The Long View 2005-02-10: Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

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By Pebble_bed_reactor_scheme_(italiano).jpg: Picoterawattderivative work: OrbiterSpacethingytranslation: Cryptex - This file was derived from Pebble bed reactor scheme (italiano) svg.svg:, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24456605

I remain a cautious advocate of nuclear power. I don't have subject matter knowledge about specific reactor designs, but I think we could do it right, if we wanted to. It would sure fix carbon emissions. We just don't want to. I will note that the pebble-bed reactors John mentioned here don't seem to have taken off in the last fifteen years.

This blog post, and the associated book review Halfway Heaven, guided me to read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie. That is a great book, and one I heartily recommend. John's quote sums it up:

Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

 

As we see from yesterday's headline, DOE Urged to Encourage New Nuclear Power Plants, the United States is about to begin a debate about when it is going to do the obvious thing and nuclearize its power industry. This debate will produce unnecessary delays, most of them created by environmental reactionaries who use the courts to block the disposal of nuclear waste and then argue that the nuclear industry cannot expand until the nuclear-waste disposal issue is unblocked. Eventually the reactors will be built, but history suggests they will be in the NASA tradition of glitchy overdesign, done at the highest possible cost. That is why I was particularly interested to see this headline earlier this week: China to pioneer "pebble bed" N-reactor. There we read:

China is poised to develop the world's first commercially operated "pebble bed" nuclear reactor after a Chinese energy consortium chose a site in the eastern province of Shandong to build a 195MW gas-cooled power plant...China and South Africa have led efforts to develop "pebble bed" reactors, so called because they are fuelled by small graphite spheres the size of billiard balls, with uranium cores. The reactor's proponents say its small core and the dispersal of its fuel among hundreds of thousands of spheres prevents a meltdown.

Maybe the simplest thing would just be to wait five years and then buy the Chinese designs.

* * *

Fans of the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of People of the Lie, will be pleased to know that a diagnosis of Evil is gaining clinical respectability. According to the New York Times:

Still, many career forensic examiners say their work forces them to reflect on the concept of evil, and some acknowledge they can find no other term for certain individuals they have evaluated...In an effort to standardize what makes a crime particularly heinous, a group at New York University has been developing what it calls a depravity scale, which rates the horror of an act by the sum of its grim details...And a prominent personality expert at Columbia University has published a 22-level hierarchy of evil behavior, derived from detailed biographies of more than 500 violent criminals...He is now working on a book urging the profession not to shrink from thinking in terms of evil when appraising certain offenders, even if the E-word cannot be used as part of an official examination or diagnosis.

"We are talking about people who commit breathtaking acts, who do so repeatedly, who know what they're doing, and are doing it in peacetime" under no threat to themselves, said Dr. Michael Stone, the Columbia psychiatrist, who has examined several hundred killers at Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in New Hampton, N.Y., and others at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where he consults and teaches. "We know from experience who these people are, and how they behave," and it is time, he said, to give their behavior "the proper appellation."

This could be useful, and it's certainly interesting, but I wonder whether the association of evil with extreme violence may not miss the point. Even in the case of a notorious crime, the most disturbing element may not be the final scene of blood and dismemberment, but the disclosure of the perpetrator's nonviolent thoughts.

Where there is evil, there may be no violence. The scariest people in Dr. Peck's case studies are impeccably polite and thoroughly respectable. He meets them, not as his patients, but as the persons responsible for his patients' misery. Evil usually destroys itself quite quickly, but sometimes it achieves "islands of stability" in the sort of people who spread Hell on Earth without ever raising their voices.

* * *

Meanwhile, that Other Spengler at Asia Times has been reading books again. In his recent review of Michael Wyschogrod's Abraham's Promise, he gets his knickers all in a bundle about the prospect of American theocracy:

Not until I read Michael Wyschogrod's new book Abraham's Promise did it occur to me the long-departed spirit of American Puritanism might once again become flesh. US evangelicals might awaken one morning as a New Israel not merely in metaphor, but self-aware as a New Chosen People in a New Promised Land. The most paranoid imagining about the Christian Right pales beside this prospect. We are talking about the real thing, not a Straussian imitation: a politicized Protestantism in the mold of the 17th-century Separatists. A "Judaizing heresy" made the United States of America possible to begin with, I have argued on other occasions, and Professor Wyschogrod argues a strong case for the evangelicals to Judaize yet again.

