2011 year in review: did I write anything worth reading?

Blogging can take up a lot of time. For an amateur, who doesn't blog as a way of making money/promoting himself, there isn't much justification or rationale for blogging unless the writing is valuable in itself. For most us, this isn't the case. The number of bloggers who benefit the world beyond the satisfying of others' attention deficit problems, like Denise Minger, is very small.

So in this spirit, I review cxlxmxrx over the last year and ask whether I wrote anything that might be worth reading...
  • March: genetic testing & FDA regulation: If you can't tell, I actually enjoy arguing.
  • April: hospital trash: The amount of trash produced in health care is outrageous. I should have followed up this post by researching the question to see if my estimates are correct.
  • July: ancestral responses to ancestral relationship issues: It's one thing to investigate the social and sexual arrangements of our ancestors. But in trying to apply the knowledge to modern times, it's instructive to consider how people closer in time to those ancestors dealt with the issues raised by our sexual and social impulses.
  • September: Cepacol & FDA regulation: My first foray into anything like original reporting.
  • September: 9/11 Commemoration: This year was the 10th anniversary of the NYC Trade Towers bombing.
  • September: Critiquing NR's review of The Bond I & II: Against sentimentalism in vegetarianism.
  • December: Better Angels of Our Nature book review: There were a lot of what I thought were pretty crappy reviews of this interesting book written by academics and journalists who didn't really deal with the book's arguments. While my writing may not be the best, I think the question I asked--whether the pacification of man might not have a trade-off--is the only really relevant response to the book.
Well, seven posts is actually more than I would have expected before reviewing my posts from the year. If this list tells me anything, it's that, if I concentrated on producing only one post per month, I would be producing more posts of a higher quality. Also, it turns out I don't actually post very much on healthcare- or hospital-related issues. Probably I should be more pointed in picking on these subjects.

PBF is back

A funny and often NSFW comic.

New comics being posted on RSS or Tumblr

Bookmarks: genetics & critical care & psych

For new year's, I'm cleaning out the bookmarks I acquired over the last year and haven't addressed.

Bookmarks: patients & caregivers & medical supplies

For new year's, I'm cleaning out the bookmarks I acquired over the last year and haven't addressed.

Bookmarks: what happened to Del.icio.us?

For new year's, I'm cleaning out the bookmarks I acquired over the last year and haven't addressed. You might be wondering why, when there's always my Del.icio.us account. Well, there isn't.

Bookmarks: A & P

For new year's, I'm cleaning out the bookmarks I acquired over the last year and haven't addressed.

Boxing Day WOD

As I mentioned, we don't have a CrossFit box in my town, just a gym with some random equipment. I tried to create my own Workout of the Day for December 26 on the theme of Boxing Day. I wasn't sure whether to concentrate on boxes or boxing, so I tried to do both:

sprint 400m
box jumps 1/2 height
box jumps full height
windshield wipers
overhead press
speed bag

Only I discovered that I can't do windshield wipers or speed bag due to lack of coordination (I kept falling off the bench, and there was no bar appropriate for doing hanging wipers). So it was sort of a bust, but not a bad concept.

Merry (belated) quasi-paleo Christmas

Well, Christmas has come and gone. Some traditions have stayed the same and some have changed.

In lieu of presents this year, I decided to give to charity. There really isn't anything I felt I needed, and I get tired of shopping for things I feel other people don't need. In the past, I've given to InterVarsity. I've also underwritten the digital conversion of some Firing Line episodes dedicated to J.S. Bach. This year, I'm going to underwrite another Bach-themed Firing Line episode at the Hoover Institute archives as well as give to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Santa Night, InterVarsity, and a yet-to-be-determined international charity (perhaps the Global Viral Forcasting Initiative, if they take donations).

I hope you listen to this olde-timey Vera Lynn song while reading the rest of the post and consider giving to a local toy charity (like Santa Night) next year...

Other traditions stayed the same. We got together with family friends and made Gingerbread Kings on Little Christmas Eve (Dec 23). My father's is always the best:

Gingerbread isn't Paleo, but it's only once a year, like General Tso's chicken.

For Christmas Eve dinner we had our tradition meal of Swedish meatballs (pork, beef, nutmeg), Lingonberry cabbagge, and new potatoes steamed in butter. Yes: steamed in butter. They're delicious. The meal was accompanied by an extra dry apple cidar.

Christmas Day saw a new meal. Beef tenderloin, with sweet potatoes, garlic potatoes, green beans, and mushroom-bacon-onion-cream topping for the tenderloin. I bought a $50 bottle of Pinot Noir from Oregon, which was something of a disappointment, but you can't win 'em all, right? The tenderloin was outstanding.

Back to eggs, seaweed, and (no sugar added) peanut butter this week...

Last minute Christmas gift ideas for the hospital worker

Do you have a family member who works in the hospital? Here are two last-minute Christmas gift options:

VivoBarefoot Ultra

I purchased the Ultra a while back and wore them for about two months in an ICU with a tile-over-concrete floor. They have worked great for me.

The Ultras are a minimalist shoe, which means they provide very little support or padding and try to let your foot move naturally without a lot of arch support, pronation correction, etc.

The Ultras come with a fabric liner that I had to remove because it didn't fit well and smelled really, really bad. However, I just slide the outer casing over my socks and tighten up the elastic shoelaces, and they work great. They are comfortable, light, indestructable, and easily washable, just like crocs, but they also don't look terrible and don't let my foot slide all around inside the shoe, like crocs do. Plus, since they're not slip-ons, they don't slip off when you're rushing to a Code 99 call.

One problem with minimalist shoes is body weight. It might be hard to wear them if you are very heavy. Or it might take you a while to adjust. It took me about a year of wearing minimalist shoes to the gym before my feet were comfortable without the support of a typical running shoe, but now my feet feel much stronger than they ever have in the past.

My co-workers think the shoes look great, but a lot are concerned about the holes. They might let in blood, diarrhea, or needles. The truth is, there are holes in crocs, too. And, as someone who has had a patient poo on my shoe, I can attest that the fabric in running shoes will not keep out fluids, either.

Buy on Amazon.

Stocking stuffers: utility scissors

You can never have too many utility scissors. You bring them in an isolation room and leave them there, and then they disappear. Luckily, you can get them pretty cheap.

