Wednesday, January 24, 2018

My Political Views

The political atmosphere in the U.S., you may have noticed, has become rather charged in recent years. One encounters political arguments of varying quality constantly, and, though I would prefer not to involve myself, I become concerned about the limited range of ideas that people hold, and how I get pigeonholed into descriptions that don't fit me well. Briefly, in the U.S., the thinking is that you are either on "the left" or "the right." These aren't very meaningful descriptions. If you are on the left, you are probably a Democrat and support equality, full government services, sufficient taxation to run the government properly, separation of church and state and abortion rights. If you are on the right, you are probably a Republican and support free enterprise, minimal government, lower taxation, the Christian religion and no abortion rights. When I engage in discussions with people who disagree with me, they usually lack the mental flexibility to characterize my views without resorting to these simplistic stereotypes. I thought I'd take a few minutes to clarify my political views.

Though, ostensibly, I fit better on the left end of the spectrum than the right, I actually don't fit either viewpoint very well, because both accept the current democratic process and a capitalism-based economy as givens. I fit the profile of the left mainly because I think that everyone should be treated equally under the law, and that a significant safety net ought to be in place, even when that requires financial sacrifices by the wealthy. My thinking is biological, starting with the fact that we are eusocial creatures who have cooperation built into our genes. Although the current situation, with overpopulation and strained interactions between historically segregated cultures, has to some extent been precipitating a reduction in cooperation, conceptually we have already reached a point where the simplest solution is to treat all people as members of one group, in which all are equal. This position comes naturally to those on the left, but those on the right tend to view other groups as inherently alien and therefore not meriting equal treatment. Specifically, Republicans who believe in the Puritan work ethic think that they alone are entitled to the fruits of their labor, and that they shouldn't have to share them with others. The Republican position lends itself to racism or other kinds of discrimination and has an ancient basis in the tribal instinct for survival in an environment inhabited by competing groups, hence, although it also has a biological basis, I consider it problematic as a solution to the ills facing mankind, because it encourages future conflict.

As I have said in previous posts, there is ample evidence that capitalism increases inequality, and that is only one of several of its disadvantages. Capitalism is also responsible for pollution, climate change, mass extinctions and the waste of natural resources. However, most people are prepared to overlook the problems associated with it, because they believe that it has brought about improvements in their standard of living. I have said less about the problems associated with democracy and will elaborate on that now. In the books I commented on by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Robert Sapolsky, it is readily apparent that the principles of democracy are in desperate need of reappraisal, despite the fact that none of these authors were willing to examine that problem. Specifically, if, as the evidence shows, people don't think clearly, are often irrational, and know far less than they think they do, why would one presume that collective decisions made in a democratic process would provide optimal solutions for a group? There is evidence that small groups of decision-makers make better decisions than individuals, but that applies primarily to problems of limited scale, in which the parameters are significantly restrictive. Time and again, I have witnessed political leaders make poor and uninformed decisions and promote policies whose consequences are not fully understood or are obviously detrimental to the long-term benefits of the citizenry. This may occur as a result of political expediency, ignorance or the desire for personal gain. The fact is that, in a democracy, the voters themselves often do not understand which policies would be to their greatest benefit, and, by electing candidates whose views they share, they are guaranteeing the enactment into law of flawed policy decisions. The top positions in the U.S. government increasingly require a level of competence that no human possesses.

My solution, as I've mentioned, is the gradual phasing out of traditional, hands-on, participatory democratic processes and the gradual phasing in of democratic algorithms, with the ultimate goal of replacing human voting. When AI advances to a sufficient level, it is conceivable that it will be possible to use it for better governance than we have thus far been able to provide for ourselves. At first glance, this kind of "wildlife management" model seems extremely unappealing, but if you imagine how people might actually live in it, it could be much better than what they are experiencing now. Conceivably, everyone could have sufficient food and shelter, a rich personal life and no worries about crime, war, servitude or environmental degradation. There might be reduced access to childbirth if the population became unmanageable, but most people would appreciate the benefits of certain restrictions on behavior, especially if they were administered fairly and equally; many of the current issues associated with partisanship reflect the unequal distribution of rights and restrictions. The need for a sense of self-determination could be satisfied by permitting small-scale decisions at the local level, with the larger, more complex issues falling under the aegis of AI. While, at this stage, this may still be a utopian idea, I have no difficulty imagining a population of happier, healthier people living without having to face their futures worrying about what the decisions made by their incompetent or corrupt leaders will bring. As you can see, this view hardly fits within the parameters of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Though I'm not particularly busy (I never am), various factors are preventing me from writing much on the blog. The new car purchase has been taken care of, with the car now sitting in the garage mostly unused. I don't have anywhere to go, and am a little hesitant to drive on ice and snow without snow tires. So far, other than driving back from the car dealership, I've only driven it once, to take a neighbor boy to school after he missed the bus. I am still spending time on investments, since, as I said, this is one of those rare opportunities to make easy money. I have been buying leveraged exchange traded funds, which are extremely volatile, and trying to avoid downswings. Since the market's direction has been consistently up for a few months, timing mistakes have been less problematic, and I often make thousands of dollars per day. This compensates for the losses I've accrued under less auspicious market conditions over the last few years. However, I must remain alert so that I can make quick sales in order to minimize losses in the event of downturns. I am also anticipating increases in interest rates and investing in inverse leveraged exchange traded funds for that purpose.

