Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thomas Piketty II

I'm slowly working my way through Capital and will make a few more comments. What has interested me the most so far is Piketty's account of the economic conditions under which people have lived over very long historical periods. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, wealth was based mainly on land ownership, there was little economic growth or inflation, and people lived to about age forty. Since 1700, the value of agricultural land has plummeted as a percent of national income. Foreign capital owned by Britain and France peaked around 1900 and crashed starting around 1914. Domestic capital, i.e. financial assets and the value of businesses, declined up to World War I but was offset by increases in foreign capital. Then the two World Wars devastated the world economy. From that time onward, foreign capital and agricultural land have been insignificant in value, domestic capital (as a percent of national income) has returned to 1700's levels, and housing has skyrocketed to become the largest component of national wealth in Britain and France.

Piketty's analysis is highly detailed, and the above is just one small part of it. He seems to be moving in a direction that will show that the Industrial Revolution was a one-time event that is unlikely to be replicated, and that a peak of wealth inequality occurred just before World War I, corresponding with the Belle Epoque in France. This seems like an appropriate benchmark to me, because I have long seen that period in France as a flowering in the arts that could never have occurred without phenomenal wealth. Somehow the Eiffel Tower, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, modern art, Proust, Debussy and countless other artists emerged during that period. Reading Proust, it is obvious that his contemporaries were swimming in money.

One of Piketty's theses is that wealth would have continued to accumulate at the top, and inequality would have continued to increase were it not for the World Wars, which inadvertently reduced wealth inequality. He thinks that, even though the world economy has been significantly restructured since the wars, wealth has resumed accumulation at the top, returning us to a state of increasing inequality. Furthermore, although he has not gone into detail as far as I have read, most of the economic growth since the wars was a natural rebound that occurred regardless of economic strategy. Europe, for example, recovered with strong central governments, while the U.S. thinks it recovered by emphasizing entrepreneurial activity in the private sector. Thus, Piketty seems to have an underlying theme saying that America's free enterprise dogma has little support in economic history. I believe that later in the book his recommendation will be to address this problem by instituting higher taxation on wealth.

I find it refreshing to read Piketty, because he is not a one-dimensional economist. For example, he cites the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen to show how differently people thought about meeting their living expenses in the early 19th century compared to now. To some extent, the variation in income from land was negligible and inflation did not exist, so it was much simpler to judge a person's financial status in those days. The economic structure of society was far more stable. Piketty seems to have a breadth of knowledge that makes most American economists look like narrow academic specialists and a far cry from genuine public intellectuals. Over the last few years I have come to dislike Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz for their inability to create an economic narrative that would effectively demolish the absurd and self-serving narrative that has been successfully advanced by American conservatives for more than thirty years.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thomas Piketty I

For many years I've had an interest in investing, which sprang from my desire to retire. I would have retired at age 30 if I could have afforded to, because I never much liked any of my jobs or considered them a meaningful use of time. Investing is related to economics, which did not interest me until recently. As an undergraduate, it seemed to me that the people who studied economics were conventional, unimaginative and materialistic: they were conforming to their parents' expectations and only wanted high-paying jobs when they graduated.

My academic path provided little intersection with economics majors. By nature I'm an empiricist, but I am also interested in aesthetic matters, which meant that I was not a perfect fit for either science or the arts. I ended up majoring in Philosophy, which in many ways is a compromise field that lies somewhere between art and science. Looking back, Philosophy was not a particularly good fit for me either. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that the course offerings at my college were limited. The relevant department was the Department of Philosophy and Religion, and several of its members had received divinity degrees prior to receiving their PhDs. The coverage of continental philosophy in the department was weakened when the one professor specializing in it left for an administrative position elsewhere. In hindsight, I was in a state of ignorance and denial as to my fit with Philosophy. I was exposed to British and American analytic philosophy, which I didn't enjoy much, find relevant to anything or consider to be of much intellectual importance. These days, philosophy departments are fighting to avoid being labeled obsolete, and, given their syllabuses, I'm not surprised.

