Sunday, December 10, 2023


Like most years at this time, we have had some snow that didn't last. I have become accustomed to being snowed in later in the winter and usually like it. However, with climate change, winter temperatures and snowfall have become more erratic, particularly in the Northeast. My arrangement this winter will be a little different, because I will be living alone and don't have a pet or a wood stove. Since communication with my partner was never good and gradually deteriorated over a period of twenty-two years, I actually miss William, the cat, more than her, since I spent more time interacting with him on a daily basis. But I don't plan to get another pet. You spend a lot of time with pets, interact with them and become extremely attached to them – and then they die. I already knew that this would happen, and adopting William in the first place was not my idea.

Recently, I've been having conversations about generational changes and mental illness. The book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America's Future has been brought up. The context for that discussion is how it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to younger people if you are a pre-millennial. That topic doesn't interest me much, because I have almost no interaction with anyone under forty besides my grandson, and the circumstances of his childhood don't mesh with any particular generational profile. I prefer to think along the lines of Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation, perhaps because we belong to the same generation and have similar concerns about the inability of younger people to communicate, and we can see the adverse social effects of the internet. My main thought is that the commercialization of the internet has led to unanticipated social effects that make human societies more unstable than they have been in centuries. I don't think that the end is in sight yet, and there is a chance that this will end very badly. So, in my case, I'm not that concerned about the quality of my communication with younger people. Even if I wanted to do something about it, that would be nearly impossible, because the social characteristics of adults become relatively fixed by the time they've grown up. We are now looking at adult millennials who may never be able to relate to baby boomers.

Under the topic of mental illness, I tend to focus on autism for a couple of reasons. First of all, as Sherry Turkle points out, one of the characteristics of younger people who have been immersed in the internet since childhood is autistic behavior, although, technically, they may not be diagnosed as autistic. The point is that their modes of communication have similarities to those of autistic people. Secondly, I've spent over fifty years with autistic people, and I am not at all autistic. One of the main reasons why I have this blog is that I like to express my ideas, and what I've found is that most others are only interested the circumscribed discussion of ideas. In many cases, they are not aware that they have unconscious lists of things that they can discuss and things they can't discuss. These two lists are affected by educational and social backgrounds, but, somewhat more intractably, their psychiatric status. In the case of people who have autism spectrum disorder, or at least some of the symptoms, because they may be unable to interpret other people well and may have reduced social abilities, it is easy to run into a brick wall with something that resembles an open discussion. They may be operating on a cognitive model that is completely different from yours, and if you suppress discussions that fall on their "can't discuss" list, you may only be delaying the exposure of fundamental conceptual incompatibilities. Because I'm focusing on autism, these incompatibilities usually relate to different ideas of what constitutes a satisfactory social environment. For example, you may prefer a social environment in which you can express various ideas and receive some thoughtful feedback, whereas autistic people may prefer a light social environment in which people always seem friendly, agreeable and predictable. You can run into difficulties with autistic people on social questions, because they may not understand their social environments and may process them in an entirely different fashion from you. You may think of a social event that an autistic person likes as a shallow, pointless exchange. What I've noticed is that there can be a range of complex undercurrents in many social contexts that escape the notice of autistic people. If autistic behavior is now on the ascent, non-autistic people need to prepare themselves for unsatisfactory social lives. As I've said before, autistic people often tend to be politically correct. Their senses of humor are pretty bad too. I was trying to think of a joke that starts out "Three autistic people walk into a bar...." I can't think of a funny punch line. How about "The other customers all leave and the bartender shuts down early"?

I have been doing a little reading, but nothing exciting. Since I love biographies and am a single male living alone in the woods in New England, I decided to read a biography of Henry David Thoreau. He is not exactly an ideal subject for me, but I probably agree with some of his ideas. Since people don't communicate much now, it may be easier to commiserate with well-documented people who died long ago.

Friday, December 1, 2023


 According to Harvard Medical School:

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. At the same time, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of "neurological minorities." While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how clinicians view and address certain disabilities and neurological conditions.

Although a politically-correct term such as this would not normally appeal to me, after watching this video of Temple Grandin, I decided that, since autism spectrum disorder, which I discussed earlier, consists of several unrelated differences in brain function, "neurodiversity" is not an entirely inappropriate term to describe the wide variety of symptoms that occur in ASD. I think that, eventually, there will be separate diagnoses for these symptoms, and that research will indicate different classifications for behaviors that are now lumped together only because there is insufficient data to separate them based on brain function. I had heard of Temple Grandin before, and in this video, which is now ten years old, I think she provides a better explanation of ASD than I've seen elsewhere.

