Saturday, July 13, 2024

Diary

I've officially entered my summer doldrums and don't feel like reading much now. At this moment, I don't have many tasks to complete. The Carson McCullers Memorial Tomato Garden was attacked by deer but survived. This was quite unusual, because deer don't generally like tomato plants. I think that the culprit was an inexperienced fawn. The largest plant, which had germinated on time, was hardly damaged, and is still doing very well. Two of the remaining three were damaged but are growing back quickly. The fourth was badly damaged but is also recovering quickly. I should still end up with a high yield of tomatoes, since they will continue growing until October. As a precaution, I installed chicken wire around each plant.

The remnants of Hurricane Beryl struck Vermont, but the damage wasn't as bad as the storms of last July. There was a lot of rain and some flooding. This is expected to be a severe hurricane season, and theoretically there could be more that reach here this year. The worst damage usually occurs on the other side of the mountains in high terrain. So far, the state has been effective in strengthening the physical infrastructure, so, over time, each successive storm may produce less damage. But some locations are difficult to protect. My house is safe from flooding, because it is elevated well above the nearby rivers. The worst that could happen would be that the road or driveway could wash out, since they're gravel. So far, they've held up well. The road could also be blocked by trees if there were very high winds. Fortunately, by the time hurricanes reach here, they're not windy, just rainy.

I'm still not experiencing much heat here and haven't turned on any air conditioners. I think that the location of the house and the construction materials help. As I mentioned earlier, the woods don't build up heat and cool down quickly in the evening. The house looks like a log cabin, but, more accurately, it is a frame house with log siding. I think that the thermal properties of the logs are somewhat better than those of other sidings. It also helps that the roof has a low profile, hence less sun exposure than most houses. On a typical day, it's in the 60's outside in the morning and gradually heats up to the 80's during the day. By aerating the house by placing a floor fan in a window and opening doors and windows in the morning and evening, the house can generally be kept in the 70's all day by closing up when it gets hot. It gets a little hotter upstairs during the day, but can be cooled down quickly in the evening. I think that if it were 90º+ often, I might have to resort to air conditioning then. The basement is never warmer than 70º.

One of my last projects is keeping mice out of the shed. It is dilapidated and rotten in places, and is surrounded by mouse nests. Last winter they chewed off small pieces of paper towels in the shed, presumably to use in their nests. I think I've got them blocked out at the moment. The shed was very smelly until recently. I just removed the large stash of coyote urine that the former owner kept there, presumably to protect her garden. There are still lingering odors, but that seems to have taken care of most of it.

I've also been making extra trips to Middlebury to find William. The back porch at the house was badly damaged by the storm last winter, and some of the wooden framing for the screens was destroyed. The storm door at the back of the house was also badly damaged. Since there have been no repairs made yet, a cat had been going onto the back porch to sleep in a chair. I went to see it myself, and it wasn't William. However, William looks exactly like the photo that I posted, and I believe that he may be in the vicinity. To expedite matters, I put up "Missing Cat" posters in the neighborhood. I don't know whether anything will come of it, but if it was William and he is still alive, he will probably return to the house again. The current owner will contact me if she sees him.

The wildlife here is quieting down for the season, and the songbirds seem to have finished their mating for the year. Yesterday, at dusk, I saw a large black bear ambling up the road past my house.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Politics

Though politics is not one of my favorite topics, because most political discussion is frivolous and this is a serious blog, I do feel obliged to write about it occasionally. To some extent, I have used political thinking as an example of human cognitive limitations, with evidence practically slapping us in the face on a daily basis. In my view, you have to allow that it might be possible for well-informed, rational voters to make viable political decisions, but you hardly have to observe the actual political process to see that rationality plays almost no role in the decisions of most voters. There have been two recent trends in news coverage that make politics especially frustrating. On the one hand, there are news outlets that are purely commercial and take no journalistic responsibility for their news content, and, on the other hand, there are unbiased news outlets that take their neutrality to such extremes that they never report on the strengths and weaknesses of individual political candidates; they prefer to limit their political discussions to poll results. I might add that the "neutral" news outlets usually have corporate and other sponsors, and can therefore hardly be considered completely neutral. With the backdrop of uncontrolled misinformation and intentional disinformation campaigns on the internet, false information has been given a significant advantage and now has a disproportional effect on election outcomes. 

I'll comment on Donald Trump first, because this is probably the best example in American political history of the news media dropping the ball. There was some basis for Trump's presidential victory in 2016. He appeared to be a successful businessman and had the showmanship of a television personality, though, if you had dug a little deeper, even then there was plenty of evidence of his various deficiencies.  He benefited from the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate: she was uncharismatic, and her political background connected her to decades of ineffective Democrats who had essentially ignored the growing economic pressures on the middle class. Furthermore, she had lived in such a rarefied, wealthy liberal environment that she did not anticipate the effect of her "basket of deplorables" phrase, which permanently alienated many voters. By 2016, class consciousness was firming up, and she was tone-deaf. Also, this is still a sexist country, and that worked against her. Even so, I think that Clinton could easily have won if the news media had provided appropriate reportage on Trump. In 2016, it was already well known that Trump was politically ignorant, probably didn't even care about politics, was generally a business failure, habitually abused women, and had conspicuous psychiatric disorders related to narcissism. There were many signs of his habitual dishonesty by 2016.

While the 2016 presidential election result may have been a fluke, there is no excuse for those in the news media today who shy away from critiquing Trump or discussing what might be expected if he is reelected. Since Trump isn't really very smart, has little interest in political ideology, and is probably already very tired of politics, he might not do much damage. On the other hand, he has a strong incentive to pardon himself of any potential criminal charges, though the Supreme Court has just relieved him of some of that responsibility. At the moment, the greatest threat of a second Trump presidency could be the empowerment of his wealthy backers, who, through the Heritage Foundation, are supporting the conversion of the U.S. government to a conservative autocracy. This one is really crazy, because a vote for Trump could be a vote for a Russian-style voting system, not to mention the end of free speech. Was this part of our American heritage?

The other major presidential candidate now, Joe Biden, is also problematic, but his weaknesses are fairly obvious, even though the liberal news media, which is now openly anti-Trump, has been somewhat protective of Biden. My view is that Biden was already showing signs of senility during the 2020 presidential primary. I voted for Elizabeth Warren in the primary, but was forced to vote for Biden in the election, with Trump as the alternative. Biden does have a lot going for him, and I think that his extensive political experience has been a benefit to the country. I think that future historians may rank him fairly highly compared to most recent presidents. But he has also been a bit lucky, following the worst president in American history. Furthermore, just from watching him speak, it is obvious that he lacks the mental flexibility to properly address the varied and complex issues currently facing the country. He should be thinking at least twice as fast as he now does in public. My impression is that he tries to speak quickly in public in order to seem sharp, but that this backfires because his brain can't keep up with his mouth. In my view, the Democratic Party has been mismanaged for years, and it should have been developing a replacement four years ago. We are now looking at another Ruth Bader Ginsburg age-denial event that could result in an unnecessary step backwards for the country. Biden may still win if he remains a candidate, but the risks are so great that I don't think that the decision should be left to a senile old man.

There are still several months left until the presidential election, and more positive events could occur by then. I was pleased by the sudden ouster of the Conservatives in the U.K., following the ouster of Boris Johnson. With the design of the American political system, the same could not occur here, but there are ways in which the Democratic Party could increase its appeal.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Diary

When I moved to Brandon on June 10, 2023, I brought William, my cat, with me. He was so agitated that he kept running around the house for hours and jumped on my bed periodically, waking me up. I was extremely fatigued at that point and eventually let him out. He immediately ran into the woods and had not been seen since. No one saw him locally. Apparently, he returned to his former home in Middlebury, about fifteen miles away. However, although the new owner of the house had been alerted and saw him several months ago, she wasn't sure that it was William and did not contact me until June 28, 2024. It sounds as if he had returned there by last winter. From the photograph, which was taken from the back of the Middlebury house, he appears to be functional, but has lost several pounds and may be frail at this point. There is now an active watch for him in that Middlebury neighborhood, and I am hoping that he can be found soon. Since my new house is now in an orderly state, it would be much easier to help William adjust to a new environment.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Silent Spring

I recently read a short piece by Rachel Carson, and she is quite a good writer. Since Silent Spring, which was first published in 1962, is a classic of the environmental movement, and my edition has an afterword by E.O. Wilson, I decided to give it a go. The book is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, who said "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." That was a rather prophetic statement, I think.

