Sunday, May 21, 2023

One Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Companion Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 12, 2023


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

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

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

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

Friday, April 28, 2023


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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Saturday, April 22, 2023


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VI

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph IV

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2023


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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 3, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph I

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 19, 2023


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2022

If Science is to Save Us

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2022


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Quote of the Day

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

—Laura Riding (from Come, Words, Away)

Friday, October 14, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Garden of Earthly Delights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 3, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 29, 2022


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

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

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

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

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