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.

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 doubttheexperts@gmail.com.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2022


Because of the delay this year to the start of winter, I have yet to begin reading much. While the tomato plants in the garden have died from frost, I am still eating tomatoes, making this year the longest season I've had here for home-grown ones. The usual fall tasks, such as leaf removal, tractor and lawnmower maintenance and wood stacking, are finished for the year, and I'm now awaiting cold weather and snow. According to the weather forecast, we may get some this week. On the positive side, my daughter and her husband are finally closing on a house in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. I've seen it myself and think it's a good choice. Though poorly-maintained by its autistic owner, a divorced woman with two children, for the last fourteen years, the structure is solid, and the neighborhood is good. You can walk to the Connecticut River, which is about one-hundred feet lower in elevation, so will not flood the neighborhood in future storms. My son-in-law can still take a bus to work, meaning that they won't have to buy a second car. Also, the yard is small, so there will be little lawn maintenance, though there is still space for a vegetable garden.

I have been following the midterm elections and was glad to see that the Republicans didn't do as well as expected. I think that this is another nail in the coffin for Donald Trump, who, without the backing of political supporters, will soon fade away into oblivion. One can sense the growing boredom surrounding his "stolen election" narrative. No one seems to care in the slightest that MAGA candidates lost, and I doubt that any of the election results will be contested. I don't think that Trump will be able to survive all of his legal challenges, but, even if he does, his political career is probably winding down. The surest sign of this is that Rupert Murdoch, one of the chief beneficiaries of Trump's political ascent, has already dumped him. Despite the theorizing one reads about populism, this is still primarily a capitalistic country, and Trump probably would not have done as well as he did if billionaires such as Rupert Murdoch and Peter Thiel hadn't supported him; to the extent that he had any political agenda, his policies were pro-big-business. Tax cuts for the rich are actually about as anti-populist as you can get. One of the greatest failings of the American press in recent years has been its inability to characterize Trump as a wealthy opportunist who has nothing in common with his populist supporters other than poor judgment and bad taste.

Some people are already claiming that the midterm results are an example of how democracy works and is a better option than the other political systems available. I hope to return to this topic again during the winter, because I am not at all confident that democracy will survive or even that it is a system worth preserving. It is reassuring to see Joe Biden, the fuddy-duddy politician, prevail over the Trumpists, but it is appalling that Trump ever acquired political power, given what we know about him. Misinformation is so rampant these days that good ideas now have only the tiniest margin of popularity over demonstrably bad ideas, and, as the political and physical environments deteriorate, small errors in political decision-making could have catastrophic consequences.

One of my distractions from writing on this blog continues to be my concentration on investing, since early 2020. Although it's too early to say, it seems possible that the current rate of inflation may abate soon, in the U.S. at least, and that stock markets will begin to rise again. I am keeping an eye on China, because I believe that many of the best investment opportunities lie there, though it is still rather risky.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Quote of the Day

Come, words, away to miracle
More natural than written art.
You are surely somewhat devils,
But I know a way to soothe
The whirl of you when speech blasphemes
Against the silent half of language
And, laboring the blab of mouths,
You tempt prolixity to ruin.

—Laura Riding (from Come, Words, Away)

Friday, October 14, 2022


I had hoped that by now I would be reading more and writing more often, but my situation has not been propitious to those ends. My daughter's house hunting has been one distraction. They have viewed several houses over the last year and were outbid on the ones that they liked. Recently, their bid on a house in Lyme, New Hampshire was accepted, but the house flunked the inspection, so they withdrew their offer (I thought it looked pretty bad too). The housing situation now is quite different from what we experienced when we moved to Middlebury. We made an exploratory trip to Middlebury from Evanston, Illinois in May, 2011. In one week, we viewed seven houses and made an offer on our current house, which was accepted. We then returned to Illinois and sold the Evanston house. We moved to the Middlebury house in August, 2011 and have lived here ever since. The total process, including selling the old house, took just three months.

Another distraction has been caused by what I attribute to changes in my partner's medications. She is now more active and louder than she used to be. This makes her feel better, so she sees it as an improvement. However, she is so noisy all day that I am unable to read in her presence. I used to spend much of the day reading downstairs near the wood stove, but now I have to retreat to a room upstairs to avoid the noise. That doesn't always work, because she travels around the house, and the upstairs can also become noisy. I can write this because she rarely reads this blog: we have few common interests. One of the points that sticks with me from the biography that I read of Voltaire is that his relationship with Émilie du Châtelet, who probably had significant psychiatric issues, didn't last. While, technically, they were together for about sixteen years, only about seven of those years were good. I also have the usual problem of being unable to find suitable reading material. Even so, I now have three books to read and will probably have something to say about each of them whenever I get around to reading them.

As always, I pay some attention to the news. Despite high inflation, the war in Ukraine and a crashing stock market, there are some positive signs at the moment. Of highest importance to me is the departure of Donald Trump. It's as if the country was taken over by a useless parasite who became indestructible thanks to his legal resources; his luck has finally run out, and he will soon be flushed down the toilet, where he belongs. A similar fate may await Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine is now almost universally seen as a colossal miscalculation. Even Joe Biden, who seemed too feeble to be an effective president, is looking better at the moment. Some of the best commentary I read comes from the Financial Times. Today, Edward Luce said:

...the past few months have been good for America's global position. I would argue that 2022 has been the first year of this youngish century in which its relative power has actually grown. This does not mean America's objective situation has necessarily improved. It does mean that those of its peer competitors, notably China and Russia, have declined more rapidly. By most measures, America's near-term ability to shape the outcomes it wants has increased since January. This is in spite of the fact that its domestic environment continues to deteriorate. US politics is just getting worse at a slower rate than those of its adversaries. This makes it the world's tallest dwarf rather than a giant among nations.

William seems to be healthy at the moment. He doesn't seem to be catching much prey, but he still spends most of the night outside. He is now seven years old and perhaps is beginning to slow down a little. The fall colors are peaking here now, and the falling of leaves is accelerating.

