It took having my vehicle towed on Thanksgiving weekend to restore my faith in humanity and usher in some holiday spirit. We were sitting around chatting after dinner when someone started ringing the doorbell and didn't stop. Then we heard people yelling, "They're taking your truck, they're taking your truck." This was a good old fashioned hue and cry!
John went running after the truck. I grabbed my purse and followed. He was trotting beside the tow truck screaming at them to stop because the owner was coming, but they weren't stopping. Those of you from more civilized communities may be shocked, but in our state not stopping upon appearance of the owner is not illegal. Or at least I think it's not illegal- towing here is a municipal issue so your bet is as good as mine what the law happens to be where I happened to be standing. Anyway, they weren't stopping. Until the men of the neighborhood blocked them in by putting their bodies in front of the truck. Then they stopped.
I arrived at the door of the tow truck and was told it was $150 to drop the truck. Again, we have no towing laws in this state so there is no requirement for tow operators to accept credit cards. However, I had gone on a trip and actually stopped at the ATM, so I just happened to have $150, in cash, on my person. I paid. Meanwhile people behind me are waving the homeowner documents proving I was parked legally and getting louder. The operator dropped my truck and immediately started trying to tow the car next to where they had dropped my truck.
So they are trying to hook this car, but the owner is there and getting in her car. There is exactly one thing that is definitely illegal: hooking a car that already has a living body in it. (Despite this, babies are towed with some regularity in these parts.) I called 911 to report what now seemed to surely be a legal violation and then returned to the fray.
In my state there is a long history of police doing nothing to assist predatory tow victims, so don't expect a happy ending here. Not long ago a tow operator towed any random car out of a coffee shop for as long as they could get their money. It was the media outcry ("I had my coffee receipt in my hand!") and a lawsuit by one particularly outraged father whose daughter had been stranded downtown late at night that brought that operation to an end. But "no parking" signs pulled out (prompting one Duke law student to draft a suggested tow ordinance for Durham and be laughed out of the state) and in one bizarre case a sign to park here- this has been the norm. Property owners meanwhile bear no responsibility. That last case, the sign being added, that was a church. Meanwhile, back to the most awesome neighbors ever...
The men were now standing between this tow truck and the car with the woman in it preventing them from getting to it. And first they had gotten her in it- she was a little nervous and intimidated but the crowd helped her face this down and take action. Truly, truly heartwarming. I love these people! So the tow operator gave up on that and next went for the car across the street.
I was the one ringing and ringing on that doorbell while a black lab sat there smiling at me through the window. The dinner party finally came down and as soon as they saw what was going on went flying out the door with no thought of the dog. I body blocked the dog and held on until someone else came down and got hold of him. Meanwhile all the men out blocking the tow truck and screaming, and these additional women screaming. Still no police.
The tow truck goes around the corner and people return to their homes, except I see that they aren't leaving, they're just going to another street in the neighborhood. So my sweetheart and I run them down, ring all the doorbells and bring out those people to get their cars. The tow operators get back in their truck and turn to leave, the show is over.
This is when one lone police officer shows up. The tow truck operators, who have been bizarrely even tempered and friendly, as if they were in a deranged parade float, explain that the reason those people are running around like the real maniacs is because they are "making sure the neighbors are aware of the parking rules." I got special mention for being "very nice" for probably the first time in my life. Not shooting predatory tow operators, the only gift I have when it comes to interpersonal relations.
I start to explain the problem as we saw it and the officer cuts me off by explaining that my problem is not his problem. Actually what he said was that he was just there to "deescalate the situation, towing is a civil matter". Actually, before that, he told some lame story about being legally towed and how annoyed he was and therefore he could comisserate with someone calling the police because they were being illegally towed. This only served to annoy me. As did the comment that that I should take it up with "my" homeowners association since the very definition of the conflict was that it was not my homeowners association- it's not even 9PM, follow along here copper!
But you can't say that alone on the street in the middle of the night with one cop, and you can't point out the problem where a criminal act witnessed by at least a dozen people won't be investigated. The only logical conclusion there is that you can break any law you want... so long as you are driving a tow truck.