I am very impressed with Temple Grandin, because she was severely dysfunctional as a child, yet, with the help of her mother, overcame her handicap, led a successful career, and now is one of the very few autistic people who is an active speaker on autism. Furthermore, she is quite scientific in her presentation, and I find her to be a highly effective speaker. She is refreshing, because she is well informed about her condition and discusses it articulately. Most of the autistic people I've known don't know how they are different from non-autistic people, are unable to discuss it, and, when they congregate with other high-functioning autistic people, may speak derisively about non-autistic people – with no social repercussions for themselves. Some of the autistic people I've known have behaved abusively and were never held to account. Far from being functionally incapacitated like Temple Grandin, high-functioning autistic people can behave imperiously and insult people with impunity, especially when their support group consists entirely of autistic people. In my experience, autistic people, if they have enough money, can be just as bigoted as anyone else.

There is nothing wrong with publicizing pertinent facts about autism. Temple Grandin goes to great lengths by showing how her brain scans are different from those of others. Much of her professional success stems from her ability to understand animals, and that is another characteristic missing in the autistic people I know. She is not like the coding savants more commonly associated with the tech industry: she thinks in pictures and has incredibly good skills in observation. This talent works well with scientific observation, which also comes naturally to her. On the other hand, she had to work very hard to overcome language and math handicaps. I admire her plainspokenness and common sense, which I have never seen elsewhere on the spectrum. She even recognized that she was not cut out for romantic relationships and never pursued one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Temple Grandin, because she also speaks for me as a non-autistic, visual and scientific person.

The variations in human brain function discussed by Temple Grandin, I might add, fit very well within the Darwinian model that I've often discussed on this blog. The reason why sexual reproduction works is that it introduces variation into gene pools, so that at any given time the human genome as a whole is capable of adapting to new conditions in the environment. This usually means that, if new adverse conditions arise, some of the population may be able to adapt. It is known that when populations such as the Neanderthals inbreed, they can go extinct. That may be caused either by the expression of recessive genes or by genetic obsolescence. The taboo against incest actually has a biological basis. In this context, the concept of neurodiversity makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Art and Social Status

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the extent to which art is associated with social status. My Armenian great-grandfather lived in Bursa, Turkey, and he became wealthy by setting up import-export businesses. He exported carpets to the U.S. and imported pianos to Greece, among other businesses. His family immediately took an interest in French culture, and my grandfather traveled there on vacation. He had an arranged marriage with my grandmother, who, though half-Armenian, had a German mother who grew up in Paris. When my mother was growing up in Greece, they spoke French at home. My mother took an early interest in ballet and European art, and, after we moved to the U.S., my older sister took ballet lessons, and we often visited the art museums in Manhattan. My mother also liked classical music and played recordings of it at home. This all rubbed off on me, and I took an early interest in paintings and music. My English father had somewhat more pedestrian tastes.

As an adult, I've often noticed that, particularly in the West, wealthy people become art aficionados. This usually has more to do with social status than with the free time of the idle rich. There is usually a clear distinction between high art and low art, and social climbers generally avoid the latter. One of the reasons why high art tends to be better than low art is that, in historical terms, the wealthy have been spending their money on it for centuries, and they usually know the difference. The aristocrats in Vienna went into raptures over Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and supported their careers. Without subsidy from the rich, Beethoven would have been poor. In Paris, the Impressionists were initially ridiculed, and Degas, who came from a wealthy family, never identified himself as one, though he exhibited with them.

The situation in the U.S. has been a little more complex. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Americans tended to copy wealthy Europeans, and they often mingled with wealthy British people. For example, Bertrand Russell's first wife was American. Rich Americans built English-style mansions, bought classical paintings, founded traditional art museums and listened to classical music. Fiction usually mimicked English fiction. The situation changed considerably during the twentieth century, particularly after World War I. Economically, the U.S. was on the ascent and Europe was in decline, and market forces began to influence what counted as art. In my view, art patronage changed considerably during this period, mainly due to the transition from informed patrons to market forces.

With the influence of market forces in the U.S., it became possible to make rapid changes in what counted as good art, and modern art, such as that produced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, became popular quickly, even among critics. It is not a coincidence that Warhol had a background in marketing. Music with African and folk elements developed into jazz and popular music, eventually causing classical music to go out of favor. To some extent, jazz still belongs in the category of fine art for aficionados, and it has had wealthy patrons. I don't think that the same can be said for popular music, though, incredibly to me, many people actually like hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that some of the popular music of the '60's and '70's can reasonably be called art, but calling it high art is still a stretch.

