Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow III

The book is moving too slowly for my taste, but it is still worth reading for the research it describes. I am getting the feeling that Kahneman is the beneficiary of his collaboration with Amos Tversky, who was probably the brains behind Kahneman's Nobel. Tversky died in 1996, and Kahneman received the award in 2002. He mentions Tversky so often that you can't help but think that he somehow feels guilty, though their relationship may also have been close. Kahneman is hardly an idiot, yet so far in the book, which is padded with personal anecdotes, he doesn't seem to have a good grasp of the implications of his work. I suppose that I should have expected this, since "bestseller" is usually the kiss of death for any book if you're seeking substance, intellectual rigor and good exposition.

Part III, Overconfidence, meshes with many of the points I've made on this blog. Kahneman considers overconfidence a feature of System 1. Generally, pundits and experts have no idea what they're talking about, and everyone is bad at predicting the future. It has been demonstrated that well-designed algorithms outperform professional opinion in several fields. Kahneman makes some clear statements that are worth quoting:

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases. Because optimistic bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic....

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality – but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.

Kahneman portrays optimism as the driving force of capitalism, with an endless stream of delusional thinkers trying and usually failing in new businesses, but with successes occurring frequently enough to feed a growing economy. Oddly, his analysis seems to end there, without a hint of the need for further discussion. He says that even the most successful corporate executives have no idea what the future will bring, and I wonder what he would have to say about the risks associated with the election of incompetent politicians. Donald Trump perfectly fits the book's model for optimistic, delusional thinkers who overestimate their skills, yet he has been democratically elected to the most powerful position in the world. Are election results to be accepted regardless of the ignorance that they display?

One area in which I disagree with Kahneman somewhat is in his analysis of investment decisions. He takes the orthodox economics position, in which stock selection is seen as a fool's game, and he recommends buying indexes as a sounder choice. There have been simplistic arguments raging for decades on this topic, and I still think that a case can be made for active investment versus passive investment in indexes. All stock market indexes contain companies whose financial prospects are worse than those of other companies. It does not necessarily require luck to identify some of them and exclude them from an investment portfolio. For example, The United States Leather Company, which was a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it originated in 1896, could have been identified as a poor investment whose exclusion would have provided a better return than the index before it was removed in 1905. It is true that most stock investments do not on average outperform indexes, but there are a few actively managed mutual funds that consistently outperform their indexes for decades at a time, and this does not appear to be the result of luck. Identifying which actively managed funds to buy is difficult but not completely impossible. There are advantages to the lower fees charged by index funds, but that is only one of many factors to consider. On the whole, I think that the most significant obstacles to sound stock investing are the sheer number of products available and the shortage of good advice, which both serve the interests of the financial services industry. Index funds come in many forms and have added to the confusion, and it isn't easy to know which ones to buy. Kahneman also embraces the efficient market hypothesis, which I consider to be one of the major oversimplifications in the field of economics. Ironically, Kahneman seems to be associating himself with a group of experts who don't know what they're talking about, in this instance making his own advice paradoxical.

I am currently reading Part IV, which covers the more mathematical aspects of Kahneman's work, and it is followed by his conclusions in Part V.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow II

Part II of the book, which runs from where I left off to the midpoint, is titled Heuristics and Biases. These chapters look at various errors made in System 2, and Kahneman's research usually consists of written tests given to volunteer college students. The main result is that they do not think well statistically, and they tend to produce, for example, causal explanations for events even when there is insufficient information to support their conclusions. Rather than apply valid statistical methods, they manufacture story lines which add a coherence that may not truly be present. Slight differences in the way in which a question is presented have a major impact on how it is answered even if those differences have no relevance to the answer. There is glee in Kahneman's tone when graduate students with training in statistics make the exact same kinds of mistakes that less-educated people do.

