Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/12/12/an-english-ruling-on-transgender-teens-could-have-global-repercussions

Our Gal in the New York Times

April 18, 2021

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, has made her debut in the august pages of The New York Times. A letter to the editor, signifying serious chops. And it’s in her chosen field of professional endeavor — educational development in disadvantaged spheres. 

Furthermore, happily, I agree with her (not always true). The article she was answering I found basically naive. (Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/opinion/stanford-admissions-campus.html.) The writer suggests that higher education opportunities for non-rich people could be expanded by simply “cloning” schools like Harvard. Here’s Elizabeth’s trenchant response:

Mr. Kirp suggests that elite universities should “clone” themselves, opening second branches around the country to allow more students to enroll and access their high-quality education. “It’s not hard,” Mr. Kirp writes, “to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.”

This is one of those shiny ideas whose sparkle far exceeds any potential impact. Allowing another 6,700 students to enroll in Harvard’s undergrad program every year would do little to address the systemic issues that make it so difficult for so many students to get into — not to mention pay for — elite universities in the first place.

Why not use that eight-figure check to help pay off student loans nationwide, or increase access to high-quality preschools, or set up tutoring programs for high-potential but struggling teenagers, or provide scholarships for the many low-income students who, as Mr. Kirp notes, have already demonstrated they can succeed at elite universities?

Dedicated efforts to mitigate income and educational inequalities across the country would do more to help these universities realize their mission than simply duplicating the same restrictive admissions dynamics in another city. And Harvard already has not an eight but an 11-figure check at the ready: its endowment.*

Note that Elizabeth has her own blog too (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) Mostly discussing issues in the realm of humanitarian work. (The latest post suggests aid agencies competing for the “custom” of aid recipients — a fascinating concept. But she also tackles personal life issues.) 

Elizabeth noted that writing letters-to-the-editor is something she got from me. I had one in the Times over 50 years ago. It defended Vietnam “draft dodgers” — while noting that if drafted I myself would serve. Frankly somewhat disingenuous, as I was trying hard to medically disqualify. 

My picture was once in The Times too. Because I was, indeed, a poor physical specimen, to fill my college’s phys ed requirement I looked for something non-athletic — and hit upon “outdoor education and camping.” Not foreseeing an actual camping trip. Oddly enough, a Times reporter covered it. He wrote that everyone showed enthusiasm — except for “one grim youth who carried his gear in a red plaid suitcase.” There was a photo (from the back).

I used that suitcase for years afterward. 

But my Times record is not all bad. Just as I started dating my now-wife, she, a librarian, stumbled upon an article there about a regulatory decision of mine. Nice way to impress a girl! 

* As it happens, Elizabeth just got accepted by Harvard for graduate school, but she hasn’t decided. 

How to Create a Mind

April 15, 2021

Humans try to understand our reality. Including how our minds do that. 

“Futurist” Ray Kurzweil has posited a coming “singularity” when artificial intelligence outstrips ours, and everything changes. His book How to Create a Mind seeks to reverse-engineer our minds, to apply that knowledge to AI’s development.

Our thinking about something, perceiving something, remembering something, etc., may seem simple. We just do it. Like tapping an app on your phone just brings it up. But hidden, behind that app icon, is a tremendous web of complexity. Our minds are like that. We normally don’t need to peek under the hood. Unless we want to truly understand ourselves.

Consider hitting a baseball. Coming at you with maybe a second to calculate its path, and the precise body motions needed to connect bat with ball. Imagine trying to work it all out consciously. But we don’t have to. The brain does it for us.

Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works went through an exercise of identifying all the logic steps for answering a fairly simple question, how an uncle and nephew are related. That answer might seem obvious. Yet the necessary logic consumed quite a few pages — reminding me of Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica laying out 362 pages of logic to reach 1+1=2. 

But Pinker’s example assumes you understand the question in the first place. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing — which Kurzweil explores. What does “understanding” really mean?

The mind can be seen as arising (or emerging) from the the workings of billions of neurons. Kurzweil probes how that happens, on a deep level. Pattern recognition is central. We are bombarded with incoming sensory data; its information content, in bits, is astronomical. If we couldn’t detect patterns to make it intelligible we couldn’t function.

You see a mass of pixels, detect the pattern of a lion, and run. (Indeed, for extra safety, evolution actually gave us overdeveloped pattern recognition, often seeing things that aren’t there. Making us suckers for supposed paranormal and supernatural stuff, including religion.) 

