Saturday, September 23, 2017


I'm still not reading much, but I've finished my astronomy projects for the time being, and, after some social engagements and a little more stargazing, I'll probably start reading on a more sustained basis, which will provide more grist for the blog. I assume that most of my tiny cadre of readers find book discussions to be of greater interest than my "Diary" posts, since they incorporate topics well beyond the daily life of a retiree.

Cleaning the objective lens of my refractor turned out to be fairly time-consuming. Technically, I have abused the telescope by leaving it outside almost constantly for four years, with the objective lens exposed to dew on many occasions and drying each time. In the interest of not damaging the objective lenses of telescopes, conventional wisdom is that they should rarely be cleaned. However, I probably should have cleaned mine two years ago, and it had quite a buildup. Stargazing is a male-dominated hobby, and many stargazers are obsessive about their telescopes, taking adoring pictures of them, showing them off as displays of wealth and social prestige, and lusting after aspirational equipment that they can't afford, but I consider telescopes to be functional objects. Most of the cleaning solutions I tried didn't work at all, but finally I got a blue enzyme cleaner from Texas Nautical Research in Houston, the U.S. distributor for my telescope, which is Japanese in origin, and, after a few attempts and an improvised technique, it finally became clean, and without any scratches or damage to the optical coatings.

I've been watching Season 7 of Portlandia, and, as previously, the episodes are extremely uneven in quality, but there are usually some good ones. I especially liked the opening scene to Episode 5, which shows a man looking for a restroom in an office building. A receptionist directs him to one, but he can't follow her instructions and accidentally wanders back to her desk. At that point, to avoid embarrassing himself, he pulls out his smartphone and turns on an app for office navigation. Its database includes the layouts of all office buildings, municipal buildings and homes, and, like GPS, it navigates him right up to the toilet seat, with images and verbal instructions the whole way. Later, the same man is shown sitting at home on his sofa watching TV. Suddenly the app comes on and offers figurative guidance, given that he has been unemployed for 3.5 weeks. The app coaches him through the entire job-hunting process to the final interview, for which he wears headphones attached to his smartphone. When he is offered the job, the app instructs him to shake hands and make eye contact with the interviewer and then leave. This reminded me of Sherry Turkle and some of my previous posts. At the moment, this scenario looks funny, but I think it's already starting to happen. A less-funny implication of this kind of technology is that there may not be any jobs at some point. If all thinking can be done with apps, algorithms and AI, there eventually won't be much need for employees.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst II

I haven't been reading much this summer and am moving very slowly through the book. The writing style isn't as bad as I had feared it might be, and I am finding the topic interesting. By describing the biological processes behind psychological processes, a deeper understanding of human behavior becomes available, because the causal mechanisms are readily apparent. For example, where Daniel Kahneman documents "fast" and "slow" thinking, Sapolsky specifically links some aspects of these processes to hormones and various regions within the brain. The amygdala is the home of many emotional and irrational reactions that occur instantaneously, and the prefrontal cortex is the home of many deliberative processes; both regions are activated in complicated ways by hormones and pheromones. Other mammals have similar regions and processes, and human behavior is merely a recent manifestation of brain functions that have been in existence for millions of years.

Sapolsky looks in some detail at testosterone and shows that its effects are far more complex and subtle than those mentioned in common parlance. Rather than simply boosting male aggression, it serves as an amplifier to reactions and is context-dependent. In other hormones, I've only got as far as oxytocin and vasopressin and still have a long way to go. I'm not particularly literate in this subject, so this isn't an easy read. I am more interested in the implications of this kind of work than in all of the particulars. Sapolsky's discussion is wide-ranging, and I am paying more attention to his general thoughts than to the biological specifics that determine our behavior. In later chapters, which I'll get to eventually, he discusses groups, hierarchies, morality and free will, which have greater appeal to me.

The sense I get is that Sapolsky is going to demonstrate how complex all behavioral processes are, so that while it may be possible to identify behavioral patterns on a broad scale, in individual cases multiple outcomes are possible due to the large numbers of variables in operation: it is easier to predict general human behavior than the specific behavior of an individual. I don't think that Sapolsky has many philosophical proclivities, though he is familiar with the work of Daniel Dennett, so I'm not expecting much on that front. Still, it looks as if I will be able to incorporate the ideas in this book with my own ideas about human limitations and the theoretical desirability of external AI-based management for our species. For me, it is simply a matter of risk management to ensure that human errors don't lead to disastrous consequences for all of us. We ought to arrange our circumstances in a manner such that outlier groups such as ISIL or incompetent political leaders such as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump don't ruin the world for everyone. Furthermore, we need an unbiased authority to enforce limits on our freedom, such that we can't have as many children as we like or despoil the planet in pursuit of riches. These are the directions in which I would take Sapolsky's work, but he does not so far seem ambitious on those fronts.

