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Robert Wargas

Robert Wargas is a contributor to PJ Media. A native of Long Island, he was educated at the City University of New York and Yale University, and has also written for The Daily Telegraph of London and The Weekly Standard. Outside of opinion writing, he has worked as a professional historian for a major research laboratory and university, documenting the history of biotechnology since the 1970s. He has also reported for both weekly and daily newspapers, including Newsday. He maintains a personal blog/website at robertwargas.org. Follow him on Twitter @RobertWargas
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Introverts Are Not Necessarily Shy

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas
Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

I recently stumbled across this article on the differences between shyness and introversion, a subject in which I, an introvert, have always been interested. It confirmed several points I had read before, as well as experienced in my own life:

Shyness and introversion are two types of personality characteristics that are very often written off as the same thing by those that don’t have to deal with one, the other, or both. Introversion is one of the pairs in the Myers-Briggs personality tests that is given a higher rating if the person recharges their energy by solitary activities such as reading, writing, and reflection. Shyness defines how a person deals with others and unfamiliar situations; those who are shy have a hard time talking to and meeting new people, and are often uncomfortable in new situations.

If I had to summarize, I’d say that shy people are quiet because they are insecure, whereas introverts are quiet because they don’t derive a high level of pleasure and stimulation from social activity—or, to be more precise, as high a level as extroverts. Introverts can be shy, but are not necessarily so. Shy people, moreover, are not necessarily introverts.

The introvert doesn’t feel the need to seek out social interaction. In fact, too much social interaction can be emotionally and physically exhausting for them. Strangely, a study by the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences suggest that there’s a very different way that the brain of an introvert registers the world around them. When studying the brain activity that went on in an introverted person, it was found that there was no more electrical activity happening when they were looking at another person compared to when they were looking at inanimate objects. This suggests there’s a biological reason that introverts don’t seek out social interaction—they’re just not stimulated by it.

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People Love Books, So Where Are the Bookstores?

Sunday, May 31st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

A recent NPR article has a few interesting facts about bookstores and the continuing stand-off between the worlds of digital and print:

…independent bookstores overall are enjoying a mini-revival, with their numbers swelling 25 percent since 2009, according to the American Booksellers Association. Sales are up, too.

Remarkably, it’s a revival fueled, at least in part, by digital natives like 23-year-old Ross Destiche, who’s hauling an armful of books to the register. “Nothing matches the feel and the smell of a book,” he says. “There’s something special about holding it in your hand and knowing that that’s the same story every time, and you can rely on that story to be with you.”

Chain bookstores seem to be going the other way. Borders is gone, as are B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. The market was left wide open for Barnes & Noble, but they chose to downsize. Most recently, the residents of Forest Hills, New York, are trying to save a Barnes & Noble located on Austin Street, a popular spot for eating and shopping. The store is a “community cornerstone,” according to the online petition fighting to keep it.

This is the first, and perhaps the last, time I’ve heard of New York borough denizens starting a petition to keep a large corporate chain store.

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Tomorrow, Say Hello to a Stranger

Saturday, May 30th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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I was in California recently, at a dockside restaurant overlooking a serene collection of small yachts, when I saw what is now a banality: a young couple, likely urban professionals in their early thirties, took the table across from mine, cell phones in hand, and sat down silently. They said nothing to each other. They did not even look at each other. Their blank eyes did not leave the screens of their electronic devices, their thumbs scrolling continuously as if caught in some neurological loop.

It was a good ten minutes before the husband briefly dissolved the silence, but only with some terse remark—something I did not quite catch, but which I’m sure was not at all pleasant. The wife, wearing a sad expression, rose and went to the bathroom, where she stayed for a long time. When she returned, they exchanged a few more low, brief utterances before returning to their silence.

There was a time when this would have surprised me, and that might not have been so long ago. I am only thirty years old, but in the United States of 2015 I feel much older. Most of my formative years occurred when the Internet was either non-existent or still a relatively marginal force in our everyday lives—or at least in my everyday life, as a lower-middle-class child whose parents worried about phone and cable bills and therefore urged as much outdoor play as possible. It worries me that I already begin sentences with phrases like “back in my time….” It also worries me that I have grown so used to sad vignettes like the one above.

