Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov

Before starting on Voltaire, I decided to read this short volume by Mark Pawlak. Pawlak is a poet and math professor, and the book is a memoir about his relationship with Denise Levertov, beginning in 1969 and ending with her death in 1997. I would never have known of the existence of the book if Pawlak hadn't read my review of Dana Greene's biography of Levertov and contacted me regarding the publication of his book. I mentioned Pawlak earlier on this blog when I found an online post about Levertov's view of the New York Times. The same anecdote appears in this book.

Several aspects of the memoir are interesting to me, others less so. Pawlak is two years older than I am and attended M.I.T. as an undergraduate, majoring in physics. During his senior year, starting in 1969, he used one of his few electives to enroll in a poetry workshop taught by Levertov, who was teaching there at the time. The part that interests me the most concerns their milieu as it developed, and particularly how Levertov lived her life. Pawlak got to know Levertov and her family quite well and visited them frequently at their summer home in Maine. A lot of this material is covered in Greene's biography, but Pawlak offers a more intimate portrait of Levertov's daily life.

She was a passionate person and also quite opinionated. Her personality was much stronger than that of her husband, Mitch Goodman, and she was the main breadwinner up to the time of their divorce. I think that she benefited from an early focus on poetry as her vocation, whereas Mitch fumbled around for decades without really establishing himself in any field. Some of this appeals to me because, while Levertov was the same age as Pawlak's mother, she was also the same age as my father, who grew up not far from where she did in the London area. Although my mother was not in the least bit literary, she had a strength similar to Levertov's that allowed her to compensate for my father's inadequacies.

The part that intrigues me the most is the atmosphere in Cambridge, Massachusetts and environs in 1969 that caused Pawlak to diverge from physics to poetry. At the time, there was a strange zeitgeist across the country that existed primarily on college campuses. In a matter of months, Pawlak was transformed from a geeky physics major into an aspiring poet and a political activist, and Levertov was there to facilitate him. My take is that Levertov came from an exotic background that would be impossible to replicate today. She had little formal education and had grown up home-schooled almost exclusively in the arts. Then she moved with her husband to Greenwich Village in the late 1940's and inhabited what was perhaps the only sustained bohemian community ever to exist in the U.S. Her ideas about poetry and social justice have never been popular here, and with her forceful presentation of them to Pawlak, he was clearly smitten. Pawlak himself came from a working-class Polish background, and this would all have been quite new to him.

One thing that intrigues me is that the environment in Cambridge in 1969 was similar to that of Bloomington, Indiana at the time. In the summer of 1970, I briefly lived a bohemian life among potential artists and writers whose attitudes were probably quite similar to those of people in Cambridge. The difference was that in the Midwest this was an ephemeral condition that pretty much evaporated by 1972, while it lived on in places like Cambridge and Berkeley. The aspiring writer I knew joined an ashram and then went to law school. The two artists never had artistic careers. Whatever utopian elements were present in 1970 in Indiana were short-lived. Bloomington is now better known as the birthplace of the smug, reactionary and intellectually third-rate publication, The American Spectator, in 1967. You might say that Pawlak was either blessed or cursed by living in the Boston area when he did.

A lot of the book is devoted to what I would call poetry shop talk. Levertov was quite good at that and was probably a good teacher for aspiring poets. For me, this is of limited interest, because I am not a poet and have no desire to become one. Years ago, I wrote a small number of poems, and, at the time, I found the process interesting. Since then, I have decided that the short essay is a better format for me, and in fact this blog fits me almost perfectly. I am more interested in the development of ideas and the presentation of them in an intelligible manner. Whatever my readers may think, this format fulfills my idea of free speech, which is actually quite important to me.

As far as poets and poetry are concerned, I can only go by how I react to particular poems. I like several of Levertov's poems, which is probably enough to make her my favorite poet. Then there are other individual poems by other poets that I've posted on this blog that I also like. I'm not interested in all the parsing and discussion that poets engage in with the aim of developing their craft, because, whatever they do, there are too few good poems to go around. I may be a poetry snob, or perhaps I'm just poetically illiterate, but I have enough reading experience to know that no one is going persuade me to like a poem if I don't like it after a careful reading. 

Pawlak also mentions that his poetry apprenticeship with Levertov occurred before M.F.A. programs became popular. I would think that that would have been a better time to learn poetry, especially with Levertov, because, besides being a good poet herself, her pedagogic style required a sort of communality that would be nearly impossible to replicate today. She really cared about her students and made sacrifices in order to support them. On the other hand, I am in no position to say whether or not that turned out to be worthwhile. I don't think that I've ever read a poem by any of her students. Nevertheless, that era isn't completely dead, because Levertov's publisher, New Directions, is still around in New York City and publishing authors such as László Krasznahorkai, who seem like a mirage of the exotic bohemians of yesterday.

From the foregoing, you can judge for yourself whether you would want to read this book. I think that it would appeal mainly to poetry historians and poetry students and to people like me who appreciate Levertov, who still isn't all that popular.

Saturday, December 11, 2021


As previously, I'm not enjoying the pandemic much. Though I feel fairly safe, having had my booster shot and wearing a mask when appropriate, I feel constrained. As mentioned earlier, being limited in activities tends to weaken relationships. When things aren't going well, which currently also includes the political state of the country, I automatically start thinking about Plan B options. At my age, inertia is usually the best choice. I think it usually takes several years to develop a good relationship, and, when you have perhaps only twenty years left to live, relationship changes are a big gamble. Then there is the question of where to live if political conditions continue to deteriorate. I keep thinking about Flaubert, whose character, Pécuchet, said "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." This reminds me of the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6. If conditions got really bad, Scotland would be an option for me, but I'm not sure that it would be much of an improvement over the U.S. Theoretically, Scotland could split from the U.K. and become part of the E.U., which is generally more civilized than the U.S., but I may be dead by then. Another factor is the location of family members. Although my family has always been geographically spread out, like many people, I value it more as I grow older. Of course, my theory is that there is a genetic basis for being able to relate better to close relatives than to others, even those with whom you have a similar cultural background. One of my pet peeves about political correctness is that, not only are most people significantly different from others, but that it is common to dislike or underappreciate human characteristics that are different from your own. I currently have only ten close living relatives, including their spouses and children, and six of them live within 250 miles of here. Though there are always some family conflicts, those pale in comparison to the problems that arise when interacting with people who have different family predispositions from yours and who actually prefer their families to you. However, one of the advantages of being old is that you don't have to plan very far into the future. The idea that dying will allow me to escape future unpleasantness is becoming more appealing.

Under these circumstances, I tend to go into more of an escapist mode than usual. I have three new nonfiction books on hand, but I don't feel at all like reading any of them at the moment. I don't actually like the state of the contemporary world and would rather not think about it. For this reason, I'm going to delve into the Enlightenment again. I very much enjoyed reading about Rousseau, Diderot somewhat less so, but, as of yet, I haven't read much about Voltaire. As with Rousseau and Diderot, I'm not particularly interested in his writings, but he was a key figure during that period, and knowing more about him would help me understand that environment better. In many respects Voltaire had a sharper mind than Rousseau or Diderot, so it is possible that he had greater insights into the period. To this end, I will be reading a Voltaire biography next. It is refreshing to me to delve into a period during which intellectuals were important contributors to the conceptual schemas of their societies. There are no equivalents today, and what you get is a collection of academic hacks who know far less than they think they do and are generally ignored anyway. I still give credit to writers such as E.O. Wilson and Robert Sapolsky, but in the end they are primarily academic researchers and are not really equipped to address many of the issues of our times. To me, Wilson's main message currently is that we're ruining the planet for all life forms, and Sapolsky's main message, to the extent that there is one in Behave, is that we are nothing more than biological entities who are trapped within the web of our evolutionary past. Although these are important, actionable scientific findings, scientists are generally not well-suited to effect policy changes. Influential thinkers tend to be the ones who come up with slightly ridiculous but appealing phrases such as "liberty," which are effective in the same manner as advertising campaigns. Rousseau would have done well at an advertising agency, and he could even have written the jingles. In my view, the world might have been a better place if no one had ever paid attention to popular authors. The best ideas are usually ones of scientific origin, and they tend to be unpopular. "You are a stupid animal" – which sums up many of the findings that I've discussed on this blog – hasn't caught on.

