The Mar-a-Lago Search — Republican Hypocrisy Incandescent

August 11, 2022

Trumpworld is foaming at the mouth in paroxysms of outrage over the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, screeching that it’s an improper “weaponizing” of government against a political adversary; “banana republic” stuff; another witch-hunt; the worst thing ever done; blah blah blah.

Anything to avoid their heads exploding at the idea their oh-so-innocent god may be guilty of wrongdoing. (Trump, required to testify in New York this week, pleaded the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer any questions. He’d previously said anyone who takes the Fifth must be hiding something.)

A little history:

In 2016 Hillary Clinton was already running for president when the FBI investigated her email practices. Director Comey made that public, in announcing the decision not to prosecute. Republicans then had no problems with lawmen investigating a candidate.

In fact, even though that investigation exonerated Clinton, that did not stop Republicans, Trump included, from chanting “Lock her up!” He also said in a debate that she should not even be allowed to run.

Note that while the FBI did publicly reveal its Clinton investigation — and moreover announced reopening it (on dubious grounds) shortly before the election — probably sinking her candidacy — it never revealed, before the election, its also investigating Trump’s campaign, for collusion with Russian election interference (which revelation would have sunk his chances).

Yet that did not stop Republicans claiming improper FBI bias against Trump.

Clinton was investigated (on probable cause) because she was not above the law. Likewise Trump — then, and now. His defenders aren’t actually asserting his innocence — they seem to be saying an FBI raid on his property could never be proper, regardless of any crime he committed. This Mar-a-Lago search had to be approved at the highest levels of Justice Department professionals, the (Trump-appointed) FBI director, and then also by a federal judge. This would not have occurred without ample legitimate cause. Especially since all concerned were surely mindful of the potential repercussions.

How curious that Trumpers idolize law enforcement — except when it’s enforced against them. So much for their “law and order” sloganeering. Some who made such political hay over “Defund the Police” now shout “Defund the FBI!” (And of course their law enforcement infatuation took a time-out when it came to January 6.)

The Mar-a-Lago search apparently concerned theft of White House documents, rather than Trump’s far graver crime of conspiracy to overthrow the government. Incontrovertible evidence for which has been revealed by the January 6 Committee’s investigation. How curious that Trumpers who otherwise never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t love shut their eyes to his lollapalooza conspiracy staring us in the face.

David McCullough 1933-2022

August 9, 2022

David McCullough was a great American. Just weeks ago I read his little 2017 book, The American Spirit – Who We Are and What We Stand For. I did so because I felt in need of a booster shot. McCullough was indeed an eloquent explicator of what this country is all about, mirroring my own sensibility. But while that book gave me the sought uplift, I also read it with a painful cognizance of what’s been lost.

I heard McCullough interviewed before the 2016 election. He was, of course, wholly clear-eyed about the choice and what it meant. Pity the nation didn’t heed him.

I also happened to read recently his Brave Companions, a collection of biographical essays, personal portraits, and the like. Here again, McCullough had such a great feel for the human spirit. For the grand endeavor that I think of as “the human project,” that history is about.

His Truman biography was magnificent. Once again embodying McCullough’s soaring feel for the ideals America represents. Before reading it, while I already had much factual knowledge about Truman and his role in political history, I didn’t really have a sense of the man. I came away from the book with a deep appreciation of what a virtuous human being Truman was.* Not just a politician; a public servant in the truest sense of those words.

Another president, who shared the first four letters of his name, bore no other resemblance.

John Adams also shined in McCullough’s treatment; fortunate to have gotten it, for his place in history. Making a particular impression on me was McCullough’s vivid chronicling of Adams’s travels — and their travails. Hammering home just how difficult, slow, and perilous traveling was in those times. After reading that book, sometimes on an airplane I amuse myself by imagining John Adams resurrected beside me to be flabbergasted at our speed and ease of travel!

The world, today, without David McCullough in it, is a little less wonderful.

* When I was a kid, having written a really jejune political novel, I had the cheek to actually send Truman a letter, asking him to provide an introduction! He answered, declining, but most graciously. (I mainly wanted that for my autograph collection.)

The Ignorance Epidemic

August 6, 2022

Keenya Oliver Bemis, who teaches high school biology in Schenectady, gave a talk to my local humanist group based on Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap – The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. The main idea is that kids don’t know nothin’.

