Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past II

Later chapters discuss the state of affairs of ancient genomic studies in regions other than Europe. The Indus Valley received migrations of farmers from Iran 9000 years ago, and they spread south into the heart of India by about 5000 years ago. 3000 to 4000 years ago, India split into two main population groups with one in the north and one in the south. The northern group was strongly affected by descendants of the same Yamnaya group that had entered Europe, and these genes show up conspicuously in the caste system, with the Brahmins exhibiting the most European genes. The genes correspond with the spread of Indo-European languages in the region. There are parallels between the Rig Veda, composed over 3000 years ago, and the slightly more recent Iliad and Odyssey. Across India, the caste system has created many different genetic bottlenecks related to inbreeding, which have caused an increased frequency in several diseases. These bottlenecks have effects not unlike those seen in Finns and Ashkenazi Jews. In the Americas, Native Americans are hampering progress in research because they believe that it violates their cultural traditions, even when ancient remains are not those of their ancestors. Research is now underway in China, where the Han constitute a majority. In China and elsewhere, "ghost populations," i.e. large ancient groups that have no archaeological identification, have been found. Tibetans appear to be related to Asian hunter-gatherers and Han Chinese.  Africa is one of the least studied regions in DNA research. This is partly the result of the deterioration of human DNA in tropical environments. Europe is currently the location of the most intensive DNA research, because that is where most of the technology has developed.

I found one chapter, "The Genomics of Inequality," somewhat disappointing. Reich discusses the inherent biological advantage that men have in spreading their genes, in that women can have only a few children whereas men can have many. For example, Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire who died in 1227, is thought to have millions of living descendants who are identified by a unique feature of his Y chromosome. Reich, oddly I think, describes the historical events associated with high levels of male reproduction as inequality. For example, a study has shown that, among African Americans, the men have 38 percent European ancestry while the women have 10 percent: These numbers imply that the contribution of European American men to the genetic makeup of the present-day African American population is about four times that of European American women. In other words, many male slave owners, like Thomas Jefferson, were having children with their slaves, and their wives were not. A similar pattern is evident in ancient DNA studies of the Yamnaya. It is true that an inherent social inequality is present when men are free to have as much sex as they like with women from lower social strata, but Reich seems to go out of his way to frame the phenomenon in politically correct terms when, from a scientific standpoint, it could just as well be described as natural selection at work. Whether you like it or not, natural selection is a numbers game, and nature doesn't care whether a larger population comes into being as a result of equality or inequality. For that matter, all species eventually become extinct – what's fair about that? I'm cutting Reich a little slack, because he walks a thin line in which his lab at Harvard could be bombed if he inadvertently offended someone.

This book is a short summary of research in what is rapidly growing into an enormous field. Some aspects of the research are simply interesting in themselves as new tools for exploring human history. There are also more practical aspects, such as the understanding of the genetics behind certain diseases. The field will eventually provide a much clearer picture of the role of mutations in our evolution. Above all, since this is a scientific enterprise, I am hopeful that it will someday put to rest much of the mythological nonsense that underlies the thinking in all societies and makes the world a far more dangerous place than it needs to be. When you frame human history in millenia rather than in decades or centuries, ethnicity and race become ephemera, as does the claim to ownership of land.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past I

This book, by David Reich, summarizes research in the new field of the genomics of ancient human DNA. I'm about halfway through, and at first I thought it would be boring. However, it is turning out that this is science at its best, and Reich and his colleagues are making serious headway in areas that have been of interest to me for some time. By analyzing the DNA of archaeological human remains representing different populations at different locations at different times, a far more detailed picture of human migrations and interbreeding is emerging than was available a few years ago. Improvements have been made in DNA extraction, its processing and the use of statistical models. The first major result has been the demonstration that humans and Neanderthals interbred directly and that Neanderthal genes now comprise about two percent of the genome of most modern humans. Modern humans are one of five known human populations that have lived on the planet during the last seventy thousand years. The others were the Neanderthals, the Siberian Denisovans, the Australo-Denisovans and the "hobbits" of Flores island. There is evidence of interbreeding directly and indirectly between these groups. With carbon dating of the remains and genome sequencing, it is possible to map the distribution and prevalence of certain genes by location and time and associate them with specific populations, earlier and later.

The main picture that has emerged so far has been that human populations have been on the move constantly and have interbred, producing non-sterile hybrids along the way. The people whom we associate with certain geographic locations commonly have lived thousands of miles away within the last few thousand years and have interbred with other populations repeatedly. It is even possible that, contradicting the prevailing theory that most of the evolution of modern humans occurred in Africa, some of the evolution may have occurred outside Africa, with non-African populations returning to Africa over 300,000 years ago.

The appearance and disappearance of populations in Europe has been common until recently. Early groups of hunter-gatherers and farmers in Europe were replaced by descendants of the Yamnaya people from the steppe of eastern Europe about 5000 years ago. The Yamnaya were early adopters of wheels, carts and horses. The Yamnaya's descendants were the Corded Ware people, and until recently these two groups had been thought unrelated due to differences in their artifacts. However, genomic studies indicate their relatedness, which also applies to most modern Europeans. This genome is associated with Indo-European languages, the exact origin of which is unclear. Reich speculates that they may have originated in Armenia or Iran.

I skipped ahead to the chapter, "The Genomics of Race and Identity." Here, Reich attempts to sort out the controversies that arise from racist-sounding language in a politically correct environment, and he finds errors in both camps. He chides not only Henry Harpending, one of the authors of the study of Ashkenazim intelligence cited earlier, for making an unsubstantiated racist statement about Africans, but none other than James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix, for assuming that Ashkenazi Jews are smart. On the opposite side, he criticizes Richard Lewontin for popularizing the idea that all living humans are essentially the same, an idea that is not supported by current evidence yet is defended with such great fervor that unbiased scientists such as Reich have to edit their language carefully for fear of being attacked. Reich, himself an Ashkenazi Jew, does not believe that the Ashkenazims' susceptibility to certain diseases is related to intelligence, but he leaves the door open to the possibility that a genetic origin for high intelligence may be found. There is currently little evidence connecting specific genes with intelligence, and the genetics of cognition has not been studied thoroughly, though this is not to say that connections won't be identified in the future. In Reich's view, there are significant genetic differences between populations; the problem is that, in a reaction to the ideological oppression of political correctness, some writers have overstated their cases without sufficient evidence, hence betraying racist biases. To show that differences aren't necessarily bad, Reich uses the example of men and women as people who are very different genetically yet are able to get along. At first this seemed useful to me, but on reflection it seems like a poor example. I find that the interests of men and women are usually at significant variance, and were it not for certain biological imperatives, such as the need for sex and the desire to procreate, men and women might have little reason to interact. There are millions of men who would prefer women to live obediently in harems, and there are millions of women who think of men as ATM's. In my experience, men and women spend most of their lives complaining about each other. Gender differences aren't really the best model for a harmonious society even if men and women do manage to cooperate.

Reich does not specifically mention The 10,000 Year Explosion, which I discussed earlier, though Harpending was one of its authors. It appears that the general thrust of that book may be correct, but that many of the details may be wrong. The Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures were not farmers, yet they seem to have displaced farmers. It is possible that they were immune to the bubonic plague or other diseases, while the earlier farmers in Europe were not. It is possible that evolutionary changes may have given the Yamnaya an advantage, but this may not have played out exactly as described in that book.

There are other chapters of interest left, and I'll have more to say when I've read them.

Friday, June 8, 2018


I seem to have been preoccupied with mundane activities, not leaving me with much of interest to say. The carpenter ants are out and require attention, and the lawn needs mowing again. Troubleshooting plumbing problems (literally plumbing the depths) isn't much fun. The spring has been relatively cool, not ideal for growing tomatoes, and mine are still quite small. My new car has sophisticated warnings that alert you to minor system failures, requiring me to drive forty-five minutes each way to the dealer in Burlington to have it checked, and I've recently made three round trips and waited a total of four hours. Nevertheless, with the snow gone I am enjoying occasional drives over the mountains on winding roads. I've started to read a new book and will begin commenting on it soon, but so far am finding it less thrilling than expected.

The problem of locating compelling reading material seems intractable. Over the last few years I think I've found biographies to be the most satisfying. In a way, they are a substitute for a satisfactory social life, one that doesn't require the recitation of a series of platitudes or boring chitchat. In a biography or memoir, one has an opportunity to engage with a person, no matter how distant in time or place, who is not leading a superficial, materialistic life. Memoirs, however, are more susceptible than biographies to the interweaving of fiction. The main problem with biographies, I find, is that not many people merit one, so there aren't many good ones. Still, they can be better than fiction, which I am increasingly equating with lying. At the heart of my objection to fiction is the feeling I get while reading it that the author, for one reason or another, is bamboozling me. What, really, is the point of making things up when life is already insurmountably confusing? Adding fiction to confusion is not a promising recipe. Moreover, in my reading, linguistic skill is not the most important aspect of fiction, and writers such as Joyce and Proust receive far more credit than I think they deserve. Nonfiction in general is more reliable, though one must be careful with historical works, because the human brain has a way of interweaving fiction with history. Then, though I often appreciate the information provided in scientific nonfiction, that is usually narrow in scope and offers no emotional satisfaction. I still have some interest in poetry, but the interest is centered on the unexpected surprise one may find in it, which, in my experience, is extremely rare.

