Friday, March 27, 2015


I have always had a somewhat anti-authoritarian, divergent way of thinking about a variety of subjects. In graduate school I was chastised by a professor for ridiculing some of Aristotle's views in a paper I wrote. Although I didn't study much science or pursue it as a career, I have preserved a level of scientific skepticism throughout my life. For this reason I was delighted to see that Steven Weinberg, the theoretical physicist, also exhibits a healthy skepticism regarding the works of Plato and Aristotle. Within the context of the history of science, he views them as poets rather than as scientists or mathematicians. He sees them as elitists who thought that experimentation and the verification of theories were beneath them. In particular, regarding Aristotle's theory of planetary motion, Weinberg says "We would have to conclude that on his own terms, in working on a problem that interested him, he was being careless or stupid." Weinberg finds the Hellenistic period centered in Alexandria far more productive than the earlier period in Athens, though he admires Plato's writing style.

You will have noticed from some of my previous posts that I frequently question conventional wisdom in a range of topics. For example, I recently brought into doubt Lincoln's competence as president, and I haven't offered much praise for the American literary, academic and intellectual communities. It will also have become apparent that I'm not a fan of capitalism or democracy. American popular culture is hardly even worth discussing.

Over the last year or so I made an effort to reassess my skepticism regarding academic philosophy and concluded that nearly all of it is arbitrary bunk. I see this problem, like many others, mainly in terms of the inherent limitations of human beings. Once a body of work is established in written form and a community of scholars has assembled to discuss it, that work may become immortalized through ritual processes that willfully overlook its inherent lack of significance. A body of work may become a de facto religious text and the focal point of one academic cult or another. This pattern can be seen in the early evolution of modern universities, which began as theological institutions with no special interest in objective analysis. Philosophy used to be called natural philosophy, which included science, but the sciences began to break off from pure philosophy in the nineteenth century, and much of what now remains in philosophy departments, I think, is detritus from accumulated theological reasoning. It is obvious to me that many philosophical questions are best answered by reframing old philosophical concepts in the context of the ongoing scientific study of man, but that idea may be identified as heresy within philosophy departments. Philosophy, like many fields in the humanities, seems to have drifted off into a netherworld run by sentimental adult hobbyists.

In my opinion, much of what passes for normal within academic and commercial environments effectuates an unrecognized injustice to both science and art. For many people science is no fun, because, besides being difficult to learn, it shatters their illusions. In both the humanities and commercial culture, people gladly seek refuge from the hard and potentially disturbing facts of science. They would rather not know that their entire lives are insignificant episodes within the biological froth that has been roiling over the surface of the earth for billions of years. As a fellow human being I have some sympathy for them, yet my conclusion is still that people ought to grow up sooner or later. The corruption of art operates a little differently from that of science. In the case of art, I don't think that good art requires much explanation. Thus, I don't adorn my quotations from Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov or Patrick Chamoiseau with superfluous comments stating what's good about them. Ideally a genuine work of art speaks for itself. In my view, the academic experts who take it upon themselves to explain to us what is good about a work of art are often the least qualified to describe the ineffable characteristics which are effortlessly recognized by those who are aesthetically aware. If you will pardon my use of a somewhat unfair cliché, those who can't do teach; in this context they teach philosophy, art history, creative writing, poetry, literature and quite a few other subjects. On the commercial end of scientific and artistic marginalization and degradation, one need only recognize that money tends to distort people's motives when their true goal becomes that of selling a product or service.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Quote of the Day

It is not that the modern scientist takes a position from the start that there are no supernatural persons. This happens to be my view, but there are good scientists who are seriously religious. Rather, the idea is to see how far one can go without supposing supernatural intervention. Only in this way can we do science, because once one invokes the supernatural, anything can be explained and no explanation can be verified. This is why the "intelligent design" ideology being promoted today is not science–it is the abdication of science.

—Steven Weinberg, from To Explain the World

Thursday, March 19, 2015


One of the few worthwhile concepts to be popularized by Carl Jung was that of introversion. I had never thought about it much, but in 1985 when by chance I read Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, I became intrigued. The book discusses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and contains a test that indicated that my type is INTJ. That was somewhat of a surprise to me because the description was fairly accurate and, according to the authors, it is one of the rarer of the sixteen types, hence isn't familiar to the more numerous types. The "I" in INTJ stands for introversion, and thereafter I had a framework for understanding how I'm not the same as most people.