I suppose that US evangelicals might awaken one morning as giant cockroaches, but I would not bet on it. Someone who uses "Spengler" as a byline should know that some developments simply cannot occur in a civilization's life after a certain point. Among the things that cannot happen in the United States is the transformation of the political culture to exclusivist, messianic nationalism. There is a strong messianic streak in American culture, of course, but the trajectory of its development is not inward-looking. Quite the opposite: what we are seeing today is the fusion of that cultural insistence with Kantian universalism; or if you prefer, the appearance of a genuinely popular Wilsonianism.

Besides, if America Judaized, what would the dietary laws look like? Mandatory turkey on national holidays, and no French salad dressing, on penalty of deportation to Canada?

* * *

And speaking of American mental problems: with regard to the Bush Administration's Terror War strategy, the ice cracked this week. It's like when the Russians won the Siege of Stalingrad. The war is far from over, but it looks as if we are actually going to win. So, at any rate, one might think from stories like this: U.S., Europe drawing closer together after elections here and in Iraq. James K. Glassman tell us:

Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Bush wants democracy to make the world safe.

This clearer, more powerful formulation of policy would have been welcome before the Iraq war, but it's better late than never, and it is being treated with respect among Europeans who previously saw U.S. policy as simply naive and cynical...the European Union itself is different, with the accession last year of 10 new countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. Members of the European parliament from such countries recognize the role the United States played in freeing them from Soviet domination. Ronald Reagan is their hero.

Meanwhile, whether because wishful thinking has wings or because great minds think alike, we hear much the same from Australia:

This is a fascinating detail to observe. All of the US's East Asian allies and de facto allies ended up adopting the same or similar positions. Australia, as the most intimate and active US ally in the region, sent troops to the combat phase as well as the peacekeeping phase. The other US allies did not send troops to the combat phase but offered political support to the US and sent troops for peacekeeping...Far from Howard's support of Bush alienating us from Asia, Howard took an absolutely orthodox Asian position, for an ally of the US, on Iraq.

The irony may be that the world will declare George Bush to be All Grand High Emperor-in-Chief just as his party is run out of Washington on a rail because of his fiscal policies. Pretty much the same happened to Ronald Reagan because of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

John claims in this book review that suicide is not common in Ethiopia, where Sinedu Tadesse was born. At least according to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Ethiopia is about as high as in the US. On the other hand, it has also been twenty years, and you can see from 2012 to 2015 the global incidence of suicide has been getting worse. So perhaps the last twenty years have not been kind.

What data I can find tells me that the data quality is poor in Ethiopia, as in most of Africa, and is estimated instead of measured. Also, the WHO data is age-adjusted. It also doesn't account for other "deaths of despair" like drug overdoses and cirrhosis of the liver, but so far that seems to be a US problem.

If I were to argue that the world has gotten objectively harder to bear in the last twenty years, who would argue?


Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder
by Melanie Thernstrom
Doubleday, 1997
219 pages, $23.95
ISBN: 0-385-48745-2

"On Earth this desire is often called `love.' In Hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger."

