by Eric Walton on January 17th, 2014

                                           Late afternoon in the town of Aguas Calientes
One often hears it said that we tend to regret more the things we've left undone than the things we've done. This is something of a tautology, given the strict meaning of the word "regret". Properly speaking, one has remorse for the things (though presumably not all the things) one has done and one regrets not having done things that, in hindsight, one feels one should have. The poet Ogden Nash characterized remorse as "a violent dyspesia of the mind". Any morally honest person who has reached the age of reason will have to admit to having at least some remorse and some regrets and any life so lived that a moment's sincere reflection will not reveal several examples of both or either is a life of either unenviably timidity or complete sociopathy.

I had the pleasure several years ago of visiting Lima, the capital city of Peru, and though my stay was woefully brief, I tried, as always, to make the most of it. I explored the city on-foot and ventured beyond the city to some of the nearby ruins and other archaeological sites. Though it certainly could not be said that I failed to take full advantage of my limited time in Peru, as the trip drew to a close, I found myself regretting not having sojourned further afield and especially to Machu Picchu. The more I learned about this extraordinary site, the more my regret of having missed it compounded, and so I resolved to someday return to Peru and visit the ruins of the Lost City of The Incas. Which brings us to the present, or, more accurately, the very recent past.

Earlier this month, I returned to the beautiful country of Peru and visited not only Machu Picchu, but also the wonderful city of Cusco and the towns of Aguas Calientas and Urubamba. These are all remarkable destinations that, even during the rainy season, have much to recommend them. One word of caution, however: Apparently the height of the rainy season (between January and March) is not an ideal time to visit the Andean Highlands. Only one or two days after I visited Machu Picchu, the site was rendered completely inaccessible by an enormous landslide which I was told would take ten days to clean up. I've certainly had closer calls and narrower misses, but it would have been a sincere disappointment to have traveled so far and for so long (New York to Lima, Lima to Cusco, Cusco to Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, Aguas Calientas almost to Machu Picchu) only to be thwarted by a force majeure.

The following and above are a small sample of photos I took over the course of my seven glorious (and remorseless) days in Peru.

                                                         The Lost City of The Incas
                                         A stray dog on the streets of Aguas Calientes
       A young woman in Chinchero demonstrates traditional dying and weaving techniques.
                                              Some herbs used in the dying process
                                     Alpaca yarn and some local herbs used for dying
                                    Two men in a doorway near the town of Chinchero
                   Raindrops on Fuchsia flowers (Fuchsia vargasiana) in the Sacred Valley
            A woman in traditional garb and accompanied by a llama on the streets of Cusco
                                                                 Rain in the distance
                                                Machu Picchu and the Urubamba River
                                The Urubamba River and the town of Aguas Calientes
                                                     A religious icon in a hotel in Cusco
                             A man delivers herbs in the narrow streets of Chinchero.
                                    Flowers bloom at the Sol Y Luna resort in Urubamba.
                                                  An alpaca surveys Machu Picchu.
                                                           On a tour bus in Cusco
                                            A man stands beside the road in Chinchero.
                                             A boy walks along the road in Chinchero.
                                  A dog inspects something in a courtyard in Cusco.
                              An elderly woman begs for money on the street in Cusco.
                 Two guests are lead to their casita at the Sol Y Luna resort in Urubamba.
                                                        Plaza Des Armas in Cusco
                                     Raindrops on flower petals in the Sacred Valley
All text and images, copyright 2014 by Eric Walton

by Eric Walton on September 29th, 2013

Long before I became a skeptic, I became a vegan. And I became a vegan not as the result of a direct appeal to my logic or rationality, but because sparing the lives of animals appeals to my senses of justice and compassion. Nonetheless, I do not make a habit of maintaining practices that cannot be logically or rationally defended and while I've always been able to hold my ground in debates with non-vegans, it wasn't until I had acquainted myself with the precepts of logic and skepticism that I became attuned to the ludicrous arguments sometimes advanced by the opponents of veganism.

In the twenty-two years that I have abstained from food derived from animals, I've had many discussions about it and have heard numerous arguments adduced against the vegan life-style from all kinds of people, friends and adversaries alike. Most objections to veganism are easily dismantled by anyone who has studied the subject and is familiar with the tenets of informal logic. Sometimes, however, one does encounter an argument against veganism that possesses the meretricious sheen of scientific credibility and even when the proponents of such arguments cannot cite primary sources to support their claims, they are nonetheless put forth with all the confidence and certitude of proper science.

