Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Death, Memory, and Meaning

November 29, 2021

The biggest fact of life is death. Life’s purpose is preparing to be dead for a very long time. How do we do that?

Some try to evade the issue by anticipating an afterlife. But one suspects few truly believe it, deep down. Else why such efforts to avoid dying?

An alternate kind of immortality is to be remembered. Israel Bitton has authored Who Will Remember You? A Philosophical Study and Theory of Memory and Will. Its cover art is a view from inside an open grave, with a crowd peering down into it. (And as if pointing up a future-oriented perspective, the copyright date is 2022!)

Bitton, 37, is executive director of Americans Against Antisemitism. He sent me his book after finding mine, The Case for Rational Optimism, relevant. Bitton’s work is very serious; his command of the material impressively prodigious. Indeed, I think he expects a lot of a reader. Doing the book justice is laborious. While mostly in plain English, it’s full of dense complex statements challenging to parse and absorb.

Though Bitton’s Jewish identity looms large, God is perhaps surprisingly (but wisely) left out of his philosophical edifice. He does find examples for his points in the Bible. Pertinent to his memory theme, for instance, he cites God doing various benevolent things because he remembers to. (Kind of odd for a being supposedly omniscient. And much he did was atrocious.)

For Bitton memory means far more than just our everyday understanding. He calls it “actually the core description of what underlies the entire physical universe.” The significance of anything “is dependent entirely on memory.” And central to human psychology is what he calls “the will to memorability.” One’s “essential will is not toward power or pleasure or even life itself but to significance, with all the former serving as means rather than ends.” Desiring “above all else, to be remembered. If people remember us, we feel significant in our lifetime and thereafter. If they forget us, what value does our life have? Thus, although the mind seeks significance and the body immortality, they both manifest as the will to memorability.”

Bitton intensively develops and explores this enlarged concept of memory. For example, he says, a hydrogen molecule has memory in that it knows what it is and what to do. Of course he’s not ascribing consciousness to molecules; rather, using the concept of memory to characterize how existence is put together and operates. For a human individual, the brain doesn’t merely hold memory — it is all memory, at the core of everything the brain does.

Bitton notes the centrality of remembrance for Jews in particular, for obvious historical reasons. Of course other religions too memorialize long-ago events (like the Christ story). And memory is a big issue in today’s America. With fierce arguments over what actually happened last January 6; and how we are to remember our more distant history.

The book points out that Judaism says almost nothing about any afterlife, instead stressing living in the present. For Bitton this underlines the importance of being remembered. We wouldn’t be so concerned with living in memory if expecting to live on in Heaven. But while Bitton focuses on being recalled positively, if mere remembrance were the objective, then evil can confer an immortality at least equally potent. Bitton himself remembers Hitler, almost obsessively.

Bitton invokes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Finding meaning in their lives motivated some concentration camp inmates to struggle to survive. Frankl’s follow-up was The Will to Meaning. Bitton equates meaning with significance. Which, he says, provides the meaning of meaning — can something insignificant be meaningful?

Since will is integral to his system, Bitton addresses the perennial conundrum of free will. Particularly slamming Sam Harris’s book arguing against the idea. Harris accordingly held that the only reason to punish crimes is utilitarian protection of society; we shouldn’t “hate” a transgressor. But Bitton thinks Harris “writes as if living in an entirely theoretical world” with scant nexus to our real one. And if free will is an illusion, Bitton says he accepts that, but we still all live our lives with free will as an operative reality, requisite for “personal coherence.” And humans have a clear ability to act contrary to deterministic dictates. (I always point to smokers quitting.)

Let’s unpack Bitton’s philosophy. Start with memory as the essence of the universe. A better rendering might be information as the core of things. Using that word too not in its everyday sense, but referring to all things being describable and definable as information bits. No information, no existence. And, yes, this might be seen as embedding a memory of everything that went before to arrive at what exists now. Yet that’s a pretty esoteric concept whose relevance to the psychology of how any person lives their life is far from clear.

Nevertheless, in that psychology, Bitton is surely right that a thirst for significance is important. I’m reminded of the concept of thymos as elucidated in Fukuyama’s The End of History. Thymos is, more or less, the desire to have one’s human dignity respected; to be somebody rather than nobody. A political force Fukuyama saw as militating toward democracy.

