Facts Matter: We Know Why Only the U.S. Suffers Frequent Mass Shootings

An abandoned AR-15 assault weapon, congealed victim blood, and empty sandals. July 20, 2012, mass shooting, Aurora, Colorado. (photo credit: AP)

For the umpteen-gazillionth time, here is a known fact: America has more mass shootings — more gun murders — than any other country on Earth, because America has more guns per person than any other country on Earth[5,7,9,10,11,13]. Our mass shootings problem is not due to any other factor.

It really is this straightforward: more guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders.

This uniquely American obscenity — frequent mass shootings — is not related to mental illness. The rates of mental illness in the U.S. do not differ from those of other nations[2]. It is not related to crime rate. The U.S. is not more prone to crime than other developed countries[5,11,15]. It is not related to racial diversity issues. Pointedly, in this era of blatant self-serving liars infesting our nation’s statehouses, Congress, and the White House, America’s gun problem is not related to immigration[3,6,12]. Every study that examines this has found that recent immigrants — documented or not — are less prone to violent crime. Our gun problem is also not related to video games[4]. It is none of these things, nor is it primarily due to anything else. America is suffering a disastrous public health problem[14], and we have long known how to substantially reduce it[1]. The largest causative factor for mass killings is simply this: the number of guns. More guns, more gun murders.

A corollary of this fact is inescapable: reducing the rate of gun ownership reduces the rate of gun murders. The relation is clean, and its interpretation is unambiguous

Every other developed nation on Earth has already not just discovered this but has acted upon it to protect and to better their own societies — and it has, with no exceptions, worked. Further, every evidence-based, peer-reviewed study of this relation has verified that the relation is causal — that it is factually true.

More guns, more gun murders.

What about mass killing lethality — the body count per mass shooting? This is not directly related to the question we’re examining here of why we, alone among all nations, have so many mass killings. But any discussion of mass killings in America would be remiss if it did not point out that the death toll from our daily rate of mass shootings — 347 in calendar 2017, for example[8] — is as high as it is not just because of the frequency of mass shootings but also because of the nearly unrestricted lethality of our readily available weaponry:

In my large file of mass murders, if you look decade by decade, the numbers of victims are fairly small up until the 1960s. That’s when the deaths start going way up. When the AK-47s and the Kalashnikovs and the Uzis — all these semiautomatic weapons, when they became so easily accessible.
— Dr. Michael Stone, forensic psychiatrist, Columbia University[2]

(Emphasis mine.) Ready availability of guns is the American Problem. The unjustifiable, immoral lethality of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry that is so easily available to Americans greatly compounds this American Problem of mass shootings.

Another notable difference about the U.S. and guns is this: America, along with only two other countries in the world (Guatemala and Mexico), adopts a most peculiar stance — an attitude that has proven to have been horrifically corrosive to American society. Alone from all others, we think that gun ownership — a priori, with no justification — is an inalienable right that stands alongside such real inalienable rights as life, liberty, equality, freedom of thought, and the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness.

This “right” to unrestricted ownership and use of firearms, this uniquely American intellectual and cultural obscenity, is the polar opposite of the rest of the world’s view, which concludes that gun ownership is a privilege we must first earn by tested demonstration of knowledge and responsibly competent behavior. To compound our error, American gun advocates erroneously — dishonestly — base our “right” on the willful truncation and misinterpretation of an antiquated second amendment that is merely an anachronism, irrelevant to any modern society. Perhaps the worst error of all is that we as a society reliably fail to call out this immoral stance on its (absence of) merits, this corrosive posturing of willing simpletons.

The resulting difference and its consequence — an unfortunate but inescapable conclusion — between us and nearly everybody else in the world? Between our culture on guns and almost everybody else’s culture on guns? The result is this: America deems senseless slaughter and mass murder, even of children in their classrooms, acceptable — a worthwhile price, dead bodies as tokens of our “freedom”. The slaughter of innocents is of less consequence than being able to own a lethal firearm with few to no constraints and with no more legal, ethical, or moral justification than merest whim.

This is worth repeating, to give the horror of it more time to sink in: In America, we view as acceptable the routine, senseless slaughter and mass murder of innocentsIn America, mass-murder rampages, enormous numbers of shattered, blood-soaked bodies, are of less concern to us than being able to own lethal firearms under few to no constraints, and with no more justification for ownership than thoughtless fancy. Does this conclusion shock you? Does it strike you as shrieking hyperbole? Yet it is an inescapable logical result that directly follows from valid, evidence-based premises. Mass murder is an okay trade for idle gun ownership.

More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. This relation is not just common sense, nor does its validity stop at correlation. It is established fact[9]. But many, especially among the ideological right, actively deny this fact, or they willfully ignore it (which is the same as denial), and they frequently throw an infantile fit whenever their proven wrong stance is called out on the facts (this is a particularly immature form of denial). Besides being fallacious logic, this behavior — denial — no matter how vociferous or “sincerely felt”, does not alter the facts, does not change the truth. Nor does denial alter what these facts tell us about the hideous visage that is modern American gun culture. Nor — tellingly — does it change what the facts imply about the moral character of those who willingly choose to bury their heads in the dirt of denial.

To deny verified truth is to be in the wrong — in both senses of that word. It is wrong not only on the facts themselves, but, according to traditional American values — above all, honesty — it is morally wrong. If you deny established truth, your values are incompatible with foundational American values that real Americans all hold dear — those very same values that once had made America the envy of the world, that once had made America a great nation. Due to our enduring, stubborn denial of evidence and truth, we have made of ourselves and our nation a fallen, sad laughing-stock.

It is often said that the root of all evil is the love of money[17]. But one of the hallmarks of the greedy and the avaricious is dishonesty; greedy people always utilize dishonesty to get more wealth. Another hallmark of greed is denial of reality. To be a greedy bastard is to dishonestly deny that societal needs, that the suffering of other people, matter if one is to count oneself a moral and ethical being. Greed and denial both are incompatible with morality and with ethics. Further, to exist, greed and denial both need dishonesty.

Since dishonesty is a prerequisite for greed, dishonesty is the more fundamental characteristic. More broadly, one cannot help but notice that a core requirement for every kind of evil — not just greed — is dishonesty. Dishonesty is the universal common element of evil — the seed from which all evil grows. It is little wonder that dishonesty plays so central a role in the mythologies of every culture. In the third chapter of Genesis, for example, the serpent’s lie — dishonesty — instigates the Fall of Man[16].

So I would point out that the root of all evil is not love of money, not greed and avarice, but dishonesty. As an aside, this is precisely why the very most abhorrent, most reviled character trait in all of science — ask any scientist — is dishonesty. We can conclude, then, that one of the most loathsome human characteristics to find within oneself is dishonesty.

Now that this horse has been sufficiently flogged, we can better appreciate the weight of the moral implication of this statement: if, upon learning that you are factually wrong, you still choose, for whatever reason, to continue to ignore and/or deny the established facts, then you are dishonest. This is a disconcerting result.

More guns, more gun murders.

If you know someone among the reality deniers — the dishonorable and unprincipled — regarding this uniquely American of problems, then you know that something is wrong with where their head is at. Assuming they are a normal human being capable of introspection, this wrongness, you would think, should cause them to fundamentally question why they feel such a need to deny reality. But it is a defining and quite stubborn characteristic of a person in denial to not question the sources of their denial. Therein lies the rub.

We should be clear that in this case complicating factors are not a valid excuse. Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the most consequential facts of the American Problem is a simple and robust relation, one that is also perfectly in line with the most basic of “common” sense. Nothing about it is unintuitive. As with anything in the real world, there are complications, confounding factors. But all known confounding factors have been proven minor with respect to this simple relation. More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. No complicating factor changes this relation; the evidence shows that it is solid — what scientists call robust. So one does not get to hide behind diversions, red herrings — dishonest changes of subject. And we should not allow them to.

For the good of the country we all care about, and for the good of those close to us, as well as for ourselves — we all have to face this at some point, to ask ourselves this question: where does our denial come from? What is it based on? Somebody else’s dishonest information, perhaps? Ideological bias? What are we actually basing our stance on? Only we, within the quiet of our own selves, can answer this. And once we have discovered it, we must ask ourselves this: does our answer — our truth — sit well with our conscience?

[1] Beauchamp, Z. (2016), “A huge international study of gun control finds strong evidence that it actually works” , Vox, February 29, 2016.

[2] Carey, B. (2017), “Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say” , The New York Times, November 8, 2017.

[3] Chattanooga, W.W. (2015), “Not here to cause trouble” , The Economist, July 10, 2015.

[4] Fisher, M. (2012), “Ten-country comparison suggests there’s little or no link between video games and gun murders” , The Washington Post, December 17, 2012.

