Where do you get news?

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I have been posting about the COVID-19 pandemic currently raging in the world. (Click here for all posts on that blog about that topic.)

My question for this post: Where do you get news about the pandemic? Please share your thoughts in the comments if you are comfortable doing so.

I have asked this question before on this blog (in general, not about any specific topic). See this 2017 post and the comments. In that post I wrote:

Much of the news these days – even from some of the sources listed above – seems to be unnecessarily negative.

How true that is now! Much of the news about the COVID-19 pandemic is relentlessly negative. Yes, the pandemic is deadly serious. I have noted on my other blog that “these are unprecedented times,” that in our household we are “hunkering down,” and that collectively we need to “slow the spread.” But I do wonder if the news is giving us a balanced perspective on all aspects of the pandemic.

Let’s collectively think about how we inform ourselves about reality, an appropriately ironic topic on April Fools Day.

Personally I consume almost no radio or TV news. I am a reader. I have long subscribed to three newspapers – Burlington Free Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal – and I also read VTDigger. I admit that I no longer read the Burlington Free Press regularly because over time it has included less and less of interest to me. My family continues to read it and they let me know if there is anything in it that I should read.

All of that is online. We no longer receive any paper newspapers except the News & Citizen, a wonderful local newspaper that is mailed free of charge to everyone in a handful of towns in our area, and which I read faithfully. See the photo above. This newspaper is generally apolitical, and I love it.

Recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I subscribed to a new online newspaper: The Epoch Times. I don’t know much about this newspaper. It was founded in 2000 by a group of Chinese-Americans associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement. That’s unusual, but I have not noticed any spiritual preachiness in their reporting. I am intrigued by the Chinese-American connection, since China is part of the COVID-19 story.

I have noticed that the folks at The Epoch Times are not fans of the current Chinese government. They seem to like the style of government envisioned by the founders of the United States of America. I like that style of government, too.

The Epoch Times is more supportive of President Trump than my other newspapers, so I will read their reporting skeptically. Coincidentally, like the NYT and the WSJ, The Epoch Times is headquartered in New York City, the current center of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the home of President Trump. (It was his original home, until his recent move to Florida.) Perhaps these three newspapers together – NYT and WSJ and TET – will provide a balanced perspective on the pandemic.

It’s OK to take a break from the news, too. Is the news getting you down? Consider taking a walk outside. If you do, be sure to follow the advice on the marquee below: keep 2 meters apart from other people and wash your hands when you return home.

(“On the Bijou Theater marquee in Morrisville, the spaces where films are normally advertised have a different message this week: Do what you’re supposed to in the coronavirus crisis.” Photo by Tommy Gardner. From the News & Citizen, March 26, 2020, page 7. Online here. Used with permission.)

A walk helps us connect with reality in our neighborhood. The news helps us connect with reality in the rest of the world. It’s a big world outside of our heads. How do you inform yourself about reality?

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Democracy in the Mountains

The Varnum Memorial Library in my village of Jeffersonville, Vermont, recently hosted a talk titled “Democracy in the Mountains: The Vermont-Switzerland Connection” by Susan Clark.

Several posts on this blog have discussed town meetings in New England generally, and specifically in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Susan is the town meeting moderator in Middlesex, Vermont. Her talk was about Switzerland, which she visited for several months a few years ago to study their town meetings. From the description of her talk:

Gorgeous mountains, vibrant farms, flocking tourists, even chocolate–Vermont has a lot in common with Switzerland. But few New Englanders know that Switzerland is the only other place in the world with whom we share one other proud tradition: town meetings.

In New England, some towns have held town meetings for more than 300 years. Some Swiss towns have held town meetings for more than 800 years. What can we in Vermont learn from Switzerland? Following are some takeaways for me from Susan’s talk.

Lasting democracy requires effort. Effort as in attending meetings and engaging in discussions with your neighbors, face-to-face as much as possible. Merely voting at the ballot box is not enough.

Lasting democracy comes from the bottom up, not the top down. In both Switzerland and New England, towns existed first and other political entities (counties, cantons, states, the nation) came later. Democracy started in the towns. That is an important lesson that in today’s modern world we are in danger of forgetting.