Kurzweil casts the brain as consisting largely of a massive number of parallel processing modules (each comprising around a hundred neurons) for pattern recognition. And this too, like the uncle-nephew logic mentioned, is deep with complexity. You don’t just simply seea pattern. Much has to happen for that perception to arise. 

Take reading. You seemingly glide across the page effortlessly. But obviously, before you can understand a sentence, you have to understand each word; and before you can even see a word, you have to see each letter. But it doesn’t stop there. An “A” has two slanted upright lines, and a horizontal line. The brain has to register not only each of those, but also their orientations and positioning. Then it has to refer back to, and compare against, its stored database of letter memory, to come up with the brilliant synthesis: “That’s an A!”

Kurzweil describes our brain’s pattern recognition modules as working hierarchically; passing information up and down the line. You start with the A’s three components. That information goes to the next level(s) where the lines’ positions and orientations are registered. Once you’ve got the A, it goes up to a yet higher level bringing it together with other letters. More upward steps are needed to “get” a whole sentence.

But meantime, information is also being passed down the hierarchy, which Kurzweil deems at least equally important. Because at each level, the system generates tentative conclusions and predictions of what’s likely coming next. This greatly speeds the whole process. 

If you’ve got an A, and then a P, P, and L, you may expect an E next. The context can eliminate other possibilities (I, A, or Y). This analysis would occur at a yet higher level, and be passed back down the system.

This at least is Kurzweil’s model. I’m not sure I entirely buy it. While the logic is unarguable, I think we learn shortcuts. I don’t think the brain has to go through all those steps to grasp the word “apple;” we do recognize it as a unit, in one go. That’s what learning to read really is. 

Nevertheless, the Kurzweil model helps to understand some aspects of our mental processing. At the highest levels of the hierarchy, we are collating inputs even from different sensory systems, and developing abstract concepts. This is the level at which the self emerges.

Kurzweil discusses IBM’s “Watson” program that won at Jeopardy! Watson understood the questions sufficiently to answer them, but some say that’s different from what is meant when we say a human “understands” something. Kurzweil counters, however, that the hierarchical processing in both cases is really the same. What’s different is having a sense of self. 

Consciousness and the self are deep conundrums. Philosophers posit the zombie problem: if a seeming human exhibits all the behavior we expect, but without inner conscious experience, how could anyone tell the difference?

At some point this will become a big issue with respect to artificial intelligence. Claims will be made for AI consciousness. Kurzweil believes we’ll accept it as a matter of course, citing how we empathize with characters like R2D2 in popular entertainment. I think that’s way too optimistic and the real thing will provoke ferocious resistance. Some people still can’t accept other ethnicities as fully human. Robot protest marches will demand their human rights.

And while Kurzweil thinks we will accept artificial consciousness that emulates the human sort, what about completely different, alien forms of consciousness? May be hard to conceptualize, but we certainly cannot assume ours is the only possible kind. What might the differences be? Here’s one: they may not necessarily have emotions — love or fear, for example — that mirror ours.

And if we do encounter some non-human consciousness, machine or otherwise, how — as with zombies — will we know it? Pioneer computer theorist Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test. Whether a machine, interrogated by a human, can convince them it is conscious. This never made sense to me. A human’s mere subjective judgment here cannot be conclusive. Surely a computer can be programmed (like Watson) sufficiently to give answers that seem to pass the Turing test.

Amconscious? I perform, to myself, all the indicia of consciousness, as a zombie would. Am I fooling myself, in the way a zombie would? But who or what is “myself” in that question? This is actually a puzzle I think about a lot. My brain has thoughts I know about. And I know I know about them. And know that I do. This can go on forever with no final knower. I can never seem to put my finger on the “me-ness” at the bottom of it all. This is what makes consciousness and the self such maddeningly hard problems. And if we don’t truly understand the nature of our own consciousness, how could we determine whether some other entity is conscious? 

Kurzweil then tackles the free will conundrum. A key aspect concerns the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making. The famous Libet experiment seemed to show that a conscious decision to act is preceded by unconscious readying in the brain. Kurzweil discusses this and then poses the question: does it matter? If our actions and decisions arise from both unconscious and conscious brain activity, don’t both aspects represent one’s mind? Both really just parts of one unified system?

