couldn't get elected anywhere.
      People aren't as onto their death cult as much as the corporate-owned media would have you believe.

    3. Republicans are going to mop the floor in 2022 by suppressing votes and gerrymandering- and having a feckless opposition party that only pretends to address the interests of its constituents and instead the enables the plutocracy to pilfer unabated. (The leaders of that party get rich as hell off the enabling - see Nancy Pelosi.)

    4. I know who Nancy Pelos is. She's the one passing the $3.5 Trillion infrastructure budget that will benefit the citizens

      BTW,totally agree that the GOP can only win elections through voter suppression.

    5. The most pilfering ever has occurred under Donald Trump, who is a conservative, not a Democrat.

  2. I 100% support Congressman Madison Cawthorn's ca for the people to march to D.C. to kill Congressmen Madison Cawthorn.
    I'd imagine even his mother would

  3. Here is a description of the Caldor fire from Inciweb, one of the sources of fire information regularly consulted by those who live in fire-prone areas:

    I have lived in California for most of my life and am well familiar with the threats posed by wildfires. In 2020, my own home was across the street from the base camp fighting the Eldorado fire. All fires are described in acres burned, and have been since my childhood 60 years ago. Not only that, but rural farms and properties are listed by realtors in terms of acreage too. Only houses are described in square feet (or meters squared in countries using metric).

    Somerby demands that fire authorities report fires in his preferred measure, but that flies in the face of all coordinating agencies and historical practice. Further, the general public is not the most important constituency when sharing information. The public only needs to know where the fire is located and whether they need to pack up and leave. Knowing the size of the fire is meaningless to anyone in the state, except when the governor is doing budgeting or there are lawsuits involved (such as the one against PG&E for starting the largest fire in California history. The couple whose gender reveal party started the fire near my home were charged with unintentional homicide because of the fire deaths their foolish disregard of fire prevention rules caused.

    But Somerby thinks the world should revolve around him and his needs -- his unwillingness to understand how those most affected talk about wildfires. From the perspective of Baltimore, his gripe might make sense, but not in terms of how people measure their own land, farms, national forests and parks. This kind of self-involvement is akin to the kind of narcissism Trump exhibits when he disregards tradition and rules and plows ahead with ignorant plans no matter how many people tell him not to. Somerby never listens to commenters because he most likely doesn't listen to anyone, wrapped up in his world with Thoreau and his pear tree. Meanwhile, those of us endangered by wildfires will measure them any damn way we please. It is our trees and homes being consumed, after all.

    1. Notice how many fires are burning in California alone, and in the rest of the Western US. If you click on each symbol, the acreage and % containment will be given. Note that most are considerably smaller and more contained than the Caldor fire. That is why the Caldor fire is significant enough to report in national news. Note also that the Caldor fire is close to another substantial fire on the other side of Tahoe. If those two fires merge, it will create a huge fire that will be more difficult to fight. The Tahoe area is populated around the edge of the lake so the Caldor fire will have a large impact on those with homes in that area.

      Baltimore doesn't have fires like this, fires capable of wiping out cities and creating its own weather. Whatever Somerby is imagining these fires to be like, he is probably wrong. He needs to show more respect for those who do experience them, especially those who lose their homes or lives.

      I can't imagine that Somerby would complain that Hurricane Ida should be measured in something other than wind speed or the hurricane classification system, because people cannot evaluate the strength of the storm otherwise. That might seem insensitive given that there are so many displaced people and deaths already from Ida. It is the same with these Western wildfires.

    2. The recent film with Angelina Jolie, Those Who Wish Me Dead, shows what a wildfire is like and also what the life of professional firefighters is like. It is fictionalized but might give Somerby some picture of what is going on.

    3. Why didn't Somerby pick hectares or square kilometers?

  4. "In last weekend's C-Span event, Steven Pinker mentioned some groups which are forming to address this growing problem within the academy, or at least so he said."

    The "or at least so he said" portion is a link to nowhere. It leads to Somerby essay yesterday. It does not lead to Pinker's statement about groups being formed. For that, you would apparently have to watch the whole C-Span episode.

  5. "Rachel Nichols seems to have had a certain belief concerning a certain decision by her bosses at ESPN. Plainly, her belief may have been true. (We have no way of knowing.)"

    This is irritating. Somerby says that her belief may have been true. Then he says there is no way of knowing, again hinting that his own view of Nichols may be correct, all while presenting no evidence. Nichols made her statements on video, so there is a record of what she said. Her recorded remarks are inappropriate no matter what the reasons for ESPN to hire Taylor.

    Maria Taylor left ESPN and went to NBC. Nichols was taken off the air. None of that suggests that Somerby's interpretation of the situation is correct. His "we have no way of knowing" doesn't save him from this conclusion.

