Saturday, September 23, 2017

Diary

I'm still not reading much, but I've finished my astronomy projects for the time being, and, after some social engagements and a little more stargazing, I'll probably start reading on a more sustained basis, which will provide more grist for the blog. I assume that most of my tiny cadre of readers find book discussions to be of greater interest than my "Diary" posts, since they incorporate topics well beyond the daily life of a retiree.

Cleaning the objective lens of my refractor turned out to be fairly time-consuming. Technically, I have abused the telescope by leaving it outside almost constantly for four years, with the objective lens exposed to dew on many occasions and drying each time. In the interest of not damaging the objective lenses of telescopes, conventional wisdom is that they should rarely be cleaned. However, I probably should have cleaned mine two years ago, and it had quite a buildup. Stargazing is a male-dominated hobby, and many stargazers are obsessive about their telescopes, taking adoring pictures of them, showing them off as displays of wealth and social prestige, and lusting after aspirational equipment that they can't afford, but I consider telescopes to be functional objects. Most of the cleaning solutions I tried didn't work at all, but finally I got a blue enzyme cleaner from Texas Nautical Research in Houston, the U.S. distributor for my telescope, which is Japanese in origin, and, after a few attempts and an improvised technique, it finally became clean, and without any scratches or damage to the optical coatings.

I've been watching Season 7 of Portlandia, and, as previously, the episodes are extremely uneven in quality, but there are usually some good ones. I especially liked the opening scene to Episode 5, which shows a man looking for a restroom in an office building. A receptionist directs him to one, but he can't follow her instructions and accidentally wanders back to her desk. At that point, to avoid embarrassing himself, he pulls out his smartphone and turns on an app for office navigation. Its database includes the layouts of all office buildings, municipal buildings and homes, and, like GPS, it navigates him right up to the toilet seat, with images and verbal instructions the whole way. Later, the same man is shown sitting at home on his sofa watching TV. Suddenly the app comes on and offers figurative guidance, given that he has been unemployed for 3.5 weeks. The app coaches him through the entire job-hunting process to the final interview, for which he wears headphones attached to his smartphone. When he is offered the job, the app instructs him to shake hands and make eye contact with the interviewer and then leave. This reminded me of Sherry Turkle and some of my previous posts. At the moment, this scenario looks funny, but I think it's already starting to happen. A less-funny implication of this kind of technology is that there may not be any jobs at some point. If all thinking can be done with apps, algorithms and AI, there eventually won't be much need for employees.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst II

I haven't been reading much this summer and am moving very slowly through the book. The writing style isn't as bad as I had feared it might be, and I am finding the topic interesting. By describing the biological processes behind psychological processes, a deeper understanding of human behavior becomes available, because the causal mechanisms are readily apparent. For example, where Daniel Kahneman documents "fast" and "slow" thinking, Sapolsky specifically links some aspects of these processes to hormones and various regions within the brain. The amygdala is the home of many emotional and irrational reactions that occur instantaneously, and the prefrontal cortex is the home of many deliberative processes; both regions are activated in complicated ways by hormones and pheromones. Other mammals have similar regions and processes, and human behavior is merely a recent manifestation of brain functions that have been in existence for millions of years.

Sapolsky looks in some detail at testosterone and shows that its effects are far more complex and subtle than those mentioned in common parlance. Rather than simply boosting male aggression, it serves as an amplifier to reactions and is context-dependent. In other hormones, I've only got as far as oxytocin and vasopressin and still have a long way to go. I'm not particularly literate in this subject, so this isn't an easy read. I am more interested in the implications of this kind of work than in all of the particulars. Sapolsky's discussion is wide-ranging, and I am paying more attention to his general thoughts than to the biological specifics that determine our behavior. In later chapters, which I'll get to eventually, he discusses groups, hierarchies, morality and free will, which have greater appeal to me.

The sense I get is that Sapolsky is going to demonstrate how complex all behavioral processes are, so that while it may be possible to identify behavioral patterns on a broad scale, in individual cases multiple outcomes are possible due to the large numbers of variables in operation: it is easier to predict general human behavior than the specific behavior of an individual. I don't think that Sapolsky has many philosophical proclivities, though he is familiar with the work of Daniel Dennett, so I'm not expecting much on that front. Still, it looks as if I will be able to incorporate the ideas in this book with my own ideas about human limitations and the theoretical desirability of external AI-based management for our species. For me, it is simply a matter of risk management to ensure that human errors don't lead to disastrous consequences for all of us. We ought to arrange our circumstances in a manner such that outlier groups such as ISIL or incompetent political leaders such as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump don't ruin the world for everyone. Furthermore, we need an unbiased authority to enforce limits on our freedom, such that we can't have as many children as we like or despoil the planet in pursuit of riches. These are the directions in which I would take Sapolsky's work, but he does not so far seem ambitious on those fronts.

I might also note that I view it as a responsibility of educated adults to maintain at least some familiarity with these scientific developments, because I think that is necessary in order not to engage in avoidant behavior. There is enough information available for us to collectively improve our situation, and we would be fools not to make an effort. One of the reasons why I have become disenchanted with fiction and the arts in general is that they have veered off into alternate realities in which style trumps substance, and authors take no responsibility for their own educations, let alone those of their readers. They are taking the easy way out, which never bodes well in the arts.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I

I've just started this relatively long book by Robert Sapolsky, which takes a close look at human behavior, drawing from his background in neurobiology, primatology and other disciplines. Of all the books I've read on the subject, Sapolsky comes with the best background, which is extremely multidisciplinary by academic standards. E.O. Wilson's work in sociobiology offers quite a stretch from ants to humans, though I think he's a better writer and possibly a bigger thinker than Sapolsky. There is a gradation in scientific rigor that one encounters in topics such as this. The books I recently read by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Jared Diamond are comparatively "soft" with respect to scientific rigor, because they either ignore many of the biological details of humans or gloss over them because they are not central to their research. According to reviews I've read, Sapolsky takes a hard, deterministic stance on human behavior, like E.O. Wilson, and this is the approach that I have found most fruitful. Practically all of the significant research on humans over the last few decades has occurred within the framework of biology.

This is not to say that I will enjoy reading the book. First, its length automatically causes it to flunk my concision test. Second, Sapolsky's writing style is like a presentation made by a popular university lecturer. He seems to want to come across as accessible to the clueless students clustered in front of him, and one reviewer describes him as a "hipster." When I see a male professor using "with it" language and displaying long, curly hair, I am reminded of the pot-smoking, student-seducing college professor played by Donald Sutherland in the film Animal House, and I find their pedagogic techniques more distracting than appealing. This may be an academic version of the insertion of irrelevant personal details about scientists made by journalists such Elizabeth Kolbert, and I could do without it.

Perhaps because of my own ignorance, I had thought that hard determinism was off the table in some scientific disciplines because of the existence of random events. I'm probably still not completely clear on this, but my current thinking is that the thesis of hard determinism is universally valid, and that it seems implausible to us only because we are incapable of knowing exactly how something happened in every case, and the word "random" is simply a cover for a particular, intractable kind of cognitive deficiency that we possess. The idea of randomness has always been more reputable than concepts such as ESP, telekinesis and magic, but it may actually belong in the same class. My current view is that the universe does in fact move like clockwork, but that our feeble little brains are unable to fully understand the exact mechanism for every event. We have made up secondary concepts such as mind, consciousness and God to fill in the gaps, but these only reflect our local, unprivileged status as finite entities within the world.

Even given that everything anyone does is predetermined and unchangeable, we labor under the illusion of free will and still must try to think of better ways to organize humanity. Therefore, there has been no change in my thesis that we ought to be studying what kind of beings we are and which habitats we are best suited to. We have both altruistic and destructive tendencies and seem to have evolved to coexist in cooperative groups. The end goal, I think, is not an immortal race of super-geniuses, as has been suggested by some futurists, but the creation of a sustainable habitat which allows all people to live the kinds of lives for which evolution has prepared them.

This book is jammed full with information, and I will attempt to pick out anything that seems worth discussing.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Diary

I've finished most of my astronomy equipment projects for the time being. I sold one item to a man in San Jose and another to a man in Belgrade, Serbia. The only remaining project is the cleaning of the 130 mm objective lens of my refractor, and I'm awaiting the arrival of cleaning fluid from England. The viewing conditions, however, have remained poor all summer. Orion is visible again – if you're up at 4:00 A.M.

This hasn't been a normal summer for me. We just had another round of workmen, who were hammering, drilling and sawing for a week in the process of repairing water damage and constructing a covered entry for the front door. William didn't like the noise either and spent all day sleeping on a chair in the basement. We also have had extremely cool weather. On September 1, the temperature hit 39 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a frost warning. In me, this seems to trigger a biological adjustment to winter, which isn't coming yet, and it throws me off. The tomatoes aren't doing as well this year, but are still producing adequately.

I think I'm suffering from a mild case of cabin fever for several reasons. First, I haven't left the state once this year, and its allure is wearing off. After six years, the native Vermonters seem less interesting to me than previously. Although they are generally more relaxed and pleasant than city-dwellers, like most of the rural people I've known they are socially retarded. Besides the usual New England reticence that I've come to expect, I find that they don't know how to communicate well and don't understand people who are not part of their immediate social group. Some of the people who have lived in this neighborhood for over 30 years have hardly ever spoken to each other. If it hadn't been for the recent migration of well-educated people to the state, it would probably still be a conservative backwater. In fact, parts of Addison County have an atmosphere similar to Southern Appalachia, complete with inbred populations that have become mentally deficient over the course of time. All of the people I know seem happy to live here, but, if you look closely, the native Vermonters are not well-integrated with the recent arrivals, and they comprise separate cultures to some extent.

