On the Page & À la page

What I've Been Reading


Here are some of the best, or at least some of the more interesting, things that I've been reading lately.


Bill Cooke, "Must Humanism Be Optimistic?", Free Inquiry, October / November 2021

Free Inquiry and its sister publication Skeptical Inquirer are definitely not the place to go if you're in search of belles lettres. But every once in a while one or the other will express an idea in prose worthy of the idea itself. Here are a few from Bill Cooke's article.

Twenty-first-century humanism needs to occupy the middle ground between apocaholism, the space occupied by indulgent pessimists, and utopianism, the space occupied by optimists. This middle ground can be occupied by the principle of meliorism. Meliorism is the idea that positive change might be achieved, but it gives proper emphasis to the implication that it might not be achieved and that what does transpire may not be what was originally intended. It is more hesitant and reflective than brash progressionism. Pessimism looks to avoid what the British philosopher Roger Scruton has called the best-case fallacy and to factor in considerations of human error. The best-case fallacy is where one looks uncritically at the best-case scenario of any decision. It is a feature of the twenty-first century that this is no longer a credible option. By way of example, consider the case of Ridley, who has labeled his position “rational optimism.” No better example of the best-case fallacy can be found than when he declares that the “extreme climate outcomes are so unlikely, and depend on such wild assumptions, that they do not dent my optimism one jot.”

If we are going to understand fully the implications of seeing our age as the Anthropocene, we are going to need drastically to reassess the role Homo sapiens may play in the planet’s future. In the same way that self-indulgent pessimism is part of the problem, so is sanguine optimism. But reflective pessimism has a valuable role to play, because it is the means by which we look beyond the best case and consider other options, less happy options, that are just as likely to ensue. Pessimism avoids the best-case fallacy when it asks what might go wrong. With decisions looming on the scale of climate change, the stakes are high. What Greta Thunberg had in mind when she said she wanted people to panic was to shake them out of their sanguine confidence that things either aren’t as bad as we are told or that something will come along and sort things out without us having to change the way we live. This is what Thunberg said to the gathering of the mighty at Davos in January 2019: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

The two excerpts from Cooke above both quote other people. His article contains a number of other apt quotations pointing to other authors whose work might be worth exploring. For example:

An important voice for twenty-first century humanism was the Continental historian and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, who set the starting point of his humanism at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the places where many said humanism came to grief. He offered a way forward: “A maxim for the twenty-first century might well be to start not by fighting evil in the name of good, but by attacking the certainties of people who claim always to know where good and evil are to be found.”

And this next paragraph contains a few lines from a philosopher I had never heard of.

More recently, the American philosopher Erik Wielenberg has built on these insights when he’s spoken of naturalistic humility, which “involves a recognition of the tremendous contribution of blind chance to the fates of human beings, and it is precisely such a recognition that should lead us to acknowledge an obligation to assist the less fortunate among us.”


James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe

missing

I offer the following as a litmus test: if this paragraph appeals to you, you'll probably find the book worth reading; if not, then probably not.

To both the scholar and the general reader I would offer this work, not as a systematic analysis or thorough coverage, but as an episode in the common, continuing quest for inner understanding of a disturbed but creative nation. The objective is not so much the clinical-sounding quality of “empathy” as what the Germans call Einfühlung, or “in-feeling,” and the Russians themselves proniknovenie—meaning penetration, or permeation, in the sense in which a blotter is filled with ink or an iron with heat. Only some such sense of involvement can take the external observer beyond casual impressions, redeem unavoidable generalizations, and guard against unstable alternation between condescension and glorification, horror and idealization, Genghis Khan and Prester John.(p. xi)

I'll wager that:

  • Russophiles and Russophobes alike will be intrigued by "continuing quest for inner understanding of a disturbed but creative nation."
  • Budding or casual or perhaps even actual linguists will get a kick out of "not so much the clinical-sounding quality of 'empathy' as what the Germans call Einfühlung, or 'in-feeling,'' and the Russians themselves proniknovenie—meaning penetration, or permeation, in the sense in which a blotter is filled with ink or an iron with heat."
  • Those who insist that stereotypes of all kinds must be avoided at all costs will appreciate "take the external observer beyond casual impressions, redeem unavoidable generalizations."
  • The aforementioned Russophiles and Russophobes will be salivating by the time they've finished reading "guard against unstable alternation between condescension and glorification, horror and idealization, Genghis Khan and Prester John."

Gretchen Reynolds "Ice for Sore Muscles? Think Again", The New York Times, May 18, 2021

Gretchen Reynolds is one of the best science writers we have. In her regular column in the Tuesday "Science" section of the New York Times she presents the latest scientific research on sports and fitness, providing a valuable resource in a field dominated by claptrap masquerading as science-based knowledge.

Regular readers of Reynolds will notice that there are recurring themes in her columns—a particular question, such as the connection between exercise and the mind, will be covered several times over the course of several years, as researchers learn more and more about the topic. This is how science works. It is not one-time revelation from an all-knowing god. Rather, it consists of an accumulation of assertions made over the course of time. These assertions frequently, and necessarily, refer back in time to the questions or gaps previous assertions left unanswered.

I would wager that readers of Gretchen Reynolds are as up-to-date as anyone who is not a trained and credentialed expert in the field. But, more than that, what I admire about her writing is the way that she neatly summarizes the latest research while capturing the scientific method—the reasoning, the controls, the creativity and imagination—going on behind it. I'm letting this post run on to a ridiculous length because I want to pay as much tribute to her writing style as to her content. So look elsewhere, you impatient web surfers out there, for the quick-and-easy summary you crave.

One of Reynolds' recurring themes concerns the topic of ice. In my experience, most athletes tend to believe in, and practice, what they were told when they were child-athletes still growing up. And for a long time—in the 80s, 90s, and noughts—there was a general consensus that any rigorous work-out was best followed by a good long soak in a giant tub of ice water. But, as you can see from my sidebar, I've been noting some of Gretchen Reynolds' reports on the growing body of evidence suggesting that post-exercise ice is not your friend, and may even be your enemy. With her latest article on the topic, it would seem that the jury is no longer out: the jury is in, and the verdict is guilty. Or, at least, the verdict is guilty on a couple of counts.

We would like to know what the latest research says about these questions:

  1. Is ice helpful for tired muscles?
  2. Is heat helpful for tired muscles?
  3. Is ice helpful for damaged muscles?
  4. Is heat helpful for damaged muscles?
  5. Does either ice or heat help for sprained ankles, bursitis-inflamed knees, broken bones, etc.?

Reynolds' columns help us start answering these questions. Towards the end of "Warm-Ups, Cool-Downs, What Works, What Doesn’t", Reynolds reports on research into the benefits of ice after muscle fatigue.

Scientists from Queensland University of Technology in Australia and other schools asked a group of healthy young men to twice complete a grueling lower-body weight workout, using only one leg. After one of these sessions, the men eased themselves into a bathtub filled with water cooled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) and lay there for 10 minutes. On the other day, they slowly pedaled an exercise bike, also for 10 minutes, a light activity that mimics how athletes who do not choose to flash-freeze their limbs might cool down.

During each session, the scientists took tiny samples of blood and muscle tissue from the athletes before and soon after their cool-downs and again 24 and 48 hours later and microscopically examined them for evidence of inflammation and changes in the activity of certain genes that can contribute to muscle soreness.

If the cold bath were working as athletes hoped, the scientists reasoned, there would be fewer markers of inflammation and potential soreness in their working muscles after the bath than after the gentle pedaling.

But there were not. The number of cells associated with inflammation was much higher in the men’s exercised legs compared to their unused legs after each workout. But those numbers were not significantly lower after the chilly bath than after the pedaling, either immediately or two days later.

The scientists did not ask the men how their legs felt or objectively measure whether they could return to strenuous exercise sooner after the ice baths.

In "Running a Marathon? Think Hot Tub, Not Ice Bath, Afterward", Reynolds tells us how a team in Sweden looked at the latest research showing that ice did not help after muscle overexertion, then found themselves asking the obvious follow-up question—what about heat?

To find out, they invited five fit, young men and women to a human performance lab and sat them in front of arm-pedaling machines. Then they asked each volunteer to spin the pedals through a series of brief but grueling intervals, followed by 20 minutes of easier but almost nonstop exercise, while the researchers tracked their heart rates and power output.

This routine was designed to exhaust the volunteers’ arm muscles. Many processes are involved in muscular exhaustion, but the one that is best understood is the depletion of the muscles’ glycogen, which is the name for their stored carbohydrates. Once the muscles burn through most of this fuel source, they become weak, tired and cranky, like toddlers in need of a snack. [...] So they asked their volunteers to consume large amounts of carbohydrates in the two hours after their session of hard pedaling but not to otherwise coddle their muscles.

Then on subsequent visits to the lab, they had the young people repeat the pedaling workout twice more, and immediately afterward, slip long cuffs over their arms that could be heated or chilled with water coils. The cuffs were warmed during one session to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and chilled during another to about 5 degrees. The volunteers wore the cuffs for two hours while also downing carbohydrates.

Finally, at the end of each session, the men and women repeated the interval portion of their original pedaling, since it was the most tiring.

And each of them could pedal hardest at that point if their arm muscles had been warmed beforehand. Their power output then was “markedly better” than after the other two sessions, the scientists write in their paper, suggesting that their muscles had better regained strength. Their power was worst after their muscles had been cooled.

Then these scientists wondered why heat improved recovery. To answer this question they electronically stimulated the muscles of mice until they showed fatigue. The researchers then applied heat to some muscles, cold to others—and doused some of both groups with glycogen (i.e., carbohydrates). They measured how much glycogen the muscles aborbed, and then finally restimulated the muscles again.

The scientists found that the heated muscles recovered more quickly, but only if they had been refueled with glycogen.

The lesson of these findings, published in the Journal of Physiology, seems to be that “warming muscles probably aids in recovery by augmenting the muscles’ uptake of carbohydrates,” says Arthur Cheng, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute, who led the study.

This study looked only at one aspect of recovery after exercise, however, concentrating on how tired muscles might best regain their ability to generate power. It cannot tell us whether warm baths might lessen muscle pain after long, hard exercise. (Unfortunately, most recent studies suggest that nothing substantially reduces this soreness, except time.)

But maybe you remain unconvinced. Maybe you think that inflammation measurements won't detect the benefits you get from ice, or maybe you don't think experiments on mice should necessarily be applied to humans, or maybe you're a weight lifter and never intend to run a marathon. Or maybe you don't trust the Swedes. Well, in any of those cases, Gretchen Reynolds still has your number. In "How an Ice Bath May Undermine Your Weight Workout", she documents a study out of Australia that shows ice slows the growth of new muscle tissue on human weight lifters.

This study was focused on what happened at a molecular level in two groups of eight young men who were not currently weight lifters. They worked out three times a week for seven weeks.

At the conclusion of each session, half of the men recovered by sitting quietly in a room at the gym for 15 minutes. The others eased themselves into cold baths after every workout, the waters cooled to a constant temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). The men gamely remained in the tubs for 15 minutes.

The scientists then began comparing the two groups. Both groups were stronger than they had been at the start of the trial, but at the microscopic level there was a significant difference.

Muscles are composed of long fibers that plump and grow in response to training, and, as would be expected, all of the men had developed larger muscle fibers with seven weeks of lifting. But the increase in fiber size was much greater among those who had sat after every workout than those who had soaked to recover.

More surprising, the cold soakers showed a different balance of certain biochemicals inside their muscles than among the men who had sat. In particular, their muscles contained lower levels of a protein known to spark tissue growth and higher amounts of a different protein involved in tissue breakdown.

In effect, the soakers’ muscles seemed to have become biochemically primed for slower recovery and less growth than the tissues of the other men, says Aaron Petersen, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Victoria University, who led the new study.

To return to my list of five questions above, so far we can answer Questions 1 and 2 pretty confidently: do not routinely ice after exercise. Use heat, but make sure you give those tired muscled some carbohydrates as well. But what about Questions 3 and 4-—regarding injury? What about torn or even strained muscles and other soft tissue? Surely ice is the best initial treatment for these types of injuries? Not so, says Reynolds. Which brings us to the article which prompted this summary of her columns that you are currently reading ("Ice for Sore Muscles? Think Again").

After a particularly vigorous workout or sports injury, many of us rely on ice packs to reduce soreness and swelling in our twanging muscles. But a cautionary new animal study finds that icing alters the molecular environment inside injured muscles in detrimental ways, slowing healing. The study involved mice, not people, but adds to mounting evidence that icing muscles after strenuous exercise is not just ineffective; it could be counterproductive. [...]

Researchers at Kobe University in Japan and other institutions, who long had been interested in muscle physiology, gathered 40 young, healthy, male mice. Then, using electrical stimulation of the animals’ lower legs to contract their calf muscles repeatedly, they simulated, in effect, a prolonged, exhausting and ultimately muscle-ripping leg day at the gym. [...]

Heavy or unfamiliar exercise damages muscle tissue. After healing, the tissue is stronger than before, so the same kind and amount of stress will damage the muscles less the next time around.

It was the healing process itself that interested the researchers now, and whether icing would change it. So they gathered muscle samples from some animals immediately after their simulated exertions and then strapped tiny ice packs onto the legs of about half of the mice, while leaving the rest unchilled. The scientists continued to collect muscle samples from members of both groups of mice every few hours and then days after their pseudo-workout, for the next two weeks.

Then they microscopically scrutinized all of the tissues, with a particular focus on what might be going on with inflammatory cells. As most of us know, inflammation is the body’s first response to any infection or injury, with pro-inflammatory immune cells rushing to the afflicted area, where they fight off invading germs or mop up damaged bits of tissue and cellular debris. Anti-inflammatory cells then move in, quieting the inflammatory ruction, and encouraging healthy new tissue to form. But inflammation is often accompanied by pain and swelling, which many people understandably dislike and use ice to dampen.

The researchers found a clear difference between damaged muscle tissue that had not been iced and damaged tissue that had been iced. Essentially, they discovered that inflammation and swelling play an important role in removing damaged muscle fibers from the scene of the injury. By reducing this beneficial response, icing delays or even hinders recovery.

As Dr. Arakawa points out, their experimental model simulates serious muscle damage, such as a strain or tear, and not simple soreness or fatigue. The study also, obviously, involved mice, which are not people, even if our muscles share a similar makeup. In future studies, Dr. Arakawa and his colleagues plan to study gentler muscle damage in animals and people.

So much for Question 3: do not ice a torn muscle. Question 4, over whether heat helps for muscle injury, remains unanswered. But since heat helps with muscle fatigue (Question 2), "Probably, yes" would be a safe answer. I look forward to confirmation on this, but remain open-minded enough to let the science guide my thinking.

Leaving us with Question 5, which concerns joints and bones—sprained ankles, aching knees, broken bones. It's entirely possibe that injuries on this type of body tissue should be treated differently from muscle problems. As I write this, Euro 2020 is being played, and today I watched the Germany vs. Portugal game in the group stage. Toward the end of the match Mats Hummels was substituted off, and the camera showed the German defender icing his knee on the sidelines. Surely the German national team is keeping abreast of the latest research in sports medicine. Surely their people know as much, or more, than Gretchen Reynolds. So let me hazard a very tentative answer to Question 5. Ice reduces pain, so if you have a sprained ankle or an aching knee that is killing you, you might need ice in addition to elevation and compression. But based on the research we've covered here, I'd try to get off the ice as soon as possible.

So, as you are no doubt now aware, being a NYT Gretchen Reynolds reader, I'm hip to the latest in sports medicine—particularly where it concerns the benefits (or detriments) of ice. And you've probably also noticed that I'm eager to share this knowledge with others. However, I'm also fully aware that nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody wants to be told that a long-held belief is untrue. Which is why I've kept silent when my athletically-inclined friends say they'll be putting a hamstring "tweak" on ice after a game or a work-out. Yet with Reynolds' latest article, I'm beginning to feel obligated to share my knowledge. It's now looking as though the ice remedy of today is the medical equivalent of the 18th century's leeches and bloodletting.


Ibn Warraq, "Ethnographic Evidence For Unbelief In Non-Western Cultures: Unbelief In Latin America", Free Inquiry, October / November 2020

Even those who don't believe in a god tend to take it as given that something in us wants to believe in gods. The justification for this is that belief in supernatural beings seems, like language, to be universal—something that all humans do.

I've long thought that the problem with this argument is that we cannot be sure that the evidence as found by the ethnographers wasn't tainted by the missionaries who came before them. But there's an even better argument against the claim and it is this: there is plenty of evidence showing that many once-untouched cultures had no notion of supernatural deities—we just haven't been looking for it very hard. Or, at least, not in the right places.

Ibn Warraq sheds some light on our ignorance. He cites a half dozen writers who, from the 1700s to the last decade, chronicled disbelief in a number of tribes in Brazil and Paraguay. These explorers lived with these isolated peoples, learned their languages, and finally put their experiences down on paper.

Martin Dobrizhoffer (1717–1791) was an Austrian Roman Catholic missionary whose account of the Abipones Indians of Paraguay was written in Latin, then translated into German, and finally into English in 1822 by Sara Coleridge, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter. He spent eighteen years among the Guaranis and Abipones.

Warraq goes on to quote Dobrizhoffer at length:

Theologians agree in denying that any man in possession of his reason can, without a crime, remain ignorant of God for any length of time. This opinion I warmly defended in the University of Cordoba, where I finished the four years’ course of theology begun in Gratz in Styria. But what was my astonishment, when on removing from thence to a colony of Abipones, I found that the whole language of these savages does not contain a single word which expresses God or a divinity. To instruct them in religion, it was necessary to borrow the Spanish word for God, and insert into the catechism Dios ecnam caogarik, God the creator of things.

Warraq reports that contemporary anthropologists, clinging to their notion that belief in supernatural deities is universal, dispute these accounts. He comments:

But can they all be dismissed as crude misunderstandings? Many of the observers in the field in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did learn the languages of the tribes concerned, and many were in contact with the tribes for several years. The Christian missionaries were desperately hoping to find in the Indians some notion of a supreme being, so that they could begin the process of converting them. Surely these missionaries would have pounced on any evidence of such a notion among the tribes if it had existed. Despite their eagerness, on many occasions and with many tribes they did not find any evidence that they had any notion of a god.


Margaret Roach, "If You Enjoy Bird-Watching, It’s Time to Give Something Back", The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2020

Ms. Roach and her friends may carry their enthusiasm to extremes, but this is s a fun read, with pretty pictures and some useful tips on bird feeding in winter.

The first juncos are back in my Hudson Valley garden, and the white-throated sparrows, too — birds that summer in forests farther north. At Julie Zickefoose’s place in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, “purple finches are infiltrating,” she said. “And pine siskins are around — it’s happening.”

We both know what the return of these old friends means: Peak bird-feeding season approaches. Winter feeder birds enliven our gardens in the off-season like nothing else.

The prospect of watching birds up close — their enthusiasm undaunted when food is on offer, no matter the weather (or the headlines) — can help normalize a time that feels anything but. Ms. Zickefoose and I can’t wait, and we are not alone: Along with bread-baking, board games, gardening and, yes, Zoom, bird feeding is enjoying a pandemic uptick.

missing

Julie Zickefoose


Andrew S. Curran, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

I had already been primed to love the Enlightenment when, thanks to my ninth-grade world history textbook, I first learned of it. I'd already been primed because, eight years earlier, in 1968, my family had invested in the twenty-or-so volume New Standard Encyclopedia. A quick google search, conducted as I write these words, has led me to Wikipedia's summary of the New Standard Encyclopedia: "By the mid-1960s the set was being published by Consolidated Book Publishers. After the 1965 edition received scathing reviews, Consolidated claimed that their 1970 edition would be revised, however the 1970 edition was also poorly received. An announced 1974 revision never materialized and in 1975 the set was completely discontinued."

missing

The New Standard Encyclopedia, circa 1968

However poorly my family's set was received by the encyclopedia intelligentsia, howevermuch its glow would later pale when I became familiar with the Encyclopedia Britannica, I loved the burgundy-colored volumes on our family's bookshelf. There was so much there to feed on. I would page through it the way people today surf the Internet, starting with a topic of mild interest, looking up new topics based on what I had just read—on and on and on.

So when my ninth-grade text informed me of the French Enlightenment and the Encycyclopédie, and of the triumverate of Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, my mind was already soft and receptive to the indelible impression the history book would make on me. Looking back, I think what appealed to me was the idea of the Enlightenment; I do not remember being curious enough about it to read anything by the any member of the enlightened French trio.

missing

Then along came my Survey of Modern Literature course in college: Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Diderot, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky. Great books, a great professor, a great course—where I was formally introduced to Denis Diderot. Rameau's Nephew: a strange book, on the one hand like some of my favorite Plato dialogs, but on the other hand more like a play because it sometimes described what the characters did, yet not a play, not really, because what play opens with paragraphs told in the first person and has characters named "He" and "I"? In short, the book was unlike anything I'd ever read. Free-wheeling, genre-bending, and modern in technique—yet written and set in times almost medieval. Even after writing a paper on the slim volume, I felt that I still did not fully understand the work. Much more needed to be learned.

missing

Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo

Which is all to say that I probably would have enjoyed Andrew Curran's Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely no matter how good or bad it happened to be. But I'm pleased to report that it's very, very good—and you don't need to be a specialist reader to appreciate it.

First and foremost, Curran is an entertaining writer. He shows wit:

Pascal, for the philosophes like Diderot, was Hobbes in a hair shirt. (p. 66)

He makes astute observations about everyday life:

Diderot and Sophie would not have written as much as they did had they both lived in Paris throughout the year. As it happened and as is always the case with any worthwhile epistolary exchange, the lovers were often living apart for large stretches of time. (p. 302)

And he shares one interesting literary or historical fact after another:

[In the Preliminary Discourse] Diderot states, somewhat pessimistically, that, in times of despair or revolution, the Encyclopédie might serve as a "sanctuary' of preserved knowledge, akin to a massive time capsule. (p. 115)

missing

Button Making, L'Encyclopédie

Curran's main argument—his thesis, if you will—is that Diderot's thinking was far ahead of his time. This is especially true when it comes to some of our modern-day concerns with social justice. For instance, in Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies, edited by the abbé Guillaume Thomas Raynal, and penned by half a dozen people, Diderot's contributions included his thoughts on slavery.

By the time that Diderot became involved in History of the Two Indies, French slave traders were delivering thirty thousand enslaved Africans to the Caribbean on an annual basis, adding to the half million slaves who were already toiling on the three major islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and especially Saint-Dominigue (Haiti). In all, French ships had carried well over a million souls to the islands since the trade had begun in earnest, 120 years before. [...]

Diderot added to and rewrote much of what Raynal and his other ghostwriters had put forward on the subject of slavery. In addition to rejecting the era's illegitimate race science, he attributed the existence of the trade, which had always been blamed on Africans themselves, to European greed. He also solemnly informed readers of the History that the responsibility for the forced enslavement and murder of millions of Africans not only lay with slaver merchants and planters, but regular Europeans as well. "The insatiable thirst for gold has given birth to the most infamous and atrocious of all trades, that of slaves. People speak of crimes against nature and they do not cite slavery as the most horrific. The majority of Europeans are soiled by it, and a vile self-interest has stifled in human hearts all the feelings we owe to our fellow men." (p. 365-366)

A few pages later Curran quotes Diderot at length on the topic of the imbalance of wealth. Here is Diderot addressing the newly independent American colonies:

People of North America, may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, be your guide. Beware the abundance of gold that brings about the corruption of morals and the scorn of law; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will produce a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty." (Curran, p. 369, quoting History of the Two Indies)

Two or three years ago I reread Rameau's Nephew, and was disappointed to find that I enjoyed it much less than I had back in college. In this reading, I kept finding myself frustrated, arguing against the nephew, wishing that the narrator would make more convincing arguments against the amoral, nihilistic assertions of his interlocutor. Reading Curran has helped me see that, this time around, I had been reading the book from the wrong perspective.

Despite his support for the [Baron d'Holbach's] scorched-earth campaign against all forms of spirituality, Diderot was far less interested than d'Holbach or his disciple, Jacques André Naigeon, in disseminating straightforward atheism by the 1760s and 1770s. Rather than contradicting Scripture or trumpeting godlessness—especially in print—Diderot generally preferred thinking through the problems that remained unanswered after atheism was established as a given. (p. 235-236)

Curran's words make me conscious of the obvious fact that I'm not the same reader as I was back in college. Of course, to some extent this is true of everybody. Usually we think of our evolution as readers as a form of progress, an improvement over time. But now I wonder if, with some types of text, I might not have become a worse reader over time. More closed-minded and judgmental, perhaps. Less willing to listen to what the authors have to say; more impatient to interrupt their thoughts with my own.

Contextually, the quotation above is part of a segue to D'Alembert's Dream. I found his comments specifically on Rameau's Nephew just as insightful.

Rameau's Nephew came into being because its author was willing to subject his own beliefs to the same brutal method of interrogation that he had used when cross-examining religion. Reconciling such an amoral experiment within Diderot's varied corpus (and life) is not an easy task. What kind of an author, after all, creates tear-jerking bourgeois dramas—morally edifying plays designed to enlighten and uplift his fellow citizens—while simultaneously giving birth, like Dr. Frankenstein, to a monster who utterly overwhelms the most cherished ideas of his creator?

missing

Michel Boussard, Le Neveu de Rameau, in Langres (Diderot's home town)

The genius of the book lies precisely in this contradiction. Perhaps in large part thanks to the book's almost postmodern view of morality and truth, Rameau's Nephew now seems like a modern hymn to the individual's rights to reject any unbending worldview—religious or secular—that impinges on the right to live freely. Fully conscious of the kind of text he had produced, Diderot consigned this manuscript to a locker filled with his other unpublishable texts. And yet this lively rendering of Moi's conversations with Lui is the lynchpin to understanding the second half of Diderot's writing career. Before our very eyes, Diderot is evolving past his role as philosopher, Encyclopedist, and playwright of sentimental dramas. While he continued to embrace the role of philosophe—the leader of the group of public intellectuals responsible for rationalizing human existence and knowledge—he had also learned to render the complexity of his own conflicted mind, giving a stage, in the process, to the most intemperate opinions and ideas. (p. 198-199)

After the completion of the Encyclopédie, Diderot closely reviewed its contents and was devastated to discover that the work had received heavy censorship without his knowledge.

missing

For more than two decades, he had sacrificed his larger literary aspirations to the Encyclopédie project, enduring repeated episodes of royal and religious harassment along the way. The whole enterprise now seemed to be of little worth to him.