After playing around with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for a few years and applying it to various people I decided that it had limited usefulness, but it does explain some basic personality differences. The most useful part, I find, is the introversion-extroversion scale. Basically, I enjoy being alone and enjoy being around people who also enjoy being alone. This is an important thing to know, especially in the U.S., where extroverts dominate practically everything. They do to such an extent that shy children are often seen as needing therapy or treatment. I suspect that introversion is more common in Europe and Asia, so it may be less likely that introverts will feel out of place there. For most of my life in the U.S. it has seemed to me that introverts are considered defective.

To put this into perspective, I like to think in terms of aptitudes that permit either introverts or extroverts to excel in various fields. Generally speaking, introverts are good at things that require a great deal of concentration over long periods of time, which typically involves solitary activity. I think that this gives introverts an advantage in science and writing. My guess is that Newton, Darwin, Einstein, George Eliot, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence - some of my favorite people - were introverts. Extroverts may do well in some kinds of writing, such as travel writing, journalism or popular fiction. The strong areas for extroverts are ones that involve a lot of contact with people. That would include politicians, business leaders, performers and professional athletes. However, not many people are completely introverted or completely extroverted, which means that these profiles don't necessarily work well in all situations.

Two prominent extroverts are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Neither is particularly introspective, and Clinton is probably more intelligent in the conventional sense. What they have in common is a need for approval and to be around a lot of people most of the time. Both are gregarious and able to connect well with people, but Roosevelt is more effective at public speaking. Clinton's weaknesses as a person get him into trouble in office, and the same could have happened to Roosevelt, who lived in a more private era. Whatever intellectual advantage Clinton may have was irrelevant to his presidency, because he is not an original thinker and simply adopts the ideas of those around him. Both Roosevelt and Clinton married opposites - Eleanor and Hillary are introverts - and this led to significant marital problems in both cases. Extroverts can benefit from the thoughtfulness of introverts to round out their decisions, but the two types are not deeply compatible. Introverts sometimes cluster around extroverts, who may have superior leadership skills, although extroverts are occasionally socially inept themselves.

While it seems to be a rarity to have extroverted people seek introverted roles, it is fairly common to find introverts seeking extroverted roles. Especially in the U.S., which is an extrovert paradise, introverts often think they're supposed to be extroverted. Some children are groomed to be social overachievers whether they like it or not. For this reason people like Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett become talk show hosts. People like Richard Nixon and Barack Obama become presidents. Millions of people attempt to become effective public speakers even though they hate it. Most of the time this is harmless, but in many cases the people might be happier if they accepted themselves for what they were.

Particularly bothersome to me is the case of an introvert taking a significant public role that he is not equipped to perform well. It is obvious to me that Barack Obama was not cut out to be president. He was not, is not, and will never be an inspiring public figure, which is perhaps the chief responsibility of the president. Even though I occasionally agree with his policies and reasoning, he has been unable to break out of the straitjacket that the Republicans have put him into because he doesn't know how to win people over. Compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt he is a political dunce of the worst kind. Bill Clinton was probably not a very good president, but people will always prefer him to Obama because they like him. In my opinion, introverts do not belong in the White House. In this vein, I've been thinking about Abraham Lincoln, another introvert. Although he is generally lauded as one of the greatest presidents ever for keeping the country unified and ending slavery, I have come to think that he made a colossal mistake by not allowing the Confederacy to secede from the United States. Part of the dysfunction in Washington to this day can still be attributed to North-South grievances dating from the Civil War. It is by no means obvious that if the Confederacy had become a separate country we would be in a worse condition than we are today. Slavery would probably have ended one way or another by about 1900, the economy of the South would have collapsed, and a war would have been averted. A case can be made that Lincoln had no idea what he was doing and does not deserve praise. The history books preempt the possibility of a thorough analysis, and it is now impossible to know with certainty what the outcome would have been without a Civil War.

There are probably evolutionary reasons for the population to contain a mix of introverts and extroverts. The extroverts are good at creating a sense of group unity, and the introverts are good at figuring out details. Either type can be creative, but I suspect that progress in both the arts and the sciences has been dominated by introverts. Besides the advantages of these kinds of specialization, it is possible that introverts have survived as an element in the gene pool simply because they historically tended to live in small groups and survived when disease afflicted large groups, causing higher mortality rates among extroverts.

