Friday, April 26, 2019


I read a few more of the essays in Extremes but have decided not to comment extensively on them. There is an excellent summary of the global warming phenomenon, "Extreme Weather," by Emily Shuckburgh, which reminds me that British academics often produce much more lucid prose than American academics – even when they are scientists. The irony is that climate change is a solvable problem, yet little is being done about it at the moment in the U.S., thanks largely to the current president. Assuming that humans survive climate change, which will cause millions of deaths and trillions of dollars in damage, our descendants are going to wonder who was minding the store during this era. There is also an informative essay, "Extreme Longevity," by Sarah Harper, and a concise presentation of major astronomical events, "Extremes of Power in the Universe," by Andrew C. Fabian, which makes me think that, in a way, we're lucky to have such brief lives, given the gigantic, powerful and destructive events that occur periodically in the universe. Yet we're still not completely safe, because it is possible that a large solar flare such as one that struck Earth in 1849 could wipe out our electric grids and decommission our satellites. A much rarer – but possible – superflare would do considerably more damage to the planet.

The viewing conditions for stargazing have been bad for months, but last night I looked at a few galaxies in my small telescope. I saw the supergiant elliptical galaxy M87. It's a long way off, and its light took 53 million years to reach the telescope. It would appear more clearly in my large telescope, but I could still make it out. The reason why I chose this galaxy was that it is the location of the first photographed black hole, which was featured in the news recently. At this time of year you can see a cluster of galaxies in Virgo, some of which form a line known as Markarian's Chain. If we get better weather soon I'll set up my large Dobsonian telescope before these galaxies have moved out of range.

For new reading materials, I've been racking my brains for something that I would like. I'm going to try a biography of Mikhail Bulgakov on the theory that his life was more interesting than most. He was born in Kiev in 1891 and lived through the early years of the Soviet Union as an author of novels, short stories and plays. Little of what he wrote was published during his life, and he was best known mainly for one play, which Stalin happened to like. I was first exposed to Bulgakov in a Soviet literature class that I took in college. I read The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog and wrote a paper on his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita. I don't think that I would be as amused by his writing now, but at the time I was fascinated by his satire and the breadth of his subject matter. In fact, after years of being force-fed literature in high school (Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, etc.) and various unsuccessful explorations of my own (John Barth and Hermann Hesse come to mind), Bulgakov was the first writer whom I found engaging at all. My selection of Bulgakov as a biographical subject is partly derived from the theory that challenging lives are more interesting than safe, bourgeois ones. On that basis, he had a few things in common with Czeslaw Milosz: he was born before the Russian Revolution and suffered from its consequences – though, unlike Milosz, who ended up with a cushy job in Berkeley and a Nobel Prize, Bulgakov stayed in the U.S.S.R. and died almost unknown at the age of 48. Like Milosz, Bulgakov believed that writers have a civic responsibility during troubled times. As I've suggested quite often, the fiction produced during placid periods tends to be insipid, and the commercialization of literary fiction has made matters even worse. Writers tend to become more serious when they face real hardships. The biography that I've chosen may or may not be worth reading – I'll let you know.

Sunday, April 21, 2019


I've been reading essays in a new collection called Extremes and will discuss some of them individually. I found "Extreme Politics: The Four Waves of National Populism in the West," by Matthew Goodwin, informative and will make a few comments on it. Goodwin describes four waves of populism that have occurred in Europe and the U.S. since World War II. His main thesis is that the fourth wave, which we are in now, began before the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession and is based on factors other than economic ones. Goodwin believes that, independent of economic concerns, there is a growing divide between populist nationalists and cosmopolitan liberals. For the most part, recent Western populists have been anti-immigration, anti-globalization, conservative, working-class and poorly educated. He sees a continuation of this trend with no end in sight.

While I concur with Goodwin's overall thesis, it is apparent to me that he is limited by the constraints of his academic specialization in politics. I still believe that economics occupies a central role in current populism, and that Goodwin is a little negligent regarding the explanation of how reduced economic prospects play out sociologically and support recent political trends. For example, he fails to link low educational attainment and changes in the demand for specific job skills with future job insecurity. My view is derived partly from my own experiences in a manufacturing environment that declined for workers over several decades as a result of new technology. As I've mentioned before, between the 1970's and the early 2000's, print production became increasingly mechanized, resulting in a need for significantly fewer employees. Besides this, since 2000, print demand has dropped due to competition from digital media. When I began to work in large printing plants in the late 1970's, first pressmen commanded very high wages that put them on a financial footing comparable to lawyers and other professionals who had college educations and advanced degrees. Now, there are far fewer first pressman positions, the pay is lower and many plants have closed. You can easily extrapolate from this single industry to others, in which jobs have disappeared and wages have declined in many of the positions that remain. I should also point out that a large number of manufacturing plants were built in rural locations long ago in order to escape the higher operating costs associated with urban locations. With the decline of manufacturing in the U.S., rural areas were generally hit harder than urban areas, since cities often have more mixed economies and a single plant closure has less impact.