Democracy can be messy. Not everyone is happy with their government and with their neighbors all the time. But if we remember to treat each other as human beings, we can figure out a way to get along. Sharing food helps. The Swiss include wine or beer with their shared meals at town meeting.

Consider representative town meetings for larger towns and cities. Every municipality in Switzerland, even cities, has some form of town meeting. In the larger towns and cities this takes the form of a representative town meeting. In Vermont, Brattleboro has a representative town meeting.

The first lesson is the hardest one for me. Why isn’t voting at the ballot box enough? Why do I have to spend so much time on this self-government thing? Time is precious.

But this lesson is critical. Democracy does not thrive unless citizens invest their time to make self-government work. The alternative is to be ruled by others.

I first met Susan Clark in 2013 because of a book that she co-authored in 2012 with Woden Teachout: Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home. One of the themes of this book is the importance of citizen engagement and how this takes time. Hence the theme “slow.”

Susan came to Cambridge in 2017 to help with the work of the Community Engagement Team which was tasked with making improvements in our town meeting. Many of us in Cambridge read and appreciated the book that she co-authored in 2005 (updated in 2015) with UVM professor Frank Bryan: All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community. One of the themes of this book is the importance of town meeting and discussion, not merely voting at the ballot box.

Susan’s recent talk about Switzerland reinforced these themes for me. She quoted Swiss people as saying that voting is the last thing to do, only after much discussion aimed at trying to find common ground. Susan also said the Swiss were surprised that we have town meeting only once a year. Every Swiss town holds town meeting at least twice a year, and in many towns several times a year.

Susan’s talk at the Varnum Memorial Library was on Wednesday, October 23. The discussion after her presentation was also stimulating. Several people in the audience had Swiss relatives or had traveled in Switzerland. There are many interesting people in Cambridge, Vermont!

The photo above is Swiss citizens voting at the Appenzell Landsgemeinde (a canton-wide outdoor meeting). Photo courtesy of Mark Bushnell.

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My previous post (Are we living in a simulation?) reminded me of a book that I read as a youth: the science fiction novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye.

So, subsequent to writing that post, I pulled out my copy of the book and re-read it. My worn copy – see image at left – is a Bantam Books paperback edition, original price 40 cents, published in July 1964.

Sure enough, the book and the New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post share similar themes. In fact I’m not the only person to notice this. Several online NYT commenters mentioned Simulacron-3.

I’ll discuss the common themes below, but first I want to make an observation about the publishing history of Simulacron-3.

Some years ago I wanted to re-read this book. (Perhaps because of the movie The Matrix which came out in 1999 and may have been influenced by Simulacron-3.) The copy that I read when growing up on the farm in the 1960s was long gone, and the book was out of print, but I found and purchased a used copy. That is the book pictured above.

Simulacron-3 has long been out of print, but it was reprinted on August 9, 2019. See the listing for Simulacron-3 on Amazon. The New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post was published on August 10, 2019. See Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out. Coincidence? It would not surprise me if Prof. Preston Greene, the author of that NYT column, was influenced by Simulacron-3.

In any event, what was Simulacron-3 about?

Continue reading

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Are we living in a simulation?

Are we living in a computer simulation?

This post is prompted by a column in the New York Times: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.

The column is by Preston Greene: Ph.D., Philosophy, Rutgers University; assistant professor of philosophy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I had not previously heard of Prof. Greene, but the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation has been around for a while.

Prof. Greene notes that Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, advanced the concept in 2003, and that technology entrepreneur Elon Musk is a fan. In fact, this is not the first time the New York Times has published on this topic. Science columnist John Tierney wrote about Nick Bostrom’s ideas in 2007: here, here, and here.

What is new in Prof. Greene’s column is that scientists are proposing experiments to test whether or not we live in a simulation, and Prof. Greene is urging them not to proceed:

I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe.

He is worried that if we are indeed living in a simulation, and if we discover scientific evidence to that effect, then the creator(s) of the simulation might shut it down, thus ending our entire universe.

Oh, dear. Where to begin.