Although my social needs are very limited compared to those of most people, it doesn't help that Anne, despite being healthy and energetic, gravitates toward people in the 75-100 age group. Admittedly, there are some advantages to that group: they don't have anything left to prove, are generally better-mannered and more articulate than younger people and are easy to get along with. However, to me they seem like relics of the past, and I often wonder how capable they are of understanding subsequent generations – not that subsequent generations are worth understanding. I might prefer people who are more physically active and less disease-riddled, but I haven't come across many and am making no effort to find them. As it is, I am unlikely to meet any through Anne, who is far more active socially than I am and my primary conduit to the outside world. Normally I am easily satisfied by the smallest amount of high quality social interaction, but under the present circumstances I'm hardly getting even that. It's beginning to look as if my primary social venue will be funerals – there has been one already.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence III

I looked over the remainder of the book and found some things of interest, but there are limitations to correspondences compared to fiction or memoirs. As Lawrence's literary career advanced, he additionally befriended Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley and Alfred Stieglitz, among others, and maintained a fairly large correspondence, which, however, frequently pertained to publishing matters or minor travel anecdotes. He was surprisingly energetic and alive for a man of wavering health, and it is difficult to keep track of his peregrinations in this book. During World War I he and Frieda stayed in England, living in Cornwall and Derbyshire. From 1919 to 1922 they lived in Sicily and traveled to Sardinia and Switzerland. From 1922 to 1924 they traveled to Ceylon and Australia and settled in Taos, New Mexico, and they then traveled to Mexico, New York, Los Angeles, England, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. In 1924-1925 he spent time in Mexico City but left when he became ill. They spent most of 1926 in Italy. In 1927-1928 they visited France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Germany, finally settling in the South of France in 1929, where he died the following year.

It isn't clear to me why he and Frieda traveled so much. Part of it had to do with their finances. Free housing provided by a wealthy patron seems to have been one of the motivating factors behind moving to Taos. There were also legal and other pressures which may have kept them unusually mobile. While living in England, Frieda was accused of being a German spy. Censors found passages in Lawrence's novels pornographic, particularly in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Lawrence became one of the most controversial writers of the century. He also wrote poems and plays and painted, and some of his paintings were seized because they were considered obscene. However, Lawrence also seems to have liked travel for its own sake, and it constituted part of his philosophy of living to the fullest and experiencing the world.

I am always surprised by people like Lawrence who are prodigious yet are still able to produce excellent work. However, I think that in every case high productivity eventually leads to lower quality. Lawrence seems to be bound by his early experiences in England, and he will mainly be remembered for his English novels. I did not find Aaron's Rod, which is set in Florence, particularly well done, and it seems likely that most of the fiction derived from his travels is not as good as his major novels, all of which are set in England. If you realistically consider how good fiction is produced, it soon becomes apparent how limited any writer is likely to be: you can't simply travel around and churn out top-quality writing pertinent to each location, because, during a short period of time, no individual can absorb a deep enough understanding of an unfamiliar environment to capture its essence, regardless of his or her skill as a writer. As I mentioned earlier, George Eliot made the same mistake, but it was limited to just one novel, Romola, which was set in Renaissance Florence. I have no desire to read Lawrence's novels set in Australia or Mexico.

Like every intelligent writer I know, Lawrence's initial reaction to America, when he arrived in Taos, was negative. He wrote to Else Jaffe, his sister-in-law, in 1922:

...I think America is neither free nor brave, but a land of tight, iron-clanking little wills, everybody trying to put it over everybody else, and a land of men absolutely devoid of the real courage of trust, trust in life's sacred spontaneity. They can't trust life until they can control it. So much for them – cowards! You can have the Land of the Free – as much as I know of it. – In the spring I want to come back to Europe.

Later, in 1925, he wrote to Kyle Crichton, an American journalist:

I have been thinking of what you say about not having had the courage to be a creative writer. It seems to me that may be true – America, of all countries, kills that courage, simply because it sees no value in the really creative effort, whereas it esteems, more highly than any other country, the journalistic effort: it loves the thrill of a sensation, but loathes to be in any way moved, inwardly affected so that a new vital adjustment is necessary. Americans are enormously adaptible: perhaps because inwardly they are not adjusted at all to their environment. They are never as American as a chipmunk is, or as an Indian is: only as a Ford car or as the Woolworth building.

That's why it seems to me impossible almost, to be purely a creative writer in America: everybody compromises with journalism and commerce. Hawthorne and Melville and Whitman reached a point of imaginative or visionary adjustment to America, which, it seemed to me, is again entirely lost, abandoned: because you can't adjust yourself vitally, inwardly, to a rather scaring world, and at the same time, get ahead.

Obviously I was delighted to read the above lines.

Still, Lawrence embodied some aspects of the culture of his period that no longer interest me. He was writing at a time when Freud, Jung and psychoanalysis were trendy, and artsy people were interested in Eastern religions and native cultures, prefiguring the 1960's – all of which I think led nowhere. I have been trying to determine what, if anything, was so great about Frieda, and I can't come up with anything. The impression I have is that she was sexually uninhibited with Lawrence, which offered him something that he had not found with British women. She was socially skilled and reasonably well-read, but both of them were opinionated, headstrong and argumentative, and they often had loud fights that disturbed their friends and acquaintances. Rather than poring over biographies or letters, the answers may have been available if Lawrence had lived to write memoirs. As it is, I am inclined to see Frieda as a hedonistic woman who abandoned a conventional life and her children in order to have a good time. Lawrence seems to have had no interest in children, and this offered her an assurance that she wouldn't be weighed down again. In her case, however, I don't see an artist as much as reveler, and she left behind nothing of note. Sometimes it is easy to feel nostalgic about the now nonexistent artistic and literary colonies of the past, but I sense that, had I been there, many weaknesses would have been in full view.

This experiment in literary correspondences was not a complete failure, but I don't think that, in general, they are likely to be reliable enough to become a fixture of my reading habits.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence II

This book is probably more appropriate for academic research than for a casual reading, but I am finding it informative in several respects. Because it consists of Lawrence's actual letters, one gets a more visceral sense of the progress of his life than one would elsewhere. It also provides a fine-grained picture of how his literary career developed and the individual interactions that accompanied it. One sees how the tone and style of his letters changed according to the recipient. The letters to his old friends read more spontaneously than those to literary insiders and aristocratic acquaintances, and he is probably adjusting his presentation according to the requirements of each relationship.

Lawrence's output of high quality writing is impressive compared to that of more recent writers. He began to produce fiction under his own name in 1908, and his first novel was published in 1911, followed by a second novel in 1912. Sons and Lovers, the third, was published in 1913, a short story collection in 1914 and The Rainbow appeared in 1915. What is striking to me is how intimate the artistic circles were in England at the time. When an author received some attention, virtually everyone in the literary community became familiar with them and they were soon socializing. A brief chronology: he was an unknown writer who left his teaching position in 1912 due to poor health; by 1913 he was corresponding with Lady Cynthia Asquith; by 1914 he was corresponding with Amy Lowell (an American poet); in 1915 he was friends with E.M. Forster and corresponding with Lady Ottoline Morrell and Bertrand Russell.

Besides the relative frankness about sexuality in his novels, Lawrence probably appealed to the literary elite in England because of his relationship with Frieda, who came from an aristocratic German family. She divorced her husband in Nottingham and gave up her three children in order to marry Lawrence, and, especially by English standards, they lived a bohemian lifestyle. They never had much money to spare and moved often to cheaper parts of Europe in order to extend his small income.

In his better letters, as in his better novels, Lawrence comes across less as a thinker than as an artist who is committed to his somewhat utopian vision of the world. He expresses some of this in a letter to E.M. Forster in 1915:

In my Island, I wanted people to come without class or money, sacrificing nothing, but each coming with all his desires, yet knowing that his life is but a tiny section of a Whole: so that he shall fulfil his life in relation to the Whole. I wanted a real community, not built out of abstinence or equality, but of many fulfilled individualities seeking greater fulfilment. 

But, I can't find anybody. Each man is so bent on his own private fulfilment – either he wants love of a woman, and can't get it complete, or he wants to influence his fellow men (for their good, of course), or he wants to satisfy his own soul with regard to his position in eternity. And they make me tired, these friends of mine. They seem so childish and greedy, always the immediate desire, always the particular outlook, no conception of the whole horizon wheeling round....

I do feel every man must have the devil of a struggle before he can have stuffed himself full enough to satisfy all his immediate needs, and can give up, cease, and withdraw himself, yield himself up to his metamorphosis, his crucifixion, and so come to his new issuing, his wings, his resurrection, his whole flesh shining like a mote in sunshine, fulfilled and now taking part in the fulfilment of the Whole.

So I feel frightfully like weeping in a corner – not over myself – but perhaps my own resurrection is too new, one must feel if the scars are not there, and wince – and one must see the other people all writhing and struggling and unable to give up.

