Gun Control, Part II

Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton.

Another week, another shooting, another month, another mass shooting, another quarter, another particularly startling mass shooting.  I’m actually writing this at the end of a week where we managed TWO mass shootings. [Edit: actually, there was another one the day I published this.

So, let’s take an updated look at some spurious claims:

Gun-Free Zones Endanger Civilians
Gun free zones aren’t intended to provide a force-field against rage shooters. Where they are most effective is when they protect the rest of us from legal gun owners that lack common sense, safety precautions, and decency, like open-carry groups at Target.  There are simply enough examples to show that loaded guns in public are unsafe, whether you are shooting yourself in gun safety class, shooting yourself in the movies, or the gun accidentally goes off.  It’s just a boneheaded thing to be doing.

Gun-Free Zones also mean the public doesn’t need to be qualified to do on-the-spot security assessments if we or professional Law-Enforcement Officers (LEOs)  see someone open carrying in the mall.  We can all safely know to run away and call the cops.

Other famous no-weapon zones: Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Ancient Athens, ancient Rome. In Athens, the belief was that it was disrespectful to the democratic project to open carry in the city area, and that the intimidation created by open-carrying “inherently undermined civic equality.”  Frankly, this seems both obviously true and obviously why most people open-carry: to confer an unearned advantage in any conflict.  Imperial Rome allowed citizens to own weaponry in the suburbs and rural areas, but they were forbidden inside of the urban center.  It’s also worth pointing out that these weapons had very little chance of being mishandled in a way that injured someone nearby.  A gladius doesn’t just ‘go off’, stabbing bystanders accidentally.  Further, a stabbing rampage is both a) identified and moved away from and b) dispatched quickly by any equally- or partially-armed group of larger size.  We see again and again that stabbers have limited body count because people run away.  In the most deadly cases the victims are confined or children.  A mass-stabbing is actually pretty difficult to pull off, unless you’re in an elevator.

Regulations Don’t Deter Criminals (e.g. Chicago)
Chicago has that many shootings despite stern gun regulations because as we now know, most of the guns are purchased outside of Chicago. The regulations are working and pushing that illegal commerce to the margins.

The unfortunate truism here is that the security fence is as strong as its weakest link.  Given this context, if you absolutely must purchase your gun in Chicago, this will have nontrivial cost implications on the black market (if you can find it, which may be more difficult for a maladjusted 16-year old wannabe-school shooter to do).

I don’t think this makes Chicago’s laws useless, but it does imply that they would work best if everyone else had them.   This brings us to an important bias we need to correct for in this discussion: we don’t need everyone to do it to see an improvement.

A common tactic on the pro-gun side is to point out weaknesses in any gun law in order to demonstrate them as totally ineffective, needlessly restricting legal gun owners’ rights.  But they don’t need to be totally effective: we aren’t trying to cheat death or stop all crime, any more than vehicle safety regulations ended all vehicle accidents.  Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved by these regulations.

This brings me to my last point on this issue.  We need to stop underestimating the effect of small, incremental and meaningful changes.  If you believe in broken windows policing, lean startup methodology, or ‘Moneyball,’ you already know that small meaningful improvements aren’t part of the game– they’re the whole thing.  We now have research to back this up, as far as crime is concerned.  So sayeth The New Yorker:

“the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.”

Committed actors will always find a way.  But the spur-of-the-moment shooting can become (almost) a thing of the past.

Gun Controls Are Spurious Over-Regulation (or, the cars-and-pools-are-more-dangerous and spoons-make-you-fat-so-why-bother Defense)
If a poorly handled spoon could explode, making someone else fat, you better believe society would and should make you eat your soup with a straw. I’m beginning to feel debased by having to respond to such nonsensical fallacies, but someone always wants to make them. Let’s please not talk about cars or swimming pools after this, but one last time:

Most gun control activists would be delighted with an outcome on firearms comparable to that of cars.  Imagine what fantastic data we would have on our firearms if, like cars:
1. We had to register each weapon and re-register it annually, whether we intended to fire it or not.
2. We had to subject any weapon to yearly inspection to verify its suitability for use, and it was a misdemeanor to otherwise operate it.
3. We needed liability insurance for each weapon.
4. We needed to take a course and be licensed by a specialist instructor before firing a weapon.
5. We had a state registry of every extant weapon, and each carried three to five distinct ID marks, with two known only to manufacturers and law enforcement, and a set of easy procedures for interstate identification
6. Improper storage or display could get you a ticket.
7. Sale or transfer of a weapon involved an exchange of title.
8. We kept our weapons stored and locked.
9. There were additional taxes on bullets.

While many firearm libertarians will no doubt see any regulation as an unjustifiable intrusion,  I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the gun industry, even though many of these apply in certain states already.  If the car market is any indicator, there are tremendous business possibilities baked into the system here, in the regulations, the market and aftermarket, and more opportunities for customer touch-points. You can only lead a horse to water, I guess.

So, yeah– the car comparison is apt– and my side would be happy if it applied. It doesn’t.

First off: pools are indeed more statistically dangerous to their owners than guns.  That is very clearly true.

What seems less obvious  is that pools are statistically only dangerous to their owners and their families.  If you could bring a pool to the mall, or sneak it into the movies in your jacket, we’d be having a very different conversation about externalizing risk.  A pool also can be secured many simple ways that dramatically reduce the exposure to danger. It IS dangerous. But it’s statistically dangerous to you, the owner.

Finally, as Adam Gopnik points out, at this moment in history the proverbial pool of gun violence is overflowing with the bodies of neighborhood kids. Sometimes having a pool is nice, but with this many dead kids floating in it, we’d have to be monstrous not to have it filled.

Spoons Make You Fat
The pro-gun movement often advances the argument that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t cause mayhem any more than spoons make you fat.  This appears to be an attempt to create a reducto ad absurdiam, I hope.

It’s just a stupid thing to say, and you are stupid for saying it.

Guns Don’t Kill, People Do (and Mental Illness is the Culprit)
Actually, people mainly just injure, unless there’s a gun in the picture. It’s really hard to reliably kill someone without a gun in the same amount of time as you can do with a gun.  They’ll always find a way to do it, it’s just that guns remain the BEST way.  Or as David Frum put it: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”

Mental illness is indeed a culprit.  Also, sometimes carelessness, temporary depression, poor judgment due to alcohol and drugs and just generally being the kind of dipshit that points a loaded weapon at someone is the culprit.  Crazy happens. Stupid also happens– ask how many people in prison are there for something they did while drunk or high (spoiler: most).

There is no reason that a solution that addresses mental illness can’t work alongside a solution that reduces access to weapons in the first place, and that kind of cross-disciplinary solution is the only approach that is going to work with an issue of this complexity. That said, too often in this debate, mental illness is brought out as a tactic to distract from the core issue.

Here’s a statistic we never talk about because we can’t talk about it: the amount of killing/suicide that was averted because the household didn’t own guns.  This seems impossible to reliably prove, and yet our intuitions can readily extrapolate that given how many guns deaths we already have given x gun supply in y houses, how much of a spike are we looking at, given a gun in all houses? Certain countries (e.g. Switzerland) endure this already, and have extremely strong controls around the legal usage and transport of the gun.  The ammunition supply is audited.  The gun is kept locked in storage.  The weapon is envisioned for use in defense of the nation, not to protect the household.  This is a non-trivial distinction and constrains the likelihood of accidents.

Growing up, I knew kids whose parents had guns. Every one of them thought of themselves as responsible gun owners (one who I will not name was an executive in the NRA). And every time, EVERY TIME, that gun eventually came out, and about half the time, was fired, usually behind the parents’ back. So, I’m not surprised we see this kind of shooting. I’m surprised we see it so little. (Incidentally, the NRA kid actually defended his house from a home invasion. That ended with him cutting the robber, who was probably looking for a TV but would have found the mother lode of guns, quite badly with a samurai sword. The man of course, was trying desperately to escape when he was cut, so my friend didn’t need the gun in two different ways).

Sadly, this conversation continues.

What Would I Have to Believe?

[Originally written August 2014]

Having spent more that 15 minutes on the internet, you’ve been danger-close to stupid opinions. We’ve all had the uncanny experience of watching a close friend, whose experiences and judgment we thought we respected, say something flabbergasting or outright boneheaded publicly on social media, and felt the disorientation and reevaluation that follows that.

