Sunday, December 31, 2023

Henry David Thoreau: A Life I

This book, by Laura Dassow Walls, seems to be considered the best biography of Thoreau, and I'm giving it a try. I've already read biographies of the people who interest me the most, and Thoreau is near the top of my second-tier list. I read Walden; or, Life in the Woods a long time ago and barely remember it. For someone who went to college in 1968 in the U.S., it was de rigeur, though I didn't get around to reading it until later. At that time, I identified with Thoreau's interest in nature and his support of individualism, but not particularly with his political ideas or his implicit Transcendentalism. Looking back, the sit-ins that students had during the 1960's still seem a little ridiculous to me, particularly those led by upper-middle-class white baby boomers at expensive liberal arts colleges. And then I've never had any interest in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was Thoreau's mentor. I liked Thoreau's scientific bent, but now find that he has been surpassed by others, such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, in both writing style and scientific knowledge. This isn't necessarily Thoreau's fault, because he was eight years younger than Charles Darwin and died less than three years after On the Origin of Species was published.

I am starting to consider myself a New Englander now, because I like Vermont and have lived here for twelve years. I like the Puritan work ethic and practicality of Vermonters, but not necessarily the characteristics of all New Englanders. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and there are a couple of things that I dislike about Boston. Unfortunately, the Tea Party message from there has gradually evolved from a statement against oppression by the British to a statement in support of unfettered greed, which may soon permit an unscrupulous liar to become the first dictator in American history. The other thing, which I think that Thoreau noticed, was that Boston was probably one of the first American cities to develop a smug, self-satisfied middle class. Bertrand Russell couldn't stand it when he visited there. As Ray Monk says, "From the very beginning Russell was contemptuous of America in general, and Boston in particular, and especially so of the pompous Bostonian dignitaries by whom he was fêted." Likewise, after Thoreau had spent time in Boston, he could never wait to return to Concord.

One of my interests in reading this book is to get a broader view of New England culture from the early to mid-1800's. The Industrial Revolution was occurring then, and society was in a state of flux. I looked at this a little for Middlebury, where the area never really industrialized, and many people simply moved west. The populations in the coastal regions grew much larger, and a smaller percentage of the people moved away.

Thoreau was born into a modest Concord family on July 12, 1817. His father, a descendant of French Huguenots, had artistic sensibilities, and his mother was an early advocate of social justice. The anti-slavery movement was taking off in New England while Thoreau was growing up. Eventually, Thoreau's father, John, started a pencil business. Most of the pencils had been made in England, and there were few American sources. In those days, a pencil was far more necessary than it is today. Thoreau was more studious than his older brother, John, and eventually went to Harvard. At that time, there were seventy or fewer students each year, and most of the curriculum was antiquated, consisting mainly of Latin and Greek. Fortunately for Thoreau, he was good at languages, and he started out well, but his standing fell by the time he graduated. He also learned other languages and mathematics. He graduated in 1837 and returned to Concord. Initially, he got a job as a teacher but quit almost immediately, it is suggested, because he disliked the corporal punishment that was required. For a time, he stayed with his family and helped with the pencil business. He also developed a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was seventeen years older and lived in Concord. As far as I've read, he and his brother, John, have started their own progressive grammar school in Concord.

Walls, the author of this book, so far seems to be doing a competent job. Maybe because it actually reflects the cultural environment in Concord at the time, the book has a slightly folksy feel to it, almost verging on the treacly at times. This stands out to me, because none of the European biographies that I've read showed any sign of that. I also have my usual complaint about the lack of psychological nuance. Much of Thoreau's behavior seems to be driven by introversion, but Walls has had nothing to say about that. I will continue posting on the book until I finish it.

Sunday, December 10, 2023


Like most years at this time, we have had some snow that didn't last. I have become accustomed to being snowed in later in the winter and usually like it. However, with climate change, winter temperatures and snowfall have become more erratic, particularly in the Northeast. My arrangement this winter will be a little different, because I will be living alone and don't have a pet or a wood stove. Since communication with my partner was never good and gradually deteriorated over a period of twenty-two years, I actually miss William, the cat, more than her, because I spent more time interacting with him on a daily basis. But I don't plan to get another pet. You spend a lot of time with pets, interact with them and become extremely attached to them – and then they die. I already knew that this would happen, and adopting William in the first place was not my idea.

Recently, I've been having conversations about generational changes and mental illness. The book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America's Future has been brought up. The context for that discussion is how it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to younger people if you are a pre-millennial. That topic doesn't interest me much, because I have almost no interaction with anyone under forty besides my grandson, and the circumstances of his childhood don't mesh with any particular generational profile. I prefer to think along the lines of Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation, perhaps because we belong to the same generation and have similar concerns about the inability of younger people to communicate, and we can see the adverse social effects of the internet. My main thought is that the commercialization of the internet has led to unanticipated social effects that make human societies more unstable than they have been in centuries. I don't think that the end is in sight yet, and there is a chance that this will end very badly. So, in my case, I'm not that concerned about the quality of my communication with younger people. Even if I wanted to do something about it, that would be nearly impossible, because the social characteristics of adults become relatively fixed by the time they've grown up. We are now looking at adult millennials who may never be able to relate to baby boomers.

Under the topic of mental illness, I tend to focus on autism for a couple of reasons. First of all, as Sherry Turkle points out, one of the characteristics of younger people who have been immersed in the internet since childhood is autistic behavior, although, technically, they may not be diagnosed as autistic. The point is that their modes of communication have similarities to those of autistic people. Secondly, I've spent over fifty years with autistic people, and I am not at all autistic. One of the main reasons why I have this blog is that I like to express my ideas, and what I've found is that most others are only interested in the circumscribed discussion of ideas. In many cases, they are not aware that they have unconscious lists of things that they can discuss and things they can't discuss. These two lists are affected by educational and social backgrounds, but, somewhat more intractably, by their psychiatric status. In the case of people who have autism spectrum disorder, or at least some of the symptoms, because they may be unable to interpret other people well and may have reduced social abilities, it is easy to run into a brick wall with something that resembles an open discussion. They may be operating on a cognitive model that is completely different from yours, and if you suppress discussions that fall on their "can't discuss" list, you may only be delaying the exposure of fundamental conceptual incompatibilities. Because I'm focusing on autism, these incompatibilities usually relate to different ideas of what constitutes a satisfactory social environment. For example, you may prefer a social environment in which you can express various ideas and receive some thoughtful feedback, whereas autistic people may prefer a light social environment in which people always seem friendly, agreeable and predictable. You can run into difficulties with autistic people on social questions, because they may not understand their social environments and may process them in an entirely different fashion from you. You may think of a social event that an autistic person likes as a shallow, pointless exchange. What I've noticed is that there can be a range of complex undercurrents in many social contexts that escape the notice of autistic people. If autistic behavior is now on the ascent, non-autistic people need to prepare themselves for unsatisfactory social lives. As I've said before, autistic people often tend to be politically correct. Their senses of humor are pretty bad too. I was trying to think of a joke that starts out "Three autistic people walk into a bar...." I can't think of a funny punch line. How about "The other customers all leave and the bartender shuts down early"?

I have been doing a little reading, but nothing exciting. Since I love biographies and am a single male living alone in the woods in New England, I decided to read a biography of Henry David Thoreau. He is not exactly an ideal subject for me, but I probably agree with some of his ideas. Since people don't communicate much now, it may be easier to commiserate with well-documented people who died long ago.

Friday, December 1, 2023


 According to Harvard Medical School:

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. At the same time, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of "neurological minorities." While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how clinicians view and address certain disabilities and neurological conditions.

Although a politically-correct term such as this would not normally appeal to me, after watching this video of Temple Grandin, I decided that, since autism spectrum disorder consists of several unrelated differences in brain function, "neurodiversity" is not an entirely inappropriate term to describe the wide variety of symptoms that occur in ASD. I think that, eventually, there will be separate diagnoses for these symptoms, and that research will indicate different classifications for behaviors that are now lumped together only because there is insufficient data to separate them based on brain function. I had heard of Temple Grandin before, and in this video, which is now ten years old, I think she provides a better explanation of ASD than I've seen elsewhere.

I am very impressed with Temple Grandin, because she was severely dysfunctional as a child, yet, with the help of her mother, overcame her handicap, led a successful career, and now is one of the very few autistic people who is an active speaker on autism. Furthermore, she is quite scientific in her presentation, and I find her to be a highly effective speaker. She is refreshing, because she is well informed about her condition and discusses it articulately. Most of the autistic people I've known don't know how they are different from non-autistic people, are unable to discuss it, and, when they congregate with other high-functioning autistic people, may speak derisively about non-autistic people – with no social repercussions for themselves. Some of the autistic people I've known have behaved abusively and were never held to account. Far from being functionally incapacitated like Temple Grandin, high-functioning autistic people can behave imperiously and insult people with impunity, especially when their support group consists entirely of autistic people. In my experience, autistic people, if they have enough money, can be just as bigoted as anyone else.

