Sunday, September 17, 2023

Theories and Models: Understanding and Predicting Societal Collapse

This is a chapter by Sabin Roman in the new book, The Era of Global Risk: An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies, which can be downloaded at no charge. Existential risk is now a well-researched academic subject and is certainly worthy of attention. I may comment on other chapters, but this one attracted me first. 

Generally, societal collapse is associated with decreasing complexity. The chapter breaks down societal collapse into types. Exogenous factors and one-time events are one type. These include resource depletion, such as the deforestation of Easter Island as described by Jared Diamond, and soil degradation for the Maya civilization. They also include competition with other societies. And one-time events include volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts and solar flares. Roman sums up:

Overall, arguments based on competition with other societies, intruders, or catastrophes neglect the fact that these types of events have previously been encountered by a given society but no collapse occurred, e.g. earthquakes in Minoan civilization, barbarian attacks on the Roman front, or competition between the Mayan centres. In addition, these theories have the added difficulty of placing the drivers of the collapse outside of the society in question, which is incomplete from an epistemological perspective without accounting for changes in social structures and dynamics.

Another type is social structure and class conflict. This has been written about since 1377, by Ibn Khaldun, Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, and Arnold Toynbee in 1961. Many of the theories in this group include class conflict. Roman summarizes the limitations of this approach as follows:

The main difficulty in the explanations above is that they force the cause to be considered a single factor and posit the causal mechanism as a direct, linear process. Given the complexity of the systems involved, collapse is often a multi-faceted process that requires accounting for multiple interrelated factors. Simply listing the different contributing phenomena is insufficient to give us additional insight....

This leads to the third type of approach: feedback mechanisms. These were pioneered by Thomas Malthus in 1798, with his description of the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. More recently, this theory has been refined to argue that growing societies tend to reach a period of diminishing returns that may precipitate their collapse, and the increasing complexity of a society may eventually make it unmanageable. Roman writes:

A theory of collapse built on feedback mechanisms describing social dynamics is consistent with the nature of a complex system, wherein multiple interacting factors are present, the evolution is non-linear, and causality cannot be assigned to singular aspects of the system.

The fourth and final approach starts with the third and is based on quantitative models, which are broken down into two classes:

(a) agent-based models (ABMs), which represent individuals (or communities) as agents with set attributes and behavioural rules, such that a realistic rendering of relevant behaviour is desired with the aim of obtaining larger scale emergent phenomena. Often, they also explicitly model the spatially extended features, such as terrain; and 

(b) integrated world models, which employ a wide variety of modelling techniques (system dynamics, econometrics, etc.) and aim for an accurate, detailed representation of the system under study. They are complex models that use a large number of variables and parameters.

Several different quantitative models have been developed in recent years. The 'Limits to Growth' study by Donella Meadows focused on three 200-year scenarios from 1900 to 2100: one fitted to historical data, one to environmental sustainability and one to technology and industry:

The first and third scenarios led to a peak industrial output in the 21st century and a subsequent decline in economic activity and demographic levels. The sustainable case manages to reach a steady state with little loss of life, but it requires parameter choices that, in the real world, would require drastic action to curtail pollution and population growth.

Roman says that the economic-based models are hampered partly because "the fundamental assumption of rational human behavior is not justified empirically." So far, the quantitative models are not widely accepted by sociologists. He concludes:

If a common set of historical mechanisms can be found throughout multiple time periods and a modelling framework with a toolkit of methodologies adaptive to different scenarios can be built, then the science-fiction discipline of psychodynamics that Asimov imagined would be within reach.

I am glad that people like Sabin Roman are doing this work, because we are already seeing multiple examples of environmental decline, climate-related catastrophes, geopolitical tensions and poorly-informed populist movements. I agree with Martin Rees, who says in the preface that action must start with voters, because politicians have little incentive to address events that will play out after they have left office. Unfortunately, most voters don't respond to theories and models, and, more often than not, are scientifically illiterate. That is why I often conclude my posts with the hope that AI will soon come to the rescue and replace both capitalism and democracy. Though people may respond as conditions get worse, it is important to remember that capitalism brought us to where we are now and that democracy is not a foolproof system for addressing complex issues.

Friday, September 8, 2023


I had hoped to stop writing about Anne, but I received an email from a reader and think that a little more explanation is in order. The reader apparently had read my posts on Anne and questioned why I had stayed with her if I had so many criticisms of her. I replied to the email but decided that others may have the same question.

The context for my discussion of Anne was that, basically, Anne took it upon herself to plan and execute the dissolution of the relationship without involving me at all. She simply announced it to me when she had worked out all of the details to her satisfaction. I had lived with Anne since 2007 and decided long ago that we were different in many respects but could still have a relationship based on companionship rather than psychological concordance or physical attraction. We did not have to have highly synchronized lives and enjoy all of the same things. In fact, for most of the time that I knew her, we did not have many conflicts or disagreements. The main reason why I chose to write about Anne was that, from a rational standpoint, her behavior made no sense at all. I have a steady personality and have not changed since I met her, yet, for unknown reasons, she chose to treat me like a highly dangerous person who had to be extracted from her life in complete secrecy. I would have been happy to discuss relationship issues, including the possibility of a breakup, but was never given the opportunity. 

Because Anne's action was abrupt and unilateral, besides the surprise, it had a highly disruptive effect on my life. On March 19, 2023, I thought that I would be living at the house in Middlebury with Anne for the remainder of my life; then, as of June 10, 2023, I was living alone in Brandon, and Anne has since moved to Seattle. Because Anne secretly orchestrated this entirely on her own, I consider her to be extremely abusive. The abuse extends beyond the unexpected moving, because Anne, in an attempt to justify herself to her friends, seems to have carried out a character assassination of me behind my back. She has also deeply offended my daughter and her family. In order to understand why she would behave so abusively, I inevitably delved into her psychiatric profile. I don't have any qualifications as a psychiatrist, but don't think that, given Anne's bizarre behavior, serious underlying pathologies should be ruled out.

One other oddity is that, even now, Anne and I have not had a discussion of why she did this. As before, I am always open to discussion. However, because of the abusive and destructive nature of her actions, I will not engage in open discussions with her unless she makes some sort of apology first. Even if we resume communication in the future, I will probably continue to see her as someone with serious, untreated psychiatric disorders.

I don't really know much about it, but, as a speculative matter, Anne may have behaved similarly when she divorced her husband. They did have some marital discord, but she was the one who initiated the divorce. They remained on relatively good terms. Although it may not have been part of her calculation, the divorce settlement left her wealthy. It may or may not be a coincidence that Anne's sale of her house in Middlebury provided her with a significant capital gain.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist

As with Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, I found this more recent book by Frans de Waal somewhat informative, but, at the same time, annoying to read. The informative aspects relate to his expertise in primates, while the annoying aspects relate to his anecdotal style of writing. Most of his research experience comes from observing primates, and when he writes about them it seems as if he is describing friends and family members who happen to be chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, baboons, orangutans or macaques. Rather than focusing on conceptual issues, which are my main interest, he loves to describe the variability of primate behavior within species and between species. In this instance, I think the book would have been more effective if he had stuck to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, which are closely related.

Socially speaking, we are not that different from chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzee males are larger, stronger and more physically violent than females. They form hierarchies led by alpha males and maintain territories, which involves attacking and killing members of other groups. Males and females spend most of their time living with their own sex. Social tensions are relieved by grooming others. Alpha males usually have a broad range of social skills and do not rule by brute force; they are often respected by others. The dynamics are quite different in bonobo groups, because, though they are also hierarchical in structure, they are led by alpha females instead of males. Bonobo males are closer in size and strength to females and can be controlled by females who work in concert. The females can be violent and aggressive when necessary, but are usually less so than male chimpanzees. Bonobos stand out from other primates in that, comparatively speaking, they are sex maniacs. They behave in a bisexual manner. Females, who have evolved large clitorises, spend a great deal of time with other females in the missionary position rubbing their clitorises together.

To the extent that there is any theme to the book, it is that gender is not a social construct, and that most primates follow similar gender behavioral patterns. Males focus on physical activities and are not interested in child rearing. Females focus on child rearing and self-decoration. Humans differ from other primates mainly in the development of nuclear families. De Waal thinks that the nuclear family arrangement can cause domestic violence, particularly when there are external stresses, such as the pandemic. The book also touches on transgender issues and notes evidence of transgender behavior in one chimpanzee. 

The general outlook that de Waal seems to advocate is that we are primarily biological entities, and, as such, many of the categories and classifications that we come up with to explain human behavior are crude oversimplifications or misrepresentations that don't capture the complications of the underlying biological processes. One idea that he specifically rejects is mind-body dualism, which allows people to think that they are not their bodies. As I myself have said before, Simone de Beauvoir herself is guilty of this error. Although de Waal describes himself as a feminist, he says that he has had conflicts with ideologically rigid feminist women.