I get the impression that there is a genetic component to introversion when I look at my family. My Armenian grandfather was extremely introverted. He was so shy that when his parents arranged his marriage he hid on his wedding night. Later in life he lived in a separate portion of his house, away from the rest of the family. Although my mother seemed social and was not particularly introverted, she didn't mind spending enormous amounts of time alone. Two out of her three children are introverts. I married an introvert, and our children are introverts. Of course, this is only anecdotal, but I suspect that research would bear out that introversion runs in families. As far as I'm concerned, introversion is normal, and no stigma should be attached to it. For one thing, it is not to be confused with timidity, and many people don't understand that there is a difference.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Racism in the U.S.

Upon request, I'm writing about racism in the U.S. This isn't a natural topic for me, since I'm a WASP living in one of the whitest states and have not spent much time around blacks. I probably didn't even see a black person until I was about seven. I'll give you a short rundown of my background and then offer you some of my views on the subject.

The first recognizable racism I heard about directly occurred while I was in college in Indiana. Indiana borders on the South, and was still quite racist in the 1960's. Some of the students at my college were black Africans who were afraid to drive to Bloomington because they were scared of what might happen if their car broke down near Martinsville, where a black woman had been killed in 1968. That murder was not solved until recently. Indiana had been a strong Ku Klux Klan state in the 1920's, and people there were still racists in the 1960's and 1970's. My father-in-law in Richmond, Indiana referred to black men as "boy" and my mother-in-law didn't want her daughter seen in public with one of my friends, who was half black. Blacks were implicitly banned from membership to their country club. I did spend the summer of 1972 in a poor black neighborhood in Ft. Wayne, Indiana living above a liquor store. On that occasion an old gay black wino made an unsuccessful advance on me at the local pool hall and I cashed a bad check while working in the liquor store, infuriating the owner, but that was about it for the experience. I noticed that the blacks were different in Louisville, Kentucky when I lived there from 1985 to 1987; they didn't have as much "attitude" as northern blacks.

The only black I had any exposure to after college was a black executive. At that time the company offered significant incentives to their managers to hire minorities. He was super-ambitious, and I thought he was a jerk because he never cared about anything besides advancing his career. He was the director of the printing plant where I worked, even though he didn't know anything about printing. By the time he was through with it, the plant was shut down and just about everyone, including me, was permanently laid off. Fortunately I was able to find a new job immediately at a different company. A few years later this man, Calvin Butler, left the printing industry for the utilities industry, and he is currently the CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric. I don't think much of him. Although there is probably some racism, along with sexism, present in corporate life, at the company where I worked with Calvin minorities had a significant advantage if they could talk the talk. I'll never forget the charming Croatian woman named Nadia who could hardly speak English and didn't know anything about printing but got the job anyway.

My daughter lived for four years in a bad black neighborhood in Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, which her husband attended. They got along well enough with their neighbors, but it was a high crime area, complete with murders. We have had numerous discussions about how historical conditions have limited the horizons for blacks. She is more sympathetic than I am, but I see her point. I tend to view racism with respect to blacks from a socio-cultural point of view. Basically, it takes a long time for a culture to reorient itself when it makes a transition from slavery to freedom. The same was true in Martinique, which I just finished reading about in Texaco (one of the best novels I've read in several years, by the way). The blacks and lower classes in Martinique were also living inhuman lives until they were freed in 1848, but the old economy collapsed, and many of them were soon forced to live in shantytowns, which was not much of an improvement.

The problem I have with American blacks is about the same as the problem I have with Americans in general: I don't like their culture. This is a crass country that focuses on consumerism, materialism and spectacle. I don't have much in common with Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Usher, Eminem, Justin Timberlake or Sean Combs. I don't care about professional sports. Race doesn't have anything to do with it.

I suppose the obvious question for blacks in the U.S. relates to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. Although this is not exactly a phenomenon that I think about much, I have some ideas. The problem I notice is the disconnect between the message of early civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, probably the greatest orator in American history, and the recognition of current economic reality in 2015. You get the impression from the media that fairy dust was sprinkled on blacks by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and somehow they were all supposed to have become prosperous by now. Everyone is just scratching their head and saying, "Well, I guess it must be racism." Sure, there is still racism, but the lack of prosperity among blacks has more obvious causes related to changes in the economy since 1964. The factory jobs that permitted the middle class to take off economically in the 1950's and 1960's are no longer there.