Having previously read a little on this topic, I am somewhat familiar with the errors he cites. The most interesting one to me is regression to the mean, which, he says, is beyond the comprehension of most people. I think about this in relation to investments when deciding what the future value of an investment might be given the history of its valuation. The crux here is randomness, and Kahneman correctly notes that people have a hard time with that idea. Rather than accept events as random, they produce stories which provide the illusion of coherence, hence their predictions tend to be inaccurate. It is an important point that luck and chance are undervalued compared to skill and talent in ordinary discourse. This becomes the subject of Part III, Overconfidence, which I've just begun.

Part II was a little too professorial for my liking. The questionnaires administered by researchers usually had an artificial quality which I thought detracted from their usefulness. They intentionally invoked various innuendos to prompt incorrect answers. As far as I could tell, Kahneman was mainly interested in proving the existence of specific kinds of mistakes, and he was indifferent to how important or unimportant getting the right answer may have been to the test participants. I felt that, because there were no negative consequences for study participants who didn't think clearly, they had little incentive to make much of an effort. As a practical matter it may be difficult to design studies in which the participants are engaged, but I think the results would be more meaningful if there had really been something at stake, and there wasn't. It is one thing to speculate on what the nonexistent "Linda" may be doing with her life based on a very sketchy description of her, and something else entirely to choose a spouse or a career, even though the same kinds mistakes might occur in all of these decisions. "Linda" is an imaginary being, which hardly places her on equal footing with a spouse, someone who might produce your children and occupy a significant fraction of your life.

So far in the book, Kahneman has mainly been explaining the research and concepts in his field and hasn't seemed interested in its implications. He is friends with Cass Sunstein, the law professor and behavioral economist who advocates rational policy-making, but he refrains from siding with him on the injection of rationality into public life. He will probably expand on his ideas later in the book, but for the moment he seems content to let poor judgment wreak havoc on the world in the name of democratic principles. If he retains this attitude, I will have to part company with him at some point.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow I

This bestseller by Daniel Kahneman, published in 2011, covers psychological research from the last few decades, focusing on human cognition. The title refers metaphorically to two different systems that the human brain uses to process various kinds of information. Fast thinking, or System 1, pertains to situations which are appraised almost immediately, without reflection, in an intuitive or unconscious manner. Slow thinking, or System 2, pertains to situations which require a conscious analytical process in order to make an assessment. There may be some physical basis regarding the places in the brain where these functions occur, but that has not been the emphasis. As far as I've read, much of the discussion has been about the interplay between the two systems.

The model presented provides a realistic description of how everyone organizes reality and goes about their day. The System 1 method is partly instinctive and partly experiential. When new situations arise, the human brain is incapable of conducting a detailed analysis each time, and through an evolutionary process we are hard-wired to react to some experiences with no thought or hesitation. Humans possess an innate ability to interpret, for example, facial expressions and to generalize from past experiences, presumably because reacting more or less correctly rather than not reacting at all was once essential to survival and still is to some extent. System 1, as I interpret it, is a shortcut process which seems to occupy our awareness most of the time. System 2, as I interpret it, is the cumbersome process that includes real thinking, and most of us are not doing it most of the time. Kahneman describes the balance between the two systems that arises due to the limited capacity of System 2 to produce timely results.

It is easy to recognize these processes in yourself and others. My father seemed very much a System 1 person: he did everything extremely quickly, from speaking to reading to doing mental arithmetic, but he was not reflective, and in the long run his intuitive side, which seemed to suppress System 2's thoroughness, may have led to his downfall. My former philosophy professor, Roger Gustavsson, who died last year, was almost exclusively a System 2 person; to him, everything was part of a complex, convoluted problem that he couldn't quite work out. During the last few years of my correspondence with him, I was unable to fully communicate to him some of the ideas that I've presented on this blog, because his frame of reference for everything, perhaps including his personal life, was analytic philosophy. This tendency made him the odd man out when he was a member of a committee, because his method of analysis did not accord with that of anyone else. It has occurred to me that humans, as a survival matter, have to act with incomplete information, or else die. Thus, System 1 is closer to the life we know. If children had always relied exclusively on System 2 observation and logical analysis for making decisions, surely many of them would not have reached adulthood or produced offspring: their lives would have been spent in limbo deciding what to do next.

