Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Diderot IV

As Diderot grew old, he became less active and spent more time alone writing. It seems that he was a little miffed that he had not produced any well-received works, and that he kept plugging away, though the kind of skills he had did not suit him for that task. In Paris, another generation, including Thomas Jefferson and Mozart, began showing up to experience the new cultural mecca firsthand. Diderot's friends, ex-friends and acquaintances began to die off. Rousseau died in 1778. Madame d'Epinay and d'Alembert died in 1783. Sophie Volland died in 1784, and Diderot himself had a stroke shortly thereafter and died later that year. Grimm outlived them all and survived through the French Revolution, but became embittered by the material losses that he faced under the new regime.

Diderot was not particularly famous before, during or immediately after the Revolution. His daughter, Angélique, wrote a memoir, and this, along with the publication of his letters to Sophie Volland, increased his name recognition significantly. Slowly he became an inspiration to other writers when Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist were published posthumously. Goethe was an early translator into German, and Stendhal, who was born in 1783, was an early admirer. According to Furbank, Balzac also liked Diderot, and in this sense Diderot can be thought of as the founder of realism in fiction. If that is the case, Diderot deserves a lot of credit.

Furbank writes of Jacques the Fatalist as follows:

I have said that in Jacques the Fatalist Diderot depicted himself as he would like to be and in many ways would lay claim to being. One can hardly miss the point, for Jacques is, among other things, visibly an apologia for many of his own faults, or imputed faults: his talkativeness..., his officiousness, his passion for paradox, his relentless scepticism, his ribaldry and his outrageous outspokenness.

The clue or pointer in all this, biographically speaking, is "fatalism". For it was important in Diderot's mind that, buffeted as he might be by Fortune, he had been favored in his birth. He was one of those who are endowed by Nature or destiny for a whole array of virtues, talents and good qualities. His addiction to self-praise finds its justification here, it being a continual and beautiful surprise to him what precious qualities, what capacities for ardent feeling or original thought, he discovered in himself. This was no occasion for vanity, for he might just as easily have had the misfortune to be born an imbecile or a criminal.

The number of shining virtues attributed to Jacques is, when one comes to count them out, very large; and they are all linked to "fatalism" or respect for the necessary. 

Assuming that this is an accurate description of Diderot's concept of fatalism, I can't say that I'm in complete agreement. Fatalism is simply a statement about the future, with a psychological emphasis in which outcomes are seen to be beyond one's control. For practical purposes, fatalism implies an abdication of responsibility, because the presumption is that the same outcome will occur no matter what you think or do. In a psychological sense, that is incorrect, because we have the perception of free will, which causes us to believe that we can consciously affect outcomes. Fatalism implies a kind of giving up that isn't really part of human nature. We now understand the human brain far better than we did in the eighteenth century and know that it has evolved to solve problems rather than to behave passively. I contrast Diderot's view with modern determinism, in which every event in the universe is seen to be causally predetermined. The difference is that we don't actually know what every outcome will be and are forced to rely on our innate sense that we can influence events. For example, a fatalist might say "Everything is preordained and there is nothing that I can do about it, so I'm just going to stop eating and die," whereas a determinist might say "The sequence of events in the universe may be completely determined, but the process is mostly incomprehensible to me and the outcomes are uncertain." Thus, fatalism is more amenable to giving up outright whereas determinism is more amenable to thinking that even if the whole process is predictable, it is beyond your comprehension and you can still try to figure it out. It is also possible that both fatalism and determinism are false theories, in which case Diderot's theory would be even less appealing. Diderot may have been prescient in noticing that personalities and abilities are inborn, i.e. genetic in origin, but in the context that he wrote about it I don't find it especially illuminating.

To use this as an example, I'm not terribly excited about Diderot as a writer or thinker, though on the whole he probably wasn't much better or worse than Rousseau or Voltaire. Rousseau was more serious and engaging, and Voltaire was wittier. Of course, it's premature of me to say that, since I haven't actually read any of this in his own words and don't intend to. Nevertheless, that is where I stand at the moment, and I'm ready to move on to another book.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Diderot III

Another aspect of the Rousseau-Diderot split should be mentioned. In recounting the complaints that he had about Rousseau, Diderot said that he was always going out of his way to help Rousseau but never received anything in return. He had spent many hours reading and editing Rousseau's works, and in some cases had provided useful suggestions that had improved them substantially, yet Rousseau never reciprocated at all. By the time Rousseau had moved to the Hermitage, Diderot also had to travel out to the country just to see him, because Rousseau had stopped going to Paris. I had wondered about this lack of reciprocity earlier, when reading Cranston, and now I think that there is enough evidence to say that Rousseau used people. He tended to lay it on thick about how much he loved certain people, such as Mme de Warens and Diderot, but if you look closely it becomes apparent that he was taking advantage of them and creating a lot of labor on their part while expending little energy on them. In fact it seems that Mme de Warens tried to get rid of him on several occasions, and that by the time he finally departed her house she was glad to see him go. We have only Rousseau's account of those events, and I think that Mme de Warens's version would differ. In other words, by our standards, Rousseau used flattery and feigned dependence to get his way with the people whom he knew would reliably help him, and he attached himself to them. His only long-term relationship was with his mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, who, as time passed, settled into the role of maid and was never treated as an equal for social or intellectual purposes. Thus, I am seeing that Cranston, who admired Rousseau and wrote the enormous biography, presented a more favorable view of Rousseau than Furbank, who admired Diderot and was less inclined to suppress Rousseau's defects. I am finding Furbank's explanations more palatable, because they provide a better picture of why Rousseau eventually felt ostracized, and in fact was ostracized, by people who had supported him previously. To be fair, in those days before the field of psychology existed, Rousseau was less likely to be aware of his transgressions, and the people around him would not have had the language to point out his weaknesses to him. There was a pathology to Rousseau's behavior that hadn't been explored by science yet. In contrast, as Furbank likes to point out, Diderot behaved more like a modern man and was cognizant of how he fit into his social milieu. To psychologize a little, Rousseau lacked a mother while growing up and was essentially abandoned by his father; without acknowledging his father's abandonment, he proceeded to abandon his own children and clung rather pathetically to people who seemed to offer him genuine help. In the end, Rousseau benefited enormously from the extended adolescence provided to him by Mme de Warens and from the introduction to the intellectual circles in Paris provided to him by Diderot. His effort to attach himself to Sophie d'Houdetot, which precipitated his split with Diderot, backfired when she chose to stay with Saint-Lambert, in effect dumping him. My interpretation is that human foibles were in full evidence during the Enlightenment, and that one ought to be cautious about idealizing its participants.

Diderot's wife, Nanette, was less educated than he was and a nag. He remained married to her but had a long affair with Sophie Volland, beginning in about 1756. Sophie was better-educated, more intellectual and from a wealthier family than Nanette, and Diderot tended to correspond with her whenever they were apart. His father died in 1759, and he received a substantial inheritance, but not one that made him rich. After the Encyclopédie was finished he tried his hand at all kinds of writing, but did not receive much income. Over his life he wrote essays, plays, novels and short stories, none of which turned out to be profitable. However, he was very well connected, and the philosophes of Paris became the envy of intellectuals throughout Europe. In his middle years his friendships continued with d'Holbach, Grimm and Voltaire, though Voltaire was rarely in Paris. He met David Hume while Hume was employed in Paris, and they became friends. He became interested in art and became an early art critic.  His financial fortunes improved substantially when Catherine the Great of Russia bought his library in 1765 and paid him to be its librarian while leaving it in place. He also recommended the sculptor who designed and constructed a statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Diderot had no interest in travel, but eventually he visited Catherine the Great in Russia, though, apparently, she didn't like him much when they became better acquainted.

I am having a hard time getting enthusiastic about Diderot and should finish the book soon. Furbank was a literary man who was friends with E.M. Forster, so his emphasis is on literature, in this case Diderot's philosophical literature such as Rameau's Nephew, D'Alembert's Dream and Jacques the Fatalist. Since Diderot's primary model for fiction was Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), I'm not excited about reading Diderot's works. I think that the novel as a form of art was a little primitive before the nineteenth century and that it reached a peak in Europe in the second half of that century. Of course, there have been a few notable works outside that time frame, but I don't care enough to hunt them all down or read them at this point. I think it is more interesting just to read accounts of the lives of intelligent people who lived in different time periods. Diderot is a little less interesting than others because in several respects he prefigures later freelance writers who had good reputations but didn't really produce any significant works. Although Diderot had a wider literary and philosophical range than you would generally find today in a writer, I sense that he produced the same sort of writing that you might expect from recent intellectuals; the general intellectual at this stage seems a little useless to me, and writing based on actual research is more likely to capture my attention – perhaps even if it is poorly written.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Diderot II

When Diderot was released from prison in November, 1749, he began a long period of intense work on the Encyclopédie. At that time, he was regularly attending the salon of Baron d'Holbach, a rich German who had moved to Paris and occupied himself as a dilettante in the sciences. The salon was also attended by Rousseau and Herr von Grimm, another German whom Rousseau had befriended. The attendees of d'Holbach's salon were mostly atheists and determinists, with the exception of Rousseau, who retained his own brand of religious faith. For the time, it was an unusually scientific group, perhaps because of German influences. Many of them, along with the French mathematician, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, made early contributions to the Encyclopédie, which was sold serially and published between 1751 and 1761. When finished, it consisted of 17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of plates and 60,660 articles in all. It was challenging to produce, given the censorship that existed in Paris at the time and the large number of contributors who had to be recruited, but eventually it was a great success and was probably Diderot's most significant accomplishment.

