Lemonade Stand

(Or, How to Turn $37 Into Lemonade, And Then Into $50.)

Suppose you wanted to open a lemonade stand. Some internet searching reveals that the lemons, sugar, and water required to make lemonade add up to an overhead cost of about 37 cents per serving, in today's September 2020 dollars and price level. (Let's assume for simplicity's sake that you borrowed the table, the pitcher, the cups, etc.)

So, the cost to you is $0.37 per serving. You decide to sell your lemonade at a profit, so you choose a somewhat arbitrary price of $0.50, which earns you $0.13 per serving sold. 

Let us finally, and optimistically assume that you sell all the lemonade you make, and that you can make as much lemonade as you need to meet demand. You're clever enough to choose a good, legal location on a hot, sunny day, and so sell 100 servings per day whenever you decide to sell lemonade. You make a consistent profit of $13 per day. Not bad scratch for a little tike such as yourself.

Let's recap: Each day, you spend $37 at the grocery store for lemonade supplies, and you gain $50 from your customers. The difference between your cost and your revenue is $13, i.e. your profit.

Question: Where did this profit come from?

Yesterday, your customers were walking down the street with $50 in their collective pockets, and today, they are walking down the street with lemonade. You turned their $50 into lemonade; they turned your lemonade into $50.

Isn't it odd that you turned $37 into lemonade, but your customers turned $50 into lemonade? What happened? Did they over-pay?

No. While it's true that your customers could very well have gone to the grocery store and bought their own lemons and sugar, there are a few problems with doing so. First of all, it's inconvenient for them if they want lemonade now, relative to just buying a glass from you. Second, they'll likely end up with a surplus of lemons, sugar, lemonade, or all three; that is, they probably only want a glass of lemonade, not an entire lemonade stand. Third, when you went to the grocery store, you weren't thirsty; they were.

The revenue you make at your lemonade stand represents not only the cost of lemonade inputs, but also your customers' underlying sense of value, which is determined by convenience and thirst. 

When you turned $37 into lemonade, you weren't thirsty and you weren't inconvenienced. You ended up with a surplus of lemonade on purpose, so you could sell it. You also invested your surplus convenience and your surplus satiety into your lemonade stand.

At the end of the day, you turned $37 into lemonade, but then you turned convenience and thirst into $13 cash.

This process of turning other people's thirst into money is about as close to magic as the world gets, and it's one reason I've always been fascinated by economics.


An Idea For Improving Politics

Almost everyone agrees that the political situation in America today is dire. Very dire. Political polarization is at an all-time high, and neither of the major political parties seems equipped to reduce that polarization. The Republican Party has more or less traded in its old platform ideas for the sake of advancing a cult of personality, and not even a particularly attractive personality. (Seriously, have you ever heard anyone since before 2015 say that they want to be like Donald Trump or that they emulate him as a person?) Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is being held captive by an increasingly shrill and literally destructive mob of critical race theorists whose ultimate objective is to destroy, not racism, but capitalism. Both sides are becoming increasingly violent, where here "violent" means, "literally engaged in causing physical harm to members of the opposing political team."

It's scary out there, and there is very little hope for improvement. Granted, a vote for Joe Biden at least appears to be a vote for establishing the old status quo - not that that was a particularly attractive thing, but merely that it seems better than four years of a worsening political environment under Trump. That, of course, assumes that four years of the Biden-flavored status quo would improve the political environment at all. I'm hopeful that it will, but there's no guarantee, and a wide array of hypothetical scenarios in which things could get worse. 

If only someone had a good idea for improving America's political environment. Lucky you, faithful readers! I have given this issue a few moments of idle thought, and have unsurprisingly solved the whole puzzle over the course of a can of La Croix.

It came to me as I was reading a friend's Facebook status. He remarked that the federal US legislature had passed a particularly low number of bills this year: 158, compared to the usual 500 or so. His point was that the obstructionists in the legislature were preventing all the other well-intentioned legislators from doing their job, which is of course to create new laws and pass them.

The astute, libertarian reader will immediately note that my friend's assumption is that many of the problems we currently face as a country stem from there being too few laws. If the legislature could only pass more of them, more of our country's problems would be solved!

Not to give away the ending of this post too quickly here, but the astute, libertarian reader will have already guessed how this thing ends, anyway.

I thought to myself, ("Self," I thought), What if one of the underlying problems here is that we see the government's job as being "to create new laws and regulations, and to enforce those that already exist?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician will be the one that passes more new laws, and/or enforces the existing ones more stringently. Assuming all politicians have only the best of intentions (ha, ha), the most successful politician in a world like that will be the one that succeeds at creating and enforcing laws; over time, politicians will become more successful at doing so; ever-more laws will have to be created, and ever-more-stringent enforcement mechanisms will have to be devised to ensure the "success" of the political system, subject to its assumed purpose.

What if we instead defined the government's job to be something like, "to serve as the final arbiter of conflict?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician would be the one that most effectively arbitrates conflict. The goal of legislating would not be to simply create and enforce new laws, but to create laws that reduce conflict and eliminate conflicting laws. The goal of the executive would not be to merely enforce the law, but to reduce conflict with the law. The goal of the judiciary would be to literally arbitrate between two conflicted parties. The more conflict is reduced in such a system, the more "successful" politicians are deemed. 

That all sounds a bit idealistic, but I'm not really articulating a view about the mechanics of government. Rather, I'm articulating a view about how ordinary people can think about government, such that our political environment improves. 

Change the way we think about government, in other words, and we might just change our political system.

There is no room for cynics in this idea, though. Cynicism is a cancer that destroys everything it touches, and it's probably responsible for most of the terrible things you see out there, at least as far as politics goes. 

So, if you want to be hopeful, maybe it's time to try my idea on for size. How might your attitudes and opinions change if you thought of government as a conflict-resolution mechanism, rather than a law-enforcement mechanism?


Get In Shape / Help Me Get Points

Tony Horton is creating a new workout program along the lines of his previous programs, the world-famous P90X series (X1, X2, and X3). I've been doing the various X programs for years now, and I find them the perfect compliment to running. Running rapidly depletes upper-body mass, which can result in weak back and core muscles. That, in turn, can create the kinds of muscle imbalances that lead to running-related injury. I started doing Tony Horton's workouts after suffering a pretty big back injury, and simply stated, they nursed me back to health. I haven't been significantly injured since.

So, needless to say, I'm a huge fan of Tony Horton's workout philosophy, and his programs, and I'm a passionate believer in his training approach. Am I interested in the new program he's developing? You bet I am!

Somehow I ended up with a referral link that gives me "points" if people click on it and sign up. If you're looking for a new workout program, why not be part of Tony Horton's beta testing group for his new program? If you're interested, and don't mind giving me a few "points," whatever they're worth, click here right now and sign up for the email list.



The Ultimate Frank Zappa Playlist, Episode 1

Youth is often defined by simplicity. As children, most of us have very few responsibilities compared to the lives we lead as adults. Our parents provide us with food, shelter, and clothing, and make all the important decisions for us; so, ultimately, our lives as children are really quite simple. We spend that time playing, socializing, dreaming, and forming the core perspective that will direct our thoughts and actions for the remainder of our existence. For this reason, children often think in simple and direct terms. Childish ideologies are known to be black-and-white; childish perspectives are contained in one-line platitudes; childish identities are encapsulated in categorical summaries like, "He's a jock," "She's a nerd," "He's one of those artistic types," "She's a free spirit," and so on. 

But real people, in real life, are nothing like this. Reality is complex, containing multitudes. No one is exclusively a "jock" or a "free spirit;" the truth is that most people contain elements of both, and of so much more. While most of us like to think we adhere to some kind of central ideology, the truth is that most of us fall short of our ideals and rationalize those shortcomings ex post facto. There is a little bit of the hero in each human being, and a little bit of the devil, and the way those two pieces swirl and interact makes all of us adults who we are. We decidedly cannot be encapsulated in categorical summaries, none of us can, nor can our inner thoughts be accurately expressed in platitudes and slogans. 

A popular artist, however, exists as a sort of exception. Artists, the people themselves, are of course just as complex and multifaceted as the rest of us. But popular artists are also in the business of selling their art, and one of the best ways of marketing that art is to present it as being more than merely a nice song or a pretty picture. A truly great artist has a way of creating a whole artistic world unto itself, and consuming their art as a member of the audience is often a matter of personally stepping into that world, imagining oneself there inside it. 

After all, what great art lover has never imagined what it would be like to walk along M.C. Escher's twisted staircases, touch the liquified drops of Dali's melting clocks, or walk along the distant paths visible in the background of one of Caravaggio's masterpieces? What serious music fan has never gazed out at the passing countryside during a long drive and heard the sound of a moody favorite song? Or, overcome with grief or sadness, who has never put on a long, sad, dreary album that sets to sound the powerful agony of our inner turmoil? Or likewise played the most exciting, invigorating music during times of pure elation?