My views on writing are a little different, because language is part of being human, and it is difficult to extract oneself from it and look at it objectively. So, for me, though there can always be good essays, they don't necessarily count as art. Fiction is also on shaky ground. I think that the novel as an art form peaked in the late nineteenth century and may never recover. There is still some hope for poetry, because that isn't restricted to traditional forms of language usage. So, though poetry can be influenced by market forces, there is still room in it for high art that can be identified and appreciated by the cognoscenti. For me, poetry is one area that may survive commercialization, though, on a practical level, I find very little of contemporary poetry worthwhile. I don't think that many good poets can do it for a living.

There are other art forms, such as films and plays, and some of those, I think, qualify as art. However, with film in particular, cost-cutting and automation have already taken a toll if you compare recent productions to older ones.

I should also mention a subject that I've brought up many times: the negative effects of M.F.A. programs. Though, in theory, academic expertise could improve the arts, in practice it has primarily created cloistered art environments and is not as efficient as the earlier wealthy-patron model. There is the myth that artists can avoid the struggling-artist period by getting a graduate degree. They can't.

As a social phenomenon, the definition of art currently lies beyond the influence of people who, in earlier days, may have made reasonable cases for what counts as good art – Robert Hughes is now long-dead. In this market-driven era, many people seem to believe that what is good is whatever is "trending." Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet, besides all of the other damage that it has done, is killing good taste, or at least making it a historical relic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


One of the limitations of the property where I live is that, since the house is surrounded by trees, there isn't much of a view. But, with the leaves down, you can now clearly see the outline of the Green Mountains nearby to the east. With effort, you can also see the Taconic and Adirondack Mountains to the west. The yard is still fairly private, though you can now make out the nearby houses. 

On the whole, I am happy living here. There have been no signs of mice since October, and I'm going to set up the birdfeeder soon if it stays cold. There may still be bears around. It looks as if the house is fairly well-insulated, so my utilities will be manageable. Overall, I don't think that the expenses here will be any higher than they were in Middlebury, where I was paying rent, and the value of this property has already increased. So far, not having a garage hasn't been a disadvantage. It was easier putting on snow tires outside, because there was more space and better lighting. Eventually, I will be clearing snow off the car, but, since I don't have to go anywhere most days, that shouldn't be much of a problem. The new snow blower arrived today and fits nicely in the shed. There is way more space in the house than I need, and I've had overnight visitors without any crowding.

On top of this, I like Brandon and feel a little more like a Vermonter now. I listen to Vermont Public (radio) more often than I used to, and that generates a sense of community. I even like the Vermont politicians! I'm becoming a regular at Café Provence and enjoy looking at the Neshobe River, which runs right through downtown, with waterfalls. There's also an art gallery and an old church with tombstones.

I recently attended a wedding in Derby, Connecticut and was shocked by all of the traffic. That is another reason why I prefer Vermont, particularly this part of the state, which has no interstates. Although I don't technically consider myself a writer, this is a very good environment for writing, and I can see why many of them move here. I am increasingly identifying with St. Bede the Venerable, though I'm not religious. I first learned of St. Bede at Worcester College, Oxford, in a course on Anglo-Saxon archaeology (coincidentally, that is the college that Rupert Murdoch attended). Bede lived in England from about 672 to 735, and his historical writings are one of the very few chronicles of that part of the Dark Ages there. I am beginning to feel as if I am starting to chronicle our Dark Age, though, in this case, I'm not writing alone. 

Because I have so much free time, I'm subscribing to more hard-copy magazines. I currently get Scientific AmericanSky and Telescope, Consumer ReportsTimes Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. I still like The New Yorker mainly for its cartoons. My grandson, who is now eight, also likes the cartoons, so I'm giving him my copies. Generally, I still don't enjoy the articles that much, and I don't like the current editor, David Remnick. They recently had an inferior review of Determined. I do like some of the writers, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, James Wood, Louis Menand and Rebecca Mead, and it has a sentimental value to me, because I grew up in New York. It has always been a pretentious publication, so I don't take it very seriously. The fiction, I still think, is pretty awful. I got a special rate and probably won't renew. 

My stargazing activity is almost dead. Because there is nowhere here suitable to store my large telescope, I gave it away. It currently belongs to a friend of the person who made it, who is using it as an "outreach" telescope at a summer camp in Colorado. I still have my small telescope but haven't set it up yet. In Middlebury, it was permanently set up on the rear deck and fastened down, so it was very convenient to use. It has to be fastened down or it may blow over in high winds (it did once). I don't have a deck here, but I may set it up for certain astronomical events. I can also do some stargazing in bed. In Middlebury, the skylight faced west, and I could see the Pleiades setting. This house has skylights that face south, and I can currently view the Orion Nebula rising in the east, with binoculars, while lying in bed. The skylights are small here, so it quickly moves out of view.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will III