For a long time it was thought that education shouldn’t be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. Which does sound good. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. But the problem is that that requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. Which a lot of kids today woefully lack. So the thinking and comprehension lessons fail.

Bemis illustrated the problem by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.

She invoked the “Matthew Effect” named for the Biblical snippet saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.

Another concept here is “chunking,” which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, fitting bits and pieces into a whole picture. That puts less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But “chunking” requires some knowledge in the first place.

In all these regards, it’s disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school for it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don’t serve disadvantaged kids well) they don’t get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge. A chicken and egg thing.

Of course this begs the question of what’s to be considered foundational knowledge — and how that gets decided.

But Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what very basic stuff her own high schoolers don’t know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a “city?” How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.

She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the “what is the main idea” sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory. I think there must actually be a “happy medium” wherein raw factual injections are balanced with at least some attention to more abstract realms of critical thinking and comprehension.

This is part of a larger problem. We’re becoming a nation of ignorami. It’s long been clear we’re in an epistemology crisis — too many people just don’t even understand what makes information information, as to opposed to being crap. When someone says they’re doing their own “research,” it often means shunning sound information in favor of crap. Indeed, in today’s world, getting the straight dope is not actually hard, if you have a minimum of common sense about it. You really have to go out of your way to get the nonsense. Yet that’s what many people do.

This — and the kind of basic ignorance Bemis observed — makes it impossible to sustain our civic culture of pluralistic democracy. When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.

Open Marriage?

August 3, 2022

I remember the Pecks’ first time at a local humanist gathering. Very ordinary looking dull folks, I thought. I remember that because deeper acquaintance has revealed remarkableness.

Dave was a teacher. Mira had both chemical engineering and law degrees, and a high powered corporate career. They adopted Russian orphans. Their world travels have been impossibly adventurous.

Mira also authored some novels, but I didn’t think much about that until getting to know her better. When I expressed interest, she handed me three books.

One, nonfiction, My Parents’ Triumph, chronicles their story, based on Mira’s intensive recorded interviews. Her father, Wolf, was born Jewish in Poland in 1921. So you can imagine.

But he did not follow a familiar trajectory. Wolf was a real operator (like my German Jewish grandfather). He escaped Poland during WWII and bopped around Eastern Europe, living by his wits. Which were apparently considerable. He married a non-Jewish woman whose own story was topsy-turvy, including a Siberian stint. Mira was born in 1946 in what is now Kyrgyzstan, then part of the USSR. The cover photo shows the parents holding the baby, with a starkly grim backdrop scene. It’s jarring to connect that baby with the modern woman I know.

Wolf returned to Poland, thriving under the Communist regime, soon in charge of an industrial enterprise employing hundreds. Then the political wheels turned, and they had to leave. Emigrated to Australia.

Funny thing: At one time I had this weird similar picture, of my wife and I, refugees (like my mother was), singing “Waltzing Matilda” as we deplane. And that was back when we still thought “it can’t happen here.” (“O Canada” might actually be likelier.)

Having to start all over in Australia was tough for Wolf. More so for 16-year-old Mira, who hated the relocation, leaving behind a life in which she felt herself thriving. Eventually she met and married Dave, an America on an Australian teaching gig; and so she wound up in the U.S.

Segue to the novels — My Men, and My Men Too. They’re first person narratives by “Alina,” Polish born, emigrated to Australia at 16, chronicling her career — nontraditional for a woman, illustrating the battle against sexism — and her marriage to “Wayne.” It’s said all fiction is ultimately autobiographical. But some novels are more autobiographical than others.

This duology is not Eat, Pray, Love — Mira (and Alina) are resolutely atheist — but in addition to love, there is a lot of eating. Not that the books focus on it. But numerous meals are carefully described, often making me salivate.

The marriage is at the heart of the story. Even before tying the knot, Wayne tells Alina he believes in “open marriage.” She’s not comfortable with that, but they’re in love, so she squashes down her misgivings. Still they gnaw at her. She’s a liberated modern secular woman, yet harboring a conventional idea of marriage fidelity. Wayne keeps insisting the whole thing is “no big deal;” sleeping with others wouldn’t betray the marriage if it’s done openly and honestly. Marriage shouldn’t be a prison; partners should be free to do what feels good.

It all actually seems theoretical. Though Wayne’s attentions to other females discombobulate Alina, he apparently has never actually done anything. Yet when, conversing with a friend, Alina calls Wayne her rock, she finds the reply apt: “a slippery rock.”