[5] Fisher, M., and Keller, J. (2017), “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?” , The New York Times, November 7, 2017.

[6] Florida, R. (2011), “The Geography of Gun Deaths” , The Atlantic, January 13, 2011.

[7] Gilson, D. (2013), “10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down” , Mother Jones, January 31, 2013.

[8] Gun Violence Archive.

[9] Lankford, A. (2015), “Are America’s public mass shooters unique? A comparative analysis of offenders in the United States and other countries” , International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 40, 171-183. PDF available here: https://goo.gl/5yLL9C.

[10] Lopez, G. (2017), “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 17 maps and charts” , Vox, October 2, 2017.

[11] Lopez, G. (2015), “America’s gun problem, explained” , Vox, October 3, 2015.

[12] Nowrasteh, A. (2015), “Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says” , Cato Institute, July 14, 2015.

[13] Willingham, A.J., and Ahmed, S. (2016), “Mass shootings in America are a serious problem” , CNN, June 13, 2016.

[14] Zhang, S. (2018), “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem?” , The Atlantic, February 15, 2018.

[15] Zimring, F.E., and Hawkins, G. (1997), Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, Oxford University Press.

[16] Genesis 3:1-5 (KJV):

Now the serpent was more subtil [sic] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

[17] 1 Timothy 6:10 (KJV):

For the love of money is the root of all evil…

cretins, fucktards(*), and liars

Benjamin Torode / Getty Images

Trigger warning: I am about to use facts. If you are a conservative, the following will be foreign to your way of thinking and therefore will induce apoplexy. You should probably stop reading NOW.

Looky there, my pay check has changes, as promised! Trump and the Republicans have been incessantly, obsessively, and noisily claiming that we, the 99 percent, will see real benefits, as a result of Republican changes to Obama-era public policy, in three major economic areas that loom large for us, the 99 percent: salary, federal taxes, and health insurance premiums. Let’s call them on their fakery and see just how these stack up when we consider the facts of a typical upper middle class case.

  • I got a pay raise! Due to a purported “cost of living” increase, my (civil servant) salary went up by 1.68%. But inflation in 2017 was 2.1%. Result: my new pay rate, in constant money (2017 dollars), is smaller by 0.41%, meaning I make $17.43 less per biweekly pay check than before.
  • My federal taxes changed! Oh, gee, it looks nothing like what Trash Trump and the Robber Republicans have trumpeted, since I am a member of the 99 percent. Result: as a proportion of my salary, my federal tax rate went up by 0.18%.
  • My health insurance rate changed! Surprise, surprise, it went up. In 2017, my biweekly premium was $240.77 (or 5.6 percent of my 2017 salary). The 2018 premium is $257.81 (or 5.9 percent of my 2018 salary). In 2017 dollars, that’s $252.51. So my health insurance rate went up by (252.51-240.77)/240.77 = 5.48 percent in constant dollars, which is par for what others like me have seen.

The upshot: the net change of my biweekly income due to these three factors — salary, federal taxes, health insurance — expressed in 2017 dollars, is a decrease of $35.01. This is a 2017 salary fractional decrease of 1.0 percent. So, where are my promised “real benefits” due to Republican policy changes from the Obama era?

Gee, thanks, Trash Trump and Robber Republicans, you cretins, fucktards(*), and liars. Every one of your claims and bragging points is FALSE. As is always the case with you. You are liars. You are never not liars. Did you really think we would somehow fail to notice your trademark fraud, mendacity, and trumpery?

As my (Republican) dad would have put it, you bet your sweet bippy I will remember this — and your uncountable(**) earlier and ongoing cretinous acts against the American people — come November.

(*) fucktard (noun): A person of unbelievable, inexcusable, and indescribable stupidity (stupidity being defined as “knowing better yet doing it wrong anyway”). Note: a character trait, not a physical or physiological defect or shortcoming.

(**) uncountable (adjective): said of a set which has more elements than the set of integers.

My Dear Moore Letter

Hey, Roy Moore,

Here are the numbers (WaPo, NYT, and all manner of Fake News):


You lost. It was not a fair contest, since you Republicans prevented thousands upon thousands of those people from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Even so, you lost.

Not so fast, you say? Okay, sure. I can be all lawyery and numbery and elitist and argue totally for you and see where that gets us. This will prove you won, as is only right and fair and just, right? Well, no, but what the hey, I haven’t had my morning covfefe yet, so here we go.

Blanket Declaration*:

Now, let’s just declare, up front and all obvious-like, that ALL assumptions below are true and in your favor. You might have won after all! (Finally got your attention, didn’t I?)

* That means this is important for you to remember, Roy.

The military votes have yet to be counted. But, taking the tallied votes as reported by 100% of precincts, which is the overwhelming majority of possible legal votes, 49.92% voted for Jones, 48.38% voted for the asshole and child molester—for a difference of 1.54%—and 1.70% threw their vote away in justifiable disgust. A result that differs by 0.5% or less triggers a recount.

Guess what, Roy? You can’t guess? Here, I’ll make it easy: 1.54 is bigger than 0.5—in anybody’s version of reality, including even your magical Land of Nod.

Let’s try another way to view it, which I know is familiar to you and which even someone like you might grok: I believe in my heart of hearts—my heart of hearts, Roy!—that the simple, second-grade math above is true. So, therefore, it is true: you lost. There, does that convince you?

There’s wiggle room!, you say. Well, I’m pretty sure I heard something like that somewhere in your spittle-flinging ranting. Okay—we’re now going to start using the blanket declaration above—suppose ALL of the eligible military voters sent in ballots, and further suppose that ALL of those ballots are valid, and, even further, suppose ALL of those valid ballots were cast for you, the pedophile. Then we have 49.60% for Jones, 48.71% for the Alabamer prevert, and 1.69% for legitimate disgust. 49.60 minus 48.71 is 0.89, which in anybody’s version of reality is also bigger than 0.5. You still lost.

But wait, there could be more, Mr. Moore! (I figure you could never actually think, never mind think of this next possibility all by your widdle sewf, but hey, I’m a nice guy, capable of empathy (I know that word is alien to your kind, but bear with me here), and you’re pitifully pathetic even for a Republican, so here, this is me helping you out.) Suppose, after election officials—granted, election officials work for the evil gubment, so they’re pinko commie socialists committed to restoration of the Great Conspiracy—suppose all of them see the Light of your Righteous Cause and examine each write-in ballot and “discover” that, to everybody’s shock, the ballots are ALL valid, and that they are ALL for Moore the Misogynist. Let’s further suppose, as before, that ALL eligible military voted, ALL those ballots are also one hundred percent valid, and ALL are for precioussss little you.

The probability of this is not significantly different from zero, but let’s suppose all of it is true anyway, since you believe in miracles. Yes, I know, you don’t know what those big therefore bad and evil words mean, so you hatesss them, you do—trust me, that’s okay, I know you’d ignore the concept even if the words consisted of just monosyllabic grunts, your native language. Anyway, the tally then would be 49.60% for Jones and 50.40% for you Mr. Monster! That differs by 0.80%, which is again bigger than 0.5%, but this time it’s in your favor!

Yay! You win! You win!

Just kidding—you know every bit as well as the rest of us that you lost. As is true for everybody of your mental-midget ilk (that means people like you), you’re a shitty liar.

You’re welcome anyway to wait for the secret agent socialist election officials to examine the write-in ballots, and for that commie USPS to finish delivering the military ballots to the secret agents for tallying, and see if all those improbable things above come true. I have lots of popcorn, and I’m pretty sure everybody else does, too, so we’re all good with that.

Those impossible things won’t happen, though. Sorry-not-sorry, but miracles don’t exist. Reality does. So suck it up and be a Marlboro Man, asshole: you lost. As even Mike Huckabee—Mike Huckabee—said this morning,

“In elections everyone does NOT get a trophy.”

See those quotation marks? That means Huckabee really did write that.

Now, about that miracle recount for which you still insist on throwing a tantrum. Do you even grasp, yet, how dull-witted and infantile this makes you look? No, of course you don’t. Privation of even minimal cognition and mental agility is your problem. (Your therapist can explain this to you.) As mentioned, you don’t qualify for an automatic recount on the taxpayer’s dime. But you could still pay for a recount out of your own pocket, right? People have done that, and you can, too, right? Especially since you’ve been wronged—wronged, how dare they!

Well . . . WRONG, dude. You were seeking federal office. That matters in Alabama. You don’t get to demand a recount for a margin greater than 0.5%, even if you could convince some idiot to pay for it for you (assuming that’s even legal—but remember the blanket declaration at the top of this letter). Alabama state law says this, and it’s crystal clear on the matter. If you have any groveling flunkies left, get one to look it up for you.