Sometimes this can feel like an outright betrayal.  At others, it’s just embarassing, but still draws a line in the sand. Recently I had to block an acquaintance whose preoccupation with contrails was so distressing that I was unable to manage the shame I felt not calling him out on it.  I don’t have any explicitly racist friends (as an example) that I’m aware of, but I’d probably have to block them too, it would just be too exhausting– I can’t keep fighting the last war.  We all have to draw our lines, have our unique thresholds of disgust.  That inverse feeling, the surprise discovery of like-minded travelers and new so-called friends is the upside of this devil’s bargain. You’re gonna get both.

At bottom, I consider myself, if not a progressive, someone who comes from the left, but with a flexibility and openness to all points of view. Sure, I find liberalism challenging in many regards (and especially at this moment in history), but the current state of tea party-dominated conservatism is just an abyss, and unworthy of intellectual energy or attention.  That said, I prefer to talk to classic conservatives on a host of ideas, because it’s reliably stimulating to have your ideas worked on, and to understand the rationales of opposing points of view, especially now as we are increasingly insulated from points of view we find challenging or distasteful.  A principled opposition is almost always interesting.  Conversations with people I agree with, by contrast, tend to end in head-nods, and on to the next thing.

So a game I like to play in the spirit of testing my ideas is a game called “what would I have to believe?” This is basically a role-playing exercise where I need to migrate my opinion to a place where I discover what would need to change for me to hold an opposite opinion.   I’m so very sorry to say, I know far, far too many people who apparently never play this game.  It’s really simple, and works like this:

  1. Encounter an idea you find challenging or intriguing, or are opposed to at a gut-reaction level.  It’s especially interesting if you find it mildly threatening.
  2. Construct your own opposition. What’s the basis of your objection? What legs do you have to stand on?  What’s your gut reaction?  “That’s racist.”  Et cetera.  Warm up in your typical, shoot from the hip reaction.
  3. Assuming you understand the opposing argument, do the reverse. What would it take for you to believe the opposite argument were true? What scaffolding would need to be erected? What assumptions would need to hold?  This is best expressed as an act of either addition or subtraction: what propositions might you need to believe that you don’t believe now, or conversely, what beliefs that you hold now would have to be jettisoned to hold the proposition?  Ideally, this should be done with the least number of ‘moves’.
  4. (Remember, you are not yourself here, and so you have no recourse to your personal history or ego. Just, ‘what would you have to believe’ for the argument you dislike to work for you? What transformation is needed?)
  5. Now the hard part: Without any change in your core values, could you be migrated to the opposing position?

Basically, this is what the reactionaries of the left and right would call “flirting with” bad ideas, which I don’t accept. I don’t actually want to flirt with them, I want to make out with them, with tongue, and then be free to choose my mind a few minutes later and try another idea. We are talking about real intellectual promiscuity, here.

Transformation is the key. Because the good part is, you aren’t obligated to accept your new explanation. But it does open up a moment of compassion where insights are gleaned. And frankly, it will help you to understand the foundations of your own objection.  This ability seems increasingly rare.

This roleplay is a variant on what Daniel Dennet calls an “intuition pump”, a mental lever that allows you to grasp at bigger ideas. An example would be the concept of “percentage,” incredibly useful, and, speaking as the parent of a seven year old, actually conceptually difficult to grasp. But once you’ve got it, you can move quantities.

So, let’s play: As an example, Marriage equality.

My opposition is this. Generally speaking, I’m for it, or am indifferent enough to it that I find the idea of preventing anyone from having a marriage to be cruel and immoral. This comes from my sense of justice, of public law and of personal experience.

Additionally, my opposition is based on the fact that I know enough gay people to believe that the idea of choice in their sexuality wasn’t an option for all of them. Meaning, if someone is just born that way, withholding their access to happiness is immoral.

However, I’d probably still feel that way if I knew very few gay people. My basic stance would be “why prevent what brings someone joy and is basically without cost to deliver?”

Conversely, role-playing the opposite becomes “why allow it?”

What would I need to believe? Were I a religious person and believed the permission for marriage came down from divine authority, I could see the loss-aversion that would be raised by letting just ‘anyone’ have access to this sacrament of marriage, although in that case atheists would probably also need to get so-called ‘civil unions’. Letting people who lived in clear opposition to Church doctrine have it would indeed be galling– although atheists having it would probably be worse, so as a side-note, I’d probably be opposed to atheist marriage as well but feel that horse was well out of the barn.

This is, at base, the same argument for why a Priest may not perform the marriage of someone outside their own religion.

In that world, I would feel the dilution of my traditions to be something akin to a very slow emergency, and indeed, marriage equality, or gay marriage wouldn’t be the worst of it, but possibly the most symbolic of that slide, at this moment in history. So, there’s the first pillar: I would probably need to be religious. I don’t know any other basis for opposition that comes quite so well pre-packaged.

There seems to be a lot of latent loss-aversion baked into this, so that’s another pillar. I’d need to feel not that someone was gaining something, which I don’t think I’d care about, but that my team was losing something. My team, in this case, being the custodians of a fragile moral code being trampled on by the excesses of the day. What are we losing? The definition of something that matters. I’d have to see marriage as something sacred by definition, that not just anyone can have.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that I thought in many cases being Gay is not a choice like putting on pants, but an orientation. If I thought it was a choice, would that matter? Probably not too much by itself, but coupled with these other two notions, it does produce a position that I can see people defending, i.e. given that you can choose not to live this so-called lifestyle, why don’t you choose not to live that way when you know the prerequisites of your religion?

A few ideas are emerging, here. A big one is, it’s apparently pretty hard to hold these kind of beliefs without the underlying support of some kind of religious doctrine. Definitely possible, but religion is providing my most powerful (and predictable) lever. I only feel the loss aversion if I feel this ritual or sacrament ‘belongs’ to my tradition. This seems significant. It’s frankly hard to get worked-up over otherwise. I could say “it’s gross”, or “it was always done this way,” but it doesn’t seem like there’s much in the way of strong comeback to the assertion “well, we’re doing it this new way from now on.”  (It’s probably worth re-stating these are beliefs I don’t actually hold– that’s the point– but I can imagine someone holding them).  Another example: I have been told in certain countries like Russia and parts of Africa there is no distinction in common usage between ‘pedophile’ and ‘homosexual’.  This would also be a powerful lever to make someone against something, but this brings me to an exception: this is a total factual misapprehension.  The purpose here is to try to find entrance points into contrary arguments, not take on others’ factual inaccuracies, so while I understand how that would work to make me against the topic, it also ends the game right away– sure, I would be against this, if I were wrong and closed to correction.  Where would that end?  Again, it’s a lot more interesting based on principles as opposed to simple misunderstandings.

It seems the lesson here is not that Gay marriage is wrong, but certain religious beliefs carry some extra baggage that emerges in unexpected places. I could just drop them, or, drop the less useful parts.  On the other hand, making an argument to a religious person that does not address these misgivings would be to miss what they see as the point. Another important lesson.

That’s the game. If it feels Socratic, that’s because it basically is.

Radical compassion is possible, even in the face of ideas that you are hostile to. But one must remain open to change. I prefer to deliberately seek out ideas opposed to my own because, as the saying goes, “steel sharpens steel.” We are now in the 21st century. Good ideas, and bad ones, can come from anywhere. We have no license to be intellectually lazy, or to not pay attention. We are bombarded by information everyday. Choose wisely.

Fear and DIY in Texas

In high school, I went on a fantastic 3-day trip to Lake George. The scene was idyllic: we camped on the islands in the lake, and traveled by canoe, carrying our own gear. We drank lake water. It was one of the magical moments in your adolescence, or pre-middle age, when you know you are building the memories on which your sense of the world will depend.

On the last night, some of us took the canoes and snuck away to a separate island, where we built a campfire. I assume what must have happened was that some of the kids were caught sneaking out and smoking pot. They were informed on by another student, who, for his own inexplicable reasons, chose to confront our chaperone with this information. Now, our algebra teacher may have, as I suspect he did, known what we were up to and chose to turn a blind eye, knowing that he was dealing with, broadly speaking, responsible kids looking for a thrilling punctuation mark on an otherwise quiet trip. But the kid wouldn’t let it alone, and the algebra teacher was forced to act against his disinclinaton, solving this non-emergency-after-the-fact by serving serious consequences to the kids, some of whom missed finals as a result because of one stupid snitch.

I’m going to change gears for a second here, and the intro will make sense later.

This week, as everyone knows, a kid named Ahmed Mohammed brought what might be the world’s worst clock in to school and inadvertently unleashed aclock bomb panic. First off, let’s just all agree that that looks like every bomb in every movie ever, with the conspicuous absence of a visible timer and detonating material. None of us here are explosives experts and I can already hear some internet fool making the burning, urgent, and obvious point that movies aren’t real.