Occasionally one gets a glimpse, mainly from older people, of how things could and should be. One afternoon, about a month ago, I sat in Starbucks, writing a draft of something on a yellow legal pad. I stopped to think, tapped my pen on the paper and let my eyes wander. They drifted up to catch the gaze of an attractive, fiftyish woman. She smiled one of those broad, honest, charming smiles and said, “what are you writing?”

Of course I was pleased to talk to this pretty stranger. I was aware, however, of the very slight and very brief jolt that ran through me when the woman initiated conversation: it was the feeling you get when exposed to something wholly unexpected. Most people I see nowadays do not even make eye contact with others, much less ask them substantive questions. Normally I am the one to engage the general public in small talk—to offer the smile, the sudden greeting or compliment, the glib joke on the supermarket checkout line. What I get from people is usually a hint of the same brief jolt that had overtaken me, followed by genuine cheeriness from the unexpected human contact. The new normal of the United States—virtual relationships, minimal conversation, degraded manners—has put each of us into a kind of solipsistic trance. When a stranger breaks it, we may be surprised, but pleasantly so. I urge you all to become practitioners of the surprise.

 

 

 

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Posting Selfies Does Not Make You a Narcissist

Thursday, May 14th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

What do you think of selfies? Wholly negative? Wholly positive? A mix of good and bad? A recent article tell us:

Earlier this year, a pair of researchers at The Ohio State University published their investigation into the relationship between taking selfies and the undesirable psychological traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, or a penchant for manipulation. The study analyzed the social media habits and personalities of 1,000 men between the ages of 18 and 40.
The results were what you might have expected: the study demonstrated a relationship between posting lots of selfies and psychopathic and narcissistic traits. Not all selfie-posters are narcissists, but the latter are prone to using selfies as a tool of their self-obsessed personalities. Yawn. I suppose, for the sake of thoroughness, some things just have to be formalized in studies, even though we can already figure out the answers a priori.
Selfie supporters don’t deny that the practice can be self-indulgent, but they highlight how the photographs increase the likelihood for personal connection in an age where social interactions predominantly occur online, as reporter Jenna Wortham did in a piece for The New York Times.

“It’s far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon,” she wrote. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.”

Selfies did not cause the phenomenon of the purely Internet-based relationship. Those were around before selfies became common. (I believe such relationships started during the age of AOL Instant Messenger and got worse from there.) In my experience, most selfies are not sent to an interlocutor directly, but posted passively on social media profiles. When the recipient is a specific somebody, selfies can enhance the humanness and intimacy of an online encounter. When the recipient is “everyone,” however, I think this is where the narcissism comes into play.

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What If I Told You That Expensive Bottle of Burgundy…

Friday, May 8th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas
Photo via: Flickr

Photo via: Flickr

Here’s another dent in the “wine expert” status game, from Money:

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research confirms what prior research (and, in some cases, gut feeling) has told us for years: Most people can’t really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

These new findings, by INSEAD marketing professor Hilke Plassmann and University of Bonn neuroscience professor Bernd Weber, go a step further than previous studies in explaining why people get more enjoyment from a wine they’re told is expensive and less pleasure from one they’re told is cheap—even if they are actually drinking the same wine.

“Expectations truly influence neurobiological responses,” write the authors.

But how much we’re swayed by that influence ranges from person to person. One key factor, the researchers found, is the structure of your brain. Everyone is somewhat suggestible to the placebo effect from being told wine is cheap or expensive, but some brains are more suggestible than others.

As critical as I am of “wine experts,” I do think certain wines are obviously cheap. The low-end stuff usually tastes like kids’ grape juice with some ethanol added to it: simple, cloying, flat, and, well, cheap. That’s at the really far end of the scale, however. In my experience, any wine $10 a bottle and over is not likely to have that grape-juice swill flavor.