We returned home and settled in for bed. The fight will continue another day. I'm sure I'll be mentioning the police response that wasn't to the municipality. I'm gathering the evidence to sue for the return of my $150. I know what company I will never, never call for a tow and sweetheart has stated that they'll get an extra bird any time he sees them. I'll make some effort to suggest our state finally get some tow laws. Because this is crazy. But it was also the best thing that's happened to me in months.
I've lately been reading Chesterton, Bonhoeffer and Ellul, and they all in various ways take the view that Christianity requires an appreciation of opposites, particularly in the issue of religion. In these dark days, I appreciate this sunny view that Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and all other faiths require our appreciation. The vile blogs I visited looking at how this issues is discussed further highlighted the unusual Christian goodness of this argument amongst, *cough*, Christians.
The argument can be further explained by pointing out that without these options, Christianity has no definition. Frankly, it strikes me as a little sad (okay, yes, I am also generally disgusted as well) how many supposed adherents of the Christian sects themselves have lost their identities and merged back into a muddly goop of Oprah-esque affirmations. Without options, nothing has definition, and Christianity enshrines this in the requirement of choice. Yet, as cheerful and good spirited as this appreciation is, I'm not sure how it can be defined.
To consider this problem, let us look at two extremes that I would say are errors. The first extreme labels any alternative from Christianity evil. This was carefully explained to me by an elderly lady who considered her bigotry most proper. Anything that is not Christian, she explained, is wrong. And since everyone has the ability to know right, it is not only wrong, but a lie. Consequently, every effort must be made to limit the speech of, and perhaps even the existence of, Muslims (if I had this conversation to do over, I would have questioned her on why she selected Muslims vs. the more historically popular target of Christian bigotry, instead my jaw just sort of hung open) so that their lies cannot be spread. This conversation occurred several years ago, but a prominent pastor in the news has recently stirred up the topic (good post on the Classical Values blog). This view is easy to identify and abhor in the extreme, and so I've seen a lot of people try to start with the delicate suggestion that people of other faiths are just misguided. However, once you start down that road you have no where else to go. (This is one of those very common situations where those who claim to be moderate are in fact merely setting up the logical basis for the extreme.)
The other extreme labels all faiths part of one big tent. This argument states that the only difference between the faiths is semantics. This extreme discredits every faith equally... all are misguided. Unlike the other extreme which first presents in bigotry, this extreme first presents as if it were acceptance. But eventually the demands that people of faith give up all meaning is made known and this extreme is revealed to be just as bigoted as the first. Searching around the internet for more on this topic, the discussion of it is indeed vile, but the backlash is more than justified.
An argument with which I have more sympathy is that everyone has a role to play, and those roles are not the same. Only God has the ability to judge the righteous commitment to that role. This argument points out that we do not even know what was happening with Judas, who certainly had to play his role, and therefore we have no basis to make an immortal judgment. I like this argument very much as it reflects the message of Christ particularly well. However it also suggest that we live in a purposefully confused and muddled world. This is more difficult for a monotheist to accept, though at the end of the day I still prefer this view because, thought it can be used to justify particular evils, it does not support a systematically evil philosophy.
So what of it? Can a sunny appreciation for religious diversity be justified for Christians? Do you know anyone who makes this argument particularly well? Whether it can or not, it certainly feels more right than being entangled in the evils of the extreme views. Perhaps this is one of the many things where a happy middle exists without a good definition.
Went to bed last night with the news that a North Carolina jury has convicted a man on the flimsiest of evidence and woke up to the news that we've assassinated a US citizen. That's just 12 hours worth of bad news, piled onto horror after horror that came before. It feels like unusually horrific times and I am left asking if something in the world has changed? Or is that something has changed in me?
When I wrote my 9/11 post, I thought about that when I was a child I had no thought that someday I might be investigated for my magazine subscriptions and my despair was over the fact that my niece and nephew don't have that same security. But of course people have been investigated for their magazine subscriptions for a long time, just not people like me. Disturbingly unlikeable men and black men have been convicted with no evidence well before my time. And it surely ain't the first assassination of a citizen enacted by the United States government.
For every horror of the current day, there is a past horror that surpasses it. One of the differences is that the horrors are fed through the internet firehose directly into my brain. My iPad makes the world yet more horrible, and yet so amazing that I could never turn it off. I was just reading in Ellul that "every moment of a man's life is not historic but apocalyptic." (The Presence of the Kingdom) The good of Christ draws you through the horrors of the world; the more good, the more horrors. It cannot be avoided.