One observation that I found interesting was that, while male chimpanzees attempt to resolve conflicts with other males, female chimpanzees do not attempt to resolve conflicts with other females:

Given that four out of five female conflicts go unreconciled, it's fair to say that female chimpanzees are touched more deeply and are less willing than males to get over their disagreements. In the wild, too, females rarely make up after fights. They tend to disperse, which makes for an easy solution.

This helps explain why some of the females I've known became dogmatic and inflexible when disagreements arose. There was no discussion, and they simply left.

I was a little disappointed by the limited treatment of transgender issues in the book. This is probably because not much research has been done on the subject. The opposite is true for homosexuality and bisexuality, which are now widely accepted and understood. Some aspects of transgender identity may be explained by genetic differences at conception or hormonal exposure during fetal development. In theory, transgender issues could be handled in exactly the same manner as homosexuality or bisexuality. However, if, like me, you adopt a completely materialistic view of the universe and human life, it seems that you are your body. As a materialist, I have difficulty understanding why someone would make risky physical changes to their body through surgery and hormone therapy in order to match their perceived gender identity to their body. It is possibly that further research may justify those procedures, but I am a little concerned that, without proper guidelines, children, left to their own devices, may make poor decisions. For example, at this moment, there are probably millions of socially awkward children who erroneously think that becoming transgender would make them more popular. I think that some research-based guidelines are in order.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023


Since I'm becoming caught up on settling into the house, don't have much of a social life and am alone most of the time, I may pick up a little in my blog activity. I located the main mouse entry point to the house, which was a hole in the corner of a post on the back porch. From there, they traveled down to the basement. I placed non-kill traps in the basement and caught one to three mice per day for several weeks and released them outside. Ever since I blocked that hole there haven't been any. I do still have at least one mouse in the wall, and it can be quite noisy. The previous owner hired an exterminator who never found all of the holes and used poison, which I don't like. I found three dead mice in the basement. It is unpleasant and time-consuming work eliminating mice, but if you persevere, it's worth it. Actually, it's probably better if you do it yourself, because exterminators have an incentive to fail: if they succeed, you may never hire them again.

The basement here is quite large and completely dry, and I'm using it for storage, since there is no garage and the garden shed is small. My next project is to install some grab bars on the basement stairs, which are long and steep, so that I don't fall to my death when I'm 100. I am going to use grab bars instead of a handrail, because they will be easier to install.

Since the Anne period of my life is over, it seems appropriate to revert to my practice of not writing about my close relationships. However, because I have been reading about female psychiatric abnormalities, it is tempting to write about that in some form. Apparently there are female psychopaths out there, but they often go unrecognized, because they are not physically violent and often blend into their social environments. So, if I wrote fiction, I could write a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, in which Hannibal Lecter's sister, Hannah, moves to a small New England town with her unsuspecting boyfriend. Hannah begins to join all sorts of groups under the pretense of wanting to help, but she always ends up alienating and upsetting the other members by trying to force her agenda on them. Finally, she resigns from each group until she has exhausted all of the suitable groups in town. At that point, in short order, she unceremoniously dumps her boyfriend and moves to the West Coast, where she plans to set up shop again. A large city offers her boundless opportunities. In the final scene, she is shown graciously introducing herself to the members of a garden club in Seattle. 

The next book that I'm going to read is on gender, from the point of view of Frans de Waal, the primatologist. I don't think that de Waal will have any definitive answers, but I have difficulty understanding current popular conceptions of gender and would prefer hearing a zoological perspective to hearing a completely unsupported politically correct perspective. Frankly, much of public language now has taken a politically correct form that I find unintelligible. In order to speak now, you are forced to make certain assumptions, without any examination of those assumptions. To make matters even more confusing, we currently seem to have different schools of politically correct thinking that contain diametrically opposed ideas. At the liberal end of the politically correct spectrum, all people are supposed to have identical abilities, meaning, for example, that if everyone had the same high-quality education, members of academically underperforming groups would perform as well as members of academically high-performing groups. I don't think that there is any research supporting this idea, though, obviously, a better education would lead to somewhat better results. What you don't hear about is conservative political correctness, which isn't usually called that, but is about the same thing. Although I'm completely sick of the topic now, one need look no further than Donald Trump. To a casual observer, it was fairly obvious briefly after he entered office that he was an opportunistic criminal who had nothing to offer in the position. Predictably, his job performance was extremely weak, and, in particular, the economy's performance during his presidency is being compared to that of Herbert Hoover. Incredibly, millions of his supporters believe that he did an excellent job as president. Furthermore, Trump has wasted public resources by diverting the country's attention from national issues to his criminal proceedings. Although there is little doubt that Trump supporters are completely mistaken, there is evidence that similar errors occur in politically correct liberal circles. Some of this may be present in current public discussion of gender.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life

I finally finished this book by Peter Raby. It isn't very long, but I didn't find it very engrossing. I read it mainly to learn about Wallace's relationship to Charles Darwin and how they agreed or disagreed. In particular, I wanted to know whether Wallace was intentionally marginalized by Darwin and the British scientific community.  

Wallace was born in 1823 in Wales, of English and Scottish descent, and was the eighth of nine children. His father was a non-practicing lawyer who thought that he could live off his investments, but he wasn't shrewd and found that he didn't have enough income to support his family. This caused them to move frequently, and Alfred's schooling ended in 1837, when he was fourteen; he began looking for work. Initially he moved to London and lived with his older brother, John, who was an apprentice builder. In London, he was exposed to the radical politics of the time. Later in 1837, he began an apprenticeship as a surveyor with his eldest brother, William, which lasted six years. This position left him with lots of time outdoors. In 1843, his father died, and William's surveying business was moribund. For a time, Alfred held a teaching job in drawing, mapmaking and surveying. There he met Henry Bates, who encouraged him to collect insects and later accompanied him to South America. William died in 1845, and Alfred and John unsuccessfully attempted to revive his surveying business. Then Alfred and John decided to start an architecture and civil engineering business. Alfred was recruited to give lectures on science and engineering at the local Mechanics' Institute.

Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's account of his travels in the Americas from 1799 to 1804, and Darwin's account of his travels in The Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), Wallace and Bates decided to travel to the Amazon in 1848 and cover their expenses by collecting insects and other animal species and selling specimens to collectors and museums. Wallace stayed for four years, keeping notes and observing the indigenous population. He was joined by his brother, Herbert, who died there of yellow fever. On his return trip in 1852, without Bates, there was a ship fire that destroyed his collection, which, fortunately, was insured. Back in London, he wrote some papers and met a few scientists, including Darwin.

Since Bates and others were already exploring the Amazon, Wallace elected to explore the Malay Archipelago, this time better-prepared, again collecting specimens. The trip lasted from 1854 to 1862 and was far more successful than the Amazon trip. At times, Wallace had a huge staff of helpers. While there, he sent a paper to Darwin that outlined his ideas concerning evolution, which was still a nascent topic. Darwin panicked, because he had been sitting on his idea for years but had yet to publish much about it. The result was the joint reading of Wallace's paper with a hastily-assembled paper of earlier writings by Darwin at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. The title of Wallace's essay was "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Both essays were later published. Because Darwin's essay was based on earlier writings, his paper was read first. There is much discussion in this book and elsewhere about whether Wallace was treated fairly, and I think that he was. Darwin did have an advantage at that point, and he began writing On the Origin of Species while Wallace was away at sea. The fact is that Darwin went out of his way to assist Wallace: he could have thrown Wallace's paper in the trash and forgotten about it, and no one besides Wallace would have known the difference. Furthermore, in their subsequent interactions, Darwin was always magnanimous with Wallace and significantly boosted his career.

Wallace organized his collection while living with his sister, Fanny, and her husband. He became a defender of the theory of natural selection and met Darwin at his house. He had a courtship but was rejected in 1864 shortly before the wedding by his fiancée, presumably because he had little money – at the age of forty-one. In 1866, Wallace married another woman, Annie Mitten, who was the daughter of a moss expert. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Like most of his family, he was poor at managing money and ran into financial difficulties. I might add that, Darwin, comparatively speaking, came from a financially savvy family. The situation improved when he published The Malay Archipelago in 1869 and it became his most popular book. He made several attempts to get a well-paying job but always failed. Like Darwin, he was an introvert, and he probably made a weak impression at interviews. Similarly, both of them disliked participating in public events. In 1881, Darwin campaigned for and won a pension for Wallace, which relieved some of his financial pressures.

Evolution was only one of Wallace's interests. In science he is also known for advancing biogeography and ecology. But he also became a proponent of phrenology, hypnosis, and spiritualism, the latter in the form of séances. Once he believed something, it was difficult to change his opinion. He attended many fraudulent séances but still found them convincing. This caused his scientific colleagues to raise their eyebrows. In my view, he substantially weakened any claim he might make to be a leader in evolutionary thought by stating that humans are exempt from evolutionary forces and are operating on a plane that is separate from physical reality and includes God. Not only is this a ludicrous idea, but it also misunderstands the important idea that humans are part of nature and not much different from other animals. That is something that Darwin understood perfectly well, so I think Darwin deserves far more credit for the development of early evolutionary theory than Wallace.