However, if we added four red sticks of clay in there and some duct tape, I bet we could convince a voting majority of the so-called ‘man on the street’ that we had a bomb in that briefcase, and puzzle them when we told them it was a clock.  In any other political climate, this story would be called what it is: a HOAX, and a presumedly inadvertent one, ha ha, aren’t we all dumb.

However, the story had legs for a couple of nicely pre-packaged reasons (stereotypes):

1. Mohammed is a Muslim, so the notion of him bringing a bomb into school was an off-the-rack stereotype that the administration could be readily accused of employing because,
2. Texans are stupid and racist, and
3. Public school inhibits creativity is always trying to bring you down, even in the STEM fields.

This provided terrific media fodder for a few days, including opinion pieces, late-night monologues, and of course, blog posts (ahem). By my lights, the most interesting was once again provided by professional polarizer and so-called Islamophobe Bill Maher , also sexist, racist et. al., depending on the invoker. This is relevant here because of #1 above.

Once again I find myself resisting the popular narrative and, by extension, sympathizing with an incredibly unpopular position.

Now: obviously the teachers overreacted, but so did everyone else. People seem to be in the habit of putting words in Maher’s mouth. I agree with him on some things and we disagree on others– but I think he almost always provides an invigorating perspective, even if– especially if– I’m only invigorated to argue with it.

To wit: the week of September 11 a kid walks in with a briefcase. Inside is a device that is unasked for, conforms to no assignment, and is intended solely for the eyes of his engineering teacher, who then, in a fit of wise foresight, advises him not to share with anyone else (read: ‘my dipshit colleagues who will probably think it’s a bomb, ha ha haaaa’). Per the photo, it actually looked more or less like every bomb in a suitcase from TV, minus explosives. That how much it looked like this-or-that can be argued, but it clearly looks more like a bomb than a clock. Then again, neither does a pressure cooker in a backpack, I suppose.

The device starts beeping in another class. Kid goes to principal’s office, cops are called. Kid insists the device is a clock. Critically, the school is not evacuated. This has been taken as evidence by some astute observers that the administration knew it wasn’t a bomb. This may well be true, but I see a gradient emerging, here.  (Note: it was also put forward by some that he did the clock as a deliberate hoax, I see no reason to believe that claim either.)

In a fantastic confluence of stupidities, this child is arrested.  I must go to pains to state that nearly everyone universally agrees that the arrest was unnecessary and the result of a terrible misunderstanding, which is about as satisfying as it sounds.

Now, I speculate: Clearly the teachers didn’t know what they were looking at WASN’T a bomb, that is, it still could have been, but they were probably 95-98% sure that it wasn’t (accordingly, 100% surety, for example, an actual alarm clock, would merit no police intervention). What I believe that differs from others is that while I think they probably didn’t believe they would explode, as usual, institutional fear crept in and no one wanted to risk being the one who didn’t do something. That 2% of not-knowing is enough to warrant a call to the cops as a measure of cover-your-ass prevention, that is, if you like having a job.

But somebody snitched, and those otherwise disinclined to take action were now put in a position to have to do something.  The problem wasn’t the smartest person in the room, as usual, it was the dumbest– you know, the ones we urged: “if you see something, say something,” which they dutifully did, and now someone had to do something.

So they wanted to keep their jobs, but knew that evacuating the school was 100% sure to cause a panic, especially later when parents demanded answers as to why the school was evacuated. Again, its not going to explode, but that 2% is where you lose your job. So a quiet alternative was found with less chance of professional humiliation (or not).

Meanwhile, we all have a good laugh about how stupid Texans are [because we never, ever stereotype! That would hurt feelings!] but I think we are all much better off not to have seen the kind of vitriol that might have come from the parents, in that case. They would have called for this boy’s head, bomb or no bomb. The school was clearly thinking about this as well, which explains the letter they sent home to parents the next day.

It’s important to flip the question: what if the kid was white? Would he have been treated the same way? Probably not. The linkage to Muslim terror seems to be inevitable, especially when confronted with a beeping suitcase. But my sense is that the motivating fear was of administrative and parental consequence. Somebody snitched, putting everyone else in a position to have to do something, whether they personally found it necessary or not. To put it another way, somebody was stupid enough to believe it WAS a bomb, and nobody else was smart enough or qualified enough to prove that it wasn’t.

The police, doing what police do, arrested him until they could get to the bottom of the situation. Once again, utterly predictable outcome.

So: to the meat. Was this racist or not?  Yes, but not purely. I see a case motivated more by institutional mediocrity than casual hate, in varying percentages.  Of course his being Muslim was relevant.  But let’s not pretend we aren’t also living in the age of Columbine and Sandy Hook.  There are worse scenarios than some science geek getting arrested that we can all readily imagine.

His religion absolutely adds weight, but given the context of school violence, shootings, pipe bombs et cetera, this is a strong enough motivator to have given us the situation we had. I think his being  Muslim didn’t help, and maybe pushed the (arbitrary!) 98% non-bomb confidence down to 88% or 78% confidence– but it could have worked the same way if he were a Hindu. We are constantly finding guns, knives, and explosives in lockers and backpacks in American schools. This story just came extremely well-packaged for some other pre-arranged ‘terrorist’ narratives as well, and we needn’t pretend that that played no role, because obviously it did. But it might have anyway, given a certain amount of over-caution by the school administrators. You know what? I have kids in school. Take all the time you need. BE SURE.

All that said, for those of us who have seen the clock in question (and I’m no explosives expert), but I see an incredibly shitty clock and, critically, no explosive material inside.  But I suppose that depends on how you define it.

A Few Quick Remarks on the Illuminati

Not long ago, I found myself the passenger in a ride to the airport with a most unique cab driver, who warned me how we were all going to die.

8118181_sGiven the distance to my destination was often up to an hour, I knew I’d have to overcome my NYC sense of anonymity and learn to make polite conversation. Repeating this trip many times, this became standard practice. As a side-effect I came to recognize many of the drivers, their peculiar quirks, styles and stories.

There was the overweight man who looked like George R. R. Martin, so cloistered to his white Prius that the foul smell attached to the car forced me to ride with the windows down. I hated riding with him, but I began to suspect that he might be homeless and slept in the cab, and couldn’t smell the difference.

A personal favorite was the athlete, a lithe, mustachioed black man who looked well-younger than the 50+ years he happily claimed. On any given ride you might hear about his kids, or his days as a boxer, or, if he were feeling in a particularly chatty mood, his time as a exotic dancer and gigolo, and the depraved sexual needs of the local women, which he embellished lavishly. I appreciated his sense of storytelling form, the way a gun knows another gun. I assumed it all to be tall tales, of course, but his sense of detail, the clear-eyed way he seemed to be not inventing, but recalling memories, impressed me as a fellow student of the craft.

While he was a favorite, there were also the occasional Asian man and frequent Arabs, not newly arrived but still with the unmistakable optimism of the newly immigrated.

Then there was this guy.

He was overweight, maybe 50 pounds, enough to gently rest a roll of back fat on the single seat that separated us. Round-faced, African American– but his hair was long, either braided or straightened into a tail, shaped just like a Pharaoh’s beard. His reversed cap gave it shade.

As was the custom, we rarely made eye contact, but I could feel him scan me over as midway through the ride, he mentioned something that caught my attention. He had mentioned he would be leaving the area soon, and then veered off into something else, presumably the rationale. I think I had drifted off and had been caught ‘yessing’ him.

“The who?” I said.

“Bilderbergs. They control it. Don’t you know what they are?”

“No. What is it?”

“The Bilderberg conference. New World Order. All the highflyers, luminaries, world leaders. They go there. It’s a hotel, where they decide everything.”

Well, I thought, this is getting interesting. “Like the Illuminati?”

“Basically, yeah. They decide money policy, oil, war, you name it. They control everything.  Greenspan.”

The conversation went on in this vein. After a period of time ascertaining my interest, he really flew right off the rails. He’d had all this explained by a close friend who had been in Canadian intelligence, he explained. Their ultimate plan was, you guessed it, MASS EXTERMINATION. Not total extermination, mind you. Just enough to get the population to a manageable level. Just enough to save the earth from environmental disaster. To save what was left and worth saving, for the 1%. They had an optimal number in mind, and it was in the tens of millions. So obviously, a lot of people were going to have to die.

To give you a sense of the time and date, I took this to basically be an elaborate pitch about Gold prices or Peak Oil, which were the standard go-to’s of the period. I did not realize what I was actually getting was a preview of a new kind of conversation.