Buy on Amazon.

I always have good luck with Amazon. They get me my products fast, and if I order two-day delivery, they get to me in two days!

Styles are stagnating

Over at Steve Sailer's, they're discussing if and why style has stagnated since the 1990s. The idea is that every 20 year period before 1990-2010 (e.g., 1970-1990, 1950-1970...) showed a lot of change, while the styles of 1990 are recognizable and "in style" in 2010. The thesis is a bit overstated, but basically I agree that new ideas in the realm of design have slowed.

Here are some reasons I came up with that might be contributing:

(1) A lot of creative and consumer energy has gone into electronics in the last twenty years. Who's going to concern themselves with the latest sneaker or trouser cuff variation when the latest version of Doom-Halo-Call of Duty is coming out? You're just going to play it in your sweatpants.

(2) Body style has stabilized. There were massive changes in standards of beauty for the raw human body for both sexes from the 1900s to the 1990s. Since the 1990s, the standard has stabilized because the science of fitness has stabilized and, with it, the ideal image of a fit person. (Just think, the 1970s were the age of skinny runners, then the bodybuilding revolution of the 1980s. Then the huge buffness went out in the late 90s. Now we have CrossFit, which pretty much represents a stable not-so-big buffness continuing into the 2010s.)

(3) Black culture isn't feeding into and changing white culture anymore. Mostly, they're just one big mishmash now, and to the extent they're not, they won't be. Baggy jeans are everywhere, but the four-button technicolor suits with matching hats and walking sticks are never going to be hip with white folks.

(4) Much more pre-fab building products, and Lowe's or Home Depot everywhere. Ceilings in institutional buildings look the same from coast to coast.

(5) Death of Art. A lot of changes in clothes and architecture were driven by the belief in Art, which is dead since the 1980s, or at least the early 90s. Remember Robert Mapplethorpe? He was the last artist who could scandalize anybody 'cause nobody cares anymore. Yeah, Frank Gehry's in demand for big projects, but nobody's going to design a post office, let alone a split-level ranch house, with "Bilbao influence."

(6) Death of Romance. Neuroscientists and ethologists like Jaak Panksepp have a lot of trouble figuring out what love is. I think the reason is that love is somehow a construct that arises out of society's interference with the sexual dynamics of the state of nature. Romance is the instantiation of love in art and culture, and its churning unnatural roots that can't settle on simple concepts like physical lust cause romance to be intellectually productive. Since the 1990s, we have moved substantially away from love toward state of nature sexual relations, and romance has died as a result.

(7) Death of the Heirloom. (More generally, death of the past.) My parents' house is filled with things they inherited from family, bought at estate auctions, and were given for gifts. I know not one younger person today who has a piece of heirloom furniture. Nobody cares about these things with the result that many people don't consider much beyond lowest common denominator concerns in decorating.

(8) Perception of change is confused by the proliferating number and combinations of styles. I still have clothes from the 1990s that I can wear today and look normal. But in the 1990s almost all my peers were wearing the same thing, and subcultures like "skateboarder" were small and highly differentiated. Today, the attributes of 1990s "skateboarder" are mixed in with all sorts of other styles. There's much more acceptance of vastly different looks. When I go to the opera in Montreal, I see everything from black tie to jeans and t-shirts, from dolled up ladies to goths. And the division isn't the cost of seats.

On the up side, reason #8 has allowed the developement of vintage girls, young fogeys, and chaps.

Don't make Santa deliver censorship this Christmas

Apparently, the Congress is set to vote on H.R.3261, otherwise known as the SOPA. Wikipedia gives a pretty good overview of the proposed law, which would allow the government to force search engines like Google, payment services like PayPal, and social network services like Facebook to stop linking to certain websites. And if nobody can link to a website, that in effect makes the website disappear, like the communist Chinese Internet Firewall does. Is government Internet censorship really what we want in this country?

Corporations supporting the law imply that it is necessary to stop Internet piracy. What I'm always struck by is that these companies, which claim that they won't be able to make movies or music anymore unless we censor the Internet, are still going strong and able to afford expensive lobbyists to control Congress even though Internet piracy has been going on for over a decade!!

Obviously, the vote on this law is taking place now because everyone is focused on the Christmas rush. Please don't let Christmas be the reason that we lose more freedoms in the United States. Don't make Santa put censorship in your stocking. Instead, take a few moments out of your busy pre-Christmas schedule to remember our nation and our history of liberty. Contact your Congressional Representative today.

On the impracticality of roast mammoth

Blogger Waldo Jaquith has a popular blog post On the impracticality of a cheeseburger (h/t JD), detailing his thought experiment in attempting to make a cheeseburger from scratch, as in really from scratch--grow your own tomatoes, wheat for the buns, homemade cheese, home-ground beef, etc. His point is that the cheeseburger is so impractical as to be almost impossible except in a post-agrarian society.

The immediate question is, of course, what a simple alternative would entail. One answer would seem to be big game. If the cheeseburger with its multiple types of vegetable, meat, and grain ingredients, all viable at different times of year, is a complex food, then killing and roasting a mammoth (no BBQ sauce) must be much simpler. Let's examine that proposition in more detail.

We will use as our model this historical recreation from Dinosaur Collector:

As you can clearly see, the two fundamental items we will need are weapons and a mammoth.

First, obtain weapons for hunting. Obtaining weapons will require the following resources, skills, and regressions:

Second, obtain a mammoth:

So, although it seems at first that roast mammoth is an alternative to the cheeseburger for economically simpler times, in fact that is not so!

Labels: humor, ~good

Lowering the bar

I don't intend to make this a political blog, but since I quit my ICU job and met a civil rights attorney on the NR cruise, I've been fantasizing about taking the LSAT. Indulge me. Through BoingBoing, I came across this blog on legal humor, which also pointed out recently how fucked up our "representatives" are. I just don't understand. I don't understand.

1st CrossFit

I recently did CrossFit for the first time. As other condemned souls can probably attest, it is a humbling, nay crushing experience. We don't have an official "box" in my area, but there is a small group of people in my gym who incorporate CrossFit-like workouts and a PT planning a certification. Point being, I'm not sure if this is an official WOD, but here was my first CrossFit experience:

Sprint 400m
Lunge back from treadmill
Jump rope x100
Burpee x10
Kettlebell swing x10
Push-ups x10
Air squats x10
repeat all x4, increasing repetitions by 10 up to 50

Basically, I couldn't finish.