But Bitton goes too far in reducing all human motivations to manifestations of the will to significance. Take power. Sure, it does make you feel important, but has many other attributes pleasurable for their own sakes. The food is good. And we’re programmed by evolution to seek power and status in order to get more mates and sex. Sex too is pleasurable in itself, a key motivator, wholly apart from any others. Bitton clearly errs in positing that we seek such pleasures actually as a means to some other end, significance. No — pleasures are rewarding without that.

He does make a strong case for the importance of memory as instilling meaning into the human project and into one’s individual life. Bitton doesn’t mention the famous case of Henry Molaison; a brain injury left him unable to form new memories, making for a life indeed rather meaningless. But being remembered by others is a different matter. It is fundamentally wrong to elevate that as the be-all and end-all of human psychology. Wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, being remembered is obviously something that happens in the minds of other people. Yes, your construct of their remembrance exists within your own mind, and can be rewarding. Plus their acting on their thoughts can materially benefit you. All true. Yet let’s not forget that your pleasure centers are located in your own brain, and only there; not in the brains of others. While “no man is an island,” in a very real physical sense each of us is marooned within the confines of our own skulls. Only there can our rewards be instantiated — anything happening in other skulls can give us pleasure only at second-hand.

The other and more fundamental problem is Bitton’s casting one’s prime motivation as concerning not just something happening in other minds, but happening there after you’re dead. Here too of course contemplation of posthumous phenomena can be pleasurable; but you won’t be around to witness or experience them.

That’s what death is: nonexistence, an end to all experiencing. It’s this reality you must confront in order to live an authentically meaningful life. Authentically meaningful to you. It all must unfold within the confines of your lifetime.

Yet again, you can take satisfaction from things you envision happening afterward — for example, your contributing to the future world’s betterment. But when you are dead, you yourself gain nothing further from it.

Bitton gives numerous examples of people craving to be remembered. Like Achilles choosing to live on in glory, rather than a long earthly life in obscurity. In my own youth, I too imagined my life would be meaningless without fame (or at least “significance”). The corrective came when I authored a book that did give me my “fifteen minutes” of fame (albeit just locally). I thought it would apotheosize me to a higher plane of existence. It did not. That eventually gave me the understanding I’ve tried to express here. Julius Caesar’s fame has long outlived him, but what good does that do him now?

And how long does remembrance last anyway? In the cosmic scheme of things, only an eyeblink. Will even Caesar be thought about in a million years? A billion? Premising your life on memorability must be in vain because everyone is ultimately forgotten. Immortality is a chimera.

Furthermore, while it’s rational to be concerned with remembrance by people important in your own life, Achillean or Caesarean glory is something in the minds of strangers unconnected to you. Its meaning for you is a false sort of meaning. It literally should not matter to you.

Recall Bitton’s baldly querying, “If [others] forget us, what value does our life have?” And he explicitly says significance is something requiring validation from other people; otherwise, again, one’s life has no meaning. This puts the onus for the value and meaning of your life entirely in the minds of other people. I believe instead that your life’s value is primarily to yourself, your life’s project is to make it rewarding in itself, to you. Because you are, to yourself, the most important person on Earth. It’s how you see yourself that counts most, not the opinion of others. “To thine own self be true.”

Do not live with the goal of being remembered. Live a good and rewarding life for its own sake, in the here and now. That’s all we get. Nothing happening after can tickle your bones crumbling in your grave.

NOTE: The author of the book has responded in depth to this review. I have posted his comments at this link:

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Trans Shocker

November 10, 2021

Comedian Dave Chappelle had a history of offending some trans activists. His latest Netflix special, Closer, focusing on that subject, sparked a firestorm. Netflix was assailed and picketed, some employees joining in, demanding the show’s cancellation.

My wife and I decided to watch it, to see what the fuss was about.

And I was shocked.

Not by anything Chappelle said. Instead, what shocked me was that something so mild provoked so much umbrage. Chappelle actually seemed quite empathic toward trans people. Venting envy at what he saw as their success, compared to Blacks, in combating discrimination. One long riff concerned a trans comic he befriended and mentored. Though her act had bombed, Chappelle honored her as a great human being. The story’s gut-punch coda was her suicide. But also, Chappelle did skewer trans activist extremism — a subset of “woke” censorious intolerance.

It’s understandable that the trans community, as longtime social outcasts, would be coming from a sense of beleaguerment. But now that’s turned 180 degrees, with any deviation from their rigid catechism deemed a cancelworthy offense.