After ten years, I've finally given up on Netflix. Since it became popular and began to produce its own programs, the quality has deteriorated significantly. Much of the problem has to do with the fact that it would be nearly impossible to provide a stream of programming that I would find satisfactory. In their early years, they had several decades of films to draw from, and now there is practically nothing left besides new material. For the time being, we are watching Kanopy, which is a free library-sponsored streaming website that attempts to obtain high quality videos.

The stargazing opportunities have been extremely limited since last fall. Jupiter has been prominent in the sky, but the viewing conditions have been far from ideal. You can still spot double stars, and Albirio is back for the season.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time VI

I've finally finished this biography and will sum up the remainder. Morris became extremely political from the 1880's to about 1890. He joined two early socialist organizations, the Democratic Federation, in 1883, and the Socialist League, in 1884, and he financed the socialist publication The Commonweal. His business continued to flourish, but he became less involved in its day-to-day operations. Socialism was a new idea then, well before the Bolshevik Revolution, and Morris became acquainted with Engels and Kropotkin and other socialists and anarchists. He spoke widely both to ordinary workers and to educated audiences but did not achieve much as a political leader. It is difficult to piece together his activities, which were related to civil strife among miners and other groups under economic conditions which remain unfamiliar to me. Most educated Englishmen at the time were either conservative or liberal, and Morris's views were not popular among them. This included Burne-Jones, who had become financially successful as an artist and had adopted conservative political views. Ultimately, raucous internal dissent within the radical groups rendered Morris ineffectual and frustrated, and he withdrew from politics almost entirely.

As in his earlier years, Morris managed to pursue a mind-boggling range of activities from the late 1880's up until his death at age sixty-two in 1896. He began to write novels while continuing to write poems. He translated Homer's Odyssey and Beowulf. Finally, he set up Kelmscott Press, designed his own typeface and printed a special edition of Chaucer's works. During this period, though he was not actively involved in it himself, many of his ideas related to craftsmen and how they should be distinguished from ordinary workers by forming artistic communities took root in what became the Arts and Crafts movement. Indirectly, Morris provided some of the ideas behind what later became artists' colonies and, unfortunately, writers' workshops.

Rossetti, obese and in poor health, died at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 1882. This left Jane Morris, at the age of forty-two, available for a new lover, and a matchmaker, Rosalind Howard, set her up with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a second-rate poet who was a year younger than Jane and had a reputation as a lady's man and adventurer. Blunt fancied himself a Byronic figure and it is said that he married Byron's granddaughter to solidify the connection. He was also an admirer of Rossetti, and the idea of seducing Rossetti's lover probably appealed to him. Apparently, his life consisted of orchestrating various intrigues with his mistresses and befriending their husbands, particularly if they were famous. By the summer of 1893, when Jane was fifty-three, Blunt no longer found her sexually attractive, but they remained friends. May, Morris's younger daughter, became Morris's assistant in his later years. She was infatuated with George Bernard Shaw, but he wouldn't marry her or anyone, and she married someone else. She had a scandalous affair with Shaw and later divorced her husband.

There are various questions that arise in my mind about Morris. Though MacCarthy attempts to capture his psychodynamics without being heavy-handed, I feel that something is missing. The primary peculiarity is that although Morris had a short temper on occasion, he was completely tolerant of Jane's adultery and bore no open grudge against Rossetti or Blunt. Even allowing for the fact that divorces were difficult to arrange in those days, Morris seems remarkably passive throughout all of this while in other aspects of his life he remained passionate and active. For all we know, Morris was celibate from the conception of May in 1861, when he was twenty-seven, to his death in 1896. It is possible, though unlikely, that Morris was gay or asexual, but MacCarthy doesn't weigh in on this. It seems to me that at some level Morris must have been lacking in self-confidence, and perhaps he buried his insecurities with an excessive workload. Looking at this from the present, I don't think that Jane was worth all the trouble. She was modestly attractive and good at posing with a melancholy, pensive expression on her face, but she was conversationally dull and, within the environment in which she lived, a social climber. To me, the situation with Jane would have seemed like a festering wound, and I would have done something more decisive to address it.

I haven't assessed all of Morris's work, and I don't intend to. Overall, he seems to have followed a craftsmanlike process in everything that he did. His strength seems to have been in design. His poems are probably adequate for the period, but I am not interested in them or his novels. His translations apparently aren't that great. MacCarthy seems to want to make him out as a visionary, but I don't think he quite deserves that label. He was an instinctive, honest person who had the courage of his convictions in aspects of his life other than his personal relationships, and rather than expressing himself as a seminal thinker or artist, he demonstrated basic human values that are still relevant today. Those include an emphasis on equality, protection of the environment and the encouragement of people to meet their artistic potential. The class structure in England weighed heavily on him, and, unlike his peers, he tried to do something about it. Thus, though I think he would have been an interesting person to know, he was trapped by the Victorian culture which he inhabited, and his life was constrained accordingly, as is everyone's by their environment. Other than in his inhibitions regarding Jane and his friends, he stands out as forthright and honest compared to most intellectuals, then and now.

Friday, May 25, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time V

I apologize to those of you who have little or no interest in William Morris and can only say that I should be finished in my commentary within a post or two after this. Despite the fact that he is not the most interesting subject that I could think of, the degree of detail provided by MacCarthy is of value in itself, and, to her credit, I am coming to appreciate Morris in ways that would have been impossible without reading this book. People didn't live very long in those days, and I'm up to 1881, when he was forty-seven, getting old, and had only fifteen years left to live.

In 1879, Morris leased a house in Hammersmith, London, and renamed it Kelmscott House, after his country house. He resided there until his death. By this time, his professional success was significant. He had spent the 1870's learning dyeing and weaving and had gained sufficient skills and enough employees to divest himself of subcontractors to some extent. His production facility in Queen Square, London expanded, and he leased space for a retail shop on Oxford Street (where my great-great-grandfather had a fur shop). By 1881, business was so brisk that he moved production to a larger facility, Merton Abbey, outside London. His goods included painted glass, embroidery, tapestries, carpets, wall-hangings, curtains, furniture and wallpaper. Over the years, his clientele expanded from Pre-Raphaelite artists to English aristocrats and wealthy English people to upper-middle-class Americans. However, he didn't like "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich," though he lived in much the same way that they did.

In 1875, Morris had become honorary secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and through this organization he began to speak publicly. This did not come easily to him, but he gradually built up his self-confidence. His family life remained stable, though Jane continued to see Rossetti, who became less appealing to her because of his excessive use of alcohol and chloral for his ailments. Jane herself was often ill and spent time at well-known spas; to some extent this was the fashion of the time, but her health was far from perfect. When Jane was away, Morris took care of his daughters, quite effectively it seems, and he was even a good cook. He was closest to his eldest daughter, Jenny, who excelled at school and seemed headed for Girton College, Cambridge, which was founded by Morris's acquaintance (and George Eliot's friend), Barbara Bodichon. However, in her teenage years, Jenny began to exhibit the symptoms of severe epilepsy, which was untreatable at the time, and this rendered her an invalid for the remainder of her life. Morris was also close to his younger daughter, May.

Through MacCarthy's descriptions, Morris is growing on me. He had an unusual personality, with his friends calling him by his college nickname, "Topsy," referring to his unruly dark hair, throughout his adulthood. He had an obsessive personality and tried new things with great intensity. While he didn't always succeed, his breadth of knowledge in the decorative arts eventually became impressive. So far, MacCarthy hasn't analyzed this energy, and it seems to me to have originated in an unusual nervous condition combined with an idiosyncratic drive for mastery in a field. Probably he would have liked to have been a major artist but recognized that he did not have the right talent. His success as a poet seems almost a fluke. Inexplicably, he also tried translating and produced a new translation of Virgil's Aeneid, even though there were already good ones available. In most cases he self-assessed his work realistically and held high standards, and this can be a disadvantage in the arts, when you are competing with people like Rossetti, who are better at self-promotion and more aggressive. Thus, Morris resembles a bottom-feeder who lacked the chutzpah to pull off the major artist act, but in the course of many years of hard work he gained formidable skills in interior decoration, which made his style dominant in England and elsewhere for several decades. To me, this is most apparent in his wallpaper designs, which I find quite appealing.

Where I would be critical of MacCarthy is in her failure to place Morris and his friends in the broader historical context of decorative arts, painting, poetry and fiction. I think that beyond, for example, Morris's wallpaper, the group is not particularly notable in its productions. It is also worth mentioning that, in today's cultural environment, people like Rossetti would be seen as sexual predators, hiring lower-class women as models and then having sex with them. Though Morris himself was hardly a sexual predator on the scale of Rossetti, he still followed the same general pattern, in which socially inferior women are at the beck and call of wealthy males. In Morris's case, there was a simmering sense of social injustice, and I think that comes out more at the end of his life.