Kurzweil hypothesizes a procedure to create an artificial duplicate of you. Down to every cell and neuron. Maybe with some improved roboticized features. It certainly, of course, behaves as you do. If you are conscious, so must it be. But would you be okay with having your old incarnation dispensed with, replaced by the new one? “You” would still exist, no? Well, I don’t think so. (That’s a problem regarding teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty” may have seemed fine in Star Trek, but I would refuse it.)

But Kurzweil goes on: imagine a more limited procedure, replacing one brain module with an improved artificial one. No problem there. We already do such things — e.g., cochlear implants. Of course you’re still you. But suppose we keep going and in steps replace every part of your brain.

This is the ancient story of the Ship of Theseus. So famous it was preserved. Its wooden planks would periodically rot and be replaced. In time, none of the original wood remained. Was it still “the Ship of Theseus?” Our bodies actually do this too, replacing our cells constantly (though brain cells are the longest lived). You still feel you are you.

Kurzweil does envision progressively more extensive replacement of our biological parts and systems with superior artificial ones. In my own landmark 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? I foresaw an eventual convergence between our biological selves and the artificial systems we devise to enhance our capabilities. Human intelligence has enabled us to make advances, solve problems, and improve our quality of life at an incredibly accelerating pace. That will go into overdrive once conscious artificial intelligence kicks in. Kurzweil says an “ultraintelligent” machine will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. 

Leadership lessons: How (not) to get girls

April 10, 2021

Governor Andrew Cuomo hungered for feminine companionship. I can relate to that. All his power and glory may not cut it for him without a woman in the picture. And he’s horny. But being governor actually kind of constrains him in a box.

So (as the pattern becomes clear) what he does is to surround himself with pretty young women in subordinate roles, then puts the move on them. Summoned into his office to “help with his phone.” One he tells he’s “single and ready to mingle,” and then grabs her breast.

Maybe I’m naive, or a sappy romantic, but I just don’t get it. I think about my own history with women. For a long time I was very inhibited. Even out on a date it would never have entered my head to just grab a girl like that. Maybe if drunk? I was never drunk. But neither was Cuomo, on those occasions.

Eventually I did learn how to get it on with a girl. But not the Cuomo way. Did this (otherwise) very savvy man think this was the way to initiate a sexual relationship? Governor: find a woman not your subordinate. Ask her out on a date. On the phone. Politely. Nobody can fault that. If she accepts, then the rules are different from in the office. (But even then you don’t just grab.)

But I guess I don’t have the mentality of a Cuomo. Long accustomed to getting what he wants. Then again, here he doesn’t seem to have gotten it. Unless we just haven’t heard from women he did shag. But somehow I doubt that. His behavior seems more like that of a guy not getting any.

Now, I like kissing a woman. And feeling a breast, and getting aroused. Et cetera. But the physical sensations are very much secondary to the atmospherics of human intimacy they signify. That she enjoys it. I can’t imagine it gratifying me otherwise; especially not otherwise, when the personal dynamics are the opposite. So it just baffles me that some men do seem to get jollies that way. Very messed up, I think.

Particularly considering the risks. Even if feeling that breast did provide some nanoseconds of thrill (however psychologically perverse), could that remotely have been worth the risk of the repercussions? For a man in Cuomo’s position? It seems insane.

Indeed, he’s now surely in a tighter box. 

Richard Dawkins’s 80th birthday party

March 25, 2021

Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries). 

Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.

I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.) 

This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.

I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.) 

Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.” 

But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun. 

Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply. 

Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments. 

Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.

How to write a blog

March 16, 2021

I think about things. About what’s happening in the world, my life, things I read, etc. Being exposed to much thought-provoking content, it literally provokes thought. And I feel I have by now gradually developed a framework of sound basic ideas and perspectives about life and the world, to put such thoughts into proper context.* 

This is the impetus for my blog writing. I have a lot to say. Self-expression is a common enough impulse, but the idea of possibly influencing, enlightening, or just entertaining other people is an important propellant for my writing. But actually I do it mainly for myself. I love language as well as ideas, so putting the two together, finding just the right words to express ideas, has become part of my very being.

The way it works is that the seed for a piece, its theme, will lodge in my head and start sprouting limbs — concepts and tropes connected to it. My mind commences to play with the pieces, seeing how to fit them together into some cogent whole. When it’s something in the news, further things I’m hearing or reading about it add to the stew.

After these ingredients slosh around my brain for a while, the thing jells sufficiently that it’s time to put pen to paper. I like to sit back in a comfy chair and write longhand. A discrete concept can take several sentences to express. Doing so can be challenging. Words are, of course, a tremendous tool for thinking. Yet I’m in awe that a mind can instantiate a complex concept before it actually has words to express it.