And in the internet age one is drawn to interact with horror in a way one could have avoided before. Bonhoeffer, not long before his death, took a three hour hike through war torn Europe without seeing another person and without knowing when the ferry he was awaiting would arrive (no app for that). Few were more fully engaged in the horror of his time, and yet he had a space that is hardly imaginable to someone like me, far less engaged but still standing before the firehose. The evils on the internet: are they new, or is it just that every evil voice now has a megaphone? Earlier from the Ellul:
More than ever, every person is involved in the life of the world, and the world is more penetrating, more crushing, more exacting, than it has ever been.
A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin. Everyone bears the consequences of the faults of others.
And you have your own megaphone, so are you continually called upon to respond? Shortly after the previous quote ends, Ellul adds distressingly, "Modern man can no longer have confidence in the virtues of the individual..." Most people understand this distress. You've surely seen this comic before:
All these parts of modern life invite comment in a way they didn't before. You don't get to have ignorance of government assassination, you don't read about a strange conviction in a history book, you don't assume weird laws are going to let you off for being white (okay, after 9/11 I actually did assume that and I was actually surprised to have my mail investigated, as naive as that may have been). Everything is in real time, with enough time to write your congressman and expect him to hear you. Does that mean you have to write your congressman? Or can you just put Amnesty International on automatic deduction and call it a day?
Last night I finished reading Metaxas' biography of Bonhoeffer and I was certain the answer allowed respite from a moral imperative for what would turn out to be a daily stack of correspondence, and felt very free that I could feel certain from Bonhoeffer of all people that it was okay not to be so seriously engaged. And if Bonhoeffer was engaged in trying to kill Hitler, I could survive in a world that isn't quite Nazi. Bonhoeffer stated something about how anything so serious actually couldn't be serious at all. It certainly couldn't be Christian, both Bonhoeffer and Ellul are clear on that.
On the other hand I am told that Metaxas' book molds Bonhoeffer into a modern evangelical ideal, and surely that ideal would be to be idealistically unengaged (contrary to Bonhoeffer's meaning and contrary to Ellul's teaching above), and that I should have read one of the other biographies instead. (Though Metaxas is surely the most readable, so unless you are very academically minded, I would go for Metaxas and just be aware that it means to idealize in a certain way... he is a children's Christian writer after all.)
And I would suggest reading Bonhoeffer (or Ellul, but Ellul is a little more lost... if one needs direction go for Bonhoeffer). The biography contained long quotes, and Ethics is available electronically and I've picked that up. After a little Bonhoeffer I am left feeling that despite everything I have been exposed to about what a good idea it is to be a Christian, no one before has ever given me an actual good idea for it. Bonhoeffer makes the theology of Christianity meaningful in a way I haven't before had the opportunity to feel and believe simultaneously. So I shall resolve to engage a little more carefully and be a little less down.
After writing this, found this article claiming that human violence is on a long-term (thousands of years) decline.
In That Used to Be Us, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum claim that we changed on 9/11. A Washington Post editorial claims that we had a giant collective emotional breakdown and just need to get our act back together. I don't see how that could be: we were the same people as 9/10, it is just that on 9/10 we thought we were better people than we turned out to be. If there was an emotional breakdown (and I'm not sure there was because on that one day we were so good), it doesn't account for 10 years of moral aimlessness. We didn't deserve our 9/10 world, though we didn't know it at the time.
On 9/10 America seemed brave, smart and good. Occasionally misguided, but ever re-correcting and definitely not weak-kneed, foolish, and evil. It's been 10 years of our 9/12 world. In case we needed some warning of how different we seem today, we got it when the Moscow News urged solidarity on the 10 year anniversary because:
“Only one thing is clear — there is no way to live calmly,” she said. “So let’s not put on airs. Whether America appeals to you or not, let us commemorate with her the decade of global fear.” (as reported in the NYT)
I don't like Russia feeling solidarity with us because we're all afraid together now. I am certain that was not the side we were promoting when we won the cold war. Remember, we originally paid Osama bin Laudin to be against the Russians because we didn't want to find ourselves having the same ideology. Russia had a gulag, then. We read about it in school and were proud to be Americans. Now we have the gulag. Do teachers still assign that book? Is there something wrong with me for being disgusted, ashamed, and terrified?