I can't say that I enjoyed the remainder of the book, and I didn't spend much time on it, because I thought that Sapolsky was just rambling, and little new information of any real importance emerged. There wasn't even a noticeable conclusion either. Sapolsky, clearly an academic, is best on neurological matters. After he made a strong case for determinism and the absence of free will, he seemed to drift off into a series of anecdotes about how individuals are different from other individuals, and there is nothing that they can do about it. He is critical, for example, of those who pass judgment on fat people, because he thinks that fat people have little or no choice in the matter. Somehow, crime and punishment seem to interest him a lot, and there are countless stories about how criminals are perceived and treated by the public, often in a way that ignores the inevitability of their behavior. He seems to have the classic liberal college professor stance in which tolerance should be the norm, and people shouldn't be allowed to let their prejudices run wild. Many of his examples are old news that I've known about for decades, so I was quite disappointed when I arrived at the end of the book and determined that it did not include what I would consider to be an action plan or any useful recommendations.

In my view, Sapolsky, though he does have a good understanding of human nature, is demonstrating no interest in the rather significant implications of his findings. Those are the kinds of things that I've been writing about since I started this blog. There are two areas in particular that I've discussed repeatedly. If people are all different through no fault of their own, with widely varying intellectual abilities and prejudices, all of which are relatively intractable, how do we define equality and to what extent can a democratic process produce a coherent government? The other area is capitalism, which, despite mountains of evidence, continues to produce an increase in wealth inequality while destroying the environment. Currently, income inequality is spilling over into unruly populist movements in the West, with incompetent, opportunistic leaders who are not being filtered out by the existing democratic processes, and climate change is advancing unabated. I would have appreciated the book more if Sapolsky had devoted a few pages to those topics rather than taking jabs at Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim and other bad scientists and making fun of the public's prejudices. He seems merely to be reciting the now-popular "compassion" mantra without actually making any useful suggestions. I wasn't attempting to find religion when I started reading the book, and I'm not about to now.

I won't regurgitate all of the things that I have written previously, but I still think that the best long-term option is going to be an AI-based world government that, rather than depending on an unreliable democratic process or the whims of a dictator, maintains the planet for the benefit of Homo sapiens in an orderly fashion, based on what we know about ourselves, including the idea that we are a socially cooperative species and value equality. The point is that we collectively are not doing a good job at self-governance and ought to be taking a hard look at other options. If Sapolsky decides to write a separate book on that topic, I may read it, but I do find the current book too limited in scope and bloated in the wrong places.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will II

I am moving along more slowly than usual, because, besides Sapolsky's writing style, this is not an easy book to read and encompasses the subjects of neuroscience, biology, physics and philosophy. One chapter is devoted to chaos theory, which some have used as a basis for saying that free will exists. Sapolsky concludes that "chaoticism shows just the opposite of chaos, the fact that there's less randomness than often assumed and, instead, unexpected structure and determinism...." He then moves on to a chapter on the subject of emergent complexity. Here again, some have thought that this phenomenon is a proof of indeterminism in nature, something akin to magic. I found this chapter highly informative, because it explains how the development and behavior of organisms emerges from "simple constituent parts having simple local interactions, all without centralized authority....These systems have characteristics that exist only at the emergent level—a single neuron cannot have traits related to circuitry—and whose behavior can be predicted without having to resort to reductive knowledge about the component parts....Not only does this explain emergent complexity in our brains, but our nervous systems use some of the same tricks used by the likes of individual proteins, ant colonies, and slime molds. All without magic." In this area, Sapolsky is especially insightful, because he understands how biological systems actually work – and this is not at all the way that most people think about them. He concludes that both chaos theory and emergent systems are consistent with a deterministic world.

These chapters are followed by the chapter "Does Your Free Will Just Emerge." Sapolsky concludes that free will does not emerge for the following reasons:

a. Because of the lessons of chaoticism—you can't just follow convention and say that two things are the same, when they are different, and in a way that matters, regardless of how seemingly miniscule that difference; unpredictable doesn't mean undetermined.

b. Even if a system is emergent, that doesn't mean it can choose to do whatever it wants; it is still made up of and constrained by its own constituent parts, with all their mortal limits and foibles.

c. Emergent systems can't make the bricks that built them stop being brick-ish.

In Chapters 9 and 10, the subject changes to quantum indeterminacy. This is the same topic discussed by Sabine Hossenfelder in Existential Physics. Physics is one of Sapolsky's weaker areas, but he also makes a compelling argument that random events at the subatomic level have nothing to do with free will, which is similar to Hossenfelder's view. He concludes:

Quantum indeterminacy is beyond strange, and in the legendary words of physics god Richard Feynman, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

It is perfectly plausible, maybe even inevitable, that there will be quantum effects on how things like ions interact with the likes of ion channels or receptors in the nervous system.

