Category Archives: Academia

Charts of the day: Global democracy’s sad decline


The Varieties of Democracy [V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg. Sweden, tracks the status of liberal democracies around the world, charting their progress with the aid of a large poll of international experts, using a system that evaluaties each country on the basis of whether or not their governments are electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.
https://pol.gu.se/english/varieties-of-democracy–v-dem-

As their website notes, “V-Dem disaggregates these five principles into dozens of lower-level Components of Democracy such as regular elections, judicial independence, direct democracy, and gender equality.

V-Dem’s latest annual assessment, Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018, contains two charts dramatically illustrate the rapid decline of democracy.

First, a global look at changes across the world:

Number of countries with significant changes on Liberal Democracy Index [right index population-weighted]

And a look closer to home at the rapid decline of American democracy in the Age of Trump:

The United States’ ranking on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index fell from seven in 2015 to 31 in 2017. There is clear evidence of autocratization on several indicators. The lower quality of liberal democracy stems primarily from weakening constraints on the executive.

Now get out and vote, dammit!

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After climate changes, will crows rule the world?


Back in 1963when we began the formal study of anthropology, we were taught that only humans made tools, a talent, we were told, that evolved from our unique combination of opposable thumbs, stereoscopic vision, and our big brains.

As decades passed, chimps and bonobos joined the short list.

But in recent years, critters with notoriously small cranial capacities and devoid of thumbs altogether have soared in the estimates, proving that the slut “bird-brained” may someday become a compliment.

We’ve become fascinated by the uncanny tool-making capacities of crows and ravens, and a new study had just raised the bar.

From the University of Oxford:

An international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Oxford has revealed that New Caledonian crows are able to create tools by combining two or more otherwise non-functional elements, an ability so far observed only in humans and great apes.

The new study, published today in Scientific Reports, shows that these birds can create long-reaching tools out of short combinable parts – an astonishing mental feat. Assemblage of different components into novel functional and maneuverable tools has, until now, only been observed in apes, and anthropologists regard early human compound tool manufacture as a significant step in brain evolution. Children take several years before creating novel tools, probably because it requires anticipating properties of as yet unseen objects. Such anticipation, or planning, is usually interpreted as involving creative mental modelling and executive functions.

The study demonstrates that this species of crow possesses highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve complex problems involving anticipation of the properties of objects they have never seen.

Watch Tumulte, Jungle and Mango create and use compound tools:

‘The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves,’ said Auguste von Bayern, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Oxford. The New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) from the South Pacific are of the same species as Betty, who became famous in 2002 as the first animal shown to be able to create a hooked tool by bending a pliable material.

Researchers had already been able to show how this remarkable species was able to use and make tools in the wild and in captivity, but they had never previously been seen to combine more than one piece to make a tool.

Alex Kacelnik, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘The results corroborate that these crows possess highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve novel problems rapidly, but do not show how they do it. It is possible that they use some form of virtual simulation of the problem, as if different potential actions were played in their brains until they figure out a viable solution, and then do it. Similar processes are being modelled on artificial intelligences and implemented in physical robots, as a way to better understand the animals and to discover ways to build machines able to reach autonomous creative solutions to novel problems.’

The researchers presented eight New Caledonian crows with a puzzle box they had never encountered before, containing a small food container behind a door that left a narrow gap along the bottom. Initially, the scientists left some sufficiently long sticks scattered around, and all the birds rapidly picked one of them, inserted it through the front gap, and pushed the food to an opening on the side of the box. All eight birds did this without any difficulty. In the next steps, the scientists left the food deep inside the box but provided only short pieces, too short to reach the food. These short pieces could potentially be combined with each other, as some were hollow and others could fit inside them. In one example, they gave the birds barrels and plungers of disassembled hypodermic syringes. Without any help or demonstration, four of the crows partially inserted one piece into another and used the resulting longer compound pole to reach and extract the food. At the end of the five-step investigation, the scientists made the task more difficult by supplying even shorter combinable parts, and found that one particular bird, ‘Mango’, was able to make compound tools out of three and even four parts.

