My Verbal Degeneration

As something of both a thinker and an archivist, I have always felt compelled to commit my thoughts to writing. I began journaling as a pre-teen and accumulated almost half a million words by age 30, at which point I took a friend’s advice and began blogging instead. When I had an idea I usually found it easy to expound it to my satisfaction in short order. But over the last decade this ability has degenerated. Today I have dozens of notes and drafts that have not made it to a finished post. I struggle to organize, articulate, and elaborate my thoughts. They’re stuck in my head in a state somewhere between jumbled notions and coherent exposition. The posts that do make it onto my blogs are usually the less-than-satisfying product of a long struggle at wordsmithing. I imagine that this is what it feels like to have a debilitating stroke: I remember being able to do something with facility that I can now only do with halting effort. I can see that I have become dumb.

When it comes to things like math and computer programming I have always been considered “smart.” When I interact with people who struggle with those activities I have often wondered how much of what we call “smarts” is the presence of intelligence as opposed to the absence of impairment. My skill in those arts often seems like clarity in comparison to the clouds and confusion that seem to beset those who struggle. From that perspective I do not feel intelligent so much as I feel unimpaired.

Looking at the state of my verbal skills I feel impaired. My awareness of this impairment has been piqued as I have begun reading Scott Alexander’s blog: That is a guy who can draw and weave every thread on a topic into a crisp expositional tapestry. Where my thoughts are a jumble of fraying twine he writes with supreme clarity. Another blogger explained better than I could just how brilliant a writer Alexander is:

At his best, he hits some strange triple point, previously undiscovered by bloggers, where data, theory, and emotion can coexist in equilibrium. Most writing on topics as abstract and technical as his struggles just not to be dry; it takes effort to focus, and I need energy to read them. Scott’s writing flows so well that it somehow generates its own energy, like some sort of perpetual motion machine.

https://jasoncrawford.org/guide-to-scott-alexander-and-slate-star-codex

Fighting Violin

In an earlier post I described beginning to learn to play violin. The difficulty of that process was compounded by my disposition as young boy: Give a boy a stick and his instinct is to grab it and wield it like a sword to whack things into submission. But the fragile wooden bow must be held gingerly. The violin is a singing instrument, and the bow is its breath. The foundation of playing a violin is delicacy and finesse. Everything about an energetic boy is bold and tense. I was given what felt like a weapon and told to, “Relax!” (Even now this is a Sisyphean struggle.)

All I wanted to do was to play loud and fast. At age 12 we went shopping for the full-size instrument I play to this day. I picked a violin with a relatively “bright” and unsophisticated timbre. Then I spent an afternoon in a luthier’s shop looking for a bow, which is the component that determines a player’s range of technical expression. For reference I played some bows priced in the $50,000 range and I could not imagine why professionals would want to use such flimsy sticks. I chose a bow that was so exceptionally rigid that, the luthier joked, it must have been made of titanium. (It’s actually Pernambuco wood, like most fine bows.)

Strength and size offer no advantage on the violin. Search for “violin prodigy” and you will find an endless parade of pre-teen Korean girls who can perform the most difficult violin pieces with robotic precision. Skilled musicians do not wrestle with their instruments no matter how loud or fast the music. Contrast that with this video of me muscling through a “warm-up” exercise at age 17:

Pokemon Go Level 40!

In August 2020 my boys started playing Pokemon Go, so I created my own account to join them. I’ve found the game to be a convenient diversion when stuck waiting for people or lines … and also somewhat addictive … so I have been playing almost daily for the last year. Just last week I hit Level 40. (When I started that was the highest level, but as large numbers of players reached it the game’s developer added another 10 levels.)

It’s somewhat bewildering to see that over this period I have caught almost 20,000 Pokemon….

Book Review: Life at the Bottom, by Theodore Dalrymple

In April, National Review published an entire issue of essays on California exploring the dismal results of the state’s increasingly progressive political experiments. The punchline is that dysfunctional government has managed to make that otherwise attractive geographic region so unlivable that people with the means to leave for other states are doing so in droves.

Among wealthy democratic nations, Great Britain has taken the lead in boldly implementing progressive ideology in both government and culture. Theodore Dalrymple has been documenting the dismal results for years. His cautionary essays are essential reading for anyone who traffics in political ideas. Life at the Bottom is a collection of those essays.

Huckleberries

It’s huckleberry season! Huckleberries ripen beginning in late July. And since huckleberries resist cultivation, they have to be picked in the wild from bushes that grow on mountain slopes.

In Idaho and Montana, huckleberry foraging locations are traditionally family secrets. I was permitted to accompany one expedition to a patch just off a dirt road deep in Forest Service land at 6,600 feet elevation.

Wild Huckleberries in late July at 6,600 feet ASL

Picking huckleberries is not easy: The bushes are low to the ground, the sparse berries tend to form under the leaves, and even when fully ripe the small berries do not easily detach. An hour of concerted picking yields dark purple fingertips and only about three cups of huckleberries (which reduce to just two cups when crushed).