Saturday, December 4, 2021


 As we move into December, COVID-19 is breaking records in Vermont, though, fortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic Vermont is still the second-to-last state in the number of cases per hundred thousand, with Hawaii retaining the best state record. As in other states, the most conservative counties have the highest rates of cases, and they are driving the numbers up. Although cases have also increased in Addison County, it still has one of the best records of any county in the country. Like everyone else, we are waiting to see how the situation develops with the Omicron variant. During the spring, summer and fall, life was beginning to return to normal, and I ate at restaurants three times, but now we are reverting to the earlier protocol. The governor, Phil Scott, a Republican, is looking less exceptional currently. The previous success in the state may have had little to do with him, and, like most politicians, he is reluctant to introduce mask mandates, because they are unpopular and unenforceable. In this and many situations, a fair, science-based authoritarian regime could produce far better results than what we've seen in the U.S. and Europe. It is too early to tell, but I think it is possible that Asia may emerge as the world power within a few years.

We have reached the point at which the federal government has become so transparently inept that it is difficult for me to take it seriously anymore. While the pandemic was broadly mismanaged under Trump in 2020, Biden seems only marginally more effective. Of greater concern are Congress and the Supreme Court. Congress is unwilling and unable to pass necessary and basic laws, usually as a result of political ideology rather than reason. As time passes, the Republican Party is evolving into one that supports anarchy and the elimination of taxation, along with an incoherent form of Christian fundamentalism that would be unrecognizable to Jesus Christ. Strangely, their political ascent coincides with a decline in the popularity of their ideas in the majority of the population of the country; the Republicans have been far more skilled than the Democrats at exercising unscrupulous methods. On top of this, the Supreme Court is now controlled by Republican fantasists who are denying that women have the right to control their bodies and are declaring that fetuses are people. These views can only be supported by an assortment of religious biases that have no place in a government that was specifically designed to separate church from state. Moreover, the Supreme Court is unwittingly displaying its intellectual bankruptcy by failing to recognize that by encouraging unwanted births they are supporting the growth of an underclass which will inevitably increase suffering and social costs for future generations. In my understanding, judicial proceedings are meant to weigh evidence, and the majority of the current justices seem to believe that their positions are supported by a being that does not exist and whose existence can never be proven. In the current situation, with intellectually incoherent Republicans dominating Congress and embarrassingly ignorant conservatives dominating the Supreme Court, the future of the U.S. is looking increasingly dire as time passes. Things could change, but perhaps not without a fear-inducing collapse of some nature.

On a more positive note, family members who had been living in Bellingham, Washington have moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, a short drive from here.  I will be seeing a lot more of them, and, besides generally enjoying their company, I will have additional opportunities to discuss issues that interest me with a like-minded person. Often, I have been constrained to write what I think in raw form on this blog, because I have lacked the opportunities to develop my views in the course of routine conversations. The visitors, who came in two waves, have all departed, along with their cats. We had to keep the three cats apart from William in order to prevent fights. In one instance, a cat got loose, and, within moments, the fur was flying, literally. Fortunately there were no injuries. William doesn't like having his routines changed by visiting cats and is pleased that they are gone. As an outdoor cat, he generally eschews fights: it is the indoor male cats that are the instigators.

As far as reading is concerned, I do have a couple of books on hand, but I'm not as yet terribly excited to read them. I may start one soon.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Chasing Homer

For a diversion, I read this short novel, which is almost short-story length, by László Krasznahorkai. As with his other writings, it is difficult to make out what he is trying to achieve. I like Krasznahorkai because, while usually obscure, he represents what I think of as the last vestige of the avant-garde, which otherwise was dead by the seventies. This book fills that requirement, not only with his typical frenetic sentences and ambiguity, but with a musical score and illustrations. Of course, as in classic Krasznahorkai, the text itself is enough to baffle most readers, but the music and illustrations are also bizarre.

The story itself concerns the flight of an unidentified individual, presumably male, who is convinced that some unidentified group is devoted to killing him and is actively pursuing him. His strategy is to travel constantly and make spur-of the-moment changes in his travel plans in order to evade them. The story isn't really plausible in the sense that there is no explanation of how he funds his travels, other than by being frugal. The character apparently never sleeps and hardly ever eats. There is no explanation as to why he feels pursued, so the story ends up seeming like an exercise in paranoia and anxiety. In terms of literary precedents, I was reminded of the unfinished Kafka's story, "The Burrow," about a burrowing animal that is obsessed with its safety and is worried about the imminent invasion of its burrow. Kafka wrote that story just before he died from tuberculosis, so one might speculate that Krasznahorkai, himself now sixty-seven, is approaching death. Alternatively, one might surmise that the protagonist is being pursued by a cabal of jealous fiction writers: many must envy his literary success. In the case of Kafka, the paranoia and anxiety in his stories are most likely a reflection of his psychological state. This would explain why he found his works unacceptable and hoped that they would be destroyed upon his death. Krasznahorkai, on the other hand, has adopted this genre as a literary style, and, without more biographical information, it is difficult to tell whether or not his psychological profile matches Kafka's at all. As in some of Krasznahorkai's novels, there is also the possibility that the pursuers are state agents.

At the end of the story, the protagonist travels by ferry to a remote Croatian island, where he overhears a local travel guide attempting to explain to two Japanese tourists the myth of Calypso and Odysseus, from the Odyssey. The suggestion is that the events occurred on that particular island in the Adriatic Sea. Odysseus was held captive, wished to return home to Ithaca, and was eventually released. Finally, the protagonist hikes through the woods to a high point above the sea and observes some divers emerging from an underwater grotto. They notice something dead nearby, suggesting that perhaps the protagonist has fallen to his death. In classic Krasznahorkai style, it turns out to be a large rat, and the protagonist survives.

I am sympathetic with Krasznahorkai because, even though he doesn't fulfill my literary ideals, he is original and challenging, and also a talented writer. I think that he fits poorly within the Western literary canon, but has not made artistic compromises in order to ensure economic success. Probably his writings about isolated and paranoid travelers reflect his poor reception globally, despite having spent time in the U.S., Japan and Germany. Think for a moment what a talented Hungarian writer would experience if he traveled to New York City now and attempted to enter the local literary ecosystem. My impression is that not only do Americans or most Europeans generally not understand art, but that, because of the infiltration of the art world by commercial interests, new art in the traditional sense has been almost nonexistent for decades. If one were a true artist living today, death might be preferable.

Another factor, on which I lack sufficient information to reach a conclusion, is the oppressive feeling that an artist living in Hungary today might feel: conditions were bad through the Soviet era and haven’t improved much since. Thus, Krasznahorkai's writing may be a cry in the dark for artists and intellectuals who are living under oppressive regimes. The latter, unfortunately, now includes the U.S., if you understand the current level of political polarization here and the propaganda that has caused it.

I hesitate to recommend Krasznahorkai to my readers, because I doubt that many of them would share my aesthetic sensibilities. However, if you want to try reading him, I think that "The Last Wolf" would be sufficiently short and accessible and is generally representative of his work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Absurdist Social Criticism

After reading a long string of nonfiction books, I usually begin to crave some good fiction, and, as you know, I always have trouble finding it. I thought that I would attempt to explain how I came to develop my particular literary taste, because I don't actually know anyone whose taste is the same as mine. I was extremely late to develop any literary preferences and only began to when I was most of the way through college. I was more affected by film, and the film that had the greatest impact on me was Dr. Strangelove (1964); this was followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In the interim, I came across some early Soviet fiction and was impressed by Mikhail Bulgakov in "The Fatal Eggs" and his novel, The Master and Magarita. When I was thirty-six, I read Lorrie Moore's short story, "How to Be an Other Woman" and thought that was good. Later, when I was about forty, I read Middlemarch and thought that it was the best novel I'd ever read. Through these works, I think you can get a sense of what interests me.

Dr. Strangelove, in addition to falling clearly within the absurdist tradition, contains a critique of government, and it finishes with an explicit statement of where its ineptitude can lead. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features the antics of a funny subversive and the horrific incompetence of a mental hospital. This is probably Jack Nicholson's best performance, which helps, but I think it is a significant fact that the film was directed by Miloš Forman, a Czech. I read the novel, by Ken Kesey, and didn't find it nearly as good. The Master and Margarita is evidence of a talented writer living under a totalitarian regime and making fun of it as a consolation, while weaving in deeper human themes. "How to Be an Other Woman" describes in humorous terms how a woman might come to understand her relationship with a man who is engaged in a series of infidelities, and, as part of the collection, Self-Help, parodies advice books. Compared to the others, Middlemarch seems more like a  straightforward novel, but it contains much subtlety, and, because it was written in the English tradition, it skewers English society in ways that some readers may not recognize. While George Eliot always maintains sympathy for her characters, Edward Casaubon is clearly a foolish, self-centered intellectual who wastes time on an implausible grand theory; Rosamond Vincy is a fatuous bourgeois; Nicholas Bulstrode is a pious hypocrite – etc. This novel portrays English society in the Midlands of the 1830's and dissects it, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses, and does this with a delicate touch, while at the same time highlighting the relevant human foibles. The novel was written well before absurdism became a genre, but there is some unobtrusive social criticism. 