Furbank is doing a much better job at describing the personalities of the philosophes than Maurice Cranston did in his biography of Rousseau. Diderot was a talker and a joker, which caused some people to dismiss him as frivolous. He became friends with Grimm, who was given to sarcasm and biting comments. Diderot had a playful spirit that Rousseau didn't share, perhaps because of his Calvinist background. Rousseau came to dislike Grimm, whom he considered a social climber. My impression is that, like many extroverts, Diderot, though intelligent by all accounts, behaved in a scattershot way which may have prevented him from forming deep personal relationship, and his non-scientific writings did not capture the hearts of his readers. It comes as no surprise that the most endearing writers of the period, Rousseau and Voltaire, are resting in the Panthéon, while Diderot is not. Nor did Diderot spur a movement like Rousseau, who was emulated in England and Germany by the Romantic poets.

As far as Diderot's personal life is concerned, he remained estranged from most of his family members until 1754, at which time the feud ended. Nanette had her only surviving child, Marie-Angélique, in 1753. Later, Marie-Angélique provided most of what little is known of Diderot's early life, based on what he told her while she was growing up.

Furbank's account of Rousseau's contentious departure from the Hermitage in 1757 is somewhat more informative than that of Cranston. It seems that Rousseau had handled his affair with Sophie d'Houdetot recklessly, and he resented the prying of Mme d'Epinay and her lover, Grimm. Rousseau had already become alienated from Grimm and had had a run-in with Diderot in his choice of the words "Only the wicked man lives alone" in a play that he had recently written; Rousseau took it personally. He had little in common with most of the other philosophes, in that he did not share their passion for science, and this, along with his dislike of Paris, caused him to gradually withdraw from the group. In turn, they saw his willful avoidance of acquiring a sufficient income as pure pigheadedness. The final straw occurred when Diderot attempted to give Rousseau some friendly advice on the situation with Mme d'Epinay and was rebuffed. Besides his dislike of science, Rousseau had an unusual tendency to reject group consensus and engaged in prickly behavior whenever pressured to conform. Subsequent to this visit, Diderot gave up completely and never saw Rousseau again. Rousseau's "hermit" act was unconvincing to the intellectuals in his circle, and because he was closed to discussion on many of the choices that he had made, thereafter they considered him an eccentric. That view became universal after Rousseau's disastrous visit to England with David Hume.

Because Furbank's favorite topics are at odds with mine, I am reading some chapters more thoroughly than others. I enjoy reading about the intellectual scene in Paris of the mid-eighteenth century, but Diderot's writings less so. The appeal is in the freshness of the intellectual atmosphere, which is striking compared to the present, in which ideas are not widely discussed and the media are engaged in a kind of thought control driven primarily by the profit motive. It is astonishing to witness all the tripe that is being served up these days, when, in theory at least, there are more educated people than ever walking the planet. For example, the majority of U.S. senators at present pale in comparison to the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which has been in effect since 1789; in contrast to the Enlightenment thinkers, they seem to be enthusiastically ushering in a new Dark Age. I'll keep plugging away and may finish sooner than I thought I would.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Diderot I

I am reading the biography of Denis Diderot by P.N. Furbank. As is usually the case when I start a new book, it takes me a while to warm up to the subject and the writing style of the author. In this instance I am finding Furbank to be a good writer, but am a little dismayed that he is making an effort to portray Diderot as a literary figure in addition to an Enlightenment thinker, because, if you've been reading this blog, you will already know that I'm not a great fan of literature at the moment, and in any case I don't think that Diderot has much claim to fame on that front. I have no interest in Diderot's fiction and don't plan to read any of it. On the other hand, Furbank is providing more information on Diderot's ideas than Maurice Cranston did on those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his biography that I discussed earlier. I should also mention that, although Furbank is an engaging writer, there is far less biographical information available on Diderot than there is on Rousseau, so this characterization may neglect certain aspects of Diderot's life. Diderot was not always honest and made expedient statements about himself when necessary, whereas Rousseau, who had an excellent memory, was generally honest in Confessions.

Diderot was born in 1713 in Langres, a town southeast of Paris, between Nancy and Dijon. His father was a successful cutler, and the family was close and supportive up to the point that Diderot became an aimless bohemian. His early schooling was at a local Jesuit college, where he proved to be an unruly but talented student. In the early years he tentatively planned a life in the church. He later attended the University of Paris, where he received a master of arts degree in 1732. Around this time he dropped theology and considered other fields, but he never got serious about any profession, and his father eventually lost patience with him, cut off his funding and told him to come home from Paris. From then on, Diderot became skilled at earning money or obtaining free lodging by everything from tutoring in mathematics to translating to posing as a potential monk. When he desperately needed money, his mother would send him some on the sly.

He met Rousseau in Paris in 1742, while he was still immersed in a bohemian lifestyle, and they immediately hit it off. Diderot had a girlfriend, Anne-Toinette Champion, whom he decided to marry that year, and he returned to Langres to try to get funds from his parents. He didn't tell them his intentions immediately, and they thought that he would be staying in Langres. However, when he did tell them there was an explosive argument, because his parents had already planned a marriage for him. Diderot had the audacity to threaten his father, saying that if he didn't receive payment for his share of the family property he would call the bailiff and have him arrested. His father retaliated by having him arrested and imprisoned in a monastery. After being incarcerated for a few days, Diderot escaped by climbing out of a window and made his way back to Paris on foot, staying off the main roads to avoid being spotted. Upon his return, he was initially estranged from his girlfriend, who was called Nanette, but they eventually reconciled and married in a private ceremony on November 6, 1743 without telling his family.

During these years, Diderot considered himself a philosophe, a class that emphasized reason over Christianity, and was suspect according to Parisian authorities:

...among the orthodox and bien-pensant, the term philosophe carried a sulphurous aroma: one of its meanings was "misanthrope" and another was "freethinker", and as late as 1740 the Dictionnaire of the Académie defined it as "a man who, by libertinism of mind, places himself above the duties and ordinary obligations of civil and Christian existence. It signifies a man who refuses himself nothing and observes no constraint."  In the bookselling trade, the term "philosophical books" was used to include pornography.

Diderot's romance with Nanette didn't last long, and their marriage was soon on the rocks, though it continued. She had several children who did not survive to adulthood. After 1746, Diderot had an affair with Madeleine de Puiesieux, an aspiring writer. Then, in 1749, the following incident occurred:

It so happened that in this summer of 1749 the French Government was in a mood of near panic, the country being thick with rumours of national bankruptcy and sexual scandal in high places. Thus it was decided to make a round-up of anti-government propagandists and of suspicious characters generally – atheists, Jansenists, pornographers or abusers of the King. By now Diderot was an obvious candidate, and on 24 July, at seven-thirty in the morning, he was arrested at his house – to which he and Nanette had lately moved – in the rue de la Vieille Estrapade. The two police officials ransacked his study for documents and led him off to a waiting hackney-coach, to take him to the prison fortress of Vincennes, six miles to the east of Paris.  

Though Diderot expected help from his family, they ignored him. However, Voltaire, with whom he was acquainted, used his connections to arrange for favorable conditions for him while jailed. He was allowed to dine with the Marquis du Châtelet and receive visitors. Mme de Puiesieux visited him, and, becoming suspicious, on her departure he spotted her with a new boyfriend, which caused him to break up with her permanently. More famously, Rousseau read about the essay prize proposed by the Academy of Dijon while walking to visit him. The question was "Whether the progress of the sciences and the arts has contributed to corrupting morals or to purifying them." According to Diderot, he recommended that Rousseau take the least popular position, i.e. that morals were being corrupted. Thus, the main theme of Rousseau's career was launched, and before long he became one of the most famous writers in Europe. As for Diderot, his experience of being locked in the monastery and at Vincennes left him with a deep fear of confinement.

As I proceed through this book my views may change a little. For now, I think that Diderot was a more significant thinker than Rousseau because of his work on the Encyclopédie. Although there were several contributors, it was Diderot who held it together and wrote articles on many topics that his collaborators couldn't handle. For example, Rousseau wrote primarily on topics related to music. The Encyclopédie is at present probably obsolete from a technical standpoint, but when it was written it represented a significant step toward making specialized knowledge widely available and stimulating research and intellectual activity throughout Europe. In comparison, Rousseau's main influence was on the liberté and perhaps the égalité portions of the political slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité, which I think has outlasted its usefulness. If you think about freedom in a practical sense, it immediately becomes apparent that it must be limited. Psychologically, Rousseau resented being assigned lower social status simply because he lacked an aristocratic background, but he also disliked being an employee subject to the whims of his employers. Rousseau influenced a wide range of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson. In the case of Jefferson, we are left with the idea of liberty as an inalienable right, which now looks rather shortsighted and unexamined. In America, liberty has historically meant that one is free to build large factories and employ workers who roughly resemble slave laborers, and then make millions of dollars while contributing to the destruction of the biosphere. To put it mildly, the state of the modern U.S. would be a nightmare to Rousseau, and Jefferson would likely be shattered to see the disappearance of his ideal: the country gentleman class. I am interested in the shelf lives of popular ideas, which seem to morph over time and eventually become unrecognizable when compared to the original. So little was known in Diderot and Rousseau's day that I don't see much point in closely studying their ideas in the present.