Wallace also adopted many of the progressive ideas of his day. He was an early advocate of socialism and had opinions on women's rights. He did not support the private ownership of land. But he also led a campaign against vaccinations. 

More so than Darwin, Wallace liked to observe people throughout the world. Whether it was through the Romantic poets or Rousseau, he held a sort of noble savage theory and found that indigenous people were purer and happier than modern Westerners. On a late lecture tour of the U.S., he had a negative impression of American culture, which he thought followed the European exploitative model, in which the environment is essentially trashed just so that a few people can get rich.

Because Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, he became one the most famous scientists of his era. After that, he sank into obscurity, and I think that is probably appropriate. His skills seem to have been quick learning, good observation and good writing. He was also talented at developing ad hoc theories, but seems to have lacked the follow-through to become a good theorist. So, on the whole, I'm not particularly impressed, and see him mainly as part of the British intellectual milieu of the mid-to-late nineteenth century: George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, William Morris, Charles Lyell, Robert Owen, T.H. Huxley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, etc.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Farewell Poem (Second of two to a girl of Yang-chou)

Passion too deep seems like none.
While we drink, nothing shows but the smile which will
    not come.
The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:
Their tears drip for us till the sky brightens.

—Tu Mu (803-852)

Saturday, July 1, 2023


Some of my writing has been redirected to emailing my new friend, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. We met and had a long talk over a late breakfast, and it looks as if we will remain in contact for some time. There is the usual mix of things in common and not in common, and overall there seems to be compatibility. This could take a long time to develop, because we may not see each other very often. I don't detect any evidence of psychiatric issues, and we may have some similar interests, though there will obviously be a few differences.

At this point, I've done most of the things necessary to make the new house habitable, though there will be things to do for some time. The back porch was all sealed off with plastic, and I removed that. It's a nice place to sit and is usually cool. There have been no sightings of William anywhere, so I think that chances are he's deceased by now, though there is still a possibility that he'll turn up.

I am beginning to get back into my reading routine, but it may take time to return to previous levels. I just finished The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism and Capitalism, by Keyu Jin. I won't write a full post on it but will make a few remarks now. The author is a young Chinese economist who was educated in the U.S. and now works at the London School of Economics. I found her perspective refreshing compared to what one encounters in the American news media. Chinese policy was botched under Mao Zedong, but major improvements were made by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970's. Deng converted the economy from an impoverished agrarian one to a wealthy manufacturing one with great success. The one-child policy prevented overpopulation. Deng's influence didn't fix everything, because China still has a weak financial system that limits its power compared to the U.S. Nevertheless, I don't think that many non-Chinese people recognize the mind-boggling changes that have occurred in China since 1970. It remains to be seen whether current and future Chinese leaders will be able to perform as well as Deng. Keyu Jin touches on how social responsibility is deeply ingrained in the Chinese people, and how this offers advantages over the cutthroat American process. I think that the problem is not how people become national leaders but who becomes a national leader. In modern capitalist countries like the U.S., the leaders are more often than not de facto corporate representatives. If a leader such as Xi Jinping can rule the country well without being democratically elected, so what? The political system in the U.S. is currently so arthritic, with voters drowning in a sea of misinformation, that it is easy to imagine a centrally controlled country with long-term goals and competent leadership outcompeting the U.S. China's leaders have the opportunity to instantly implement new policies, and if they can do this competently, they have a vast advantage over their American counterparts. Lately, I've been hearing the word "democracy" so often that it only sounds like propaganda.

Monday, June 19, 2023


This is a short post, because I am typing it in my car. The purchase of my new house in Brandon, Vermont was completed on May 31, and I began moving into it on June 2. My daughter and her husband helped with large items on June 10. Currently, I have unpacked everything and am still organizing. The house is more than adequate for my needs, and the neighbors are friendly.

Because of time constraints and fatigue, I didn't follow protocol for moving cats. William was extremely agitated while we were loading the van in Middlebury and hid outside. After everyone else had left, I got him and took him to Brandon in the afternoon. He remained agitated and ran around the house for hours, occasionally jumping on my bed and waking me up. At about 2:00 A.M. on June 11, I let him out, and he immediately ran into the woods, looking back at me when I called him. He has not been seen since. I don't know whether he has survived or not, but as time passes, the odds decrease. Certainly, he can catch food, but there are many predators out there. Even if he is still alive, he may be unable to find his way back here or to Middlebury. He was too wild to be a regular house pet, and, although I will miss him if he never returns, it may be just as well.

I won't have internet service at the house until June 25, but every day I go to the Brandon library for free WiFi. When it is closed, I park outside. At the house, the cellular signal is adequate for email and other functions, but extremely cumbersome for me.

I will be going on my first date on June 26 and am looking forward to it.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Companion Wanted

This post is quite different from any other that I've made. I have learned through experience that finding a suitable companion is extremely difficult. From my last few posts, you may have noticed that I am in need of one now. Since I have quite a few readers on this blog, I thought that, before using conventional dating websites, hanging out at bars, etc., I'd give this a try here. Interpreting the interest in this blog, it seems that there are very many unhappy women out there now. My most popular post is "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed," which is being read regularly all over the world, presumably by women. Anecdotally, from observing some of the women in my immediate neighborhood, I can even see it locally. One of them, who is married and has two children, used to walk her dog enthusiastically every morning; now the dog is gone, and every time I see her she looks quite depressed, even when walking with her children and husband. I would guess that the pandemic, which caused people to become more isolated, along with the economic changes since 2020, have led many people to become somewhat disoriented. Then there is the internet background noise that continues to confuse everyone. For example, my younger sister is breaking up with her husband and has been under the illusion that Johnny Depp is interested in her. He isn't.

It's hard to say what my exact qualifications are as a potential companion. I am heterosexual and definitely prefer women. I like well-educated women who are interested in the arts and sciences and can discuss them intelligently. I don't like social climbers. Obviously, after my recent experience, I would prefer to avoid women with major psychiatric issues. In particular, I am not a fan of autism or bipolar II disorder at the moment. Physically, I seem to prefer women who have light-colored hair and are no taller than 5' 9". However, I am open to other physical characteristics. I am 5' 9" and used to have dark hair, which is now grey, with hair loss. Genetically, I am Scottish/English/Armenian/German, and I increasingly identify with my Armenian ancestors, since they had such good survival skills. As I've mentioned before, I've had a difficult time with American women. My recently-ended relationship was with an English woman. I'm not anti-English as a result, because I think that the main underlying problem was psychiatric. Theoretically, I might do well with non-English European women, but I have no experience in that. I guess women from other continents might be OK, but I have no experience in that either. I currently seem to be physically fit for my age and think that I can realistically expect to live for at least another twenty years.

Because I've already traveled a little, I'm not dead set on doing more of that. I've been to Europe a few times and liked it a lot, but don't feel a strong urge to return. I'm not that interested in exploring new cultures, though I like a lot about Asians. Actually, I'm completely sick of American culture and am increasingly avoiding it as best I can. It's a little easier to do in Vermont than other parts of the country, though this is hardly what I would call a utopia. My ex-partner was quite rigid about how to travel, and I wouldn't mind spending more time in Quebec, which is very close.

As far as habitation is concerned, I think that non-cohabitation is better than cohabitation as long as you see each other regularly. However, I am about to own my own house and would be open to cohabitation. If we don't live in the same house, ideally you would live nearby, i.e., you wouldn't commute from England or France every weekend. By the same token, I don't see myself commuting to England or France every weekend. Ideally, you would live in or near Vermont. I should also mention that I'm not multilingual.

I retired in 2007 and have experienced an unexpected financial setback recently, but, as it looks now, I shouldn't have much trouble financing the rest of my life.

As to whether you would find me desirable, I think that this blog says a lot about who I am and what my preferences are. If you just scan through a few of my posts, you can get a pretty good picture of what I'm like. This is a purely non-commercial website, and I'm not trying to lure people in to make a few bucks.

If you would like to contact me, try I will reply on my personal email if it seems appropriate.

Friday, May 12, 2023


I am reluctant to say much more about Anne at the moment, because, to most people, that would be boring and self-indulgent. Furthermore, without actually knowing me or Anne personally, a reader might be at a loss in determining whether or not my assessment is at all accurate. On a personal level, I feel as if I am living through the last days of an unpleasant relationship with a mentally ill woman, and this doesn't make for good reading and isn't quite politically correct. Of course, a fictionalized version could be made more appealing to a reader, but, because I value reason and science – and honesty – I have no desire to glamorize myself or Anne. Whatever anyone may think about me, I am firmly of the opinion that mentally ill people are generally an uninteresting topic, except as clinical subjects, because you can never escape the fact that some important dysfunction is guiding their behavior. In the case of these people, there is typically some sort of cognitive malfunction that interferes with their behavior and may be indicative of an inability to understand themselves, other people or the world in general. Take it from me: mentally ill people can be quite disturbing, and writers shouldn't distort facts to make them seem more appealing than they actually are. Generally, they are a burden on others, though, in some cases, they may possess special talents that can be considered useful. In the evolutionary process, some otherwise negative attributes may provide significant survival benefits.

