Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Raising Jewish children

A friend asked me if my objections to the bris, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, mean I don't think of myself as raising Jewish children.

I do consider myself to be raising Jewish children. I expect, for example, my daughters to have a bat mitzvah (boy is this going to be news to them...).

Part of the thing for me is that I've never witnessed a bris ceremony, or really ever heard a Jewish person talk about finding meaning in it -- it just hasn't been part of my experience, except as a source of implied exclusion because of circumcision. But essentially every other aspect of Jewish life has been reconsidered and reinvented across the centuries; Jews who consider themselves deeply religious pray in all sorts of ways and different amounts, and they follow all sorts of different levels of kashrut. (As my old rabbi Larry Kushner used to say, if you won't eat roadkill no matter what a scanner says about its safety and nutritional content, here at least keeping kosher a little!)

When something that Jews used to do doesn't make sense anymore, like obsessing about virginity or enslaving people or forbidding those with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, subsets of Jews who totally consider themselves religious change it, and do so proudly. That's one of the things I love most about being Jewish -- at least in the Jewish tradition that I've always felt most clearly a part of, at its core has been an insistence on returning to first principles and refusing to do something just because other people are doing it.

That's always seemed intimately connected to the history of oppression of Jews: there are too many people who gang up on the powerless because they can, but rather than match their violence and cruelty, Jews have insisted on a path that puts morality and respect for life and human flourishing above all else.

Thus you can have a leading rabbi in Jerusalem publicly eat pork in a time of famine, you can have any 13-year-old give a public speech disagreeing vehemently with God's actions in the Torah, and you have an outsized representation of Jews in the world's charitable and humanitarian organizations.

I love Jewish ceremony and collectively experiencing milestones and recognizing traditions -- and I think the most fundamental tradition of them all is the insistence that tradition itself comes second.

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Yes, you are a feminist

Reading about Victorian England is making me realize that Americans today who claim they're not feminists have beliefs about gender that would make them be considered extreme, radical feminists 150 years ago.

I mean, Mary Somerville was a brilliant mathematician but she had to wait until her husband died to start communicating with other mathematicians and publishing, because he refused to allow any wife of his to be so unladylike and ruin her "disposition" or something with that sort of mental strain and nerdiness. And even then, like Ada Lovelace, she could only sneak in some publishing by adding copious, original "notes" to the end of mens' work (that she had transcribed from lectures or translated).

Even just from a capitalist standpoint, think of all the stifled innovation, all the jobs that could have been created, all the lives that could have been saved by women engineers. "Let's not be so intent on confining women into absurdly tight roles and dainty expectations that we literally kill ourselves, destroy our wealth and make ourselves unemployed" -- that's all it takes to be at least some kind of feminist.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Letter to the NY Times about Rosenstein memo

Friday, July 21, 2017

To the editor:

The July 19 piece "Citing Recusal, Trump Says He Wouldn’t Have Hired Sessions" repeats an error that the Times and many other news sources have made about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's 5/9/17 memo criticizing then-FBI Director James Comey.

The article states that "The deputy attorney general recommended Mr. Comey be fired". Not so. Nowhere does Rosenstein's memo actually recommended that Mr. Comey be fired.

Rosenstein surely made this omission deliberately, and carefully. Did Rosenstein craft his memo to appear to cross a line, when skimmed, which Rosenstein refused to actually cross? The memo's content, in contrast to the President's use of it, certainly lends credence to reports that the President had demanded a recommendation that Mr. Comey be fired -- and assumed he got it.

The Times has been more careful and precise in past articles, such as the 5/12/17 "Caught in White House Chaos, Justice Dept. Official Seeks Neutral Ground", which discusses Rosenstein's memo at length and never claims that it contains a recommendation that Mr. Comey be dismissed.

Over time, many media outlets have let the inertia of conventional wisdom slowly replace reportorial precision. The Times should hold itself to a higher standard.