The number of viewers of this blog is still growing. "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed" is still popular worldwide. More people are digging into some of my older posts. Some of my earliest readers seem to have disappeared. Although my intention has never been to become popular, I am encouraged that some people seem to be benefiting from reading the blog.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Garden of Earthly Delights

As I've suggested, I get burnt out with serious topics over time. This is why I return to fiction, poetry or art periodically. Of course, I also get burnt out with the arts, so this is sort of a never-ending cycle. I just read Hieronymus Bosch: Time and Transformation in The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Margaret D. Carroll, which is a detailed discussion of that painting. Carroll is an academic, so her writing suffers accordingly, but the book is very well-illustrated with details from the painting, and that alone makes it worthwhile. For those who want to see the painting, she recommends websites such as this, where you can view the entire painting and details better than you would be able to even if you visited it at the Museo Nacional del Prado, where it is exhibited.  

Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter who lived from approximately 1450 to 1516. Little is known about his life other than the paintings that are attributed to him. It is thought that The Garden of Earthly Delights may have been commissioned by Henry III (count of Nassau) and was painted approximately between 1490 and 1510. This is one of the great paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and I have been interested in it for many years. Bosch was preceded by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528); he was followed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (?-1569). To me, the Dutch painters were some of the best ever, culminating with Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Although the artists of the Italian Renaissance usually get more attention, in my opinion van Eyck, Bosch and Bruegel the Elder are much more interesting. This may be partly because the Northern Renaissance was accompanied by the Reformation, and Bosch, Bruegel and Dürer's lives overlapped with that of Martin Luther. I think that the pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Southern Europe thwarted both intellectual and artistic evolution, perhaps for centuries.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, or three-paneled painting, of a style that was originally used for altar pieces in churches. They often read from left-to-right, starting with the Garden of Eden on the left, the origin of sin in the center, and apocalypse on the right. Bosch's painting was not produced for church use and apparently was intended to be displayed by his noble patron. In his painting, the left and right panels fold over, and on the back side depict a small God in the upper left-hand corner creating the world as a gray globe with plants but no animals. On the opened inside, the left panel depicts God, in the form of Jesus, presenting Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Carroll refers to this panel as Paradise. The center panel depicts many naked young men and women engaged in multiple activities and enjoying themselves. Though there are some potentially sinister signs, the people seem to be the early descendants of Adam and Eve, and Carroll refers to this panel as Garden. The right panel represents a later stage in which older men and women are shown in a dark environment where people are being tortured by various demonic creatures. Armies are burning buildings, and the world appears to be in chaos. Carroll refers to this panel as Apocalypse.

Bosch's style is not as precise as that of van Eyck, but he is more inventive in his subject matter. There is so much going on in this painting, with most of the activity unclear, that it isn't easy to decipher. Furthermore, Bosch invents physical structures of unique appearance. While, on the whole, the painting does follow the traditional triptych model, it represents an evolution toward secular painting. I think that the gradual increase of nudes in religious paintings represented the preferences of wealthy male patrons when paintings became secular status symbols created for display in their homes.

One of the most striking figures is the "Treeman" in the Apocalypse panel. This is a pale male figure facing toward the front of the painting. His torso resembles a large white egg with a hole in it and people inside, apparently drinking. His legs supporting the torso are tree trunks. Some commentators believe that this could be a self-portrait of Bosch, positioning himself as a witness to the debauched state of the world. I was reminded of van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, which was painted in 1434. That portrait appears to be the solemnization of a marriage, and van Eyck may have represented himself as a witness to the marriage by painting a small image of himself in a mirror behind the couple. Bosch may have done the same, but in his case he was witnessing the Apocalypse.

Besides chronicling the gradual decline from innocence to depravity after the Garden of Eden, which fits the standard Christian theological model, Bosch introduces a more human and sociological element that wasn't evident in earlier triptychs. Interestingly, Bruegel the Elder is known to have seen the painting, and clearly Bosch influenced his paintings of peasant scenes. This shift to secular subjects is a common pattern in art history, and I am reminded of Édouard Manet's Olympia, which revolutionized the art world by taking Titian's Venus of Urbino and representing her as an unglamorous prostitute. Manet, like Bosch, was an artistic revolutionary. Because of his invention of bizarre physical objects, Bosch must also be credited for inspiring Salvador Dalí and other surrealists four hundred years later. However, on a less sanguine note, it can be dispiriting to see that some of the chaos of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance is still with us today.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Saturday, September 3, 2022


I had hoped that by now I would be reading another book, but for various reasons I haven't started. There have been visitors, and my responsibilities have increased slightly, with chauffeuring, plant care and gardening. Besides the usual ten houseplants, five of which were adopted from my inattentive partner, I am taking care of her three other plants and twelve plants that won't fit into my daughter's apartment. That brings the total to twenty-five. The vegetable garden is extremely productive this year, because it has a new layer of gardening soil on top. We can barely keep up with all of the tomatoes at the moment. Because this has been a very sunny, hot and dry summer, a lot of watering has been necessary. On the positive side, the lack of rain has meant less lawn mowing.

William was attacked three or four times over the spring and summer and had bite wounds and a limp until recently. I think that the chickens that attracted the predators are gone, and that may reduce future attacks. I don't know whether predators caught the chickens or whether the chickens were removed by their owners. William doesn't seem to be catching many rodents at the moment, but he is enjoying the cooler temperatures and spends a lot of time outside during the night. He has been in a good mood, and his behavior has changed accordingly.

I am still distracted by the Trump phenomenon and all the MAGA nonsense. In a sane world, people would have recognized Trump's flaws five or six years ago. I agree with Rana Foroohar's recent assessment:

As someone who has spoken to my share of shrinks...I have come to believe that Trump is a paranoid narcissist, full stop. Narcissists are often charismatic, and he certainly has animal spirits. They are also deeply vulnerable about most things, but particularly the big stuff, like power, sex, and money. In that sense, former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter was really on to something with the "short-fingered vulgarian" comments.

Narcissists often come from Hobbesian families. It's not about love, it's about winning. If one person is up, another must be down. They don't develop empathy, or guilt. This isn't a reason to feel sorry for them, though you might. It's simply a key fact in understanding how they behave. Narcissistic behaviour has a logic that is all its own. And really toxic narcissists like Trump, particularly those enabled by money and power in such a way that they never stumble and really have to change, don't know how to do better, or even how to want to do better, because that involves empathy. Which they by definition don't have.

That's why I never think about why Trump does anything he does through the lens of economics or even politics. I simply think of him as a paranoid narcissist, and go from there. It's like being a very stable genius. But not.