I am finding Morris interesting chiefly because he demonstrates the difficulties that one encounters when one tries to balance artistic goals with commercial success. Although Morris's talents were limited, he had high standards and tried to abide by them. What is unusual about him is that he had the drive and the resources to pursue whatever artistic field he chose, and, unlike most people, he was under no pressure to specialize immediately. When he became an employer, he was shocked by the lack of versatility in ordinary workers, who typically could only do one thing well. There is a child-like naïveté in Morris's failure to recognize how charmed his life became as a result of family wealth. He instinctively disliked capitalism without fully understanding how it led to a narrowing of options that he had managed to escape.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time IV

I have better reading conditions at the moment and hope to advance rapidly through the remainder of the book, though I'm only halfway through at this point. This is an unusual book for me, because I like the thoroughness of the author more than the subject matter. Morris and his friends are of marginal interest to me, because they are neither major artists nor major thinkers. I'm up to 1874, when Morris reached the age of forty, and they seem as if they have had a prolonged adolescence and are finally starting to grow up. Even so, I think that any good biographer will reveal errors and limitations in the person who is their focus, and that biographies that portray their subject exclusively in heroic or exalted terms are consequently hagiographic or mythopoeic. Every life, no matter how successful, has elements of stupidity and dumb luck, and these are evident in MacCarthy's telling.

Morris continues to learn new crafts, such as gilding, calligraphy and manuscript illumination, with the Firm not occupying much of his time under the partnership arrangement. Various intrigues crop up between the men and women in the group. In 1861, Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal, had a stillborn baby, and she became emotionally unstable, committing suicide with drugs the following year. Thereafter, Rossetti pursued a relationship with Morris's wife, Jane. After Morris leased Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire as a country home in 1871, Rossetti took up residence there and continued cuckolding Morris, apparently with Morris's approval. Rossetti, who was the son of an Italian-born professor, seems to me to have had a rather unpleasant personality. He was flamboyant, collecting exotic animals such as wombats and kangaroos, but also seems to have had a sadistic streak, and he liked to pick on Morris, who accepted it passively. My interpretation is that Morris lacked self-confidence and had a dose of English timidity. He seems to have had especially low self-confidence with regard to women, perhaps because he was socially awkward, five-foot-six, unkempt and fat. He remained on good terms with Jane, but apparently was attracted to Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana. Burne-Jones began an affair with another woman, and Morris began to attract female admirers through his success as a poet. There is no evidence yet that he had any affairs.

In 1871, Morris went on a trip to Iceland and became fascinated with Norse sagas, translating them into English. In 1873 he went to Italy for the first time but did not like Renaissance art. Where I left off, he decided in 1874 to take full control of the Firm by buying out the other partners, because he felt that it was insufficiently profitable due to their lack of attention to it. This resulted in some acrimonious negotiations – people's true feelings come out when money is involved – but friends such as Burne-Jones were supportive. The new firm was named Morris & Co., and it later became a centerpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement, which is Morris's most significant legacy.

As Morris matures, I am hoping to find more value in his work. In the context of the history of art, fiction and poetry, his group seems amateurish and backward-looking. The paintings of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, which represent a small branch of the academic art that was also popular in France at the time, are both qualitatively and thematically inferior to many of the French paintings. Compared to Jean-Léon Gérôme, for example, they seem like rank amateurs, yet there is no mention of this or any French contemporaries in the book. Significantly, Morris was born in the same year as Edgar Degas, and in 1874 the Impressionists launched their first exhibition while Morris and his friends were just beginning to lose interest in medievalism. As a realist, I find it appalling that artists in England were engaging in Lord of the Rings-like fantasies and idealizing women to absurd lengths just as modern realism was emerging in French art and literature. They completely ignored J.M.W. Turner, the English painter who influenced Monet. While they carried on in their fantasy world, Manet painted the first great modern realist paintings and Flaubert wrote the first great modern realist novel. I don't think Morris's poems compare favorably to those of Shelley, but then I prefer modern poetry anyway. In many respects, English arts have always seemed provincial to me. I have noticed that George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, which was published in 1859, has similarities to Madame Bovary, which was published in 1856. Having studied George Eliot closely, it does not seem far-fetched to me to speculate that Adam Bede started out with the code name "Madame B." Though Hetty Sorrel is hardly the English equivalent of Emma Bovary, both novels are realistic depictions of the downfalls of women, and I feel confident that George Eliot read Madame Bovary. From tapestries to cathedrals, many of the arts in England have French origins. Even good food seems not to have reached England until the late twentieth century.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


The book I'm reading is long, and my reading has been curtailed further by another round of renovation in the house, which makes it too noisy for me to do anything that requires concentration. That should be over soon, and I hope to progress through the book I'm reading at a faster pace and then move on to a different book which I may prefer. We have transitioned into a true spring environment, similar to May of 2011, in which we visited Middlebury for the first time, loved it, and bought the house. After October, May is probably the best month here. Then, if you like snow and cold weather, January and February are pretty good. However, with climate change, we seem to be getting the most snow in March now.

William is mellowing with age, but still can be demanding for a pet. He likes to go out every day, no matter what the weather is, and is primarily nocturnal. When it was twenty below outside, one of his ears must have frozen, and it remained bent for a few months, but it seems to have straightened out now. I bought him a water heater designed for rabbit hutches so that his outside bowl of water won't freeze. During the warmer months he stays out almost all night; I let him in for a snack at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. and then he goes back out again. He catches mice and brings them unharmed through his cat door onto the porch so that he can play with them. Then, in the morning, if we're not careful, they can run into the house when we open the door. He is friendlier toward us than he used to be but is still violent on occasion. Loud noises scare him, and he hides in the basement when he hears a truck coming.

I would like to take up new topics but am not finding much inspiration at the moment. Some of the ideas that I've written about on this blog seem to be confirmed repeatedly by current events, and, since it is impossible for me to change anything, the news is more depressing than encouraging. Specifically, the Trump presidency is a clear-cut case of human folly, and not only is he remaining in office, but when you look at the history of the American presidency, there is not much likelihood that he will be succeeded by anyone significantly more competent. All of the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt seem mediocre, and even Roosevelt had conspicuous human weaknesses. Besides the foibles of presidents, in a democratic system there is no escaping the stupidity of the public. For example, John McCain is currently gaining public sympathy simply because he is ill and patriotic. It is important to him to oppose state-sponsored torture, because he was tortured, and it is important to him to defeat evil, since he envisions himself as having fought evil when he was injured during his military service: this is all emotional nonsense that has nothing to do with competent governance. As far as I'm concerned, McCain is just an emotional guy who thinks that he should have been rewarded for his sacrifices and is angry that he didn't get to be president and will soon die. Most of his ideas are based on his sense of self-importance and entitlement, and no matter how long he lived he would never be a good president or a panacea for the feeble political process here.

My readership seems to be dwindling at the moment, though there are still about three regulars. I am always getting hits from across the world, and the hits seem to be determined by the titles I choose for my posts. I could increase my hits dramatically simply by writing catchy titles, but there is no point to that, since I don't want a wide audience and prefer the current semi-private, calm atmosphere. For unknown reasons, "Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol" is very popular now. I don't mind not getting any comments from random people who happened to reach the blog by googling something, though occasional comments from people who have actually read my posts can be stimulating and encouraging. I think most readers prefer soft topics such as fiction and poetry, and, since I probably won't be writing about those again for some time, the blog may be less appealing to them.

Friday, May 4, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time III

Spring activities have been a further distraction from my reading, but I am still gradually making my way through the book. Its detail surpasses my level of interest, though to some extent I appreciate the microscopic view, since I am curious about the period and, through the assiduous study of letters, diaries and other records, MacCarthy has produced a sharper picture of a life than seems possible for people living now. I suppose one could reconstruct such details through emails, tweets, etc., but the electronic environment in which we live trivializes everything, and it is hard to imagine anyone alive now exhibiting much depth in future biographies.

Morris's career as an architect didn't last for long. He relocated to Bloomsbury when it was a rundown section of London and initially continued his apprenticeship in architecture while studying painting and drawing in his spare time. Burne-Jones also moved to London, and they shared an apartment. Through Burne-Jones he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a few years older than they were and a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which entailed an interest in medievalism, and Rossetti became their mentor. Since he was independently wealthy, Morris gave up architecture and began to experiment in various crafts such as embroidery, woodcuts and furniture design. He met one of Rossetti's models, Jane Burden, in 1857. She was of a lower class and uneducated but had the right female physical characteristics for the group. They were married in 1859, when he was 25. Using family money, Morris built a house, known as the Red House, in Kent, in which to live with Jane. The building was designed by his friend Philip Webb, and Morris decorated the interior. His hope was to establish an artisan community centered there, but that never materialized.