A perennial favorite sometimes marshaled by otherwise rational people who wish to defend the carnist world-view goes like this: "Plants have feelings, too! How can you kill all of those innocent cabbages and still claim that killing animals is wrong? Haven't you heard about that study where the guy proved that plants have feelings?” As I recently discovered, this argument has (like so many other logical fallacies) its own name: the ad plantarum fallacy.

Until recently, my response to the ad plantarum argument had always been something to the effect of, “Why, yes, I have heard about that study, but somehow no particular scientist, university, or institution is ever mentioned in association with it. Were the results of this study peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal?” No one who has ever been on the vegan side of this conversation needs to be told how those on the other side of it inevitably respond. There are never any names given, sources cited, or particulars offered, giving their claim all the mystique (as well as credibility) of an urban legend.
But just for the sake of argument, let's overlook the complete absence of scientific merit that the claim possesses and assume that it is somehow true that plants are conscious beings. Let us ignore the fact that plants do not possess brains or nervous systems and assume on the basis of no credible evidence whatsoever, that plants are sentient creatures and that “psycho-botany” is a legitimate science.

Taking this claim at face value actually weakens the carnist's case against the vegan. There is a very obvious and important objection to the argument that, from an ethical point of view, if plants are sentient, then eating them is no better or worse than eating animals. This objection concerns the sheer quantity of plants needed to produce meat. Producing a single pound of beef, for instance, requires sixteen pounds of grain. One pound of pork requires six pounds of grain and for every sixteen ounces of edible chicken flesh that is produced, at least five pounds of innocent plants must lose their lives. In the United States alone, fifty-six million acres of arable land are dedicated to growing hay for livestock production, whereas only four million acres are used to grow fruits and vegetables for people. Thirty percent of the Earth’s land surface, which is equivalent to seventy percent of all agricultural land on the planet, is devoted to growing crops for and raising farm animals. And according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the amount of grain fed to livestock in the U.S. alone could feed about 840 million people, roughly eleven times the number of people who die of starvation worldwide every year.

We'll leave aside for the moment that these figures represent an egregious, immoral, and unsustainable misappropriation of the world's dwindling natural resources and we'll concentrate instead on the issue of suffering, which is of such great concern to the many meat-eaters who are convinced that vegans bear the responsibility for inflicting pain and misery upon innocent fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tubers.
If one is legitimately concerned with mitigating the amount of suffering in the world, then there is simply no way to justify eating meat, especially if one believes that plants also suffer. The misery and suffering of the tens of billions of animals raised and slaughtered for food every year are multiplied by hundreds of orders of magnitude if one accepts the claim that plants, as well as animals, possess consciousness and therefore suffer when they are harvested.

By way of illustration, three cereal crops commonly used in livestock production are corn, soybeans, and wheat. If a cow raised for human consumption were fed a diet that consisted of equal parts of each of these three crops, then the total cost in terms of vegetation for just one pound of beef would be 4,825 individual plants.

I arrived at that number, incidentally, by first determining the number of kernels needed to produce one pound of each crop (Corn: 1,300; Soybeans: 2,500; Wheat: 16,000). I added those numbers and then divided the total by three to find the average (6,600) and then determined the average number of kernels produced per ear of corn, soybean plant, and stalk of wheat (800, 55, 50), found the total (905) and again divided by three to determine the average. I multiplied the result (301.6) by the number of pounds of grain needed to produce a pound of beef (16) and the result was 4,825. And consider that a 1,200-pound cow yields about 350 pounds of beef, so when the bodily remains of a cow are sent to market as 350 pounds of brisket, sirloin, and hamburger, it represents the lives of 1,688,960 individual plants that were necessary to produce it.

Let me be the first to admit that these calculations are based on the limited information that is available to me. The ratio of corn to soybeans, for example, might be different from one season to the next or might differ from one region to another. And the composition of livestock feed most likely varies from CAFO to CAFO and certainly consists of more than just grains. It is widely known that chicken feed is often laced with arsenic, for example. It's also a common practice in factory farms to supplement feed with the dried blood and bone meal of animals who have already been slaughtered, so the figures could be marginally adjusted up or down, depending on the exact composition of the feed. But this variability does nothing to alter the irrefutable fact that the production of meat requires vast quantities of plants. Therefore, any carnist who attempts to undermine the ethical argument for veganism with the scientifically unsubstantiated claim that plants have feelings and that their suffering should be minimized is making a thoroughly untenable case, as every pound of meat a person consumes necessarily involved the “suffering” of thousands of innocent plants.