Artists who specialize, and who gain fame for their work, must to some extent present themselves as the architects of these imaginary worlds so that they might invite us in for a visit. Ozzy Osborne thus becomes the "Prince of Darkness," Michael Jackson the "King of Pop," James Brown the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," Prince Rogers Nelson an unpronounceable and highly sexualized symbol, and so on. These titles function as more than mere nicknames, they're marketing taglines designed to help guide the consumer -- er, the listener -- through the process of stepping into that artistic world. It helps set the stage for what's to come. That is, it provides the frame.

"The most important thing in art is The Frame," Frank Zappa wrote in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. "For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively -- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?"

When a public artist steps out into the world as an artist, that is, as a representative of the art he or she hopes to sell, that artist exists as a living Frame in the Zappanese sense of the word. An artist selling art is a person engaged in the act of defining for the audience where the real world ends and the art begins, so that the audience can step inside and see how they like it. 

And for most artists, this is a relatively easy part of the job. The struggle of a great soprano consists of all the years of agonizing practice, slowly honing her craft and cultivating her voice until it becomes a thing of absolute beauty. Acting the part of a diva, by contrast, is no sweat. Take a bow, accept the bouquet of roses at the end of the big aria, and always decorate every media interview with beautiful, cascading laughter and wide-eyed declarations about the magic of the music you are just so fortunate to be able to sing. 

All anyone knows about that diva is her voice, her love of the medium, and her gratitude for existence. The fact that this woman might also be an obedient daughter, a callous sister, a treasured friend, a close confidant, a keeper of secrets, a terrible cook, a rather mean romantic partner, a loving mother, or any mix of all of these things is always obscured by her dedication to selling her art when in public. It is her duty as an artist to be That Voice. All other aspects of her life are important, of course, but only to her. To the audience, they are mostly irrelevant; at best, an aside in her Wikipedia entry, and at worst, salacious gossip.

With all of that in mind, it becomes clear that Frank Zappa had a serious problem: his artistic work was as complex and multitudinous as most people's lives are. Fed on a steady diet of pop culture, history, music theory, and practical economics, Zappa wanted to pour all of these ingredients and more into his art, twist it all together, and see what came out. The result was always something unmistakably Zappa, but how does an artist market a portfolio that contains a little bit of pretty much everything?

Frank Zappa could not be "the diva" or "the guitar god" or "the rock icon" or "the freak," or any other thing; at least, not without sacrificing the other elements of his art. The art world was not then, and is certainly not now, capable of absorbing a marketing message that required nuances and multiple facets. 

So, instead, the marketers did the best they could with the primitive tools they had. Some of his lyrics were comedic, so for some he became "comedy music." Some of his lyrics were overtly political, so for others he became a purveyor of "acerbic social commentary." Some of his music was deliberately whimsical, even noisy and abstract, so for favorable critics he became "avant-garde," while for hostile critics he became "ugly."

Where all of these descriptions -- and the many other failed descriptions of Zappa's work -- fail is in their singularity. How would we describe the Sistine Chapel using only a three-letter word? The truth is, Zappa's music fused elements of Dadaism, avant-garde, 20th Century orchestral compositional concepts, social commentary, highbrow humor, toilet humor, inside jokes, personal quirks, conceptual music theory, satire, earnestness, and above all a love for music. As he put it, "Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All."

That indelible combination created one of the largest and most varied bodies of work in the music world; not the rock music world, not the 20th Century music world, but ever. And all of it is unmistakably Zappa.

Over the course of this series, I would like to guide an unfamiliar audience through some of the depths of Frank Zappa's music. My hope is "to suggest, to the suggestible listener" that Zappa's art is best understood holistically, as a complex sum total, rather than as a mere set of marketing taglines the seldom ever really do justice to what they attempt to describe. If an audience mostly unfamiliar with his work (and that will be my assumption throughout this series) can be chaperoned through some of its most important elements, then perhaps that can help demystify and obviate the appeal of one of the Twentieth Century's most exciting musicians and composers.

Well, where better to start than with "Inca Roads," a song that served as one of Zappa's signature pieces during the mid-seventies? I've chosen it for a number of reasons. First, as the opening track on the One Size Fits All album, it fits as an apt "kickoff." More importantly, however, is the fact that it packs so many classic elements of Zappa's music into a relatively concise space.

To really understand this piece, it helps to have heard the version that most of us only got to hear in 1996, when it appeared on The Lost Episodes, released after Zappa had passed away. This "lost" version of "Inca Roads" presents all of the musical themes arranged as straightforwardly as possible, with none of the excess decorations present in the version released in '75. The dedicated Zappa fan might find this simpler version a little too boring for everyday consumption, but the student of Zappa will appreciate having the complex musical themes laid out plainly in advance.

After all, the song's Wikipedia entry suggests, "The non-serious nature of these lyrics and even the music itself seem to be mocking other progressive rock bands and their possibly forced divine depth." But interpreting Zappa's music solely through the lens of satire flattens its dimensions. Its obvious from listening to the stripped-down version of "Inca Roads" that the original album version was arranged specifically to introduce each melody, and indeed each permutation of the melody, slowly and deliberately. Once each element of the full composition has been so introduced and permutated, the band takes a break while Frank Zappa performs one of his trademark improvised guitar solos -- another classic element of Zappa's music. The guitar solo appearing on the One Size Fits All version of the song is, in fact, a particularly good one by Zappa standards, and it's easy for the listener to close his or her eyes, turn the volume up, and get lost in the moment as Zappa himself surely did when he performed it live, on stage in Helsinki, Finland. 

(This Zappa technique of mixing performances from some records with those of others, which he termed xenophony, is yet another important element of Zappa's music, which I will surely explore in greater depth in a future episode.)

But when the solo climaxes, the band falls nearly silent, things get briefly quiet, and then... "Inca Roads" really begins.

When the band kicks back in, all of the previous melodies reappear in their proper sequence, gradually building from quiet to loud, from separate to cohesive, until at last the full "Inca Roads" compositional sequence appears, driven mainly by the marimba lines. These melodies are permutated the same way they were at the beginning of the song, but each time the speed gets faster and faster until the keyboard solo ends and we hear the full sequence played at hyper-speed, unaccompanied, by Ruth Underwood on her marimba.

As for the lyrics, again Wikipedia suggests that they're satire. It states, "As the song progresses, the lyrics become sillier and seem to mock the beginning of the song. An example of this is "...or did someone build a place or leave a space for Chester's thing to land (Chester's thing... on Ruth)." But whoever wrote this was unfortunately unfamiliar with the meaning of the phrase "Chester's thing." Chester, of course, refers to Chester Thompson, the band's drummer at the time; while Ruth obviously refers to marimba player Ruth Underwood. Note that both drums and marimba are percussion instruments played with sticks or mallets. So, when Zappa announces, "Chester's thing on Ruth," he's directing the band (and the listener) to play Chester's drum fill on Ruth's marimba. Lyrics of this kind can be found throughout this song, and Zappa's full catalogue.

While Zappa's lyrics ostensibly explore an idea presented in popular book at the time that the Inca Road system was built by aliens who landed in South America during ancient times. You can learn about this on the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" TV series. But the lyrics also serve a meta-purpose in that they provide sonic placeholders for the instrumental themes of the composition. As the lyrics change, they do so in comical ways, but this isn't a form of mockery so much as a fun way to permutate the melodies themselves. And by the end of the song, it all collides in a glorious, and dare I say absurdist, mishmash that only Zappa could have pulled off. 

There is, in fact, nothing "satirical" or "mocking" about the song "Inca Roads." It's one of the most earnest, cheerful, and straightforward pieces Zappa ever published. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the most complex and physically demanding pieces in his repertoire. 

We start here, and if you've followed along this far, then you're in for what I hope will be an exciting and educational series!


Something Is Inevitable - But What?

These last few years, especially the first half of this tumultuous 2020, have been an almost surreal experience for me. Even the simplest facts seem incredible. For example, who would ever have guessed that Donald Trump would become the President of the United States? Whether or not you like his policies, you have to admit that the mere fact of his presidency is highly unusual. I'm not sure there is a historical analogue for it.

It's not just the Trump presidency, of course. There are just so many things about life today that seem strange. America's ongoing military campaigns across the Middle East, a violent historical fact that has depleted our national treasury and strained our military resources, are 20 or 30 years in (depending on where you start counting) and show no signs of abating, even as we descend into an economic depression the likes of which has never been seen before. The United States of America, stereotyped as a bastion of free enterprise and laissez-faire capitalism, is now engaged in some of the most protectionist and mercantilist policies -- not just of the USA's brief history, but also comparatively across contemporary nations. The "socialist" European Union and communist People's Republic of China often give more powerful defenses of free international trade than any public figure in the United States today, other than the usual free-market libertarians who have been around for decades. The Black Lives Matter organization, a publicly Marxist organization with a professed antipathy toward the institution of private property, is the anti-racist organization that has captivated our youth; BLM, rather than any other organization out there. 