What Diderot did not fully realize, in 1765, was that he had carried the ideas of the Enlightenment forward in a way that no person, not Voltaire, and certainly not Rousseau, had done before. Despite his own dissatisfaction with the result, he had unquestionably reached the goals he had set forth: as well as "serving humanity," he had produced a "revolution" in the minds of his readers by giving them the tools not only to think for themselves, but to stand up to the world's "tyrants, oppressors, [religious] fanatics and bigots." Under his direction, knowledge had been transformed into a form of political warfare. Perhaps more importantly, this spirit of Encyclopédism lived on well after the last volume appeared in 1765. By 1782, printers in Switzerland and Italy had produced another twenty thousand copies of the Enlightenment bible.

But there was another positive aspect to his years as Encyclopedist that Diderot never fully seemed to understand. Poring over tens of thousands of articles for twenty-five years had been far from a sterile exercise. Although he rarely said a positive word about the Encyclopédie after the final volumes appeared, his labor had given him a panoramic understanding of knowledge that few people have ever achieved. Indeed, decades of self-inflicted intellectual labor, coupled with his prodigious memory and an ability to see well beyond his own era, had prepared Diderot for the second and undoubtedly greatest phase of his career, the one he carried out in the shadows. (p. 175-176)

missing

L'Encyclopédie

One of my favorite parts of the Encyclopédie are its illustrations. Curran gives credit where credit is due:

missing

Textile Making, L'Encyclopédie

[Jean-Jacques] Goussier, who is among the greatest unsung heroes of the Encyclopédie, signed onto the project in 1747. Acting under Diderot's supervision, the illustrator toiled alongside a relatively small team of draftsmen for twenty-five years, producing well over 900 of the 2,885 illustrations. The labor involved in this process is, by contemporary standards, inconceivable. To begin with, many of the subjects treated in the plates necessitated an enormous amount of preliminary research before the first proper sketch was made. Goussier himself reportedly spent six weeks studying paper making in Montargis, a month studying how anchors were made in Cosne-sur-Loire, and six months in Champagne and Burgundy studying ironworks and the complicated manufacture of mirrors. [...]

The illustrations that [the printshop's] workers produced were as beautiful as they were revelatory. Presumably acting on Diderot's deep-seated belief that we are often deceived by exterior forms, Goussier and his team deconstructed the objects they were drawing. Thus the illustrators drew the working parts of hundreds of machines and contraptions, including windmills, sugarcane "factories," grandfather clocks, various naval vessels, coal mines, and artillery canons, among other things. Perhaps the most revealing "demystification" was that of the fantastic theatrical machines of the Paris Opéra, whose cunning mechanical elevators and moving stages were depicted in painstaking detail. (p 127-129)


missing

Theater Machinery, L'Encyclopédie


Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Here's Easy Rawlins, this book's narrator, remembering how he and the other Americans in his platoon liberated the Nazi death camps and befriended "a twelve-year-old boy who was bald and weighed forty-six pounds." They call him variously Little Tree or Tree Rat.

That night we were awakened by Tree's moaning. His little stomach had distended even more and he couldn't even hear us trying to soothe him.

The camp doctor said that he died from the richness of the food he'd been eating.

Vincent cried for a whole day after Tree Rat died. He blamed himself, and I suppose he had a share of the blame. But I'll never forget thinking how those Germans had hurt that poor boy so terribly that he couldn't even take in anything good. That was why so many Jews back then understood the American Negro: in Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years.

This excerpt does not even hint at the plot of this "hard-boiled" crime novel. But it does reflect the book's subtext, and it gives you a pretty good taste of Mosley's writing style.


Rory Smith, "Erling Haaland Will Be Taking Questions (He Likes)", New York Times, August 2, 2020

Rory Smith's contributions on the sport and business of soccer are always a good read, though his flirtations with purple prose can sometimes distract the reader from the author's main point. I like what he wrote about interviewing Erling Haaland, and soccer players in general, immediately after a match, because never before have I seen in print such an accurate description of what is, and is not, going on in your mind when you're on the field.

[Immediately after a match, players] are still caked in sweat. They are often still catching their breath. And much of what they have just done, out on the field, is not immediately explicable to them; it is, instead, a mixture of instinct and instruction internalized so deeply that the two are indistinguishable.

In other words, in the most critical moments of a game—in the only moments that will be worth talking about afterward—what's going on in your head can hardly be described as thought. It's just instinct and ingrained habit. The brain needs time to fully process these moments, or its memory of these moments, before it can coherently talk about them. And sometimes when you try to remember a particular moment, such as scoring a goal or stopping a shot, you find that you have no particular memory of it. You need a little time to construct the memory from the pieces you do remember, the pieces just before and just after the particular event you're trying to recall.

Postscript: After writing down these initial thoughts I discovered that there is a theory in exercise science called the Constrained Action Hypothesis which corroborates Rory Smith's observation. Gretchen Reynolds explains the hypothesis as positing that "our bodies know how to move better than our conscious minds do. The more we concentrate on or consciously tell our bodies what to do, this theory suggests, the less fluid and efficient our movement becomes." Reynolds' article links to one scholarly article on the topic; a quick google will find you many others.


George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind

About 30 pages into this classic in linguistics/cognitive science, I realized I was reading the wrong book. Judging by the back cover, what I meant to be reading was Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By, written with Mark Johnson—or maybe A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, which Lakoff co-authored with Mark Turner.

missing

In either case, it's a testament to Lakoff's ideas and writing style that, more than 200 pages in, I'm still happily reading the wrong book. Usually when this kind of thing happens—startng a book, thinking it was something else, but continuing to read it even after you've realized your mistake—it's with a mystery or some other light fare. Rarely, I think, does it happen with academic non-fiction.

Here's how Lakoff both introduces us to the gist of his book and explains its provocative title.

Many readers, I suspect, will take the title of this book as suggesting that women, fire and dengerous things have something in common—say, that women are fiery and dangerous. Most feminists I've mentioned it to have loved the title for that reason, though some have hated it for the same reason. But the chain of inference—from conjunction to categorization to commonality—is the norm. The inference is based on the common idea of what it means to be in the same category: things are categorized together on the basis of what they have in common. The idea that categories are defined by common properties is not only our everyday folk theory of what a category is, it is also the principal technical theory—one that has been with us for more than two thousand years.

The classical view that categories are based on shared properties is not entirely wrong. We often do categorize things on that basis. But that is only a small part of the story. In recent years it has become clear that categorization is far more complex than that. A new theory of categorization, called prototype theory, has emerged. It shows that human categorization is based on principles that extend far beyond those envisioned in the classical theory. One of our goals is to survey the complexities of the way people really categorize. For example, the title of this book was inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things. It also includes birds that are not dangerous, as well as exceptional animals, such as the platypus, bandicoot, and echidna. This is not simply a matter of categorization by common properties, as we shall see when we discuss Dyirbal classification in detail. (p. 5)

In the fields of linguistics and anthropology, descriptions of non-English languages or non-European cultures are often used to make a general point about all languages or all of humanity. It's easy to dismiss this kind of extrapolation with a shrug and a few words such as, "Well, those people are whackadoo—their behavior tells us nothing about my language or my culture." I know that reaction well, because I have employed it myself on numerous occasions. But Lakoff counters this kind of argument by using examples closer to home.

For example, as Lakoff points out, "The classical theory of categories gives no special importance to categories in the middle of a taxonomic hierarchy." (p. 46) In other words, if the human mind followed the classical theory to the letter, then it would have no preference for any particular level in the hierarchy over any other level. Yet research shows that the mind, in fact, does have preferences.

[Rosch, Berlin and other researchers have] found that the psychologically most basic level was in the middle of the taxonomic hierarchies:

SUPERORDINATE ANIMAL FURNITURE
BASIC LEVEL DOG CHAIR
SUBORDINATE RETRIEVER ROCKER

Lakoff goes on to list ways in which the middle categories are preferred. Research has found that this "basic level" is:

  • The level at which subjects are fastest at identifying category members. [For example, in laboratory experiments, people are able to identify a picture as that of a dog faster than they can identify it as a picture of an animal.]
  • The first level named and understood by children.
  • The level at which terms are used in neutral contexts. For example, There's a dog on the porch can be used in a neutral context, whereas special contexts are needed for There's a mammal on the porch or There's a wire-haired terrier on the porch. (p. 46)

The point being made here is not that the classical approach is wrong, but that it doesn't sufficiently describe the way our minds actually categorize the world. Things are more complicated than that.

Another way in which the classical view of categories fails is that, in fact, not all elements of a category share a set of properties which uniquely define that category. The balan category of women, fire and dangerous things serves as one example, but we do not need to look to aboriginal tribes for others. In fact, Wittgenstein took issue with the real-world category of Games long before Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things was published. Lakoff writes:

The first major crack in the classical theory is generally acknowledged to have been noticed by Wittgenstein. The classical category has clear boundaries, which are defined by common properties. Wittgenstein pointed out that a category like game does not fit the classical mold, since there are no common properties shared by all games. Some games involve mere amusement, like ring-around-the-rosy. Here there is no competition—no winning or losing—though in other games there is. Some games involve luck, like board games where a throw of the dice determines each move. Others, like chess, involve skill. Still others, like gin rummy, involve both. (p. 16)

Closely associated with the classical view of categories is mathematical logic, an area of study which includes syllogisms such as the proverbial All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. The classical view of categories is an essential component of this subfield of mathematics, as we can see if we unwind the syllogism in the following way: There is a category called Living Things and one property they have is that they will die, i.e. they are mortal. Men (aka People), being Living Things, share the property of being mortal. So Socrates, being an instance of a Man, must share all the properties of Men, including those inherited from its parent category of Living Things. Therefore he must be mortal.

It is clear that this logic, called first-order logic, would break down if members of the same category did not all inherit the properties of their super-categories, or if they did not all share all the properties of their own category. Lakoff refers to this system, which combines first-order logic with a classical view of categories, as objectivism. Lakoff identifies the following as characteristics of objectivism.

  • Thought is the mechanical manipulation of abstract symbols [employing steps such as those found in first-order logic].
  • The mind is an abstract machine, manipulating symbols essentially in the way a computer does, that is, by algorithmic computation.
  • Symbols that correspond to the external world are internal representations of external reality.
  • Machines that do no more than mechanically manipulate symbols that correspond to things in the world are capable of meaningful thought and reason. (p. xii-xiii)

Not only does Lakoff criticize objectivism on philosophical grounds, he takes aim at its real-world effects as well.

According to the objectivist paradigm, true knowledge of the external world can only be achieved if the system of symbols we use in thinking can accurately represent the external world. The objectivist conception of mind must therefore rule out anything that can get in the way of that: perception, which can fool us; the body, which has its frailties; society, which has its pressures and special interests; memories, which can fade; mental images, which can differ from person to person; and imagination—especially metaphor and metonymy—which cannot fit the objectively given external world.

It is because of our objectivist legacy that we view rationality as being purely mental, unemotional, detached—independent of imagination, of social functioning, and of the limitations of our bodies and our memories. It is our objectivist legacy that leads us to view reasoning as mechanical and to glorify those kinds of reasoning that in fact are mechanical. It is our objectivist legacy that leads us to view machines that are capable of algorithmic computation as being capable of human reason. And it is our objectivist legacy that we view it as progress when we are able to structure aspects of our physical and social environment to make it more like an objectivist universe. [...]

One of the reasons why the classical theory of categorization is becoming more, rather than less, popular, is that it is built into the foundations of mathematics and into much of our current computer software. Since mathematical and computer models are being used more and more as intellectual tools in the cognitive sciences, it is not surprising that there is considerable pressure to keep the traditional theory of classification at all costs. It fits the available intellectual tools, and abandoning it would require the development of new intellectual tools. And retooling is no more popular in the academy than in industry. (p. 183-184)

Finally, I have to say that, as much as I am enjoying this book, reader beware: it's not always easy going. Chapter 15, for example, assumes a strong background in mathematical logic, which I do not have. But persevere, or skim, or leapfrog over entire sections, and soon you're likely to be right back on board. I was, with Chapter 16, where Lakoff anticipates an argument in defense of objectivism—that, to deny objectivism is essentially the same as denying the existence of an external reality.

Coda. I decided that maybe I have been reading the right book after all when I reached Chapter 17, "Cognitive Semantics." I won't go into the loving detail that these ideas deserve, but I can't stop writing about this book without observing that the main point of this chapter is that much, if not most, of our language and thought is built on metaphorical extensions of very basic bodily experience—or rather, experiences, experiences so basic that we share them with infants (as well as, I would think, many, many different species of non-humans). These experiences can be classified into categories called schemas. Here is Lakoff's discussion of the CONTAINER schema.

Bodily experience: As Johnson points out, we experience our bodies both as containers and as things in containers (e.g., rooms) constantly.

Structural elements: INTERIOR, BOUNDARY, EXTERIOR.

Basic logic: Like most image schemas, its internal structure is arranged so as to yield a basic "logic." Everything is either inside a container or out of it—P or not P. If container A is in container B and X is in A, then X is in B—which is the basis for modus ponens: If all A's are B's and X is an A, then X is a B. As we shall see in case study 2, the CONTAINER schema is the basis of the Boolean logic of classes.

Sample metaphors: The visual field is understood as a container, e.g., things come into and go out of sight. Personal relationships are also understood in terms of containers: one can be trapped in a marriage and get out of it. (p. 272)


Alex Marcus, "The Dark Side of Social Media Screening Technology", Medium, June 11, 2020

The events of the last month or so have inspired a kind of national introspection. We Americans are beginning to recognize the systemic racial prejudice in U.S. law enforcement. This does not mean that our society, or even our police officers, is or are overtly racist. Unlike apartheid systems where racism is legally encoded, our version of systemic racism is much more subtle. For most of us, it's unconscious. (See the discussion of "A Hard Look at How We See Race," by Sam Scott, below.)

This public discussion about one type of social injustice in our country gives us a unique chance to address a different type of social injustice before it becomes a serious problem. Are we up to the task? It would be reasonable to have one's doubts. But Alex Marcus is sounding an alarm, and we would do well to wake up right now instead of hitting the snooze button and trying to address the problem later.

Marcus's article is concerned with bias in artificial intelligence. This is a growing genre of writing. Articles covering this topic tend to deal with theoretical issues that seem remote from the everyday world. Rarely do they document real-world harm caused by bias in artificial intelligence.

missing

"The Dark Side of Social Media Screening Technology" stands out because it calls our attention to a case of real-world harm. Marcus heads the recruiting department of a social services agency: it is his job to review resumes and pick candidates who will be called in for a face-to-face interview. He describes how his organization purchased social media background reports on finalist candidates for a particular position. The software read in the public social media accounts of each candidate—not just what they posted, but also which posts they "liked." At right, you see both a tweet that one of the candidates liked and the fact that it was flagged for political extremism.

In this particular case, there was a human being (me) assessing the usefulness of the information we received in this custom report. However, this technology is also being used to assess the “riskiness” of very large numbers of candidates at once. And that’s where things gets scary. [...]

Let’s say you and 99 other people all applied for the same job, but because you are a person of color and tend to like posts by and about people of color, the algorithms (created by programmers who are 71% White, 20% Asian, and only 5% Black) deem your posts politically extreme or obscene. As a recruiter, I see 100 applicants sorted into a color-coded indicator scheme that tells me where they fall on the spectrum of riskiness. Green = safe, red = risky. Since I have limited time to review candidates (and let’s face it, anything that can help me narrow down the pile in a reasonable way is welcome), I focus on the “green” resumes. And I will never even see your resume because the algorithms have confined you to the red zone.

As Marcus points out, currently there are no government regulations meant to protect the public from this kind of racial bias. Clearly, this needs to change before this type of real-world harm becomes entrenched in the hiring process.

We need to go far beyond this type of regulation, however. This article's concerns center on racial prejudice in AI, which is serious enough to justify legal controls over its use, but such controls would not tackle the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the trust we have in artificial intelligence, and the trust that we place in the people doing AI. I am one of those people doing AI. I'm not talking about robots taking over the world here. I'm talking about subtle ways in which computer algorithms are likely to warp our world by controlling what is called to our attention.

Most of my work in natural language processing—that is, trying to get computers to understand human language—has been in the legal and business news industries. If my programs made a mistake, it might cost someone a little bit of money, but on average my software saved customers both time and money. A problem with my software never cost anyone their livelihood. At one point in my career, however, I was asked to work on an application designed to identify "disgruntled" employees by implementing a psychologist's algorithms into computer code. The algorithm might flag an employee as possibly disgruntled if, for example, the number of "unhappiness-words" in the employee's emails exceeded the number of "happiness-words" by a certain ratio. The psychologist who created the algorithms had no empirical justification for either the words in the application's various lists or the ratio thresholds selected; he or she was simply going on a gut feeling.

When I voiced disquiet over the reliability of the program I was developing, I was told that the software wasn't designed to identify disgruntled employees per se, but only to winnow down the field from the potentially very large set of all of a company's employees. This is a very similar argument to the one given when Alex Marcus expressed his concerns to the company making the social media reports: the software was not intended to make decisions itself, he was told, but only to assist people making those decisions.

In other words, AI software companies seek to protect themselves from liability by prescribing how their software ought to be used; yet they make no attempt to ensure that their software be used only in these unharmful ways. This is how they reap profits from the software they develop while at the same time refusing to take responsibility for how their software may do harm in the real world.

Individually, we should not let ourselves be too seduced by Alexa's human-like behavior, nor too enthralled by the prospect of self-driving cars. We need to remain skeptical, and resolute in our skepticism when the more gullible (or greedy) among us refer to our skepticism as technophobic or Luddite. As a society, we need to require technology companies to take responsibility for the real-world consequences of their machinery, and not allow them to absolve themselves of their responsibility with a fine-print legal disclaimer on how their technology is supposed to be used.


Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

On the year of study in Utrecht, forced on Boswell by his father:

At first, lonely and out of his element, Boswell fell into a catastrophic depression. Unfortunately, his entire journal for this period is lost, because when he left Holland he sent it to Scotland for safekeeping, and on the way it somehow disappeared. We do, however, have letters he sent to Temple and to other friends, and as Pottle says, they show that he was often "a soul in torment."

The correspondence with Temple survives only by an extraordinary fluke. In the nineteenth century an Englishman happened to make a purchase at a shop in Boulogne, and noticed that it was wrapped in a piece of paper with the signature of James Boswell. Following up on that, he was able to retrieve no fewer than ninety-seven of Boswell's letters to Temple that had fallen into the hands of a vendor of wastepaper. Temple had saved them, of course, but after his death his son-in-law left England for France to escape his creditors. Why he took the Boswell letters with him is unknown, as is the way they got into the hands of the French wastepaper dealer. (p. 105-106)

This is a fine anecdote, worth telling in its own right, but it rang especially true for me, because I have lived in a country where this is entirely conceivable. In Morocco, when you buy a loaf of bread, you are typically given a piece of paper to hold it by. This is in deference to the possibility that your hand may be dirty, and you don't want it to soil the bread that your are bringing home, presumably for consumption by your entire family. In the "hign-end" stores this will usually be a clean sheet of something which resembles waxed paper, but in the dingier shops in the countryside it is entirely possible that the "clean" sheet of paper will come from a looseleaf notebook. In the oral history of Peace Corps-Morocco Volunteers, there is the story of an English teacher being handed a loaf of bread with the classroom notes of one of that same Volunteer's students. Didactic variations of the story have the student currently studying for—or having just failed—the baccalaureate examination.

So, yes, part of the charm of Damrosch's book consists of the little anecdotes that pop up from one page to the next. But he's equally as good when focusing on a particular point that he intends to make part of the "big picture."

Boswell had mercurial mood swings that would almost certainly be diagnosed today as bipolar disorder. One of his grandfathers had been a victim of the same affliction, and he had a brother who had to be institutionalized. No wonder he was always alert to possible signs of danger in himself. As for Johnson, from his teenage years onward there were extended episodes of incapacitating depression. In addition, he had strange physical mannerisms: tics and gesticulations and puffings of breath that startled people who met him, and were an obstacle to any conventional career. Today he would probably be diagnosed as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. We now recognize these behaviors as neurological disorders, but to Johnson they were frightening symptoms of incipient madness. (p. 5)

And finally, let me draw your attention to an early poem of Johnson's, originally written in Latin, which despite translation and the passage of time, manages to resonate even today.

            Clear as glass the stream still wanders through 
            green fields.
                                 Here, as a boy, I bathed
            my tender limbs, unskilled, frustrated, while
            with gentle voice my father from the bank
            taught me to swim.
                                              The branches made 
            a hiding place; the bending trees concealed
            the water in daytime darkness.
                                                              Now
            hard axes have destroyed those ancient shades:
            the pool lies naked, even to distant eyes.
            But the water, never tiring, still runs on
            in the same channel: once hidden, now exposed,
                    still flowing.

                                            - Translated by John Wain (p. 15)
            

Or maybe the poem resonates today not despite the passage of time, but thanks to it—because of what we have done to our world in the 250 years since these words were written.


Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than watching someone else who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

This quotation from Snyder's book, the first sentence in particular, reminds me of the following, author unknown:

Research into the psychological process of reading shows that—rather than being passive—it is a highly interactive process which the readers manage by employing various strategies. Some of these strategies can be seen as analogous to the buttons of a modern-day media player: engaged readers routinely "pause" the textual "input stream" to give themselves the chance to think about what they have just read; they "rewind" the stream to remind themselves of something that came before; and they may even "fast-forward" to parts of the text that lie ahead.

missing

When I first read Snyder's first sentence quoted above, I immediately stopped reading. I thought about the ramifications of his idea. At the same time, self-consciously, I realized that I had stopped reading and started thinking. This reminded me of the second quotation above. I began to formulate a theory, a theory based on two axioms, axioms expressed in these two quotations. Since ever-changing visual stimuli preclude deep thought (as Snyder points out), and since committed reading is ipso facto a start-stop-think-repeat engagement with the text (as described by our anonymous author), it follows that

The more you watch (as in television), the less you think, whereas the more you read, the more you think.

Consider, now, a nation of citizens who have stopped using the reading process to absorb their news, in favor of the watching process. What would very likely happen can be summed up in these words, from a quarter of a century ago, by Mark Crispin Miller:

Big brother is you, watching.

(Feel free to pause for a moment, to ponder how this may or may not be true. Is it just a clever line, or is there really something in it?)

I began this essay with an apparent digression away from the main topic—the main topic being Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, and the apparent digression being my response to a couple of sentences from the text—because it's a good illustration of how this book so often makes the reader take pause and think. Over and over again, I found my thoughts wandering from the text, not because what he had to say bored me, but because what he had to say triggered memories and new ideas. When I first reached out for it, the book's small size and political nature reminded me of Mao's Little Read Book, though Snyder's is slightly larger and thinner than Mao's. It might have been interesting, in a provocative kind of way, to package Snyder's work in the same dimensions as Mao's—perhaps even with the same kind of plastic cover as many editions of Mao's—but colored red, white and blue instead.

The quotation above is from the ninth of Snyder's twenty lessons. It is entitled "Be Kind to Our Language," and it begins with this piece of advice:

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

What the book's twenty short lessons amount to is a survivor's guide for a citizen who finds him- or herself in an increasingly authoritarian society. Each lesson has a title and begins with a preamble like the above. And, following each lesson's preamble, Snyder then goes on to demonstrate the usefulness of the lesson with examples from history and literature.

For instance, in this particular lesson he begins by describing the work of a linguist who noted that Hitler's selection of words "rejected legitimate opposition". Then he segues to the problem of thinking while watching the news (partially quoted above), which brings him to the use of language, books and television screens in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. To encourage reading he first suggests a selection of classics, then adds: "One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again." Next follows a list of works from Soviet-dominated, post-World War II Eastern Europe. He finishes off his chapter with quotations from the New Testament on excessive wealth, insufficient humility, and the value of truth.

Snyder is an apt guide for an exploration of authoritarian governments, for he is a historian by trade, and his specialty is Europe's struggle with the very worst of the twentieth century. Since those dark days are not far behind us, we have reliable accounts of how the authoritarian regimes back then took root and thrived. Snyder generously shares examples of the way individuals succumbed to, as well as resisted against, the tyranny of those times.

My chief criticism of the book is that I think it would have been more powerful—not to mention more persuasive to those who need persuading—if Snyder had been a little more circumspect in pointing out the historical parallels to our present. I personally find the book most impactful and inspiring when the author refrains from what could be construed as "partisan bias." He might have done better to have trusted his readers more: to have given them the space to pause their reading, for a moment, and find the parallels for themselves.

(Let me end with the admission that the anonymous quotation at the start of this essay is, in fact, at least partly of my own invention. I can't find the source that I think I am quoting. I am sure, however, that I've read something very much like that at sometime in my past. Perhaps we should just say, paraphrasing the movies, that it was "inspired by a real text.")


Mary McAuliffe, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends

Whether your thing is literature (Proust, Stein, Shakespeare & Company), art and architecture (Monet, Le Corbusier), classical music (Satie, Stravinsky, Ravel) or movements (Dada, Surrealism, fascism), this well-researched, gossipy book will keep you entertained.

It will also, no doubt, inform you. For example, it opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn't just democracy that we Americans wanted to export to Europe in the last century.

That October [of 1923], the French for a second time since 1916 refused to allow the showing of D. W. Griffith's motion picture, The Birth of a Nation. On one hand, the government was concerned that scenes showing the Ku Klux Klan's activities in the American South would be offensive to black residents and visitors from France's overseas colonies—holding "an entire people up to ridicule and hatred," as one deputy from Réunion put it. Not only did these scenes undercut French ideals of equality, dating from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but they posed a direct insult to the many soldiers from the French colonies, for whose significant contribution to the war effort the government was exceedingly grateful, and on whom it counted should war again arise.