If it only involved Donald Trump, I wouldn't pay much attention – who would pay much attention to all his failed business ventures? The worry is that, to many, he maintains credibility as a public figure.

I am still spending a fair amount of time on investing, but now am simply trying to stay slightly above the indexes. I am losing money, but am still way up since early 2020. I don't think that we are facing a significant recession or significant inflation. Hopefully, the economic situation will resolve itself within a few months and people will start paying more attention to climate change.

We are beginning to plan for winter. Heating costs are going up, including both heating oil and firewood, and there may be shortages.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions

I just finished this new book by Sabine Hossenfelder. It has similarities to her last book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which focused on how physicists entertain exotic theories that are difficult to link to actual observable events, and how this emphasis on mathematical aesthetics is contributing to a slump in the development of useful new theories. The new book continues the pragmatic emphasis of the last book, but covers a broader range of topics. Although Hossenfelder writes clearly and concisely, the subjects are quite abstruse, so, whether she likes it or not, the content is way over the heads of most readers, though, if they make an effort, they may get the gist of it. Even so, though I think it's much more interesting than A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking's bestseller, I don't think it will sell as well. That is probably one of the least-read books on people's bookshelves. From a marketing standpoint, it might have helped if she had ALS and used a speech synthesizer. However, Hossenfelder has already established herself as a credible science pundit, and this book will enhance her career.

Some of the topics interested me more than others, and I'll focus on those. As in the last book, there are interviews, but I didn't find them enlightening. They are entertaining when, for example, she critiques her host's housekeeping and hints that she may dislike men with long hair. Some of the subjects are difficult, and covering them in brief chats doesn't do them justice, though her publisher probably encouraged her to keep it as light as possible. She seems more confident in her interviews than before, when, for example, she was intimidated by Steven Weinberg, but I doubt that she will ever rake an interviewee over the coals. In some ways, she is refreshing, because she doesn't have a gigantic male ego and is simply attempting to educate people.

Chapter 2 is "How Did the Universe Begin? How Will it End?" In this chapter, Hossenfelder concludes that we may never know. To me, some related questions are "How many universes are there?," "Are universes structurally similar?," and "Can the laws of physics in a particular universe change?" I don't think that we will ever know anything about this, except in the sense that we may eventually discover that the laws of physics in this universe are constant. I dislike the psychological impact of these kinds of questions because, if we want to think that our lives are significant, what if there is an infinite number of lives, and an infinite number of those lives are identical to yours? This hardly boosts one's sense of importance. In one universe, your equivalent may have made a slightly different decision, and the consequences may have been significant. I'd rather not think about it.

Chapter 6 is "Has Physics Ruled Out Free Will?" Hossenfelder concludes:

According to the currently established laws of nature, the future is determined by the past, except for the occasional quantum events that we cannot influence. Whether you take that to mean that free will does not exist depends on your definition of free will.

Although I'm hardly qualified on this topic, my feeling is that it is possible that "quantum events" may also be found to fit a yet-to-be-discovered deterministic model. This would mean that everything that has occurred in this universe was predetermined, i.e., free will does not exist.

"Is Consciousness Computable?" is an interview with Roger Penrose. Penrose thinks that consciousness may not fit within a deterministic model. I think that it does. This is one of the areas in which physicists are prone to making mistakes. My feeling is that physicists are not generally competent in biology. I think, for example, that most mammals have a consciousness quite similar to ours. This means that, if consciousness is unique, we're no more unique than chipmunks. One of the main themes throughout human history has been to show how humans are somehow superior to other animals. We're not that different. I think that Roger Penrose has seen better days as a thinker.

Consciousness is also discussed in Chapter 8. There, Hossenfelder makes a good point in a rather amusing way:

We don't yet know exactly how to define consciousness, or exactly which brain functions are necessary for it, but its a property we observe exclusively in physical systems. Because, well, we observe only physical systems. If you think your own thoughts are an exception to this, try thinking without a brain. Good luck.

In some respects, Hossenfelder is more tolerant of ideas that she disagrees with than I am. For example, she doesn't agree with Nick Bostrom's idea that the universe could be a computer simulation. I agree with her and would not even have bothered to discuss Bostrom's ideas. Similarly, although she is not religious, she is reluctant to criticize religious people. My view is that religions serve an evolutionary purpose for humans. Historically, we have needed them both to help maintain cohesive groups and to provide a kind of assurance of our place in the universe, given that we are conscious and the answers are beyond our comprehension. I think that Hossenfelder's understanding of evolution is similar to mine, but that, because she is not a biologist, she may not understand all of the implications of being a biological entity. To me, this means that everything about us has come to be for survival reasons. Physicists tend to see mathematics as an objective way to discuss reality, whereas I see it as an evolutionary development that is dependent on biology for its existence.  In my view, mathematics exists only because humans communicate with language, and mathematics is the most precise language that we've developed. I would not have given space to Max Tegmark, who thinks that the universe is a mathematical entity. In the books I've discussed by Frans de Waal and Giorgio Vallortigara, evidence is provided that other animals are conscious and even have rudimentary mathematical skills. My interpretation is that consciousness is nothing special and is simply a byproduct of sophisticated brains. Without evolution, mathematics would not exist.

I should mention an anecdote that I read many years ago. When asked how he came up with an idea, Einstein described how he had an odd sort of physical reaction when it occurred to him. It had nothing to do with mathematics, and sounded to me like an intuitive insight. The process of expressing it mathematically was separate, and sometimes he needed help with that.

One area that Hossenfelder doesn't specifically discuss is morality. For me, it is important to understand that morality is also a product of evolution. I have been writing about this for several years now and am amazed that no one else seems to have this opinion. A lot of time could be saved by ignoring philosophical treatises on morality, free will and consciousness. Contemporary physics pundits can get into ruts if they indulge their philosophy colleagues too much.

Towards the end of the book, there is a discussion of AGI, and Hossenfelder's views are similar to mine. I think the main danger is that it will fall into the wrong hands, not that it will inherently be a menace to us.

On the whole, I found reading this book to be an interesting and challenging exercise. However, if you're like me, you may not have anyone to discuss it with. Most people never think about these topics, and they can be quite scary.