Even my fellow libertarians are acting out of type, making arguments for universal welfare schemes and environmental paternalism, arguing against democracy itself, or in some cases defending racism as a human right. 

The common denominator in all of this seems to be impassioned extremism, rather than stoic rationalism. It almost seems to me as though even-tempered and restrained thoughtfulness is just... gone. In its place, even formerly rational people seem to be competing with each other to tackle quirky, zany, and/or extreme ideas for their sheer novelty. 

Is that it? Do people now latch on to the extremes and the quirkiness mostly for their novelty, whereas reasonableness is boring? Or, is it that reasonableness doesn't make the news because it doesn't generate enough popular interest? Something else?

Now, when I look at what's happening around me, I am overcome by a single thought: "This can't possibly go on." It's not sustainable for a diverse country of 350 million to stop trading in the international marketplace while deficit-spending many several Middle Eastern wars and flirting with socialist populism. It just can't continue. It will inevitably end.

The end is inevitable, but how will it happen? Will the United States grow more restrained, reduce its global military presence, reduce its annual budget, seek more inter- and intra-national cohesion, and become a calmer nation overall? Or, is this the beginning of the end of the United States as we know it? 

I honestly don't know.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 11

When the pandemic first struck, the world was overcome by a mantra of "stay home." At first, this was a sort of communal and positive message, but soon it morphed into a terrible kind of moralizing. Old ladies would call the police on kids playing ball in the schoolyard. People turned on each other.

Eventually, the case rates started to decline, and the country started to "open up" again. That was short-lived. Now we're confronting another round of closures. The difference this time is that there is no longer a "stay home" mantra. Now the mantra is "wear a mask."

Intelligent people should be able to understand that the pandemic wasn't just going to go away because people "stayed home," but if it wasn't clear at the outset of all of this, it should at least be clear in hindsight. Now, however, we're in round two. We already know to be an empirical fact that we can't fight a pandemic with platitudes like "stay home." Fighting it with "wear a mask" will be no different.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic wears on, people become progressively more moralistic. "Wear a mask" started out as ugly as "stay home" ended; what it grew into was a tortuous act of moral grandstanding. It got so bad that I had to take a break from social media and just play with my kids for a month. Now I'm back, and I can confirm that it's even worse.

To be clear, both "stay home" and "wear a mask" are useful pieces of advice to the extent that they work to reduce viral load. What we must keep in mind at all times is that the goal here is to reduce viral load. Wearing a mask isn't a failsafe, nor is it the single act of all acting that will result in a better outcome. Wearing a mask is just one personal hygiene practice among a whole set of skills that we all ought to practice in order to reduce viral load.

When you see someone wearing a mask, you still have no idea whether that person washes his hands after using the restroom or blowing his nose; you still have no idea whether that person practices social distancing; you don't know if he just spent last night in a crowded bar or at a big political rally. You basically know nothing about that person's life, experiences, or hygiene practices. If you were to suddenly conclude that this person is on "your side," the side of "SCIENCE," the side of good and right-thinking liberal people who want the pandemic to end as soon as the research will allow, you'd be making a big mistake.

Likewise, if you see someone without a mask, you know equally little about the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of his day. Don't jump to conclusions.

This kind of knee-jerking is, sadly, what I've come to expect from my American community, as is the moral grandstanding. I've simply grown tired of it, exhausted by the perpetual moral outrage expressed twenty-four hours per day. (Or Tweeted, ugh.)

What I've also, sadly, come to expect from my fellow Americans is a lack of true efficacy. That is, those who wear masks likely don't change them and wash them often enough. They probably don't wash their hands often enough, or thoroughly enough. (At the beginning of the pandemic, there were memes about washing your hands for a full twenty seconds. I wonder who still does that anymore? It's only been a few months.) They don't engage in time-tested hygiene habits like using a bidet, sterilizing their kitchen countertops and bathroom surfaces. They don't wipe down the interior surfaces of their cars.

All that is to say, people talk quite a big game about wearing masks, but when push comes to shove, no one is willing to do what truly needs to be done to reduce viral load. People are still as filthy as they ever were. I had gotten used to how dirty people are; now I have to get used to their being both dirty and sanctimonious about masks.

I sure hope someone develops an effective vaccine for this.


Slate Star CoDoxxed

Get it? Because he says they're "doxxing" him.

"Doxxing" is a type of cyber-bullying in which the bully publicly reveals private information about the target, such as their home phone number or address, their employer's information, photos of the target's children, and so on. This is considered to be extremely threatening. Imagine that someone publicly posts a photo of your small child playing at the park, along with the Google Maps link to the park and a comment to the effect of, "This is where that racist Joe plays with his kids." That's doxxing. Yes, it's bad.

But that's not what's happening to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Let's dive in.

First, The Back-Story

Go ahead and cruise on over to slatestarcodex.com to get Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So's version of the story. It goes something like this: A writer from The New York Times wanted to write a story about a popular blog that generates a lot of interest and that maybe got some things right about COVID-19 early on. That was fine with Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So until the journalist said, "By the way, I've been able to figure out what the So-and-So stands for, and I'm going to put that into my story." Dr. Scott freaks out a little and says no, don't do that. The journalist says it's company policy.

So, Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So deleted his whole blog, saying that The New York Times was trying to endanger him by doxxing him "for clicks."

Before I go on, I would like to remind my readers of my previous posts about Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Here's a link. You will see from what I've written before that I consider the guy to be really weird. It's not just that I dislike his blog - and I do - it's that he seems emblematic of a very bizarre strain of Silicon Valley culture, and the deeper you get into this crowd, the heebier the jeebies, if you catch my drift. 

His blog rose to prominance when some well-regarded bloggers started linking to his posts. They all seemed to consider him very smart and thoughtful. Soon enough, "everyone" was reading him. Over time, his posts have become more performative. He started out writing like a self-conscious nerd, and now he writes as though he is playing the part of a self-conscious nerd who thinks he is a really smart and funny guy. That's fine. Fame changes you. I don't care.

What I do care about is the content of his blog. Each post tackles any number of topics. He's written on climate science and economics and technology and artificial intelligence and psychiatry and biology and sociology and anything else. He always presents his views as though he is an expert, but quite often it's painfully obvious that he's just done a couple of hours of internet research. There's no shame in doing some casual research and blogging about it, but when everyone starts calling you an expert, and you keep doing light research and presenting it as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So Presents The Answer To A Problem That People Have Been Trying To Solve For Decades, then it starts to get on my nerves.

I mean, it's dorky to do what effectively amounts to college homework assignments as an adult passing the time. But it's problematic to be taken seriously for it.

An "Anonymous" Blogger

Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So openly admits that his name is a pseudonym. First question: Why is he using a pseudonym? Maybe it's like a stage name. Lots of people have stage names. Stage names can be a lot of fun. But that's not why Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So says he uses a pseudonym. Instead, he says it's because he wants to remain anonymous.

But Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So also says that Scott Alexander is his real-life first and last middle name. That sure is an odd choice of pseudonyms for someone who wishes to remain anonymous. The legendary whistleblower "Deep Throat" wasn't a guy named Deep Throat McInnis, and if he was, going by "Deep Throat" wouldn't exactly be a cloak of anonymity. "Deep Throat" was not a pseudonym that resembled his or her real name at all. It was an obviously made-up moniker; it was intended to be obviously made up, because if everyone knows that Deep Throat's real name is nothing whatsoever resembling Deep Throat, then no one has any idea what Deep Throat's real name is. That's true anonymity. That's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So wanted, obviously. If he wanted that kind of anonymity, then he would have chosen a pseudonym more like "Deep Throat," or "Alone" (the pseudonym of the writer of The Last Psychiatrist blog), or "Slate Star Codex Guy" or something.

Pretty much everyone knows that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens. Samuel Clemens didn't choose "Mark Twain" as a pen name because he wanted to be anonymous. He chose it because he thought he could sell more books under the name "Mark Twain" than under the name "Samuel Clemens," and he was probably right. Mark Twain sounds way better. But when the press discovered his real name, Samuel Clemens didn't delete all his books and complain about being doxxed. He just did what any normal person using a pen name would do: He said, yep, but I write books under the name Mark Twain. And there was no issue.

The matter was slightly different with "Publius," or "Publicus," or whatever name they were using to write The Federalist Papers. In that case, they had to be anonymous because they could have been killed for treason. Notice again how "Publius" bears scant resemblance to "John Jay" or "John Adams."

It gets worse, of course. Not only did Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So choose a "pseudonym" that was actually just his real name, he published many old links to all his old blog posts, in which he discussed personal details of his life. He discussed the experiences of the patients he saw in his clinical psychiatric practice. He held public meet-ups, advertised on his blog and on his social media accounts, where he agreed to meet with pretty much any old person who happened to read his blog or follow him on Twitter. He didn't meet strangers with a cloak and a mask, either. He met them using his real face and his real name and as his own, real, self. In short, he presented himself publicly as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, Please Don't Use My Last Name Because I Want To Be Anonymous, Honest.