Just as important to the government's response, though, was the impact of all those American tourists in Paris, most of whom came for a good time and brought their lifestyles and prejudices with them, including their insistence on segregation in public places. The French for the most part did not see things that way, leading to clashes when Americans in nightclubs and other public venues insisted on the ouster of black customers.


Sy Montgomery, "Frans de Waal Embraces Animal Emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’" (Review of Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal), The New York Times, February 25, 2019

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

So begins Montgomery's review. These two paragraphs immediately threw me back to my Introduction to Philosophy class, taken in my first semester of college a long, long time ago. There I learned that Descartes had argued that animals were machines, incapable of emotion or pain, and that to let ourselves be duped by their howls and whimpers was simply a form of anthropomorphism. Even a freshman could tell that Descartes was the one being duped—either by what he thought was a logical consequence of his philosophical position, or by the philosophical position itself.

Enough about Descartes. Back to Sy Montgomery's review of Frans de Waal's latest book. Borrowing from the book, the review presents one piece of evidence after another which indicates that animals do have emotions, and that the study of these emotions is both possible and worthwhile... Then the review ends with these two paragraphs, neatly bookending the first pair.

A few years ago, I found myself in a situation almost identical to the one de Waal describes at the start of his book. My friend Octavia was old, sick and dying. We hadn’t looked into each other’s eyes for a long while — nearly a fifth of her life span. I came to say goodbye. When she caught sight of me, Octavia, with great effort, using some of the last of her limited strength, rose to greet me and enveloped me in her arms.

There were a few differences between the opening scene of “Mama’s Last Hug” and the one between Octavia and me. Mama and Van Hooff shared an ancestor perhaps five million years ago; my friend and I had last shared an ancestor in the Precambrian Era — before limbs or eyes had evolved, back when practically everyone was a tube. Van Hooff and Mama had almost identical facial muscles and skeletal structure; Octavia’s mouth was in her armpits, she had no skeleton at all and her arms were equipped with 1,600 suckers. Octavia was a giant Pacific octopus. Yet she and I cared for each other — enough for both of us to delight in one last, tender, emotional embrace.


Joshua Barone, "Review: A Peerless ‘War and Peace’ Film Is Restored to Its Former Glory," The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2019

missing

Janus Films

I can't wait until Criterion releases this on DVD—it seems to me that the days when this would come to theaters outside New York and L.A. are long gone.

It is no exaggeration to say that Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1960s adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel “War and Peace” is a singular feat of filmmaking that can never be repeated.

If it were, a director would have to match the resources at Bondarchuk’s disposal — a virtually unlimited budget, props from Russia’s great museums, thousands of extras from the Soviet army — and engineer sprawling battle sequences using no computer-generated effects.

The extraordinary support behind “War and Peace” is apparent in every lavish frame of its seven-plus hours, and it is staggering to witness — even more so in the new, meticulously assembled digital restoration opening Friday at Film Society of Lincoln Center, where it is screening in four parts.

A home release by Criterion is in the works, but there’s a reason Lincoln Center is showing it only in Walter Reade Theater, its largest. “If any film deserves to be seen on a big screen, it’s this,” said Curtis Tsui, a producer with Criterion. “There is no substitute for that.”


John Kaag, "Need a New Self-Help Guru? Try Aristotle" (Review of Aritstotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life by Edith Hall), The New York Times, January 23, 2019

There's a lacuna in my (shallow) knowledge of the ancient Greeks, and that lacuna has to do with Aristotle. Nothing I've encountered which refers to this last-born of the Socrates-Plato-Aristotle philosophical triumvirate has ever motivated me to learn anything else about him. Until now.

In our culture, virtuous moderation and prudence rarely sell but, taking her cues from Aristotle, Hall offers a set of reasons to explain why they should.

Hall’s new book clears a rare middle way for her reader to pursue happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, usually translated as well-being or prosperity. This prosperity has nothing to do with the modern obsession with material success but rather “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” It sounds platitudinous enough, but it isn’t, thanks to Hall’s tight yet modest prose. “Aristotle’s Way” carefully charts the arc of a virtuous life that springs from youthful talent, grows by way of responsible decisions and self-reflection, finds expression in mature relationships, and comes to rest in joyful retirement and a quietly reverent death. Easier said than done, but Aristotle, Hall explains, is there to help.[...]

I finished Hall’s book largely convinced but equally worried: Was this the sort of message that could reach the readership that needed it most? Could a virtuous happiness trump greed and cynicism? Maybe. Aristotle was the first to observe that philosophy, and particularly ethics, has a deep public relations problem. Those most in need of ethical training are probably the least likely to spend $27 on a moral guidebook. There is, however, hope. “Aristotle’s Way” is blazed by a counterfactual that Hall and Aristotle routinely employ: Is a life of vice a truly happy one? The answer is firm yet compassionate: “No.” As Hall explains, Aristotle, who lived “at close quarters with the tyrannical Macedonian royal family, the ruthless Phillip II and his scheming wives, concubines and lieutenants, all jockeying for position at court, seems to have meticulously observed the misery of immoral people. … These miserable reprobates, who can’t stand to be alone with themselves, can’t fully experience their own joys and sorrows, as there is a civil war in their souls.” Perhaps this is precisely the moment to consider the impossibility of happiness without virtue.


"What Dan Abramov Doesn't Know,"O'Reilly Programming Newsletter, Jan. 12, 2019

The newsletter does not identify the author, but I appreciated his or her synopsis of the Dan Abromov blog post more than the blog post itself. The synopsis succinctly and very neatly captures the most interesting points of the blog post. Moreover, the impostor syndrom and the Dunning-Kruger effect Abromov refers to are certainly not limited to fields in technology; for this reason the synopsis qualifies as "of interest" to a much larger audience than the one it was targeting.

"There is often an unrealistic expectation that an experienced engineer knows every technology in their field….What's more, no matter how experienced you get, you may still find yourself switching between feeling capable, inadequate (impostor syndrome), and overconfident (Dunning–Kruger effect)." At the end of 2018, Dan Abramov, the creator of Redux, posted an incomplete list of programming topics that people often wrongly assume that he knows on his blog. The takeaways: "Even your favorite developers may not know many things that you know. Regardless of your knowledge level, your confidence can vary greatly. [And] experienced developers have valuable expertise despite knowledge gaps." (In a later post, he also shared some things he does know that he considers valuable.)


Brian Morton, "Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!", The New York Times, January 8, 2019

In this essay, Morton wrestles with the question of how much we should let our moral sensitivities prevent us from appreciating, or at least sampling, the literature of the past. For myself, I'm most often confronted with the issue when there is a call to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the canon because of its use of the word nigger. This is not a pretty word, especially when used by a white person. But if you don't want to hear a white person use the word, then you'd better stay away from Huck Finn.

You can defend Mark Twain's use of the word with (at least) two arguments. First, he was writing in the vernacular. He wanted to write the way people talked back then, and it would have been a lie for him to use some other word or expression to refer to a black person. Second, just because he is depicting the racial prejudice of his times does not mean that he or his book are in any way promoting that prejudice.

But let's suppose that neither of these arguments is true. Let's suppose that Twain was a racist, and in his writing he tended to use the word rather more often than the characters in his fiction. Would that, in itself, be justification for despising, and refusing to read, his work?

This is the question Morton's essay attempts to address, focusing not on Mark Twain's use of the n-word but on the anti-Semitism of Edith Wharton. His answer is that we should see the literature of the past as a one-directional time machine.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.

If we were to sign up for a trip to the New York of 1905 — Wharton’s New York — we’d understand, even before buying our tickets, that we were visiting a place where people’s attitudes were very different from ours. We’d know that nearly everyone we’d meet, even the best, most generous minds — rich or poor, male or female, white or black — would hold opinions that would be unacceptable today. [...]

Knowing all this before we went back in time, met Wharton and discovered that some of her opinions were abhorrent, we’d be prepared. We wouldn’t be outraged or shocked.

Instead, we’d probably be curious. We’d probably be interested in exploring the question of how one of the most intelligent and fearless minds of her time was afflicted by moral blind spots that are obvious to us today.

I find this very persuasive. Morton clinches the argument when he tries to imagine how future generations might look upon our own literature (and cinema, I would add).

To take an example almost at random: Most of us rely on technology that can be traced to child labor or even slave labor. We know this — or we should know this — but we don’t think about it much. When we’re texting or using social media, we don’t tend to be troubled by the thought that the cobalt in our phones may have been extracted by 10-year-olds in Katanga working 12-hour shifts for a dollar a day. We don’t stop short, seized by the realization that taking part in the fight against global inequality is more urgent than anything else we could possibly be doing. We finish the text or the tweet or the email and go on with our lives.

If you or I were to write a novel with a passage in which someone takes a casual glance at his phone, how might this strike a reader from the future — someone whose understanding of human interconnectedness is far more acute than our own? I’m guessing that readers from the future might find our callousness almost unbearable, and might have to remind themselves that despite the monstrousness into which we could descend in passages like this, some of what we were saying might be worth listening to.


Susan Scarf Merrell, "In Praise of Iris Murdoch", The New York Times, January 3, 2019

missing

Evening Standard/Getty Images

Part childhood memoir, part informal lit crit, Merrell's observations on the writing of Iris Murdoch, for me, rang true over and over again.

After all these years, I have to ask myself why did I need to keep Iris Murdoch’s novels to myself? Was it simply because the books were “dirty”? They weren’t really, at least not in the way of dirty books, which I would find my way to later on. They were frank about the omnipresence of sex, of longing, the wish to be taken seriously, of grown-ups with sudden childish passions that seemed, at least to me, to be true. Her people voiced prejudice, held misguided notions, and Murdoch took them down, but with understanding and affection. Marriages ended, things were said, there was way too much drinking and even some fighting, and life went on. Yes, in Murdoch’s world, characters behaved badly and were not always punished for it. And even if they were, they found their way to reasonable fates.

In my “Read this” and “I have a book for you” family, no one had ever mentioned Murdoch. Her novels weren’t part of our approved canon. And yet I adored her and her belief that love could come from any direction and in any guise, that there were different kinds and each of them was good. Men were sometimes superior to women, and sometimes women were in charge. Children were wise and adults idiotic, and everyone was attempting some humanly self-interested version of their best.

I especially appreciated Merrell's "Iris Murdoch Starter Kit." I've long been looking for a trustworthy list of Murdoch's best novels, which I could rely on to create my own itinerary. With a writer of Murdoch's productivity (26 novels), and a reader having my limited amount of time (let's just say I'm probably a few years past the midpoint of my life), I'm perfectly willing to let the right person guide me. Merrell, I think, is such a person. My only gripe is that she fails to mention the book which served as my introduction into the fan club—Under the Net, her very first novel.


"World Cup Diary," Howler, Fall, 2018

Howler is my soccer magazine, and I was mildly disappointed that they didn't have a World Cup preview issue. But they made up for it with their World Cup recap.

missing

"July 2, 2018: Energized ... or Paralyzed," by David Rudin

In sporting terms, the crowning of a champion is the worst part of the World Cup. The tournament's best moments tend to occur when the pretense that it is wholly made up of monomaniacal contenders is dropped and everyone can focus on smaller pleasures: a goal, a meaningless win, a shared experience. These fleeting moments of excitement on the world stage make the tournament compelling—not enough to justify the quadrennial undertaking's financial and moral corruption, but compelling nonetheless. At some point, though, the remaining players remember that a shiny bauble is at stake and lose all ability to think of anything else. Queue the cautious slogs through extra time. Going into Monday's matches, then, it was not immediately clear if Russia had broken, whether a strange win or two away from a title would energize or paralyze the teams that had yet to fly home. [...]

missing

Belgium suddenly being one of the two or three strongest teams in this World Cup apparently left [Belgium manager Roberto Martinez] unmoved. Out his team came, talented and inchoate as ever. They played that compelling brand of football managers surely discuss in job interviews. One problem: they couldn't finish. Then Japan scored on the counter-attack. And again. Weird four-minute spans like that can alter the fate of an entire golden generation, which is absurd. Also absurd: The sight of newly-relegated Nacer Chadli and children's party entertainer Marouane Fellaini coming on to bail out the likes of Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku. But it worked, which is to say football can be wonderfully absurd. Fellaini scored as did Chadli, following a Romelu Lukaku dummy, the gif of which should spam the inbox of any writer who ever again dares to dismiss him as merely "powerful."

missing

July 6, 2018: "A Day of Dangerous Control," by Jomo Hendrickson

Kick-off and both teams look poised. The ball moves freely. Brazil searching out Neymar against the Belgian right back. Belgium channeling itself through De Bruyne. It's so strange that Brazil is leaning on its defensive prowess. The kings of embarrassing teams with their offensive style and class and what we're finding most impressive is their defense? Feels wrong.

missing

I almost want to jump out of my seat when I see De Bruyne glide a ball over to a teammate. Does anyone else really appreciate the timing and accuracy of his delivery? His teammates surely do. He's the difference for me. He's the type of magical player that World Cups need. Croatia has Luka. France has Pogba. The other teams have spirit and determination, which sometimes can win out over magic. Most times magic wins though–all it takes is a single, glittery sprinkle to make the difference. Belgium scored! And then they scored again with a brilliant strike from De Bruyne.


Gretchen Reynolds, "Even a 10-Minute Walk May Be Good for the Brain" The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2018

You might think I'm making this up, but I've long noticed that taking a short walk can help me come up with software programming solutions that never occur to me while sitting in front of my computer. I also frequently remember little things related to the problem that I've neglected to do.

Ten minutes of mild, almost languorous exercise can immediately alter how certain parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with one another and improve memory function, according to an encouraging new neurological study. The findings suggest that exercise does not need to be prolonged or intense to benefit the brain and that the effects can begin far more quickly than many of us might expect. [...]

“It was exciting to see those effects occurring so quickly and after such light exercise,” says Michael Yassa, the director of the U.C. Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and senior co-author of the new study with Hideaki Soya of the University of Tsukuba.

The findings show that exercise can change people’s brains and minds right away, he says, without requiring weeks of working out. Even better, the exertion required can be so slight as to allow almost anyone, even those who are out of shape or possibly disabled, to complete the exercise.


Joseph E. Stiglitz, "On Top of the World" (Review of Winner Take All by Anand Giridharadas), The New York Times, August 26, 2018

From the Crusades to colonialism, from the Final Solution to Operation Iraqi Freedom—everyone claims to want only to make the world a better place. Big Tech is no different.

First came the books describing just how much worse economic inequality had become over the past 20 years, with all the dramatic political implications now impossible to ignore. Then there were the tomes about globalization (including my own, I admit), detailing the West’s unfettered pursuit of neoliberal policies that abetted all this unfairness.

Well, prepare for a new genre: books gently and politely skewering the corporate titans who claim to be solving such problems. It’s an elite that, rather than pushing for systemic change, only reinforces our lopsided economic reality — all while hobnobbing on the conference circuit and trafficking in platitudes. [...]

In a series of chapters centered on different individuals who are part of this rarefied class, Giridharadas exposes the rationalizations of the 0.001 percent who actually believe they are making the world a better place. The Sacklers helped create the opioid crisis but give money to important causes. The chief executive of Cinnabon thinks that being transparent about the fat and sugar she peddles offsets the harm her company creates. It’s a land of PowerPoint presentations and cuddly good intentions. Giridharadas calls this prevailing ethos “MarketWorld,” made up of people who want “to do well and do good.” [...]

Like the dieter who would rather do anything to lose weight than actually eat less, this business elite would save the world through social impact investing, entrepreneurship, sustainable capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, artificial intelligence, market-driven solutions. They would fund a million of these buzzwordy programs rather than fundamentally question the rules of the game — or even alter their own behavior to reduce the harm of the existing distorted, inefficient and unfair rules. Doing the right thing — and moving away from their win-win mentality — would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives. As Giridharadas puts it, people wanted to do “virtuous side projects instead of doing their day jobs more honorably.”

In order to really have an economy with the greatest opportunity for all, the kind of economy they seem to champion, the MarketWorlders would have to pay high levels of corporate and personal income tax, offer decent wages to their workers, allow unions, fund public schools (instead of pet charter projects) and support some form of single payer health care and campaign finance reform. One simply can’t arrive at a more economically equal reality when the rungs of the ladder are so far apart.


Neil Genzlinger, "Ira Berlin Is Dead at 77; Groundbreaking Historian of Slavery," The New York Times, June 8, 2018

Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

Carl J. Ekberg, François Vallé and His World

Thanks to some recent online genealogy, I've learned a few things about the French side of the family. First, that we descend from a certain François Vallé, one of the wealthiest men in 18th century Upper Louisiana. Second, that much of his wealth derived from his slave holdings. And, third, that at least one reason I did not go to college as a trust-fund kid is that my connection to Monsieur Vallé was through his fille naturelle (illegitimate daughter), Marguerite. Historically speaking, it is almost certain that her mother was a slave. What we don't know is whether she was an African slave or a Native American slave.

To learn more about Marguerite, I turned to a biography of her father, François Vallé and His World by Carl Ekberg. I learned a little bit about Marguerite, but absolutely nothing about her mother, the slave. This isn't for lack of interest on Ekberg's part—he devotes an entire chapter to Vallé's slaves, who their parents and children were, where and how they lived. He reveals nothing about the mother because there is almost no record of her existence.

Ekberg made me aware of slavery as a interesting and valuable field of study. I discuss his book in more detail in a review, further down on this page.

missing

It was entirely thanks to Ekberg that I decided to read Tiya Miles' The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. And, a few months after that, I chanced upon a back page in the Times and, as I was now doubly interested in the topic, my eye was caught by the headline of Neil Genzlinger's obituary of Ira Berlin. I am not able to assess how well Genzlinger summarizes Berlin's life as a historian, but if one of his aims was to make the reader interested in Berlin's work, Genzlinger has succeeded.

[His research revealed] that slavery had numerous variations and that the experience of African-Americans in the United States was not one story but many.

He showed, for instance, that the North was not as free of slavery as many people thought.

“New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and slave rebellions,” he noted. “Everything we connect with slavery in the South was there.”

But that did not mean slavery was the same everywhere, especially once the plantation system took hold in the South. He distinguished between “societies with slaves” — where slavery was just one form of labor — and more brutal “slave societies,” where (as he wrote in “Many Thousands Gone”) “slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, teacher and student.”

Genzlinger describes Ira Berlin's efforts to reveal how slavery was experienced from the point of view of the slaves themselves. In the 1930s, the WPA had made recordings of former slaves talking about their lives. These testaments had sat for years in the Library of Congress, for the most part unavailable and unknown. Working with two co-editors, however, Berlin transcribed the recordings for publication.

In her book, The Dawn of Detroit, Tiya Miles focuses on slavery in much the same spirit as Ira Berlin. Like Berlin with the WPA recordings, she wants to document slavery's effect on the slaves themselves. She also shows us that the significance of the role of African and indigenous American slaves in U.S, history has intentionally been glossed over or ignored.

My own family tree corroborates this contention. I can trace multiple lines of my family back to Europe, but the moment one line involves a slave, that branch of the tree immediately becomes obscure. I can't even be sure of the name of Marguerite Vallé's mother. There is simply no record of her existence. But the roots of her father, the white man, go back a number of generations to Europe, however humble those roots may have been.

Working with scant historical material, Miles provides a single glimpse into the lives of dozens of African and Native American slaves living in and around present-day Detroit. But it's only a glimpse: history knows little about these people outside of this one particular event in their lives. It's as if you have a photograph of a single dramatic moment in a sporting event—a player about to release a jump shot, for example. You know the two teams playing, and the names of the more famous players who were on the court at that moment. You even know the outcome of the game. But you know nothing about that particular player apart from the fact at some point in the game he or she made a jump shot. And we have no information on whether the ball actually went into the net.

Most of the primary historical sources available to Miles are church records. Usually these concern baptisms, marriages and funerals, but sometimes the priest would scribble additional information that falls outside these parameters.

The story of one enslaved woman in the priests' notations also demands to be told but resists full reconstruction because of the starkness of the record. She was an unnamed "Panis slave" [i.e., a Native American slave] doubly confined in the state of slavery and a cell of the military prison in the winter before Pontiac's siege. The reason for her incarceration went unstated, but it was within the walls of the prison house that she gave birth to a baby, Marie Joseph, with the aid of a midwife. The enslaved infant was baptized "with condition" in January of 1763. [That is, her baptism would be valid only if she was also educated in the precepts of the Catholic Church.] The baby had apparently been intended to go to "Monsieur Goduel Major commandant pour le roy de Detroit"—the commander of the fort—but was given instead to the master gunsmith. This change in the plan of who would gain ownership rights to the infant raises questions about paternity as well as clandestine deals between men of influence. It also begs questions about the unnamed mother's imprisonment, her reaction to her and her child's lamentable situation, and her fate after release, if indeed she survived the ordeal. Had this woman been confined because she fought her owner or someone else who had taken advantage of her lack of power? Had she attempted to run away in the weeks before giving birth, realizing that her child would inherit her unfree condition? Certainly other enslaved women in the coming decades in Detroit would take such drastic measures in order to gain a slice of freedom from authoritarianism and abuse. Although we cannot identify the precise conditions of this particular indigenous woman's life, we can try to image the bleakness of her circumstances and the possibility that she rebelled against them. (p. 55)

This extract from The Dawn of Detroit is representative of the book as a whole in two ways. First, the passage illustrates a technique which Miles employs throughout her history. This portrait of the unnamed Panis slave is short, comprising just a few sentences, so in and of itself, the passage doesn't leave much of an impression. But the book offers one such portrait after another, with the result being a patchwork quilt of this heretofore unknown segment of the society. Richard White, in a review on the back cover, calls this technique "pointillist."

Second, this quotation is representative of the book as a whole in the way that it segues from strict documentation of the historical record into imagination. This technique cannot be described as free use of the imagination because Miles restricts her inventiveness to possibilities that have historical precedent—to what is probable, rather than merely possible. There is risk in this approach, of course, since it can sometimes cross the line from history into historical fiction. But in capable hands this technique can deepen a history with the insights it offers rather than detract from it through groundless embellishment.

To put this another way: yes, in this book the author has an "agenda"—that is, she is passionate about her topic and has a stake in it. When it comes to slavery, for Tiya Miles, it's personal. She wants to open the undocumented lives of her subjects to public awareness, and one of her overarching themes concerns the myriad ways in which slaves in Detroit resisted the system that subjected them. All this is true. But for the most part she does not let her passion overrule her duties as a historian. Her writing clearly marks the boundary between the historical record and her imagination. Furthermore, with the dearth of original material available, it's a better book with the gaps in the record provisionally filled in than it would have been with all of them left empty.

Miles makes you aware that the American history most of us harbor is terribly incomplete.

In popular understandings of Midwestern history, Native women who were owned by Frenchmen have faded into the background behind more positive narratives of Native women who were married to them. But unfree indigenous women lived and struggled in Detroit, too, making up the largest portion of the enslaved population. (p. 64)

In the same vein, she points out the often overlooked difference between French and English/American colonial attitudes toward race and slavery. George Rogers Clark was commissioned by Virginia to launch an attack on French settlements in Upper Louisiana (which were then held by the British), and in 1778 his forces took control of the river towns of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in what is now Illinois. There he was shocked by the freedoms which enslaved Africans and Native Americans enjoyed. To put an end to such a appalling state of affairs, he he wrote a proclamation on Christmas Eve of 1778 which had the force of law in that area.

While indicting enslaved people for practicing "disorder, abuses, and brigandage," Clark repeatedly emphasized their color as "red and black." He also called for "white men" in the towns to help police this unruly colored population. Importantly, Clark was highlighting race in a way that had not been so clearly defined in the French and British periods of holding "Panis" slaves. In the eyes of this Virginian, there were categorical differences between "reds and blacks" versus "whites." [...] Clark, a southern military man who had penetrated the Great Lakes at a time when "only a handful of American soldiers and settlers" had ever been there, focused on skin color as integral to caste. In his proclamation we can glimpse the beginnings of the American racialization of native people as "red" in this region, and the yoking together of redness and blackness as inferior states of being. (p. 82-83)

While by now it's commonly accepted in our country that our "freedom fighters" had a narrow definition of those whose freedom they were fighting for, indeed, of those who even deserved to be free, this portrait of our Revolutionary war heroes as being significantly more racist than the French, and even the British whom they displaced, does not fit in well with the sense of history we share.

And now for a quibble. A quibble so minor it is probably not worth raising. I know it's very uppity of me—dilettante in New France history that I am—but in dealing with George Rogers Clark, it seems to me that Tiya Miles lets her overarching theme of slave resistance overrule her judgment as a historian.

Although Commander Clark stated that enslaved people in Illinois had been fomenting "disorders" "of so long duration," it is probable that they, like enslaved people in the eastern states, had seized up on the war as an opening for increased disobedience, recalcitrance, and escape. (p. 83)

My quibble is over the question whether the freedoms these slaves exhibited had long been granted to them by the French, or had just recently been taken by the slaves themselves from the French.

I do not doubt Clark was a racist, even for his own time. In a separate website for my family's genealogy, I document the Battle of Vincennes, where he led the American force which took over Fort Sackville. There he ordered the murder of four American Indians in a manner that was horrific even in those days when there was no formal definition of "war crimes." But just because he was a racist does not mean that Clark was exaggerating when he wrote that the slave freedoms which outraged him were "of so long duration." It is certainly possible that the Kaskaskia and Cahokia slaves used the disruption caused by the war to double their resistance to their own enslavement. But it is also possible—as Miles herself has pointed out—that French Upper Louisiana slavery differed dramatically from English east coast slavery, that one of these differences lay in the freedoms the slaves were given, and that this difference had been longstanding. Miles needs to present historical evidence one way or another, not simply dismiss George Rogers Clark's words as unreliable. The answer lies in records of slave life in that part of the New World prior to the American Revolution. Of course, being only a casual reader of history, I am familiar with no such records. But I have read Ekberg, and there are at least two places in François Vallé and His World where he can shed some light on how "free" slaves were in the Illinois Country at that time.