I first noticed serious distortion in the perceptions among blacks during the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995. Simpson was respected and wealthy and living the good life when he intentionally killed two innocent people for no good reason, but the black community decided that he was a victim of racism, and that was all there was to it. They were delusional then, and they're delusional now. Michael Brown, the Ferguson victim of police brutality, was himself a reckless criminal, though not on the scale of O.J. Simpson. There is probably a certain amount of racism in police profiling, but what do you expect? When you stick a police officer in a neighborhood where most of the crimes are committed by black males, do you think they won't make generalizations that seem like profiling? Is it financially feasible in poor neighborhoods to hire police officers who have advanced training that permits them to perform their jobs according to all of the latest legal interpretations while being fully sensitive to the current issues in a particular community?

What disappoints me is the reaction by the media and black leaders. The media provides a third-grade analysis along the lines of "Are white people still being mean to black people?" The black leaders, Al Sharpton, for instance, stick to the obsolete white guilt narrative that worked well fifty years ago. Leaders like Barack Obama stress education, which, though it worked for him, is unlikely to be much of a solution for most blacks in the future. The real problem, I think, is that capitalism favors the wealthy, and that conditions for minorities can't improve without the forced equalization of the economic system - something far more radical than anyone is willing to discuss.

I think that even though racism may never evaporate, underlying economic problems are the true driving forces in places like Ferguson. Without major changes, the middle class in America isn't going to do as well as it did in the postwar years, and the lower middle class, which includes a lot of blacks, will do even worse. Crime levels will increase in poor neighborhoods whether or not the police have passed the latest political correctness tests. The traditional civil rights approach in these places isn't going to solve anything. The education approach offered by people like Obama won't work either, because without structural changes competition in the workforce will continue to intensify. The model used to be showing up at a factory and being hired for a job. In the future, the model could be getting a Ph.D. in software engineering until competition drives down wages, then getting a Ph.D. in advanced robotics until competition drives down wages there, and so on. A true solution can only come through significant wealth redistribution. By emphasizing education rather than economic restructuring, people like Obama are playing into the hands of corporate interests.

Finally, I should mention that racism in the U.S. isn't confined to blacks. My son-in-law is a Tibetan refugee, and he experiences it all the time. Unfortunately it is part of human nature to reject those who, for whatever reason, are perceived as belonging to a different group.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Quote of the Day

The oil tankers had a crew of more or less raucous sailors. These bandits would take advantage of the boat's stopover to go down in City, to see the hookers on the edge of Bois-de-Boulogne. They would spend lots of money, speak seven languages, bear nine afflictions, drink like the Mexicans in the movies, and return to Texaco reduced to ashes by alcohol's embers. Then they would confide in everyone, would describe things encountered throughout the Caribbean. They spoke of galleons stuffed with gold, glassy like jellyfish, which crossed the bows of their tankers stirring up exhalations of bitter algae, roughneck soldier songs, laughs of ladies glimpsed in the bowsprit portholes from which escaped music gay and sad. They spoke of sharks surging in their wake, white and pink like broken coral; their jaws would snap as they had for centuries around slave galleys which had thrown off whole cargos for them, to such point that, poisoned by a rumor about souls, these fish would spell anguish in thirteen African tongues. Nightmares (the drunk sailors would say) haunted this Caribbean Sea which is pensive like a cemetery; abysses latched onto the oil tanks to occupy their steel with a hosannah of millions of people dissolved into a horrible rug which remembered Africa in the submarine nights, a fabric bristling with balls and chains and joining the islands in an alliance of corpses. They spoke of Christopher Columbus at the bow of the Santa Maria which had turned opaline with the glint of age like very old ivory; she was the crystal formed out of the dust of Aztec peoples, Inca peoples, Arawaks, Caribs, the ashes of tongues, skins, bloods, collapsed cultures, out of the dust of that immense killing field spread out among the plantations of the world called New; since eternity, well before he arrived, ghosts were judging the Discoverer now petrified at his bow before an opaque Indies, they were judging him in vain because the Baneful One always escaped them, as if amnestied by irremediable history which he was forced to mutter endlessly...And all that made the tanker sailors more disgusted, more loony, more convulsive, and would contaminate our little nightmares in Texaco; these horrors they evoked while going through our huts, we felt, alas, my dear, that they filled us too.

