Tuesday, October 31, 2017


I had hoped that by now I would have settled into my winter mode, in which I would be finding writings of interest and reflecting on various topics. However, after a series of visitors and a new domestic mouse invasion, we were hit by a strong wind storm, which snapped trees and damaged the shingles on our roof.

Since moving here, I have become a mouse psychologist and have taught myself to think like a deer mouse. They can enter a house from many places, and I had already blocked all of the holes at or below ground level. When we moved in, there were five holes through which they had been entering and leaving. After two years, they chewed a new hole in the basement doorjamb, and I blocked that with cement. Two years later a mouse got in through a small hole that it had enlarged on the roof, and I filled that with steel wool. Recently I heard a mouse gnawing in the basement and decided that it must have entered somewhere through the roof, so I climbed up there and blocked some possible entrances (you can't always be sure) with steel wool. The reason why I thought that they were entering through the roof was that I could hear them climbing up and down the electric and cable lines outside while I was lying in bed. There were no further signs of mice inside for several days, but as soon as the wind storm hit I caught two of them in the basement. My theory is that they were living in the attic and may have become trapped in the house when I blocked their passageway, and when the storm hit they were frightened by the noise and fled to the basement. They are very easy to catch in humane traps baited with peanut butter. I used to let them out in the woods a mile and a half away, but now I release them outside in the yard to see if they can still get back in. Mice leave trails of urine wherever they go, and they use them to find places that they or other mice have been to recently. At the moment there don't seem to be any more mice in the house, but only time will tell. William does his job reducing the local mouse population, but they are always going to be around because of their high reproductive rate.

Wind storms are an anomaly here and seem to be a result of global warming. Besides Hurricane Irene, we've had two major wind storms and two lesser ones since 2011. This time we were without electricity for nearly twelve hours. Wind gusts reached eighty miles per hour, equivalent to a weak hurricane. Vermont may not get the droughts that some other places will, but the climate will be more variable, with warmer winters and hotter summers. Because of the storms, some people here have been getting backup generators. Out in the country, without electricity not only is there no light at night, but your well pump can't work, meaning that you won't have well water to drink, bathe in or cook. We keep a supply of water in gallon jugs so that we can at least fill the toilets and flush them without power.

My project for today is the replacement of a fence post that broke during the storm.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


One of the advantages of being retired is that you become accountable to no one and have the option of thinking as independently as you like. There is always the danger that you may become delusional and enter into a solipsistic world that is unintelligible to everyone but yourself, but I don't think that I fall into that category as of yet. On the contrary, I notice how people who work for a living, whether self-employed or as employees, compromise their thoughts in a manner that I don't have to. Generally, I can say whatever I like, and there will be no negative consequences such as a loss of income or a decline in my professional reputation. I find it difficult to engage with some writers because I can sense the pecuniary motivation behind their work and can see how they have created a façade specifically designed to entertain their readers without really challenging them, and this may differ from what they would write if they were unfettered by economic constraints. Such observations underlie many of the criticisms that I have made here, and I think it is telling that you won't generally find similar ideas in publications or books. Part of this deception occurs innocently in the sense that every writer belongs to some milieu that determines the forms and subjects that its members are expected to adopt, but in a commercial society, as D.H. Lawrence suggested, the ideal of honest writing often conflicts with financial objectives. Thus, I have increasingly found that some degree of dishonesty pervades public writings of all sorts.

As far back as the 1960's I noticed that painters who wanted to succeed had to develop a recognizable style as soon as possible. The more successful they wanted to become, the more obvious and repetitive that style would have to be. Since then, I've noticed that wherever I live there is usually a well-received local artist who has developed a distinct, recognizable style, and repetition has become a key ingredient of their success. While repetition may seem incompatible with creative expression, in a commercial environment it is a crucial element. The same is true on a national or global scale, but increased competition merely makes internationally competitive art more refined without eliminating the repetition: stylistic familiarity works much like a jingle in a television or radio commercial, with the aim of encouraging your continued patronage.