There is nothing wrong with publicizing pertinent facts about autism. Temple Grandin goes to great lengths by showing how her brain scans are different from those of others. Much of her professional success stems from her ability to understand animals, and that is another characteristic missing in the autistic people I know. She is not like the coding savants more commonly associated with the tech industry: she thinks in pictures and has incredibly good skills in observation. This talent works well with scientific observation, which also comes naturally to her. On the other hand, she had to work very hard to overcome language and math handicaps. I admire her plainspokenness and common sense, which I have never seen elsewhere on the spectrum. She even recognized that she was not cut out for romantic relationships and never pursued one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Temple Grandin, because she also speaks for me as a non-autistic, visual and scientific person.

The variations in human brain function discussed by Temple Grandin, I might add, fit very well within the Darwinian model that I've often discussed on this blog. The reason why sexual reproduction works is that it introduces variation into gene pools, so that at any given time the human genome as a whole is capable of adapting to new conditions in the environment. This usually means that, if new adverse conditions arise, some of the population may be able to adapt. It is known that when populations such as the Neanderthals inbreed, they can go extinct. That may be caused either by the expression of recessive genes or by genetic obsolescence. The taboo against incest actually has a biological basis. In this context, the concept of neurodiversity makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Art and Social Status

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the extent to which art is associated with social status. My Armenian great-grandfather lived in Bursa, Turkey, and he became wealthy by setting up import-export businesses. He exported carpets to the U.S. and imported pianos to Greece, among other businesses. His family immediately took an interest in French culture, and my grandfather traveled there on vacation. He had an arranged marriage with my grandmother, who, though half-Armenian, had a German mother who grew up in Paris. When my mother was growing up in Greece, they spoke French at home. My mother took an early interest in ballet and European art, and, after we moved to the U.S., my older sister took ballet lessons, and we often visited the art museums in Manhattan. My mother also liked classical music and played recordings of it at home. This all rubbed off on me, and I took an early interest in paintings and music. My English father had somewhat more pedestrian tastes.

As an adult, I've often noticed that, particularly in the West, wealthy people become art aficionados. This usually has more to do with social status than with the free time of the idle rich. There is usually a clear distinction between high art and low art, and social climbers generally avoid the latter. One of the reasons why high art tends to be better than low art is that, in historical terms, the wealthy have been spending their money on it for centuries, and they usually know the difference. The aristocrats in Vienna went into raptures over Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and supported their careers. Without subsidy from the rich, Beethoven would have been poor. In Paris, the Impressionists were initially ridiculed, and Degas, who came from a wealthy family, never identified himself as one, though he exhibited with them.

The situation in the U.S. has been a little more complex. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Americans tended to copy wealthy Europeans, and they often mingled with wealthy British people. For example, Bertrand Russell's first wife was American. Rich Americans built English-style mansions, bought classical paintings, founded traditional art museums and listened to classical music. Fiction usually mimicked English fiction. The situation changed considerably during the twentieth century, particularly after World War I. Economically, the U.S. was on the ascent and Europe was in decline, and market forces began to influence what counted as art. In my view, art patronage changed considerably during this period, mainly due to the transition from informed patrons to market forces.

With the influence of market forces in the U.S., it became possible to make rapid changes in what counted as good art, and modern art, such as that produced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, became popular quickly, even among critics. It is not a coincidence that Warhol had a background in marketing. Music with African and folk elements developed into jazz and popular music, eventually causing classical music to go out of favor. To some extent, jazz still belongs in the category of fine art for aficionados, and it has had wealthy patrons. I don't think that the same can be said for popular music, though, incredibly to me, many people actually like hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that some of the popular music of the '60's and '70's can reasonably be called art, but calling it high art is still a stretch.

My views on writing are a little different, because language is part of being human, and it is difficult to extract oneself from it and look at it objectively. So, for me, though there can always be good essays, they don't necessarily count as art. Fiction is also on shaky ground. I think that the novel as an art form peaked in the late nineteenth century and may never recover. There is still some hope for poetry, because that isn't restricted to traditional forms of language usage. So, though poetry can be influenced by market forces, there is still room in it for high art that can be identified and appreciated by the cognoscenti. For me, poetry is one area that may survive commercialization, though, on a practical level, I find very little of contemporary poetry worthwhile. I don't think that many good poets can do it for a living.

There are other art forms, such as films and plays, and some of those, I think, qualify as art. However, with film in particular, cost-cutting and automation have already taken a toll if you compare recent productions to older ones.

I should also mention a subject that I've brought up many times: the negative effects of M.F.A. programs. Though, in theory, academic expertise could improve the arts, in practice it has primarily created cloistered art environments and is not as efficient as the earlier wealthy-patron model. There is the myth that artists can avoid the struggling-artist period by getting a graduate degree. They can't.

As a social phenomenon, the definition of art currently lies beyond the influence of people who, in earlier days, may have made reasonable cases for what counts as good art – Robert Hughes is now long-dead. In this market-driven era, many people seem to believe that what is good is whatever is "trending." Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet, besides all of the other damage that it has done, is killing good taste, or at least making it a historical relic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


One of the limitations of the property where I live is that, since the house is surrounded by trees, there isn't much of a view. But, with the leaves down, you can now clearly see the outline of the Green Mountains nearby to the east. With effort, you can also see the Taconic and Adirondack Mountains to the west. The yard is still fairly private, though you can now make out the nearby houses. 

On the whole, I am happy living here. There have been no signs of mice since October, and I'm going to set up the birdfeeder soon if it stays cold. There may still be bears around. It looks as if the house is fairly well-insulated, so my utilities will be manageable. Overall, I don't think that the expenses here will be any higher than they were in Middlebury, where I was paying rent, and the value of this property has already increased. So far, not having a garage hasn't been a disadvantage. It was easier putting on snow tires outside, because there was more space and better lighting. Eventually, I will be clearing snow off the car, but, since I don't have to go anywhere most days, that shouldn't be much of a problem. The new snow blower arrived today and fits nicely in the shed. There is way more space in the house than I need, and I've had overnight visitors without any crowding.

On top of this, I like Brandon and feel a little more like a Vermonter now. I listen to Vermont Public (radio) more often than I used to, and that generates a sense of community. I even like the Vermont politicians! I'm becoming a regular at Café Provence and enjoy looking at the Neshobe River, which runs right through downtown, with waterfalls. There's also an art gallery and an old church with tombstones.

I recently attended a wedding in Derby, Connecticut and was shocked by all of the traffic. That is another reason why I prefer Vermont, particularly this part of the state, which has no interstates. Although I don't technically consider myself a writer, this is a very good environment for writing, and I can see why many of them move here. I am increasingly identifying with St. Bede the Venerable, though I'm not religious. I first learned of St. Bede at Worcester College, Oxford, in a course on Anglo-Saxon archaeology (coincidentally, that is the college that Rupert Murdoch attended). Bede lived in England from about 672 to 735, and his historical writings are one of the very few chronicles of that part of the Dark Ages there. I am beginning to feel as if I am starting to chronicle our Dark Age, though, in this case, I'm not writing alone. 

Because I have so much free time, I'm subscribing to more hard-copy magazines. I currently get Scientific AmericanSky and Telescope, Consumer ReportsTimes Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. I still like The New Yorker mainly for its cartoons. My grandson, who is now eight, also likes the cartoons, so I'm giving him my copies. Generally, I still don't enjoy the articles that much, and I don't like the current editor, David Remnick. They recently had an inferior review of Determined. I do like some of the writers, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, James Wood, Louis Menand and Rebecca Mead, and it has a sentimental value to me, because I grew up in New York. It has always been a pretentious publication, so I don't take it very seriously. The fiction, I still think, is pretty awful. I got a special rate and probably won't renew. 