“So how are they going to do this,” I asked.

“A virus, hidden in vaccines. Everyone who gets vaccinated will get infected with the disease, but it will be dormant. Harmless. What it needs is the catalyst. When that gets released, they know there won’t be any stopping it. So it’s not about when they are going to do it. They’ve already done it.”

“What about the catalyst? When does that get released? When do people start dying?”

I was expecting an indefinite answer, something suitably millennialist and forever at the horizon. His directness startled me.

“Sometime between March and May. That’s why I’m leaving. I’m moving my family to Canada, you should too. It’s gonna start to get pretty messed up around here.”

Indeed. Now, this was probably in 2012, so V-Day has apparently already arrived. I often think about what an awkward April he must have had. But! There is a teachable moment, here.

People believe all kinds of stupid shit for no good reason. Otherwise smart people. People, who frankly, ought to have known better. I actually found his cool craziness to be so jarring that it confused me. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “You speak English really well.”

I have a close friend with cousins who, sometime after Y2K, had to make the decision to sheepishly pack their shit and come up out of the bunker. Professional people, with real jobs. This happened.

I repeat: people believe all kinds of stupid shit, for no good reason.

So, of all the reason’s I’ve heard not to vaccinate, his was by far the most ridiculous. But when I hear modern anti-vaxxers on go on about their rationales, I do see them as not comparable but I do see them as an expression on the same spectrum.

I can abide a certain amount of bullshit, some play in the system. I love ideas, of of all kinds. I’m willing to give a compelling idea its due, and, I hope, duly suspicious of unchecked authority– governmental or corporate.  But the one thing I cannot abide is a conspiracy theory. It’s hard for me to think of something that will drop my estimation of someone’s intellectual capacity, faster. Even a wanton racist or sexist remark can be forgiven, in the context of age or isolation. Sometimes people really don’t know better, or have been taught improperly. But a conspiracy theory has baked within it a contemptuous desire toward contrarianism and secret knowledge. Please. This is how stoned teenagers see the world, and it needs to stop by the time you are 21, for real.

So I took this man’s story as fascinating, and appreciated it the way one loves any well-told bedtime story. But I didn’t take it seriously.

I look back at it now as a distant cousin of what I hear now in conversation about vaccines.  I don’t take anti-vaccine hysteria very seriously either, but when I hear about BIG PHARMA OMG know that my mind is spray-painting BILDERBERG across whatever you are trying to say.  As in, ‘you bet, jackass’.

Educated people are willing to draw all kinds of fantastic conclusions because they feel they can draw a straight line of cause and effect that aren’t there. Recently I found myself in an online debate with a German kid who suggested that Vice was printing articles questioning the extent of the Fukushima radiation globally because Vice has media ties to General Electric. You know, one of the biggest companies on earth. Why? Because one of their divisions makes equipment used in reactors.

Clearly, the weekend edition of Vice News, demographically targeted as it is, is the soldier standing on the wall that will protect the future of nuclear energy via a throwaway Sunday evening blog post.

Yet the idea that a site served via WordPress and bills itself as a leading natural news source and makes most of its ad revenue through selling natural dietary and exercise supplements to boost your immune system has no conflict of interest in a discussion on vaccines. Outstanding work. You are the Hardy Boys of the Internet. Erin Brockovich, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Nader beckon you take your seat at the table.

That said, I respect your skepticism.  We’re just going to need to work through it.

Number one, internet-shaming people into vaccinating, while useful in the short term, may create a bit of a backlash.  There is no convincing people that have been put on the defensive,  I have never, ever seen this work.  Here’s how we can open the door to a positive outcome.

We need to address scientific illiteracy, full stop.  This goes nowhere if we can’t agree on what constitutes evidence or a reliable source.  A domain name alone does not confer any authority on a topic.  Putting commission, committee, foundation, etc, in front of your nonprofit doesn’t either.  As long  as we’re at it, it’s probably worth revisiting some of our blind spots and self-deception.

We need to converge on what constitutes a federally-recommended vaccine schedule. Oh right, we did that. Well, check, then.

We need to acknowledge that the fears of antivaxxers contain a lot of valid elements to them. Unfortunately, they provide cover to some of the more irrational distortions and confabulations, and these should be extracted and addressed.   The same in reverse: one can be tarred as an anti-vaxxer for not opting for the Hepatitis vaccine, but this is quite different from not vaccinating for MMR.  These are two totally different levels of risk exposure and, accordingly, public obligation.

The idea that the government (or big-business, depending on your political orientation) can decide what should be injected into our children should absolutely concern any conscious person and make us pay really, reeeealy close attention.

However, there is a spectrum of risk and trade-offs that vary.  Ebola is a public menace.  A vaccine is literally all that stands between crashing and bleeding out of your pores.  I could easily see how such a vaccine could or should be both desirable and mandatory.

Measles, mumps, and rubella are not at the same level of lethality.  Nonethess, they are quite debilitating and dangerous, and lethal for many. Not a risk a society that can avoid it, should have to take, and certainly worthy of some societal coercion.

Chicken pox, by contrast, are inconvenient, pose a modest danger, and are routinely survivable.  That said, it’s not clear to me why, if we can vaccinate for them, we shouldn’t, but I do understand that plenty of parents would opt not to, especially, as will be likely, if they survived it themselves.  It’s also an uncomfortable fact that there is a point of tension that there will be things we can cure artificially, that we just won’t need to, and a democratic society must make gestures to leave a lot of choice on the table.

An appropriate balance must be struck: I do not accept that my sense of acceptable risk will track with modern helicopter parents who call the cops when a kid is left in the backseat.  Conversely, nor do I elect the bark-eating naturalism of befuddled hippies.  I will indeed want to choose, but I will also want my choice to be constrained by governmental requirements that accord with a sensible assessment of risk.

Or, you know, Greenspan will just decide for us.

On “Militant Atheism”

Today this happened.

Reactions have been predictable. I take particular issue with this one, one of many to make the claim that so-called “militant atheism” is to blame. It’s not.

16629141_sWhile I identify as an atheist, like everyone, I find the idea of ‘militant atheism’ repellent. I enjoy plenty of the cultural inheritances of religion. While I don’t think much of the 10 Commandments on a courthouse, when the War on Christmas comes, I’m for Team Santa. I also find atheists to be fairly portrayed as, well, kind of annoying.

In principle my atheism stems from the fact that I also believe that now, in the 21st century, Sam Harris’s so called “cultural conversation limited by religious conventions” isn’t the best one for us to have. Also, you got me the first time on the Santa thing, then again on the Easter Bunny, so I am done with authority figures and their bullshit stories.

The problem is, in addition to finding the idea of militant atheism repellent, I also find the idea to be incoherent.

Religion makes many claims about the nature of the world, atheism essentially makes only one. To simplify, I often call myself “unpersuaded.” This is to show it isn’t a strong belief, it’s a rejection of another one, and a pretty casual rejection at that.  I just don’t spend any time worrying about it.

Which is to say, if I were to identify myself by all the beliefs I don’t hold, where to begin? Where to end?  At bottom this false comparison seems to be a desperate need by the faithful to compare atheism to religion as if it were making specific claims it is simply not making, and religion is in the habit of making. Atheism isn’t the opposite of religion, any more than vegetarianism is the opposite of meat.

So, briefly: I don’t think atheISM can be militant, though there have been violent regimes that also called themselves atheist, usually alongside another more critical core of ideas. Those ideas are usually the animating ones, not atheism, because It’s hard to reduce what atheism is, an assertion of non-participation in another idea, to a motivating and actionable core.

It would appear that when atheism is forced you end up with the Soviet Union, whereas when a society simply grows out of its religious certainties, you end up with Northern Europe. Again we show a basic truism of compulsed participation that continues to elude the political mind.

Anyone can be violent, and anyone who self-identifies as a member of a philosophy can pick up a gun and become a militant-whatever-that-philosophy-is.   The question is, how much sense does it make? Does the doctrine make this demand? What is the effect if we take the doctrine away? Theoretically you could be a militant nihilist, a radical apathist. But how much sense does that make, in the real world? Content is important.

How sexist are vegetarians?  Who knows.  Its easy to see how we could easily build an imaginary bridge from vegetarianism to sexism, and imagine circumstances under which sexist vegetarians would arise.  But that wouldn’t change the fact that there is nothing in the core of vegetarianism to suggest or necessitate this. It’s also very easy to imagine a militant vegetarianism, but again we’d have to concede that something had been added and made politically active in a way that a commitment to not eat meat does not ordinarily demand. Doctrines have content.