I haven't done anything like burpees since forever, but those were the killer. At one point I was pushing up with my legs to do the jump at the end of the burpee, and my feet weren't leaving the ground. My brain was making my muscles perform tasks, but they weren't getting done. There was simply no gas left in the tank.

This was really distressing since I'm currently doing 400x12, 600x10, 800x10, 890 x8 on the leg press without too much difficulty. I thought some of this strength would transfer, but it really didn't.

But I've done the "M+M" twice more since and two other CrossFit workouts, and I can already see a difference in overall tone and specifically abdominal flatness and abdominal and quad definition. However, pretty much all my joints are feeling strained. Being about 250lbs makes box jumps, etc hard on the skeletal parts.

The experience has thrown my workout routine into chaos. Do I do CrossFit exclusively now or incorporate it into my weight routine? How do I manage weightlifting, rest days, and CrossFit? Should I give up leg press and switch to squats, like Mike Rippatoe recommends? Should I concentrate on strength building or weight loss now? Arrrgh.

* Noted: Humorously, when I first wrote this post, under the influence of a martini, I wrote the title as "1st CroffFit." Apparently, gin makes your spelling/font choices regress by about 400 years.

Better Angels of Our Nature review

In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker proposes that violence has declined significantly over the past few millennia and that there are reasons for this decline linked to innate human traits.

Pinker tells his story with a cumbersome organization of "six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces." The story is really less complex than the organization, and to the extent there is a central argument, it is more succinct than is implied. The book is divided essentially into two parts. The first is a mostly quantitative analysis showing that violence has declined in various ways since the dawn of history combined with suggestions of historical factors associated with those declines. The second is an exploration of psychological researches in the brain and behavior that demonstrate that humans are wired in such a way that the decline of violence could plausibly be connected with the historical factors.

As to a central argument simply stated, Pinker never gives one. In part, this is due to the subject matter: Pinker is too good a scientist to squeeze all of history and psychology into a single sentence. But one could say that Pinker is making the case that, because violence is almost never in one's long-term interest, the increasing use of abstraction as a basis for social organization has resulted in a decrease in violence over time. Abstraction and social organization here have to be broadly understood, from rationalization of penal systems to the spread of modern education in the developing world to the loss of identification with nationalisms among political bodies.

The book is on the whole successful because Pinker stays descriptive and is fairly honest. The available critical reviews seem to have been written by journalistic types who have perused the book rather than giving it a close reading or by math-science types who have become fixated on questions of statistical interpretation or brain science without seeing the big picture.

For example, writing in Prospect Magazine, John Gray asks why Marx is not included in Pinker's list of Enlightenment philosophers, although Pinker gives clear criteria for inclusion and says why Marx, specifically, should not be included. Gray suggests that American incarceration rates are uncivilized and undermine Pinker's contention that the removal of sources of impulsiveness and violent retribution from ghettos is "re-civilizing." However, Gray has confounded a political and emotive definition of "civilize" with Pinker's description of a "Civilizing Process," a phrase that becomes jargon in the context of Pinker's story and does justify the use of the term "re-civilizing" vis-a-vis the communities from which criminals are removed.

As for the math and science presented in the book, I defer to Pinker, a distinguished scientist, and its years-long vetting through Pinker’s presentation at conferences and in short essays. In a case like The Unsilenced Science’s criticism of Pinker’s MAOA interpretation, to my untrained eye, it appears Pinker has made an error. But it also doesn’t seem to be an error that undermines the central themes of the book. Difference in the genetic predisposition to violence across populations doesn’t show that genetic change toward non-violence is correlated with a specific timeline.

Pinker’s historical analysis might be paraphrased as the study of interpersonal, state-sponsored (I’ll say “state”), and interstate violence. Of these, the statistical analysis of and predictions for interstate violence seem to be the points that have stuck in the most craws. They are also the least interesting part of the book. As Pinker readily admits, he cannot predict the future, and his theory of innate brain tendencies allows for regression. Also, a failure to show that interstate violence had actually declined wouldn’t change the analysis of interpersonal and state violence, which are interesting in their own right.

Because of my lack of interest in the recent and current history of interstate violence, which takes up about 200 pages of the first third of this 700-page story, I’m going to ignore it. Anyhow, I think those trends, along with the other historical trends Pinker mentions, can all be collapsed more or less into the trend of the increasing dominance of the state and its increasing dominance by an increasingly intellectually homogeneous elite.

The actual linchpin of the book, or at least its most salient trend, is the Civilizing Process. I say linchpin because the Civilizing Process is the trend that most clearly and dependently is tied to the research Pinker presents on affective psychology. European rates of homicide clearly declined from the Middle Ages to the present day, by a whopping 95% according to Pinker's data. Why? Pinker prefers the theory of Norbert Elias, who proposed in a two-volume sociological work published in the mid-20th century that the increasing interdependence of social life had led to more self-restrained behavior.

Elias believed in the increasing centralization of the state apparatus, starting with the hinterlands’ focus on kingly courts, where male leisure time combined with the presence of ladies to shift focus from military skills to artistic and romantic pursuits. He also believed in changed cognitive requirements by increasing complexity of economic affairs, which Pinker calls “gentle commerce.” These two forces combined with trends like the rise of the bourgeoisie to create and spread a new psychological profile dedicated to the consideration of others and the disguise of one’s inner impulses, known in recent history as gentlemanly behavior.

Pinker calls Elias’ psychology thoroughly modern, but in actuality, I don’t think Elias and Pinker are saying quite the same thing. Elias seems to believe that violence is a form of emotional outburst that was tamed by a stiff upper lip mentality, like turning off the water to a hose. He calls the tamed impulses pleasures and says that sociologists have to get used to the idea of dealing with a changing man in their analyses. For Pinker, the brain bases of violence continue, violence is at least partly rational, and the social milieu’s effect on violent behavior is mediated through brain structures that can be damaged or fail to develop well. Is the difference important?