My stargazing activity is almost dead. Because there is nowhere here suitable to store my large telescope, I gave it away. It currently belongs to a friend of the person who made it, who is using it as an "outreach" telescope at a summer camp in Colorado. I still have my small telescope but haven't set it up yet. In Middlebury, it was permanently set up on the rear deck and fastened down, so it was very convenient to use. It has to be fastened down or it may blow over in high winds (it did once). I don't have a deck here, but I may set it up for certain astronomical events. I can also do some stargazing in bed. In Middlebury, the skylight faced west, and I could see the Pleiades setting. This house has skylights that face south, and I can currently view the Orion Nebula rising in the east, with binoculars, while lying in bed. The skylights are small here, so it quickly moves out of view.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will III

I can't say that I enjoyed the remainder of the book, and I didn't spend much time on it, because I thought that Sapolsky was just rambling, and little new information of any real importance emerged. There wasn't even a noticeable conclusion either. Sapolsky, clearly an academic, is best on neurological matters. After he made a strong case for determinism and the absence of free will, he seemed to drift off into a series of anecdotes about how individuals are different from other individuals, and there is nothing that they can do about it. He is critical, for example, of those who pass judgment on fat people, because he thinks that fat people have little or no choice in the matter. Somehow, crime and punishment seem to interest him a lot, and there are countless stories about how criminals are perceived and treated by the public, often in a way that ignores the inevitability of their behavior. He seems to have the classic liberal college professor stance in which tolerance should be the norm, and people shouldn't be allowed to let their prejudices run wild. Many of his examples are old news that I've known about for decades, so I was quite disappointed when I arrived at the end of the book and determined that it did not include what I would consider to be an action plan or any useful recommendations.

In my view, Sapolsky, though he does have a good understanding of human nature, is demonstrating no interest in the rather significant implications of his findings. Those are the kinds of things that I've been writing about since I started this blog. There are two areas in particular that I've discussed repeatedly. If people are all different through no fault of their own, with widely varying intellectual abilities and prejudices, all of which are relatively intractable, how do we define equality and to what extent can a democratic process produce a coherent government? The other area is capitalism, which, despite mountains of evidence, continues to produce an increase in wealth inequality while destroying the environment. Currently, income inequality is spilling over into unruly populist movements in the West, with incompetent, opportunistic leaders who are not being filtered out by the existing democratic processes, and climate change is advancing unabated. I would have appreciated the book more if Sapolsky had devoted a few pages to those topics rather than taking jabs at Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim and other bad scientists and making fun of the public's prejudices. He seems merely to be reciting the now-popular "compassion" mantra without actually making any useful suggestions. I wasn't attempting to find religion when I started reading the book, and I'm not about to now.

I won't regurgitate all of the things that I have written previously, but I still think that the best long-term option is going to be an AI-based world government that, rather than depending on an unreliable democratic process or the whims of a dictator, maintains the planet for the benefit of Homo sapiens in an orderly fashion, based on what we know about ourselves, including the idea that we are a socially cooperative species and value equality. The point is that we collectively are not doing a good job at self-governance and ought to be taking a hard look at other options. If Sapolsky decides to write a separate book on that topic, I may read it, but I do find the current book too limited in scope and bloated in the wrong places.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will II

I am moving along more slowly than usual, because, besides Sapolsky's writing style, this is not an easy book to read and encompasses the subjects of neuroscience, biology, physics and philosophy. One chapter is devoted to chaos theory, which some have used as a basis for saying that free will exists. Sapolsky concludes that "chaoticism shows just the opposite of chaos, the fact that there's less randomness than often assumed and, instead, unexpected structure and determinism...." He then moves on to a chapter on the subject of emergent complexity. Here again, some have thought that this phenomenon is a proof of indeterminism in nature, something akin to magic. I found this chapter highly informative, because it explains how the development and behavior of organisms emerges from "simple constituent parts having simple local interactions, all without centralized authority....These systems have characteristics that exist only at the emergent level—a single neuron cannot have traits related to circuitry—and whose behavior can be predicted without having to resort to reductive knowledge about the component parts....Not only does this explain emergent complexity in our brains, but our nervous systems use some of the same tricks used by the likes of individual proteins, ant colonies, and slime molds. All without magic." In this area, Sapolsky is especially insightful, because he understands how biological systems actually work – and this is not at all the way that most people think about them. He concludes that both chaos theory and emergent systems are consistent with a deterministic world.

These chapters are followed by the chapter "Does Your Free Will Just Emerge." Sapolsky concludes that free will does not emerge for the following reasons:

a. Because of the lessons of chaoticism—you can't just follow convention and say that two things are the same, when they are different, and in a way that matters, regardless of how seemingly miniscule that difference; unpredictable doesn't mean undetermined.

b. Even if a system is emergent, that doesn't mean it can choose to do whatever it wants; it is still made up of and constrained by its own constituent parts, with all their mortal limits and foibles.

c. Emergent systems can't make the bricks that built them stop being brick-ish.

In Chapters 9 and 10, the subject changes to quantum indeterminacy. This is the same topic discussed by Sabine Hossenfelder in Existential Physics. Physics is one of Sapolsky's weaker areas, but he also makes a compelling argument that random events at the subatomic level have nothing to do with free will, which is similar to Hossenfelder's view. He concludes:

Quantum indeterminacy is beyond strange, and in the legendary words of physics god Richard Feynman, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

It is perfectly plausible, maybe even inevitable, that there will be quantum effects on how things like ions interact with the likes of ion channels or receptors in the nervous system.

However, there is no evidence that those sorts of quantum effects bubble up enough to alter behavior, and most experts think that it is actually impossible—quantum strangeness is not that strange, and the quantum effects are washed away amid the decohering warm, wet noise of the brain as one scales up.

Even if quantum indeterminacy did bubble up all the way to behavior, there is the fatal problem that all it would produce is randomness. Do you really want to claim that the free will for which you deserve punishment or reward is based on randomness?

The supposed ways by which we can harness, filter, stir up, or mess with the randomness enough to produce free will seem pretty unconvincing. If determined indeterminism is a valid building block for free will, then taking an improv acting class is a valid building block for, à la Sartre, believing that we are condemned to be free.

I still have several chapters to go and should finish up on my next post. Of what I've read so far, I am most impressed by the concept of emergence, with which I was not very familiar previously. In the biological world, this is a far more useful perspective than that of physics. Emergence in nature is something that one can easily pick up intuitively simply by spending time outdoors – which is exactly how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. Emergence is also a good way to understand Vinod Goel's model of the human brain as discussed in Reason and Less. That model takes into consideration the fact that our brains evolved over millions of years and still contain elements from the distant past which are incompatible with reason, because they came into existence long before rationality became a feature of our species.

In some ways, I am coming to see arguments for free will as an unnecessary nuisance. I think that free will is nothing more than a necessary illusion that we maintain in order to believe in the validity of our thinking processes. You might say that we have evolved to believe that we have free will even though we don't. Thus, informed thinkers such as Sapolsky and Hossenfelder are forced to address spurious arguments that unconvincingly link free will to randomness in nature. The idea of free will is probably linked to the idea of rational agency, which is also under attack now. At the moment, both neuroscience and behavioral economics are telling us that we are hardly rational, and to confirm that these days, one need only follow the news.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will I

I finally received this new book by Robert Sapolsky and have read about a third of it so far. That section is largely a restatement of information that was provided in his last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, discussed earlier. Sapolsky looks closely at how the human brain develops and functions neurologically, and in this instance attempts to demonstrate how events prior to and after birth, over which an individual has no control, determine their behavior in various situations. At this stage in my readings, this was rather obvious to me, as was the idea that free will does not exist in a meaningful sense. In later chapters, he writes about the implications of these ideas for legal systems, which may expose their inadequacies by showing how individuals may have little control over their own behavior. 

As before, I am not a fan of Sapolsky's writing style. He often strains to sound un-academic and inserts too many frivolous footnotes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I think that he makes the material more difficult to absorb than it has to be. For example, I think that both Daniel Kahneman and Vinod Goel make the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain a little more understandable than he does, though they offer somewhat simplified models. Also, Sapolsky sometimes brings up specific research only to dismiss it a few pages later. He does this with the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that when a person makes a choice, their brain makes it before they are aware of it. That research has been claimed by some to demonstrate that people do not have free will. Sapolsky takes about twenty pages discussing this only to conclude that Libet's study is irrelevant to the topic of free will because it doesn't establish intent.

One section that I found more useful was his discussion of the effects of collectivist cultures versus individualistic cultures on individual behavior. Neuroimaging studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex activates differently in people from East Asian cultures from people in Western cultures. East Asians are activated equally by pictures of their mothers and pictures of themselves, whereas Westerners are activated more by pictures of themselves. East Asians are also more active in emotional regulation and understanding other people's perspectives than Westerners, who exhibit more emotional intensity, self-reference and capacity for strong emotional disgust or empathy.

In general, collectivistic-culture individuals prefer and excel at context-dependent cognitive tasks, while it's context-independent tasks for individual-culture folks....

East Asian collectivism is generally thought to arise from the communal work demands of floodplain rice farming. 