Researchers have devised numerous tests to measure how these systems work, and although System 1 generally gets the job done, it is also haphazard and frequently inaccurate. It exists mainly because System 2 can't carry much of a load. System 1 encourages us to think that whatever is familiar is probably safe, which is not always the case. It also causes us to overvalue negative experiences, and you can easily identify that in yourself and others. Often people behave with undue caution based on the false assumption that conditions are the same as those which once produced a negative outcome. System 1 is also responsible for causing us to prefer political candidates whose faces have certain shapes. No doubt System 2 has limitations, but, as far as I've read, the only one mentioned is that it's lazy: it tries to send the work back to System 1 whenever possible.

This is a useful and informative book, and I will comment further on it as I progress through it. One criticism I have so far is that, like most of the popular psychology books I've read, everything in it seems obvious. I become amazed that thousands of academics in psychology departments all over the world are conducting research, and that this it all that they can come up with. More urgently, I am concerned that they seem to take little responsibility for the uses to which their findings are put. There is ample evidence now for the existence of various irrational currents in human behavior, and, with the exception of self-help books, the main applications seem to be in economics, resulting in Kahneman's receipt of a Nobel Prize in that field. Economists are often engaged in assisting commercial entities in the pursuit of money, and the research in this book has long been used to influence consumer purchasing decisions. If you have ever wondered why you repeatedly see the same ad for a product that is of no interest to you, thank Kahneman and his colleagues. Beyond economics, it has become commonplace among political operatives to improve their chances of winning elections through the use of similar techniques. A more desirable application for mankind would be the highlighting of the readily observable negative impact of irrational choices on collective human existence. I am, for example, disinclined to support capitalism or democracy, because they currently tend to produce inequality, overpopulation and environmental destruction. Psychologists would provide a better service to us if they suggested ways to improve the current democratic decision-making process, which might reduce the destructive effects of capitalism. Irrational policies may not be an inevitable product of government in a rationally managed future. To expand the application of Kahneman's metaphor, most of the governments in the world are currently operating on System 1 rather than on System 2.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Because we are having porcelain floor tiles placed in the sunroom, the house has been noisy all week, and we currently have to climb a ladder to a landing in order to reach the second floor without stepping on recently-set tiles. This has reduced my reading considerably. The spring has been unusually cold, but has not curtailed progress in the garden, and now, thanks to climate change, it will suddenly become extremely hot for a few days, and I'm installing a window air conditioner.

I didn't say anything about short fiction in my last post, and will do so briefly now. Much of the literary fiction that currently appears in the U.S. consists of short stories. It has become a separate form of fiction, in which techniques that differentiate it from novels are employed. I attempted to read it for several years, generally gave up, and recently read one collection that I didn't like much. My thinking on the kind of literary short fiction that is being written now is that the form exists primarily in order to fit within single issues of literary journals or magazines such as the New Yorker. I am no longer going to read it, because the form does not generate the kind of narrative density that I believe makes fiction worthwhile. It also lacks the distinctive virtues of poetry, which if nothing else permits the distillation of sentiments. Short stories, I think, are a kind of fudge, because they lack the space for the development of pointed realism. As I've said, characters become stick figures and the authors cannot be held accountable for shoddy work because the medium asks so little of them. The rise of the literary short story is probably also an example of the intrusion of market forces into the production and dissemination of fiction. In the nineteenth century, novels were often serialized in magazines, but they take up more space than contemporary publishers can tolerate, for economic reasons. A dud short story may have no effect on the circulation of a magazine, whereas as a serialized dud novel might substantially reduce it. On the academic side, there are probably advantages to emphasizing short stories over novels due to the relatively shorter time span necessary for their composition. I think that a good novel is much harder to produce than a passable short story, and this favors the short story in both literary publishing and writing programs. In some circumstances a long short story may possess the virtues of a good short novel – this was sometimes the case in the nineteenth century – but based on my recent reading experience, I don't think the contemporary literary short story is a form worth bothering with. There is promise in some short fiction that is produced elsewhere, such as that of Julio Ramón Ribeyro, but I'm not making a point of finding it.