Nevertheless, as this article notes and as everyone knew already, the power of suggestion is considerable. I’m sure that, given the right circumstances and the right words, we all could be fooled into thinking that Welch’s with rubbing alcohol mixed into it was an expensive Syrah.

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Is Twitter Losing Its Influence?

Friday, May 1st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

Across the pond, my friend Damian Thompson asks in the Daily Mail whether the world’s obsession with Twitter is waning:

The once invincible Twitter doesn’t want to face up to the truth. It’s not just teens and hipsters who are fed up with tweeting. So are middle-class, middle-aged folk who, five years ago, were constantly checking their Twitter feeds during dinner parties.

Why? The novelty has worn off, as you’d expect. Also, Twitter is becoming seriously annoying. For lots of reasons.

Although Twitter is no longer cool, it’s infested with people who think they are.

You know of whom he speaks: the snarky children, the self-proclaimed experts, the slander-mongers, the faceless hacks, flaks, and partisans. In other words, Twitter.

Even more galling, Damian writes, is that Twitter is a perpetual outrage machine that can and has had devastating effects on people’s personal lives:

First, there’s that unpleasant plague of anonymous and cowardly people who use Twitter to malevolently troll their enemies.

Such abuse can be deeply distressing — carried out in a way that the troll wouldn’t do in their everyday ‘real’ lives. Indeed, in some, rare cases, it can lead to self-harm or suicide — particularly if children are targeted.

The tendency toward cruelty and abuse, what I like to call “Internet-induced psychopathy,” is a function of several things. One is that the increasingly totalitarian nature of “social” media forces people to become witch-hunters. Since the masses have proved that they can use “social” media to destroy lives, people are always on the offensive to throw the mob’s attention away from themselves and onto other people. Hence the ceaseless accusations of “racism,” “sexism,” etc.: people are constantly trying to “prove” themselves worthy of acceptance into Polite Society so that they won’t be cast off into the hinterlands.
Twitter turns people’s lives into a constant game of electronic asymmetric warfare. Uttering an unapproved opinion on Twitter can lead to mob-induced unemployment, among other things. Is it worth it? Not to me. It’s fun to chat a bit and debate and to advertise your own writing and such, but I hope we will eventually move away from this tool of real-time social destruction.

 

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Once Free Speech Gets Linked to ‘Identity,’ We’re Doomed

Thursday, April 30th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

First, a pitch-perfect quote from Oliver Kamm, writing recently in The Times of London about the puerile opposition to honoring Charlie Hebdo:

Once you claim that free speech must be balanced against other values, such as “respect,” you limit the search for knowledge. Beliefs earn respect to the extent that they can withstand scrutiny.

Indeed. Commit that to memory.

Now consider more broadly what Kamm is writing about. It’s the idea, rapidly gaining influence outside university campus-cesspools, that certain speech is “oppressive” to certain groups. It’s a crucial step in the identity-politics gleichschaltung: the attempt to link all liberty, including free speech, to “white maleness” so that it can be delegitimized and eventually banned.

It’s why advertisements in London featuring a fit, bikini-clad woman have been attacked by self-proclaimed feminists and banned by authorities.

The trick is to say that free speech is not “really” free, since it’s just an extension of certain people’s “privilege”; the exercise of it is therefore the “oppression” of the non-privileged groups, who don’t have the “power” to speak freely. We will only be “really” free when there is no “privilege.” Until that time, we have to balance the scales by gagging this “privileged” speech.

How do we fight this?

 

 

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‘Don’t Tell Me What’s Oppressive. I Tell You, You Shut Up and Listen’

Friday, April 24th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I’m tempted to present the following tweet without comment:

And this one too:

But I can’t help but add a few things. What do we as a society do when communication continues to break down to this level? What do you say to somebody who genuinely believes that he is being oppressed by you for speaking? It’s easy to be glib and respond, “Well, you just tell him to get lost.” But this, er, gentleman’s opinions are not uncommon among university students. And in case you haven’t noticed, the politics of the university have been spreading steadily outward over the past few years. What happens when this kind of thing begins popping up in the private-sector workforce? Do you seriously believe that it won’t reach further into our society, given the general direction we’re going, and given how common this is among huge swaths of younger people?