On a more positive note, my house purchase is moving along smoothly. I have met the seller and like her. The closing date is currently May 31, but for technical reasons she won't move out until June 1. The property is so private that you could walk around naked in the large yard and no one would see you. I have just about finished packing and don't anticipate any moving issues. I should be all moved in by June 12 at the latest.

Because of my current circumstances, I have been more jittery than usual and have been having an even harder time coming up with new reading material. I've given up on two books and have ordered a two-volume anthology of American poetry which may provide some unfamiliar poems that I will like: we'll see. I have to say that, when I find a poem that I like, it can be deeply satisfying in a way that other written forms are usually not. A good scientific book is upcoming: Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, by Robert Sapolsky. This will be published in October. As a supporter of determinism, I think that Sapolsky has the best research credentials to argue against free will, and this could be one of the best books on the subject ever written. I increasingly find many arguments for free will, particularly those put forward by philosophers, completely unsatisfactory. Though Sapolsky's last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, wasn't entirely satisfying to me, I think that Sapolsky is in a position to debunk many of the myths still circulating about human nature. This kind of research, along with developments in AI, could rapidly change the way we see ourselves – though there is still a lot of uncertainty about the broad outcome.

In the general news, I continue to be astounded that Donald Trump is still popular in the Republican Party. I don't think that he is likely to win the 2024 presidential election – he may even be a convicted felon by then – but this shows the extent of poor thinking by the public and how dangerous the political process has become in the U.S. Unfortunately, there aren't many good Democratic candidates in the political pipeline who are ready to take on Trump. He is popular because of his cult status rather than reason. Ultimately, his popularity is the result of the profitability that he has provided for the news media. While much of the blame goes to media such as Fox News, it is apparent that even more balanced media such as ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS have been remiss in exercising their journalistic responsibilities. They have all participated in the normalization of unacceptable behavior in politics.

Friday, April 28, 2023


I will be closing on the house in Brandon on June 5, and the main move will be on June 10. Anne isn't pressuring me to leave quickly, so I may not finish until June 11 or 12. Since my family doesn't want any contact with Anne, she has agreed to leave the premises while they're present. This move came up so suddenly that I'll have many unplanned activities. For example, I don't own much furniture and will have to buy some. Also, I have few cooking and dining utensils, so I'll have to buy some of those too.

Overall, I'm feeling a little more positive now, because I'm weary of living in Anne-world. Part of my personality has been repressed by her, and I'm looking forward to being myself again. The main drawback is the risk of being alone for too long a period. I've done that before, in Dixon, Illinois, and grew tired of it. Though I'm fairly robust psychologically, I know that being alone can be bad for your mental health. This is especially true if you live in a rural area and don't have local friends. I am hoping that it will be easier to develop a basic social network here, where the local population is better-educated and more widely-traveled than the people in Dixon. This will be my twenty-second home after living in two countries and eight states. In the meantime, our daily interactions have become less tense: if I don't question or criticize her, she seems perfectly happy. She is enjoying the hypomanic state accompanying her preparation to move.

I am still cogitating about the way Anne handled this, and the picture that emerges isn't very pretty. To be fair, other women I've known – my ex-wife and Kimberly – behaved in a similar fashion. In all three cases, their approach was somewhat clinical: they realized that their goals were not the same as my goals, and that they would be happier if they moved on to a different arrangement. My general complaint in all three cases was that there wasn't much discussion. However, in the cases of my ex-wife and Kimberly, it wasn't very difficult to infer their motives. My ex-wife wanted an upper-middle-class lifestyle and more social prestige, and Kimberly wanted to continue her free-spirit-artistic-traveler fantasy, which was inconsistent with committed relationships, something I don't think she ever had. My ex-wife's plan didn't materialize, because her standard of living mainly declined after the divorce: she was a single mother with a low income. I don't particularly want to pick on Kimberly, but I think that she went from being a failed dancer to being a failed singer to being a failed writer – without ever having had a serious relationship. Her latest book is an autobiographical one about her back pain!

Anne is a lot more complex than my ex-wife or Kimberly. She is pathologically self-protective to such an extent that she deviates further from social orthodoxy than they do. Her main statement, "I'm moving to Seattle," gives away nothing about her motives. You have no immediate way of knowing whether she is specifically rejecting you, whether she dislikes Middlebury, whether she wants to be near her son, whether she will save money on housing, etc. It's been over a month now, and it seems that she decided that she doesn't want to live with a man any longer. She does seem to dislike specific things about me, but she won't discuss them. Part of her strategy may be based on fear that I'll retaliate if she criticizes me. The oddest part, I think, is her complete disregard for the inconvenience that this causes me. All of a sudden, without notice, during weak housing and stock markets, after just providing funds for my daughter and her family to buy a house, I am being involuntarily forced out of my home. It seems possible, though perhaps unlikely, that she planned it now in order to inflict maximum damage. She hasn't said a single apologetic word, and she showed no interest in and made no suggestions about what course of action I might take. I still find this rather astounding behavior coming from someone who pretends to be a caring human being. She also makes light of the fact that selling this house will provide a windfall to her, since it has almost doubled in value since she bought it. Combining these factors, I still think that there are psychopathic elements to her personality that can't be explained simply by bipolar disorder, autism and ADHD.

What do you think?

Saturday, April 22, 2023


As I mentioned on March 22, my partner, Anne, has broken up with me. I have been pondering how much I should say about it, since some people might consider it to be in poor taste to discuss it in public. However, I have been thinking about it a lot, as there are many oddities associated with this, and this blog is, after all, about free speech. Therefore, I am going to make at least this post on it.

After Kimberly broke up with me in November, 2000, as described in "Panic Attacks," I placed a singles ad in the New York Review of Books. I was living in Highland Park, Illinois at the time, and one of the responses was from Anne, who lived nearby in Lake Forest. We met on June 2, 2001, and my initial impression was not good: she looked and spoke like a suburban housewife. I later learned that she was taken aback by my jacket, which I thought and still think was perfectly fine. I had been divorced since 1985, and my daughter, who was then twenty, was sometimes at home. Anne was also divorced and raising her children, who were then fourteen and twelve. It was an odd matchup in many respects, because her ex-husband was a wealthy Chicago real estate attorney, and I was just some guy who worked at a printing plant. This was balanced to some extent by the fact that my family background was considerably better than hers. The main thing that we had in common was that we were both born in England and didn't like Americans much.

The relationship was a little rocky at first, because she had a snobby friend who didn't like me, and I didn't like her conspicuously autistic children. I had less of a problem with her daughter, who is now a transgender male, but I was never able to develop the slightest rapport with her son, who is now married to his gay boyfriend and lives in Seattle. By 2004, the relationship stabilized, and in 2007, with both of her children away at college, she bought and moved into a house in Evanston, Illinois, which was closer to her job, which had moved to downtown Chicago. I moved in with her that year, which coincided with the death of my mother, which provided me with an inheritance that enabled me to retire. Anne continued to work until she retired in 2011. During the interim, I researched retirement options and decided that Middlebury, Vermont was at the top of my list. We visited Middlebury in May, 2011, and I was ecstatic. We viewed seven houses in the area and made an offer on the Enos Severance house, where we currently live. We moved here in August, 2011.

The decline in our relationship began gradually after that. At first, there were many things to do, and I painted the house, garage and a new shed that we bought in 2015. Anne became preoccupied with gardening and growing vegetables, while also expanding into the kinds of groups that are typically dominated by upper-middle-class women. Initially, I participated in garden club events, but I eventually found them too boring. By 2013 I determined that our interests were very different, and that I should develop my own hobbies. I bought a 130 mm refractor telescope and mount and took up stargazing, and the following year I bought an 18" Dobsonian telescope. Anne showed no interest whatsoever in stargazing or astronomy. In 2014 I started this blog. Later, I renewed my interest in genealogy and had a genetic test which helped expand my genealogical chart. Anne briefly had her own blog but quickly gave up. She took no interest in genealogy, though I added her family to my tree. Anne, while generally introverted, is extremely social. She took a tai chi class and volunteered at the library. For a time, she worked at a kitchenware shop downtown, though she didn't need the money. She also worked on the Middlebury Development Review Board. After tai chi, she led bone builder classes at a local retirement community and transitioned to doing it online during the pandemic. She has also taken up painting and currently belongs to the local pastel society.