Where I agree the most with Goodwin is on the importance of educational attainment. Apart from the vocational aspects of education, I find that highly-educated people generally have a better understanding of the world in which they live and are better prepared to plan their lives realistically than people who have little education and little experience of the world beyond their immediate environments. In my view, I would expect populist extremists to fit the profile of stressed organisms: there would be a natural tendency for them to be suspicious of other groups and to desire control of their environment by like-minded people. The underlying problem, as I see it, is that there is no mechanism in place to provide conditions for these populists that would ensure continuity into the future with what they became accustomed to in the past. Under circumstances like this, it is not unreasonable to expect some sort of natural selection to play out, and the process is unlikely to be pretty.

Perhaps because Goodwin's essay is short, he doesn't mention anything about how populism provides opportunities for unscrupulous politicians. Though he recognizes that Donald Trump may not be around for long and that Brexit may eventually be overturned in the U.K., there is every reason to believe that other opportunists will take advantage of the situation, leading to further instability. Instead, Goodwin prioritizes a change in message by the center-left in Europe in order to attract populists who are motivated by cultural protectionism rather than by economic protectionism. In my view, the underlying problems are economic, and political maneuvering alone is not going to remedy the long-term attitudes of protectionists. I also think that the problem of populism, to put it bluntly, is exacerbated by the stupidity of populist voters. To use Donald Trump as an example, he has been loyally supported by about forty percent of Americans for over two years even though he is demonstrably incompetent as president and shows no signs of creating any permanent solutions for his supporters. Most intelligent, educated Americans could spot this well before his election, and their skepticism has been borne out fully. Emmanuel Macron seems to be following Goodwin's playbook in France by outwardly embracing Michel Houellebecq, who has been repackaged as a disgruntled populist figurehead – though I doubt that Houellebecq has much of value to add to the political scene – and Macron could easily go belly-up in France without economic improvements for the working class.

Ultimately, there will only be high-paying jobs for people who are talented and well-educated, and there is no way around this. I think that complaints about uncontrolled immigration and the erosion of national identity are expressions of frustration that would not occur if everyone felt economically secure. Although it may still seem too futuristic, I think that real solutions are going to require higher taxation on wealth and some form of basic income in all countries undergoing this phenomenon. In these respects, Goodwin falls far short.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


I may already be running out of books to read in the biography/autobiography/memoir category and am having difficulty finding suitable ones. In high school I was interested in Albert Einstein; I hadn't read about him in years and decided to have another go. At the moment I'm giving up on Einstein: A Biography, by Jürgen Neffe. I had thought that a German author might produce a better book than a popular American author, but I don't like this one much. Neffe dances around the facts without getting to the point. He seems to do an adequate job with Einstein's scientific ideas, while dawdling over and speculating about the irresponsible and salacious aspects of Einstein's life. In this case, the problem is partly Einstein himself. He had an unusual personality in the sense that he was brainy, an introvert and a divergent thinker, but in other respects he was utterly conventional for his period. His upbringing was completely bourgeois, and by our standards he was an unapologetic sexist. He had at least one illegitimate child and didn't take very good care of his wife or his schizophrenic son. He peaked in his thirties as a scientist, with the general theory of relativity in 1915, but lived another forty years. Part of the problem with Einstein as a biographical subject is that he became too famous for his own good. Many people were involved with the management of his public image during and after his life, and there is a cult-like reverence for him to this day. My feeling is that, aside from his scientific work, he was not that exceptional. In fact, once he became famous, he was an ordinary skirt chaser, like most men. In a way, Richard Feynman was more honorable in this respect, because he was honest about it.

It may be easier to find suitable biographical subjects prior to the twentieth century, which is when the cult of personality exploded. You can see hints of its development in the eighteenth century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but nothing like what we have today. People need to be reminded occasionally that every person who ever lived was mortal and, therefore, could at most be only a notch or two above most others – and certainly never dwelled on Mount Olympus. As I continue to seek biographical writings about recent subjects, it may be best to look for ones about people who aren't conspicuously famous. If my readers are getting tired of my tendency to demythologize, all I can say is that someone has to do it. Hero-worship, delusional thinking and brainwashing all go hand-in-hand, and the record must be set straight from time to time. Although one might argue that it is a self-justifying rationalization, I feel lucky that I'm not famous and don't have to deal with the unpleasant ramifications of fame. The anonymous life has its advantages.

The crocuses are up and the daffodils will be flowering soon. We are in the middle of Vermont's mud season, probably the ugliest time of year here. I sawed off some gray birch limbs that were damaged by a late snow and placed a few of them in the path to the woods to provide solid footing through the mud. The snow thrower has been put away for the season, and in a few weeks I'll be mowing the lawn again.