At the moment, I'm reading a fairly good book on human genetics, but am not sure whether I'll have any comments to make on it, since it is straightforward and so far doesn't have any revelations that change my thoughts. As usual, I've been trying to come up with some fiction to read and having a hard time of it. I considered writers such as Thomas Bernhard and Karl Ove Knausgård but decided that I probably wouldn't like either of them. There is something about the sensibilities of Germans and Scandinavians that I find distasteful, and my distaste, particularly in regard to Germans, runs deep. My parents, with good reason, were about as anti-German as you can get, and that has rubbed off on me; most of the Germanic people I've known, including my ex-wife, have had oafish characteristics that I can barely tolerate anymore. Perhaps before the World Wars I might have found something to like in Germany, but since then I don't think Germans have produced any art or literature that I would enjoy. I have been unable to take most contemporary American, English or French literature very seriously, and this brings me back to László Krasznahorkai. His writing is already a little tiresome to me, with the unrelenting gloom and pervasive sense of futility, but I am always able to detect a sophisticated artistry in his work that I never find elsewhere. In any case, I have ordered his latest book, The World Goes On, which is another collection of short stories.

My thoughts about this blog vary over time, and they are affected by my sense of who is reading it and why. I still seem to have a dwindling number of long-term readers who read it, probably for the heck of it, because they are mildly interested and have nothing better to do. Now, the majority of the blog's hits are from Google searches, many perhaps by students who are seeking information for assignments. The most visited post is "Kakutani on Houellebecq," and the second most is "A Woman Meets an Old Lover." These kinds of hits are usually one-offs, indicating that the reader was seeking specific information and was not curious about anything else on the blog. The Googlers may have no intrinsic interest in the blog; many of the posts fall into a series of posts that I've made about a book I'm reading, and I am finding that people read only one and not the rest. On top of this, with the lack of feedback, it is difficult for me to get a sense of what readers expect. At this point, I am more or less just writing what I feel like writing, and if something comes up that makes me reconsider the topics and themes of the blog, I'll change course if necessary. In any case, I don't see myself giving up the blog purely due to a lack of attention. Having comments pouring in would be less desirable to me than no comments. Obscurity is preferable to Internet fame.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Over the last year, I have enjoyed finally being able to put my investment experience and M.B.A. to practical use and make money in the stock market. Because my investment strategy involves greater allocation in foreign markets than is the norm, I was outperformed by U.S. markets until recently, but that pattern has changed, and now the U.S. is being outperformed elsewhere. After taking some profits, I bought a new car with cash and still have a larger portfolio than I did a few months ago. Stocks should advance globally for at least another year, and I plan to increase my bond allocation as interest rates continue to rise. When inflation increases, I will also invest in commodities.

It irks me that the Republicans, with gerrymandering, effective media campaigns and the buying of partisan economists, manage to attract a sufficient number of voters to get elected to Congress. The new tax law and deregulation are providing a temporary boost to an economy that was already doing well in 2016, but there is little in the news media to explain what the long-term costs will be. We are approaching the end of the business cycle, which will probably end in another stock market crash and a recession. In the meantime, wealthy people will have accrued nearly all of the benefits of the recent legislation, the wealth gap will increase, most Americans will still have low-paying jobs, and the national debt will start to balloon. The federal government increasingly resembles a nightmare. On the bright side, there is a good chance that Trump will be removed from or voluntarily leave office before the end of his first term, and a recession in 2019 or 2020 could put a stop to Republican control of Congress for a time. It is even possible that Congress will flip next November. I would rather not think about these things, since I don't really care about politics, but it is incumbent upon me to do so, given that the present behavior of the U.S. government is one of the greatest risks I face, along with everyone else. It may well be that the ignorance and short-term thinking of the current Republican leadership are at the most dangerous levels they've reached in American history.