You might say that familiarity provides an undeserved advantage in all fields, including ones that are supposed to be intellectually rigorous, given the pervasiveness of human cognitive limitations. Flawed theories can survive for decades once they become established, if only because people have become accustomed to them. Even though I have tended to admire the thoughts of the Enlightenment thinkers, in a modern context much of what they had to say is dated or just plain incorrect. One of my biggest complaints has been that the implications of Charles Darwin's ideas have been largely ignored, because people were accustomed to and preferred the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, which, while uplifting to some degree, are not realistic in an overpopulated, unequal, polluted world. I try not to overstate my case, but I find it appalling that naïve ideas regarding individual freedom and free enterprise are widely encouraged and accepted despite overwhelming evidence of their destructive effects. I feel that it is necessary to say something about this. Our understanding of human nature has increased dramatically over the last two hundred years, and to ignore that information is foolhardy, to put it mildly. If you only paid attention to politicians, you would think that God is in Heaven smiling down on America and that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al., were the greatest geniuses in the history of the world. By now it is completely obvious to me that the Founding Fathers, though advanced thinkers in their day, held ideas that are outdated and untenable if not demonstrably false now.

Sometimes I wonder what the point of this blog is, and I usually return to the idea that it explores some concepts that are hard to find in conventional media. In my recent readings in nonfiction, I am struck by how very few authors are willing to speculate broadly on the implications of their findings. As our world becomes more complex and less manageable, rather than seek better solutions, our leaders, both intellectual and political, prefer to pat themselves on their backs and exaggerate their effectiveness as problem-solvers. In particular, the evidence for human irrationality has become indisputable, yet practically no one goes on to address the risks entailed when the prevailing models for livelihoods and governance are left unquestioned beyond the context of narrow academic research. Thus, I am unlikely to run out of subject matter for this blog in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


It now officially looks as if fall is here – the prettiest time of year, enhanced for me by the fragrance of drying leaves, which reminds me of my youth in southern New York. I don't think I could enjoy living in a place without four seasons and deciduous trees. Because of all the temperature variation over the last few months, it seems is if we were shortchanged on summer and winter is approaching ahead of schedule. I have books to read but may delay starting them, since there are visitors arriving soon.

One of my distractions over the last few weeks has been active investment. The stock markets are always unpredictable, but they become more predictable just after the middle of the business cycle, which varies in timing from country to country. The recession of 2007-2009 was quite severe worldwide, and the recovery continues. In my case, the recession immediately followed my retirement in late 2007, and I promptly lost about forty percent of my assets, without much income other than a very small pension. Normally, the economy and stock market would have recovered by about 2012, but it's only happening now. Fortunately, I have enough luck or skill to succeed in investing during times like this, and in about a month's time I've made enough profit to buy a new car. I've been thinking of replacing my current car, which is nearly fifteen years old and getting rusty from the road salt in Vermont. Still, I find the capitalist system unfair. Once you accumulate a certain amount of money, if you invest it properly you never have to work again. Ordinary workers become your de facto employees without your ever having to deal with them. As a stockholder in their companies, you benefit from the income and growth of their corporations without lifting a finger. If their employee benefits are reduced or if the workers are replaced by robots, you make even more money. I'm not rich, and I still may end up having spent only about a third of my life as an employee, with the rest a free ride. I've been retired for ten years and have more money now than I did when I retired.

The Trump presidency continues to disturb. At this stage, what is startling to me is that, despite the fact that the majority of the people, including some of his own staff, recognize his weaknesses and the danger that he presents to the U.S. and the world, he remains in office. I attribute this mainly to political cowardice on the part of Republicans. The fact that the Republican Party is in ideological disarray probably has something to do with it. Do they want lower taxes or lower budget deficits? You can't have both. To the extent that Trump has any policies, he supports a massive windfall to the rich at the expense of a higher national debt that may be impossible to pay off. Even if I were a Republican I would be appalled by the party's ideological incoherence.