Carson provides many examples of biological research that confirm that idea, but the main ones concern the widespread dispensation of insecticides and herbicides. She thinks that Dutch elm disease may have been caused by their clustering in towns as decorative trees, and that this led to fungal infections that traveled everywhere. The fungi were spread by native beetles, which carried the fungi into the trees. That blocks circulation within the trees, and they usually die as a result. The initial response was to spray the trees with DDT, which killed the beetles. However, the unintended consequence was the killing of much of the wildlife in the vicinity of the trees. The title comes from the fact that so many songbirds were killed in some towns that very few returned the following spring. Dutch elm disease is still quite common today, but there is less effort to eradicate it. The accepted practice now is to circulate a fungicide within the trees. One of the reasons why DDT wasn't effective was that the fungus remained in the dead trees, and they weren't disposed of properly. To this day, if you drive around Vermont, there are dead slippery elms along roadsides everywhere. But if you go back into the woods, there are healthy elms everywhere. I would guess that the fungi are transported along roadways. Another example is the attempted eradication of fire ants, which were an invasive species that started spreading in the South. The insecticides used to kill them also killed wildlife in the area. Carson doesn't think that fire ants required eradication, because they were merely a nuisance.

Also mentioned are the poisons that were included in household and gardening products. Several different poisons were present in moth killers. Regarding gardening, she says:

As an example of what may happen to a gardener himself, we might look at the case of a physician – an enthusiastic spare-time gardener – who began using DDT and then malathion on his shrubs and lawn, making regular weekly applications. Sometimes he applied the chemicals with a hand spray, sometimes with an attachment to his hose. In doing so, his skin and clothes were often soaked with spray. After about a year of this sort of thing, he suddenly collapsed and was hospitalized. Examination of a biopsy specimen of fat showed an accumulation of 23 parts per million of DDT. There was extensive nerve damage, which the physicians regarded as permanent. As time went on he lost weight, suffered extreme fatigue, and experienced a peculiar muscular weakness, a characteristic effect of malathion. All of these persisting effects were severe enough to make it difficult for the physician to carry on his practice.

Of related interest is the fact that Rachel Carson herself died at the age of fifty-six, less than two years after the publication of Silent Spring, from breast cancer.

Later in the book, Carson discusses some of the underlying failures that caused the inappropriate use of chemicals for extermination. There is a lack of recognition that ecosystems are what actually control species populations, and the disruption of an ecosystem can have many unintended consequences. Reproduction of one species is affected by the populations of other species. Furthermore, species can, and often do, develop resistance to chemicals:

Darwin himself could scarcely have found a better example of the operation of natural selection than is provided by the way the mechanism of resistance operates. Out of an original population, the members of which vary greatly in qualities of structure, behavior, or physiology, it is the "tough" insects that survive chemical attack. Spraying kills off the weaklings. The only survivors are insects that have some inherent quality that allows them to escape harm. These are the parents of the new generation, which, by simple inheritance, possesses all the qualities of "toughness" inherent in its forebears.

One method of insect control of which Carson does approve is the release of sterile individuals into a population.

At various points in the book, Carson implicates the chemical industry for the aggressive use of dangerous chemicals. One way that they do this is by sponsoring research at universities that supports their business models. These days, they are probably just as likely to fund the campaigns of politicians who support their interests. The corporatization of the federal government is continuing as I write, with the Supreme Court ruling against the regulatory authority of government agencies. I am often amazed to watch decisions regarding complex biological processes being turned over to scientifically illiterate people who wear silly robes.

In the afterword, E.O. Wilson sums up some of the effects of this book. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, and the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

Since Silent Spring's publication the United States has come to understand that it is a major player in the deterioration of the global environment. Rachel Carson, who was a quick learner, would be ahead of us in understanding the devastating effects everywhere of still-rocketing population growth combined with consumption of natural resources, the thinning of the ozone layer, global warming, the collapse of marine fisheries, and, less directly through foreign trade, the decimation of tropical forests and mass extinction of species. She would regret, I am sure, the sorry example the United States set with its enormous per capita appropriation of productive land around the world for its consumption – ten times that of developing countries.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Diary

It has been a cool spring here but is about to get very hot. I'm going to see if I can get by without turning on an air conditioner, because I dislike the noise and the quality of the cold air. The basement here is very large, dry and relatively clean, and I could practically live there if I had to. It is quite deep and always cool. I'm completely caught up on my household chores and have even more time to spare than usual. The Carson McCullers Memorial Tomato Garden has been planted, and the plants are growing well. The soil here drains much better than I thought it would, and it is possible that the clay layer is thin. In Middlebury, the soil had a lot of clay near the surface but was sandy underneath. The soil here drains so quickly that I'm watering several times a day. The eastern phoebe has left its nest, but it is possible that it will have another clutch in the same nest. The robin may also have another clutch, but they don't generally reuse nests. I haven't actually seen any baby birds, so I don't know how successful their breeding has been. The bird calls change, and I think the "phoebe" call may be a mating call. Like many humans, phoebes and robins don't have lifelong partners. Male phoebes get kicked out when the females have eggs, whereas male robins assist the females with nest building and feeding offspring. Not many bird species have lifelong pairings. Since humans engage in serial monogamy, their behavior may be similar. Because of increased longevity, once human females outlive their fertility, some of them lose their interest in males. Apparently, large mammals aren't that different from birds.

For a change of pace, I drove up to Montpelier today. I like going there because the atmosphere is completely different from that of Middlebury or Brandon. Within a very small area, there is so much street life that you could actually be a street photographer there, like Vivian Maier. I also like to go to the Three Penny Taproom, which has an excellent selection of beers on tap. It was closed last July due to the flooding, and they put a mark on the wall inside to show how high the water rose. Unfortunately, Montpelier's downtown sits right on the Winooski River, and this will happen again. At least the state capitol is slightly elevated and sits on a hillside. So far it hasn't flooded. Montpelier reminds me of a college town in the late 1960's or early 1970's and has a slightly hippyish feel – an extreme rarity these days.

My evening entertainment hasn't been very successful recently. I watched "Barbie" in an effort to keep up with contemporary culture. As with Taylor Swift and other popular artists, I wasn't impressed. At the moment I'm watching "Taxi Driver," which features Robert De Niro in one of his best performances. Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel are also good. I don't find the director, Martin Scorsese, that great, though he certainly "gets" New York City, which is part of my identity.

Begrudgingly and dutifully, I am following the 2024 presidential election. The cogs in the wheels of progress move so slowly that they are painful to watch. The problem, I think, is that the founding fathers did not anticipate that an active criminal could be elected to the presidency or that religious fanatics might be placed on the Supreme Court. In fairness to the founding fathers, the model they used did not allow most of the public to vote. It is possible that if voting rights had been more restrictive, a populist movement may never have provided Trump with sufficient votes in 2016. Unfortunately, though voting rights are associated with the inclusion of minorities, they are also associated with the inclusion of stupid white people who can't tell that Fox News isn't news. I am still waiting for that special moment when "cooler heads prevail." The reason why I dislike democracy is that they may never prevail. It should be obvious to any intelligent person who has been following the news since 2016 – eight years – that Donald Trump is nothing more than an active criminal. If I were Juan Merchan, I would give him the most severe penalty possible and put him in jail immediately. Unfortunately, there is no judge protection program, only because no one as slimy as Donald Trump has ever got this far before. Later, many laws will have to be modified in order to take into account this new slime factor. I still think that Trump won't win, though it remains a possibility.

I recently started a good (old) book but haven't made much progress in it yet.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

I have been reading this book by Bryan Caplan, mainly because I agree with its title, but I was barely able to convince myself to finish it, because I found the contents boring. Caplan is an economist and a professor at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C., and he seems to be a budding policy wonk. As I often say, American academics tend to write poorly, and economists are among the worst. This book is stuffed with charts and data that I don't think are necessary to make his main point, which is very simple: higher education, as it is presently structured, is a waste of money. That is something I've been thinking about for many years, and I've already mentioned it on this blog a few times. 

I sort of fit the data that Caplan brings up. I went to college after high school, because that was what you were supposed to do. No one actually encouraged me to go, and I had a good time and studied whatever I liked for four years. After a brief stint in graduate school, I decided that I would never be a philosophy professor, and I delivered pizzas for a few months. My mother-in-law then sent me the catalog of a local vocational college, and I looked through it. Becoming an electrician, welder or printer seemed attractive, and I gravitated toward printing, since it is associated with books and knowledge. I also have some mechanical abilities and thought that running a printing press might be fun. I started the program in the autumn of 1976 and finished in December, 1977, graduating at the top of my class. I immediately got a job in January, 1978 as the supervisor in a small print shop at Indiana State University. I continued working in the printing industry in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois until I retired in September, 2007.