Another aspect of the book that interests me is the differing personalities of Diderot and Rousseau. Diderot was gregarious and extroverted, with wide-ranging interests, while Rousseau was relatively private and introverted, with fewer interests. Aesthetically, I think I prefer Rousseau, whose writing may be of higher quality because he remained focused on fewer topics than Diderot and willfully avoided the distractions of city life.

This book is much shorter than the three volumes I read on Rousseau, but I intend to read it slowly and will probably make several posts on it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


I've been looking at my copy of History of the Town of Middlebury in the County of Addison, Vermont, which is a reprint of the 1859 edition. There is a separate section on the history of Addison County, which I hadn't read before. In that there is a description of the early use of land here that answers some of the questions I had about why the Severance family moved to this neighborhood and what they did. When Samuel Severance, the eldest Severance son, came to East Middlebury in 1786, the area was mostly wilderness, and when Vermont became a state in 1791, the population of Middlebury was only 395. The rest of the Severance family moved to South Munger Street in the 1790's, and Enos, Samuel's younger brother, built this house in about 1798. The book says that the early settlers grew wheat, which was quite profitable initially, but by the 1820's they had depleted the soil and wheat became unprofitable due to falling yields. For this reason the settlers began to graze cattle in order to produce manure to fertilize the crops, but wheat production came to a halt after a weevil blight in 1829. After that, Merino sheep became popular for several years, making Addison County the largest producer of wool in the country.

As far as the Severances are concerned, I think that they must have depleted their soil in Northfield, Massachusetts prior to moving here, and then grew wheat in Middlebury like everyone else. The land that they bought is flat and for a time was suitable for crop cultivation. However, the Severances eventually abandoned farming, probably because of insufficient profitability. The land is now only good for grasses, and that it what is mostly grown on it today. The grasses are used for cattle feed, and the fields are fertilized with cattle manure. Dairy cows are probably the largest industry locally, and there are also beef cattle. At the moment, local farmers are having a hard time getting by as a result of low dairy prices. They are also facing restrictions, since their agricultural runoff is polluting Lake Champlain.

I've read all that I'm going to in Biological Extinction and am going to move on to other subjects. The news just confirmed my latest point, in that individual countries are not doing enough to stop global warming, i.e., things are going to get much worse before they get better, per the latest U.N. report. As usual, I'm not finding new reading material that looks promising. I think I'm going to give up on biographies of artists, because the two I've looked at (on Manet and Gauguin) aren't very exciting. For lack of anything better, I may read a biography of Denis Diderot, which at least would complement my readings on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I have a hard time with reading material, because at this stage I find practically everything that is written for mass consumption to be a little simple-minded and commercially exploitative, whereas I don't really want to delve into most writing that is exclusively academic or extremely technical. I like writing that is informative but not too abstruse, and that is rarer than you might think. I guess that I'm similar to my readers, who seem to prefer my posts on literary and artistic matters to the more scientific ones. As far as fiction goes, I seem to have evolved into a post-fiction state of mind that may be permanent. Krasznahorkai has a new novel that I may skip.

While in most respects I'm getting really sick of this Trump phenomenon, it is still an extraordinary historical event. As the situation evolves, we are seeing that, not only do we have an incompetent president whose habits are essentially criminal, but that the Republican Party has decided to support him, because they are entirely dependent on the votes of the misguided voters who have been brainwashed for years by Fox News and other perverted news sources. The more Trump's life is exposed, the more he looks like a small-time crook – the kind of person who would normally have been in and out of jail several times by now or locked up permanently. If he hadn't had the financial resources handed to him by his father that allowed him to afford legal fights, he would never have got this far. This has sociological significance, because in previous eras Trump would probably have been taken out of commission by law enforcement well before now. This indicates that free speech and the news media have been ineffective at informing the public and brings into question the ability of people in the digital era to think clearly or recognize how they are being manipulated. Thus, my posts on human limitations and stupidity are not about hypothetical matters and are relevant to events that are playing out in real time.

The mouse situation has improved, as there have been no live mice spotted on the porch recently. William is able to use his new cat door in the basement, but so far he hasn't been using it much. I don't think he is comfortable with the new ramp and has not become accustomed to regular entry and exit through the basement. Although we had a strong blast of winter, with snow and unusually low temperatures, the weather has returned to normal, and most of the snow has melted. I think that once it gets cold again William will be more inclined to use the basement cat door when he's outside freezing and everyone has gone to bed. At the moment he still prefers to paw loudly at doors to get attention to come inside. He hasn't been catching much prey recently; the other day I rescued a live chipmunk that he was trying to bring in, and it got away.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Why We're in the Sixth Great Extinction and What It Means to Humanity

This is another essay in Biological Extinction, and was written by Partha Dasgupta and Paul Ehrlich. Dasgupta, as mentioned earlier, is the chairman of CSER, and Ehrlich is the well-known biologist who published The Population Bomb in 1968. I thought this essay was also worth mentioning, because it recounts the causes of the current reduction in biodiversity along with the likely consequences and mentions the type of economic accounting that may become necessary if technological advances don't come to the rescue soon. A lot of this is familiar ground, such as the effects of land use change, overharvesting, pollution and climate change. Biodiversity is presented as a requirement for human habitation rather than as an arbitrary ideal.

The following passage sums up most of the current situation:

Studying biogeochemical signatures over the last 11,000 years has provided a sketch of the human-induced evolution of soil nitrogen and phosphorus inventories (more specifically of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticide residues) in sediments and ice (Waters, et al., 2016). The authors report a sharp increase in the middle of the twentieth century in the inventories. Their work shows that the now-famous figure of the 'hockey stick' (Mann, 2012) that characterises time series of atmospheric carbon emission also characterises a broad class of geochemical signatures, and signal a sharp increase in the rate of deterioration of Earth's life-support system. It has been proposed (Waters et al., 2016) that the mid-twentieth century should be regarded as the time we entered the era now widely named the Anthropocene. Not coincidentally, it roughly corresponds with the rapid expansion of the sixth mass extinction event.

These readings are consistent with macroeconomic statistics. World population in 1950 was 2.5 billion and global GDP was a bit over 7.5 trillion international dollars (at 2015 prices). The average person in the world was poor, with an annual income of a bit over 3000 international dollars. Since then the world has prospered materially beyond recognition. Life expectancy at birth has risen from a global average of 49 years to 71 years, population has increased to 7.5 billion and world output of final goods and services (global GDP) is now 110 trillion international dollars, meaning that per capita global income is about 15,000 international dollars. The proportion of the world's population in absolute poverty (regarded by the World Bank to be below 1.9 international dollars per day) has fallen so dramatically (it is now just over 10 per cent of  the world's population, down from about 50 per cent in 1980 but still, disgracefully, some 750 million individuals in a world replete with rich people), that enthusiasts predict that within a generation the blight will have been eliminated (Jamison et. al., 2013). Set against those achievements, however, is that the 15-fold increase in global output  over a 65-year period reflects not only the stresses to the Earth system in general and biodiversity in particular that we have just reviewed, but also that humanity's demands from the biosphere have for some time exceeded its capacity to supply them. 

But demand cannot exceed supply indefinitely. Translated into the language of equity, humanity's enormous success in recent decades is very likely to have been a down payment for future failure. The trade-off is between living standards today and living standards in the future. Our immediate success in raising the average standard of living has created a conflict between us and our descendants.

What I found the most interesting is the economic slant, which draws into question the reliance on GDP statistics, the almost universal measure of the success for any country:

GDP is incapable of saying much about future possibilities because of the qualifier 'gross', which signals that the depreciation of assets, especially degradation of the biosphere, is ignored. Nevertheless, GDP has assumed such a prominence in public discourse today, that if someone mentions 'economic growth', we know that they mean growth in GDP. Governments today regard GDP growth to be above all else on their list of objectives. The mainstream media extol it and the public succumb to it. That could be why it has become customary to regard an economy whose GDP is large as wealthy.

But that is to make a mistake. Because GDP is a flow (so many dollars worth of flow of goods and services in a year), whereas wealth is a stock (so many dollars worth of assets, period), it could be that a country produces lots of goods and services by running down its assets. Lack of depreciation in national accounts of natural resources in general, and of biodiversity in particular reflects this error....GDP could rise over a period of time even as an economy's wealth declines. But that could not go on forever, any more than one can continually write ever larger checks without paying attention to the balance of the account.

The essay also discusses the inequality built into the current state of affairs:

The World Bank in its World Development Indicators 2016 reports that the 1.4 billion people living in its list of high-income countries enjoy a per capita income of 40,700 international dollars. Thus, the richest 19 per cent of the world's population consume over 51 per cent of world income (57 trillion/110 trillion). Continuing to assume that humanity's impact on the biosphere is proportional to income, 51 per cent of that income can be attributed to 19 per cent of world population. If the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, consumption patterns in these countries have to alter substantially.