That killing and eating animals causes them to suffer is undeniable. That eating plants causes them to suffer is a proposition that has never been demonstrated in a controlled scientific experiment, despite the numerous attempts of scientists to determine the legitimacy of so-called “primary perception”. It's time we recognize the “Plants have feelings, too!” argument for what it is: a feckless attempt to undermine the ethical basis of veganism with pseudo-science and bad logic.

So, regardless of which side of the issue you happen to be on, you should neither permit nor commit the rhetorical faux pas of invoking an unsubstantiated claim that, if it were true, would only undermine the case of the person making it.

by Eric Walton on August 27th, 2013

On June 21st, I met with New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio at his campaign headquarters in downtown Brooklyn to discuss Stop and Frisk, horse carriage rides, fracking, healthcare, and New York's energy future.
Eric Walton: As Public Advocate and as a mayoral candidate, you've been a very outspoken opponent of the NYPD's Stop & Frisk program. Why do you want to reform Stop & Frisk and as mayor of New York City, what would you do to ensure that the civil liberties of all New Yorkers were protected?

Bill de Blasio: I start from the assumption that it is our responsibility as leaders to protect civil liberties and protect public safety simultaneously. I always say that the country is founded on that concept, and yet, in the public debate in New York City you constantly hear, including from the mayor and the police commissioner, a kind of diminution of anyone who suggests that problems of civil liberty are meaningful. They try to create the image that if you care about civil liberties, if you care about police/community relations, somehow you care less about safety and I reject that entirely. I think it's a smokescreen. The fact is, the best path forward in New York City is to mend police/community relations in communities of color. And the NYPD has had some unfortunate history in terms of not following Constitutional guidelines and not just with Stop and Frisk, but with the 2004 Republican Convention, which is a legendary example. It's crucial that we turn that page, that we put in place the safeguards to once and for all ensure that the NYPD acts in a Constitutional manner. I think that will increase public confidence in the police, increase public communication with the police at the neighborhood level and create the real atmosphere of partnership and I think it will make us safer. But to do all of that we need a new police commissioner, because [police commissioner Ray] Kelley is not going to fundamentally change Stop and Frisk; he is the author of the overuse of Stop and Frisk. We need an inspector general and we need a racial profiling bill.

EW: One of the biggest issues in New York State right now is fracking. And the controversial Spectra Pipeline in the West Village is set to bring methane gas obtained through fracking into New York City in November. What are your positions on fracking and the Spectra, Constitution, and Rockaway Pipelines?

BDB: I believe strongly in the moratorium on fracking. I think it is abundantly clear that the technology is far from perfected. There are incredible dangers associated with fracking that could have a lasting impact on our water supply in particular, beyond just the city water shed, but anywhere it's being done. And so I think the moratorium is necessary and I don't think the moratorium should be lifted until these issues are resolved, if they are ever resolved. We are increasingly learning about the impact of the gas obtained from fracking in terms of health. And I certainly have my own concerns. I haven't studied it exhaustively, but I can tell you that the things I've heard about what the gas itself includes in terms of its composition gives me real concerns about its impacts on public health. If it were delivered to the city, the radon, for example could have real negative public health impacts that we haven't had previously from natural gas. And I'm also broadly worried about the safety of any pipeline. We've had some instances that certainly justify real concern about having a pipeline in an urban area. We have a pollution problem in this city, too. Some of our buildings, however, use fuels that are dirtier than natural gas, so on that point natural gas has some advantages over certain other fuels, but I'm very concerned about the pipelines themselves and I'm very concerned about the composition of this new fracking gas.

EW: What is your vision for New York City's energy future?