Doctrinally speaking atheism is quite neutral, there is nothing in need of attack or defense. There is only one correlating instruction: “you don’t believe in this story.” There is no latent violence in “I don’t believe in astrology.” By comparison, there is latent violence in “spare the rod and spoil the child.” How do non-astrologers feel about abortion? We just don’t know. Non-astrology makes only one concrete claim.

Now, it’s worth observing that if you lived in an astrologically-believing world, you could be a militant non-astrologer but only as a political identity in contrast to the dominant one, astrology. This seems to have many people confused: “not-that” only has meaning if there is a “that”. I am also non-UFO, but it hasn’t been politically necessary to define that (yet).

AtheISTs can indeed be violent, just like anyone else. But I don’t blame atheism for their violence for the same reason that I don’t blame Christianity for everything bad every Christian ever does.  Christianity is simply not on the hook for all kinds of behaviors that a Christian might undertake, any more than Islam or Buddhism is.

If a Christian does a hit-and-run in his new Dodge Challenger, no one draws the connection to scriptural instruction because the instruction isn’t there. Indeed, doctrinally the Christian would be out of line. If a Christian opposes stem-cell research on the other hand, the objection is explicitly doctrinal (incidentally, Muslims get a pass on this one). If we added one line to the Ten Commandments, “also, money wants to be free to everyone,” the facts of the above paragraph would change.*

If an army of atheist fascists suddenly started going door to door shooting believers on an atheist mission, that would definitely be what militant atheism looked like, as opposed to a lone nut– and we’d also have to concede that they had added something to the meaning of atheism that just wasn’t there before and isn’t there in principle. At that point it might be better to call them something else, lest the actual meaning of the word start to migrate. So I correct myself. Militant atheism is possible to the extent that it’s possible to have a group of atheists who have gone militant. But it still has no coherent meaning other than to pluralize and no unifying principles or concrete claims to make (save one).

Atheism is becoming something of a political identity defined in relief against something else. The fact that I don’t believe ensures I can never ever be president of the US, for example. Suddenly I’m part of a disadvantaged class, and we can even organize. That, however, would be a political/sectarian form of organization, not a religious one.

At bottom, I think these radical atheists are something like the the press likes to talk about “radical feminists”– a ready-made media bogeyman who once you go looking for them, aren’t really there. Just politically active people who want the Nativity Scene moved, or to make the same amount of money for the same job.

So, let’s stop creating parity where there is none. Religions make many specific claims, and these claims have output on the ground. Atheism makes no claims– or one, depending how you take the message– and there are no consequences, except in the imaginations of the faithful.

*Harris and Hitchens have observed the same in various speeches, and it seems both obvious and inevitable to run up against this comparison.

A Slight Turn.

Quick announcement: I’m pretty sure I’ve departed from the traditional left-wing. How does this happen?

I trace this sensation back to when I enrolled my daughter at her public charter school. Charters won’t be the basis of this post, in fact I’ve already published a piece on that back in March on Business Insider. Totally happy with it. No complaints.

I remember quite clearly the sensation of learning not only that we’d enroll her in the school, but of what enrolling her in the school meant, of how that contradicted some principled stance. I felt like I was betraying liberal principles by considering the prospect.

I didn’t dwell on this long. Knowing her mother to be a Jew who attended a Catholic private school meant I knew to expect I’d have to perform a certain number of contortions to gain access to a decent NYC education. So I didn’t dwell, indeed I expected I would have to suffer some unpalatable choices, and like any good parent, would do whatever I had to do.

The disorientation came in finding out how wrong I was. How easily my objections were surmounted. I didn’t want to like it– I remember in particular a spirited discussion in my twenties, at a bar with a college friend– a conservative, who was writing an editorial for the WSJ on charters at the time. I was outraged at the very idea. She was freshly researched and satisfied in her opinion, meanwhile I only had a vague liberal reflex, not based in any kind of background. I wanted public schools to work. I believed in teachers– was the son of teachers! Obviously, this method stood in opposition to that.

All that said, when I got closer, I found myself incredibly impressed. The teachers were dedicated, the students high-performers. I didn’t have to compromise my regard for teachers at all– just subject them to the same professional constraints I live under. The only thing I really needed to leave behind was my reflexive support for the unions.

Later, I found myself listening to the Democracy Now! podcast, as I had done for years. One of the hosts had apparently been doing a series on the same charter network. Now, I was at this point a lifelong listener, having donated to DN! for years. I owned a red DN! T-shirt! I’d had always found their reporting a little lackluster, basically just a platform to enable alternative voices, but I’d tolerated it to gain access to otherwise unavailable stories.

Hearing Juan’s takedown of the success network rubbed me the wrong way. He’d interviewed no teachers, no administrators, no parents. Just people with a specific axe to grind against the school. I had done enough journalism to know, this is not how it was done.

“Well,” I thought, “this is total horseshit.” Most damagingly, I realized that sentiment to be much broader than this piece in particular. It basically called into question a lot of essential truths that I held closely to my breast as a good leftist. The comments responses to his piece and others, and indeed, to my own, cemented this opinion. There were a lot of people out there who had not the first clue– a lot of the old me.
It was the second of a one-two punch. It’s hard to describe how it feels to have your own side’s dog loosed against you. And here’s the thing: once that dog bites, once you’re on the other side in that way, you can go back, but you’ll never be an insider again. The trust isn’t there anymore. It’s not your team anymore, and you know what? It was never your dog.

So, something happened. I was done. I quite simply ceased to think of myself as someone “of the left.” I detached. I’M HAVING MY OWN GOOD TIMES.

So, suddenly was free to look at things with new eyes.

Likewise, the Ben Affleck/Sam Harris/Bill Maher thing, which I’ll write about later. Suddenly we were somehow unable to discern violent ideologies, or as Harris puts it, “if this were done by Mormons, the left would effortlessly perceive the depth of the problem.”

Or hippies who can’t figure out how immunizations work. Seriously, I just don’t have the time.

(Yes, I recognize I’ve just done a somewhat overwrought job of describing the process of growing older. But I was led to believe that was gradual, not instantaneous.)

What happened next has been a period of reflection.

Now, I’m not going to make more of this than it is. But the benefit of assumption, of taking your side’s reflexive position, those days are absolutely gone. NO more playing for the team, I’m an independent contractor now.

Here’s what I’m not saying. I have not gone to the other side. While the politics of the far left exhausting, the right-wing is an abyss, not even worth remarking on. I’m just saying I’m going to be a lot more careful with ‘my guys’ from here on out. And the incidences of this happening– of my sympathies being on the other side, are increasing at an alarming rate. I don’t know whether to be amused or concerned.

Some revelations, on a second, harder look:

  • As it turns out, I often find Glenn Greenwald irritating.
  • I typically find Noam Chomsky to be morally confused.
  • I’m at least as suspicious of organized labor as I am of the owner class.
  • I think cops have a hard job.
  • I often find Douglas Murray to be a sympathetic figure.
  • I tend to want to know who is paying for things before I agree.

What the hell is going on? Am I going full-on Dennis Miller?

Is this just the turning of the earth under my feet? All of the positions I took as a young man are now centrist by comparison, common sense. Racism is a well-recognized social ill. Gay marriage is past the tipping point and now an inevitability, a question of velocity. We’ve almost pushed through the idea of white privilege. Opinions I thought of as ‘liberal’ are, frankly, ascendant in my day-to-day, completely uncontested in any serious way.

I marched against the Iraq War. I disagreed with the invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Bin Laden. I am a graduate of the Che Lumumba Revolutionary School, for the love of God.

Have I just closed the gap in my distance to power? Gone native?

I don’t think so. I think I’m just tired of the bullshit.

Peru, Part 3. The Sacred Valley of the Inca.

The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.
The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.
The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.

(Note: This story is part 3 of 3.  See part 1 and part 2 for what got us here. -Ed.)

Rain.  We knew we were coming in the rainy season, and the last night delivered.  Not torrential rain, not mudslide rain, but certainly worthy of the tarps, and rain jackets and gear that we were advised about.  It was full on.

A mountain pass.
A mountain pass.

But, I get ahead of myself.  The last leg was one of the longest, or at least it felt that way.  We continued to ascend, and descend, and ascend again.  The rain was telegraphed by an encroaching fog, which mercifully dampened some of the views that might have otherwise activated a stark sense of agoraphobia.  As it stood, however, one could hear the trucks on the road far, far, faaar away at certain points, spooky echoes and ricochets of activity somewhere below.  The course thickened a bit, so that it could be said to be if not a jungle, a tropical forest, at least. Bright mountain flowers, vines peek through the stones.  The trail is no longer facing open vistas, but becomes enclosed within the branches.