However, there is no evidence that those sorts of quantum effects bubble up enough to alter behavior, and most experts think that it is actually impossible—quantum strangeness is not that strange, and the quantum effects are washed away amid the decohering warm, wet noise of the brain as one scales up.

Even if quantum indeterminacy did bubble up all the way to behavior, there is the fatal problem that all it would produce is randomness. Do you really want to claim that the free will for which you deserve punishment or reward is based on randomness?

The supposed ways by which we can harness, filter, stir up, or mess with the randomness enough to produce free will seem pretty unconvincing. If determined indeterminism is a valid building block for free will, then taking an improv acting class is a valid building block for, à la Sartre, believing that we are condemned to be free.

I still have several chapters to go and should finish up on my next post. Of what I've read so far, I am most impressed by the concept of emergence, with which I was not very familiar previously. In the biological world, this is a far more useful perspective than that of physics. Emergence in nature is something that one can easily pick up intuitively simply by spending time outdoors – which is exactly how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. Emergence is also a good way to understand Vinod Goel's model of the human brain as discussed in Reason and Less. That model takes into consideration the fact that our brains evolved over millions of years and still contain elements from the distant past which are incompatible with reason, because they came into existence long before rationality became a feature of our species.

In some ways, I am coming to see arguments for free will as an unnecessary nuisance. I think that free will is nothing more than a necessary illusion that we maintain in order to believe in the validity of our thinking processes. You might say that we have evolved to believe that we have free will even though we don't. Thus, informed thinkers such as Sapolsky and Hossenfelder are forced to address spurious arguments that unconvincingly link free will to randomness in nature. The idea of free will is probably linked to the idea of rational agency, which is also under attack now. At the moment, both neuroscience and behavioral economics are telling us that we are hardly rational, and to confirm that these days, one need only follow the news.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will I

I finally received this new book by Robert Sapolsky and have read about a third of it so far. That section is largely a restatement of information that was provided in his last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, discussed earlier. Sapolsky looks closely at how the human brain develops and functions neurologically, and in this instance attempts to demonstrate how events prior to and after birth, over which an individual has no control, determine their behavior in various situations. At this stage in my readings, this was rather obvious to me, as was the idea that free will does not exist in a meaningful sense. In later chapters, he writes about the implications of these ideas for legal systems, which may expose their inadequacies by showing how individuals may have little control over their own behavior. 

As before, I am not a fan of Sapolsky's writing style. He often strains to sound un-academic and inserts too many frivolous footnotes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I think that he makes the material more difficult to absorb than it has to be. For example, I think that both Daniel Kahneman and Vinod Goel make the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain a little more understandable than he does, though they offer somewhat simplified models. Also, Sapolsky sometimes brings up specific research only to dismiss it a few pages later. He does this with the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that when a person makes a choice, their brain makes it before they are aware of it. That research has been claimed by some to demonstrate that people do not have free will. Sapolsky takes about twenty pages discussing this only to conclude that Libet's study is irrelevant to the topic of free will because it doesn't establish intent.

One section that I found more useful was his discussion of the effects of collectivist cultures versus individualistic cultures on individual behavior. Neuroimaging studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex activates differently in people from East Asian cultures from people in Western cultures. East Asians are activated equally by pictures of their mothers and pictures of themselves, whereas Westerners are activated more by pictures of themselves. East Asians are also more active in emotional regulation and understanding other people's perspectives than Westerners, who exhibit more emotional intensity, self-reference and capacity for strong emotional disgust or empathy.

In general, collectivistic-culture individuals prefer and excel at context-dependent cognitive tasks, while it's context-independent tasks for individual-culture folks....

East Asian collectivism is generally thought to arise from the communal work demands of floodplain rice farming. 

It appears that recent Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have been more independent than their population in general and self-selected to emigrate to the U.S. This type of self-selection can ultimately affect local gene pools, making them more collectivist or more individualistic.

Sapolsky's perspective on free will and determinism is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I usually read about determinism in terms of physics and astronomy. At this stage, Darwinism encapsulates not just organisms, but the entire universe. Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and galactic clusters all evolve, and the question is whether this is all predictable. Currently it appears that there are still random quantum events at the subatomic level, but I don't think that the existence of those events necessarily rules out rigid determinism. To me, this means that every event, at least since the Big Bang, was destined to occur. That may or may not prove to be the case, but I don't think at this point that we have the right tools to know the answer. On a much smaller scale, it is of some practical value to understand how human behavior originates. That information is essential for developing appropriate laws, social systems and governments. As I've been saying for several years, my ideal would be to develop a human-compatible program that manages the Earth's biosphere for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, due to the complexity of such an operation, AI would have to play a major role. I would argue that the traditional democratic republics now in place globally can safely be described as obsolete in light of the psychological research findings of the last few years. 