Friday, July 29, 2022


Since I don't do "light summer reading," I am reading almost nothing at the moment and am beginning to accumulate some books for potential winter reading. I have become somewhat interested in the ideas of Martin Rees in recent years, and I just listened to this interview conducted by Lex Fridman. The impression I got is that Rees is approaching death, and that he is trying to inspire young scientists in their future work. On the whole, I thought that Fridman did an acceptable job, but there were instances during which he displayed extreme naïveté. I don't think that he was the right person to extract some of Rees's better thoughts, so it seemed that the discussion got a little off track at times.

I think that astronomy is the best field for understanding human existence in the context of the universe. Because Rees is less of an egomaniac than many other public intellectuals, he tends to provide more nuanced answers and doesn't waste time on professional self-aggrandizement. For example, he recognizes that physics is much easier than biology, while physics itself is increasingly becoming less intelligible. For this reason, he is one of the first scientists I've heard who supports the use of AI in future research, because it is already evident that intractable human cognitive limitations place an upper limit on what we can understand. In this vein, I noticed recently that serotonin has been found to have less influence on depression than was previously thought, indicating that Robert Sapolsky and many other biological researchers have been getting it wrong. Many of the widely-accepted ideas of today will be refuted in the future.

The overall view that I've developed over the years is that humans are essentially sociable primates, i.e., we have evolved to cooperate more than any other primate species, while also possessing the capacity to communicate through language, and have thereby become more evolutionarily successful, mainly in the sense of having the largest population of any primate. While this situation has been beneficial in relation to other species, as time passes, the population grows and the environment deteriorates, some of the advantages of cooperative behavior have become less relevant. For example, with the increasing complexity of daily life, we unconsciously tend to attribute greater competency to political leaders, academics and intellectuals in general than they actually possess. To understand this, one need only follow the news. Because politicians have little control over short-term economic conditions, when voters blame them for poor conditions they pretend that they can fix everything. In other words, the proper actions are not necessarily taken, and the public maintains a poor understanding of economics. In the U.S., the idea that voters ever have to make sacrifices has been eradicated: when conditions become bad, they can just vote for a politician who requires nothing of them.  It's actually worse than this, because economists themselves don't necessarily understand the economic problems either. Since there is no recent precedent for a pandemic followed by inflation, most economists are winging it: this brings to light the fact that their models are never completely accurate. The lessons learned since the Great Depression may be insufficient to ward off future economic downturns.

What I am finding is that even highly-educated, scientifically-minded people often hold unfounded ideas based largely on their social backgrounds. Thus, as Rees notes in the interview, some tech entrepreneurs are following a path in which they will gradually become immortal and perhaps explore the universe at their leisure. My view is that we have not evolved to become immortal, and that we wouldn't necessarily like it if we were. I have been retired for fifteen years, which I think is an adequate amount of time to relax and pursue various interests. I don't have the slightest idea what I'd do if I were alive for another million years. In order to do so, I would have to evolve in directions which are completely unfamiliar to me, to such an extent that I wouldn't be recognizably human. In all probability, I would just be an expensive robot, and robots don't necessarily care whether or not they are alive. Conceptually, I think the key is whether you want to be a biological object or a non-biological object. To me, being non-biological would be about as exciting as becoming a clock. Our evolutionary past has prepared us to devote our resources to survival, not to understanding the universe. In any case, there is probably an upper limit on how well the universe can be understood by any being. What do you do when you reach that limit?

On a more mundane level, the issue can be seen as whether we really want to expunge the irrational animal impulses that are built into our brains, as discussed by Vinod Goel in Reason and Less. On the surface, that might be appealing to some people, and the world might indeed be a better place if it were governed more rationally. But my current thinking is that the transition to evolutionarily post-human life would require a kind of death that I would find unappealing. That is why I prefer an AI-controlled environment for the benefit of mankind to an immediate transition to post-human life. Strictly speaking, this is a subject that could in theory be studied. It is possible that species on other planets have actually made a transition to a post-human equivalent, and it may someday be feasible to study them. On the other hand, if post-human-equivalent extraterrestrials are never found, that fact itself may be indicative of something.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Thoughts on Autism

Since starting this blog, I've been avoiding discussing close relatives and my current relationship. However, I have mentioned psychiatric disorders on several occasions, primarily in the context of people in the biographies that I've read. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was almost certainly autistic. I thought I'd make separate comments about autism, because, from my point of view, it is an emerging topic. During the 1940's, early studies concentrated on severely impaired autistic children, and it was not until the 1990's that high-functioning autistic children came under study. Since then, in the early 2000's, high-functioning autistic adults were studied, and now the topic is broadly discussed under autism spectrum disorder, which covers all ages and a wide variety of symptoms. The main symptom is social impairment, but there are many other symptoms, such as repetitive behavior, sensitivity to loud noises, learning disabilities and special intellectual talents. The same symptoms are not necessarily present in all autistic people. It appears that autism runs in families, but that aspect does not seem to have been studied much so far.

For the record, I don't think that I'm autistic. In my family background, I had an uncle who could have been autistic, but I have no way of finding out now. As a child, he became fascinated with watches, and as an adult he became an engineer and designed and made a clock that was used on one of the NASA missions to Mars. I hardly knew him, but one of his daughters thought that he could have been autistic. I think that he may only have been an introvert, and I've noticed myself that introversion can be confused with autism, though the two are neurologically unrelated. To an undiscerning observer, it may not be apparent that an introverted person prefers to be alone, whereas autistic people may prefer to socialize but lack the skills necessary for social acceptance. There is also a certain amount of confusion about autism and intelligence. Nerdy students probably have a good chance of being autistic, but many autistic people are poor students. I've noticed that autistic people tend to socialize with each other, since it is difficult for them to develop friendships with those who are more socially adept, but they may still have different intellectual abilities within their group. Because I am intelligent and introverted, some people may have thought that I'm autistic, but I'm not.