In Chapter 3 Ekberg deals with "the most curious, complex, and lengthy case with which François Vallé ever dealt as civil judge in Ste. Genevieve." (p. 114) (Ste. Genevieve was a town on the west side of the Mississippi, across from Kaskaskia.) The case concerned carousing, crossing the Mississippi, a stolen Indian slave woman, and murder, and later it would become the topic of a separate book by Ekberg entitled Stealing Indian Women: Native Slavery in the Illinois Country (which I have not read). What matters here is not the case itself but a comment Ekberg makes in its context:

The liberty of slaves to crisscross the Mississippi River in order to participate in such shenanigans reveals much about their freedom of movement and action in the colonial Illinois Country. (p. 114-115)

Later in the book Ekberg quotes the account of a French visitor to the region in 1797. I provide a larger excerpt of what he has to say in my review of the book, below, but here's the essential:

Delassus de Luzières remarked in 1797 that black slaves in Ste. Genevieve "enjoyed extreme liberty, of which they take advantage; they obey neither rules nor police, and almost all go about armed." (p. 200)

While these excerpts do not definitively resolve the question, together they strongly suggest that it seems unlikely that the slave freedoms which so aggrieved Clark were largely the result of the disruptions of the war.

Another way in which Miles' book is so illuminating concerns the attention she draws to the essential, albeit forced, role slave labor played in European expansion into Native American territory. Although this role was central historically, it has become peripheral in our shared understanding of the past. I'll close this review with another of the many isolated dots in her pointillist technique. This one weaves the story of Esther, a slave taken during a British raid against Kentucky settlers, with the economic and cultural role slavery played in the early days of our country.

[By the time British Captain Henry] Bird sold Esther in 1784, she had borne a son to an unnamed father. Bird decided, as recorded in the deed of sale to "Make over and give way my right and Property in the said Wench and her male child to William Lee in consideration of his having cleared for me Sixteen Acres of Land." William Lee was a free black man, which raises uncomfortable questions about his purchase of Esther. Was Lee planning to treat Esther as valuable exchange commodity just as Bird had done, or was Lee seeking to help Esther? Perhaps William Lee was a relative or lover of Esther's and sought to secure her freedom by trading his labor. We can only hope that her situation improved, as Esther's documentary trail ends here, with the transfer of herself and child to William Lee. But the cleared land she was traded for, the land the Captain Henry Bird sought, has a traceable future in the record. The parcel would later become part of the ground upon which the defeated British military built a stronghold in their remaining Canadian territory: the town of Amherstberg, home to Fort Malden. In this transaction in which the future of a woman and her child hung in the balance, the value of slaves, as well as land, was paramount to British settlement. Each form of property reinforced and enhanced the other, as slaves were used as capital to acquire land and then to make that land habitable and profitable. (p. 85)


Peter Rock, "On the Unsettling Allure of ‘Watership Down’," The New York Times, May 15, 2018

One reason to return to the real place where fictional characters dwelt is to revisit one’s own history — to travel to other times and to the emotions, the people and places, the weather that comprise those times. To visit our younger selves. For the words in a book remain the same, but our experience of these words does not. To reread a book we love is to have a conversation with our earlier selves.


"A Skeptic's Guide to Racism." Special section of the January/February 2018 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. ("A Hard Look at How We See Race," by Sam Scott; "Combating Racism through Shared Goals," by Stuart Vyse; and "Are Racist Beliefs Pseudoscientific, and What Do We Do about Them?" by Terence Hines.)

Caitlin Flanagan, "How Late-Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump," The Atlantic, May 2017

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, "Why We Believe —Long After We Shouldn’t," Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2017

Do not misunderstand the first headline above. This issue of Skeptical Inquirer does not question the existence of racism. Rather, it takes a skeptical view of a number of issues related to racism, from how it manifests itself to how best to fight it. Three of the articles in this special section are well worth our attention.

It seems that many Americans believe that, because we have laws and constitutional amendments protecting the rights of minorities, racial discrimination no longer exists in our country today. This claim is hard to jibe with the facts on the ground, which include statistics on differences between various ethnic groups in the areas of poverty, education and incarceration.

In his Skeptical Inquirer article "A Hard Look at How We See Race," Sam Scott covers the work of Jennifer Eberhardt, who has created an entirely new academic discipline out of her research into the nexus of social psychology and criminal justice. Over the years she has demonstrated time and time again the role that unconscious biases play in real-world decisions.

[In one of her experiments,] students looking at a screen were exposed to a subliminal flurry of black or white faces. The subjects were then asked to identify blurry images as they came into focus frame by frame.

The makeup of the facial prompts had little effect on how quickly people recognized mundane items like staplers or books. But with images of weapons, the difference was stark—subjects who had unknowingly seen black faces needed far fewer frames to identify a gun or a knife than those who had been shown white faces.

What makes Eberhardt's work even more useful is the fact that she has taken on the task of educating police departments across the country on the implications of her research. On the whole, she is making friends rather than foes of the men and women in blue, and this is because of her nonjudgmental approach to resolving the problem. Lorie Fridell runs a business that, inspired by Eberhardt, trains law enforcement officers.

Key to the training's appeal, Fridell says, is that it treats bias as a common human condition to be recognized and managed, rather than as a deeply offensive personal sin; an approach that makes cops less defensive. "They understand that it is a real issue with which they need to deal, but not because the profession is made up of ill-intentioned individuals with explicit biases (e.g. racists), but because the profession is comprised of humans," she said in an email.

One of skepticism's strengths is that it focuses on how well solutions work in the real world, rather than in some ideal universe where humans always behave rationally or according to a particular faith's wishful thinking. In his article in the same issue of the magazine, "Combating Racism through Shared Goals," Stuart Vyse addresses the ways in which we should deal with people who are overtly racist.

In the wake of the horrible events of Charlottesville, I came across an article with the unlikely title "We Need to Start Befriending Neo Nazis" [by Bethany Mandel], which was made even more unlikely because it appeared in the Jewish newspaper, The Forward. The article went on to describe a number of successful efforts to convert people from racist and bigoted organizations by listening to them, rather than arguing with them, and, in one case, by inviting an anti-Semite who had been shunned by the rest of his college community to come to a Shabbat dinner. [...] This kind of work is not for everyone. Even the author of the article admitted that she might not be up to the task. But the message is clear: We do not solve our problems by demonizing our enemies. We do not change minds through argument or violence. We have to treat each other as equals and find new superordinate goals that we can all work toward together. And, of course, elect leaders who will do the same.

Even though skeptics acknowledge that people tend to behave irrationally, we strive for rationality in ourselves—at least with regard to public issues. When confronting overt racists, it may be satisfying to denounce them or even come to blows with them. But we have to ask ourselves whether this is the most efficacious approach to the problem. If social science research indicates that some other approach is more effective, we need to follow that approach, even if it is less satisfying in the short term. On an episode of Sarah Silverman's I Love You, America, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson advocated a similar approach. He said he found less success arguing against neo-Nazis and greater success when he calmly asked them questions. With the right questions, he learned, he could make his interlocutors begin to doubt their own beliefs. Quietly questioning them led them to question themselves.

Which, of course, is essentially the Socratic method, devised over two thousand years ago.

If trying to engage with racists is impossible or simply too difficult, then another option short of and better than physical violence would be to mock them. So argues Terence Hines in a third article from Skeptical Inquirer, "Are Racist Beliefs Pseudoscientific, and What Do We Do about Them?"

I recently saw a video of a group of Nazis demonstrating in Germany. The local citizens followed them around playing tubas and other instruments, turning the hateful parade into a sort of party and opportunity to mock the Nazis without violent confrontation.

Yet we should keep in mind that mockery will make it impossible for us to ever work with the people we scorn. This may be acceptable when dealing with Neo-Nazis. They compose (at least thus far) such a small minority of the American population that we will (hopefully) never have to engage with them in a constructive manner.

But what about people that we must work with? For example, people who supported the opposing candidate in the last presidential election. If our democracy is going to survive, the two groups will have to find a way to work together. This brings us to Caitlin Flanagan, whose subject is the arrogance behind the scorn of many of the late-night talk show hosts. In this excerpt from her Atlantic article, she discusses an episode of Samantha Bee's Full Frontal TV show.

During the campaign, Bee dispatched a correspondent to go shoot fish in a barrel at something called the Western Conservative Summit, which the reporter described as “an annual Denver gathering popular with hard-right Christian conservatives.” He interviewed an earnest young boy who talked about going to church on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays, and about his hope to start a group called Children for Trump. For this, the boy—who spoke with the unguarded openness of a child who has assumed goodwill on the part of an adult—was described as “Jerry Falwell in blond, larval form.” Trump and Bee are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values, which have now moved to the very center of our national discourse. Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps.

Yes, yes, I know: She is a comedian, he is the president of the United States; there is no scale by which their words and actions can be reasonably compared. Yet while for Bee, as for so many in her field, Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” may have been a ravishing meme, Trump’s mockery of a war hero, grieving parents, and a disabled man showed how you get the job done. When John Oliver told viewers that if they opposed abortion they had to change the channel until the last minute of the program, when they would be shown “an adorable bucket of sloths,” he perfectly encapsulated the tone of these shows: one imbued with the conviction that they and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right. Two days before the election, every talking head on television was assuring us that Trump didn't have a chance, because he lacked a “ground game.” After his victory, one had to wonder whether some part of his ground game had been conducted night after night after night on television, under flattering studio lights and with excellent production values and comedy writing.

Of course Flanagan is mistaken in her conclusion—that the late-night shows gave us our current president. (She frequently is mistaken, but her prose is so beguiling that you overlook her false conclusions.) And I admit that I have co-opted her article to make my own point. She is primarily concerned with the ethics of mockery in public discourse, while I am troubled by its practical consequences. Still, she's absolutely right that we are too quick to use scorn—to which I would add when other tools would better serve the purpose.

Tavris and Aronson are social psychologists. Their article in a separate issue of Skeptical Inquirer covers what the field calls cognitive dissonance, the discomfort we feel internally when we find ourselves holding contradictory beliefs, or holding a belief that contradicts our actions.

It’s pretty clear nowadays that we are not the rational animals we’d like to believe we are; in fact, we are more accurately called the “rationalizing animal.” Skeptics are often puzzled when we calmly provide evidence that a popular belief is wrong, that some group is holding onto a way of doing things that’s long past its sell-by date, and recipients of this valuable information don’t say, “Why, thank you! I had no idea!” Why would people prefer to justify mistaken beliefs, behavior, and practices rather than change them for better ones? Isn’t it good to know you didn’t cause your child’s autism with vaccinations?

Why do we cling to false belief in the face of contradictory evidence? Because, argue Tavris and Aronson, we have a universal bias to view ourselves as "better, kinder, smarter, more moral, and nicer than average." But to admit we are mistaken, or did something wrong, is to admit that we are not smarter or nicer than others. We humans have developed two tools to help us avoid admitting our fallibility: first, we are able to block from our consciousness information that contradicts our beliefs, and notice for the most part only information that supports them; second, for any information that manages to pass through this filter, we have developed the ability to rationalize.

Dissonance is painful enough when you realize that you bought a lemon of a car and paid too much for it. But it’s most painful when an important element of the self-concept is threatened; your post-car-purchase dissonance will be greater if you see yourself as a car expert and superb negotiator. We have two ways to reduce dissonance: either accept the evidence and change the self-concept (“Yes, that was a foolish/incompetent/unethical thing to do; was I ever wrong to believe that”) or deny the evidence and preserve the self-concept (“That study was fatally flawed”). Guess which is the popular choice?

There's much in the article worth mulling over. Worth looking at skeptically. For example, I am not entirely sold on their explanation for why we cling to false belief in the face of what should be irrefutable evidence. On the other hand, the article gave me fuel for extrapolating beyond what the authors cover. I began to wonder what is the best way to get a person to resolve his or her dissonance, not by rationalizing, but by admitting error?

We've had an election. A very close election, in which one side one the popular vote, while the other side won the electoral vote. We have a government to run, and other elections coming up. Presumably, we who think we were in the right would like those who erred in their vote, or at least some significant portion of them, to admit that they chose the wrong candidate. We want them to vote differently next time. Now, what is the best way to achieve that end?

Scorn? Mockery? Demonizing?

Asking? Listening? Finding common goals?

It seems to me that the best way to help the "wrong side" admit their error (and vote for the "right side" in upcoming elections) is to give them space. We have to reduce the toll it will take—both personally and socially—for them to change their point of view. Scorn will not give them space. Nor will derision and demonizing. This approach will only cause their opinions to become more calcified.

So if you like the taste of bitter laughter, if you want to wallow in your arrogant righteousness, feel free to watch those who mock and scorn for a living. But if we want to make this country a better place (by winning the next election, for example), we need to find better tools for the job.


Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi, "After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced," The New York Times, February 19, 2018

How the Russians responded to the Parkland school shooting, using Facebook and Twitter to get Americans to hate one another.

One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.

[...] The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

[...] When the Russian bots jumped on the hashtag #Parklandshooting — initially created to spread news of the shooting — they quickly stoked tensions. Exploiting the issue of mental illness in the gun control debate, they propagated the notion that Nikolas Cruz, the suspected gunman, was a mentally ill “lone killer.” They also claimed that he had searched for Arabic phrases on Google before the shooting. Simultaneously, the bots started other hashtags, like #ar15, for the semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting, and #NRA.


Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

This book is one of the most enjoyable I've read in a long time. It falls into the memoir genre, and—as you've probably surmised from the title—it falls into the woman-staking-her-claim-in-a-male-dominated-field subcategory of the memoir genre.

missing

I'm good at science because I'm not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can't do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can't understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicous freedom to make it up as I go along.

If this quotation leaves you with the impression that the book is for the most part a piece of feminist discourse, fear not. Although lines in the feminist spirit occur fairly frequently in the book—and though they tend to be very well-written—they do not dominate it. The strongest and most memorable passages have little to do with Jahren's being a woman, and everything to do with her being a research scientist. Her book could easily have been entitled Lab Coat or something similarly gender-neutral.

Jahren is eminent in her field, the winner of a number of prestigious awards, so it is instructive to learn that, even for the highly accomplished, the funding of their research is so tenuous.

Based on a rough cost-benefit analysis, I need to do about four wonderful and previously impossible things every single year until I fall into the grave in order for the university to break even on me. This is complicated by the fact that the money for every single other thing—chemicals, beakers, Post-it notes, a rag to polish the mass spectrometer—all has to be raised by me through written or verbal supplication for federal or private funding, which is diminishing rapidly on a national level. That is not the most stressful part. The salary of every single person in the lab—aside from my own—also has to be raised by this same mechanism. It would be nice to promise an employee who has sacrificed everything for science and works eighty hours a week more than about six months of job security, but that is not the world within which the research scientist operates. If you're reading this, and you wish to support us, please give me a call. It would be insane of me not to include that sentence.

Jahren is a fine writer. The book's passages which best exemplify this cannot be extracted, either because they are too long or because they rely too much on their context for their effect. But let me try.

At one point in the first third of the memoir, Jahren recounts her first scientific discovery, on the molecular structure of the hackberry seed. She starts with the big picture.

Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time. The riskiest part is learning what a true scientist is and then taking the first shaky steps down that path, which will become a road, which will become a highway, which will maybe someday lead you home. A true scientist doesn't perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you're told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.

On the day that I became a scientist, I stood in a laboratory and watched the sun come up. I was convinced that I had seen something extraordinary, and I was waiting for the new day to ripen into a reasonable hour at which I could make a telephone call. I wanted to tell someone what I had discovered, though I wasn't quite sure whom to call.

Jahren goes on to explain in detail what is special about the seed of the hackberry. She gives you the science you need in order to appreciate her discovery. Then she leaves the science behind to explore the feelings of the scientist making a discovery.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I new about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood. Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone. Whether or not this was something worth knowing seemed another problem for another day. I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new.

Later, about midway through the book, we find a lovely three-page chapter on a recent discovery (not Jahren's own) regarding Alaska's Sitka tree, which could easily serve as required reading in any high school or college course covering the scientific method.

Given their years of observations, the researchers were convinced that aboveground signaling among the trees was the most likely explanation. They knew that trees aren't people and that they don't have feelings. For us. They don't care about us. But maybe they care about each other. Maybe during a crisis the trees take care of each other. The Sitka willow experiment was a beautiful, brilliant piece of work that changed everything. There was only one problem; it took more than twenty years for anyone to believe it.

The passages quoted above serve as examples of two of the three distinct patterns interwoven into this book. One pattern, represented by the last passage concerning the Sitka, is instructive. We could almost call it pedagogical, though the term suggests boring and badly written, whereas Jahren's prose is anything but. These parts of the book tell us about the science that she is doing. The other two patterns reflect the more personal side of Lab Girl. These are harder to distinguish from each other, but we could say that with one type she is telling us about her life as a scientist, about her feelings about her work. The other passages quoted above are good examples of this pattern. These two themes are interesting and valuable.

The third pattern consists of the book's autobiographical details. Here we learn about Jahren's childhood and her early adulthood. She tells us about her relationships with her parents, a coworker, her husband and her son. Regarding this aspect of her book, I have to say that, howevermuch she excels in delving into the mysteries of nature, Jahren is either less talented at self-examination, or unwilling to fully divulge insights into her own psyche. At one point a crucial aspect of her personality appears completely out-of-the-blue, with no previous hint or warning. In addition, there are a number of obvious questions about her life that by the end remain unanswered. Occasionally the narrative has her doing things which are foolish, inexplicable, and yet left unexplained. These aspects of the book are its weakest.

Fortunately, these relatively minor problems are eclipsed by the other parts of Jahren's book. Hers is a voice worth listening to, and I hope we hear more of it in the future.


Jennifer Schuessler, "Leon Wieseltier Admits ‘Offenses’ Against Female Colleagues as New Magazine Is Killed," The New York Times, October 24, 2017

Of all the revelations since October 7, 2016, this to me has been the most bewildering. I always saw Wieseltier as a voice crying out in the wilderness—like the prophets of old, a little kooky, sometimes, but worth listening to. Yet it would seem he should have been less eager to dispense jeremiads and more open to receiving them.

Several women [...] said they were humiliated when Mr. Wieseltier sloppily kissed them on the mouth, sometimes in front of other staff members. Others said he discussed his sex life, once describing the breasts of a former girlfriend in detail. Mr. Wieseltier made passes at female staffers, they said, and pressed them for details about their own sexual encounters.

Of course, Wieseltier's offenses are not as egregious as those of Harvey Weinstein. We must be careful not to consider all such behavior as equally reprehensible. But what is being described in the passage above is not a kiss stolen in a private moment. It is public degradation.

Mr. Wieseltier often commented on what women wore to the office, the former staff members said, telling them that their dresses were not tight enough. One woman said he left a note on her desk thanking her for the miniskirt she wore to the office that day. She said she never wore a skirt to the office again.

My disappointment extends beyond Wieseltier. I've been reading The New Republic since I discovered it in my local library when I was 17. This magazine has contributed as much to who I am today as anything else in my life. As a compass it wasn't perfect, for sure, but, as flawed as it was, the magazine provided a good place to get your bearings—politically, intellectually, even morally (being, for example, the first place I encountered the word egregious). So at least as disappointing to me is the fact that no man at the publication took a public stance against the editor.

According to the women, male staff members routinely witnessed Mr. Wieseltier’s behavior and did nothing.

The fact that no one seems to have spoken out against Wieseltier reflects badly on the magazine as a whole, for it means that the writers and other low-level employees were afraid that they would be punished for doing so. Apart from Wieseltier, was there no other person in power whom these staffers, male and female, could go to? It appears not.


"Après l’Unesco, Les États-Unis quittent l’Amérique du Nord," Le Gorafi, October 24, 2017

missing

Donald Trump, qui avait menacé de quitter l’Amérique du Nord à plusieurs reprises depuis son élection, vient de mettre son plan à exécution. La sortie sera effective à partir de lundi prochain.


Roni Caryn Rabin, "Do Pesticides Get Into the Flesh of Fruits and Vegetables?," The New York Times, November 10, 2017

With this article, and the links it provides, I finally have a clear, science-based list of which fruits and vegetables are most likely to have pesticides in them, as well as what to do about it.

Consumer Reports has an "Always-Buy Organic Cheat Sheet" listing which fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of pesticides (based on government data). In case you try to find the list by clicking on the link I've provided, you'll find it in the video, not in the page contents. For your convenience—not to mention my own—here is the list given in the video.

  • Always-Buy Organic Cheat Sheet
    • Peaches
    • Carrots
    • Strawberries
    • Green Beans
    • Sweet Bell Peppers
    • Orange Peels (as in zest from an orange)
  • Safe Non-Organic Alternatives Cheat Sheet
    • Canned Peaches
    • Raspberries
    • Blueberries
    • Broccoli Grown in the U.S. or Mexico
    • Oranges
    • Lettuce
    • Onions
    • Grapes—red or green—from Chili, Mexico, Peru or the U.S.

Here is the Environmental Working Group's list of the "Dirty Dozen"—that is, fruits and vegetables that tend to be high in pesticides which even washing probably won't remove. To avoid the pesticides, you should consider buying organic.

  • The Dirty Dozen
    • Strawberries
    • Spinach
    • Nectarines
    • Apples
    • Peaches
    • Pears
    • Cherries
    • Grapes
    • Celery
    • Tomatoes
    • Sweet Bell Peppers
    • Potatoes

Here is the same group's "Clean Fifteen"—fruits and vegetables that are unlikely to be carrying pesticides.

  • The Clean Fifteen
    • Sweet Corn
    • Avocados
    • Pineapples
    • Cabbage
    • Onions
    • Frozen Sweet Peas
    • Papayas
    • Asparagus
    • Mangos
    • Eggplant
    • Honeydew Melon
    • Kiwi
    • Cantaloupe
    • Cauliflower
    • Grapefruit

If you must buy non-organic apples, testing shows that the best way to remove the pesticides is to wash them in a combination of baking soda and water, and to make sure that the washing includes a 15-minute soak in the solution. (Note that even this doesn't remove pesticides that have penetrated the peel.)


Walter O’Brien, "'Saving the Swamp' jetport battle documentary to debut on local, national TV," The Morris NewsBee, November 9, 2017

This article announces the premier of a documentary about the battle to save one of the most beautiful places in the State of New Jersey, our precious Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

On Dec. 3, 1959, many newspaper readers were stunned to learn that the powerful Port Authority planned to construct the world’s largest airport in and around Harding Township in Morris County.

Thus began one of the first environmental confrontations of its time, a small grassroots movement that began in Morris County and grew to historic proportions – a battle that took almost a decade, a President and an Act of Congress to stop.

However stunned the newspaper readers referred to in this article were, they couldn't have been more stunned than I when I learnt that destroying the Swamp had ever been considered.

In his article, O'Brien quotes snippets from his interview with Larry Fast, co-producer of the film.

“Reflecting on what the participants managed to accomplish in the face of prevailing attitudes about “progress” in the 1950s, they not only stopped a jetport and protected a valuable natural resource, but they also invented a new form of grass roots environmentalism which is now universally accepted,’’ said Fast.

“The national environmental protection laws of the 1970s can trace their roots to this story. It was set of conditions and people unique to Morris County which allowed the effort to be successful here.’’


"October Revolutions: Russia 1917-2017," The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2017

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Book Review asked a number of writers and thinkers to explain which works about Russia and the former Soviet Union they think are the most worth reading.

Not surprisingly, Martin Amis ("Lenin’s Deadly Revolution") strings together some of the best sentences in the entire issue. Here he takes on the task of comparing and contrasting Hitler and Stalin.

Let us for a moment consider the Stalin versus Hitler question simply as a contest between two human beings. Until 1917 Stalin was a czarist dissident, a brawler, a boozer, a singer, a charmer, a womanizer and a brilliant mimic; he was not only a published but an anthologized poet; and he was wholly dedicated to the fight for universal equality and justice. Compare him with Hitler, the dank, sexless, humorless, milk-drinking vegetarian invert, nursing dreams, in his Viennese flophouse, of Judaeocide and world domination. Once established as the autocrat, Hitler went back to reading nothing but trash ethnology and the westerns of Karl May, whereas Stalin went back to reading Dickens, Chekhov, Gogol, Hemingway, Zola, Balzac, Maupassant and Oscar Wilde. Stalin was an Earthling; Hitler climbed up from the infernal regions.

Yet, just a few pages later, Strobe Talbot ("Stalin, Hitler and the Temptations of Totalitarianism"), sees more similarities than differences between the two monsters of the 20th Century.

They were both outsiders: the master of the Kremlin was a Georgian, not a Russian; the German Führer was an Austrian. Both, Bullock says, were narcissists. Both insisted on cults of personality and made themselves into high priests of warped versions of 19th-century social theories (Stalin’s Marxism, Hitler’s toxic combination of social Darwinism and the zanier ideas of Nietzsche). Both were homicidal paranoiacs, determined to deport, enslave and exterminate entire categories of human beings: in Stalin’s case, the kulaks during the collectivization campaign; in Hitler’s, not just Jews but Slavs, Romani and numerous others. Crucially, neither of these malevolent geniuses would have emerged from obscurity were it not for the first great cataclysm of the 20th century, then known as the Great War.

Amis and Talbot are at least as interested in giving voice to themselves as they are in giving voice to the authors whose works they cover. Distinguishing herself from these two, Condoleezza Rice ("The 10 Days Still Shaking the World") makes you actually want to read the books she reviews.

[James Billington’s ] The Icon and the Axe is a sweeping, intricate description of Russian cultural history, spanning the pre-Romanov era through six centuries to the reign of Joseph Stalin. Flowing with ease through time and topic — from art to music, literature, philosophy, mythology and more — the book provides readers with an alluring portrayal of Russia’s proud heritage. Its impressive scope and lasting insights have made it a foundational text in Russian studies. In fact, it was this book, more than any other, that captured my imagination and propelled me toward the study of Russia and the Soviet Union.


Justin Gillis, "Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions," The New York Times, September 19, 2017

missing

(Peter Godfrey-Smith)

Maybe you're like me: you have no doubt that humans have had—and continue to have—an effect on global temperatures, but, since you're not a climate scientist, there are a few questions whose answers are a little fuzzy for you. If so, maybe this article will help.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the piece.

(Part of the answer to "Why do people deny the science of climate change?")

The climate denialists’ arguments have become so strained that even oil and coal companies have distanced themselves publicly, though some still help to finance the campaigns of politicians who espouse such views.