It appears that recent Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have been more independent than their population in general and self-selected to emigrate to the U.S. This type of self-selection can ultimately affect local gene pools, making them more collectivist or more individualistic.

Sapolsky's perspective on free will and determinism is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I usually read about determinism in terms of physics and astronomy. At this stage, Darwinism encapsulates not just organisms, but the entire universe. Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and galactic clusters all evolve, and the question is whether this is all predictable. Currently it appears that there are still random quantum events at the subatomic level, but I don't think that the existence of those events necessarily rules out rigid determinism. To me, this means that every event, at least since the Big Bang, was destined to occur. That may or may not prove to be the case, but I don't think at this point that we have the right tools to know the answer. On a much smaller scale, it is of some practical value to understand how human behavior originates. That information is essential for developing appropriate laws, social systems and governments. As I've been saying for several years, my ideal would be to develop a human-compatible program that manages the Earth's biosphere for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, due to the complexity of such an operation, AI would have to play a major role. I would argue that the traditional democratic republics now in place globally can safely be described as obsolete in light of the psychological research findings of the last few years. 

I will probably make at least two more posts on this book.

Friday, October 13, 2023


I am still adjusting to my new neighborhood. Actually, in some respects I prefer it to Middlebury. I advocated Middlebury initially partly because I thought that it would provide enough activities to satisfy my partner. It didn't. Without her, I have less use for the town. I still buy food at the Middlebury co-op, which only means that I go there once a week. I also plan to attend events at the college periodically. My doctors, dentist and optometrist are still there. I may also visit my old neighborhood occasionally and talk to my former neighbors. I did recently and spoke to Jim Douglas about the Mead Chapel controversy, with which he is involved. The college changed the name because the original Mead was associated with the eugenics movement, and Mead's descendants asked him to help, so he sued the college to change it back. Eugenics was a popular idea locally when Mead was alive, and I agree that his family should not bear the brunt of it now, as his involvement was peripheral. I also spoke to my former next-door neighbor, Fred. He mowed the lawn for my partner after I left, and the house has since been sold. I had tipped him off about her psychiatric state, and he said that he noticed that some days she was friendly and other days cold.

When I lived in Middlebury, I got most of my exercise just by going outside and walking on Munger Street. That got boring after a few years, and I had other walks a short drive away. I have just worked out a walking routine for Brandon. Although there are several good trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area nearby, most of them take several hours. For exercise purposes, I prefer thirty-to-sixty-minute walks, and there aren't many near this house. Pittsford, Vermont is only eight miles south of here and has a trail system that fits my requirements. Pittsford is even more rural than Brandon, with a population of about three thousand. It sits between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Mountains, so the scenery is a little more exciting than the Champlain Valley, which is mostly flat. I am in somewhat better physical condition now than I was a few months ago. My shoulder tendonitis has diminished, and I can now do pushups again. I have also been doing more hiking recently and am in very good cardiovascular condition.

Having lived in the Midwest for about forty years, I am always impressed by the local history here and the people who have lived in this area. In Middlebury, there was John Deere, who later moved to Illinois. Also, Charlie Munger, the current vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a descendant of the Mungers who had farms on Munger Street. The electric motor was invented by Thomas Davenport in Brandon. Pittsford had two forts during the American Revolution. The current residents in this part of Vermont seem relatively competent and resourceful compared to those in comparably-sized towns in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Of course, I am still following the news. Now that the writers' strike is over, there is some good late-night comedy again, though I don't watch most of it. This seems like a bizarre historical period, particularly because of the Trump phenomenon. Previous generations would find Trump's popularity incomprehensible. Besides the fact that he obviously has little knowledge of or interest in governing, he has amassed a criminal record for which he has never been held accountable purely as a result of his lifelong abuse of the legal system. If Trump were reelected, anarchy or civil war couldn't be ruled out. One can only ask what drug his supporters are on. And then there is the Hamas-Israel war. As I wrote some time ago, the Israeli Jews would have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had moved to Nevada instead of Israel. There are currently more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel. Furthermore, the Israelis are demonstrating that they are no better than Hamas by copying the murder of innocent civilians. Genetically, I have ancestors from the Levant: they must have left hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Mouse Report

Since moving to Vermont in 2011, I've spent a fair amount of time blocking mouse entrances to houses. In Middlebury, mice began to appear just after we moved in. I would find their entrances and block them off, and then, after about two years, they would find new ones. At the sixth year, I seem to have found the last ones, and there were no mice in the house after that. This can be informative about both mouse behavior and house construction. One can use a quasi-scientific method to determine exactly what the mice are doing and what the weak points of a house are as far as mice are concerned. To block the mice, I have used steel wool, caulk, cement and anti-mouse foam, depending on the circumstances.

The Middlebury house was built in 1798 and had a 1974 addition. The mice came in through the old foundation and underneath the foundation of the addition. When those were all blocked, they climbed up wires to the roof and found new openings. The Brandon house has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1976 on a seventeen-acre lot next to another house. A couple bought the entire property in 1983 and lived in the other house. The wife's mother lived in this house as an in-law house, a popular arrangement in Vermont. In about 1999, the couple got divorced. The property was subdivided into three lots, and this one is five acres. They built a new foundation for the in-law house here, cleared a path through the woods, and then moved the house a few hundred yards to the new foundation. The divorcée moved here and the other two lots were sold.

Because this house has a poured concrete foundation with no drains, mice can't get in directly through the basement. They were getting in above-ground and finding their way to the basement and the walls above. There is very little attic space here, and it is filled with solid foam insulation. The outer walls and part of the basement ceiling are insulated with pink fiberglass insulation. The mice have found paths through the attic but don't seem to live there. They seem to prefer the fiberglass and make nests in it. Initially, most of the mice went down to the basement and were caught in humane traps and released. Generally, the mice could not get into the living parts of the house except through a gap under the basement door, which I blocked. One immature mouse did get through a small opening in a wall upstairs and entered the bathtub, where it became trapped. I took it outside.

Since I moved into the house, I have blocked a total of about six mouse entrances. It is difficult to know the exact number, but since those six holes were blocked, no new mice have entered the house. The remaining mice traveled around the house, and at first they went to the basement, where they were trapped. I eventually found and blocked four paths that the mice had been using to get to the basement, and since then there have been no mice in the basement. The closest the mice can get to the outside now is the back porch, which they can reach through an exposed section of attic, which would be difficult to block. So the last few mice were caught on the back porch, and there don't seem to be any more. During this period, some mice occupied a wall in the upstairs bathroom. When the last upstairs mouse had no access to the outside, it also went to the back porch and was caught.

I don't know what the precise conditions were for the previous owner. If she didn't block the basement door, there would have been mice all over the interior of the house, and there is some evidence of that (mouse droppings). The exterminators whom she hired blocked many holes on the exterior and interior of the house, but they appear to have completely missed the main ones actually used by mice. Thus, they eventually placed poison bait throughout the house. I suspect that the previous owner had mice every year that she lived here.  Originally, she kept her garbage in the shed, and that became a mouse habitat. Later, when she added the front porch, she left her garbage in a container out there. Probably as a precaution, she kept no garbage in the house. Deer mice and white-footed mice generally leave houses in the spring and don't return until the fall. Thus, the previous owner strategically put her house on the market in April.

It remains to be seen how successful my de-mousing effort has been here. They will probably continue to try to gain entrance to the house for the next couple of months and try again next fall. They are capable of chewing through screens, so they may attempt to reenter through the back porch. I am keeping an eye out for that. Whatever happens, my future work should be significantly reduced by the work that I've already done.

Mice, as mammals, aren't that different biologically from humans. They seek food and shelter and have babies. Though they don't have nuclear families, some of their behavior mimics it. Although the males have no interest in family life and seek sex with other females, a female with a litter can emit pheromones and make ultrasound calls that induce fathers to help in certain situations.

Sunday, October 1, 2023


The most significant change in my life since June 10, besides the disappearance of William, has been an increase in quietness. I thought that I'd write a little about that, since I find it important. My current house is on a gravel, dead-end road in a town with a population of only about 4129. During the rush hour, I can hear some traffic from another nearby road, and I can hear distant trains, but most of the time it is very quiet, except for an occasional barking dog or a vehicle driving on the gravel road. Also, some of my neighbors shoot guns on weekends. Of course, the men also like to operate heavy equipment, and that can be loud too. The fourth of July was very noisy. But at night, the loudest sound usually comes from barred owls, which sometimes wake me up. It is so quiet during the day that I can hear my digestive system working, and initially I thought that there might be something wrong, but there isn't. For me, this is an improvement over my previous house, which was on a busier road.  