You lost. Grow up.

A Physicist Contemplates Training Wheels

Motion catches the corner of my eye. Look up. Over there, beyond Spike the cat on his high perch, out the front window, past the rough-barked pine trees. A little girl struggles to get her bicycle going again. It is an impossible bright pink, with incongruous black rims and stout black spokes. Pink helmet, blue-jeans shorts and sneakers, a pink shirt with a pattern I can’t quite make out, probably animals. She pushes and shoves, single-minded, her entire world encompassed by this instant, realigns with the center of her sidewalk highway, and is on her way again, oddly upright. She is gone before I figure out the oddness plucking tunelessly at the back of my mind: her winged Pegasus, pink bike with the black rims and thick spokes, has training wheels.

A minute or two later a couple strolls by, chatting and laughing quietly, comfortable with their daughter on the fluorescent bicycle roaming her sidewalk highway in search of adventures. He is tall—very tall, I realize—dark-haired and relaxed and fills an oversized baggy white shirt and oversized baggy blue gym shorts. She is short, dark-complexioned as well, with long Mesoamerican black hair flowing down a relaxed back over a shapeless baggy garment of muted earthen colors. Her being animates the facial features of a woman from a Central American country, a newborn swaddled to her chest. He laughs again. Whatever world they inhabit in this moment, it seems pleasant—fitting for a quiet mountain neighborhood on this sunny, breezy, unexpectedly warm and easygoing March day. Sharp contrast to the cold hardness and wantonly inflicted greed newly risen from a vat of putrescent bile left simmering in the underbelly of our country.

I can’t help but smile in response to a brief respite in this couple’s welcoming sunny bubble, even at a distance. Vicarious pleasure is still pleasure; escape is sometimes necessary. After perusing the news after telling myself that I would not peruse the news, which seems always horrific in this dank hegemony, seeing the chatting and laughing couple is a surprising if welcome balm, a salve for psychic ills and the hurt billowing across the world.

A study in contrasts, this, but a common theme emerges: disposition emanates and infects, whether one realizes it or not. I think of my leaden, lowering demeanor this morning, then of their easy laughter. I am glad that they can infect me, and not I them, in this chance one-way encounter. We humans are a spongy mirror, the physicist’s black body, absorbing and re-emitting packets of dark or light that happen to intersect our surface—venom or laughter, pain or comfort, bigotry or celebration.


But do we create? Can we create? To what extent do we have a choice? If all of us absorb and reflect, then what is the source of the light, what is the source of the dark, these quantized carriers of sadness and joy that scatter through our society, random-walking among neighbors, among couples, among children riding pink steeds along narrow weathered-cement roadways?

It dawns on me that this chatting and laughing couple, this reflection of what is, or can be, right in the realm, is the essence of resistance—resistance to the advancing wave of hard dark bone-seeping cold things, predatory denizens swimming a fouled and murky miasma, this newly-erupted, unwelcoming abyss. This couple and their fleet daughter, emitters of packets of wonder and humanity, whatever their origins, are what saves us. Hold on to this and do not let go, I say to myself, however violent and turbulent the buffetings to come.

I wonder if they are new to the neighborhood. Two world lines intersecting defines a point in space and time, a before and an after, that changes both in the instant, in the mystery, of interaction. Perhaps we will cross walking paths. I think I would like that. Perhaps, even, the training wheels will be off.

Further reading

“Black Body”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_body

“Quantum”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum

“Sunlight Is Way Older Than You Think!”, Sten Odenwald, The Huffington Post (2014), https://goo.gl/dBlKFy

“World Line”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_line

“Overview of the fundamental interactions”, Wikipedia, https://goo.gl/sptt9p


And They’re Fluffy: an Ode to Modern Air Travel

Other than the airports; the TSA ding-dongs, dipshits, and assorted knuckle-draggers, wannabe-thugs; the doltingly stupid “security”-theater rules invented by bitter assholes who’ve nothing better to do all day than find even more pointless, inane ways to make people miserable; the noisy, milling mass of yabber yabbers polluting gate areas with their meaningless babble at full volume always full volume; the humanity, oh, the humanity; the FUCKING TVs that nobody ever actually watches and that have metastasized to every gate area and whose volume controls are now shielded from both generations of my TV-B-Gone TV volume zappers; the people who stand still on the left, on the right, and in the center of every moving walkway; the goddamned “caution! the walkway is ending!” bullshit that repetitively exists only in America, Land of Idiots (as if we needed yet more evidence that lawyers are evil); the shitty-smelling air on more airplanes than not, especially Alaska Airlines for some reason even though in every other respect Alaska Airlines is AWESOME; the wretch-inducing smell emanating from my seatmate’s smushed oozing pale vomitous lump that she sheepishly calls a sandwich which I can’t get mad about because she’s a nice person, one of the few pleasant persons on-board, and it’s the punishing absence of actual food on planes that forces her and everybody else to smuggle foodstuffs that roil with microbes—always odoriferous microbes—due to the unanticipated lines, waits, and delays, mostly from TSA pointlessness; having to dislocate hips and knees in order to fold my body into “seats” (that’s what they call them) that are uniformly shaped to cut off circulation from mid-thighs down no matter your height or contortions or body proportions, that cruelly prevent any form of sleep or rest, and that cause at least three herniated disks PER FLIGHT; the invariable blaring glaring walking shouting banal advertisements for birth control that are wholly incapable of instilling the slightest modicum of civility or reasonable behavior in the greasy monstrous creatures they call their children; middle seats (although middle seats get a worse rap than deserved, but, still: middle seats); the ever-present very large (and, nowadays, any not-actually-petite) person who didn’t have time for a shower that day spilling over the boundaries into MY SPACE, and even though they are more than fully aware of the situation and are nervous and sweating which makes them smell worse in a recursive ouroboros of miasmatic misery and are thus helplessly far more uncomfortable than I can possibly know, so I feel guilty for even thinking about it, and even though I know neither they nor anybody else can help it because the airline wanted to fit ONE MORE fucking seat across the cabin, I still get irritated; the piercing evil-eye launched from at least four pinched faces attached to people that are pissed that I raise my window shade (on those occasions that I do manage to snag a window seat, whose window is invariably scratched, frosting, and coated with hair gel (at least I think it’s hair gel)) so I can blissfully escape and gawk at the stunning views outside, about which they seem incapable of ever being curious much less experiencing the yūgen that contemplating our universe instills; the fucking little hearing-damaged shits with their cheap crappy earbuds that fail to dampen the cacophony of their crappy nerve-scraping “music” the least little bit, at least two of which are offensively within earshot at all times; the vile urchin from hell behind you that kicks your seat for four hours solid and whose mother hurls javelins of epic mondo stink-eye (do they practice in front of mirrors?) for even the most polite, deferential, soft-spoken, and diplomatic of intimations that her little spawn of Satan might want to stop kicking my seat or else suffer sudden involuntary decapitation (flight attendants frown on avoidable messes, so, really, nobody wants that); and—the ultimate, ever-present pièce de résistance—SCREAMING BABIES, EVERYWHERE; why, other than that, I love flying. The clouds are pretty.


This is America

This is America.

Republican politicians cynically abandon every American value, values we the people—some of us—hold dear. You who voted for Donald Trump and for other high-office Republicans: you are lost, only half a step behind your callous leaders, none of whom give a damn about you.

You voted into the highest office in the land a misogynist bigot and con man, an ignorant billionaire and narcissistic pig who spent his entire life crushing people just like you, without a second’s thought.

You excuse yourself for voting for this monster, for inflicting this hideous thing on our country. You tell yourself that it’s okay because you are mad at … at … you can’t legitimately articulate what you are mad at or why, can you? You excuse yourself, but you have fooled nobody—not even yourself. Somewhere inside, you know that you have done something terrible.

You make me sick.

Look at who you have become, what you have abandoned. Look at it, and remember, over the coming weeks and months and years. Your thoughtless action identifies you with Trump, the vile putridity that he stands for, that the Republicans stand for, and has put you as far from this, our America, as is humanly possible. You own this. Read, and be ashamed for what you have done, for what you chose, for what you have become. Because this is America, and you are no longer a part of it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–Emma Lazarus, 1883


Thor’s Day Morning Mathematical Musings

Have you had your caffeine injection yet? Well, then, here are three puzzles (with answers, but the answers are not helpful!):

  1. Can you completely mix a mug of coffee, such that, at every point inside the mug, the coffee at that point is different after stirring from before stirring? Go get a cup of joe (or tea), stir it, and see what you think.
    Answer: no. There will always be at least one point that is the same after the liquid has settled, no matter how vigorously you stir it. It is mathematically impossible for there to be no such points inside the mug.
  2. Do there exist on the surface of the Earth, at any given time, two antipodal points that have exactly the same surface temperature?