--C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

Sinedu Tadesse was a twenty-year-old junior from Ethiopia. For two years she had roomed with Trang Phuong Ho, a refugee from Vietnam. Both were juniors and pre-med biology majors. The first year together they had gotten along well, the second year not so well, and Trang had told Sinedu that she planned to change roommates in the fall. Early on the morning of May 28, 1995, Sinedu walked into Trang's half of their two-room suite at Harvard's Dunster House and began stabbing Trang with a large knife she had apparently bought for the purpose. Trang had doubled-up that night with another Vietnamese-American woman who had come to help her move as the school term ended. The commotion woke her guest, whose hand was severely injured as she tried to protect Trang. She fled from the room onto the courtyard of the sleeping residence and eventually found someone to call the police. When they arrived, they found Trang's body by Sinedu's bed: she had been stabbed forty-five times, but she had still had enough life in her to try to reach the door. Sinedu was found hanging by a rope (also bought for the occasion) from the sturdy shower-curtain in the old-fashioned bathroom. She had some vital signs when she was cut down, but died soon thereafter. Hers was the third suicide (or fourth, depending on how you count that of a recent graduate) at Harvard in the previous year. Her killing of Trang was the first murder of one Harvard student by another in the four centuries of the school's existence.

"Halfway Heaven" is primarily about who is to blame for this episode. The book began as a piece for "The New Yorker" magazine. The title is an expression Trang's father used to describe how Harvard had seemed to the family. The author, Melanie Thernstrom, is by her own account a Harvard insider. She was graduated from Harvard College in 1987, her parents went there, her father teaches history there, and she herself has taught writing there (as well at other places). Ms. Thernstrom is not just very familiar with Harvard: she once actually rejected Sinedu for a seminar on autobiographical writing because her submission was too boring.

The author is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of her research. Her survey of the diagnosis and treatment of depression and mood disorders is lucid without minimizing the ambiguities that always attend actual clinical practice. She visited Ethiopia and contrived a tactful interview with Sinedu's family, this in a country where the institution of investigative journalism is not native. The chief impediment to her work was neither culture nor technical issues, but the blatant lies and veiled threats visited on her by Harvard University in general and Dunster House in particular. She records all this in great detail, and her shock is apparent. The University's policy was predictably self-defeating: its pretense that there had been no warning that something was radically wrong in Dunster House simply created a mystery that begged to be solved. And indeed, Ms Thernstrom does find the University, or at least its student mental health services, to have been a necessary predicate for what happened that May morning. For the ultimate cause, however, she can only document the possibilities.

The word on Harvard is that, if they let you in, they will take care of you. They will put together a financial aid package, they will tutor you in your weak subjects, they will counsel you if you get the shakes. One way and another, Harvard College (which is of course only a part of a University with ten prestigious graduate schools) manages to achieve an astonishing 98% graduation rate for its 6,000 students. One wonders, in fact, whether Harvard might not be becoming a bit like Tokyo University, which also does a superb job in selecting its student body but is not unduly anxious that the students actually learn anything while they are there. In any case, the magic of the Harvard name has always derived from the opportunity the place affords to make connections with the other very bright people who were selected with you.

Both Sinedu and Trang had come from moderately privileged backgrounds in countries that went Communist in the mid-1970s. Both their fathers had suffered political imprisonment. Trang fled with her father when she was ten and eventually worked her way up through the American public schools. Sinedu's family, despite persecution by the regime (which fell in 1991), contrived to send her first to a Catholic school and then to a school in Addis Ababa intended primarily for the children of diplomats. Like many students who shine locally, they found they were just average at Harvard. Maybe one or both of them would have changed her major, since their "B" averages would not have gotten them into a medical school.

Trang seems to have taken all this in stride. She tutored high school students and was a star in the Vietnamese students association. She acted as ombudsman for her newly-arrived mother and sisters (her parents had separated soon after being reunited in the United States). She had old-fashioned ideas about sex and dating but had several boy-friends. She was also genuinely interested in science, a quality that one might hope to see more often in pre-med students, and she loved lab work. Even allowing for the positive light in which people tend to recall the innocent dead, Trang Phuong Ho seems to have been a competent person who always worked as hard as she could and who rarely missed an opportunity to help others.