Experimental setup in construction test: 1. Upper panels: test box without [A] and with [B] front cover. Notice the food track and side opening in A, and the narrow slot for tool insertion in the front in B. [C] Presentation of tool components. Some details of scale modified for presentation.

Although the authors explain that the mental processes by which the birds achieve their goals have not yet been fully established, the ability to invent a tool is interesting in itself. Few animals are capable of making and using tools, and also in human development the capacity only emerges late. While children start using tools reliably when they are about 18 months old, they only invent novel tools suited to solve a given problem reliably when they are at least five years old. Archaeological findings indicate that such compound tools arose only late in human cultural evolution (probably around 300,000 years ago in the Middle Palaeolithic) and might have coevolved with planning abilities, complex cognition and language. The crows’ ability to construct novel compound tools does not imply that their cognitive mechanisms equal those of humans or apes, but helps to understand the cognitive processes that are necessary for physical problem solving.

Read the full paper ‘Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows’ in Nature Scientific Reports [open access].

We can only wonder what other natural skills may vanish as species after species dies out before the relentless drive of of we “higher” humans and our seemingly boundless hunger for power and profit.

Quote of the day: A scientist who loved his weed


The late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan was a phenomenon.

As a 2014 retrospective in Smithsonian Magazine described him:

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

A mutually flattering encounter

We had the great pleasure of meeting him more than 40 years ago, when we were both attending a conference at Cal Tech.

We were seated at a dinner when we heard Sagan’s very distinctive voice from the next table. Turning to confirm that, yes, it was indeed the famous astronomer himself, we were seized by an impulse.

In our decades of journalism, we interviewed a fair number of celebrities and famous folk from all spheres of life, but when on our own time when we encountered famous folk in public, we left them alone, respecting their privacy.

But something that evening made us break the rule, so we got up and wandered over to Sagan.

“Excuse me, Dr. Sagan,” we said, “I just want to say that, as a writer, I am I am in awe of your work.”

Then the tables were abruptly turned.

“Richard Brenneman. . .are you the fellow who writes Psientific American?”

The publication in question was a monthly newsletter I then wrote for the Sacramento Skeptics Society, a group of scientists, academics, and lay folk devoted to the pursuit of critical thinking. The publication also featured a lengthy column I assembled monthly of idiotic headlines from major newspapers uncritically reporting pseudoscientific claims, enhanced by some satirical commentary.

We confessed that we were, indeed, the author in question.

Sagan broke out in a huge grin.

“Wonderful!,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it every month. It’s wonderful.”

Imagine that, we thought, Carl Sagan and yours truly, a mutual admiration society.

We exchanged a few more compliments, then we headed back to our own table.

That was our first and only encounter with Carl Sagan, but it’s a moment we’ll always treasures.

It wasn’t until years later that we found out that we shared another fondness with Dr. Sagan, and that for something illegal.

Carl Sagan loved his cannabis

Lester Grinspoon is one of the nation’s leading experts on psychiatry, and now serves as Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he taught for more than four decades, and known for, among his decades of research dispelling myths about marijuana and advocating for liberalization of laws limiting research and use of the herb.

In an 25 September 2015 interview with MintPress News, Grinspoon explained how he came to be interested in the subject one day in 1966:

During my anti-Vietnam activism I met Carl Sagan and he and I became very good friends. When I met Carl Sagan I was convinced that cannabis was a very harmful drug. Going to his house one day I discovered that he smoked cannabis and so did many of his friends. Now these were not unsophisticated people and I tried to tell Carl how harmful marijuana was but he responded in a joyful manner that it wasn’t harmful at all.

With this experience came the idea of writing a paper which would summarize the medical scientific basis for the marijuana prohibition. At that time marijuana prohibition was leading to the arrest of 300.000 people, mainly young people, a year of which 89% for simple possession. For me it became important that this prohibition was justified.