    Answer: yes. What about two antipodal points that have exactly the same barometric pressure? Also yes. Two antipodal points that have exactly the same surface temperature and exactly the same barometric pressure? Yet again, yes. This is mathematically inescapable.‌

    antipodal points on a sphereAt any time there exists a continuous curve on the Earth’s surface on which every point has an antipodal point that also lies on the curve and that has the same temperature. There is a different continuous curve on which antipodal points have the same pressure. And the two curves must intersect, since both encircle the globe, each separating it into two pieces. So that means there must be, at any time, at least one pair of antipodal points somewhere on the surface of the Earth that have the same temperature and the same pressure.

    You’ve probably surmised by now—you drank that cup of joe, right?—that this is true not just for temperature and pressure but for any two continuously variable parameters (such as temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, solar and terrestrial radiation, cloud ceiling, particulate density, atmospheric composition, and so on). You would be correct.
  3. Think of a multi-digit positive integer. Any such number will do—for example, $76.$ Now add up its digits and subtract that sum from the original number. $76\,- (7+6) = 63.$ Now apply this algorithm to the new number: $63\,- (6+3) = 54.$ Keep doing this until the resulting number has shrunk to just one digit. $54\,- (5+4) = 45$, $\dots, 18\,- (1+8) = 9.$

    Ta da! (Yes, really.) No matter your starting number (as long as it has more than one digit), you will always end up at $9$.

    Here is a quick and dirty python program that performs this task for any positive integer, returning the end result (which had better be nine!) and the number of iterations it took to get there:

    def digi9(n):
        count = 0
        while True:
            k = sum(list(map(int,','.join(str(n)).split(','))))
            m = n - k
            if len(str(m)) == 1:
                return m, count+1
            n = m
            count += 1

    Let’s consider an example:

    >>> digi9(72459075)

    Starting with the randomly chosen number $72,459,075$, over two million iterations later we indeed end at $\dots, 27\,-(2+7) = 18,$ $18\,- (1+8) = 9.$

How are the answers to these little puzzles so? Welcome to the world of fixed point theorems! In mathematics, a fixed point is a member of a set such that an operation on the set at that point maps back to the point. The set can be anything—the set of integers, a Euclidean line, surface, or volume, etc. This concept has wide application and profound consequences in many branches of mathematics. The above puzzles are examples of fixed points in their respective sets. Put that in your mug and stir it!

Now go get some more coffee.

Show Me!

Suppose we have a function $f(x)$ such that $f(x) \in [a,b]~~\forall~x \in [a,b]$. That is, the function maps back to its domain. Then $f(x)$ has a fixed point $f(c) = c$ somewhere in the closed interval $a \le c \le b$.

Why? Well, it must be true that

\begin{equation}f(a) \ge a~~~ \mathrm{and} ~~~f(b) \le b \label{condition}\end{equation}

The intermediate value theorem says that if a function $f(x)$ is continuous on a closed interval $[a,b]$, then, for a given $c$ such that $f(a) \le c \le f(b)$, there must exist at least one value $x_0 \in [a,b]$ such that $f(x_0) = c.$

Since the range of our function is restricted to its domain, $f([a,b]) \in [a,b]$, we have from eq. \eqref{condition} that $f(a)-a \ge 0$ and $f(b)-b \le 0.$ If we define $g(x) \equiv f(x)-x$, this is $g(a) \ge 0 \ge g(b).$ By the intermediate value theorem there must then exist a value $c \in [a,b]$ such that $g(c) = 0$. Hence, there must exist at least one fixed point, $f(c) = c.$

This—or, rather, its generalization to any Euclidean space—is essentially a statement of the Brouwer fixed point theorem:

Every continuous function from a closed ball of a Euclidean space into itself has a fixed point.

Legend has it that Brouwer was lead to his theorem by pondering the surface of a cup of coffee upon stirring in a lump of sugar. (That someone would debase a good cup of coffee with sugar is a wholly different issue.)

Vsauce has an interesting video about fixed points, from which I stole the three examples above:


When I am at my desk, preparing for tonight’s observing. And it is evening.

Notes to self, part 437.

  1. When I am at my desk, preparing for tonight’s observing.
    1. And it is evening.
  2. If an email arrives from the satellite tracking app, you could open it.
    1. Be aware that this alert is for tonight.
    2. You did bring clothing for the weather, right?
      1. Not that it matters. You don’t pay attention to these things.
      2. Maybe you should.
      3. Come to think of it, you do recall thinking, this morning, that you could get away with not paying attention today, since you figured you’d be inside anyway.
        1. Running late, you were in a hurry.
        2. And you are lazy, when possible: it makes life more efficient.
  3. You bring your digital camera with you to the Observatory, because you never know what will demand photos on any given day.
    1. Or night.
    2. Mountain weather dances, flits, pirouettes.
      1. Cloud formations tend to be awesome.
      2. Atmospheric effects abound.
      3. Evanescent.
      4. Most, even in such a wondrous, sky-dance land, never look up.
        1. Is the mundaneness of our daily routines so important? That we must concentrate our gaze, glazed, on the mud of our feet?
        2. This is a great sadness.
  4. According to the alert, the International Space Station is due to pass overhead.
    1. Tonight.
    2. It is an especially good pass:
      1. For once, its path will track straight overhead.
      2. For once, it will largely miss the Earth’s shadow.
        1. This means the ISS will be a bright beacon from nearly horizon to horizon.
        2. This means it must be nearly either a north-to-south or a south-to-north pass. Ah, spatial geometry.
      3. For once, this good fortune is not tied to a predawn pass.
        1. You do not function well in the predawn hours.
    3. To compensate, Murphy’s Law will demand its due.
      1. It always does.
        1. This is consistent with observation.
      2. You hypothesize that this is a conservation law.
      3. Murison’s Corollary: When fortuitous good things happen, the balance of the Universe must be restored.
        1. Count on it.
  5. Fire up the satellite ephemeris program you wrote.
    1. Fetch the latest orbital elements from space-track.org.
    2. Create plots of azimuth and height above the horizon.
    3. Check that your observing window matches the alert’s prediction.
  6. Glance at the outside temperature: +12°F.
    1. You are surprised.
    2. But then you remember this morning, and your decision to leave the coat, the scarf, the gloves, behind.
    3. Tell yourself: that’s okay, this should be quick, it’s not that cold.
  7. Grab the camera and head outside ten minutes early.
    1. Always start early. Things go wrong.
    2. Rats: you didn’t bring a tripod.
      1. Hand-held video recording it is, then.
      2. You are secretly a little relieved at not being able to try anything fancy.
        1. Even though nobody else is here, it feels like a secret.
        2. Can we really keep secrets from ourselves?
  8. The door locks behind you: click.
    1. Memory trigger.
    2. Check your pocket for keys. After it locks behind you.
    3. This strikes you as humorous.
  9. Find a good spot: the middle of the small parking lot.
    1. Unobstructed view north, west, and south.
    2. The main telescope dome, three stories high, with a halo of Flagstaff light pollution, swallows the eastern sky.
    3. The satellite is on a south-to-north path tonight.
    4. Yes, this is perfect.
  10. The southwest wind is brisk.
  11. Unpack and check your camera.
    1. Breathe. Go slow. Be methodical. Think.
    2. Everything functions as expected.
    3. You don’t expect this. What will be the yin to this yang?
  12. +12°F is cold.
  13. Bare hands in +12°F will quickly go numb.
    1. Forty-five seconds to a minute, tops.
    2. You will marvel at the pain, though you cannot feel anything.
    3. Configure and start your camera before this happens.
  14. Check your watch: seven minutes to go.
    1. This, too, is unexpected.
    2. Try not to think about your body heat rapidly fleeing with the wind, that thief.
      1. Your warm, warm, cozy, comfortable body heat.
      2. Via your hands, and neck, and head, and feet.
      3. When did these jeans become so thin?
    3. Seven minutes is an eternity.
      1. When there is nothing to do but not think about how uncomfortable it is.
      2. When standing exposed in the wind.
      3. When it is +12°F.
  15. Keep your eyes on the view through the camera.
    1. Is that it, there, low in the southwest?
    2. Look up, blink-flick distorting tears, and verify with your eyes: yes, there it is.
      1. Right on time.
      2. In the right place.
      3. Glorious.
  16. Follow it slowly up, and over, and down to the northeast, where it softly slips into shadow before reaching the treeline. The five-minute pass passes quickly.
    1. Now you cannot feel your feet.
  17. It is done.
    1. Note the satisfaction in your gut: good data acquired, it says.
    2. Bask in that warmth as you lean down to pack up.
    3. And then your circumstances impinge.
  18. Fifteen minutes is a surprisingly long time when it’s +12°F out.
    1. And you’re wearing only a t-shirt and light jacket.
    2. And Birkies.
  19. If you can’t feel anything with the stumps at the ends of your arms, there will be consequences.
    1. You won’t be able to turn off or stow your camera.
    2. It will be surprisingly hard, and hence take a surprisingly large number of tries, and hence take a surprisingly long time, to get your key into the door lock and scurry back inside, to your office.
    3. Where it is not +12°F.