I don't want to know where you were on 9/11. If you watched it on TV, like me, and only suffered some shifting discomfort in an office chair or on a living room sofa, to be too interested in your experience is morally gross. Grief is not a made for TV project*, and you don't share grief by telepathically feeling bad. Though I would like to mourn with those who mourn, for the most part I don't know them. I don't want to be part of the prurience that puts them on TV through the eyes of "someone who knew someone who knew someone who..." And if you were actually there, I don't want to care about you any more if that means I have to hate. A Norwegian political analyst said that Europeans used to care about 9/11, but now they have a "lack of enthusiasm, you might say, for the way 9/11 was exploited for political purposes." Exactly, I lack enthusiasm for being told who to hate next and how.
First, we hate our own children. One point one billion dollars spent per victim on security actions that are the subject of late night comedy routines and can easily be argued to have themselves killed more than 10,000 Americans in these last 10 years, and on sordid retaliation. We send soldiers to battle who will come home great and strong people, but who face a country with training program and colleges and jobs and their very future all hacked away at the knees. Two towers fell ten years ago and it was not our fault, but since then so has a city and a bridge and it was. I am disgusted.
Then, we hate our constitution and the values it represents. I don't believe anything I hear about an arrested "terrorist" until there is a conviction. You have to hunt for the retraction. I remember one interview with a "terrorist" who was pulled out of his first class seat because of a hysterical flight attendant, and later found himself listening to his fellow fliers discuss the matter as he waited for his next plane. Kill the terrorist! He didn't dare tell them that it was he, sitting right there, and that he was a business man just as they were, and that the ridiculous issue had been resolved in a matter of hours. I have friends who are on terrorist high alert, miss the retractions, miss the beautiful stories of interfaith cooperation that have come up from around the world, and have become terrible bigots. Otherwise good people who think evil thoughts and do evil things. I know someone who started an FBI incident because she didn't like a woman in an abaya texting near her. We are passing laws restricting religious freedom. People are taking their dogs to piss on mosques. I am ashamed.
We've gone to war with ourselves. Many friends know that after 9/11 I was investigated because I had subscribed to foreign media, a magazine called the Paris MATCH (sort of Us News mashed up with People Magazine). I was confronted by the police in the post office; treason for sure. Of course I've flown, a lot, set off the explosives residue detector, been insulted for wanting to observe a TSA agent paw through my mother's jewelry after her death, had to explain why I carried a roll of tamper-evident tape for my job, had to explain my job. When a congressman visited my employer, I've had to watch a co-worker ask why he wasn't doing more to restrict mosque building. She asked this in front of her boss, her Muslim coworkers, and coworkers like me who sometimes speak French. Researching this post, I clicked on a Muslim chat board, so maybe I should be ready to be investigated again. I am terrified.
People ask, "Why can't we have the unity we had then?" Maybe it was never real to start with, but if it was real it was squandered. After 9/11, I cried when they played the National Anthem at the circus. I wanted to know about that first 9/11 baby born two days later. In what could of been a symbolism of what could have been us, a Muslim baby, but in a symbolism of what has become us a baby who now lives in a state that has passed religious restriction laws. In the world that 9/12 has become, "Remember 9/11" has been a constant ploy to get one hand into my wallet and the other hand up my skirt, all the while lying to me about everything. You don't need to follow some strange 9/11 conspiracy theory to feel that you have been lied to- everything that has happened since is more than enough.
We could have done something great, but instead we humiliated ourselves. Osama thought we would be that stupid. He thought we would spend ourselves into oblivion if our rage could be incited. We were extraordinary for one day. No one could ever humiliate America by attacking it. But after our 9/12 choices and the subsequent economic destruction, we are on a short leash of our own making. Our options are limited. Each day that passes it would take something more great than the day before to be as great as we thought we were on 9/10. That Used to Be Us makes the argument that this is possible. I wish I could believe it. I know only one person who is still truly motivated by 9/11 to do good. I wish I could climb out of the horror of 9/12 to join her.
*This article really captures a lot of what I think is important about the reality vs. unreality of 9/11.