Noise is currently being taken up as a health concern by medical researchers. Particularly in cities, the constant background noise is now thought to produce biological stresses that may induce various diseases. However, in the modern world, the absence of noise itself is thought to induce stress, and there are plug-in background noisemakers to reduce the stress of silence. 

My hearing isn't perfect, and, since 1987, I've had tinnitus, which sounds like a continuous high-pitched tuning fork. Most of the time I don't notice it, but it probably interferes with hearing external high-pitched sounds. Even so, I am sensitive to most sounds, particularly those produced by animals. So, when it was quiet, I heard the cat coming through the cat door and mice in the wall when others didn't. Coyote howls could be loud. In this vein, I think that, as biological entities, we are innately attuned to our environments, and when we block out those sounds with earbuds or noise cancelers, we may be inducing stresses that adversely affect our health. I think that the internet and all of the associated gadgets, along with the social changes caused by social media, have created a kind of cognitive dissonance that may adversely affect our health. So, even though I don't currently have much of a social life, I am probably more in tune with nature than most people and am less likely to become afflicted with the illnesses that hunter-gatherers never experienced before technology altered the human biome. Starting from this concrete base of biological experience, it isn't difficult to see new kinds of dysfunction and illness emerging unpredictably and disrupting the lives of millions of people. 

While a low population density and little noise may have disadvantages in terms of social enrichment, they can facilitate a meditative mental state and unexpected health benefits. I find that the people here in Brandon, though subject to many of the social ills evident elsewhere, are a little more relaxed and at peace with themselves even than the people in Middlebury, which is just up the road but twice the size in terms of population.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


Winter is rapidly approaching here, and I'm already turning on the heat. This house is cooler than the one in Middlebury, because it is at a 200-foot-higher elevation and is surrounded by woods rather than paved roads. I never turned on the air conditioning all summer. I've cleared out a lot of junk from the shed and it now has enough space for both the tractor and a snow blower. I will be buying a very fancy new Honda snow blower, because I didn't like the cheap one that we had in Middlebury. It was poorly designed and cumbersome to operate. I'm not completely finished with mouse-proofing, but have blocked at least four confirmed entrances. In the evening I walk around the outside of the house, and I've seen mice trying to get in. After I blocked the hole on the porch, they started to get in through unsealed openings in the eaves. They prefer ground-level openings, but are good climbers. Since this is a log cabin, they have plenty of traction. There is very little mouse activity in the house currently, and I may be down to the last mouse. The mice aren't making it into the inhabited parts of the house, so they must be finding their food outside. I haven't caught any in the last day, but there is still at least one behind a wall. At the point when the house is well-sealed, the last mice may become trapped inside. There is a one-way mouse exit door in the attic that was installed by exterminators, but I don't think that the mice have figured out how to use it. Eventually they'll be caught in a trap.

I'm doing somewhat better at self-entertainment now. I recently discovered the early films of Hal Hartley, whom I had never heard of, and enjoyed them a lot. Although he himself is a little dated now, he revived the alienated-male theme in the late 1980's. But, unlike the Marlon Brando and James Dean characters of the 1950's, Hartley's men are very smart and just dislike the life models with which they are expected to conform. I particularly enjoyed "The Unbelievable Truth," which features an ex-con's romance with a high school girl who has just been accepted at Harvard. There is a sort of hyperreality to the script, and the characters express themselves very clearly, warts and all. It comes closer to the family reality that I experienced when I was growing up than what you see in most films. You see family members with distinct personalities expressing themselves clearly. I also enjoyed "The Eight Mountains," which is a new Italian film. This is more specifically about males and their relationships with other males. Two boys meet in the Italian Alps and are separated but meet again as adults. They each have difficult relationships with their fathers. Pietro grows up in Turin and becomes a writer. Bruno prefers the mountains and attempts to live there. Later, Bruno ends up marrying Pietro's girlfriend, but they remain on good terms. Pietro travels to Nepal and meets a woman there. In the end, Bruno's mountain business fails and his wife leaves him. He stays at their cabin in the mountains over the winter and dies there. This is a much more nuanced film than the Hartley ones and explores male-male relationships carefully. The pace is very slow, and I watched it in several viewings. It has been refreshing for me to see depictions of the difficulties that men face. It isn't a popular theme, because men are just supposed to be tough and handle it. But men have emotional lives that can be just as complex as those of women, and the women always seem to drown them out with their self-pity. One other film that I just saw was "Gaslight," with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The story line isn't all that exciting, but the acting is extremely good. The same economic and social evolution that has degraded the arts generally has equally affected film quality for the worse. I guess that there must be some good new independent films, but I don't want to sift through them all. Middlebury has a film festival every year, but I haven't checked it out.

It currently looks as if I will have some good reading material over the next few months, so I'll have things to discuss on the blog. In other respects, my life is relatively static, except I'll be attending my nephew's wedding in Connecticut in a few weeks.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Theories and Models: Understanding and Predicting Societal Collapse

This is a chapter by Sabin Roman in the new book, The Era of Global Risk: An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies, which can be downloaded at no charge. Existential risk is now a well-researched academic subject and is certainly worthy of attention. I may comment on other chapters, but this one attracted me first. 

Generally, societal collapse is associated with decreasing complexity. The chapter breaks down societal collapse into types. Exogenous factors and one-time events are one type. These include resource depletion, such as the deforestation of Easter Island as described by Jared Diamond, and soil degradation for the Maya civilization. They also include competition with other societies. And one-time events include volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts and solar flares. Roman sums up:

Overall, arguments based on competition with other societies, intruders, or catastrophes neglect the fact that these types of events have previously been encountered by a given society but no collapse occurred, e.g. earthquakes in Minoan civilization, barbarian attacks on the Roman front, or competition between the Mayan centres. In addition, these theories have the added difficulty of placing the drivers of the collapse outside of the society in question, which is incomplete from an epistemological perspective without accounting for changes in social structures and dynamics.

Another type is social structure and class conflict. This has been written about since 1377, by Ibn Khaldun, Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, and Arnold Toynbee in 1961. Many of the theories in this group include class conflict. Roman summarizes the limitations of this approach as follows:

The main difficulty in the explanations above is that they force the cause to be considered a single factor and posit the causal mechanism as a direct, linear process. Given the complexity of the systems involved, collapse is often a multi-faceted process that requires accounting for multiple interrelated factors. Simply listing the different contributing phenomena is insufficient to give us additional insight....

This leads to the third type of approach: feedback mechanisms. These were pioneered by Thomas Malthus in 1798, with his description of the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. More recently, this theory has been refined to argue that growing societies tend to reach a period of diminishing returns that may precipitate their collapse, and the increasing complexity of a society may eventually make it unmanageable. Roman writes:

A theory of collapse built on feedback mechanisms describing social dynamics is consistent with the nature of a complex system, wherein multiple interacting factors are present, the evolution is non-linear, and causality cannot be assigned to singular aspects of the system.

The fourth and final approach starts with the third and is based on quantitative models, which are broken down into two classes:

(a) agent-based models (ABMs), which represent individuals (or communities) as agents with set attributes and behavioural rules, such that a realistic rendering of relevant behaviour is desired with the aim of obtaining larger scale emergent phenomena. Often, they also explicitly model the spatially extended features, such as terrain; and 

(b) integrated world models, which employ a wide variety of modelling techniques (system dynamics, econometrics, etc.) and aim for an accurate, detailed representation of the system under study. They are complex models that use a large number of variables and parameters.

Several different quantitative models have been developed in recent years. The 'Limits to Growth' study by Donella Meadows focused on three 200-year scenarios from 1900 to 2100: one fitted to historical data, one to environmental sustainability and one to technology and industry:

The first and third scenarios led to a peak industrial output in the 21st century and a subsequent decline in economic activity and demographic levels. The sustainable case manages to reach a steady state with little loss of life, but it requires parameter choices that, in the real world, would require drastic action to curtail pollution and population growth.

Roman says that the economic-based models are hampered partly because "the fundamental assumption of rational human behavior is not justified empirically." So far, the quantitative models are not widely accepted by sociologists. He concludes:

If a common set of historical mechanisms can be found throughout multiple time periods and a modelling framework with a toolkit of methodologies adaptive to different scenarios can be built, then the science-fiction discipline of psychodynamics that Asimov imagined would be within reach.