The idea of Hiram Bingham discovering this trail, under layers of dirt, seems nearly unbelievable.  We see fewer other groups, as we’ve had time to space out a bit, and there are long periods of solitude.  By this point our group has all gotten to know each other a bit, and the trail might be spent talking with one or another before switching off to the next walking partner.  There is no denying it now.  We are deep within the fastness of the mountains.  There will be no more lost baggage, no more rescues.

Flowers growing from rocks.
Mountain flowers growing from the rocks.

As if in answer, a group of men armed with AK-47’s emerge from the jungle.  There is a moment of apprehension, but their tactical gear and black uniforms give them away, they are the local guards, something like state troopers or forest rangers. There are three of them, loaded for bear.

I’m reminded that not so long ago, Peru was the home of the armed terrorist group Sendero Luminoso, the “Shining Path” guerrillas who warred with the state for a generation, killing thousands in a low-grade civil war intended to bring about, of course, the ‘pure’ communist state.  In 1992 their leader Abimael Guzman was captured, slowing their agenda considerably.  It was more than ten years since they were at their strength, but I’m reassured to see these three guards here,  if only to deal with the odd bandit. Out here, we’re pretty far from any law.  They hike politely around us, the metal of their assault rifles a stark addition to the usual kit.  In a moment they are gone, disappearing into the forest.

Reaching what seems to be the day’s apex, I’m satisfied we’ve come to the most remote part of the earth when we make the last bend, and see several white guys standing in the path, drinking beers in the shade of a small house.  There’s some kind of station up here.

“Hi,” they say, waving us to come in.  They sound Australian.

I swear to God, you could literally find the end of the planet and some Australians will have beat you there, along with the odd Kiwi and an adventuresome German or two.  So while I’m a little surprised, I’m hardly shocked to find them up here.  There’s a few groups up here already actually, and what appears to be a small store that sells water and candy.

Inside the store there are dozens of other people, including a guy I recognize from New York.  We’d trained martial arts for a couple of months together before he left the school.  There is something obvious about running into someone you know from NYC up here, it’s more likely than running into them in certain parts of the Bronx, that’s for sure.  We share a couple of laughs.  As my friend Tim once said, it’s a small upper-middle class world.

Apres-Ruins Beers.
The gang enjoy some apres-ruins beers at the apex of the second day.

It starts to really pour.  Dinner is in the tent, and afterwards we find some more squat toilets– the local variety, and eventually bed up for the night, as the rain starts to come down.  We enter the tents at a belly flop, then rolling over to take off wet shoes without tracking them into the tents.  Everyone knows we’ve come in the rainy season, we did this deliberately of course, to find the trail less crowded, but the forecast isn’t good for the next day, and there is an unspoken unease that the high point of the trip may be rained out.  One of the most dramatic points of the trip is supposed to be the so-called “Sun Gate,” the dramatic vista that presents the whole of the Macchu Picchu complex from above.  At this rate, the sun gate won’t be much to see, as everyone is coming to understand.

In the morning after breakfast we start the final leg of the trip.  Predictably, we arrive at the Sun Gate, and it is encased in fog.  Nothing is visible at all, not fifty feet in front of us.  I’m surprised our guides can identify it.  Juan steps in front of it, and spread his arms open in welcome.

"Welcome to the sacred valley of the Inca."
“Welcome to the sacred valley of the Inca.”

“My friends,” he says,  slightly embarrassed, gesturing into the fog, “Welcome to the esacred valley of the Inca.” There is some game applause.

As we arrive at the site, there is a gate to enter, and a tourist office.  Buses are starting to come up bringing the tourists from below, those who elected not to walk the trail but drive up from Aguas Calientes, the settlement below.  We are early, and get some time to ourselves with the other hiking groups before the real groups start to arrive.  Picture time!

Naturally, it is amazing.  Over the morning the fog quickly burns off, and my agoraphobia is given the breathing room it so desperately desired.  My shoulders tighten.  Apparently, there are no such things as railings anywhere in Peru, just stairways to the open air and inexplicable drops.

Iris, another one of the local guides, finds my fear of the heights hysterical.  By way of encouragement, she does the most amazing thing, and turns herself into a human bannister, stading between me and the open drops by resting her toes on the stairs and leaving her heels out over the precipice.  It is a dazzling display of bravado, and, I appreciate, mockery.  I insist that her gymnastics aren’t necessary.  In short order I’ve explored most of the highest precipices anyway, and continue on to take the rest of site in at ground level.

Macchu Piccu vista.
Macchu Piccu vista.

We spend a few hours at the site, and after all the last pictures are taken, we head down.  A harrowing bus ride later– my cousin Joe told me before I arrived that the buses only ever seemed to “keep three wheels on the ground,” which is true, especially when passing each other– we rejoin for oven-baked pizza in Aguas Calientes, the group’s last meal together.

Stories are told, numbers are exchanged and by the end of the lunch, everyone is pointed off to their next destinations.  To my surprise, while hugging one of the Polish girls goodbye, she spontaneously bursts into sobs.  It occurs to me, that this twelve year old, fourteen-year old girl– this has been a formative event in my life for sure, how intense must this have been for this young kid?  Not knowing exactly what to tell her, I whisper to her by way of encouragement, “we’ll always have this trip together though, won’t we?”  She nods, tears running down her face.  Her father and Woycek and I embrace warmly.  Time to go.  The Irish girls pose for photos.  Laughing, hugs.  The bonds of a short adventure, like the end of summer camp.  These have been good friends.

A bridge over the Urubamba in Aguas Calientes.
A bridge over the Urubamba in Aguas Calientes.

I learn: sometimes you have no idea what kind of effect you are having on someone’s life, so be kind with people.  I wonder what kind of time I would have had as a twelve year old, and I know the answer of course.

I would have remembered everyone.  It would have been, simply, the most amazing time of my life.

I let it be.

Peru, Part 2. Inca Trail!

Entrance to Inca Trail
A man wrestles with his donkeys at the trail entrance.

(Note: This story is part 2 of 3.  See part 1 for what got us here, and don’t forget to read part 3 after this! -Ed.)

Day 1

With my trusty walking stick, Pepe.
The author brandishes his trusty walking stick, Pepe.

This has surpassed my expectations.  I approached this with trepidation, afraid of the heights, the physical challenge.  But it is not so bad as I thought.  So far, very few sheer precipices.  Actually, a fair amount of relatively flat terrain.  The scenery is superlative, easily the most amazing I’ve seen, anywhere.  Broad green mountain with fissures like walnuts crest out into the clouds, mist rising from them like volcanoes.  The mountain before me here is an example.  I’m writing by the last evening light, overlooking a neighboring campsite.  It’s cold, I’m in my white Peruvian hat.  It’s difficult to write.

A moment ago one of the Polish girls in our group could be heard singing “Memories” from her tent, beautifully.  Now, just the sounds of scattered conversations, post tea, pre-dinner.  Darkness is falling, and it’s getting harder to see well enough to write.

The first day’s trek was pretty easy.  I’m feeling no effects of the altitude, having had a few days in Cusco to prepare.  A lot of the people on the trip are sucking wind.  A pair of Irish girls, fresh off the plane earlier that day, looked to be really struggling.  Also in our tour: two Polish families from Chicago, with young pre-teen daughters, clearly very excited to be a part of it all.  A group of friends, men and women, of indistinct relation, a single woman from Sweden, a pair of sisters.  Everyone seems well-prepared, and well-traveled.  We play the role of the couple from New York.

Campsite, day 1.
The view from our campsite, day 1.

We did a group shot at the trailhead, and then waited for a man to get his donkeys to cross a creek, before we could gain entry.  You enter an international sanctuary when you enter the trail, and there is actually passport control at the entrance.  Naturally, we all get our passports stamped.

Also, I have to say that these Asolo boots are performing incredibly well.

Things I don’t want to forget: Jose’s lecture at the second waypoint, describing the history of the Inca.  The “Incan Alexander the Great” – Pachacutec.

A few other notes I made but can’t make out:

* 9 Incas

* 1500’s, height of the Empire

* Piglets

* My walking stick, which I named “Pepe”

* Climbing the stairs

* The Sound of Music

Day 1 concludes with me racing one of the men from the group to the campsite.  It is a race up the huge stone slabs that make up the stairs that undergird so much of the trail.  Rarely is the trail flat, indeed the “Inca Staircase” might be more appropriate so far.  So our race is a series of 2- and 3-foot leaps upward from stair to stair.  We tie.