The Trump drama drags on at a tedious pace. I was not impressed by James Comey's testimony, because there was nothing factually new in it. However, he has been the first major public figure in office during the Trump administration to openly express his concern about Trump's sleaziness, and if this catches on it may accelerate Trump's departure. The only benefit that I can find to Trump's presidency is a much-needed improvement in late-night TV comedy. Trump also seems to have invigorated the news media for the first time in several years, and it has almost come as a shock to me to read meaningful editorials again.

In other news, I have been closely following the conviction of Steven Avery since the airing of the Netflix "Making a Murderer" series in 2015-2016. Ordinarily, criminal proceedings don't interest me much, but this case is unusual, because Avery apparently was innocent and was framed, is still in prison, and his current attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has done an astounding job defending him, as is evident in this document. The forensics behind his case demonstrate how difficult and costly it can be to conduct a proper investigation and how hard it can be to overturn wrongful convictions in criminal cases.

I've rounded up some books on cognitive psychology and will be commenting on them next.

Monday, June 5, 2017

On Fiction II

I have been making an effort especially since I retired to read a variety of writings, and since I began this blog in 2014 I have more or less given up on the Internet as a primary source, except to identify which books to read. Although I tend to like serious topics and enjoy good nonfiction, I find it mentally oppressive to get a nonstop barrage of technical or academic writing and need some artistic works in the mix. One of the main themes of the blog has become the unsatisfactory nature of literature, fiction in particular. This may just be a fetish of mine, since I am not easily entertained and become concerned when I notice deficiencies in a work. For an experienced reader like me, it is impossible to take a work purely at face value and blindly accept whatever premises an author uses to create his or her work. Their premises and motives may be conscious or unconscious and may be unsatisfactory to me in a manner that causes me to reject their book outright.

When I read something that is supposed to possess artistic merit, I am not easy to please. This isn't because I consider myself a connoisseur, but because I expect the author to be reasonably talented and to have made a substantial effort in the production of his or her book. That sounds simple enough, but I have found that it is rarely the case. There are many forces working against the production of the kind of fiction that I like, and I'll attempt to identify some of them. Most of the intractable problems related to fiction have to do with the wide social context in which novels are written. They are usually written in a cooperative effort between agents, editors, publishers and authors, and professional writers have limited control over this process. In effect, their preferences are subordinated to commercial expectations unless they have managed to become popular by some alternate route. Thus, the thematic content of most fiction is dictated by what a few people think will sell, just as the thematic content of most film is dictated by the film industry. I have the same problem in finding good films.

There is an additional force working against good writing that occurs most obviously in the U.S., namely, the habitual conformity of the population. To be sure, there are some regional differences in the country, particularly with respect to the outlooks that dominate in red and blue states, but compared to Europe, which in a comparable area includes multiple historical ethnicities, languages, geographical barriers and countries, the U.S. is remarkably uniform in culture. To make matters worse, many of the largest corporations in the world are located in the U.S., and they have become expert in the manipulation of the expectations of the population in the interest of profit. As I've said, even the literary end of fiction in the U.S. seems like a niche market controlled by specialists in academia and publishing, and a track has been created for aspiring writers to follow through M.F.A. programs. Writers' conferences such as the one here at Breadloaf in Middlebury are venues for the exchange of business cards.