It is relevant to me to know something about autism, because I've spent about fifty years, some of which were hardly harmonious, among autistic people. My ex-wife is probably autistic, and so is my son. My current partner is autistic, and so are some of her relatives. Her immediate family is very high-functioning. Her ex-husband graduated from Yale and Yale Law School. She graduated from Cambridge and the University of Chicago Law School. One son also attended Yale and is a software engineer. Another son has a Ph.D. in mathematics and also works in the tech industry. The two children make so much money that they probably could retire in their early forties.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been intrigued about my ex-wife's family with respect to heritable mental illness. No one ever talks about this kind of thing, so, in the course of my genealogical research, I investigated her family background. On her father's side there was no sign of mental illness. However, both her mother and an aunt exhibited psychiatric symptoms. I found that her mother's grandmother had attempted suicide at 19, became pregnant at 20, before marriage, and proceeded to have four children. Her husband was a petty criminal who died in prison at the age of 45. She was born in 1875 and disappeared in about 1909, abandoning her four children. I think that she was probably the source of later mental illness in the family, though it is also possible that her husband contributed. Looking at four generations of her descendants, a variety of autistic symptoms have occurred right up to the present. My view of my ex-wife is that she is an average-functioning autistic person who may not know that she is autistic but has always been socially inept. High-functioning autistic people can be more interesting, but the same social impairment is still apparent.

On a more general level, I have been thinking about how the human brain works and how its resources are limited. Having good social skills demands far more brainpower than you might expect, so the brain makes tradeoffs. In a stable social setting, such as a homogeneous upper-middle-class environment, the social stability may obviate the need for social skills somewhat and leave room for the development of intellectual skills that are associated with greater social prestige, better career prospects, or both. This could explain some of the success of some high-achieving autistic people. In general, the rise of the tech industry has facilitated this process. It is possible that the genes for high-achieving autistic people have always been there, but the opportunity for their expression may have been more limited in the past.

I think that the Internet and digital technology have made the environment much more autism-friendly than it was a few decades ago. However, this isn't necessarily an entirely positive development. First of all, there is no advantage for low-functioning autistic people, and, more importantly, the high-functioning autistic people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk may be exceptionally talented in some areas, permitting them to make billions of dollars, while their social ineptitude probably makes it challenging for them to foster a cohesive society. For example, Bill Gates is never going to make a moving speech. Although there may be other causes, it is probably not a coincidence that social cohesion began to erode with the rise of the tech giants. Of course, some of the tech people don't seem particularly autistic, but I think that the net effect of the new technology has been to make the environment more autism-friendly than it was in the past. One area of recent social change that could be autism-related is the rise of political correctness. Autistic people, particularly the high-functioning ones, like rules, and they are often insensitive to social subtleties. Thus, robotic people seem to be becoming the norm, and, for better or for worse, we may be witnessing the death of humor. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022


I've been watching with some interest the news coverage of the shooting in Highland Park, since I used to live there not far from the parade route (though I never went). But for the most part it's just another routine shooting: a confused young male copycat event that is becoming a frequent occurrence. The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been more interesting. I like it not because it is producing evidence of a crime, but because it shows how Trump was enabled by unprincipled staff members who covered for him while he was in office and are reluctant to speak publicly about it even now. It has been obvious for several years that Trump has the mentality of an opportunistic criminal, and that his election in 2016 was probably the greatest mistake in American political history. I find it amazing that to this day only two prominent Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have spoken out against him. Although the political system in the U.K. isn't functioning well either, at least Boris Johnson's cabinet resignations are forcing him out. In addition to these events, we have the recent rulings of the United States Supreme Court, which now contains a majority of religious fanatics. It's difficult to imagine that they all attended college, given some of their ideas.

To my readers who are tired of hearing my opinions about stupidity, I can only say that stupidity is the greatest underlying problem of this era. As I've been saying, the press holds some responsibility for this, because, unless an explicit crime such as a murder occurs, they tend to be idea-neutral in a misguided attempt to behave impartially. If they had ferreted out more information about Donald Trump before the 2016 election and actively publicized it, it may have been easier for Hillary Clinton to make a better case for herself as the most competent candidate. While Trump himself may not be directly responsible for all of the chaos that arose during and after his presidency, he is at least partially responsible for the rise of right-wing extremism and has ruined the Supreme Court by appointing three conservative justices. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg had retired under Obama and Merrick Garland had been rightfully installed, the Supreme Court would not have ruled against abortion and the EPA would still have the authority to protect the environment. These errors could be corrected over the next few years, or conditions could worsen if they are followed by new ones. Because the U.S. Constitution doesn't work and Congress and the Supreme Court aren't doing anything about it, dire outcomes are possible. Biden isn't much help either, and someone else could do a better job than he has. I don't think that Kamala Harris is ready for prime time.

From my point of view, although I believe that there is strength in numbers, a partial breakup of the U.S. might possibly be an improvement. After all, Texas and Vermont were once separate republics, and the consequences were not disastrous. It isn't hard to imagine at least three republics now: West Coast, Northeast, and everything else. Perhaps the Upper Midwest could also form a republic. While I generally prefer fewer countries and governments, some conflicts could be resolved by separating regions based on intractable ideological differences. Vermont probably couldn't survive alone as a nation-state, but Vermont + New York + Connecticut + Massachusetts + New Hampshire + Maine probably could. So could California + Oregon + Washington. If Texas + Oklahoma + Arkansas + Louisiana + Tennessee + Mississippi + Alabama became a country, I wouldn't care – or visit it. There would probably be a few straggler states, but a solution to that could be reached. Under a scenario like this, the West Coast and the Northeast might have the healthiest economies and the strongest alliances with the European Union. Many parts of the U.S. would probably prefer alliances with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

In other respects, I'm having a ho-hum summer. William has again been attacked by something and was bitten. He has had a minor limp since May, and when he went in for his annual shots on June 27 he had a temperature, for which the vet gave him antibiotics. He seems to have recovered, but the limp is still slightly visible. Recently, our neighbors started to raise chickens. I think that chickens attract predators, such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes and fishers, and, to a lesser extent, bears. Unless the predators succeed with the chickens, they probably won't stick around. I'm setting up my 18" Dobsonian telescope tonight, since it should be clear and somewhat dark for two days in a row.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Popular Nonfiction May Distract from Better Ideas

Recently, I temporarily switched from reading accessible nonfiction books that are popular among educated readers to newly-published books issued by academic presses. One was from Cambridge and two were from M.I.T. As a matter of curiosity, I've been following their reception to see what kind of reactions they've evoked. Understandably, Paleolithic Europe, by Jennifer C. French, isn't attracting much attention, because it costs a lot and is specifically intended for an academic audience. However, I am surprised by the tepid response to Born Knowing, by Giorgio Vallortigara, and Reason and Less, by Vinod Goel, because they are not directed exclusively toward academic readers, aren't as expensive and include important findings in scientific research that I think have significant applications in the field of human cognition, not on a purely theoretical basis, but regarding the workings of cognitive functions that are evident in everyone's daily life. Of course, this kind of reaction is to be expected and corresponds with what I've said about the publishing industry. You won't necessarily make much money from good ideas, but you can usually make a lot of money by carefully promoting mediocre or bad ones simply by using existing commercial channels.

