Friday, June 23, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow II

Part 2 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 3, Overconfidence, which I've just begun.

Part 2 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 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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Blood Meridian I

I've read a little of this novel by Cormac McCarthy and am not sure when I'll finish it, since I haven't been reading much lately. Within the American literary world, McCarthy is a unique figure, because he rose to prominence almost completely outside the literary grid: he didn't graduate from college, doesn't teach or do readings and hardly ever gives interviews. For that matter, he isn't interested in the literary fiction of others and doesn't read it. He is now 83 and was not well-known as a writer until he was about 60. I had never heard of him before The Road, which was published in 2006. His path to success is far from the norm today, though it was fairly common fifty or more years ago. In his case he has developed a voice unlike that of any other, and his writing style stands out markedly. He has been dogged and uncompromising in how he goes about writing, and such a procedure has differentiated him from the pack considerably. The Road and Blood Meridian are of the highest caliber in American fiction.

The story has a historical basis and describes the activities of a violent group in the American southwest during the mid-nineteenth century. McCarthy is known for his depictions of violence, but much of his skill resides in his use of language. He attempts to replicate vernacular from actual historical periods and takes a minimalist approach to punctuation, producing fictionalized environments that seem strikingly real while also unfamiliar and strange. His formative years were spent in Tennessee, and apparently he was influenced by William Faulkner, though I think he is a better writer. His emphasis on violence may be off-putting to many readers, but to me he is a renegade who successfully rebels against the prettified version of reality that appears in most fiction. The worldview that emerges in his novels veers towards deep ontological pessimism, which I consider an improvement over the shallow, boredom-inducing depression that crops up in standard bourgeois fiction.

McCarthy's comparative indifference to immediate career advancement and his interest in non-literary subjects have provided him with materials that enrich his works. He likes spending time with scientists and has an office at the Santa Fe Institute. The apocalyptic world described in The Road probably has a basis in the study of nuclear winter, and even if McCarthy lacks the scientific background to understand all of the details, his friends, such as Murray Gell-Mann, can certainly help him out. McCarthy wrote the cover story for the latest edition of Nautilus, and I see that he has interests similar to mine. The article is about the nature of the unconscious, and how it operates independently from language. For most literary people, the world begins and ends with language – even though thoughts and ideas can originate and exist independently from it. I was gratified to see someone besides me say that humans are similar to chipmunks. McCarthy points out that chipmunks have a rudimentary language that they use to describe specific kinds of predators – ground-based or aerial – when one is approaching.

While McCarthy doesn't tend to produce characters who exhibit a high level of sophistication, which is something that I look for in most writers, I am willing to put up with him because he writes so well and his dark vision is hard to find elsewhere – even when it reflects aspects of reality that we ought not ignore. I'll have more to say on this book later.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Diary

Milosz's writing style is engaging, but his subject matter is frequently of little interest to me, so I don't have much to say about the book. To Begin Where I Am is a collection of essays which tend to focus on religion and poetry, two subjects that don't excite me much. While my sensibilities are similar to Miloz's, he seems too genteel and reticent at times, and I get the feeling that I am reading someone who lived centuries rather than decades ago. It also doesn't help that his frame of reference seems to be Poland, a country well beyond my personal experience. I had hoped that more of the book would be about his life in America, and though he does mention it, the context is usually professional and academic.

It is possible that Milosz adopted an attitude, which seems plausible given his background, in which he refrained from biting the hand that fed him. Certainly he was a survivor, and whether it was a deliberate strategy or not, stylistically he comes across as restrained and polite where others, myself included, would be blunter. Nevertheless, he does manage to say what he thinks is important, but perhaps a little less forcefully than I would prefer.

The essay that interested me the most, "Against Incomprehensible Poetry," was written while he was editing A Book of Luminous Things, my favorite book of poems, and concludes as follows:

Average people feel and think a great deal, but they cannot study philosophy, which would not offer them much comfort in any case. In truth, serious problems reach us by means of creative works, which on the surface appear to have only artistry as their aim, even though they are freighted with questions that everyone poses to himself. And it is here, perhaps, that in the wall surrounding poetry for the elect a gate opens up, leading to poetry for all. I will be satisfied if my attempt at defending poetry against narrowing and desiccation will be recognized as one of many attempts that can be made.

Passages like this mean a lot to me, because they express the importance of art beyond its role as a subject for study or as a source of entertainment or prestige. His conception of art remains obscure in American culture.

Milosz also comments on a few poets with whom I'm familiar. He seems to like Robinson Jeffers, whom I also like, though he isn't a favorite. I concur with him that Robert Frost was not "the greatest American poet of the twentieth century." Frost, he says, is "cold." However, I did not feel that Milosz was nearly as expansive as he might have been as a cultural critic, and therefore found the book a little disappointing. In his life he had twice escaped repressive communist regimes, so perhaps it makes sense that by the time he arrived in the U.S. he was as a matter of course not about to rock the boat.

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The Trump presidency has been so much in the news recently that I should say something about that. One positive aspect of it has been the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France: French voters probably feared the prospect of a Trump-like president there. It remains to be seen whether Macron will be a competent leader. In the U.S., it looks as if Trump's administration may implode. The evidence increasingly points to Russian connections and attempted cover-ups. The most plausible explanation is that Trump's business empire depends on hidden Russian financial backing, and that, with or without Trump's direct knowledge, Russia planted several Russian sympathizers high up within his administration. While fellow Republicans have been trying to use Trump to advance their political agendas, his credibility will eventually become so damaged that they will no longer be able to support him without heavy political costs.