If you have access to the New York Times, please do read the column by Prof. Greene and the reader comments. Many comments are informative or amusing, but I did not find comments that lend much support to Prof. Greene’s concerns.

My reaction to Prof. Greene’s column is: So what? We still have to figure out how to live our lives, and the concepts he puts forth make no difference in that regard. As one commenter put it:

Then gosh darn-it, I am going to be the best simulated human I can be!

Nor am I worried about the science experiments that Prof. Greene describes. I don’t think these are questions that science can answer, but we might learn something interesting in trying. Not with taxpayer money, though. These are interesting ideas for people to explore on non-government time with non-government money as long as they don’t bother others.

Prof. Greene is concerned with risk. He ends his column with a question:

Is it really worth the risk?

There is a risk here, but it is not the one he sees.

I found an insightful discussion of Prof. Greene’s column on the blog by Ann Althouse, who is retired from a career as a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. You don’t need a subscription to read her post and reader comments.

Prof. Althouse puts it this way:

I see the danger. In fact, I see more danger than he does. Whether the higher civilization would destroy us if we caught on to their game or not, knowing that we are only somebody else’s simulation would change the meaning of life for us. It would disrupt how we care about ourselves and other people.

I would describe the risk as follows.

Many commenters at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog point out that the idea that we are living in a computer simulation is compatible with the creation stories of the world’s great religions. Most people throughout most of history have thought that we are the creation of a God or gods, so we have sort of gotten used to that idea. In the view of these commenters, talking about a computer simulation changes nothing except the terminology.

In fact this change in terminology, though subtle, is significant. When we speak of God, or when the ancient Greeks and Romans spoke of “the gods,” we mean something that is immortal and infinite. We admit that we are speaking of something that we finite mortals fundamentally cannot understand. The Abrahamic religions capture this concept in the Book of Job in the Bible.

In contrast, when we speak of a computer simulation we speak of something that we think we understand – because we are now creating computer simulations ourselves. The risk is our hubris. The risk is in thinking that we understand more than we do in fact understand, or can ever understand.

Where can such hubris lead? As one Althouse commenter put it:

If you begin thinking of other people as simulations, it will be awfully easy to kill them.

That’s a road we don’t want to go down, so let’s be careful where this conversation leads.

The idea that we might be living in a computer simulation is fascinating (if we don’t go down the dark road that I warned about above). For more discussion, see the comments at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog at the links above. Many commenters in both places offer helpful references to concepts in philosophy, religion, and science, plus references to science fiction where these ideas have been considered. Recommended reading. I learned a lot.

UPDATE 9/05/19: See my next post Simulacron-3 about a 1964 science fiction novel with striking similarities to the NYT column discussed above. Long out of print, it was reprinted on 8/09/19. The NYT column discussed above was published on 8/10/19. Coincidence?

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Anne Frank and the Four Freedoms

Anne Frank and President Franklin Roosevelt did not know each other, but there is a profound connection between them: the Four Freedoms.

President Roosevelt gave a famous speech to Congress in January 1941, eleven months before the United States entered World War II, called the Four Freedoms speech.

In this speech President Roosevelt described the war then raging on four continents as attacks by dictator nations on democratic nations. He warned about the risks to our safety and our democracy in the United States if the democratic nations were defeated.

At the end of the speech, President Roosevelt explained what the democracies of the world were fighting for – what he called the Four Freedoms:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear

See Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

Anne Frank’s diary provides an affecting and honest account of what life is like when the Four Freedoms are progressively taken away:

  • Freedom of speech – Anne was not free to publicly speak her thoughts
  • Freedom of worship – Anne was persecuted because of her Jewish religion
  • Freedom from want – there was seldom enough quantity and variety to eat
  • Freedom from fear – there was constant fear of arrest and bombing

See The Diary of Anne Frank.

President Roosevelt used the theme of the Four Freedoms to explain why it was necessary for the world’s democratic nations to fight against aggressor nations. Any grand theme is made more vivid by examples. Anne Frank’s diary, a poignant account by a young girl, is one example that illustrates what President Roosevelt was talking about.

Neither Anne Frank nor President Roosevelt lived to see the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, but both Anne’s diary and the Four Freedoms continue to influence our world today. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, had a hand in both.