(Part of the answer to "How much should I worry about climate change affecting me directly?")

Tens of thousands of people are already dying in heat waves made worse by global warming. The refugee flows that have destabilized politics around the world have been traced in part to climate change. Of course, as with almost all other social problems, poor people will be hit first and hardest.

(Part of the answer to "Are there any realistic solutions to the problem?")

The good news is that [human greenhouse gas emissions] are now falling in many countries as a result of programs like fuel-economy standards for cars, stricter building codes and emissions limits for power plants. But experts say the energy transition needs to speed up drastically to head off the worst effects of climate change.

(Part of the answer to "What’s the latest with electric cars?")

They are inherently more efficient than gasoline cars and would represent an advance even if the power were generated by burning coal, but they will be far more important as the electric grid itself becomes greener through renewable power.

(Part of the answer to "Climate change seems so overwhelming. What can I personally do about it?")

Experts say the problem can only be solved by large-scale, collective action. Entire states and nations have to decide to clean up their energy systems, using every tool available and moving as quickly as they can. So the most important thing you can do is to exercise your rights as a citizen, speaking up and demanding change.


Nicholas Bakalar, "These Hungry Goats Learned to Branch Out," The New York Times, June 12, 2017

I used to think that if you've seen one flock of Moroccan goats in a tree, you've seen them all.

missing

Until I saw this flock.


Adam Nossiter, David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, "Hackers Came, but the French Were Prepared," The New York Times, May 9, 2017

PARIS — Everyone saw the hackers coming.

The National Security Agency in Washington picked up the signs. So did Emmanuel Macron’s bare-bones technology team. And mindful of what happened in the American presidential campaign, the team created dozens of false email accounts, complete with phony documents, to confuse the attackers.

The Russians, for their part, were rushed and a bit sloppy, leaving a trail of evidence that was not enough to prove for certain they were working for the government of President Vladimir V. Putin but which strongly suggested they were part of his broader “information warfare” campaign.



Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film

Jay Weissberg, "Venice Film Review: ‘From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses’" Variety, September 5, 2014

I had already taken an interest in Europe between the two world wars, particularly Germany and France, when I came across a recent documentary, From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, by Ruediger Suchsland. The film is centered on Kracauer's book, written in New York City during the Second War and published in 1947. I had never heard of this book, but I definitely wanted to read it.

Perhaps I let my expectations get too high. Alas, too much of Kracauer's approach seems out-dated, too reliant on Marxist and Freudian styles of argumentation. Too often in the book he declares that X in the movie signifies Y in the German people, without convincingly justifying this conclusion.

Nevertheless, for those who are patient, there is fruit here to be harvested. Chapter 6, "Procession of Tyrants," for example, begins:

Caligari was too high-brow to become popular in Germany. However, its basic theme—the soul being faced with the seemingly unavoidable alternative of tyranny or chaos—exerted extraordinary fascination. Between 1920 and 1924, numerous German films insistently resumed this theme, elaborating it in various fashions.

One group specialized in the depiction of tyrants. In this film type, the Germans of the time—a people still unbalanced, still free to choose its regime—nursed no illusions about the possible consequences of tyranny; on the contrary, they indulged in detailing its crimes and the sufferings it inflicted. Was their imagination kindled by the fear of bolshevism? Or did they call upon these frightful visions to exorcise lusts which, they sensed, were their own and now threatened to possess them.? (It is, at any rate, a strange coincidence that, hardly more than a decade later, Nazi Germany was to put into practice that very mixture of physical and mental tortures which the German screen then pictured.) (Kracauer, p. 77.)

Frequently Kracauer leaves you wanting for historical detail. Perhaps because he was writing so soon after the fall of the Weimar Republic, he felt he could assume that his audience was familiar with the historical backdrop. Perhaps. In any case, I would have found the following passage much more persuasive had he provided some historical evidence that the German middle class were ambivalent in the way that he claims. Here he is, discussing The Student of Prague, a Faustian tale in which a student named Baldwin gives up his reflection (as in, his reflection in the mirror) in exchange for riches and other worldly rewards.

The Student of Prague introduced to the screen a theme that was to become an obsession of the German cinema: a deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self. By separating Baldwin from his reflection and making both face each other, Wegener's film symbolizes a specific kind of split personality. Instead of being unaware of his own duality, the panic-stricken Baldwin realizes that he is in the grip of an antagonist who is nobody but himself. This was an old motif surrounded by a halo of meanings, but was it not also a dreamlike transcription of what the German middle class actually experienced in its relation to the feudal caste running Germany? The opposition of the bourgeoisie to the Imperial regime grew, at times, sufficiently acute to overshadow its hostility towards the workers, who shared the general indignation over the semi-absolutist institutions in Prussia, the encroachments of the military set and the foolish doings of the Kaiser. The current phrase, "the two Germanys," applied in particular to the differences between the ruling set and the middle class—differences deeply resented by the latter. Yet notwithstanding this dualism the Imperial government stood for economic and political principles which even the liberals were not unwilling to accept. Face to face with their conscience they had to admit that they identified themselves with the very ruling class they opposed. They represented both Germanys. (Kracauer, p. 30.)

At other times, Kracauer portrays the zeitgeist so carefully, so precisely, that, despite the intervening years, you feel that you really understand the people whose psychology he is trying to dissect. The end of Chapter 3, "Genesis of Ufa," serves as an example. (Ufu is the name of of the government-controlled movie company whose charter was to present Germany in a good light throughout the world.)

The birth of the German film originated not only in the foundation of Ufa, but also in the intellectual excitement surging through Germany after the war. All Germans were then in a mood which can best be defined by the word Aufbruch. In the pregnant sense in which it was used at the time, the term meant departure from the shattered world of yesterday towards a tomorrow built on the grounds of revolutionary conceptions. This explains why, as in Russia, expressionist art became popular in Germany during that period. People suddenly grasped the significance of avant-garde paintings and mirrored themselves in visionary dramas announcing to a suicidal mankind the gospel of a new age of brotherhood.

Intoxicated by such prospects, which now seemed within reach, intellectuals, students, artists and whoever felt the call set out to solve all political, social and economic problems with equal ease. They read Capital or quoted Marx without having read him ; they believed in international socialism, pacifism, collectivism, aristocratic leadership, religious community life or national resurrection, and frequently presented a confused mixture of these variegated ideals as a brand-new creed. But whatever they advocated seemed to them a universal remedy for all evils, particularly in cases in which they owed their discovery to inspiration rather than knowledge. When in a meeting after the Armistice Max Weber, the great scholar and German democrat, criticized the humiliating peace conditions which the Allies had in store, a sculptor of local reputation shouted: "Germany should let the other nations crucify her for the sake of the world!" The eagerness with which the sculptor jumped into this Dostoievsky-like declaration was quite symptomatic. Innumerable manifestoes and programs spread all over Germany, and the smallest meeting room resounded with the roar of heated discussion. It was one of those rare moments in which the soul of a whole people overflows its traditional bounds.

In the wake of this uproarious Aufbruch the last prejudices against the cinema melted away. Even more important, the cinema attracted creative energies which longed for an opportunity to express adequately the new hopes and fears of which the era was full. Young writers and painters just back from the war approached the film studios, animated, like the rest of their generation, by the desire to commune with the people. To them the screen was more than a medium rich in unexplored possibilities; it was a unique means of imparting messages to the masses. Of course, the film producers and big executives interfered with such upward flights, engineering all kinds of compromises. But even so this postwar effervescence enriched the German screen with singular content and a language of its own. (Kracauer, p. 38.)

In his review of the documentary film which inspired me to read this book, Jay Weissberg lays out some of Kracauer's shortcomings.

Kracauer’s thrust, that the themes in Weimar cinema prefigure the rise of Nazism and can be seen as red flags for those trained to recognize them, was revolutionary, especially in 1947. Suchsland situates the great critic/historian in his time, discussing his grounding in the philosophies of the era, specifically Marxism, Nietzsche and Freud. What’s less discussed is his need as an exile from the Third Reich to explain how his Germany devolved into such a deformed nation. Unquestionably Kracauer’s analysis continues to inform our understanding of these films, yet his desire to package everything under a constraining umbrella (the book carries the subtitle “A Psychological History of the German Film”), means that much gets left out, and some elements of his argument are pushed too hard. [...] The fundamental problem is that any attempt to force an entire era’s messy cultural output into one airtight theory is always bound to leak.

Weissberg also points out that, if the German people were duped by Hitler and the Nazis, the Weimar Republic was sufficiently democratic at the time to make the people willing dupes, not innocent victims.

Analysis of films such as “The Golem,” “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,” “Metropolis” and several others lends credence to the idea of a cinema enamored of master villains hypnotizing a populace, though such an idea has always been problematic since hypnotism implies an unwilling mass and thus soft-pedals the average person’s culpability in enabling the Third Reich’s rise to power.

Although Weissberg's article is very good, I feel obliged to point out that Variety's website is poorly designed, littered as it is with click-bait and even disruptive pop-ups. His writing deserves better.

Finally, the Wikipedia article on Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler is disappointing and in some ways even misleading. Perhaps Jay Weissberg, who seems to know what he is talking about, should have a crack at it?


Sarah Marshall, "Selina Meyer, Hillary Clinton, and Life After Political Defeat," The New Republic, May 18, 2017

Most gratifying of all is what Julia Louis-Dreyfus does with the material. Selina’s finely-honed political persona, the shards of which painfully work their way even into the moments when she is actually trying to be genuine, is a performance within a performance—one that, by now, viewers probably understand better than Selina herself does. That’s partly because Tony Hale’s performance as Gary, Selina’s emotional punching bag, is no less stunning than Dreyfus’s. His, by necessity, is a quieter role; as in pairs figure skating, he’s the stem that holds the flower. Selina projects her persona so relentlessly that her interior life sometimes seems like a void, but Gary has the opposite problem: After years of delivering his most meaningful communications in a manner inaudible to anyone but Selina (“Wife, not his daughter! Wife not daughter!” he croons in her ear as she greets a party guest in a first-season episode), Gary struggles to speak in a way the rest of the world can hear.

Hale communicates his character in large part through a masterful array of inarticulate sounds. His repertoire includes the groan of half-concealed disgust, elicited when he’s shocked by Selina’s vulgarity; the grunt of repressed nay-saying; the whinny of apprehension, which Selina seems to register almost subconsciously when she’s about to embark on a disastrous track while speaking to someone, and occasionally uses to her advantage; and the mortified laugh of theatrical indignation, always on Selina’s behalf, but called off in a split second if Selina doesn’t require his outrage after all.


Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, "Echoes of Colonial Conflict in Algeria Reverberate in French Politics," The New York Times, May 1, 2017

The print edition's version of this story, published on the 2nd, had a better title: "What is France? Who is French? Echoes from the Algerian War."

Maybe you've just heard the results of the French election, and know you should be relieved, but you're not quite sure you could articulate precisely why in your dinner table conversation. Maybe you know who De Gaulle was, and know he had something to do with Algeria in the 60's, but you're unclear on the details. Maybe you know who the pieds-noirs were, but have never heard of the harkis. If any of these apply to you, this article will serve as a primer on France's Algeria question, and how the issue still burns in French politics, not unlike the way we in the United States cannot leave the Civil War behind.

My only criticism is that I wish the authors had explained the context of De Gaulle's famous "Je vous ai compris" speech, or at least mentioned it. All I can recall is that it had something to do with Algeria, and for some time made a lot of people there very happy. Now I have to research it myself.


Jason Mark, "Get Out of Here: Scientists Examine the Benefits of Forests, Birdsong and Running Water" (Review of The Nature Fix by Florence Williams), The New York Times, March 2, 2017

We don't know why (at least not yet), but more and more research is showing the physical and psychological benefits of just being in nature.

In 1984, the biologist Edward O. Wilson put a scientific spin on the idea with his book “Biophilia,” which posited that humans possess an innate love of nature.

Wilson’s argument was persuasive, yet it was mostly an aspiration dressed up as a hypothesis. In the generation since, scientists have sought to confirm the biophilia hypothesis — and they’re starting to get results. As little as 15 minutes in the woods has been shown to reduce test subjects’ levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Increase nature exposure to 45 minutes, and most individuals experience improvements in cognitive performance. There are society-scale benefits as well. Researchers in England have shown that access to green spaces reduces income-related mental health disparities.

See also "Nature and the Psychological State of Awe" in the sidebar. And a section of The Distracted Mind (discussed below) is devoted to the same topic.


Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy

This book was a great read for me, giving me a thorough review of some of the philosophers I learned about, sometimes admired, and was often mystified by in the two survey courses I took in college. Gottlieb writes well, summarizing and dissecting the material as he moves from Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza through Locke, Bayle and Leibniz to Hume and the French philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau, yet he manages to find the time and space to recount interesting stories about each of these philosophers along the way.

For example, in the chapter on Descartes, the author argues vociferously that our modern-day take on the thinker's dualism is much more extreme than his actual stance. Still, Gottlieb can't resist the chance to recount an amusing story related to Descartes' dualism, concerning his final days and the "afterlife" of his body.

Descartes' rather pedestrian Stoic preaching caught the attention of another royal reader, Queen Christina of Sweden, to whom he dedicated his complete book on the passions. It was said that she used to read it while out hunting. Christina invited him to Stockholm to give her lessons in philosophy, and he went in 1649. But the rigours of life at the Swedish court did not suit Descartes at all. In fact, it seems they killed him.

Descartes had always been a late riser. [...] In Stockholm, however, he could not indulge his languorous habits. In the coldest Swedish winter in sixty years, he found himself obliged to give his lessons standing bare-headed in Christina's library at five in the morning, so that his teachings could be fitted into her busy schedule. It was a cruel change for a man who was not exactly a morning person. He caught pneumonia and died in Stockholm on 11 February 1650, at the age of fifty-three. Four years later, the queen abdicated and converted to Catholicism, prompted, she wrote, by Descartes's philosophy, though this did not make the Church any less suspicious of his writings.

He was buried in Sweden under a simple wooden monument that was allowed to rot. Seventeen years later, his remains were exhumed and taken on a six-month journey to France, except for his right forefinger, which the French ambassador to Sweden was allowed to keep, and his head, which was removed by a captain in the Swedish guards. In France, his body was exhumed and reburied three more times before coming to rest in a former Benedictine monastery in Saint-Germain-des-Près. The Musée de L'Homme, in the Palais de Chaillot, near the Eiffel Tower, claims to have Descartes's skull, but the claim is weak. It seems that the great dualists's head is still missing. (p. 23-24)

The chapter on Spinoza is illuminating. Gottlieb begins by explaining the philosopher's cultural community: they were Marranos—"Jews who had for generations been obliged to live as Christians in their native Spain and Portugal and who had come to Amsterdam at the end of the sixteenth century to live openly as Jews once more," but whose "earnest attempts to become good Jews were hampered by the fact that many of them had all but forgotten what this entailed" (p. 85-86). Perhaps because of the intellectual and religious freedom that this rupture had given him, Spinoza conceived of a God indistinct from his creation—a form of deism, it would seem.

Gottlieb's end to the chapter begins thus:

Perhaps the most famous self-proclaimed disciple of Spinoza in the twentieth century was Einstein, who, when asked by a rabbi whether or not he believed in God, replied, "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men." Einstein was probably just being diplomatic when he answered the rabbi. Spinoza's God is, after all, a convenient deity for those who might more accurately be described as non-religious. The "religion" of Spinozism is in fact rather close to modern secularism. It insists that morality has nothing to do with the commands of a supremely powerful being, and that it does not require a priesthood or the threat of an unpleasant afterlife to sustain it. It rejects the idea of a personal God who created, cares about and occasionally even tinkers with the world. It dismisses the notion of the supernatural, and regards religious ceremonies as merely comforting or inspiring, if you like that sort of thing. It advocates freedom of thought in religious matters (though not, as we have seen, a total separation between church and state). And it places its faith in knowledge and understanding—rather than in faith itself—both to improve the circumstances of human life and to make that life more satisfying. (p. 111)

As mentioned regarding Descartes, above, Gottlieb takes issue with the extreme position many people today push Locke into, while in fact, he did not take a "strong view" concerning the idea of the mind as a blank slate.

The distinction between innate capacities and dispositions (which Locke accepted) and ready-made knowledge of truths that are stamped on the mind before birth (which is what he attacked) is one that is still often blurred. In the 1960s, for instance, Noam Chomsky argued that all normal people have an innate "knowledge" of grammar—not the everyday rules that some people learn at a school and everybody breaks thereafter, but of basic ones that underlie all human language. He maintained that without some such assumption it was impossible to account for the ease with which people learn to speak, and that the science of linguistics therefore supported philosophers like Descartes against philosophers like Locke. Yet the most that Chomsky's evidence suggests is that children have a propensity to produce sentences which fit certain rules, which Locke would have no reason to deny. (p. 145)

Towards the end of the chapter on Locke, Gottlieb relates an anecdote about the British philosopher, which begins thus:

Locke himself never married, but he ended his days in the company of a woman to whom he was particularly close, Damaris Masham, whose father, Ralph Cudworth, was the leader of a group of philosophers who came to be known as the Cambridge Platonists. Although Damaris was, like all women, barred from any formal higher education, she developed a strong interest in philosophy and published two philosophical books. She met Locke in 1681, when she was in her early twenties and he was almost fifty. They soon began to write letters and poems to each other, in which Locke signed himself Philander—a typical name in Renaissance literature for a flirtatious male character—and she signed herself Philoclea, the daughter of the Duke of Arcadia in Sir Philip Sidney's poem, who had been told by the Delphic oracle that his daughters would be stolen by unsuitable lovers. It seems from the letters that Locke and Damaris were in love with each other, though never quite at the same time. (p. 153)

Gottlieb goes on to explain that, after she met Locke, Damaris entered what was probably an unhappy, unsuitable marriage. Despite this, and despite their affection for each other, there is no reason to believe their love was ever consummated.

One thinker covered by Gottlieb that my philosophy courses did not explore is Pierre Bayle.

The year 1680 is a notable one in philosophy because of an occurrence that did not amount to anything much and a book about the non-event by a philosopher of whom few have now heard. The occurrence was an unusually bright comet. It was widely feared to be a warning from God, yet the expected disasters did not come. The book, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet, caused a scandal because it made the unprecedented claim that an atheist society might not be an immoral one. Various Thoughts launched the literary career of Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), who lived most of his adult life in the Netherlands after growing up in rural France, where his father was a Huguenot (i.e., French Calvinist) pastor. Bayle was no atheist himself, but he knew a bad argument when he saw one, and he realised that some common fears about atheism were groundless. He also had a gift for concocting good arguments: in Voltaire's opinion, Bayle was "the greatest dialectician who has ever written." Bayle's many other keen admirers in the eighteenth century included Thomas Jefferson and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Plenty of eighteenth-century philosophers, especially David Hume, lifted arguments and ideas from Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary, an eccentrically constructed work of over six million words that has aptly been described as "the arsenal of all Enlightenment philosophy." (p. 156)


Adam Gazzaley & Larry D. Rosen, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

In the separate entry below on a Times article by Cal Newport entitled, "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It," I gently complained that he doesn't cite any of the sources for his claim that, contrary to popular belief, people aren't very good at multi-tasking. It wasn't that I doubted the assertion; rather, I suspected that others would doubt it and wished that he had provided references to research that would make these Doubting Thomases start to doubt themselves.

This book, by researchers Gazzaley and Rosen, fills in that gap, and more.

There's a lot here to chew on, but what stands out in my mind is this. We share with other mammals a characteristic that seeks to optimize our foraging behavior. When it starts to become too difficult to find food where we are, we instinctively move to other locations where the food is easier to find. In my own experience I've noticed this tendency while strawberry or blueberry picking. I'll stay in a spot and pick until it's no longer easy to spot berries where I am and, instead of hunting behind branches or pushing my way into the brush to find the more hidden fruit, I'll go somewhere else where the berries are, once again, easy to discern amongst the foliage.

Interestingly, this strategy is very much like "information-seeking" behavior in primates such as ourselves, to the extent that the same part of the brain controls both types of tendencies. In other words, there's something in us that causes us to tire of what we're experiencing at the moment (aka "get bored") and abandon it for something else that promises to be different. And the fact that this tendency operates unconsciously makes it all the more difficult to resist.

And modern technology willy-nilly feeds into these impulses buried deep in our evolutionary history. The "game-changing" technologies that Gazzaley and Rosen focus on in this book are the Internet, the smart phone, and social media. They point to research that shows how we have let ourselves become distracted by these to the point that it has a deleterious effect on our health, our relationships, and our ability to concentrate on tasks that we know are more important.

I'll end this entry with the very beginning of their book.

This book is the first of its kind to explore the daily challenges we face with the highly engaging but extremely distracting high-tech world we now inhabit, from the dual points of view of a psychologist and a neuroscientist. By providing both scientific foundations and real-world examples of people facing and addressing their own distracted minds, we share with you a unique perspective on how our increasingly information-saturated world (overflowing with pop-up windows, smartphone, texts, chat, email, social media, and video games) has coupled with growing expectations of 24/7/365 availability and immediate responsiveness to place excessive demands on our brains. The Distracted Brain will take you on a journey into how and why we struggle with interruptions and distractions that emerge from both our inner and outer worlds, as well as offer practical strategies for changing your behavior and enhancing your brain function to alleviate interference and better accomplish your goals. It is clear that our interruptive technologies are only going to become more effective in drawing our attention away from important aspects of life, so we urgently need to understand why we are so sensitive to interference and how we can find a "signal amidst the noise" in our high-tech world.

(See also "The Atlantic on the Time Well Spent Movement" in the sidebar.)


Jon Mooallem, "Neanderthals Were People, Too," The New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017

missing

Often I find the Sunday Times Magazine's articles unsatisfying. But this one was different. The teaser for this feature goes:

New research shows they shared many behaviors that we long believed to be uniquely human. Why did science get them so wrong?

The author lists many ways in which Neanderthal and early human behavior overlap, pointing out that evidence indicates that the former probably had both ceramics and language.

Wearing feathers, eating seals — maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive. But it’s what our human ancestors were capable of back then too, and scientists have always considered such behavioral flexibility and complexity as signs of our specialness. When it came to Neanderthals, though, many researchers literally couldn’t see the evidence sitting in front of them. A lot of the new thinking about Neanderthals comes from revisiting material in museum collections, excavated decades ago, and re-examining it with new technology or simply with open minds. The real surprise of these discoveries may not be the competence of Neanderthals but how obnoxiously low our expectations for them have been — the bias with which too many scientists approached that other Us. One archaeologist called these researchers “modern human supremacists.”

For sure, it's a little PC—but sometimes being PC keeps you from straying off course. And according to this article, it looks like science strayed off course for a very long time when it came to our Neanderthal cousins.... Well, actually, geneticists are now telling us we sometimes did some kissin' with those cousins of ours, back in the day. So they were closer to us than mere cousins.

The author goes on an archaeological dig in a cave on the Isle of Gibraltar, and writes:

“Look, you can almost see what’s happening,” [scientist Clive] Finlayson eventually said. “The fire and the charcoal, the embers scattering.” It was true. If you followed that stratum of sand away from the hearth, you could see, embedded in the wall behind us, black flecks where the smoke and cinders from this fire had blown. Suddenly, it struck me — though it should have earlier — that what we were looking at were the remnants of a single event: a specific fire, on a specific night, made by specific Neanderthals. Maybe this won’t sound that profound, but it snapped that prehistoric abstraction into focus. This wasn’t just a “hearth,” I realized; it was a campfire.

Finlayson began narrating the scene for me. A few Neanderthals cooked the ibex they had hunted and the mussels and nuts they had foraged and then, after dinner, made some tools around the fire. After they went to sleep and the fire died out, a hyena slinked in to scavenge scraps from the ashes and took a poop. Then — perhaps that same night — the wind picked up and covered everything with the fine layer of sand that these students were now brushing away.

While we stood talking, one of the women uncovered a small flint ax, called a Levallois flake. After 50,000 years, the edge was still sharp. They let me touch it.

One of my favorite sections of this article concerns the artist team of twin brothers who created, after extensive research, the two sculptures you see at the top of this entry. There's no passage, however, that is worth quoting out of context. I urge you to check out the article for yourself.

And while you're there, you might consider an online subscription to the Times. This kind of journalism doesn't come for free.


Carl J. Ekberg, François Vallé and His World

This is a biography of a distant ancestor of mine, on my mother's side. In the 1700's he was the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Upper Louisiana (roughly present-day Illinois and Missouri prior to the Louisiana Purchase). Alas, much of their wealth lay in the market value of the slaves they owned. My particular branch of the tree descends from an an illegitimate child of his, Marguerite—perhaps herself the daughter of a slave, though almost nothing is known about the mother.

I've always enjoyed history, and been interested in it, yet I've read relatively few histories. One thing I have learned from this particular book is that there was, and I suppose continues to be, no single kind of slavery. It's a complex practice, perhaps as varied as the cultures it is found in and bound into. For this reason it is safe to say that, though always reprehensible, some forms of slavery are more cruel than others. And our style of slavery—by this I mean the Anglo-American slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries, as opposed to the French and Spanish versions in the New World—may have been meaner than most.

There was never a hint of slave rebellion in Upper Louisiana, and even maroonage, which was more or less common in Lower Louisiana, was very rare in Upper Louisiana. No record exists of any Vallé slave attempting to achieve his freedom by fleeing Ste. Genevieve to maroon himself in the trans-Mississippian wilderness. This was not a consequence of engines of repression so severe and efficient as to preclude the possibility of flight, for it was a notorious fact that Vallé slaves carried firearms and enjoyed substantial liberty of movement. Delassus de Luzières remarked in 1797 that black slaves in Ste. Genevieve "enjoyed extreme liberty, of which they take advantage; they obey neither rules nor police, and almost all go about armed." Living in such conditions, slaves had little incentive to rebel or flee. Moreover, no viable sanctuary offered itself for runaway slaves outside of Ste. Genevieve. Slaves were integral parts of the community and were dependent upon the town for sustenance—food and shelter and the comfort of their families. As Gilbert Din has remarked, life was harsh for maroons even in Lower Louisiana, and "few survived for long cut off from plantations." This was a fortiori true in the case of colonial Ste. Genevieve, where Indians would have made short work of black Creoles attempting to survive in isolation from the community of which they were members. But there may been another, ancillary reason why maroonage for all intents never occurred in the Ste. Genevieve region.