In fact it’s Alina who falls for a charming co-worker. She arranges a weekend with him — clearing it first with Wayne. When she returns, he inquires how it went. She talks of museums and restaurants.

“And did you make love?” Wayne asks nonchalantly.

“No,” she answers. In the end, she couldn’t go through with it.

Nor does she, with later opportunities — even after leaving Wayne. There were other issues, but his “open marriage” ideology, even if only theoretical, ravaged her peace of mind.

Spoiler: they get back together and seem to resolve matters.

So — what about this “open marriage” idea? The essence of marriage is love and mutual support. The “love” part does include carnal love, it’s important, but even the horniest couples actually spend only a small fraction of their time in bed. Yet our sexual drives are so strong that we nevertheless fetishize and sacralize the sex act. And our evolution-based genetics plays a big role. All nature wants from us is reproduction; more specifically, producing offspring who will themselves reproduce. That’s advanced by a father sticking around in raising the kid. But he wants to know the kid is really his — no point in raising one with someone else’s genes. And the mother wants exclusivity as well, so the guy won’t be distracted with other offspring. This is why we are evolutionarily programmed to be sticklers for sexual fidelity.

But we human beings are not condemned to mindlessly play out what our genes tell us — we rational creatures can countermand them if that better suits our own (rather than nature’s impersonal) purposes.

I think the fidelity (faithfulness) that really matters in marriage equates to the mutual support I mentioned. It means standing by each other; sticking up for each other; helping each other to live the best lives possible. Way more important than doings below the belt.

Consciousness Revisited

July 29, 2022

At the used book sale, I explained, “I’m buying this because I debated this author on this subject.”

It was David Gelernter, Yale professor and computer science guru.* His book is The Tides of Mind – Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness. At a local appearance I had challenged his assertion that no artificial system could ever be conscious. I said what the brain does, in creating mind, is not magic; an artificial system replicating its functions could replicate the results. Gelernter insisted consciousness comes from neurons and neurons only; no neurons, no consciousness. Yet neurons are physical objects, not magical either; in principle they’re reproducible.

His position that there’s something ineffable about consciousness that bars an artificial version strikes me as a sort of nonscientific mysticism. Evocative of how old-time science, baffled to understand what life is, had recourse to the notion of an inexplicable “elan vital.” Today we know better.

Gelernter is religious. Early on he says, “The scientist explains the origins of the Universe with a logical argument. The religious believer tells a story . . . Only the logical argument has predictive power. Only the story has normative moral content. Only a fool would pronounce one superior.”

Here’s the problem with that. Science’s power in explaining reality is unarguable. But the “normative moral content” of any given religious belief is highly arguable. I view the moral stories told by conventional religions as hopelessly muddled, being based on false premises. So, yes, I do pronounce the scientific perspective superior.

The book’s key concept, as per the subtitle, is that consciousness operates along a spectrum. The top level entails high focus, with memory use disciplined, thought being rational, reflection and self-awareness strong. The mid-level is less focused, memory use ranges freely and occasionally wanders; “thought seeks experience;” emotions and daydreams emerge. At the lower level, “memory takes off on its own,” thought drifts, reflection and self-awareness are weak; emotions bloom; we fall asleep.

Sure; we all experience these varied sorts of mental states. But Gelernter makes far too much of his hierarchy and applies it far too rigidly.

He posits that the top of the spectrum governs early in the day, when one is sharp, and it’s basically downhill from there. I myself feel my brain does work best in the morning. And I can plunge down the spectrum fairly fast, especially late in the day. But we spend very little time at Gelernter’s lowest level; basically just while falling asleep. (Sleep itself, in his system, is something apart.)

He seems to say that at the top of the spectrum emotions are held at bay. That’s nonsense. There is never a time when a normal human being is not experiencing emotions. And Gelernter’s fundamental mistake here is drawing a dichotomy between emotion and reason. They’re inextricably entwined; it’s emotion that supplies the impetus for using reason. While I’m writing this, my rational functioning is in the foreground, but there’s always a substrate of emotion humming along. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Here’s an example of the didactic way Gelernter applies his system. Referring to John von Neumann, he suggests that a “first rate mathematical genius soars higher in his logical thought than nearly anyone else,” being “in the region of ‘exceptional wide awakeness.'” Serious mathematics does require bouts of intense concentration. But so, in their many varied ways, do many other human undertakings. The idea that von Neumann ascended to some higher level, breaking through the ceiling of Gelernter’s spectrum, strikes me as nonsensical.