"To me, science is about how not to be a sucker."
- endnote, page 273
I was asked to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan by a friend who has never steered me wrong before. In general, one should avoid a psychological analysis of the author when reviewing a book. However, as Black Swan is the Kim Kardashian of pop business books, the psychological analysis is unavoidable. The cranky intellectual is an American favorite, but this is too much cranky and too little intellectual. One might hope that there is some psychological in-joke lurking in the background, but I think not.*
Have you seen or read The End of the Affair?** Remember how it starts: "This is a book of hate..." Black Swan is also a book of hate. It is a book of contempt for all of humanity (and he takes on God as well), sometimes singularly and sometimes as a group: He write of only learning from one living person. (p 254) But if one fails to learn from the fool, that is something wrong with you and not with the fool, yes? I remember how impressed I was with the intellectual generosity in Haakonssen's Natural Law and Moral Philosophy, or of the acts of love presented by Dr. Schrader-Frechette in her Science Policy, Ethics and Economic Methodology (Here is a video of her... doesn't she seem like a lovely person? I applied to go sit at her knee and learn to be smart but it didn't work out). Jason Lanier wrote in You Are Not a Gadget that we are surrounded by love (p. 107). Think of Malcolm Gladwell who is, if nothing else, fascinated by and in love with the world.***
In contrast, Taleb writes as if he were fascinated with himself and his own psychology only. Everyone is stupid. I don't know what to make of the several protestations that Taleb doesn't actually hate his readers--"I am a humanist!" Taleb explains while poking out your eye, metaphorically--but I wouldn't want to meet him at a cocktail party in the dark hall behind the cheese dip.
Where the topic is what I know, I know the book to be lacking. Taleb erases Schrader-Frechette and everyone of her ilk from existence. I can tell you that in fact Popper does have a posse, though you would never know it from Taleb. And why not just read Popper rather that Taleb: one will learn more and be angry less. At each point where Taleb claims to be the only person working on a particular issue or the originator of a particular thought, on this you can be guaranteed: He. Is. Not. On the Gaussian distribution, Taleb arguments are so unclearly written (and sometime straight-up wrong) that I don't know whether he has a point or not, but he certainly did not convince me of anything. Factual errors abound in topics used just as metaphors and not even essential to the arguments.
The book is too much junior high school debate, with "they say" and straw men in abundance. Yes, stupid people are stupid, but to address (or refute) the highest intelligence of the system in question, what say you? Where he writes of what I do not know, I have put what he had to say out of my mind because I do not trust him. Which is truly infuriating because if one is going to tell me how far their intelligence exceeds my own I expect them to deliver. Ah well, to become informed about those topics I will read some other book.
Taleb recounts entering the larger world as someone who has been damaged by war and continues in our world as someone who has tangled with cancer. He wobbles between attempting to accept uncertainty and the desire not to be the fool. His main interest, he states over and over, is to never again be the sucker. As such, the book is largely a psychological ministration to himself, and the first half of the book appears to be presented as a psychological ministration to the general public (though at about the 50% point he states that he only means to be speaking to a specialized use of these ideas, p. 298). I must admit that I frequently argue against confirmation bias when I'm suggesting that a person should not be reckless. It is an easy vine to grab hold of, and yet my previous example from Traffic shows how quickly this kind of argument becomes a complete mess in the face of human reality. Such arguments are frequently more pathological than philosophical, and I think that is the case here.
The psychological prescription presented in the book is harmful. Logically predictability actually works very well for most people most of the time (as admitted on page 298, and after all the entire point of a Black Swan is that it is rare). In each stock market crash of the 20th century, she who simply held her investments recovered within 10 years (yes, this includes the great depression). Expecting the unpredictable makes people more insane rather than less. Meanwhile, the great "black swans" are not so great. On 9/11 (the subject of the first quarter of the book), most fliers and most buildings were safe. It isn't not expecting 9/11 that causes the average individual difficulty, it is the insanely overinflated reaction to it. Taleb would agree with that and say that the problem is the reaction to what has already happened, that instead one should be focused on the possibility of some other unknown thing happening next. This is not useful for the public health. It has to be a specialized process for specialized positions: that which creates resilient systems is not the same as that which creates resilient people. Resilient people are created by the ability to refame and reanalyse the reality of their lives. Backwards narration is exactly what you do in psychotherapy. I’m even okay with a certain kind of backward narration in history, in that it creates culture. Backwards narration is to be avoided in an NATSB plane crash analysis surely, but it remains useful to those traumatized by the crash.