Drawing from the ten novels I've most recently read, I'll say something about the ones I find best and worst, which I hope if nothing else will show the criteria that are important to me. The best, I think, is Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai. What I like about it is the mood created by the author, along with a penetrating psychological aspect that captures the psyches of the characters with basic realism with respect to their outlooks, and that he includes a few lighthearted moments in an otherwise gloomy setting. It is instructive to compare Satantango with the good but lesser work, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's world is unrelentingly gloomy and his characters are dark to the core – so dark in fact as to render the novel unrealistic. Compared to Krasznahorkai, McCarthy is incapable of writing with psychological subtlety. Thus, instead of Irimiás, the itinerant opportunist, we get Judge Holden, the implausible superhuman demonic figure. Though McCarthy may equal Krasznahorkai in the lyricism of his descriptions of the landscape, the psychological underpinnings of his characters are comparatively primitive and weak. An interesting facet of fiction that I have come to recognize is that its authors are trapped by the cultures in which they live, thus American blandness makes it more difficult for American authors to produce fine works compared to authors who live in culturally richer regions such as Central Europe.

Another favorite is The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. The best part of that book, I think, is the interaction between the female characters. It seems that de Beauvoir understands the women in her milieu extremely well and depicts them with some precision, such as I have not seen in American fiction. I also like the sections covering her relationship with Nelson Algren, which are only partly fictionalized. For whatever reason, I find women more interesting than men, perhaps because they often seem to have more nuanced lives and a broader range of emotions. The main problem I have with The Mandarins is de Beauvoir's subservience to the male characters, which I later found corroborated by her life with Sartre as described in her memoirs. Most of the book is wasted on man-stuff, which I find uninteresting. For all her feminism, she capitulates to the male chauvinist pigs.

This last point brings to mind a more general problem that I have with male novelists. My views on Darwinism extend far down into the actual behavior of living people, and I am tired of male aggression, which turns up everywhere, including in novelists. What men often do, regardless of their vocation, is dominate and attempt to impress, the purpose of which, whether they know it or not, is to improve their chances of successful breeding. There is a tendency in male novelists to present themselves as more omniscient than they really are. They pretend to understand the world better than they actually do by filling their books with excesses in facts or ideas that do not necessarily improve upon their primary narratives, and their hubris often results in characters who display a psychological deadness that puts me to sleep. Although I like the writing of Michel Houellebecq in some respects, the grand theorizing in his novels is actually rather superficial, and you end up experiencing the Houellebecq persona or brand rather than the best possible writing. Houellebecq has positioned himself as a cultural phenomenon and, besides writing poetry, exhibits his photographs as an artist in that sphere. He has also starred in a fictional film about himself, "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq," a minor but amusing effort. I found Mathias Énard comparatively annoying in Compass, not for the ideas or prose, but because he pointlessly crammed in many irrelevant facts that contributed nothing to his paltry narrative. I felt that the novel lurched from one distraction to another and hardly cohered at all, and that it would be just as well to read random passages from an encyclopedia. When they write well, men can deliver compelling narratives, as in Sons and Lovers or Madame Bovary, but they more often resort to gaudy showmanship, perhaps on an instinctive basis. The male competitive drive sometimes, but not always, gets in the way of good writing.

For this reason, I tend to favor female writers such as George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir, but I still have difficulty finding many to my liking. In the context of modern living, the conditions aren't auspicious for a writer like George Eliot to appear. When she wrote, writing fiction for a living was not considered a vocation, and she came to it almost accidentally, with an unusual amount of encouragement from her partner, G.H. Lewes. Were she alive today, she would probably attend college and pick a more stable and reliable career. Those conditions apply to most women in the developed world now, and becoming a novelist would have to fall low on the list of potential vocations for those who are sensible. If you exclude the works by various minorities that emphasize their cultural backgrounds and hardships, a form that doesn't generally interest me, though I thought Texaco, the novel by Patrick Chamoiseau, was excellent, that leaves a pool of upper-middle-class brats who self-selected to become writers and obtained the appropriate educational credentials. Judging from my readings of several successful female and male writers from this group, don't expect much from them.