I can’t be the only one who’s not smiling anymore.

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Another Day, Another Stolen Valor Case…

Friday, April 24th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

From the New York Daily News:

A guy decked out in military garb at a Florida bar got called out by another patron who accused him of pretending to be an infantryman so he could pick up chicks.

In footage shared by Eric Coins, a young man in civilian clothes quizzes a swaggering older man wearing fatigues at a watering hole in Sunrise, near Miami, in the latest alleged case of stolen valor — false claims about time served in the military.

The uniformed man gets aggressive after being asked where he did his boot camp, why his uniform doesn’t have a name badge and whether he has a Geneva Conventions Identification Card in the profanity-laced video.

Here’s the video. (WARNING: Strong language)

Normally these loser-fakes are called out by real veterans. In this case, Mr. Coins, the one who confronted the loser-fake, was never in the military. He nevertheless displays solid basic knowledge about the kinds of questions a real veteran would be able to answer in a few nanoseconds.

I admire Mr. Coins’s courage here, but he probably put himself in more danger than was necessary. As you can see in the video, the loser-fake looks genuinely ready for violence, and Coins has to back away to prevent an actual fight. The loser-fake at several points invades Coins’s personal space and uses threatening language. I am not a legal expert and am not giving advice, but the average reasonable person could consider that a genuine threat and might opt for a pre-emptive strike. Adrenaline does all sort of nasty things to you.

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Finally, the Dollar Gains Value in Western Europe

Monday, April 20th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

From USA Today:

For the first time in more than a decade, the euro is almost equal in value to the dollar, making Spain and other European cities more affordable to Americans than even some domestic destinations.

The article describes the travels of one family in Madrid and Barcelona:

The family stop into the Hotel Colon in the Gothic Quarter for drinks. They are surprised when two glasses of white wine and a beer cost as much as one drink in a New York City hotel. Their train tickets to Madrid are less than seats on an Amtrak train from New York to Washington, D.C. A 15-minute cab ride to the beach is 10 euros.

Golden, who lives in the New York area, has good reason to throw money around. TripAdvisor’s TripIndex Europe, released last week, found that travel expenses for popular European destinations have dropped an average of 11% year-over-year. Travelers will be able to save as much as 25% on their summer trips.

Still, it depends where you’re staying and, most important, where you decide to eat. I have noticed that, whatever the value of the dollar, food is what is most likely to erode your wallet while traveling. Even in Central and Eastern Europe, where I love to travel and where things are generally much cheaper, you can end up losing money quickly, especially at hotel restaurants. One time in Budapest, I stayed at a gleaming, centrally located four-star hotel right near the Danube River for just less than $100 a night—which will not even get you a cot at a Holiday Inn in New York. But when I sat down to my goulash and steak and gin & tonics at the hotel’s restaurant, I got a bill that was higher than the room rates might have suggested.

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Is YouTube a ‘Garbage Can,’ as Jerry Seinfeld Says?

Friday, April 17th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Jerry Seinfeld recently called YouTube “a giant garbage can [...] for user-generated content.”

I can’t fault him for saying this. In this narcissistic age, YouTube is just one of the many receptacles of vanity available to the demos.

That said, Seinfeld’s comment is ultimately inaccurate. I think it’s useful to think of YouTube not as a garbage can but as a flea market. Flea markets are full of junk whose owners think it worthwhile enough to attempt to sell to the general public. Most of the stuff is worth only a quick glance and a shrug or a scoff. But there are also little treasures to be found—things that are available quite literally nowhere else on the planet.

Consider all the things you’ve searched for, and found, on YouTube. Now consider where else you would have been able to find them absent YouTube. Nowhere. Well, perhaps somewhere, but not without onerous searching, waiting, and probably paying.

Old debates? Documentaries? Tutorials on fly fishing? Old episodes of Miami Vice? That boxing match from 1992? That cartoon you watched as a kid? Winston Churchill speeches? Phil Collins singing at Live Aid? You found it all on YouTube.