Camera: Canon G3 X. Video processed using kdenlive.

On Dirt

Star guts. Ground mountains. Seething motion unseen. Organism detritus. Feculence. Bug poop.


Knees pop as I bend down and pinch a gram of soil between my fingers. I bring it up to my face: grains, and the filler between the grains. I am looking at 1013 bacteria, each a tiny furnace eating chemical energy.

nutrients: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sunlight.

The critter universe in this quarter of a thimble of soil is more numerous than the stars swirling around the spiral galaxy we call home. By a factor of roughly a hundred. Or 1,500 times more numerous than the people on Earth. I work with such numbers every day. After thirty years, I still cannot fathom their import. Grains escape my clumsy dermal trap and sift back down, to the ground.

soil: earth, terra, qaḏāra, drytt. (The word dirt , from Middle English drytt, annoys soil scientists; it is an epithet.) Clay, silt, sand. Browns and tans, flecks of blacks and reds and whites. Crystalline facets sparkling in bright sunlight.


Soil is Earth’s largest reservoir of carbon, the basis of all known life. Too much carbon in the air, and we die, we voracious eaters and stirrers of dirt. Too little, and we die, we profligate disturbers of Nature. We live, we stumble, we contemplate, among a balance of energies that flow in overlapping cycles, large and small, short and long—a balance that seems ever more fickle, precarious, as the world grows warmer.


I look up and squint. The Sun, a middling, middle-aged star in an unremarkable part of the galaxy, warms my face, the skin on my arms. I know this sensation to be my brain, some still poorly understood interconnected agglomeration of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, making sense (or such is my perceived reality) of neurochemical signals instigated by infrared quanta, packets of energy that were born of violent subatomic interactions and that fled the core of our star a thousand millennia ago. It takes that long for light to wend its random way from the Sun’s core to its surface.

macrofauna: woodlice, worms, beetles, ants.

A roundworm has 300 neurons and several thousand synapses. My cat has three-quarters of a billion neurons, and about 1013 synapses. She is gray and feisty and adorable, and getting on in years, like me, but she is not the sharpest knife in drawer, perhaps also like me. I rub a larger number of bacteria between my fingers than she has synapses, the connections between her brain cells.

mesofauna: mites, nematodes, roundworms, coneheads, blind and heartless pauropods, indestructible tardigrades.


Digital elevation map of the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Northern Arizona. (source: AZGS)
Digital elevation model of the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Northern Arizona. (source: AZGS, click to enlarge)

I wonder, where was this microcosm of mineralogy, pinched between my fingers, a million years ago? Flagstaff sits atop the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a complex of around six hundred volcanic cinder cones that have been active over the past six million years. The San Francisco Peaks, named in the 17th century for St. Francis of Assisi, themselves are the weathered remains of a stratovolcano that erupted between 0.4 and 1 million years ago. This bit of soil, at least its silica grains, may very well have been in the upper mantle, squeezing towards a volcanic hole in the Earth’s crust, when the photons warming my skin began their arduous journey.


We know about the bacteria in this pinch of soil, at least their rough numbers if surprisingly little else, because our optical instruments, microscopes, allow us that determination, given enough time and persistence.

microfauna: bacteria and fungi, thousands of species, mostly unknown to science; yeast; protozoa with their pseudopods, their flagella, their cilia; disintegrators of organics.

I don’t see stars in the daytime sky, other than our Sun, but I know they, too, are there, each of them a furnace converting matter in their cores to energy. At night, our telescopes show us their rough numbers, given enough time and persistence. Our microscopes also enable us a rough count of our neurons, and our synapses, these tangled little engines of thought. We don’t yet understand consciousness, our self-awareness that causes us to ask questions, stir the soil, and build tools so we can determine these incomprehensible numbers, and to ponder—if not grasp, for that seems a long way off still—their significance.



Navigating the Teratism, Or How I Came to Vote for Hillary Clinton

Given the widespread unreason in this mind-numbing political season, how can one cut through the din to make a good decision on who should be our Democratic presidential candidate? It is still not that hard to go about it at least somewhat rationally. Google is your friend—or can be, if you use it in the right ways. Here is a brief tale of the strategy I adopted in my quest to decide my Arizona primary—er, “presidential preference”—vote rationally.

From the start, I pointedly refused, both in public and, importantly, to myself, to take a position until just before election day here in Arizona. I’ve learned from past elections that the intense pressure of primary season can reveal facets of a candidate’s personality and experience that are important not to miss. So, I figured, the longer I stake out uncommitted territory, the more useful things I will learn, and the better my chances of making a sound decision. Furthermore—I did not realize this until later—being firmly uncommitted meant that I had no emotional investment in any candidate. Given our well-proven human tendency to defend our own tribe no matter the context, evidence, or consequences, this was a brilliant strategy for maintaining a certain amount of level-headedness and a boon to intellectual freedom. Alas, if only I could claim this brilliance was anything but an accident! Nevertheless, this lesson turned out to be the most valuable one for me in this experience.

I am now glad I did choose this course and hold off. It both allowed and forced me to check the substance behind the things people parrot, and the things people uncritically pass around as “memes”. I found that, primarily, these things are bunk—either untrue, or twisted to say or imply something untrue, or cherry-picked out of context to represent something untrue. It is little other than collective mental garbage going in and out, in and out of flaccid brains. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias metastasized and run amok. This cannot be healthy.

The completeness of the logic FAIL (especially of very nearly every “meme” I’ve seen) coming from a certain segment of liberaldom astonishes, when you look into it. I did not expect this degree of unreason coming from liberals. But I suppose I should have: the psychologists tell us (and have rigorously shown) that people are people, whatever their ideological leanings. We all are surprisingly susceptible to the same biases, the same cognitive foibles—left, right, maybe not so much the mythical middle. Still, it has been disappointing to learn that critical thinking is not relevant to the very people who, at least occasionally, proudly pay it lip service: the educated liberal.


After a couple of months of observing the back-and-forth on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and of chasing down the origins of some of the various topics that I care about, and of pushing back as gently but firmly as I know how against the tide of blatant unreason issuing from some of my friends, I arrived at the following conclusions (observations, really):