Although we were never in direct conflict, we never took much interest in each other's hobbies. I was basically a relaxed retiree with a few intellectual proclivities and an enjoyment of the outdoors, while she returned to her habits as a hyperactive suburban housewife that placed her in the company of people with whom I would never have contact of my own volition. Most of them were quite old, and some of them have died already. She also likes to go on walks with women friends, but dislikes hiking. Because of her personality, she likes to do things with her hands all day: knitting, sewing, cooking, painting, gardening and cleaning. She always multitasks and listens to books on tape while working. During the evening, she also multitasks by knitting while watching TV. Her multitasking is often, from a social standpoint, quite rude, because she never pays any attention to the people around her, and in order to converse with her you always have to make a special effort to get her attention, which takes several seconds and sometimes upsets her. She is also not a visual person and usually pays no attention to what is going on in her immediate environment. I have often been puzzled by her choice of hobbies, since she does not seem to have developed much of an aesthetic sense and actually doesn't have good fine motor skills. Furthermore, her constant multitasking tends to diminish the quality of her work and causes her to spend a lot of time correcting errors that she's made. Ever since her childhood, she has learned by reading, and that includes the arts, which are more commonly pursued by people who experiment and invent rather than follow instructions.

Anne is usually easy to be around as long as you follow her plan. Since I didn't often rebel, we generally got along, although, over time, her focus on hedonistic pursuits began to irritate me, because she had no curiosity about things that I take seriously. Even so, I gave her credit for being unlike many of the American women in my age group and social experience, who tend to exhibit a mixture of hedonism and narcissism. Another aspect of the decline in our relationship was the disappearance of my physical attraction to her. She took this in stride. When we met she had had a mastectomy from previous breast cancer, and she decided to have a mastectomy on her remaining breast, which not only reduced her future cancer risk but also made it much easier for her to find clothes that fit properly. From the beginning, I had primarily thought of the relationship as being about companionship, so I wasn't bothered. Anne recently seems to be transitioning to a later life stage in which she will place less emphasis on flirting with men and focus more on developing friendships with women. At this point she does not anticipate any future relationships with men.

The real troubles in our relationship seemed to arise suddenly in 2021, with a confluence of events. Her younger son in Seattle bought a new house and kept his old house, eventually offering it as a residence to Anne. My daughter and her family moved to our area, and I think that this interfered with Anne's need for control. Moreover, my daughter and I have a long history of discussing psychiatric issues, based on the difficulties that she faced while growing up with her mother, which were resolved by her moving in with me in fifth grade and from eighth grade onward. Anne was already extremely leery of my tendency to psychologize, and she may have felt as if she were being double-teamed. Over a very brief period, she went from being supportive and friendly toward my family to being critical and insulting. Eventually, my daughter and son-in-law decided that my grandson should no longer be exposed to her because of her abusive behavior.

Though I was used to the fact that Anne tends to act unilaterally without any discussion, I was shocked on March 20, 2023, when she suddenly announced that she was selling this house in Middlebury and moving to her son's house in Seattle in the fall. We have never, even today, had any discussion of why she made this decision or what my options might be. Consequently, I have made my own plans, and I am purchasing a house in Brandon, Vermont, not far from Middlebury, in June.

I had often wondered about Anne's psychological makeup, but never made much progress, because she refuses to discuss it in any detail. In this instance, it seemed as if she had gone through some sort of psychiatric event, which I have been studying since then. I never met her mother, but apparently she was diagnosed with depression and exhibited symptoms before drug therapies were available, causing her to be hospitalized. During one such hospitalization, Anne was sent to a foster home, where she says that she was abused. Anne's mother also had a daughter out of wedlock, whom I have met. This half-sister has lived most of her life under state care in England, and I believe was also diagnosed with depression. Her brother didn't exhibit any obvious psychiatric symptoms when I met him. I have spent a lot of time with her father, who is still alive, and he has autism symptoms. Anne's nieces, whom I've met, also seem autistic. Anne was diagnosed with depression and has been medicated accordingly for many years. Anne's eldest child has been more proactive about his psychiatric state and I think brought to Anne's attention that she could have autism and ADHD, which has since been confirmed.

What I have observed, especially since late 2021, is that Anne's behavior tends to be cyclically manic, with infrequent bouts of depression. The manias are usually not conspicuous enough to be identified as bipolar I disorder but fit within the definition of bipolar II disorder, which involves hypomania rather than mania. Bipolar II disorder is often misdiagnosed as depression, because the hypomania symptoms aren't recognized. Another possible diagnosis is cyclothymic disorder. Bipolar I disorder symptoms include the strongest depression and mania, bipolar II disorder symptoms include depression and hypomania, and cyclothymic disorder symptoms include weak depression and weak hypomania. These are probably somewhat arbitrary definitions, because the symptoms for all of these diagnoses are probably produced by slight variations in genetic bundles. There are other risks associated with these bundles, such as psychopathy and early dementia.

I should also mention that I know of two instances of Anne alienating a close female friend. One case involved an English friend whom she knew while living in Lake Forest who explicitly told her that she no longer wanted to have any contact with her. The other occurred more recently in Middlebury when one of her closest friends suddenly stopped communicating with her without providing any explanation. Although I don't know exactly what happened in each case, I would guess that she engaged in socially unacceptable behavior of one kind or another and was unapologetic about it. There is probably a similar pattern in these two examples to the current situation: Anne behaves in an offensive manner towards a friend, the friend responds negatively, Anne isn't circumspect or remorseful, and the relationship abruptly ends. It would be interesting to see how a psychiatric researcher might evaluate these examples. Autism seems like a handy explanation, but the harshness of Anne's stance may be indicative of something more serious than autism: psychopathy. She may be prone to discarding people when she determines that they no longer serve any purpose for her. It currently appears that she may never again see me or any member of my family after I move out. And, since I'm still here, I can see that she isn't exactly crying herself to sleep.

During the months leading up to the March 20 announcement, Anne went through cycles during which she would obsessively clean the house. She rose earlier than usual and went to bed later, and when she was up, she was usually so loud that I couldn't read. It is hard to know the exact timing of her decision-making, but it would appear that she went through hypomanic cycles while thinking that the house should be spruced up for sale and cleaned for viewing by potential buyers. A separate hypomanic cycle seemed to be related to an obsessive period of concern about her physical appearance, which was related to cataract surgery and new glasses. I think that could have been part of an unspoken plan to move away and begin a new identity. She currently seems to have started a new hypomanic phase, in which she is obsessively sorting through all of her possessions even though she may not be moving for several months.

Since I will soon be out of the picture, I have communicated with Anne's psychiatrist and her children. None of them expressed any agreement with my statements, but in my view I have adequately warned the children that Anne may have more serious episodes in the future, and it will be their responsibility to assist her, not mine.

My primary reaction to Anne's recent behavior is that, though I can deal with it and am doing so, she has acted in an offensive and socially unacceptable manner and has not apologized or acknowledged any wrongdoing. I think that this is the most appalling action that I've been subjected to in my entire life. I realize that she is behaving in a self-protective manner because that is the only way that she is able to deal with this situation, but she also has accountability to others who will never forgive her. It seems possible that she is unwittingly benefitting from the female victim narrative that became part of American culture in the 1970's. In that context, not much explanation is required by a woman when she breaks up with a man, because the assumption is always that the man was a jerk and was mistreating her. The feminist view simplistically makes no allowance for the possibility that the woman herself may be a female version of Hannibal Lecter.

I know Anne as well as anyone, and I am certain that she will be in contact with me in the future and attempt to interact with me as if nothing happened. I am not holding a grudge, because I know her limitations. I am changing my focus to finding a new companion who is more stable and less problematic.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VII

Beethoven remained relatively productive until his death at the age of fifty-six in 1827 as a result of various maladies. I don't particularly like most of the works that I'm familiar with from that period, such as the Hammerklavier piano sonata and the late string quartets. I do like to hear the Ninth Symphony occasionally because it is so spectacular, but it's too much for regular consumption. By the way, one of my doctors says that he is a descendant of the soprano who turned Beethoven toward the audience at the end of its first performance. Actually, that symphony was not particularly popular while Beethoven was alive. 

The saga with his nephew, Karl, continued up to his death. He didn't understand Karl well, partly because he was effectively deaf, and he adopted an insensitive, controlling attitude. He won complete custody of Karl through protracted court battles, though Karl seems to have preferred his mother. Karl did benefit from a good education, but, as a teenager, he decided that he wanted to join the military. When Beethoven forbade it, Karl attempted suicide, but he failed and recovered. Beethoven remained financially challenged right up to the end, and while he did leave a substantial bequest to Karl, he was never wealthy by rock star standards.

Swafford sums up the arc of Beethoven's career as follows:

So a trajectory in Beethoven's work began in Bonn, rose to its apogee in the Third and Fifth Symphonies and in Fidelio, and came to rest in the Ninth Symphony, which resonated with the accumulated political and ethical ideas and energies of the previous decades. The Eroica exalts the conquering hero; Fidelio is a testament to individual heroism and liberation; the Fifth Symphony is an implicit drama of an individual struggling with fate. The Eroica and the Ninth have to do with the fate of societies. As to the road to an ideal society, the Ninth repudiates in thunder the answer of the Eroica.

Beethoven was deeply influenced by a popular quotation of Kant that he read in a newspaper article:

There are two things which raise man above himself and lead to eternal, ever-increasing admiration: the moral law within me and the starry sky above me.