My new car, which I'll pick up on Monday, is a 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn. Technically, I didn't need it, since my previous car ran fine and still had about 50,000 miles left in it. However, it was getting rusty and riskier for long road trips. This is the first time in my life that I've had a lot of money to splurge, and I've wanted a GTI since the late 1970's. They were first sold in Europe and were not available in the U.S. until the early 1980's. This is a perfect vehicle for me, because it offers relatively high performance, good gas mileage and has the practicality of a hatchback. The one I bought is "loaded," with many features which I may or may not use.

In other news, I am adjusting to the end of the holiday season, which takes a ridiculously long time here. The guests are becoming more mature as they age and thus are more tolerable to be around, but the continued presence of visitors in the house for weeks at a time disrupts my habits, such as reading and writing, without replacing them with anything that I find equally interesting. I have to engage in increased self-editing, because I don't pass the political correctness test and don't want to upset anyone. Hence, I go on hold, into a kind of involuntary hibernation, from mid-December to mid-January. Now that the visitors have gone, global warming is throwing me off. Within a few days of each other, we had temperatures ranging from -23⁰ F to +58⁰ F. At the moment, the thermometer is heading back to -11⁰ F. These changes can be hard on the body, not to mention the flora and fauna. William liked being able to go outside without freezing, but seemed confused.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Milosz: A Biography IV

After his family's arrival in France, Milosz continued to live near Paris and worked as a journalist. They bought a house in 1957. Janka was preoccupied with raising the two boys, who became trilingual, speaking English, French and Polish, while Milosz struggled to earn enough money to support them. He developed a knack for churning out articles and translating poetry to and from Polish, though he did not feel that he had enough time left for writing poetry. The Captive Mind was very well received by intellectuals, but its sales were dismal. The Issa Valley, his first novel, also sold poorly. As it happened, the Department of Slavic Languages at UC Berkeley was expanding, and he was offered a job there as a Visiting Lecturer in 1960. He accepted, and this improved his family's financial state considerably; he was promoted to Professor with tenure after only one year.

His life in the U.S. from 1960 onward had ups and downs, and he never became completely acclimated to the American environment. Physically, Northern California felt harsh and alien to him; it seemed hostile and imposing, and he missed the seasons of Poland and Lithuania. He also missed the warmth and openness of the Polish people and found Americans cold and boring. During the Vietnam War, Berkeley became a hotbed of student protest, and he initially supported the students. However, by the late 1960's, the protests had become out of hand, with pointless destruction and incoherent ideologies, and he would not be bullied by protesters, whom he called to their faces "the spoilt children of the bourgeoisie," which, according to Franaszek, earned their respect.

Milosz's position within the department was unique, and he had little in common with the other faculty members, who were Ph.D.'s with academic specialties, while he was a lecturer who covered broad topics of his choice. He became a popular lecturer and enjoyed flirting with his female students. Some of his funniest episodes are described here:

Departmental gossip held no appeal for him, and he was bored by cocktail parties and chit-chat about trivial matters. On social occasions he would get drunk very early on and invite guests to participate in a game Gombrowicz devised, which he passed off as a venerable Polish tradition; this involved lying on the floor and creating a tangle of bodies. He appears to have had a strong compulsion to try to hit on women students. As this most certainly did not meet with Janka's approval, she quickly put an end to his partying. Often she endeavoured to instruct him in good manners and the correct code of behavior, telling him off as if he were a little boy when he had had too much to drink or ate too quickly or did not sit properly at the table. It is possible that she did not realize that these social failings were indicative of a core sensuality within him and a hunger for intense, 'naked' sensations, unrestrained by conventions.

In Berkeley, he was truly isolated in his vocation as a Polish poet, with his important contacts remaining in Paris. He craved feedback on his work and became despondent over the lack of incoming mail. He had hoped that Polish-Americans would appreciate his work but soon determined that most Polish immigrants were peasants who didn't read much except for vocational purposes. Even for the U.S., Berkeley was a poor location for him, since most publishing and intellectual activity took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. However, with the publication of an English translation of The Captive Mind in 1968, his name recognition gradually picked up, and, by the late 1970's, people such as Robert Pinsky and Helen Vendler were seeking him out. In 1979 he met an attractive young Polish journalist and conducted an affair with her for several years. He did not want to leave Janka, whose health had become precarious, causing frequent incapacity before her death in 1986. At the same time, his younger son, Piotr, began to exhibit symptoms of severe manic depression. By 1980 he was well known in American poetry circles, and he was surprised to find himself not only nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but winning it that year.

