Tuesday, January 28, 2020


I noticed that I haven't made a Diary post for a while and decided to now. Although these posts are sort of fillers, I think that they personalize the blog a little and prevent it from becoming a pure book-review website. As always, I have a hard time coming up with books to read. It seems to me that people who read a book a week must be completely undiscriminating. At this stage, the most satisfying books for me are long biographies of intellectuals written by talented biographers. This combination limits the number of suitable books, because there aren't many intellectuals whose lives interest me, and there aren't many good biographers either. Autobiographies have, in theory at least, a lot of potential, but in my experience they don't compare favorably to thorough biographies. For example, Confessions, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though probably one of the best autobiographies, is not as complete as the biography I read. Rousseau presented a one-sided view of his life without including the reflections of others, and, as a result, the full context of his development into an outcast remained unexplored. One might conclude, after reading beyond Rousseau's account of events, that it was his pigheadedness that got him into trouble and ruined his friendships. I could arrive at this conclusion only after reading lengthy biographies of Rousseau and Diderot. Another example, Stendhal's autobiography, was good for what it was, but it was written very hastily and didn't cover a very long period. I enjoyed reading Simone de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings up to a point but eventually concluded that her take on reality was incomplete. I sensed that her perspective was skewed, and that became a major distraction. If there were a good biography of her, I would prefer that, but I don't think there is one currently. The autobiographer is inevitably tempted to present a sanitized version of his or her life. A skilled biographer, on the other hand, has an opportunity to understand his or her subject better than the subject understands himself or herself. Even in the absence of such understanding, the reader is provided with additional facts that are useful for making such judgments. I find that process interesting, and my next project is to read a lengthy biography of Charles Darwin; in this instance I'm going to skip Darwin's autobiography altogether. As my reading tastes have evolved, I now think that most fiction is too inaccurate and contrived, most historical writing is too tendentious and general, and most scientific writing, though potentially informative, is emotionally unsatisfying. I am open to different approaches, but this is where I am now.

Of course, I have been following the Trump impeachment proceedings. What is surprising at the moment is that he has any Republican support at all. Nothing could be plainer than that he is a narcissist with little talent beyond self-promotion. None of his domestic or foreign policies are well-informed, and any honest economist will tell you that he deserves no credit for any perceived economic strength in the country. In the most recent insider-tell-all book it is revealed that Trump didn't know that India borders China or what Pearl Harbor was all about. The one thing that sticks in my mind is that if he hadn't swallowed the Russian propaganda about Ukraine he would not have been impeached in the first place. As George Conway, a conservative Republican, announced recently, Trump is actually pretty stupid. The cowardice of his supporters in the Senate is therefore striking. Since there are still no definite signs that the impeachment process will result in his removal from office, we can only hope that he won't be reelected if he's cleared. There is still a chance that witnesses such as John Bolton will turn the tables on Trump.

I might add that my latest readings indicate that automation is the primary force behind current economic and political trends in developed countries. It's always hard for me to get excited about politics, because complex issues such as this never make their way into political talking points. The Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular have nothing to offer workers who have been displaced by automation, and Trump's attribution of job losses to unfair trade practices skirts the issue. The automation problem is so severe that the Democrats also seem afraid to address it directly. I think that we are only in the early phase of a development that will leave many more people unemployed in future years, and that the process will gradually move from manufacturing jobs to white collar jobs to professional jobs. Tech-savvy candidates like Andrew Yang are ahead of the curve, because they are promoting UBI now, and I'm sure that it will eventually become a political issue. However, the way things have been going, it seems unlikely that the democratic process will be effective for dealing with this particular problem. Democracy itself may be on the way out, because other systems are simply more efficient and effective.

We are having the dreariest winter since we moved to Vermont in 2011. Usually by mid-December the temperature remains below freezing until April and the snow doesn't melt. This year the temperatures have often been above freezing, there is little snow on the ground and it has rained recently. I have been looking at places to move to in northern Maine, where it still gets cold in the winter, but there are no comparable college towns up there that would balance the population of local people with well-educated ones, as we have here. I think that living in Middlebury would be a different experience if the college wasn't here, so I'm not about to move yet. William has completely adapted to his new cat door and ramp setup. He sleeps all day near the fire and gets locked in the basement at night. Late at night and in the morning he comes from the outside and paws on the porch door if he sees that someone is up. He doesn't seem to be catching much now, though he did catch a junco the other day.

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