When I later entered business school (an even worse fit, though I liked some of the courses and completed an MBA), I took two semesters of economics. It was hard for me to relate to the subject, because from the start I noticed that economists made assumptions about the world and proceeded from there even though the assumptions seemed highly dubious. My attention to economics increased in 2004, when I began to manage my mother's assets because of her Alzheimer's disease. For investors, some knowledge of market cycles has become crucial in recent years. My interest heightened after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the start of the Great Recession. I followed Paul Krugman closely and read This Time is Different, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which is the first major empirical study of financial crises. The fact that This Time is Different was published in 2009, after the crisis had begun, and that no comparable studies had ever been made, confirmed to me that economics as practiced in academia has an agenda that is largely disconnected from reality in a manner not entirely unlike that of academic philosophy.

Over the last few years, there has been a constant battle between liberals and conservatives over the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and the appropriate governmental response. I have found this disappointing, because the economists involved rarely cite any convincing studies, and the two camps go on their merry ways without addressing any fundamental issues. Finally we have a significant study, which has just been published in the U.S. It is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. I believe this book has the potential to change the debate for the better by infusing it with empirical data and a theoretical approach that exceeds the limited scope of American economics.

Piketty is a precocious French economist who completed his PhD at age 22 and then taught at M.I.T. However, he became frustrated with the way economics is studied in the U.S. and returned to France after two years:
To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.

The central thesis of Capital is that the rate of return from wealth usually surpasses the rate of return from labor, meaning that the rich usually become richer, gaining ground over the ordinary workers who make up most of the labor force. Simply put, investments provide a higher return than employees can obtain in the form of wages. We are seeing this today especially in the U.S., where the wealthy are becoming exceedingly wealthy and the middle class is just treading water. As obvious as this may be even to a casual observer, it is not a view accepted by many economists, policy makers or politicians. Piketty documents his claims with carefully compiled data covering longer historical periods than have been studied by other economists.

At a glance, this may not sound particularly exciting, but I think it may prove to be the most important publication on policy issues in several decades. Moreover, it seems doubtful that conservatives will be able to quickly whip up a counter-study, since this one took many years to complete and is unlikely to contain serious flaws. My hope, then, is that it will have a positive influence on political discussion and put to rest some of the myths that have been lingering from the Reagan-Thatcher era.

I've only just started to read the book and will probably have more to say about it later.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I finally got around to finishing Frankenstein and can't recommend it. The main interest for me was in comparing the novel to the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, which is how everyone thinks of the Frankenstein monster. The plot is changed dramatically in the film, making the original monster unrecognizable. In the film, the monster is accidentally given a criminal's brain, but not so in the novel. Rather, the monster is curious and intelligent and learns to speak articulately, imploring Frankenstein to help him:
I am thy creature, and I will even be mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather a fallen angel, whom thy drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.

In the novel, Frankenstein makes the monster for no particular reason and immediately abandons it, taking no responsibility for its existence. The first victim of the monster is killed accidentally, Frankenstein continues to rebuff it, and it then becomes vengeful because of Frankenstein's intransigence. I suppose one might argue that this is a parable about man's abandonment by God, but that seems like a stretch. Alternatively, there may be a conscious or unconscious allusion to Mary's half-sister, Fanny, who was abandoned by her American father, Gilbert Imlay. Fanny committed suicide just as Frankenstein was being written. At the end of the novel, the monster plans his suicide. Fanny's suicide note says:
I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as.... 

Mary Shelley was under a lot of pressure to write. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an important figure of the Enlightenment, her father, William Godwin, was a well-known journalist and thinker, and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was one of the best poets ever in the English language. From Mary Shelley's account, this novel was never intended to be great literature, and it should not be treated as such.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reality is Stranger than Fiction

I'm back from my trip, which involved 2700 miles of driving on the Southern route through western Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana to southern Missouri, and would like to record some of my thoughts. There was snow in the yard here when I left, while the redbuds were blooming down south. The lakes in Vermont were still ice-covered when I returned.