This tortured reasoning pervades Lawrence's early works, and I had similar thoughts when I was that age – 29 – though by then my expectations of others were already becoming quite low. There is something of the visionary in him, which adds to his appeal. Lawrence's struggle is of a type that one rarely encounters in the U.S., or perhaps anywhere.

I am going to attempt to move more quickly through this book, because I have a couple more lined up and don't want to dwell on this one forever.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Diary

There has been a lapse in my posts because I haven't had much to write about and have been preoccupied with other things. I recently purchased some new software and hardware for my Dobsonian telescope, which I can now operate with my Android smartphone and find millions of objects automatically. Of course, actual viewing conditions don't permit that, and there has been about one good viewing night all summer, which allowed me to get my best view so far of Saturn. I prefer fainter objects such as galaxies, which require optimal viewing conditions. Because of all the trees in the yard, there is just one spot, with a V-shaped opening between the trees, where I can see objects near the southern horizon, and those objects are only visible in it for a few weeks before moving out of range. Jupiter is gone and Saturn soon will be. I had wanted to see if I could split the companion star of Antares, but I didn't get a chance. One of the things that is interesting about astronomical observation is that after a while you get the sense that you are living inside a giant mechanical clock. I'm also spending time selling online some old equipment that is no longer needed.

Another occupation, which I don't do much anymore, has been finding an old friend. Even though I don't expect much to come from it, I enjoy the hunt. He is a high school friend named Evans, which makes him hard to look up. The last time I saw him was in about 1973, and I haven't heard anything from him since. I invited him to my wedding in 1974 and he didn't show up. Since I couldn't find him directly, I began to look into his family. His father was the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, and he had two sisters. Although his parents died long ago, both of his sisters married husbands with less-common surnames, and their weddings were announced in the New York Times. One sister is now the chief curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. I sent her an e-mail at work, but she didn't respond. The other sister, I just found, lives in Massachusetts. She owns a vacation house in Vermont that is advertised on VRBO, and I was able to contact her through that website. It turns out that her brother is alive and living in Miami. I will be e-mailing him soon.

In other news, I noticed a footprint in the mud in the woods behind the garage that did not belong to us. Out of curiosity, I purchased a game camera and positioned it to point at the back of the garage in order to capture potential intruders. So far, the main star of the ten-second videos recorded has been William, who can be seen coming and going from the woods at night, occasionally stopping to sniff the camera, and once carrying out prey. There have been raccoons and a fox, but no bears or deer – or people, other than us. I think the footprint was probably left by our neighbor, Fred, who is not a likely burglar.

I was recently contacted by an anonymous reader of this blog who expressed his/her appreciation. That encourages me to continue writing it, but is not necessarily enough to go on forever. I refuse to write solely on the basis of wanting to write, and believe that I must at least write something that might be useful, without being repetitive. Many of my general ideas have already been expressed, and new readings, though they may always provide a source for additional subject matter, are not necessarily easy to find. Very little fiction appeals to me, and finding good nonfiction is haphazard in my case. There isn't much to say about current events, since, for example, the fact that Donald Trump would turn out to be an incompetent president was already likely before his inauguration. The main story about Trump's legacy may be how long he was permitted to remain in office, and here we are, still pulling teeth. If you have any suggestions regarding the future direction of this blog, I am always open to ideas.

I will continue on the topic of D.H. Lawrence when I have more to say.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence I

I am enjoying this book, edited by James T. Boulton, but am reading it at a very slow pace. A more convincing picture of Lawrence emerges than you are likely to find in a biography, as you witness him reacting in real time to events in his life. However, the narrative is highly fragmented, as many letters are not included, and the full context of each letter is not always apparent. So far, most of the letters have been to his female friends, and I've just reached the point when, at age 26, he falls head-over-heels in love with Frieda Weekley, the wife of one of his professors at University College Nottingham.

He writes touchingly and eloquently on many occasions, as in a letter to Blanche Jennings in 1908:

I am very sorry you have been dipped so deeply in the blues. Let me drowse you out a little sermon, will you? I will labour it out like the church clock slowly lets fall the long hour. It has just struck twelve. I wonder if I can keep awake. I think, you know, hedonism won't wear. I think life is only a joke when you are sure it's most serious and right; when you know the great procession is marching, on the whole, in the right direction, then, to be sure, the creatures in the menagerie are comical, and their capers are too funny. But before you can see the fun you must be earnestly certain of the wonder of this eternal progression – The little lozenge lights are sliding round my pencil quaintly; but the sun they come from is keeping on its grand course. (If I write a bit canting, it is because I am almost dreaming.) My poor little philosophy is like that. I think there is a great purpose which keeps the menagerie moving onward to better places, while the animals snap and rattle by the way. So I laugh when I see their grimaces, if these do not hinder the march. I am sure I can help the march if I like. It is a valuable assurance.

That same year he moved to Croydon, near London, for a teaching position, and he describes the difference from rural Eastwood, his hometown, in a letter to May Holbrook:

Townspeople are indeed glib and noisy, but there is not much at the bottom of them. They are less individual, less self-opinionated and conceited than country people, but less, far less serious. It is with them work, and after work, conscious striving after relaxation. In Eastwood, people work, and then drift into their small pleasures; here they pursue a shallow pleasure, and it leaves no room for a prolific idleness, a fruitful leisure. Do not lament a town so much.

During this period he is writing fiction in pursuit of a literary livelihood and befriends Edward Garnett, the influential critic, essayist and dramatist (and husband of translator Constance Garnett). Garnett recognized his talent and boosted his early career. Unfortunately, Lawrence's health is already wavering, and he is showing signs of the tuberculosis that kills him at age 44.

I find Lawrence's writing fresh, vivid and honest, and I hardly think his more-famous contemporaries, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, are worth reading (I gave up on To the Lighthouse a few months ago). Although I am not by nature as sensuous as he is and do not revel in physical descriptions the way he does, he manages to combine that with substantive thoughts and feelings, creating an uncommonly powerful effect. Unlike most modern writers, he emphasizes expression, which is the real purpose of language, more than style, and I think that he is probably one of the best English writers ever. As I proceed through this book, I'll update you as seems fitting.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Diary

I am unable to wean myself completely from literary writing, and, since I find most of it unsatisfactory, I have been looking into new areas and am venturing into literary correspondences as a possibility. This may not be promising, because letter-writing is dead, and if you want to delve into it you have to read the letters of long-deceased people. Thus, whether you like it or not, you may end up as an escapist who idealizes the past. I have started a volume of letters by D.H. Lawrence and hope that it will meet my expectations. Although I try not to be a sentimentalist, it is difficult for me not to think that the environment for educated people in the West was far better from about 1880 to 1914 than it is today. In 1880, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy were still alive, Impressionism had just emerged, and Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and D.H. Lawrence were either young or about to be born. I don't deny that the social changes that have occurred since then have made it impossible to maintain the earlier conditions, but it is difficult for me not to think that there has been a decline in the quality of writers, artists, thinkers and politicians since then. If the ten people whom I just mentioned were alive now, they would, through no fault of their own, most likely not become prominent in the ways that they did then. From my perspective, economic, social and political evolution since 1880 have produced an environment in which it is much harder for those kinds of talents to flourish. While these are highly complex situations which can't be summed up easily, they are probably related to population growth and economic competition, with the former producing an increase in survival-based human migrations and the latter producing a widespread acceptance of lower quality, with price dictating which products sell in mass markets. Thus, while the standard of living has been going up globally, the richness of culture at the high end has deteriorated; people such as Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks came to dominate the arts, Donald Trump became president, and thinkers and scientists have more or less vanished from the public imagination.

The thought occurred to me that an alternative to seeking order in the world by escaping to the past is to become a complete fatalist. This may be less implausible than it seems. If Sean Carroll, the physicist, is right, and we live in a deterministic universe, we could interpret that as a kind of assurance. In this view, everything that has occurred in the last 13.8 billion years – or perhaps much longer – resembles a movie script, with no editing possible and the casting completed: we may even be living in a rerun. The worst thing that can happen is that you are stuck in a role or scene that you dislike, but, since you could never have done anything different, there isn't much reason to get upset. Tolstoy, Churchill and Einstein got the good parts, and you didn't, and nothing could change that. There is no possible outcome within the universe in which I am not typing this sentence now. Of course, this raises a number of questions. If you have no control over your mental processes, why worry about them? While some might argue that such thoughts could lead to amorality, immorality, irresponsibility or laziness, the reality is that we are hard-wired and socialized not to engage in most negative behaviors without even thinking about them: it is more difficult to choose to act badly than you may think. For that matter, philosophers could stop wasting their time pondering free will, consciousness and ethics, and libertarians could calmly be told to grow up. It is true that we have evolved to adopt certain illusions, but we have also evolved to recognize how we delude ourselves. Thus, the idea of fatalism is not self-contradictory or untenable.

On my next post I will have something to say about D.H. Lawrence.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone II

The remainder of the book is somewhat entertaining, but there is little in it that is new to me. It briefly covers many topics that I've mentioned on this blog, such as politics, financial decisions, intelligence, AI, groupthink, science, experts, and the social effects of technology, with a focus on ignorance and cognitive limitations. There is example after example of common misunderstandings and mistakes in thinking. In a recent national survey, only 47 per cent of the participants disagreed with the statement "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do," and only 47 per cent agreed with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." There are a couple of famous quotations that I like:

Socrates, commenting on a political expert:
I reasoned to myself, as I left him, like this—"I am actually wiser than this person; likely enough neither of us knows anything of importance, but he thinks he knows something when he doesn't, whereas just as I don't know anything, so I don't think I do, either. So I appear to be wiser, at least than him, in just one small respect: that when I don't know things, I don't think that I do either." (Plato, Apology)

Winston Churchill on democracy:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.