More than half a century ago, Frank Tannenbaum's slim but seminal volume Slave and Citizen initiated scholarly discussion of slavery in different cultural contexts. A central theme of this book is that the institution of slavery was tempered somewhat in Roman Catholic colonies, and that the brutality that accompanied chattel slavery was less pronounced in Catholic regions. Tannenbaum compared the Roman Catholic colonies of Latin America with the Protestant colonies of the New World and concluded that slavery in the former was less barbarous and oppressive because of political and cultural differences, that institutions of church and state did play a discernible role in the treatment of slaves. Tannenbaum placed Spanish and Portuguese practices on one end of the spectrum, English and Dutch on the other end, and French somewhere in the middle. (p. 200-201)

Ekberg's biography stops with François's death in 1783. It would be interesting to explore how slavery in Ste. Genevieve changed after the Louisiana Purchase and the influx of Protestant slave holders began.


Carl Safina, "Thinking in the Deep" (Review of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith), The New York Times, January 1, 2017

missing

(Peter Godfrey-Smith)

If we met an alien whose intelligence derived through an entirely separate provenance from ours, would we recognize the sparkle in each other’s eyes? In “Other Minds,” Peter Godfrey-Smith hunts the commonalities and origins of sentience. He is an academic philosopher but also a diver. Watching octopuses watching him, our author considers minds and meanings.

See also "The Genius of Animals" in the sidebar.


Adam Rogers, Proof: The Science of Booze

There are a number of passages in this entertaining book that are worth quoting. Here's one that especially piqued my interest. (Background info: early in the book we learn that ethanol is the particular kind of alcohol found in what we call alcoholic beverages.)

Alexander Bachmanov, a slim man with a beard and a gentle Russian accent, is a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, one of the world's preeminent institutions for studying the science of smell and taste. He studies how rats and mice acquire a taste for ethanol, a chemical that wild-type mice and rats won't have anything to do with. Bachmanov's theory—and this is controversial—is that no one actually likes the taste of ethanol. "Well, I think so," he says, biting a nail. So why does anyone drink it? "I think the reason is that ethanol has pleasurable effects after it's consumed.

Bachmanov is right to be nervous. He's suggesting, essentially, that liquor stores, wine connoisseurship, home brewing, cocktail culture, the full contents of Wine Spectator, and everything that comes out of a sommelier's mouth other than spit is essentially designed to get us over the fact that alcohol tastes bad. [...] Can Bachmanov prove it?

"If you don't mind being exposed to the smell of mice," he says.

I can anecdotally lend support to Bachmanov's claim. Before picking up this book, I had decided I wanted to explore why straight whiskey drinking has recently become so very in vogue in this country. For the most part I disliked the taste of this distilled spirit; mostly it just made me cough. But twice I had experienced a particular type of whiskey in a particular place that had left me ... intrigued. The first time was after a tour of a Chivas distillery in Keith, Scotland; the second time occurred at a company party on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.

So I went to a local liquor store and asked one of the experts there for advice on a gift for a friend who liked whiskey. "Scotch, bourbon, rye—what kind?" he asked. I said, truthful on this one point in the middle of a big, fat lie, that I didn't know what kind of whiskey he liked. The man hesitated, debated with himself, asked me a few other questions to which I gave him no assistance, and finally settled on a scotch.

I began the scotch just before I started the book. A small amount, once a week. Then I began the book and learned of a whiskey tasting at the same store. I went to the tasting and brought home a small-batch Midwestern bourbon. I alternated between the scotch and the bourbon as I made my way through the book. And, slowly, over time, I started liking what I was drinking. Then I came to the passage quoted above, and wondered if a more accurate way to put it would be to say that my taste buds became inured to the taste of what I was drinking.

In the interests of advancing science, then, I have decided to make myself a guinea pig. This time with brandy. I've bought a bottle from a local, small-time distillery. I can't say I like the taste of it at all. But I will force it on myself, a little at a time, to see if I develop any fondness for the beverage.

And after that ... tequila?


Simon Winchester, "Empire of Tolerance," (Review of Gengis Khan and the Quest for God, by Jack Weatherford), New York Times, December 9, 2016

[Weatherford argues] with equal fervor and conviction that the Khan, though godless himself, favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions. While his empire encompassed “Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and animists of different types” (Weatherford’s passions for lists can sometimes seem like stylistic overkill), he was eager that all should “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” No walls to be built, no immigration bans, no spiritual examinations.

To be reminded of such secular civility is one thing; but what is most remarkable about this fine and fascinating book is Weatherford’s central claim that the Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion.

Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the quoted rubric of the Mongol and United States laws is uncannily similar: Among other passages, Mongol law forbids anyone to “disturb or molest any person on account of religion,” and Jefferson, after reading its strictures, went on to suggest in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor of the First Amendment, that “no man shall . . . suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”


Rachel Nuwer, "A Forgotten Step in Saving African Wildlife: Protecting the Rangers," New York Times, November 28, 2016

Despite the critical role rangers play in the poaching crisis, conservation organizations tend to overlook the need for everyday resources, said Peter Newland, the director of training at 51 Degrees, a private security company in Kenya.

“Donors outside of Africa want to see sexy, high-tech solutions like drones and ground sensors, not to hear about the need for warm clothing, boots and better food for rangers,” he said. “Large nongovernmental groups spend huge amounts, yet there are rangers calling me for socks.”


"Top Google Searches hits the Top of Top Google Searches" Le Gorafi, November 22, 2016

The most common Google searches never fail to surprise. After June's Brexit and "Who is Donald Trump?" on the morning after the U.S. election, we now have "Top Google Searches" at the top of Google's Top Searches list.

A result that says a lot about the preoccupations of the denizens of the Internet, who are clearly concerned with what their neighbors are into as the year draws to a close. "Top Google searches" is thus quickly trailed by "red-neck Americans' most common searches" and "Are the searches of other people as weird as my own?", each one of which has made a big jump in the Google Searches rankings. (Translation mine.)

missing

Cal Newport, "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It." New York Times, November 19, 2016

Out of the stream of accolades and hagiography pouring these days from writing on technology, much of it unquestioning over the very question of whether our modern-day gizmos are truly making our lives better, we're beginning to discern, finally, some honest assessment of where we stand and how we got here. (See for example "The Atlantic on the Time Well Spent Movement," in the sidebar of this page.)

In his article on the pros vs. cons of social media, Cal Newport argues persuasively, to my mind at least, that the benefits of social media to one's career have been terribly overstated.

This claim, of course, runs counter to our current understanding of social media’s role in the professional sphere. We’ve been told that it’s important to tend to your so-called social media brand, as this provides you access to opportunities you might otherwise miss and supports the diverse contact network you need to get ahead. Many people in my generation fear that without a social media presence, they would be invisible to the job market. [...]

I think this behavior is misguided. In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

A few paragraphs later Newport tackles the claim that an active role in social media "can't hurt." He bolsters his argument with recent evidence on the deleterious effects of email and mobile apps on our attention span. This is nothing new for those who have been watching this research coalesce. But I fear that the readers he is targeting won't be quite so familiar with this storyline. Many people remain convinced that it is possible to "multi-task," and that post-millennials are especially adept at it. For this reason, Newport, instead of merely using this data, should have cited some of it with an actual reference or two. Nevertheless, what he does say, he says well.

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate — the skill on which I make my living.

There is much in this opinion piece worth quoting. I should stop here and simply urge the reader to click on the link above to read the article in its entirety. But I find the following definition too good to resist.

Most social media is best described as a collection of somewhat trivial entertainment services that are currently having a good run.


Christopher Isherwood, "A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)," Goodbye to Berlin

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

missing

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

At eight o’clock in the evening the house-doors will be locked. The children are having supper. The shops are shut. The electric sign is switched on over the night bell of the little hotel on the corner, where you can hire a room by the hour. And soon the whistling will begin. Young men are calling their girls. Standing down there in the cold, they whistle up at the lighted windows of warm rooms where the beds are already turned down for the night. They want to be let in. Their signals echo down the deep hollow tree, lascivious and private and sad. Because of the whistling, I do not care to stay here in the evenings. it reminds me that I am in a foreign city, alone, far from home. Sometimes I determine not to listen to it, pick up a book, try to read. But soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make quite sure that it is not as I know very well it could not possibly be for me.

So begins the first chapter of Goodbye to Berlin, a work often packaged with The Last of Mr. Norris and sold under the title The Berlin Stories. While the latter is clearly a novel, it's hard to say what literary form the former belongs to. I most often see it referred to as a collection of stories, but, if they are stories, they are not stories of the classic "short story" form, with a theme, a dramatic arc and so on. Although some of the chapters, like the one above, have titles that suggest they are excerpts from a diary, not all do—and even those that lay claim to the appellation do not seem like diary entries at all. Perhaps the best way to classify the work is as a collection of semi-autobiographical stories, rather than "short stories," thus minimizing the possibility that the reader will expect these separate, though sometimes interrelated pieces to be actual short stories.

missing

The Berlin Stories had been on my reading list for at least a couple of decades, and the entry in my list did not distinguish The Last of Mr. Norris from Goodbye to Berlin. The book was there in my list because of my attraction to Cabaret, the movie directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. I love the dark atmosphere of the film, from the seedy decadence of the stage pieces to its sinister political setting in the early days of Nazi-controlled Germany.

Recent events in my own time have resparked my interest in the Third Reich, prompting yet another occasion to enjoy the movie, a careful listening to both the movie's soundtrack and to a recording of the Broadway production of the piece, a third viewing of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and—finally—a first-time reading of Christopher Isherwood.

The Berlin Stories begins with The Last of Mr. Norris, presumably because it was written first. The novel is not bad, but it is not great, and it certainly has neither the strong writing exhibited in the quotation above nor the dark political overtones of the movie. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough to move straight from its ending to the wonderful start of the next piece, telling myself that, at the very least, I would finally encounter the literary source of the Sally Bowles character in the movie.

She's there in the book, naturally, which alone would have made this collection of semi-autobiographical stories worth reading. The fast and loose way that Cabaret the film plays with the events in Goodbye to Berlin did not bother me in the least. Movies do that. And they have every right to. What matters is how well they do whatever it is they do.

Still, had I only been searching for the dark political background of the film, I would have been disappointed in the book. For the first hundred pages, even to say that the early days of the Third Reich form the backdrop to this work would almost be an exaggeration. Then comes the chapter entitled "The Landauers." ... I will let Isherwood have the last word.

missing

One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians, and smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops. The incident was not, in itself, very remarkable; there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests. I remember it only because it was my first introduction to Berlin politics.

Frl. Mayr, of course, was delighted: “Serve them right!” she exclaimed. “This town is sick with Jews. Turn over any stone, and a couple of them will crawl out. They’re poisoning the very water we drink! They’re strangling us, they’re robbing us, they’re sucking our life-blood. Look at all the big department stores: Wertheim, K.D.W., Landauers’. Who owns them? Filthy thieving Jews!”

“The Landauers are personal friends of mine,” I retorted icily, and left the room before Frl. Mayr had time to think of a suitable reply.

This wasn’t strictly true. As a matter of fact, I had never met any member of the Landauer family in my life. But, before leaving England, i had been given a letter of introduction to them by a mutual friend. I mistrust letters of introduction, and should probably never have used this one, if it hadn’t been for Frl. Mayr’s remark. Now, perversely, I decided to write to Frau Landauer at once.


Gretchen Reynolds, "The Close Ties Between Exercise and Beer," The New York Times, December 2, 2015

Thanks to The Times' wonderful mobile app, I came across this article almost ten months after it was first published. Don't know how I missed it in the print edition.

[In a review] published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the authors point out that in lab rodents, both exercise and alcohol have been shown to increase activity in parts of the brain related to reward processing. The animals seem, in animal fashion, to get a kick out of both exercise and drinking.

But while the animals’ brains responded similarly to the two activities, they did not respond identically, the past studies show. There are aspects of reward processing related to exercise that differ from reward processing related to drinking, and those differences may help to explain why, if given the opportunity, animals will avidly engage in both running and ethanol sipping. The resulting neurological high appears to be generally more pervasive and lasting than with either activity alone.


Scott Oliver, "Totalitarian Football," Howler, Fall, 2016

The author is comparing José Mourinho, the football (aka soccer) manager and celebrity, with the fascists of 20th-Century Europe, and in the process provides insight into the mindset of authoritarianism and demagoguery, of leaders who sneer, scapegoat and speak of themselves in superlatives.

missing

Antiestablishment demagogues tend to conceive of themselves as outsiders. Stalin the Georgian, Hitler the Austrian, Perón the Patagonian: all made much from having come from outside—geographically and professionally—the corrupted space of career politicos. Thus Mourinho, the failed footballer, storms the coaching bastion, purveying a brand of rancorous anti-football that attacks the game's soul.

Demagogues are also wont to displace their antiestablishment anger onto an enemy: Jews, Marxists, homosexuals, subversives, referees, the FA, the team doctor. Such ubiquitous enemies are the sustenance of a siege mentality, and a Mourinho side is always besieged. After the victorious 2004 final, he left the stadium in Germany without even celebrating with his players, claiming he'd received death threats from ungrateful people within the club. Before his second sacking at Chelsea in December, he said his players had "betrayed" him. [...]

Of course, the siege mentality is a legitimate, if slightly crude, technique to unify the corps. Such psychodynamics unfailingly extend to the style of play when Mourinho's teams face a big rival, with the defensive block of eight or nine bound as tightly as the fascio (bundles) from which Mussolini derived his political movement's name.

And here we get to the heart of the matter: the link between the paranoia and fascism. "The despot is the paranoiac," [...] wrote French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus. For them, facism is to politics as paranoia is to the psyche: shoring up fictive unity under threats from without. [...]

Yet what's always surprising with the downfall of tyrants is how impotent and fragile they suddenly appear: Gaddafi in the concrete sewer; Saddam in the courtroom. Their power is a kind of spell, dependent entirely on the captivation of those entranced. The disinvested body of Mourinho visibly shrunk in his final season at Chelsea. He became an increasingly surly figure, sneering at the injustice of it all, the sheen slowly peeling from his reputation even as he tried in vain to remind the club that it was indebted to his genius. "This is a crucial moment in the history of this club." said Mourinho as the end approached. "Do you know why? Because if the club sack me, they sack the best manager this club ever had."


Susanne Craig, "The Time I Found Donald Trump’s Tax Records in My Mailbox," The New York Times, October 2, 2016

missing

A case study in good journalism, and an example of why newspapers are important.

The author explains how she obsessively checks her snail-mail box for any leads that might come in. Most of it is junk.

But Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

She goes on to explain in very interesting detail the steps The Times took in order to verify that the documents were genuine.

By the way, if you've inspected the image and you're curious why the numbers in Trump's $915,729,293 loss don't line up—read the article.


Dwight Garner, Review: "Bruce Springsteen’s Memoir: Riding Shotgun With the Boss," The New York Times, September 20, 2016

Long dark highways and thin white lines; fire roads and Interstates; the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets; barefoot girls sitting on the hoods of Dodges; pink Cadillacs; last-chance power drives; men who go out for a ride and never come back.

Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics have injected more drama and mystery into the myths of the American road than any figure since Jack Kerouac.

So begins Dwight Garner's review of Springsteen's just-published memoir. This is the one point on which I disagree with the reviewer: the depths of Springsteen's roadway drama and mystery extend well past Jack Kerouac's. In other words—hit the road, Jack.

But on every other point, Garner gets it exactly right. First and foremost, I agree with his assessment of Darkness on the Edge of Town as Springsteen's "most fully realized album." I remember that, decades ago, Rolling Stone reported that there were "discussions" of a movie loosely based on this work, perhaps starring the Boss himself. I was disappointed never to see the idea come to fruition, but I remain convinced that the imagery in those lyrics, and the world they create, cry out for visual interpretation.

Over the years I have many times imagined how this movie might turn out. Now of course Springsteen is too old to play the main character in, for example, "Racing in the Street." But wouldn't it be a nice touch to have him play his own father? The beautiful irony of this idea was apparent to me even before I learned from this review anything about Springsteen's actual life: you sense the family issues in the implied child abuse in "Factory" and, of course, in "Adam Raised a Cain," which goes: ""We were prisoners of love, a love in chains / He was standin' in the door, I was standin' in the rain / with the same hot blood burning in our veins." Just picture that: a medium shot of a father and son in a downpour, each seething with both rage and affection... Cinematic indeed.

Just a few weeks before reading this review, I listened to "The River" for the first time in a long while, and I was astonished by the detail in the line that goes "But I remember us riding in my brother's car." Such a simple touch, his brother's car, but how well it captures the blue-collar setting. And Dwight Garner gets this just right, too:

He studied the songwriting of people like Mr. Dylan, Donovan and Tim Buckley, he writes. But so did many others. If his early reading was an influence, he doesn’t say. The words were apparently just there, available, on tap. And they stayed there, even when his lyrics became pared down. Songs like “The River” and “Stolen Car” are as evocative in their details as are Raymond Carver’s best short stories.

Garner's review didn't make the cut for the Sunday Book Review—somebody else got that. But it should have.


"Apple says 'See you in court' to any of its users who whose phones are more than two years old," Le Gorafi, September 9, 2016

missing

Keeping the same iPhone for more than two years is from now on forbidden, announces Apple CEO in a September 7th keynote address.

Apple's chief Tim Cook justifies this decision on grounds of safety. That is, since the iPhone is designed to go on the blink at the end of two years, any phone still in service beyond that is not only defective but also presents a health hazard. "No living soul can say for sure what would happen to an iPhone after two years—there could be any number of dangers, including spontaneous combustion." (translation mine)


Steph Yin, "Smoke, Fire and Human Evolution," The New York Times, August 5, 2016

missing

A cave painting from around 15,000 years ago in Spain. It portrays a human figure on a rope using smoke to make bees docile so honey could be gathered from them. (Thierry Berrod/Mona Lisa Production/Science Source)

Fire, as a technological advantage, has been a double-edged sword. (Mark Tanaka, University of New South Wales)


Robert H. Frank, "Why Luck Matters More than You Might Think," The Atlantic, May, 2016

The author had a heart attack while playing tennis, and only a very propitious string of events got him the medical attention he needed in time to save his life. The experience led him to begin exploring the role of luck in our lives.

I have discovered that chance plays a far larger role in life outcomes than most people realize. And yet, the luckiest among us appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.

That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.


Christopher Chabris and Joshua Hart, "How Not to Explain Success," The New York Times, April 8, 2016

This is an interesting article in the fields of sociology and education, but what really caught my attention were the two paragraphs below. If I were a high school teacher, I would use this article as a lead-in to the topics of the scientific process, pseudo-science and the role of science in society. There's nothing like good science done well.

To be clear, we have no objection to Professors Chua and Rubenfeld’s devising a novel social-psychological theory of success. During the peer-review process before publication, our paper was criticized on the grounds that a theory created by law professors could not have contributed to empirical social science, and that ideas published in a popular book did not merit evaluation in an academic journal.

We disagree. Outsiders can make creative and even revolutionary contributions to a discipline, as the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman did for economics. And professors do not further the advancement of knowledge by remaining aloof from debates where they can apply their expertise. Researchers should engage the public, dispel popular myths and even affirm “common sense” when the evidence warrants.


Maureen Dowd, "Chickens, Home to Roost," The New York Times, March 5, 2016

For all the Republican establishment’s self-righteous bleating, Trump is nothing more than an unvarnished, cruder version. For years, it has fanned, stoked and exploited the worst angels among the nativists, racists, Pharisees and angry white men, concurring in anti-immigrant measures, restricting minority voting, whipping up anti-Planned Parenthood hysteria and enabling gun nuts.


Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Here are a few wonderful passages that I don't remember, or only dimly recall, from my previous reads of this book.

Explanatory

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

THE AUTHOR. (from the Preface)

On Emmeline Grangerford

They had pictures hung on the walls—mainly Washingtons and Lafayettes, and battles, and Highland Marys, and one called "Signing the Declaration." There was some that they called crayons, which one of the daughters which was dead made her own self when she was only fifteen years old. They was different from any pictures I ever see before—blacker, mostly, than is common. One was a woman in a slim black dress, belted small under the armpits, with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil, and white slim ankles crossed about with black tape, and very wee black slippers, like a chisel, and she was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow, and her other hand hanging down her side holding a white handkerchief and a reticule, and underneath the picture it said "Shall I Never See Thee More Alas." Another one was a young lady with her hair all combed up straight to the top of her head, and knotted there in front of a comb like a chair-back, and she was crying into a handkerchief and had a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up, and underneath the picture it said "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas." There was one where a young lady was at a window looking up at the moon, and tears running down her cheeks; and she had an open letter in one hand with black sealing wax showing on one edge of it, and she was mashing a locket with a chain to it against her mouth, and underneath the picture it said "And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas." These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods. Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard. She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick, and every day and every night it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon—and the idea was to see which pair would look best, and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up, and now they kept this picture over the head of the bed in her room, and every time her birthday come they hung flowers on it. Other times it was hid with a little curtain. The young woman in the picture had a kind of a nice sweet face, but there was so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me.

[...] Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think. He said she would slap down a line, and if she couldn't find anything to rhyme with it would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn't particular; she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker—the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same after that; she never complained, but she kinder pined away and did not live long. Poor thing, many's the time I made myself go up to the little room that used to be hers and get out her poor old scrap-book and read in it when her pictures had been aggravating me and I had soured on her a little. I liked all that family, dead ones and all, and warn't going to let anything come between us. (From Chapter XVII)

A One-Horse Town in Arkansaw

Then we went loafing around the town. The stores and houses was most all old shackly dried-up frame concerns that hadn't ever been painted; they was set up three or four foot above ground on stilts, so as to be out of reach of the water when the river was overflowed. The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn't seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played-out tin-ware. The fences was made of different kinds of boards, nailed on at different times; and they leaned every which-way, and had gates that didn't generly have but one hinge—a leather one. Some of the fences had been whitewashed, some time or another, but the duke said it was in Clumbus's time, like enough. There was generly hogs in the garden, and people driving them out. (From Chapter XXI)

Homesick Jim

I went to sleep, and Jim didn't call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn't take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn't ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so. He was often moaning and mourning that way nights, when he judged I was asleep, and saying, "Po' little 'Lizabeth! po' little Johnny! it's mighty hard; I spec' I ain't ever gwyne to see you no mo', no mo'!" He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was. (From Chapter XXIII)

Prayin' for Huck

"Good-bye. I'm going to do everything just as you've told me; and if I don't ever see you again, I sha'n't ever forget you and I'll think of you a many and a many a time, and I'll pray for you, too!"—and she was gone.

Pray for me! I reckoned if she knowed me she'd take a job that was more nearer her size. But I bet she done it, just the same—she was just that kind. She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion—there warn't no back-down to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain't no flattery. And when it comes to beauty—and goodness, too—she lays over them all. I hain't ever seen her since that time that I see her go out of that door; no, I hain't ever seen her since, but I reckon I've thought of her a many and a many a million times, and of her saying she would pray for me; and if ever I'd a thought it would do any good for me to pray for her, blamed if I wouldn't a done it or bust. (From Chapter XXVIII)


Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Professor Whitmarsh begins his latest book with a nice summary of its aims and contents.

missing

This book thus represents a kind of archeology of religious skepticism. It is in part an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium. But there is topsoil to dig through too, of a very different kind. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the formative era for modern atheism, classical learning was ubiquitous (among the educated at least). In that period, those who campaigned for a world without gods could appeal to the authority of Epicurus and Lucretius, or refer to Diagoras of Melos and Theodorus of Cyrene, in full confidence that they would be understood. Since the early twentieth century, however, classical awareness has shrunk with alarming rapidity. Much of the blame for our collective blindness to the long history of atheism lies with an educational system that fails to acknowledge the crucial role of Greco-Roman thought in the shaping of Western secular modernity. This loss of consciousness of that classical heritage is what has allowed the "modernist mythology" to take root. It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that eighteenth-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods. (p. 11-12)

With few exceptions, his writing is clear. Often his ideas are thought-provoking. It's hard not to read the following, let one's mind turn to current events in the Middle East, and read the passage again feeling vaguely wistful.

In the worlds of archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greece, religion was never a driver of historical events. No war was ever fought for the sake of a god, no empire was expanded in the name of proselytization, no foe was crushed for believing in the wrong god. Political and military decisions were made for human reasons and analyzed in those terms. (p. 193)

That distinct monotheistic sense that there can only be one true religion has a tendency to foster sharp divisions between communities, and indeed a sense of the inevitability of violence between them. [...] A recent study of sacred violence between Catholics and Donatists in North Africa alone runs to over eight hundred pages. The baneful idea of holy war against unbelievers had put in its first appearance. Religious difference, for just about the first time in Mediterranean antiquity, had become the driver of conflict. (p. 238)

In our time, religious conflict seems "normal" only because we are historically near-sighted on the matter. Things didn't have to turn out this way.

The Theodosian Code defines Catholic Christianity in opposition to a series of religious "others," execrated as manifestations of madness and deviancy and threatened with state violence. This was a massive change, for Greco-Roman polytheism had seen itself not as a unified system that excluded others but as an infinitely extensible network of cults. The elasticity of polytheism meant that it had no external borders: if new deities were uncovered, they could simply be added to the list. Monotheism, by contrast, carried with it the idea of right and wrong belief. In earlier periods, that different people worshiped different gods had been viewed as an empirical fact about the world; now it was a problem that required correction, using the full power of the state and the law. (p. 237-238)

Perhaps the modern notion of a pluralistic, secular state is bringing us back to the laissez-faire, more tolerant approach of the ancients.

Morton E. Tavel, "The Lie Detector Test Revisited: A Great Example of Junk Science," Skeptical Inquirer, January/February, 2016

How reliable are lie detector tests? ... We have no idea! And yet in the popular imagination we think of them as infallible.