Wokeism weaponizes linguistic hair-splitting to delegitimize its targets. I’ve written about a man savaged for almost saying “colored people.” He quickly corrected it to “people of color.” But that didn’t forestall denunciation by, among others — get this — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As a lover of language, I believe words do matter. And have meaning. But there are two sides to that coin. Some trans activists, even while fixating on how words are used, in other ways reject the concept that words have meaning. Witness J.K. Rowling’s condemnation as transphobic for holding there’s a difference between trans women and what we’re now supposed to call “cis-gender” women. If allowed to say “women” at all. Yet these words simply denote physiological differences. Which trans activists want to deny; while their own promotion of “cis-gender” terminology is itself differentiating. Otherwise why not just call them all “women?” Yet still it’s somehow deemed a crime to acknowledge the differentness.

This is the kind of thing Chappelle was deconstructing. He pointedly observed that every person alive was born through the birth canal of a woman. “Woman” is a useful category word applicable there. A transgender woman, even if considered female for most purposes, nevertheless differs from cis-gender women in certain respects. “Transgender” too is a useful category word. That’s what language is for. Where is the offensiveness?

Scientist Richard Dawkins was also pilloried for the same notional offense as Rowling. The American Humanist Association revoked his long-ago “Humanist of the Year” award. And when I posted an essay defending people changing gender, but also criticizing the attack on Dawkins, and trans extremism more generally, some ferocious responses illustrated exactly what I was talking about. For example, bashing my calling gender dysphoria biological, a brain-body mismatch. (Bizarre, because if they’re right, then trans haters might have a point in considering it a psychological perversion.)

Dave Chappelle got similar bashing. What a pity; the activists doing this seem blind to how harmful it actually is to their cause, generating far more antagonism than sympathy. It’s an old truism that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. James Carville ascribed recent Democratic election setbacks to excesses of “stupid wokeness.” Though why didn’t voters punish the Republican counterpart? Apologists for a coup attempt, the deranged “stolen election” lie, covidiocy, etc. Wokeism versus Trumpism — we’re whipsawed between the two countervailing pathologies.

The Donut King

October 27, 2021

Ted Ngoy came to America, a refugee from Cambodia’s genocide, with nothing but some family members — and great drive. Worked hard at various jobs, one in a donut shop, where he learned the business. Then he started his own. Leading the way for fellow Cambodian refugees to make the donut trade their specialty. Eventually Ted built an empire of around 65 stores, and bought a gorgeous California mansion, which he loved.

The story is told in a fascinating 2020 film, The Donut King, aired on PBS.

I was struck by what a positive, welcoming attitude America had then, in the 1970s, toward refugees and immigrants. True to our fundamental ideals. And their rightness was exemplified by the story of Ted and his fellow Cambodian refugees, contributing greatly to this country. Latterly, of course, we’ve lost our way on this, succumbing to a nasty xenophobic irrationalism, poisoning American minds. I’d hoped President Biden would undo Trump’s damage (he promised me), and he’s done some, but not nearly enough. Even some wall construction continues.

Ted’s story included a fairy tale romance. Back in Cambodia, he was a young nobody, smitten by a girl from an elite family. By pluck and grit he won her.

But as the whole beautiful story unfolded in the film, I remembered being told at the outset that Ted would lose everything. I kept wondering how.

Then he discovers Las Vegas.

We visited there when our daughter was little. Walking through a casino, I suggested she think about the cost of building that sumptuous edifice. The electricity cost for all the dazzling lights. And wages for all the employees. Et cetera. Where does all that money come from — with the owners making profits besides? From the pockets, obviously, of people gambling there. Most have to be losers.

B.F. Skinner posited that gamblers keep at it because they’re conditioned by the periodic psychic rewards of wins. Such reward/punishment conditioning was Skinner’s theory of everything. He was wrong. Wins are not gambling’s rewards. (Anyhow they’d be outweighed by more frequent losses; and human psychology hates losses more than it loves gains.) Gambling’s reward is instead the spritz of adrenaline thrill with every roll of the dice and turn of a card. A fix to which some gamblers become addicted.

Ted did. That’s how he lost everything. Blowing his whole donut fortune and mortgaging his stores to the point of bankruptcy. He lost his cherished mansion. And his fairy tale marriage, with his wife powerless to stop his self-destruction. The last straw was his having “a little affair,” as he put it with a sheepish grin.