Right after this, he quotes a young Napoleon saying he does “a thousand projects every night as I fall asleep.” From that meagre crumb, he contends Napoleon did the opposite of von Neumann, expanding the spectrum at the bottom; “the need for sleep isn’t felt until farther than usual in the down-spectrum trip,” which “keeps a mind afloat and awake that would otherwise have long since sunk into sleep.”

But maybe Napoleon merely suffered from insomnia. I sometimes have a similar “thousand projects” night not because I’m expanding the spectrum’s bottom but because my mind just won’t shut up.

More broadly, Gelernter thinks there are high-focus and low-focus people. The former tune out all the “noise” that distracts the latter. But there’s another side to that coin. “Keats,” he goes on to say, “had a different kind of low-spectrum genius. He was able to reach a state of perfect quiet watching, of near-pure experience where the mind, perfectly dilate, floods with being. The average person is nearly asleep at the point of reaching such a state. But Keats was able to be (just be), yet remain awake and aware.” (His emphasis) This is nonsensical pseudo-profundity.

Gelernter does write endlessly about that low spectrum level when one transitions to sleep. Though again that’s a tiny part of one’s day. Further, he repeatedly describes the mind’s workings there as entailing some coherence; though bizarre, making a certain sense, telling a sort of story. Supplying an example from his own experience, involving eight sequential images, all anchored in reality, with an explanation for each. My own experience is diametrically different. Trying to fall asleep, I’ll sometimes make a conscious (!) effort to stop thinking thoughts altogether. And I’ll start seeing images so random, so meaningless, sometimes grotesque, they obviously were not consciously produced. “Good,” I’ll think; that signals I’m falling asleep. Thus, oddly, I am still awake. But not for long.

This is not a science book; nor exactly a philosophy book. It’s about the workings of mind, consciousness, self, human psychology, all entwined. An effort to supply the insight we’d wish introspection could, but cannot. One cannot look inward because one is already there.

Gelernter’s bete noire is “computationalism” — analogizing the brain to a computer’s hardware with the mind as software running on it — which calls the most intellectually destructive analogy in at least the last century. Yet Gelernter seems to forget it is indeed an analogy, not a description of reality. And the analogy is useful in debunking Cartesian dualism — the idea that mind and brain are separate. Now that’s a destructive idea that has bedeviled thought for many centuries. No, minds don’t work exactly like computers. Yet (as Ray Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind, explained via neuroscience) there are many parallels between the workings of brains and computers.

At the book’s end, Gelernter says (his emphasis) “[t]he spiritually minded person experiences something: the unity of many people, objects, or events — or of everything in the cosmos.” He stresses this is not a belief in underlying unity, but the direct experience of it — “a far more formidable thing. Cosmic unity becomes an emotion.” It makes some “feel the presence of God.” This too is not a (mere) belief —”one can be argued out of a belief, but never out of a feeling.”

That seems flatly untrue. But a “belief,” by definition, has to be based on something (even if wrong). It’s “feeling” that should carry the modifier “mere.” A feeling can be based on nothing at all. Surely it should not trump a “belief.”

Applying his spectrum theory of mental functioning, Gelernter argues that ancient people operated lower on the spectrum more often than most moderns, and “spiritually minded people were more common.” As was the “spiritually inspiring feeling of cosmic unity.” And people were “more emotional” (his quote marks) than “we cold fish.” Thus they “would have been more ‘plugged into’ each other, more apt to feel each other’s feelings.”

As a student of ancient history, I find this bunk. If ancients were better at feeling each other’s feelings, how come they so often practiced shocking barbarity? They did have much human connectedness — within the confines of a tribe or band. Evolution programmed us to stick together with our mates, but to regard all others as threats. Only in modern times have most of us (apart from Russians) grown beyond that, our ambit of sympathy widened to encompass more people less like us. And so man’s inhumanity to man has lessened.

And I don’t buy theories that earlier people had mental lives fundamentally different from ours. I’ve written refuting Julian Jaynes’s notorious “bicameral mind” theory that the modern sort of consciousness only suddenly emerged around 1000 BC. Modern humans evolved tens of thousands of years earlier with minds functioning exactly as ours do now. If anything, they’d have been forced to operate more at the spectrum’s higher end, because it was much more challenging just to stay alive.