The Morris emerging so far is rather frenetic, a man with a high energy level but little self-discipline or self-control. He tended to start projects and not finish them and jumped around between crafts. He gradually gave up on painting, perhaps because he simply was not as talented as Burne-Jones, Rossetti or Ford Madox Brown, another member of his circle. Morris also veered off into poetry, which he self-published, and he eventually established a name for himself in that sphere. Morris's personal relationships were often strained. Because of his neurological condition, he became the butt of jokes, and, since he had a gregarious nature, he put up with them. He had a schoolboyish mentality and liked being surrounded by male friends in a fraternity-like atmosphere. The lack of discipline extended to eating and drinking, and he became rather corpulent after college. His relationships with women, even his wife, tended to be problematic. Burne-Jones married a compatible woman from his class, while Jane's background was different, and she may have been a model for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, which George Bernard Shaw, a friend of the group, wrote years later. Although Morris and Jane promptly produced two daughters early in their marriage, and Jane became an expert embroiderer, she and Morris seem to have been incompatible, and after he died she was rather blunt in stating that she had never loved him but was simply taking advantage of a social opportunity that was too good to pass up. There was a fair amount of naïveté and idealization about women in Morris's circle; for example, John Ruskin is said to have been shocked on his wedding night to discover that his wife had pubic hair.

Although the Red House did not become a craft hub, in 1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was established to produce murals, architectural carvings, stained glass, metalwork and furniture. As was the case with many of Morris's wealthy contemporaries, his financial footing was far from solid. In those days, wealthy families often had all of their income generated by one company in which they owned stock. Morris had inherited stock in a mining company that gradually failed, and initially he depended on more funds from his mother, whose financial condition was also precarious. By 1865, Morris was in financial straits, and he put the Red House up for sale and moved back to London with his wife and children. This proved to be beneficial for the Firm, which gradually widened its clientele and became fashionable. Before it was over, Morris had established a successful business that didn't depend on handouts from his family.

In some respects, Morris and his friends represented an anti-modernity movement. They preferred medieval Europe and ancient Greece to Victorian England. Their spirit was similar to that of the hippies in the 1960's who wanted to return to the land, live in communes and produce their own food. Both groups were rebelling against bourgeois life, but in the U.S. there was not the same sense of a lost past and its artistic traditions. The hippies instead took an interest in rural traditions such as folk music and bluegrass, having no high culture to recall. And while Morris and his friends were still conventional Christians, the hippies preferred psychedelic drugs and Eastern religions. In Morris's time, the agrarian past was still in living memory, while the hippies grew up mainly in suburbs. I'm still only a third of the way through the book, and Morris became an outspoken socialist later in his life, which parallels the focus of baby boomers on inequality and social injustice. Thus, I am finding it of some value to see similar tendencies in human nature played out in different social and historical contexts.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time II

Apparently, Fiona MacCarthy has a deep love for her subject, and it is not one that I share. However, I still find the life and times of Morris interesting, if perhaps for different reasons than MacCarthy. As far as I've read, Morris has spent his high school years at Marlborough College and his university years at Exeter College, Oxford. Shortly before he died, Morris's father had bought him a position at Marlborough. Morris's experience there was almost exclusively negative. The students were unruly and violent, the college was poorly administered, and Morris had no friends. There was a connection between Marlborough and Exeter, and Morris entered Exeter after studying for its entrance exam with a private tutor.

Prior to Oxford, Morris had been solitary and socially awkward, spending much of his time outdoors in nature. When he arrived in Oxford, he immediately fell in with Edward Burne-Jones, the future artist. They belonged to a set of students whose presumed profession would be the clergy. However, they took little interest in Latin or religious training and preferred the arts, specifically painting, architecture, poetry and the fantasy world of Arthurian legend. Morris was attracted to the Gothic cathedrals of northern France, their stained glass in particular. In poetry they admired Tennyson, and in prose they admired John Ruskin. Intellectually, they seem to have belonged to late Romanticism, living well after Byron, Shelley and Keats. Temperamentally, Morris was given to sudden rages, which sometimes scared people and may have been related to an unidentified disorder similar to epilepsy. He seems to have had little patience with ideas and tended to emphasize physical details. Although his group at Oxford was all-male, with some homosexual undertones, they were committed to chastity, and there were no suitable females around.

I think what is interesting me is the social structure of Morris's environment. Although he went to Oxford in 1852, it reminds me of going to an American liberal arts college in 1968. At the time I went to college, I was not as aware as I am now of the link between the church and the college. In Morris's day, forty percent of the students at Oxford went into the clergy, and the connection between the university and the church was more palpable. My college had been founded by Methodists, and it struck me as odd that there was a Department of Philosophy and Religion, because the two areas seemed incompatible to me. In fact, many of the faculty in that department had divinity degrees, and they were not philosophers in the sense that I think of them. There has been a slow transition from the time when colleges and universities concentrated on theology to the current inclusion of all of the modern academic disciplines. This has occurred inconspicuously in part because a college degree has always been a social marker that exists independently from any particular discipline. While being a graduate may once have meant that one had a better understanding of God, that was slowly replaced with the idea that college graduates belong to the ruling class. Recently, with suitable employment becoming increasingly scarce, college has become more closely associated with vocational training, though a four-year degree still retains the aura of higher social standing.

In Morris's case, he was better off than most of his friends at Oxford and could even afford to publish his own magazine while there. He reminds me of people I've known who arrived at college not really knowing why they were there, but who nevertheless benefited from it in one way or another. This now strikes me as a rather poorly conceived process, but the colleges themselves spin it as part of their allure. Vocational training is lower-class, whereas four years of dilettantish study is upper-class. The trick, apparently, if you're not born wealthy, is to choose postgraduate training in a lucrative field such as medicine or law, or perhaps dentistry. Really, this whole process seems farcical to me, and now one might enroll in a liberal arts college and be trained in environmental studies, which conveys the same kind of social status that was once associated with training for the clergy: you are wealthy enough to pursue a field in which you represent a higher purpose of some sort. College seems always to have been an institution that reckons with social standing, and, as such, it has never been quite as practical as one might hope.

I am in sympathy with some of Morris's ideas regarding the selection of a vocation. He disliked the thought of making money through business or finance, because he didn't consider that real work. He identified with artisans who made beautiful objects. I felt the same way after I had given up the idea of pursuing a career in philosophy. I didn't want to work in an office and would have liked to have had a real skill, such as a craft. Thus, I haphazardly entered the field of printing, and though I did initially operate a press, I was over-educated for trade work, and, in any case, there is almost no market for aesthetically superior products in the U.S. I found that high-quality work is typically not considered commercially viable. Thus, art books are not usually printed in the U.S., and that role is often taken by specialists in Italy or China. With some exceptions, the U.S. is not known for craftsmanship or style. When I worked for large printing companies, I learned that the emphasis was on volume, not quality. The measure of success is how many impressions per hour you can get on the cheapest possible paper. The fact is that American consumers are not discerning, and the preference for low cost usually kills high-quality products as an available option. Like me, William Morris would be disgusted by modern capitalism.

When Morris finished at Oxford in 1855, he did not join the clergy as his mother had hoped, and he became an apprentice at a small architectural firm in Oxford.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


I seem to have got out of the habit of writing on this blog. That has partly to do with the arrival of early spring, when I usually have some sort of allergic reaction. One year I couldn't hear properly for some time, and this year I had a long headache. I'm not sure what to make of this, because throughout my life I have had few allergic reactions. When I lived in Oregon in 1975, I reacted to grass pollen, which was at high levels due to local grass seed production. At my current location, which is far more rural, I seem to be reacting to allergens that enter the air when the ground thaws. Not much is growing yet, because the temperatures are still low. Another factor could be that the house has had no warm spot in recent days. We only bought two cords of firewood last fall and ran out in March. Other years we have had four cords, and we would have had plenty left by now. This was partly an experiment regarding heating costs. Technically, kiln dried firewood offers as many BTU's per dollar as heating oil, but the wood stove is actually quite inefficient compared to the oil boiler and heating system. The boiler doesn't let as much heat out through the chimney and it is distributed within the house. The wood stove, on the other hand, loses much of its heat through the chimney, and it heats up the entire chimney. The chimney gets hot and so does the room above the stove on the second floor. The chimney section that runs through the attic also heats that unused area. This winter, the temperature level within the house was higher on average than in previous years, with less firewood burnt, but we will still save about $400. Burning firewood at the current price doesn't save money. However, the disadvantage is that there is no warm place to sit once the firewood has run out, and that may have contributed to my malaise. At any rate, I seem to be recovering and hope to resume more regular posts soon.

In other news, we recently checked local property maps and got permission from our neighbors to walk along Muddy Branch, a creek near our house. It runs out of the Green Mountains and heads north before emptying into the New Haven River on the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At this time of year it overflows onto the hay fields surrounding it and can be a little boggy. There were signs of wildlife, including ducks and beavers. I've planted seeds to grow in our garden and hope that 2018 will be better than 2017. Last year we had a cool August, and the tomatoes never really took off. I'm also looking forward to some more stargazing. We haven't had any clear nights so far this spring, but that may change. On the rear deck, where my 130mm refractor usually sits, there is now a better view because we had a dying maple tree removed. It had been blocking the view of Polaris during the summer, making a polar alignment impossible.

