Better Angels review, part deux

I previously wrote a lengthy review of Better Angels of Nature. The following is another, shorter piece I wrote to submit to TakiMag, and I was reminded of it by reading Foseti's recent (and late) post. Although I usually enjoy Foseti's posts, I think his take on this book was weak, quite weak. In fact, as I mentioned in my longer piece, reviews of this book seemed to be dominated by people who either (1) didn't read enough or read carefully enough and (2) people who got bogged down in the minutiae of war statistics. The first is a problem because many reviewers made criticisms that Pinker addressed in the text if the reviewer had bothered to make a close reading. (For an example of a good reviewer on this score, see Steve Sailer, who mentions in his review that as he was reading, Pinker kept addressing issues Sailer had noted earlier in the book--this was my experience, too.) The second is a problem because (a) the statistics about war were vetted by other scientists and by previous presentations of this material long before the book was ever published, and (b) Pinker admits that his prediction of a decline in violent war is only a guess and he might very well be wrong, and (c) it doesn't address the core of the book's argument, which the relationship between historical forces and neuroscience. That said,

knife versus fork

In the Middle Ages, men used a dagger for everything from spearing rumps of pork to picking their teeth to, literally, cutting off the noses of their dinner companions. By the 20th century, place settings included several versions of dull, blunted knives, and good breeding included learning rules for their use. Today, an aggrieved party guest might throw down his napkin and walk away from the table, but no one fears having to recreate a scene from an Errol Flynn movie over a meal.

The development of the knife as tableware is the story Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker uses to introduce the concept of the “Civilizing Process” in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, on the decline of violence throughout history. This theory of little known sociologist Norbert Elias claims that the decline in impulsive and violent behavior since the Middle Ages (homicide down 95% since the 14th century) is due to the gradually increasing civilité needed to thrive in society.

The Civilizing Process isn't the only historical trend in Pinker’s book, but it's the one that best ties the decline in interpersonal violence to the innate human nature he documents in a host of studies on brain and behavior. People seem to be hard-wired for revenge, but also for self-control. Whether the inner angel dominates the inner demon can be influenced by the social milieu.

Why did people start down the path to giving up dinnertime dueling for the pleasantries of high table? One answer Pinker gives is the state. Knights and burghers turned into citizens who experienced more intimate state-on-man behavior. Self-regulation is more important when cops and tax collectors are ubiquitous; also when you have to curry favor with the court, or the bureaucracy.

The other answer is "gentle commerce." As the primary focus of wealth changed from farming to trade, exchange of ideas and empathetically getting inside the head of that guy haggling with you became more useful skills.

As a fan of liberty, I like gentle commerce, but it's important to Pinker for a very specific reason. The meta-narrative of Better Angels is the growing dominance of people like him—utilitarian liberals—in organizing society and how great that is. Gentle commerce is Pinker's way of projecting proto-liberalism into the pre-Enlightenment Middle Ages. You see, even before liberals existed, liberalism was working its ineffable magic on history.

In fairness to Pinker, his brand of thought isn't kooky but scientific. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, however, you need to read his account of inner psychological demons. Next to sadism, he lists ideology. We can all get behind condemning Marxism, but a closer reading reveals that by ideology Pinker means, pretty much, thoughts not derived from the lab. Some problems of the brain in Pinker's world: depression, anxiety, and beliefs.

If you doubt Pinker's antipathy to belief, just look for instances of judgmentalism in Better Angels. They occur only when Pinker discusses the "Abrahamic religions," especially Christianity. He even takes time to lecture us on the historical Jesus, pointing out the preponderance of similarities (acknowledged by Christians since the early church) to Jesus' life in pagan deities of the time--a topic totally not germane to this book.

(Of course, if there were a hundred Christian-like religions in the Roman Empire, it raises the question of why Christianity survived. One secular proposal is that Christianity simply made people better. Indeed, Julian the Apostate complained of trouble re-paganizing the Empire because Christians were such damn better neighbors than pagans.)

But not only are beliefs indefensible in Pinker's utilitarian worldview, so are values, which is why violence is central to Pinker's meta-narrative. Utilitarians can really get behind only reductions in violence and increases in consumption. In fact, Pinker basically says that MP3 players and out-of-season vegetables are his answer to Notre Dame de Chartres. The Better Angels of Our Nature is Pinker's apologia for having his set continue to sit in state at Cambridge.