Caplan's main point is that what is studied in four-year college programs isn't practical, because it only produces a few vocational skills that provide about twenty percent of its value. However, a four-year degree has a "signaling" value that he thinks accounts for about eighty percent of its value. The signaling says that you are probably a more competent and reliable person than someone with a lesser education, and employers accept this.  I agree that this is an inefficient process, and that it would be more effective to use college funding differently. In other respects, Caplan seems primarily to be a simple-minded libertarian who opposes governmental waste. He does not make specific recommendations regarding how current educational spending should be reallocated. Implicitly, he sounds a lot like a Reaganite who wants to put an end to "big government."

Returning to my own story, I did feel that my educational process was unnecessarily haphazard. There was no orderly procedure at any point regarding what I ought to consider doing. I was not unusual, because, as Caplan points out, very few undergraduate majors are directly linked to careers. Of the four undergraduate philosophy majors I knew, two became lawyers, one became an architect and one worked mainly in fast food. A specific problem that I had was that I was always better-educated than my peers and often better-educated than my boss. This occasionally led to work tensions. It didn't help that I got a part-time M.B.A. from a highly-rated program. However, on a personal level, the M.B.A. was beneficial to me because it was the first time that I had ever thought about the capitalist structure of American society, and I began to plan the remainder of my career and retirement when I was thirty-six.

In other respects, as an intellectual work, based on my extended readings, I think that Caplan's book is a complete failure. He is aware that some people have genetic advantages with respect to their academic success, but he never explores this fact. Also, though he seems to be aware of behavioral economics, his thinking in this book more closely resembles the obsolete "rational agent" model of economics. More significantly, he is myopic about the future of work. A lot of social turmoil is emerging now, I think, due to automation. This is a problem that isn't going to go away, and I think that the solution will eventually have to be basic income – probably another waste of money as far as many libertarians are concerned. Although Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, seems to have been forgotten after the initial fanfare, the only realistic solution is probably going to be a reversal of the wealth distribution that he critiqued. Currently, several billionaires are rallying around Donald Trump because they like things the way they are. 

On a more subjective level, I reject Caplan's approach because I don't really identify with capitalism. Having been steeped for years in the works of E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky, I'm coming out as a hunter-gatherer. Typically, hunter-gatherers had no formal educations and were never paid wages. Furthermore, I think that all of the useless books that I've read over the years have enriched me personally, and my aesthetic sense is more important to me than my bank account. So far, I've only worked for about forty-three percent of my life, and I'm hoping to get that down to thirty-three. Twenty-two years to go!

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Quote of the Day

I walk this exact route through my suburb of Flemington every morning. It's not beautiful or meaningful to anyone but me.

I barge out my front gate, under plane trees in which magpies sometimes warble. I cross the railway bridge, turn east at the house with the huge fig tree, then north again, past the brick garage and its inexplicably prolific gardenia bush. Nothing much to report till I reach the witch's house with the iron lace veranda and the hedge of dark pink rose bushes that no one's pruned for years. Every day I think their disgraceful neglect of those roses entitles me to pinch some on the way back. But I know I won't because my walk is a circle and I won't pass them again till tomorrow.

I cut through the booze warehouse car park and dash across the big road to the Bikram yoga school, then dive into the street with the weird antique shop on the corner. Good houses in a row, Californian bungalows. Here, where the street drops downhill to the hockey fields and the concreted creek bed, I once saw a fox go strolling home at dawn. Another day a horrible man cursed me out and kicked my dog in the ribs.

Where the shared pedestrian and cycle track runs alongside the freeway wall I turn south again and pick up speed. Riders heading for the city zoom up behind me with sharp little warning chimes, and gusts of air as they pass. I'm breathing hard and feeling powerful. Here comes the old Chinese couple, the dead-faced woman and the husband with his desperate smile. A tradesman in hi-vis stands in the middle of the football oval, reaches for the sky and bows three times.

At the primary school I turn right and tackle the steepest hill. Halfway up, panting, nearly home, I cop the first lemony whiffs of my reward: pittosporum blossom. Its perfume floats between the houses from an invisible tree.

If I can scoop up that McDonald's rubbish from the playground gate and shove it into the bin without breaking stride, I'll have earned myself a lucky day. All this, with its seasonal variations, takes up 40 minutes of what remains of my life, in my undistinguished and beloved Melbourne suburb.


—Helen Garner, Forty Minutes for the Remains of My Life, in Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Diary

At this time last year, I hadn't yet purchased the house, so I'm now seeing other plants blooming in the yard. There were daffodils, tulips, pink and red azaleas, a forsythia and a purple lilac. Also, the fruit trees all bloomed. Currently, there are white and purple irises and a Syringa meyeri lilac – the same as the pink one in Middlebury, with the fantastic fragrance. Pink roses are currently emerging. Still to come are peonies and a white hydrangea. Although my tomato seeds weren't stored properly, I got them to germinate by putting them on top of a ladder that was placed in a south-facing skylight. The night temperatures here are still only 45º, and I'll plant them outside when it warms up a little more.

There wasn't much mouse activity in the house over the winter, and I recently found what may be their last entrances. There were two small holes at the edge of the roof at the front of the house that couldn't be seen from the ground. In order to find all of their entrances, I literally had to look at every square inch of the exterior of the house close-up. 

The other main house project was to improve the quality of the well water. When I moved in, the water left brown stains from iron and was acidic, eating up the pipes. It was also slightly hard. With a new filtration system, that has all been fixed. This house, apparently, is above igneous rocks that contain a lot of iron. The igneous rocks don't create hard water, but they can cause acidity. The Middlebury house, apparently, was above sedimentary rocks, such as limestone, which neutralize acids but produce harder water. There was also iron in the Middlebury water, but not as much. There must be lots of iron here, because they used to mine it locally. Other than this, I'm down to minor projects now. I just reinforced one of the handrails at the back of the house, because two of the three posts had completely rusted through at the bottom. I've set up an anchored telescope tripod in the yard. I had thought that the old mount was fixed, but it is still behaving erratically, so I decided to order a new one. When that arrives, I'll have an active observatory again.

Since I'm alone for so much of the time, I spend more time observing wildlife. The robin on the roof raised its chicks, keeping a watchful eye on me. They have all left the nest now, and I never even got a glimpse of the chicks. The Eastern phoebe currently seems to have chicks and goes to great trouble to conceal them. I'm also watching the hummingbirds. This morning one fed at the feeder on the front porch and then went to check out the red taillight on the car parked nearby. My hiking here is a little different, because I'm spending more time in wetlands. I recently saw a field full of bobolinks, which were distracting me from their nest locations. I also passed through a bog and checked out Emily Dickinson's frogs. I think that Dickinson must also have spent a lot of time outdoors alone.

I'm not sure what to read next and will try to figure out something soon. Most of my favorite authors are dead, and that now includes E.O. Wilson. Reading about Bread Loaf and Yaddo in the McCullers biography was sort of interesting to me. I recently drove over to see Robert Frost's old house. He probably would have been fun to know, but I don't think that his poems are that great. It sounds as if he and his family had major psychiatric issues, but I'm not interested in exploring them. It appears to me that he had a certain savvy and was able to develop a persona as a poet that would appeal to the American public. Here is a guy who grew up in San Francisco, studied poetry in England, and then suddenly became a New England farmer. I don't think that he knew anything about farming. He reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan, who sort of made up a Dust Bowl/antiwar/civil rights persona that didn't match his life experience at all but was, at the time, a great idea for self-promotion. In private, Dylan may have been laughing all the way to Malibu. Frost, I think, was probably less disingenuous, and wrote from the heart – which can actually be quite boring. But they both seem to have succeeded at branding.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!


—Emily Dickinson

Saturday, May 18, 2024

A Clarification on Randomness and Determinism

On some of my posts, I've referred to evolutionary and other processes as random. It is possible that that is correct in a strict sense, but in keeping with my general view of determinism using Robert Sapolsky's model for biological processes, I think that some further explanation is in order. A problem arises because we may not always be able to explain the exact events that cause specific speciation. On a basic Darwinian level of explanation, we can now see how Homo sapiens outcompeted other Homo species. Since we may never know exactly how this was inevitable, and, given the nature of the language that we use to describe biological processes, "random" is probably an acceptable term for describing that evolutionary event. However, if you look at this process through the lens of physics, randomness may apply only to subatomic particles that have no effect on macro biological processes. It is possible that we may never be able to understand exactly why there was never any chance that we would not come into existence.