—Patrick Chamoiseau, from Texaco

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The False Allure of Commercial Writing

Almost everything that you read was produced in a commercial environment. Even if the intentions of an author are purely personal, artistic or altruistic, chances are there is someone in the infrastructure between the author's keyboard and your eyes who is attempting to make money. This situation dates back to the earliest days of publishing, and now, with technological developments, extends more broadly to "content." At this moment, thousands of companies are scrambling to fill the pages not only of printed publications but of online websites. The demand for all kinds of media has grown dramatically in the last decade, and streaming videos, for example, can hardly be produced fast enough to keep up. This creates challenges for discerning consumers of print and other media.

If I were less self-confident, I might be inclined to confess that many of the complaints that I have about writing amount to excessive pickiness. However, I am not making it up when I say that something that I just read seems like regurgitated filler that some editor squeezed out of a hack writer for a price. As I said in an earlier post, over a period of years I gradually became disgusted with The New Yorker, then The New York Times and then The New York Review of Books. Occasionally one might find something in one of these publications that strikes an intellectual or aesthetic chord, but increasingly that became a rarity for me. On the contrary, clickbait is used everywhere on the Internet and is simply a technological update of former sensational headlines in newspapers. What has been disappointing to me is that even the so-called reputable organizations engage in the same tactics, if only with greater subtlety.

The pattern toward disillusionment that I experience with printed or online publications usually goes something like this: initially the title of an article looks promising; the first paragraph or so looks good; as I delve further into it, a lot of extraneous information begins to emerge, often in the form superfluous name-dropping; and finally there is a vague conclusion that seems to leave you back where you started. The New York Times is ostensibly just a news source, but basic news actually takes up only a small fraction of its space. The rest is really filler designed to bring in additional advertising revenue. I don't think I've ever found any of their long articles satisfactory. The New Yorker attempts more thoughtful, in-depth articles and occasionally succeeds, but I find there such a strong emphasis on fashion, whether in ideas, clothes or writing, that it is difficult to take the magazine seriously on any level.

It took me the longest time to figure out The New York Review of Books, probably because it is less mainstream and its editorial policies are opaque. The NYRB is managed so privately that I have had to make guesses and seek outside sources to get a rough idea of what is going on there, and even then it is still hard to know with much certainty. My current theory is that most of the problems there reside in its editor, Robert Silvers. Although Silvers is highly intelligent, extremely well-read and quite discerning, he has specific expectations of what the publication should be and wields dictatorial control over everything that it encompasses. He is said to be the quintessential micro-manager. The impression I have is that his true vocation is editing the articles of writers and thinkers so as to improve upon them in a manner that suits his aesthetic tastes, even when they are better writers or thinkers than he is. What you end up with is a hodgepodge of academics, literary writers and journalists who are willing to put their writing through the Silvers sieve. The result, I find, is that their articles tend to be blander than they might otherwise be. The long essay format of the NYRB is impressive when you first see it, but it rarely produces ruffled feathers or changed minds. The articles leave one feeling that one has encountered a reasonably wide-ranging account of whatever the topic may be, that it is written competently, but that it serves little purpose beyond providing an overview of what the so-called cognoscenti happen to think about a topic at that given moment. Possibly the problem is that Silvers is too entwined with the status quo to rebel much. Thus, at a time when American literary culture is promoting one mediocre writer after another and holding them to the low standards of academia and the publishing industry, Silvers has advanced the careers of Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson, and Francine Prose. To be sure, there may be some entertainment value to be found in the works of these authors and others featured by Silvers, but I have never found any of their articles in the NYRB useful, insightful, provocative or thoughtful. In the end, Silvers is an accomplice to literary mediocrity. Part of Silvers' limitation as an editor must reside in his style, but perhaps a part also resides in his age: he's eighty-five.

The NYRB is not the best example of the point I'm making here, because most of its production seems to follow old-fashioned methods. They produce very few articles per month, and the only change in recent years has been their addition of the NYRblog. That is now looking like an afterthought: they wanted to go trendy to avoid looking like the fuddy-duddies that they are, and then decided that it was too much of a hassle to have a real, interactive blog and accordingly stopped accepting comments. So the NYRB is not as commercial as it might be and its true limitations may relate more to the fact that it is saddled to the preferences of one editor who has vested interests in a network of people and a bygone era that I just don't care about. My guess is that the typical NYRB subscriber is an eighty-year-old retired academic in the humanities.