The “cosmic unity” idea might sound like an elevated “spiritual” one. But what exactly does “cosmic unity” mean? Gelernter writes of “a transcendent unity among far-flung objects and events . . . which often (though not always [!]) suggests one creator who stands outside his creation.” Not to me it don’t. Indeed, it’s quite a wild leap. Gelernter also says (his emphasis) a “feeling of cosmic unity can make a person feel outside of — over and against — creation.”

All this, if actually saying anything at all, is moonshine.

Is everything in the cosmos interconnected? Well, yes, in all deriving from a single event, the Big Bang; and being embedded in Einsteinian space-time, all made of the same particles, all following unwavering laws of physics. Is there something “spiritual” there? The word seems meaningless. If anything, the facts bespeak an ultimate materialism. Everything in and about the cosmos is anchored in a physical reality. Does any of it suggest a God? Certainly not. God seems wholly superfluous. (As LaPlace told Napoleon, “I have no need of that hypothesis.“)

But is it awesome? Yes. Now that’s a word that does have meaning. The vastness of the cosmos is awesome to contemplate. As are those facts about it I recited. And the fact that I came into existence with a mind to contemplate them. Meanwhile reality’s deepest truths still elude us. Either it had a beginning, or didn’t. Is it infinite, and if not, what lies beyond? Neither conundrum can our minds encompass. Likewise the final mystery: why is there something and not nothing?

Call all this “spiritual” if you like. I prefer to say simply: it is what it is.

* I had another connection to Gelernter: the brother of the Unabomber, who tried to blow him up, had been to my house.

My Full English Breakfast Dinner, and Hot Doggerel

July 27, 2022

Watching some TV show with my wife, we heard the words “full English breakfast.” And, just being goofy, I piped up, “I’d like a full English breakfast.”

“What are you talking about?” she said. “You eat very little for breakfast.”

“Well then,” I replied, “I could have it for dinner.”

So when I came down tonight for dinner, that’s what she presented me with.* Of course it was delicious. What a gal.

Sometimes for dinner it’s hot dogs. When the frankfurter is longer than the bun, she cuts off the ends to make it fit. I call these Procrustean Hot Dogs.

Here’s an interesting hot dog fact (that I heard on NPR’s news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me). In the annual July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the record, by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, in 2021, was 76 wieners (with buns) in ten minutes. I challenged my very smart wife to guess how many the winner ate in 1980.

She said it must have been much fewer, and guessed ten.

The answer, according to WWDTM, is nine.

But I looked it up and find that the actual number was 9-3/4!

* Including: Eggs, Bacon, Sausage, Baked beans, Fried mushrooms, Fried tomato, Fried toast

Cry, The Beloved Country: South Africa

July 23, 2022

The story was too good to be true. South Africa’s white-minority “apartheid” regime, oppressing the Black majority, was long decried. Then F.W. de Klerk, a reasonable man, came to power. Nelson Mandela, leader of the Blacks’ African National Congress (ANC) was released after 27 years in prison. A great day for optimists when he marched out free, heading a parade. He and de Klerk negotiated a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Millions of Blacks voted, for the first time ever, in 1994, making Mandela president. Who proved a saintly visionary, striving to heal the nation’s wounds and uplift everyone.

Then, like George Washington (and unlike too many African leaders), Mandela retired.

Followed by Thabo Mbeki. No Mandela. Mbeki’s chief claim to fame was his denial that HIV causes AIDS, and concomitant promotion of quack remedies. The resulting death toll horrendous.

Next: Jacob Zuma.

I was flabbergasted they actually elected so obvious a rotter. (That was before America elected Trump.)

South Africa has an indirect system, with the president effectively chosen by ANC insiders. They knowingly picked so totally corrupt a man believing it would mean party time for them.

Like Mbeki, Zuma too had a crackpot health theory. In his case it was a quack notion for why his profligate sex life entailed no STD danger.

Zuma had a golden opportunity to confound expectations and become a hero, merely by being a halfway responsible president. But such opportunities are never taken. Power never makes bad men better (as I wrote awaiting Trump’s inauguration).

And so the grifters hoping to exploit a Zuma regime were duly rewarded. It was open season on the public treasury. So egregious that a new term was coined: state capture.

Zuma’s chief partners in crime were the Gupta brothers, an Indian-born trio of manipulators, to whom he gave free reign in looting public coffers. While the long-suffering Black population, yearning for better lives with their beloved ANC in power, would have to wait longer. Zuma did nothing for them; only for himself and his cronies. South Africa is a mess. Yet the ANC continued winning elections.