    Someone truly concerned with knowledge would not hedge every statement with phrases such as "anything is possible" or "we have no way of knowing" because these phrases negate statements of fact. When nothing can be known, nothing is known and there is no point in communicating. That is Somerby's end result. And when nothing is given the status of established fact, then any oddball statement can be asserted, even contradictory ones that fit no evidence, because anything is possible. We don't need this kind of nonsense when disinformation is rampant and Q-Anon is foisting politically motivated garbage on people and those who believe lies are dying preventable deaths from covid.

    Somerby should take his position as a blog-owner with a former reputation more seriously and own his opinions and stop writing such tripe. It is more destructive to public discourse than anything he finds in the press, especially quibbles over reporting acreage in square miles.

  6. "where we gained the kind of knowledge we could understand and use."

    The kind of knowledge that people near a wildfire need is (1) what direction is the fire moving, and (2) at what speed.

    Square miles and miles squared are not the same measure, so use of miles can lead to more confusion than acreage.

  7. "the way our own blue tribe tends to deal, at the present time, with matters of gender and race."

    with gender matters - yes.
    with race matters - yes.
    with class matters - no thank you.

    Our own blue tribe not only doesn't deal with class, they never even mention it. It doesn't exist. When was the last time your favorite liberal blogger brought up class issues?

    1. Black people's rights should in no way be more protected than the rights of 12:55.
      Why should 12:55 be treated as a first-class citizen?

    2. Tell AOC or Elizabeth Warren that class doesn't exist on the left. Bernie has been going around discussing class issues in support of the budget reconciliation. This kind of slur makes no sense at all @12:55.

    3. Yes and all three are squashed by the DNC establishment. Class issues are ignored. When was the last time your favorite liberal blogger brought up class issues?

      It's not debatable. It's ignored. Class solidarity is the biggest threat to the plutocracy and the the DNC are plutocrat's enablers, bought and paid for by the plutocracy.

      You want to live in Dreamland? Be my guest.

    4. If class issues are being ignored, why did Biden change the child deduction to a monthly check? Why has poverty been declining under Biden? Why did he immediately pass a stimulus that put money in people's hands during the stresses of covid? Why are the Dems now auditing rich people's taxes and why are the Dems proposing to pay for infrastructure improvements with a tax increase on the wealthy?

      You have no idea what you are talking about.

      My favorite liberal bloggers bring up class issues regularly. Note that Somerby is not liberal, so I am talking about other folks.

    5. Since, obviously, both sides are the same, can you give me the names of the Republican politicians who are as concerned about class issues as AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?

    6. Aren't all Republicans "concerned about class issues" in the sense that they want to aspire to the upper class themselves and keep others in the lower classes?

    7. Sigh. "the child deduction", "proposing" the wealthy pay for infrastructure, *now* you're all about Bernie!!!

      Like I said, it's your business if you want to live in Dreamland. Have fun.

      Oh - forward some of the blogger's posts about class issues if you could. Thanks.

    8. 4:11,
      Anything done about "class issues" will benefit black people too.
      The Heartland of America (i.e. white people) aren't ready for that.

      You make change with the politicians you elect, not the politicians you wish you elected.

    9. This blogger, Somerby, is not liberal. He is a conservative and a Trumptard.

    10. I hope those links are not meant to represent your favorite liberal bloggers bringing up class issues regularly. If it is: PATHETIC!!

      Like I said, the issue is not debatable. You want to live in dreamland and think Democrats significantly care and honestly are addressing issues of class - go for it.

    11. Whether each and every Democrat is addressing class issues as you would want them to is irrelevant. NO Republicans are doing anything about class injustice. Democrats are the only ones trying in any way to address class and they are doing so as much as they can, while still being able to get legislation passed.

      Dreamland! I don't believe I should abandon support for the only people trying to help, just because they cannot do everything at once, or don't meet your standards (whatever they are -- you haven't said). I support whoever gets us closer to my goals, even a little bit. Republicans are widening the gap, not closing it, but you want to excoriate Democrats because they fall short of your target? That's ludicrous.

      But you are obviously just a troll who is pretending to care about class in order to criticize the left. Fuck off and take your buddies with you.

    12. I found 3 articles on Daily Kos today that were about economic inequities. There were 3 on Talking Points Memo: (1) about Bernie hyping the reconciliation bill, (2) about evictions, (3) about corporations funding conservatives. Today Digby (Hullabaloo) talked about Krugman's article on snake-oil salesmen. The Confluence talked about zero-sum games (an idea from economics) and the viewpoints of our two parties.

      These are from today, after a cursory look at some of the blogs I like, and they suggest that your view that class isn't discussed on liberal blogs is wrong.