If you're still unclear where Pinker parts company with other fans of gentle commerce, just turn to his chapter on children's rights. For Pinker, children stand in the same relationship to the state as adults. While this principle is probably inculcated in the law already, its logic hasn't been extended, and Pinker is all about extending logic. What happens when some day DHHS decides you have to get special permission to expose the little citizen you're raising to violence-inducing activities like Scottish Highland Games, where battles are remembered, feats of physical strength praised, and animals made to work for man?

In fact, you don't have to read the book to understand what I'm getting at, you just have to look at the portrait the author picked for the dust jacket. A Chuck Close-esque androgynous, disembodied head stares back. If it could speak, it would say "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that." In Cambridge, the alternative to the rule of diversity dogma is the rule of reasoning divorced from human aims and sensibilities.

[I had to cut some of this essay out to fit TakiMag's wordcount for article submissions. In summary, Pinker says civilization is the result of greater state control of the population and more of the commerical-financial style of thought necessary for trade. But he is completely okay with elites making laws for the sake of abstract concepts rather than people and then forcing them on the population--i.e., civilization is the result of the world moving away from humanity.]

The Civilizing Process sort of ended in the 1960s, and to find out what Pinker thinks of current culture, you have to read the book. What I thought of while reading is the history of the fork. That pronged utensil, once shunned as a symbol of devilry, is accepted everywhere. Now, whenever I see my forks and butter knives, it reminds me of utilitarian triumphalism. While I don't want any church to start dictating table manners, I'm going to make more use of my steak knives in the future.

Zimmerman Martin prediction

I don't normally follow these cable news things, but since I was in Miami at the time the story hit the headlines and I know someone marginally involved, I've been following it. And I'm starting to let myself get sucked in as well, on multiple levels. First, it was endorsing Jim Goad's TakiMag article by forwarding it to people without fact-checking it myself first (some of the claims in it are dubious). Now, it's checking websites every few minutes to see if there's any breaking news!

So, having seen the new police surveillance video of Zimmerman that was released last night, here's my prediction about the outcome of the case.

I predict Zimmerman is going to be indicted and that the case is going to turn on old-fashioned forensics--creating a timeline and establishing the distance of the shooter, angle of bullet entry, etc.

I also predict that Zimmerman is going to be convicted of manslaughter unless there is clear evidence that establishes Zimmerman's cuts, broken nose, and grassy clothes existed at the time the police arrived on the scene.


As I mentioned, I worked out at CrossFitA1A while in Miami. They kicked my ass. Here is today's workout from them:

“We Will Rock You”
1000 Meter Row
50 burpees
10 15′ rope climbs
100 squats
100 walking lunge steps
50 toes to bar
50 burpees
30 minute time limit

CrossFitA1A is a relatively new box. We don't have a CrossFit box in my hometown, but I pay $35 for my gym, so $175/month seemed like a lot to me. Good luck to them, though, as they have a great location and I liked the people. My trainer for the day I worked out was Jessica, who is featured in the first photo below.

Weight: set point

When I recently visited Miami, I wore long wool trousers on the airplane to and from. So, basically, I went 2.5 weeks between wearings of the same pants/belt combo. While in Miami, I lost enough weight to go down a little over 1 notch on my belt. That's pretty good.

So how am I dealing with that? By building on my success by continuing to eat less, walk a lot, and sweat off weight, right? Wrong!

I've been inexplicably ravenous ever since I got back. I want meat (my friend is a vegetarian)! I want fat (my friend believes in low-fat)! I want more calories! This hunger doesn't make sense, as I haven't done anything since getting back. The only physical recovery that could be prompting hunger is a low-level quadracep injury I sustained at CrossFitA1A.

I think my experience is possible anecdotal evidence of the set point theory of weight control: that is, your body gets comfortable a certain level of adiposity and tries to get back there if you lose...

Choked up: Derb vs. CA

As any hypothetical-mythical person who reads this blog carefully knows, I am a big fan of The Derb, i.e. John Derbyshire. As a disaffected former political junky, the Derb's ruminations have kept me connected to my former life. I agree with almost everything he says. In fact, I can't, off the top of my head, think of any opinion he has ever expressed with which I haven't agreed easily, quickly, and mostly intuitively. Essentially, he is something like a friend I never had*. Back-logs of RadioDerb kept me company when I was studying for my board exams, and We Are Doomed is the first book I read after taking my exam--in fact, went straight to Barnes & Noble, bought if straight off the shelf, and read it right in the store.