My feeling is that Swafford overreaches in his attempt to link Beethoven to Kant. There must have been popular aphorisms floating around, but I doubt that Beethoven read much, or any, Kant. He is best known for his Critique of Pure Reason, which is well beyond Beethoven's likely reading ability. I am somewhat familiar with Kant myself, as I took a seminar on him in college. His Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals was probably more accessible and influential, but it runs counter to everything I've written about morality on this blog, because it proposes a rational basis for morality through the categorical imperative – this is all nonsense to me. However, Kant covered many areas in his works, and I think that he may have been prescient in his distinction between phenomena and noumena, which is relevant today, because it provides a conceptual underpinning to what biologists are finding now about how neural systems mediate between organisms and the real world.

Overall, I found the book informative, but it reminded me of unpleasant experiences I've had attempting to read biographies of painters: their lives are often so chaotic that they don't actually make much sense.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VI

After Beethoven's relationship with Bettina Brentano collapsed, he apparently gave up on ever getting married. His personal life shifted to his brother Carl's family. Carl was sick with tuberculosis for some time and died on November 15, 1815. Beethoven detested Carl's wife, Johanna, who did have some conspicuous faults, but he seems to have been irrationally obsessed with taking their son, Karl, under his wing when his brother died. For me, there is nothing interesting in this, because the episode primarily shows that Beethoven had almost no people skills except in the realm of his professional work. At one point, Karl lived with him, and Beethoven obviously had no idea how to handle this situation. Swafford sums up Beethoven succinctly here:

His solipsistic view of the world, his blinkered ethics, his ironclad sense of duty, his relentless discipline and tenacity of purpose had served him well as an artist. They had saved him from suicide, kept him working through times of physical and mental suffering. In the case of Karl, that same blinkered tenacity fueled a struggle that ate up years of his creative life.

At this point, I am not finding Beethoven's life particularly interesting, because he himself did not seem to understand it. There is a different biography, which I haven't read, that concentrates on Beethoven's psychological makeup: that may have been more interesting to me, because, outside of his work, Beethoven seems to have been an odd psychiatric case. I think the evidence points to bipolar I disorder. But that doesn't really explain Beethoven's level of talent, and in slightly different circumstances he may have committed suicide or have been sent to a sanitarium. As a reader, I appreciate Swafford's effort to cover both the personal life and the creative work, but because Beethoven's life was so unnecessarily chaotic, I could have done with less of it. Then, as far as the music is concerned, there is some benefit to reading Swafford's explanations, though, on the whole, I think just plain listening to the music might be a better use of time.

So, even though there is still a large chunk of the book left, I am going to race through it and finish with my next post.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph V

In 1806, Beethoven engaged in a serious row with Lichnowsky, and they had a major falling-out. They were later partially reconciled, but he permanently lost his annual stipend. In the short term, this left him with insufficient income. Operas were popular in Vienna, but they were not Beethoven's forte. Later, in 1809, he pieced together a larger annual stipend with some other aristocrats that left him a stronger financial position. 

It is difficult to list all of Beethoven's musical connections, but I thought I'd mention Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was an innovator in string quartets and helped Beethoven excel in that medium.

Beethoven continued composing symphonies during this period and finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. I am most familiar with the Sixth Symphony, known as Pastoral, because it was the first one for which I owned a recording. 

In 1809, France attacked Austria, throwing the country into economic chaos for a time. Beethoven's hearing and health continued to decline. A source of income had been playing rather than composing, but the deterioration of his hearing increasingly made his public performances untenable.

Beethoven continued to pursue women, one of whom was Therese Malfatti, who was seventeen at the time they met in 1810. In this instance, the courtship was relatively constrained compared to his previous courtship, and he dedicated Für Elise to her. Another was Bettina Brentano, who was almost twenty-five when they met, also in 1810. Bettina was unlike the others in that she fit the profile as an artist herself, with multiple talents. She traveled in wide artistic circles and was a friend of Goethe. Bettina, Swafford thinks, is the most likely candidate referred to enigmatically by Beethoven as "Immortal Beloved."

Through this connection, Beethoven eventually met Goethe. While each knew that they were both at the respective peaks in their arts, they never developed a rapport. Beethoven was too spontaneous and wild for Goethe, and Goethe was too conservative and too much a part of the status quo compared to Beethoven, cherishing his court connections. His tastes were also more conservative: he preferred Mozart. Moreover, as Swafford points out, though Beethoven came to be associated with the Romantic movement, his formative years were spent in a more rationalistic environment, and he was not a true Romantic. Speaking for myself, I am more of a rationalist, though I still like some aspects of Romanticism.

While all this was going on, Beethoven was composing away, but with a lower output than previously. Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, was composed in 1809. I heard this live a few years ago, and it is my favorite of his piano concertos.

I am moving faster through the book now, but still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph IV

Beethoven remained phenomenally productive during the early 1800's. At that point, he admired Napoleon, who had essentially become a dictator in France in 1802. He began a symphony, which was originally to be called Bonaparte, and eventually became Symphony No. 3, Eroica. As of 1803, he was thinking of traveling to Paris. The conceptual underpinnings of Beethoven's music seem quite trivial to me. He believed in liberté and fraternité, but not égalité. Napoleon, like him, was supposed to be a great genius whose talent set him apart from most of mankind. This meant that they were not the same as ordinary mortals and should be treated accordingly. To me, this sounds like a naïve early version of Ayn Rand's ridiculous worldview expressed in Atlas Shrugged. That year, he also worked on Waldstein, another of my favorite piano sonatas. Eroica was eventually published in 1806, and, because of its originality, it took time for listeners to absorb. At this point in his career, Beethoven was composing almost exclusively for connoisseurs, and he made few compromises for the public in order to become more popular – as I said earlier, this is the opposite of what one finds now in popular arts. Eroica seems to have been the work that permanently elevated him to the level of Mozart and Hayden, i.e., one of the greatest composers ever.

In other respects, Beethoven's life hardly seems interesting to me. He was attracted to young, aristocratic women who universally did not reciprocate. There does not seem to be any specific knowledge of his sex life, though Swafford suggests that brothels were widely used by men during that period. I found this example, provided by Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven's students, amusing:

One day in Baden, Ries stumbled into a situation that gives a portrait of Beethoven's style with amours of the moment. Ries appeared for a lesson and found his master sitting on a sofa with an attractive young woman. Embarrassed, he turned to leave, but Beethoven cried, "Sit down and play for a while!" Ries did as ordered, facing away from the pair and playing bits of Beethoven pieced together with his own transitions. Suddenly, Beethoven called out "Ries, play something romantic!" Then, "Something melancholy!" Then, "Something passionate!" Finally Beethoven jumped up and theatrically exclaimed "Why, those are all things that I've written!" This, hoping the young lady would be impressed. Instead, she seemed offended by something and left abruptly.

In this example, perhaps we are seeing Beethoven's heavy-handed way of flirting. He also made a more serious pursuit of Josephine Deym, née Brunsvik, whose husband had recently died. She was an aristocrat and apparently was not in the least bit interested in Beethoven or his prolonged courtship, which completely failed.

This book is moving very slowly for me, and I am at the point of just recording some basic facts. Swafford is probably best at describing the details of Beethoven's compositions. This can be rewarding if you are familiar with the particular piece under discussion, but otherwise it less satisfying. Overall, I am finding the book worthwhile, though often in the slightly negative sense of discovering that Beethoven as a person is not really an interesting topic. I'm about halfway through and will attempt to pick up speed so that I can move on to something else soon.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023


I'm taking a short break from Beethoven for some personal news. If you have been reading my Diary entries recently, you may have noticed signs that cracks have developed in my relationship with my partner. Although I had thought that the relationship was salvageable, it has gradually been collapsing over the last two years or longer. There are several reasons for this, and I won't go into all of them now. The two main ones, from my perspective, are different interests and an absence of psychological concordance. After we moved to Vermont, it became apparent that she prefers to participate in the local garden club and other hobby groups, mostly with rich retirees in the eighty-plus age group. This in itself would not be bad except for the fact that I don't identify with these people, because they represent an earlier generation than mine. Although I don't really identify with the Baby Boomers, they are my generation. Thus, I am somewhat anti-materialistic and like the outdoors, whereas she likes physical possessions and dislikes insects and sweating. She prefers being indoors knitting, cooking, painting pictures or working on interior decoration projects. Also, I am interested in eclectic nonfiction, particularly biographies and science writing, which don't seem to capture her imagination. This leads to the second group of differences, which concerns our psychological profiles. Although she does have intellectual proclivities, she doesn't read as widely as I do and is not as interested in the human psyche as I am. In some ways, that is the main topic of this blog, which she stopped reading some time ago.