One of my interests has always been to know and understand the people and dynamics of families over multiple generations. This is a far more challenging subject than you might expect, because not only do most people not discuss their families in depth, but they also don't know or understand their families as well as you might like. However, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, families have been going through dramatic changes, and I find them to be of greater interest in understanding changing human lives than the individuals of which they are comprised. Without actually making a study of it in which you go out and formally interview people, the only information you get is likely to accrue slowly over many years as you come to learn about your own family and at most the families of a handful of friends.

I have known Greg since college. At the time we weren't friends at all, because he was so obviously dysfunctional. He didn't want to be there, but his parents had forced him to go, partly because they knew that he would need a college education and partly because that was where they had met. He didn't take studying seriously and became a hell-raiser in the dorm where he lived. He became known for his "hawker-catching" contests, in which someone would spit from high up in a stairwell and someone below would attempt to catch it in his mouth. Besides his rowdy behavior and unkempt appearance, he was born without a thumb on his left hand. Somehow, with a lot of pleading, he managed to graduate, and he soon after became a professional baby photographer.

Greg's talents gradually emerged. He got a state job in Missouri and, because of his innate talent at organization, he rose through the ranks and eventually was placed in charge of the state Medicaid program, which had the largest budget in the state. He went on to study at Harvard to enhance his skills. The same talent was demonstrated in his organization of events at his family's farm, where I came to know him better starting in 1977.

The farm is a tract of about 200 acres that was settled in the 1800's and at its peak included at least two houses, a barn and a schoolhouse. Greg's father's father was a mechanic at Coca-Cola in St. Louis and bought it many years ago. He used the property to hold large parties for the union drivers who delivered Coke. He built a dance floor and bused in people to the site. He also seems to have used the farm as a dumping site for various Coke refuse. The grounds have old trailers full of rusted Coke signs, pipes and all sorts of things. Over the years, the farm has been a family retreat for Greg's family. It is mostly overgrown with trees, and all but one building and two outhouses have collapsed.

Greg is the oldest of four children and has three sisters. He seems to be a throwback to his two grandfathers, who both kept shotguns at their bedsides. Greg's father chose to become bookish and took no interest in mechanical objects or hunting, which caused a large, permanent rift between himself and his father. Greg took up the slack by becoming his grandfather's student on all matters related to the farm. As a boy he learned how to do roof repairs and all kinds of maintenance chores. The oldest sister, Chris, is a tomboy in the extreme. She was deeply impressed by her early experiences at the farm and now loves to operate heavy equipment and take care of three horses. When the company that she worked for in Iowa was bought out and she was fired, she moved to the farm and married her Iowa boyfriend, who sells funeral insurance. Chris is a lot like Greg, only she is louder and rowdier and a fanatic about everything she does. In private, Greg bemoans her lack of actual mechanical skill. The next sister, Andrea, also has many masculine characteristics, but, unlike Chris, is gay. Despite being loud and enthusiastic at times, Andrea has a less obvious sensitive side. Her main vocation is that of a visual artist, and she supports herself by delivering mail as a postal worker. Her recent partner, who is ten years older, was diagnosed with dementia and now lives in assisted living. The youngest sister, Hilary, by all appearances comes from a different family. She lives in Philadelphia, takes no interest in the farm and always looks and acts polished. Comparatively speaking, she is an East Coast snob, and her siblings are country bumpkins who just fell off a turnip truck.

There are many paradoxes to be found in Greg's family. Chief among them is their opposing political views. Greg is a solid Democrat and once even considered running for office. Chris and her husband are solid Republicans, and for many years Chris avoided going to the farm when Greg and his friends were there because she perceived them to be too leftist. Andrea, whom you might think of as an obvious Democrat, because she is a gay artist, voted for George W. Bush. Apparently she liked his decisiveness. As for Hilary, I don't know.