I am glad that people like Sabin Roman are doing this work, because we are already seeing multiple examples of environmental decline, climate-related catastrophes, geopolitical tensions and poorly-informed populist movements. I agree with Martin Rees, who says in the preface that action must start with voters, because politicians have little incentive to address events that will play out after they have left office. Unfortunately, most voters don't respond to theories and models, and, more often than not, are scientifically illiterate. That is why I often conclude my posts with the hope that AI will soon come to the rescue and replace both capitalism and democracy. Though people may respond as conditions get worse, it is important to remember that capitalism brought us to where we are now and that democracy is not a foolproof system for addressing complex issues.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist

As with Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, I found this more recent book by Frans de Waal somewhat informative, but, at the same time, annoying to read. The informative aspects relate to his expertise in primates, while the annoying aspects relate to his anecdotal style of writing. Most of his research experience comes from observing primates, and when he writes about them it seems as if he is describing friends and family members who happen to be chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, baboons, orangutans or macaques. Rather than focusing on conceptual issues, which are my main interest, he loves to describe the variability of primate behavior within species and between species. In this instance, I think the book would have been more effective if he had stuck to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, which are closely related.

Socially speaking, we are not that different from chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzee males are larger, stronger and more physically violent than females. They form hierarchies led by alpha males and maintain territories, which involves attacking and killing members of other groups. Males and females spend most of their time living with their own sex. Social tensions are relieved by grooming others. Alpha males usually have a broad range of social skills and do not rule by brute force; they are often respected by others. The dynamics are quite different in bonobo groups, because, though they are also hierarchical in structure, they are led by alpha females instead of males. Bonobo males are closer in size and strength to females and can be controlled by females who work in concert. The females can be violent and aggressive when necessary, but are usually less so than male chimpanzees. Bonobos stand out from other primates in that, comparatively speaking, they are sex maniacs. They behave in a bisexual manner. Females, who have evolved large clitorises, spend a great deal of time with other females in the missionary position rubbing their clitorises together.

To the extent that there is any theme to the book, it is that gender is not a social construct, and that most primates follow similar gender behavioral patterns. Males focus on physical activities and are not interested in child rearing. Females focus on child rearing and self-decoration. Humans differ from other primates mainly in the development of nuclear families. De Waal thinks that the nuclear family arrangement can cause domestic violence, particularly when there are external stresses, such as the pandemic. The book also touches on transgender issues and notes evidence of transgender behavior in one chimpanzee. 

The general outlook that de Waal seems to advocate is that we are primarily biological entities, and, as such, many of the categories and classifications that we come up with to explain human behavior are crude oversimplifications or misrepresentations that don't capture the complications of the underlying biological processes. One idea that he specifically rejects is mind-body dualism, which allows people to think that they are not their bodies. As I myself have said before, Simone de Beauvoir herself is guilty of this error. Although de Waal describes himself as a feminist, he says that he has had conflicts with ideologically rigid feminist women.

One observation that I found interesting was that, while male chimpanzees attempt to resolve conflicts with other males, female chimpanzees do not attempt to resolve conflicts with other females:

Given that four out of five female conflicts go unreconciled, it's fair to say that female chimpanzees are touched more deeply and are less willing than males to get over their disagreements. In the wild, too, females rarely make up after fights. They tend to disperse, which makes for an easy solution.

This helps explain why some of the females I've known became dogmatic and inflexible when disagreements arose. There was no discussion, and they simply left.

I was a little disappointed by the limited treatment of transgender issues in the book. This is probably because not much research has been done on the subject. The opposite is true for homosexuality and bisexuality, which are now widely accepted and understood. Some aspects of transgender identity may be explained by genetic differences at conception or hormonal exposure during fetal development. In theory, transgender issues could be handled in exactly the same manner as homosexuality or bisexuality. However, if, like me, you adopt a completely materialistic view of the universe and human life, it seems that you are your body. As a materialist, I have difficulty understanding why someone would make risky physical changes to their body through surgery and hormone therapy in order to match their perceived gender identity to their body. It is possibly that further research may justify those procedures, but I am a little concerned that, without proper guidelines, children, left to their own devices, may make poor decisions. For example, at this moment, there are probably millions of socially awkward children who erroneously think that becoming transgender would make them more popular. I think that some research-based guidelines are in order.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life

I finally finished this book by Peter Raby. It isn't very long, but I didn't find it very engrossing. I read it mainly to learn about Wallace's relationship to Charles Darwin and how they agreed or disagreed. In particular, I wanted to know whether Wallace was intentionally marginalized by Darwin and the British scientific community.  

Wallace was born in 1823 in Wales, of English and Scottish descent, and was the eighth of nine children. His father was a non-practicing lawyer who thought that he could live off his investments, but he wasn't shrewd and found that he didn't have enough income to support his family. This caused them to move frequently, and Alfred's schooling ended in 1837, when he was fourteen; he began looking for work. Initially he moved to London and lived with his older brother, John, who was an apprentice builder. In London, he was exposed to the radical politics of the time. Later in 1837, he began an apprenticeship as a surveyor with his eldest brother, William, which lasted six years. This position left him with lots of time outdoors. In 1843, his father died, and William's surveying business was moribund. For a time, Alfred held a teaching job in drawing, mapmaking and surveying. There he met Henry Bates, who encouraged him to collect insects and later accompanied him to South America. William died in 1845, and Alfred and John unsuccessfully attempted to revive his surveying business. Then Alfred and John decided to start an architecture and civil engineering business. Alfred was recruited to give lectures on science and engineering at the local Mechanics' Institute.

Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's account of his travels in the Americas from 1799 to 1804, and Darwin's account of his travels in The Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), Wallace and Bates decided to travel to the Amazon in 1848 and cover their expenses by collecting insects and other animal species and selling specimens to collectors and museums. Wallace stayed for four years, keeping notes and observing the indigenous population. He was joined by his brother, Herbert, who died there of yellow fever. On his return trip in 1852, without Bates, there was a ship fire that destroyed his collection, which, fortunately, was insured. Back in London, he wrote some papers and met a few scientists, including Darwin.

Since Bates and others were already exploring the Amazon, Wallace elected to explore the Malay Archipelago, this time better-prepared, again collecting specimens. The trip lasted from 1854 to 1862 and was far more successful than the Amazon trip. At times, Wallace had a huge staff of helpers. While there, he sent a paper to Darwin that outlined his ideas concerning evolution, which was still a nascent topic. Darwin panicked, because he had been sitting on his idea for years but had yet to publish much about it. The result was the joint reading of Wallace's paper with a hastily-assembled paper of earlier writings by Darwin at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. The title of Wallace's essay was "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Both essays were later published. Because Darwin's essay was based on earlier writings, his paper was read first. There is much discussion in this book and elsewhere about whether Wallace was treated fairly, and I think that he was. Darwin did have an advantage at that point, and he began writing On the Origin of Species while Wallace was away at sea. The fact is that Darwin went out of his way to assist Wallace: he could have thrown Wallace's paper in the trash and forgotten about it, and no one besides Wallace would have known the difference. Furthermore, in their subsequent interactions, Darwin was always magnanimous with Wallace and significantly boosted his career.

Wallace organized his collection while living with his sister, Fanny, and her husband. He became a defender of the theory of natural selection and met Darwin at his house. He had a courtship but was rejected in 1864 shortly before the wedding by his fiancée, presumably because he had little money – at the age of forty-one. In 1866, Wallace married another woman, Annie Mitten, who was the daughter of a moss expert. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Like most of his family, he was poor at managing money and ran into financial difficulties. I might add that, Darwin, comparatively speaking, came from a financially savvy family. The situation improved when he published The Malay Archipelago in 1869 and it became his most popular book. He made several attempts to get a well-paying job but always failed. Like Darwin, he was an introvert, and he probably made a weak impression at interviews. Similarly, both of them disliked participating in public events. In 1881, Darwin campaigned for and won a pension for Wallace, which relieved some of his financial pressures.

Evolution was only one of Wallace's interests. In science he is also known for advancing biogeography and ecology. But he also became a proponent of phrenology, hypnosis, and spiritualism, the latter in the form of séances. Once he believed something, it was difficult to change his opinion. He attended many fraudulent séances but still found them convincing. This caused his scientific colleagues to raise their eyebrows. In my view, he substantially weakened any claim he might make to be a leader in evolutionary thought by stating that humans are exempt from evolutionary forces and are operating on a plane that is separate from physical reality and includes God. Not only is this a ludicrous idea, but it also misunderstands the important idea that humans are part of nature and not much different from other animals. That is something that Darwin understood perfectly well, so I think Darwin deserves far more credit for the development of early evolutionary theory than Wallace.

Wallace also adopted many of the progressive ideas of his day. He was an early advocate of socialism and had opinions on women's rights. He did not support the private ownership of land. But he also led a campaign against vaccinations. 