The most unsettling thing to me about Trump is the message that he repeats constantly to energize his supporters, who represent about a third of the American population. To paraphrase Trump's message loosely, it's "I ain't gonna pay the niggers no more." The crux of his policy since taking office has been to rescind everything accomplished by Barack Obama, without offering any intelligible explanation. The subtext is pretty much "because the nigger did it." Similarly, Trump portrays illegal immigrants as dark-skinned people who are stealing American jobs. Whether or not he actually believes this is a moot point, because it is his primary political tactic, and it works. He has been coached by people like Steve Bannon to get support from economically challenged whites by using this technique. The dishonesty of Trump and Bannon lies in the fact that most of Trump's supporters are more or less in the same economic boat as the people whom he implicitly disparages, and Trump isn't doing anything to help them. The only noticeable beneficiaries of the Trump presidency are Trump, his family, his associates, and possibly the Russian government. Most observers have seen by now that Trump doesn't understand politics or have any strategic vision. A closer look also shows that he is completely indifferent to the disenfranchised.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

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

I have picked up my reading and finally finished the book, but I haven't had much to say about it. Despite writing in an informal voice, Sapolsky is a dutiful academic, and he surveys various research in some detail. He is not a grand synthesizer, and time after time he seems simply to reiterate "it's complicated." For a reader like me, who prefers the short answer to the long answer and an elegant theory to a hodgepodge of scientific facts, the book as a whole is not satisfying.

In broad outline, it is hard to disagree with Sapolsky. He shows how the endocrine system, neurons, genes and the environment, the latter including cultural influences, work together in complex ways to produce behaviors which, though causal in origin, are highly variable. I found the parts on neurology the most interesting, the parts on primates and other mammals less so, and the parts on social psychology obvious. Some of the academic disputes interested me a little. I enjoyed his historical perspective on the disagreement between sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson and paleontologists and geneticists such as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over genetic determinism. Since Sapolsky is, like the latter two, a New York Jew, he is allowed to frame the dispute as political in nature, South versus North. A related schism exists today, with an odd mixture of conservatives and impartial scientists on one side and political correctness and liberals on the other. He also discusses controversial experiments in social psychology such as those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, which I had heard of before. He disagrees with some of Steven Pinker's ideas in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I haven't read and don't intend to.

Where I am in greatest sympathy with Sapolsky is in his assertion, which is extremely well-documented in this book, that human behavior is fundamentally irrational. Although he seems to go out of his way to avoid the appearance of a polemicist, like me he does not believe that we are rational agents at all. Without making much fuss about it, he specifically repudiates philosophers who suggest that morality falls within the domain of reason. However, it seems to me that he offers no prescriptions and in the end resembles a standard American liberal who believes in social justice, understanding others who are different from you, blah, blah, blah. In contrast, I find it more useful to discuss specific ways in which society might be reordered in a manner that is both fair and sustainable. On this front, Sapolsky seems to draw a complete blank. For example, although he is fully aware that how people vote is essentially irrational, he offers no critique of the current democratic process. Similarly, despite convincingly demonstrating that male leaders usually have no particular talents that extend beyond the promotion of their self-interest, he makes no comment on how, in a capitalist system, they endanger the world. While he is broadly in agreement with E.O. Wilson, he doesn't lift a finger to warn us about the risks of destroying the planet or precipitating our extinction.

Sometimes Sapolsky's attempts to be humorous and entertaining become annoying. On page 385 he finishes a paragraph as follows, with the footnotes shown:

This was a bold assertion that the heuristic of dialectical materialism not only extends beyond the economic world into the naturalistic one, but is ontologically rooted in the essential sameness of both worlds' dynamic of irresolvable contradictions.* It is Marx and Engels as trilobite and snail.†

*I have no idea what it is that I just wrote....

Considering the complexity and seriousness of the topics under discussion, I would have preferred fewer distractions and more focus. However, if you can tolerate Sapolsky's writing style and the length of the book, it is a good source of information.