I will probably make at least two more posts on this book.

Friday, October 13, 2023


I am still adjusting to my new neighborhood. Actually, in some respects I prefer it to Middlebury. I advocated Middlebury initially partly because I thought that it would provide enough activities to satisfy my ex-companion. It didn't. Without her, I have less use for the town. It doesn't help that she must have blanketed her friends there with negative PR about me. I still buy food at the Middlebury co-op, which only means that I go there once a week. I also plan to attend events at the college periodically. My doctors, dentist and optometrist are still there. I may also visit my old neighborhood occasionally and talk to my former neighbors. I did recently and spoke to Jim Douglas about the Mead Chapel controversy, with which he is involved. The college changed the name because the original Mead was associated with the eugenics movement, and Mead's descendants asked him to help, so he sued the college to change it back. Eugenics was a popular idea locally when Mead was alive, and I agree that his family should not bear the brunt of it now, as his involvement was peripheral. I also spoke to my former next-door neighbor, Fred. He mowed the lawn for my ex-companion after I left, and the house has since been sold. I had tipped him off about her psychiatric state, and he said that he noticed that some days she was friendly and other days cold. One of her paradoxes is that, though she always wants friends, she is unable to sustain friendships when she sees people regularly. She does best with people who live thousands of miles away with whom she has no daily contact. In my view, her self-professed empathy doesn't stand up to scrutiny, because she can't hide her coldness for extended periods. She is most comfortable with people who agree with her or follow her instructions. I intentionally appeased her while I knew her, but that wasn't enough.

When I lived in Middlebury, I got most of my exercise just by going outside and walking on Munger Street. That got boring after a few years, and I had other walks a short drive away. I have just worked out a walking routine for Brandon. Although there are several good trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area nearby, most of them take several hours. For exercise purposes, I prefer thirty-to-sixty-minute walks, and there aren't many near this house. Pittsford, Vermont is only eight miles south of here and has a trail system that fits my requirements. Pittsford is even more rural than Brandon, with a population of about three thousand. It sits between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Mountains, so the scenery is a little more exciting than the Champlain Valley, which is mostly flat. I am in somewhat better physical condition now than I was a few months ago. My shoulder tendinitis has diminished, and I can now do pushups again. I have also been doing more hiking recently and am in very good cardiovascular condition.

Having lived in the Midwest for about forty years, I am always impressed by the local history here and the people who have lived in this area. In Middlebury, there was John Deere, who later moved to Illinois. Also, Charlie Munger, the current vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a descendant of the Mungers who had farms on Munger Street. The electric motor was invented by Thomas Davenport in Brandon. Pittsford had two forts during the American Revolution. The current residents in this part of Vermont seem relatively competent and resourceful compared to those in comparably-sized towns in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Of course, I am still following the news. Now that the writers' strike is over, there is some good late-night comedy again, though I don't watch most of it. This seems like a bizarre historical period, particularly because of the Trump phenomenon. Previous generations would find Trump's popularity incomprehensible. Besides the fact that he obviously has little knowledge of or interest in governing, he has amassed a criminal record for which he has never been held accountable purely as a result of his lifelong abuse of the legal system. If Trump were reelected, anarchy or civil war couldn't be ruled out. One can only ask what drug his supporters are on. And then there is the Hamas-Israel war. As I wrote some time ago, the Israeli Jews would have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had moved to Nevada instead of Israel. There are currently more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel. Furthermore, the Israelis are demonstrating that they are no better than Hamas by copying the murder of innocent civilians. Genetically, I have ancestors from the Levant: they must have left hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Mouse Report

Since moving to Vermont in 2011, I've spent a fair amount of time blocking mouse entrances to houses. In Middlebury, mice began to appear just after we moved in. I would find their entrances and block them off, and then, after about two years, they would find new ones. At the sixth year, I seem to have found the last ones, and there were no mice in the house after that. This can be informative about both mouse behavior and house construction. One can use a quasi-scientific method to determine exactly what the mice are doing and what the weak points of a house are as far as mice are concerned. To block the mice, I have used steel wool, caulk, cement and anti-mouse foam, depending on the circumstances.