So you can imagine my dismay when I returned from Miami to find that the Derb has cancer. Apparently, he announced this already, but as I hate/am-bored-with victim-ribbons, I avoided that column since I didn't know it was biographical. Anyhow, as he has started chemotherapy now, we must assume that the wait and watch methodology originally employed has been less than completely successful.

In fact, the fact that he has published some frankly sentimental columns on childhood fascinations and his dear old mum make me think that his mindset is even more morbid than usual. Whether this represents any medical reality, I don't know.

I was actually choked up tonight. I don't get choked up often, and often it is at odd and seemingly trivial things. But tonight I felt the full force of my participation in the human race as my "heart went out" to the Derb.

Derb, be well. Take care of yourself. KBO. I don't want to live in Constantine's Camelot.

Honestly, I thought Derbyshirism would accompany me at least into my 50's. Let it be so.

* William F. Buckley is the only other public figure about whom I have ever felt this way. I went to Swarthmore College the year after WFB had been there under the auspices of an ISI speaking engagement largely because he had been there to bless the inaugural year of the Swarthmore Conservative Union. I felt a very strong compulsion, which I resisted out of embarassment, to visit Buckley, and then he died. I had two of his Firing Line episodes on J.S. Bach digitized at Stanford. What shall I do with Derb since I failed to make anything of my opportunity to meet him? So far, I have drunk about a 1/2 bottle of cognac, and at that only the cheap plonk-distill I have on hand at all times. (Although I have to say Salingac is the best plonk-distill I've found.)

Tsaatan Dukha alcohol use

I don't have real information here, but anecdotes I've been told about the Tsaatan reindeer herders in Mongolia correspond very closely to the reports of alcohol use given in Reindeer Peoples and Khanty, which are frustratingly similar to one another:
  • vodka,
  • binge drinking,
  • profligate use of money,
  • domestic problems,
  • violence,
  • suicide.

Not much to say here. We in health care know these problems. If anyone finds out how to fix them (without Soviet-style enforcements of prohibition, which failed anyway), the world would be a much better place.

The Reindeer People review & Khanty of Taiga

Looking for The Book on reindeer herding culture, past and present? I was, and I thought it would be Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People, which has a very romantic cover. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite what I was looking for, and perhaps that book can't be written anymore.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It's part ethnology, part travelogue, part political journalism, and part memoir, recounting as it does scholar Vitebsky's various trips to study reindeer herding peoples in the former Soviet Union and the relationships he made there. The book contains descriptions of the herders' culture and lifestyle as well as recounting the author's impressions and reflections of his time there and the changing social and political circumstances of the people as they transitioned into the post-Soviet future.

Who is this book supposed to appeal to? It's so idiosyncratic that it feels as though it were written to be esoteric, as though its labyrinthine storylines were meant to protect the reindeer peoples' identities from all but the truly devoted reader. Where does the inspiration for a book like this come from? Vitebsky was originally a student of Classics and then ended up in India before Siberia. Is this history-memoir written on a model from antiquity or from the colonial period? Who knows.

What I was really hoping for was a book that tied the current peoples' lifestyles to any existing evidence of the archaic origins of reindeer cultures found in the archaeological record. This type of writing is more or less tied to the books' first chapter, which was fine, and could have been spun into an entire work in itself and held my interest. It's possible that there simply isn't enough information available in today's world to write this sort of book. Maybe The Vanishing Tungus is as good as it gets?

It sounds as though I'm knocking the book, but I'm not. It's not a bad book, just not what I was hoping for, and it's not without usefulness to me, either. Recommended? Meh, sure.

Khanty of the Taiga

I also picked up Khanty: People of the Taiga, but it appears to be a book very much like Vitebsky's, on the same scholarly memoir model with a lot of current politically-oriented journalistic content. So instead of reading it, I simply skimmed some sections that had information I was interested in.
I have to say that the bibliography for this book does look interesting. Like Vanishing Tungus, it has some older books on the reindeer peoples that I hadn't found in Amazon or in my university "card catalogue" searches. Worth a look if you're into this topic.