I have also been doing more genealogical research. Since I have few close relatives with accessible records, I have been looking into the families of people I know. I have been getting to the bottom of a mystery within my ex-wife's family. Her mother's mother, Blossom Ellis, was raised by an aunt, and I knew that something untoward must have occurred. I have found that her mother's mother's mother, Mary Kelley, got pregnant at the age of twenty in 1895 and married two months before Blossom's birth. Mary went on to have three more children with her husband. They were living with her parents, and Mary's father, Jacob Kelley, got drunk and shot himself in 1904. Mary and her husband divorced around that time, and the children were split up. Blossom, the eldest, stayed with an aunt, her sister was soon adopted, and two brothers grew up in an orphanage. This scenario makes the present look quite good in comparison.

Regarding William Morris, I haven't been reading the book but hope to return to it soon. Morris isn't the most exciting subject for study, but I am enjoying the biography and finding it informative. Once I've made a little more progress I'll resume commenting on it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time I

I'm reading this long biography by Fiona MacCarthy for reasons somewhat different from my usual ones. William Morris was not a major thinker, writer or artist, but he combines a number of characteristics that are of interest to me. Though he did write poems and fiction and was an early proponent of socialism, he is best known for his interior designs, his wallpaper in particular. I am interested in him because he lived during the high Victorian period in England, when the country was at a cultural peak, and, having been born in England myself, I have always wanted to extract what it is about it that I like and to trace its now almost invisible effect on my aesthetic tastes. My English grandfather, who was born in 1893, worked at Liberty & Co., which once competed with Morris & Co., and there were similarities in their product lines. I should also add that the U.S. is a country without deep roots, and, like many who live here, I am drawn to places that have more substantial pasts. However, I am not generally interested in English artists, particularly Morris's friends, the Pre-Raphaelites, who have always seemed slightly ridiculous to me. For the most part, I have found the paintings of Continental Europe far more interesting than those of England, the latter seeming more derivative and less original.

I'm not exactly racing through the book and have only finished the first chapter. Morris was born in 1834 into a nouveau riche family. His father was a fabulously successful businessman, and his mother had a respectable pedigree but had not previously been wealthy. Thematically, Morris's life is reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir's: they both detested the boring bourgeois lifestyle that was imposed on them during their childhoods and spent the remainder of their lives rebelling against it. Of course, this phenomenon isn't much different from that of the Baby Boomers, many of whom came from modest prewar American families which suddenly became wealthy after 1945. In each case there was the rejection of a constricting lifestyle, a search for authenticity and a defense of the workers who had been abused by capitalism. Already, in the case of Morris, there is a love-hate theme developing in his conflicting perceptions of his father: on the one hand, he detested his father's shallow, showy lifestyle, which rested on the exploitation of the underclass, but on the other hand he admired his father's energy and achievement. His father died suddenly at the age of 50, when Morris was 13, and this seems to have locked in a conflict that could never be resolved by means of a developing relationship into adulthood.

Fiona MacCarthy seems to have researched her topic thoroughly. She writes very well, and this must be the best biography on the subject. I feel no urgency in reading it and am proceeding at a very leisurely pace at the moment. I'm not sure how much I'll have to say about it, so this could lead to longer gaps than usual between my posts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence II

The book on the whole provides a scattershot view of the future of AI. Tegmark seems to include snippets of just about everything he knows on the subject. While one does get exposure to many aspects of AI, there is a lack of focus throughout the book, and, in my opinion, Tegmark draws far too much from the wide range of science fiction that he apparently has read. Instead of the multiple scenarios that he brings up, I would have preferred more basic categories, such as 1. Independent superintelligent AI acting benevolently toward humans; 2. Independent superintelligent AI acting maliciously toward humans; 3. Superintelligent AI controlled by humans and acting benevolently toward humans; and 4. Superintelligent AI controlled by humans and acting maliciously toward humans. Since one of the underlying themes of the book is the existential risk associated with AI, I think these would have been a better starting point. He includes many speculative ideas from all sources and organizes them into groups without reaching any definitive conclusions. The book is supposed to be a conversation-starter for those who are interested in the topic, and, as such, leaves each topic too open for my liking. I would have found it more effective it if he had restricted himself to probable scenarios, which would have reduced the length of the book considerably. Some chapters veer off into pie-in-the sky futures that have little likelihood of materializing ever. However, the book warrants attention, since Tegmark is concerned about existential risk and is one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute, which is one of the very few organizations in the world that studies this important topic.

Tegmark says very little about what I think is one of the most likely scenarios: superintelligent AI controlled by some humans and acting maliciously toward other humans. He spends what I consider to be too much time on independent superintelligent AI destroying mankind. Where I seem to differ with him is in my understanding of life. Almost the entire book is framed within the context of goals, whether they are the goals of humans or of superintelligent AI. In my view, goals are a minor aspect of humanity. We are no different from other animals in that we are driven by DNA-encoded behavior which generally leads us to reach adulthood, engage in sex, have children and raise them. Goals do not play a role in this except in the sense that we happen to superimpose an intellectual schema on our behavior, but in reality we would most likely behave exactly the same way without any deliberate plans to raise families. Though it is true that some aspects of modern society, such as the availability of birth control, have changed the landscape a little, in a biological sense we are hardly any different from people who lived hundreds of years ago. Speaking for myself, I have never been goal-oriented, and it seems possible that Tegmark and his cohort, which includes Elon Musk, are goal-driven in the extreme, but are hardly representative of most people. They may also be ascribing their goal hysteria to inanimate objects such as superintelligent AI. In my view, the outcomes that we prefer have no meaning outside the human sphere, and it is folly to think that sophisticated computers would have comparable preferences. We only think that living is good and death is bad because we have a biological imperative, and that imperative would not be shared by superintelligent AI unless it were programmed into it. Being dead or alive makes no difference to non-organisms, and it may be that Tegmark is unwittingly engaging in anthropocentric conceit. Thus, I think that Tegmark is somewhat misguided in not focusing more attention on the possible abuse of superintelligent AI by an individual or group that doesn't represent the interests of mankind as a whole.

I did not find most of the book objectionable, but didn't pay close attention to much of it, because I was not interested in many of the subjects. The only section that I thought was completely incorrect was Tegmark's view on intelligent extraterrestrial life. He proposes an obscure statistical model which indicates a low probability of other intelligent life anywhere in the universe. On this front, I go with more mainstream thinking. If one assumes that there is no magical ingredient to the formation of life, and that the evolutionary processes on earth that led to our existence is not unusual, the obvious procedure is to determine how many sun-like stars there are in the universe and how many of those are likely to possess planetary systems like the solar system. The fact is that our sun isn't unusual, and many stars have planets. Thus, given that there are billions of galaxies that each contain billions of stars, it seems likely that earth-like conditions aren't all that rare. Furthermore, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility that life has emerged on planets orbiting stars unlike the sun. At one point, Tegmark refers to himself as crazy, and here I can see why. Another section that I could have done without is the chapter on consciousness. Tegmark remains neutral on the topic, but I find it mostly irrelevant. I think consciousness is simply a biological feature that amounts to little more than self-awareness. As I've said, there is a continuum between small mammals and humans, and there is not a marked difference between chipmunk-level consciousness and human-level consciousness. For mammals, consciousness seems to be a byproduct of how the brain operates, and, to me, higher consciousness simply refers to more sophisticated brain function. There is no need to think about consciousness in AI, since it would not exist unless self-awareness were programmed into the AI.

In a similar vein, there is what I think of as a conceptual misunderstanding among many AI futurists. They envision futures as immortal cyborgs or digitized people who roam the universe and populate other regions for eternity. It seems to me that they are extrapolating from their current mental states to their future mental states without taking into consideration significant changes that might occur in the process. What if, with superintelligence, they soon know all that they ever can know about the universe: how might this affect their enthusiasm for exploration and discovery? What if, once they have merged with superintelligent entities, immortality suddenly loses its appeal? If they do in fact become immortal, what would the point of reproduction be? I don't think they have taken into consideration the ways in which their current thinking is skewed in a way that it only can be in living organisms, and they are not taking into account how their outlook might change. As I said in an earlier post, it is possible that advanced extraterrestrials that reached superintelligence may have opted for death over life.