The Middlebury house was built in 1798 and had a 1974 addition. The mice came in through the old foundation and underneath the foundation of the addition. When those were all blocked, they climbed up wires to the roof and found new openings. The Brandon house has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1976 on a seventeen-acre lot next to another house. A couple bought the entire property in 1983 and lived in the other house. The wife's mother lived in this house as an in-law house, a popular arrangement in Vermont. In about 1999, the couple got divorced. The property was subdivided into three lots, and this one is five acres. They built a new foundation for the in-law house here, cleared a path through the woods, and then moved the house a few hundred yards to the new foundation. The divorcée moved here and the other two lots were sold.

Because this house has a poured concrete foundation with no drains, mice can't get in directly through the basement. They were getting in above-ground and finding their way to the basement and the walls above. There is very little attic space here, and it is filled with solid foam insulation. The outer walls and part of the basement ceiling are insulated with pink fiberglass insulation. The mice have found paths through the attic but don't seem to live there. They seem to prefer the fiberglass and make nests in it. Initially, most of the mice went down to the basement and were caught in humane traps and released. Generally, the mice could not get into the living parts of the house except through a gap under the basement door, which I blocked. One immature mouse did get through a small opening in a wall upstairs and entered the bathtub, where it became trapped. I took it outside.

Since I moved into the house, I have blocked a total of about six mouse entrances. It is difficult to know the exact number, but since those six holes were blocked, no new mice have entered the house. The remaining mice traveled around the house, and at first they went to the basement, where they were trapped. I eventually found and blocked four paths that the mice had been using to get to the basement, and since then there have been no mice in the basement. The closest the mice can get to the outside now is the back porch, which they can reach through an exposed section of attic, which would be difficult to block. So the last few mice were caught on the back porch, and there don't seem to be any more. During this period, some mice occupied a wall in the upstairs bathroom. When the last upstairs mouse had no access to the outside, it also went to the back porch and was caught.

I don't know what the precise conditions were for the previous owner. If she didn't block the basement door, there would have been mice all over the interior of the house, and there is some evidence of that (mouse droppings). The exterminators whom she hired blocked many holes on the exterior and interior of the house, but they appear to have completely missed the main ones actually used by mice. Thus, they eventually placed poison bait throughout the house. I suspect that the previous owner had mice every year that she lived here.  Originally, she kept her garbage in the shed, and that became a mouse habitat. Later, when she added the front porch, she left her garbage in a container out there. Probably as a precaution, she kept no garbage in the house. Deer mice and white-footed mice generally leave houses in the spring and don't return until the fall. Thus, the previous owner strategically put her house on the market in April.

It remains to be seen how successful my de-mousing effort has been here. They will probably continue to try to gain entrance to the house for the next couple of months and try again next fall. They are capable of chewing through screens, so they may attempt to reenter through the back porch. I am keeping an eye out for that. Whatever happens, my future work should be significantly reduced by the work that I've already done.

Mice, as mammals, aren't that different biologically from humans. They seek food and shelter and have babies. Though they don't have nuclear families, some of their behavior mimics it. Although the males have no interest in family life and seek sex with other females, a female with a litter can emit pheromones and make ultrasound calls that induce fathers to help in certain situations.

Sunday, October 1, 2023


The most significant change in my life since June 10, besides the disappearance of William, has been an increase in quietness. I thought that I'd write a little about that, since I find it important. My current house is on a gravel, dead-end road in a town with a population of only about 4129. During the rush hour, I can hear some traffic from another nearby road, and I can hear distant trains, but most of the time it is very quiet, except for an occasional barking dog or a vehicle driving on the gravel road. Also, some of my neighbors shoot guns on weekends. Of course, the men also like to operate heavy equipment, and that can be loud too. The fourth of July was very noisy. But at night, the loudest sound usually comes from barred owls, which sometimes wake me up. It is so quiet during the day that I can hear my digestive system working, and initially I thought that there might be something wrong, but there isn't.

For me, this is an improvement over my previous house, which was on a busier road. There was also quite a lot of noise produced by my co-inhabitant, which I attribute to her personality characteristics. I won't go into that, because that is a topic I'm trying to avoid. However, as an aside, I will mention a theory that I'm currently contemplating: autistic, bipolar people who display introversion may actually be extroverts whose autism interferes with their extroversion. They would prefer highly active social lives but are impaired by autism.

Noise is currently being taken up as a health concern by medical researchers. Particularly in cities, the constant background noise is now thought to produce biological stresses that may induce various diseases. However, in the modern world, the absence of noise itself is thought to induce stress, and there are plug-in background noisemakers to reduce the stress of silence. 