Not exactly the behavior of a man who seeks anonymity, is it?

Playing At Being Famous

But okay, maybe he was just naive about the matter. That could be the explanation, right?

Still, fifteen years of naivete over the course of progressively building internet fame seems to strain credulity. Once you start getting calls from The Times, wouldn't you reconsider your willy-nilly attitude toward divulging personal details? I mean, if it mattered to you that you remain anonymous, and you started to become famous, wouldn't you then quietly cull your blog of all references to your real life and real identity, and then just stick to publishing bi-weekly homework essays? Wouldn't you cool it with the public meet-ups and stuff?

You would indeed, if you cared about anonymity.

So, another possible explanation here is that Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So liked being famous and well-regarded for publishing homework essays on the internet. He liked being able to organize meet-ups and watch strangers show up, wanting to meet him. He got a taste for fame, and decided he wanted to keep up with it. That's find and dandy, too. I don't fault a man for wanting to be famous. Lots of people want that. 

Then, this feature in the New York Times should be his big break, right? Finally he gets his big spotlight in the press. Finally he can divulge his true identity, set up a Patreon account, publish a book, and maybe secure a regular writing spot at Slate Magazine, or Vox, or The Atlantic or something. If you wanted to be a famous public intellectual, isn't that what you'd do? That's what I would do. I would work hard for my big break, and when it finally came, I would try to make the most of it. I'd try to capitalize.

But that's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So would do. What would he do? Delete his whole blog and complain that he's being persecuted. Weird, right?

Another Possibility

I'm just going to float this theory. I have no idea if it's true, and no skin in the game one way or the other. But it's a theory that makes sense to me.

Imagine you did homework essays for fun. Imagine you were kind of a nerd who lived with ten other people in the same house, you've gone on record saying that you don't have much luck with women, and you're basically just a clinical psychiatrist somewhere. Then imagine one day a lot of genuinely smart public intellectuals start reading your homework and say, "Hey, look at this guy. He seems smart."

So then imagine that you decide to keep up with the homework. People are reading your posts. You feel well-regarded. Heck, you are well-regarded. You get a taste of fame, and you decide you enjoy it and you want more of it. So you keep at your homework, and people keep reading you and linking to you.

And it's all pretty nice because it comes easy to you. You can do a couple of hours of internet research and write about it, no problem. So that's what you do. But at the bottom of it all, you know you're not really solving any problems. You know that your lengthy essays aren't really all that meritorious. You don't think you're all that smart, but everyone keeps saying that you are anyway. Thus, you enjoy the position you're in, you love the fame and the accolades, you like the meet-ups, maybe you even get more romantic attention than you did before.

But you don't have what it takes to capitalize on your fame because, at the bottom of it, you only have the willingness to do a couple hours' internet research per week. You know that people who write books - people like Malcolm Gladwell and James Altucher - actually spend a lot of time and money on research and interviews and collecting information. You know that it's their full-time job. And you know that, while you'd love to give a TED Talk and be interviewed by Tyler Cowen, you don't actually want to spend all your time researching the information you write about.

You know that because you've done enough internet research to understand that there is a HUGE difference between really knowing something and just sounding like you know something. And you know that your expertise is in the latter, not the former.

So things are going well. You have lots of readers, including some incredibly smart people who say nice things about you. When occasional readers point out the flaws in your arguments, you now have a legion of fans to do the additional legwork for you. All you have to do is sound kind of plausible, and there will be enough grains of truth in what you write that your fans can fill in the blanks on their own. In this way, you get them to do the legwork on your most controversial claims, and you get credit for it without having to do the hard work.

Well, that sounds a bit phony, doesn't it? Isn't that what fakers in the business world do? They get really good at sounding good, and then they pass off all their work to underlings, taking all the credit for themselves, and scaling the corporate ladder without ever having to do the hard work. This is classic charlatan behavior.

And when charlatans in the business world get caught, what happens next? They usually quit the job in a blaze of glory, finding a way to spin it such that they get a similar job elsewhere, hopping from job to job until they either get promoted or outed as a fake. And the story is always the same: "I did this amazing thing and that amazing thing, and then someone tried to take credit for my work, so I left." It's always that somebody set them up or something.

So, if you were a faker, if you were this kind of charlatan, only instead of being in the business world, you were in the world of internet blogging... imagine this. Imagine that a real reporter, a real professional writer, asked you for an interview and hit you with some hard-hitting questions that you couldn't answer because, let's face it, you're not who everyone says you are. Imagine that these hardball questions were difficult enough that you started to fear that if your fans got to read your poor responses, the veil would come off and you'd no longer be seen as Mr. Smart Well-Regarded Blogger.

What would you do?

Some people might delete the whole blog, in a blaze of glory, and claim that the reporter was trying to cause you personal harm.

I've seen similar things in the business world. I won't say for sure that this is what happened to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, but it's a story that is consistent with a particular and plausible set of circumstances.

We shall see how it pans out.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 10

From my vantage point, it is safe to say that, after those who have unfortunately lost their lives to it, children have suffered the worst from Covid-19.

We adults tend to be quite comfortable in our daily routines. Assuming we have jobs and can earn a living, we spend our time in consistent ways, day-to-day. Even adults with a robust and active social life only have time for a few hours of such socializing per week, and this often comes in scheduled ways: "date night," "girls' night," "poker night," golf on Sunday mornings, etc. For the most part, it has been possible for us adults to modify these activities to account for social distancing guidelines, or substitute them with alternate forms of entertainment. For a lot of us with stable incomes, then, our quality of life hasn't been impacted too badly.

But the story is completely different for children, whose primary social network -- schooling -- has been shut down for months. If you're a child whose extracurricular activities rely on intimate contact, such as music, dance, martial arts classes, and sports teams, even your more sporadic socializing has been elimiinated. And, depending on how strictly the family adheres to social distancing, many children have not been able to see their same-age cousins, friends, or neighbors for months. Even when that interaction can take place, it happens in a way so limited as to prohibit all the running around, laughing, and interacting that most children do with each other.

The result is that many children are stuck in a dystopian nightmare that few adults can truly appreciate.

Even worse: there doesn't seem to be any good way out of this nightmare. Some schools, intent on opening up in the fall for a full classroom schedule, have erected bizarre plastic barriers around desks to prevent disease transmission. There are photos of children being allowed to "play outside" only so long as they stay in circles painted on the ground, socially distant from all other children.

The isolation that my own children feel is palpable. Human beings need social contact, and children in particular need all the running around, and being silly, and physically touching other children that happens during unstructured play. I fear we may be grappling with the adverse mental health consequences of socially isolated children for decades to come.


Another Small Benefit To Having A Routine

I've surely written before about the many benefits of having a consistent, daily routine. If I had to sum up all the benefits concisely, I'd put it this way: A daily routine helps to "automate" certain thought processes, which allows you to get things done without necessarily having to dedicate space for them in your thoughts.

Having to remember to take your medication, for example, is wasted mental effort if you can replace the "need to remember" with the muscle memory of taking your medicine as part of your daily breakfast. You don't have to "remember" how to make a bowl of cereal; so if taking your medicine is something you do right before you pour cereal into your bowl, then it just becomes part of the "cereal process" (no pun intended) and you don't have to think a separate set of thoughts about "I have to take my medicine."

Over time, I've "automated" my daily water consumption in a very similar way. Each morning, I make myself a cup of green tea to have with my breakfast. After I eat, as a final "breakfast step," I drink a large glass of water while I take my supplements (milk thistle, nicotinamide riboside, glucosamine, CoQ10, and a daily multivitamin). Within the hour, I prepare a cup of chamomile tea to drink while I work. At the same time every morning, I have a work meeting, and right before my work meeting, I either fill up a bottle of water to drink during the meeting, or I open a bottle of Topo Chico mineral water. By 10 or 10:30 AM, I remind myself that my midday workout is coming up, so I have another glass of water. With that, I've typically had 40-80 ounces of fluid before noon.

My post-workout routine also usually involves another 32 ounces of water, followed by two 12-ounce glasses of water at lunch. By the early afternoon, I have typically had twelve or more glasses of water. That makes sense for a guy who works out a lot and who eats plenty of electrolyte-rich foods. In fact, some days, I could stand to drink a bit more.

But the point is, all of this hydrating is built into my normal daily routine, so that I can get all the fluid I need without having to think much about it. The only time I really consciously think about hydrating is when I remember to drink a glass of water before my workout. All the rest of it is thoughtless habit.

There is a downside to this. Life isn't perfect, nor is it entirely consistent from day-to-day. So, by building something important like hydration into my daily routine, it means that if my routine is ever disrupted, even for simple reasons like a doctor's appointment or a one-off business meeting, my hydration suffers for it. Not only does that make it a greater challenge to stay hydrated during inevitable disruptions, it also makes the common irregularities of life, like a rescheduled meeting, more of an annoyance than they need to be.