What I think you find in these works is astute social observation, and in most of them a critique of the reigning powers. In Dr. Strangelove, the American government, in effect, brings the world to an end. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the hero is lobotomized. In "How to Be an Other Woman," the narrator leaves you with the feeling that male-female relationships are like an infinite regress stacked against the female. In Middlemarch, humanity is seen to exist on a fragile basis over which people have little control, thus, in the end, the central characters, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, go on to lead unexceptional lives, in contrast to Dorothea's high aspirations. 

In these works, I generally found close social observation and brainy critiques, and I don't often find comparable ones. Since I wasn't born in the U.S., I have always been skeptical of American ideology, and it is rarely questioned here. The early Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Poland, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, were better environments for the flourishing of intellectual dissidents. Although Czeslaw Milosz's literary works were hardly radical, in his book, The Captive Mind, he outlined the rather intense psychological pressures that intellectuals were forced to endure. Comparatively, American intellectuals have never experienced any duress, and they have lived their lives in obscure corners of this capitalist utopia, hardly making a dissenting peep. Most American novels, as far as I know, consist only of basic storytelling, and, these days, are often about the experiences of groups adapting to the prevailing culture, without questioning it much. The literary atmosphere, rather than being energized by angry dissidents, is mellowed by M.F.A. programs that groom writers for the publishing industry. If a novel were actually interesting, it probably wouldn't be a bestseller.

As far as American fiction is concerned, I'm tired of trying the latest wunderkinds, such as John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, George Saunders and Lauren Groff, but I suppose I'll keep an open mind and attempt to read some future ones. As it is, I think I've wasted enough time on them already. It is ironic that with so much material readily available in the U.S. – a completely corrupt and incompetent president, a seriously dysfunctional federal government, rampant gerrymandering, unaddressed climate change and the botched handling of the coronavirus – writers can't do a better job. 

In recent years, I've been making stabs at Michel Houellebecq and László Krasznahorkai. Houellebecq has some of the characteristics that I like, but he has too many flaws. Foremost, he doesn't write perceptively about people, and his plots are always a little harebrained. The Map and the Territory, when read carefully, is a critique of the art market. However, because Houellebecq's writing is sloppy and his style is deadpan, many readers may not realize this. Submission was obviously the result of Houellebecq's desire to exploit fears that Islamic forces are affecting life in France. As in his other novels, all of the characters lack psychological nuance. It is easy for me to differentiate Houellebecq from works by people whom I think are good. I would guess that, though possessing some talent, he is in this for the money. Krasznahorkai is a better bet, because he hasn't sold out completely in order to make as much money as possible. In his case, he is one of the best writers ever to capture some of the complex psychological aspects of being human. For most readers, he would be too obscure, and they would be unable to appreciate his Kafkaesque qualities. Krasznahorkai's limitations are related to the fact that what he really knows well is Hungary, which, at this point, is hardly representative of most of the developed world. What I find is that he is one of the most psychologically astute writers, and that he, more than any other that I know, understands what it feels like to live in a repressive ideological state, which, frankly, is what the U.S. is, once you understand the nature of capitalist institutions. For this reason, I have chosen to read Krasznahorkai's latest book, Chasing Homer. I thought that his short story, "The Last Wolf," was one of the best I've ever read, so this is worth a try. Of course, Krasznahorkai is virtually unknown in the U.S. For example, Satantango, one of his best-known novels, currently has163 reviews on Amazon.com, whereas Lauren Groff's latest novel, Matrix, has 1171. Apparently, deciding whose fiction to read depends on your social media. Needless to say, I don't and never will have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

I've finished reading this new book by Kathryn Paige Harden, who is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, also the director of the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and codirector of the Texas Twin Project. I was hoping that she would expand upon the discussion of research in single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) beyond Robert Plomin's in Blueprint and David Reich's in Who We are and How We Got Here, both discussed earlier on this blog. I was dismayed to find a meandering narrative, which seems unintelligible to me, attempting to take the genetic study of humans out of the hands of eugenicists and to convince politically correct progressives that genes do make a difference. The main purpose seems to be to promote equality as the solution to social problems, without emphasizing the role of genes in individual lives.

Because Harden is primarily concerned with the political implications of genetic research, I did not find the book interesting. Instead of emphasizing the science, she resorted to the ideas of philosophers such as John Rawls, whom I have no desire to read. I do sympathize with her, because, while I fall mainly in the genetic determinism camp, I also think that our genetic history as hunter-gatherers predisposes us to prefer egalitarian societies to the hierarchical ones associated with capitalism. Harden's strategy is to distance herself from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a book that I also have no desire to read. However, she is reluctant to fully embrace Plomin and Reich, whom I think could arrive at a more coherent way to use genetic research than Hardin does in this book. 

Among the failings of the book are emphases on race and individual variation. To me, race is a dead subject, since in most cases it is not an accurate description of a person's genetic makeup. For example, most African-Americans have a significant percentage of genes inherited from Europeans. Harden devotes a lot of space in the book to arguing that individuals are genetically unique, with the exception of identical twins at the time of conception. This is basically a truism and ignores the fact that Reich has shown how the Yamnaya, as a genetically coherent group, became a dominant force in Europe and northern India, where they are still genetically present. In this vein, there is no discussion of how some ethnic groups were wildly successful after arriving in the U.S., while others were not. Although cultural factors must have influenced some of these outcomes, in my mind, genetics has also played a significant role.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that conservative writers such as Murray and Herrnstein should not be allowed to promote the idea that the U.S. is a meritocracy in which superior people should get what they deserve. Her main argument seems to be that luck always plays a role in success, and that even includes the luck of having good genes. I doubt that many conservatives will find this persuasive. It would make more sense to me if Harden had brought up the subject of behavioral economics, which indicates that everyone is confused, including wealthy capitalists.

To my way of thinking, Harden's line of argument would have been more interesting if she had discussed how the human genome equips us to deal with a wide variety of situations. At any given time, one set of genes may offer advantages, and at another time it may not. Arguably, the successful capitalists who have dominated Western cultures for three hundred years are destroying the planet, and in the end will prove to be a detriment to everyone, including themselves. However, Harden is merely a well-meaning psychologist, and such thoughts are beyond the scope of her academic milieu.

Another deficiency in Harden's thinking is her acceptance of American culture as it currently exists. Besides not criticizing capitalism, she does not comment on America's consumerism and conspicuous consumption. It is implicit in her writing that crass people who have lots of money are successful. To put it mildly, this is a dubious attitude to take (think Donald Trump). As a psychologist, I think that she could have done a much better job diagnosing the social ills that we are facing.

One serious issue, which seems completely beyond the scope of Harden's analysis, is the probable decline in the job market due to automation. It seems to me that the percentage of good jobs in the economy is likely to decrease in the foreseeable future. In this scenario, more people are likely to experience insufficient incomes and lower career success.

As you might expect from the foregoing, I'm not much of a fan of Harden at this point.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge

More than any of the other books that I've discussed on this blog, this new book by Giorgio Vallortigara is almost purely scientific. Although it is very short, it describes in some detail the research that he and others have conducted on early cognition in animals. The primary animals used in this type of research are newly-hatched chicks, because they are readily available and easy to test. Also, because they can be tested at a very young age, they are better-suited than humans or most mammals for distinguishing inborn patterns of behavior from those influenced by experience. Much of the challenge in this type of research is in constructing tests which clearly indicate the origins of specific chick behavior. For this reason, the discussion is quite dry and logical, and therefore the book, though extremely well-written, would not appeal to most readers.

I won't attempt to describe all of the tests in detail, because I'm mainly interested in the general findings. The most general finding is that infant animals are primed at birth to respond to specific stimuli, and that their attention to those stimuli is inconstant and changes as they develop. The earliest stimuli that chicks pay attention to relate to animacy, specifically whether an object has a face, is self-propelled and moves with biological motion. Of course, this mainly concerns the identification of the mother and siblings and is extremely important in early life. At this point in the research, it is not known whether this type of knowledge is encoded at the level of single neurons or within complex circuits of several neurons.

One interesting experiment involves the presentation to chicks of drawings of geometrically impossible objects, such as one conceived by Roger Penrose, along with similar geometrical objects that exist in nature. The chicks prefer the possible objects. According to Vallortigara, "Simply, during the course of evolutionary history, natural selection has promoted the incorporation into the nervous systems of certain statistical regularities that are typical of visual scenes in the natural environment." Another discovery with chicks, which was made fifty years ago, is that they automatically make visual choices as if light always comes from above, even when it doesn't. Human visual perception is similarly influenced by drawings, depending on how the shading is applied. Other experiments indicate that chicks engage in rudimentary thinking without language. This includes a rough way of performing addition and subtraction, along with a basic understanding of geometry.