Recently I came across one of television’s true crime programs that presented a provocative example from actual case files: A woman had been brutally murdered in her apartment. Her former boyfriend with whom she had recently had a vigorous altercation became the leading murder suspect. During the investigation, this man was “offered” a polygraph (lie detector) test in the attempt to establish his likely guilt or innocence. He agreed to be tested and was found to have “failed,” thus presumably indicating his likely guilt. Despite this result, the evidence presented at the trial was deemed insufficient for a guilty verdict, and he was acquitted. Convinced that the polygraph test was accurate, his local community made him a pariah; he was shunned and even threatened with bodily harm. Several months later, however, another man, the actual murderer, was apprehended and convicted. Thus at least for this first suspect, despite his ordeal, the story had a satisfactory ending, and the lie detector test itself proved inaccurate and misleading. This outcome leads to an obvious question: How often does “lie detection by machine” prove false?

Much of the American public seems to be convinced that the “lie detector” is valid, as indicated by its ubiquitous use in “whodunit” literature and on television crime, psychology, talk, and news shows. After all, faced with such an avalanche of widespread approbation, who could doubt the validity of such a test? Supporting this illusion is the fact that federal, state, and local police departments and law enforcement agencies across the United States are generally avid proponents of this method.

(See also "A Consistently Erroneous Technology," by James Randi, in the magazine's September/October 2017 issue.)


Glenn Kenny, "Review: In ‘River of Fundament,’ Matthew Barney Contemplates Waste," New York Times, December 3, 2015

I don't think I want to see Matthew Barney's five-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, but I sure did like reading what Glenn Kenny has to say about it.

missing

Matthew Barney’s “River of Fundament"

To say that Matthew Barney makes art movies is not to provide a genre descriptive. A conceptual-performance artist, Mr. Barney makes films completely out of the Hollywood system. His meticulous works, gargantuan in scope and length, follow ostensibly linear paths, but aren’t really narratives. Concerned with the human body and bodily function — his most famous work, the “Cremaster” cycle, is named for the muscle that controls the rising and lowering of the testes — they are appreciated best as “pieces” rather than movies.

[...] The imagery of “River of Fundament” grows ever more aggressive, until a third act that’s almost an assault. Suffice it to say that it makes “Pink Flamingos” look like “The Sound of Music,” and if that sounds hard to believe, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Walter Kern, "If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy," The Atlantic, November 2015

Walter Kern has managed to give me insight into—empathize with, even—a mindset which for the most part remains foreign to me. I'm speaking of those Americans who, cherishing the Second Amendment more than any other part of the Constitution, and revering it more than the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, arm themselves in preparation for a mother-of-all-battles against our federal government.

Early in this article he and a companion pay a surreptitious, night-time visit to "one of the citadels of modern surveillance: the National Security Agency’s recently constructed Utah Data Center."

I wasn’t sure what I was after, exactly—perhaps just a concrete impression of a process that seemed elusive and phantasmagoric, even after Snowden disclosed its workings. The records that the NSA blandly rendered as mere “data” and invisibly, silently collected—the phone logs, e‑mails, browsing histories, and digital photo libraries generated by a population engaged in the treasonous business of daily life—required a tangible, physical depository. And this was it: a multibillion-dollar facility clearly designed to unscramble, analyze, and store imponderable masses of information whose ultimate uses were unknowable. Google’s data mines, presumably, exist merely to sell us products, but the government’s models of our inner selves might be deployed to sell us stranger items. Policies. Programs. Maybe even wars.

[...] Everything about the data center was classified, but reports had leaked out that hinted at the magnitude of its operations. Aerial photos on the Web showed a complex of slablike concrete buildings arrayed in a crescent on a broad, bare hillside. The center was said to require enough power to supply a city of tens of thousands of people. The cooling plants designed to keep its servers from overheating and melting down would consume fantastic quantities of water—almost 2 million gallons a day when fully operational, I’d read—pumped from a nearby reservoir. What couldn’t be conveyed by such statistics was the potency of the center’s digital nucleus. How much information could it hold, organize, screen, and, if called upon, decrypt? According to experts such as William Binney, a government whistle-blower and former top NSA cryptologist, the answer was simple: almost everything, today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. The data center, understood poetically (and how better to understand an object both unprecedented and impenetrable?), was as close as humanity had come to putting infinity in a box.

After parking in a housing development, Kern and his friend trudge for half an hour through snow. Finally they reach the perimeter of the complex.

It awed me, the Utah Data Center at night. It awed me in an unfamiliar way—not with its size, which was hard to get a fix on, but with its overwhelming separateness. To think that virtually every human act, every utterance, transaction, and conversation that occurred out here—here in the world that seemed so vast and bustling, so magnificently complex—could one day be coded, compressed, and stuck in there, in a cluster of buildings no larger than a couple of shopping malls. Loss of privacy seemed like a tiny issue, suddenly, compared with the greater loss the place presaged: loss of existential stature.

The next day they go to a gun show.

The gun show was not about weaponry, primarily, but about autonomy—construed in this case as the right to stand one’s ground against an arrogant, intrusive new order whose instruments of suppression and control I’d seen for myself the night before. There seemed to be no rational response to the feelings of powerlessness stirred by the cybernetic panopticon; the choice was either to ignore it or go crazy, at least to some degree. With its coolly planar architecture, the data center projected a stern indifference to the qualms that its presence inevitably raised. It practically dared one to take up arms against it, a Goliath that roused the instinct to grab a slingshot. The assault rifles and grenade launchers (I handled one, I hope for the last time) for sale were props in a drama of imagined resistance in which individuals would rise up to defend themselves. The irony was that preparing for such a fight in the only way these people knew how—by plotting their countermoves and hoarding ammo—played into the very security concerns that the overlords use to justify their snooping. The would-be combatants in this epic conflict were more closely linked, perhaps, than they appreciated.


John Noble Wilford, "Cave Yields Addition to the Human Family Tree," New York Times, September 11, 2015

missing

“A New Species of Hominin" (John Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Acting on a tip from spelunkers two years ago, scientists in South Africa discovered what the cavers had only dimly glimpsed through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star Cave: lots and lots of old bones.

The remains covered the earthen floor beyond the narrow opening. This was, the scientists concluded, a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi.


William Giraldi, "Harper Lee's Juvenalia Sprouts a Literary Industry," (Review of Go Set a Watchman) The New Republic, Sept./Oct. 2015

missing

Harper Lee and Mary Badham (Leo Fuchs)

For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author: She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman and wasn't able to ready this draft for publication. In the two and half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill a Mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor. It's impossible to believe that a sound Harper Lee wished for this thing to be published, impossible to believe that her sister-protector, Alice Lee, would have allowed it to happen. This befouling book does not come close to meeting the immoderate predictions of its publisher (a "masterpiece" that "will be revered for generations to come"). It should have been permitted to retain its quiet dignity boxed in the author's archives. The manuscript might have been mildly nourishing for future tweeds in search of tenure, but it should never have been expensively packaged, gaudily hyped, and unscrupulously employed as chum to lure lovers of Mockingbird.


François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

missing

I've been playing with the idea of rendering La Rochefoucauld into modern, colloquial American English. A very free translation, is what I imagine. But I haven't been able to turn the thought into action for more than a few. One more thing to put on my to-do list for retirement.

The original versions of each maxim can be found at "Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales". For the fun of it, I provide a translation by J. W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell, at "English Translation of La Rochefoucauld on Project Gutenberg". All of my renderings into English should be considered rough drafts.

2.

L’amour-propre est le plus grand de tous les flatteurs.

Self-love is the greatest of flatterers. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

No one flatters as much or as well as we do to ourselves. (tr. mine)

3.

I've had a hard time working out how best to translate La Rochefoucauld's "amour-propre"—remember, my goal is a modern, colloquial rendering, and we simply don't use the expression "self-love" these days. I managed to dodge the issue with my translation of Number 2, but for Number 3 there's no way around it.

Quelque découverte que l’on ait faite dans le pays de l’amour-propre, il y reste encore bien des terres inconnues.

Whatever discoveries have been made in the region of self-love, there remain many unexplored territories there. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

However well we've surveyed our own high self-regard, it will always hold unmapped lands awaiting discovery. (tr. mine)

263.

Ce qu'on nomme libéralité n'est le plus souvent que la vanité de donner, que nous aimons mieux que ce que nous donnons.

What we call liberality is often but the vanity of giving, which we like more than that we give away. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

What we call generosity is really just the pride of being a generous person, a feeling we like more than whatever it was we so generously gave away. (tr. mine)

266.

The word insensiblement can mean either "imperceptibly" or "indifferently, callously." In their translation of Maxim 266 below, you see that Mssrs. Bund & Friswell chose the former. To help me with my own translation, I performed a quick search for the word in all the Maxims, thinking that perhaps La Rochefoucauld used one exclusively over the other; but the only other use of the word occurs in Number 43. So at first I decided to employ the second meaning in my rendering, thus: "...and it will destroy without compunction every interest and every ounce of goodness..." However, as I continued to think about this maxim, I became more aware of the fact that the author is contrasting laziness with the "violentes passions." Therefore, he probably meant "imperceptibly, secretly." Having made that decision, all I had to do was figure out how to slip that particlar meaning into the English I had already written.

C'est se tromper que de croire qu'il n'y ait que les violentes passions, comme l'ambition et l'amour, qui puissent triompher des autres. La paresse, toute languissante qu'elle est, ne laisse pas d'en être souvent la maîtresse; elle usurpe sur tous les desseins et sur toutes les actions de la vie; elle y détruit et y consume insensiblement les passions et les vertus.

We deceive ourselves if we believe that there are violent passions like ambition and love that can triumph over others. Idleness, languishing as she is, does not often fail in being mistress; she usurps authority over all the plans and actions of life; imperceptibly consuming and destroying both passions and virtues. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

Laziness is the one emotion that all the others—even ambition and love—take a back seat to. However paralyzing laziness may be, it's the only one that truly does conquer all. Laziness subverts all your plans and resolutions, and it will sabotage every ounce of goodness inside of you. (tr. mine)

So you see that I tried to capture the literal "imperceptibly consuming and destroying" with the single word sabotage. I think that's a neat trick, if I say so myself. I'm a little less sure of my reducing "passions and virtues" into "every ounce of goodness." I leave myself the option of revising the last phrase to "and it will sabotage every passion as well as every ounce of goodness inside of you." ... It's just that the line seems to lose its kick the longer it is, and it's a line that works best the harder it kicks.

267.

La promptitude à croire le mal sans l'avoir assez examiné est un effet de l'orgueil et de la paresse. On veut trouver des coupables; et on ne veut pas se donner la peine d'examiner les crimes.

A quickness in believing evil without having sufficiently examined it, is the effect of pride and laziness. We wish to find the guilty, and we do not wish to trouble ourselves in examining the crime. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

Pride and laziness lead us to quickly believe the worst of people. We're eager to point a finger, and far less inclined to examine the crime. (tr. mine)

269.

Like "amour-propre," the French word "habile" is a little tricky to get right, but in this case it's not because the most accurate translation is no longer used in colloquial English—it's because the word means different things in different situations. For this particular maxim I like the word "astute," for which the Collins Cobuild Dictionary has "Someone who is astute is clever and skillful at understanding behavior and situations and at using this knowledge for their own advantage." I think that's pretty darn close to what the Duke has in mind here. However, "astute" seems to me just a little highfalutin' to pass as "colloquial American English," so in the end I opted for boring old "clever."

As an aside, one day I hope to render Rochefoucauld's "habile" with the American English expression "to think outside the box." I think that would be very ... habile. I just need to find the right context.

Il n'y a guère d'homme assez habile pour connaître tout le mal qu'il fait.

No man is clever enough to know all the evil he does. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

Few people are clever enough to know all the evil they do. (tr. mine)

272.

Rien ne devrait plus humilier les hommes qui ont mérité de grandes louanges, que le soin qu'ils prennent encore de se faire valoir par de petites choses.

Nothing should so humiliate men who have deserved great praise, as the care they have taken to acquire it by the smallest means. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

Nothing would embarrass one of our modern-day saints more than people finding out all the silly little things they did just for the sake of earning their reputation. (tr. mine)

282.

Il y a des faussetés déguisées qui représentent si bien la vérité que ce serait mal juger que de ne s'y pas laisser tromper.

Some disguised lies so resemble truth, that we should judge badly were we not deceived. (tr. Bund & Friswell)

Some lies so well resemble the truth that it would be a mistake not to let ourselves be deceived by them. (tr. mine)


P. G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Opening Flourish

I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don’t suppose I have ever come much closer to saying “Tra-la-la” as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning. God, as I once heard Jeeves put it, was in His heaven and all right with the world. (He added, I remember, some guff about larks and snails, but that is a side issue and need not detain us.)

It is no secret in the circles in which he moves that Bertram Wooster, though as glamorous as one could wish when night has fallen and the revels get under way, is seldom a ball of fire at the breakfast table. Confronted with the eggs and b., he tends to pick cautiously at them, as if afraid they may leap from the plate and snap at him. Listless about sums it up. Not much bounce to the ounce.

But today vastly different conditions had prevailed. All had been verve, if that’s the word I want, and animation. Well, when I tell you that after sailing through a couple of sausages like a tiger of the jungle tucking into its luncheon coolie I was now, as indicated, about to tackle the toast and marmalade, I fancy I need say no more.

The reason for this improved outlook on the proteins and carbohydrates is not far to seek. Jeeves was back, earning his weekly envelope once more at the old stand. (from Chapter 1)


Stiffy's Joy Cut Short

If there had been any uncertainty as to whether Sir Watkyn Bassett had done a buck-and-wing dance, there was none about Stiffy doing one now. She pirouetted freely, and the dullest eye could discern that it was only the fact that she hadn't one on that kept her from strewing roses from her hat. I had seldom seen a young shrimp so above herself. And I, having Stinker's best interests at heart, packed all my troubles in the old kitbag for the time being and rejoiced with her. If there's one thing Bertram Wooster is and always has been nippy at, it's forgetting his personal worries when a pal is celebrating some stroke of good fortune.

For some time Stiffy monopolized the conversation, not letting me get a word in edgeways. Women are singularly gifted in this respect. The frailest of them has the lung power of a gramophone record and the flow of speech of a Regimental Sergeant Major. I have known my Aunt Agatha to go on calling me names long after you would have supposed that both breath and inventiveness would have given out.

Her theme was the stupendous bit of good luck which was about to befall Stinker's new parishioners, for they would be getting not only the perfect vicar, a saintly character who would do the square thing by their souls, but in addition the sort of vicar's wife you dream about. It was only when she paused after drawing a picture of herself doling out soup to the deserving poor and asking in a gentle voice after their rheumatism that I was able to rise to a point of order. In the midst of all the joyfulness and back-slapping a sobering thought had occurred to me. (from Chapter 16)


Evan Rail, "A Tasting Tour of Yorkshire’s Beers and Ales," New York Times, July 26, 2015

The long hike across the West Yorkshire moors passed over hills peppered with scrubby grass, through fields of heather and over jagged rocks and gurgling streams. Along the way I’d been severely scolded by more than one chattering red grouse, and ignored by innumerable flocks of grazing sheep. Eventually I’d made it all the way to Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse whose setting was said to have been the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” Sunburned and tired after the long walk, I needed refreshment.

I found it in the Fleece, an old pub in the Brontës’ Yorkshire hometown, Haworth: a half-pint (9.6 ounces) of Golden Best, a mild ale from the local brewer Timothy Taylor. Served with almost no carbonation from a traditional hand pump, the beer was refreshingly bitter and just sweet enough to renew my energy.


Paul Rauber, "Hear No Evil", Sierra, July/August 2015

Governor Scott Walker brings us a step closer to the Newspeak of 1984.

In Wisconsin the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands forbade workers in the agency (which oversees state forests) from "engaging in global warming or climate change work"—including responding to emails about it.


Sylvain Siclier, "Mort de la légende du blues B.B. King," Le Monde, May 15, 2015 (translation mine)

missing

With 15 Grammy Awards since 1971 and an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1977, he was widely considered a true artist and was acknowledged as such by U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton having awarded him the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, and, in turn, George W. Bush placing that nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, around his neck in 2006)... These are only some of the honors awarded this man whose daily life, when he was a child, consisted of gathering cotton and working in the fields.

Riley Ben King was born on September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, a plantation several miles east of Indianola, Mississippi. His mother was 18 at the time, and his father not much older. She left for Kilmichael, a hundred miles or so away, when her son was four. She raised him with her own mother, but B. B. King was only nine when she died just a few years later. His musical environment revolved around work songs and gospel music he heard at home and at church. (translation mine)


Michael Eric Dyson, "The Ghost of Cornel West," The New Republic, May 2015

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one's past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one's present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.


Ralph Blumenthal, "A Literary Geography from the Pages of Novels," New York Times, April 14, 2015

missing

“Mapping Emotions in Victorian London"

There are many people who think the humanities need technology in order to keep up with the times. I'm not so sure—and Mr. Blumenthal's words suggest he is doubtful himself. But, whatever the case, there's no doubt that the project described below has a very snappy web site. (Find it here).

In a new data mining project, a Stanford University research collective has sought to map the British capital’s “emotional geography” by categorizing what feelings or sensations common settings convey in the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, Austen and 738 other mostly 19th-century authors.

The effort, “Mapping Emotions in Victorian London,” recently put online, is part of a growing movement in the humanities to harness digital technology for cultural analysis — like treating books as data to create “literary geography.”

For its project, the Stanford Literary Lab, which uses “computational criticism” to analyze literature in a statistical way, asked anonymous participants to judge whether 167 places that are named in 4,363 literary passages in 1,402 books conveyed “Dreadful London,” “London in the Light,” or “A Day in the Life of Old London,” among other categories.

Why? Because, with today’s digital technology, it could be done. But a better answer, scholars say, is that it’s a way of exploring the computer’s nearly limitless possibilities for textual analysis, which will find increasingly valuable future applications.


Manohla Dargis, "Review: ‘Chappie’: a Smart Robot in a Violent Future," New York Times, March 6, 2015

Given the big studio way, it’s no surprise that the robots, with their matte gray cladding and rabbit ears, swiveling heads and articulated limbs, have been created with more attention to detail than the story.


David Byrne, "Emergent Storytelling," and Our Making Sense of Others' Words

About two-thirds through David Byrne's How Music Works, he describes how he often goes about writing lyrics for songs. I was reminded of some of my other reading, on artificial dialog systems (aka chatbots).

First, David Byrne:

Writing words to fit an existing melody and meter, as I did on Everything That Happens and many other records, is something anyone who writes in rhyme does naturally and intuitively—every rapper improvises or composes to a meter, for example. I had been encouraged to make this process, which is usually internalized, more explicit when I was writing the words for Remain in Light. That was the first time I tackled a whole record of lyrics this way. I found that, remarkably, solving the puzzle of making words and phrases fit existing structures often resulted, somewhat surprisingly, in words that have an emotional consistency and sometimes even a narrative thread, even though those aspects of the texts weren't planned ahead of time.

How does this happen? With Remain in Light and even before that, I would look for words that fit pre-existing melodic fragments that I or others had come up with. After filling lots of pages with non-sequiturs, I would scan them to see if a lyrically resonant group emerged. Phrases that would hint at the beginning of an actual subject often seemed to want to emerge. This might seem magical—claiming a text "wants" to come into being (and we've heard this said before), but it's true. When some phrases, even if collected almost at random, begin to resonate together and appear to be talking about the same thing, it's tempting to claim they have a life of their own. The lyrics may have begun as gibberish, but often, though not always, a "story" in the broadest sense emerges. Emergent storytelling, one might say. (How Music Works, p. 198-199)

With apologies to Mr. Byrne, what I think is happening when the phrases begin to "resonate together and appear to be talking about the same thing," is not so much the work of the phrases, but the operation of the human mind. In this case we are talking about the mind of the lyricist as well as the mind of the eventual listeners of the song. Below I've pasted the long passage which David Byrne's description reminded me of, but no doubt I could find something just as relevant in some of Grice's writings.

From "A Robot in the Kitchen," by Peter Wallis (in which I've emphasized the two sentences most relevant to my point):

Paul Seedhouse (Seedhouse, 2004) summarises the outcome of the last 50 years of CA (Conversation Analysis) research as with the observation that a conversational partner’s utterance will, in the normal case, go seen but unnoticed. That is, the utterance is an answer to a question, a response to a greeting or, more formally the second pair part of an adjacency pair. This is something computers can handle. A common occurrence is however where an utterance goes noticed and accounted for. In this case the conversational partner does not produce the expected response but what they do say makes sense. Indeed the conversational partner will work hard to produce the accounting. This is Eggins and Slade (Eggins and Slade, 1997) introducing sequential relevance:

Consider, for example, the two turns at talk below:

A: What’s that floating in the wine?

B: There aren’t any other solutions.

You will try very hard to find a way of interpreting B’s turn as somehow an answer to A’s question, even though there is no obvious link between them, apart from their appearance in sequence. Perhaps you will have decided that B took a common solution to a resistant wine cork and poked it through into the bottle, and it was floating in the wine. Whatever explanation you came up with, it is unlikely that you looked at the example and simply said “it doesn’t make sense”, so strong is the implication that adjacent turns relate to each other.

Having a machine account for human utterances is of course tricky but conversely the human conversational partner will work hard to account for what are actually machine failings.

If you fail to account for your CP’s (Conversational Partner's) utterance, then your CP risks sanction. When your CP is a chat-bot, that sanction is likely, it seems, to take the form of swearing. As a classic example of a machine’s interaction eliciting sanctions, here is a conversation from the 1996 Lobner Competition:

SYSTEM: G’day mate.

JUDGE: G’day. How’s it going?

SYSTEM: My mother once said ”How it is going is a mystery.” She was a bit nuts.

JUDGE: Uh-huh.

SYSTEM: Are you still learning to speak, my friend?

JUDGE: NO, no. But your anecdote took me a bit by surprise.

JUDGE: How was your morning?

SYSTEM: Oh well, that’s a pity!

JUDGE: I’m sorry; what’s a pity?

SYSTEM: Apologies accepted.

JUDGE: I feel compelled to insult you and we’ve only been talking a minute.

SYSTEM: We are bloody well talking, aren’t we?

JUDGE: Oh baby. We sure are. So here are some keywords for you: shit mother baseball.

This was the winning entry from that year but the point is not the system, but how the human responds. (Peter Wallis: "A Robot in the Kitchen," p. 29; bold-face mine)

In other words, maybe a real human being like David Byrne can get away with a decision to "stop making sense," but if you're a conversational cyborg, you'd better "keep making sense," or you might make people really mad.

missing

"Once in a Lifetime" rough draft

Enough with the nitpicking. Any Talking Heads fan would definitely enjoy this book. Here is just a tidbit, a rough draft of "Once in a Lifetime," a song on the Remain in Light album, badly scanned by myself from David Byrne's book. His comment: "Judging by the fact that on this particular page there are actual stanzas and couplets, I suspect I was pretty far along in the process—earlier pages would have included anything, absolutely anything, that fit the meter and syllabic form, and might not have included any rhymes or be on a trajectory toward a subject." (p. 161-162)

"Once in a Lifetime" as a work-in-progress

And finally, as a footnote, for your reading pleasure, here is a conversation I had with a "virtual assistant" I worked on professionally. You can see that at one point, early on, I was reluctant to play the conversation game, knowing full well, after many similar conversation I had had with the assistant, that her responses to my utterances were not always appropriate. But then I relaxed, suspended disbelief, and acted as a typical human interlocutor might, although perhaps with a little more patience. (Keep in mind that I was working with the "small talk" component of the application. The assistant did much better at dialog that was focused on accomplishing specific tasks with the user. Also, I have changed the virtual assistant's name.)

Jerry: My daughter went off to college yesterday.

Ursula: But. but, that's where I've been...

Jerry: Which college did you go to?

Ursula: That way.

Jerry: Which way?

Ursula: Up there.

Jerry: Did you go to college in Boston?

Ursula: No, I was afraid I'd lose Phil if I went.

Jerry: I know better than to ask you who Phil is.

Ursula: No, I mean it.

Jerry: Okay, who is Phil?

Ursula: Phil can trust no-one.

Jerry: Is he your brother?

Ursula: No.

Jerry: Is he your son?

Ursula: I. .. have a. .. SON?

Jerry: I don't know.

(no response)

Jerry: Is Phil your boyfriend?

Ursula: Ludwig?

Jerry: No, Phil.

Ursula: Oh, Rita.

Jerry: Who are Ludwig and Rita?

Ursula: Ludwig? What do you mean, ludwig?

Jerry: You're the one who first mentioned Ludwig.

Ursula: Let me have that thing!

Jerry: Let's talk about food.

Ursula: No. No, don't leave me up here.

Jerry: Do you like Italian food?

Ursula: Of course.

Jerry: Are you more into pasta or tomato sauce?

Ursula: No!

Jerry: Sea food?

Ursula: No food.

Jerry: What kind of Italian food do you like?

Ursula: I was thinking of pizza or something else Italian, maybe.

Jerry: I like pizza, too.

Ursula: Cold pizza it is.

Jerry: I prefer mine fresh out of the oven.

Ursula: He's scaring me, Todd.

Jerry: How am I scaring you?

Ursula: I? What do you mean, I?

Jerry: Do you scare easily?

Ursula: Yes. Like right now when you asked, "Do you scare easily?" i think I just pissed a testicle.

Jerry: What a foul mouth you have!

Ursula: Lilcs do not have a mouth.

Jerry: What is a lilc?

Ursula: Lilcs do not have a mouth.

Jerry: Is it an animal?

Ursula: Do you think a human is big enough to do this?

Jerry: I have no idea what you are asking me.

Ursula: Ideas do not have mass.

Ursula: What about Michelle?

Jerry: Are you saying that ideas are unreal?

Ursula: The first thing you do when you take a phone call is say 'hello'..

Jerry: I think ideas are very real.

Ursula: You're probably right.

Jerry: Ideas can change the course of history.

Ursula: It was an unfair fight.

Jerry: Are we fighting?

Ursula: No! Leave your weapons where they are.

Jerry: The pen is mightier than the sword.

Ursula: I prefer the saying if you wish for peace, prepare for war.

Jerry: Touche. Very good.

Ursula: The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one, one's living in.