Consumption behavior is influenced by our urge to compete with others (Veblen's 'conspicuous consumption') and by our innate desire to conform. Each is a reflection of socially embedded consumption preferences for goods and services. As both drivers give rise to consumption externalities, the psychological cost to a person of a collective reduction in consumption is likely to be far less than what it would be if she were to reduce consumption unilaterally. The aggregate cost could even be negative, especially if the working poor were less poor relative to the working rich, as the former are far greater in number.

The authors' conclusion:

The short-range solutions to the problem of preserving biodiversity are many, and dealt with extensively in the literature of conservation biology (Sodhi and Ehrlich, 2010). But these will all prove to no avail unless the basic drivers of extermination – policies seeking economic growth at any cost – are addressed. Collectively addressing these are possibly the greatest challenges civilization has ever faced.

No mention is made in the essay of how the necessary changes might be made in the real political world, and that is something I find to be of concern. Organizations like CSER rely on world organizations such as the U.N., which have limited authority and are often ignored by wealthy countries. In the U.S. there are elements favoring the ideas of individual freedom and American exceptionalism: Americans in general tend to believe that they deserve everything they have and that there is no reason for them to make any sacrifices, particularly for poor people who live in countries that they couldn't find on a map and will never visit. Any American politician who campaigns by promoting austerity measures and reduced consumption is likely to lose. Dasgupta, in contrast, was born in Bangladesh and probably has a broader view in these matters than most Americans have ever had. If you accept the main ideas in the essay, it is difficult to see how the issues discussed could be resolved peacefully. Although some Americans would not object to sharing the resources of the biosphere, a much larger number would reject the idea vehemently. It would take a world government and the legal restriction of individual rights to enact the kinds of programs that would meaningfully sustain biodiversity, and that seems unlikely to emerge until a much more palpable deterioration of the biosphere has already occurred.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Population: The Current State and Future Prospects

This is one of fourteen essays in Biological Extinction and was written by John Bongaarts. The essay is so comprehensive and succinct that I thought I would at least summarize it, because it presents in clear terms the current status and future trends in global population, and because this perspective is a good one for discussing major policy issues, though it does not extend into related areas such as climate change or geopolitics. Bongaarts is a demographer, and I found it interesting to see how regional population levels are framed by fertility rates related to relative degrees of participation in the Industrial Revolution.

Until modern times, women typically had six or seven children, and, because of diseases, famines, wars and infant mortality, the average life expectancy was thirty. When the Industrial Revolution occurred, life expectancies increased due to improved health and resources, and, with the introduction of women to the workforce, less time became available for childrearing. Eventually, with improved contraception methods, women chose to have fewer children, which allowed them to work and have greater control over their lives. What is interesting is that all regions are following a similar curve in which less-developed regions gradually reduce their fertility rates as their economies come to resemble more-developed regions. In the most-developed regions, the number of children per woman approaches two, and in some countries it has even fallen below that, meaning that, without immigration, their populations will decline.

While the world population increased only from about one billion in 1800 to about 2.3 billion in 1950, most of the world was still undeveloped in 1950, which helps explain why the population has since increased to about 7.7 billion – in just 69 years. Currently, the number of births per woman is slightly below two in Europe, about two in North America, slightly higher in Latin America and Asia and about five in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Thus, although population growth is approaching stability in most of the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa the number of children per woman will still be about three in 2050, which constitutes a continuing population explosion. Current estimates indicate that in 2100, the world population will be 11.21 billion, with 9.94 billion people in less-developed regions and 1.28 billion people in more-developed regions. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa will jump from .96 billion to 4.39 billion.

Bongaarts also mentions changes such as increased urbanization and problems associated with ageing populations. The former will put greater pressures on cities, while rural areas will stabilize. The latter will result in reduced workforces and insufficient resources to support the elderly. Healthcare and retirement systems will increasingly come under pressure, and this is already occurring in countries such as Japan and Italy, which have the lowest fertility rates.

Finally, Bongaarts discusses the importance of family planning from a policy standpoint. Family planning is an effective tool for reducing population increases in less-developed regions, where many women are not aware of their options. He concludes by saying:

Assisting couples to achieve their reproductive preferences is a compassionate act that promotes responsible parenthood and improves the lives of women, their children and their communities, especially among the poor and most vulnerable sections of society. The resulting decline in unplanned births also enhances prospects for poverty reduction and moderates the increasingly harmful impact of human activities on the natural environment.

I appreciated this essay because it concisely states the pertinent facts of population growth and touches on some of the policy measures that can be taken to alleviate increasing pressures. Often, population growth is discussed in far more nebulous terms, and it is less apparent that actions can be taken that affect future outcomes. Perhaps I like the essay because the framework falls within my preferred worldview, which emphasizes the biological aspects of mankind and rejects most ideology. I think there are several equally informative essays in this book, and I intend to discuss them separately.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


I looked over Time and the Generations: Population Ethics for a Diminished Planet, by Partha Dasgupta, who is the chairman of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). The main essay is "Birth and Death," which was originally presented as the Kenneth Arrow Lecture at Columbia University in 2011. It has since been revised, and the book includes some responses. Dasgupta occupies an odd position in academia, with a primary interest in economics accompanied by an interest in philosophy, along with other areas such as climate change. I am not going to offer my normal review, because I don't want to take the time to read it carefully. Although Dasgupta's aims seem admirable, my initial reaction was that the subject matter is far more complex than can be handled effectively in economics or philosophy, and, unfortunately, this seems to me like a good example of intellectual overreach. I retain a certain mistrust of the contemporary fields of both economics and philosophy. A better starting point, I think, would be biology, which is scarcely mentioned. Dasgupta's mathematics-centric economics results in a questionable formula for deriving the optimum population for humans on the planet, and the philosophy descends from what I think of as obsolete writings on utilitarianism dating from the late nineteenth century. I wish Dasgupta luck, but this does not seem to me to be a promising avenue for solving actual world problems or, for that matter, developing interesting ideas. I think that the project is so academic and theoretical that it would be dead on arrival in policy circles. At leading universities in England, philosophy still retains a status that vastly exceeds its value, and Dasgupta apparently has been sucked into it. It is unfortunate that CSER is so completely academic in structure, because that drives away original thinkers. England's best thinkers have been scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, not philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or economists such as John Maynard Keynes. In the U.S., philosophy is practically a dead subject, and economics is disproportionately important only because it is the academic branch of the well-funded cult of capitalism. I think that sticking to real science can provide the best picture of where the world is headed, and that picture is what is needed to produce appropriate responses. To some extent, the mathematical modeling done by Dasgupta resembles the rationalist oversimplification in the Chicago school of economics, which I discussed recently. As I've noted previously, mathematically precocious researchers tend to become disproportionately rewarded in their fields. I am reminded of the old saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The other book I have is a collection of essays, with Partha Dasgupta as one of the three editors. The title is Biological Extinction: New Perspectives. The essays were presented at a workshop on biological extinction in 2017. Several of the contributors have scientific backgrounds, only a few have economics backgrounds and none have philosophy backgrounds, so on the whole the book is more appealing to me. I will probably comment on some of the individual essays as I read them, if that seems warranted. I became aware of both of these books because I am on a CSER email list.

Today we got about six inches of snow, and I just cleared the driveway for the first time since last winter. I am alone in the house at the moment and have been working on a project to allow William to enter and exit the house on his own. That involved installing a cat door in the basement and a wooden ramp for him to climb up to his outdoor cat house, which is located underneath a bay window. Because William is nocturnal, he is usually out during most of the night, but in winter, when it's snowy outside, he spends more time in the house and wakes me up in the middle of the night. Since he doesn't hunt as much in winter, I'm hoping that he won't start bringing live mice or other animals into the house. I am trying to help him, because it's not his fault that he's wild, and I usually get along fine with him. The other house member – the one who wanted a pet – dislikes William and would have got rid of him long ago if I hadn't taken responsibility for him. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


This morning I hiked up to Abbey Pond, which is on the trail closest to the house, for the second time this year. Although there are no scenic vistas, there is the pond, with beaver lodges and a beaver dam. One benefit is that it isn't popular with hikers, and usually no one else is to be seen. There is a good view of Robert Frost Mountain, which actually consists of two peaks if you count the one that we can see from our house. This time there wasn't a moose around, but I did see a bobcat at fairly close range – about fifty yards – on the way back. I took along a gun for protection for the first time, because there have been a few incidents recently. Over the summer, people were attacked at two different locations by rabid coyotes, and in October, two hikers were attacked by five large bear hounds. The dogs seem to have been interested in the hikers' poodle and injured both the poodle and the woman who was trying to protect it. At times the hikers thought they were going to die. The ordeal ended after about half an hour when one of the hunters showed up. They had been tracking the dogs through their GPS collars and saw that they had something cornered. This is a major news story locally, because state law permits hunting dogs to run freely in packs, and in this case the owner may only receive the equivalent of a ticket. If something were to happen to me while I was up there alone, there would be no help: the nearest person would be miles away, and there is no cell reception.