Born Knowing, I think, is relevant to a wide range of disciplines. At the most basic level, it shows how the neurological systems of all animals, both simple and complex, are the product of evolution, and, as such, are related primarily to survival and reproductive success and do not necessarily mirror what we might think of as objective reality. Our neurological systems mediate between us and the world. Although Vallortigara does not focus on human cognition, I think that he goes a long way toward refuting some of the ideas that are still popular among some philosophers. He seems inadvertently to be reviving Kant's concept of phenomena and noumena. In particular, I think that his findings can be construed as a refutation of Plato's Theory of Forms, and, more generally, of the objectivity of mathematics. In a way, he dovetails with Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and I think that this has enormous implications for what we think counts as objective knowledge. The book also makes clear that language is not necessary for rudimentary thinking, specifically in arithmetic and geometry. I would go a step further than Vallortigara and say that the reason why mathematics currently seems inadequate for solving the fundamental problems of physics could be that mathematics is an aspect of our neurological makeup and not something fundamental to nature. Organisms like us did not evolve to perform such tasks, and our neurological features may limit our capacities in that respect.

Reason and Less, for me, is valuable in a less theoretical sense, because it discusses our actual brain function. As I said in my comments about it, it provides a practical basis for critiquing public decision-making processes so as to minimize cognitive errors. I found Goel's model more useful than Daniel Kahneman's, as presented in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Goel shows how irrationality is intractably linked to rationality in the structure of the human brain, whereas Kahneman mistakenly, I think, suggests that, with the proper rewards and coaching, poor decisions can be minimized. Kahneman does not seem to recognize how cognitive dysfunction is endemic to humans, and that there is no such thing as a quick fix for this problem. In my view, Goel's model is more appropriate than Kahneman's at the policy level, because it takes into account the fact that the policymakers themselves are subject to the same kinds of errors as the people whom they are attempting to assist.

The point of this post, then, is that important findings such as those published by Vallortigara and Goel can easily become buried in the media and never get the attention that they deserve. At the same time, less significant ideas such as those put forward by Daniel Kahneman and pundits like Steven Pinker get all of the attention. Of course, there is always the chance that, over time, the better ideas of obscure academics will be promoted in academia and make their way to public consciousness. However, as the publishing system currently works, this can hardly be considered an efficient process. Thinking, Fast and Slow became a bestseller and made Kahneman a household name, while no one has heard of Vinod Goel. Similarly, Steven Pinker is one of the best-known public intellectuals in the world, while Giorgio Vallortigara remains an obscure researcher. Unsurprisingly, Kahneman published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Pinker with Penguin. These publishers have far larger production runs than the academic presses, and their purpose is to make money, not to promote good ideas. I suppose that this is just the way that the world works and is to be expected, but I still find it annoying that there are people out there who have good ideas which never make it into public consciousness, while lesser works dominate the media year after year. It is important to keep in mind that, at any given time, the ideas promoted by leading public intellectuals may be inferior to ones that are already circulating in smaller circles.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

A Confession

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman's body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress's neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

—Czeslaw Milosz

Monday, June 20, 2022

Paleolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory

I've finished reading this new book by Jennifer C. French, an archaeologist, and will sum up my reactions. The text is academic in style, and most of the book is a recapitulation and discussion of research papers on the topic. It is an effort to describe ancestral trends and living conditions in Europe from about two million years ago to about 15,000 years ago, and a paucity of relevant data results in a murky picture until the more recent period. The species described are hominins, i.e. modern humans and extinct human species, but not other primates. The research is conducted through three primary sources: stones, bones and genes. The stones are rock artifacts, usually tools or weapons, and, more recently, figurines such as the Willendorf Venus. The bones are bones and teeth from archaeological digs, and genes, when available, contain genetic information. There is also some use of research on modern hunter-gatherers, though that is an unreliable model, since most of them have had some contact with culturally modern humans. The chart below sums up the main research findings:

The earliest known Europeans were H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis. They may have moved in and out of Europe intermittently, starting in Africa. H. neanderthalensis is the only Homo species thought to have originated outside Africa and mated with both the Denisovans, who lived in western Asia, and H. sapiens in Europe and elsewhere. Most of the early humans who migrated from Africa traveled to Asia and never went to Europe. Some returned to Africa and reemerged later.

Until H. sapiens arrived, the human population in Europe was quite small.  H. neanderthalensis was subject to food shortages and infertility. Because they had bulky bodies, they required more food than modern humans. They appear to have been less mobile than us, and their extinction may have been related to inadequate food supplies. In the skeletal remains there are signs of violence at an early age, and there is more evidence of cannibalism than in H. sapiens, though the context for that cannibalism isn't known. The genes of H. neanderthalensis indicate periods of inbreeding. H. sapiens behaved somewhat differently from H. neanderthalensis and appears to have been both more social and more mobile. That allowed them to maintain large networks that were beneficial during hard times, and their population increased. French focuses somewhat on nutrition, disease and fertility to explain population fluctuations. She seems reluctant to say that H. sapiens may have had a significant survival advantage because of increased eusocial behavior compared to earlier species, but, to my way of thinking, that would be the best single explanation of how they survived and flourished during a period of wide climate fluctuations in the Ice Age.

Overall, I found this book interesting and informative, but I disliked the academic writing style. Also, the feeling that I got was that the events discussed were so far in the past as to render them inaccessible for all practical purposes. We may never have a clear picture of what human culture was like in Europe 35,000 years ago, so the attempt to study it may be futile. For me, this book is a reminder of how little we know and of how little we may ever know. I should also note that others may not want to read the book, if only because it is an expensive college textbook, and you will probably never see it in a local bookstore or library. The Kindle edition currently costs $80.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022


I am in my usual spring mode and haven't had anything to say that is suitable for public discussion. As always, the weather is fantastic at this time of year, and the lilacs have been blooming. The large pink ones are starting to fade. We also have an old white one, which was probably planted in the nineteenth century, blooming now. My favorite, the one with small pink flowers, is about to bloom. The grass has been growing wildly, the tomatoes are planted, and the yard looks shockingly different from a few weeks ago. There was a heavy rain recently, and the cumulative seals that I've made to the basement foundation held up well, with very little leakage. The foundation in the original part of the house is made of stones – not exactly waterproof – and when we bought the house in August, 2011 there had been a recent flooding. I think that Enos Severance may have picked this location because of the sandy soil, which drains well. His father's house nearby is standing in clay and more prone to sitting water in the basement. The basements were probably used for food storage in the 18th century, and were best kept dry.