  1. Bumper-sticker thinking is not helpful. But it is oh, so seductive. This is a serious problem.
    1. Political “memes” mostly are dishonest, even false, and only encourage both lazy thinking and unproductive discord. They are like that cough that you just cannot shake, the one that at 2am you fear could be tuberculosis. Or cancer. It is easy to prove the dishonesty of most of them, but people almost never bother. Political memes are just too delicious, yet they are uniformly counterproductive.
    2. There is no breaking through the ideological barriers of many liberals. That is, the cognitively barricaded have little interest in facts, the truth, or, especially, complex contexts and shades of meaning, if it threatens the warped world view they’ve adopted nearly wholesale from two and a half decades of incessant drum beating from the right. Rational discussion is as hopeless among them as among rabid conservatives. Neither even notices the pounding drums.
    3. The right has largely succeeded in its long, sustained campaign of propaganda and negativity, even among liberals. Liberals, too, now unthinkingly assume the GOP’s disingenuous message framing as a matter of course, without ever questioning those false assumptions. Frank Luntz is unquestionably evil, but he is just as unquestionably brilliant.
  2. Sanders’s consistent message is THE progressive, liberal message…and has been, since approximately forever. This is good. This is excellent. Ours is a wondrously wholesome and healthy message. We care about people, and society, and the planet we live on. Further, Sanders does not do a bad job of framing our message effectively. This is unusual for a liberal. If only we had more who can do this.
  3. However, that’s pretty much it. To borrow a phrase, there’s little “there” there. Tastes great, less filling. Hardly a thought (although a larger amount of afterthought) is given to how we might usefully set about accomplishing any of the things Sanders drones on about—how to take plausible, substantive steps towards our shared liberal goals—given our current reality.
    1. This reality consists of past, present, and promised intransigence, nastiness, belligerent ignorance, blatant lies and cheating, unrelenting callousness, narcissism, and frequent infantilism among conservatives, as well as the sad fact that conservatives continue to control most of our country—Senate, House, Supreme Court, state legislatures, and state governorships. And it is unlikely any of this context is going to change much.
    2. So, bzzzt. This glaring yet persistent absence of substance, of a realistic plan moving forward, has been a deal-breaker for me.
    3. Clinton, however, plausibly claims to be about realistic (well, in large part based on realistic) solutions for making substantive progress toward the same goals, but taking into account our current reality (ding ding ding ding ding!), as I think any thinking person must. Short on pizazz, but pragmatic. This matters.
  4. Hillary Rodham Clinton has baggage. Big baggage. But the overwhelming majority of it ranges from mostly to completely bogus—nonsense, lies, and disingenuous exaggeration. That’s what over two decades of asinine, rapid-fire Republican attacks, ignorance, and dishonest agendas will pile on a person, especially if that person is competent (not to mention a woman), and especially when the media doesn’t do its journalism job (which abilities it willingly allowed to atrophy several decades ago). Follow up on any so-called “criticism” of HRC (as proclaimed by either Republicans or Sanders supporters), and you discover that—surprise!—95% of it is bullshit.
  5. HRC is likely more conservative than I am comfortable with on several important matters: many areas of foreign policy, a few areas of economic policy. (But no problems in her domestic policies that strike me as worrisome.)
  6. However, HRC also:
    1. has a buttload of experience in combat politics (Sanders has none); she is thoroughly battle tested,
    2. has an extra crap-ton of experience in dealing with and circumventing Republican assholery (Sanders has none),
    3. knows, and can adroitly handle, most if not all of the main players in the DC machinery (sorry, Bernie fans, but this matters),
    4. recognizes, readily acknowledges, and thinks strategically about the complex real world in which every policy decision resides (Sanders does not seem to understand—or at least acknowledge—that the real world is hugely complex),
    5. has a well-proven titanium spine (Sanders: indeterminate, as he’s never been tested), and
    6. appears to be, mostly out of public view, a genuinely warm human, despite all she’s been through.
  7. Hillary Clinton cannot frame a message effectively to save her life. This is unfortunate, for us all, and it unfairly hurts her in the polls. But to my mind this is not a valid deal-breaker since it does not affect the indomitable substance of what she brings to the table. It does, however, make it more difficult to uncover that substance from among all the bogus dreck. That’s on us: our failure has been and continues to be intellectual laziness.
  8. Sanders appears to be inflexible, unable to adapt much to a shifting, changing context. I suspect HRC is no yoga master, but Sanders is mineralized through and through. Has he substantively changed, in any way, in forty years? Perhaps he’s never been forced by circumstances to look at things differently to achieve a longer goal. This is a problem for me.

    I recently tried to explain this to a good psychologist friend (we went to their wedding in Thailand, even). He stopped me midstream and said that in psychology research circles this is a quantitatively well-studied thing and has a label: cognitive rigidity. He was pretty pleased to teach me something new. He also agreed that he, too, sees Sanders as notably rigid (his words: Sanders would likely score high on the scale of cognitive rigidity). That dawning in my head the week before our voting day I think is what clinched my evolving decision. If you can’t adapt, you won’t be effective.


So I voted for Clinton.


Idolatry is not my thing. I must admit that I am sick and tired of pervasive Bernie Sanders cult worship. Few if any in the Sanders crowd (at least any more) seem to actually think, and do research, with a serious eye toward considering the evidence as a dispassionate, unbiased observer. It seems to be mostly about seeking and sharing only those superficial fragments and tidbits that agree with predetermined opinions. This is not thinking.

political ideology circle (from reddit)
The left-right divide disappears not only in the moderate middle but also in the mental rigidity of fascism (from reddit, click to enlarge).

Further, you can trace the origins of most of the negativity and slime thrown at Hillary Clinton—regardless of who is flinging it today—directly back to Republicans (they play dirty, remember?). But, still…liberals? Misinformation and willful ignorance have been running rampant, even among us, and especially among Sanders zealots, who, in terms of blind ideology, are little different from conservatives (see graphic). The content is opposite, but the cognitive rigidity on display is the same. Further, voting primarily with your gonads (many conservatives do this) or your adrenal glands (Berniebots, that’s you) is not just unwise, irrational, counterproductive, intellectually dishonest—all true—but also unethical, in that abandoning your responsibility as a citizen to your fellow citizens, and to our shared society, is unethical.

This continues to surprise me, our abandonment of critical thinking; I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it yet. A sustained, twenty-five year barrage of shameless negative falsehoods and bullshit from the Republican machine, faithfully parroted by the mainstream media, must inevitably bias all of our perceptions and assumptions. Maybe that is the explanation. GIGO. But shouldn’t at least we, the educated liberal, be well aware of this bias?

It has been a disheartening several months.

excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion.


Here are a few resources I found helpful while pondering (mostly alphabetical by title). I will update this list sporadically, as I come across useful new articles. Latest update: 21 April 2016.


Protected: The Incident in Which My Middle Finger Meets The Vice President of the United States

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But where’s the butter?

“Hon, where’s the butter?”—a cartoon on our fridge.

A cartoon hung on our fridge for a couple of years. Its caption became a humorous private code, let’s call it The Code, between my wife and me. The Code is about assumptions, although, as with most frequently revisited negotiations, however small in the wider tapestry of life, a richness to it has developed over time.

honey wheres the butter
(click to enlarge)

Several years ago, I was searching the house for something (I forget what). I am thorough, and, like all pack-rat tendencied people, I am intimately familiar with all my Usual Locations for this or that object, the particular hierarchy of locations depending on how I categorize the object. They may be varied, but they are specific. I’ve noticed people tend to not believe this of us, because, probably, they are not like that. This is mistaken. I had searched the Usual Locations for where this thing, whatever it was, would have been, had I been the last one to move it. Having exhausted all known possibilities, I finally asked if she knew where it was. The thought of inefficiently looking in random places did not appeal. She interpreted my question as an accusation. I don’t remember it that way. Yet, in light of modern research on the fallibility of our recollections, which apparently are not the recalling of information so much as gap-ridden reconstructions of it, I cannot now be sure. Our brains seem to have uncommunicative minds of their own. Or maybe we still haven’t learned, most of us, to listen very well.

My demeanor can seem stern to others. But I am just being plainspoken. I don’t do sugar-coat very well. My wife excels at social diplomacy. Sometimes, I secretly wish I could do this. I marvel at people for whom this seems effortless (a sign of artistry). This societal expectation of largely inane filler pre- and post-pended to the message content—at times I view it as an affliction—seems in turns silly and exasperating to me much of the time, but even so I just don’t have the ability. (Or is it a skill? I would rather it be an ability, an innate talent, because then I would not be responsible for my learning difficulties with this chore.) Now I wonder: do our individual abilities, or lack of abilities, cause our value judgments? Do I think this inane because I’m not good at it? If true, this is disconcerting: is it even possible, then—especially in light of the spackled-over patchwork that is our memories—for any of us to assess objectively? Anyway, if the proffered filler accompanying a communication is (usually inaccurately) perceived as insufficient or insufficiently deferential to fragile egos, why do most people assume the intent is to attack? Perhaps in addition to physics I should have pursued psychiatry.

“Did you check here? There? . . .” She rattled off the most likely Usual Locations, surprising me with a couple I didn’t know she knew—an indication of how well we know each other, which in hindsight pleases me no end but at the time felt a little invasive, like a private area had been found out. “Yes, it’s not there. Yes, not there, either.” She assumed I had not thoroughly checked the Usual Locations. Or could it be my assumption of her assumption is inaccurate, and I don’t really know where this was coming from? She marched off to physically visit these places and check them herself, fully assuming it’d be sitting somewhere in plain view. As she passed through the kitchen I trailed along, a bit sullen. Try and imagine, if you will, a gait that broadcasts, “Rolling my eyes now”. Telling her that checking the same spots that I had just checked would be pointless would have been pointless. We can both be stubborn. And wrong.

She brought up short, arm outstretched, triumphal finger aimed at the counter. Imagine, I’m sure you can, a posture that fairly shouts, “See, I told you so!” Saying the words out loud would have been redundant. There it was. In the Wrong Location. But right in front of me this whole time, easily seen had I been less narrowly focused on only the Usual Locations. I had passed by it at least three times. I think we both felt a certain amount of smugness in being right, each in our way, neither of us really yielding to the other’s frame of reference, but also a small but significant awakening of awareness, a crack, inside our respective sectarian mental domains. Thus was born The Code, which showed up on the fridge I think a day or two later.

The Code is now a shortcut for reminding that one of us may not see a disagreement about something the same way as the other. “Honey, where’s the butter?” is a not infrequent non sequitur, which is not a non sequitur, in our back-and-forth. Couples and close friends tend to develop such language and (therefore) cognitive shortcuts, which often have their roots in a humorous—hence easily-remembered—episode which they happened to have navigated successfully. We remember these episodes, not always with the greatest fidelity to all the details, but for their lessons and the insights they give us into our personal relationships. And that is the important part.