I think Pinker would like very much if gentle commerce, with its emphasis on mental abstraction, interpersonal exchange, and considerations of valuation rather than dominance, were the major factor in the Civilizing Process, but I think state centralization has a better claim. When Pinker examines Civilizing in the modern world, he tells us about the Enga, a tribe that went from a developed but high-violence indigenous culture, to a low-violence Australian colony, to a poorly developed and high violence post-colonialism. Tribal elders reined in violence with a civilizing offensive that included “brutal public executions.”

In the second half of the book, Pinker notes that a majority of people have murder fantasies, indicating that people make cost-benefit decisions about killing, not just that they stay their hand when upset. Also, he describes research that shows revenge--one of the prime motivations for violence--can turn on the SEEKING circuits in the brain, turning it from an impulse into a pleasurable pastime. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” If violence is partly rational and the revenge centers in the brain are never turned off permanently, it’s hard not to believe that a person’s proximity to the state (i.e., habitual consideration) is the controlling factor for violent expression.

Obviously the phenomenon of state centralization (and here its legitimacy and competence are considered in the process) progressed forward in time. It also predated the Middle Ages. Some of Pinker’s Rousseauist critics are upset at his characterization of hunter-gatherers and great apes as violent. One reviewer complained that chimpanzee raiding parties are a result of habitat destruction. But all violence is related in one way or another to scarcity, and scarcity existed before man-made deforestation. If chimpanzees evolved to “naturally” react to scarcity in non-violent ways, why don’t they revert to those ways now?

A second historical trend Pinker examines is the Humanitarian Revolution, which accounts for the reduction in state violence in the form of witch hunts, slavery, torturous penal practices, etc. As Pinker notes, while centralizing states in the Middle Ages helped reduce interpersonal violence, they also replaced their provincial laws with Roman codes that introduced torture as part of the legal system. The state didn’t turn away from torture until the 18th century, when writers such as Voltaire took up the cause. For Pinker, it is important that Voltaire was a writer as he credits the invention of the printing press and a reading public with responsibility for humanitarian reforms. Reading opened people to “a phantasmagoria of people, place, cultures, and ideas.”

But Pinker also makes a point to tell us that the circulating libraries of the 18th century were devoted mostly to novels. This of course implies that most readers were interested in reading novels, not philosophical works on government and ethics. Indeed, although Pinker suggests that novel-induced empathy may have been important, he downplays the importance of empathy in his treatment of psychological underpinnings of non-violence. If it wasn’t a reading public per se that helped overturn harsh penalties, perhaps it was that portion of the public reading Voltaire. That is, perhaps it was the rise of a class of thinkers who interacted with each other and commingled to some extent with state actors.

Although he doesn’t say so specifically, much of Pinker’s book suggests that “we” have all gotten better, that humanity as a whole is fundamentally different from the humanity of ages past. But in fact what we see often in society is the coming and going of fads and fashions, as well as political opinion that is controlled by a relatively small number of actors at either end of an ideological spectrum. Large numbers of people can get “caught up” in movements, but for the most part, there is a mass of humanity that is swayed in its lifestyle and opinions by a minority.

Following in this line of thinking, we have to ask whether “everyone” in the Middle Ages liked torture. Although Pinker makes a point of promoting quantitative historical data, he doesn’t give us any numbers when he says that whole towns turned out to watch executions. Are we really to believe that whole towns turned out, or this a little hyperbole? Maybe a lot of people turned out. Of those, did every single one cheer the executioner? If some didn’t, might they have been horrified? Were there those who intuitively believed torture was wrong but didn’t have the intellectual tools or public support to make the case?

No, it seems unlikely that the Humanitarian Revolution and the reading revolution weren’t more about the development of a class of elites devoted to abstraction. It is the rise of these elites that has really had an impact on the direction of state violence since.

(Revised 12/9: What I mean to be saying here is that it seems to me likely there is a bell curve of attitudes to violence with Voltaire and Pinker on one end and psychopaths on the other. Voltaires probably existed in the Middle Ages, but they weren't able to form an influential block until they discovered each other and could influence opinion through the growth of reading and the attention to publications by state officials.)

The same principle applies to war. Elias quotes a knight of the 15th century to demonstrate the period’s attitude to war:
War is a joyous thing. We love each other so much in war. If we see that our cause is just and our kinsmen fight boldly, tears come into our eyes. A sweet joy rises in our hearts, in the feeling of our honest loyalty to each other; and seeing our friend so bravely exposing his body to danger in order to keep and fulfill the commandment of our Creator, we resolve to go forward and die or live with him and never leave him on account of love. This brings such delight that anyone who has not felt it cannot say how wonderful it is. Do you think that someone who feels this is afraid of death? Not in the least! He is so strengthened, so delighted, that he does not know where he is. Truly he fears nothing in the world! (Elias, p.196)
In Pinker’s book, World War I is the last war that people seem to have looked forward to. The story of disenchantment with war is pretty much the accepted story of WWI’s aftermath. But to some extent, the promotion of All Quiet on the Western Front was a function of the outlook of the dominant class in the post-war period. There were other perspectives. People like Ernst Junger experienced the war differently. Even Robert Graves fairly agrees with the 15th century knight when he praises, in Goodbye to All That, the bravery of Catholic chaplains who risked their lives to give last rites. The fact that Remarque rather than Junger is the quintessential descriptor of the War for us has something to do with the beliefs of elites on both sides of the conflict about everything from ethics to the qualities of the good life.

If the Civilizing Process was the story of the rise of the modern state and the Humanitarian Revolution the story of the rise of a new elite of thinkers, Pinker’s last historical trend, the Rights Revolutions, is the story of the dominance of those elites and the spread of their ethical reasoning not only in the state but in those institutions entwined with the state such as public education. Young people today have not only stopped lynching people of other races, they have internalized the logic of rights in all its forms. This is the basis for Pinker’s optimism about the future.

As other reviewers have noted, Pinker takes some pot shots at PC taboos and seems to roll his eyes at the campaign against dodgeball. But he also notes correctly that dodgeball is another example of the decline of violence, based in utilitarian logic, and does not distance himself even from Peter Singer and animal liberation, which most Americans have probably never heard of, such a baby of the university set it is.

The Rights Revolutions correspond in time more or less with the Flynn Effect, which receives a good showing in the second half of the book, as Pinker explains how people today can be smarter than they were in 1900 without having significantly better skills in math or language. According to Pinker, over the last century, the increasing fluency of the general public with principles of abstract reasoning has led to higher IQs and ethical norms that are smarter than the ones held at the turn of last century. For Pinker, anyone opposed to the Rights Revolutions in any form, to the extension of utilitarianism as the organizing principle of ethics, is literally mentally retarded in the present day.