Plodding predictability works fairly well in science too. This is fortunate because statistics are misused not just sometimes but the majority of time, and not just in the social sciences but in the hard sciences. The most disappointing part of Taleb's book is where he gets to his great idea: a four quadrant chart with highly theoretical boundaries, only one if which is supposedly outside the realm of statistics. Meanwhile, in the real world, if you pick up any scientific paper, it is almost guaranteed that you can find a statistical error in it with the smallest amount of training (I have been led to engage in this experiment several times over in my master's program in pharmaceutical research). If it weren't for predictability, masses of people would be dieing from falling down buildings and inappropriate medical treatment. Taleb's argument that a Gaussian series cannot capture an extreme is puzzling. Of course Gaussian practice can account for extremes but in order to obtain useful generalities it generally doesn't: it is common practice to remove the furthest outliers from your calculations. Why? Because most of the time they do not matter. The fact that three planes flew into buildings on 9/11 affected the lives of a very small amount of people for a very small amount of time. If you are not one of those people and you ignore 9/11, it is very unlikely that there will be any negative outcome for you (though you might be missing out on the moral obligation to be engaged with your community, if your engagement could serve any useful purpose).
Meanwhile, the focus on the rare is frequently a focus on useless information. For example, every American school child knows what a platypus is even though they will never encounter one. Why do they know this? Because it is the exception to the definition of a mammal and there is some unwritten pedagogical imperative that they must be informed of this one exception. Meanwhile they aren't ever taught that all birds have feathers simply because we said so. We are more willing (and able) to teach a child a bizarre particularity of a classification rule than we are to teach the child about how classification itself works (Note: Without Platonicity, we would be mute.). Or something useful to the lives most of them will actually live, which will involve basic mathematics and literacy rather than higher scientific philosophy.****
Part of where Taleb goes astray in his psychological prescription is that he does not allow for a range of personalities which are more or less stupid, and not only that but variable in their wants and desires at their level of stupidity. For him, there are only the stupid (everyone else) and the not stupid (him). Furthermore, stupidity is only about whether or not you have been taken advantage of or played for the fool, not whether you have lived your life as you wish. The author of Predictably Irrational, along with the authors of Freakenomics, show (much more usefully to the average reader) some of the same things as Taleb, but with respect for humanity and respect for the methods of their professions. I have not read The Drunkard's Walk but I am told that it specifically is a good replacement for Taleb. These authors show not that science has made THEM smart, but how science can make YOU smart, and for the ends you desire.
I nonetheless understand that these books do not make the points that Taleb does and that very few people are going to slog through Schrader-Frechette when she writes about how public policy should deal with the unknown. In between all the tangents, unlikely philosophy and counter-productive psychology, Taleb would like to shine a spotlight for the general public on specific and meaningful criticisms of how technical economics is done. Taleb has convinced me that a good popular book on that topic would be a good idea. The most disappointing thing of all about Black Swan is that it is not that book.
*Those who know me will laugh because I am frequently and properly accused of being more like Taleb and less like those I claim to admire. I have attempted to make a rule to only write positive things on the internet, but this is a very dark book and has well earned the response.
**I couldn't find anything to link to that was not a spoiler. If you haven't seen the Ralph Fiennes version, please do but don't even read the DVD case before watching it.
***Gladwell reports being influenced by Taleb in this bleak and heart-breaking statement: "We associate the willingness to risk great failure—and the ability to climb back from catastrophe—with courage. But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Nassim Taleb."
****I only somewhat believe this. I don't expect 100% scientific literacy, but a scientifically ignorant ruling class is disastrous, and currently observable. On the other hand, scientists have more than earned the disdain apportioned them for being too much like Taleb and, as I alluded to above, too dishonest in their work.
Another review I luv, at Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do.
The August issue of The Lancet features an editorial and a set of articles on obesity. An excellent point from the editorial:
"One important premise is that the increasing weight of people worldwide is the result of normal response by normal people to an abnormal environment."