Juan, our guide, later tells us the story of a guy he raced on a brief portion of the trail.

“I won, of course, said Juan.  But I shouldn’t have done it.  Still, he looked in such good shape, I thought he could handle it.  A real athletic guy.”

“What happened,” we asked.

“After the race, he started to turn purple,” said Juan.  We had to get him taken off of the mountain.  He almost died.” He pointed to his head.   “Cerebral edema.”  Brain swelling.

An evening view from the first campsite.
An evening view from the first campsite.

So, important safety tip.  No more races.

The campsite is a dramatic mountain valley, wide bright grass fields settled between twin mountain peaks surrounding us.  I could not make a more serene setting if we were in a movie.  The scene is completed by a creek that pools at the edge of a foggy cliff.

As if that weren’t enough, two wild Llamas, obviously on the payroll of the Peruvian Board of Tourism graze pacifically in the distant field, dramatic peaks rising behind them.

We all sleep well.


Day 2.

Its was very foggy outside, and it rained– hard– throughout the night and morning.

llama waking us in the morning
An early morning Llama surprise.

I awoke to find the two llamas, maybe Alpacas, quietly eating from a bush just steps away from where we had pitched our tent.  They were dirty, with mottled brown and white fur and sneering expressions on their lips.  Crawling quietly past, I wandered the campsite, ate crackers, brushed my teeth, and waited for others to have breakfast.  The mornings are as cold as the evenings, almost.

I should mention.  Last night night we had a bit of a minor crisis at the site.

First, a bit of background: historically, there have been a number of different ways to tackle the trail, by oneself or with a group and guide.  At the time of our trip, the law was such that solo trips were no longer permitted.  This was a government response that followed a series of tourist robberies and issues with overcrowding in campsites.

To promote safety and effective traffic and trail management, all groups now would require  guides, and it was encouraged that visitors hire bearers/porters– called porteros— to carry their equipment.  Our group was followed by several porteros, eight to 11 skinny men from the local Indian groups.  None spoke English, and just a few even spoke Spanish.  None were formally schooled in any way and there was a clear, unsubtle hierarchical difference between the porteros and the guides.  So while the macho in me wanted to carry all of my own stuff, the discretionary part of valor also realized that I could carry more equipment this way, and could frankly afford to contribute to the local economy a little more freely.  Furthermore, as part of a group, there were group supplies that needed to be carried, dining tents, cooking stoves, etc.

So the porteros were a regular addition to our group.  It was a common site to see them run– I said run, by the way– past you at any point of the trail, skittering ahead, hopping up the enormous stone stairs in flip-flops, all the while with a box of supplies wrap-tied in blue tarpaulin the size of a 50’s black-and-white TV set and borne on the back.  I was reminded of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who regularly used to wander into extreme endurance events, casually run a 50-miler in jelly shoes and laugh on home with their friends.  I believe this now, I have seen it.

Los porteros
The porteros, in a rare minute of repose.

So, as everyone’s things were unpacked for the evening, it became clear that everyone had received their sleeping bags but J and I.  The guides and porteros talked frantically among themselves.  What became clear, according to one of the porteros, was that their companion, presumably the one carrying our sleeping bags, had suffered an epileptic seizure somewhere below.  He hadn’t even known he’d had epilepsy.  The two porteros with him, quite superstitious, thought he was possessed and had to carry him all the way back to the trailhead.

Realizing this, Jose dispatched a lone runner to go fetch the equipment.  We watched as they strapped a headlamp on him, patted him on the ass and sent him, flip-flops flapping in all directions, into the dark.  We watched the little beam bob and weave along the side of the mountain until finally taken into the black.  Remembering that day’s climb, we all realized this man was careening past cliffs and drops that were pretty hairy by the full light of day.  Despite Jose’s practiced group management, there was no one on that mountainside that didn’t appreciate that the situation was serious.

So we waited.

As I paced the campsite, I noticed an interesting thing that happened that night: stars.   Stars like nothing I’d ever seen, a new night sky unpolluted by any nearby city lights.  Primordial darkness.

One of the fathers, a Pole by the name of Woycek, fancied himself something of a scientist, and had a high-powered laser pointer (“illegal in the US, I had to get it on the internet”), a thick bright green beam that punched a hole into space, easily pointing out stars, landing on them really, one by one.

Woycek checked his watch a few times, he had something planned for us.  The porteros trickled in, fascinated by the wagging laser, here for the light show.  “Almost there, says Woycek.”  And then, from behind a mountain crest, passing us at speed, a bright, multi-lit object, spinning in place, framed by the two massive black peaks.

“And that,” pointed Woycek, with his incandescent beam, “is the international space station.”

Up until now, I’d been translating Woycek’s remarks for the benefit of our porteros, and I find myself speechless.  Everyone is looking at the sky, watching the space station fly by, and it occurs to me that while I can translate– literally– the words for space station, it isn’t clear that they have the framework to understand what a space station is.  Either that, or they have the world’s greatest poker faces.  They look as if I could tell them anything, and they would nod agreeably.  In the end, I settle for “space boat”, which does the job, but misses a layer of subtlety, somehow.  They get it, and are happy for the chance to stand and watch the thing fly by in the pure clarity of an unpolluted, unobstructed sky, with a backdrop of what feels like every star in God’s creation.  All of us stand in silence, and in seconds it is over.  I feel the etching of a moment in my personal history.  I will never forget this as long as I live.

I also enjoy a laugh to myself picturing the astronauts’ befuddlement seeing a bright green dot on the interior walls of the spacecraft.  Any cats on the ISS are going batshit right now.

Not long after, we heard some commotion back by the tent.  As we approached, we could see, just off in the middle-distance,  a lone light bobbing in our direction along the mountainside.  Our runner had done four hours worth of trek in what must have been 50 minutes.

He entered the campsite looking disoriented and a little bedazzled, and was showered with applause.


So breakfast was porridge, pancakes (with caramel) and yogurt, granola and fruit salad. Then, we hit the trail.

Dead Woman's Pass
Looking back down from Dead Woman’s Pass.

This was the dreaded ‘Dead Woman’s Pass.’ A lot of uphill, large slab steps the whole way.  It was a long ascent, and this was when we first started to see our first fellow travelers from other groups, Germans, Australians, an American couple from Seattle (who took all the pictures of us at the summit).

At the pass, everyone rested.  Birds alighted here, eagles and hawks walked around on two legs.  I fed a small hawk from my snack.

The rear of the pass, of course, was a descent.  We climbed down into a mystical cloud staircase.  The rain began to pick up here, and it was cool, so we all donned raingear and later full ponchos.  The group took this part very, very slowly, as the rocks became increasingly slick. The changes in pace further separated our group, until we were scattered all along the mountain.  When we finally arrived at camp at the bottom, we broke for lunch– alpaca (not those)– and tea.  Everyone was cold and looked a little zonked.

Wiñay Wayna Ruins
Wiñay Wayna Ruins are the last site outside of Macchu Picchu itself. The name is Quechua for “Forever Young.”

We stopped at an archaeological site along the way where Juan, our guide, explained the basic precepts of the Incan religion.  After lunch, it was back to the trail, this time up, up, up  again.

Read the next part in the story: go to Part 3.

Peru. Part 1

Two women in downtown Cusco.
Two women in downtown Cusco.

(Note: This story is part 1 of 3.  See part 2 and part 3 after this. -Ed.)

November 19 2005, Saturday

We arrive.  The airport in Cusco is quasi-tropical.  Booths have been crammed in like a wondrous jungle trade show, icons like parrots, llamas, all in the ubiquitous native patterns.  We are met as we leave the airport by Monica, out contact supplied by the travel agent.  She is, like so many of the women, of indeterminate age, with crooked teeth, in a suit-top and pants.  Her jet-black hair is kept in a braid, local style, and she explains to us the rundown of our week here.

Homes and storefronts in downtown Cusco.
Homes and storefronts in downtown Cusco.

Cusco is a tourist mecca, no doubt the largest in Peru.  The center of the city is designated by two ancient churches, one the city Cathedral and the other, I believe, is the Jesuit’s church.  The rectangular square is demarcated by cafes, artisans’ shops and restaurants, all top-end.  Many have second-story balconies that offer a view of the plaza below, the bright flowers, the children in the square trying to extract money from the tourists.