I think that, because of our cognitive limitations, evolution may always appear directionless, i.e., undetermined. So, going forward, it may be necessary for scientists to discuss evolutionary events with explicit warnings regarding human cognitive limitations in their understanding of complex biological processes over long periods of time. Because of this development, my use of the term "random" may apply primarily to subatomic events. In reference to biological and evolutionary events, "random" may simply mean that we lack the capacity to describe them deterministically. So, when I say "random," that may just mean "we have no way of knowing."

This is a fairly significant distinction. Our languages themselves came about as evolutionary adaptations, so the context for their applicability is somewhat limited and is primarily related to the survival of our ancestors. As I've said, there was no evolutionary advantage to understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe. It is possible that this is one area in which AI may eventually surpass human cognition.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Biographicology

I've been reading biographies for a while now and thought I'd write a little about their inconsistencies. On average, I still think that a good biography is likely to be better than a good memoir, mainly because biographers usually attempt to impose some standard of objectivity on their work, whereas memoirists may tend to distort facts either through a lack of knowledge or intentional deception. To some extent, biographers can become academic specialists who follow disciplined procedures for discussing the details of a person's life. In contrast, a memoirist may set the bar much lower, literally writing off the top of his or her head without resorting to fact-checking or exploring alternate explanations. In my case, I may occasionally prefer a well-written memoir to a poorly written biography, mainly for aesthetic reasons, but generally I think that a biography, if it isn't hagiographic, is more likely to be accurate and complete.

While the bar may be set very low for memoirs, it may also be quite low for biographies. In both cases, the expectations of the publisher can place an upper limit on quality. If a book is a bestseller, readers like me are likely to find it deficient. For example, I don't think I'll ever read a book by or about Prince Harry or Britney Spears. Most of the ones I read aren't popular at all. For example, the one I just read on Carson McCullers, which I thought was good, was nowhere near becoming a bestseller. I should also mention that reviews are often poor indicators of the quality of a book. A review tends to have more to do with the group an author is associated with and the group the reviewer is associated with, and objectivity and thoroughness are often secondary requirements. Also, the time constraints for writing a review often result in inadequate analyses. I saw some awful reviews of Determined, by Robert Sapolsky, which I think were based on out-group rejection of Sapolsky's worldview, though I think Sapolsky is on the right track. Reviews are rarely taken seriously, so the standards are generally quite low for their credibility.

As my biographical reading increases, I am on the lookout for the strengths and weaknesses of the biographer and particularly which biases a biographer may harbor. For example, while I enjoyed Maurice Cranston's biography of Rousseau, because he writes well, I think that he adored Rousseau and refrained from critiquing his behavior adequately. For me, there was an inadequate analysis of Rousseau's social interactions, and I gradually pieced together a better picture by reading separately about Mme. de Warens, Diderot, Thérèse Levasseur, Sophie d'Houdetot and Voltaire. This isn't entirely Cranston's fault, because he was by nature conservative and wrote before psychological characteristics appeared regularly in biographies. I think that biographies have generally become more psychologically nuanced only in the last few years. For example, the standard biography for George Eliot for many years, by Gordon Haight, which was published in 1968, is pretty awful compared to some of the more recent ones.

I am also beginning to notice more subtle prejudices in biographers that aren't always readily apparent. I read Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk, when it was originally published in 1990. It is a favorable portrayal, and because I was a Wittgenstein fan at the time, I liked it. In the intervening years, my opinion of Wittgenstein has generally declined, and, from a biographical perspective, that biography completely misses the boat in terms of psychological analysis. More recently, I read Monk's two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. While I think that Monk generally gave more credit to Russell for his work in mathematical logic than he actually deserved, he was merciless in his revelations about Russell's personal life. It would be difficult to think positively about Russell after reading those books. From what I've read since then, Monk does not appear to be what I would consider neutral on Wittgenstein and Russell. In Monk's account of Wittgenstein, he is an eccentric genius and the greatest philosopher of his century. Russell, on the other hand, is presented as a forerunner to Alan Turing, whose works led to modern computers. It may be that Turing was integral to the development of modern computers, but I don't think that Monk established a convincing connection between Turing and Russell. The feeling I had after reading the Russell biography was that he was really creepy and made no significant intellectual contributions. Separately, I now think that Monk got Wittgenstein wrong, and, because he favored Wittgenstein, that biography is sanitized. After Russell and Wittgenstein broke permanently in the 1920's, Wittgenstein developed a cult following in Cambridge and Russell left academia almost entirely. I have recently been trying to piece together why Wittgenstein became so popular. It would appear that many philosophers, later including Monk, came to dislike "scientism." While Russell had no scientific credentials, he was firmly on the science bandwagon. I now think that Wittgenstein appealed to some students because he was open to mysticism, religion and the arts far more than the analytic philosophers then popular in England and Vienna.

In Monk's biography of Russell, the word "schizophrenia" comes up repeatedly. Monk shows the progression of schizophrenia in five generations of Russell's family. In contrast, I think that the Wittgenstein biography barely scratches the surface on his personality. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wittgenstein was almost definitely on the autism spectrum. He did manage to attract a few followers (also with ASD?), but many people disliked him. Freeman Dyson thought poorly of him, and he frequently alienated people. Wittgenstein's sexuality isn't really cleared up by Monk either. While I don't follow current philosophical discourse, I think that Wittgenstein has probably disappeared into academic obscurity. The same happened to Russell, but, in his case, Monk goes to great trouble to document it. I can't really blame Monk for having prejudices – they are a fact of life – but it is still worth pointing out how they can skew biographical works. It is also worth noting that the Wittgenstein biography was Monk's first – a labor of love – but, by the time he got around to Russell, he was a professional biographer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Are Private Universities Corporate Proxies?

Dating back to the 1960's, I've always had difficulty understanding campus protest. I mean that not in the sense of not understanding the concerns of the protesters, which are usually readily apparent, but in the sense of the logic of campus protest itself. My cognitive dissonance usually occurs more with private colleges and universities than with public ones. In the U.S., public universities are readily funded by state governments, and most of their students are residents of those particular states, so there is a discernible connection between the protestors and the local political process. Since this is supposed to be a democratic country, it makes more sense that protesters would express political views at a government-administered institution than at a private one. Of course, not all protests are political in nature, and I suppose that non-political protests can make sense anywhere.

The strange thing to me is that, for example, if a student at a private university disagrees with U.S. funding of the Israeli military that results in the killing and displacement of thousands of innocent Gaza civilians, there is an established process for addressing that concern: they could contact their congressional representative or senator or protest outside Congress. Their university has little or no connection to the relevant government proceedings, and its students do not necessarily have any say in university policies. Moreover, private universities are not funded by taxpayers, and the processes by which they fund themselves are not necessarily democratic. One might argue that private colleges and universities are "communities" that can build their own consensus through internal discussion or protest, but that view doesn't have legal footing: students are not true stakeholders and ultimately have no authority in how their private college or university is administered.

The situation with the Vietnam War was quite different from the Hamas-Israel War, because the U.S. itself was the aggressor. In that instance, general political objection to the war seemed reasonable. These days, college and university protests often call for the ending of purchase of stocks of the companies that are located in the country of the principal offenders. For example, colleges and universities were discouraged from buying South African stocks during apartheid and, more recently, the stocks of large oil companies that contribute to global warming. Now the protesters are calling for the divestment of Israeli stocks. While, theoretically, that can be construed as a suitable disincentive for Israel to continue the war, I don't consider that methodology appropriate for a couple of reasons. 

First, in the case of private colleges and universities, investment choices are beyond the purview of their students. The students are essentially customers. Their college or university may be around for hundreds of years, and its administrators have to figure out how to fund it well after the current students have departed. The protesting students can be seen as behaving like the customers of a traditional delicatessen who collectively march in and demand that the owners immediately change the menu to include only vegan and gluten-free items. The fact is that the customers don't own the store, and if they dislike the menu, no one is forcing them to buy food there. Also, more subtly, private colleges and universities in the U.S. are actually participating in the capitalist ecosystem of the country. In order to ensure the health of their institution, it is in their interest to produce graduates who go on to become wealthy and leave them bequests in their wills. The small colleges that didn't follow that model are dropping like flies now. I find it hard to take seriously the "values" of most private colleges and universities. Even when there are stated educational goals, their importance is purely symbolic when you consider the actual tasks required to sustain a private college or university over time. Most of them are devoted to the development of future donors purely as a matter of survival. That is why they coddle their alumni. The richer their alumni, the better.