First is just getting the ideas on paper. Normally any one essay actually strings together a number of individual concepts. Often for me they just flow in a logical sequence. But sometimes that takes work, figuring out what goes where.

So now I have a draft. Which I go over several times, crossing stuff out, adding stuff, changing stuff. Moving paragraphs around. The directive “insert” occurs a lot. Often I didn’t initially cover every nuance. The process of writing itself, and then re-reading, can bring to mind points I hadn’t previously thought of. 

Strunk and White tell the writer, “omit needless words.” An awkward locution for a writing guide, I’ve always thought. But I take it much to heart. Conveying a message in six words rather than eight makes it more direct and powerful. The reader gets it quicker. So I ruthlessly search out ways to condense my prose. Like right there: I originally wrote “shorten what I write.” One word longer.

The opening should grab a reader’s attention. The ending should be a smack on the table.

I try to examine sentence structure to ensure clarity. And to avoid repeating any word. Anything that might cause a reader to stop and notice, however fleetingly, something about the language will impede communication. I also try to replace fancy words with simpler ones. And bland expressions with punchier ones. A thesaurus is a great tool.

There are certain words I’m partial to. “Indeed,” “actually,” “in fact.” Very useful words that can do a lot of work. But I try to go easy on these, not to overdo it. Another is “somehow.” Actually a very useful word too (oops, there’s an “actually”).

However, in writing, all rules are made to be broken. But you have to know when and why.

I take my squirrely handwritten draft to my computer and type it up. Of course, while doing so, I keep tweaking it, aiming for better, shorter, stronger verbiage. Once typed, I go over it again. Maybe even print it out, to review it back in my comfy chair.

Then I let it sit, at least overnight, often longer (I always have a backlog of pieces to post). During that interval it will continue to percolate in my brain. More thoughts will come to me, which I’ll go back and incorporate. (This one was first written many months ago; since then, I’ve returned to it several times and fiddled with it.)

All this may sound like work. But I enjoy it enormously. I feel it keeps my brain alive. Doing it gives me the kind of experience psychologist Abraham Maslow called “flow.”

Also fun is adding pictures, to liven it up. Mainly I use “Google images.” Amazing what you get with the right search terms; and how often the first of many pictures is the best one. When I wrote about reading aloud, with my wife, The Brothers KaramazovI entered “man reading to woman” and the first image coming up was an old Russian man reading to a babushka. Perfect. 

Finally comes the moment to actually post the thing. Then I get the infuriating comments. Or, worse, none at all.

* While single, I saw a gal’s personal ad saying she was “interested in ideas.” Wow, I jumped to reply! But our date was disappointing. I asked what she’d meant by “ideas.”

“Oh,” she said, “new ways to cook spaghetti, things like that.”

The British royals: Netflix’s “The Crown”

March 11, 2021

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them.”

Jefferson wrote that in his last letter. Perhaps strange, inasmuch as he owned slaves. However, he was writing there about hereditary privilege and power. With that understanding I’ve always loved the quote.

So it may seem odd that my wife and I have been captivated by the Netflix series “The Crown,” chronicling the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (now in its 70th year). But this is no hagiography. Indeed, a pretty good indictment of hereditary monarchy, an absurd anachronism in today’s world.

The series is beautifully done, compelling to watch. The producers present it as drama rather than history, and so take liberties with the facts. Sometimes that’s annoying, but in the big picture the show tries to show truth. It depicts real human beings, imprisoned in circumstances that pervert their humanity. Themselves, in a sense, victims of the social paradigm Jefferson decried. Not to be envied.

This is no comedy, yet I find myself laughing out loud a lot. At the sheer bizarreness of the deadpan drama, and gobsmacking words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Irony abounds.

Do they themselves watch it? Curiosity reportedly does draw their eyeballs. How must it feel? Their feelings cannot be what yours or mine might be. It’s been reported that Elizabeth actually likes it, though her portrait hardly seems flattering. Yet as the drama itself shows, the criteria by which she judges her own behavior are not those you or I would apply to ours either.

I take issue with Margaret Thatcher’s depiction as an affected woman with silly hair, an arrogant ideologue whose cruel policies caused much suffering. I know she’s still hate figure for the left. But the nation was sinking into what was being called “British Disease” and she administered some needed medicine, putting the country on a path to prosperity.