An alternative to commercial writing is the writing in diaries and blogs. At least there you don't have to worry about the corrosive effects of money even when it remains hard to fathom the motives of the writer. Diaries can't usually be read in real-time, so they are comparatively inaccessible. In theory there could be lots of good blogs, but it might be difficult to find them, given their number. The Internet is already full of dead blogs that people gave up on. The advantage of a blog, like this one, is that the writer has no pressure to fit a specific format or please a wide audience. In my case I am writing about things that interest me and I can tell the truth without worrying about any financial ramifications. No one can fire me. If I get my facts all wrong, I would be delighted to have someone straighten me out, but that hasn't happened so far.

No doubt there are plenty of good books to read that are available, but they are increasingly difficult to find because of all the background noise. The commercial connections of the publications mentioned above make the books reviewed in them somewhat suspect. My conclusion is that nearly everything they have to say about American fiction is an obfuscation, a lie or a manifestation of poor literary judgment. In any case, the bright spot for me is nonfiction. I am less likely to become disgruntled about biographies or science books, because in their case it is easier to determine in advance whether a book is good or not, inasmuch as that depends less on subjective opinion than is the case with fiction. To me it is more than a little ironic that some of today's best science writers are better writers than those who are supposedly the best fiction writers. I actually enjoy reading E.O. Wilson, Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg and even Richard Dawkins, because they write well. It is an unsupported myth that fiction writers have a monopoly on good writing. For this reason, the next book on my reading list is To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg. Science writers and biographers may still have commercial motives - their publishers certainly do - but more often their love for their subject takes precedence over the venality one finds in commercial fiction.

Monday, March 9, 2015


Our bedroom has a large skylight facing west. You can see out of it while lying in bed, and a couple of times I've tried stargazing with binoculars in bed when I wake up in the middle of the night (which I often do, since I rarely sleep continuously for more than four-hour stretches). In the winter I am able to see the Pleiades setting. Sometimes on a clear winter night the moon shines in through the skylight like a giant floodlight and wakes us up. Fortunately the window has a shade for such occasions. I was thinking about why the moon only shines through the skylight during the winter and realized that it's just a simple problem in geometry and astronomy.

As the solar system was forming 4.6 billion years ago, it took the shape of a rotating disk. All of the planets and the moon still orbit around the sun in approximately the same disk shape, which is the plane formed by the orbit of the earth known by astronomers as the ecliptic. Another important fact is that the axis on which the earth spins is not perpendicular to the ecliptic but is off by about 23.4°. That angle is responsible for our seasons. When the axis is tilted toward the sun in the northern hemisphere, more photons of light from the sun strike the surface of the northern hemisphere than when it is tilted away from the sun, and this causes summer. It is easy to notice the change of the seasons by observing where the sun rises and sets on the horizon every day. At the summer solstice the sun rises and sets at its northernmost points on the horizon; it is the longest day, and the north gets its greatest daily sun exposure then.

At the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere is angled the farthest away from the sun, and the least amount of sunlight strikes its surface. However, at that place in the orbit the situation with the moon is different. The sun, moon and earth are all on about the same plane year-round. At the winter solstice, while the earth is tilted away from the sun in the north, during the night, when the moon is visible in the opposite direction from the sun, the northern hemisphere reaches its maximum tilt toward the moon at a visible time of day. Therefore, the moon reaches its maximum visible distance above the horizon in the north around the time of winter solstice, the opposite of the situation with the sun. In the short term there is no change in the northern hemisphere's relationship to the moon; this difference is caused simply by the change in the time of day when the moon is visible. Our skylight is situated such that the moon only rises high enough to shine through it during the period near winter solstice. The moon reaches its lowest visible point above the horizon around summer solstice in the north.

I find it interesting that simple geometrical facts like these can have such a large impact on our lives. If the tilt of the earth's axis were 0°, like that of Mercury, we would have no seasons. The evolution of life on the planet might have been completely different from what occurred. If the tilt were 97.8°, like that of Uranus, the seasons would be far more extreme. We would have six months of light followed by six months of darkness. Give or take a few degrees from our current angle, we might not exist at all.

Friday, March 6, 2015


My family created a minor identity crisis for me by moving from England to the U.S. when I was seven. I gradually became Americanized, though somewhat less so than my younger sister, who was only two when we arrived. Later on I realized that I wasn't all that American, and I became interested in England. However, in recent years I've decided that I wouldn't fit in well in England either.