Although I'm not at all like Greg or anyone in his family, I do find them interesting. I think that their family provides both a broad panorama of American life and a microscopic look into some of its oddities. In a rather oblique way, this relates to my interest, or lack thereof, in fiction. I think many writers try unsuccessfully to capture the nature of the American experience, and they usually fail miserably. A few years ago, following a recommendation, I read Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which had won several awards. I found nothing compelling about the novel and am surprised that it was popular. It is about a dull minister in Iowa and life in his dull town. Presumably the protagonist's theological musings add a depth for readers who care about such things, but I don't find them to be of any value except as an exercise in seeing how confused people go about solving problems without understanding anything. In contrast, Greg's family story could easily be transformed into a good novel. Fiction writing has the advantage of allowing the author to fill in the gaps of unknowns by making things up that are plausible yet suit the author's whims. I am struck by how bad American fiction must be if there are so few authors writing compelling stories at least as interesting as Greg's family.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Brutality of Life

I recently watched Life in the Undergrowth with David Attenborough and Darwin in the City with Carl Zimmer here. The former, as always with Attenborough, contains beautiful cinematography and interesting information that is spooned out slowly. The latter provides an articulate and stunning presentation of how we directly cause real-time evolution in the animals and plants around us. I found Zimmer more striking, because he shows that Darwinism refers not to remote processes that emerge over long periods, but to nearby processes that are occurring right now. For this post, however, I will concentrate on Attenborough's presentation of the social insects, because it is germane to many aspects of human behavior that interest me.

The social insects, which include wasps, bees, termites and ants, at one time operated as independent individuals. By chance, some adult females began to form collective nests, and this provided an evolutionary advantage which allowed them to leave the nest in search of food while others remained at the nest to fend off intruders that endangered their offspring. This is the basic structure of eusocial behavior: cooperation makes life easier for everyone. Homo sapiens arrived at eusocial behavior through an entirely different path, but the same logic is there, and it can be instructive to examine social insects in search of human parallels.

One thing that I learned is that there are tensions within the nests of social insects, and life there isn't always harmonious. The example I liked best was that of the honeybee. Every spring, a fertilized queen sets out to start a nest. She finds a site, often a hole in the ground, and begins to lay eggs. The queen emits chemicals that cause all of the eggs to become females that do not reach maturity. The nest then becomes a factory where the queen continues to lay eggs and her daughters tend to the eggs, find food and defend the nest. Toward the end of summer, the queen stops emitting the chemicals that control the development of her eggs and offspring. Some of her daughters mature to adulthood, and some males are born. The daughters start to lay their own eggs. Initially, the queen attempts to eat all of the eggs laid by her daughters, but eventually, her mature daughters attack and kill her. The mature daughters that have been fertilized leave the nest seeking shelter for the winter. In the spring, the process starts again.

In some of my posts I've discussed dysfunctional families. My family was dysfunctional while I was growing up, but I think it may have followed a pattern that isn't uncommon. My mother makes a good case study, because she was very much an instinctive and spontaneous person. Moreover, she was uprooted from her original family setting at age 21 when she moved from Greece to England, and then again at age 31 when she moved from England to the U.S., so she did not have the continuous immersion in one culture that would make cultural explanations for her behavior more plausible. As mentioned earlier, she was on the whole a competent parent about until the time that her children reached puberty. From that point onward, she was of little help to any of us, and in fact was often spitefully competitive with my older sister. One might say that her attitude, at an instinctive level, was that she was ready for us to leave the nest and spontaneously lost her interest in child rearing. As stated on a previous post, I was not close to her during my adulthood, and my sisters were often in conflict with her.

When you look at fathers from a eusocial perspective, their interest in raising their offspring can range anywhere from never existing at all to starting strong and declining or ending later. In the case of honeybees and many insects, the only important role the father plays is in the fertilizing of the eggs. I think that you can say that human couples, when they are young, are generally obsessed with mating, and the dominant culture carefully prescribes acceptable conduct in that domain. Culture plays a decisive role in defining how strong instincts that could potentially disrupt society are to be expressed. However, once children reach adulthood, the relationships between parents and children are usually less critical biologically, and cultures often allow greater flexibility from that point onward. If the children are in fact capable of fending for themselves, depending on cultural expectations, a father may push them out of the door, support them through college, or expect them to start taking care of him. There may also be a genetic predisposition encouraging parents to assume the role of grandparents, but I think there is also cultural variation here. Perhaps there is a parallel between male social insects that have performed their function and die and dissolute fathers who take to drinking and die prematurely.