People will make of this what they like. Pinker sees it as the triumph of Kantian ethics. For my own part, I don’t see the spectre of Kant in society today so much as the spectre of Rawls. When Pinker says that the attitude of his students today is “whatever, dude,” I don’t hear them channelling the categorical imperative so much as expressing a preference for other people’s attitudes towards their own behavior. The veil of ignorance.

Better Angels was released in the midst of our economic downturn and at about the same time as Peter Thiel’s critique of our structures of innovation. While no one wants to turn back the clock on the Humanitarian Revolution or see lynching become a common practice again, it isn’t clear to me that we can assume a monism of goods, that a confluence of total inclusion and all other optimal social goods is possible. The homicide rate, which Pinker uses throughout the book to estimate rates of violent crime, declined until the beginning of the 20th century, but has more or less leveled off. Somehow the “mentally retarded” people of 1900 managed a relatively safe society in which innovation could thrive.

What does the future hold? For Pinker, we have been in an upward trajectory from animality toward abstraction for a long, long time. As he correctly points out, the conservatives of today are simply the rear guard of the Enlightenment thinkers he praises rather than a real force of anti-modernity. It’s difficult not to believe that the trend of violence reduction will continue into the future, the errant bomber or dictator not withstanding. The real question is what life will look like with utilitarians like Pinker increasingly in charge. In the preface, he says that peaceful coexistence is the benefit we have from choosing “the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science.”

At one point, Pinker makes a snide remark about “beefcake statues of well-hung Greek warriors.” Since Greek statuary was neither beefcake nor well-hung (nor exclusively dedicated to conflict), we can assume that in fact Pinker is viscerally opposed to the presentation of the human body per se. Just as for him the fact that people have evolved to eat, enjoy, and crave meat has no bearing on the morality of meat eating, the fact that people have evolved to find beauty in bodies has no bearing on the morality of physicality. Although Pinker might find purpose, or at least drive, for his life by existing in a world of abstraction and science, it isn’t clear to me how many people can find satisfaction in the advance of science without the added advantages of dividing life between Harvard, MIT, and a house on Cape Cod. That’s not a class attack, it’s a real question about SEEKING and PLAY and the psychological limits and benefits of pacification.

Miami as a destination

Following my cruise, I spent four days in Miami, on the beach and touring the inland city by bus. Miami is a city for the rich, but not in a good way--a city to be seen in an expensive car but not to go to the opera. The coastal areas could be wonderful if you have the resources to live there, but the rest of the city is a wasteland. There's great weather, but the city has no character, no place where you'd like to sit and just watch life go by. Even as a tourist, there isn't much to do if you aren't interested in shopping or clubbing.

My fantasies of Little Havana were crushed. I was expecting genteel dilapidation but mostly found extensive low-cost housing. I had gone to Chow Hound to find Cuban restaurants, but left my list at home. So I planned to go to a Catholic service Sunday morning and then ask where people were going to eat afterward. This turned out to be a bad plan, and I beat the streets for a while looking for a promising Cuban restaurant until I gave up and headed for 8th Street, which I thought would be a tourist trap. To some extent it is. More than one person in Little Havana told me I could see old men playing dominoes and cigar rolling on 8th Street. Sort like pointing the way to Mickey Mouse in Orlando.

But 8th Street also delivered. I was getting hungry, so I jumped off the bus when I saw a sign for homemade ice cream. This place, Azucar, is run by a statuesque Cuban woman who told me to go eat in a grocery store down the street. On the way, I passed an antiques shop selling pre-Castro memorabilia.

The grocery store counter was full of Cubans of all ages and incomes. My waitress didn't speak English, so an older man helped me order. I ended up with a pile of shredded beef and black rice with fried bananas and water. Not a complex cuisine, but the food was quite good.

After exiting the store, I noticed that I was right across the street from the monument to the Cubans who died in the Bay of Pigs invasion. There's my Little Havana of imagination, to the extent it exists.

Since I stayed in clean, safe, quiet, utilitarian youth hostels in Europe, I decided to try that in Miami as well, a plan that would put me right on South Beach for only $21 a night.

Miami Beach hostel is a great location, but it's also a party every night, with impossibly loud dance music blaring until all hours. The lobby doubles as a night club for European youth on a budget.

Is there much to do in South Beach? If you don't shop or go clubbing, no. I spent every night going to a restaurant, then a dessert shop, then going to bed early. The ocean isn't a fun place to be at night when DJs are drowning out the waves.

My dinner with John Yoo

Okay, so I didn't really have dinner with John Yoo. But I did go on a cruise with John Yoo, and I did have dinner with Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. This is the story of that experience.

As my regular reader knows, I was working as an HCP (health care professional) in an ICU near Montreal, Quebec. I recently quit my job (yes, I quit, I wasn't fired), and decided to do something I had wanted to do for some time but never had the time or money--I decided to go on a National Review cruise.

I've been reading NR since about, I think, 1993. After a first introduction to WFB on TV, my father searched out a copy of NR. It was not to be found in my hometown, but, like Livingston, he was eventually discovered in the deep jungle where a copy was discovered being worshiped by natives. (Okay, it was a little easier to get a hold of NR in those days, but just barely.)

I had three issues to resolve on this cruise.

First, the desire to meet John Derbyshire. As I have seriously curtailed my political exposure in recent years, one of the highlights of my week is listening to RadioDerb while drinking one of my righteous Tanqueray martinis. I keep the gin in the freezer so I don't have to shake it with ice, and just the right amount of brine (martini olives pickled in vermouth) and Martini & Rossi dry garnished with three olives, and a couple ice cubes stirred into the mix, makes even Derb's pessimism seem overstated.

I really fell in love with RadioDerb while studying for the national boards. For four days before the test, I stayed in a motel and, ostensibly, studied. (In reality, I napped and watched sci fi movie marathons at night, but, meh, I passed in only 75 questions.) I ate lunch and dinner at the same place every day and listened to my back-log of RadioDerb on my MP3 player at every meal. After the test was over, I went to Barnes & Noble, bought the newly released We Are Doomed, and read it straight through. It pretty much crystallized the thoughts and attitudes I'd been developing since I first heard the phrase "compassionate conservatism," and I've been a regular listener ever since.