Indeed, the film showed him to be still a cheerful upbeat fellow, despite his catastrophe.

One can understand addiction to the rush each time one bets. How that could have kept Ted coming back again and again. But squandering his entire wealth? Not even holding back a fraction? Didn’t he grasp that by blowing everything, he destroyed his capability to continue gambling? The one one thing he came to crave above all else.

The human story was what was really so compelling in this film. Ted’s donut empire was a monument to rationality. His heedless self-destruction a monument to irrationality.

Human beings: you gotta love them.

“Lookism” — Life is unfair

October 7, 2021

Discrimination is a hot topic — race, gender, age, sexual orientation. But there’s one sort widely unrecognized: what columnist David Brooks calls “lookism.” Discrimination against unattractive people.

He cites studies about how they’re treated worse than the good looking. Shocking! And whereas many varied classes of people are now legally protected against discrimination, there’s none such for the unattractive. That fact itself is discriminatory. And there’s no National Association for the Advancement of Ugly People.

A subcategory is heightism. I’m a 5’4″ male. I’ve never fixated on my shortness; but do recall a recommendation letter from a law school professor that began, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . . ” I saw that and thought, WTF?! I have no proof shortness stunted my professional and political careers, but as exemplified by that letter, it surely affected people’s perceptions. Maybe a subtle reason why I eventually wound up as a coin dealer, where height is irrelevant.

Brooks, perhaps strangely, doesn’t even mention one key realm where lookism is indisputably huge: love. The less attractive have a harder time getting partners (duh). My own experience is again relevant. Many women simply do not see a man in a sexual way below a certain height.

Anyhow, Brooks explores the psychology underlying lookism. It starts with attractive people being simply more pleasant to look at and have around (all else equal). But further, he says, we project onto them all sorts of putative characteristics: trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable, intelligent. An aura of athleticism looms large (also lacking in my own case). We view fit people as healthier and even morally superior, while supposing slugs are responsible for their looks (especially when overweight) and are probably lower class.

Yet not only shouldn’t we assume attractive people are better people, the opposite is actually more likely. Precisely because they do become accustomed to better treatment, “spoiling” them. It can be corrupting. People sucking up to you all the time, throwing themselves at you sexually, does not build strong character.

Brooks says studies show more people feel discriminated against because of looks than race, and the earnings gap between attractive and unattractive people exceeds the racial earnings gap. He argues we should actively combat lookism: “the only solution is to shift the norms and practices.” Is he serious?

I think folks can be helped to overcome prejudices based on ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., using rational arguments. But bias regarding looks is much more deeply hard-wired by evolution. Programming us to choose mates based on perceived fitness to produce the most fit offspring. What we find attractive embodies those aboriginal outward indicia of reproductive fitness. Just as an example, that’s why most men are attracted to bosomy women. There’s no way to purge such preferences from human brains.

Meantime, popular media has always glamorized the good-looking, making the merely average feel substandard. Recent news highlights how Facebook and Instagram do this to young females especially, causing much mental trouble, even suicides. Even if “lookism” can’t be suppressed entirely, it should be dialed down a notch (or two).

But most fundamentally, life is unfair. While we should try to make it as fair as possible, a quest for perfect fairness is a fool’s errand (indeed, always proven disastrous throughout history). I keep recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, in an ultimate egalitarian society, where a “Handicapper General” gives talented people handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being literally chained to a mass of junk. But in any society there will always be people doing better than others because they were born with certain advantages. Like intelligence — or good looks. That’s just luck, it isn’t “fair,” but there’s no way around it. Some people will always be luckier than others.

I feel I’ve had terrific luck, and don’t go around bemoaning my shortness. If I had the choice to go back and add a few inches, I would not. I might have gotten more sex. But who knows how my life would have turned out? It could hardly be better, and could be a whole lot worse.

What is Love?

September 27, 2021

I enjoy reading “Dear Abby.” Though her answers are often insipid, the letters are a window into human psychology. Not that they’re necessarily representative; but certain themes recur so regularly, they do tell us something.

Marriage and love problems loom large. Inevitable when two people try to mesh together. But what I see, again and again, is one not even trying to mesh with the other. Taking them for granted. Most strongly manifested in “controlling,” a word that comes up a lot. A controlling spouse is assuming the partner is there to be controlled.