In my mind, the absurdity of this situation also applies to Russia. Putin has been playing a dated Cold War game because that is all he knows. The fact is that, since the eighteenth century, world power has been a function of economic dominance. Because Russia's economic prospects are marginal, Putin's disruptive KGB tactics in a sense make him seem as out of touch with reality as Trump. You can give Putin some credit for undermining the U.S. political system, but this will surely have no long-term effect on world history. If anything, the short-term result will be that American politicians in high office will be more closely scrutinized for foreign influences. The disastrous Trump administration may also set back the Republican Party several years, allowing the Democratic Party to make significant gains, which seems to be the opposite of Putin's intention. In any case, I am looking forward to the exit of Trump, whose skills seem limited to unscrupulous self-enrichment, reality TV performances and golf.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Diary

I've been reading To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, by Czeslaw Milosz, and am not sure at this point how much I'll write about it. Some of it repeats from his memoir, Native Realm, which I commented on earlier. At the moment I am finding memoirs slightly oppressive, because they draw you back to a distant past which is only partially remembered, and much is irretrievable. When I try to remember my own past in detail, I soon find it frustrating that I can't remember, say, the name of an elementary school teacher. Straining to recall something that I haven't thought about for fifty years can induce in me a state similar to claustrophobia. Our brains didn't evolve to become huge repositories of information, and an unexpected dysfunction may emerge when one obsesses about one's past. It may be safer and more productive to weave a simple narrative about it and leave it at that.

In Milosz's case, his life had been severely disrupted, and he was aware enough to lament what he knew had been lost. With his poetic sensibility, he reminds me of Dylan Thomas in A Child's Christmas in Wales, though with a more adult, less playful emphasis. Unlike Dylan Thomas, he experienced a life that was spent mostly in exile, and although Paris may not have seemed too far from home, the U.S. certainly did. I respect Milosz because he struggles with meaning and looks at his life more seriously than most writers, even ones with similar backgrounds. Take, for example, Vladimir Nabokov, whose privileged life in Russia was ruined by the Russian Revolution. I was not impressed by Lolita when I read it long ago, because I thought it took a needlessly cynical position on the U.S. and was psychologically shallow. If it hadn't been a novel about pedophilia written by an author with a Russian-sounding name and good academic credentials, I don't think it would have become popular. The impression I have of Nabokov is that he resented having to work for a living, despised Americans, surrounded himself with sycophants and was too self-important to be a good observer. I may be wrong, but I'm unwilling to read any more of his books to find out. Another memoirist, Barack Obama, wrote Dreams of My Father and received critical acclaim. He too experienced disruptions in his life, but they were on a minor scale. He is neither as skilled nor as insightful a writer as Milosz and most likely wrote the memoir in order to embellish his image prior to his entry into politics. I probably won't read his post-presidential books.

There are several essays in Milosz's book that I haven't read yet, and I may or may not comment on them individually.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Diary

One phenomenon that occurs with me and seems to be less common in others is the periodic complete loss of interest in an activity that I had previously found interesting. This first occurred when I was an undergraduate student majoring in philosophy. I somehow managed to define myself as someone to whom philosophy was important, even when I didn't like most of the classes I took. I didn't realize then as I do now that academic philosophy for the most part is not inherently interesting, and that the people who taught it, at least at my college, tended to be slightly incompetent or stuck in a particular kind of rut. The same phenomenon occurred in other subjects that I studied, and by the time I was a senior it became difficult for me to find any courses that I wanted to take. Looking back, there was only one class that I took in four years as an undergraduate which I enjoyed thoroughly, and that had nothing to do with philosophy. This may seem like bad judgment, depression or some other psychiatric disorder, but I don't think that it is. The fact is that the more familiar I become with a subject, the more likely I am to think that it isn't particularly fascinating, and that the people who are fascinated by it are deluding themselves.

That same pattern has occurred with respect to some of the books I've discussed on this blog. I may start out liking a particular writer, and then, once I reach a saturation level, I begin to think that the writer isn't as good as I had thought initially. In extreme cases I may even come to believe that a writer is a fraud. Since starting this blog, I have partially solved this kind of problem by alternating between literary works and scientific works. You can't go completely wrong with scientific works, because they are usually informative. If something is wrong with a scientific book, it may be a poor writing style or a less-than-satisfactory exposition on the subject, but you still come away learning something from it, and the author generally has no pretenses about his or her literary skills. My problem with fiction is that it frequently fails to deliver in a manner that I find acceptable. Over time, this puts me in a quandary, and I begin to wonder whether I should even have been interested in fiction in the first place.

There is a flow of popular scientific or nonfiction books that makes it easier to find something to read that won't end up annoying me. That has been a saving grace for me, because if all I ever wrote about was fiction, I probably would have given up writing by now. Compass was one of those books that periodically prompt be to rethink why I am reading it in the first place. At the moment I am inclined to put a hold on my quest for good new fiction and concentrate temporarily on authors whom I know are good. I've ordered a book of essays by Czeslaw Milosz and the novel Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, because I'm confident that I will like both.