Sinedu kept diaries. The spiral-bound notebooks had titles like "My Small Book of Social Rules," "Amazing Improved Events and How I Could Have Solved Them," "Depression" and "Stress." In these, she said she had always been lonely and explained how she had never been able to connect with other people. Though examination of her school records from Ethiopia show her to have had considerable leadership ability, nevertheless she wrote that she suspected the other students had some sixth sense she did not have. (Some of the passages quoted in "Halfway Heaven" sound so much like Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" that you wonder what Sinedu had been reading.) Trang appears in the diaries, mostly in connection with real or imagined gaffes on Sinedu's part. Trang had perhaps taken on the lonely Sinedu as a roommate as another of her good works, and Sinedu was keenly aware that she made asymmetrical demands on Trang for companionship. Still, the only specific person mentioned in the diaries as a possible murder victim is an officer of the African student's association, someone who had considered Sinedu a friend. In the later entries, killing in general, followed by suicide, is mentioned as "the good way," as distinguished from suicide alone, which was the "bad way."

Suicide, incidentally, is not an Ethiopian custom. Sinedu was allowed burial in an Ethiopian Orthodox graveyard only because her family convinced the priest that there was some uncertainty about the circumstances of her death. Neither is there any national tradition of keeping intimate personal journals. The material on Ethiopia in "Halfway Heaven" is fascinating, but this seems to be another situation where culture is bunk.

We know about the content of Sinedu's diaries because they came to light after her death. However, she communicated the same sentiments in other ways. She wrote letters which she posted to people selected at random from the Boston area telephone directory describing her life in pitiable terms and demanding the friendship of the recipients. Some of the people who got these letters forwarded them to the College administration. The Master of Dunster House denies that any of the actual letters were sent to him from the Dean's office (at any rate, he denied this to Ms. Thernstrom, though he seems to have originally said otherwise to the police). Even the Master, however, says he got a "heads-up" letter from the Dean's office.

There were other signs. In her second year with Trang, Sinedu's behavior began to change. Normally meticulously tidy, she began leaving dirty clothes and half-eaten fruit around the suite. She sometimes wept in public. She fought with Trang (by letter) about Trang's decision to move out. In the last weeks, though, she seemed to relax. She sent presents to friends and family. She made dates to see people she had been putting off for months. In her last exam, she got an "A." She also sent an anonymous photograph of herself to the campus newspaper, the "Crimson," with the notation: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." The police later fished it out of a dumpster.

Harvard College knew. Sinedu had been seeing a student health service "psychologist," a man with a degree in education, since freshman year. The Dean's office (and possibly the Master) had the message-in-a-bottle letter. They knew that Trang had sought to change roommates as Sinedu's behavior deteriorated. If nothing else, several officials of the school were aware that Sinedu's grades had been falling off. What were they thinking of? Ms. Thernstrom describes her own reaction when Sinedu came to ask that she reconsider her rejection of Sinedu's application to join the autobiographical writing seminar. The student spoke of the suffering her country had experienced in recent years. Ms. Thernstrom gave the plea short shrift. There is a type of Harvard student who acts like the representative of the wretched of the Earth but who later turns out to be royalty. In any case, it probably was true that it was not the poverty of Ethiopia that Sinedu wanted to write about.

Sinedu was clearly sick, and the University was only pretending to help. She got no medication, though she was glaringly depressed (possibly bipolar, possibly schizoidal, maybe even mildly autistic). There are many forms of psychotherapy that are of dubious benefit and vast expense towards which university health plans turn an understandably jaundiced eye. Depression and related conditions, however, are eminently treatable and at reasonable cost. According to Ms. Thernstrom, nearby MIT, famous for its "crazy brilliant" students, is particularly good at handling this kind of thing. Be that as it may, competent medical intervention would certainly have saved Trang's life and probably have saved Sinedu's. You don't even have to go that far. Any of a half-dozen people in Harvard's faux-Oxford administration could probably have prevented the incident just by giving Sinedu her own room.