When we moved to Vermont, I thought that I would be doing much more hiking than I actually have. Unfortunately, I usually go alone, since my only possible hiking companion hates insects, doesn't like to sweat and prefers knitting. I haven't been to any of the major peaks in Vermont, some of which contain entirely different biomes, resembling alpine tundra at their summits. However, I'm not a hiking fanatic, like the people around here who climb all of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks or hike the entire length of the Long Trail, which runs from Massachusetts to Canada. I just like to be outdoors, see the scenery and get my heart rate up occasionally. Today I had it up to 180 beats per minute and didn't die! The Abbey Pond trail is fairly steep in places, with a total ascent of 1260 feet. Of course, that is nothing compared to newer ranges that are more than twice as high. At one time, about 450 million years ago, the Green Mountains were much taller, but they've eroded down to 4000 feet.

The mouse saga continues. The mice involved are either white-footed mice or deer mice, which look very similar to each other. Perhaps because of improved growing conditions for oaks and other plants, there is more mouse food available than usual, such as acorns, and there may be a local mouse population explosion. I know this because I find new mouse remains on the porch almost daily. William also continues to bring in live mice, which he releases and chases around the porch. When they climb the screens to escape, he sometimes follows after them, damaging the screens, and I repair them often. My latest solution has been to open small holes next to the screen frames on the porch floor so that the mice can escape without any climbing. This doesn't guarantee their survival, but will probably reduce screen damage. I also hope to spend less time removing live mice from the porch. I appreciate the reader who signed me up for a Stoelting catalog for research equipment involving mice, but I don't need it. That seemed like a highbrow joke.

In Vermont, the change from autumn to winter is usually abrupt. We are still eating fresh tomatoes, carrots and kale from the garden, yet it is snowing tomorrow. In very short order, I had to clear the leaves from the yard, mow the lawn one last time, service the yard equipment for the winter, put away the outdoor furniture and clean up parts of the garden. I will have to put on my snow tires soon. Comparatively, the transitions from winter to spring, spring to summer and summer to fall are slow and indistinct.

It looks as if the world is finally closing in on Donald Trump. Of course, I am delighted by the impeachment proceedings. There is still a chance that he will get through this in one piece, but as time goes on that seems unlikely. The Ukraine quid pro quo event has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, and that alone is sufficient to have him removed from office. If Republicans continue to support him in the Senate and he isn't removed, his popularity among the general public has probably already declined enough that he wouldn't be reelected. He would definitely lose the popular vote, and his electoral college vote only needs to decline slightly for him to lose. Many people throughout the country hate him, and he is even unpopular in his hometown, New York City. He has now changed his legal residence to Florida, and apropos of that I really enjoyed this satirical video.

I have a couple of books to read. One is on biological extinction and the other is on population ethics. These are academic books with dense prose, and I'm not sure yet how much time I'll spend on them, though the subjects are definitely important.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics II

The second half of the book was not particularly exciting to me, but it was interesting in the sense of learning how a new academic discipline came into existence. Debate about behavioral economics within the economics profession began at a meeting at the University of Chicago, a hotbed of rationalist economists, in 1985. Thaler and a few others started to organize seminars and recruit new researchers, and by the 1990's behavioral economics had become a recognized field. Early topics focused on finance, where research indicated that the efficient market hypothesis, which had been academic dogma for several decades, was incorrect. Later, Thaler's research moved to irrational behavior in NFL draft selections, game shows and other areas. Finally, there was an intersection between behavioral economics and behavioral law when Thaler teamed up with Cass Sunstein, the law professor, and wrote the book Nudge, which was published in 2008 and became a bestseller. The thesis of Nudge is that behavioral research can be used to produce better public policies and improve individual behavior in ways that are beneficial to the public at large.

Perhaps what interests me the most about the book is the late admission by economists that human behavior is not rational. I had always held the economics profession in low regard, and that was one of the reasons. Another reason was that, while I was an undergraduate student in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the default major for unimaginative upper-middle-class males seemed to be economics, while my friends tended to major in philosophy and the arts, and I considered them more intelligent and less conformist. Then, while I was in graduate business school in the 1980's, the two economics classes that I took made no sense to me, because the rational agent basis for economics was still accepted without question and no allowance was made for the considerations later addressed by behavioral economists. Even though the M.B.A. program that I was in was highly rated, I thought that the faculty lacked real intellectual talent. As I became involved in my own investments, it became apparent to me, based on observation of the stock market, that financial markets could not possibly be efficient. To this day the efficient market hypothesis is still widely accepted by economists, and it provides part of the conceptual basis for index funds. Sabine Hossenfelder, the theoretical physicist whose book I discussed a year ago, confirmed my opinion of economists when she said that economics is a fallback field for physicists, because the math is easier and the pay is higher.

Although I am not a great fan of Richard Thaler, I thought that he acquitted himself very well in the final chapter. Given the dogmatic nature of his field, it took some doing to introduce behavioral concepts, and this may never have happened without Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky. In the end, unlike most economists, Thaler is a strong advocate of empirical research in economics and hopes to extend behavioral research into macroeconomics. When you review the circumstances that produced the Great Recession, it is easy to see how the misguided triumphalism of well-known economists such as Alan Greenspan facilitated a major economic disaster only eleven years ago. Nevertheless, behavioral economics is nowhere near providing a comprehensive economic program. Perhaps my main criticism of Thaler is that, while he is modest and self-deprecating and has helped expand his field, he still pays homage and fealty to the status quo in his advocacy of "libertarian paternalism," which, though it encourages rational behavior, seems implicitly to preserve elements of a hierarchy which places so-called rational agents, i.e., economists, at the top of the pecking order. Libertarian paternalism incorporates distinctly American pro-capitalist elements and presumes that a meritocracy of superior individuals, who would by definition become wealthy, would work to help less-capable people by designing systems to make them behave more rationally.

In this vein, I was surprised that the book made no mention of Thomas Piketty, who is a macroeconomist whose work is also based on empirical data. Although at times Thaler shows some socialistic affinities, he usually tows the line as a loyal capitalist. Capitalism, in my view, is an ideological fantasy that is on its way out. Socialism is another ideology with its own set of problems and a history of failure, but I think that some version of it will become inevitable as technology renders human labor obsolete. I don't know whether Piketty or other economists will collectively come up with a system that works well for future generations, but at the moment the wealth tax proposed by Piketty seems like a sensible approach. In the real world, a system such as libertarian paternalism is more likely to produce a plutocracy than a well-balanced democracy. At the moment, populist movements throughout the world seem to be fueled in part by public resentment of "elites" such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the case of Obama, racism no doubt plays a role, but it is noteworthy that Obama is a friend of Cass Sunstein and seems to like the idea of libertarian paternalism. One might argue that those who adopt libertarian paternalism are engaging in a current form of politically correct social climbing and in reality may not have much to offer the public. Obama's political career, in my view, was mostly a failure.

To sum up, Thaler's introduction of behavioral research to economics was positive in the sense that it added not only an emphasis on empirical evidence but also an element of altruism, both of which had been in short supply in economics. However, Thaler seems timid in his advocacy of altruism, which was and still is anathema to the thinking of many economists, particularly in the Chicago school. The fact remains that, in their profession, economists are often obfuscators and apologists for wealthy and unscrupulous benefactors. Some of them even subscribe to the idiotic ideas of Ayn Rand. There is an implicit elitism and selfishness among economists who believe that they are part of the select few who make rational choices and deserve to be rewarded accordingly.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics I

I'm halfway through this book by Richard Thaler, which was published in 2015. Thaler is an economist and one of the founders of the field of behavioral economics. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017. Economics is not an especially interesting topic for me, and I generally prefer macroeconomics, such as that found in Thomas Piketty's Capital, to more circumscribed areas such as this. I am making an exception for Thaler in order to understand behavioral economics better. The book is partly autobiographical, and it describes the development of his career starting in 1970 up to the present. That adds a dimension in that you can see many of the pitfalls of academic life, which relates to my interest in the sociology of academia.

Early in his career, Thaler noticed that the actual decision-making processes used by people are often not rational in the sense that economists understand the term. There are different schools of economic thought, but the predominant one in the twentieth century entailed the idea that humans are rational agents who collectively make rational choices with respect to maximizing utility. This means that people usually make optimal choices regarding whatever it is that they value, and economists have traditionally focused on their financial decisions. From an economic standpoint, it is mathematically convenient to assume that people are rational, because that allow economists to predict collective human behavior with relatively straightforward mathematical tools.