BDB: In terms of energy for New York City, the things that excite me the most going forward are wide-scale building retrofits and solar energy. In terms of lowering emissions, buildings are the central concern and we are empowered in this city by the fact that we have the largest stock of public buildings anywhere in the country. I have suggested we emulate a plan currently being used in Chicago that provides a financing mechanism to retrofit both public and private buildings, and it's a viable approach because the expenses of retrofitting can be repaid through greater energy efficiency. The program would also provide jobs for many New Yorkers who are currently unemployed, which would marry the notion of environmental sustainability with economic sustainability. So, that's one thing I would want to focus on and another is solar. By increasing our solar energy capacity, we have the opportunity not only to reduce emissions, which is a tremendous benefit to public health, but also the more solar capacity we implement, the more energy-independent we become in the event of a storm like Sandy, which really disrupted the city's energy supply. So, I think we have an amazing opportunity to expand New York City's solar capacity and I'm hoping the solar bill passes in the state senate and if it doesn't, it would be a major priority for me to get it passed.

EW: I attended the New York City Mayoral Forum on Animal Rights in May and was impressed that you were (and I believe still are) the only mayoral candidate in this race who has taken an unequivocal stand against horse carriage rides. I believe you also mentioned at that forum that both of your children are vegetarians. Could you briefly explain your views on animal rights and tell me why the issue of horse carriage rides is so central to your campaign?

BDB: Of course. I'd like to take a moment to comment on my children, as I am incredibly proud of them. One of the things we aspire to do as conscientious parents is to equip our children with critical thinking skills and we now have two very critical thinkers who both became vegetarians on their own and independently of each other. And they did it because they decided that for the future of the Earth, this was a better way. And I'm very proud of the way they thought as citizens and as well as individuals. In terms of horse carriage rides, I began with this sort of romantic notion of the horse carriages as a part of New York's heritage and culture, but then I started to learn about it and I was appalled. And I think that's true for a lot of people. The minute you get them to think about it, the inappropriateness of it just jumps off the page. These are animals that should be in nature, and instead they're on pavement and in traffic. So the more I learned, the more I became convinced that this has to end and it has to end now. The electric, antique car program could provide employment for those who currently make their living in the horse carriage industry, but we need a ban on horse carriage rides right away. The notion that we're being inhumane to animals as a matter of public policy is absolutely unacceptable to me.

EW: According to a study published last year in the Annals of Family Medicine, the average cost of healthcare insurance for American families will surpass the average family income by the year 2033. Healthcare insurance is already beyond the means of many people in this city. How would your recently unveiled healthcare plan make medical treatment more accessible to New Yorkers who can't afford health insurance?

BDB: What we want to do is take full advantage of the Affordable Care Act, which depends on people being signed up for exchanges and the city can play an important role in making that happen. So, the first thing would be to make sure people who don't have health insurance are signed up for the Affordable Care Act and the second thing is to create more clinic capacity at the local level in neighborhoods that are under-served and get people into the habits of preventative and primary care, which of course borrows from the whole concept of Obamacare, which is to focus our energies on the front end of the process, instead of what we're doing right now, where so many people get sick, get sicker, and then end up in the emergency room. And in terms of public sector workers, I'd like to emulate a model that the Hotel Trades Council unions use, which is to create a unified health center for key public employment sites. These centers would focus on the wellness of the whole individual, which is not only better for people's health, but also much more cost efficient. There's such a center in Harlem that is amazing. It has the different core medical services that people need all under one roof. You walk out of your appointment with your doctor with a prescription in your hand and you go down one floor to get it filled. It's all about making sure people are actually following through on the things that will keep them healthy and I want to adopt that as a public model for own employees. I think it will be better for their health and also save us a lot tax-payer dollars in the long run.  

EW: What do you think is an important issue for the residents of Hell's Kitchen?

BDB: Affordable housing. This is one of those areas in New York City where people have been really priced out. There are lots of neighborhoods in the city where that's the case, but Hell's Kitchen is one of the most salient examples of people feeling the pressures of gentrification and development and being forced out of a neighborhood that they love and want to be a part of. I have a plan that would create 200,000 affordable housing units in New York City over ten years and we also have to ensure that promises made by the city government are kept and surpassed.

An abridged version of this interview originally ran in the August issue of Inside Hell's Kitchen magazine.

by Eric Walton on July 7th, 2013

Like all significant transitions, the transition from online shop to brick-and-mortar storefront demands finesse. And Fine & Dandy, an “accessory shop for dapper guys,” has a positive surplus of finesse, so it comes as no surprise that their physical location on 49th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues is doing a brisk business. I recently visited the store, which is a veritable treasure trove for those (like me) who swoon at the sight of cuff-links, tie-pins, and pocket squares, and found one of its proprietors, the genial Matt Fox, impressively attired in full dandy regalia.