Miami, as it should be experienced

Back in November, I posted a scathing review of the city of Miami. This March, I returned to Miami on a whim for reasons I wouldn't have been able to predict in November. While some of my impressions of the city have remained intact, I was able to find the Miami of my imagination this time around, and can recommend now at least a visit.
The Miami of my imagination is based mostly on the impressions I formed growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. Miami Vice, Seinfeld, etc. In my ideal Miami, poor Hispanics mingle with rich Jewish people and patriotic descendants of Cuban immigrants; everyone lives on the water; hard bodies strut in skimpy bikinis to Caribbean beats; speed boats coast over warm shark infested oceans, and flamingos take flight as alligators splash along the waterfront.

Like any idealization, there is a little truth and a little untruth. My friend actually found a place to stay on Miami Beach in a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Hispanics and Jews. Grocery stores where the clerks don't speak English abut temples and synagogues. The apartment is a metaphorical stone's throw from the beach, and a literal stones throw from a canal.

While my friend was at work, much of my day was spent sitting on the apartment's balcony overlooking the canal and watching (1) pelicans fly by, (2) local rowing teams practicing skulling, (3) stingrays and flying fish, (4) the sun shimmering on the water. This was done of course with the help of dry martinis drunk out of chilled glasses.

We visited Flamingo, FL, which is obviously nothing on Google maps, but was marked with a "city" marker on our car-based paper road map. We were debating whether it was a little town with just motels or a big town with hotels until we got there and discovered we had driven to the middle of nowhere and there was only a campsite, visitor's center, and marina.

Luckily, the marina was prepared for travelers like us and sold us a tent. The stars in Flamingo are the densest and brightest I have ever seen. Our tent in Flamingo was on the ocean, and the sky glowed green at the ocean's horizon at night--visible from the tent--due a phenomenon I do not know--not aurora, but perhaps airglow?

Following Flamingo, we traveled the Keys, finding places to stay by luck, getting some great snorkeling opportunities, and drinking margaritas in The Original Margaritaville.

On returning to Miami, we got in the middle of student walk-outs regarding the Treyvon shooting (boring!), attended Don Giovanni at the SoundScape outdoor venue in South Beach (cool!), ate ceviche (awesome!) and gelato (delicious!). We tried to see Egyptian mummies and Rembrandt pr0n, too, but those trips got derailed. I had been to WEAM in November--it's expensive but interesting and not very titillating at all.

update 3/27: almost forgot, I worked out once at CrossFitA1A while in Miami and twice at the more moderately priced Crystal Beach Gym. CrossFitA1A is new, and my bootcamp trainer was Jessica. Very good workout, although it incorporated lunges, which I never do and which left me with massive breakdown/strain in my upper legs--enough that I'm still limping a little. Don't get older...

Mongolian food: airag

Across central Asia, dairy products of various kinds are made from the milk of divers animals. Sometimes fermented dairy products are made. If the fermentation is started with a grain base, the resulting drink is called kefir. But if the fermentation is started without a grain base, the result is a drink called kumis. Kumis is usually made from mare's milk, that is, horse's milk. In Mongolia, this kumis drink is called airag.

Here's a short intro to airag from DiscoverMongolia, written in a style reminiscent of Mongolians' rhythms:
Airag is Mongolian traditional drink. Rural people making summer time in it. 1000-3000 times bit it in cow' skin bag. (leader bag) Mongolian people used to airag in Naadam festival, wedding, New year and others. Some people can drink 2-3 letre one sit. Airag has included 7-8% of alcohol. So you will drink a lot of airag maybe you hang over. Airag is Mongolian respect and safely drink so you never to spit and drop it outside. During the Naadam and New year festival who win the wrestling competition people present him one big bowl airag... If you visit Mongolian family or wedding people give you one big bowl airag. Maybe you can't drink it just try sip it.

how to spell and say айраг

On this blog, I'm using the spelling "airag," because this is how the word is spelled other places on the web. In Mongolian, the word is айраг, and a-i-r-a-g is a literal transliteration from the Cyrillic. However, you may have noticed the word spelled differently in various sources. In Louisa Waugh's Hearing Birds Fly, she writes айраг as "arikh" if I remember correctly.