Second, as a personal matter, I dislike the divestment argument because it trivializes the underlying conceptual framework of what is actually occurring. In this instance, I would rather hear a discussion of the errors made by Netanyahu and the long-term consequences of his behavior. The news media are missing in action as usual and aren't advocating a specific actionable plan. The protestors also seem to be sleepwalking through history and are unable to provide a coherent description of the situation. What, exactly, is the explanatory value of the word "hate"? With better journalism and more effective protest, the Gaza conflict might already have ended. Moreover, the current crisis has been brewing for decades, with the underlying problems festering for many years.

One of my corollaries here is that student protestors seem to be in denial of the fact that they and their universities inhabit a corporation-dominated world.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Diary

I did finish reading Burn Book, by Kara Swisher, but I don't think that it merits much discussion. Swisher has covered the tech industry in the U.S. as a journalist since the 1990's, and while the book does contain some autobiographical elements, it primarily describes her career in journalism, and, in particular, her experiences with various tech billionaires over the years. Her assessments seemed relatively accurate to me, given what little I know about them, but this doesn't come across as a profound analysis. For example, she noticed that Mark Zuckerberg has an anxiety disorder, and that he needed the assistance that he got from Sheryl Sandberg, but that was the extent of her commentary. Obviously, Bill Gates is autistic, but she doesn't come out and say it. She liked Steve Jobs mainly because she empathized with his childhood trauma: he had been adopted, and, in her case, her father had died while she was young. She says almost nothing about the way in which Jobs differed from other tech billionaires: he was motivated by aesthetic sensibilities more than technology. For unknown reasons, she never mentions either Steve Wozniak or Paul Allen. Because she worked with Rupert Murdoch, she knows him well and has nothing positive to say about him, as you might expect. She also got to know Elon Musk fairly well, but I didn't find her discussion of him particularly illuminating. What it comes down to is that most of the successful people in the tech industry are highly competitive, ruthless males – the sort of people with whom I wouldn't want to associate. For the most part, she presents herself as a responsible, hard-hitting journalist who also happens to be a lesbian, and who has won respect for her reporting. Obviously, although this is supposed to be a revealing book, neither Swisher nor Simon & Schuster wanted to be sued simultaneously by several billionaires. Without the risk of lawsuits, it could have been much more informative. For what it is, it isn't bad, but you also have to allow for the fact that it was written to be a bestseller – which it is. Swisher is capitalizing on her exposure to the tech billionaires.

On April 19 I visited my old neighborhood again. Dorothy Douglas was outside tending her lawn. She had bruises around her eyes and a bandage over her nose. She said that she fell down in town, hit the sidewalk and broke her nose. Although she still seems energetic, I think she has health problems. She is never talkative, so I didn't stay long. I stopped by the house of Fred and his wife, Darlyn, again. There were more windstorms over the winter, but my new neighborhood wasn't affected much. However, there were extremely high winds in Fred's neighborhood and more wind damage than ever. One of Fred's sheds was blown into the woods. Many trees behind his house were blown over. At my former home next door, the blue spruce in the front yard was blown down, and it looked as if a window had cracked. Fred said that they had roof repairs from wind damage. Along South Munger Street and Quarry Road, several trees were blown over or had their tops blown off. According to Fred, the winds at the nearby airport were over ninety miles per hour.

I am well under way in my preparations for warmer weather. I've created a vegetable bed behind the back porch for tomatoes. The soil looked pretty bad – lots of clay – so I added a layer of gardening soil and compost to the top. I'm having a hard time getting my old tomato seeds to germinate. Usually they come up quickly, but so far I have only one. If at least three more don't come up, I will buy plants from a nursery. A change in seed storage may have caused the problem. My old telescope is set up, and it had an electrical malfunction that now seems to be fixed. The house has several overhangs on the roof that attract birds. There is now a robin nest high up near the top and an eastern phoebe nest above the screen door on the back porch. They could be returning birds, because there was an eastern phoebe nest last year and a robin nest in a shrub next to the house. I'm no longer feeding the birds now, so there aren't as many goldfinches around, but I will be putting up my hummingbird feeder soon. I think I heard one the other day – they can be quite loud. I now regularly feed stale bread pieces to the squirrels, and they seem to like it.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Diary

Spring is here in earnest, and, consequently, I'm going through my annual behavioral changes. The winter was very warm – it barely got down to zero just once – and there was little snow until the very end. I got one foot one day and seven inches a few days later. The new snow blower came with a couple of defects, but overall it is easier to operate than the old one. I've already put it away for the year, and the tractor is ready to go. The yard here is completely different from the one in Middlebury. It was planned and maintained by one person, the woman from whom I bought the property, from 2000 to 2023. It is flat, with well-maintained borders and beds. Since there are more rocks and boulders here than in Middlebury, the perimeter of the yard is a row of rocks, and one large boulder was left in a bed. The flower beds have fruit trees and perennials, which are coming up now. They all have borders and are mulched. Overall, the yard is much easier to maintain than the one in Middlebury, which was not flat and had been haphazardly maintained by various owners since 1800. The owners from 1978 to 1997 had hired a yard service and put in beds, which were not maintained after 1997. When I moved there, the beds and yard were a mess. Here, it only took me a couple of hours to clean up the beds from last year, and the lawn takes half the time to mow as the one in Middlebury. I don't really care about perennials but will at least keep the beds tidy-looking. The previous owner, like many women, was a gardening fanatic. She lived here alone, and apparently that was her main hobby.

I am generally returning to my old routines, which were completely disrupted a year ago. I've planted tomato seeds indoors and will create a small bed for about four plants behind the house. Because the yard was carefully planned, there are no trees near the house, and there is plenty of sunlight, though the temperatures may be a little lower due to the slight elevation increase. I am also planning to create a telescope installation in the yard with my remaining telescope by placing an anchor underneath it to prevent wind damage. The woods surrounding the house limit the field of view somewhat, but overall it isn't much different from the house in Middlebury. The recent eclipse was visible from the yard, but wasn't total.

My hiking activity is curtailed, as it usually is at this time of year. One of the trails that I go on in Pittsford is a wetland along Otter Creek, and it periodically is impassible due to flooding. I still go on trails near Middlebury, such as Belden Falls and the Robert Frost trail in Ripton. The Abbey Pond trail is closed due to storm damage last July. It looks as if there may be more storms this year.

Having now lived in this house for almost a year, it appears that my expenses will be manageable. In Middlebury, I paid $800 per month in rent, which is three times my current property tax. I also paid half the utilities; the utilities here are about half what they were in Middlebury, so there is no change there. Also, though I don't particularly like investing in real estate, the value of the property is going up. So, overall, my financial picture hasn't changed much, other than a decrease in liquid assets.

Predictably, for seasonal reasons, I'm not very excited about reading at the moment, but I will start another book soon. I have no biographies in mind at the moment. Biographies are my favorite reading currently, because they seem to be one of the few ways that one can find out about other people. I think that for most people alive now, they either don't reveal much about themselves or have unremarkable inner lives, or both. The impression I have is that social media tends to trivialize everyone who engages in it. Thus, for example, although I never met Carson McCullers, who qualifies as interesting, I think that my understanding of her is roughly the equivalent of spending about twenty years with someone in real time now.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: IV

I've finished this book, and did actually find it quite interesting. Ordinarily, I have difficulty relating to the thinking process of those who engage in the arts and am more comfortable with "serious" thinkers, however you define that. Possibly, because McCullers was not that distant from me in time and spent much of her life in Nyack, New York, not that far from where I lived, during the last ten years of her life, I have more socio-cultural connection with her than I do with most writers. I'll just sum up the remainder of the book and make a few comments. 

Bébé had recovered and moved back to Nyack, but died in June, 1955, when McCullers was thirty-eight. At that time, McCullers was working on a stage adaptation of The Square Root of Wonderful with Arnold Saint-Subber, who was gay. They developed a very close relationship, but he eventually moved off the project. That story is autobiographical and contains elements of both McCullers and Reeves, but is was a flop as a play on Broadway in 1957. McCullers' health was poor, and she came under the psychiatric care of Mary Mercer, who lived in Nyack, in 1958, when she was working on the novel Clock Without Hands. By this time, McCullers was becoming a regular at hospitals, and she finally received a medical explanation of her condition. It was thought that a strep throat infection during her childhood had led to rheumatic heart fever, which in turn had caused her strokes. There was no evidence that the strokes had caused brain damage. However, she was partially paralyzed on her left side and received corrective surgery. 