Politics As Hyper-Sensitivity

It's natural, reasonable, and to some extent a showing of good faith, to assume that other people are similar to oneself. And I think that people generally tend to do so. When thinking about what constitutes a reasonable perspective, or a reasonable expectation, or when evaluating the various "shoulds" we encounter in life, I think many of us try to think about other people as being more alike than different to ourselves. I certainly do.

The good thing about this is that it minimizes the more insignificant differences between us, i.e. sources of bigotry. If race isn't related to the matter at hand, then assuming people are more like us than different allows us to easily avoid conscious or unconscious bias.

Unfortunately, sometimes our differences really are relevant. For example, if a white man like me assumes that everyone's experience with the police is more or less like mine, he'll be more likely to overlook the very real problems of police brutality, and especially racially motivated police brutality and ethnic profiling.

This is all obvious enough. What's less obvious is that sometimes the political statements and arguments we see and hear are addressing people who bear little resemblance to ourselves, even though they may agree with our preferred policies.

One example of this might be the issue of corn subsidies. Both economic libertarians and environmental activists oppose corn subsidies, but for very different reasons. Libertarians oppose distorting market incentives with economic rents, while environmentalists oppose rewarding farmers for devastating the environment. On the issue of wind power subsidies, by contrast, economic libertarians still oppose the subsidies, but environmentalists often believe subsidizing wind power is an important step toward reducing society's carbon footprint.

What if you're browsing online opinions or memes, and you see something like this:
People oppose subsidizing wind power because they don't care about reducing our carbon footpring! I hate people who can't understand the science of climate change!
One thing you might think, if you're an economic libertarian like me, is, "My opposition to wind power subsidies has nothing to do with opposing climate science or reluctance to reduce atmospheric carbon. My opposition is entirely due to the economic damage caused by government subsidies." If I were to respond with those thoughts, however, I'd be pitting economic policy against climate policy in theory, something that I don't think would serve my position well.

The problem here is that people who argue against "climate-deniers" are not arguing against those of us who oppose subsidies on economic grounds. By participating in an argument against "climate-deniers," we're unwittingly carrying their water. What we should do instead is not assume that we're being spoken to. There are "climate-deniers" out there who oppose wind power subsidies on those grounds. If someone wants to argue against such people, that's none of my business, because I'm not one of them. If someone wants to argue against what economics says about subsidies, well then, that's my fight. But the climate-denial thing is not my fight.

At least for me, it takes an extra step to remember that someone might be arguing against a real argument that some less-informed person made, but that that less-informed person might actually be real and really made those arguments.

(Note: I do not claim here that people who disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming are uninformed. I'm only using this as an example of people who make arguments that I don't make, whether or not they are true.)

This holds true for any issue. I often hear political arguments against conservatism, against libertarianism, or in favor of socialized medicine or any number of things I oppose. It's tempting to assume that anyone who shares my beliefs does so for the same reasons or with similarly well-reasoned arguments. But the reality is that most people are engaged in arguments that I would never personally choose to have. But, hyper-sensitive as I may have been in the past, I have grown accustomed to thinking that people are making bad-faith arguments about my beliefs. After all, I'm against wind-power subsidies, and I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real.

So from now on, I'm going to try to remember to only fight fights that are relevant to me. I can make arguments against subsidies. I can make arguments in favor of reasonable economic policies. I can make ethical arguments informed by psychology. I can argue against the illusions we hold and the defense mechanisms we employ. I can make these arguments because they are personal to me, and because I know something about them, and because they are involve my actually held beliefs.

But if someone wants to argue against something I never said, from now on, I'll just assume that they're talking about someone else, a real person who really does hold those beliefs, and try not to mix my beliefs up with some people who probably don't share my own thoughts. I'll be less hyper-sensitive and stick mainly to my own positions.


The Fountain Of Youth

It's hard to write a post like this without either bragging or sneering, but I assure you, I am doing neither.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the grocery store. I opted to use the self checkout kiosks, but because I was buying wine, a store clerk had to come check my ID. When she saw my date of birth, she said, "Oh my god!" I asked her what was the problem, and she said, nothing, only that she was surprised that I was as old as I was. "I would have believed '89." In truth, she had thought that was more than ten years younger than I really am. In other words, she thought I was in my twenties.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon in a local park. The park has a short trail down to what passes for a "waterfall" in flat Texas prairie country. It's a nice, short hike, and somewhat steep in parts. My GPS watch had it that the whole thing was 0.88 miles round trip. I checked it when we arrived at the waterfall itself, and it read 0.36. As you can see, this is not much of a "hike," but much more of a short walk down the hill and back up.

To be sure, it was hot outside, and the path is steep in some places, requiring us to choose our steps carefully in order to make it back up. But a 0.4 mile walk up the hill can only be so gruelling. I'd call it pretty much nothing.

So, I was surprised when I noticed that a solid majority of the other people in the park that day came up the hill panting and gasping for air, plopping themselves down in the nearest shady spot to catch some oxygen. I mean, they were really out of it. By all appearances, they looked as though they had just finished an 8-mile tempo run or something.

Later in the day, I went for a run. It was very hot outside, so I was running shirtless, with my hair pulled back under a bandana, and a pair of sunglasses on. As I crossed the street at one busy intersection, someone from a passing car called out a question to me: "Hey! How old are you?" I didn't have the impression that they thought I was extremely old. I didn't have a chance to answer, because I was running fast and in the opposite direction of the passing car, but I smiled to myself as I thought about what that person would think if they knew I was 40 years old.

A few years back, I was doing box jumps at the gym. A twenty-something fellow gym-goer came up to me between sets and told me, "I hope I can do stuff like that when I'm your age!"

"It's use it or lose it," I told him. "The only reason I can do this is because I won't stop."

Like I said at the outset of this post, I'm not saying this to brag about myself or to criticize other people. I take all of these situations -- and the many more I could list -- not as evidence of my great fittness, but rather evidence of how far people will let themselves go.

Ten years ago, I used to be amazed by the fact that most people my age had no idea what their own bodies were capable of; that most of them had no idea what their own bodies were supposed to look like, because they had never taken the time to get in really good shape. The human body performs differently, and of course looks differently, when it's fit. Overweight people, people with "dad bods," skeletal waifs, and the like have really never experienced things like agility, being sure on their feet, being able to lift heavy things with confidence and carry them across the room or something. And they don't know what their own bodies would look like if they did.

But nowadays, I don't really think about that anymore. Nowadays, I am struck by how much faster most people are aging than I am. I watch as friends and acquaintences slowly put on more and more weight, unable to tame their cravings or counteract them with physical activity. I watch as even young people give up on sports and fitness, except the few who go to the gym, mostly to look sexy, attract a mate, get married, and then ultimately do what they had planned on doing all along: let themselves go. I hear people talk about their aches and pains, their inability or unwillingness to walk any short distance, their struggle with having to climb a few flights of stairs.

It's the practical problems they all have that make the biggest impression on me. The atrophy of their bodies has made even the simplest aspects of life difficult. Small wonder so many of them drive their cars even when they're only going to the park a block away. Small wonder they all seem to be aging so much faster than me.

I spend a lot of time in the sun, and I have a chronic disease that is aging my body at an accelerated rate. It should be I who looks older than others. But I don't, and my best guess is because I have always adhered to the adage of "use it or lose it."

The fountain of youth is real. It is simply the act of sticking with a good diet and a high level of physical activity throughout your life. Don't stop. Don't let yourself go. Don't put on 15, 20, 50, 100... pounds and then turn around one day and realize that you look 40 or older when you're really 30 or younger. Keep yourself healthy, well into old age. Use it or lose it.


A Belated Thank-You

Yesterday, while running, I thought back to an old experience I had as a teenager.

Like many teenage boys, I suffered from Osgoode-Schlatter syndrome, which is basically a severe case of "growing pains." It's worse than it sounds. The overactive growth plates in my knees were producing so much bone tissue that they swelled up painfully, and I was unable to run for almost a year. My legs were constantly in pain. To this day, I still have lumps of bone on my knees as a result of my condition.

In Autumn of the worst year of my Osgoode-Schlatter syndrome, I had big plans to run on the high school cross-country team - or at least with the team - despite my being only in the eighth grade. The pain dashed my hopes, but my sister was still on the team, and so I still found myself attending all the cross-country meets and watching my friends run and have fun on the team. For a young man whose only connection to joy was running, it was difficult to watch.

One day, at a cross-country meet, it became a bit too much for me, so went back to my parents' car, sat down in the passenger's seat, and cried. I just wanted to be alone and cry. To my chagrin, the head cross-country coach - an incredibly gentle and kind-hearted man - saw me crying in the car and came to console me. He put a hand on my arm and did his best. I don't remember saying anything. I think I was trying so hard to hold back my tears and make it look like I wasn't crying, that I couldn't do much but make monosyllabic grunts to everything he said. He stayed with me a long time, then caringly said good bye with a few more words of encouragement and went back to the team.