The upshot is that she has decided to move to Seattle to be near her younger son and is selling her house here in Middlebury. Since I won't be leaving with her, I am going to attempt to buy a house locally and move into it, which will take some time and effort. This probably won't have much effect on my blog production, though it could slow me down a little. Although I'm not exactly happy with this state of affairs, note that, historically, humans have engaged in serial monogamy, and this particular relationship has already lasted for about two decades. I should also mention that biology is probably at work in situations like this. The theory is that the reason why women continue living after menopause is in order to help others, particularly their living descendants. It is readily apparent that, in this age of mobility, elderly parents tend to move close to their children. In a situation where an aging couple each had children with a different partner, there is less of a biological incentive for them to invest in unrelated offspring. I think that the data would support this theory. As with many similar points I've made, reason may play little role in the decision to end relationships in situations like this.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph III

As time passes, more descriptions of Beethoven are emerging from his contemporaries. Carl Friedrich, Baron Kübeck von Kübau, wrote:

He was a small man with unkempt, bristling hair with no powder, which was unusual. He had a face deformed by pock-marks, small, shining eyes, and a continuous movement of every limb in his body...Whoever sees Beethoven for the first time and knows nothing about him would surely take him for a malicious, ill-natured and quarrelsome drunk who has no feeling for music...On the other hand, he who sees him for the first time surrounded by his fame and his glory, will surely see musical talent in every feature of an ugly face.

In 1798, Beethoven met Karl Freidrich Amenda, a violin prodigy, and he became his closest friend since Bonn. That year, he began to experience hearing loss and tinnitus. The cause may have been lead in the cheap wine that he drank. I wonder whether all the loud piano playing damaged his ears – Swafford doesn't mention this possibility. In 1799 he published Op. 13, Grande Sonate Pathétique, which became one of his most popular piano sonatas. That year, he acquired a piano competitor when Joseph Wölffl arrived in town; Wölffl played as well as he did and they remained on good terms.

In 1800, Prince Lichnowsky provided Beethoven with an annuity, which relieved his financial pressures somewhat. Otherwise, most of his income came from the publication of his works. To that end he worked tirelessly producing more music and marketing it himself to various publishers. At this age (twenty-nine), he still accepted students.

The actual romantic aspects of Beethoven's life are reflected in his relationship with countess Giulietta Guicciardi. In 1801, when she was seventeen, she became his piano student, and he fell in love with her. As Swafford describes the situation, there was no realistic possibility of a marriage:

A woman of nobility who married a commoner lost the privileges of her class; her children could not inherit a title. Few noblewomen were prepared to give up so much, least of all to marry a freelance composer of uncertain income, however celebrated, who was meanwhile homely, hot-tempered, utterly self-involved, and afflicted with chronic diarrhea. The other matter, his growing deafness, he would have kept hidden from Julie.

Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight, one of my favorite piano sonatas, was dedicated to her and published in 1801. This quickly became Beethoven's most popular work. I can see why.

In 1802, Ludwig had a colossal fight with his brother, Carl, who had moved to Vienna. Carl had been rummaging through Ludwig's music manuscripts and attempting to sell them to his own publishers at excessive prices. Carl also sold pieces in Ludwig's name that had not been composed by him. Needless to say, when Ludwig learned of this, he was outraged, and they literally came to blows.

So, the main patterns in Beethoven's life are in evidence now. It is more than half-over, and he has major works ahead of him while his health deteriorates. I still don't have a sense that in person he would be that appealing, because, although passionate, his main talent was in music, and his views on other matters may not have been that interesting. His temper could and did lead to various feuds throughout his life. What is most interesting about him is his ability to mix classical formality with conventional emotions and express them harmoniously. This is something that I don't think either Bach or Mozart ever attempted. You might say that Beethoven was the first composer to make classical music accessible to the common man without ruining it. For comparison's sake, American popular music, some of which I like, is thematically static. Some of it is based on acoustic and electric guitars, which, as far as I know, have seen little design change in decades. Modern composers of popular music need only pick from a bag of established styles and throw in easy lyrics that don't stand up to critical scrutiny. No popular modern composers have changed music to the extent that Beethoven did. As far as I can tell, there has not been an improvement in popular American music in decades, and that is why, when you turn on your radio today, you are likely to hear something that was popular over fifty years ago.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph II

During the remaining years of Beethoven's youth, the University of Bonn was founded in 1786 and locally the popularity of music increased. The mood in Bonn was progressive and forward-looking. However, a long, serious chain of events began in 1789 with the French Revolution, which was followed by the Jacobin movement, which endangered monarchists throughout Europe. This was followed by the rise of Napoleon, who organized attacks on Austria and Italy in 1796 before staging a successful coup in France in 1799. The atmosphere in Europe became more nationalistic and patriotic than it had been previously.

Beethoven continued his musical training playing in the court theater, switching to the viola in 1791. In 1792, Joseph Haydn stopped in Bonn on the way back from England. He heard Beethoven play and looked at some of his scores. Recognizing Beethoven's talent, a plan was made to send Beethoven to Vienna to study under Haydn, who was then considered to be the greatest living composer in Europe, since Mozart had died the previous year. By that point, Beethoven's father was retired and Ludwig had been given financial responsibility for his two brothers. An arrangement was made by Max Franz, the Elector of Bonn, also a music aficionado, to finance Beethoven's move to Vienna.

Upon arrival in Vienna, Beethoven's keyboard skill was recognized immediately. He composed musical works of increasing value, but did not immediately produce masterpieces comparable to his later works. Socially, he was quickly accepted by the highest social stratum, which consisted of classical music fanatics. Chief among them was Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who had been "a patron, student, and Masonic lodge brother of Mozart...." Lichnowsky's family and friends were on good terms with Count Waldstein from Bonn. Besides Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz, "another indefatigable aristocratic music fancier, from one of the most prominent and influential families in Austria" became a friend and supporter. In those days, though it was inhabited by many talented musicians, Vienna was overcrowded and didn't have many suitable venues for musical performances, so many of them were conducted privately in people's homes.

Swafford is primarily interested in Beethoven's musical development, which is certainly a worthy topic, but I am more interested in Beethoven's personality and thoughts. Despite his astounding professional success in Vienna, Beethoven seems somewhat disagreeable as a person and seems to lack any interesting ideas outside of music. Although he was consorting regularly with the aristocracy, in his personal life he was lacking in social graces. He had a short temper and frequently had disagreements with Haydn and Lobkowitz. He often appeared improperly groomed in aristocratic settings. It seems that he had relationships with women, but they tended to end badly, with the women finding him socially inept. I hope that in the remainder of the book more information will be provided so that I can sort this out better. At the moment, Beethoven resembles a slightly buffoonish lower-middle-class male from Bonn of that period who completely lacked social graces but was able to get away with it purely on the basis of his musical reputation. However, it does not appear that his musical talent was sufficient to assuage the fears of potential spouses. So Beethoven is looking a bit oafish at the moment, and it may be that he was a savant whose talents covered only a limited range. I should also mention that he was in fact operating in a highly competitive environment and may not have been unrealistic about protecting himself from competitors. 

In fairness to Beethoven, I should also mention that a recurring theme on this blog has been that the U.S. has never created fine art at the level of the best European fiction or painting. To that list you can add music. The reason for this is quite simple: an environment suitable for the creation of great art requires highly sophisticated patrons, such as wealthy aristocrats. Any art form that becomes dominated by the profit motive, as everything has in the U.S., is unlikely to surpass the best art of the past. American art forms tend to be vernacular, which I think limits their aesthetic appeal. This is not a land of aesthetes.

I'm up to 1797, with Beethoven, who is only twenty-six, fabulously successful, profusely publishing his music and touring Europe. By all rights I should be proceeding much faster through this book than I am currently.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph I

My distractions have been reduced a little, and I've started reading this book by Jan Swafford. As I prefer, it is quite long, and I can spend a lot of time on it. Swafford is a composer, but this biography is more complete than one I read a few years ago, because it focuses more on biographical facts than on the technical aspects of Beethoven's works. Even so, there is a paucity of information on Beethoven's life, since he came from a relatively unprivileged background, grew up in a rural town, was not particularly intellectual and did not leave much of a written record of his life compared to most of the other people I've discussed. In the case of Beethoven, though he was an exceptional person, it is tempting to see him as a product of his times.

He was born in 1770 in Bonn, which was then a small, rural town. His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, was born in Flanders and showed musical talent at an early age. He moved to Bonn when he was young and later became the Kapellmeister, which was the highest musical position in the town, and stayed there for the remainder of his life. Besides his musical abilities, he was known to be resourceful and supplemented his musical income as a wine merchant. He married and had one child, Johann, who was not as talented, either in music or business, though he was a tenor in local performances. Johann married a woman named Maria, who came from a good family. Maria's first husband and child had died, and she and Johann produced seven more children, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. Ludwig had an older brother, also named Ludwig, who died a year before he was born. His two younger brothers, Nikolaus Johann and Caspar Anton Carl, survived to adulthood.