With respect to fiction, part of my malaise seems to come from not identifying with my own generation, the baby boomers. They and their literary successors have produced what I think of as substandard literature right up to the present. If you want to look for parallels in fields outside fiction, the U.S. presidents come to mind. The four baby boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump, seem frivolous compared to Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. If you contrast photographs of Roosevelt with those of, say, Obama, there is no question that Roosevelt quite literally felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, whereas Obama was merely posing for a photograph in which it appeared that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Roosevelt died in office protecting the world from Nazi Germany, and Obama left office looking forward to lucrative book deals and high speech fees. The difference is that Roosevelt wanted to make an important contribution to mankind, whereas Obama made a lifestyle choice in order to gain high social prestige and an affluent lifestyle. If Obama often seemed as if he were missing in action, that's because he was. His legacy, like those of Clinton and Bush, already looks shaky. Trump's was dead on arrival.

My thesis is that affluence has in this instance increased mediocrity, because there is nothing serious at stake, and seriousness itself becomes devalued when a society experiences no grave threat. A lack of gravitas came to pervade all aspects of American life, from politics to the arts. Writers such as Milosz and McCarthy represent alternatives because they were informed by World War II. In Miloz's case, he spent his early life facing it directly. McCarthy, though not old enough to have done that, is more akin to Ernest Hemingway, a war writer. In their writings, the specter of darkness never disappears entirely.

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I continue to adapt to the arrival of spring. The grass is tall enough now that I had better cut it soon. I have planned to move my large telescope onto the rear deck for the summer and to protect it with a new weather-resistant cover. I purchased a wheelchair ramp in order to simplify moving it onto the deck. The deck is the only place on the property with good views to the south, where all of the planets and many deep sky objects are located. The smaller telescope currently on the deck has only about a quarter the aperture and captures far less detail.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Compass III

I made an effort to finish the book carefully but in the end became sick of it and raced through the remainder quickly. The title apparently refers to a compass owned by Beethoven which was set to point east rather than north (Franz received a replica as a gift), and there is also mention of the compasses attached to prayer rugs in order to orient them towards Mecca. The entire book is supposed to represent Franz Ritter's reveries during a long, sleep-interrupted night, as if One Thousand and One Nights were written by Proust while lying in bed.

Following my last post, the anecdotes continued, and Franz and Sarah met occasionally. A dream sequence ran for a few pages. Later on, Flaubert came up briefly, with mention of his relationship with Louise Colet. Sarah was away most of the time pursuing research in the Far East and was engaged in a successful academic career. Her relationship with Franz developed slightly and became physical, but their commitment to each other remained circumscribed.

According to a few reviewers, there is supposed to be some sort of East-West hypothesis buried in this mess, and I don't see the point of trying to extract it. You can hardly read a page without one or two new names popping up, and, since Énard's ability to distill ideas is pathetic, I think the book is best suited to fuzzy thinkers and masochists. Énard's style emphasizes incidentals and minutiae more than theory or the integration of ideas. Most of his anecdotes amount to fragments, and if they had been expanded to make them collectively intelligible, the book would have been several thousand pages long. In later pages, World War I is described more explicitly than other historical periods, but I find Énard bereft of critical thinking, and a serious reader would be a fool to invest much time in this book. What we have is a novel that is considered timely and topical, because of the rift between European and Islamic cultures, and aesthetically sophisticated, because of Énard's academic exposure to Near-Eastern and Western music and literature. I don't think that Énard's riff on the cultures adds much to the topic – he's not much of an anthropologist – and his aesthetic observations, though memorable on occasion, are of greater interest to academic specialists than to novel readers. In other times a book such as this would simply be ignored, and with good reason.

The fact that Compass has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize only confirms to me my belief that such awards must be viewed with caution. After this experience, I don't think that I'll be reading Énard again. Although European prizes may produce better results in fiction than American prizes, human nature in Europe is no different from human nature in North America and is still error-prone.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Compass II

I'm almost halfway through the book and, since I'm becoming tired of it, may just zip through the rest. Although Énard writes well, this is merely a series of anecdotes of variable interest to me. Most of them are about European travelers or would-be travelers to the Orient, beginning in the 1800's. I read with some interest the ones about Liszt, Talleyrand, Beethoven, Balzac and Stendhal, since I was already interested in them, but many are about persons of dubious historical significance and read to me like window dressing. Besides being a good writer, Énard is quite learned in these topics, or he at least has researched them fairly well. I am a little surprised, however, that he hasn't even mentioned Flaubert so far.

For a serious reader, this kind of writing wears thin quickly. Énard displays no deep interest in history, and his emphasis is on the follies of his colorful historical figures, who are often rich or aristocratic adventurers. Frisson is generated by Franz and Sarah's excitement over obscure topics, which, to a mature reader, seem like the reveries of over-educated, naïve graduate students. Franz and Sarah bring to mind the frivolity that has come to characterize scholarship in the humanities. Ironically, though I had thought that this might be a politically correct exposition on the value and sophistication of Middle Eastern culture, it looks more like a slightly condescending imperialist presentation of the Middle East as a playground for fatuous Europeans. Lacking Franz and Sarah's enthusiasm for these subjects, the two seem to me like misguided people who have chosen careers in an esoteric branch of tourism. To be sure, they do seem to possess an understanding of the cultures into which they have plunged, but they still seem dilettantish and psychologically detached from the immediate world.

To make matters worse, there is no real plot to the novel. Franz is a scholarly mama's boy who lusts after Sarah from the moment they meet. In the present, Franz is middle-aged and becoming ill. The story is told in a series of flashbacks occurring during conferences or while doing fieldwork. At this point in the book they have gone as far as to sleep side-by-side outdoors, and the only remaining question is whether they will actually have sex at some point in the future. However, they don't really have what I would consider to be a developing relationship. They simply do things together that they both enjoy, and Franz knows little about Sarah's background. Officially their relationship is nothing more than a chaste friendship.