One of Tegmark's primary purposes in writing this book and founding the Future of Life Institute has been to increase awareness of the situations that could develop as AI advances. My feeling is that if it advances slowly, in incremental steps, and different groups reach comparable technological levels in unison, it will be possible to enact various safeguards in a manner similar to the safeguards that were adopted in biological weaponry. However, in the event that AI research makes a sudden major advance that is available only to one group, there is a significant chance that all bets will be off the table. In that case, the risk of abuse of power would be significant, and there may not be enough time to enact any safeguards. This kind of thinking is so far from public and political awareness that we can only hope for the extremely slow and coordinated development of AGI in the coming years.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence I

There aren't many good general interest books on AI, and I have avoided reading the best known one, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom, because it was written by a philosophy professor, which, in my experience, guarantees that it will contain needless diversions and complications. For the same reason, I have not read Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, by Daniel Dennett, even though I received it as a gift, am interested in Darwinism, like Daniel Dennett and have attended one of his lectures: he is a philosopher. I thought I would give Life 3.0, by Max Tegmark, a try, since he is a physics professor and seems less likely to inundate the reader with excess baggage. His writing quality is not the best, and he uses gimmicks, such as the title. Life 1.0 includes life forms that are stuck in a stimulus-response mode, in which they react mechanically in all situations; life 2.0 includes life forms that can think and modify their behavior, i.e. humans; life 3.0 includes life forms that can change both their thinking and their physical form. Tegmark refers to thoughts as software and bodies as hardware.

The opening chapter is a science fiction short story set in the near future, in which a tech company assembles a crack team of researchers to work on AI. Their goal is to create artificial general intelligence, or AGI, which entails a machine which is able to perform a wide array of intelligent tasks at least as well as humans. Thus far, AI hardware and software have been able to exceed human capabilities only in narrowly-focused areas and have been incapable of performing a wide range of tasks. The team succeeds in steps, and their AI module, called Prometheus, gradually increases its capabilities. The company immediately decides to use Prometheus to create the maximum profit possible. One of its first potential projects is computer games, in which they could easily dominate the field, but they reject that option because it would provide Prometheus with a way to escape. Gradually they move to other fields and vanquish the competition. They are able to make virtual films that are calibrated to exactly match human preferences, and they soon control the entertainment industry. Often, shell companies are set up to disguise the dominance of the company. From a security standpoint, extreme measures are taken to prevent Prometheus from direct access to the internet. Because Prometheus is able to consistently create the best products at the lowest cost, non-AGI companies are unable to compete. Then the focus turns to politics, and Prometheus identifies the exact characteristics needed in politicians and how they should be presented if they are to be elected. Over time, the company is so profitable that it is able to absorb costs previously covered by government spending. The need for government services is reduced when the company successfully advocates massive privatization and then absorbs the costs of social services. Because of high efficiency and automation in the economy, there is widespread unemployment, and the company supports those who are unemployed by giving them jobs in community service. Finally, through its economic and technical strength, the company takes over the world.

Although this story isn't nuanced or detailed enough to be fully convincing, I think it does represent a plausible scenario for the future. In fact, the company roughly approximates, which is actively engaged in AI research. It is already noticeable that has expanded into unrelated businesses and is succeeding in them. In previous decades, companies that expanded this way often became unwieldy conglomerates, which eventually led to their breakup into separate companies because of their unmanageability. Even recently, RR Donnelley, the large printing company that I used to work for, was broken up into three companies, based on markets served. So far, is going in the opposite direction, and AI may already be playing a role in its management decisions and strategy. I recently noticed that may be expanding through shell companies. When I began to research pet food in 2016, I came across, which was the only site I could find that reviewed cat food that didn't have an obvious connection to pet food manufacturers. I was a little suspicious, because the recommended brands all had links to, but I didn't think about it much at the time, since the research seemed convincing. I didn't buy any cat food through, because other sites had the same products for less. Recently, I took another look at's cat food recommendations, and they were almost completely different; all of the new brands also had links to There was no explanation as to why the brands that I had been buying disappeared. In the fine print, it is explained that, while all the endorsed brands are good, some of them are sponsored brands which provide the revenue to run the site., unsurprisingly, is located in Seattle, where is headquartered. I would guess that nearly all of their research is based on data that is available in the public domain, and that they have very few employees. Their analysis is probably performed with software that other companies do not possess. is probably a cost-effective way for to boost its revenues.

Also, by coincidence, the influence on political campaigns by Cambridge Analytica, which recently came to light, mirrors the use of technology in the story. However, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, wealthy individuals such as Robert Mercer, rather than large corporations, seem to be focused only on political influence. If Mercer helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, he is unlikely to attain whatever goals he may have had, since Trump obviously was not the right person for the job; he has been unpopular since day one, doesn't seem to know what he's doing, probably won't be reelected and will be lucky if he remains in office until the end of his first term. And it seems unlikely that Cambridge Analytica uses sophisticated AI. More likely, they were able to devise an effective campaign strategy by mining data from Facebook, processing it a little and using well-worn propaganda techniques.

I've still got a long way to go in the book, but it looks as if it covers all of the topics I've brought up before on this blog about AI, so it should be quite informative. I think Tegmark has a genuine concern regarding the effects of AI on human destiny. His science fiction short story is probably not the best way to open a book of serious nonfiction, but it does demonstrate what could happen in a possible future. In that instance, do we want the world to be run by Jeff Bezos? There are other scenarios, in which, say, China, develops AGI first, or perhaps different countries or organizations will develop it simultaneously. Since I think that AGI is likely to be developed, possibly in my lifetime, I don't consider this idle speculation, and I'll have more to say.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This book, a selection of short items by Richard Feynman, is similar to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", but is somewhat less autobiographical and discusses his work in slightly greater detail. There is some overlap between the two books, with two chapters in common. The foreword, by Freeman Dyson, is eloquent and touching, describing how awestruck Dyson became when he worked with Feynman at Cornell University in 1947, and he compares his relationship with Feynman to the relationship between Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. He and Jonson were the academics, whereas Feynman and Shakespeare were the boisterous geniuses. Strangely, Dyson has outlived both Feynman and Stephen Hawking, and is now 94.

My reaction is less intense than it was to the previous book, but I did find things in it that I liked. To comprehend the reach of Feynman's intellect, you have to realize that it was he who invented nanotechnology decades ago, and it is still a productive field now. The chapter I liked best, "What Is Science?," is a lecture that he gave to science teachers and discusses how his father influenced him by taking him for walks in the woods, and, rather than simply naming things, encouraged him to think about the processes taking place and how things worked. His father was a uniform salesman and, feeling that he had not lived up to his potential, encouraged Richard from the earliest age. I particularly liked this paragraph:

We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations and they make lists and they do statistics, but they do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science – like South Sea Islanders making airfields, radio towers, out of wood, expecting a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners' airfields around them, but, strangely, they don't fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are – experts. You teachers who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, maybe you can doubt the experts once in a while. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

In the chapter, "Richard Feynman Builds a Universe," he recounts a seminar that he was asked to present by physicist Eugene P. Wigner when he began his graduate studies at Princeton University:

I started to prepare the thing. Then Wigner came to me and said that he thought that the work was important enough that he's made special invitations to the seminar to Professor Pauli, who was a great professor of physics visiting from Zurich; to Professor von Neumann, the world's greatest mathematician; to Henry Norris Russell, the famous astronomer; and to Albert Einstein, who was living near there. I must have turned absolutely white or something, because he said to me, "Now don't get nervous about it, don't be worried about it. First of all, if Professor Russell falls asleep, don't feel bad, because he always falls asleep at lectures. When Professor Pauli nods as you go along, don't feel good, because he always nods, he has palsy," and so on. This kind of calmed me down a bit, but I was still worried. So Professor Wheeler promised me that he would answer all the questions and that all I would do would be to give the lecture. 

So I remember coming in – you can imagine that first time, it was like going through fire. I had written all the equations on the blackboard way ahead of time so that all the blackboards were full of equations. People don't want so many equations...they want to understand the ideas better. And then I remember getting up to talk and there were these great men in the audience and it was frightening. And I can still see my own hands as I pulled out the papers from the envelope that I had them in. They were shaking. As soon as I got the paper out and started to talk, something happened to me which has always happened since and which is a wonderful thing. If I'm talking physics, I love the thing, I think only about physics, I don't worry where I am; I don't worry about anything. And everything went very easily. I simply explained the whole business as best I could. I didn't think about who was there. I was thinking only about the problem I was explaining. And then at the end when the question time came, I had nothing to worry about because Professor Wheeler was going to answer them. Professor Pauli stood up – he was sitting next to Professor Einstein. He said – "I do not think this theory could be right because of this and this and that and the other thing and so forth, don't you agree, Professor Einstein?" Einstein said "No-o-o-o," and that was the nicest no I ever heard.

Besides the above, there are passages relating to Feynman's discomfort with the humanities. There seem to be two parts to this. On the one hand, his mind was attuned to problem solving, and his training was in engineering and physics. This made him impatient with unempirical theorizing. On the other hand, he seems to have been humiliated by people who looked askance at his poor grammar and New York accent. There is the fact that he was rejected by his first choice for undergraduate study, Columbia University. He never read much in the humanities, which he came to associate with pretentious people who are lacking in rigor. He thought that their serious demeanor was artificial. Although I fall more into the humanities camp than the science camp, I tend to agree with him. I spent several years studying philosophy, and I now see it more as a cultural phenomenon than as a useful field. To be sure, scientists, like all humans, are susceptible to particular forms of myopia, but if you compare them as a group to intellectuals, who come mostly from the humanities, they look pretty good. If you contrast scientists with ordinary people, the difference becomes stark. The American scientists who were prominent in Feynman's day made the contributions that allowed the country to become the technological leader of the world. Looking at the U.S. now, with the marginalization of scientists, it is beginning to resemble an incompetently governed autocracy. The public intellectuals here have barely put a dent in the ascent of Donald Trump. Current conditions are a far cry from 1939, when Albert Einstein signed a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending the development of nuclear weapons; six years later, World War II ended with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, scientists seem unable to convince the political leaders in Washington that climate change is real.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


I had completely run out of books that I wanted to read, and now the ones I ordered are starting to trickle in. To keep expenses low, I generally buy "very good" or "fine" used books when they are available, and some of them ship from overseas. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, is on its way from Australia. I got out of the habit of going to libraries and bookstores, because the odds of finding something I like through those sources aren't good. And I prefer to keep books on hand indefinitely in case I want to refer to them later. Every few years I clear out books that no longer interest me in order to make space for newer ones.