Second, the case of Johann Hari. Sometime earlier this autumn, I was reading Steve Sailer and followed a hypertext chain to this article by Hari. Ostensibly, he had gone on a National Review cruise a couple years ago and written a "tell-all" article about how xenophobic and crazy NR readers are. Could it be? I'm the only one I know. My inquiring mind wanted to know. More on my first-hand assessment of that perspective below.

Third, the question whether NR is really my sort of magazine anymore. Even as a high school student, I noted changes as soon as WFB turned over the helm. I no longer have that warm bath feeling when reading NR, and am not sure I see eye to eye with the editors. I had to choose between trying for this year's meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club and going on the NR Cruise. Although I really wanted to see again my old professor James Kurth, my decision was swayed in the end by my parallel interests in taking a cruise and visiting the Caribbean.

the cruise

As I mentioned in my last post, I got off to a bad start, including a run-in with TSA. Then, like the good Eagle Scout I am, I decided to be prepared with a thick wool sweater and be frugal by hiking from the airport to the cruise ship port. In Fort Lauderdale. Florida. Big mistake.

If you haven't been on a cruise before, you'll be flabbergasted by the scope of the endeavor. I imagined my ship pulling up a gangplank as a crowd of well-wishers waved handkerchiefs and shouted bon voyage from the peer. Nothing like it.

The "port" is an enormous area fenced off with a security perimeter in which about a gazillion ships are docked, including military vessels and transport liners unpacking tractor-trailer-sized cargo containers. The road to the cruise ship is long, dusty, and without sidewalk. As you approach your ship, there are about half-a-dozen other cruise ships, all unloading last weeks passengers and vetting this week's passengers through their security check-point, which is in a warehouse and distressingly like boarding an airplane. I managed to sneak on a bottle of Remy-Martin, but I understand this was a fluke.

On finally boarding the vessel (through a covered walk-way, not my much-fantasized gangplank), you are immediately directed to the cafeteria (because your rooms are not quite ready), where you are given free food and asked to pay through the nose for cheap booze and wine.

At this point, you can pretty much go home because you've had the cruise experience. Unless you make a point to watch the stars and the waves and take in the sunsets, you're going to spend the next seven days eating and buying more cheap booze and wine than you'd like to. There are a lot of activities, but they mostly consist of live action versions of things you can watch on television or do on the inter-webs.

Sure, there's the Caribbean, but it's very controlled. On Grand Turks, there is a "colonial village" filled with stores where you can buy t-shirts, but if you walk through the village, you don't find care-free fishermen, you find salt marshes and an industrial desalination facility. It's sort of like WestWorld or the Beijing Olympics.
police officer off camera

We sailed on the Eurodam, a ship of the Holland America cruise line. The staff--Dutch ships officers, white American cruise coordinators, and Indonesian waitstaff and stewards--was impeccable. (All staff had western-inspired names. My favorite was one of my stewards who was named G'Day, which sounds like it might be Asian to the untrained ear. I remarked on this name to several cruisers as I thought it was a pretty good in-joke from the steward's perspective, but no one was impressed. Either I'm lame or everyone else is. Every time I passed him, I would nod and say, "G'day.") The ship was clean. The food was pretty okay to pretty good. I ate beef every day, and the only really memorable dish was the modern osso buco on one of the last nights. The meat was decent quality, and they hit everything on the head including the texture of the vegetables and rice and the serving temperature. Or I had a lot of wine. Congrats, unknown chefs.

Holland America is apparently a cruise line catering to older people. When I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale airport, a kiosk worker asked what I was doing going on a Holland America cruise. In the Bahamas, there was another HA ship docked, and I met a blonde police officer from Seattle sitting on the beach. She's been on seven major cruise lines and keeps sailing on Holland America because it has the best food and service, but the company is a trade-off. "Too bad we're not on the same ship. We seem about the same age. It would be nice to have someone to... talk to," she said. I could almost hear her mind: God, I need to get laid. Not a singles cruise for sure.

National Review cruisers

On my ship, outside a few extended-family parties, the only young people were there with National Review, and there weren't many at that. Although there were some middle-aged folks, the crowd was overwhelmingly greying. It's not so much that it was a ship of Mr. Burnses as a ship of very opinionated well-off people with time on their hands to take a cruise.

As for Hari's characterization of the NR cruisers as the Islamic-genocide-hearty-handshake crowd, that characterization didn't really hold up. I'm sure there was concern about demographic trends in Europe and America, but I heard only one anti-Muslim statement during the entire trip, and that was from someone who works with Muslims in foreign countries and was denigrating their treatment of women. I even heard pro-diversity speak.

Conversations didn't tend to be about war but pedestrian topical politics. Are Cain's and Gingrich's affairs too much burden to win an election? Why do conservatives dislike Romney? If there was one topic that seemed to get people's hackles up, it was Occupy Wall Street, but while its mention drew jeers, there weren't calls to bulldoze them or whatnot. To be honest, the entire OWS fracas seems to me more about being plugged into the media, left or right, than about an important political or social development.

There was a wide range of livelihoods present. Small business, academia, publishing, law, military. I met two doctors. One was friendly and watched the sunset over the ocean with me one day while the other referred to me as an "expert in anesthesiology" at dinner after I had indicated I'd be interested in becoming a nurse anesthetist. That seems about par for the course for doctors, though. There were a few people who seemed like they might have significant personal wealth, but the representatives of investment banks, big pharma, and other bug-a-bears seemed to have been absent.
I went with this father-NCO pair to
Barrachina, drank pina colada,
and talked microbrew ales, like Dogfish Head

I dropped Steve Sailer's name a couple times in conversation, just to see what the reaction would be. In addition to not knowing any history of association-disassociation with NR, no one seemed to know who he was at all. Another example, perhaps, of Steven Pinker's observation that conservatives are the just the rear guard of history rather than the traffic cops. So sad, Steve. You're cutting edge and on history's cutting room floor at the same time.