For a novice reading popular nonfiction, this book may be of some interest, but for me it all comes to naught. As predicted in my last post, the conclusions are far from edifying. Like Daniel Kahneman, the authors are sympathetic with libertarian paternalism, which I think at most might assuage the guilt of the rich, who would credit themselves for attempting to encourage smarter behavior on the part of the less-competent. The final message is a murky one, something to the effect of "if we all work together as a community, everything will be fine." The gist is that a person doesn't have to know much, as long as people cooperate. However, it is already established that people don't always cooperate, and, furthermore, that even those who seem to possess good judgment make decisions which, over a long period of time, may be to their own detriment. These latter concerns are not really addressed. Sloman and Fernbach are self-deprecating at times – a plus – but there is no real heavy lifting to be found in this book. While they recognize that their findings suggest risks to our species, they stop well short of providing a grave warning or recommending further study, as has the organization CSER. We are supposed to muddle through again – but will we succeed?

It occurs to me that, at a theoretical level at least, one may assign costs to cognitive errors made at high levels within society. At the moment there is quite a lot of concern about the presidency of Donald Trump among educated people, and the efficacy of the democratic process would have been an obvious avenue for exploration by Sloman and Fernbach. Their choice to ignore it does not reflect well on them as thinkers. Trump is a good case in point, because his judgment is widely questioned, and, in my opinion, his election reflects a dangerous turn in the public's collective expression of their stupidity. There are different ways that one might assess the costs to society of the Trump presidency. In the simplest terms, Trump could trigger a devastating nuclear war. That may not be likely, but Trump may well have a significant deleterious effect on global efforts to reduce climate change. Trump's ignorance of economics could potentially come at a cost of trillions of dollars to the American economy, exacerbating social unrest and destabilizing society. Sloman and Fernbach stop short of making recommendations regarding how society might avert these potential disasters by enacting a system that would prevent someone like Donald Trump from gaining access to such power.

As I've said, democracy, though it once had appeal in that it counterbalanced the abuse of power and provided individuals with a sense of self-determination, is not well-suited to the modern world. Increasing complexity has created a large stage for potentially disastrous outcomes that result from human cognitive deficiencies. Thus, as it becomes technologically feasible, I advocate the transferal of governance to artificial intelligence which operates in a semi-autonomous fashion. The gravest threats to the medium-term stability of the world population are all man-made, and there is no indication in this book that world leaders, no matter how well they cooperate, will be able to resolve them.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone I

This book, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, delves into areas of cognitive psychology not covered by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While there is some overlap, and Kahneman is cited, Kahneman emphasizes the error-prone nature of human thinking, particularly with respect to formal reasoning, whereas Sloman and Fernbach emphasize the deficiencies in knowledge apparent in individuals. They provide what I think is a more approving description of the causal reasoning used by humans and explain its origin in biological terms, showing how other species also seem to use generalization models based on empirical evidence, though at a less sophisticated level than we do. The main point, however, is that we know far less than we think we do, and we are adapted to a hive-like mentality in which our survival is ensured by interdependence.

The writing style is more informal and breezy than that of Kahneman, and although some research is cited, the tone is less academic. As with Kahneman, the "research" sometimes seems a little contrived, with hokey questionnaires filled out by volunteer college students. However, I agree with all of their main points, and, as was the case with Kahneman, find them obvious. Sloman and Fernbach seem more sensitive to biological explanations than Kahneman, and I am disappointed that there is no mention of eusociality or of E.O. Wilson, which might have taken the book in a direction that I would have found more interesting. I'm halfway through, and it looks as if it will end in a few platitudes, more of the self-help variety than I would like, in accordance with Kahneman's method.

Because the books both seem circumscribed and cautious, while at the same time suggesting that they contain deep thoughts, I am reminded of the joke that was popular in the late 1960's and 1970's:

"To be is to do" – Socrates.
"To do is to be" – Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do" – Frank Sinatra.

(In case you don't know, the joke derives from the lyrics to the song, "Strangers in the Night," which was a hit in 1967.) I 'm not sure exactly why it is, but I always get the impression that the findings of psychological research are fairly obvious, and that the only reason that one might have for bringing them up would be to develop some further hypotheses about the human situation – which never occurs. Therefore, I have the feeling that, like Kahneman, Sloman and Fernbach are going nowhere with this despite their portentousness. I may be wrong, and I'll fill you in on my next post.

I am beginning to get a sense of the sociology of psychology. If you look back at the history of psychology, although many of its early practitioners, such as Freud, Jung, and even Skinner, had significant insights, the methodologies that they invented do no hold up well as science according to current standards. Psychology takes on a more serious aura when it is linked to neurology or AI, and that is exactly what cognitive science tries to do. Thus, there remains a nebulousness that has always existed in psychology, but it is no longer possible to succeed in the field without using measurements and throwing in a few scientific-sounding words such as "cognition." Although it does seem that significant advances are being made in the field, my perception is that its practitioners are usually not big thinkers, and their spin on the subject may just be career moves on their part.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Diary

Because I had a DNA test done, I joined Ancestry.com for six months in order to follow up on it, and my membership will be expiring soon. During this period I have spent a lot of time on genealogy and have found out a few new things about my family history. Unless you have famous or wealthy ancestors, it is difficult to find much detail, and most of your ancestors appear as names, places and dates. However, if you keep at it, some pictures begin to emerge, in my case through the trades of the males over multiple generations. Then, as you approach the present, if you know about your grandparents and great-grandparents through direct family sources, you get some sense of the social changes and adaptations that people in your family made over the course of a few hundred years.

I've had the most success with the Wayre family background of my English grandmother. I've traced it back to about 1670 in the town of Spofforth, Yorkshire, which is a few miles west of York, near Harrogate. In the early documents, they spelled their name "Whare," and, beginning with my great-great-great-great grandfather, William, who was born in 1749, they changed the spelling to "Wayre." William may have been one of the first in the family to leave farming. He became an apprentice hosier in 1769 and had a shop on Stonegate in York for many years. By 1804, he was a stocking manufacturer, hatter and furrier. Many of his sons and grandsons continued in his line of work, with shops in Hull, Leeds, Nottingham and London. His great-grandson and my great-grandfather, Arthur L'Estrange Wayre, was the last Wayre furrier and lived in London. The family story is that Arthur's first wife died when her nightgown caught fire. They were married for seven years, during which time she produced five children. His second wife, my great-grandmother, had another six children. On the London wedding photograph that I posted earlier, he is the third person from the left on the back row.

Besides filling in the family tree, I've also had some contact with distant relatives. I emailed a second cousin in England whose grandfather, my great-uncle, corresponded with me in 1977. She sent me a photograph of my grandparents at her parents' wedding in 1961. I've also been in touch with a more distant Wayre relative who provided some genealogical details that were new to me. In addition, the DNA test has put me into contact with one distant relative of each of my English grandparents. It's a little ludicrous to think that you've discovered a significant family connection, but at least these are people with the same hobby as you who may have some useful information. So far, all of them have been in England. Eventually I may hear from relatives on the Armenian side.

I've started another book, but have not read enough of it to comment yet and will on my next post. I have reached a point at which I can find very little that I am able to read with much enthusiasm – this is a cyclical event that I run into every once in a while. The problem I have is that I prefer contemporary writing, and within that category the books tend to be either too commercial or too academic for me. Looking through the books reviewed in the New York Times, nearly all of them were written for mass audiences. If they are fiction, I tend to find them formulaic and lacking in insight; if they are nonfiction, I tend to find them too contrived and dumbed-down to take seriously. I would guess that at least ninety per cent of the bestsellers from either category specifically target readers who are not selective about what they read and can be attracted by advertising. Some of these books can be all right, as was the case with Collapse, but that was exceptional because it included original work and speculation by a thoughtful author. I was less impressed by Thinking, Fast and Slow, because it consisted mainly of the rehashing of old research without a critical evaluation of its relevance to the current state of affairs in the world. As for fiction, besides all of the qualitative problems I've mentioned in the past, there remains the greater question of whether it is still a valid form of art: consumer art is an oxymoron to me, given that the people who sell it are not qualified to make that distinction. As far as academic books are concerned, if I chance upon one that I like, I might enjoy it, but most academics these days seem to be poor writers and to operate in such narrow spheres that that they are unable to think beyond their fields of expertise, or their books may be more technical than is appropriate for a casual reading.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Diary

Since finishing Daniel Kahneman's book, I haven't read much. I have been waterproofing the basement, touching up the paint on the house, watering the tomatoes, cutting the grass, repairing a broken window and tinkering with my large telescope. The telescope is very good for seeing faint objects, but that can only be done if the viewing conditions are excellent. So far this year there have been very few clear nights. Furthermore, faint objects require an absence of other light sources, and even though we have relatively little light pollution here, the moon has been up, making the viewing of faint objects difficult. Some amateur astronomers eventually give up and concentrate on the moon, since it's much easier to see than anything else, but I find it boring. I've considered getting a solar telescope for looking directly at the sun, another easy target, but I prefer the night sky and more distant objects.