The confluence of events soon significantly raised Milosz's profile in Poland. Pope John Paul II, who was conspicuously Polish, became Pope in 1978, and, after receiving the Nobel, Milosz met him on more than one occasion. The Solidarity labor union was founded in 1980, and Milosz met Lech Walesa, who became President of Poland in 1990. The dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred from 1990 to 1991, and Germany was reunified in 1990. Although Milosz had not been well known in Poland, and some Poles questioned his Polish credentials, since he was of Lithuanian origin, in Polish minds he became lumped in with the rebirth of Poland as an independent nation, and as a Nobel laureate he added to Polish self-esteem. To his credit, Milosz avoided behaving like a celebrity and always remained low key. Prior to Janka's death, Milosz broke up with his Polish girlfriend and began seeing the American academic, Carol Thigpen, who was also much younger than he was. He and Carol married after Janka's death, and they later moved permanently to Krakow. However, Carol died unexpectedly from blood cancer in 2002, two years before his death.

In the course of reading this book I have been trying to piece together what I think of Milosz. On the positive side, he was a person whose range of life experiences vastly exceeded mine or that of most people, he was a good observer, and he usually wrote clearly and honestly. On the negative side, I think that, although he was extremely productive, he was intellectually lazy, and, to my mind, he was not a particularly good poet. Looking at his background, he seems to have had an ax to grind about his family's fall from aristocratic grandeur, his early poverty and the military domination and unthinkable abuse of Lithuania and Poland by the Nazis and the Soviets. He also seems to have wanted to raise the stature of the literature of his region to the levels of Western Europe and Russia.

Milosz's intellectual laziness can be seen in his rapid movement to Roman Catholicism subsequent to writing The Captive Mind. I think that he had always been uncomfortable in the world of ideas, and, rather than bring a clear resolution to his beliefs, he fell back on the traditions of his region even though he had not been truly religious earlier and still retained a healthy skepticism toward the existence of God. He did not seem to recognize that Roman Catholicism was simply an ideology that has been refined over many centuries to attract and retain adherents, and that, as such, it was more sophisticated with regard to winning his conversion than newer, untested ideologies such as Marxism. Under Roman Catholicism, one can do whatever one pleases, as long as there are periodic private admissions of weakness and requests for absolution. It is the perfect religion for criminals, child abusers and sensual people like Milosz, the latter preferring not to rein in their sexual impulses. Furthermore, the Church supports the kind of sexism that Milosz unconsciously practiced throughout his life. Although I think that the current movement against sexual harassment has been getting a bit excessive lately, if you imagine Milosz still alive and teaching at Berkeley, he would soon find himself disgraced and out of a job, and in his mind he would have been using the Roman Catholic Church as his cover the whole time. It is possible that, in rejecting Nazism and Stalinism, Milosz threw out the baby with the bathwater; he seems to me to have elevated the importance of faith prematurely when, with just a little more effort, he could have arrived at a more tenable worldview without willfully rejecting science.

As to the quality of Milosz's poetry, I can't speak with much authority, because I can't read it in the original and certainly don't have any qualifications as a poetry critic. I'll say that I think his poetry could just as well have been written as prose, because I don't find it as imaginative and striking as the poetry that I like. I see all of the poems I quoted earlier on this blog as far more imaginative and striking than anything I've read by Milosz. Even if you allow that Milosz writes in a different, lyrical tradition, his work pales in comparison to Homer's Odyssey.

My conclusion on Milosz is that he was an interesting case study in how an intelligent person reacts to various adverse conditions. People who have not had the same experiences should not presume that they would have been able to handle them any better than he did. I must note that there were probably some inborn characteristics that Milosz possessed that steered him in the choices that he made. In particular, there are hints throughout the book that his strategy may have been designed specifically to combat a tendency toward depression, and in his case it seems, on the whole, to have worked. Although, after reading this book, I am unlikely to become a full Milosz convert, I have found much to cogitate over in it and recommend it highly, even to those who are not likely to become Milosz aficionados.