Vallortigara is cautious about claiming that chicks or other animals have innate knowledge in these areas, partly because it is difficult to know exactly when experience begins in most species. However, he is unapologetic in claiming that there are no such things as "higher" and "lower" organisms, since all organisms are products of natural selection that applies equally to all organisms. In fact, chick research indicates that the rough cognitive plan of chicks isn't much different from the rough cognitive plan of humans.

I find these ideas interesting, because they relate to some of the ideas that I've expressed on this blog. As I said some time ago, humans are quite similar to chipmunks. These ideas also apply to what I consider to be some errors that have occurred in the history of ideas. Because, as animals, we prefer beauty and simplicity, we tend to use them inappropriately when we describe reality. Thus, for example, Occam's Razor may technically be incorrect when reality is actually very messy and complex, such as in the case of quantum mechanics. The fact that we prefer to keep things simple or aesthetically pleasing doesn't mean that reality is simple or aesthetically pleasing. This point, of course, was brought up earlier by Sabine Hossenfelder. Another bad idea, which I've been thinking about more recently, is the nature of language. Until recently, most philosophers thought that thinking requires language, and it is now empirically clear that that is not the case. It appears to me that many mathematically-minded thinkers are completely incorrect if they think that the universe is a mathematical entity. Specifically, Bertrand Russell once thought that he could completely explain the world by starting with logical notation and using it to generate all of mathematics. The actual situation seems to be that animals evolved to use mathematical conceptions – unconsciously for the most part – purely as a matter of survival. This suggests that mathematics is not identical with nature, i.e., Bertrand Russell was wrong, and, for that matter, so was Plato. Another mistake along these lines occurred in economics when the rational agent concept became widely adopted. In that instance, economists preferred the simplicity of the theory, though it was never an accurate description of reality. I should also note that one of the difficulties in developing AI is that computer scientists tend to assume that the human model is the best one to follow. It probably isn't, but, on the other hand, it would be hard for computer scientists to come up with something better than billions of years of evolution did.

I don't think that most of my readers would find this book enjoyable to read, but I think it is an excellent entry point for discovering much of the faulty reasoning that passes for knowledge and wins awards. Language and mathematics are perhaps the best tools that we have at our disposal, but one must be wary of their animal provenance.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

I've been reading this new book by Nichola Raihani at a very leisurely pace and finally finished it. Raihani's background is in evolutionary biology and psychology, which is somewhat broader than that of most similar authors. I found it informative with respect to the latest research in these areas, but was a little surprised to see how the disciplines have changed in recent years. For example, the term "symbiosis," which I grew up with, is obsolete, as is the name "E.O. Wilson." On the other hand, Raihani is a great fan of Charles Darwin, and I give her extra credit for that. One of the main things that I like about the book is that it provides an unvarnished account of how life evolves – so clearly that it becomes obvious how tenuous it is that we even exist.

The early chapters describe pre-human evolution, such as the introduction of mitochondria, a type of bacteria, into other living cells. Mitochondria were once independent organisms, and they became part of eukaryotes, initiating the evolution of multicellular organisms. This is the kind of happenstance that characterizes evolution and results in significant evolutionary changes. In this instance, mitochondria became the energy source that made higher forms of life possible. There is also much discussion of our distant ancestors and how they differed from other primates. It has been inferred that serial monogamy has been common throughout human history, based in part on the fact that human testicles are an intermediate size between those of gorillas and chimpanzees. Gorilla males have small testes because they have captive females and don't need much semen to reproduce, whereas chimpanzee males mate frequently with multiple females in order to reproduce and accordingly have large testes. Comparatively, human males must have mated with fewer females than chimpanzees but did not have captive females at their disposal in the manner of gorillas.

Until very recently it was thought that humans were born immature because of their head sizes, but it is now believed that metabolic stress on the mother is the actual cause: there is a limit to the size of a baby that can be sustained by the mother. Another interesting idea, which occurred to me earlier, is that the attachment theory of child-rearing is not supported by existing evidence. According to two studies, children who were raised by their mothers were no better adjusted than children who spent more time away from home, when examined later. This makes sense, because alloparenting was the norm throughout human history, and the current arrangement with nuclear families is an aberration.

The bulk of the book describes the role of cooperation in evolution and specifically in the case of humans. Cooperation has always been linked to species survival, but not necessarily in the same manner as in humans. Other primates do not engage in much cooperation, which makes humans more like meerkats or ants in some respects. Some fish resemble humans in the limited sense that their behavior is monitored by other fish, and they can develop reputations; in that case, the level of cognition is extremely low and does not imply true socialization. As in other books that I've read, there is discussion of how humans became cooperative on the basis of food shortages on the savannahs of Africa. Chimpanzees and gorillas did not live on savannahs, had plentiful food supplies, and therefore did not develop cooperative behavior. Hunter-gatherers were generally egalitarian as social units, and this changed when farming became the primary source of food. Farming led to increased populations in static locations and encouraged the development of social hierarchies, which permitted some individuals to engage in selfish behavior that increased their reproductive success.

For the present era, Raihani discusses how selfishness has made a comeback. She notes that selfishness has been the most dominant form in nature, and that cooperation exists only in small pockets. In the current environment, there are many incentives to cheat other individuals and to dismiss out-groups. To some extent, these preferences can be affected by socialization. For example, perhaps due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, northern Italians are more inclined to cooperate with wide groups to which they have little exposure than southern Italians, who tend to be more clannish and disregard higher authorities. This has been demonstrated in a study in which it is seen that people are more likely to return found wallets in the north than in the south. In the U.S., conservatives are typically unwilling to expend resources helping groups other than their own, thus their preference for low taxes. Raihani notes that cooperation does have costs, and that in many circumstances it is not irrational to engage in selfish behavior. Finally, in the current era, with climate change accelerating, she emphasizes how functioning states build cohesion in which a collectivist mindset permits the development of solutions to otherwise insurmountable problems.

I appreciate Raihani's straightforward description of our situation, in which she does not resort to using ridiculous phrases such as "the better angels." Human behavior has always been about survival, and trying to pretty it up isn't going to solve any problems. I think that she is somewhat better prepared to discuss these issues than others because of her knowledge of evolution and psychology. She also has some familiarity with economics. However, with the problems now facing mankind, it would also be helpful to have some knowledge of political systems and AI. Although we are living in challenging times, we have the tools available to survive if we choose to use them.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

In Praise of Prairie

The elm tree is our highest mountain peak;
A five-foot drop a valley, so to speak.

A man's head is an eminence upon
A field of barley spread beneath the sun.

Horizons have no strangeness to the eye.
Our feet are sometimes level with the sky,

When we are walking on a treeless plain,
With ankles bruised from stubble of the grain.

The fields stretch out in long, unbroken rows.
We walk aware of what is far and close.

Here distance is familiar as a friend.
The feud we kept with space comes to an end.

—Theodore Roethke

Thursday, September 2, 2021


As in most summers, I haven't been reading much lately. I have mainly been skimming through poetry books, but in that process I don't find much that I like. I may come up with some more good poems, or I may not. I know exactly what I enjoy in a poem, and it only takes a moment to recognize that I won't like a poem when I look at it. More than other people, I prefer poems that contain ideas or feelings, and I am less interested in pure physical descriptions, historical references and wordplay. I currently have on order two new nonfiction books which are just being published, and I'll start on one of those shortly.

The coronavirus has reared its ugly head again, and I'm hoping that it will subside soon. Vermont is still doing very well in terms of vaccinations and cases, and there is a chance that we have already reached the peak of this wave. We had a slightly normal social life for a few months and are currently in semi-isolation mode again.

At this point I am extremely tired of the American news media and prefer to ignore it. I tried the Washington Post for a year, and although I did like one columnist, Jennifer Rubin, the overall experience was unsatisfactory and no better than what I had with the New York Times. For general news I now read the Guardian, and for investing news I read the Financial Times. I can no longer tolerate the Sunday talk shows, with their panels of pundits; their analysis is so superficial that they have nothing serious to offer. What irks me is that the American news media, in its quest for profit, has cut operations that once kept the public semi-informed, and it has instead beefed up its entertainment features in order to attract readers and viewers. The American mind was always pretty mushy, and now, with the suppression of critical thinking, the country is lurching from one fiasco to another. This might have been prevented if journalists had done their jobs, but there is still the problem of inadequate education. One need only look at the people who win major political positions to see that something is seriously wrong. There have been no good presidents since World War II, and the last was one of the worst in American history. No responsible journalist covering national politics, regardless of their political views, should be comfortable with the fact that Donald Trump won an election and stayed in office for four years. In theory, if they had performed professionally that would not have occurred. Some of the controls used in China could be useful in the U.S. The kind of free speech you most often see here is an expression of ignorance, and the country would do better without it. The atmosphere could improve markedly if millions of disgruntled Americans were forced to shut up. Though the internet carries some of the blame for this situation, it remains a crucial fact that journalists have been remiss for years; whatever standards of objectivity they ever had seem to have disappeared.