I've been thinking about Kahneman and don't know quite what to make of his take on the relevance of his research. On the one hand, he is publicizing the particular shortcomings of human reason that have been discovered by research, and on the other hand he seems to want to haphazardly attach this information to traditional economics, including economics that uses rational models. I may be missing something here, or perhaps this has been discussed elsewhere, but it seems as if Kahneman, rather than taking rationalism in economics off its pedestal, is elevating it to yet a higher level than it occupied previously, creating a caste of super-economists who are able to incorporate his findings into even more sophisticated models than the ones that they had been using. With Kahneman in mind, I am aware of no writings that bring into question the legitimacy of economics as an unbiased field or that question its validity as a predictive tool with respect to broad social outcomes. To my knowledge, Kahneman's work has merely added a branch to economics, and it is not perceived as a threat to the logical integrity of the field. Since Kahneman doesn't take up this topic in his book, I am forced to think either that he has been lazy about analyzing the implications of his work or that he is intentionally obfuscating the incongruities between his research and the traditional practices of economics. It's impossible for me to say for certain, but it may be that Kahneman is reluctant to attack economics, because his best known and most cited works have been tied to that field rather than to psychology. I saw no indication in his book that he had any criticisms of the economic and political models currently followed in the developed world, and therefore it seemed that the book finished well before taking up any topics that I would have found interesting.

Although I'd rather not pay attention to politics, I feel at least some responsibility to follow what is going on with Trump, because this always has the potential to develop into a perilous situation. It seems now that, even if he is an absurd fit, he may actually be able to grow into the job. The whole trick for a president is to get elected, which does not necessarily have to do with anything else. It would be possible for him to do nothing for the remainder of his term and remain in office if collusion with the Russians can't be proven. The irony is that what should be considered the hardest job in the world can be done by almost anyone who has the equivalent of a high school education. You can get by with little knowledge of history, politics, law, economics or science, and you don't have to write or speak in complete sentences or spell properly. You can even lie blatantly and fire people whom you don't like for any reason without any consequences. You can shock and offend other world leaders with impunity. No one will care if you fill top positions with friends and family members. If you set things up well enough, all you will have to do is make a few public appearances and sign documents. Others can come up with policies, write speeches for you and represent you in various functions, so you don't really have to do anything if you don't want to. You may in the end be considered an ineffectual, incompetent or corrupt president, but that may not become the consensus until after you've left office. This seems funny to me after Obama, who always seemed very busy and under stress: if he had just acted busy and stressed-out, he could have been exactly like Trump behind the scenes and no one would have known the difference. The mythology that has built up around the presidency of the United States of America is ludicrous by any reckoning.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow IV

As with several of the books I've read recently, I became bogged down in this one and grew tired of the text. Nevertheless, it covers an important topic and is worth the time. Part IV adds a slew of additional concepts and research, emphasizing ideas related to behavioral economics. I did not feel that Kahneman did a good job integrating all of the threads that occurred throughout the book, and I could only gather that Part IV was the section that would interest economists. For example, he contrasts prospect theory, which is based on his research, with utility theory, which has dominated economics for at least a century. The gist, especially in this section, is that humans do not always make rational decisions, and that the traditional idea of the rational agent in economics seriously misrepresents reality. As in the earlier sections, I had a hard time sustaining an interest in the research. For example, he places a lot of importance on what is known as the Allais Paradox:

In Problems A and B, which would you choose?

A. 61% chance to win $520,000 or 63% chance to win $500,000

B. 98% chance to win $520,000 or 100% chance to win $500,000

Most people, including economists, pick the 61% chance in A and the 100% chance in B, and these are the incorrect answers based on purely rational criteria. This is not intuitively obvious, and Kahneman explains the reasoning in detail. I thought it was a rather technical and roundabout way to make a point, and it seemed more like a lesson in formal reasoning than a substantive lesson in psychology. From my point of view, it is obvious that people would have difficulty with a problem like this, because there has been practically nothing in our evolutionary past to prepare them for it. Throughout most of the history of mankind everyone was illiterate, and currency and formal mathematics did not exist. If you look into your own ancestry, you will probably find illiterate ancestors within a few generations. There is nothing odd or unexpected in these results.

The significance of behavioral economics derives almost entirely from the fact that classical economics is based on an assumption that has no empirical basis, namely, that humans are rational agents. To be sure, we are capable of making rational decisions, but much of the time we do not. I am glad that behavioral economics came along, because it is a corrective to a flawed methodology, but I still get the feeling that it is too little, too late. I am reminded of Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which also caused a furor in economics but was derived from basic research that could have been done decades ago. In Capital, Piketty showed through straightforward historical data that capitalism tends to produce wealth inequality, which contradicts the almost universal belief among economists that economic prosperity raises the boat for everyone; as an economy advances, the standard of living may improve for most of the population, but the wealth gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. Piketty also went on to suggest the rather obvious but often loathed solution: raise taxes on the rich. From these two "breakthroughs" I get a visceral sense that much of what passes for economics is a borderline scam, and therefore, rather than marvel at the works of Piketty or Kahneman, I wonder why someone didn't do it fifty years ago.

As for Kahneman himself, there are aspects to his position that I find too cautious and not particularly admirable. In the closing chapter he describes the general thrust of behavioral economics as offering a more realistic but messier approach to economics than the Chicago school, which is based on the idea that we are rational agents who do not make mistakes. The Chicago school, he says, lends itself to the politics of libertarianism; though he doesn't say so, it is also compatible with the delusional world of Ayn Rand, who believed in the "great man" theory, repudiated by Kahneman in an earlier chapter, in which a few talented people run the world and are fully entitled to the benefits of their superior skills, with the less-talented riding on their coattails. Libertarians generally advocate free markets and reduced intervention by governments regardless of the social problems that crop up. Kahneman, recognizing that people are at best only partly rational, is sympathetic with the views of Cass Sunstein, who advocates what is known as libertarian paternalism, in which ordinary people receive some protection from the rational agents who exploit them. Though his intentions seem good, Kahneman does not closely examine libertarian dogma, and his position seems to be that the political system should incorporate some sort of economic noblesse oblige in order to have a fair society. There is a little hypocrisy in arriving at this view after devoting hundreds of pages to demonstrating how everyone, including the so-called rational agents, makes errors in their thinking processes. As he describes it, there is little to distinguish libertarian paternalism from the divine right of kings, in which a monarch takes some responsibility for the well-being of the serfs. Here I think Kahneman is being deferential to his laissez-faire economics colleagues, and in the process he seems to become intellectually dishonest. If sloppy thinking is the intractable problem that Kahneman has made it out to be, the continued adherence to familiar modes of governance is almost guaranteed to produce the scenarios described by Jared Diamond in Collapse.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow III

The book is moving too slowly for my taste, but it is still worth reading for the research it describes. I am getting the feeling that Kahneman is the beneficiary of his collaboration with Amos Tversky, who was probably the brains behind Kahneman's Nobel. Tversky died in 1996, and Kahneman received the award in 2002. He mentions Tversky so often that you can't help but think that he somehow feels guilty, though their relationship may also have been close. Kahneman is hardly an idiot, yet so far in the book, which is padded with personal anecdotes, he doesn't seem to have a good grasp of the implications of his work. I suppose that I should have expected this, since "bestseller" is usually the kiss of death for any book if you're seeking substance, intellectual rigor and good exposition.

Part III, Overconfidence, meshes with many of the points I've made on this blog. Kahneman considers overconfidence a feature of System 1. Generally, pundits and experts have no idea what they're talking about, and everyone is bad at predicting the future. It has been demonstrated that well-designed algorithms outperform professional opinion in several fields. Kahneman makes some clear statements that are worth quoting:

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases. Because optimistic bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic....

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality – but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.

Kahneman portrays optimism as the driving force of capitalism, with an endless stream of delusional thinkers trying and usually failing in new businesses, but with successes occurring frequently enough to feed a growing economy. Oddly, his analysis seems to end there, without a hint of the need for further discussion. He says that even the most successful corporate executives have no idea what the future will bring, and I wonder what he would have to say about the risks associated with the election of incompetent politicians. Donald Trump perfectly fits the book's model for optimistic, delusional thinkers who overestimate their skills, yet he has been democratically elected to the most powerful position in the world. Are election results to be accepted regardless of the ignorance that they display?

One area in which I disagree with Kahneman somewhat is in his analysis of investment decisions. He takes the orthodox economics position, in which stock selection is seen as a fool's game, and he recommends buying indexes as a sounder choice. There have been simplistic arguments raging for decades on this topic, and I still think that a case can be made for active investment versus passive investment in indexes. All stock market indexes contain companies whose financial prospects are worse than those of other companies. It does not necessarily require luck to identify some of them and exclude them from an investment portfolio. For example, The United States Leather Company, which was a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it originated in 1896, could have been identified as a poor investment whose exclusion would have provided a better return than the index before it was removed in 1905. It is true that most stock investments do not on average outperform indexes, but there are a few actively managed mutual funds that consistently outperform their indexes for decades at a time, and this does not appear to be the result of luck. Identifying which actively managed funds to buy is difficult but not completely impossible. There are advantages to the lower fees charged by index funds, but that is only one of many factors to consider. On the whole, I think that the most significant obstacles to sound stock investing are the sheer number of products available and the shortage of good advice, which both serve the interests of the financial services industry. Index funds come in many forms and have added to the confusion, and it isn't easy to know which ones to buy. Kahneman also embraces the efficient market hypothesis, which I consider to be one of the major oversimplifications in the field of economics. Ironically, Kahneman seems to be associating himself with a group of experts who don't know what they're talking about, in this instance making his own advice paradoxical.