This got me to thinking about another coach at my high school. He was a football coach, and I didn't play football, so I only knew him as my history teacher. He was a very witty guy, and always seemed happy. I enjoyed his history class a lot, and I figured he must like me okay, mainly because I laughed at all his jokes. But one day, at a parent-teacher conference, he very seriously and very meaningfully told my mother that if she ever wanted me out of the house, she should send me to his.

I don't know why my mother told me about that. I also don't really know why he said that, what he could have seen in me that would give him any indication that that was something that ought to be said. At the time, I found the whole situation confusing. But now, with 25 years of hindsight serving me, I'm overcome by that man's kindness.

The truth is that I was slipping further and further into depression when I was in high school, a depression that would stretch across the next decade of my life. When you're suffering from something like that, and especially when you're a teenager suffering from something like that, it's common to scapegoat your problems. Thus, at the time, I ascribed all of my "depression" (I didn't call it that back then) to the rather oppressive religious-conservative community and their relative inability to relate to a somewhat eccentric, differentiated person like me.

As I had it, "people hated me." A look back with better hindsight, though, proves otherwise. Here are two important members of the community who could see how much I was suffering, and who did reach out to make my life better. The truth is, my community could have been there for me, if I had only allowed them to be.

Of course, that would have required a more complete understanding of my situation. I was emotionally stunted and ill-equipped to have normal social relationships of any kind with any person whatsoever. I was a broken human being. I needed years of personal growth to achieve whatever semblance of normalcy and mental health I've managed to achieve. (I am certainly no longer depressed, and haven't been for a long, long time.) It's too much to ask of my teenage self to recognize what was being done for me, on a completely kind-hearted and unsolicited basis. I didn't have the emotional tools required to recognize it.

But I recognize it now. Furthermore, I recognize that these two examples I've provided aren't the only examples. Many people would have helped me, if I could have been helped. It's not their fault that I couldn't be helped at the time. All the same, 25 years later, I appreciate what they did for me. It stuck with me. I'm thankful for it. And I'm very sorry I couldn't see it then and avail myself of the support that was being offered.

I'm sorry that I wasn't the person then that I am now. But to those who ever extended a hand and tried to help a young man who needed it, but couldn't see it, I offer you a belated and very heart-felt thank you. Thank you.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 9

In Omnipotent Government, Ludwig von Mises describes how the foundation for a Nazi takeover of Germany was laid in part by large groups of unemployed men hanging around in militias. They say idle hands are the devil's playground, and that is probably true.

As of this writing, there are close to 40 million newly unemployed - or should I say disemployed? - people in the United States, thanks to "lockdown" or "quarantine" policies that we now know were far too draconian than they needed to be, given the severity of COVID-19. What have all those idle hands been up to lately?

*        *        *

No one knows what was going through Derek Chauvin's head when he knelt on top of George Floyd in broad daylight, with cameras rolling, as the latter man begged for mercy and finally died. Chauvin and the four other officers involved in the killing were fired. As protests erupted in Minneapolis over the systemic mistreatment of blacks in the US criminal justice system, charges of third-degree murder were ultimately brought against Chauvin; although it's fair to wonder if the killing really was third-degree murder, and not second-degree murder as most reasonable people have concluded.

What an odd name, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, get it? Like chauvinism.

And so protests erupted. Soon video emerged of white men, dressed all in black, wearing gas masks, and carrying umbrellas in the sunshine, systematically breaking windows with hammers and lighting things on fire before quietly walking away. On the videos, the peaceful black protesters try to stop them, but they can't. It is suggested by the various publishers of these videos that these disguised white men are the ones who turned the protests into riots.

Who were these men? The mayor of Minneapolis suggested that they were white supremacists from out-of-state. They might also have been members of "Antifa," which is not really an "organization," per se, despite news that the White House wishes to label them as a terrorist organization. Antifa is an ideology more than an organization. Those aligned with Antifa often show up at left-leaning protests and cause trouble. They ostensibly wish to fight anything they view to be "fascism," but their ideological agenda is a Marxist-Leninist one. So were those who started the riots in Minneapolis "members" of Antifa? Who knows?

*        *        *

Within hours of the riots, the sympathetic left on social media took to their news feeds, their tweets, their status updates, and their stories to urge "people" not to condemn the riots, but to instead seek to understand why black victims of systemic racism in the United States would wish to riot in the first place.

I find this reaction to be odd.

It's odd because no amount of police brutality justifies a violent mob attacking innocent bystanders and looting private businesses. An argument could be made that Black America has a legitimate moral cause to destroy government buildings, court houses, police precincts, and the like. But stealing TVs? Such actions can only be morally justified on Marxist-Leninist grounds, i.e. according to the ideology of Antifa and its ilk. Private property is, according to this belief system, yet another tool of oppression, and it is fair and right, and perhaps even erogatory, to destroy it.

Of course, no one participating in a riot has spent any significant amount of time seeking epistemic moral justification for their actions. All they're really doing is seizing the opportunity. When "everyone else" is looting and destroying, you may as well get yours, too. Whoever started the riots knew this to be true of mobs, in fact they were counting on it. You only try to start a riot when you believe that the mob will follow-on with whatever destruction you've chosen to initiate. That's the whole point of inciting a mob.

It is for this reason that people should not seek to understand the rioters. Violent mobs don't have a cause. Violent mobs don't have a modus operandi. Violent mobs are breakdowns of social order, in which any terrible thing can happen. Looting and vandalism are comparatively modest outcomes here. The real dangers of a violent mob are murder and rape. Anyone who has any experience with a dangerous, teeming hoard knows this to be true.

Peaceful protests and violent mobs are in two entirely different categories. No, we should not seek to understand a mob. We should run for our lives, and then morally condemn them in the strongest ways available to us.

*        *        *

I'm a 40-year-old American man. Sadly, this is not my first race riot. I am old enough to quite vividly remember the LA riots that broke out in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King beating. Then, members of the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted of using excessive force on Mr. King, despite the beating having been captured on video. If you're young and you've never seen the video, or if it's been a while since you've seen it, I recommend you remind yourself what was on that video. Watch it again, and keep in mind that the courts found the police not guilty of using excessive force.

When you're done watching that video, watch Rodney King's public statement to the media on the riots. Rodney King himself, a well-spoke if not particularly eloquent man who was quite nearly beaten to death by the Los Angeles Police Department, observed the ensuing LA race riots and spoke out against rioting, famously imploring people: "Can we all get along?" Watch the video. You can see the horror, the confusion, and the sadness on his face.

Then, imagine being beaten nearly to death, imagine successfully bringing a trial against the monsters who almost took your life, imagine losing that trial, and then imagine watching all of your supposed "supporters" burn your home to the ground, taking many African-American-owned small businesses with it.

Finally, imagine seeing all that and sympathizing with the mob. That is what today's woke social media leftists want you to do.

*        *        *

Of course, it's impossible to sympathize with a mob. The mob will turn on you. You do not control a mob. All you can do is follow the mob wherever it goes, and if the mob chooses to drag you down, the mob will do so, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

On social media, a woman suggested that my decision to speak out against violent riots "speaks volumes" about my supposed racism. On the contrary, however, I think it speaks volumes about the far left in today's society that they endorse the mob. Their memories are too short to remember the LA riots, and certainly too short to remember the race riots of the early 1960s. It has been utterly fascinating to contrast the ideological responses to racial violence then and now.

Perhaps if George Floyd had lived, he would have served as a cooling voice during today's riots, as Rodney King did almost 30 years ago. I don't know, of course. I know nothing about George Floyd other than that he was an innocent man murdered in broad daylight in front of a camera, and that American society has grown so accustomed to seeing such videos that we no longer consider them to be shocking.

*        *        *

There were protests, which sadly turned violent, and there are think-pieces and social media updates. Everyone is navel-gazing about this, and while they do, they urge high-minded thoughts about the state of race relations in America today. Whites are urging each other to check their privilege and to learn about the black experience in America.

All such commentary is self-indulgent silliness.

While it's always a good idea to engage in self-improvement and to become a less bigoted person, white racism did not kill George Floyd. Police brutality killed George Floyd, systemic police brutality, fed with dollars from the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. A narcissistic, emboldened police force with near-immunity in the courts and one of the most politically powerful labor unions in the country killed George Floyd. A corrupt and unassailable criminal justice system that has financial incentives to murder and/or imprison blacks and latinos killed George Floyd.

You're not going to solve that problem by reading about Martin Luther King. You're not going to solve that problem by allowing more black voices a chance to be heard. You're only going to solve that problem by dismantling the police state.

It's natural for human beings, when confronted with an unsolvable problem, to assume instead that they are confronted with an easier problem, and to solve the easier problem instead.