If I had wanted to engross myself in Orientalism, I could have found much better books than this. Returning to my sociological perspective, Énard looks to me like a genuine academic who decided to capitalize on his writing skill by writing a bestseller. This book seems to fit a literary niche that might be described as A.S. Byatt meets J.K. Rowling meets Lawrence of Arabia. Most reviewers would probably find the book erudite enough to pass for literature while also offering excitement sufficient to insert words such as "romp" into their reviews. It makes the grade as "literary" while also offering a bare-boned human interest story. Since it is bereft of ideas and the main characters are immature, I am not finding it interesting: the target audience would be more entertained than I've been so far. To be fair, I'll finish the book to see whether my judgment is premature.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Compass I

I've barely started to read this novel by Mathias Énard because of the change of season and associated distractions, but thought I'd start writing about it anyway since I haven't written anything for a week. I chose it partly because it is a Prix Goncourt winner, and I have had better luck with those than with other prize winners. There are many problems connected with award-winning books or award-winning anything, but if you're as picky as I am you have to start somewhere. As a resident of the U.S., French awards still seem a little exotic to me, and, given France's literary history, the award standards are probably slightly higher, though the actual picks are also affected by local trends that may be just as arbitrary as local trends anywhere. While I don't have an enormous sample base, I have come to expect American literary picks to be the worst, Nobels in literature only slightly better, the British awards next, and the French the best. Literary awards are affected by the sense of responsibility of the awarders, which varies from country to country, and since I am most familiar with the U.S. I am automatically well-attuned to the latest groupthink or themes in political correctness that usually have a major impact on which books are selected here. If literary judges everywhere express biases according to their local standards, and those standards are similar to the standards in other countries, you can still get a sense of which book might win in your country by knowing the exact details of the environment in which the award is made. It's similar to politics, where you can see that Donald Trump isn't qualified for the job and doesn't even have a set of coherent ideas, but the trend was in his favor, because there were enough others who didn't view him the same way that you did. Literary awards are subject to similar sociological patterns, which means that they don't necessarily correlate with an objective measure of aesthetic merit, if there is such a thing. I have enough firsthand knowledge of the U.S. to know that it is not the best place to look for good writing.

Compass probably fits a current French award paradigm, because it explores music, literature and folklore spanning the geographical region from Western Europe to Persia. The narrator, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist who lives in Vienna, and his friend, Sarah, is a scholar who specializes in Persian and Arabic literature. In the same way that there is a pressure for American literary awards to go to minorities or women, in France there may be a pressure for literary awards to go to writers who demonstrate a sensitivity to Arabic or Persian culture. These pressures are not necessarily bad things, but they have a tendency to limit the scope of literature by ignoring works that don't fit a particular mold.

As I said, I've barely started reading this, so I don't have much to say at the moment. There seems to be a tension regarding Franz's unrequited love for Sarah. They are both brainy academics who are passionate about their subjects. Énard is a talented writer with respect to descriptions and esoteric knowledge, but it's too soon to say whether or not I'll find him too academic and pedantic after a few hundred pages. For the time being I am enjoying reading about intelligent, well-adjusted adults who are capable of having decent relationships with others. From reading Houellebecq, Krasznahorkai and many other modern literary writers, you would never know that there are people out there who don't lead dysfunctional, isolated or unhappy lives. I have long thought that the most challenging and interesting fiction would be about well-adjusted, educated, intelligent adults who think clearly on a variety of topics, are not conformists and have insights to offer. Believe it or not, I have yet to find a recent novel that fits that description. Contrary to Tolstoy's famous dictum, all happy families are not the same: it's just easier to write about unhappy ones.

Although it may not be the case, Énard could be pandering to or benefiting from the popularity of Islamic subjects in French literary circles. Even without its Islamic refugees, the French have been fascinated with Orientalism since the nineteenth century. Houellebecq probably was quite conscious of this when he wrote Submission. To compare the two, Énard is far more scholarly and knowledgeable than Houellebecq, who probably could have picked up his information on Islam and Huysmans from Wikipedia articles. Énard is probably a better writer in the technical sense, in which linguistic skill is emphasized, but may prove to be a weaker writer than Houellebecq when it comes to producing effects. For the moment I am enjoying his characters more than any of Houellebecq's, but I am aware that even the best academic writers tend to produce works that eventually lead nowhere. The book may be worth reading for Énard's expertise on Arabic and Persian culture, but, as I've said before, I don't believe it is incumbent upon me to learn about other cultures. Also, to the extent that religion is emphasized, I am so sick of hearing about it that I can hardly stand it anymore if I am expected to take it seriously. Whether it's Islam or Christianity, we are well past the time when educated adults ought to have moved on to other models for their worldviews.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Diary

I came across the news that Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, has died at the age of 87. It took me a while to generate a reaction, because, as an editor, he placed himself at a distance from the reader, and whatever he thought or represented seems opaque. We know that he was the main force behind the publication, but we don't know exactly what he believed or considered important. In the end it seems as if he was a guy who liked editing and making a name for himself in erudite circles, and perhaps nothing more. The NYRB doesn't stand for much of anything other than general liberalism, and if its authors collectively represent any ideas, Silvers made sure that they were nuanced to death. When they were explicit, they were just as likely to be wrong as right. In two areas that interest me, he was on the wrong side of history, perhaps because underneath the surface lurked a creaky traditionalism that made him leery of evolutionary biology: maybe he was a closet conservative theologian of the humanist tradition. He favored writers such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over Edward O. Wilson and Christopher Hitchens and promoted Garry Wills and Marilynne Robinson, who, from what I know, embrace obsolete or sentimental religious ideas that, to my way of thinking, do not belong in an intellectual journal. Tony Judt's comment about American intellectuals having no public impact also comes to mind; since no one pays attention to them, they are free to romp and play in the imaginary world of their choosing. On the pecuniary end, George Soros, whose writing style and qualifications as an intellectual were surely not sufficient to warrant his inclusion, got as much space as he liked, presumably because he had billions of dollars.