My hearing isn't perfect, and, since 1987, I've had tinnitus, which sounds like a continuous high-pitched tuning fork. Most of the time I don't notice it, but it probably interferes with hearing external high-pitched sounds. Even so, I am sensitive to most sounds, particularly those produced by animals. So, when it was quiet, I heard the cat coming through the cat door and mice in the wall when others didn't. Coyote howls could be loud. In this vein, I think that, as biological entities, we are innately attuned to our environments, and when we block out those sounds with earbuds or noise cancelers, we may be inducing stresses that adversely affect our health. I think that the internet and all of the associated gadgets, along with the social changes caused by social media, have created a kind of cognitive dissonance that may adversely affect our health. So, even though I don't currently have much of a social life, I am probably more in tune with nature than most people and am less likely to become afflicted with the illnesses that hunter-gatherers never experienced before technology altered the human biome. Starting from this concrete base of biological experience, it isn't difficult to see new kinds of dysfunction and illness emerging unpredictably and disrupting the lives of millions of people. 

While a low population density and little noise may have disadvantages in terms of social enrichment, they can facilitate a meditative mental state and unexpected health benefits. I find that the people here in Brandon, though subject to many of the social ills evident elsewhere, are a little more relaxed and at peace with themselves even than the people in Middlebury, which is just up the road but twice the size in terms of population.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


Winter is rapidly approaching here, and I'm already turning on the heat. This house is cooler than the one in Middlebury, because it is at a 200-foot-higher elevation and is surrounded by woods rather than paved roads. I never turned on the air conditioning all summer. I've cleared out a lot of junk from the shed and it now has enough space for both the tractor and a snow blower. I will be buying a very fancy new Honda snow blower, because I didn't like the cheap one that we had in Middlebury. It was poorly designed and cumbersome to operate. I'm not completely finished with mouse-proofing, but have blocked at least four confirmed entrances. In the evening I walk around the outside of the house, and I've seen mice trying to get in. After I blocked the hole on the porch, they started to get in through unsealed openings in the eaves. They prefer ground-level openings, but are good climbers. Since this is a log cabin, they have plenty of traction. There is very little mouse activity in the house currently, and I may be down to the last mouse. The mice aren't making it into the inhabited parts of the house, so they must be finding their food outside. I haven't caught any in the last day, but there is still at least one behind a wall. At the point when the house is well-sealed, the last mice may become trapped inside. There is a one-way mouse exit door in the attic that was installed by exterminators, but I don't think that the mice have figured out how to use it. Eventually they'll be caught in a trap.

I'm doing somewhat better at self-entertainment now. It helps that I'm living alone and no longer have to make selections with other people in mind. I recently discovered the early films of Hal Hartley, whom I had never heard of, and enjoyed them a lot. Although he himself is a little dated now, he revived the alienated-male theme in the late 1980's. But, unlike the Marlon Brando and James Dean characters of the 1950's, Hartley's men are very smart and just dislike the life models with which they are expected to conform. I particularly enjoyed "The Unbelievable Truth," which features an ex-con's romance with a high school girl who has just been accepted at Harvard. There is a sort of hyperreality to the script, and the characters express themselves very clearly, warts and all. It comes closer to the family reality that I experienced when I was growing up than what you see in most films. You see family members with distinct personalities expressing themselves clearly. I also enjoyed "The Eight Mountains," which is a new Italian film. This is more specifically about males and their relationships with other males. Two boys meet in the Italian Alps and are separated but meet again as adults. They each have difficult relationships with their fathers. Pietro grows up in Turin and becomes a writer. Bruno prefers the mountains and attempts to live there. Later, Bruno ends up marrying Pietro's girlfriend, but they remain on good terms. Pietro travels to Nepal and meets a woman there. In the end, Bruno's mountain business fails and his wife leaves him. He stays at their cabin in the mountains over the winter and dies there. This is a much more nuanced film than the Hartley ones and explores male-male relationships carefully. The pace is very slow, and I watched it in several viewings. It has been refreshing for me to see depictions of the difficulties that men face. It isn't a popular theme, because men are just supposed to be tough and handle it. But men have emotional lives that can be just as complex as those of women, and the women always seem to drown them out with their self-pity. One other film that I just saw was "Gaslight," with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The story line isn't all that exciting, but the acting is extremely good. The same economic and social evolution that has degraded the arts generally has equally affected film quality for the worse. I guess that there must be some good new independent films, but I don't want to sift through them all. Middlebury has a film festival every year, but I haven't checked it out.

It currently looks as if I will have some good reading material over the next few months, so I'll have things to discuss on the blog. In other respects, my life is relatively static, except I'll be attending my nephew's wedding in Connecticut in a few weeks.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Theories and Models: Understanding and Predicting Societal Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2023


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2023


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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

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

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

—Tu Mu (803-852)

Saturday, July 1, 2023


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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2023


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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2023

One Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Companion Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 12, 2023


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

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

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

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