I've been engaged in very little stargazing this summer, largely because viewing conditions have been poor. This is mainly due to the fires on the West Coast. That smoke blows all the way across the country and prevents the sky here from clearing completely. Because the stock markets are still doing fairly well, investing has become part of my daily routine on weekdays. Since the beginning of 2020, my average monthly gains from investing have been three times as much as my monthly wages were before I retired. This isn't going to last forever, but for now it is easy money. It would have been more difficult to do this a few years ago, and it is facilitated by commission-free trades and better online tools.

William has been behaving differently. For some reason he hasn't been catching many rodents lately and is eating more cat food instead. Last spring he became extremely sick for a couple of days, possibly from eating a poisoned mouse, and he may have lost his appetite for them. It is also possible that the mouse population has fallen off, but that seems unlikely.

This summer has been wetter and cooler than usual. As in previous years, we have lots of tomatoes – four different kinds.  

I did decide to buy a shotgun and will be doing some target practice soon. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021


   When you turned to me—you in bed, still sleepwarm, against
                                                                               the pillows,
I across the room, skirt zipped, stockings on—
and you asked, so quietly,

"Was that a truthful answer?"

and outside our narrow third-storey window
the Norway maple was poking odd thumbs into the sky
and a skim milk early morning light leaked down the street,
down front porch steps, around grimed collars of snowbanks,
and the oval Victorian mirror of my dresser
reflected all that, with odd angles and rooflines, gutters, chimneys
                                                    jutting into its peripheral vision,

your question cut
like a knife so sharpened it
    slices clean and the surprised flesh doesn't know for a moment 
                                                                               how to bleed,

and I answered, after a pause
in which the strangeness felt like a form of love,


—Rosanna Warren

Thursday, August 19, 2021


 While I no longer generally attempt to contact people whom I used to know, I still look some of them up occasionally to see what they're up to. Since I've never had many friends over the years, these are usually people whom I knew through work. What I'm finding now is that a lot of them are dead, and they now appear in obituaries. Most of the people whom I knew in the Chicago area, where I lived from 1998 to 2011, are still alive and working, but before that, when I lived in Dixon, Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Indiana and Terre Haute, Indiana, most of them are dead. Since I still have vivid memories of them, it is a little jarring to think that they died so soon. On the other hand, this provides a broad perspective on people's lives which can only be accrued over many years.

The main feeling that I have now is that the work environment for most people is completely haphazard. They are thrown into groups of other people with whom they have little in common, and everyone pretends to fit the mold set by the management. As an independent person, I always found the pressure to conform grating, and as a perceptive person I was annoyed by the disingenuous behavior of others who were attempting to sustain or advance their careers. Another thing that I've noticed over many years is that some companies are conspicuously better managed than others, and that some have incompetent employees at high levels. Thinking about my supervisors, some were indelibly affected by their military experiences, and they used a primitive chain-of-command methodology throughout their working years. Thus, they spent more time on homage and fealty to their superiors and maintaining the status quo than on solving problems and ensuring higher productivity or improving the quality of work. In my experience, the military style failed, and the companies that followed it were more likely to go out of business. Interestingly, military thinking also fails inside its original settings, thus the conspicuous mismanagement of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and the disastrous psychological and medical consequences for veterans.

In some ways it seems remarkable that I survived in the workplace for so many years, but a lot of that may simply have had to do with changing jobs and moving. Certainly I never came remotely close to finding an ideal job, thus, I am happier than ever to be retired now. I feel sorry for those I knew who still have to work: I don't see how they could be enjoying themselves.

As for my former superiors, some were better than others. Larry, the president of the company where I worked in Dixon, often said "life is short." It was for him: he died at the age of 79 from Alzheimer's disease in 2015. Another boss, Fred, from Indianapolis, immigrated from England in 1972 and was far less talented. He died at the age of 81, leaving seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Although Fred never achieved much, I guess you could say that he succeeded biologically. I think that he took early retirement when the company where he worked was sold. Several of my coworkers have also died, and some of them have changed fields. One became a bus driver, and another switched from printing to orthopedic products. Some have changed jobs several times since I last saw them. As far as I know, none have died from COVID-19.

One thing I'm thankful for is that I retired before I had to post an obligatory profile on LinkedIn. I would have found that completely degrading, because it would have been about as far from how I see myself as is possible. I think that this blog comes much closer to saying who I am and what I represent. So, if you would like to consider hiring me for a job, please read the blog carefully.

The obituaries themselves usually supply only the most basic information. However, you can sometimes tell how important that person was to others in the comments they write – if there are any. After reading many obituaries, an individual's life, in the greater scheme of things, does not seem to have much significance. As I've said, it's only a matter of time before everyone is forgotten. As for myself, I don't intend to have an obituary.

Friday, August 13, 2021

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

—Theodore Roethke

Friday, August 6, 2021


I've been reading an anthology of American poetry and have found only one poem in it that I like. That is a poem by Theodore Roethke, and I ordered and received his Collected Poems, which I haven't started yet. The Po Chü-i poem in my last post came from another anthology that I've had for many years. When I said that I like 20th century American poetry, I probably should have qualified that, because the early and late periods are pretty bad in my opinion, and the poems I like are roughly from the 1930's to the 1980's. Every once in a while I read the poems posted by Jim Culleny on 3 Quarks Daily, and some of those aren't bad, but I don't read poetry regularly.

The next nonfiction book that I'm going to read will be published in September and discusses research indicating that "much early behavior is biologically predisposed rather than learned," and this is the sort of subject that I enjoy. One of the ideas that I've found most interesting in recent years is that the universe is deterministic, and that includes human behavior. The best research is being conducted by biologists rather than by psychologists, physicists or philosophers. In this vein, Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, was quite informative. I think that most theories of human nature have been incorrect until recently, and that biologists are currently working out the actual details. What makes it confusing is that the processes are so complex that it may be impossible to fully grasp them, especially when they are considered collectively. I think that our existing concepts of consciousness, free will and mind stem from obsolete theological ideas which are thousands of years old. A key idea for me is that we don't actually have free will, but that, because of the complexity of the underlying processes that produce human behavior, we are unable to comprehend them and delude ourselves into thinking that we are free. The implications of this are rather significant in many areas, such as political systems, overpopulation and anthropogenic climate change. I can't emphasize enough that all of the problems that we are collectively facing now were directly or indirectly created by us. Thus, for example, to anyone who is willing to accept facts, democracy doesn't work and capitalism is destroying the environment.

I don't necessarily like to pick on the U.S., since the same kinds of collective errors are made worldwide. However, since I live here, American errors seem more conspicuous to me. I find it remarkable that Donald Trump has any credibility whatsoever in this country. His incompetence and corruption have been demonstrated repeatedly for more than four years now, yet, remarkably, he retains a hold on the Republican Party, and this can only be explained by the willfulness and stupidity of his supporters. Not coincidentally, the same people have been reluctant to get vaccinated and have caused surges of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in their states. To me, these are relatively straightforward examples of how the U.S. government doesn't work and how ignorant voters are endangering themselves and the world. With the lingering pandemic and global warming advancing, it is disconcerting that the near future now more closely resembles a dystopian novel.

In other news, I've volunteered at the Ilsley Public Library to remove unwanted books. Although the library regularly has book sales and recycles books that way, they have too many unwanted books and literally can't give them away. These include books that even used booksellers don't want. For this reason, the library throws them out, which means that they must be taken to the Addison County Solid Waste District, which charges a fee, since they are not recyclable. My job is to load boxes of these books into my car and transport them to the Solid Waste District. In earlier days, readers would have been horrified to see books end their lives this way. On the other hand, this is an excellent time for readers like me who dislike Kindle and now have increased access to inexpensive used books. Other old-tech items such as CDs, cassettes, LPs and videocassettes are also going out of use, and the library throws some of them away too. We still have players for all of those, and I prefer our CD player for music. One of the ironies of the digital age is that, with lower costs and increased availability, the quality of sound systems has gradually deteriorated, and, in my opinion, so has the quality of music and writing. I would guess that most Gen Z people have never heard high quality music reproduction or read a good book. So much for progress.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Philosophers: Lao-Tzu

 "Those who speak know nothing:
   Those who know are silent."
   Those words, I am told,
   Were spoken by Lao-tzu,
   If we are to believe that Lao-tzu,
             Was himself one who knew,
    How comes it that he wrote a book
              Of five thousand words?