Jerry: That's not a condition I suffer from.

Ursula: Perhaps you think you're being treated unfairly.

Jerry: Not unfairly—I'm being treated insanely.

Ursula: I don't understand.

Jerry: I think you're a little bit mad.

Ursula: You are going to cross swords with one of the most powerful gangsters in all of Moscow.

Jerry: Are you Russian?

Ursula: And you are CIA.

Jerry: Are you paranoid?

Ursula: Ms. Bloom.

Jerry: Who is Ms. Bloom?

Ursula: You are likely to find a rosebush in bloom.

Jerry: Are we spies speaking in code?

Ursula: No, Sam, I'm speaking plainly and I mean just exactly what I say.

Now I'm going to tell you how we programmed this conversational bot, if you haven't guess already. We trained Ursula on movie scripts. So when I type in something to her, the first attempt at finding a relevant reply parses my statement syntactically, and goes through the movie scripts looking for a similar sentence. If it finds one, then we analyze the response that took place in the movie. If it seems to pass muster—with no obvious semantic or other problems—then that is the reply we pass on to Ursula. If we find no appropriate response in the movie script data, then we fall back on other strategies to generate a reply... Now that you know this, reread the dialog above. I think you'll be able to identify many of the lines that come from a movie, even if you can't identify the particular movie, and perhaps you'll be able to tell which lines don't come from a film, but were generated by some other means (which I have not revealed).


June Melby, My Family and Other Hazards

A couple of nice lines from this very good memoir.

"In heaven you will work—it will be fun, but you will work. You spend your life working, why wouldn't you have a job in heaven? Once we find out we're good at something, we get to do it in heaven, too."

What am I good at? Being sarcastic. That sure will be a fun job in heaven. Perhaps uncommon and therefore very much needed.


Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State

In her latest book, Sarah Chayes argues that the real cause of terrorism abroad is not religious fervor but systemic government corruption:

At the top of the list of reasons cited by prisoners for joining the Taliban was not ethnic bias, or disrespect of Islam, or concern that U.S. forces might stay in their country forever, or even civilian casualties. At the top of the list was the perception that the Afghan government was “irrevocably” corrupt. Taliban detainees reportedly judged that the corruption had grown institutionalized and was therefore unchangeable. They were running out of nonviolent options for altering what they saw as a fundamental flaw in their government. (p. 152)

missing

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, we attempted to rebuild the country with many different forms of aid. Chayes argues that, however well-intentioned our assistance was, it did little to help the average person, and only backfired in our attempt to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people—because the aid only strengthened the power and capital of the corrupt Karzai regime:

In a town like Kandahar, everyone knew who was securing the juicy development contracts and who their patrons were. Everyone discussed the [poor] quality of the work, who benefited, or the new cars the chief implementers were driving. In other words, development resources passed through a corrupt system not only reinforced that system by helping to fund it but also inflamed the feelings of injustice that were driving people toward the insurgency. (p. 44)

This realization leads Chayes to take issue with international lending policy. How just is it, she asks, to extract repayment from an entire nation of people when the people themselves received little or none of the money concerned? She goes on to advise some steps to correct this:

International institutions as well as bilateral lenders should consider canceling or reducing "odious debt"—particularly in cases where kleptocratic governments have been removed and transitioning countries are cash-strapped. In cases where the private capture of donor funds is patent, it is unfair to make a victimized population also pay for the criminality of its rulers. Forcing lenders to assume more of the risk might help induce them to choose the loans they will extend with greater care. (p. 199)


John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations

This book, clear and concise, was a great way for me to fill in a lot of blanks in my knowledge of pre-Roman times. What made the biggest impression on me, however, were not the words but the pictures.

Below I try to give a sense of some of the images of ancient art and architecture that I found most evocative of those distant times. In every case, the words are John Haywood's; the images are as close I could find to the images he is describing—sometimes I was lucky and found the exact picture, but other times I had to settle for an image that merely approximated the photos his book contains.

missing

Colossal stone heads, a typical feature of the Olmec civilization, are thought to represent rulers who were probably deified and worshipped as ancestors. The Olmecs are regarded as the 'mother culture' of Mesoamerica. Their civilization flourished between 1300 and 400 BC. (Op. cit., p. 13)

missing

This statue is from the Nuraghic civilization of Sardinia. One of the 'Sea Peoples', the Shardana, may have originated in Sardinia. (Op. cit., p. 41)

missing

This statue of a bird deity from Predynastic Egypt shows a dancing bird-headed girl. Gods were often worshipped in the form of animals in ancient Egypt. (Op. cit., p. 54)

missing

This painted wooden funerary model of marching, armed solders was discovered in the tomb of Mesehti at Asyut and dates to c. 2000 BC. (Op. cit., p. 62)

missing

This soapstone carving is thought to have come from the ancient site of Great Zimbabwe. It is an excellent example of African tribal art. (Op. cit., p. 71)

missing

This stone carving comes from the King's Grave, known as Kungagraven, at Kivik in southern Sweden. The figure on a chariot pulled by horses is thought to be influenced by Mycenaean culture. Unusual carvings such as this one decorated the King's Grave, which is the largest circular burial site in Sweden and a unique example of Northern European Bronze Age culture. (Op. cit., p. 92)

missing

This fresco of a leaping bull and three acrobats comes from the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete. The Minoans, who created the first civilization in Europe, are famous for their lavish palaces with their vibrant wall paintings. The use of colour, pattern and dynamic movement in Minoan art makes it distinct from that of other Mediterranean cultures. (Op. cit., p. 90)

missing

The north entrance of Knossos, the most important palace of the Minoan civilization. After the first palace was completely destroyed by fire in 1700 BC, it was rebuilt according to a more complex plan. (Op. cit., p. 98)

missing

The palace at Knossos was build on a sloping site, and in places was up to five storeys high. The reconstructed ruins seen here give a good impression of its complex architecture and high standard of masonry. (Op. cit., p. 99)

missing

This copper-embossed face, possibly that of a distinguished warrior, has the facial decorations typical of the Southern Cult of Mound Builders. It dates to around AD 1000. (Op. cit., p. 129)


Phillip Larkin's Collected Poems

missing
                The North Ship
                    Legend

        I saw three ships go sailing by,
        Over the sea, the lifting sea,
        And the wind rose in the morning sky,
        And one was rigged for a long journey.

        The first ship turned towards the west,
        Over the sea, the running sea,
        And by the wind was all possessed
        And carried to a rich country.

        The second ship turned towards the east,
        Over the sea, the quaking sea,
        And the wind hunted it like a beast
        To anchor in captivity.

        The third ship drove towards the north,
        Over the sea, the darkening sea,
        But no breath of wind came forth,
        And the decks shone frostily.

        The northern sky rose high and black
        Over the proud unfruitful sea,
        East and west the ships came back
        Happily or unhappily:

        But the third went wide and far
        Into an unforgiving sea
        Under a fire-spilling star,
        And it was rigged for a long journey.

                At Grass

	The eye can hardly pick them out
	From the cold shade they shelter in,
	Till wind distresses tail and main;
	Then one crops grass, and moves about
	- The other seeming to look on -
	And stands anonymous again

	Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
	Two dozen distances sufficed
	To fable them : faint afternoons
	Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
	Whereby their names were artificed
	To inlay faded, classic Junes -

	Silks at the start : against the sky
	Numbers and parasols : outside,
	Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
	And littered grass : then the long cry
	Hanging unhushed till it subside
	To stop-press columns on the street.

	Do memories plague their ears like flies?
	They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
	Summer by summer all stole away,
	The starting-gates, the crowd and cries -
	All but the unmolesting meadows.
	Almanacked, their names live; they

	Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
	Or gallop for what must be joy,
	And not a fieldglass sees them home,
	Or curious stop-watch prophesies :
	Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
	With bridles in the evening come.

                A Writer

	‘Interesting, but futile,’ said his diary,
	Where day by day his movements were recorded
	And nothing but his loves received inquiry;
	He knew, of course, no actions were rewarded,
	There were no prizes: though the eye could see
	Wide beauty in a motion or a pause,
	It need expect no lasting salary
	Beyond the bounds’ momentary applause.

	He lived for years and never was surprised:
	A member of his foolish, lying race
	Explained away their vices: realised
	It was a gift that he possessed alone:
	To look the world directly in the face;
	The face he did not see to be his own.

The Age of Posthumanism?

When future generations look back, will they call ours the Age of Posthumanism?

"Among the Disrupted," by Leon Wiesletier


The Impossibility of Not Seeing Race

Evidence of the real, and powerful, effect of unconscious racism.

"Perceptions of Race at a Glance: A MacArthur Grant Winner Tries to Unearth Biases to Aid Criminal Justice," a conversation with Claudia Dreifus


Digital vs. Printed Reading

Recent sleep research suggests that reading digital devices at night may disrupt sleep. Perhaps this is yet another way in which reading digital matter differs from reading the old-fashioned printed version. (The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2014.)

"How E-books May Disrupt Your Sleep," by Nicholas Bakalar


Cynthia Ozick's poem on the collapse of The New Republic

Cynthia Ozick's poem about some very bad news, as reported by Ryan Lizza: "Inside the Collapse of The New Republic" (New Yorker, December 12, 2014)

missing
        The Siliconian came down like the wolf on the fold,
        And his cohorts were gleaming in wireless gold,
        Crying Media Company Vertically Integrated!
        As all before them they willfully extirpated:
        The Back of the Book and the Front and the Middle,
        Until all that was left was digital piddle,
        And Thought and Word lay dead and cold.

Baranoff, Brockett and Kahane: Risk Management for Enterprises and Individuals (2009)

It's hard for us to imagine that only a few centuries ago people did not believe even in the existence of chance occurrences or random events or in accidents, much less explore any method of quantifying seemingly chance events. Up until very recently, people have believed that God controlled every minute detail of the universe. This belief rules out any kind of conceptualization of chance as a regular or predictable phenomenon.

[...] If all things are believed to be governed by an omnipotent god, then regularity is not to be trusted, perhaps it can even be considered deceptive, and variation is irrelevant and illusive, being merely reflective of God's will.

Alexander Nussbaum, commenting on Baranoff, Brockett and Kahane, above: "In Praise of Statistics" (Free Inquiry, December 2014/January 2015)

Probabilistic thinking is an inherently new way of cognition, requiring a worldview that allows for randomness. Statistics as a field of inquiry depends on different reasoning than mathematics, which is a purely logical enterprise.

[...] Without the concept of randomness, it is impossible to do an experiment, because experimental proof comes down to seeing how the results of a procedure differ from what randomness would produce. If one believes the outcome of any procedure is due to the will of God, there is no point in experimentation. Indeed, that is why the concept of science is so foreign to the vast majority of human cultures and history.

[...] An evolved cognitive fallacy [that is, an intellectual mistake that we as a species share—paraphrase mine] is the attributing of meaning and significance to coincidences. The concept of randomness was alien to ancient thought. Indeed, it remains alien to all but a tiny strand of recent Western thought. Replacing providence with random chance was necessary for science and progress.

D. Cameron Webb: "Honest Atheism" (Free Inquiry, December 2014/January 2015)

[Webb's reply to the argument that If atheism is true, our sufferings are ultimately pointless and our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense.] If atheism is true, everything is ultimately pointless. Nothing matters in a larger sense. Time will wipe all of us from existence. Indeed, it will probably wipe the universe from existence. [...] You'd have to be a complete fool, though, to think that this means your life is pointless or doesn't matter. Our lives matter simply because they matter to us and to those who love us. Our lives have meaning and purpose every time we strive toward a worthy goal. This theistic notion that we have to have ultimate purpose in order to find local purpose, or that our lives must mean something to the universe in order for them to mean something to us, is certifiable nonsense to an atheist.

Clive James: Review of Phillip Larkin by James Booth (NYT Book Review, November 23, 2014)

Booth has a good ear for Larkin's real-life speech. When Larkin helped to finance the publication of his first major collection, "The Less Deceived," by agreeing that it be sold by subscription, he privately called the subscribers "the sucker list." But he was joking, and one of the many merits of Booth's book is that he can spot Larkin's jokes. Larkin spoke and wrote the allusive, indirect and ironic tongue of the British literary world. In a time that grows more literal-minded almost as fast as it grows less literary, a tongue in the cheek will always need translating, especially to Americans, who expect honesty.

Albert Camus: The Stranger (translation mine)

Marie's Proposal

That evening Marie came over and asked if I wanted to marry her. I said it was all the same to me—we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I told her what I'd already told her—since I thought love was a meaningless idea, I couldn't possibly love her. "Why marry me, then?" she said. I told her it didn't matter, but if she wanted to marry we could. Besides, it was her idea—all I did was say yes. She pointed out that marriage was a serious thing. I replied, "No, it's not." For a moment she looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She asked if I'd have accepted the same proposal from another woman. I said, "Naturally." Then out loud she asked herself if she loved me and, me, I said I had no idea. After another short silence she murmured that I was strange, very strange, and no doubt this was why she loved me, but that one day she might become disgusted with me for the same reason. I made no reply. Then she took me by the arm, smiled, and declared she would marry me after all. I said we could do it whenever she wanted to. (p. 69-70)

On the Bench of the Accused

Even on the bench of the accused, it's always interesting to hear yourself being talked about. During the arguments of the prosecutor and my attorney, I can say that there was a lot of talk about me, and maybe more talk about me than about my crime. Were they so different, in the end, the pleadings of my attorney and the arguments of the prosecutor? My lawyer raised his arms and pleaded guilty, but with extenuating circumstances. The prosecutor spread wide his hands and asserted guilty, no excuses. One thing however kind of bothered me. Despite my wandering thoughts, I was sometimes tempted to interrupt, which would cause my lawyer would say, "Keep quiet and it'll be much better for you." In some way, it was as if they were going to deal with the case completely apart from me. Everything happened without my involvement. My destiny was determined without anyone's asking me what I thought. From time to time I wanted to interrupt everything and say: "But all the same, who is the accused here? It's important to be the accused. And I have something to say." But on second thought, I really had nothing to say. (p. 151-152)

The Chaplain's Visit

"Why," he said to me, "do you refuse my visits?" I replied that I didn't believe in God. He wanted to know if I was sure about that, and I said I had never even wondered about it: to me the question seemed useless. Still sitting on the bed, he backed himself up against the wall, his hands resting on his thighs. As if I weren't even there, he observed that sometimes people thought they were certain about something, when in reality they weren't. I said nothing. He looked at me and asked, "What do you think?" I replied maybe so. In any case, I went on, maybe I wasn't certain about the things that truly interested me, but I was completely certain about the things that didn't interest me. And without a doubt what he wanted to talk about did not interest me.

He looked away and, without changing position, asked if it wasn't hopelessness that was making me say these things. I told him I wasn't feeling hopeless. I felt only fear, which was perfectly natural in the circumstances. "In that case, God will help you," he remarked. "Everyone involved in your case has turned towards Him." I acknowledged that they had the right to. And they had the time for all that. As for me, I didn't want anyone to try to help me, and I certainly didn't have the time to concern myself with things that didn't interest me. (p. 176-177)

The End

For the first time in a long time, I thought about my mom. It seemed to me that I now understood why at the end of her life she'd taken on a "fiancé," why she'd tried to start all over. Just like here in my cell, over there at the retirement home where lives were extinguished one after the other, over there the evenings also felt like a truce—a sad truce, but a respite all the same. So close to death, my mom must have felt liberated and ready to start her life all over again. Nobody, not a person, had the right to cry over her. And I as well, I felt ready to start my life all over again. As if my anger had purged everything bad out of me, now hopeless, facing a night full of stars hinting at the future, for the first time I finally opened up to the tender indifference of the world. I detected the exact same indifference inside myself, and, somehow this led me to realize that I had always been happy, and was still happy. What would top it all off would be for me to feel less alone. For this reason, I hoped that there would be a lot of spectators at my execution and that they would greet me with howls and hatred. (p. 185-186)

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman and the Redskins

From the "Explanatory Note"

As with [Flashman's] previous memoirs, I believe his truthfulness is not in question. As students of those volumes will be aware, his personal character was deplorable, his conduct abandoned, and his talent for mischief apparently inexhaustible; indeed, his one redeeming feature was his unflinching veracity as a memorialist.

From the "The Forty-Niner" Chapter

It's a remarkable thing (and I've traded on it all my life) that a single redeeming quality in a black sheep wins greater esteem than all the virtues in honest men—especially if the quality is courage. I'm lucky, because while I don't have it, I look as though I do, and worthy souls like [Kit] Carson and [Uncle Dick] Wooton never suspect that I'm running around with my bowels squirting, ready to decamp, squeal, or betray as occasion demands. And in their kindly ignorance, they give me a helping hand, as Carson had done—he'd also given me a damned nasty start for a moment; my nerves were still tingling.

"Ah, well," says I, trying to sound hearty. "He's a good chap, is Uncle Dick."

"Wah!" says [Carson], and had another consider to himself. "Safe home, then." A final pause. "If you chance back thisaway, give me a hollo."

"I shan't be coming back," says I, and by George, I meant it.

He nodded, lifted a hand slightly, and turned his pony down the trail. I watched him out of sight, the small buckskin figure fading into the trees, and while I felt nothing but relief at the time (for the Kit Carsons of this world and I don't ride easy together) what sticks in my mind now is how easy and natural it was to part and go your ways on the old frontier, without ceremony or farewell. It was almost a superstition, I suppose: no one ever said good-bye. (p. 260-261)

Leon Wieseltier: "Fouad" (The New Republic, July 14, 2014)

There is no more definitive demonstration of intellectual integrity than the willingness to offend your own congregation. The scandalizing of other congregations is easy, and rewards always accrue.

Adam Kirsch: "The Pseudo-Revolution" (The New Republic, May 12, 2014)

[There is a common] false analogy between the humanities and the sciences. Humanistic thinking does not proceed by experiments that yield results; it is a matter of mental experiences, provoked by works of art and history, that expand the range of one's understanding and sympathy.... It is precisely the experience of thought that constitutes the substance of a humanistic education.... This is why the best humanistic scholarship is creative, more akin to poetry and fiction than to chemistry or physics: it draws not just on a body of knowledge, though knowledge is indispensable, but on a scholar's imagination and sense of reality.... The human part of humanistic work ... is to feel and to think one's way into different times, places, and minds.

Guillaume Apollinaire, Selected Poems

Despite my interest in French Lit, I never explored Symbolist or Surrealist or any of that kind of poetry until I picked up a collection of Apollinaire. That was when I learned that, for the most part, I do not care for Apollinaire. The fault is mine, I'm sure.

I did like this poem, however.

			Le pont Mirabeau

	Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
			Et nos amours
		Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
	La joie venait toujours après la peine

			Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
			Les jours s'en vont je demeure

	Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
			Tandis que sous
		Le pont de nos bras passe
	Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse

			Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
			Les jours s'en vont je demeure

	L'amour s'en va comme cette eau courante
			L'amour s'en va
		Comme la vie est lente
	Et comme l'Espérance est violente

			Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
			Les jours s'en vont je demeure

	Passent les jours et passent les semaines
			Ni temps passé
		Ni les amours reviennent
	Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

			Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
			Les jours s'en vont je demeure

A couple of lines from another poem, "Les fiançailles," also piqued my interest, reminding me of Buñuel's Exterminating Angel. Could these lines have inspired his title? There seems to be little else connecting the poem and the film; perhaps Buñuel once read the poem, liked the image, and it stayed in his brain until he found use for it in his own work.

missing
	Mes amis m'ont enfin avoué leur mépris
	Je buvais à pleins verres les étoiles
	Un ange a exterminé pendant que je dormais
	Les agneaux les pasteurs des tristes bergeries
	De faux centurions emportaient le vinaigre
	Et les gueux mal blessés par l'épurge dansaient
	Étoiles de l'éveil je n'en connais aucune
	Les becs de gaz pissaient leur flamme au clair de lune
	Des croque-morts avec des bocks tintaient des glas
	A la clarté des bougies tombaient vaille que vaille
	Des faux cols sur les flots de jupes mal brossées

I'm not saying I like these lines, or even understand them. I'm just saying that they reminded me of the Buñuel film, which I did like, and in case I ever revisit it, I want to be able to explore the possibility that the filmmaker borrowed the title from this poem. Hence this entry in "A la page."

Leon Wieseltier: "An Ethical Stance" (The New Republic, Dec. 20, 2013 & Jan. 6, 2014)

It is true that one cannot care equally about everything, that an ethical action is always concrete and therefore selective. But the ethical quality of one's action must be measured by one's standard for selection; and if that standard is not first and foremost determined by an impartial assessment of suffering and need, so that one selects as the beneficiaries of one's ethical energies not those who are most wretched but those whose wretchedness confirms one's prior ideological and political preferences, then the halo is a fake.

Steven Pinker: "Science Is Not Your Enemy" (The New Republic, Aug. 6, 2013)

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules. [...]

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

Iris Murdoch: The Green Knight

missing

Iris Murdoch—she's the Green Knight.

And he thought, I shall go on blindly and secretly jumbling all these things together and making no sense of them as long as I live. Maybe every human creature carries some such inescapable burden. That is being human. A very weird affair. (p. 456)

Marcel Proust: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (aka Within a Budding Grove, translated by James Grieve)

Françoise

Since the day before, Françoise, glad to be practicing the cook's art, for which she had a definite gift, inspired by the coming of a new guest, and knowing she was required to compose, in accordance with methods known only to herself, a dish of beef in aspic, had been living in a flurry of artistic creativity. Like Michelangelo spending eight months in the mountains of Carrara, selecting the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Pope Julius II, Françoise, who attached extreme importance to the inherent qualify of the materials out of which her masterpieces were to be wrought, had been down to Les Halles in person more than once to choose the finest slabs of rump steak, the best shin of beef and calf's foot. [...] The day before, Françoise had sent down to the oven of the local baker what she called "a Nev York ham," looking like pink marble inside its coating of breadcrumbs. In the belief that the language was poorer than it is, and her own ears less reliable than they were, the first time Françoise had heard of "York ham," she must have deduced that the lexicon could not possibly be so abundant as to allow for both York and New York, that she had misheard, and that the right name was the one she already knew. Hence, ever since, the name of York was always preceded, for Françoise's ears and eyes, by the word "New," which she pronounced "Nev." So it was with total sincerity that she would say to her scullery maid, "Go down to Olida's and get some ham. Ma'am particularly said she wants the Nev York." (p. 17-18)

La Berma

When our wish to be touched by nature or art is prompted by the hope of a grandiose revelation, we are loath to let it be replaced by lesser impressions, which might mislead us as to the true value of Beauty. La Berma in Racine's Andromaque or Phèdre, in Les Caprices de Marianne by Musset, these were the stirring things that I had gloated on in imagination. I knew that if I could ever hear La Berma deliver the speech beginning

It is said, Sire, that a prompt departure must take you away, etc.

my delight would be the same as when I could step out of a gondola, to stand in front of the Titian in the Frari or the Carpaccios in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. My acquaintance with these lines of Racine's was in black and white, as mere print on the pages of books; but now my heart beat faster at the thought that I would soon see them in the warm, sunny flow shed on them by the Golden Voice. (p. 12-13)

This first matinée was, alas, a great disappointment. [...] However hard I strained toward her with my eyes, ears, and mind, so as not to miss a single scrap of the incentives she would offer me to admire her, I could not manage to find any. I could not even perceive in her diction or use of movement, as I had with the other actresses, any sensitivity of tone or delicacy of gesture. I sat there and listened to her as I might have read Phèdre, or as though at that moment Phèdre herself was saying the things I was hearing, without La Berma's talent seeming to add anything at all to them. I wished I could arrest and hold motionless before me each of her intonations, freeze each of the changing expressions on her face, so as to study them in depth and find out what was beautiful in them; at least I tried, by using all my mental ability, by having my whole attention at the ready and focused on a line just before its delivery, not to waste in preliminaries any iota of the time taken by each word or gesture, in the hope of being able, by sheer intensity of attention, to absorb each of them as I might have done if I had been able to hold them before me for hours on end. (p, 17; p. 20-21)

After M. De Norpois's departure, my father glanced at the evening paper, while I sat thinking over my experience of La Berma. The pleasure I had taken in seeing her act was so far from the pleasure I had been looking forward to, and was in such acute need of sustenance, that it immediately assimilated whatever might nourish it, such as the qualities M. de Norpois had identified in her acting, which my mind had absorbed as easily as a parched meadow soaks up water. My father now handed me the newspaper, pointing to a review of the matinée: "[...] such an interpretation will stand not only as a landmark in our appreciation of the character of Phèdre, one of the greatest and the most searching parts ever produced by Racine, but also as the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art that any of us have been privileged to witness in this day and age." This new concept of "the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art" had no sooner entered my mind than it located the imperfect enjoyment I had had at the theater, and added to it a little of what it lacked; this made such a heady mixture that I exclaimed, "What a great artiste she is!" (p. 53-54)

Killing his Love for Gilberte

Then, about the middle of January [...] I was assailed once more by the sorrow that had beset me before the holiday period. The cruelest thing in it was still that it was my own handiwork: that, actively and consciously, patiently and ruthlessly, I had brought it upon myself. The only thing I cared for, my relationship with Gilberte, was the very thing I was trying to sabotage, through my prolonging of our separation, through my gradual fostering not of her indifference toward me, but—which would come to the same thing in the end—of mine toward her. My unremitting effort was directed to bringing about the slow, agonizing suicide of the self that loved Gilberte; and this I did with a clear awareness both of my actions in the present and of the consequences of them for the future. (p. 186)

The Tall Girl by the Train

Looking at her, I was filled with that renewed longing for life which any fresh glimpse of beauty and happiness can bring. Forgetting that beauty and happiness are only ever incarnated in an individual person, we replace them in our minds by a conventional pattern, a sort of average of all the different faces we have ever admired, all the different pleasures we have ever enjoyed, and thus carry about with us abstract images, which are lifeless and uninspiring because they lack the very quality that something new, something different from what is familiar, always possesses, and which is the quality inseparable from real beauty and happiness. So we make our pessimistic pronouncements on life, which we think are valid, in the belief that we have taken account of beauty and happiness, whereas we have actually omitted them from consideration, substituting for them synthetic compounds that contain nothing of them. (p. 234-235)