Mary Mercer initially did a Freudian analysis of McCullers, but it doesn't seem to have produced any insights. Nevertheless, McCullers chose to keep records of her psychotherapy sessions for possible future use. Mercer became a very close friend and, as an M.D., gradually took charge of her other medical needs. Since McCullers was becoming more physically disabled, she also became more dependent on her African-American housekeeper, Ida Reeder, who had earlier worked for her mother.

In 1959, Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa, one of McCullers' favorite books, visited the U.S. McCullers had an opportunity to meet her and discovered that Dinesen had specifically wanted to meet her, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe. She had already met Cummings and McCullers, and Hemingway wasn't available at the time. Since McCullers was acquainted with Monroe, she arranged a lunch at the Nyack house with Dinesen and Monroe, which went well.

In 1961, McCullers finished her first novel since 1946, Clock Without Hands, which became a bestseller and generally received positive reviews. In 1962 and 1963, she worked with Edward Albee on a stage adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café. In 1962, she resumed contact with Mary Tucker, her childhood piano teacher. She was invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the U.K. to speak at a symposium on "Sex in Literature" and flew there in September. In 1966, she met John Huston, who was working on the film adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye. They hit it off very well, and he invited her to his estate in Ireland. She flew there, on a stretcher, in April, 1967, with Ida to assist her.

At this stage, McCullers was almost a complete invalid. She had undergone several surgeries, including a radical mastectomy, and was scheduled for a leg amputation. After she returned home, she had a massive stroke on her right side on August 15 and died on September 29 at the age of fifty. 

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a happy story, but, actually, McCullers was very happy most of the time. She was quite strong-willed and often got what she wanted. While she could become a major drain on people, she was able to develop a few of the close, intense relationships that she craved. There were elements of selfishness in this, but this particular biography doesn't emphasize that fact. Possibly, her early dynamics with Bébé set the stage for the rest of her life. She was a first child who remained in the limelight, and her siblings could never compete with her. Furthermore, Bébé may have projected her own aspirations onto her, influencing her decision to pursue a life in the arts. She never developed close relationships with her siblings, and there were elements of manipulation throughout her adult life. One of her closest friends, Tennessee Williams, went to great lengths assisting her but remained cautious, because he knew that she could be a bottomless pit of neediness. It seems that her primary desire as an adult may have been to develop a close relationship with an older female – like Bébé – and be bathed in uncritical love. Ironically, men seem to have been more cooperative than women. Reeves and Tennessee supported her more than all of the women except Mary Mercer, who helped her partly in her role as a doctor when she was an invalid. McCullers usually made a good first impression, but many seem to have been able to sense her intense neediness. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal made catty jokes about her behind her back. 

Some of the negatives about McCullers' life don't seem to be her fault. If strep throat as a child led to her illnesses as an adult, she can't be blamed for that. However, a case could be made that she took little responsibility for her health as an adult. The effects of smoking and drinking were not well understood in those days, but generally she seems to have done whatever she preferred regardless. It probably would have been difficult for her to break out of that lifestyle, because her family had a long history of alcoholism. She also would have been better off if she had never developed a relationship with Reeves. Despite his charm, he seems to have been psychologically problematic. He was confused about his sexuality, drank too much and took drugs. He was never able to make viable career decisions and stick with them. Possibly he suffered from PTSD. Not much information is provided about his family background, but it is probably not a coincidence that both of his brothers and his sister also committed suicide. I feel some sympathy for Reeves, because, in certain respects, he was McCullers' principal psychological support during much of her life, and she does not obviously seem to have reciprocated or felt any responsibility for his early demise.

Overall, I found McCullers to be intelligent and creative, and that her life was quite dramatic. Given her background, I think that she was relatively knowledgeable about literature and classical music. She also had fairly good taste, with some qualifications. Where I find her disappointing is that she didn't seem to have much interest in increasing her understanding of the world. For example, when she traveled to Europe she didn't explore the local cultures. Often she would just stay in a hotel room or with literary acquaintances. I don't know if she ever went to a museum. She seemed to focus almost exclusively on vocational activities and making new friends. So I'm ending up with a slightly disappointed, Sapolskyesque feeling: stuff happens.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: III

After her 1947 strokes, McCullers increasingly required assistance from others to go about her daily life. She was partially paralyzed on her left side and needed a cane to walk. Thereafter, she was unable to do much physical work and needed someone to help her bathe. She, Reeves and her sister, Rita, all recognized that they had an alcohol problem, and Reeves and Rita joined AA. McCullers didn't join and pretended to decrease her alcohol intake but actually didn't. When in Nyack, her mother generally took care of her. Reeves got another job and an apartment in Greenwich Village, with a walk-up that was too demanding for her. She continued to develop crushes on women and became interested in Jane Bowles, the wife of Paul Bowles, the better-known of the two.

In 1949, McCullers, with encouragement from Tennessee, participated in a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, which became a Broadway hit in 1950. She also became pregnant in 1949 and had a medical abortion. The success of her play and the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories boosted her literary reputation and income. She became attracted to Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, who was a few years older than her. Their writings had nothing in common, but she knew that Bowen had affairs with women. When she visited Bowen in Ireland later in 1950, nothing came of it, and she left for Paris, where she met Reeves. Bowen did have affairs with women but apparently was not attracted to McCullers. I was surprised to learn that later she probably had an affair with Eudora Welty, who was not generally known to engage in such things.

In Paris, McCullers and Reeves drank too much and decided to get more involved with AA. Later in 1950, McCullers met Marty Mann, who had been instrumental in the formation of AA. She was also a lesbian and had a brief affair with McCullers. McCullers at this point was circulating in the highest literary circles and met the English poet, Edith Sitwell, at a party at Tennessee's apartment on East 58th Street in New York City.

In 1951, though Reeves was still drinking too much, he and McCullers traveled to London. Tennessee thought that McCullers needed psychiatric help and found her a psychoanalyst, Kathryn Cohen. Just to show the kind of people that McCullers associated with, here is Dearborn's description of Cohen:

Kathryn was an elegant woman with an interesting past, just the sort who drew Carson. Born in New York City in 1905, before the age of forty she was a successful actress and a performer with the Ziegfeld Follies. She married Dennis Cohen in the late 1930's, and when war broke out, she enrolled at Cambridge to study medicine, graduating with a degree in genetics. Regardless, she became a psychoanalyst with St. George's Hospital, an eminent teaching hospital then located in Hyde Park. She often had affairs with women. The writer Patricia Highsmith was most recently her lover, and Cresset Press [operated by her husband] went on to become the British publisher of Highsmith's psychological thrillers.

Cohen and McCullers did bond. McCullers became a patient at St. George's Hospital, and later was moved to a home in Sussex. But by the end of October, 1951, McCullers abandoned her treatment and moved to the Ritz Hotel in London. Her treatment was a failure according to Cohen. McCullers returned to Nyack.

In January, 1952, McCullers and Reeves sailed to Italy. In May, they drove to Paris. They ended up buying a house in Bachivillers, a small town an hour away. They liked the house, and McCullers loved gardening – especially growing tomatoes. However, she returned briefly to the U.S. because Bébé had had an accident. At that point, McCullers owned the Nyack house and Bébé moved back to Georgia. Shortly after this, McCullers was offered the job of working on a screenplay for a film directed by Vittorio De Sica and produced by David O. Selznick in Rome. She returned to Rome and worked on the screenplay, but Selznick didn't like it and she was fired.

The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the U.S. in 1950, and in 1952 McCullers was approached with an opportunity to write a stage adaptation. She met Anne's father, Otto Frank, in France, and they hit it off well. However, because of her slow work and other factors beyond her control, the play was eventually given to someone else. At her house in Bachivillers, her relationship with Reeves grew worse. He spent most of the time away in Paris. One day early in 1953, he took her out to a cherry tree in their orchard and proposed that they hang themselves together with the ropes that he had provided. She wasn't interested. In July, he proposed a double suicide again, and she immediately flew back to the U.S. by herself, without packing. On November 18, Reeves committed suicide in Paris, with an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. At that time, McCullers was living in Nyack, and she expressed little reaction to Reeves's death. She spent time with friends in Charleston, South Carolina and then resumed her Yaddo routine.