From hearing Mongolians speak, I would say "arikh" is probably a Latin spelling that's going to get the English speaker closer to the Mongolian pronunciation than "airag".

We have a tendency to want to pronounce "airag" like "EYE-rag". But the й in Mongolian is often very short, almost imperceptible. Technically, I guess it forms a diphthong, but it's a mild one: the Cyrillic a is pronounced more like Latin a in father than in cat; ай is maybe half-way between father and cat rather a heavy diphthong like "eye".

To say Cyrillic p roll your r's like in Spanish.

(If you can't roll your r's, say Cyrillic p like Japanese r/l sound. First, say "ra-ra-ra-ra-raaa," then "la-la-la-la-laaaa." Notice that when you say ra, your tongue doesn't touch anything, but when you say la, it touches the back of your teeth. Now say "la-la-la-la-laaa" again, but put your tongue at the edge of the soft part of the roof of your mouth, a little bit behind the "d" sound. Now try "ra-ra-ra-ra-raaaa" again, but instead of open-mouthed, put your tongue on that place in your mouth.)

Often in Mongolian, the last vowel between two consonants is very short, so the second Cyrillic a is like "rig" instead of "raaaaahg". Lastely, г is a hard g, but guttural so it almost sounds like k rather than "gaaah".

Finally, don't put strong emphasis on either syllable.

Put it all together: ah-r/l-k. I probably just made it a lot harder, didn't I?

making and drinking airag

There are several good websites about airag. MongolianFood.Info is probably the best:
The milk is filtered through a cloth, and poured into a large open leather sack (Khukhuur), which is usually suspended next to the entrance of the yurt. Alternatively, a vat from larch wood (Gan), or in modern times plastic, can be used. Within this container, the milk gets stirred with a wooden masher (buluur). The stirring needs to be repeated regularly over one or two days.

Traditionally, anyone entering or leaving the yurt would do a few strokes. The fermentation process is caused by a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, similar to Kefir. The stirring makes sure that all parts of the milk are fermented equally.

See Radio86 for more on rural production of airag. On drinking airag, see Mongolian Expeditions, which tells us to accept the bowl with both hands and not to drain it completely at the risk of insulting the host. More interesting photos by Jessica at EnglishCafe.

why Genghis Khan didn't have the runs

If you read about horse's milk, you'll notice that it has a very high lactose content. So you might be wondering, in the context of the "lack" of lactase persistence in inner Asia (see also), why Mongolians would drink horse's milk. After all, when you're riding across the steppe to conquer the world, you don't want to have to stop frequently for poopies.

Well, it turns out that fermenting mare's milk into airag changes the composition enough to keep it from having a laxative effect.

arikh and arkhi

When I was reading Hearing Birds Fly, I kept getting confused between arikh and arkhi. Arkhi is a liquor made by distilling airag. You might hear it referred to as "Mongolian vodka" (as opposed to "Russian vodka"), "milk vodka", "horses' vodka". None of these are real vodka, which is made from grain or potatoes. Louisa Waugh has a good description of a woman home-distilling airag to make arkhi. I won't go into it here, but you should read her book if you're interested in it.

what does it taste like?

When I was at the Tsagaan Sar celebration recently, several Mongolians were talking about airag and decided that the best way to describe it to a foreigner is "like a combination of buttermilk and champagne." Are you thinking "gross!?" I was at first, but I really like champagne, so I was intrigued.

According to the links available on the web, the closest thing you can probably buy in the store is kefir, although this will be non-alcoholic, and kefir has a grain base for fermentation. Also, the kefir I've had, being made from goat's milk, has a slightly gamey quality, and horse's milk is supposed to be sweet and mild.

Writing in the 13th century, Friar William described kumis thus: "It is pungent on the tongue like rapé wine when drunk, and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine."

I can't find anything about rapé wine on the first 10 pages or so of Google hits, except that the dictionary says it is "a poor, thin wine made from the last dregs of pressed grapes." So it is thin? Hmmmmm. Keep that in mind while reading my description below of homemade fake airag.