More so than Darwin, Wallace liked to observe people throughout the world. Whether it was through the Romantic poets or Rousseau, he held a sort of noble savage theory and found that indigenous people were purer and happier than modern Westerners. On a late lecture tour of the U.S., he had a negative impression of American culture, which he thought followed the European exploitative model, in which the environment is essentially trashed just so that a few people can get rich.

Because Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, he became one the most famous scientists of his era. After that, he sank into obscurity, and I think that is probably appropriate. His skills seem to have been quick learning, good observation and good writing. He was also talented at developing ad hoc theories, but seems to have lacked the follow-through to become a good theorist. So, on the whole, I'm not particularly impressed, and see him mainly as part of the British intellectual milieu of the mid-to-late nineteenth century: George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, William Morris, Charles Lyell, Robert Owen, T.H. Huxley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, etc.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Farewell Poem (Second of two to a girl of Yang-chou)

Passion too deep seems like none.
While we drink, nothing shows but the smile which will
    not come.
The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:
Their tears drip for us till the sky brightens.

—Tu Mu (803-852)

Sunday, May 21, 2023

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, April 21, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VII

Beethoven remained relatively productive until his death at the age of fifty-six in 1827 as a result of various maladies. I don't particularly like most of the works that I'm familiar with from that period, such as the Hammerklavier piano sonata and the late string quartets. I do like to hear the Ninth Symphony occasionally because it is so spectacular, but it's too much for regular consumption. By the way, one of my doctors says that he is a descendant of the soprano who turned Beethoven toward the audience at the end of its first performance. Actually, that symphony was not particularly popular while Beethoven was alive. 

The saga with his nephew, Karl, continued up to his death. He didn't understand Karl well, partly because he was effectively deaf, and he adopted an insensitive, controlling attitude. He won complete custody of Karl through protracted court battles, though Karl seems to have preferred his mother. Karl did benefit from a good education, but, as a teenager, he decided that he wanted to join the military. When Beethoven forbade it, Karl attempted suicide, but he failed and recovered. Beethoven remained financially challenged right up to the end, and while he did leave a substantial bequest to Karl, he was never wealthy by rock star standards.

Swafford sums up the arc of Beethoven's career as follows:

So a trajectory in Beethoven's work began in Bonn, rose to its apogee in the Third and Fifth Symphonies and in Fidelio, and came to rest in the Ninth Symphony, which resonated with the accumulated political and ethical ideas and energies of the previous decades. The Eroica exalts the conquering hero; Fidelio is a testament to individual heroism and liberation; the Fifth Symphony is an implicit drama of an individual struggling with fate. The Eroica and the Ninth have to do with the fate of societies. As to the road to an ideal society, the Ninth repudiates in thunder the answer of the Eroica.

Beethoven was deeply influenced by a popular quotation of Kant that he read in a newspaper article:

There are two things which raise man above himself and lead to eternal, ever-increasing admiration: the moral law within me and the starry sky above me.

My feeling is that Swafford overreaches in his attempt to link Beethoven to Kant. There must have been popular aphorisms floating around, but I doubt that Beethoven read much, or any, Kant. He is best known for his Critique of Pure Reason, which is well beyond Beethoven's likely reading ability. I am somewhat familiar with Kant myself, as I took a seminar on him in college. His Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals was probably more accessible and influential, but it runs counter to everything I've written about morality on this blog, because it proposes a rational basis for morality through the categorical imperative – this is all nonsense to me. However, Kant covered many areas in his works, and I think that he may have been prescient in his distinction between phenomena and noumena, which is relevant today, because it provides a conceptual underpinning to what biologists are finding now about how neural systems mediate between organisms and the real world.

Overall, I found the book informative, but it reminded me of unpleasant experiences I've had attempting to read biographies of painters: their lives are often so chaotic that they don't actually make much sense.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VI

After Beethoven's relationship with Bettina Brentano collapsed, he apparently gave up on ever getting married. His personal life shifted to his brother Carl's family. Carl was sick with tuberculosis for some time and died on November 15, 1815. Beethoven detested Carl's wife, Johanna, who did have some conspicuous faults, but he seems to have been irrationally obsessed with taking their son, Karl, under his wing when his brother died. For me, there is nothing interesting in this, because the episode primarily shows that Beethoven had almost no people skills except in the realm of his professional work. At one point, Karl lived with him, and Beethoven obviously had no idea how to handle this situation. Swafford sums up Beethoven succinctly here:

His solipsistic view of the world, his blinkered ethics, his ironclad sense of duty, his relentless discipline and tenacity of purpose had served him well as an artist. They had saved him from suicide, kept him working through times of physical and mental suffering. In the case of Karl, that same blinkered tenacity fueled a struggle that ate up years of his creative life.

At this point, I am not finding Beethoven's life particularly interesting, because he himself did not seem to understand it. There is a different biography, which I haven't read, that concentrates on Beethoven's psychological makeup: that may have been more interesting to me, because, outside of his work, Beethoven seems to have been an odd psychiatric case. I think the evidence points to bipolar I disorder. But that doesn't really explain Beethoven's level of talent, and in slightly different circumstances he may have committed suicide or have been sent to a sanitarium. As a reader, I appreciate Swafford's effort to cover both the personal life and the creative work, but because Beethoven's life was so unnecessarily chaotic, I could have done with less of it. Then, as far as the music is concerned, there is some benefit to reading Swafford's explanations, though, on the whole, I think just plain listening to the music might be a better use of time.

So, even though there is still a large chunk of the book left, I am going to race through it and finish with my next post.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph V

In 1806, Beethoven engaged in a serious row with Lichnowsky, and they had a major falling-out. They were later partially reconciled, but he permanently lost his annual stipend. In the short term, this left him with insufficient income. Operas were popular in Vienna, but they were not Beethoven's forte. Later, in 1809, he pieced together a larger annual stipend with some other aristocrats that left him a stronger financial position. 

It is difficult to list all of Beethoven's musical connections, but I thought I'd mention Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was an innovator in string quartets and helped Beethoven excel in that medium.

Beethoven continued composing symphonies during this period and finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. I am most familiar with the Sixth Symphony, known as Pastoral, because it was the first one for which I owned a recording. 

In 1809, France attacked Austria, throwing the country into economic chaos for a time. Beethoven's hearing and health continued to decline. A source of income had been playing rather than composing, but the deterioration of his hearing increasingly made his public performances untenable.

Beethoven continued to pursue women, one of whom was Therese Malfatti, who was seventeen at the time they met in 1810. In this instance, the courtship was relatively constrained compared to his previous courtship, and he dedicated Für Elise to her. Another was Bettina Brentano, who was almost twenty-five when they met, also in 1810. Bettina was unlike the others in that she fit the profile as an artist herself, with multiple talents. She traveled in wide artistic circles and was a friend of Goethe. Bettina, Swafford thinks, is the most likely candidate referred to enigmatically by Beethoven as "Immortal Beloved."

Through this connection, Beethoven eventually met Goethe. While each knew that they were both at the respective peaks in their arts, they never developed a rapport. Beethoven was too spontaneous and wild for Goethe, and Goethe was too conservative and too much a part of the status quo compared to Beethoven, cherishing his court connections. His tastes were also more conservative: he preferred Mozart. Moreover, as Swafford points out, though Beethoven came to be associated with the Romantic movement, his formative years were spent in a more rationalistic environment, and he was not a true Romantic. Speaking for myself, I am more of a rationalist, though I still like some aspects of Romanticism.

While all this was going on, Beethoven was composing away, but with a lower output than previously. Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, was composed in 1809. I heard this live a few years ago, and it is my favorite of his piano concertos.

I am moving faster through the book now, but still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph IV

Beethoven remained phenomenally productive during the early 1800's. At that point, he admired Napoleon, who had essentially become a dictator in France in 1802. He began a symphony, which was originally to be called Bonaparte, and eventually became Symphony No. 3, Eroica. As of 1803, he was thinking of traveling to Paris. The conceptual underpinnings of Beethoven's music seem quite trivial to me. He believed in liberté and fraternité, but not égalité. Napoleon, like him, was supposed to be a great genius whose talent set him apart from most of mankind. This meant that they were not the same as ordinary mortals and should be treated accordingly. To me, this sounds like a naïve early version of Ayn Rand's ridiculous worldview expressed in Atlas Shrugged. That year, he also worked on Waldstein, another of my favorite piano sonatas. Eroica was eventually published in 1806, and, because of its originality, it took time for listeners to absorb. At this point in his career, Beethoven was composing almost exclusively for connoisseurs, and he made few compromises for the public in order to become more popular – as I said earlier, this is the opposite of what one finds now in popular arts. Eroica seems to have been the work that permanently elevated him to the level of Mozart and Hayden, i.e., one of the greatest composers ever.