Now play the same game, but with the Internet in general. I’ll wait….

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image illustration via shutterstock / 

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Why Do All Men’s Colognes Smell the Same?

Thursday, April 16th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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I used to be a cologne fanatic — I bought a lot of them — until a few years ago when I suddenly admitted to myself, after perhaps a few years’ worth of denial, that all men’s colognes were starting to smell the same. I got bored and stopped buying them.

Has anyone noticed this? There is no genuine variety. Somewhere around the Acqua Di Gio era, all manufacturers began top-loading their fragrances with overpowering citrus and other potent “fresh” scents. We’ve reached the point where there’s very little to distinguish between what a teenager douses himself with when he wants to pick up girls at Mike the quarterback’s keg party and what an adult wears to a wedding or romantic date. Must we all smell like we’re in the middle of Abercrombie & Fitch?

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image illustration via shutterstock /  

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Was the Sinking of the Titanic 103 Years Ago a Conspiracy?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

The Titanic sank precisely 103 years ago today. A huge ship made out of iron and steel strikes an iceberg and therefore sinks—a fairly straightforward scenario, one would think. During a casual stroll through Wikipedia, however, I came across a page called “RMS Titanic alternative theories.” One of these theories concerns—of course!—the Federal Reserve:

Several of Titanic’s passengers including John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss, and George Dunton Widener were among the richest men in America. Some conspiracy theorists claim that these wealthy individuals were opposed to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and that financier J.P. Morgan saw the opportunity eliminate them by convincing them to sail with him on the maiden voyage of the new Titanic which was really the badly damaged Olympic that he planned sink in an insurance scam. As victims of a maritime disaster nobody would suspect that they had really been murdered to prevent them from opposing the Federal Reserve Act. In addition to Morgan, several of his close friends and associates are known to have cancelled their plans to sail on Titanic at the last minute, as did the wife of J. Bruce Ismay. Morgan also had several bronze statues he had planned to transport to America removed from the ship a few hours before she sailed leading to speculation that he knew her fate.

The writer of this passage provides no citations, but this sounded like something that members of the Ron Paul cult would believe. So I searched a bit more and found this 2013 post from—surprise!—The Daily Paul, titled “Did the Federal Reserve Sink the Titanic?”

Some people are just desperate to be rebels. In their quest to believe nothing, they’re willing to believe anything. Cynicism is the ultimate naiveté.

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What’s the Best New York Movie?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I just learned by accident that the actor Paul Sorvino turned 76 on April 13. You’ll recall that Mr. Sorvino played the role of the mob boss “Paulie” in Goodfellas, the classic New York gangster movie released in 1990. Seeing this news, and reflecting on the 25th birthday of Goodfellas itself, I have to ask myself: Is Goodfellas the greatest New York movie ever made?

I will doubtless get pushback on this for all kinds of good reasons. Maybe you think the best New York movie is Taxi Driver, or When Harry Met Sally, or The French Connection. Those are all fine choices, to be sure. Or maybe you don’t think there is such thing as “the best New York movie.” I admit the question presupposes its own importance.

But I bring it up because casual conversation is full of such unanswerable questions as “what’s your favorite movie?” In fact, I was asked this recently… twice. I always find myself answering Goodfellas. It has become a reflex. I generally trust my reflexes.

Maybe it’s because I’m from New York and half Italian, and despite the fact that my Italian heritage includes no mob connections, I can still see flickers of my past in the way the characters talk, act, and eat. How many people’s favorite movies are merely those which remind them of their childhoods?

In any case, there are fewer movies with better dialogue than Goodfellas. (Perhaps The Last Boy Scout?) And New York retains a certain mythical quality for everyone, including those who hail from its streets. It’s a city simultaneously full of immense beauty and ugliness. What better way to represent this duality than the mob, which is itself a bizarre combination of opulence and violence?

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Would You Kill Hitler if You Had a Time Machine?

Saturday, April 11th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

From The Independent:

It is a common ethical dilemma set by philosophy professors – is it right to kill someone to prevent further deaths?