Thus, and somewhat incredibly, we see that there is at least one problem in America that is a more unsolvable problem than racism: The police.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 8

Over the past weeks, a lot of the early information about covid-19 has unraveled.

The overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred among old people with preexisting conditions. Predictably, the rest of the people in American society have started to wonder whether it's fair to shut down the economy and disemploy millions in order to save people whose life expectancy was already quite short, even before the pandemic hit. I say this now without judgment: This sort of resentment was inevitable from the beginning, and the truth of the matter is that the economy will have to start cranking again, no matter what any of us personally believe about the ethics of the matter. Human life did not grind to a halt during the Spanish Flu pandemic or the days of the Black Plague. Life can, will, and must carry on; the sick will be left behind. This is as true anything about human beings can be. Carrying on despite what might befall the unfortunate ones is what we do.

The integrity of the epidemiological models that shaped public policy has also started to unravel. The dangers of covid-19 may have been over-hyped, at least in a manner of speaking. This is a difficult matter for a person to wrap his head around. On the one hand, covid-19 has caused an undeniable spike in human mortality. People are dying out there, and in greater numbers than comparable recent years. At the same time, the virus is far more widespread than anyone realized -- a fact that sounds bad until we realize that is proves that perhaps a majority of infected people show no symptoms, that a definite majority do not require hospitalization, that a decided majority will survive covid-19, and that the strain on the health care system was largely over-estimated. Deadly as the disease may be, it's not nearly as deadly as feared.

And so, as Texas will do tomorrow, the American economic system will soon reopen and life will return to something approximating normalcy.

Excepting, of course, the fact that life will never go back to normal again. The way we have pursued entertainment during the pandemic proves this.

As I expected -- but probably neglected to write down -- people are not as interested in being active outdoors as their initial response to the quarantines might have lead us to believe. At first, people were working from home and taking every opportunity to get outside for periodic walks, runs, and bicycle rides. From my observation, that has trickled to a halt. Once again, there are cars on the road and heavy traffic everywhere. The air is thick with exhaust again. It's hard for me to cross the road on foot, because the vehicles on the road have returned, and are just as aggressive as ever. The charms of walking down the local footpaths and listening to the birdsongs and the croaking frogs has expired. I haven't seen an egret in weeks.

But none of that means that people are trying to get back to normal. What we've discovered under quarantine is the wealth of entertainment available to us from the comfort of our own homes. Of course, most of us have access to streaming video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and so on. Now major Hollywood film studios have announced that they will continue to release movies straight-to-streaming even after the lockdown ends. And why not? Our home "theaters" are wonderful: comfortable seats, ample snacks, and alcohol, no fighting for parking spaces or trying to get early tickets, no second choices... Video entertainment has never been better.

Add to that the fact that video gaming is the best it's ever been, and we get to play them essentially in the same gorgeous theaters in which we watch our blockbuster films. The kids can even engage in social media as they play video games, with services like Twitch becoming major forces in how people connect with each other.

Music, too, is readily available at home. We can stream any song we want to hear now, thanks to the likes of Spotify and Amazon Music. The sound quality is as good as it's ever been. But that's not all; major music acts have put on free concerts from their own homes. Some of them do it every week. For musicians who already have a following, it's doubtful that the quarantine will erode their fanbase. It's very good to be a music fan these days.

And then we have the services, all the glorious services. Peloton, Zwift, Strava, Beachbody On Demand, and the likes are booming as people confined to their homes have realized that they don't actually need a gym subscription after all. We thought we would miss our favorite restaurants, but they all deliver now. Alcohol, too, can be delivered, and the cost is not actually as high as anyone expected. Yesterday, I saw an advertisement for a free 5-day guitar home instruction course, in which none other than Paul Gilbert himself teaches you how to play a classic Racer X song. For free! (Yes, I did sign up, and if the first lesson is anything to go by, this will be nothing short of remarkable!) Every conceivable kind of music-production software is on sale for pennies on the dollar of what you'd otherwise have to pay.

The toys now available to us, which we are all now inspired to avail ourselves of, are absolutely dazzling. It is absolutely inconceivable that we will experience such wealth of leisure and then go back to a world of public theaters, gymnasiums, overpriced restaurants, and boring old guitar lessons from the pimply kid at Guitar Center.

Thus, even as we discover that we in less danger from covid-19 than we feared, we are also discovering that we are less reliant on public spaces than we ever imagined. I expect that American life will transition away from densely packed public spaces like New York City public transportation, toward the spacious, comfortable, rural environments of the Midwest. If the prospect of doing yard work doesn't appeal to you, you can always pay to have it done.

This suggests, too, that some of the most valuable work in the coming years will not be the paper-pushing office busy work that so many of us do. Instead, it will be the service-level work that keeps our lives so comfortable: groundskeeping, deliveries and logistics, cloud computing and streaming, artificial intelligence, task automation, and so on.

They always said that necessity is the mother of invention, and brother, I believe it!


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 7

A short while ago (less than two weeks?), Tyler Cowen wrote about how, in a world undergoing a global pandemic, "the speed premium" increases. That means that the information we received a short while ago will start to feel far less current than it would have in a non-pandemic world.

One case in point is this blog post itself. I read it when it was first published, on March 25th, and by now it almost feels like "ancient history." I had to scroll five pages into the Marginal Revolution blog to find it.

Everything I read about SARS-CoV2 last week seems almost quaint today. Last week was a world in which the United States, and especially Texas, had many thousands fewer COVID-19 cases, and deaths, than this week. That world no longer exists today.

Last week, I was feeling a lot of despair about COVID-19. This week, news is coming in from everywhere, and much of it is good news. The outbreak continues unabated in the United States, that's true, but on the other hand, there are dozens of organizations working on finding the best possible vaccine. There are also a number of non-vaccine therapies currently in testing. The speed with which all this has occurred is truly remarkable! It's inspiring, and it gives me hope.

One interesting thing about the prospect of a SARS-CoV2 vaccine is that this is not the only coronavirus out there. In fact, many coronaviruses lead to the common cold. For decades "a cure for the common cold" has been a metaphor for doing something ingenious that will revolutionize human life across the globe. Although COVID-19 is a frightening illness, it may yet give rise to a literal cure for the common cold. This would be stunning, in a very good way.

Can I allow myself to have that much hope? Perhaps it's a response to the fact that a lot of COVID-19 commentary I'm reading has been almost apocalyptic in scope. People aren't just pessimists, they think this might be the thing that destroys liberal democracy itself. In light of all that doomsaying, it is somewhat comforting to speculate that one of these many coronavirus vaccines might end up being good enough to inoculate us against the common cold.

And while I'm at it, I think the economic hardships we endure during this pandemic will inevitably spur progress through technological and economic innovation. In a few years, life is going to be much better than I ever thought it would be, if I can only hold out long enough to live to see the day.

To that end, I'm extremely disappointed in the vast number of people I see on social media who simply refuse to self-quarantine. They continue to believe that the virus is no big deal, despite many firsthand accounts to the contrary, accounts from clergy, politicians, professional athletes, well-known business-people, and so on. Every COVID-19 account attests to the severity of the disease, and yet some people continue to disbelieve.

These are the people who will risk my life. I think it's only a matter of time before they learn their lesson the hard way. The only question is whether I'll get infected before they figure it out. I hope not. I do not like my odds with this disease. 


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 6

There are little narrative snippets that exist in people's minds. I think Richard Dawkins calls them "memes." These aren't funny social media post memes, but concepts that spread among human beings that summarize concepts or events, and not always accurately.

Here's an example: "Elvis Presley invented rock and roll by fusing Southern black blues with his home-town gospel music; the Motown artists took this medium further; The Beatles made rock and roll intelligent, and then the punk revolution stole rock music back from the pretentious prog-rockers."

Is this story accurate? No. Is it more or less the accepted official Rolling Stone Magazine history of rock and roll? Yes. It's a meme. People believe it. People repeat it. Its accuracy is less important than its pervasiveness.

One problem with such memes is that they are impossible to overturn once they take hold. It doesn't matter how much rock and roll was invented by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. It only matters that they're not in the official meme. Another problem with such memes is that they lend themselves too easily to motivated reasoning. If a person really wants to believe that The Beatles were geniuses, then they're going to accept the meme, no matter what. The fact that there were better, more intelligent, more ingenious musicians around at the same time - both in and out of rock music - becomes irrelevant. The Beatles "just had something," or, "you don't understand unless you were there." The most persistent memes are non-falsifiable and uphold a deep-rooted prejudice of some kind.

And so, it's been interesting to watch memes arise and take hold of the COVID-19 epidemic.

First, social distancing was about saving lives; then it was about not overwhelming the health care system; now, it's about reducing the infection rate to the point that a "track-and-trace" policy can be implemented. What's striking about this evolution is that the meme becomes more refined over time, but its function and a soundbite never diminishes.

I am practicing social distancing and have every intention of continuing to do so. Still, my alarm bells start to ring when the advice I get starts to sound more like a soundbite, and less like a real explanation of anything.