English people are often caricatured as good at administration but not much else compared to other Europeans. There is some truth in this that may even, as some have argued, have a genetic basis, arising from conditions under which the ruling class out-bred the lower classes during periods of disease and famine over the centuries. The success in the governing of Britain goes hand-in-hand with Britain's success during the Industrial Revolution and as a colonial power.

When I was in college I studied Anglo-American philosophy, which, coincidentally, I thought might tie me to my English roots. However, as it turned out, English philosophy confirmed to me the stereotype of small-minded people squabbling over minor details while entirely missing the big picture. I resisted this fact for several years, finally recognized it, and reassessed the situation recently only to come to the same conclusion. Philosophy as an academic subject is given much higher status in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., even when people like me, who have studied it and are now grown adults consider most of it utter nonsense. For better or for worse, Americans are more practical than the British, and academic philosophy here is doomed even as it flourishes in the U.K.

To put England into perspective, I like to recall the early twentieth century, when it had a little artistic and intellectual heyday. Present were Bertrand Russell, G.H. Hardy, G.E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes and the Bloomsbury Group. Russell, Hardy and Keynes were certainly notable intellectuals, but to my way of thinking Moore was a lightweight and a disaster. His best-known work, Principia Ethica, was treated like a Bible by Bloomsbury and became the model for British analytic philosophy. However, the next intelligent person to arrive on the scene, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian, used Moore as an example of how far someone could get in life with "absolutely no intelligence whatever." Although he succeeded Moore in his chair at Cambridge, he treated him like a servant, because he didn't think he was much good for anything else. Regarding Bloomsbury, it has always struck me how nearly all English art is derivative of art produced on the Continent. With the possible exception of Virginia Woolf, I don't think Bloomsbury left behind much memorable work.

The topic here is national identity, or having a feeling of belonging to one country rather than another. In my case I have lukewarm feelings about both the U.S. and the U.K. This is mainly the result of having a multinational background. I grew up in the U.S. and was born in the U.K. My mother grew up in Greece, and her father grew up in Turkey. This geographic mobility frees one from prejudices about the virtues of one country over others. One would hope that in time people would come to realize that they have no entitlement to any particular geographic location, that people are essentially the same when you allow for cultural differences, and that we are all citizens of the world. However, there are evolutionary reasons why that transition in outlook will be difficult to make.

I apologize for being a broken record on our evolutionary past, but there is no way to avoid bringing it up if one intends to have a serious discussion about many of the problems currently facing the world. The fact is that we are hunter-gatherers who think tribally. Until recently in human history there was enough room on the planet for people to lead nomadic lives without often coming into conflict with other nomadic groups. The end of the last Ice Age changed everything, making agriculture and civilization possible. The world population has since grown by more than 700 times, nomadic life is generally unfeasible, and national borders restrict free movement. We are all fighting over scarce resources.

One thing we have going for us is our tendency toward eusocial behavior. Theoretically, if we could convince ourselves that we all belong to one big group, all global conflict might cease. However, in the eyes of many, the world is inherently composed of incompatible groups that are bound to remain in conflict. This state has been exacerbated by the history of imperialism and by the ideology of capitalism, which creates winners and losers with the unequal distribution of economic benefits. Moreover, the economically successful countries unrealistically expect that poorer countries will immediately fall into place once they receive the benefits of economic growth. In my view, capitalism is little more than an ideology and has a basis no more fundamental than Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, monarchy, democracy, fascism, communism, socialism or anarchism. It is a system that has been adopted but might just as well be replaced by any of several others simply as a matter of choice. One might call it the religion of money, and it is popular at the moment if only because it forces people to participate in it if they don't want to starve.

Nationalism is a modern expression of tribalism, but it often provides few of the benefits that tribalism once did. When you belonged to a tribe, it was possible to know everyone, and you could count on them in a crisis. If a real crisis such as the fictional one depicted by Cormac McCarthy in The Road were to occur now, you would be completely on your own fending off cannibals, while the president of the U.S. and his friends were living the high life in an exquisitely furnished bunker at an undisclosed location. Furthermore, nations don't trust each other, and this can be dangerous when they are heavily armed. Fortunately the countries in the EU have a semblance of cooperation, but you don't have to dig far to find mistrust, and a true political union is still a long way off. There remain a few powder kegs, with Israel and Iran, Russia and Ukraine, and of course there is the Islamic State.