In the context of my blog ramblings, there are a couple of connections that I've made. First, many children feel betrayed by one or more of their parents because they behaved in a manner that did not optimize the children's outcomes or even worsened the outcomes through negligence of one kind or another. I am an advocate of forgiving parents in most cases, especially when the perceived deficiencies can be explained by ingrained biological processes over which we have limited control. Second, this relates to what I feel is the inadequacy of current literature that intentionally excludes advances in science. Fiction that explores human relationships only within the narrow literary framework that conceptually predates contemporary scientific understanding of our behavior is relegating itself to an antiquated form of mannerism. Some may argue that, as an art, literature has no responsibility to reflect scientific knowledge, but in my view, when there is an explosion of research that provides new insights, its omission tends to make literature artificial and pointless. We know more about ourselves than we did a hundred years ago, and pretending that we don't seems delusional to me.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aesthetic Merit

One of the spheres of conflict that I run into on the Internet from time to time is the relative merit of an artist, usually in literature, and occasionally in painting. This occurred recently in a post on willful ignorance, in which the example was given of an actor who thought very little of Shakespeare and was dismissive of him as a playwright. The author of the article claimed that it was obvious that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in English, and that the actor was intentionally and defiantly ignorant on the subject. Some of the commenters, myself included, argued that, while Shakespeare is clearly one of the most important writers in English, and certainly he was highly skilled in what he wrote, one can dislike his work and make a case that other authors are better writers in some respect. I mentioned Flaubert, who, I believe, wrote a more skillful depiction of a person, Emma Bovary, than any characters that I know of in Shakespeare. In fact, some of Shakespeare's comedies are so ridiculous that I'd rather watch cartoons. This is not to say that Shakespeare wasn't a great writer. Rather, he must be looked at within the context of his time and place, and the media with which he had to work. There is nothing wrong with disliking Shakespeare as long as one can make a plausible case, which in fact isn't all that difficult.

Over the years, I've had arguments about Henry James, Proust and Lorrie Moore, in which their defenders behave as if it is received wisdom that their pet author is God incarnate. To be sure, there is something good to be found in each of these authors, but one must look further than conventional wisdom if one advocates their deification. It seems as if fanhood makes people blind to the limitations of their gods, which represent, to them, a belief system that reflects their own self-worth. So, if you make a case that Henry James was a long-winded buffoon who couldn't observe his way out of a paper bag, that Proust should have gone back to school and taken a course in concision, or that Lorrie Moore needs to be kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location where she will be deprogrammed from her delusional fixation on failed relationships and the unhappiness of life, they are far more likely to demonize you than to give the matter any serious thought.

Perhaps it is easier for me than others to find fault with icons, because I myself have never been indoctrinated by academic instruction in the arts. Moreover, there has been nothing in my experience to prevent me from thinking that the U.S. throughout most of its existence has been a cultural backwater compared to Europe, and that it is still catching up. I have questioned much of the wisdom that is fed to American students all the way through college. From a sociological standpoint, it is easy to see how conformity is molding people's thoughts.

For these reasons among others, I have become disappointed with contemporary American literature and its criticism. Literary fiction seems to be published only within the parameters set by universities and publishers. More disturbingly, the parameters for its criticism are controlled by the same universities and publishers, creating a closed loop that excludes free speech. The literary community resembles an oligopoly that is only tangentially related to art, and in which everyone is on the payroll except the consumer.