My negative thesis on intellectuals came to a head recently when I realized that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were more poseurs than serious thinkers. Perhaps they and Robert Silvers were playing a game that they enjoyed more than actually figuring out anything important. By coincidence, I recently attended a surprisingly excellent student production of Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, which is partly about the stupidity and vanity of ambitious academics, and there may be parallels. Perhaps Silvers, Sartre and de Beauvoir simply sought fame, like Bernard Nightingale. Not many are immune to the allure of stature in the circle of their choice. When one looks closely at the petty ambitions of intellectuals, they come to resemble more pedestrian ambitions that lack the pretension of loftiness.

Although it's not yet green outside, the goldfinches are turning yellow again, and spring seems to have arrived. I've taken off my snow tires. For a change of pace, I am going to read the novel Compass, by Mathias Énard, next.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It's Taking Us Next II

In subsequent chapters, Dormehl describes new applications of AI, interviews various researchers and discusses issues that may come up in the future. One of the recent developments has been the arrival of helping software such as Siri from Apple, which acts as a personal assistant. There are several areas in which specific applications of AI have produced human-level results or better. Neural networks have been specifically designed to win at Jeopardy!, conduct drug research, drive cars and design equipment for NASA. We are currently surrounded by data mining on an enormous scale, and it seems as if companies such as Google and Facebook will soon understand people and their needs far better than we understand ourselves.

The most unsatisfactory chapter covers the effects that AI will have on employment. Although it is obvious that it will soon be able perform most tasks better than humans, Dormehl paints a rather naïve scenario in which people are employed either by producing code or by working as artisans and selling their wares on the Internet. Like many young, tech-savvy writers, he glosses over the basic economic problems that are being caused by new technology, particularly with the fact that AI is driving down costs in most industries and many traditional careers are disappearing. If you take the optimistic position, it is possible to envision a utopian future in which AI makes life better for everyone and standards of living generally improve, but Dormehl says nothing about how this major transition would occur and seems blind to the actual political and economic environment in which everyone lives. We are evolving toward a "gig" economy in which few have permanent employment or job benefits, and without significant structural changes most people are en route to lower incomes and little or no job security, which would destabilize society.

For my needs, Dormehl seems to do a fairly good job at distinguishing the types of AI that exist or will exist. First, there is the old number-crunching version that works with brute force through all of the possibilities, such as the early IBM Deep Blue, which defeated Garry Kasparov in chess. Then there is the neural network type that roughly simulates the human brain and processes large amounts of data to arrive at solutions. The former is logical and mainly involves a human-made program processing more data than a person could. The latter finds solutions statistically, without a step-by-step process, and though it can come up with excellent solutions to specific problems, it may be impossible to understand the internal logic of the outcome, which detracts from confidence in its reliability. The next step in AI will be artificial general intelligence, or AGI, in which AI will be able to perform over a wide range of tasks like a human, rather than in the task-specific manner that AI works now. The hypothetical singularity will occur when AGI surpasses human capabilities.

Then there is discussion of extreme futurists such as Ken Hayworth, who says "I absolutely believe that mind uploading is possible and I think it's something we should actively be working toward." Some futurists are obsessed with digitizing themselves and becoming immortal. This doesn't interest me at all: I'd rather die.

The most interesting chapter for me is the one on creativity in AI. It is already starting to occur and brings into question the nature of creativity itself. We are in the early stages of AI producing what is considered original, which had been the exclusive domain of humans. AI can already write rudimentary fiction, paint artistically and design new products. The capabilities of AI in these and other fields are sure to devalue what has been thought of as talent among humans. This is another area in which Dormehl seems oblivious to the effects of advances in AI. It is easy to imagine a future in which the supposed strokes of genius that have occurred throughout history are considered lucky stumbles by feeble brains. In the process of providing deeper insights into the world and new ways of expressing our humanity, AI will deflate a class of accomplishments that we have been using to assign social status among ourselves, because the importance of talent will be diminished once it becomes commonplace.

Dormehl also briefly covers the risks of AI and the moral and legal questions that are surfacing around it. However, the book is primarily a broad survey of the field and doesn't go to any great depth on the issues at hand. Nevertheless, I found it informative and useful for my rudimentary purposes.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It's Taking Us Next I

I am now reading this short book by Luke Dormehl to get a better handle on AI. With all the fuss I've made about the subject, I thought I ought to inform myself on it a little better. This is a readable, journalistic history of AI from its earliest days up to the present, with some speculation about the future at the end. As far as I've read, it has covered the early years of computational logic under Marvin Minsky and others, which proved to be far less fruitful than people had hoped. Now I am moving into neural networks and deep learning, which have transformed the field into its current state. It shouldn't take me long to finish the rest of the book, and I will probably have more to say about the later chapters.