Of Small Men: Apparatus and Scaffolding

[Washington, DC, 2005]

I turn off the alarm. It is just after 6am on a cold, overcast Thursday. The idea for this expedition surfaced several days ago, while listening to the news on NPR. I have been imagining different scenarios and looking forward to a minor adventure, but at this moment I waver. I lift the cat off my neck, trying not to wake her, and get up anyway. On my way out, I detour to the kitchen and remove two eggs, secreting them to an inside pocket of my winter coat. I hope my wife won’t notice them missing. I have to remember to be careful not to bump my chest into anything. I leave through the kitchen door of our comfy brick bungalow in suburban DC, kick the car to reluctant life, and drive to a nearby Metro station. There is almost no traffic.


[Budapest, 1945]

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in over-sized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. What is going through his mind? Does he look at his wife this way?


Cold and sleepy, I climb the stairs from the Metro Center subway station, cross the street, and make my way toward Pennsylvania Avenue. A Metro bus blocks my path, forcing a detour. Budget constraints, I suppose. Or somebody’s novel idea. I walk, feeling the deep January chill seep through my pants, my shoes, my gloves. Left and right, I can see snow-lined, icy streets cordoned off by concrete Jersey barriers, and more slumbering buses. I am five hours early, so I do not have to struggle through crowds yet. A gloomy oppression hangs over the city.

Even this early, the presence of authorities intrudes. Two TSA employees are nearby. TSA personnel? What are they doing here? The two women, despite their dark blue pants and thick padded coats, the multiple officious patches on their arms, and the “TSA” emblazoned across their backs, look friendly, non-threatening; the one with the short curly gray hair even smiles. Neither one swaggers. I walk past a building with flags out front, two American and one I don’t recognize; an embassy, perhaps. At the corner of 12th Street, a man stands by a Jersey barrier and points. He is asking a camouflage bedecked military man for directions to somewhere. Now I can see my involuntary goal: a block down, a pavilion stretches across 12th Street; makeshift chain link fencing funnels us into the maw of a checkpoint. It will take only fifteen minutes for me to get through. Later I will learn that authorities closed a number of these already-few access points, forcing people wait two and three hours to get through.

A half-dozen more men in camouflage mill about, trying to look important instead of bored, stamping their feet to get warm, to feel their toes again. Two are talking with civilians. One nearby glares at me, and at my camera, but doesn’t say anything. I resist flipping him off. The military men wear no identifying insignia, so it’s not clear which branch, or agency, or contractor, they’re from. Maybe the National Guard. Their dark glasses are incongruous in the dim, early gray light. Security is more paranoid than I had thought it would be. How little did I imagine.


The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.


I stand in line at the checkpoint. A swaggering browbeater with appropriately chiseled Aryan features and wearing a police uniform—dark blue police jacket, badge on his breast, radio mic clipped to his left shoulder, starched white shirt and a narrow black tie under the jacket, holstered 9mm gun on his right hip—blusters up the line straight to me and insists I stop taking pictures with my little Canon point-and-shoot. He has no such authority. What is it about these men that they have to derive their sense of worth from putting on a belittling facade? Yes, Mr. Policeman, I get that you are important and must make sure we all know this. What are you really trying to protect? I forget what exactly I say to him, but he backs down and goes in search of someone else to impress.

I am at the front of the line. About thirty feet ahead, under the white canopy, which is larger than I had thought, are four gray-framed whole-body scanners, with rented folding event tables and more uniformed people in between. Beyond are more Jersey barriers and another bus blocking the street. I soon find out the scanners detect more than just metal. Hiding behind an assumed authority in the face of threatening authority is an art form; I am a neophyte.


His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function.


The funny-looking portal starts beeping and flashing its lights as I step under its frame. I roll my eyes and pull out my camera, keys, and flashlight—the only substantial metal on my person—and the man facilitating this small set of a Kabuki theatre sets them on the table. I try again. Beeping, lights. He thinks to ask me if I have any food with me, a sandwich perhaps. He is friendly and courteous, which surprises me a little. But I have no choice but to unzip my coat, reach into the inside pocket, and hand over the two uncooked eggs I’d hoped to smuggle in. He takes them, tells me I can’t bring these in with me. Technically, he has to assume the eggs are my lunch. He hands me my metal items, gives me a knowing smile that says he might have tried the same, and I’m on my way, relieved. These machines are smarter than the ones at the airports. This man is quite unlike Mr. Policeman.


A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” For these miserable men, it is a terrifying tableau. But is the man hiding behind the desk, dutifully meting out doom, any more sure of his position than they had been?

A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.


I make my way along Pennsylvania Avenue, searching for what I think might be a good place from which to view the coming events. Workers are busy setting up metal risers all along the street. A 20-piece band across the street, in front of the ornate Old Post Office Building, plays patriotic tunes; they are miserably cold, their only audience being workers putting up barricades and heavily geared police stamping their feet. A squadron of troops in gray-green uniforms and overcoats marches smartly by, in stark contrast to the unkempt milling of the bored police. Army, perhaps. They march four abreast, and the column goes on for more than a block.

I pass a so-called “Designated Demonstration Area”, an absurdly small, 25 by 25 foot area on a corner, boxed off with yellow police tape, black bold “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tickering around its circumference. If we want to yell, and protest, this is where that’s “allowed”. Each of the many press areas, set aside for TV production crews whose members far outnumber the cardboard pretty-people who dutifully recite the lines prepared for them, is noticeably larger, blocking the wide sidewalks. They, too, are cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. Somebody’s idea of a cynical jab at the absurdities imposed upon us? I have no wish to be near these and so walk a few long blocks further.

I stroll along the sidewalk fronting the squat, J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. The architecture, black granite facing, and narrow, fortress-like window openings of the building are striking. A pair of police, clad in riot gear and brandishing ash-colored three-foot billy clubs, accost me for having a camera. They know they have overstepped. It is almost comical to watch them search their minds to justify their intimidation. One accuses me of trying to take pictures of the inside of the closed building. Through the thick slabs of black granite, I presume. Incongruously, American flag patches are on their right shoulders. Do they have no shame? To hell with them. I take more pictures. I hear in passing a couple of troopers at the curb, more bullies joking overly loudly, promising to “toss” one another a “liberal or two”.

Somewhere past 9th Street, I find a likely viewing spot right at the curb. Four rows of police, the third row in full riot gear, and a fifth row consisting of Navy enlisted stand between us and the street. The police appear to be mostly from Virginia; they are rowdy, ill-mannered, clearly hoping they might get to break some heads today. By now, more people have arrived, yet we will remain outnumbered by “security”. Such brave men, these. I find myself among a group of thirty or so like-minded angry people. And one lone supporter of Dear Leader—an older man, former military. I feel bad for him; this is not his fault, and I wonder if what is happening here, the reasons, the context, might be beyond his ken. Age is the great ossifier. Those of us near him watch out for his well-being, and form a buffer around him, even though we hold adamantly opposed world views. A seasoned, gray-haired man in a Virginia State Police uniform and barking into a walkie-talkie, clearly someone in a leadership position, breaks from the phalanx of cops and heads straight toward a twenty-something next to me, then proceeds to verbally assault the kid. It turns out he’d just made a snide joke to his girlfriend on his phone. They are monitoring our cell phones. I look up. Snipers walk the rooftops of these classical monumental symbols of freedom, and several helicopters buzz about, patrolling. High up, an AWACS plane is circling the area. Inside lie the ears that picked up and pinpointed the kid and his joke. Impressive technological demonstration. I snap a picture.

Welcome to America, land of the brave and the free, I think, and not for the first time this gray day.


The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, a man hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of communist Hungary. Gábor Péter is the new Chief of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH). Ahead lie seven more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia.

It is 1945.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.


The small man hiding in back of the armored limousine…or perhaps it is that armored limousine—two of them scream past going forty to fifty miles per hour—is George W. Bush, newly reelected (fairly or not is another matter) President of the United States. He flies by too fast for me to even snap a picture. I look at the crowd, and the police, all of them agitated. I spy a lone Navy person in dress blues at the nearby intersection. Stoically at parade rest until now, she smartly comes to attention and salutes as the limos fly past. Her comportment, her discipline despite the numbing cold, her dignity, are a stark rebuke to the remarkable lack of such among the hundreds of troopers and police. The contradiction is disturbing. I still wonder what was going through her mind that whole time; her demeanor revealed nothing.