Johann had trouble making enough money to support his family, and when he recognized that Ludwig was musically talented he attempted to model him as a young prodigy, like Mozart, who was still alive and had performed in the area when he was young. This got Ludwig off to an early start, but he disliked his father, who was a poor teacher. In later years, Johann, who was gregarious, became an alcoholic. While Ludwig was growing up, he was also taught by others, who were more competent, such as Christian Neefe. At an early age, Ludwig became interested in composition. The training was rather demanding and usually required singing and playing several instruments. He liked to improvise, and, to this end, he studied some of the works of J.S. Bach and Mozart.

Ludwig was closest to his mother, who seems to have been a serious, quiet person. Ludwig himself was not sociable and seems to have spent much of his time practicing on instruments. His formal academic studies ended when he was ten, and I was surprised to learn that he was never taught multiplication, and throughout his life he simply added a column of numbers instead of multiplying. In his early years he was often unkempt and had a brusque manner. As he got older, he became acquainted with the aristocrats living in Bonn because of their interest in music. Eventually, Count Waldstein became his primary sponsor.

In 1787, when he was sixteen, Ludwig travelled alone to Vienna under circumstances not clearly understood. He met Mozart, but there does not appear to be a completely reliable account of the meeting. His trip ended abruptly after two weeks when his father informed him that his mother was severely ill. He returned home, and she died shortly after, from tuberculosis, for which there was no cure in those days. She was only forty years old.

So, I'm off to a good start with this book and will attempt to make more frequent posts. What I notice so far is the uniqueness of the time and place. German Romanticism was underway. Goethe, Schiller and classical music were all popular, and the environment supported high spirits, brotherhood and optimism perhaps as never before. It is also significant that the piano was then a new instrument under development, and because of its percussive characteristics it was better-suited to emotive expression than the harpsichord, which plucks rather than strikes the strings. Although I listened mainly to Beethoven's symphonies while I was growing up, much later I came to prefer his piano sonatas. Though they are somewhat constricted by the formal requirements of classical music, I find them more expressive than the works of Mozart and more condensed than Beethoven's symphonies.

Thursday, January 19, 2023


We are still experiencing a dreary, nearly snowless winter. This is exactly the kind of weather that I wanted to escape from in the Midwest. There are signs that we will have new snow soon. Middlebury was struck by the Northeast pre-Christmas windstorm: in our yard, two pines blew over and landed on the shed, and I cut the tops off and removed the wood on each side. Our neighbor, Fred, used his tractor to pull the trunks upright and return the roots to the large holes created by the uprooting. The winds were stronger than any we've experienced here before, and, besides damage to the shed roof, shingles blew off the house. Some of the porch screens were blown out, and a four-foot by eight-foot firewood rack filled with wood blew over. The roof repairs have been made, though it can be hard to find people in these situations in a rural area like this. In addition, the top blew off a maple tree and barely missed the electricity lines. I am saving that for firewood. Green Mountain Power is going to cut down the rest of the tree, since part of it still overhangs the power lines. As it was, our power was out for about thirty-eight hours, but we were not disrupted, since we have a generator.

Besides the weather, I am in a slight malaise for a couple of other reasons. Although I am generally in good health, I have had shoulder tendonitis since last summer, and this interferes with my sleep. I think that the tendonitis was probably caused by the heavy lifting I've been doing since moving to Vermont. That involved moving and stacking thousands of pounds of firewood each year and cutting and splitting thousands of pounds of damaged maples and elms, in addition to moving the thousands of pounds of the pine that just blew over. The aching seems to be subsiding, but, if it doesn't, I may get corticosteroid shots, which should alleviate the pain.

The other reason has to do with medication changes in my partner. The psychiatric community doesn't seem to care much about the people who live with their patients. If they have a patient who is bipolar, autistic and has ADHD, and the patient would rather be manic than depressed, they just give them the right drugs for that. I prefer a slightly depressed, less-socially-active partner to the one I have now. My partner feels happier when she is manic, though this exaggerates her shortcomings with respect to autism and ADHD. Autism generally involves social ineptitude, and a manic state increases the expression of that ineptitude. The ADHD in conjunction with manic behavior creates a high level of activity that tends to be unnecessary. For me, there are two major drawbacks: she is so loud much of the time that it is difficult for me to concentrate on what I am doing, and, in the social arena, she is adding counterproductive tensions to our relationship with my daughter and her family, who recently moved to the area from the State of Washington.

My message to psychiatrists is that helping make people who have psychiatric issues feel good is not necessarily a benefit to society. Do we really want Donald Trump to feel good about himself? How about Elon Musk? What about Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? And then there are many people like Vladimir Putin, who, though they may not exhibit obvious psychiatric symptoms, need someone to reduce their enjoyment of life considerably: the happier Putin is, the more people die. From my point of view, there were plenty of warnings signs about Trump before he was elected president. The psychiatric community did make some effort to intervene against Trump, but their effort failed. If psychiatrists want to be considered productive members of society, they need to organize themselves to provide systems to reduce the behaviors that cause disharmony for people other than their patients. If you looked at the history of psychoanalysis, I think that you would find that, from the beginning, the field was directed at the wealthy, i.e., the highest-paying customers, rather than at any broader group, such as the public, that might benefit.

Regarding my personal state at the moment, my situation may be corrected soon, and, if so, I may resume my usual habits and begin reading again. I have given up on two books that I started recently, but I am looking for new reading material and may soon find something suitable.

CORRECTION. June 9, 2023. I later determined that my partner's behavioral changes may not have been caused by medication changes. I now think that they can be attributed to hypomanic symptoms of bipolar II disorder. I still hold her psychiatrist culpable, because, as far as I am able to determine, my partner has never been given the correct diagnosis or treatment.

Monday, December 19, 2022

If Science is to Save Us

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting much lately. This isn't a permanent change but does reflect my recent lack of interest in reading or writing. I would like to maintain a certain level of activity for the blog, but keep in mind that I have been retired for fifteen years, this does not produce any income for me, and I get little contact from readers, though the volume has gradually picked up since 2014. If you have suggestions or requests, you can contact me by emailing me at

The current book, which I just finished, by Martin Rees, is a slight disappointment. Though it might be useful to young scientists, seasoned academics or government officials, I felt that Rees stretched himself to the limit and has revealed his limitations to some extent. It appears that he led a successful career as an astrophysicist, then became an academic administrator at Cambridge, and was later made a Life Peer in the British House of Lords. In astronomy it seems that his main contribution was finding that large black holes are the source of quasars, and as a public intellectual he helped start CSER, which I think is a useful institution.

The research at CSER focuses on the major risks facing mankind, and, as in his previous book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, which I discussed in 2018, he lays out the principal risks that are being studied there now. This time, Rees is regurgitating most of the same information, while also describing the nuts and bolts of his career, in which, after establishing himself as a scientist, he endeavored to help the institutions that engage in science education and promote the acceptance of science-based decisions in the public sphere. I applaud his advocacy of science, but currently think that he is missing the mark, at least as far as my thoughts are concerned.

Although I generally support the scientific method, I don't necessarily think that science is the primary solution to the problems currently facing mankind. To be sure, we need solutions to global warming, potential asteroid strikes, AI security, pandemics, etc., but the main threat, in my opinion, is political incompetence, and although CSER theoretically covers that risk, as a respected scientific authority and MP, Rees is not in an appropriate position to advance those kinds of government policy changes. While a scientific understanding of the world would be beneficial if it were more widespread, with the Internet and social media it is misinformation that has become widespread, and voters can no longer be expected to vote in a rational manner, given the pervasive distortions of facts. Because of the realities of the current situation, I think, for example, that, within democratic systems, an emphasis should be placed on qualification requirements for heads of state. The most obvious example is Donald Trump. If he had been required to pass a knowledge test or a psychiatric test, he would probably not have become president. Besides those two areas, there was ample evidence before his election that he had engaged in mismanagement and possible criminal behavior for decades. A congressional act or constitutional amendment to safeguard the U.S. from such incompetence would probably be of greater practical value than all of the research done by CSER. Some of Trump's failings can be seen in Boris Johnson, and similar safeguards could have been beneficial to the U.K. too. One need only look at the social and financial costs of the recent pandemic and how those costs might have been reduced by competent leadership. Another obvious major risk is the presence of dysfunctional autocrats worldwide. If the U.S. and U.K. were able to amend their systems of governance to protect themselves from inappropriate leaders, if nothing else, they could provide a better model to other countries. I am appalled that Vladimir Putin still rules Russia.

With all this said, I am not completely dismissive of Rees. At present, he is an elder statesman of the British scientific community, and in this capacity he is doing a better job than others, Richard Dawkins, for example. Part of the problem with Rees, I think, is that he has no background in cognitive psychology. The serious problems facing the U.S. and U.K. are best seen as the result of the cognitive failures of voters. I think that Rees emphasizes the kinds of physical risks facing us that could easily be solved by scientists and engineers, when in fact human cognition actually presents a more dangerous and intractable risk. He is doing his best while not quite possessing the right qualifications for the job. This isn't really his fault, and, as he points out, the days of great polymaths are essentially over in the sciences, because specialization and the replacement of individuals with large teams renders that impossible.