I am currently reading Part IV, which covers the more mathematical aspects of Kahneman's work, and it is followed by his conclusions in Part V.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow II

Part II of the book, which runs from where I left off to the midpoint, is titled Heuristics and Biases. These chapters look at various errors made in System 2, and Kahneman's research usually consists of written tests given to volunteer college students. The main result is that they do not think well statistically, and they tend to produce, for example, causal explanations for events even when there is insufficient information to support their conclusions. Rather than apply valid statistical methods, they manufacture story lines which add a coherence that may not truly be present. Slight differences in the way in which a question is presented have a major impact on how it is answered even if those differences have no relevance to the answer. There is glee in Kahneman's tone when graduate students with training in statistics make the exact same kinds of mistakes that less-educated people do.

Having previously read a little on this topic, I am somewhat familiar with the errors he cites. The most interesting one to me is regression to the mean, which, he says, is beyond the comprehension of most people. I think about this in relation to investments when deciding what the future value of an investment might be given the history of its valuation. The crux here is randomness, and Kahneman correctly notes that people have a hard time with that idea. Rather than accept events as random, they produce stories which provide the illusion of coherence, hence their predictions tend to be inaccurate. It is an important point that luck and chance are undervalued compared to skill and talent in ordinary discourse. This becomes the subject of Part III, Overconfidence, which I've just begun.

Part II was a little too professorial for my liking. The questionnaires administered by researchers usually had an artificial quality which I thought detracted from their usefulness. They intentionally invoked various innuendos to prompt incorrect answers. As far as I could tell, Kahneman was mainly interested in proving the existence of specific kinds of mistakes, and he was indifferent to how important or unimportant getting the right answer may have been to the test participants. I felt that, because there were no negative consequences for study participants who didn't think clearly, they had little incentive to make much of an effort. As a practical matter it may be difficult to design studies in which the participants are engaged, but I think the results would be more meaningful if there had really been something at stake, and there wasn't. It is one thing to speculate on what the nonexistent "Linda" may be doing with her life based on a very sketchy description of her, and something else entirely to choose a spouse or a career, even though the same kinds mistakes might occur in all of these decisions. "Linda" is an imaginary being, which hardly places her on equal footing with a spouse, someone who might produce your children and occupy a significant fraction of your life.

So far in the book, Kahneman has mainly been explaining the research and concepts in his field and hasn't seemed interested in its implications. He is friends with Cass Sunstein, the law professor and behavioral economist who advocates rational policy-making, but he refrains from siding with him on the injection of rationality into public life. He will probably expand on his ideas later in the book, but for the moment he seems content to let poor judgment wreak havoc on the world in the name of democratic principles. If he retains this attitude, I will have to part company with him at some point.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow I

This bestseller by Daniel Kahneman, published in 2011, covers psychological research from the last few decades, focusing on human cognition. The title refers metaphorically to two different systems that the human brain uses to process various kinds of information. Fast thinking, or System 1, pertains to situations which are appraised almost immediately, without reflection, in an intuitive or unconscious manner. Slow thinking, or System 2, pertains to situations which require a conscious analytical process in order to make an assessment. There may be some physical basis regarding the places in the brain where these functions occur, but that has not been the emphasis. As far as I've read, much of the discussion has been about the interplay between the two systems.

The model presented provides a realistic description of how everyone organizes reality and goes about their day. The System 1 method is partly instinctive and partly experiential. When new situations arise, the human brain is incapable of conducting a detailed analysis each time, and through an evolutionary process we are hard-wired to react to some experiences with no thought or hesitation. Humans possess an innate ability to interpret, for example, facial expressions and to generalize from past experiences, presumably because reacting more or less correctly rather than not reacting at all was once essential to survival and still is to some extent. System 1, as I interpret it, is a shortcut process which seems to occupy our awareness most of the time. System 2, as I interpret it, is the cumbersome process that includes real thinking, and most of us are not doing it most of the time. Kahneman describes the balance between the two systems that arises due to the limited capacity of System 2 to produce timely results.

It is easy to recognize these processes in yourself and others. My father seemed very much a System 1 person: he did everything extremely quickly, from speaking to reading to doing mental arithmetic, but he was not reflective, and in the long run his intuitive side, which seemed to suppress System 2's thoroughness, may have led to his downfall. My former philosophy professor, Roger Gustavsson, who died last year, was almost exclusively a System 2 person; to him, everything was part of a complex, convoluted problem that he couldn't quite work out. During the last few years of my correspondence with him, I was unable to fully communicate to him some of the ideas that I've presented on this blog, because his frame of reference for everything, perhaps including his personal life, was analytic philosophy. This tendency made him the odd man out when he was a member of a committee, because his method of analysis did not accord with that of anyone else. It has occurred to me that humans, as a survival matter, have to act with incomplete information, or else die. Thus, System 1 is closer to the life we know. If children had always relied exclusively on System 2 observation and logical analysis for making decisions, surely many of them would not have reached adulthood or produced offspring: their lives would have been spent in limbo deciding what to do next.

Researchers have devised numerous tests to measure how these systems work, and although System 1 generally gets the job done, it is also haphazard and frequently inaccurate. It exists mainly because System 2 can't carry much of a load. System 1 encourages us to think that whatever is familiar is probably safe, which is not always the case. It also causes us to overvalue negative experiences, and you can easily identify that in yourself and others. Often people behave with undue caution based on the false assumption that conditions are the same as those which once produced a negative outcome. System 1 is also responsible for causing us to prefer political candidates whose faces have certain shapes. No doubt System 2 has limitations, but, as far as I've read, the only one mentioned is that it's lazy: it tries to send the work back to System 1 whenever possible.

This is a useful and informative book, and I will comment further on it as I progress through it. One criticism I have so far is that, like most of the popular psychology books I've read, everything in it seems obvious. I become amazed that thousands of academics in psychology departments all over the world are conducting research, and that this it all that they can come up with. More urgently, I am concerned that they seem to take little responsibility for the uses to which their findings are put. There is ample evidence now for the existence of various irrational currents in human behavior, and, with the exception of self-help books, the main applications seem to be in economics, resulting in Kahneman's receipt of a Nobel Prize in that field. Economists are often engaged in assisting commercial entities in the pursuit of money, and the research in this book has long been used to influence consumer purchasing decisions. If you have ever wondered why you repeatedly see the same ad for a product that is of no interest to you, thank Kahneman and his colleagues. Beyond economics, it has become commonplace among political operatives to improve their chances of winning elections through the use of similar techniques. A more desirable application for mankind would be the highlighting of the readily observable negative impact of irrational choices on collective human existence. I am, for example, disinclined to support capitalism or democracy, because they currently tend to produce inequality, overpopulation and environmental destruction. Psychologists would provide a better service to us if they suggested ways to improve the current democratic decision-making process, which might reduce the destructive effects of capitalism. Irrational policies may not be an inevitable product of government in a rationally managed future. To expand the application of Kahneman's metaphor, most of the governments in the world are currently operating on System 1 rather than on System 2.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Diary

Because we are having porcelain floor tiles placed in the sunroom, the house has been noisy all week, and we currently have to climb a ladder to a landing in order to reach the second floor without stepping on recently-set tiles. This has reduced my reading considerably. The spring has been unusually cold, but has not curtailed progress in the garden, and now, thanks to climate change, it will suddenly become extremely hot for a few days, and I'm installing a window air conditioner.

I didn't say anything about short fiction in my last post, and will do so briefly now. Much of the literary fiction that currently appears in the U.S. consists of short stories. It has become a separate form of fiction, in which techniques that differentiate it from novels are employed. I attempted to read it for several years, generally gave up, and recently read one collection that I didn't like much. My thinking on the kind of literary short fiction that is being written now is that the form exists primarily in order to fit within single issues of literary journals or magazines such as the New Yorker. I am no longer going to read it, because the form does not generate the kind of narrative density that I believe makes fiction worthwhile. It also lacks the distinctive virtues of poetry, which if nothing else permits the distillation of sentiments. Short stories, I think, are a kind of fudge, because they lack the space for the development of pointed realism. As I've said, characters become stick figures and the authors cannot be held accountable for shoddy work because the medium asks so little of them. The rise of the literary short story is probably also an example of the intrusion of market forces into the production and dissemination of fiction. In the nineteenth century, novels were often serialized in magazines, but they take up more space than contemporary publishers can tolerate, for economic reasons. A dud short story may have no effect on the circulation of a magazine, whereas as a serialized dud novel might substantially reduce it. On the academic side, there are probably advantages to emphasizing short stories over novels due to the relatively shorter time span necessary for their composition. I think that a good novel is much harder to produce than a passable short story, and this favors the short story in both literary publishing and writing programs. In some circumstances a long short story may possess the virtues of a good short novel – this was sometimes the case in the nineteenth century – but based on my recent reading experience, I don't think the contemporary literary short story is a form worth bothering with. There is promise in some short fiction that is produced elsewhere, such as that of Julio Ramón Ribeyro, but I'm not making a point of finding it.