On my next post I'll wrap up my commentary on this book. It is not pleasant to read, but I do think that it is quite informative. Besides the tragic aspects of McCullers' life, I am finding the discussion of the sexuality of McCullers and her friends surprising. It seems that within the literary milieu of the time, homosexuality was quite common. In the past, I had heard about the men – Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, etc. – but little or nothing about the women. Even today, if you look up Eudora Welty, who has been dead for years, on Wikipedia, there is no reference to that aspect of her relationship with Elizabeth Bowen. Possibly this difference between men and women was that the women felt that they had to hide their behavior in order to avoid damaging their careers. This is why I prefer reading biographies to Wikipedia entries. Many of the descriptions of people that you read in Wikipedia articles are not much better than cleaned-up résumés written by the person discussed. Another question that arises for me is the nature of female sexuality. Obviously McCullers and many of the women in her life had a fluid sense of their sexuality. Terms such as "LGBTQ" may address some of the ambiguity, but, judging from the past, many people were able to get along fine without them. To use McCullers as an example, she may have been "LBQ." How useful is that information?

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life II

McCullers had a poor health history while growing up, and this continued for the remainder of her life. Generally, she had lung problems, and it seems that she had rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. In 1941, while visiting her family in Columbus, she apparently had a stroke. At that time, Reflections in a Golden Eye was published, and reviewers generally didn't like it much. She recovered and returned to New York, where she met David Diamond, a composer, and took to him immediately. However, Diamond was gay and was actually attracted to Reeves; apparently Diamond and Reeves slept together one night. Shortly after this, McCullers began to attend the Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Reeves was working elsewhere and began cashing checks addressed to McCullers without telling her. This went on for quite a while and eventually caused her to divorce him. At Yaddo, McCullers socialized wildly and decided that she loved Katherine Anne Porter. Unfortunately, Porter was homophobic and completely rejected her, preferring to spend her time with Eudora Welty, who was also there. After this, she traveled to Columbus to write. In 1942 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and decided to return to Yaddo. In December, she learned that Annemarie Schwarzenbach had died in Switzerland following a bicycle accident, and, predictably, this was extremely upsetting to her. In January, 1943, she moved back to the Brooklyn house. In June, she returned to Yaddo. The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in Harper's Bazaar in August. Reeves joined the Army again and became a lieutenant, serving in Europe; via letters, he attempted to win her back.

On August 1, McCullers' father, Lamar, Sr., who had been in poor health – probably due to alcoholism – died, presumably by suicide. He was fifty-five. At this point, Bébé decided to move closer to McCullers and her other daughter, Rita, who had become an editor at Mademoiselle. In time, she bought a Victorian house in Nyack, New York, north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River. Nyack was a slightly trendy location for various people in the arts then. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Reeves returned, injured, from Europe. He attempted to start a new career, and he and McCullers decided to remarry. They lived part-time in the Nyack house. In January, 1946, The Member of the Wedding was published in Harper's Bazaar. It received poor reviews, most notable from Edmund Wilson, the leading literary critic at the time, in the New Yorker. This was devastating to McCullers, and she didn't publish another novel for fifteen years. She made friends with fellow Southerners Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and vacationed with Tennessee and his boyfriend on Nantucket. In November, 1946, McCullers and Reeves went on an extended trip to France.

In France, they lived luxuriously, and they also traveled to Rome. They had many connections, and McCullers' books were already popular in France. Their social conduct was appalling on some occasions. Besides both of them drinking excessively, Reeves had sex with a daughter of one of their friends. He was also thought to be taking drugs. McCullers had her second stroke in the summer of 1947. Later, she had a kidney infection and a third stroke. They flew back to the U.S. on November 30, and McCullers received medical treatment.

To a reader of this book, McCullers' life following the publication of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter seems to be a disaster-in-progress. In just seven years, she became dissolute, and Reeves was even worse. At this point, I'm not sure how much of this is the result of their psychiatric conditions, how much of it is the result of their inexperience and lack of preparation, and how much of it is the result of a complex literary environment during and after World War II. I think that this was a difficult period for people in the arts to navigate, though others, such as Tennessee Williams, seem to have managed well. It all goes downhill from here for McCullers, but I still like the Southern elements of her fiction, because, even with their limitations, there is a genuine interpersonal warmth between characters that doesn't generally occur elsewhere in American fiction. That was a long time ago, and warmth between characters now seems to be a thing of the past.

I should have two more posts on this book.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life I

I've started this new biography by Mary V. Dearborn. On the whole, Carson McCullers is not an ideal subject for me, because I'm not terribly excited to read more of her works. However, I do think that she was one of the best American writers of fiction, and if her health had been better and she had lived more than just fifty years, she may have produced more good fiction. For me, this book is turning out to be a further study in the history of American literary fiction. Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940, when she was twenty-three. That year, she moved to Greenwich Village, and, therefore, McCullers' life intersects with other people I've discussed. Around that time, Carl and Alice Zuckmayer were fleeing Europe with the commencement of World War II, and then, after the war, people like Anatole Broyard and Denise Levertov moved to Greenwich Village. As of 1940, several European literary people were already in New York City. McCullers' life is also an early example of young people descending on New York City in order to become writers, and some of the same patterns are still in place. So far, I am finding Dearborn's writing to be quite good, because she specifically addresses the psychological questions that occur to me, unlike most of the biographers I've been reading.

McCullers, née Lula Carson Smith, was born into a middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her father was a jeweler, and she had a younger brother and sister. Her mother, who went by the name Bébé, had an interest in the arts, and although their income was modest, her house in some ways resembled a salon. The family also habitually engaged in drinking, which later became one of McCullers' habits. Bébé identified artistic talent in McCullers, who dropped her first name at an early age, and encouraged her to play music. While she was growing up, McCullers generally dressed like a male, though, as far as I've read, she does not seem to have had transgender feelings and was more likely a lesbian. Her behavior during her youth seems to have been primarily asexual. She did turn out to be quite musically talented and considered becoming a composer or a concert pianist. For four years, she received high-quality lessons from Mary Tucker, an extremely proficient teacher who was the wife of an officer at nearby Fort Benning. They attended a Rachmaninoff concert while he was touring in Georgia, and there was talk of McCullers going to the Julliard School on a full scholarship. Then, suddenly, Tucker's husband was transferred to Maryland. McCullers, who had been extremely close to Mary, felt betrayed and began saying that she wanted to be a writer, not a pianist. There is some speculation about the nature of McCullers and Mary's relationship.

While she was growing up, McCullers was an average student and took no interest in the local schools. After she finished high school at the age of seventeen in 1934, she made several solo trips to New York City, and she enrolled in creating writing classes at Columbia, and, later, at New York University. On one of her returns home, she met, through a mutual friend, James Reeves McCullers, Jr., called "Reeves," who was four years older than her and a soldier stationed at Fort Benning. He was a charming and intelligent person who was also interested in the arts, and they developed a strong relationship based on their discussions, though physical attraction did not occur immediately. They married in 1937, when she was twenty and he had been discharged from the army. They moved a few times with Reeves's jobs, and when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published, they moved to Greenwich Village.

The novel was an instant hit, and McCullers immediately drew the attention of the American literary community. George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar took an interest in her and soon put her in touch with Erika and Klaus Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. W.H. Auden and Erika Mann were gay, and they had married in order to permit her to escape Germany. Through Erika, McCullers met Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the daughter of a wealthy Swiss businessman, who was a lesbian and dressed like a man. McCullers was instantly smitten with her. That year, both McCullers and Eudora Welty were invited to Bread Loaf, at Middlebury College, and Welty disliked McCullers, perhaps because of her drinking habits. They were also in competition with each other as Southern writers. McCullers met W.H. Auden there. After Bread Loaf, Davis organized a project in which several writers would live together in a rental house in Brooklyn. Before long, McCullers was living there with Davis, Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten and Richard Wright. They lived in separate rooms but ate communally and paid rent. The idea was that they could do their work there, and Reeves was generally left out, staying in the Greenwich Village apartment.