In other respects, Beethoven's life hardly seems interesting to me. He was attracted to young, aristocratic women who universally did not reciprocate. There does not seem to be any specific knowledge of his sex life, though Swafford suggests that brothels were widely used by men during that period. I found this example, provided by Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven's students, amusing:

One day in Baden, Ries stumbled into a situation that gives a portrait of Beethoven's style with amours of the moment. Ries appeared for a lesson and found his master sitting on a sofa with an attractive young woman. Embarrassed, he turned to leave, but Beethoven cried, "Sit down and play for a while!" Ries did as ordered, facing away from the pair and playing bits of Beethoven pieced together with his own transitions. Suddenly, Beethoven called out "Ries, play something romantic!" Then, "Something melancholy!" Then, "Something passionate!" Finally Beethoven jumped up and theatrically exclaimed "Why, those are all things that I've written!" This, hoping the young lady would be impressed. Instead, she seemed offended by something and left abruptly.

In this example, perhaps we are seeing Beethoven's heavy-handed way of flirting. He also made a more serious pursuit of Josephine Deym, née Brunsvik, whose husband had recently died. She was an aristocrat and apparently was not in the least bit interested in Beethoven or his prolonged courtship, which completely failed.

This book is moving very slowly for me, and I am at the point of just recording some basic facts. Swafford is probably best at describing the details of Beethoven's compositions. This can be rewarding if you are familiar with the particular piece under discussion, but otherwise it is less satisfying. Overall, I am finding the book worthwhile, though often in the slightly negative sense of discovering that Beethoven as a person is not really an interesting topic. I'm about halfway through and will attempt to pick up speed so that I can move on to something else soon.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph III

As time passes, more descriptions of Beethoven are emerging from his contemporaries. Carl Friedrich, Baron Kübeck von Kübau, wrote:

He was a small man with unkempt, bristling hair with no powder, which was unusual. He had a face deformed by pock-marks, small, shining eyes, and a continuous movement of every limb in his body...Whoever sees Beethoven for the first time and knows nothing about him would surely take him for a malicious, ill-natured and quarrelsome drunk who has no feeling for music...On the other hand, he who sees him for the first time surrounded by his fame and his glory, will surely see musical talent in every feature of an ugly face.

In 1798, Beethoven met Karl Freidrich Amenda, a violin prodigy, and he became his closest friend since Bonn. That year, he began to experience hearing loss and tinnitus. The cause may have been lead in the cheap wine that he drank. I wonder whether all the loud piano playing damaged his ears – Swafford doesn't mention this possibility. In 1799 he published Op. 13, Grande Sonate Pathétique, which became one of his most popular piano sonatas. That year, he acquired a piano competitor when Joseph Wölffl arrived in town; Wölffl played as well as he did and they remained on good terms.

In 1800, Prince Lichnowsky provided Beethoven with an annuity, which relieved his financial pressures somewhat. Otherwise, most of his income came from the publication of his works. To that end he worked tirelessly producing more music and marketing it himself to various publishers. At this age (twenty-nine), he still accepted students.

The actual romantic aspects of Beethoven's life are reflected in his relationship with countess Giulietta Guicciardi. In 1801, when she was seventeen, she became his piano student, and he fell in love with her. As Swafford describes the situation, there was no realistic possibility of a marriage:

A woman of nobility who married a commoner lost the privileges of her class; her children could not inherit a title. Few noblewomen were prepared to give up so much, least of all to marry a freelance composer of uncertain income, however celebrated, who was meanwhile homely, hot-tempered, utterly self-involved, and afflicted with chronic diarrhea. The other matter, his growing deafness, he would have kept hidden from Julie.

Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight, one of my favorite piano sonatas, was dedicated to her and published in 1801. This quickly became Beethoven's most popular work. I can see why.

In 1802, Ludwig had a colossal fight with his brother, Carl, who had moved to Vienna. Carl had been rummaging through Ludwig's music manuscripts and attempting to sell them to his own publishers at excessive prices. Carl also sold pieces in Ludwig's name that had not been composed by him. Needless to say, when Ludwig learned of this, he was outraged, and they literally came to blows.

So, the main patterns in Beethoven's life are in evidence now. It is more than half-over, and he has major works ahead of him while his health deteriorates. I still don't have a sense that in person he would be that appealing, because, although passionate, his main talent was in music, and his views on other matters may not have been that interesting. His temper could and did lead to various feuds throughout his life. What is most interesting about him is his ability to mix classical formality with conventional emotions and express them harmoniously. This is something that I don't think either Bach or Mozart ever attempted. You might say that Beethoven was the first composer to make classical music accessible to the common man without ruining it. For comparison's sake, American popular music, some of which I like, is thematically static. Some of it is based on acoustic and electric guitars, which, as far as I know, have seen little design change in decades. Modern composers of popular music need only pick from a bag of established styles and throw in easy lyrics that don't stand up to critical scrutiny. No popular modern composers have changed music to the extent that Beethoven did. As far as I can tell, there has not been an improvement in popular American music in decades, and that is why, when you turn on your radio today, you are likely to hear something that was popular over fifty years ago.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph II

During the remaining years of Beethoven's youth, the University of Bonn was founded in 1786 and locally the popularity of music increased. The mood in Bonn was progressive and forward-looking. However, a long, serious chain of events began in 1789 with the French Revolution, which was followed by the Jacobin movement, which endangered monarchists throughout Europe. This was followed by the rise of Napoleon, who organized attacks on Austria and Italy in 1796 before staging a successful coup in France in 1799. The atmosphere in Europe became more nationalistic and patriotic than it had been previously.

Beethoven continued his musical training playing in the court theater, switching to the viola in 1791. In 1792, Joseph Haydn stopped in Bonn on the way back from England. He heard Beethoven play and looked at some of his scores. Recognizing Beethoven's talent, a plan was made to send Beethoven to Vienna to study under Haydn, who was then considered to be the greatest living composer in Europe, since Mozart had died the previous year. By that point, Beethoven's father was retired and Ludwig had been given financial responsibility for his two brothers. An arrangement was made by Max Franz, the Elector of Bonn, also a music aficionado, to finance Beethoven's move to Vienna.

Upon arrival in Vienna, Beethoven's keyboard skill was recognized immediately. He composed musical works of increasing value, but did not immediately produce masterpieces comparable to his later works. Socially, he was quickly accepted by the highest social stratum, which consisted of classical music fanatics. Chief among them was Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who had been "a patron, student, and Masonic lodge brother of Mozart...." Lichnowsky's family and friends were on good terms with Count Waldstein from Bonn. Besides Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz, "another indefatigable aristocratic music fancier, from one of the most prominent and influential families in Austria" became a friend and supporter. In those days, though it was inhabited by many talented musicians, Vienna was overcrowded and didn't have many suitable venues for musical performances, so many of them were conducted privately in people's homes.

Swafford is primarily interested in Beethoven's musical development, which is certainly a worthy topic, but I am more interested in Beethoven's personality and thoughts. Despite his astounding professional success in Vienna, Beethoven seems somewhat disagreeable as a person and seems to lack any interesting ideas outside of music. Although he was consorting regularly with the aristocracy, in his personal life he was lacking in social graces. He had a short temper and frequently had disagreements with Haydn and Lobkowitz. He often appeared improperly groomed in aristocratic settings. It seems that he had relationships with women, but they tended to end badly, with the women finding him socially inept. I hope that in the remainder of the book more information will be provided so that I can sort this out better. At the moment, Beethoven resembles a slightly buffoonish lower-middle-class male from Bonn of that period who completely lacked social graces but was able to get away with it purely on the basis of his musical reputation. However, it does not appear that his musical talent was sufficient to assuage the fears of potential spouses. So Beethoven is looking a bit oafish at the moment, and it may be that he was a savant whose talents covered only a limited range. I should also mention that he was in fact operating in a highly competitive environment and may not have been unrealistic about protecting himself from competitors. 

In fairness to Beethoven, I should also mention that a recurring theme on this blog has been that the U.S. has never created fine art at the level of the best European fiction or painting. To that list you can add music. The reason for this is quite simple: an environment suitable for the creation of great art requires highly sophisticated patrons, such as wealthy aristocrats. Any art form that becomes dominated by the profit motive, as everything has in the U.S., is unlikely to surpass the best art of the past. American art forms tend to be vernacular, which I think limits their aesthetic appeal. This is not a land of aesthetes.

I'm up to 1797, with Beethoven, who is only twenty-six, fabulously successful, profusely publishing his music and touring Europe. By all rights I should be proceeding much faster through this book than I am currently.