According to scientists the answer differs depending on your gender, with women less likely to commit murder because they have a stronger aversion to harmful action.

Researchers from the US, Germany and Canada analysed data that asked 6,100 people a range moral questions, including whether they would kill a young Adolf Hitler to stop the Second World War.

While men and women both calculated the consequences of their decision and computed how many lives might be saved, females found it harder to commit murder and were more likely to let Hitler live.

Of course there are logistical problems with this, as in any hypothetical time-travel scenario. Would this time machine drop you off armed with a suppressed pistol in Hitler’s bedroom while he slept, or would you simply be dumped onto Unter den Linden in broad daylight with nothing but a cheap folding knife? It says “kill a young Adolf Hitler,” but what fun would that be? Most people would want to kill the 1930s version—before the Holocaust, of course, but not so long before it that he’s not recognizable as the scummy dictator on the cusp of a genocide. Seeing him in full uniform and armband is a potent motivator.

Anyway, who might have guessed that men and women were different? It’s almost as though there’s some biological reason men and women are not exactly the same.

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Hey Pop-Nutritionists, Stop Using the Word ‘Toxins’

Thursday, April 9th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I’m about to link to Gawker, so please, perpetually aggrieved Internet dwellers, do feel free to leave some indignant “Why are you linking to Gawker??!!1!?”comments below.

To those of you still reading: An analytical chemist—that’s the writer’s self-description—has written a piece criticizing Vani Hari, apparently a popular food blogger, for her trendy, pseudoscientific nonsense. It’s a solid, sensible piece and an introduction to the many scientific, logical, and rhetorical holes in the “organic”-obsessed, pop-nutritionist sect. One target is the overuse of words like “toxic”:

The word “toxic” has a meaning, and that is “having the effect of a poison.” Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose. Enough water can even be poisonous in the right quantity (and can cause a condition called hyponatremia).

[...]

Hari uses this tricky technique again and again. If I told you that a chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?

What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?

I have endless contempt for “alternative medicine,” which is certainly alternative but most certainly not medicine. The alternative crowd loves the vague word “toxins.” If you are sick, you are full of “toxins”; you must therefore “detox.” Everything from pancreatic cancer to bipolar disorder is due to “toxins.”

One way to know you’re talking to a quack is that, no matter the problem, he always has one diagnosis and thus one treatment.

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Can You Drive and Apply Lip Balm at the Same Time?

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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So a woman from Nevada received a $200 ticket and points on her license for…putting on lip balm while driving. More precisely, she was at a red light. This, as the Nevada highway cop who pulled her over said, is because “we have zero tolerance for distracted drivers.” Indeed, it seems we have zero tolerance for pretty much everything these days. From The Daily Mail:

She said: ’I told him it was ChapStick. 

‘He said, ”It could have been anything; you could have been drinking water, shaving your legs.”’

The ticket caused Fragoso to receive points against her driving record.

The crackdown is part of a campaign for the state to have zero driving fatalities in 2015, CBS Las Vegas reported. 

The “zero driving fatalities” plan sounds like utopian cant, the product of some state technocrat’s lust for billable hours. Now, I think texting while driving is indeed dangerous, and the self-absorbed perpetual teenagers who engage in it ought to be punished. But applying some lip balm? Lipstick, yes, because it requires precision (or so I’ve observed).

And what if she had been drinking water? Can we turn on the radio? Sneeze?

Even if you do think lip balm is distracting, expect this kind of thing to continue until we’re not allowed to talk to other passengers.

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Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

Monday, April 6th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Writing in The Daily Caller, Erica Wenig examines some of the nuttiest conspiracy theories to come out of the Middle East—all of them, of course, starring Americans and/or Jews as the culprits. Just a taste:

A presenter for an Egyptian TV channel slammed Jewish lobbies and Rupert Murdoch for “The Simpsons,” apparently claiming the show was an avenue for Jews to conspire against Egypt.

“['The Simpsons'] is a very influential TV series in the U.S. This animated series is an American production, behind which are basically-Jewish lobbies,” Rania Badawi said.