Because of my failure to find enough fiction that I enjoy, I have turned to poetry and memoirs. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck there either. I was able to find a few poems that I liked and even developed an appreciation of Emily Dickinson, but I usually have to read at least a hundred poems to find one that I like. I liked most of the memoirs that I read, but the good ones are rarer than good novels. Most of the best memoirs are written by novelists, and their memoir-to-novel ratios are low. If there aren't many good novels, there are going to be even fewer good memoirs. Under these conditions I will henceforth be reading very little fiction, but I will keep my eyes open.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Blood Meridian III

Other than the language, I did not find much to like in Blood Meridian. McCarthy took poorly-documented historical events that were chronicled by Samuel Chamberlain and reimagined them for his literary purposes. There was in fact a criminal group of scalp-hunters led by John Glanton which included a man named Judge Holden. Through some agreement with Mexican authorities, they were paid for the scalps of Indians in northern Mexico, and later they moved on to Arizona and California. In Arizona they took over a ferry for a time and robbed and killed passengers who were traveling to California. Several of the characters, including "the kid," a runaway from Tennessee who serves as the protagonist, are made up. Most of the action throughout the book consists of extreme violence. The Apaches attack, kill and mutilate everyone in their path, and the Glanton gang robs, kills, rapes, scalps and beheads people wherever it goes. Throughout most of the book it is difficult to identify with any of the characters, because they all seem amoral, selfish and violent, holding no loyalties and mistrusting each other. Towards the end, after most of the characters are dead and the gang has disbanded, the narrative opens up, with a protracted, intermittent dialogue between "the kid", ex-priest Tobin and Judge Holden.

Holden is by far the most sinister character in the book and is obviously intended to be interpreted as Satan or a demon of some sort. He has many skills, is conversant on countless subjects, and offers silver-tongued aphorisms and quasi-philosophical thoughts that seem completely out of place, all the while murdering innocent people, including the young girls who satisfy his pedophilic appetites. He also seems to possess superhuman physical characteristics with hints of immortality. McCarthy uses Holden and Tobin for a vague theological debate, and this didn't interest me at all. As in The Road, McCarthy seems concerned about the depravity of human existence in relation to the presumed existence of a deity, and since I don't presume the existence of any deity, the heart of the novel as a theological meditation is of no interest to me.

I find it more fruitful to examine Blood Meridian within its literary context. In that sense it is the brilliant apotheosis of the American Western, which McCarthy has taken to its logical extreme with no apologies, showing, I think, an artistic courage that few could muster. Rather than adopting the conventional narrative, in which cowboys behave rather poorly at times, he portrays his outlaws as brutal killers with no mitigating characteristics. Furthermore, his killers are not presented as aberrations and perhaps open a window to a much darker society than the one in which we imagine ourselves living. McCarthy effectively blows the roof off conventional Hollywood romantic nonsense about the Old West. However, he can still be seen as a genre writer. Blood Meridian was published in 1985, four years after the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter as a character in Thomas Harris's novel, Red Dragon. Though I doubt that Thomas Harris is as talented a writer as McCarthy, both Hannibal Lecter and Judge Holden are early examples of the intelligent, well-educated, psychopathic serial killers that continued at least up to Patrick Batemen in American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, which was published in 1991. That there was money to be made with novels depicting socially polished, cold-blooded serial killers was well-established before McCarthy wrote this book. I think the interest in this type of character may have originated with the real Ted Bundy, who was first arrested in 1975. Of course, there are much older precedents for satanic figures, but those usually have to do with the selling of souls, which doesn't apply in this case. McCarthy reprised the psychopathic serial killer with the less talkative Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men in 2005

Since the bar is set so low in American literature, McCarthy ranks near the top. In the U.S., authors can still write novels that are completely lacking in psychological subtlety and no one will notice. Although I don't like much of it, his novels are certainly more interesting than ones about women who are unhappy with their husbands or boyfriends or men who are sexually bored with their wives. After sampling them, I don't see any point to reading novels by Philip Roth or Don DeLillo. Works by Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen are also unappealing. In this environment, McCarthy may be the best living American novelist. My current foray into literature seems to have run its course, and I'll sum up my thoughts in my next post.