-Ben Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem after being hit from behind by an SUV while riding my bike in Brooklyn, June 2017

Don't I want things simple? Fewer obligations, fewer promises, fewer ties?
Fewer people to let down, fewer relationships that never get the depth they're due,
Fewer mistakes, fewer disappointments, fewer times to concoct an explanation,
Fewer times to hem and haw, to wring my hands and my mind, fewer apologies, said and unsaid,
Fewer live wires of fury, fewer grievances,
Fewer questions that can never be answered, fewer mysterious forces in my way,
Fewer meetings, fewer times I work unpaid,

Fewer monthly bills, fewer Schedule Cs, fewer todo items buried inevitably?
Don't I want to escape from the web of obligations, of government forms, of pleading with cops and doctors for something better
than the runaround? A web of virtuous connections is one thing, but don't I want free of this web of inertia, of meaningless procedure?
Because what, after all, do I get from being a part of it all?
I get to be a husband, yes, with unspoken desires and endless compromise,

but also with a connection whose layers are veins of color and flavor, rich not only with easy joy but with something compounded and deep,
the tangible marrow of deep bones colliding, the meeting of our brilliance and of our flaws,
the true fractured crashing together of two black holes,
drawn out not from tedium but from the fractal complexity of all the encountering eddies,
billions of short stories and byways, each deserving a novel.
I get to be a father, already recognized as inadequate by my daughters, though their perceiving that gives me the funny proud knowledge
that they exceed me, they will and they do now! I get to indulge my loves with them, and through them,

I get to slowly exhale, with squeezed lips, feeding the spark of love for books, for ideas and opinion, seeing its flames lick and catch.
I get to be the cause of tears, and sometimes the place of comfort, the shelter for tears, the companion when friendships seem foreign,
when their perfectionism, like mine, makes mockeries of their efforts to create the art they imagine, when they're sunken and submerged
and the reasons why don't feel like the reasons why. I get to be that for them both,
so different from each other but both intensely vibrating with the world,
feeling in their strands of web the twang of every mosquito's footstep like it is coming from inside them,
the fluttering of a valve or the tightening around one of those organs we don't understand.
That's what it is to live: to feel sensations from the pancreas and the spleen, such a crucial part of me, so unknowable.

My workings are a mystery play, evocative of meaning but evasive of it.

The race to keep from being overtaken by my multiplying constraints seems like everything,
but below, the story of what's going on, the things that matter, keeps going and going. I am shepherd to a continent,
to the aspirations of organelles, of passing friends who think of me as unexpectedly deeply as I think of them,
of the learned sufferings of my children, a pattern of pain at big and small cruelties that they know through the distinct lenses they're assembling.
I'm shepherd to the quiet duty of a husband, father, brother, son, citizen, critic and objector,

these duties that share the name with others' but are not others', concrete and palpable to my fingertips,
so small and uncelebrated it seems they'll will vanish if I look away,
whose textures and weight no one can ultimately know but me.
Shepherd to vision and hearing, touch and taste, shepherd to the ability to talk someone into joy or sorrow if I want and if they'll let me,
Shepherd to a certain deliverance, shepherd to writing, to movement, shepherd to skin and scars and fingernails and fears,
Shepherd to an aching astonishment at people's callousness, a landscape of cruelty that isn't spectacular or cinematic,

but tasteless, textureless, dull bloodstained sandpaper on a power sander
left in a lightless room, by bored cops on less than even a whim,
to slowly eat through a painter's life's work,

Shepherd to punishment for punishment's sake, to stealing credit when they notice someone has no recourse,
to the loud manipulator using and cowing the quiet source of the work,
to the cyclical graphs of mutual access and exclusion,
to lectures about rules and principles given by men who risk nothing for them
the moment there is any intimation of power or tribe,
Shepherd to the smell of parasitic opportunity,
Shepherd to shambling collection of urges and contradictions and discontinuities,
grins and memories and rotting garbage and impossible joys, all of it.