Prince Charles, on the other hand, I’ve always considered a supreme ass. His portrayal here (by Josh O’Connor) in no way redeems him. Not even by way of complexity. But here too, assuming Charles has viewed this, one can easily suppose him actually seeing it as a vindication, imagining that anyone watching would assess his conduct exactly as he himself did. Saying to himself, when he’s shown crazily denouncing Diana, “Yes, that’s right!”

He seems to have suffered from a lifelong identity crisis. His major complaint against Diana was her being more glamorous and popular than him.

One laugh line (for me) occurred when Charles, first pondering dating Diana, vets her by phoning her sister. “Is she fun?” he asks. It didn’t sound like code for sex, rather being asked straightforwardly. As such, a pretty weird thing to ask about a potential future queen. But the really striking thing was its coming from the least “fun” person on Earth. 

Indeed, watching this portrayal, the word “hangdog” kept coming to mind, his very posture conveying lugubriousness. He’s almost like a hunchback, evoking Richard III. You want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, straighten up!” In more ways than one. His mother pretty much does tell him that.

Diana once complained there were three in the marriage. Charles still stuck on Camilla, who’d married Parker-Bowles years earlier. This infatuation reprising that of Charles’s great uncle (Edward VIII) for Wallis Simpson — in both cases the men so hopelessly besotted it emasculates them.

In one scene, Charles and Camilla sit talking in a car. Prodded, she assures him of the strength of her love. I expressed bafflement, Camilla herself being long besotted with Parker-Bowles. But my astute wife observed that she was careful not to say she loved Charles more than him.

Nevertheless, in some presumed future episodes, they will each eventually divorce, and eight years after Diana dies (no seat-belt), Charles and Camilla will finally marry, and live happily ever after. One hopes ; -)

At least, thank goodness, these absurd people no longer have any actual power. In fact, while Elizabeth is often shown berating prime ministers over political issues, I doubt this could occur, so circumscribed is her role.

But in 1826 Jefferson’s quote did not reflect reality and does not fully yet today. It’s aspirational. Looking toward a world in which nobody is born saddled, with others to ride them. Slowly we are getting there. One hopes.

Get your shot — please

February 22, 2021

Millions around the country struggle with non-user-friendly systems, desperately trying to schedule their covid vaccinations. While millions of others refuse the shot.

First, about those scheduling systems. Forcing people to battle for appointments, which are often distant, or unavailable, is simply crazy. Disadvantaging those not computer savvy — and especially, as ever, the poor and minorities. Instead, let’s have everyone just register, with their details. Then let the system dole out appointments, as available, in some rational order, and notify people by phone or email. Problem solved. Why aren’t we doing it that way?

Part of it is that while Trump was all self-praise about the rapid vaccine development, he totally flubbed planning for its distribution. The Biden administration seems to be doing far better getting shots into people. It’s a race against the virus, with new strains more contagious and likely more injurious, thus threatening a lot more carnage before it’s beaten.

The more people who are vaccinated — or immune after infection — the slower the spread will be, because each virus in the air has fewer potential victims. If it doesn’t find one, it dies. At some point available targets become so scarce the disease is stymied. That’s “herd immunity.” The quicker we attain it, by vaccinating enough people, the lower the death toll will be, and the sooner we can renormalize.

This is why your vaccination is crucial. Not only protecting you personally, but helping our whole country defeat this problem. Masks and social distancing are also very important, likewise blocking covid’s ability to infect people and hastening its end.

We know about the covidiots sabotaging us by refusing to wear masks. Claiming an infringement of their freedom. Like obeying a Stop sign infringes your freedom. You don’t have “freedom” to behave in ways that endanger others.

Now we’re also seeing too many people shunning the vaccine, especially in minority communities. This is a very serious problem that threatens us all — delaying herd immunity and a return to normalish life, it will needlessly kill many thousands.

First of course you’ve got anti-vaxxers who oppose vaccines altogether — their views are scientifically bunk. One corner of the wave of internet craziness that’s so ruinous. But covid vaccine resistance goes far beyond those loopy precincts.

Partly it’s that the messages we get from experts may seem confusing. They’re naturally cautious and try to properly hedge what they tell us, creating an unduly convoluted picture. One key thing is being told that vaccinated people may still be infectious so still must take precautions like masking. Leading some to think (wrongly) there’s no point in getting the vaccine.