Don't trust Wikipedia editors or Friar William? How about Julia Roberts? When she visits nomadic herders in their yurt in Nature's Horses, they greet her traditionally and offer her some airag to refresh her from her journey. Here's her reaction:

"Straightaway, I get my first clue as to the importance of the horse--this is horses' milk--it's fermented to make a drink called airag. I'm shocked by the first taste. It's like fizzy, warm... yogurt." Here's her first taste caught on video:

making fake airag in your home

Since the Mongolians I met at Tsagaan Sar told me airag tastes like a cross between buttermilk and champagne, I definitely wanted to try making this concoction at home.

I had no recipe, of course, so I decided to mix buttermilk and champagne in three different ratios. I started out filling three glasses with a little, half, and a lot of buttermilk.

Then I added champagne to fill each glass to the same volume.

As you would expect, the one with a little buttermilk and a lot of champagne was a sort of milky-clear substance, while the one with a lot of buttermilk and a little champagne basically just looked like buttermilk. There wasn't any curdling, which I thought there might be. ( Whenever I've put regular milk in booze, I get a little. Maybe there's something different about buttermilk?)

Anyhow, I know you're dying to know--how did they taste?

Well, there's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is "drinkable and interesting, but not something I would mix up for friends at a cocktail party."

The long answer starts with the fact that I've never liked buttermilk. But another, who loves buttermilk, tried Kate's and declared it bad. I, who like champagne, can safely declare the Cooks bad. So overall, I'm not sure the end product is a fair representation of anything since the ingredients weren't good. That said, you can see my preferences in the after photo above--adding a little buttermilk to champagne made really crappy champagne, while adding a little champagne to buttermilk made a surprisingly refreshing dairy drink.

The little champagne bubbles made a fine texture while the grape-y alcohol just took the edge off the sourness of the buttermilk and added a hint of sweet and some non-dairy fruitiness. It was a little more complex than fizzy warm yogurt.

My guess is that real airag is a little more like the half-half (above, middle) drink, based on the fact that it is supposed to have an alcohol content like beer. That half-half mix was drinkable, but not as refreshing as the high buttermilk:champagne ratio mix. (It could just be the cheap champagne, though. As you can see, I did little more than taste the Cooks before pouring it down the drain.)

Razib's presentation on secularism and conservatism

To be honest, while I'm very interested to hear what Razib has to say about politics, I was disappointed in this presentation, to the extent that the following PowerPoint really represents what Razib had to say. I don't see much actual rationale for conservatism here other than "I like civilization" and "like Hume, I'm deeply skeptical". This is pretty weak for a political platform. To refer to the talk, if you agree with Xunzi against Mozi on art, where does that leave you on socialist realism, MOMA shows, public works, NEH funding, etc? I suppose the answer is that Razib is not really that interested in the nitty gritty of politics. I suppose that's fine, but then why proclaim yourself through blogs and presentations? At least The Derb's pessimism is political coherent via his own personal history and psychological development. Oh well.

Is this real life? BMJ confessions of med student prostitute

This arrived in my e-mail Inbox this morning from the British Medical Journal:

Dear Chris,

How far would you go to fund your degree–take out another loan? Sell your car? Mr D is a male medical student who started off as an escort to fund his degree. As time goes on, he enjoys his luxurious lifestyle, and starts engaging in nights of “unlimited fun.”

Read the full story here
It is strange and surreal. Not the idea of a medical student as a sex worker, but the fact that the article is appearing in Student BMJ without a byline; also, that the writing is stylistically titillating rather than analytic or journalistic. (Or maybe it's that the Brits can't distinguish anymore between journalism and tabloids...) It reminds me of publications like A Study of Male Oral Sexuality from the 1970s that were pr0n posing as "scientific studies":

D has been able to expand his client base, and currently sees about 13 wealthy women. After he saw some women more regularly, a few started to have strong feelings for him, and believed that they were in some sort of relationship. He has since promised at least four of these women that he has given up his sex work, although they are unaware that he continues to have other clients. Although some clients have openly stated that they would rather start afresh with him, D thinks this is unlikely because he only dates them for the money; he strings the women along and tells them what he thinks they want to hear.

D currently lives in a rent free flat, has his own car, and is comfortable financially—as a direct result of the funds provided by these women. By now, his initial reason for entering the escort trade—to fund his medical degree—must have been met.

Student BMJ must be in a real need of readership, prompting me to ask "Is this real life?"

It's okay, bud, it's just from the medicine...