Still, Harvard is not to blame for what happened in any ultimate sense. As I noted, this book does a good job of surveying the medical parameters of Sinedu's behavior. It is thus somewhat startling to hear to a psychiatrist (from Yale) saying near the end: "If you push psychiatrists far enough, you'll find most of them believe in evil." Sinedu pretty clearly suffered from a mood disorder of the sort for which there is a straightforward neurochemical explanation. However, a dearth of neurotransmitters did not kill Trang, Sinedu did. Her condition was consistent with suicide (and also with curling up into a ball and crying uncontrollably, something she also did a lot of in her last week). The murder, as well as her account of her interior life, really do not lend themselves to clinical analysis.

Reading the excerpts from Sinedu's diaries, I was time and again of M. Scott Peck's book, "The People of the Lie." Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

We are dealing here with the mystery of personality. The mystery is genuine because it really is irreducible. If you could reduce a personality into a set of instructions, like a computer program, you would not be dealing with a person anymore, but with a machine. This is the only telling argument against solipsism: other people must really exist, because we could not possibly have invented what they do. (It is also, by the way, an argument for the existence of God, since we could not have made up reality as a whole, either.) None of this is to deny that we are also machines, animals, physical objects, suitable subjects of biological and psychological science. However, only pseudoscience purports to account for everything. There is always something else.

Sinedu's diaries are singularly devoid of "evil" content in any conventional sense of the word. The violent language is apparently sparse and mostly directed at herself. If she had any sexual thoughts, she did not commit them to paper. Certainly the widespread rumor that she killed Trang in a fit of jealous lesbian rage is utterly without foundation in the documentation. What was going on in her mind was a step below sexuality. Sinedu equated "connecting" with controlling people. Suicide was the "bad way" because it was an expression of weakness. Murder and suicide was the "good way" because, for once in her life, she would be able to dominate another person with impunity. Sinedu may have been beyond loving Trang when she killed her, but she was still interested in her, she wanted to control her. Sinedu had sometimes written of her life as what was left after a bomb went off. That is a fitting description of what was left after her death.

Ms. Thernstrom notes that, after the murder-suicide, a "mode of discourse" arose on campus by which both girls were spoken of as equally victims. This way of speaking seemed strange to her, but maybe it was the right way after all. Sinedu sought help for over two years to stop what was happening to her. It was only in those last few days, perhaps, that her mind was made up in a way she could no longer change. Terrible events like this tell us nothing about "the state of the culture," or similar gassy notions. They merit our attention precisely because they are perennial. They are, to put it bluntly, about good and evil, and the power of the human will to choose between them.

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-07-08: Neo-Hypochondria

John makes an interesting claim here: that psychoanalysis served the same function for mental illness as health resorts serve for hypochondriacs. That makes it seem less stupid than it otherwise might.


Neo-Hypochondria

Yesterday I suffered the torments of the damned, if the damned have Canon printers. It was one of those rare occasions when I had to have a pile of hardcopy postal mail ready for the next morning. However, early in the day I discovered my printer was not printing text, only graphics.

I did all the obvious things. I fiddled with the preferences. I changed the black-ink tank. I reinstalled the printer. Though I despise documentation, I finally went to the Canon issues-page. There I found the polite suggestion that those little BC-21e cartridges, which hold the ink tanks, do just wear out after a while. I could not go to Staples to buy one, however, because I was waiting for UPS to deliver a package. I would have to make the run in the evening.

As I worked on the text I would have to run off that night, I fumed about all the indignities I have suffered in connection with printers and inks over the past 20 years. By and by these recollections reached the occasion when I first bought new ink for my current printer, and the thieving clerk sold me a new BC-21e cartridge along with the ink tanks, without mentioning that it was a separate component.

I checked the stationery closet. There was the spare cartridge. This was at 4:00 PM. The UPS delivery came 20 minutes later.

* * *

In a very elliptical way, this tedious incident gave me new insight into a book I just finished reading, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, by Ralph Freedman. (This biography is from 1978, so looking for it online is likely to be a lost cause.) The book was written just after the Counter Culture period, during which Hesse had been popular in America, but little understood. Freedman's purpose was to break the news to Hesse's English-speaking admirers that Hesse was by no means an outsider author. Much of his German reputation, in fact, was based on historical romances and novels about family crises.