After two stinking Zuma terms, in 2018 Cyril Ramaphosa became president. A long-time ANC operator who also had gotten rich thanks to the post-1994 dispensation. But compared to Zuma, Ramaphosa was a saint who somewhat credibly promised to turn a page. Yet he won only by a hairsbreadth — over an ex-wife of Zuma. The ANC’s predatory pro-corruption wing being still very powerful.

A commission investigating state capture, headed by the chief justice, recently issued a blockbuster report detailing the rot under Zuma. Two Guptas, having skedaddled to Dubai, have been arrested there, awaiting extradition. Meantime, in 2021, an order to jail Zuma pending trial for corruption provoked gigantic riots, with hundreds killed and immense property damage that South Africa’s limping economy could ill afford.

But while Ramaphosa is indeed a vast improvement over his predecessor, his halting clean-up efforts leave many observers disappointed and frustrated. A second term for him is in doubt, given the powerful forces within the ANC still arrayed against him. And the ANC may not win its customary majority in the next election. A leading opposition party is the Economic Freedom Fighters, perhaps more accurately labeled the “Rabble Rousers” or “Economic Sanity Fighters.” While the Democratic Alliance, the moderate, middle-of-the-road, responsible opposition party struggles. Typical.

Back to Zuma. I understand greed; and friendship; sort of; but when it comes to Zuma and the Guptas it blows fuses in my brain. Okay, they were pals; “blood brothers” even, I don’t know. But Zuma had huge power independent of them. What hold did they have over him? To give them the run of the country for their own rapacious benefit? Prostituting himself to them?

Philosophers (like Epicurus) have taught that wealth, power, and fame are snares, quests that actually disserve true happiness. But “greed” is an overworked word. It’s a human universal; everyone would rather have more than less. Riches give you nice houses, food, travel, cars; sex. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. Yet what’s less understood about the rich is how wealth is a way to keep score. You want more money not to buy more stuff but to run up your score, which puffs up your ego.

But was Zuma really benefiting himself? He did get wealth and power, but earned not fame but infamy. In what kind of cramped, stunted mentality could his wealth — so obviously ill-gotten, indeed gotten by sacrificing everything for which anyone would actually admire someone — compensate for that sacrifice?

I don’t get it. I must be a fool.

Sleep and Body Rhythms

July 20, 2022

Sleep’s important role in health and longevity has grown increasingly apparent. Sleep well nightly and you put off the Big Sleep.

I was a sickly kid. But now, at 74, my health is great, with no meds. I’ve also been fortunate to always follow a very regular sleep pattern. The two are evidently related.

We all know we’ve got built-in body clocks. But how they work, exactly, has been a tough scientific problem. I recently read a book by Steven Strogatz, Sync – The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, with a most interesting chapter on sleep.

Experiments have put volunteers in isolation rooms with no time clues. They’d sleep whenever. One researcher (Michel Siffre, in 1972) nearly went nuts partway in, begging to be let out. His collaborators outside disregarded this — dubious ethics, I think.

Anyhow, such experiments have shown our body clocks are not exactly 24 hours — typically a bit longer. But the subjects would not necessarily get into a sleep schedule resembling “normality.” Sometimes staying awake longer, and also sometimes sleeping longer. But here’s the interesting thing. The longer sleeps didn’t typically follow the longer wake intervals. Instead, a longer time awake is often followed by a shorter sleep. There seemed no rhyme or reason to this.

Our natural rhythms also include temperature fluctuations. Body temperature rises and falls during the day, seemingly separately from the body clock governing sleep. However, experiments have now actually revealed that the two are not unconnected. And our biological signal for hitting the sack is not feeling tired or sleepy — it’s when body temperature peaks. Going to sleep at that point in the cycle means sleeping long, with temperature now falling into a trough. When temperature starts rising again, that’s the wake-up alarm.

So even if you were tired after long wakefulness, if you go to bed when temperature will soon rise, that will wake you regardless. This is also the time when cortisol (a hormone) is being pumped out, raising alertness.

This pattern explains a lot of accidents, which tend to occur when people are at work in the wee hours, fighting their body thermometers, with brains not operating optimally. Thus TMI, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez.