Perhaps fortunately, my own dismal romantic history barred such attitudes. Relationships were elusive, and by the time I finally succeeded, at forty, it was the most important thing in the world to me. I once read how the “surprise and delight” newlyweds typically feel about their marriage normally dissipates. But I still feel surprised and delighted after 33 years.

It helps to have the perfect spouse. Well, she does have her idiosyncrasies. As do I. But we’re both very mindful of, and grateful for, the bigger picture of what we mean to each other.

I do see other good marriages like that, but also some like the “Dear Abby” cases. I think the taking-for-granted syndrome is often key. People seeing their partner as a kind of entitlement, as opposed to “surprise and delight.” As though the partner is an accessory, like a handbag. You don’t have to do anything to satisfy a handbag.

One might suppose that if you love someone, you wouldn’t treat them that way. Certainly true up to a point. But it’s also true that the feelings of romantic love, often intense, that precede marriage, dissipate too, evolving into a different set of emotive operators. Love of another kind. Hopefully. Yet even that mellower kind of love should surely still mean treating a partner, well, lovingly. Not callously.

However, love can also actually turn into hate. Grievances build up and obliterate whatever positive feelings you began with. That’s fatal to a relationship.

But what is “love” anyway? Seemingly it’s in relation to the other person. Yet it’s a fundamental truism of human existence that we live only inside our own skulls. Limited to experiencing only what happens in there. Your brain is the sole mediator of your reality. Of course, the other person does exist, outside that, regardless; but can exist for you only as a construct within your own mind. The matter then becomes one of instantiating your own behavior in such a way as to shape the interplay with the other person so that what consequently obtains in your mind is most conducive to your own sense of well-being.

Sure, if you love her, you want her to be happy too. But again, saying “you want” indicates that it is really all about what’s happening within your mind. You want her to be happy because her happiness, and your wanting it, make you happy. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.

And some people really don’t — as in many of those “Dear Abby” cases. The idea of one’s own happiness being somehow served by the other’s gets lost altogether (if it was ever even there). Their feelings just stop mattering to you. It’s solipsism; a short-sighted selfishness that actually disserves one’s own interests. Obviously, if the other person gets angry and lashes out, creating unpleasantness, that matters to you. It’s not their feelings per se that do. It’s the results.

I think the answer, in any case, is to treat your partner as if you love them. Leave aside the fraught issue of whether you actually love them — and whatever “love” actually does mean. This formulation works even under the paradigm suggested here, wherein “love” is really a matter of what’s conducive to your own sense of well-being. Many of those “Dear Abby” problems would be resolved if the people just treated their partners as if they loved them.

Like with free will. Another very fraught conceptual issue. But our modus vivendi is to operate as if we have free will. That works, and renders irrelevant, for practical purposes, whether or in what sense we truly have it. So too with love. Behaving as if you love the other person makes moot the issue of what love is — and the issue of whether or in what sense you truly do love.

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”


I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

September 10, 2021

It seemed an odd subject for a film: the story of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. But Worth explores the issue of how we value a life.

Keaton as Feinberg

I’ve written about that before, in the context of Covid-19, and how much economic pain we should accept per life saved.* In the case of 9/11, the government feared an avalanche of economically ruinous lawsuits, so set up the fund to give survivors taxpayer money if they’d agree not to sue. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) was named “Special Master” to run the fund. It would become operative only if 80% of eligibles bought in (within a two-year window).

Feinberg constructed a payment formula, with a floor and a cap, heavily based on lost earnings — a commonly used measure in “wrongful death” lawsuits. The cap immediately incurred pushback from lawyer Lee Quinn, representing families of high earners demanding bigger payments. Feinberg’s other nemesis was Charles Wolf (played by an understated Stanley Tucci), who organized a legion of more plebeian folks.

Feinberg as Feinberg

Wolf insisted Feinberg’s approach was all wrong. But in their interactions, Feinberg never simply asked him, “What do you propose?” Which didn’t seem at all clear. During my own career as an administrative law judge (proceedings often in the World Trade Center), contending parties would always offer different explicit plans for resolving issues. Evaluating those competing plans, I’d reach an answer.