I read the biography to find more about Hesse's view on macrohistory; I have even argued that Hesse's last book, The Glass Bead Game, is essentially Spenglerian science fiction. Freedman, however, was little interested in this aspect of his subject's thought. As is a biographer's privilege, he focused on something else that was at least as important for Hesse: his connection with analytical psychology, and especially his ties to Jung.

Hesse was a Hypochondriac of the Strict Observance. He was chronically debilitated all his life by eye-aches and ear-aches, though the trouble seemed to become serious only after those rare occasion when his doctors attempted real treatment. He lived in that "Magic Mountain" world of annual "cures" at the better resorts. Psychoanalysis was a big part of that world. Indeed, it was invented chiefly to treat the neurasthenic disorders that flourished in that cultural context.

Today there is still some psychoanalysis, and I suppose there are still a few neurasthenics. However, people I know rarely obsess about illness, however devoted they may be to "fitness." What they do complain about is tiny technical issues, like me with my little printer-problem. Some people talk about them all the time, asking for advice and sympathy. We get upgrades we have no practical use for: like a trip to the springs at Baden, the exercise just makes us feel better. The popular use of computers gives us another way to express our conviction that something is not quite right.

The conviction is correct; we simply mistake its cause.

* * *

Sometimes things seem too right. The PATH (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) subway station at Exchange Place in Jersey City reopened this month, and I recently had occasion to use it. The station is on the west side of the Hudson River, directly across from the World Trade Center site, to which it is connected by a tunnel. Oddly enough, most of the World Trade Center PATH station survived 911, but Exchange Place had been closed because of water damage in the tunnel. Some reports said the flooding was caused by attempts to fight the fire. In other accounts, the damage was caused by a broken water-main that was part of the fire-suppression system. Since these stories are not incompatible, we may compromise by believing both.

Washington DC and, I gather, London have very deep subway systems, because those cities are built on marshy ground. The bedrock is far below the surface. Manhattan Island, in contrast, is essentially a ridge of granite with some dirt sprinkled on top. This permits its subways to be as shallow as its inhabitants. Exchange Place is different, though. It is right on the riverbank, so the station platform is almost as deep as the tunnel that goes under the river.

The station was renovated in the 1980s, but before that it was a masterpiece of decaying inner-city infrastructure, as mysterious as Moria. Cowards could take a huge, slow, elevator from the surface to the platforms. The more adventurous route was by a dimly lit stairway. The stairs snaked around for no good reason, sometimes giving way to short corridors before diving down again. The platforms themselves were covered in echoing tile and disconcerting silence. The ventilation never quite worked, so the air in the tunnels was usually misty. One summer, when I worked the night shift at a local post office, I took a train home from that station every night at 1:00 AM. It sticks in my memory.

The odd thing about the recent repairs is that not so much as a single tile in the wall looks different from the last major renovation. There is the same grand stairway-and-escalator going directly from platform level to the surface, with the same dismal neon-sculptures set in the ceiling. (Runners like those stairs. Cowards can still take an elevator.) What did the Port Authority find to do down there for 19 months?

A new World Trade Center station opens in November, by the way. The Port Authority tried to think of another name, but decided to keep the old one.

* * *

This is not a joke. On the frontpage of today's New York Times, a story appeared under the byline of Donald G. McNeil, Jr., with the commendably self-explanatory headline: Chill Therapy Is Endorsed for Some Heart Attacks. A little later, there is a quote: "This is very exciting; there are potentially a lot of people who can benefit," said Dr. Terry L. Vanden Hoek..."But it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Probably it's not a joke.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Last Psychiatrist

I've recently started reading The Last Psychiatrist, for a humorous and blunt look at modern life. I think this one is worth an add to the blogroll, so I shall.

Some choice examples:

Just how many drinks a day are safe? [yes, I know this is not psychiatry]
Borderline
Psychopaths are charming? [not to me, but I'm allergic to bullshit]


h/t The Fourth Checkraise