My interest in AI is not at all technical and has more to do with the sociological and philosophical changes that it is precipitating. There are still skeptics around, but I think we are well on the way to superintelligence, and there is already a certain pressure to reevaluate our collective self-conceptions and modes of living. If you have a materialistic view of the world, there is no magic ingredient to human beings that can't be replicated and magnified or reworked into a more effective form. But even without superintelligence, radical changes are occurring, because businesses are requiring fewer and fewer employees with the new technologies available. Developed countries are going to have to rethink their public policies whether they like it or not, because unemployment is slowly becoming the norm. Those who point to formulas of the past, such as boosting economic growth to increase household incomes, are toying with concepts that are nearly obsolete and have no chance of solving the social problems to come. In particular, the American model of working hard and getting ahead financially is increasingly untenable for the majority of workers, because their skills simply are not needed. It seems to me that as the demand for human labor declines, sinecures, basic income, or perhaps even the elimination of currency will replace the current model. At the policy level, little is being done in preparation now, because the political system is reactive to the immediate perceptions of voters who have no idea what is in store for them.

Another aspect of AI, which, fortunately, is being examined at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, is that it may result in unexpected disasters unless it is controlled properly. Even if the intentions of AI developers are good, AI may go awry or it may fall into the wrong hands. At this point I am less worried about it going awry than about it falling into the wrong hands. The wrong hands could be those of anyone from amoral technocrats to egomaniacs to religious fundamentalists, the latter including both Islamic terrorists and Christians. This technology is becoming powerful, and power has inevitably been abused throughout history.

Perhaps it is the philosophical aspects of AI that interest me the most. As I've said, we're not as smart as we think we are, but we've never had to deal with anything that clearly exceeds our intellectual capabilities. I expect there to be a series of shocks and rude awakenings that may change how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the universe. One of the reasons why I like the work of E.O. Wilson is that he was the first scientist to suggest that humans are eusocial creatures, like ants. This is simply an extension of Darwinism that, to me, provides the best framework for understanding our moral tendencies. AI researchers are currently a little stumped by the problem of making AI people-friendly, and that seems natural, because AI did not come into existence through a biological, evolutionary process in which morality became a key ingredient of survival. In fact, AI has no survival, reproductive or moral imperatives at all unless we build them into it. What we are about to find out is that most, if not all, of the "values" that we hold dear are mere evolutionary accidents that steered our behavior in a direction that allowed our species to survive up to the present. AI will not inherently possess any superstitions and will not be able to understand ours the way we do. I am wondering whether we will be able to understand the thinking processes of autonomous AI, because ultimately it will be self-teaching and will use methods that it develops on its own. I also think that there will be limitations to interfacing humans with AI, because our little brains have limited capacities. Eventually, assuming no disasters occur, AI will become the new God, but without the religious mumbo jumbo. My preference would be for it to become the keeper of our habitat, and I have no desire to expand the capabilities of my brain or to become immortal. That, in effect, would be death, because I would no longer be who I am now.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Diary

Perhaps I should say something about the student protest at Middlebury College, since it has been in the national news recently. In case you didn't hear about it, on March 2 the conservative writer, Charles Murray, who had been invited to speak by a group of students, had his appearance disrupted by protesters, and his party was accosted by students while leaving the campus. The female Middlebury professor who was to have questioned him during the discussion had her hair pulled and was hospitalized, and students jumped on the car.

I probably don't share many of Murray's ideas, though there may be some agreement between them and those of the genetic determinists with whom I sympathize. Primarily I think that this was a deplorable violation of free speech, like the one mentioned earlier involving Smith College students and Wendy Kaminer. In this instance the physical violence got somewhat more attention. It shows that political correctness can induce people to dismiss ideas without even knowing what they are, which was apparent from comments made by protesters and sympathetic faculty members. Fortunately, the college formally came out against the protesters.

There isn't really much of interest here, but it shows how narrow-minded students can be and perhaps echoes the ideas of Sherry Turkle, who has noted how young gadget-users live in an alternate reality in which they are unable to engage in traditional communication. However, this sort of protest is also reminiscent of protests of the 1960's, in which students engaged in a form of groupthink without always truly understanding the issues. From my point of view, it is an example of the bubble atmosphere that can develop on college campuses – especially at small liberal arts colleges – and mainly demonstrates that privileged upper-middle-class students think that they know more than they actually do. In this instance they wasted a lot of people's time, including their own, made a big fuss, and no one in Middlebury, including them, is any the wiser about Charles Murray's views or whether the protest was justified. To me, this episode is about the sociology of educational institutions in the U.S., many of which function more as status-granters than as places of learning. Apparently, as part of the educational package, the students get to pretend that they are college radicals. I doubt that this experience will enhance their intellectual discernment as adults.

In other news, I have been spending time on ancestry research and just received my DNA results. Ancestry.com had caused some confusion for me by saying that my sister had no British genes, even though our father was British and his ancestors lived there for hundreds of years and had English surnames. This prompted me to take the same test to see whether I would get the same results. I did, and found that the confusion comes from the way Ancestry.com defines ethnicity. Apparently, in order to be British, your ancestors have to have lived there thousands of years ago. Since that doesn't include the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, there aren't many British people in Britain, especially in Southern England. Our English genes fall into an amorphous group that includes Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, which in turn overlaps with a Mediterranean group that includes Italy and Greece. We also have West Asian genes from our Armenian ancestors. I found this information less useful than the large online database they've assembled, which has made it easy to find many of my English ancestors.