The role of shepherd isn't made of anything. It's created, whole cloth. It can be picked up or put down in a moment.
So it's meaningless? No, the opposite. It can only be held with will, from will. With faith in its basic truth, from faith. In relationship.
It is held by us, in a trust fall, and our muscles can falter, but they must hold. The tiredness is not resignation closing in,
it's the sum of all the showing up, the saying this is my problem too, the doing the right thing, the hidden professionalism,

the getting out of bed, the telling a joke, the sharing a cigarette, the going down, the listening when I'm bursting to speak and then
seeing new dimensions open up,
the holding on and the letting go, the treating it with fresh eyes, the channeling some echo of spirit even though the magic seems gone.
Palms and wrists are scrambled for action: this is how they get to keep living, this sick and sorry web is their patrol,

its peeling skin their turf, yielding gems and pustules not in turn but in concert.
The point is that it's their territory and they're walking it. That deserves applause, not because they're so great at it,
but because that's what applause is for: a sending out love for all the hidden days of cobbling together some step forward,
or for treading water a little longer, saying: you muster knuckles and kneecaps, we muster them too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Naval Ravikant on The Knowledge Project

Shane Parrish's Knowledge Project podcast did a long interview with AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, covering a wide range of topics, and quite a bit of light philosophy.

It was a bit of a struggle for me -- he's such an unusual person, so different from me, and I found myself disagreeing deeply with some things he said about life and philosophy, and even more just with his tone of certainty. It's a reaction I have to Tyler Cowen as well.

That said, I do recommend listening. In particular, I found his point around 52:00 about not cherry picking from others' lives very profound.

For example, re: Naval's "I don't believe in macroeconomics", I propose that he found a country whose currency goes on and off the gold standard randomly and at different rates each time, and which suddenly floods the streets with bills unexpectedly, and other times orders all currency burned. No way of knowing if that would work better or worse than our system, right?

That's what feels so alternating to me... while he's clearly thought deeply and intelligently about a million things, and is smarter than me in a dozen ways, it also seems like he avoids settling his views in mutual appreciation of multiple opposing forces. He has to pick an absolute position. (Contra his claim that he doesn't do absolutes!)

Maybe that's connected to how he gets so much done: he seems to truly embody that dictum of "Hell yes, or not at all".

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Friday, July 07, 2017

If horses had guns, maybe they'd still be around!

It's interesting to view the Trump election in light of the ongoing conversation about automation and AI ending human jobs.

It's as if the socialist public works programs the left has always wanted more of are finally getting put on the table, but via a rightist, nationalistic, paranoid and xenophobic nativism. National socialism, you might say.

Of course, military employment has long been something of a compromise between liberal supporters of socialistic full employment and the jingoistic right.

In this light, Trump's proposed import tariffs are effectively a proxy for subsidized employment. But they are a very poor proxy, in terms of economic efficiency, since automated manufacturing requires so few jobs anyway--especially when those jobs need to pay relatively high American salaries.

What we really need is socialized income to distribute the gains from technology, and socialized jobs to keep people off oxycontin and video games. So again, public works and high taxes.

The impetus for this, ultimately, is the same as the welfare state in general--maintaining stability and staving off revolution. (That need not mean actual discrete political revolution, just the undermining of an existing power structure.)

Horses are famously held up as an example of what happens to an obsolete workforce; apparently the horse population of the developed world has declined to a practically genocidal degree in the last century or so.

If the horses had guns, maybe they'd still be around!

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Real talk for the intrepid traveler about visiting Georgia

Note: an updated, photo-enhanced version of this post is up on Medium.

Here are my off the cuff tips for visiting the nation of Georgia, written for a friend of a friend. My knowledge is a bit out of date, and I probably have a few details wrong, so take it all with a crumb of salty sulguni cheese!


Openness:

The most important thing is to meet people, strike up conversations, be curious, be open to accepting invitations. Hospitality and generosity are central elements of Georgian culture, in a way that's honestly reminiscent of Burning Man. But in Tbilisi, it can take a bit of work and adjustment to get past the surface anonymity of the big city. (Big for Georgia, that is... the city center is only like half a million people).

If you are friendly and curious with people you meet, and tell everyone how much you want to experience Georgian culture, Georgian music, and Georgian food, you'll open the door to invitations.


Supras:

One central Georgian cultural experience is the "supra", a celebratory dinner that's filled with toasts and chatter and singing.

Of course, like so many cultural practices, it looks different from the inside than it does from the outside. We outsiders tend to treat it like a totally distinct, binary thing. But for people inside the culture, it's just a fluid part of the way things work.

So most supras just happen organically when people get together to eat or drink, if the setting is right. ("Supra" just means "table".) If people are eating and talking and someone keeps getting up and making toasts with a little mini speech first, it's a supra.