It took an hour to pick these three cups of huckleberries

What’s the attraction? Huckleberries have a taste along the same axis as blueberries, and blackberries, but the flavor is far more intense than that of similar fruit.

Blueberries and Huckleberries

Huckleberries are often canned as jam and syrup. I helped can a traditional jam recipe that cooks equal parts berries and sugar, plus some pectin. The result was a precious product that we canned in 4-ounce jars. Given the strength of the huckleberry’s flavor I thought that recipe was excessively concentrated. So for a second batch I added crushed cultivated (i.e., large and relatively flavorless) blueberries in equal part to huckleberries; reduced the sugar by 20%, and canned the jam in 8-ounce jars. Informal blind taste tests concluded that my modification did not diminish the product.

Canned Huckleberry Jam

Overtourism

Fifteen years ago I was on a Mediterranean pleasure cruise that stopped at the major tourist destinations of Italy and Greece. It was a transformational experience. Not because of the landmark tourist attractions – seeing them in person offered nothing of substance that I hadn’t already learned or seen in documentaries. The thing that changed me forever was experiencing the other tourists. Vast crowds. Throngs. Hoards of international travelers queuing to the same locations to tread, ogle, and photograph the same things.

A recreational traveler who claims to be an environmentalist or conservationist is selfishly delusional. The environmental costs of intercontinental travel and infrastructure – of seasonally transporting and hosting masses of spectators – are enormous. And to what end? What is the benefit?

Do you feel an itch to travel to popular destinations? First ask yourself: What do you bring to the experience besides money?

Tourism is a ridiculous enterprise. I sampled global tourism for a few years because my wife worked in the industry and our travel was subsidized. I can say, from firsthand experience, that it is not worth the time and money, especially given the alternatives.

Do you want to immerse yourself in history or culture? Stay home and read or watch documentaries – written by world-class scholars and narrators; shot by professional photographers with the best equipment and unlimited access. Do you value the landmarks? Stay home and patronize conservationists. Do you need to escape or get out for recreation? Explore the attractions of the region in which you live.

Tourists are indulging in a vicious cycle of peer rivalry or bland FOMO. Somebody boasts of visits to the Pantheon or the Colosseum, and now a dozen acquaintances feel the need for their own first-person collection of passport stamps and photos of … the same thing? Are they all exceptional writers or documentarians?

Bitcoin Bubble

I explained this in more detail last month on my finance blog, but for the record here:

Bitcoin (BTC) is a pathological cryptocurrency. BTC does not represent the opportunities that are emerging in the decentralized-finance (“DeFi”) paradigm.  BTC is one of many evolving cryptocurrencies. As an early mover it attracted speculators who think “crypto” is the future but who don’t have an intelligent way to invest in that future.  The speculators drove a bubble in BTC price which then created a mob of “Greater Fools” who heard stories of people making windfall profits in BTC and didn’t want to miss out.  This is a classic manic bubble.

On the Primacy of Women

The Judeo-Christian story of the creation of humans in Genesis 2:18 is quaintly androcentric, describing the female sex as a supplemental creation to the male sex. The Hebrew description of the purpose of woman, עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ – most reasonably translated as counterpart – is often given an even more chauvinistic translation to describe woman as a helper or companion for man.

The androcentric perspective has continued into the modern era with women struggling to establish all sorts of equality with men. This is utterly bizarre when considered in the context of our species and its survival: It is males who are the adjunctive gender. The only essential role that men play in the survival of the human species is to supply sperm to fertile females. Everything else that men do is secondary to the essential and consuming labor of mothers.

Human females have a heavy reproductive burden: We are bipedal mammals with upright backs. This makes carrying a fetus awkward and delivering a baby often debilitating and even lethal. Human babies are altricial and have a longer period of dependence than any other animal.1 We have hungry, enormous brains but relatively weak digestive systems. Mankind exists because women have the capacity to balance and serve the onerous task of bearing and rearing children to maturity.2

It is males that are relegated to a supporting role in the human life cycle. Human males have virtually no reproductive burden – if men did nothing but make a momentary seminal deposit and then disappear humans would be fine. Another way to look at this is in terms of male biological freedom, and it’s interesting to see how that freedom is exploited. In phenotypic terms, human males can afford to display a greater variance of every measurable trait. While this leads to more apparently pathological behavior, it also leads to extremes of constructive traits that have fostered the development of human innovation and the proliferation of civilization.3


1 Interestingly: the time it takes an species’ young to mature is strongly correlated with the number of cortical neurons in its brain. Humans have far more cortical neurons than any other animal.

2 A few weeks after posting this I found this book review of Mom Genes, which details the remarkable neuro-physiological transformation that occurs in women who become mothers.

3 Is There Anything Good About Men? is a book I later found that appears to delve into this in more detail. I found an earlier paper by the author bearing the same title that is a really fascinating and worthwhile read.