The editorial goes on to advocate for a meaningful public health response to the obesity epidemic, but acknowledge that this has so far been lacking.
Meanwhile, an article gives hope that the scientific analysis of obesity, which has also been... lacking, might be arriving at a new found sanity. The article, "Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight" discusses the gap between advice and calculations of calorie deficits and the actual response to calorie deficit that occur in dynamic biology.
In other words, what we already know: weight loss is not a linear calories in vs. calories out because we are flesh and blood. Calories in vs. calories out is for diesel engines and nuclear reactors, not human beings. The article accompanies a web-based model of the authors' mathematical calculation of how weight loss actually works.
I've been a little sad that I missed so much of the Great Two Vacations because of my illness (unknown at the time). I was so tired, sleeping a lot and even when I was awake I wasn't 100% there. Two experiences from the last few days have reminded me that the value of a trip lasts long past how comfortable or uncomfortable, or how awake, you happened to be at the time.
Travel from the Past the First: a year and a half ago, I visited the Library of St. Gall (photo, from Wikipedia) four days after having emergency gall bladder removal (no relation in the name from what I can find). The library was in continuous use in such a way that it has books from the 800s into the 1900s all shelves together on those great wooden shelves with locking gates which were built in the mid-1700s.
A different topic is selected for the displace cases each year, and a series of events are held at the abby related to the topic. Last year, the topic was medicinal herbs. In my graduate program this semester, I just finished reading an essay on the computerization and standardization of the information contained in these kinds of books.
Travel from the Past the Second: When I was 17 I traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Yekaterinburg (where we partied with the Russian mafia... a story for another day) to Moscow. CNN featured it this month in their travel section. I mainly remember a series of snapshot images of the small railside towns where mules were used for plowing and an occasional goat was tethered out with no owner in sight. The bathrooms were dirty, the food was slim, and I was fairly relieved when it was over.
What I did not know at the time was that my great-grandfather had also traveled on the railway. He was an engineer working on the Subic Bay project in the Philippines and for some time halved his years between the Philippines and California. At least once used the Trans-Siberian Railway for his trip home. To read that and to have already experienced a tiny bit of his journey home was a moment that added to the value of my journey years later.
Nothing, but nothing matches the energizing effect of a visit to Manhattan. It is one of my favorite places to go, sit in a cafe, and suddenly have a million things to write. Manhattan is generally thought of as expensive, but given that many of the inhabitants buy their meals good food is actually very available and not terrible expensive. Housing is the problem.
If you are looking for cheap, ThirtyThirty is my choice of places to go. It is a "tourist class" hotel. The room with have a very basic bed with very basic covers, not much else, and internet that only sometimes works. But the bathrooms are relatively new and very nice, there is an in-room safe, and I have always felt safe there. This is a midtown location: fairly sedate. Times Square is an easy walk away, but here are plenty of quiet independent cafes and a Starbucks on every block.
Directly across the street is my favorite higher end hotel, The Carlton (no relation to Ritz-Carlton). It is what I think of as classic Manhattan luxury. If one can afford a midweek trip it can even be affordable luxury: mid-week rates can be less than half weekend rates. I love the small strangely shaped rooms with luxurious bathrooms and the hallways that travel unusual curves. The restaurant was one of my favorites when it first opened, but the last time I was there it was doing more business at the bar and the service and food weren't what they had been. If one wants to throw some money at food, the special oatmeal breakfast is where to go.
Those are by far my favorite hotels, but I will grant the Hilton Times Square a grudging third place. The hotel is at the top of a building directly on Times Square. It is strangely calm after stepping off that street. The rooms are huge and the views fabulous, but it isn't very New York and it isn't very personable. I spent an evening there with severe food poisoning (acquired elsewhere and brought to Manhattan, unfortunately) and couldn't find a bellhop willing to cross the street to the pharmacy at any price. The best I was able to do was get a Rice Crispy breakfast customized with strawberries. So the luxury is only skin deep and the price is frequently horrendous.
One doesn't need to do the tourist things, New York is enough as it is. Take a long walk and see all the things that you've seen on TV a million times: Macy's, Saks, Central Park. Sit in a cafe and read a book. But if one wants to pay, the grandest museums, the greatest shows... it's all right here.