Sitting opposite him in an antique chair and feeling woefully under-dressed, I asked him to define the Fine & Dandy ethos and to describe his clientele.

“We sell dandy-inspired men's accessories and our customers range from the Brooklyn hipster to the distinguished gentleman who has dressed well his entire life and wears a Boater and an ascot with no sense of irony whatsoever. We believe that no dapper fellow and, for that matter, no fellow who earnestly aspires to dapperness, should be at a loss for appropriately fine and suitably dandy accessories.”
Fine & Dandy is located at 445 West 49th Street. Store hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 8:00, Sunday from 1:00 to 8:00, Monday from noon to 8:00, and closed on Tuesday. (212) 247-4847

by Eric Walton on May 1st, 2013

Being a professional entertainer means spending time on the road and spending time on the road means taking certain chances with accommodations. It's simply part of the bargain. In the course of my many travels here in the U.S. and abroad, I've been mostly lucky when it comes to lodging, thanks in large part to the diligence of the agents I work with and to the thoughtfulness of the clients I work for. But no lucky streak lasts forever and on a recent trip to Coral Springs, Florida, mine came to an abrupt and unsettling halt.

I of course realize that every hotel and motel room has a history, but I strongly believe that that history should not be written, as it were, on the walls. We have all read or seen news stories about drug-induced murder/homicides in seedy motel rooms and have heard the tales of depravity and excess that take place inside the gilded chambers of five-star hotels, but all remnants of those sordid affairs should be (and in most cases, are) erased from the premises, leaving every new occupant of a room with the feeling that, at the very least, no forcible entry ever took place in it. I really don't think that is too much to ask.

And yet, this is apparently not the opinion of the management of a certain lodging facility in Coral Springs, Florida. I will refer to this establishment as CSI, an acronym which you may interpret any way you like. You may take it to stand for either Coral Springs Inn, or Crime Scene Innvestigations, the latter being my preferred moniker for the place.

I submit into evidence, People's Exhibit A:
This is a photograph taken of the door to my motel room from the inside. Notice that what might be referred to as the “male” half of the lock, the half on the right, and which is inserted into the “female” half, which is attached to the door jamb on the left, has been broken off, as if by some terrific force exerted from the other side of the door. Maybe a police officer kicked the door in, or maybe it was the work of a drug-addled and jealous boyfriend, or maybe it was something else entirely, but what is unmistakable is that it is the tell-tale sign of a violent struggle that I would prefer not to be reminded of as I'm settling in for the night.

Though the photo below doesn't indicate criminal activity per se, it was such a perfectly ridiculous sight that I simply had to share it.
It seems that the management of CSI could contrive no better place to situate a "No Smoking" sign than the bottom of this ashtray. I would love to have been present for the conversation that lead to that ingenious decision. It must have been decided that table tents were either too expensive, too ambiguous, or too unwieldy and that the best possible way to discourage guests from smoking on the premises would be to furnish every room with an ashtray, but to place it upside down and put a sticker on the bottom of it, thereby disguising its original and intended purpose.

And now back to our forensic analysis. The People present Exhibit B:
This is a close-up photo, taken from the main room, of the door-knob to the bathroom. Notice that a hole has been drilled into it, which was obviously undertaken in order to break the lock. Someone had very likely been locked in the bathroom and was either unwilling or unable to turn the handle and escape to the balmy solace of the main room. Was this person unconscious? Injured? Perhaps dead? I do not know what scenario might have unfolded in the confines of this lavatory or why it required the use of a drill to help resolve it, but I do wish that I had been spared the sight of the evidence of the episode, which compelled me to imagine what horrors might have transpired in or near the very shower in which I hastily washed myself after an evening on-stage.

Even under the best circumstances, it's disquieting to consider what unpleasantness might have taken place in bathrooms used by others, but the added suggestion of a forced entry brings to mind things far more unsettling than mere stomach viruses. So if you happen to be in the business of hotel/motel management and there's a double homicide in one of your rooms, the job of restoring the room to a state of habitability is not complete simply because the folks in housekeeping cleaned the blood off the walls and flipped the mattress. Why not go the extra mile and replace the locks that have been forcefully broken and door-knobs that have been drilled through? Your guests may not notice that all the relevant hardware is intact, but they will often notice when it is not.

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