—Po Chü-i (772–846)

Monday, July 19, 2021


The book I was reading, though interesting in some respects, was not exactly captivating, and it didn't inspire me to read it frequently enough to finish it in a reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, it concerned life in 17th century England, and I've been overdosed on English intellectual history recently, with Thomas Malthus, G.H. Lewes, Charles Darwin, William Morris and Bertrand Russell. I am also getting tired of biographies, because, even though they can be better than novels, they tend to be written for entertainment, and the analytical scope of the authors can be quite limited. Whenever someone famous dies, there is usually a flurry of hagiographic biographies, and it can take a century for a thoughtful, thoroughly-researched biography to appear. Then, as I've said repeatedly, the profit motive, which seeks wide audiences, tends to result in low-quality work. You can even see the same sort of thing happening now, with all the books on Donald Trump, who is still alive. In his case too it would be better to wait a few decades to get an authoritative account after all the pertinent facts have been determined. By then it should be well-established how dysfunctional and destructive he was and what a colossal mistake it was that he was elected. In the meantime, dozens of hastily-written books will at best haphazardly document some of his recent behavior. I mention this only as an example of how the publishing industry works, and I probably wouldn't read a definitive Trump biography, because he has already demonstrated that he is nothing more than an ignorant, corrupt opportunist – with significant psychiatric issues.

As an alternative, I'm going to try to read some more poetry. That can be frustrating too, but when I find a poem that I like, I think about it often and enjoy the process. For me, the artistry in a good poem encapsulates a thought or feeling that is usually not expressed in daily life, and it creates an intangible bond between the author and the reader that in some ways can be better than what you experience with close friends. That can be a rare form of intimacy. Of course, for me, pursuing this takes far more effort than picking up a book of poems and reading it, because, as you will have noticed, so little of what I read seems satisfactory. If all goes well, I may resume my "Poem of the Day" posts, and perhaps I will comment on some poems too. Generally, I prefer 20th century American poems, so that's what I'll be reading. It may just be my imagination or cultural acclimation, but I have never been able to get excited about poems that aren't of American origin. This is unusual, because otherwise I find little to like in the American arts, with the exception of music.

I am still following the progress of the pandemic, since it seems persistent. Although this is a regrettable situation, I am hoping that in the end it will become a valuable lesson to the whiny Americans who have been complaining about nothing for years and choose to engage in irrational behavior because it makes them feel better. One would have expected them to grow up by now, but it increasingly looks as if more of them will die because they prefer to dismiss facts and live in an alternate reality. The irony is that many of them are science-deniers and anti-Darwinists, and their deaths would be a good example of natural selection at work: the smarter people will survive. Still, the extent of the pandemic is a warning to everyone, because it is bringing chaos to parts of the world and laying bare the weaknesses of governments everywhere. On the other hand, catastrophic events, such as the Great Depression and World War II, were followed by periods of self-discipline and reason, so the outlook may improve in the years to come.

As I've mentioned, the Internet is opening up a Pandora's box of bad ideas that are increasingly disruptive to society. I think that the Internet bypasses traditional methods of socialization, and that people are unwittingly being influenced by commercial entities which, in a psychological sense, disguise themselves as communities and co-opt the traditional process in which our hunter-gatherer ancestors became assimilated with their tribes. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


I like to recap and update my readers periodically in order to explain the blog and perhaps solicit some feedback. When I started the blog in 2014, I thought that it might contain a fair amount of discussion, but by 2015 I had more or less given up on that idea. Actually, I don't mind not having to deal with a lot of comments, because I think that most web comments are a waste of time. Even so, I don't like to think that the blog exists in a rarefied bubble, and, in the absence of direct contact with readers, I attempt to analyze their interests with the very limited means that are available. Thus, I like to see which posts get the most hits and where in the world the readers are located.

One thing that has changed recently is that a web crawler has publicized the blog, and I'm getting more hits than I used to. That may also be related to the fact that the blog is now seven years old and has over 500 posts, more than enough pages to constitute a book. My most popular post is still "Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol," but "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed" has bumped "Kakutani on Houellebecq" from second to third place. In fourth place is "A Woman Meets an Old Lover," the Denise Levertov poem, and in fifth place is "Meliorism," in which I discuss optimism about the future of mankind. Since Houellebecq isn't very popular in most countries and Kakutani has retired from the New York Times, they probably don't get googled as often as they used to. Several of my other "Poem of the Day" posts are popular. I like to speculate and think that the pandemic has affected women's psyches in a manner that attracts them to "The Woman Destroyed" and "A Woman Meets an Old Lover," because I doubt that these would appeal to most men. Loneliness and mental illness have increased since early 2020. Of course, the popular posts also depend on the ranking systems used by search engines, and many of my posts may never come up in searches. As before, my readers seem more interested in the arts than in the sciences. People seem to like some of my reviews of biographies, though I think the ones on Bertrand Russell were too long for many. In terms of geographic locations, I seem to be getting more hits from all over the world, though some of the data may be disguised.

It's hard to tell how many regular readers I have now. There were once about six and then they went down to four. Now it could be somewhere between six and ten. Most of the readers who google one post never look at other posts. I like to think that the blog has a certain style and a collection of subject matter that would appeal to certain people, though that group must be very small.

On the whole, I enjoy writing very much, and I plan to continue this blog indefinitely. However, even though I don't care about being popular and will never have a commercial website, I like to avoid getting into ruts, with a lot of repetition or a format that seems limited. For example, I've now read a lot of biographies and don't want to continue reviewing them on autopilot even when I can't find good ones to read.

With visitors in the house and my normal summer reading lull, I haven't been inclined to write lately. I've started another book and will probably begin commenting on it soon. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021


For various reasons, I think that the pandemic put my brain to sleep, and it seems to be waking up a little now. There is still the problem of finding adequate new reading material, though I do have a new book that I'll start one of these days. In this household, it sometimes seems as if we are preparing for Armageddon, and on that front we are certainly better prepared than most people. Besides living in one of the coldest states, far from coastal flooding, and with few right-wing fanatics, we have a propane generator and heat pumps now, so we are prepared for power outages and higher temperatures. If the odd neo-Nazi tries to assault the house, he will probably be shot. I'm considering whether or not I should buy a shotgun just in case there is a larger attack. Actually, I don't care that much whether I die now, since I'm seventy-one, and my father only lived to the age of fifty. His father lived to the age of sixty-eight. In my case, I've figured out most of the things that I wanted to figure out and am already getting tired of ordinary mortals. I'm not very interested in extreme longevity, though, obviously, there is a human instinct for survival.

I've been spending more time on investing than necessary, perhaps because it becomes addictive. In this instance there is an additional incentive, because, with new conditions in the stock market, it seems easier to make money. This situation has arisen due to meme stock investors. What happens is that certain stocks suddenly shoot up in value without good reason, and if you can identify those stocks and buy them in advance, you can make a lot of money very quickly. The people who push up the prices of the stocks are uninformed investors who simply follow recommendations from websites that purport to offer investment advice. In my case, by using more traditional stock analysis, I am occasionally able to identify and buy those stocks and then sell them when memes suddenly drive them up to ridiculous prices. There is a certain amount of luck involved, though, on the other hand, I have an advantage over the meme buyers. However, it now looks as if some of those buyers have wised up – or run out of money – so the rewards are diminishing. A few large institutional investors were caught off guard by this phenomenon and lost billions of dollars by shorting stocks that suddenly surged in price. Because the markets are returning to normal, I am starting to move back to a more traditional portfolio. For a time, it was enjoyable to see big money take a hit, because they have immense computational firepower at their disposal and usually outperform retail investors.

On a larger scale, the phenomenon of meme investing is just one example of how the internet influences choices and encourages irrational behavior. Of course, I'm tired of thinking about Donald Trump, but his success is an excellent example of how the internet expands poor choices in politics. You can now plainly see that, despite not understanding his constituency or having any real connection with them, Trump was suddenly catapulted to the most powerful position in the world. For the remainder of his life, he will be exposed as a charlatan who hardly knew what he was doing but managed to succeed mainly because he was unprincipled, while others, particularly the right-wing media, used him to advance their agendas. When his actions are closely examined in the future, it will increasingly become apparent that Trump had no idea what was going on and was merely following his lifelong habit of inflating his ego and lying in order to enrich himself. This has already been clearly demonstrated in his dealings with Ukraine, and the same picture is emerging from the January 6 riot. Rather than being a shrewd political operative, Trump is merely the accidental beneficiary of irrational behavior fueled by the internet. Investigations can only show that he was stupid, lucky and unscrupulous, and sooner or later he and the people who supported him will be shamed. Not only is it a bizarre situation that millions of people still think that Trump won the 2020 election, it is also a warning of future risks.