The Trump drama drags on at a tedious pace. I was not impressed by James Comey's testimony, because there was nothing factually new in it. However, he has been the first major public figure in office during the Trump administration to openly express his concern about Trump's sleaziness, and if this catches on it may accelerate Trump's departure. The only benefit that I can find to Trump's presidency is a much-needed improvement in late-night TV comedy. Trump also seems to have invigorated the news media for the first time in several years, and it has almost come as a shock to me to read meaningful editorials again.

In other news, I have been closely following the conviction of Steven Avery since the airing of the Netflix "Making a Murderer" series in 2015-2016. Ordinarily, criminal proceedings don't interest me much, but this case is unusual, because Avery apparently was innocent and was framed, is still in prison, and his current attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has done an astounding job defending him, as is evident in this document. The forensics behind his case demonstrate how difficult and costly it can be to conduct a proper investigation and how hard it can be to overturn wrongful convictions in criminal cases.

I've rounded up some books on cognitive psychology and will be commenting on them next.

Monday, June 5, 2017

On Fiction II

I have been making an effort especially since I retired to read a variety of writings, and since I began this blog in 2014 I have more or less given up on the Internet as a primary source, except to identify which books to read. Although I tend to like serious topics and enjoy good nonfiction, I find it mentally oppressive to get a nonstop barrage of technical or academic writing and need some artistic works in the mix. One of the main themes of the blog has become the unsatisfactory nature of literature, fiction in particular. This may just be a fetish of mine, since I am not easily entertained and become concerned when I notice deficiencies in a work. For an experienced reader like me, it is impossible to take a work purely at face value and blindly accept whatever premises an author uses to create his or her work. Their premises and motives may be conscious or unconscious and may be unsatisfactory to me in a manner that causes me to reject their book outright.

When I read something that is supposed to possess artistic merit, I am not easy to please. This isn't because I consider myself a connoisseur, but because I expect the author to be reasonably talented and to have made a substantial effort in the production of his or her book. That sounds simple enough, but I have found that it is rarely the case. There are many forces working against the production of the kind of fiction that I like, and I'll attempt to identify some of them. Most of the intractable problems related to fiction have to do with the wide social context in which novels are written. They are usually written in a cooperative effort between agents, editors, publishers and authors, and professional writers have limited control over this process. In effect, their preferences are subordinated to commercial expectations unless they have managed to become popular by some alternate route. Thus, the thematic content of most fiction is dictated by what a few people think will sell, just as the thematic content of most film is dictated by the film industry. I have the same problem in finding good films.

There is an additional force working against good writing that occurs most obviously in the U.S., namely, the habitual conformity of the population. To be sure, there are some regional differences in the country, particularly with respect to the outlooks that dominate in red and blue states, but compared to Europe, which in a comparable area includes multiple historical ethnicities, languages, geographical barriers and countries, the U.S. is remarkably uniform in culture. To make matters worse, many of the largest corporations in the world are located in the U.S., and they have become expert in the manipulation of the expectations of the population in the interest of profit. As I've said, even the literary end of fiction in the U.S. seems like a niche market controlled by specialists in academia and publishing, and a track has been created for aspiring writers to follow through M.F.A. programs. Writers' conferences such as the one here at Breadloaf in Middlebury are venues for the exchange of business cards.

Drawing from the ten novels I've most recently read, I'll say something about the ones I find best and worst, which I hope if nothing else will show the criteria that are important to me. The best, I think, is Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai. What I like about it is the mood created by the author, along with a penetrating psychological aspect that captures the psyches of the characters with basic realism with respect to their outlooks, and that he includes a few lighthearted moments in an otherwise gloomy setting. It is instructive to compare Satantango with the good but lesser work, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's world is unrelentingly gloomy and his characters are dark to the core – so dark in fact as to render the novel unrealistic. Compared to Krasznahorkai, McCarthy is incapable of writing with psychological subtlety. Thus, instead of Irimiás, the itinerant opportunist, we get Judge Holden, the implausible superhuman demonic figure. Though McCarthy may equal Krasznahorkai in the lyricism of his descriptions of the landscape, the psychological underpinnings of his characters are comparatively primitive and weak. An interesting facet of fiction that I have come to recognize is that its authors are trapped by the cultures in which they live, thus American blandness makes it more difficult for American authors to produce fine works compared to authors who live in culturally richer regions such as Central Europe.

Another favorite is The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. The best part of that book, I think, is the interaction between the female characters. It seems that de Beauvoir understands the women in her milieu extremely well and depicts them with some precision, such as I have not seen in American fiction. I also like the sections covering her relationship with Nelson Algren, which are only partly fictionalized. For whatever reason, I find women more interesting than men, perhaps because they often seem to have more nuanced lives and a broader range of emotions. The main problem I have with The Mandarins is de Beauvoir's subservience to the male characters, which I later found corroborated by her life with Sartre as described in her memoirs. Most of the book is wasted on man-stuff, which I find uninteresting. For all her feminism, she capitulates to the male chauvinist pigs.

This last point brings to mind a more general problem that I have with male novelists. My views on Darwinism extend far down into the actual behavior of living people, and I am tired of male aggression, which turns up everywhere, including in novelists. What men often do, regardless of their vocation, is dominate and attempt to impress, the purpose of which, whether they know it or not, is to improve their chances of successful breeding. There is a tendency in male novelists to present themselves as more omniscient than they really are. They pretend to understand the world better than they actually do by filling their books with excesses in facts or ideas that do not necessarily improve upon their primary narratives, and their hubris often results in characters who display a psychological deadness that puts me to sleep. Although I like the writing of Michel Houellebecq in some respects, the grand theorizing in his novels is actually rather superficial, and you end up experiencing the Houellebecq persona or brand rather than the best possible writing. Houellebecq has positioned himself as a cultural phenomenon and, besides writing poetry, exhibits his photographs as an artist in that sphere. He has also starred in a fictional film about himself, "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq," a minor but amusing effort. I found Mathias Énard comparatively annoying in Compass, not for the ideas or prose, but because he pointlessly crammed in many irrelevant facts that contributed nothing to his paltry narrative. I felt that the novel lurched from one distraction to another and hardly cohered at all, and that it would be just as well to read random passages from an encyclopedia. When they write well, men can deliver compelling narratives, as in Sons and Lovers or Madame Bovary, but they more often resort to gaudy showmanship, perhaps on an instinctive basis. The male competitive drive sometimes, but not always, gets in the way of good writing.

For this reason, I tend to favor female writers such as George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir, but I still have difficulty finding many to my liking. In the context of modern living, the conditions aren't auspicious for a writer like George Eliot to appear. When she wrote, writing fiction for a living was not considered a vocation, and she came to it almost accidentally, with an unusual amount of encouragement from her partner, G.H. Lewes. Were she alive today, she would probably attend college and pick a more stable and reliable career. Those conditions apply to most women in the developed world now, and becoming a novelist would have to fall low on the list of potential vocations for those who are sensible. If you exclude the works by various minorities that emphasize their cultural backgrounds and hardships, a form that doesn't generally interest me, though I thought Texaco, the novel by Patrick Chamoiseau, was excellent, that leaves a pool of upper-middle-class brats who self-selected to become writers and obtained the appropriate educational credentials. Judging from my readings of several successful female and male writers from this group, don't expect much from them.

Because of my failure to find enough fiction that I enjoy, I have turned to poetry and memoirs. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck there either. I was able to find a few poems that I liked and even developed an appreciation of Emily Dickinson, but I usually have to read at least a hundred poems to find one that I like. I liked most of the memoirs that I read, but the good ones are rarer than good novels. Most of the best memoirs are written by novelists, and their memoir-to-novel ratios are low. If there aren't many good novels, there are going to be even fewer good memoirs. Under these conditions I will henceforth be reading very little fiction, but I will keep my eyes open.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Blood Meridian III

Other than the language, I did not find much to like in Blood Meridian. McCarthy took poorly-documented historical events that were chronicled by Samuel Chamberlain and reimagined them for his literary purposes. There was in fact a criminal group of scalp-hunters led by John Glanton which included a man named Judge Holden. Through some agreement with Mexican authorities, they were paid for the scalps of Indians in northern Mexico, and later they moved on to Arizona and California. In Arizona they took over a ferry for a time and robbed and killed passengers who were traveling to California. Several of the characters, including "the kid," a runaway from Tennessee who serves as the protagonist, are made up. Most of the action throughout the book consists of extreme violence. The Apaches attack, kill and mutilate everyone in their path, and the Glanton gang robs, kills, rapes, scalps and beheads people wherever it goes. Throughout most of the book it is difficult to identify with any of the characters, because they all seem amoral, selfish and violent, holding no loyalties and mistrusting each other. Towards the end, after most of the characters are dead and the gang has disbanded, the narrative opens up, with a protracted, intermittent dialogue between "the kid", ex-priest Tobin and Judge Holden.

Holden is by far the most sinister character in the book and is obviously intended to be interpreted as Satan or a demon of some sort. He has many skills, is conversant on countless subjects, and offers silver-tongued aphorisms and quasi-philosophical thoughts that seem completely out of place, all the while murdering innocent people, including the young girls who satisfy his pedophilic appetites. He also seems to possess superhuman physical characteristics with hints of immortality. McCarthy uses Holden and Tobin for a vague theological debate, and this didn't interest me at all. As in The Road, McCarthy seems concerned about the depravity of human existence in relation to the presumed existence of a deity, and since I don't presume the existence of any deity, the heart of the novel as a theological meditation is of no interest to me.