It was in the library of the Medical School that I found out that I was completely wrong about the harmfulness effects of marijuana. Not only was it not harmful it was remarkably nontoxic, and the drug itself was not causing harm to the user but the policy of arresting people did. Some went to prison for having it and others saw their career goals compromised.

One result of Grinspooon’s work was the 1971 publication by Harvard University Press of his book, Marihuana Reconsidered, which included a number of fascinating essays, including by a a rousing paean to pot by a mysterious “Mr. X,” penned two years earlier for the book.

Only after Sagan’s death in 1996 did Grinspoon reveal that “Mr. X” was Carl Sagan.

And that brings us to our quote of the day

From Carl Sagan, writing as “Mr. X” in Marihuana Reconsidered:

When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it’s a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I’ve made the effort – successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.

Likely Trump science pick a climate change skeptic


And he calls colleagues who believe in it “glassy eyed cultists.

Oh, and he also favors censoring federal scientists.

From the Guardian:

The man tipped as frontrunner for the role of science adviser to Donald Trump has described climate scientists as “a glassy-eyed cult” in the throes of a form of collective madness.

William Happer, an eminent physicist at Princeton University, met Trump last month to discuss the post and says that if he were offered the job he would take it. Happer is highly regarded in the academic community, but many would view his appointment as a further blow to the prospects of concerted international action on climate change.

“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”

Trump has previously described global warming as “very expensive … bullshit” and has signalled a continued hardline stance since taking power.

>snip<

Happer also supports a controversial crackdown on the freedom of federal agency scientists to speak out about their findings, arguing that mixed messages on issues such as whether butter or margarine is healthier, have led to people disregarding all public health information.

Trump’s climate war evokes shades of a dark past


When science stands opposed to the greed of the powerful, witch hunts can result.

To understand the threat posed by the Trumpsters, a look at past conflicts provides some informative and thoroughly chilling insights.

From Paul N. Edwards, Professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan, writing for the open source academic journal The Conversation:

President-elect Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax.” He has promised to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty and to “bring back coal,” the world’s dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel. The incoming administration has paraded a roster of climate change deniers for top jobs. On Dec. 13, Trump named former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another climate change denier, to lead the Department of Energy (DoE), an agency Perry said he would eliminate altogether during his 2011 presidential campaign.

Just days earlier, the Trump transition team presented the DoE with a 74-point questionnaire that has raised alarm among employees because the questions appear to target people whose work is related to climate change.

For me, as a historian of science and technology, the questionnaire – bluntly characterized by one DoE official as a “hit list” – is starkly reminiscent of the worst excesses of ideology-driven science, seen everywhere from the U.S. Red Scare of the 1950s to the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s.

The questionnaire asks for a list of “all DoE employees or contractors” who attended the annual Conferences of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a binding treaty commitment of the U.S., signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. Another question seeks the names of all employees involved in meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, responsible for technical guidance quantifying the economic benefits of avoided climate change.

It also targets the scientific staff of DoE’s national laboratories. It requests lists of all professional societies scientists belong to, all their publications, all websites they maintain or contribute to, and “all other positions… paid and unpaid,” which they may hold. These requests, too, are likely aimed at climate scientists, since most of the national labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage.

On Dec. 13, a DoE spokesperson told the Washington Post the agency will not provide individual names to the transition team, saying “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”

Energy’s interest in climate

Why does the Department of Energy conduct research on climate change? A better question might be: How could any Department of Energy fail to address climate change?

Established in the 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the US national labs’ original assignment was simple: Design, build and test nuclear weapons and atomic energy. Since nuclear bombs create deadly fallout and reactor accidents can release radiation into the air, weather forecasting and climate knowledge were integral to that mission. Therefore, some labs immediately began building internal expertise in “nuclear meteorology.”

When high-flying supersonic transport aircraft were proposed in the late 1960s, the labs used climate models to analyze how their exhaust gases might affect the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the labs applied weather and climate simulations developed for nuclear weapons work to analyze urban smog and the global effects of volcanic eruptions. Later, the labs investigated whether nuclear war might cause dangerous climatic effects, such as catastrophic ozone depletion or “nuclear winter.”