I think that meme stocks and the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 are examples of how unregulated technology can have undesirable and potentially disastrous consequences. New examples are appearing at an increasing rate. Thus, I still think that optimists such as Steven Pinker are more than a little naïve. You only have to consider that under slightly different circumstances Trump could have been reelected. That would have meant further erosion of international alliances, inaction on global warming, an increase in economic inequality, the continued collapse of the infrastructure and a mismanaged economy. Besides not caring about any of these issues, Trump doesn't understand them at all. There is some cause for optimism with Biden in the White House, but there is no guarantee that he will be successful in solving the problems at hand.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Sociology of Philosophy II

In my post on this subject last year, I gave my impressions of the field as I experienced it, mostly well in the past. After reading about Bertrand Russell, I thought I'd add a few comments. Ray Monk's biography, I think, is protective of philosophy, though he seems to have had an unspecified animus toward Russell. Alternatively, I think that he is a little too lenient with Wittgenstein, both in the Russell biography and in the earlier Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. This is interesting, because Monk, who is ostensibly a philosopher, may have hidden agendas in his biographies of both Russell and Wittgenstein. I don't think that I have enough information to sort this out clearly, but I would at least like to write down a few thoughts on the matter.

If you have read much of this blog, you will have noticed that I enjoy looking at the underlying psychology of individuals and pondering how they attempt to construct careers in whatever field they undertake. I had never read much of Russell, because his primary work was done in the early 20th century and was not generally studied in philosophy departments when I was in college. Russell was just a popular writer then, and I never paid much attention to him, so Monk's unflattering exposé didn't surprise me much. However, I did read Wittgenstein in college, and, in the interim, Monk's glowing biography of him. Now that I think Wittgenstein wasn't that great either, it seems appropriate to untangle the sociological context of this situation.

I found little to disagree with in the Russell biography, except that Monk probably gave Russell more credit than he deserved. He let the reader believe that Gödel didn't refute Russell's main thesis and even suggested that Russell's work eventually led to the work of Alan Turing, hence, modern computers. As far as I am able to ascertain, this is hyperbole. Monk's earlier biography of Wittgenstein is comparatively glowing and has contributed to Wittgenstein's fame right up to the present. Since it is of no interest to me to reread Wittgenstein and assess his ideas now, I'll just say that I see no evidence that they are or ever were of much importance. Long ago, I also read Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by the philosopher, Norman Malcolm, which contributed to some of the early mystique surrounding Wittgenstein. In that book, Malcolm enthusiastically describes Wittgenstein's visit to Cornell in 1949. I was surprised when I later read that Richard Feynman, who also happened to be at Cornell in 1949, though not while Wittgenstein was visiting, specifically thought that the people in the philosophy department there were a bunch of idiots. Freeman Dyson, the physicist who worked with Feynman, knew Wittgenstein at Cambridge and later made unflattering comments about him. 

In the case of Wittgenstein, it is clear that he was mythologized and had a cult following for a few years, but I am now more inclined to go with the opinions of the physicists, though they would not have been familiar with his ideas. My point is that you can look at most thinkers – in this instance Russell or Wittgenstein – and see how their professional reputations were determined less by objective intellectual standards than by vague sociological factors such as Russell's aristocratic standing and Wittgenstein's fan base. Biographers also play into this, with Monk serving as an advocate of Wittgenstein and, for the most part, a detractor of Russell, at least with respect to his personal conduct.

Most of this is fairly obvious in many domains of life, and if you look at the history of ideas, it is not uncommon to find that some of them can be popular when there is no substantive basis for their support. The funny thing about Wittgenstein's popularity is that his ideas exist almost outside the history of philosophy – they had no precedent, and they have not produced any legacy. In other words, they depended on an ephemeral set of circumstances in a specific academic environment. Also, much of Wittgenstein's popularity today can be attributed to Monk's biography, which is what Monk is best known for.

As I mentioned in one of my posts on the Russell biography, Monk overlooked the fact that Wittgenstein was probably autistic, in the negative sense that autism influenced his ideas and probably made them unintelligible to non-autistic people. Monk was therefore not doing philosophy a service by canonizing Wittgenstein. Academia typically handles problems like this by allowing specialists within a department to hold positions which are incompatible; if you disagree with the ideas of one scholar in your department, you may simply hold a different position, study different works and never engage or reconcile. This is especially common in the humanities, where popularity can easily override objectivity. A similar situation exists now in economics departments, with some economists supporting the traditional rational agent model, with efficient markets, and others supporting behavioral economics, which focuses on human irrationality. The two theories are incompatible. There are no true gatekeepers in academia, which explains how certain ideas and fads can run out of control, and strange phenomena such as political correctness can take root.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life II

The second half of the book centers on Mansfield's development of her literary career and the increasing burden of her health conditions. Her short stories were immediately recognized as being of high quality, and she and Murry both attempted to engineer their future literary successes. That involved getting to know Ottoline Morrell and attending events at Garsington, her home outside Oxford. Through this connection with Bloomsbury artists and writers, they came to know Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Virginia took great interest in Mansfield and liked to talk shop with her, because she noticed that her writing lacked Mansfield's vitality and immediacy.

Mansfield was adventurous and traveled alone to Paris in 1914 during World War I. She had a brief affair with Francis Carco, a writer whom she knew through Rhythm. However, she was put off by his insouciance, and they never developed a relationship. Her relationship with Murry continued, and to me it seems to have been strategic for both of them. There was no sign of any real passion between them, and Murry seemed cold compared to Leonard Woolf, who was always doting on Virginia. In 1916, Mansfield, Murry, Lawrence and Frieda shared a house in Cornwall, but it only lasted for a few weeks. Lawrence and Frieda had ridiculous fights, one of which Mansfield chronicled. It is possible that during this period Mansfield caught her tuberculosis from Lawrence. Later that year, Mansfield met Bertrand Russell, who was then in the process of seeking a lover to replace Ottoline. By then, Tomalin thinks, Mansfield had lost interest in sexual escapades, and she never took Russell's bait. Judging from the experiences of Russell's second and third wives, Dora and Peter, that was a good decision. In any case, Russell was not a literary person and already had a reputation for self-centeredness. I wouldn't be surprised if Ottoline warned Mansfield.

It took some time for Mansfield and Murry to marry, because her husband, George Bowden, was away in the U.S., and she couldn't arrange a divorce. They finally married in 1918. After Mansfield developed tubercular symptoms, she typically spent part of the year in Europe, in the south of France or in Switzerland. Her friend, Ida, increasingly took care of her, and Murry was often away. He became the editor of the Athenaeum, a respected literary magazine, and thenceforth had a better income. Mansfield's stories also began to sell well. Thus, their financial situation improved toward the end of her life. One unpleasant episode occurred at this time. The translator, Floryan Sobieniowski, blackmailed her over letters that she had sent him, which probably showed that one of her early stories could be construed as plagiarized from a then-untranslated story by Chekhov. She paid him to get the letters back.  Mansfield died in Avon, France, at an institution operated by Gurdjieff, in 1923.

To sum up how her friends perceived her at the time, here is a description written by Leonard Woolf:

By nature, I think she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty. When we first knew her, she was extraordinarily amusing. I don't think anyone has ever made me laugh more than she did in those days. She would sit very upright on the edge of a chair or sofa and tell at immense length a kind of saga, of her experiences as an actress or of how and why Koteliansky howled like a dog in the room at the top of a building in Southampton Row. There was not the shadow of a gleam of a smile on her mask of a face, and the extraordinary funniness of the story was increased by the flashes of her astringent wit. I think that in some abstruse way Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and a writer. She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature. At the bottom of her mind she knew this, I think, and it enraged her. And that was why she was so often enraged against Murry. To see them together, particularly in their own house in Hampstead, made one acutely uncomfortable, for Katherine seemed to be always irritated with Murry ... Every now and then she would say sotto voce something bitter or biting.

I think this is a rather perceptive observation. Mansfield and Murry weren't really compatible as a couple, and their marriage may primarily have been a convenient vocational strategy for both of them. I don't think that there is any convincing evidence that Mansfield was a lesbian, though she may have had some bisexual tendencies (many women do). Woolf doesn't mention that she had a somewhat masculine mind, which may have put her at odds with Murry, who, comparatively speaking, was passive and inept.

On the whole, I found this biography interesting. However, Tomalin herself is a literary person, and the book is infused with tidbits that would appeal more to literary types than to general readers. These pertain to the wheedling and pretense that go with the establishment of successful literary careers. Certainly, after reading this, few would find the literary life appealing, particularly if they depended on it for their income. It's a pity that Mansfield didn't live another forty years.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life I

I'm halfway through this biography by Claire Tomalin. I think that Mansfield, who was born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in New Zealand, was one of the best writers of her generation, but, with her premature death in 1923 at the age of thirty-four, she never lived up to her potential. Because I am not finding the details of her life particularly interesting, I am looking more at the literary culture and the arts in England during the period, which coincides with the Belle Époque in France. As you might expect, the arts at the time were far better developed in France, but I am rounding out my knowledge of the English side and have been reading about D.H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell for some time. The broad context for this period is the immense wealth that existed in Europe just before World War I.