I've been looking at a couple of books of Vivian Maier's photographs. Some of the photographs are quite excellent. However, there is little or no context provided by the editor, John Maloof, in part because they were accidentally found. His first book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, provides no information at all on individual photographs, e.g., location and date. They appear to have been taken in New York between 1951 and 1955 and in Chicago starting in 1956. The other book, Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, identifies the year and location for most. There is some duplication between the two books, and Self-Portraits includes several photographs of her which could have been taken by someone else, or she may have set up a camera to take them – no explanation or theory is provided. The photographs in Street Photographer are printed as duotones in black and sepia, which gives them a dramatic mood and added contrast, and Self Portraits is printed in ordinary four color process, without the sepia, and contains several color photographs.

The photographs themselves cover a variety of subjects. There are street scenes with closeups of individuals and ones with wider fields showing many people. There are a few shots of inanimate objects with unusual shadows. Her photographs called "self-portraits" comprise several types. Most are clearly intended as self-portraits, as, when looking through a store window, she photographed her reflection from a mirror inside, or when she framed a picture with a conspicuous shadow of herself in the foreground. Her reflection and shadow seem like signatures to a photograph, and her shadow sometimes adds a sinister element, with her imposing hat and long coat. Others may be accidental self-portraits. She liked to hide in recessed doorways to shops that had mirrors on the outside, because this enabled her to photograph the reflections of people on the street without being noticed. It may have been an accident that she appeared in them. However, she clearly was fascinated by reflections, whether from glass, mirrors, hubcaps or yard globes, and she liked to incorporate shadow effects in her compositions. Although I still think they're very good, I am not as impressed with most of the self-portraits as I was previously. Her best shots, I think, are either closeups of people with excruciatingly clear details or complex street scenes with different people and groups all going about their day. There is an astounding photograph of Third Avenue in New York City, looking south toward the Chrysler Building, when the Third Avenue El was still in operation. Some of her street people are just as striking as Diane Arbus's, and her compositions seem less contrived. Arbus had an agenda that is missing in Maier.

I have wondered about the ethics of distributing Vivian Maier's photographs. It seems that her intent was to keep them private, and that she did not think about being "discovered," even posthumously. As an intensely private person, I think that she would have been horrified to see these books in circulation. Yet she took no action that might have influenced their distribution, and her inaction has been a net benefit to the public.

On my next post I'll say something about Richard Feynman.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


One of the most frustrating scientific writers for me has been Steven Pinker. I concur with him in that he is a proponent of the scientific method and is critical of intellectuals as a group, particularly the anti-scientific ones in the humanities, but he then goes on to make uninformed pronouncements, like a reigning king to his court, with congratulatory pats on the back from his friend, Bill Gates. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, argues that we are following a trend that started with the Enlightenment, in which the world has gradually become a better place, and that doomsayers are too pessimistic, given the empirical data showing continuous improvements in the human condition. It is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of Pinker's views from reviews, which are inconsistent, but his main argument, insofar as I can make one out, seems inadequate. In any case, I'm not going to read this book, because I see no evidence that I would find it either informative or persuasive. Therefore, as I have done with fiction that I dislike, I will discuss Pinker at arm's length, mostly as a launching point to clarify my own perspective, which doesn't seem to match Pinker's or most of his critics'.

It is undeniable that many statistics seem to support Pinker's main thesis: people live longer, technology has made life easier, food is relatively plentiful, educational levels are higher, etc. There is a lot of truth to meliorism, the idea that the human condition can be improved by our efforts. This term may not exactly match Pinker's view, but it seems to approximate it. George Eliot used the word "meliorist" to describe herself. She was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, which is a suitable position for a realist. In the mid-nineteenth century, intellectuals were tossing around various versions of positivism, including that of Auguste Comte, and meliorism became her chosen point of view. However, Pinker seems to have concocted a rather brash argument, and there are three main caveats that I offer here: first, happiness can't be quantified outside a specific cultural context; second, the concept of "better," when applied to the human condition, is not necessarily meaningful within a Darwinian framework; and third, so-called improvements could abruptly evaporate at any time due to unfavorable circumstances.

From time to time I have wondered how people would react if you transported them from the past to the present. Those from the near past, say, 1800, might be able to absorb some of the advantages now available, but they would still have to make adjustments, which could be stressful, in much the same way that it is for immigrants currently arriving in the U.S. from less-developed countries. In their case, they would probably agree that they had made progress, but they would probably still feel somewhat uncomfortable in their new environment and not see themselves as fully integrated with American society. It is not uncommon for immigrants to return home when they have the opportunity. Those from the distant past, say, fifteen thousand years ago, would be bewildered, and might not be able to adapt at all. In their case, one can't make facile judgments about their happiness. If they were happy wandering through the forest, hunting prey, picking nuts and berries and living in temporary shelters, they would be objectively happy, and if they were unhappy living in an apartment in a city, working in a factory and obtaining their food from the local Kroger, they would be objectively unhappy. If they didn't care whether they lived to be eighty instead of forty, they might not see any benefit to increased longevity. I don't think that Pinker recognizes that happiness is relative, which means that it cannot be viewed independently from the values within individual cultures. He seems to engage in a form of cultural imperialism when he says that those who live in the developed world now are happier than those who lived in earlier times.

This criticism relates to the second criticism, in which evolution is understood not as a directed process but as a random process with no teleological aim. Though Pinker seems to avoid teleological language, the concept may lurk in his ideas. From a Darwinian point of view, life on earth is usually perfect, because the life forms that exist during any time period are the ones best adapted to the existing environment as long as it is relatively stable. Once you state that there is a process in place leading to a specific outcome, you open the door to religious interpretations, such as the presence of an "invisible hand" which guides humans toward future perfection. Given what we know of evolution, ideas like that are absurd. In a strict Darwinian sense, the main thing that has happened since the beginning of the Enlightenment is increased reproductive success among humans, which has caused the world population to grow from about one billion in 1800 to about 7.6 billion today. While this does ostensibly appear beneficial to humans, it has been accompanied by planet-wide environmental changes which are precipitating climate change and mass extinctions of other species, and I'm not sure just how wonderful population growth has been. Pinker also ignores what I call radical Darwinism, in which moral behavior, rather than indicating an advancement of modern humans over earlier ones, is itself an arbitrary evolutionary adaptation which could disappear just as fast as it arose. It seems plausible that, like many thinkers in the humanities, Pinker has unwittingly absorbed a somewhat theological position, in which morality is seen to exist outside nature, as if placed there by God. That is hardly a position that can be supported by empirical data.

My third criticism is that Pinker doesn't know where this all leads. Apparently, he isn't familiar with the phrase "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," which applies not only to investments but to almost everything other than laws of nature. Even with many signs pointing in a positive direction for mankind, there are multiple events that could change the apparent trajectory, and although Pinker may address some of them in his book, the fact is that no one, including Pinker, is sufficiently omniscient to avert all possible future disasters. I find him ignorant and arrogant in his assertion that existential risk is a "useless category," and there are certainly many academics who would agree with me.