As a young man unaccomplished in wealth accumulation and uninterested in team sports*, I was mostly relegated to interacting with the women on the cruise, which was okay with me. I met an older student of classical Greek who was cruising with her daughter who packs heat and collects assault weapons. The DailyKOS crowd is probably mmm-hmmming and nodding their heads, but actually these were two strong-willed and independent-minded women going their own ways in life. I also met a web entrepreneur who was obsessed with online privacy. She seemed more like someone I might've gone to college with, but the fact is she was on the NR cruise.

I spent one day with a care-free paralegal who happened to have grown up not far from me and who was on the cruise as a fan of, well, like everyone, of Mark Steyn, but of Jay Nordlinger as well. There was a good subset of NR cruisers who were there because of the star appeal of best-selling authors, but for the most part sycophancy was kept in check. Within the NR readership, your status as a celebrity is easily eroded by being on the wrong side of the wrong side of history.

After regaling my dinner companions one night with my TSA story, a Tea Partying couple got into a tiff with a lawyer who upbraided them when they mentioned how they skip out on jury duty. I had a cigar with him and his friend later that night under the stars on the aft deck. He says he's the only lawyer in America who belongs to both the Federalist Society and a particular list-serv of leftist law professors. He specializes in civil rights suits. Good for him.

Having a cigar with us was a gregarious Italian businessman who was cruising with his son, a painter who could talk formalism with me.

So what do I think of Johann Hari's take-down article? Well, as you might know, Hari was recently shown to be a plagiarist. And a very specific type of plagiarist at that. When publishing interviews, he would take an interviewee's comments and spice them up with quotations that the interviewee had given to other interviewers. My guess is that Hari's NR cruise article was something of the same dishonesty, inserting quotations he had heard elsewhere or imagined NR readers would make into situations he was writing about. Hari is dishonest, and his article is unreliable and, from what I can tell, a caricature of NR's readership.

National Review panelists

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was cruising with John Yoo. The whole time I was waiting for the TSA to clear me, I kept thinking but I'm going on a cruise with John Yoo! John Yoo!! So what's it like to cruise with John Yoo?

If you haven't been on an NR cruise before, you need to understand that most of the cruisers' days are spent attending conferences held in the ship's auditorium. The nights are spent dining with the panelists and hobnobbing with NR editors in the cocktail lounge or casino.
Kessler moderates Klavan, Lileks, Derb, forgotten, and Miller
on The Conservative Novelist

John Yoo was introduced to the audience as "war criminal John Yoo," which got a loud round of applause and even some whoops and hollers. It's not so much that the abstract concept of war crime was being applauded as that the vitriol against Yoo on the left seems to have triggered the enemy of my enemy is my hero phenomenon. Yoo's a funny guy as you might expect and responded that that introduction was the same he gets in Berkeley. He also made what I thought was a good joke at his own expense about being invited on a cruise where he could gamble and eat all day. The humor seemed to be lost on the hoary audience, though, as I expect it would be in Berkeley for different reasons. Yoo's lost a lot of weight now and doesn't look like the photos available on the web at all. Interesting as he was to see in person, if I had a free week again, I think I'd much rather spend it with a stack of his professional articles and books than to see him in person.

Of unexpected humor was John Sununu. I've always turned the channel when I've seen him on TV before, but in person he was hilarious and had the audience cracking up. Who knew?

My dinner with governor Tim Pawlenty was uneventful, not report worthy. Like, I suspect, most politicians, he was simply unable to turn off his politician-ness. When I told him I was considering nurse anesthesia, he responded by telling me that his administration had helped expand the scope of practice for nurse anesthetists in Minnesota. Great, T-Paw. Let me just get a frame and put a Fox news banner below your face. There, just like watching TV. In his defense, he's probably harboring a hankering for getting back in the arena and didn't know who he was having dinner with (it could be Johann Hari!).

As a panelist, T-Paw (note to conservative pundits: please don't refer to your candidate with a nickname that evokes a high-five) was fairly open, honest, reflective, even circumspect about his political decisions, as was senator Fred Thompson. From a temperamental perspective, I'd be happy to have either of them in the White House.

The NR editors were there, of course. They seemed to me just as you'd expect from reading their articles and watching them on TV--opinionated, quick, confidant, and interested in taxes and elections. Kevin Williamson has such a distinctive face that having him smoking a cigarette next to you in a bar is a little strange, but if you closed your eyes during his panel moderation you could hear the voice of NR quite clearly. Same with Jonah Goldberg, who, I note from a large plate of fried rice, is not eating Paleo.

S.E. Cupp talked to me about hunting and fishing at a cocktail party. She may be eating Paleo. Very enthusiastic. At the same party, Andrew Klavan graciously talked ghost stories with my paralegal companion. Pundits and authors are just people who have skills that apply to market niches.

Was I re-sold on NR? Not really. To me, NR is sort of like the Mitt Romney of institutional conservatism--election-driven, savvy but uninspired, competent but unsettling. The best articles in NR now--Derbyshire, Brookhiser, Miller, O'Sullivan, Pryce-Jones--are by people that seem to be orbiting around the periphery of the magazine. Although I don't pay much attention to NRO, so I may be missing a piece of the picture.

surreal experiences

Victor Davis Hanson proofreads: I sat behind VDH in the auditorium while he was editing an article on his laptop, using a word-processing program like everyone. You know this has to happen somehow, but you don't expect to watch the process over his shoulder.

Ralph Reed prom photo: The cruise line takes portrait photos of the couples on the cruise and posts them on a long wall in one hallway. There was Ralph Reed's photo along with everyone else's--say, that guy looks familiar.

Bolton's first cup of joe: I got up early, headed for my omelet, and passed John Bolton, who was briskly weaving around sluggish morning diners while carrying a cup of coffee in each hand.

And what about Derb? He seemed to be in hiding for most of the trip. By his own account, he spent most of his time drilling his research assistants Mandy, Candy, and Brandy. In Tai Chi. If you want an audio account of the cruise, you can listen to RadioDerb from 11-18. The noise in the background is actually what it sounded like to be on the ship.

Did I get to see him much? No, not at all. In fact, other than his panel appearances, I saw him only once. On the penultimate night, we were treated to free H.Uppman cigars, and the Courvoisier and Hennessey were flowing freely. (Actually, it's not as great as it sounds--lots of half-smoked cigars and half- and three-quarters-full glasses of cognac left over. A travesty.) Derb appeared across the aft deck wearing a yellow-orange polo shirt similar to the one in his website photo. He looked like he had had a lot to drink. Anyway, I didn't really have much to say other than "Say, feller, I like your show, a-yuk, a-yuk, a-yuk." So I let him fade into the night unmolested. Well, as long as more RadioDerb is broadcast and I can continue to get Marzetti martini olives, I'll be happy.