Here’s the story. Vaccination won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting infected, or infecting others, but it will drastically reduce them. And when we’re told a vaccine is, like, 90% effective, that’s also easily misinterpreted. It does not mean simply that 90% of people getting the shot are protected, and 10% aren’t. Instead, it means that comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, the latter are about ten times likelier to get infected. But even that understates the benefit, because those few vaccinated people who do get infected have much milder symptoms, compared to the unvaccinated average. Their chance of dying is virtually nil. And furthermore, if you do infect another person, they too would likely suffer much less than otherwise.

Another concern is vaccine safety. Some people distrustful because of the rushed development. It was indeed done remarkably fast — but only because the urgency was so extreme, hence enormous resources were devoted to it. That should instill confidence in the result. And these vaccines have been tested thoroughly — those responsible could not have dared risk the repercussions of cutting corners. Nor could the government authorities approving vaccine use.

So are the risks zero? Of course not, nothing ever has zero risk. But one must rationally weigh risks against benefits. Here, clearly, the chances of a serious adverse reaction to a covid shot are exceedingly small. By now millions have been inoculated and there don’t seem to be any cautionary stories. Surely any dangers from vaccination are vastly smaller than the threat of serious illness or death from covid, against which the vaccine provides much protection.

Don’t be a covidiot. Get your shot. Please.

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

Wear a mask — please

January 26, 2021

It’s not something being forced on you. It’s being asked of you. For your own health and safety, and everyone around you. Nobody has “freedom” to do as they please if it endangers others. That’s not “freedom,” it’s irresponsibility. Mask wearing is good citizenship. Good humanhood.

Do we really, at this point, still have to persuade anyone covid is no hoax? Where did that idea come from anyway? Over 400,000 American corpses disprove it. Many of them believers in the “hoax” lie, who didn’t wear masks, and paid for that mistake with their lives.

On one recent day I counted nine obituaries in the local paper citing covid as cause of death.

And this is not merely like the flu. I had that wrong idea myself at the beginning, but facts quickly changed my opinion. This is much deadlier than flu — and even many who survive go through hell first. And/or then suffer long term health impairments. Covid is also more contagious. Especially the more virulent British strain that recently evolved.

Developing vaccines so quickly is a fantastic achievement. However, it will take time to manufacture enough vaccine and inject enough people to achieve the “herd immunity” to finally defeat the virus. And that will be impeded, if not derailed, by many people refusing vaccination. Which makes no sense, because whatever you imagine (wrongly) are the vaccine’s risks, covid’s are surely far greater. As evidenced again by that mountain of corpses. No way could a vaccine kill that many people.

So that mountain will grow during the coming months. Probably by a lot. The time ahead could be the deadliest.

Masks can help tremendously. Our 400,000+ death toll would already have been far lower had America been more sensible about masks. They can still save a huge number of lives. One October 2020 study calculated that universal masking would prevent 130,000 U.S. deaths in just the ensuing three months.

It’s true that in the beginning experts gave mixed messages about masking. A big reason was a mask shortage raising concerns that widespread everyday use could cause health workers to go without. That’s no longer an issue. And the benefit of masking isn’t rocket science. We know now that covid is transmitted mainly by droplets coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other noses and mouths through the air. Masks help to block them both ways.

Okay, masks are no fun. A bit uncomfortable, a bit of a nuisance. But the notion of masks being somehow bad for your health is simply nonsense. To the contrary, they can literally save your life. Hundreds of thousands are walking around now because they did wear masks and thus didn’t get covid. Given that, calling mask wearing an  imposition is pretty silly. Death is a much bigger imposition.

America’s record on covid is much worse than most other rich countries. Of course that’s mainly because our government leadership was so abysmal — indeed, missing entirely for the last months while infection and death rates accelerated. The most obvious avoidable failure was the refusal to push masking — indeed, doing the opposite. Insane, really. The tragic legacy still bedevils us. A New York Times reporter recently wrote of a long road trip, with masks everywhere notable for their absence. Many places having signs up requiring masks, but they’re widely ignored. Violators getting no pushback. In fact there’s still much pushback when people are asked to wear masks. Bleating about their “freedom.” To be covidiots.

The good news is that most Americans — despite Trump — have been masking. But the bad news is that the minority who refuse are the cause of nearly all our covid infections and deaths. President Biden is asking for 100 days of masking. If every American complied, then by the end of that time, the virus would actually have virtually died out, being unable to infect anybody. Every non-masker will make it take longer. Please wear a mask. Please.