From a social standpoint, COVID-19 is still curtailing activities here. Vermont still has an overall infection rate that is relatively low for the country, but it is now behind Virginia, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Oregon and Maryland. Mask fatigue is causing reduced mask-wearing, and, for the first time, someone we know here became infected. Fortunately, it was a very mild infection. There has also been a rise in infections at the college. Overall, Addison County has a 1 in 6 infection rate, which isn't good, but is still better than most of the country.

As in other years, the conditions for stargazing haven't been very favorable. The best times are usually brief moments during the middle of the night and are difficult to catch. It doesn't help that I'm the only astronomy enthusiast in the house. Even so, I would like to set up my 18" Dobsonian telescope again this year – I haven't since 2020. I like reminding myself that other parts of the universe aren't like earth. In the July, 2022 issue of Sky and Telescope there is an article by David Grinspoon saying:

I do think that humanity has a chance to live long and prosper, to seed a truly sustainable society that could eventually sprout throughout the galaxy. But right now, any ETs exploring our solar system, seeking new prospects for their galactic club of wise civilizations, would probably take a quick scan of Earth and keep on searching.

In other words, there is no sign of intelligent life on earth.

I've started to read a new book on paleolithic Europe, a subject that interests me. However, it is written in an extremely academic style that Richard Feynman would find unintelligible. I think that the introductory discussion of research methodology is a bit excessive, but it is probably acceptable given that the book will be used for upper-level courses in archaeology. This is an extremely challenging subject from a research standpoint, since the author focuses on demography and social prehistory dating backward from 15,000 years ago. Obviously, the Enlightenment thinkers had no idea what they were talking about when they discussed early humans, and this book will be a significant improvement. If I ever finish it, I'll comment on it.

William is enjoying the warmer weather. As far as I know, he hasn't caught much recently. The other day I rescued a hummingbird that he was carrying around in his mouth, and it flew away. A few weeks ago he was in a serious fight and had large bite marks on his front right leg. He was limping for a few days, but seems to have recovered.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration

This is a new book by two astronomers, Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, in which the past and future of the exploration of the solar system and beyond is discussed in some detail. As the title suggests, the continued suitability of astronauts for this purpose is a running question throughout the book. Chapters cover projects involving near-earth orbits, the moon, Mars, asteroids, space colonization, the costs of space exploration and space law. No firm conclusions are reached, and the two simply finish by saying that the exploration of Mars is about to become the focus of many groups.

The greatest single obstacle to hands-on space exploration is gravity, because a lot of energy is required to leave the earth's atmosphere. Furthermore, manned space flights are far more expensive than unmanned flights, because the systems necessary to support human life are much heavier than the systems necessary to support robots. Although there have been situations in which a human presence on a space mission has been more efficient than a robotic presence, advances in AI are rapidly closing the gap. One of the disadvantages of human astronauts is their susceptibility to cancer caused by various forms of radiation, which consequently requires heavy shielding on manned flights. Other human requirements in space also increase weight in comparison to robots.

Because of the problem of the earth's gravity, the exploration of other planets and asteroids would be less costly and easier if the missions originated on the moon or other objects with weak gravity. For this reason, there will probably be permanent bases on the moon relatively soon. The far side of the moon would also be an excellent location for telescopes. The authors don't draw distinctions between missions based on scientific advancement, popular enthusiasm, billionaire hubris, commercial interests or geopolitics, so there is no clear perspective defining which activities are appropriate – I found this a little disappointing. They are simply predicting what is likely to happen next. So, in a few years there will be bases on the moon, and in about forty years there may be bases on Mars, the moons of other planets or asteroids. Among the motivators are international competition, the mining of rare elements, curiosity about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system and the potential development of space habitats for humans. The moon contains helium-3, which could be used to generate energy. The moon, other moons, Mars and some asteroids contain water, which could be useful if bases or colonies are developed. Besides the possibility of human colonies on Mars, some people envision colonies in large, rotating cylinders in space or on the moons of other planets. The authors dutifully mention the hostility of non-earth environments to humans. 

On the whole, I found the book informative about a topic that is likely to become far more important in the future. However, the focus on technical facts omits many of the significant problems associated with non-earth habitation by humans. If the authors had consulted biologists and sociologists, they might have provided a fuller picture of the hazards of space for humans. To me, they have overlooked the fact that, as earth-evolved organisms, humans are unlikely to feel at home anywhere other than on earth or an extremely close simulation of it. I think that living in a Martian colony would probably be like living in a small, remote motel somewhere in Nevada, without the possibility of opening a window or going outside unless protected by a special suit. The authors discuss the terraforming of Mars, i.e., the conversion of Mars to an earth-like habitat. Although that could conceivably occur in the distant future, there is no guarantee that people would be happier there than they are here. Moreover, if humans were to leave earth because it became too crowded, polluted, hot or violent, why would anyone expect that space colonies wouldn't also become too crowded, polluted, hot or violent? If the colonists were trying to escape poor governance on earth, why would they think that they would find better governance in a space colony? I think that, with all the expense and risk associated with human travel to and residence in space, an analysis of what it would take to make living on earth more desirable and sustainable ought to have been made. We have the ability to painlessly reduce the population here by limiting the number of births, and we have the technology to solve the problems of climate change. In particular, it would be far easier to terraform earth, returning it to an earlier state, than Mars or anywhere else, and in this respect the book is extremely shortsighted. In a similar vein, the authors are neutral on speciation. It is true that speciation occurs on its own, as species adapt to changes in their environments, but, speaking for myself, I am perfectly happy being a human. As far as I'm concerned, Elon Musk and his friends can all become cyborgs and move to Mars. Good riddance!