The newly formed Department of Energy took over the labs in 1977. Its broadened mission included research on all forms of energy production, efficiency, pollution and waste. In the late 1970s, for example, Pacific Northwest Lab sampled aerosol pollution with research aircraft, using instruments of its own design.

By the 1980s, when man-made climate change became a major scientific concern, the labs were ready for the challenge. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has run the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center since 1982, one of many DoE efforts that contribute crucially to human knowledge about global climate change.

An ideologically driven purge?

The Trump questionnaire harks back to the McCarthyist “red scare” of the early 1950s, when congressional committees and the FBI hounded eminent scientists accused of communist leanings.

A principal target of suspicion then was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, but later opposed nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, direct ancestor to the DoE – and saw his security clearance unjustly revoked following humiliating hearings by that same AEC in 1954.

Many other physicists were also “repeatedly subjected to illegal surveillance by the FBI, paraded in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, charged time and again… with being the ‘weakest links’ in national security, and widely considered to be more inherently susceptible to communist propaganda than any other group of scientists or academics,” according to a history by author David Kaiser, on suspicions of atomic scientists in the early days of the Cold War.

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Forensic criminal science based on very few facts


If you watch American television, you know one thing for certain: The wonks and wizards in the nation’s crime labs employ that latest infallible scientific tools to find and incarcerate serial killers, arsonists, and other doers of dastardly deeds.

Reassuring, no?

Especially if you’re sitting on a jury a deciding on the fate of the man or woman in the dock, a decision that could, perhaps, lead to a lethal injection.

But you would be wrong to place unquestioning faith in those crime lab wizards, for unlike the televised version of forensic science, the realty is a shabby simulacrum of the glib screenwriter’s version.

And while wealthy criminals can afford their own forensic guns for hire, poor defendants relying on cash-strapped public defenders stand little chance of rebutting the men and women in the white coats, adding yet another element of injustice to American criminal jurisprudence.

We witnessed the process first-hand in our years of reporting on the courts.

We offer two dissections of forensic science from two leading legal scholars.

First up, a Young Turks interview with the the dean of the UCLA Law school:

Is Some Forensic Science “Junk” Science? Jennifer Mnookin Interview With Malcolm Fleschner

Program notes:

Malcolm Fleschner of The Young Turks interviews Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA School of Law. Malcolm and Dean Mnookin discuss why hopelessly faulty forensic science is going unchallenged in courtrooms across the country and being used to put countless innocent defendants in prison.

Bite marks are bunk, even fingerprints questionable

Another detailed debunking comes from Jessica Gabel Cino, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University, writing in the open source academic journal, The Conversation:

Forensic science has become a mainstay of many a TV drama, and it’s just as important in real-life criminal trials. Drawing on biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine and psychology, forensic evidence helps answer questions in the legal system. Often, forensics provides the “smoking gun” that links a perpetrator to the crime and ultimately puts the bad guy in jail.

Shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “NCIS” cause viewers to be more accepting of forensic evidence. As it’s risen to ubiquitous celebrity status, forensic science has become shrouded in a cloak of infallibility and certainty in the public’s imagination. It seems to provide definitive answers. Forensics feels scientific and impartial as a courtroom weighs a defendant’s possible guilt – looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the faith the public and the criminal justice system place in forensic science far outpaces the amount of trust it deserves.

For decades, there have been concerns about how the legal system uses forensic science. A groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences finally drew the curtain back to reveal that the wizardry of forensics was more art than science. The report assessed forensic science’s methods and developed recommendations to increase validity and reliability among many of its disciplines.

These became the catalyst that finally forced the federal government to devote serious resources and dollars to an effort to more firmly ground forensic disciplines in science. After that, governmental agencies, forensic science committees and even the Department of Defense responded to the call. Research to this end now receives approximately US$13.4 million per year, but the money may not be enough to prevent bad science from finding its way into courtrooms.

This fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its own report on forensic science. It’s a more pronounced acknowledgment that the discipline has serious problems that require urgent attention. Some scientific and legal groups are outraged by or doubtful of its conclusions; others have praised them.