The toastmaster is called a "tamada", though again, it's more of the name for the act, which anyone can step in and do, than a singular role that is only performed by one person. Traditionally, there are 12 toasts, to things like old and new friends, love, the dead, and children. So a very Georgian thing to do, that would be very welcome, when you're in a supra-like environment, would be to stand up and hold a glass of wine or vodka (not beer though) and give a little 3 sentence speech and toast. Nothing fancy, just something from the heart, like "This is my first time in Georgia, and the first time meeting most of you, and I want to appreciate the welcome I'm getting, and promise that I will pass this on to others. To welcoming people from far away!" Then drain your glass to really represent.

Georgians certainly drink a lot, but it's not a college-style binge drinking culture. You'll smell alcohol on people's breath (including, terrifyingly, cab drivers), but it's uncommon for people to be really wasted. Part of this is because Georgians tend to eat while they drink, which slows down the drinking and alcohol digestion.


Georgian food:

Georgian cheese bread, called khachapuri (khah-chah-poo-ree, notes on the pronunciation of Georgian letters are below), is a daily food that is present at most traditional meals, like baguettes for the French.

If you're into trying new foods, you should seek out the various regional varieties of khachapuri, all of which can be found in Tbilisi. Different bakeries and restaurants in specialize in different regional dishes, especially khachapuri, so ask around.

"Acharuli" khachapuri is from the Achara region in southwest Georgia (it's usually written in English as "Adjaria"), and it has a half cooked egg on top that finishes frying in the hot cheese, phenomenal when done well. "Penovani" khachapuri is cooked in a phyllo dough. The most common variety is "Imeruli" khachapuri, from the Western Imereti region, which resembles a pizza slice with no tomato sauce.

Georgian food has a combination of middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Russian influences, as well as totally unique dishes. The distinctive cheese on khachapuri, for example, is usually Sulguni cheese, which is made from the milk of these stocky mini cows that live only on the mountains or Georgia. There is a lot of pomegranate, walnut and plum. Be sure to try tqemali (sour plum sauce), satsivi (walnut sauce), mchwadi (aka shashlik, in Russian), chkmeruli chicken, and chicken/meat cooked with any of a variety of fruits and nuts, especially pomegranate. Other good dishes are lobiani beans and cooked mushrooms (I forget what these are called in Georgian).


Georgian language:

In general, because Georgia is so small, Georgians know the country isn't well known, and they appreciate travelers being curious about Georgia and learning even a little bit of the culture and language. Pretty much everyone under 30 speaks some English, but if you try a few Georgian words and phrases, they'll go a long way.

Georgian is a unique language in many ways. It is not an Indo-European language, and the vocabulary and script is completely unfamiliar to outsiders. Even if you don't have time to memorize them, do try to look at the alphabet and the word sounds online or in a guidebook -- the script is fun and bizarre.

"Georgia" in Georgian is "Sakartvelo", the land of the Kartveli people, and the language is called "Kartuli".

Pronunciation is very similar to Spanish: every Georgian letter is pronounced consistently, and emphasis is mostly even across syllables, with a little extra emphasis often put on the second to last syllable.

You roll r's as in Spanish, and vowels are pronounced pretty much the same: 'a' and 'e' are soft (like in "España", but the 'e' can be somewhat hard as in "feliz"), but 'i', 'o' and 'u' are hard (as in "gusto" and "limpio").

Unfortunately, many Georgian letters are tricky! "kh" means you make a choking k, like in Hebrew. "ts" (as in, "its") and "zh" (as in "treasure") are single letters in Georgian, and they can start a word.

Ask Georgians to help you learn to say the word "baqaqi", "frog" in Georgian, for a good example.

Another good word to help you hear the language better is "chika", "glass"; the ch is aspirated with a sharp exhale, but the k is soft and gentle.

Words can also have multiple consonants in a row... "cakes" translates to the word "namtskhvrebi"!

The verb generally goes at the end of the sentence.