Why do people believe things like this? What drives their subscription to the most far-fetched “explanations” for events? Apart from obvious hatred of the blamed group, there are many reasons. I have found that one reason is the frisson and excitement that comes with believing you have “discovered” some “truth” that others have not. This proves, in the conspiracist’s mind, that he is smarter than everyone else and privy to some bit of secret knowledge that the masses don’t know.

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What Did Jesus’ Wine Taste Like?

Friday, April 3rd, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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I do remember, during religious instruction as a child, hearing the constant references to wine in the Bible and wondering what it tasted like. Being quite young then, I imagined it was like my delicious grape juice. As I grew older and began to love dry red wine, I still wondered whether ancient wines tasted anything remotely like my Pinot Noir.

From the Orange County Register:

Grapes were the first cultivated plants mentioned in the Bible, she said. In her book, [author Kitty] Morse writes: “Grapes grew in even more abundance than olives… Wines from the Holy Land provided a significant source of income, especially during Roman rule. The wine from Bethlehem was of particularly high quality and considered a gift worthy of royalty.”

Still, she thinks it couldn’t have been delicious.

“It wasn’t intended for the Roman emperors,” Morse said, explaining that the peasants in the Middle East weren’t as sophisticated about wine as the ruling class. “They were happy if it fermented and if it cured some ailments.”

If that’s the case, then the wine served at the Last Supper would have been peasant table wine. Much more rustic than the wine enjoyed at the wedding at Cana, a special drink reserved for a stately occasion. The difference between the two would come down to farming and styling.

That peasant table wine can’t have been any worse than some of those horrendous pseudo-wines they sell in the supermarket. There are some great wines that are very cheap—one of my favorite Chiantis is about eight bucks—but most cheap things are cheap for a reason.

The article also mentions that Romans liked to spice their wine with cinnamon. Who else wants to try this immediately?

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How Blogging Can Kill You…

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Andrew Sullivan, of whose posturing and pettiness I’ve been critical in the past, retired from blogging in January, citing burnout and health problems.

In a recent interview, Sullivan described in starker detail how constant blogging (up to 40 posts a day) destroyed his health and personal life:

“The truth is, I had to stop primarily because it was killing me,” Sullivan said Sunday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. “I used to joke that if blogging does kill someone, I would be the first to find out.”

Sullivan also described the “dehumanizing” aspect of ceaseless online commentary:

“I spent a decade of my life, spending around seven hours a day in intimate conversation with around 70,000 to 100,000 people every day,” Sullivan said. “And inevitably, for those seven hours or more, I was not spending time with any actual human being, with a face and a body and a mind and a soul.”

I don’t blame the guy for leaving, and I wish him well in a life away from the often soul-wrending glow of the computer screen.

What Sullivan is describing is something all of us in 2015 face to some degree: with our lives increasingly synced and integrated with electronic online devices, there is a constant need to be “on,” in the moment, all the time… but not with any real people. This is exhausting, in a way that interaction with actual humans is not.

When I first read the Sullivan interview, I laughed a bit when he said that blogging was killing him. After some reflection, I do think it could happen.

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image illustration via shutterstock / 

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What Kind of Person Pretends To Be a Military Veteran?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

If, on any day of the week, you type “stolen valor” into a search engine, the Internet will reward you handsomely with the newest tranche of American losers pretending to be military veterans. When I first became interested in this topic, sometime last year, I was utterly amazed at how common this fakery is. It seems to happen all the time, all over, every day.

One of the latest stolen valor cases comes out of Florida and involves a panhandler—trying to get money from people is a common theme among loser-fakes—trying to pass himself off as a soldier. In most stolen valor videos, the phony is confronted and outed by a real veteran, who can always spot fakes by, among other things, how incorrectly they wear their uniforms. Here we go:

Consider what kind of person would pretend to be a military veteran. The loser-fakes know that military service affords real veterans a certain amount of respect and social status. The loser-fakes wish to replicate that status in their own, necessarily empty lives, so they pretend to be veterans. Now, the average functioning human being would not be able to do this, since the guilt of knowing you’re a fake would negate any pleasure derived from being thanked for your service. The loser-fakes are rather untroubled by this.