This small man is hated by some, maybe even feared. I think that is a shallow view. It was clear even four years ago that this, too, is a man living in circumstances only partly within his control. The men around him, and the state apparatus in which he is embedded, require of him a certain behavior, a certain projection of an image which may or may not be an accurate reflection. Our countries, the United States and Stalin-era Hungary, are tremendously different states. Yet both brandish a threatening, cold, implacable authoritarian scaffolding to which its respective minions, if they are to survive, must conform.

It is January 20, 2005.

Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.
Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.

The Gray Man

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in oversized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. Does he look at his wife this way?

The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.

His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function. A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.

The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, head of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH), hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in the claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of Hungary. Gábor Péter has been chief of the ÁVH for five years; ahead lie two more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia. It is 1950.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út. (Click to enlarge.)

Hornet Whiskey Tableau

We are stretching our legs from our van ride back to the Thai border through seemingly endless, lush jungle and verdant rice paddies. Despite their tiredness, my eyes feel contented in a way they rarely do; even on a cloudy day, there is no dull color in this strikingly beautiful, oppressed land north of the border. We are returning from an afternoon boat ride along a placid section of the Mekong River, brown and turgid from recent rains. (Monsoon season is near.)

This morning, Lao officials at the border crossing exude hostility toward the three Westerners in our group (me, my wife, and our friend Edlin). We are only able to enter Laos at all by being in silent and submissive tow of local area Thais, who persuade and obtain a price on our behalf. It is a lot of money; we pay. I am compelled to surreptitiously peek my point-and-shoot from my jacket pocket and snap a few pictures of the comically authoritarian border compound. It seems absurdly out of place to me, but I soon learn this is real life for the people here. We had already been warned to keep cameras well hidden, so my wife quickly admonishes me for being reckless.

One of our necessarily few stops along the road is this market, large enough to swallow us in relative anonymity, noisy with garrulous, haggling customers and a tinny radio blaring from some hidden place. Tables are full with fruits and vegetables, most of which I cannot even recognize, much less name. We are strangers, small, incongruous. I wander, senses saturated. Somewhere in the midst of this mélange of colors and shapes, I spy a table that seems odd and walk over to it.

Several richly colored brown hexagonal cells sit empty. These intermittently follow the curved periphery of a spiral assemblage that fills most of a table improvised of unfolded pages of recent newspapers, in colorful Laotian script, atop layers of flattened old cardboard boxes, and supported by mud-crusted, faded white and blue plastic milk crates regimentally stacked two high. From the side, I can see that the insects had built up these paper cells layer by layer, in alternating colors of light and dark brown wood particles. Two different tree barks, I presume. But why did the builders alternate layers across the hive, like sedimentary rock formations? It must have taken some time to finish this repetitive, dull, but necessary task.

Edlin (not his real name) appears and pulls my elbow, insistent. “Come, you have to see this.” Edlin is German, with a big German nose. His new bride is Thai. We’ve all been friends for several years back home in the U.S., where Edlin and she are naturalized citizens. She has the small, button nose typical, she says, of most Thai people. Indeed, among her relatives and childhood friends in Udan Thani, her husband’s much envied, magnificent nose is the first feature they cannot help but stare at. Not his white skin, his odd clothing, the strange American speech, or his funny mannerisms. When they meet him, their children, being delightfully uninhibited as are children everywhere, gape and point and giggle. At his magnificent nose. This amuses but embarrasses Edlin, who is already particularly self conscious about his nose. But in Thailand, where Thais are self conscious about their noses, he is genuinely, greatly admired. For his magnificent Teutonic nose. His face turned red when he told me this.

(credit: National Geographic)
(photo: National Geographic)

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the largest hornet in the world, with a body length of two inches and a wing span of three. Their wings seem too small to lift such girth, much less propel it through the air at twenty-five miles per hour. No human can outrun an angry Asian giant hornet. Normally, they are not particularly aggressive toward us. But these armored, yellow and black striped killing machines are furious predators of other insects—mantises, other hornets, and especially honey bees—which they efficiently dispatch by severing heads with their proportionately large mandibles. Their victims stand no chance of escaping or surviving an attack.

The partial nest I’d been looking at is massive, that piece alone nursery to four or five hundred incipient little monsters. (I did a quick count and estimate.) Later, I learn that this is but one of a dozen or so layers, like floors of a tenement building, that constitute the typical nest. As I’m being pulled away, and not for the first time this trip, I wonder how the dirt-poor employees of this roadside open-air market, or the people from which they bought this disc of horrors, managed to subdue and take the fortress intact—and at what cost.

Apparently, hornet grubs are a delicacy in Southeast Asia. I am normally game to try things strange to me, but not even I am the least bit interested in popping one of these in my mouth. (Perhaps my lunch of spicy shrimp salad—live shrimp salad—aboard the riverboat is exerting a delayed influence.) With their wormlike body segments, these emerging creatures look like large—very large—stubby white maggots with disproportionately small orange button heads at their tips. Their translucent skin glistens, shiny clean; I don’t know why this surprises me. Maybe grubs are supposed to be grubby.

Most of the cells are occupied, lidded with paper-thin, white segmented domes. Some of the domes are bulging, while others have burst. Larvae, large as my thumb, poke half out of their cells, writhing, pulsing, blindly nodding to attract attention and a meal that will never come. Even for a bug enthusiast, up close it is a quease-inducing sight. I am the only one of our party of ten that is captivated, the others having quickly dispersed to find something—perhaps anything—else to ogle.

Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30
Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30

I follow Edlin through a confusing maze of narrow aisles and animated customers to a table in one corner under the large, corrugated-tin canopy. Along the way we pass a battered analog radio (so that’s where it is!) blaring Western pop music. I am immediately lost, so I am glad he knows where he is going.

We arrive. An old woman with gray hair sits on a stool behind the table. I am drawn to her dulled eyes, framed in wrinkles and leathery skin. She seems tired, weary, as does her stool, as does everything else we’ve seen in Laos—cars, fences, roadside businesses, houses and shacks, rafts on the river. (Oddly, the roads are in surprising good shape.) I imagine hers is the weariness of lifelong factory workers drudging their way through endless days at the same unchanging, mind-numbing task. But it is not that. This is how life is here, a culture stuck in a dreary bygone decade. Much of this is likely our—America’s—fault. It is tremendously saddening. I force myself to pay attention. On the table are a dozen or so 750ml bottles of a pretty, dark amber-colored liquid, presumably alcoholic.

Despite being proficient killers, these hornets do not eat their prey. Instead, they carry the massacred back to the nest. There, they chew up the bodies and make a paste with their saliva, which they feed to their larvae. In turn, the larvae secret an amino acid cocktail which the adults feed on, and from which they derive their manic energy and exceptional stamina.

Now I understand Edlin’s excitement. Floating in the top quarter volume of each bottle are drowned Asian giant hornets. The woman has been stuffing bottles of arrak, by bare hand, with groggy live hornets. The amber color has been leached from the hornets by the alcohol, which a label tells me is 45 percent by volume. The soon to be drownees drag slowly about on the table. I think of stingers, and angry wasps, my imagination (I learn later) falling far short. I don’t smell smoke, so again I wonder how they were subdued, and how long this stupor will last. She could probably tell me, but our translator, Edlin’s wife, is nowhere in sight.

V. mandarinia is a forest floor dweller, so it pays to be observant when tromping about in hornet territory. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin. It can dissolve flesh, leaving behind ghastly craters of destruction. Stings from this hornet are extremely painful. If you are not allergic, a jab or two with their quarter-inch stinger will not kill you. But thirty or more injections will induce anaphylactic shock and even multiple organ failure, landing you in the hospital—if you are lucky enough to be within range of one. The unlucky few are destined for a morgue.

She gestures for us to try a sample. That concentration of ethanol will have killed any bacteria or viruses that had hitched a ride, so I think, why not? Like many of the strange things we’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, the texture is surprisingly complex, vivid, and enjoyable. After a brief pantomimed conversation (we’re getting pretty good at this), we pay for two bottles with the Thai baht equivalent of just a few American dollars. Our respective senses of exploration now fulfilled, Edlin and I navigate the muddy puddles and make our way back to the van.

We get back to Udan Thani and our hotel room late that night, having begged off kind Thai uncles imploring us to an evening of spicy street vendor food, noise, traffic, incomprehensible chatter, and smells of questionable origin vying for olfactory supremacy. I pull the bottle of drowned amber fury from its worn white plastic bag and set it on our room’s little entryway table, on top of a dilapidated pad of paper bearing the hotel’s faded red letterhead. It is only then that I realize the woman had not corked the bottles. It will be impossible to get this home in our luggage. Neither will it be possible for me to drink even a substantial part of this exotic potion in our short remaining time here. Edlin and I commiserate over our predicament the next day. Our spouses are not overly sympathetic.