    13. Lawyers Guns and Money talks about unions a lot.

    14. There's no debate. Neither party cares at all about class. The blogger topics you cite do not address class iniquities. Republicans being funded by corporations? Please. Democrats aren't? Of course Democrats are completely funded by corporations and banks and are completely beholden to them. That's why we have this new Gilded Age. That's why the Democrats who are in power will do nothing about it while getting stone cold rich. See Nancy Pelosi. It's true that Warren tried to address it and of course she got nowhere. It's true that Democrats will give it lip service when it comes time to get votes or have you idiots send them your money. But it is far beyond debating. There's no debate. You can flail around all you want with these tangential blog posts that kind of but don't really address the core issue of class inequity and the governmental powers from both parties that fully enable it. You can go ahead and do what you want. You can support Democrats because they make you feel that they are somehow less subservient to the rich and less corrupt than the Republicans. That doesn't change the facts that they aren't. They do not care at all about class. They can't because the corporations that buy the elections won't let them. Class is not included in common liberal discourse and blogs. Of course it isn't. It's stupid and insane for you to even attempt to claim it is. Have fun in fantasyland. Do whatever you want. The Democratic party and Democratic politicians will do nothing about the new Guilded Age in which we live ever in our lifetime or our grandchildren's lifetime. It will not happen ... that is so completely obvious. The apathy of the Democrats towards class issues is what got Trump elected. If you want to pretend like Democrats and liberal bloggers genuinely address the issues of class that we are facing head on, be my guest. But that's like saying the sky is tangerine.

    15. Yes - the one writer there Loomis does good work on unions. But that pathetic blog never ever ever brings up class inequalities. In doing so would expose the Democratic Party to which they are beholden. It will never happen under our current framework. Lawyers Guns and Money could never accurately address the class issues we have head on because to would ruin their whole Republicans-are-all-rednecks, tribal framework. The truth is the Republican rednecks and the white middle class white idiots like yourself are in the same boat - completely abused by the two party system which is owned and ruled by the 1%.

      Look at LGM right now. I don't even have to. - I will tell you what's there. Nothing about class and how the 1% is screwing the 99% and a bunch of posts about Trump and how bad Republicans are. BIG DEAL!!!!

    16. Republicans have no agency. Even a dope failing, while trying desperately, to "both sides" inequality, knows that.

    17. Trump is yesterday's news.
      Republicans will find a MUCH bigger piece of shit to nominate for POTUS in 2024.
      Trump? Why would Republicans nominate a phony RINO like him? He's practically a lactating liberal next to the piece of shit they line-up to vote for next time.

    18. "after a cursory look at some of the blogs I like, and they suggest that your view that class isn't discussed on liberal blogs is wrong."

      You don't have to take a cursory look or any look at all - if it was true you would KNOW.

    19. Republican voters are much worse people than Trump.
      I wouldn't be surprised if he was just cosplaying as a bigot for votes. Those gullible fools thought the 'successful businessman' act on "The Apprentice" was real, too.

    20. Perhaps 7:27 PM is correct.
      Maybe Biden and the Democrats should be criticized for not fixing, in 6 months, the damage Republicans have inflicted upon the country for the last 4+ decades.

    21. Don't overthink it.
      7:27 probably still blames the 3000 Americans killed, not al Quaeda, for the the 9/11 attacks.

  8. Somerby doesn’t seem willing or capable of stating clearly what his aims are. Focusing on the minutia in the corporate-owned lie machine he calls the mainstream "press corps" is simply mirroring what they do.

    Sombery's style is a frenzied search for howlers to comment on. Most of them are trivial and forgettable, like this one. His is the very style of the media he criticizes. Just like them, he never questions or examines the larger context. Just like them, he never affirms what are his basic principles. Just like them, he never names who has real power. It's only reasonable to conclude that just like them, he is happy about the direction of the country during his life.

    1. Today's "criticism" is not really any kind of howler but a misunderstanding on Somerby's part.

    2. "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters"

    3. Good comment, dear Glo.

      Also, dear Bob seems to value sweet liberal talk, bullshit liberal 'understanding' (a-la Demigod Bubba's "I feel your pain" accompanied by a lip-biting grimace) above all. So dumb.

      Oh well. Anyhow, we like dear Bob nevertheless. He seems sincere. And, y'know, it takes all kinds.

    4. "we like dear Bob nevertheless"

      Meh, you probably say that about all the Right-wingers.

  9. From the New York Times, California Today, Aug 31, 2021:

    "When you hear of a 100,000-acre fire, that is a description of the total area that has been burned, not what is actively on fire at the time.

    But, as Ernesto Alvarado, a professor of wildland fire sciences at the University of Washington, explained, “There’s no way you can map 100,000 acres with people on the ground.”

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    The authorities instead turn to airplanes, which use infrared cameras, and weather satellites that can snap an image of a fire zone every five minutes or so. Firefighters are able to create real-time maps from these data troves, which can then be supplemented by ground information to map any major fire."

    I believe the NY Times is doing what it needs to do in order to help people understand the Caldor fire (and other fires). Switching to a measure that no one uses will not help people, in my opinion.

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  11. ‘Readers can likely discuss the meaning of  "15 percent." Can they intelligently discuss the meaning—the size, the sweep, the extent—of "186,000 acres?"’

    Anyone who buys a home with a plot of land or just an empty plot of land knows that lots are described in terms of acres, not square miles. Go to any real estate website and look up ‘lots for sale’ or ‘land for sale.’ It is the standard way of selling lots in the US, so I would venture to guess that many do indeed have an idea what an acre is.

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