The first thing to mention is the altitude sickness.  The case for this may have been overstated.  I’m feeling OK, although I could tell the moment we stepped from the plane that the lack of oxygen was kicking in, first it makes you feel slightly buzzed, slap-happy.  After a while, a mild headache sets in, the tea, served everywhere and called Mate, is critical here.  Basic tasks, like climbing a set of stairs, take on a new dimension. Imagine the rhythm of your breathing being off, needing to exhale suddenly , needing to breathe in when you thought you would have to push out.   I found myself panting, even drooling slightly from the corners of my mouth.  So we chose to nap in our hotel, which was more necessary than we had anticipated.  Then, by about 2pm, we hit the town for a late lunch.

Women and children (and a sheep), Cusco.
Women and children (and a sheep), Cusco.

So, skipping ahead, we spent the next few days exploring.  We did a river raft “adventure”, which due to rain ended up being us and a guide, and a fairly mild river.    We explored ruins on horseback.  Sacsayhuaman, the “Temple of the Moon”.  We explored the city on foot.  And most of all, we prepared, acclimatizing ourselves for the trek ahead.  We dodged the children, who were amazingly persistent, breathlessly alive.  We take photographs.  They can separate your from your money near-instantaneously.  “You are a bad man,” One of the girls says to me after I don’t give her all the money she wants.  J gets a photograph of the moment, of the girl’s expression (and, expertly, later delivers this to me on the side of a photo-customized coffee mug some months later).

It’s all pretty amazing.

On the return trip from the horseback ride, I catch a view of something that sticks with me.  My horse is being led by a local boy, our guide’s assistant. Our guide has abandoned us a few minutes into the tour, when its clear we’ve already paid and are unlikely to give him any hassle.

Sacsayhuaman ruins, at distance.
Sacsayhuaman ruins, at distance.

We are at a breakpoint, having seen two of five points of interest he has sold to us on the tour.  He introduces his helper, the young boy, thanks us, and leaves.  He has to walk across a wide field to return to the tourist pick up, and watching him leave takes a very long time.  Somewhere around the moment where he is midfield, I helpfully add “he’s not coming back” to the otherwise perfect silence.  The moment is not meaningfully improved.  Despite this awkward moment, there is no getting around it.  The scenery is incredible.  We are, quite literally, in a city in the clouds.

So we just ride the horses from site to site, as led by his younger helper.  I see two young boys sitting on a rock in front of an abandoned shack.  No parents, no windows, no nothing.  He is crouching and just sobbing, screaming really, with the full force of human misery.  Alongside him is his brother, who lays there noncommittally, possibly starving, possibly hurt, possibly just enduring a moment of existential unpleasantness.  It’s not clear.  Whatever emergency they are in the process of enduring is clearly happening in very, very slow motion.  He is screaming at the top of his lungs.  It’s not pain.  He is just very, very unhappy.

It’s as if the older brother has suddenly had a piercingly clear view of his options, and realized he has been consigned to the half of humanity that will, in the words of Johan Galtung, be told to “have a cigarette, maybe a coca-cola, and wait to die.”  He is not hurt, he is dying.  And he knows, and he is screaming.  The brother does nothing, it’s as if he cannot move.  I picture us from his perspective, not even trotting, just horse-walking, behind our own film of dust and debris, a few feet away, disorientented.  There is something indecent about this revelation, a self-satisfaction, a realization of my own safety and a confidence and appreciation of my choices.

An alternate interpretation is that I’m projecting.  I’ve seen a lot already that has me spinning.

It’s not clear how to respond, or what type of intervention is appropriate, or even if one is appropriate. Indeed to the contrary it feels like that would be exactly the wrong thing to do.  The brothers barely notice us.  No, they don’t notice us at all.  I am caught in a strange loop of inaction, caught between the imperative for encounter and the uneasiness that comes from breaking a self-imposed prime directive, Star Trek-style, to observe, but not to interfere unless there is some emergency.  I do nothing.  They do nothing.  We ride away.

Later we took a taxi back to the hotel and went out to dinner.

Next: Part 2, Inca Trail

SKYRIM! 10 Rules for survival.

You are in the back of a horsedrawn cart, being pulled along a wooded road, but to where?  There are two other men– prisoners, like  you– bound at the wrist and seated in the car with you and an armored, helmeted guard.  Why?  Where are you going?  To die for the crime of opposing the empire. Wait, what empire?

The executioner draws his axe… And?  What’s that in the sky?


First there’s the breadth of the thing.  An unmistakable sense of place, a lush forest, individual sounds, a rolling horizon that draws nearer and further, pickable, ‘edible’ plants, fully open and free.  By the time you’ve escaped the execution, having fled the garrison to follow the road up to the mountain vista and hear the rousing strings play as the camera surrounds you, you approach at the summit to

(take it all in)

You’re hooked.  This isn’t a game.  It’s a world.

And it’s big.  If you’re like me, overcome with your newfound freedom, you just tear off and run!  You’ll pass through pine forests, birch, swamps, mountains, gorges, barrows, treefalls, snow, sun, moon (an extra planet) all the seasons (newly named), the days of the week.  You lose track of time.  (Freidas already)?  Everything somehow leads to a dramatic waterfall.

It’s also interactive.  The plants can be picked.  Animals can be hunted, meat extracted.  With some of the aforementioned plants, food can be cooked, eaten, even sold.   Alternately, the plans can be mixed to create poisons, healing potions, or other items.

Differing types of ore can be mined, and with a smelter found in any large city, converted to metal ingots you can use to hammer into armor and weapons.  These can also be sold, or worn.  And the act of creating them increases your blacksmith skill, of course.

Weapons, armor, clothing, and jewelry can be enchanted to make flaming swords, electric hammers, rings that help you draw a bow, and boots that help you carry more.  The combinations that can be achieved here are amazing, and the reason why you can spend hours just outfitting yourself to your satisfaction.

The depth and breadth of this game beats anything else I’ve ever played.  Thematically, my favorite remains the Fallout series, but this has so much of Fallout’s DNA, and has improved on so much of it, that I don’t feel bad making the comparison.

So this is my warning: you will lose days of your life in here.  Hopefully this list can make some of that time better spent.

1.  Find a companion as soon as you can.  Companions are a great advantage in combat, mainly because they provide something else for your enemies to shoot at.  Sometimes they are going to get stuck, or killed, or lost, so plan on this, and switch companions regularly.  You should also outfit them with homemade armor and weaponry that you smith yourself– this gives you the opportunity to improve your blacksmith and enchanting skills.

2. There is a bug in the game that allows companions to carry items with no weight limit so long as they pick them up off the ground. You have to ask them to do something, and then point to the item you want them to pick up and carry.  There is no upward limit using this method, but any other way will hit the weight limit.

3. Collect flowers, roots, mushrooms, etc.  Eat everything you find, early in the game; there’s plenty of it to be found later.  Eating the items gives you insights to their alchemical effects so there’s less guesswork involved in alchemy.

4.  Get into blacksmithing as soon as you can, and build everything available.  This will increase your skill.  I didn’t get into this until much later, and the benefits of good material (with good enchantments) are immense.  Improve weapons and armor at sharpening wheels and workman’s tables, respectively.  When you find the Skyforge, do as much work as you can there.

5.  Archery and poisons should form the basis of your combat strategy.  Remember: stay hidden!  Bonuses from sneak attacks can be immense.  Also, there are poisons that create vulnerabilities, which can be played off your companion’s strengths.  If your companion shoots electricity, and you have the “weakness to shock” poison, shooting your enemy with a poisoned arrow early in combat is a good strategy.

6.  By default, you can conjure 1 ally at a time.  Conjuring is one of the most effective tactical moves you can make,  because while the ally may cause limited damage, they lure enemies away.  Likewise, you will often be in the dark or poor visibility.  Conjured allies provide an excellent poor man’s radar, as they will charge any nearby enemies, often times illuminating them with fire.  Any magic items you find based around conjuring, save.

7. Hoard soul gems and watch the charge on your items.  Remember magical weapons run dry and must be recharged.  Load the gems with souls for better charge and sale price.

8. Read any book worth more than 50, as that’s a good way to tell if it contains any skill bonuses.  Then, sell it.  Spend the money to train with anyone that can teach you anything, especially smithing and magic.

9. You don’t have to explore everyplace the second you discover it, but a filled map means you can fast-travel more effectively.  So roam as long and far as you can, in order to rack-up fast-travel places.

10.  Dragons are wounded and slowed at a distance, but they are killed most effectively with heavy weapons up close.  Have your companion carry the scales, and make your way to the nearest store to sell them.

That ought to do it!  What are your best tips?