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.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir

When I read book reviews in The New York Times many years ago, I was often impressed by those written by Anatole Broyard. He didn't publish many books during his life, but I recently came across this unfinished memoir, which was published three years after he died in 1990. It includes vignettes of people he knew in 1946 and 1947 in Greenwich Village, during the period in which it became a haven for literary and artistic people following World War II. Besides the vignettes, there is discussion of the formation of Broyard's adult identity, the quality of the interactions he had, particularly with women, and an anecdotal glimpse of American cultural history.

While I was growing up in the suburbs, the Village still had a reputation as a hip place, though by then the Beat movement was mostly dead and folk music was more popular than jazz. Bob Dylan made a name for himself there in the early 1960's, and, as far as I know, the Village has been gentrified since then, with high property values. I haven't been there since 2003, when I visited Tony Judt in his office at NYU on Washington Square. As Broyard tells it, the area was poor after the war, and the dwellings consisted of walk-up tenements with DC electricity, which required humming AC adapters to run modern appliances. Though Broyard's discussion isn't particularly sociological, he describes the unusual circumstances created by the end of the Great Depression and the end of the war. With the GI Bill, millions of people simultaneously had opportunities to direct their lives in ways that hadn't been possible previously. Many of them ended up becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants, but people in the arts crowd tended to descend on the Village. Anïs Nin lived there, and much of the book concerns Broyard's relationship with Nin's protégé, Sheri Martinelli (under the pseudonym "Donatti"). W.H. Auden was in the neighborhood, as were Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas and many others. As I recall, Denise Levertov moved there in 1948, but she never liked the grunge.

I ought to provide a sample of Broyard's writing, which I think is very good, as good as that of any American writer:

One night in the San Remo Bar Delmore Schwartz invited me to sit in a booth with him. He was with Dwight Macdonald and Clem Greenberg. I was flattered. I knew Delmore because he had accepted for Partisan Review a piece I'd called "Portrait of a Hipster."

They were talking about the primitive: Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway; bullfighting and boxing. I was a bit uneasy, because my piece was about jazz and the attitudes surrounding it, and I didn't want to be typecast as an aficionado of the primitive. I wanted to be a literary man, like them. I felt too primitive myself to be talking about the primitive.

Yet I couldn't help showing off a little. I had noticed in taking strolls with Delmore that he was surprised and even impressed by what I thought were ordinary observations. He seemed to see American life only in the abstract, as a Platonic essence. Sometimes he saw it as vaudeville, but he always saw it through something else. He imposed a form, intellectual or esthetic, on it, as if he couldn't bear to look at it directly.

Like many other New York writers and intellectuals of his generation, Delmore seemed to have read himself right out of American culture. He was a citizen only of literature. His Greenwich Village was part Dostoyevski's Saint Petersburg and part Kafka's Amerika. 

I admired his high abstraction, his ability to think in noninclusive generalizations, but I pitied him too. I thought his was as much a lost generation as Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's—in fact, more lost. While the writers of the twenties had lost only their illusions, Delmore, the typical New York intellectual of the forties, seemed to have lost the world itself. It was as if these men had been blinded by reading. Their heads were so filled with books, fictional characters, and symbols that there was no room for the raw data of actuality. They couldn't see the small, only the large. They still thought of ordinary people as the proletariat, or the masses. 

I wanted to be an intellectual, too, to see life from a great height, yet I didn't want to give up my sense of connection, my intimacy with things. When I read a book, I always kept one eye on the world, like someone watching a clock.