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Are You Really Helping Others by Holding Doors for Them?

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I am one of those who always hold doors for other people. We door holders are a kind lot, but we are also (maybe) a bit sensitive. The other day, as I was leaving the post office, I stood outside the threshold for about three seconds longer than was necessary to hold the door for a middle-aged woman as she approached to enter. She walked through without even making eye contact, let alone saying “thank you.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t walk away without muttering angrily to myself. Looking back on it, I am very slightly ashamed of this reaction. (Very slightly.) Was I really holding the door out of kindness if I got angry so easily? Or was I doing it to make myself feel good?

Can it be both? Probably.

In any case, I believe it is in our nature to overstate our own sense of morality. In Book II of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.

This quote, with its rolling rhythm and timeless language, struck me as oddly comforting when I first read it. It seems to say, “Don’t worry. You’re OK. It’s everyone else who’s bad.” But how helpful is it to tell yourself that?

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Please Stop Worshiping ‘Bad Boys’

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

In one of his most memorable roles, as the eponymous character of Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp plays a semi-human manboy with shears for fingers, stuck in eternal youth as those around him wither. I thought of this film last week, as I watched a fifty-something Depp, drunk and clad in his usual get-up of randomly placed crosses and scarves, stumble to the microphone at a televised awards show and deliver a slurred “speech” in which he giggled, cursed, rocked, and swayed his way through a painful two minutes. Here was another manboy on display, albeit one lacking the charm and innocence of Burton’s creation.

It was a shame to see Depp, a genuinely talented and by most accounts kind and gentle man, reduce himself to this display. He is well into middle age—not that any age is an appropriate time for public drunkenness. I suspect his career won’t be dented much, if at all, by the episode. This is not just because he is a celebrity. One can’t imagine, say, Morgan Freeman stumbling onto the stage, delivering a gin-soaked introduction, and walking away with his career totally intact. No, it is Depp’s enduring “bad boy” image that affords him the extra latitude. Those crosses and scarves go a long way. If you can set yourself up as some kind of outsider, those on the inside will start to think they’re caged animals and become desperate for your kind of freedom. The bad boy’s appeal comes from nonchalantly scuffing the social rulebook with his cowboy boots and daring us not to like him because of it.

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What Happened to East Germany’s Brutally Effective Secret Police After the Wall Fell?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas
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On November 9, 2006, as the free world celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, an 83-year-old man died in a peaceful slumber at his home in the German capital city. The man was Markus Wolf, who during the Cold War led the foreign-intelligence section of East Germany’s secret-police apparatus: the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit), known colloquially as “the Stasi.” The Stasi’s most renowned spymaster, he controlled thousands of agents, whose purpose was to infiltrate important Western institutions and government positions. Often mistaken as the inspiration for John le Carre’s shadowy Karla character, Wolf for years remained a mystery to Western intelligence services, who didn’t even have a picture of him until the late 1970s—several decades into his career. Historians have marveled at his success in leading the Stasi’s foreign wing, known as the HVA, or Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung. Perhaps his most well known accomplishment is having one of his agents, Gunter Guillaume, become a trusted aide to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor.

Seven years after Wolf’s death and twenty-five years after the Wall’s, the West still doesn’t appreciate the breadth and depth of the Stasi’s brutality. (The KGB still reigns in the popular imagination as the ultimate secret-police force.) Formed after the Second World War in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, the Stasi grew to become the most potently effective Eastern bloc intelligence organization. They possessed a more impressive informant network than even the KGB. When East Germany crumbled, the Stasi employed upwards of 190,000 unofficial informants. By 1989, approximately one out of every 90 East German citizens was a Stasi informant. Referred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (“unofficial collaborators”), most were simply ordinary German citizens, tasked with reporting everything they could about possible (real or imagined) anti-regime activity, as well as details about family and friends. Even children were involved in spying on their parents.

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