The early behavioral economists conducted simple experiments like the ones described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, demonstrating unequivocally that human decisions are often not rational in a quantitative sense. Thaler collaborated with Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others, and behavioral economics arose as a bridge between the academic disciplines of economics and psychology. In Thaler's language, Kahneman's "fast" or "System 1" thinking very roughly corresponds with Thaler's "Human," and Kahneman's "slow" or "System 2" thinking very roughly corresponds with Thaler's "Econ." Humans are fuzzy thinkers and Econs are ultra-rational. There are many examples of people arriving at answers that are mathematically or logically incorrect. Thaler differs somewhat from Kahneman in his search for what might be called extenuating circumstances or non-numerical values that affect how actual decisions are made. One example involves the way that Uber's pricing algorithm can alienate consumers. Uber increases fares automatically when the number of passengers in a particular area goes up and there is an insufficient number of drivers available. It is possible for fares to become ten times the normal rate. This formula can backfire when customers believe that they were treated unfairly and when anti-gouging laws provoke lawsuits. In the past, economists favored the Econ types for all of their models, because that type makes purely rational decisions based on maximizing value, which in most cases means money. Thaler in particular helped demonstrate that factors having nothing to do with maximization go into the decisions that most people make. In other respects, Thaler's discussion covers some familiar concepts such as confirmation bias and the endowment effect, the latter indicating that people value things that are currently in their possession more highly than they ought to rationally.

Reading about Thaler's career, you get a sense of how one might fail in academia. In his early years, he was conflicted between making enough money to support his family and pursuing his area of interest in research, which, at the time, was barely on the fringes of economics and was frowned upon by most economists. If he hadn't met Kahneman and Tversky and a few others and participated in research with them, behavioral economics may have remained an undeveloped field. As it turned out, it took off and has produced several Nobels. In this book, Thaler seems like a very ordinary sort of person with plebeian interests, and one can readily imagine him finishing off his career teaching traditional economics in a humdrum economics department somewhere. It is even possible that he would never have obtained tenure and may have switched to a different career.

Though my enthusiasm for the book is limited, I am holding out for the later chapters that cover the uses of behavioral economics for social benefit. Since I have visitors arriving soon, it will take me a while to finish, but I will eventually make another post.

Friday, September 27, 2019


The fragrance of autumn is in the air, and some of the leaves are beginning to fall. At this time of year the grass is full and green, and in the morning it glistens with heavy dew. Again it is impossible for me to imagine voluntarily living somewhere that lacks four distinct seasons.

Finally it looks as if Donald Trump is being brought to justice. Incredibly, he was too imbecilic to change his behavior when he only recently came close to impeachment by encouraging foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and then obstructing its investigation. In those instances, a number of fortuitous elements converged for him, and he improbably both won the election and avoided censure. This time, in a move that can only be considered incredibly stupid under the circumstances, he exposed himself by directly soliciting a foreign power to provide information on the activities of Joe Biden and his son and immediately attempted to cover up the event. This was a major blunder in several respects: the phone call was soon reported, as was the effort to hide it, and, in any case, there was little chance of revealing improprieties by Joe Biden or his son, since those were most likely fabrications to begin with. One might add that targeting Biden may itself have inherently been a mistake, since there is a good chance that Biden will not win the Democratic nomination regardless.

Though the immediate problem is that Trump doesn't know or care what his responsibilities are as president, about forty percent of American voters either can't see that or don't understand the ramifications. The division between Trump supporters and non-supporters is often portrayed as a rural-urban divide, with rural people believing Trump's rhetoric about getting them jobs and supporting their biases. However, recent polling indicates that educational attainment may have more to do with it. Vermont might be a good example, because, despite being one of the most rural states, the population is relatively well-educated. Trump is unpopular here even among Republicans. The small number of Trump supporters in this state probably live in isolated pockets and have below-average schooling. I think that low educational attainment may be the primary cause of Trump's ascent. Generally, well-educated voters, including those who are Republicans, can identify Trump's particular pathology: he often doesn't know what he's talking about and routinely uses obfuscation and lies to distract from the fact that he has little interest in anything other than self-aggrandizement. To the extent that he has any policies, they are exclusively directed at maintaining and expanding the Trump status quo, or, more specifically, his brand. As commentators are increasingly saying, history is not going to be kind to him or his associates.

I recently found a book that may well be worth reading, and it's on its way in the mail. The author is Richard Thaler, the economist, who has an interest in how behavioral economics can be used to shape public policy. This is still a relatively new field, and I am hoping that at some point it will converge with biology and address some of the points that I've been making on this blog, though, as I've said, economics is usually only used as a tool for capitalism.

Friday, September 20, 2019


I started to read a biography of Édouard Manet but gave up. My main reason was that I didn't like the writing style of the author, who seems to be American. In most respects it was a well-researched book, but I thought that it dawdled on irrelevant details and was primarily directed at an American audience. I have noticed over the last few years that American academics and journalists seem to be trained to produce slightly dumbed-down, over-simplified writing, not only with the aim of reaching wide audiences, but because that is the standard for all groups of American readers regardless of their educational backgrounds. It is unfortunate in this case, because, although in many respects Manet's life was that of a boring bourgeoisie, he somehow managed to occupy a pivotal position in the transition from pristine neoclassical paintings to what is now thought of as modern art. Though in a purely aesthetic sense his paintings don't always measure up to the paintings of the Impressionists, who were slightly younger, or the Post-Impressionists, he was the first to paint unflattering depictions of urban life while evoking classical themes: both his painting style and his subject matter were an affront to his contemporaries. However, it seems to me that Manet was less an artistic visionary than a representative of the ubiquitous social changes that occurred in Paris in the late nineteenth century. Those changes favored realism, as in the case of Courbet and Manet, and the visual appreciation of life as it is, as in the case of the Impressionists. I don't actually like Manet's paintings that much, and while he does seem to occupy a pivotal role in the history of art, I now see him more as a mere participant in the broader cultural evolution of his time.

I'm not sure how well the biographies of artists are going to work out for me as reading material. After reading Robert Hughes, most of the authors are likely to be disappointments. I also have a book on Gauguin, but, because it's long, I may save that for winter.

I've more or less resumed my routines, such as yard work, house painting and tree trimming. I haven't done any stargazing in months and may have missed a few good nights in August. September has been unusually cool so far. William has been catching lots of mice lately, so the local mouse population doesn't seem to be adversely affected by climate change. At night he brings them through the cat door onto the porch, and in the morning I usually find a dead mouse, a partially eaten mouse or a live mouse that is hiding in a crack to escape from William. It's a pain in the neck to catch the live mice, which I let out. Most of them are small, and it is easiest to catch them when they climb the screen. I use the same juice glass with a piece of cardboard that I use to catch insects. Last night I locked the cat door so that William had to stay outside and couldn't enter the porch. I also put his bowl of water outside so that he would have plenty to drink. In the morning, the bowl had a dead mouse floating in it. As you can see, dealing with the mice isn't a very pleasant process. Fortunately, after several years of assiduous mouse-blocking, we haven't had any in the house since 2017.

I guess I'll continue to look for new reading materials. In particular, I would like to read about research like Robert Plomin's and David Reich's. I am finding biological topics far more interesting than physics problems. For this reason I'm skipping Sean Carroll's latest book, which discusses quantum mechanics and its unintelligibility. Even though I am a novice as far as the sciences are concerned, I often find science writing preferable to journalism, fiction and other kinds of nonfiction. Because behavioral economics seems to be a potentially interesting break from traditional economics, I am hoping that at some point it will diverge from capitalist propaganda and be put to use in different areas such as social policy and governance. At present, most of the purveyors of economics stupidly perpetuate the myth that human progress depends on the profit motive and the innovations of entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, as far as I know, little or no research has been done to debunk that outlook – it would make for good reading if it existed. At the moment, climate change seems to be reducing public approval of unchecked economic growth, but the wealthy still remain in firm control of the dialogue, at least in the U.S.

Saturday, September 14, 2019


At this point I seem to have fully recovered from the Lyme disease, if that's what it was, and I've been catching up on various tasks that had been neglected for a few weeks. I've also been curious about some of the medical aspects of my illness. Though unlikely, it is possible that I did not have Lyme disease on this occasion, because one can have it with no symptoms; I was diagnosed with it from antibodies, but it is theoretically possible that the antibodies came from a previous exposure. Thus, it is possible that the illness was produced by a different, unidentified bacterial infection which also can be cured with doxycycline hyclate. There is so much that is unknown in medicine that it is easy for me to be skeptical about diagnoses. Strangely, I got some unexpected benefits from this illness: I lost ten pounds, my eye pressure fell to its lowest level ever, reducing my chances of glaucoma, and a slight ache that I've had in my intestines for the last forty years seems to have disappeared. The fact is that doctors have no idea what the full ramifications are of the antibiotics that they prescribe. This is particularly true at the microbial level, because we have trillions of microbes in our bodies, many of which are poorly understood.

I am at a loss for something to read and have ordered a couple of biographies of artists. I was unable to find any current nonfiction that appeals to me, and I am embarking on a different biographical sub-genre from what I've read previously. When you come right down to it, the lives of most thinkers, writers and intellectuals tend to be a bit dull, since they lead controlled lives and usually don't take real risks. The exceptions occur when external circumstances force them to make changes that they may not have made otherwise, as was the case with Czeslaw Milosz. Artists, on the other hand, often lead conspicuously unstable lives, which are sometimes fueled by psychiatric illnesses. Thus, they are more likely to be bohemians than college professors. Their downside is that their messages may be indecipherable or incoherent from an intellectual standpoint. For example, what was really going on in van Gogh's head? Does anyone know? Nevertheless, for anyone who is attuned to the visual arts, paintings can be deeply satisfying in an entirely different way. I am increasingly disillusioned with academization, because it sucks the freshness out of everything and lays the groundwork for mindless dogma in one form or another. As I've grown older, I've found that the wisdom I once attributed to college professors was illusory, and that unmediated thoughts have a greater potential to produce useful insights and meaning. Intellectuals tend to follow one rut or another, and they encourage you to join them in their rut. Colleges and universities have given rise to the myth that some sort of omniscience can be reached through continuous research and learning, but I now think that, because of our well-documented cognitive limitations, the baton should soon be passed to AI, if that becomes a possibility. In the long run, we may be better suited to the arts than to the sciences, because we can perceive and appreciate the arts without attempting to stretch ourselves beyond our innate capacities.