Tsaatan Dukha tobacco use

While the Tungus may have been pipe smokers back in the day, the Tsaatan of today are chain-smoking cigarette users from what I've heard.

Here's a roll-your-own scene from the film Lords of the Animals:

Hamid Sardar's films on Vimeo show the Tsaatan smoking quite a bit. Every time someone is inside a teepee, something is burning.

In one scene, a young girl lights a homemade cigar with an ember from the fire, then passes it around to the other young people in the teepee. Nearby, a boy no older than his early teens is puffing away on a long homemade pipe, while his friends are passing around various tobacco products.

Later in the film, a man is smoking a quite handsome rugged-looking pipe while riding "reindeerback".

The Mongols also have tobacco traditions, including a traditional tobacco pouch that men wear tucked into their sashes. It usually contains a type of snuff that is perfumed with an individual scent. On greeting someone, you exchange snuff containers and try the other person's. I did this at Tsagaan Sar, but I don't care for snuff, whereas I am forever under the spell of pipes and cigars.

Reindeer hunting

The blooger at Living Primitively hunts reindeer, and he says he's going to write a book about it. You can read about his most recent venture on his blog. Here are photos of a reindeer head roasting over an open fire and the remains of the body after the animal's been butchered.

The blogger claims hunters traditionally left alone the fatty parts of meat and left significant portions of calories behind to rot.

Vanishing Tungus review

Vanishing Tungus: The Story of a Remarkable Reindeer People is a juvenile book for very mature juveniles. If you can imagine, it is a sort of enthology of Siberian reindeer herders aimed at the grade school set, with chapters on family, weddings, shamanism, clan organization, art...

The author is a rather dull sounding man of the typical 1970s mold who was working on a book on Zen and Martin Buber when he died. But Vanishing Tungus is filled with rather interesting information presented in a very accessible format.

Chapters on clan organization and traditional shamanistic practices present descriptive information likely culled from rather old primary source material and probably not easily found today.

Apparently, the Tungus were pipe smokers, which seems very plausible:

" soon as the Tungus caught enough fish for his own needs, he headed to shore. Depositing the fish with his wife, he lay back, smoking his pipe and conversing quietly with his clansmen. The industrious Chinese were dumbfounded... He killed no more than he could eat." Reminds me of Mr. Beaver...

"She offerred him her pipe; he filled it with tobacco, passed it back to her, then filled his own. After they had both lighted their pipes with an ember from the fire, they sat back, puffing contentedly."

Here are some selections from the bibliography that I thought sounded interesting:

Atkinson. Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor. 1860.
Bush, Richard. Reindeers, Dogs, and Snowshoes. 1871.
Czaplicka, Marie. My Siberian Year. 1916.
Dobell, Peter. Travels in Khamchatka and Siberia. 1830.
Erman, Adolph. Travels in SIberia. 1848.
Hutt, G. "Notes on Reindeer Nomadism". Memoirs of the American Anthropological Society, 5. 1918.
Jochelson. Yukaghir and Yukaghirized Tungus. 1924-1926.
Kennan, George. Tent Life in Siberia. 1910.
Lopatin. A Cult of the Dead Among the Natives of the Amur Basin. 1960.
Minns. The Art of the Northern Nomads. 1942.

I wouldn't pay a lot of money for this book, but if you find it for cheap, it's worth a quick read.

Lords of the Animals The Tsaatan Reindeer Riders review

The Tsaatan, The Reindeer Riders is a short film by Jacques Malaterre, who also made A Species Odyssey and Ao the Last Neanderthal.

The 28-minute film covers about a day or three in the life of a single Tsaatan herder named Bat. We see him herding, hunting, cutting reindeer antlers, selling antlers to a Mongolian trader in the valley, carving, and a variety of other activities. A lot of the Mongolian Taiga is shown as well as a fair amount of reindeer.

This film looks like it was made quite a while ago. The Tsaatan did used to cut antlers as this film shows, although they have stopped doing that in order to maintain the health of the reindeer herds. Instead of cutting and selling the antlers to the Chinese as the film shows, they now collect the antlers after they've fallen off naturally, carve them, and sell the carvings to tourists. This was made possible with the help of the organization Totem Peoples.

This is a great little film and actually much more informative and intimate than the flashier productions by Hamid Sardar. Amazon has a video on demand version of this film, too, but I've never been able to get Amazon's system to work correctly.