I might also note that I view it as a responsibility of educated adults to maintain at least some familiarity with these scientific developments, because I think that is necessary in order not to engage in avoidant behavior. There is enough information available for us to collectively improve our situation, and we would be fools not to make an effort. One of the reasons why I have become disenchanted with fiction and the arts in general is that they have veered off into alternate realities in which style trumps substance, and authors take no responsibility for their own educations, let alone those of their readers. They are taking the easy way out, which never bodes well in the arts.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I

I've just started this relatively long book by Robert Sapolsky, which takes a close look at human behavior, drawing from his background in neurobiology, primatology and other disciplines. Of all the books I've read on the subject, Sapolsky comes with the best background, which is extremely multidisciplinary by academic standards. E.O. Wilson's work in sociobiology offers quite a stretch from ants to humans, though I think he's a better writer and possibly a bigger thinker than Sapolsky. There is a gradation in scientific rigor that one encounters in topics such as this. The books I recently read by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Jared Diamond are comparatively "soft" with respect to scientific rigor, because they either ignore many of the biological details of humans or gloss over them because they are not central to their research. According to reviews I've read, Sapolsky takes a hard, deterministic stance on human behavior, like E.O. Wilson, and this is the approach that I have found most fruitful. Practically all of the significant research on humans over the last few decades has occurred within the framework of biology.

This is not to say that I will enjoy reading the book. First, its length automatically causes it to flunk my concision test. Second, Sapolsky's writing style is like a presentation made by a popular university lecturer. He seems to want to come across as accessible to the clueless students clustered in front of him, and one reviewer describes him as a "hipster." When I see a male professor using "with it" language and displaying long, curly hair, I am reminded of the pot-smoking, student-seducing college professor played by Donald Sutherland in the film Animal House, and I find their pedagogic techniques more distracting than appealing. This may be an academic version of the insertion of irrelevant personal details about scientists made by journalists such Elizabeth Kolbert, and I could do without it.

Perhaps because of my own ignorance, I had thought that hard determinism was off the table in some scientific disciplines because of the existence of random events. I'm probably still not completely clear on this, but my current thinking is that the thesis of hard determinism is universally valid, and that it seems implausible to us only because we are incapable of knowing exactly how something happened in every case, and the word "random" is simply a cover for a particular, intractable kind of cognitive deficiency that we possess. The idea of randomness has always been more reputable than concepts such as ESP, telekinesis and magic, but it may actually belong in the same class. My current view is that the universe does in fact move like clockwork, but that our feeble little brains are unable to fully understand the exact mechanism for every event. We have made up secondary concepts such as mind, consciousness and God to fill in the gaps, but these only reflect our local, unprivileged status as finite entities within the world.

Even given that everything anyone does is predetermined and unchangeable, we labor under the illusion of free will and still must try to think of better ways to organize humanity. Therefore, there has been no change in my thesis that we ought to be studying what kind of beings we are and which habitats we are best suited to. We have both altruistic and destructive tendencies and seem to have evolved to coexist in cooperative groups. The end goal, I think, is not an immortal race of super-geniuses, as has been suggested by some futurists, but the creation of a sustainable habitat which allows all people to live the kinds of lives for which evolution has prepared them.

This book is jammed full with information, and I will attempt to pick out anything that seems worth discussing.

Sunday, September 3, 2017


I've finished most of my astronomy equipment projects for the time being. I sold one item to a man in San Jose and another to a man in Belgrade, Serbia. The only remaining project is the cleaning of the 130 mm objective lens of my refractor, and I'm awaiting the arrival of cleaning fluid from England. The viewing conditions, however, have remained poor all summer. Orion is visible again – if you're up at 4:00 A.M.

This hasn't been a normal summer for me. We just had another round of workmen, who were hammering, drilling and sawing for a week in the process of repairing water damage and constructing a covered entry for the front door. William didn't like the noise either and spent all day sleeping on a chair in the basement. We also have had extremely cool weather. On September 1, the temperature hit 39 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a frost warning. In me, this seems to trigger a biological adjustment to winter, which isn't coming yet, and it throws me off. The tomatoes aren't doing as well this year, but are still producing adequately.

I think I'm suffering from a mild case of cabin fever for several reasons. First, I haven't left the state once this year, and its allure is wearing off. After six years, the native Vermonters seem less interesting to me than previously. Although they are generally more relaxed and pleasant than city-dwellers, like most of the rural people I've known they are socially retarded. Besides the usual New England reticence that I've come to expect, I find that they don't know how to communicate well and don't understand people who are not part of their immediate social group. Some of the people who have lived in this neighborhood for over 30 years have hardly ever spoken to each other. If it hadn't been for the recent migration of well-educated people to the state, it would probably still be a conservative backwater. In fact, parts of Addison County have an atmosphere similar to Southern Appalachia, complete with inbred populations that have become mentally deficient over the course of time. All of the people I know seem happy to live here, but, if you look closely, the native Vermonters are not well-integrated with the recent arrivals, and they comprise separate cultures to some extent.

Although my social needs are very limited compared to those of most people, it doesn't help that Anne, despite being healthy and energetic, gravitates toward people in the 75-100 age group. Admittedly, there are some advantages to that group: they don't have anything left to prove, are generally better-mannered and more articulate than younger people and are easy to get along with. However, to me they seem like relics of the past, and I often wonder how capable they are of understanding subsequent generations – not that subsequent generations are worth understanding. I might prefer people who are more physically active and less disease-riddled, but I haven't come across many and am making no effort to find them. As it is, I am unlikely to meet any through Anne, who is far more active socially than I am and my primary conduit to the outside world. Normally I am easily satisfied by the smallest amount of high quality social interaction, but under the present circumstances I'm hardly getting even that. It's beginning to look as if my primary social venue will be funerals – there has been one already.