I've lined up a couple more books to read and will start commenting on one of them soon.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Collapse VI

The last section of the book, "Practical Lessons" covers a mishmash of ideas. Chapter 14 lists some of the psychological failings of the people in the collapsed societies discussed earlier, including failure to anticipate, failure to perceive, rational bad behavior (of a subset of the population) and disastrous values. This chapter had a lot of potential, but I found it disappointing, because it stuck to the obvious. Chapter 15 describes in detail how some businesses have been able to behave like responsible citizens, though that usually occurs only when actual events have shown that the cost of irresponsible exploitation of resources outweighs the cost of additional safety measures and precautions, for instance, when a large oil spill occurs. In the case of hardrock mining, there is usually so little profit in the business to begin with that it is cheaper for businesses to lobby for lax regulations than it is to operate in an environmentally responsible fashion, in which case they would simply lose money. Diamond emphasizes how consumers play a role in this, because, even though they may not understand the economics of the oil or mining industries, they are more cognizant of oil because they buy it at the retail level, whereas the end use of most mining products remains a mystery to them. They are willing to pay for oil because they are aware of how they use it, whereas mining products often become invisible components of consumer products. Responsible stewardship of the environment comes at a cost, and ultimately it is consumers who decide by buying or not buying certain products; they usually aren't willing to pay any premium for consumer products, because, according to Diamond, they don't often understand the environmental costs. Where hardrock mining is concerned, the costs of environmental responsibility are considerably higher than those of most other natural resources. Diamond also notes that self-regulation within some industries, such as forest products, has been comparatively successful.

The final chapter, 16, includes a somewhat redundant list of what Diamond thinks are the twelve most serious trouble spots related to sustaining the environment. Here are the first sentences or so that he has written for each item on the list:

1. At an accelerating rate, we are destroying the natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads and golf courses.

2. Wild foods, especially fish and to a lesser extent shellfish, contribute a large fraction of the protein consumed by humans.... [T]he great majority of valuable fisheries either have collapsed or are in steep decline. 

3. A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost, and at present rates a large fraction of what remains will be lost within the next half-century.

4. Soils and farmland used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.

5. The world's major energy sources, especially for industrial societies, are fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. While there has been much discussion about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered, and while coal reserves are believed to be large, the prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and gas will last for a few more decades.

6. Most of the world's freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation.

7. It might at first seem that the supply of sunlight is infinite, so one might reason that the Earth's capacity to grow crops and wild plants is also infinite. Within the last 20 years, it has been appreciated that this is not the case....

8. The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes and rivers many toxic chemicals....

9. The term "alien species" refers to species that we transfer, intentionally or inadvertently, from a place where they are native to a place where they are not native. Some alien species are obviously valuable to us as crops, domestic animals, and landscaping. But others devastate populations of native species with which they come into contact....

10. Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere, where they either damage the protective ozone layer (as do formerly widespread refrigerator coolants) or else act as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thereby lead to global warming.

11. The world's human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. 

12. What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment.... [O]ur numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes.... But low-impact people are becoming high-impact people....

Following this list, Diamond refutes, effectively I think, some of the common criticisms that have been brought against the arguments that he makes. He then attempts to finish on a positive note by mentioning that some societies of the past, such as the success stories described in the book, were able to overcome similar problems when they confronted them, and that we may be able to as well.

Because of its scope and completeness, this is by far the best book I've read on environmental issues. In books by E.O. Wilson, such as The Diversity of Life and Half-Earth, the perspective is that of a naturalist more than that of one specifically concerned with the future of mankind. Similarly, in The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the environmental consequences of human activities without paying as much attention to the specific causes. Al Gore's popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which came out the year following Collapse, covers only one aspect of the twelve mentioned by Diamond. Global warming is an important issue, but in itself is probably survivable, and though the film played an important role in raising environmental awareness, compared to Collapse it barely scratches the surface. Diamond makes it clear that if we don't deal effectively with the issues that he raises we may all die, as did those in some of his historical examples.

Although it seems that somewhere in Collapse one is likely to find at least a passing comment on every issue relevant to human survival vis-à-vis environmental damage, Diamond, disappointingly to me, does not present specific strategies for solving the problems, and he more or less leaves it up to mankind to solve them on their own. For example, he recognizes that corporations may or may not behave responsibly but are driven primarily by financial motives, and that the public can pressure them in the right direction, but he also notes that some of the environmental issues are not understood by the public: how could corporate malfeasance be corrected in those instances? As I have argued in previous posts, many of the problems that we are currently facing are the result of the combination of economic competition under capitalism with inferior governance under existing democratic political models. It would be difficult to deal with environmental problems at that level, but, since that is where the problems actually originate, it may be the appropriate place to look.

I think that economic competition tends to cause a vicious cycle from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape. For example, for someone like me, who prefers a rural environment with a low population density and doesn't care about money, how can I realistically expect to live that way in the current world? If you live in an unspoiled environment with its natural resources more or less intact, in order to retain those resources you need defense measures of one kind or another. Under current global conditions, in the absence of a suitable defense, sooner or later corporations, other nations or perhaps refugees would arrive on the scene and alter the environment for the worse. In other words, in order to protect my sustainable environment, I would need an economic base large enough to support an army or some other deterrent, which contradicts the very idea of the society that I envision. Similarly, economically weak countries may be forced by external economic pressures to modernize their economies, if only for their own protection. Even developed countries with declining populations face pressure to increase their fertility rates in order to ensure that they have sufficient workers to keep their economies strong in the future. Capitalism in the absence of an effective world government forces regions of the world into defensive postures, with economic forces driving events in a way that roughly mimics warfare.