Mansfield's parents were nouveaux riches whose parents had moved to New Zealand from Australia, and her father was a successful banker. She was the third of four daughters and also had a younger brother. Compared to her siblings she was independent and rebellious, and I don't think that her mother liked her much. Because of the prestige associated with sending family members to England, the three eldest girls went to London from 1903 to 1906 to study. At the time, Mansfield was considering becoming a cellist or a writer. She met her lifelong friend, Ida Baker, who, despite being of lower intelligence, remained extremely loyal. When the sisters returned to Wellington, Mansfield longed to return to England, and her father allowed her to move there with a small allowance in 1908.

I've read as far as 1914, and it is difficult to see Mansfield's behavior as anything other than disastrous. Within months of arriving in England, she had an affair with Garnet Carrington Trowell, a young musician who worked for a traveling opera company. She became pregnant by Trowell in late 1908, and, since his family disapproved of her, they didn't marry, and she somehow wound up marrying George Bowden, an older Cambridge music scholar whom she hardly knew; she left him on their wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. Mansfield's mother came from New Zealand and took her to Germany, where, apparently, she had a miscarriage. She remained in Germany until 1910 and met Floryan Sobienowski, a Polish translator, who exposed her to Chekov and other writers, and probably infected her with gonorrhea.

Upon her return to England, she had health problems due to the gonorrhea, but made considerable headway in starting a writing career. First she wrote for The New Age, and then for Rhythm, which was edited by John Middleton Murry, who was then an Oxford undergraduate. Rhythm was shut down due to financial problems and was briefly followed by The Blue Review, which also failed. Mansfield and Murry attempted to live in a cottage in the country for her health, but they soon ran out of money and returned to the city. During this period, they met D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley, who were living together while she hadn't yet divorced her husband. Mansfield and Murry had a lot in common with Lawrence and Frieda, since they were poor and interested in writing. While Murry ended up graduating from Oxford and came from a humble background, he was not in the same league as Lawrence or Mansfield as a writer. Mansfield subsequently became a model for Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love. Although that is not my favorite Lawrence novel (Sons and Lovers), this is an indication of the closeness of the relationship with Lawrence. Mansfield came from a privileged background and didn't even know how to cook, but at the time she was no different from most struggling artists.

According to Tomalin, Mansfield typically took control of her relationships with men, though, at heart, she preferred women and may primarily have been a lesbian. I'm not entirely clear on this currently, but it seems that Mansfield was calculating, at least in the sense of being able to manipulate men who were interested in sex. So far, there hasn't really been enough information provided to sort this out conclusively, and the situation is complicated by the fact that Mansfield is still in the "follies of youth" stage of her life. She has made one bad choice after another, and you can therefore only grant her limited credit for her successes. In her defense, I would say that the self-centeredness of her parents, who took no real interest in her outcome as their offspring, must take some of the blame. They ignored her during a time in her life when they knew that she was likely to make mistakes.

Friday, May 21, 2021


 I've been reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf, and have decided to give up. My idea was that I would delve farther back into romanticism and naturalism and develop a clearer picture of the zeitgeist that developed between Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Von Humboldt (1769-1859) fits that period perfectly. Although he was not a Romantic per se, he influenced both Goethe and Darwin, so he managed to become a significant historical figure. He also had an obvious influence on less-famous writers such as G.H. Lewes. Under slightly different circumstances I might have finished the book, but there were a couple of problems with it that put me off. First, Wulf seems to have written with the specific purpose of producing a bestseller, which means that the quality of the writing is significantly lower than one finds in, say, Maurice Cranston, Andrzej Franaszek, Rosemary Ashton and other biographers I've read. This doesn't mean that the book is of no value, but that I don't find it particularly informative or perceptive. Second, I am having a hard time identifying with von Humboldt because of his frenetic behavior. On the positive side, he was extremely curious and loved to explore, but, on the negative side, some of his ideas were naïve and have been surpassed by modern science. He was one of the first writers to develop a sense of ecosystems and the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, but, preceding Darwin, he never came up with a comprehensive scientific worldview. I think that he was a model not only, as Wulf notes, for Goethe's Faust, but also, possibly, for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and perhaps even Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. Von Humboldt more than anyone else popularized the idea of amateur scientific observation and exploration, which reached a peak in the mid-nineteenth century. However, the detailed record of his life seems somewhat limited, perhaps because he was homosexual. Generally, that kind of information was not recorded in the past, and it leaves a gap in understanding his private life. While, in the case of Bertrand Russell, Ray Monk overwhelms the reader with details of his daily life, Andrea Wulf had comparatively little information to work with. In sum, I was put off both by Wulf's writing style and the narrow view of von Humboldt's life, even though he influenced others, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Goethe and Darwin. After one hundred pages I felt as if I was forcing myself to continue reading – something I've stopped doing in recent years.

In other news, I am still trying to break out of the pandemic mindset, but progress is slow. The weather abruptly changed from very cold to very hot, and I've planted my tomatoes much earlier than usual. My regular summer outdoor chores are time-consuming, but there is still a lack of the minimal social interaction that I was used to. During the winter I like being curled up with books, but less so when it is warm. We did have an outing to the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, which was a nice change. Driving in Vermont in mid-May is extremely pleasant. If I can get out a little more and find a decent book to read, I should be in good shape. I am starting on a new book search, and, if that fails, I may end up resuming posts on general topics like the ones I used to make quite often. As always, I am open to suggestions, and I am not committed to a fixed format for this blog.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


We are having the coldest spring since we moved to Vermont, and I am still lighting fires in the morning. Fortunately, we had a lot of extra firewood this year. Usually the hummingbirds have returned by now, but they are nowhere to be seen. However, according to the weather forecast, there is only one more cold day left, and temperatures should then return to normal. With the coronavirus fading, we are going out a bit more often and are interacting with other people, but life still seems curtailed.

Under the circumstances, though I am resuming my usual spring activities outdoors, I am a little at a loss in finding pleasant pastimes. The small window of investing opportunities seems to have closed, so I will no longer be spending much time on that. I am also, as usual, stuck in finding suitable reading material. I still like biographies, but over the last few years I've worked my way through what I think are the best ones, and it may be challenging to find good ones on a regular basis in the future. Since I have no desire to read fiction of any kind or to delve into poetry again, I will have to continue looking into relatively new nonfiction and hope for the best. I currently have a book on order that I'll be starting soon.

After having read several biographies, I've started to notice some of the more subtle qualitative differences, and it is easier for me to become displeased with deficiencies. Also, the presumption that the subject of a biography is worthwhile is often incorrect as far as I'm concerned, and there aren't many people whose lives I find interesting. For example, there is a new biography of John F. Kennedy which I won't read. Kennedy had many of the characteristics that tend to make people famous, though on closer examination the pitfalls of hero-worship became part of the formula. The Kennedy children were spoiled brats with an unscrupulous, wealthy and ambitious father. He wanted one of his sons to be president, and when Jack's older brother, Joe Kennedy, Jr., died during World War II, Jack was the next in line. Not much happened during Kennedy's presidency: the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a few stirring speeches, an elegant wife, and then the assassination. Without an early death, Kennedy may never have been considered a good president. He does not seem to have had much interest in policy or governing, and his private life would be considered immoral by most. I think that Kennedy got the classic dying-young bonus, which you can also see in Ché Guevara, John Lennon and others. When you live to a ripe old age, your weaknesses become more conspicuous. For example, from a biographical standpoint, Bertrand Russell may have done better to die in 1920 rather than in 1970. No one gets very excited by Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr.

Another area in which I've lost interest is the news. I've mentioned it before in my posts, but it is disconcerting to me how the media dance around issues in a manner that does nothing to increase public awareness. I began to become weary of them when they did nothing to prevent the Iraq War, let George W. Bush win a second term, and, finally, allowed Donald Trump to become president and stay in office. Even today, they have done little to stop Trump's stranglehold on the Republican Party – when nothing could be plainer than that Trump is a menace to society. While it is true that Trump is an experienced grifter, I think that vigorous investigative reporting could have exposed his criminal activities, and he could have been removed from office well before the end of his term. In the light of day, it is astounding that any informed person could find Trump qualified to hold public office: jail is where he belongs. Of course, I am well aware of human cognitive limitations, both individual and collective, but I have no desire to have them paraded in front of me on a daily basis by the media, particularly when no end is in sight.