Over the years, political leaders have taken some positive steps, first with the League of Nations and then the United Nations. The UN is mostly ineffectual at resolving world conflicts because of its voting structure, but over time it, or a successor organization, could theoretically evolve into a true world government. However, with my views on human nature, I do not expect a rational world order to fall into place without many years of contention, if at all. How long, for example, do you think it will take for the Israelis to trust the Iranians and the Palestinians? I'm not holding my breath. This is why, in my fantasy futuristic world, computers and robots will run everything and instantly put a stop to any disruptive activities caused by humans. Imagine, for example, how the Islamic State might be dealt with: an army of robots would move in and kill all of its members within a day or two, and they would never be heard from again. If people still wanted to express their tribal, competitive and destructive instincts, they could do so through less harmful means such as sports. Nationalism has outlived its usefulness, and I wish others discussed this more often. I can only suppose that that would be considered unpatriotic, hence a vocational risk to professional writers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


I have been reading Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, and it is helping me to define for myself what kinds of fiction I prefer and how to break fiction down into useful categories. This is not the kind of novel that I would normally read, but I am finding it worthwhile nevertheless.

The oldest recorded fiction is epic narrative such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were originally oral verse describing real and imagined events in Mycenaean Greece. Early oral poetry served as entertainment and provided a method for recording history. The language is often beautiful, filled with mnemonic tricks to aid in recitation, since there was no written language at the time of its composition. Texaco is written in a similar style, imaginatively recounting the history of Martinique from the last days of slavery up until the late twentieth century, told in the voice of a native woman. I classify The Iliad, The Odyssey and Texaco as fiction that emphasizes storytelling and poetry. Two other elements of fiction, observation and thought, do not play as much of a role here.

The kind of fiction that I prefer tends to emphasize observation and thought. My favorite authors are good observers and good thinkers. Observation was popular at the time of George Eliot, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, and these three were analytical about their characters. They lived at the time when modernity was arriving, and writers had things to say on new subjects that did not have historical precedent. This kind of realism tends to be unpoetic, and even though it must tell stories, that element may fall within the broader purpose of explaining a changing world. Storytelling is still important in much of modern fiction, but the further you get into modernism and postmodernism, the less essential it becomes. As far as I know, poetic writing is almost nonexistent in fiction these days.

Analyzing writers according to these four categories (observation, thought, poetry and storytelling), it becomes fairly easy for me to see which ones I like and why. I don't like Henry James because he has distorted observation, tendentious thought, no poetry and sloppy storytelling. D.H. Lawrence has some observation and thought, a lot of poetry and some storytelling; he is one of my favorites largely because of the poetic aspects of his writings. Proust has a lot of conventional observation, not much notable thought, a lot of poetry and little storytelling; his weakness in analyzing his environment counts against him in my eyes. Kafka is not much of an observer or thinker, but he arguably has a precise poetic style, along with condensed storytelling; I like his writing but don't think he has much of interest to say. Lorrie Moore has feigned observation, very little thought, some poetry, and storytelling that is nonexistent in her short stories and botched in her novels.

Probably the majority of popular writers today emphasize storytelling because it is the quality that is most likely to satisfy large audiences. Those who deviate from strong story lines may target smaller audiences that prefer, or that have been brainwashed into preferring, modern, storyless formats. What stands out to me is the apparent absence of appreciation among American writers for genuinely talented writers like Chamoiseau. Not only does he write better fiction than any contemporary American writer that I'm aware of, but his linguistic skill also makes him an exceptional poet by American standards. I'll close with a few snippets from Texaco that I find quite compelling. Keep in mind that this is translated from French and Creole and may have lost something in the process:

The donkeys moved along on rocky ground, swaying like blackgirls on high heels.

Magnetized by the moon, thousands of minnows deserted the ocean to wriggle up the river. Scintillating waves of them shook the fresh water or washed up on the sand. The other campers raked about with buckets, bags, nets, basins, sheets, or other things. The night was but phosphorescent lightning, milky glow, sparks. The silver commas spurted out of all the containers, jumped around ankles, glued frenzied mirrors everywhere.

His hand bewitched the mandolin's neck, cast a spell on the mandolin's belly, and the strings lent a music, as knotted as rabbit grass, to the beauties of his song.

The women had to face the rest of life, including the duty of finding food for a swarm of little ones, and all without a garden. Each mama, you hear me, had to sow in herself a small plot of cunning, and look after the harvest, ill luck or no.