I must confess to having become, somewhat reluctantly, a political junkie. This isn't because I actually like politics, but because the current state of national politics in the U.S. seems to have triggered a fight or flight reaction in me. The manner in which government is now being conducted in Washington, D.C. feels like a visceral threat which cannot be ignored. In essence, a criminal is in charge of the executive branch of government and his accomplices control the Senate. It would have been difficult to imagine this scenario occurring a few years ago, even with the sort of incompetent politicians that we've grown used to. What is maddening to me is the length of time that it is taking to straighten out this mess. What should have taken weeks or months to accomplish is taking years. Since I have no deep allegiance to the U.S., if conditions deteriorated significantly from where we are now, I would be prepared to move back to the U.K. – I've just renewed my passport. However, that possibility seems remote, and it is really only a matter of waiting for Trump's long-overdue departure.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

I've had this book by David Wallace-Wells sitting around for quite some time and read it in spurts. It is well-researched and packed with well-documented facts, but I found that in places there was too much information in relation to what I thought was a slightly disjointed central narrative, and I mostly speed-read it. There are four main sections, and I ended up deciding that only the second section, "Elements of Chaos," was worth reading. That includes twelve chapters covering different aspects of climate change: "Heat Death," "Hunger," "Drowning," "Wildfire," "Disasters No Longer Natural," "Freshwater Drain," "Dying Oceans," "Unbreathable Air," "Plagues of Warming," "Economic Collapse," "Climate Conflict" and "Systems." Consensus is that science can only very roughly predict how much the planet will warm by 2100, and beyond that would be speculative. The U.N. estimates that there will be a warming of 4.5 degrees by 2100 if nothing is done, and the worst-case scenario is 8 degrees. Human intervention may reduce the warming to less than 4.5 degrees. Where I think Wallace-Wells does an excellent job is in conveying the complexity of global warming, which makes it almost incomprehensible to us and perhaps explains why the public has been so slow to catch on. Any of the various elements of global warming could have multiplier effects, making the planet less habitable when combined with other elements. For example, the thawing of permafrost not only releases methane, one of the strongest greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere, but may also release ancient bacteria for which we have no immunity. Such bacteria might be distributed globally at an accelerated rate due to the increase in storm activity. Similarly, stressed populations attempting to escape from drought-stricken regions, wars and storm-destroyed habitats, in addition to PTSD, may be handicapped by high temperatures and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, both of which reduce human cognitive function.

The main point of the book is that extremely dire outcomes for mankind are quite possible in the next eighty years, especially if the problem isn't addressed now. That isn't a very long time at all: my grandson will probably still be alive. I think that Wallace-Wells is somewhat more effective than others at making this point in the way that he piles up fact after fact and creates a sense of immediate danger. Other environmental writers often have circumscribed narratives and limit themselves to, say, a few species extinctions, which in themselves are matters of some concern but have far less impact on the reader. It is more important for readers to know that, within a few decades, anywhere from a few million to a few billion people may die due to climate change, and the complete collapse of civilization is certainly a possibility.

My main complaint about the book is that Wallace-Wells seems to come from a more literary than scientific background, and he doesn't seem comfortable limiting himself to merely describing the most probable outcomes with each incremental degree of increase in global temperature. Although he doesn't follow the familiar formalities of journalism by plodding along with the scientists as they conduct their research, he throws in dozens of peripheral references to popular nonfiction from the last twenty-or-so years and drags in literary quotations that do not, in my opinion, add anything to the text. These references are not explored in enough detail to be of much value and end up seeming like name-dropping. From my point of view, he is a young and talented writer who goes overboard on occasion in attempting to persuade the reader that he is a man of letters who knows all about, not only Enrico Fermi and James Hansen, but also Robinson Jeffers and Lord Byron. I found this sort of thing a little grating, because it didn't really add anything to my understanding and seemed more like a misguided effort by a neophyte to impress – someone other than me.

Saturday, August 31, 2019


It looks as if I've almost completely recovered from the Lyme disease. I don't want to get into the habit of boring readers with accounts of my afflictions, but I'll at least fill you in with a few details on this one. This was as sick as I've ever been, and the worst symptom was extreme fatigue. One morning I got up and took a brief shower, and after that I had so little energy left that I had to go back to bed immediately – with barely enough energy to dry myself first. Walking upstairs became a strain. This seemed like a preview of what it might be like to be ninety years old and too feeble to take care of oneself. It is possible that the antibiotic I took, doxycycline hyclate, had side effects that worsened my symptoms, but in any case it does seem to have killed the Lyme disease bacteria.

While I was sick, my mental faculties must have declined a little, and I didn't read anything demanding. Instead I pored over the news and played computer bridge to kill time. Of course, the more news I read, the more it became apparent to me how shallow it is. Even in the best American newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, there were usually a couple of lead articles reporting news that could be found almost anywhere, followed by mountains of filler, such as insipid op-ed pieces and various lifestyle articles. The Wall Street Journal, in slight contrast, offered more articles on expensive real estate, since their readers tend to be materialistic, money-crazed Republicans who lust after trophy houses. I did learn that the Post generally has better opinion pieces than the Times. At this point I am almost ready to barf the moment I see names such as David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman. As I've noted, it is simply impossible for them to churn out useful articles week after week, and I can't see why anyone would bother to read them regularly. Underlying this is the inescapable commercial nature of journalism: people don't really want thoughtful news and are only willing to pay for it if they receive large dollops of upbeat entertainment in return.

Another phenomenon that struck me during my incapacity was the sheer extent to which misinformation and hucksterism clog up the internet. Google searches have always seemed problematic to me, and now, specifically in the realm of medical information, I have found that they can be spectacularly misleading. When one enters a medical term, hundreds or thousands of web pages pop up, and nearly all of them contain misinformation, making it a significant challenge to find anything reliable. Google provides no method for sorting through it. The only unequivocally good site I found for Lyme disease was the CDC, which, as a government agency, has no profit motive. Some of the non-government sites, such as the Mayo Clinic, are generally reliable, but they don't have the resources or incentives to provide the most up-to-date information and tend to show more basic information. Misinformation is one of the great challenges that we face today, and it is supported by the decline in government services and the growth in spurious business entities. The internet is often portrayed as a fountain of knowledge when the reality is that it has become a vehicle for draining money from or propagandizing millions of unsuspecting victims.

One recent turn of events that I have been enjoying is the change of tone in the news media regarding Donald Trump. Though it was apparent to many that he was unfit for the office well before he was elected, the press puzzlingly treated him with respect until very recently. It appears that, after nearly three years of incompetence, dishonesty and criminality, the news media have finally built up the confidence to criticize him openly. Surprisingly, that even extends to Fox News, which until now seemed like the voice of the Trump administration. Finally, it is looking more certain that things are not going to end well for Donald Trump, and nothing could make me happier than to see him disappear entirely from the news.

During my infirmity, I neglected the vegetable garden. Fortunately, it was a rainy August, and it didn't make any difference. The two crops for which I'm responsible, tomatoes and carrots, are doing exceedingly well this year compared to the last few years, which were much drier.

I have started to read a nonfiction bestseller and will comment on it soon. I must note, though, that I increasingly find the task of locating worthwhile books extremely daunting. I do occasionally come across unfamiliar fiction writers whom I end up liking for one reason or another, such as László Krasznahorkai, Simone de Beauvoir, Katherine Mansfield, and Patrick Chamoiseau, but when I delve further into their writings I usually conclude that the quality of their writing from book to book is uneven. In any case, fiction now seems to me a frivolous form of writing that I feel no obligation to read. In contrast, I have found some of the nonfiction books that I've read over the last few years to be informative and interesting, and, despite the fact that new ones come out regularly, the better ones come out only in a trickle. This tends to leave me with nothing to read except extremely lengthy biographies of people who mean nothing to you, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or William Morris, when I need something to occupy me during the long winter months indoors. If you would like to take the Paul challenge, I would consider reading something that you think is exceptionally good. Most likely I would have significant criticisms, though I never know when I might like something with which I am unfamiliar.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


As I've mentioned before, the time lag between the announcement of new scientific findings and their assimilation by the public is often astoundingly long. In the extreme case, you have the works of Charles Darwin. His main ideas have been confirmed repeatedly, and they have been widely accepted by educated people for over a century. Yet, here in the U.S., about a third of the population still supports Creationism, depending on how the questions are asked. Creationism is dying out here, but it may end up taking a total of two hundred years, despite the mountains of evidence against it. As I've also mentioned previously, there seems to be a time lag between the announcements of the recent findings of Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Robert Sapolsky and their acceptance within the public sphere. They don't even seem to be percolating within the intellectual community at the moment. Tangentially, the works of Robert Plomin and David Reich, which provide insights into the genetic nature of human aptitudes and their unequal distribution within the overall population, seem buried in the media, perhaps because they conflict with some of the central tenets of political correctness. The picture that has emerged from recent research is that people don't think clearly most of the time or know as much as they think they do. There is nothing that can be done about it because this is how their brains work.