Useful phrases:

  • "Bodishit, Kartuli ar vitsi." == Sorry, Georgian not [I speak]
  • "Ingliusuri vitsi." == English [I speak]
  • "Ukatsravad, Ingliusuri itsit?" == Excuse, English [you speak]?
  • "Tu sheidsleba" == please
  • "Es ra ghirs?" == This what costs? (Aka, how much does this cost?). The "gh" is close to the guttural sound of an 'r' is in French.
  • "Gaumarjos!" == Victory! (Aka, cheers!)
  • "Kargia!" == Good is! (Aka, it's good, or this is good) This is short for "kargi aris"; 'aris' is a conjugation of the verb 'to bee's
  • "Tuvaleti sad aris?" == Toilet where is? (Where is the bathroom?)
  • You can politely call men you're asking questions of "Botono" (sir), and women "Kalbotono" (madam). Ukatsravad, Kalbotono, es ra ghirs?"

Check out a YouTube video of how to count to ten.


Random things to try to do, if you can:

* Take any day trip a Georgian invites you on. Try asking people if they know any good day trips. If you get lucky, a Georgian might invite you on one. Near Tbilisi there is the old capital with some thousand year old churches, and an isolated monastery you can go near and look out upon.

* Take longer trips as well, if you have time! The Black Sea coast is gorgeous, the wine country of Kakheti in the east is beautiful, and there are tall mountains quite close to Tbilisi (in Gudauri) which have skiable snow for much of the year, and breathtaking views. In Georgia's many small villages, any newcomer is a novelty, and a bit of warmth, gesturing and broken Georgian is often enough to lead to an invitation to come try a villager's homemade wine. Also, everywhere you go there are tiny, old churches; often you aren't far from a church that's more than 500 years old, which is still in active use and drawing local singers (see next bullet point).

* Visit a church where people sing informally. Georgian religious singing resembles chant but is polyphonic, and the more amateur the singers, the better. Sometimes you can get tipsy Georgian men to sing together impromptu. It's beautiful.

* Hear a Georgian folk singer strum the guitar and sing in Georgian at a bar at night. I've sometimes heard this called "Tbilisi city music", but I'm not sure that's right.

* Ask people which bakeries have really good khachapuri, and bread in general. The daily bread is fantastic, and breakfast can just be some sulguni cheese and fresh bread.

* Go to the bazaar, "basroba", with endless varieties of produce and objects and tinkering, with lots of old people who give you a sense of the old, tiny village countryside

* See how many Chinese-style soup dumplings you can eat at "Khinkal Sakhli", "Khinkal [dumplings] house". Georgians think of these as totally Georgian, but obviously they're an import from East Asia via the Silk Road.


Dating scene:

Finally, just a bit of orientation about the dating and hookup scene... My personal knowledge is way out of date, but generally speaking, it's a more conservative culture sexually than urban Russia and Eastern Europe. Until recently, premarital sex was totally taboo, and there's still a big, destructive cultural pattern around the insistent macho man and the pious virginal maiden. It's several decades behind the US and Western Europe in fully acknowledging date rape as criminal assault.

There are also many popular misconceptions about sex, like the idea that it's unnatural for a woman to enjoy getting oral sex, or absolute certainty that every man knows 100% of the time if a woman he's having sex with is a virgin.

This has been changing, but Tbilisi is still nothing like, say, Tallinn or Kiev in its club/bar culture. (One American I knew in Tbilisi used to take a trip once a year to Eastern Europe just to experience this difference.)


Freedom and policing:

Georgia is a fairly typical transitional state, where you can expect some level of surface professionalism from most police and guards, but there is also plenty of bribery and arbitrary state violence. So you probably want to avoid getting caught smoking a joint outside a club, say.

There's also a small amount of organized (and semi-organized) crime, so you also want to be very apologetic to the 300 lb. scarred dude you bump into on the dancefloor.

The flip side of this is that some of the most important intensely defensive tough guys are also very generous, passionate and affectionate. There are tons of stories of this, like rival crews attacking each other and then stopping and agreeing to be brothers and drinking and singing all night. Or, muggers taking pity on a poor victim and giving the would be victim money.

There is some petty street crime, as in most big cities in the world outside of Western Europe, and it makes a difference if you know how to be street smart, maintain awareness of your surroundings, not attract too much attention in shadowy, lonely neighborhoods late at night, etc. My Georgian friends assure me that it has declined significantly.