After World War II ended, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in the development of the United Nations. She made certain that the Four Freedoms were included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

See Legacy of the Four Freedoms.

The first English translation of Anne Frank’s diary was published in 1952. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote the Introduction to the edition that I read, pictured above, available here. The first two sentences in Mrs. Roosevelt’s Introduction:

This is a remarkable book. Written by a young girl—and the young are not afraid of telling the truth—it is one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.

I encourage everyone to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, or to re-read it if you read it long ago. Our world is not yet secure in the Four Freedoms.

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The Diary of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank is a play based on the book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (pictured). Mrs. TSP and I recently saw a production of this play by the Stowe Theatre Guild. Unfortunately it is not fiction. It is about a small group of people caught up in The Holocaust.

Anne Frank was a Jew. She was born on June 12, 1929 in Germany. The Nazi party of Adolph Hitler assumed control of the German government in January 1933 and began to persecute Jews. Anne Frank’s family, consisting of her parents, her older sister Margot, and Anne, left Germany in the summer of 1933. By the spring of 1934 they had settled in Amsterdam where Anne’s father, Otto Frank, ran a small business in partnership with others.

Anne lived a normal childhood until May 1940 when Germany invaded the Netherlands. The Nazis gradually imposed more and more restrictions on Jews in the Netherlands, just as they had done in Germany. Nevertheless, Anne celebrated a somewhat normal 13th birthday on June 12, 1942. Among her birthday presents was a diary, subsequently to become one of the most famous diaries in history.

Sometime after the German invasion, Anne’s parents began preparing for the time when they would go into hiding. Many other Jews in the Netherlands went into hiding in the countryside, but Anne’s parents prepared a hiding place right in Amsterdam, in the building that contained Otto Frank’s business. There was a section in the upper floors of the building, in the back, that was a suitable hiding place. Anne later called this space the “Secret Annex.”

Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, received a directive on July 5, 1942 to report to a relocation camp. Anne’s family went into hiding the next day, somewhat earlier than planned. They were joined a week later by the van Pels family consisting of mother, father, and 16-year old son Peter. Mr. van Pels was a business associate of Otto Frank. In November 1942 they were joined by Mr. Pfeffer, an elderly dentist.

These eight people remained in hiding until 1944, supported by four trusted employees of Otto Frank’s business downstairs, two men and two women. The eight Jews could never see or be seen by anyone else and they could never leave their hiding place. The hardest part for Anne was not being able to go outside.

Living in such confined conditions for more than two years naturally led to occasional conflicts. Anne recorded all of this in her diary, as well as falling in love with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels – but not until 1944.

Note, however, that in the book that was published after the war, and in the play, the van Pels became van Daans and Mr. Pfeffer became Mr. Dussel. Also, in the play there are only two employees supporting the Jews, a man named Mr. Kraler and a woman named Miep Gies (their real names).

The occupants of the “Secret Annex” stayed abreast of developments in the outside world through near daily visits by Otto Frank’s employees, and an illicit radio. Anne recorded a milestone event in her diary on March 29, 1944:

Bolkestein, an M.P., was speaking on the Dutch News from London, and he said that they ought to make a collection of diaries and letters after the war.

Anne wanted to be a writer, and she began to imagine her diary being published after the war. Six days later she wrote:

I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.

A frequent topic of discussion among the occupants of the “Secret Annex” was: when would the Allies invade Europe? They were ecstatic to hear the radio broadcasts on June 6, 1944, including the voice of General Dwight Eisenhower, about D-Day and the Normandy invasion.

Anne wrote in her diary for the last time on August 1, 1944. The Nazis discovered the “Secret Annex” on August 4, probably due to a tip from a Dutch informant. The Allies had not yet reached Amsterdam from Normandy.

The eight Jews and two of Otto Frank’s employees (the two men) were taken away. The two employees survived. Of the eight Jews, only Otto Frank survived.

The Jews were taken to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands. From there they were packed like cattle into a sealed train with no facilities that traveled for three days and three nights across Germany to Auschwitz in Occupied Poland. There the men and women were separated. Two of the eight Jews died there. Four of the eight Jews, including Anne, were later sent back to other concentration camps in Germany and died there. When Soviet Union forces advanced on Auschwitz in January 1945, retreating German forces took Peter van Pels with them. He was never heard from again.