A related topic that isn't exactly a discrete field is groupthink within academic disciplines. The phenomenon demonstrates that even groups of people don't necessarily think clearly. Groupthink has been studied for many years in business settings, but it occurs everywhere, including in academia. Thomas Piketty touches on this in Capital, and may have been the first to criticize the overemphasis on mathematical models in economics. Sabine Hossenfelder has a similar message in Lost in Math, which accuses physicists of wasting time on untestable mathematical models when the real problem may be a lack of new data. From an institutional point of view, mathematically-oriented physics researchers offer the major benefit of not having to purchase expensive research equipment. This strategy may work in the short-term, but more fundamentally it may be a misallocation of resources. Then there is the closed culture of MFA programs and their stranglehold on what counts as literary writing. I have seen some criticism of that system, but it remains intact. My point here is that even highly-educated groups make collective cognitive errors – these are the most likely to escape scrutiny, yet Piketty and Hossenfelder have had the courage to call out the leaders of their fields.

The basic insight one gets from surveying the research is that no groups are immune to a variety of cognitive failures, thus, whatever principles a group claims to uphold, and no matter how competent they may seem to outsiders, behind the scenes, the prejudices and cognitive limitations of individuals are what actually drive practices and policies. In economics and physics, the accumulation of new data became secondary to mathematical modeling. In MFA programs, departments became vulnerable to the preferences of their faculties: the criteria for good literary writing can easily be distorted by the faculty. As I've said ad nauseum, the result has been that MFA writing is now at best forgettable, to put it politely. Nevertheless, MFA writers do well as a cult through their strategic use of self-congratulatory propaganda. It is customary to compare individuals to assess their competence, but comparable variation can be found between groups, and it is a mistake to think that the best-credentialed groups are the most competent.

Of course, these problems in academia are not really that important in the greater scheme of things. I remain astounded by the resilience of Donald Trump as a public figure. In a recent review of a biography of P.T. Barnum, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Barnum became one of the most celebrated men in America not despite his bigotry and duplicity, his flimflamming and self-dealing, but because of them. He didn't so much fool the public as indulge it....he turned P.T. Barnum into yet another relentlessly promoted exhibit—the Greatest Showman on Earth. Americans, he knew, were drawn to such humbug. Why they are still being drawn to it is a puzzle that, now more than ever, demands our attention.

The problems of the Trump presidency are as obvious as one could hope. My only criticism of Kolbert's innuendo is that the information needed to answer her question is already available: people are stupid. It seems as if the last hurdle before order can be brought to civilization is the recognition that, although we're smarter than chimpanzees, we're often quite stupid. The research I've alluded to unequivocally supports this position. The stupidity applies to all level of society, though people who are perceived to be successful usually get a free pass. It may be that, at an instinctive level, Trump supporters recognize a fellow ignoramus who has been successful and can dominate and humiliate smarter people if he likes. Trump supporters get a perverse satisfaction from seeing him thumb his nose at the establishment, which they feel has neglected them and reduced their social rank. Trump is uplifting for them because he normalizes inarticulateness and ignorance. Actually, this is a very old problem, one that thinkers have pondered for hundreds of years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized that most people are unqualified to vote. He preferred a more patrician model in which only a few educated people without private ambitions or agendas would be permitted to vote. The Founding Fathers attempted to put in safeguards to prevent mob rule, but the gradual elimination of restrictions on voting and the expansion of the electorate have rendered it more difficult than ever to screen out incompetent politicians from public elections.

Kolbert, like many journalists, recognizes that Trump appeals to the worst instincts of the public. Fortunately, he can never be a popular president, and only about forty percent of voters will continue to support him. The underlying problem, which Kolbert and most journalists avoid discussing at all costs, is that at some point the public must be implicated as part of the problem. The fact that such suggestions would be labeled as elitist doesn't subtract from their truth. Thus, Kolbert, a science writer, whom one would assume is familiar with the research I've cited, is not exactly taking a heroic stance. This brings me back to my criticism of Michiko Kakutani, who, I said, was constrained by the requirements of her publisher, a corporation. There is an implicit "never bite the hand that feeds you" rule in journalism. From a journalistic standpoint, the conflict between free speech and corporate interests is almost always resolved in favor of corporations. There is no marketplace of ideas when so many of them are repressed from the start. Criticism of the public, even when it is deserved, rarely makes it into the media. When it does occur, it is usually only part of Donald Trump's ugly, worn-out business and political strategy.

If one were serious about preventing a recurrence of the Trump phenomenon, one would have to look at changing the democratic process. Trump was elected with the twenty-first century equivalent of the nineteenth-century practice of handing out free beer at rallies. Democracy, though it is preferable to autocracy in most cases, is not a good system for promoting competent political leaders. We are stuck with the worst president in American history only because a minority of the population was willing to set aside reason for a few feel-good moments. It is an unsubstantiated myth that "the voice of the people" will always correct political errors. Moreover, the freedom of individuals, as understood by most Americans, is not a sustainable idea. The U.S. is like a casino in which everyone feels entitled to a piece of the action. The American acceptance of capitalism is so deeply ingrained that alternatives are unthinkingly seen as heretical.

Much as I try to avoid it, I always circle back to the same conclusion: that the best hope lies in removing the public from a decision-making role in many if not most instances. The important problems facing Americans (and the world) are so complex that they may be beyond the comprehension of even the most experienced politicians. If anything, a mechanism is needed to prevent the public from guaranteeing a dysfunctional government in the future. In my view, the competent elite of the future will be AI, and it is already apparent that this needs looking into. I would be surprised if people in the distant future were not amazed that we were able to survive this long stretch of political turmoil with nothing more to help us than our chaotic little animal brains.

Monday, July 22, 2019


We were hit by the heatwave that affected much of the country, and the temperature got up to ninety-two here. It's quite cool again, which makes it easier to think of spending time outside. For the hottest days I set up a TV and reclining chairs in the basement, where it never goes above seventy-two degrees. The ceiling is low, but the arrangement is comfortable, if a bit dusty. Though I always have a hard time finding things to watch, the Netflix series on Ted Bundy wasn't bad, and we've started a BBC series with Mary Beard on ancient Rome. As for my reading, I've been lackadaisically working through an old book of articles by Anatole Broyard; it is interesting in places, though not sufficiently substantive to warrant comment. I have a different book on hand but decided that I may skip it. There is a popular book on global warming on its way here which I'll most likely read.

I had to send one of my stargazing devices to Australia for repair, and now it's on its return trip. One of the most satisfying aspects of stargazing is the fact that much of the equipment is made by very small companies, and when you need something you communicate directly with the owners. If I have a problem with my Dobsonian telescope, I email Rob Teeter, who made it himself in New Jersey, and get an immediate reply. This time I spoke to Serge Antonov, the owner of Astro Devices, in Australia. When I drove down to pick up the Dobsonian telescope in Massachusetts in 2014, by coincidence I met Al Nagler, the owner of Tele Vue, which makes the eyepieces I use. In 2017 I directly contacted Charlie Starks, the owner of Markless Astronomics, which makes instrument stalks for Dobsonian telescopes. Since this is a cottage industry, it offers a different and more satisfying experience than buying from large, anonymous suppliers. There is a trade-like, medieval aura surrounding the hobby.

I'm getting a little concerned that the blog no longer generates much of a reaction. Although Teresa Gill, who dropped out in late 2015, didn't always provide comments that I considered ideal, she was thoughtful and interesting enough to liven things up a little. Without her, the blog seems more closed off than ever. Still, I prefer limited comments, because I'm sure that a large increase in them would create too much of a distraction. When I look at comments on other sites, I invariably decide that it would be better not to have to deal with anything like that. Since the readership here is so small, I am sometimes tempted to write more autobiographically and more personally about people I know, but that might offend or upset some, so I have consistently decided against it. I'm beginning to think that an honest, thoughtful memoir written for posthumous publication would make for the best reading, but I'm not ready to commit to that myself. Some of my posts have been very personal – more personal than what I've seen elsewhere – but that's about as far as I want to go at present.

In any case, this blog probably won't fizzle out soon. I've noticed that most blogs do come to a halt rapidly: that could be an interesting subject in itself. I would guess that many blogs die out because their authors soon discover that they're not becoming rich or famous. Before long they realize that they are putting time and effort into something that will never pay off. In my case, none of that is relevant, and the only things that are likely to stop me are boredom with the process or mental incapacity – which could take a few years. Sometimes I am tempted to write fewer reviews and more opinion pieces, but I prefer to continually infuse the blog with new information, because that creates an atmosphere in which the blog can't easily be written off as the rants of some old crank. Anyway, I do get occasional views from anonymous readers, and I wouldn't mind it if some of them communicated their reactions or preferences to me from time to time.