Surprisingly to me, to the extent that there is a main theme to the book, it is Broyard's inability to connect with women, no matter how hard he tried. His writing about Sheri is nonjudgmental, yet her behavior seems bizarre to me, and though I couldn't tolerate someone like her now, Broyard expresses very well the angst that he experienced when he tried to develop a close relationship with her. In the end he broke up with her after she had made a suicide attempt without offering an explanation and after she had had him arrested for taking one of his own possessions from her apartment. As a reader, I was reminded of  Andy Warhol's "Superstars" and got the sense that people like Sheri may have prefigured the movement toward empty celebrity in the arts. Broyard doesn't try to outline Sheri's psychodynamics, but I found it difficult to see her as anything other than mentally ill in a significant sense. Though Broyard mentions in passing that he saw a psychiatrist because it was fashionable, mental illness never comes up as a specific topic in the book, but, in the postscript by Alexandra Broyard, his wife at the time of his death, it becomes evident that he found stability later, after he had moved away from Greenwich Village, raised a family and developed a career. My interpretation is that Broyard was very much a down-to-earth person who was thrown off when he placed himself in the milieu of artistic people with unstable personalities. As the first member of his family to take an interest in the arts or graduate from college, he had placed himself in an environment that took more adjustment than he realized was necessary.

There is a lot of discussion in the book about sex; it is done tastefully and usually is related to Broyard's difficulty connecting with women. This is striking to read now, when women are more often seen as the victims of insensitive, self-centered men. In this case, you can clearly see that, compared to Broyard, Sheri and some of the other women he knew were the ones who were emotionally unavailable and perhaps manipulative. Broyard also remarks how different it was before the sexual revolution and books like Portnoy's Complaint. Relationships between men and women were strained compared to later days, and that was an enduring problem for Broyard in this memoir

The style of writing in the book is elegant and literary, but not so literary as to fit Broyard's description of Delmore Schwartz's style. Though I usually prefer more analytical works, this one makes up for it by capturing Broyard's mental state at the time so well that it is absorbing enough in itself. I think this book would appeal more to men than to women, but those women who are interested in broadening their horizons in understanding men surely could benefit from it. My current position is that the gulf between men and women is unbridgeable, but that education and awareness can still improve relations between the sexes. I may read more of Broyard and comment on that later.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


With no good reading materials on hand, a guest in the house, technical telescope issues to solve, tomato plants to attend to and a few hot days, circumstances haven't been conducive to writing new posts. The visitor has left, the temperature has cooled and I have a book on order, so eventually I'll resume my regular posts.

I had been thinking about writing a long post that would sum up the nonfiction that I've been reading over the last few years, with the title "The Disunity of Knowledge," which would connect my ideas more clearly than I have done so far. However, I get the sense that my very small group of readers isn't really interested in that kind of thing, so I'm going to skip it for the time being. Nevertheless, I feel an impetus to write something of the sort, because it is alarming to me how much new knowledge has accumulated in recent years, and that the implications of this knowledge are hardly discussed publicly; public awareness remains several decades behind the present in terms of the comprehension of potentially critical situations that have already begun or may arise within the next few years. For example, if you follow American politics, many of the "issues" are framed as if it were the 1990's, not 2019. Of particular interest to me are the economic effects of AI and the alteration of human cognition by digital media. Then, of course, there are well-documented events such as anthropogenic climate change; this is getting some attention now, but when you consider how disastrous the effects are already proving to be, the reaction in the U.S. makes it look as if the year is about 2010. One of the most striking aspects of the current period is the ineffectiveness of democratic processes, which has resulted in the routine election of incompetent politicians who make inappropriate policy decisions. As the complexity of the world has increased, the popular vote has become more vulnerable to manipulation by special interests, and at the moment special interests seem to be gaining the upper hand. If the goals of special interests were in alignment with the best interests of the public, I wouldn't care, but in most cases special interests are indifferent to the common good. Some of the ill effects of special interests occur as secondary results of seemingly innocuous activities, when, for example, businesses seek to increase their profits without violating any laws. To a certain extent, we got stuck with Donald Trump because he was a free source of reality TV for the news media. If the news media wasn't governed by the profit motive and instead followed responsible principles of journalism, Trump might have been exposed long ago and may never have been elected president. The media is in dereliction of duty to the extent that the encouragement of critical thinking has been marginalized by profit-seeking. Although in the past there was a sense that journalism and free speech could serve as counterbalances to private enterprise and criminality, truth seems recently to have taken a back seat to profit throughout all levels of American society, and a collective reality seems no longer to exist. The environment that we inhabit increasingly exceeds our ability to comprehend it, and there isn't anyone out there offering good advice.