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The dangers of scoffing at new age cures

Nikhil Sonnad recently wrote a piece for Quartz pointing out that many of the same pseudo-scientific products are promoted on both Gwynneth Paltrow's Goop and Alex Jones's InfoWars.

This article lost me at "people who can afford $25 'activated cashews'", which I gather means that they buy some amount of many cashews for $25, which of course most people I know have done cumulatively. So it's a statement that only sneers, and doesn't inform.

I also think it's misleading to say that Alex Jones "has said" Sandy Hook was staged, which I assume is literally true, but obscures the fact that he has since walked that back. Not that Alex Jones especially deserves excusing, but we're only getting the sizzle and not the vitamins -- the self-satisfaction and superiority, and not the caveats.

And that's just in the first few paragraphs. If I edited this person, I'd make a mental note to carefully check all of his facts and reign in his phrasings, to make sure we're not overstating, obscuring and sensationalizing information for the sake of entertainment. That editorial oversight doesn't seem to have happened here, so I don't know how seriously I should take the rest of it.

That said, my extended friends and family include quite a few people who buy these sorts of nonsense products, and probably half of them sometimes use homeopathic placebo pills and creams. The weirdest thing I've seen is a necklace with a piece of electronic circuitry on it, with a vague claim that it conducts some sort of beneficial energy field.

I've spent lots of time around learners and teachers who peddle much of this kind of nonsense, and claim to practice or study things like the effects of remote prayer, reading auras, and surviving bodily death. I've argued with the more intellectual promoters of such study. They feel that the limits of what is considered respectable to study in mainstream scholarship are too narrow, and it is cital to support the types of seeking of knowledge and connection that are excluded from study elsewhere. This has been the case with formerly eyeroll-inducing folk practices/substances like meditation, yoga, acupuncture, red wine, curry, MDMA, cannabis, germ flora, and prenatal and early childhood exposure to nuts and seafood -- all of which have demonstrated their value, in the face of dismissive skepticism, through further scientific study, or are in the process of being so.

I do think that there are some disturbing limits on what the mainstream considers respectable to wonder about. For instance, somehow it became ridiculous in serious conversation to worry about GMOs. Calls to more actively monitor GMO research and production, or to label them, are met with eyerolls. But there are many documented cases of environmental damage from GMOs, and disturbing legal precedents that make it illegal to farm with seeds you own if the company which modified them doesn't want you to. In other words, there is ample reason to respect and listen to concerns about GMOs.

Similarly, vaccines in the US have indeed hurt many children due to government and industry incompetence, irresponsibility and/or greed. There are also many different points of failure at which the administration of a vaccine dose could harm your child, and the public at large, on net. I do allow all immunizations that my children's doctor recommends, and I think that's the responsible thing for all parents to do. But I certainly have reservations, and I think if you don't, that's fine, but it's because you're not informed or reflective enough on the topic to realize that reservations are appropriate. But parents with reservations are treated as know-nothing fools.

Another one is vitamins. There are numerous articles that announce that multivitamins have failed all sorts of experiments, but that don't get into the weeds about how some of the components of multivitamins have shown positive effects. We know precious little, really, about vitamins and nutrition, but we don't know enough to be certain what the effects of taking all sorts of supplements are.

To take up an especially dangerous example of excessive certainty, I think we popularly assume we know more about climate change than we do. I agree that it's very likely true that the planet is warming and human activity is the main cause. But I also acknowledge that the global climate is a hugely complicated and somewhat chaotic system, whose complexities our past models and theories have often significantly failed to capture

I don't buy crystals or homeopathic placebos or other similarly ridiculous products. But I think we should all keep in mind how very many times in history folk knowledge has run ahead of scientific knowledge, and how many times mainstream science has served politics, groupthink, hubris and oppression and forestalled understanding and truth.

It's fine to say that, on balance, the evidence for homeopathy or activated cashews appears vanishingly weak. But they can be bullshit without us having to overstate our case. I think people who believe in that microchip necklace or the power of crystals are ingenuous fools. But I also think there's plenty I don't know about all of the ideas around them, and the experiences of their users. It's not where I would focus research, but I don't want to be too smug about it.

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