White death among the reindeer herders

I'm reading Piers Vitebsky's book on reindeer herders. After getting along for centuries without it, herders got access to white flour and sugar under the Soviets. In the photo below, the two are holding up a large empty bag labeled "white crystal sugar." I think this is one Vitebsky brought them.

From the perspective of an outsider who is trying to "help," it is difficult to bring something you know will hurt people but that is expected from you. The same is true in Mongolia, where vodka and candies are the expected gifts, although these are definitely not what people need.
I don't remember if there were reindeer herders in Weston Price's book, but there could have been!

Nature: Horses review

It turns out the Nature TV show Horses with Julia Roberts is great! Or at least it is a great window onto Mongolian nomadic life. The show can be found in two DVD collections as well as on Netflix and has online content as well.

The dates are a little confused, but it seems to have been released in the late 1990s, which would mean the Mongolian nomads featured were still living a life very similar to the one they had been centuries previous--the 1990s, though economically difficult, were a grace period between the Communists and the introduction of solar panels, western television, and consumer goods.

Although the DVD is supposed to be about Mongolian horses, it's actually mostly about Julia Roberts living with the nomadic herders. The entire first 1/3-1/2 of the show is introductions to nomadic life and habits.

As I wrote about, I was recently at a Tsagaan Sar celebration, and much of what went on at there can be seen in its native setting on this DVD--deels, snuff boxes, vodka, etc. There are quite a few really good shots of living inside yurts, and there is a good introduction to milking horses and airag, too.

And of course, there are many scenic shots of horses and of the countryside, as in this screenshot of the moon rising over the steppe.

Mongolian food, part trois: cookbook reviews

Mongolian cooking is simple. Pretty much everything you need to know can be gleaned from the few websites that are out there. But if you go to Amazon, you'll find a couple cookbooks as well. Are these worth the effort?

First is this book called Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. If you're fixated on Mongolia, you're probably thinking like I was of Mongolia--the other side of the Great Wall. But actually this is a collection of recipes from the Chinese periphery, including Tibet, Khazakhs, etc. The recipes aren't necessarily inauthentic, but they aren't necessarily interesting, either. The book has a lot of travel and cultural information, and it is a very large and imposing book, making it a great coffee table book or lounge chair travel guide. But Mongolian food? Not so much. There's a "Tuvan" recipe that the authors admit may not be Tuvan.

The other Mongolian cookbook available from Amazon is called Imperial Mongolian Cooking. This sounds impressive, and the cover of the book evokes rich tent life. I imagined that the author had scoured the pages of manuscripts from the period when the Mongol khans sat on the jade throne in Peking. Those northern barbarians discovered the riches of their empire and had their cooks distill it into a special cuisine available only to the emperor and his household, right? Wrong! The theme of this book is "recipes from places that used to be in the Mongol empire." Since the Mongols took over pretty much all of Eurasia, this cookbook is pretty much just a pan-Asian cookbook. And the recipes aren't anything special, either. Definitely don't waste your money. If you show it to Mongolians, they won't be impressed.

Finally, there is this listing in Amazon called "Tuvan cookbook". It fascinates me, but as it's $40 I haven't bought it yet. The layout on the cover looks awfully fancy, so I assume this book is about the dishes you'd find in Kzyzl, not in the Mongolian taiga, but you can always fantasize, right? If my Cyrillic is improving, a transliteration of the cover is "Kholu Chyumeig Avam Sonu Khlebosolnaya Yorta". I have no idea what this means, but I don't think it's Mongolian. I think maybe it's Russian, or Tuvan.

As I mentioned at the start of the post, Mongolian food is simple, and you can learn all about it online. If you like lamb, beef, noodle, yogurt, cheese, milk, and booze, you've got it covered for the most part.

Khovsgol and Tuva circa 1930

The National Geographic map collection online has an interesting map of Asia from 1933. Notice that in 1933 the Republic of Tuva extended east all the way to the shore of Lake Khovsgol, while Ulaanbaatar was still called Urga!

Awesome ger photo

I've been checking out Khovsgol province on Google Earth. This isn't by far the most impression subject matter for a photo, but it is a stunning photo...

3D Ebola virus

Check out this model of the Ebola virus from Visual Science and compare with an electron microscopic picture.