The other problematic component underlying environmental risk, incompetent governance, has hardly diminished since Diamond wrote the book. The collapse in Syria is flooding Europe with refugees, conditions in South Sudan have deteriorated and ISIL is at large. These kinds of situations are predictable within Diamond's framework, because political instability is often associated with environmental destruction. However, one may also question how well the developed nations are dealing with increasing environmental pressures. It may be a little too early to assess the populist movements in Europe and the U.S., but at first glance they may be related to the sustainability of economic growth, which is at least partly related to environmental health. The high standard of living in the developed world comes at a high environmental cost, and the lower end of the income spectrum has been experiencing a reduced standard of living in recent years. Although a collapse does not seem imminent in the developed world, some of the early patterns of political instability may be falling into place. Recently, the two most striking examples have been the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump, which, to me, are clear indications of the inherent incompetence of democratic electorates. Both votes were for isolationism and protection from foreigners and demonstrate a poor understanding of global economics.

The election of Donald Trump is a good example of the incompetence of a democratic electorate. From his few weeks in office it has become apparent that, not only does he not understand any of the serious issues facing the U.S., including those raised by Diamond, but he isn't even interested in them and is unlikely to do anything about them. This encourages me to withdraw into my futuristic mode of thinking, in which complex issues such as those raised in Collapse become the province of AI or AI-assisted humans rather than the poor decision-making process of the voting public or the incompetent people whom they elect.

Diamond is correct that all of the problems brought up in his book can be solved, but he isn't exactly creating a new paradigm. I am a much stronger proponent of population control than he is, but that may be because I am not affected by the pressures of political correctness. Looking into the future, I wonder whether there is any advantage to a world population of seven billion people, in which the majority lead imperiled lives, compared to a world population of one billion or fewer people, in which all lead unimperiled lives. There are painless ways to make that transition without producing inequality or diminishing the richness of human experience. This obvious option is not receiving any public discussion.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Collapse V

After Rwanda, Diamond provides a lucid short history of the island of Hispaniola, which now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When Columbus arrived in 1492 it was inhabited by about 500,000 Arawak Indians. The Spaniards wanted the gold there and enslaved them to mine it for them. By 1519, with poor living conditions and smallpox, the Arawak population had been reduced to about 3,000. This is the kind of disgusting fact that was completely omitted from history books when I was growing up. At that point the Spaniards began to import slaves from Africa, and they also developed sugar plantations, which were lucrative for some time. By the end of the sixteenth century Spanish influence in the region was in decline, and French pirates, traders and adventurers formed a separate settlement on the western part of the island. In 1795, Spain ceded its portion of the island to France, but France withdrew from the island in 1804, at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Initially Haiti was the major power on the island, but the former slaves, who killed or forced out the white plantation owners, became small farmers and gradually damaged their land. Spanish settlers continued to move to the eastern part of the island, which once again became a Spanish colony. Thereafter, Haiti had primarily a Creole-speaking black population and the Dominican Republic had a Spanish-speaking white population with a more European outlook.

The Dominican Republic had some natural advantages with respect to sustainability. Positioned on the eastern end of the island, which has mountains in the center and weather systems moving from the east, it gets more rain than Haiti and has rivers suitable for hydroelectric power. Although both countries have been led by brutal, corrupt dictators for decades, the dictators in the Dominican Republic were able to enrich themselves even more by establishing a variety of industries from which to pocket money. They eventually figured out that deforestation was not in their interest, and the Dominican Republic is now far more wooded than Haiti.

Both countries are extremely poor compared to developed countries, but Haiti significantly more so. At the time this book was published in 2005, Diamond thought the outlook was especially bleak for Haiti, and that was before the earthquake of 2010.

 As if I wanted more information, the next chapter covers China, which is familiar to me because it is in the news all of the time. Obviously there are pollution and sustainability issues there, with its large population and high rate of economic growth. I didn't think Diamond had much new to tell me here, but the problems associated with China are so large in scale and complexity that I don't see how anyone could sum them up properly in one chapter.

The final chapter before the long-awaited conclusions covers Australia, and I found it somewhat more interesting. According to Diamond, Australia is ill-suited for a large population because its land is infertile, and not much will grow there. Apparently Australia's lack of volcanic activity or glaciation has left its soil unusually infertile and unproductive compared to agricultural regions elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, breezes from the Indian Ocean have deposited salt on the surface for millennia, making it even more unsuitable for crops. The poor soil has been made worse by improper watering techniques, which have drawn up more salt from beneath the surface. The inappropriate promotion of the grazing of domesticated animals and the introduction of rabbits have made farming difficult in some regions, and irregular droughts make some regions undesirable for sustained agricultural use. The infertile soil also makes fishing in rivers and coastal waters comparatively unproductive, since water is dependent on land nutrients for the support of aquatic organisms. Australia also faces economic challenges because of its distance from other developed markets, and it has until recently maintained a handicapping identity with Britain and Ireland at the exclusion of much closer markets in Asia. From a pollution standpoint, mining is the dominant force.

I have been spending a lot of time on this book because I find it important. Hopefully I haven't bored you to death by describing it as I go. There are still over a hundred pages left, in which Diamond will argue his conclusions. I expect to read that shortly and then wrap up my comments in a few days on my next post.