Ever notice how, if you stay awake for a long stretch, you become groggy? But if you push through it and keep awake, the grogginess dissipates and you get a “second wind.” What’s really happening is your body temperature rising back up. Likewise many of us feel drowsy in mid-afternoon. Guess what? Another temperature trough. Temperature is on a regular cycle.

“REM” refers to rapid eye movement, during sleep; it means we’re dreaming. Typically the longest and most intense dreams occur later during the night, before waking. But here again it’s been found that REM sleep does not follow the overall sleep time-picture. Instead, it too is governed by the temperature cycle — occurring just after the body is coldest. That’s why we often seem to wake up from a vivid dream.

But again the question is — how does this work? Do we have some sort of internal clock regulating it? Strogatz says that rather than having a clock, a person might be a clock. That is, such time-keeping is built into every component of the body. Body parts removed and kept alive in a dish still exhibit circadian rhythms.

Yet there seems to be a master clock regulating the whole system, apparently in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. But how exactly that brain module performs that function remains something of a mystery.

Note that body temperature typically has peaked and is starting to fall just a couple of hours before a typical late evening bedtime. That’s what Strogatz calls a “forbidden zone” where it’s hard to fall asleep. Hence if you go to bed early — for instance, knowing you’ll have to get up early — it doesn’t work. This also accounts for a lot of insomnia — people trying to sleep at the “wrong” times given their body cycles.

But what about light and dark you say? You’re right. Daylight is indeed a powerful cue that keeps our body clocks constantly adjusting to the outside environment. This is especially important because as noted, our circadian rhythms are typically set on a schedule slightly longer than 24 hours. Why, is unclear. But without constant readjustment, we’d be haywire. Which in fact afflicts blind people, 80% of whom experience chronic sleep disorders. And the other 20% are apparently not so blind that their photo receptors can’t register any light at all — even if they cannot “see” it.

Understanding Mass Shootings

July 17, 2022

Yes — another droplet spit into the vast ocean of verbiage on this topic.

We think shooters are nut cases. Obviously they’re not normal. But “mental illness” is too simple a label.

Start with this: “No man is an island.” Though we are, in a physical sense, separated from each other by impenetrable physical barriers. So could you be fine living in isolation from all others, if that suited you? But it almost never does suit — because our long pre-history of living in groups, and surviving by group cohesiveness, programmed our genes for communal living. That’s the import of “no man is an island.”

And someone who feels they’re an island — marooned there involuntarily, exiled there — keenly feels a need to do something about it.

I’ve been reading Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist, one of whose key themes is the universal thirst for recognition — that is, other people acknowledging your dignity and worth. Situating you within that cocoon of social integration. It’s a key driver in political life. And here again, to feel excluded from that roils one’s psyche.

This is largely a problem of modernity. Earlier societies were organized in such ways that it was really impossible for anyone to be an invisible island. Modern societies are more atomized; we are much less embedded in all-enveloping social constructs, much more on our own. Nevertheless, the evolution-instilled human social instinct is still so strong that most people find ways to express it and live connected lives. But some do fall between the cracks — making it a painful challenge to find meaning in their lives.

We recently viewed a documentary about a young man named Tyler Barris, who epitomized this. Comprehensively a loser, not just unable to find a societal role through work, but bereft of human connections. He tried unsuccessfully to become a star video game player. A sometime girl friend was interviewed, but their relationship seemed ephemeral.

Barris was not a mass shooter. Instead, he found he could achieve “evacuations” by “swatting.” Mostly just calling in false bomb threats and then reveling in the news coverage of the resulting evacuations, and the attention he got on Twitter. One time he targeted a TV news station itself. It gave him the sense of being able to control something that mattered in the world; a way to make himself matter. Make himself seen (he didn’t really try to stay hidden). Even though others were not seeing him as a human being of dignity and worth but, rather, a little prick. But that was better than nothing.

Barris shrugged off a brief jail sentence. He started doing swatting gigs for hire by other losers. One involved a 911 call summoning police to a supposed hostage situation in someone’s home. A man was shot dead; triggering two later suicides. Barris, hardly bothering to cover his tracks, got twenty years.

His kind of mentality may provide some insight into the heads of mass shooters too. Who decide that’s the only way to make themselves matter to other people. Even while others don’t actually matter to them, as people. We call that psychopathy. Certainly true of Barris.

While psychiatric intervention might help, this seems more a problem for social workers. To identify people suffering from this syndrome, working to counter their feelings of isolation and insignificance. But that’s a very tall order indeed. It goes with the territory that such people are “under the radar” — unseen. (Until it’s too late.)