* I note that almost all team sports enthusiasts are out of shape and, regardless of whatever position they have risen to in life, strike me as essential spectators. This is a non-partisan comment. Victor Davis Hanson was one of the few older men on the cruise who looked like he could have actually physically defended his polity. (If he were a young urbanite today, I doubt he'd play "b-ball" or "toss the pigskin", despite the superficial similarity between team sports and hoplite warfare.) Another was, of course, Derb.

Vibram FF and the TSA

I recently flew away to a short vacation. On my way through the TSA checkpoint, I encountered some trouble. They ran my carry-on through the x-ray three times and then decided to take it aside and open it up.

I like to travel light--one bag max--and I had had a time packing my bag as I was going on a cruise where some formal clothes were required. I had too many clothes in the bag, and on top of it my ties, of which I had a few nice ones, were carefully packed in order to minimize possible creases. While I was packing, I thought my clothes are going to explode out of this bag.

I don't know about you, but when I'm dealing with TSA, I have a lot more thought for my belongings than for terrorists. Belongings like the $600 cash I had schlepped along. In reality, the chance of a terrorist attacking your plane is next to nothing, and I know I'm not a terrorist, too.

So as the TSA agent was taking my bag aside to rummage through it, and I was thinking about my ties and dough, I said, "just be careful when you open it, 'cause it's going to explode." As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized they were a bad choice, and I immediately clarified: "I mean the clothes, not literally. The clothes are packed in really tight. Sorry." I smiled sheepishly.

The TSA agent understood what I meant and went ahead with the bag check, but it was too late. As I absentmindedly turned around while waiting for my bag to be returned, I noted another TSA agent--a young man with knitted brow--pacing half-akimbo with his cell-phone cocked self-importantly at his ear. It wasn't long before another agent in a different uniform, sporting a sidearm came out to meet me.

I had the full pat-down, background check treatment. While I waited silently with a guard standing by, the flight was delayed, and I almost wasn't allowed to leave. Of the various agency databases my name was being run through, one was apparently not giving me a pass. In the end, I was allowed to leave, but I was told that I had to call my local sheriff's office before leaving my destination airport.

When my belongings were returned, there was only one thing in the bag that had been taken out, my Vibram FiveFingers.

"you are going to be in trouble"

While walking to the plane, the sidearm agent told me that, although I was going to be allowed to go on my trip, I was going to "be in trouble" when I returned. It was kind of melodramatic: "When you get on the plane, go directly to your seat. Don't do anything out of the ordinary. If you so much as say 'boo,' the pilot's going to turn the plane around, and it's going to be a lot worse." What being "in trouble" entailed, he didn't say. I fantasized on the plane.

As I don't have a cell phone, calling the sheriff's office from Fort Lauderdale airport was a real treat. Nobody knew where the public phones in the airport were, and neither the TSA nor the airline would let me make a phone call. Thanks, guys.

Anyhow, I returned on Thanksgiving, and as of a little under two weeks, I haven't heard anything from the TSA, sherrif, FBI, federal prosecutors, etc. So I'm going to assume they aren't going to take action, although I wouldn't be surprised if the wheels of "justice" turned slow. As far as I can figure, there are several statutes related to "false information" that I could have been charged under, some with criminal penalties and some with civil penalties. The one most likely to apply is the $10,000 penalty from § 46302 of Title 49.
(a) Civil Penalty.— A person that, knowing the information to be false, gives, or causes to be given, under circumstances in which the information reasonably may be believed, false information about an alleged attempt being made or to be made to do an act that would violate section 46502 (a), 46504, 46505, or 46506 of this title, is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 for each violation.
Any reasonable person reading this statute would have to agree that it isn't meant to apply to me. There was no "alleged attempt," as I immediately clarified what I meant. If the agents hadn't understood my slip of the tongue, they wouldn't have immediately opened my bag to check it. Is that what you would do if you thought a bag were going to explode when it opened? Open it?

Anyhow, what I am more concerned about is falsification of the incident. As the case of Dr. Peter Watts, who was falsely accused of choking a border guard that beat him up, attests, you are essentially at the mercy of the system.

the TSA is dumb

Even if you think I should be subject to a "false information" penalty, you can't deny that the DHS acted stupidly. Their purpose is to ensure the security of transportation. At the point at which my bag was rummaged thoroughly, what is the purpose of a background check? What is the thought process that takes you from one situation to another? Is a terrorist going to draw attention to himself and potentially be kept off a plane and arrested for a joke? The whole thing is non-sensical, and I've probably been put on lists I don't even know about just for having my name run through some databases.

TSA employees: not just following orders

To keep myself calm during the incident, I kept telling myself that the TSA agents were just doing their job. They're just employees; it's not their fault if the systems are dumb.

But in fact I don't believe that.

The "following orders" defense of one's actions applies only in a very limited set of situations. The quintessential one is the military. The military's entire effectiveness rests on the ability of officers to give orders and not have them questioned. The lives of soldiers are on the line. And the military rightly punishes those who don't follow orders. So, within reason, a soldier can be forgiven for performing mindless and offensive duties.

In healthcare, a patient's life might be on the line, and where a nurse or technician doesn't have the training to analyze a flaw in orders, he can be forgiven for following them.

The logic of these two examples does not apply to the TSA. TSA employees have latitude to exercise judgement and should do so. More importantly, they have the ability to leave at any time.

The fact of the matter is that the highly problematic existence of and procedures of the TSA depend on the existence of a volunteer workforce, a cadre of Americans who individually decide to carry out TSA policies. Every member of that workforce can easily avoid not being part of the problem, but they take the King's sovereign nonetheless. I don't believe they are substantially providing protection, and I do believe they are engaged in activities that violate what should be our Constitutional rights. Furthermore, they are extending a system of administrative/bureaucratic oversight of daily life that I find reprehensible.

Yes, individual TSA agents are doing this, not the Secretary of Homeland Security, but your neighbors who work at the airport.