Only Otto Frank survived to be liberated from Auschwitz by the Soviets on January 27, 1945. World War II in Europe ended in May 1945. Mr. Frank made his way back to Amsterdam in the summer of 1945, where Miep Gies, his employee, gave him Anne’s diary that she had found after the Nazis took the Jews away. Otto Frank died in 1980 at age 91. Miep Gies died in 2010 at age 100.

Otto Frank initially shared Anne’s diary only with family and close friends, but he was persuaded to publish it in 1947. The first English translation was published in 1952. The play was first produced in 1955 in New York City.

The Bantam Book edition of the book pictured above (available here) was printed in 1993 and includes photos, an Introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, and an Afterword that provides “the rest of the story” including the context of Anne Frank’s diary within the Holocaust. See also the previous post – The Holocaust – for context.

Anne Frank’s diary came to the attention of Dutch historians Dr. Jan Romein and his wife Annie Romein-Verschoor, who helped to convince Otto Frank that it should be published. In 1946 Dr. Romein wrote:

This apparently inconsequential diary by a child, this “de profundis” stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence of Nuremberg put together.


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The Holocaust

The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jews and others during World War II.

Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered six million Jews, two-thirds of the nine million Jews in Europe.

The killings were carried out through forced labor under barbaric conditions in concentration camps, mass shootings, and gas chambers in extermination camps.

One of the largest camps, a complex of more than 40 concentration and extermination camps, was Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, where approximately one million people were killed.

In addition to six million Jews, the Nazis also murdered millions of other people including Slavic peoples, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, criminals, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and other people deemed “undesirable.” Exact numbers are unknown. The largest numbers of non-Jews killed were Russians, Poles, and other Slavic peoples (these peoples also included many Jews). See Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution.

The National Socialist party in Germany (Nazi) was formed after World War I and led by Adolf Hitler beginning in 1921. The eugenics movement was widespread at the time, and racist theories were central to Nazi party dogma:

The Nazis … believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.


Eventually the Nazis developed a response to this perceived threat that they called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” They would kill all the Jews in Europe.

The Nazis came to power in January 1933. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was opened in March 1933, initially for political prisoners. Jews and other “undesirables” were increasingly isolated from German society, including being sent to concentration camps, especially after the racist Nuremburg Laws of 1935, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, and Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938.

World War II in Europe began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded, conquered, and dismembered Poland. In April and May 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The German army entered Paris in June 1940. The Battle of Britain began in July 1940.

Heavy fighting continued throughout the remainder of 1940 and into subsequent years. The Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Germany and its other allies invaded Egypt, Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia. A major change in the war occurred in June 1941 when Germany turned on its former ally and invaded the Soviet Union.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but President Franklin Roosevelt had been speaking publicly for more than a year of the need to prepare for war with Germany. See Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis began confining Jews in ghettos. Nazi leadership adopted the Final Solution in January 1942. The deliberate and systematic genocide of European Jews continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945. Hitler committed suicide in Berlin on April 30, 1945 as German defeat loomed.

The image shown above is the yellow badge in the shape of the Star of David that the Nazis required Jews to wear in public beginning after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The badge was meant to identify, isolate, and humiliate Jews. In Germany the badge said “Jude” (German for Jew) in mock-Hebrew script.

(Image credit: Via Wikipedia, by Daniel Ullrich – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, link.)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC opened in 1993 and has welcomed more than 40 million visitors. The Museum’s role is to:

memorialize the victims, teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust, and work to prevent future genocides.


The digital resources on the Museum’s website include a Holocaust Encyclopedia.

The Vermont Holocaust Memorial was founded in 2017. It is not a physical museum, but a group of people with stories, traveling exhibits, and a website. They are especially active in schools. The Memorial was founded by children of Holocaust survivors (now deceased) who tell the stories of their parents’ generation.

“And you shall tell your children.”


I have added a “Holocaust” tag on the blog to link past and future posts on this topic.

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