Tucci as Wolf

Nevertheless Feinberg, after a rocky start, in which he seemed pretty clueless toward the complex human feelings at play, gets his consciousness raised, and winds up more or less satisfying Wolf by (my interpretation) junking his formulas and deciding payouts based on impressionistic evaluations of individual circumstances. Also, Feinberg tells Quinn to get lost. And while fund buy-ins lagged ominously until near the deadline, they finally did flood in, blowing past the 80% requirement.

I understood why a formulaic approach was inadequate, with some flexibility imperative. A human individual’s “value” is only tenuously connected to their earnings; indeed, the value of one’s life is mainly to oneself, which counters basing it on income. Which of course leaves the conundrum of how to price that self-value in dollars. Unfortunately the film was fuzzy about how Feinberg’s revised method actually worked, giving no concrete examples. I’m dubious that an impressionistic approach based on someone’s unfettered judgment would produce results fairer than some thoughtfully crafted formula. As Feinberg himself suggested near the film’s beginning, fairness in a situation like this is probably an impossible chimera.

Michael Keaton did a pretty accurate Ken Feinberg, based on my own recollection of my law school classmate. (A reason I wanted to see the film; I can’t recall another portraying someone I personally knew.) Even back then Feinberg was a compelling personage. I particularly recall his announcing to me, in his standard stentorian voice, “I gave you a bullet vote.” It was a Faculty-Student Committee election, at the height of 1960s “student power” agitation. With two seats up for ballot, I ran against a pair of activist types, and my candidate statement said I didn’t believe in student power; that students didn’t know enough to run the university. I surely didn’t. And never imagined winning (especially given my introverted lonerism). Yet oddly enough I was elected — thanks in part to that Feinberg bullet vote.


“The Stranger” — does anything matter?

September 2, 2021

“Mother died today.”

That’s the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. When I started reading it, my own mother had died a few days before.

His mother’s death doesn’t matter, is Meursault’s basic stance. Nothing does. This narrator in the novel is seemingly a quite ordinary person, but hollow, resembling a zombie. Yet not exactly; he does have feelings. But only, almost literally, mere bodily sensations. His feelings about his mother’s funeral concern only the heat, his discomfort, his fatigue, food, etc.

His girlfriend suggests marriage, and he casually agrees to it, but when she says it’s an important decision, he answers, “No.” He really does feel that nothing matters.

I was reminded of a repeated refrain in my own novel, Children of the Dragon — “Everything is nothing.” An expression of nihilism. It was faux profundity, a throwaway line, not a deeply considered philosophic stance when I wrote it in my callow twenties.

Nor is it a deep philosophy for Meursault. It’s just the way he is. Not even his nihilistic perspective matters.

Raymond is not really a friend; just a fellow who drags him into his own drama, Meursault merely along for the ride. A moment comes when Raymond may shoot a man, or not. It doesn’t matter, thinks Meursault. Raymond doesn’t shoot. But later on, Meursault himself does — five times, killing the man. Why? No reason. It doesn’t matter.

What does mattering mean? In the great scheme of things — a cosmos of billions of years, trillions of stars — Meursault is right — nothing about our little lives can matter. If the cosmos were conscious, we wouldn’t even register with that monumental consciousness. But that’s not the case. The only sentience is our own. Individually. At every moment of existence we have feelings either positive or negative. And that matters to each of us. Meursault’s sweltering or shivering does matter to him. He says so. And it seems such sensations are all that matter to him.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, argues that all human feelings do resolve down to just physical bodily sensations. That physical pain and mental pain are not ultimately different because the latter is only “felt” in the form of bodily sensations. Thus Meursault is a very Hararian character. But I think Harari actually had it backwards. Indeed, all physical sensations are mediated by the mind; it tells you how to feel about them. Even pain is only painful because the mind deems it so.

I recall one episode (with a girlfriend) when mental anguish did entail literal physical pain. That was an extreme case. But even there it was the mental part — my conceptualization of the situation — that was the most unpleasant part of the experience. The physical sensations paled in significance. This reflects our having minds that think, producing a sense of self — one indeed so powerful that it’s upon that platform, of the immaterial sense of self, that we truly experience our joys and sorrows.

As the book concludes, Meursault is facing execution, and his indifference to everything actually finds its rationale: in the end, we all die, and everything is wiped away. I too am profoundly cognizant of that reality. But to me it makes everything we do, before dying, supremely meaningful. There is nothing else.

If civilization goes out

August 26, 2021

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.