Ultimately, aesthetic merit depends on irreducible subjective judgments, but that doesn't mean that discussion is unnecessary. I get the sense that the educational and corporate systems in the U.S. have improperly relegated the arts to a private positive experience that lies beyond the purview of critical scrutiny. However, when open criticism is excluded, you are left with a system that can only be called thought control.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


My mother died on August 17, 2007, and had accumulated more money than expected. I had been managing all of her assets since 2004, ever since she went into assisted living, and knew exactly what she had and that I would eventually receive one third of it. That plus my own savings, pension, and future Social Security were enough for me to retire. At the time I particularly disliked my job at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., and, from a career standpoint, at age 57 in a dying industry, there was little point in continuing to work. After thinking it over, I abruptly retired on September 9, 2007, giving no notice.

I am interested in investing and spent much of my time on that for the first few years. As it happened, the stock market peaked on October 9, 2007, declined throughout 2008, and then crashed precipitously starting in September, 2008, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. At the lowest point I had lost about 40% of my holdings, but they have more than recovered as of today, and my total assets after almost seven years of retirement haven't changed much. I elected to start receiving Social Security in 2012 at age 62. Though this is negative in that it will reduce the total payments that I'm likely to receive, it provides a significant portion of my annual cash needs and allows me to keep all of my assets permanently invested. If my investments do well, I may even come out better than I would have by taking Social Security later. Either way, I am unlikely to run out of money. I haven't spent much so far, except on telescopes.

Another thing that I did initially was look up old friends. I found and visited an artist friend who became a Hindu monk and lives in Ganges, Michigan. I contacted a former college roommate who is now a lawyer living in Portland, Oregon. I contacted and later was visited by a former college acquaintance who was then a computer science professor at Clemson University and has since retired to Asheville, North Carolina. I contacted an Iranian acquaintance from college who was in Tehran during the 1979 revolution and has lived in England ever since. Also, 2008 was the fortieth anniversary of my high school graduation, and I was in touch with several people from Pelham, New York. One of them got me thinking about Vermont, because she has lived here since the 1970's. She and her husband are like old hippies. They live in Bristol, Vermont, where he is a potter and she spins and weaves wool from sheep that they keep. We visited them when we first came to explore the area but haven't seen much of them since. In case you're interested, here is their website: http://www.robertcomptonpottery.com/.

On the whole, I have found it unrewarding to contact old acquaintances, and probably won't do it any more. At best, you may catch up on a few things, and in my experience not much comes from it. People move on with their lives, and after forty years they're not about to change their habits. Although I have very few friends, I find that I am more interested in people generally than most people are.

Another time consumer for me has been Internet discussion. I put a fair amount of effort into comments that I made at The New York Review of Books, but, as mentioned earlier, I now find that to be an unacceptable organization. I still am looking at other sites and make posts occasionally, but with much lower expectations than previously. I like to write down what I'm thinking mainly as an exercise in clarity, and now have almost given up on the idea that meaningful communication might occur during Internet discussion between strangers.

In full disclosure, I also have to admit that I waste time playing games on my computer. I like bridge, and have been playing a very good computer program, which I think has significantly improved my bridge skills. Recently I tried playing online hearts, which I liked, but I was put off by some of the bad Internet behavior exhibited. It was not uncommon for people to get a losing hand and drop out of a game immediately and disrupt it for everyone else. Some people were rude and insulting, especially when they were losing. I also play off-line games such as chess, which I'm not particularly good at.

I like being outside and doing things outside. The winter limits what you can do here, unless you want to ski, and I don't. During the warmer months I spend time on lawn mowing and gardening. I have done a lot of tree removal, because we had many dead trees blocking views and near power lines when we moved in. I had hoped to do a lot of hiking here, but so far haven't much. The better hikes require ascents of at least a thousand feet and take several hours, and I'm more interested in that than my partner is. We do go on walks together on the dirt road by our house. It dead ends to the south at a farm near our house, and runs to the north for several miles, with good views of the Adirondacks, which are about 30 miles away. The sky conditions have been poor for stargazing over most of the winter, though I left out the telescope all winter and viewed even when it was near zero.  Currently my telescope is in storage until I return from Missouri.

My partner is in charge of our social life, and we are gradually getting to know a few people here. As mentioned earlier, I'm not very interested in routine socializing.