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.