I find it more fruitful to examine Blood Meridian within its literary context. In that sense it is the brilliant apotheosis of the American Western, which McCarthy has taken to its logical extreme with no apologies, showing, I think, an artistic courage that few could muster. Rather than adopting the conventional narrative, in which cowboys behave rather poorly at times, he portrays his outlaws as brutal killers with no mitigating characteristics. Furthermore, his killers are not presented as aberrations and perhaps open a window to a much darker society than the one in which we imagine ourselves living. McCarthy effectively blows the roof off conventional Hollywood romantic nonsense about the Old West. However, he can still be seen as a genre writer. Blood Meridian was published in 1985, four years after the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter as a character in Thomas Harris's novel, Red Dragon. Though I doubt that Thomas Harris is as talented a writer as McCarthy, both Hannibal Lecter and Judge Holden are early examples of the intelligent, well-educated, psychopathic serial killers that continued at least up to Patrick Batemen in American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, which was published in 1991. That there was money to be made with novels depicting socially polished, cold-blooded serial killers was well-established before McCarthy wrote this book. I think the interest in this type of character may have originated with the real Ted Bundy, who was first arrested in 1975. Of course, there are much older precedents for satanic figures, but those usually have to do with the selling of souls, which doesn't apply in this case. McCarthy reprised the psychopathic serial killer with the less talkative Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men in 2005

Since the bar is set so low in American literature, McCarthy ranks near the top. In the U.S., authors can still write novels that are completely lacking in psychological subtlety and no one will notice. Although I don't like much of it, his novels are certainly more interesting than ones about women who are unhappy with their husbands or boyfriends or men who are sexually bored with their wives. After sampling them, I don't see any point to reading novels by Philip Roth or Don DeLillo. Works by Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen are also unappealing. In this environment, McCarthy may be the best living American novelist. My current foray into literature seems to have run its course, and I'll sum up my thoughts in my next post.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Blood Meridian II

This isn't a particularly long novel, and I would have finished it by now if I had been more excited by it. Thematically it is similar to The Road: it is another road trip in desperate times, but with a different set of circumstances and characters. As in The Road, the language and atmosphere have an archaic, almost biblical quality, suggesting that humans are brutal, inscrutable creatures struggling to survive in an inhospitable world which may or may not be watched over by a God whose intentions, if any, remain unclear. McCarthy's linguistic abilities strangely remind me of Proust, because the strength of both is in the use of language more than in observation. Proust chose to document the lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and McCarthy chose, in his later works, to document the lives of soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Mexicans of the Old, Early and recent West. In my view, neither author is particularly good at capturing the essence of his subjects, and their skill resides in the expert depictions of the surfaces that interest them. While Proust luxuriates in describing the material circumstances of the social climbers within his milieu, and his linguistic excesses mirror the material excesses of their daily lives, McCarthy's terse descriptions labor to capture the material conditions of crude, simple people who are attempting to survive in brutal environments.

A reader of fiction is probably better off maintaining a higher level of credulity than I am able to sustain at this stage in my life. I think much of the following that certain authors generate can be ascribed to the social environments of their readers. If an author "speaks to you," he or she is probably speaking to you and your friends. Proust, I think, speaks to multiple generations of critically deficient aesthetes. McCarthy, I think, speaks to laconic male Americans who like the outdoors and read the Bible while they were growing up. When I become sufficiently bored with an author, my mind wanders, and their motivation for writing the book becomes my primary interest. In McCarthy's case, we have a person with exceptional abilities, but, because he is introverted and somewhat misogynistic, he can't write a standard bestseller; he hasn't lived a normal life with a family and he spends most of his time alone. He has found a subject matter that requires little social knowledge and can be presented as something exotic to a narrow group of avid readers. You can probably rule out blacks and women, because he uses the word "nigger" unsparingly, and the women in his fiction tend to die off quickly without expressing themselves. In The Road, the principal female character dies by suicide before the story begins. In Blood Meridian, one of the first women to appear is an old squaw who is shot in the head and scalped by a white man without ever uttering a word. To me, McCarthy is somewhat justified in employing such techniques, because they were probably a necessary part of his development as a writer. Similarly, though I am not enthusiastic about his penchant for gratuitous violence, it may have been the only way that he was able to express his linguistic talent. As it is, in the current literary environment his success is limited by his masculine emphasis, his indifference to female sentiments and his general political incorrectness regarding Native Americans and other minorities. He seems to have a low opinion of mankind in general, which cancels out some of the political incorrectness, but he still loses points for not being upbeat about women and minorities.

The only other Cormac McCarthy work I know is No Country for Old Men. I saw the film, didn't particularly like it, and won't read the book. Thematically it seems similar to the books discussed, with the added twist of a drug deal. Though the Coen brothers tend to ham up their films, I think McCarthy's works are ill-suited to film in general, because the medium doesn't capture McCarthy's strongest skill, language. For the same reason, I felt that the film version of The Road was a failure. In my view, well-written novels shouldn't have film adaptations, because the results are always unsatisfactory, in the sense that film doesn't capture literature and only results in a perverse visual representation of it.

I am going to plug away at Blood Meridian and make a final comment when I finish it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Diary

I'm still not reading much but will continue on Blood Meridian and comment on it later. I seem to be experiencing a slight malaise whose origin I am attempting to identify. This isn't anything like depression and manifests itself as a temporary slowdown that shifts me away from my customary focus. First, there is spring, which diverts my attention to outdoor maintenance and growing plants. Second, there is William, who has come to be somewhat demanding. Third, there is the reading of fiction, which, in a predictable, cyclical fashion, gradually pushes me to a saturation point. And fourth there is what you might call Trump dysphoria: the feeling that something is terribly wrong in your environment that needs to be addressed.

The spring part is the most familiar and the least disruptive. As I've written, I enjoy the increased isolation that accompanies winter and regret its loss when warm weather arrives. Winter is a time of year when I can happily be preoccupied with my thoughts with the least amount of distraction. On the other hand, there is something to be said for seasonal changes, because they force you to make adaptations in the absence of which you might begin to stagnate. Philosophically, I think there are advantages to involuntary external forces that discourage the development of static outlooks. I am accustomed to moving to a different location every few years and experiencing seasonal shocks, two circumstances that require reorientation and stave off presumptuous over-confidence. Psychologically I would feel that something were wrong if I lived in a static environment, and I prefer occasional jolts over which I have little control. The seasonal changes in Vermont are far more dramatic than in, say, San Diego, and though they can be distracting, they have a beneficial therapeutic effect.

William, as I said earlier, is hardly an adorable, cuddly house pet. Although he is affectionate at times, doesn't mind being picked up and purrs a lot, he still seems like a wild animal, and sometimes I think he's not that different from a pet fox. We've discouraged him from sharpening his claws on furniture by providing two scratching posts, but he prefers the furniture because it gets our attention when he wants to go out or be fed. We've tried, with limited success, to retrain him by activating alarms when he scratches the furniture. Anne uses a small personal safety alarm and I use a loud megaphone which has a setting that sounds like a police siren. So far these have had only a slight effect. He has nocturnal habits and usually stays out all night and sleeps inside during the day, but he is very active when he's awake and goes in and out often. It is 3:00 A.M. and I just let him in for a snack. He has become less of a problem with respect to catching prey, partly because I have made it more difficult for him to catch birds and partly because the rodents have evacuated the vicinity of the house. We have a new neighbor with a cat, and he spends much of his time defending his territory. Since I am loyal and feel responsible once a bond is established, William remains a significant distraction, because I had become accustomed to limitless free time.

When I go through bouts of reading fiction I have a tendency to get overdosed, impatient and progressively more critical. My recurring thought is that fiction is an artifice, and that its authors play shell games in which every shell is empty: the pretense is that there is some hidden reward, but the reward never materializes. For example, Cormac McCarthy produces some beautiful sentences:

They moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains. They came to know the nightskies well. Western eyes that read more geometric constructions than those given by the ancients. Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite.

Yes, Orion looks like a kite, but it doesn't rise in the southwest – it rises in the east and sets in the west like everything else. There is a point where I become impatient with even the best evocative language, because there are always plainer and more accurate ways to say the same thing. It has become a regular pattern for me to get a sense that a novelist is employing various forms of subterfuge in order to insinuate arcane knowledge that is nowhere to be found in their book. In my view, any writer, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, has an obligation to write with as much clarity as he or she is capable. I'd rather not pick on Cormac McCarthy, because he's truly a good writer, but this criticism certainly applies to Mathias Énard in Compass. After finishing Blood Meridian I may have to take a long hiatus before returning to fiction.

And finally there is Trump. I remember 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected: I was flabbergasted and hoped that it was a fluke that was unlikely to recur. With Trump we have a disastrously incompetent president who makes Bush look comparatively good. In the Sunday New York Times there was an article on Trump accompanied by an image of him as a giant trampling the White House and breaking the Washington Monument like Godzilla. Although I'd rather not think about things like this, I can't escape the feeling that something is seriously wrong, and the fact that this problem isn't being addressed as a national and international crisis brings into question the viability of the entire American political process.

By the time I've finished McCarthy and started on nonfiction I should be in a better mood.