Besides the above, I am disappointed with Pinker in that, like other psychologists I've critiqued on this blog, he seems not to apply recent research on cognitive limitations to himself or his peers. The evidence is now incontrovertible that we don't think clearly, are poor at processing large amounts of information, don't individually know much and often engage in impulsive, irrational behavior, which we can't escape because of our biological provenance. In particular, psychologists act as if they are immune to confirmation bias. Like Daniel Kahneman, Pinker seems to think that, although most people are subject to various cognitive dysfunctions, the smartest people somehow escape them, or at least are able to work around them. Beyond the fact that they are deluding themselves, they are lending support to the existence of an elite, competent class which includes them. Enlightenment Now is music to the ears of people like Bill Gates, who love the idea that they are improving the future of mankind through their philanthropic work. But are they? Although everyone would agree that Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy, how smart is he? As a distant observer, I see no evidence that Gates has any particular talent beyond coding and building a software monopoly. If he had never been born, we would still have PC's, the differences being that Microsoft probably wouldn't exist and there would probably be no operating system called Windows. Gates's main skill seems to have been to recognize a business opportunity and capitalize on it. To be sure, that was a difficult and complex task, but it seems likely that Gates is significantly less competent in other areas. The same goes for Steven Pinker outside the field of cognitive psychology. Thus, when Gates and Pinker team up, one ought to be wary of their self-congratulatory tone, which, finally, is little more than self-approving hype. I have no objection to the modest, balanced meliorism suggested by George Eliot, which accords well with my understanding of eusociality, but I become skeptical when others use similar ideas to inflate their stature.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Over the last few years, ever since I purchased a decent set of speakers, when the opportunity has arisen I have studied the popular music that I used to listen to, and I have been trying to determine how various performers from that period in my life stack up qualitatively. I started out by listening to the Allman Brothers Band, which I hadn't paid much attention to earlier, since they were latecomers, with At Fillmore East recorded in 1971, and, from a musical standpoint, I currently think that they were the best. I have also been listening to Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who died in 1990. Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits, is another good guitarist, but his albums are more obviously commercial than the others. I still prefer Duane Allman, who, in collaboration with Dickey Betts and other members of the group, made what, as far as I know, is the best live rock album ever recorded. I listened to Lynard Skynard, and still like "Sweet Home Alabama," but they were not on par with the Allman Brothers musically. I also revisited The Doors, who became popular in 1967 with "Light My Fire," and decided that although I like Jim Morrison's voice and Ray Manzarek's keyboard, they were a group of narrow interest, probably because Jim Morrison was a little crazy. I also listened to Jethro Tull's Stand Up, which was released in 1969; I became interested in that group during my hippie summer in Bloomington, Indiana in 1970, and have decided that, even though it was an innovative album, in hindsight it's good but not great. Most recently, I listened to Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, which was released in 1967 and was their breakout album. That was a significant year for me, and the first time that I took hallucinogenic drugs. Hearing it now, I still get a kick out of it, because it reminds me of the psychedelic days, when Timothy Leary was a cult figure – an era which seems to have vanished entirely from human consciousness. Surrealistic Pillow has musical limitations due to the talents of its members. In the 1960's, popular musical groups formed rapidly, and some groups had hits before they had become seasoned performers. However, with Grace Slick's voice, then-current musical innovations and cultural changes associated with the anti-war movement and the rise of drug use, it is an interesting sound and can be seen as a cultural signifier. Listening to that album is de rigueur if you want to fully understand Californian history during that period. I miss the days of long musical riffs, because the lyrics in popular music tend to be awful. Even though I'm sick of Bob Dylan and don't think that he deserved a Nobel Prize by any stretch of the imagination, he was, in my opinion, about the only popular performer who produced decent lyrics during the 1960's.

In other news, I have been wavering on what to read next. I considered reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft, but decided that, since it was published in 1792, it would be difficult to relate it to the modern world. Wollstonecraft was one of the most important female thinkers ever, and I enjoyed her biography, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon. I've ordered another short book by Richard Feynman, which I'm sure to like, but it probably won't be as good as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" I've also ordered a long biography of William Morris, which is a sign that I'm really hitting rock bottom. Given that my style might be described as "frugal ascetic," you may not think that I would be interested in fashion or design. However, I have always liked some of William Morris's designs, particularly his wallpapers. I like the architecture of Gothic cathedrals and some of the motifs in pre-Christian English art. Generally, I don't care for English artists, including those in the Bloomsbury Group, but William Morris seems to have produced some works that I can appreciate. Although you would never know it from looking at me, I probably have fashion awareness in my genes. My father's father came from a line of tailors and was a director at Liberty & Co., which apparently was Oscar Wilde's favorite store. My father's mother came from a line of hosiers, hatters and furriers. On my mother's side, although they made most of their money importing pianos, her parents later owned a ready-to-wear shop in Athens. I am tired of thinking about politics and hope that I can maintain a stream of books to read that will provide a more constructive and satisfying use of time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife II

The remainder of the book was a little tedious to read, but on the whole I have found it rewarding. Vivian Maier, from a research standpoint, is an extremely challenging topic. If a few business people hadn't chanced upon her possessions, it seems likely that no one would ever have heard of her, and the current situation, in which she is a famous dead photographer, would never have arisen. She would have been nothing more than an eccentric hoarder who was almost forgotten before she had even died. The saga continues, because copyright issues remain, the full extent of Maier's work is not known to the public, and further details about her life may yet emerge. Bannos's writing style is somewhat academic, and therefore somewhat less readable than it might have been. Structurally, the book is not chronological, so it jumps back and forth in time, rather than presenting the information in a more intelligible historical sequence. The story of her life is interwoven with her ascent as a popular photographer after her death, with grating transitions in the text. I have had to edit my previous post as various details of Maier's life became clearer to me.

Vivian Maier is particularly problematic, because she does not seem to have made any effort to forge a career as a photographer. The evidence indicates that she simply enjoyed her photographic routine and didn't care about an audience, friendships, intimacy or family life. From a strictly artistic standpoint, her work is complicated by the fact that she did not generally perform or supervise the production of prints of her photographs, leaving most of those choices to strangers whom she never met. In addition, she took thousands of photographs, and it is not known exactly which ones she thought were satisfactory or why. Her brother, Karl, with whom she had no contact as an adult, spent part of his life in a psychiatric institution, and, given her eccentricities, it would be reasonable to assume that she also had an unusual psychological profile. Nevertheless, to the extent that her photographs speak for themselves, she definitely had a photographic talent, and, as Bannos documents, she owned cameras which were state-of-the-art for the time and tried an assortment of photographic techniques in the pursuit of the particular results that she wanted, and in this respect she seems to have been no different from most artists.

Maier's adult life as a photographer falls into two main periods, based on geography. After her trip to Europe in 1950-1951, she remained in New York working as a nanny, and she became a competent street photographer, producing a large batch of photographs. In 1955, she briefly moved to Los Angeles and obtained a nanny position there. She explored the area, but apparently didn't like it, and the same year she moved to San Francisco, where she found another job. Throughout her life, one of her photographic subjects was celebrities, Hollywood stars in particular, but she didn't like Los Angeles and later disparaged it as a kind of wasteland. Apparently, she didn't like San Francisco either, and by early 1956, she had moved to the Chicago area for unknown reasons, and she spent the remainder of her life there, other than vacations. Her longest employment was in Highland Park, but she also held positions throughout the North Shore and in other suburbs.

Maier maintained great privacy with her employers, requesting a lock for her door if there wasn't one on it already, and as time passed she accumulated a vast hoard of objects, which became heavy and bulky, in one case requiring her employer to put a brace beneath her room in order to support the sagging floor. Some of her hoarding seems compulsive, particularly her penchant for saving newspapers and photographs of them. As a photographer, she seemed to have enjoyed the process more than the product in many cases, and she was skilled at stalking her subjects, usually taking a series of photographs of them in rapid succession. She spent most of her off-hours walking around with cameras wherever she went, and sometimes, on excursions, she neglected the children who were in her charge.

The most challenging biographical aspect of Maier's life is that she was secretive and had no known significant relationships. After she left New York at the age of 29, she never saw any family members again, except during a brief visit to France in 1959. There only remain anecdotal accounts of conversations she had, and sometimes she would come into contact with a person regularly without divulging her name. For example, she spoke several times to a lifeguard, who also had photographic interests, at the beach in Gillson Park in Wilmette (where I used to go). Her employers obtained varying amounts of information from her, but none of them knew her well, because she always remained private and independent. Her personal manner was often imperious, and as a nanny she seems to have resembled a Germanic Mary Poppins. In fact, though she hardly knew him, her personality may have been inherited from her father, who was a German-speaking Austro-Hungarian. She always claimed to be French, which was convenient for her vocation, but she actually was American and had only spent six years in France. In conversation, she was opinionated and condescending toward Americans. For her, New York City was culturally superior to the rest of the country. She was well-informed about the news and owned many books, but Bannos doesn't seem to know which books she read, perhaps because those were the first things to go when her possessions were sold. Retrospectively, there is no large body of information readily available about her, because she was basically an anonymous person throughout her life. Imagine the difficulties that would confront a biographer if they attempted to document an unknown person like you, who had left no written trail, had barely entered into the consciousness of others in the course of their life and was no longer available for interviews. In Maier's case there is the enormous quantity of photographs and film that themselves document her whereabouts and activities, which simplifies matters in some respects but doesn't answer all of the questions. There is a point at which the paltry accumulated anecdotes about Maier seem insurmountable and inadequate.

Bannos also had to deal with the media hype about Vivian Maier generated by promoters who didn't know much about her or conduct any serious research themselves. The film, Finding Vivian Maier, is primarily a promotional one for the benefit of John Maloof, who had been violating copyright laws along with several others in the distribution of her work. The book devotes quite a bit of space to copyright issues for this reason. I would have preferred it if Bannos had allocated more space to Maier's photographs instead. Many pages are filled with descriptions of photographs that aren't included in the book, and, with this leaving me rather frustrated, I have ordered a couple of books of her photographs in order to see them, because that is what remains of the greatest interest to me, given that any additional information about Maier is likely to be piecemeal and incomplete.