As someone who has taught forensic evidence for a decade and dedicated my legal career to working on cases involving forensic science (both good and bad), I read the report as a call to address foundational issues within forensic disciplines and add oversight to the way forensic science is ultimately employed by the end user: the criminal justice system.

Is any forensic science valid?

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recognized ongoing efforts to improve forensic science in the wake of the 2009 NAS report. Those efforts focused on policy, best practices and research around forensic science, but, as with any huge undertaking, there were gaps. As PCAST noted, forensic science has a validity problem that is in desperate need of attention.

PCAST focused on what’s colloquially termed “pattern identification evidence” – it requires an examiner to visually compare a crime scene sample to a known sample. PCAST’s big question: Are DNA analysis, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis supported by reproducible research, and thus, reliable evidence?

They were looking for two types of validity. According to PCAST, foundational validity means the forensic discipline is based on research and studies that are “repeatable, reproducible, and accurate,” and therefore reliable. The next step is applied validity, meaning the method is “reliably applied in practice.” In other words, for a forensic discipline to produce valid evidence for use in court, there must be (1) reproducible studies on its accuracy and (2) a method used by examiners that is reproducible and accurate.

Among the forensic science they assessed, PCAST found single-sourced DNA analysis to be the only discipline that was valid, both foundationally and as applied. They found DNA mixture evidence – when DNA from more than one person is in a sample, for instance from the victim and the perpetrator, multiple perpetrators or due to contamination – to be only foundationally valid. Same with fingerprint analysis.

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Israeli shapes a U.S. law enabling campus purges


How would Americans like it if, say, North Korea dictated a law barring criticism of that country on U.S. campuses.

We imagine lots of folks would get righteously upset.

But an Israeli propagandist and former Deputy Prime Minister has done just that.

From the Intercept:

After Donald Trump’s election emboldened white supremacists and inspired a wave of anti-Semitic hate incidents across the country, the Senate on Thursday took action by passing a bill aimed at limiting the free-speech rights of college students who express support for Palestinians.

By unanimous consent, the Senate quietly passed the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, only two days after it was introduced by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

A draft of the bill obtained by The Intercept encourages the Department of Education to use the State Department’s broad, widely criticized definition of anti-Semitism when investigating schools. That definition, from a 2010 memo, includes as examples of anti-Semitism “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel, “applying double standards” to Israel, and “focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

Critics have pointed out that those are political — not racist — positions, shared by a significant number of Jews, and qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

According to the draft, the bill does not adopt the definition as a formal legal standard, it only directs the State Department to “take into consideration” the definition when investigating schools for anti-Semitic discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Now why do we say that the law is the creation of an Israeli propagandist?

That’s because those key words — demonizing, delegitimizing, demonizing — are the formula created by Israeli political propagandist, Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and a good friend of Sheldon Adelson, the zealous Ziocon and Las Vegas casino magnate, and newspaper publisher who poured $25 million into a Trump-supporting PAC and sits on Trump’s inauguration committee.

Sharanksy,’s formulation is a brilliant semantic coup, employing words of such vagueness that they can be applied to virtually any critic of Israeli policies.

We know that, because they have been applied to us, repeatedly, first when reporting on the actions of a campaign launched against the Berkeley Daily Planet, a paper that came under fire from a motley crew of militant Ziocons angry because the paper published letters critical of Israeli government policies toward its Palestinian population.

Hillary Clinton lead the way

Attesting to the brilliance of Sharansky’s word-spinning is the fact that it was adopted as the adoption of that very definition of antisemitism by the State Department under Hillary Clinton.

Surely it’s legitimate to criticize the actions of a government which clearly applies double standards by seizing land and homes of non-Jewish citizens while not taking the same actions toward the property of its Jewish citizens.

Similarly, one could question’s Israel’s legitimacy, given that the state was created as the result of an accord between by the British and French governments without the consent of those who lived their, the majority of them not Jewish.

As for demonizing, what word could be more vague?