As far as I've read, McCullers has had an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with Schwarzenbach, who then attempts suicide; the latter has psychiatric issues, along with a morphine addiction, and she is hospitalized. As Schwarzenbach points out to McCullers, she is not sophisticated enough to be part of her group. She is nearly ten years older than McCullers, and their backgrounds are completely different. I agree with this assessment, and so does Dearborn. I am not looking forward to the remainder of the book, because it already reminds me of Katherine Mansfield, who was about twenty-nine years older than McCullers and went through a similar experience when she moved to London and attempted to become a writer. For all of Bébé's motherly intentions, she could not have known what McCullers would get into with her artistic encouragement.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Diary

I'm getting off to a very slow start for reading this March and hope to pick up my pace a little. I have a new biography of Carson McCullers and will also be getting a new book on the tech industry by Kara Swisher. I'm not sure how much I'll like the McCullers biography. I enjoyed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but haven't read anything else my her. The biography, so far, is better-written than the Thoreau biography that I recently discussed. I had given up on American fiction but did try several other female writers, including Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. McCullers, I think, was somewhat more interesting than this group. I heard Kara Swisher in a radio interview today, and she recounted how tech CEOs behaved submissively around Donald Trump. This confirms what I've thought for some time: they're great at being tech billionaires, but not necessarily at lots of other things. In my view, they are little different from previous generations of ultra-rich people and primarily like being rich. Once they become rich, they instinctively become risk-averse and focus on maintaining or increasing their personal wealth. From their point of view, they have little to gain by speaking out against Trump, for several reasons. A Trump presidency is a guarantee of government chaos, and for large corporations that means that regulations won't become more cumbersome and corporate taxes will remain low. It also means that income taxes for wealthy people will remain relatively low, and there won't be a wealth tax. In certain respects, they are spineless and cowardly, because, even though they know that Trump is a stupid, potentially dangerous buffoon, they think it's not their responsibility to deal with him. They are well aware that they already have billions of dollars, and they can spend that on gigantic luxury Armageddon bunkers and yachts in competition with each other. In some of their minds, space colonization is a great idea: life on earth may already be in a death spiral, so why waste money on it? The point is that, like all humans, the range of their skills is limited. In their little capitalist bubble, they have always been "the smartest guy in the room," and they would like to keep things that way. No doubt, their feeble mammalian brains would be exposed for what they were if they attempted to move out of their comfort zone.

Last night, for a change of pace, I attended a concert of Voces8, an English a cappella group, at Middlebury College. Their performance was definitely world-class, but their repertoire included a few crowd-pleasers that didn't appeal to me. I liked their Monteverdi madrigals, and their rendition of the classic Miserere Mei, Deus, by Gregorio Allegri, was excellent. Also relevant to me, some years ago I learned that just seeing and hearing English people has a calming effect on me. Although I've now lived in the U.S. for sixty-seven years, my brain is still English and thinks that I'm surrounded by heathens. The concert was sold out, and most of the audience consisted of sixty-year-old-plus Middlebury faculty. I've come to find their chatter a little tiresome after twelve years here. Another irritant for me is always the acoustics in Robison Hall. After having been to Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia a few times, Robison Hall sounds no better than a high school gymnasium. The sound is always muddy no matter where you sit.

I am gradually de-Middleburying myself, because I increasingly feel a reduced connection to the town. I've dropped my subscription to the Addison County Independent and have subscribed to the Brandon Reporter. Brandon is in Rutland County, and I now spend nearly all of my time here. Although I may check in occasionally on my former Middlebury neighbors, to some extent I no longer want to spend much time there. Addison County is much wealthier per capita than Rutland County, largely because of the college, and I generally find that wealthy people are boring and like to show off. I'm not sure how much I have in common with the people in Brandon, but they don't seem to get on my nerves as much.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

This biography of Edward O. Wilson, by Richard Rhodes, was published in 2021, just before Wilson died at the age of ninety-two. I was reluctant to read it initially, because it is short and was probably timed to coincide with Wilson's death. The book itself does supply an adequate account of Wilson's life and sums up his work reasonably well. However, since I have already read seven of Wilson's books, this one didn't add much to my knowledge. Because Wilson was one of the most significant biologists to follow Charles Darwin, I think that a more complete biography may appear within the next few decades.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Neither of his parents attended college, but his father had reasonably good jobs as an auditor of rural electrification programs and as an accountant. His assignments required periodic moves. One of the major shortcomings of this book is that Wilson grew up in what I think was a highly dysfunctional household, and this fact isn't specifically examined. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was seven. That year, he had an accident in which his fishing bait struck his right eye and damaged it. The wound wasn't treated properly at the time, and he later became blind in that eye. This was significant, because he was already spending time outdoors observing small objects such as ants.

From an early age, Wilson was exceptionally industrious. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father, who remarried. His mother moved away and also remarried. He became an Eagle Scout. Because of his father's moves, he attended several different schools, and he skipped a year. His birth parents supplied financial support for college, though they were not wealthy. At the University of Alabama, he completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in four years and then went to graduate school. Eventually he transferred to Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. At Harvard, the atmosphere was highly competitive, but he received a teaching position there and stayed for the remainder of his career. One of his colleagues was James Watson, author of The Double Helix and co-discoverer of DNA, who was dismissive of field biologists like Wilson. Wilson was initially somewhat dismissive of genetics, which he called "reductionist." However, he became more interested in genetics when William Hamilton published his theory of kin selection. 

Wilson's research interests changed over time, which you can see in the titles of his main books: The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; The Ants; The Diversity of Life; Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Social Conquest of Earth; and Half-Earth

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, became extremely controversial in 1975, when it was published. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which prompted a group called the Sociobiology Study Group to submit a letter of protest titled "Against Sociobiology." That group included two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. They were ideologically Marxists and became a model for later politically-correct groups that automatically reject theories that present deterministic models for human behavior, which they immediately link to racism and eugenics. In 1978, at a symposium, when Wilson was about to speak, protesters interrupted, and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. Wilson was not psychologically prepared to be the victim of protests such as this, and he disliked this period in his career. I think that Wilson did tend to favor deterministic models, which, after all, is what scientists generally do, and, coming from the South, may have internalized some racial stereotypes, but the protest against him was unfair, because he certainly had no racist agenda and was shocked by this treatment. This was probably a cautionary lesson to later biologists who chose to adopt deterministic models – Robert Sapolsky, for instance – and may explain some of the obliqueness of their writings. In my view, the New York Review of Books permanently tarnished its intellectual reputation by publishing a purely ideological criticism of Wilson that made life difficult for him for several years, even when his ideas were clearly more tenable than those presented by his critics.

Wilson later had run-ins with Richard Dawkins, after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins, following the arguments of William Hamilton, advocated a position in which evolution is driven by the multiplication of genes rather than organisms or species. From his work on ants and his observations of humans, Wilson advocated eusociality as a driving force in evolution. It is not entirely clear who won this argument – they may both be wrong – but eusociality is not currently seen as a suitable explanation for evolution in general. First of all, there are very few eusocial species, and one would expect far more of them if that were a driving force. However, it is clear that the eusocial characteristics of ants permitted them to become dominant species. Similarly, it is clear that human cooperation permitted humans to survive when all of the other Homo species perished. Also, humans are the only primates that are flourishing now. I think that the "grand theory" model in science has become obsolete. To a certain extent, it is the result of pointless competition among scientists: everyone wants to be the next Darwin or the next Einstein. I think that recent scientific findings indicate that, while the physical world may behave according to a set of rules, those rules, if they exist, are probably too complex for human understanding. Every language that we use, including mathematics, exists as a product of human evolution, and is ultimately not suited to answering fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Language is best suited to activities such as exchanging information, finding food, escaping enemies, building bridges and engaging in cooperation. In order to survive as a species, you don't have to understand the universe. Furthermore, even if we wanted to, recent findings indicate that humans are not fundamentally rational.

The main thing that I think is missing from this book is a meaningful discussion of Wilson's personal life. His father served in World War I, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was forty-eight. This sounded familiar to me, because my father served in World War II, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was fifty. This behavior is now routinely referred to as PTSD, yet Rhodes has nothing to say about it. Near the end of the book, he recounts interviews that Wilson had with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Wilson said that he enjoyed being alone very much, and, more tellingly I think, said:

I want to feel that I'm in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one's reach, renewing, extending, innovating.

I don't have enough information to say this with much certainty, but it seems possible that Wilson's unstable childhood caused him to compulsively seek control for the rest of his life.  Rhodes says almost nothing about Wilson's adult personal life. It sounds as if Wilson did not pursue women at all until he arrived at Harvard. Once there, he seems to have dated only one woman, Irene Kelley, who did not have a college degree and worked in the Harvard admissions office. They married in 1955. She did not have any children, and they adopted a daughter, Catherine, about whom Rhodes says almost nothing. Irene died shortly before Wilson in 2021. So, to a certain extent, this book is opaque regarding Wilson's inner life.