Thursday, April 21, 2022


I'm behind on my posts because I haven't had much to say. The arrival of spring always prompts changes in my daily activities. I spend less time reading, less time on the Internet, more time preparing for gardening and more time outdoors. I have also been attempting to help my daughter buy a house, which is a nerve-wracking experience at the moment. All of the decent houses in good school districts that come on the market near Lebanon, New Hampshire are sold almost immediately at prices above the asking price. Buyers have no way of knowing whether they have bid high enough, and the houses are overpriced to begin with, usually $100,000 to $200,000 more than they would have cost three years ago. Higher interest rates are starting to reduce demand a little, and one can only hope that the market will stabilize within a few months. In the meantime, my daughter's situation isn't bad. They have a nice apartment, my grandson is being homeschooled, and it takes my son-in-law three minutes to get to work. They also have access to the Dartmouth library for reading material.

As you might expect, I am following the war in Ukraine, which is also a source of unease. After Donald Trump, I'm a little desensitized to idiotic political leaders, but Vladimir Putin is far worse. Like Trump, he is completely out of his depth as a leader, but he is emboldened because he has little fear of being removed. In an ideal world, he would be arrested and charged with war crimes, but that seems unlikely. He might also be assassinated, but he is prepared for that too. All of his propaganda will collapse eventually, because, with the Internet and news coverage, the rest of the world can see in real time what is going on. The Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Donbas have no particular loyalty to Russia, and Putin's arguments are pure fantasy. One Putin expert says that Putin is waging this war only to increase his popularity in Russia, a strategy that has worked for him in the past. He is actually ruining the country by damaging its economy and accelerating the brain drain that has been going on there for decades. It doesn't help that he is using a dated Soviet-style propaganda campaign similar to the one that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I always wish that people like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin would be forced to participate in an interview in which they were required to answer difficult, fact-based questions. Neither of them has ever done that, as far as I know. Though I don't think that Trump is as dangerous as Putin, they have a similar modus operandi in that they remain in power by making a deliberate attempt to appeal, with disingenuous theatrics, to the most ignorant and suggestible inhabitants of their countries. Both Trump and Putin know that their supporters are morons. They both have a peasant-like persona that works in either democracies or autocracies. Putin is worse than Trump because he has no qualms about killing people who get in his way; Trump pretends to emulate mobsters, but I don't think that he has ever ordered a killing. The widespread idealization of democracy in the West fails to take into account the weaknesses of human nature. Frankly, the political models dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are completely obsolete.

Well, I won't bore you with geopolitics. I have a couple of decent books on hand and will read them one of these days.

Saturday, April 2, 2022


I had hoped to start another book by now, but the one I ordered is new and isn't currently available. I am still thinking about Vinod Goel's concept of tethered rationality and find that it could be quite useful. As I've been saying, all of the current major problems in the world are man-made, and it is easy to imagine rectifying them to some extent by taking decisions away from incompetent political leaders and transferring them to new, unbiased science-based evaluation systems. While major political errors seem commonplace these days, Vladimir Putin seems to be topping them all with his barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Whatever Putin thinks he is doing, he is acting not only against the interests of Ukraine, but against the interests of Russia. To be blunt, what Putin needs is counseling: going into this, he could not have accurately foreseen the long-term consequences. He is just a war criminal, not unlike Adolph Hitler, and will be reviled worldwide forever. In my view, the solution to this type of problem is to remove the decision-making role from incompetent dictators like Putin and, in democracies, from incompetent voters who elect incompetent presidents, senators and representatives. Where Goel's model could be helpful is in its drawing attention to the fact that rational behavior is linked to irrational behavior within all human brains. This means that it would be in the interest of humanity to develop impartial systems to evaluate important decisions before they are implemented. At some point, AI will be better at this than humans. I still find it remarkable that Donald Trump ran for office with purely selfish motives and never had any interest in fulfilling the requirements of the job or in understanding any of the issues at hand. Similarly, I think that if you took a deep dive into Vladimir Putin's psyche, you would find that it is full of hubris, misunderstanding and stupidity. Just by using basic aspects of Goel's theory, it would be readily apparent that Putin is stuck in an obsolete Cold War model, because that is what he grew up with.

I am still concerned about Xi Jinping and his implicit support of Putin. If he thinks that he is going to create a sustainable alliance between China and Russia, surely he is mistaken. Putin is no more to be trusted than Donald Trump, and Russia has a historical enmity toward China. It is still possible that Xi will emerge as a peacemaker and scold naughty Vladimir. Besides being the right decision, that would leave China on firmer footing globally.

In the absence of a book to read, I still have Scientific American, Sky and Telescope, the Times Literary Supplement and Consumer Reports magazine. The TLS has a negative review of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, which sounds pretty bad, and I won't read it. Houellebecq is increasingly coming out as a clueless right-wing sympathizer. I also look at 3 Quarks Daily about once a week. I am tired of their philosophy emphasis, but they still have good arts and sciences content. I'm not as enthusiastic about Sean Carroll as I used to be, because, though he is a good physicist, he has some philosophical leanings. I now prefer Sabine Hossenfelder's videos, because I like the way she thinks. She gets right to the point and specifically dislikes philosophy. I will probably read her next book. As I've been saying, I think that philosophy usually does nothing more than add layers of obfuscation to whatever subject it touches. Thus, sophistry, named after the Greek Sophists, now means:

Specious or oversubtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as an art or dialectic exercise.

In my opinion, many of the problems of philosophy are being solved by zoologists, neuroscientists and cosmologists. Today's philosophers are trying to remain relevant, but I think they're fighting a losing battle.

The number of daily views of this blog is still somewhat higher than it used to be. As an example of how Internet users waste their time on silly activities, I am getting redirect hits from quora.com. There is a discussion there about whether Bertrand Russell slept with his daughter-in-law, Susan. This is hardly an important question. From the evidence described by Ray Monk, it is possible but probably unlikely. They did have tête-à-têtes, but she had so many sex partners that even Russell was put off by her, and he helped his son divorce her.

In other news, I am no longer needed for taking unwanted books from the library to the transfer station, since they've found someone who will attempt to reuse them. Also, I have placed a "We Stand With Ukraine" banner by the road. I usually don't care much about world or national politics, but what is happening in Ukraine now – in full witness to everyone – is atrocious and unacceptable by any measure.