Of course this is not a total explanation for mass shootings. And focusing on mental health is a distractive refuge for those who’ll do anything to avoid truly addressing our gun violence problem. All the mental health efforts in the world would barely nibble at the social pathology described here.

But we could readily make it much harder for its sufferers to get guns. Especially guns whose only purpose is killing a lot of people fast. Our allowing anyone to buy such guns is insane.

Now that’s a real mental health problem America has got.

The Bong Bong Problem

July 15, 2022

Ferdinand Marcos, elected president of the Philippines in 1965, became a vicious kleptocratic dictator ruling by violence and torture. Overthrown in 1986.

Now his son, Ferdinand Junior, known as “Bong Bong,” has been elected president. His infamous 92-year-old mother Imelda Marcos (she of the great shoe collection) preened at the inauguration.

It was a two-to-one landslide over the runner-up (seemingly a good sober candidate). I don’t know if Bong Bong is a chip off the old block, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the auguries aren’t encouraging. It’s not that Philippine voters have forgotten the Marcos nightmare. They actually seem to have romanticized the memory into some halcyon dreamscape (according to polls reported in The Economist).

Bong Bong succeeds Rodrigo Duterte, another charming character (not) whose signature policy was combating drugs by murdering anyone accused of involvement. Many thousands — many of them innocent — were killed. Duterte’s daughter has just been elected vice president. Oh, and Duterte also warred against press freedom, a lead Bong Bong seems to be following.

Why do people vote for such creeps?

Like Boris Johnson, who’s finally been forced out as Britain’s prime minister (blaming everyone but himself), after much of his government quit, no longer able to stomach his parade of misdeeds and lies. Johnson was a thoroughly irresponsible chancer from the get-go; his leadership the degradation of a once-proud nation. At least the denouement shows Britain’s Conservative Party still puts some value on truth over lies. (Whereas our Republicans have put a huge lie at their core.)

Johnson’s signature policy was Brexit — Britain exiting the European Union — via a 2016 referendum. His campaigning for it vaulted him to power. A big problem ensued. Brexit portended a hard customs border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland. Johnson swore he wouldn’t permit that — until he did, agreeing a deal putting the customs border in the Irish Sea. Hardly a solution, which he then sought to violate anyway.

The Brexit referendum itself was a stupendously boneheaded voter blunder, obvious at the time. A mindless anti-establishment lashing out, against the EU and EU-loving elites. Also venting hostility toward immigration.* It’s become increasingly clear how much Brexit impoverishes Britain — especially those lower socioeconomic echelons who voted for it.

And so it goes.

Yeats wrote the epigraph for our times — “the center cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In France’s recent parliamentary election, President Macron’s responsible, reasonable, centrist party lost to the extremes — LePen’s populists with a witch’s brew of Brexit-like policies, and an alliance headed by Mélenchon, always called a “left-wing firebrand.” Firebrands start fires.

Colombia has elected a leftist radical president over a right-wing asshole, after sensible moderate candidates were eliminated in the first round. An all too familiar story, lately seen too in Peru, then Chile.

And how many countries get suckered into electing “strongmen” whose chief strength is crushing democracy? Ortega; Maduro; Erdogan; Putin; Lukashenko; Orban; Modi; Sisi; Bukele. Brazil’s Bolsonaro will try to pull a Trump when he loses this year’s election. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is not too authoritarian, mainly just a feckless jerk, whom his people love as though sainted. Sri Lanka did see off the Rajapaksas, only to bring them back; plunging the country into total chaos and upchucking them again. Even in Italy the center seems to have collapsed.

The late 20th century saw a great expansion of democracy. Since then a great rollback. Dictators have upped their game, but in large part it’s voters collaborating.

Humans evolved to thrive in social groups, instilling us with good detection instincts for liars and creeps. But somehow those instincts often fail when it comes to politics. As in America, in 2016. We did manage to reverse that act of political insanity — temporarily at least. Now we’re learning more about Trump’s despicable coup attempt, to overthrow our democracy based on a giant lie, all of which his party whitewashes and defends. You’d think that would destroy its legitimacy. But no, it’s poised to win control of Congress in November’s elections!

And so it goes. Voters — you gotta love ’em.

* Somewhat ironically, Britain’s front rank politicians now include the names Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Sadiq Khan.