I've been thinking about the spread of COVID-19. In the beginning, we were told that COVID-19 was spread through "close, intimate contact." This was one reason why they told us that "masks don't work." In hindsight, though, it's incomprehensible that an entire cruise ship or aircraft carrier, or an entire Chinese city, could suffer an enormous outbreak through something that requires "close, intimate contact." If infection occurs primarily from the inhalation of infected sputum, then masks should be an important tool to reduce viral load; and we now know, of course, that they are.

Still, for weeks now, we've all been terrified of other people's coughing. Even without specific government-enforced social distancing guidelines, it seems unlikely that the spread would not have slowed despite school and daycare closures, work-from-home policies, the closing of restaurants and bars, and so on. Sure, initially most people would resist the idea of social distancing, but as the stories continue to get worse and the numbers continue to climb, this explanation is no longer sufficient. The meme doesn't reflect reality.

I have no real point here, except to say that I think the spread of COVID-19 across more or less the entire human population is inevitable, and that I don't think anyone really knows how it spreads. I think this is a far more dangerous and mysterious virus than anyone yet realizes, and I think it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the full mystery is revealed.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 5

Last night, I had a dream that gently drifted into being a dream about the xenomorph monsters from the Alien movie franchise. At a certain point in the dream, things turned sort of greyish like the movies, and from that point on, I was being chased by an unseen xenomorph that would destroy me the moment I let my guard down.

The night before that, I dreamed that I was in a crowded convention center of some sort, with people all over the place, glass elevators, ornate gardens, and everything that you might expect from a fancy hotel/resort. A few young, twentyish hooligans started causing trouble, bothering people, being mildly violent, annoying, and bullyish. When they came in contact with me, I did what I usually do with bullies, which is deny them the satisfaction of having their way. And just as in real life, this infuriated the bullies to the point that they decided they wanted to literally kill me. Their numbers increased dramatically, they became cruel and merciless, they started killing everyone in their path. Just when they had me surrounded, I would find a way to escape, usually taking one of them down in the process. As the dream proceeded, it got gorier and more gruesome, and also more harrowing. No matter where I ran, there was a crowd of violent hooligans waiting to pulverize me.

In both of these dreams, I woke up in the middle of the night because they were so intense, then I would calmly nod back off to sleep and find myself back in the midst of the same dream. The dream would continue like that until I woke up again. This process repeated itself several times until I made a conscious effort to put the dream out of my mind and think of something else.

I didn't connect the dots until this morning. A menacing force chasing me everywhere I go, with a feeling of inevitability about it all; people being killed, and me knowing that it is only a matter of time before it's my turn. These are coronavirus dreams.

During the day, I feel calm. It's inevitable that I feel a little stir-crazy. I go running every day, but aside from the neighborhood streets and the inside of my own home, I haven't had a change of scenery in a long time. Other than that, I am happy. I get to spend time with my family, I get to focus on exercising, and eating right, and playing my guitar. All those things are going well, and so it's easy to feel calm when I'm focused on things that make me happy.

Clearly, though, the specter of death and pestilence is working its way through my psyche. It comes into my dreams and gives me nightmares. My wife and I talk mostly about coronavirus -- what it's like to grocery shop now, which people are keeping their distance and which aren't, what are the prospects for a cure or treatment, what the latest numbers from epidemiologists, clinicians, researchers, and so on...? The fear sets in. It's hard to think about much of anything else, even as we stay calm, for the most part.

The people around here are not taking this quite as seriously as I think they ought to. The outdoor parks and paths are packed with crowds who do not keep their six feet apart. Every day, when I run, there are more and more cars on the roads. The sidewalks, which I used to have to myself, are now overrun by people walking and running. It's fine that they walk or run, but they often bring two or three dogs with them, taking up the entire sidewalk, and then refusing to move over for fellow pedestrians. New to outdoor exercise, they have never been versed in basic trail etiquette. That would be bad enough, but refusing to make way during a deadly pandemic seems particularly egregious.

For my part, I give them all a wide berth. Many of them say hello, but a few stare me down. Angrily.

Real information about the virus is impossible to find. The internet is replete with analyses that report a less-than-one-percent fatality rate. Good news, right? One analysis claims that none of the Chinese patients who had "severe" symptoms died; none of them. The deaths are only among those who experienced "critical" symptoms and required ventilators. So more than 99% of people recover from COVID-19.

Side-by-side to these reports are news stories of hospitals being overrun by dead bodies.

It is mathematically true that a virus with a high infection rate and a low fatality rate can still produce millions of deaths. Still, one can't help but feel as though there are competing narratives in the news. One narrative wants to convince us that the virus is not as bad as we think it is; the other wants to convince us that this is the worst thing that has happened to humanity since the Holocaust. Maybe both things are true, but how can a man make sense of that?

I think the senselessness, the lack of good information, the uncertainty of it all, is what amplifies the fear and causes it to penetrate into my dreams. It would be nice for the uncertainty to resolve itself somehow.

But wishful thinking doesn't get anyone anywhere, either.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 4

When I was about 13 years old, I had an odd and scary dream.

I was walking through the halls of my junior high school sometime during the late winter months. The sun was shining outside, but it was still cold, with snow on the ground that had begun to melt, making the ground muddy, but still hard from being frozen. In my mind, I had the sense that the world outside the schoolhouse was radioactive; one could go out there for a few moments, but after that the radioactivity would being to corrode the body and kill a person within minutes. Still, I decided to take a shortcut from one hallway to another by going outside. I walked out one of the doors, crossed the muddy, sludgy ground, found the next door and... discovered that it was locked. Then, reality set in and I realized that I didn’t have time to get back to the other door. I awoke from my dream knowing that I was going to die from the radiation.

This was a vivid dream that always stuck with me, presumably only because the dream itself was so vivid. I remembered this dream yesterday when I went to Costco yesterday to do some grocery shopping.

They had us all lined up outside, and were only letting us in the store a few at a time. I did my best to keep six feet of distance between myself and the person in line in front of me, but the person behind me kept scooting up closer and closer to me — even despite my dirty looks and obvious discomfort. Waiting in lines like those is essentially a ticking time bomb. As in my dream, too much time spent in that kind of crowd may eventually kill me. It’s an awful feeling.

My trip to Costco only got more surreal when I made it inside. I had shown up early to try to “beat the crowds,” but unbeknownst to me, Costco had decided to open early. The only people who walked out of the store with toilet paper were those who had shown up in time for the early opening. Still, I was able to get most of the things I wanted. The clerks in the store ushered us toward a specific path; we all had to shop in the same direction. That, too, felt odd and restrictive.

Seeing all my fellow shoppers inside, it started to become obvious to me which people were going to definitely get this disease, and which perhaps had a shot at avoiding it. I’d say about half of us did a good job of keeping our distance from each other, politely letting people go ahead, and giving folks a wide berth as they shopped. Others had brought the whole family to the store — both parents and multiple children, with everyone crowding around the shopping cart. They’d talk loudly, spend a lot of time standing in one place, sort of “occupying” a location of the store, discussing and debating items on the shopping list. They looked exactly as they might have looked on a “normal” day. The cashiers were all wearing protective gloves, but I noticed that one of them was scratching her nose with her gloved hand.

I’m not faulting or criticizing these people. I’m not suggesting that they’re not taking the situation seriously. Rather, it seems that some people’s habits are too hard to break, even in light of the severity of the circumstances. And these habits may well prove deadly for them.

It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions these past few days. At times, I feel crushing fear for a pandemic that seems utterly inevitable. I expect it to kill some of my dear loved ones. I am terrified that it could kill me, and then what would my poor daughter do without me? I am committed to remaining disease-free for the sake of my family; and yet, at the same time, I am rational and I know what the evidence says. The evidence says that the majority of us will get COVID-19. The evidence says that people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a much higher death rate; and that even those who don’t die must often spend weeks in the hospital with tubes stuck down their throats and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Images of the polio patients in iron lungs haunt me before I go to sleep.

But, at other times, I’m impressed by the beauty of Spring. The leaves are coming out on the trees, and Texas is becoming warm and green again. There are birds everywhere. People, ostensibly practicing “social distancing,” have decided to spend more time outside with their families, in local parks, being active. The pace of life is quite a bit slower, which is nice. I am treasuring my time with my daughter. We have been bonding a lot lately. She spends her evenings cuddled up close to me, I with my arm around her, holding her tightly. Then there is the medical news — stories of potential antiviral treatments, and vaccine tests, and technological solutions to various medical shortages. These give me hope.

Of course, all hope borrows against time. It all ultimately comes down to whether the vaccines and treatments will be ready and available if and when this virus strikes me. Can I hold out that long? Can I continue to live like this? Will I lose my job? In the worst-case scenario, what must I tell my family before I succumb?

The emotional toll of life in a pandemic is much higher than I realized. The fear is real. You can see it on people. I hope most of us can pull through this.