Archive for the ‘life’ Category

How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

October 6, 2022

What does it really mean to be morally good? Michael Schur actually created a TV show exploring this question — a comedy in fact! His personal quest for answers also produced this book.

We watched some episodes of the show, The Good Place. That is, Heaven. Very few people get in. The vast majority go to The Bad Place. Its ambience is hinted by only two seconds of audio — of horrible screaming. Such a concept of the nature of things is kind of disturbing — for a comedy.

Eleanor got into The Good Place only by a bureaucratic screw-up. It is indeed a paradise, and she fears being found out and kicked out. So she sets about trying to change herself to earn her slot.

This immediately introduces one of the Big Three key moral philosophy concepts which the book explores — “virtue ethics” originating with Aristotle. The idea that moral actions are rooted in moral character. Eleanor illustrates this — her bad character shapes her behavior, and overlaying good intentions can’t seem to work. However, she is a nice bad person. And Aristotle also posited that moral character can be developed with practice. Eleanor is trying. (Gradually it does seem to work.)

The other two biggies are utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill) and deontology (Kant). The former, also called consequentialism, holds that it’s the consequences of actions that matter, with the aim being “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Kant’s deontology instead posits that it’s all about following rules — and the criterion for a proper rule (his “categorical imperative”) is that it would work out well if everyone did follow it.

How do we navigate among these three seemingly very divergent paradigms? Start by asking: why be “moral” or “good?” What do those words actually mean? What is the objective to be served? Schur actually addresses that only in a brief footnote, saying that while utilitarianism targets “happiness,” one might also choose “kindness” or “income equality” or “roasted beet consumption.”

The religious would frame the objective in terms of serving God or the like. Forget that, because there is no God. In fact, the cosmos simply is what it is, with no “objective” because there is nothing to impart one. That leaves it entirely up to us to figure out what, despite the cosmic bleakness, works for us.

And the answer is actually clear. You can talk about desiderata like wealth or kindness or roasted beet consumption, but those are proximate rather than ultimate objectives. The only reason to want them is because they lead to something else — happiness. That has to be the ultimate objective.*

Of course “happiness” is itself a tricky, fraught concept. But we needn’t get into that here. The way I always frame it is in terms of the feelings of beings capable of feeling — the only thing that, in an otherwise meaningless cosmos, can matter.

The problem of “virtue ethics” is that problem of what ultimately does matter — why are virtues virtues? Why should we want to have them? The problem with utilitarianism is illustrated by the “runaway trolley” conundrum and its permutations — sacrificing one to save five — or, say, taking organs from one healthy person to save five sick ones. The problem with deontology is illustrated by the Nazis at your door asking about hidden Jews; is it okay to break the rule against lying?

What all of that shows is that while each of the three approaches supplies a method for evaluating moral problems, none is complete in itself. All three come into play on any real moral problem. But to me utilitarianism is closest to the ultimate theory, being clearest about what the true objective is.

Schur suggests the book’s most important point is what he calls moral exhaustion. Introduced by a store’s free sample tray saying “one per customer.” But it’s something very appetizing. If he’s a very moral person who’s done oodles of good deeds, does that entitle him to take three? Schur says that all day long we’re actually confronted with what are micro ethical choices (like in our consumer decisions). Amid a welter of other stuff to deal with (like spouses, work, and kids). Being alive is hard work. Can we cut ourselves some slack? Schur argues that being a moral saint all the time actually violates Aristotle’s “golden mean” idea, that too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

But he’d allow “moral jaywalking” only with two provisos: one, no one is harmed, and two, we acknowledge to ourselves it’s not ideal. And he invokes too the slippery slope . . . leading to a belief that anything you want to do is okay.

This introduces his condemnation of Ayn Rand as the advocate for selfishness, quoting her that when a beggar approaches you, you owe them nothing. Contrasting with Peter Singer who advocated giving to the poor until you’re equally poor. Neither seems right.

I’ll quote Garrison Keillor saying that if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not a silly question. Can the ultimate goal of human happiness be served if everyone is sacrificing themselves for others? Your first duty is to your own happiness — after all, you’re the one best positioned to understand and serve that — and to the happiness of those dear to you. Any charity to others cannot be an obligation; if it were, Singer would be right. And if you’re somehow obligated to help Stranger A, then what about Strangers B, C, D . . . ? And a billion others. This shows such altruism must be a choice, not a duty.

Recall Schur’s justification for “moral jaywalking” stipulating that no one is harmed. That shows a fundamental confusion. If there is actually no harm, then the act is not wrong. (“No harm, no foul.”) But his example of taking extra free samples does harm the store owner, as well as people who’ll miss out altogether. And this indeed points up again the basic utilitarian, consequentialist insight. The morality of anything depends on balancing its pluses and minuses for happiness.

Taking three samples is a plus for his own happiness. But an objective unbiased evaluator cannot privilege his own interests over those of others when weighing utilitarian pluses and minuses. All people standing equally is another fundamental moral principle.

However: human beings cannot be moral calculating machines. The soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades did refuse to value his life higher than theirs. But valuing one’s own life (and well-being) is integral to our very nature. Evolution programmed a powerful survival instinct into us, for obvious reasons.

I believe people do have a fundamental human right to seek their own good. Harming others is to be avoided to the greatest extent feasible. That’s the best morality we can rationally envision.

Schur adverts to another standpoint from which to view this — what do we owe each other? Singer says “everything.” But excuse me. Where does such an obligation come from? Duties don’t arise from nothing, but from relationships. Ayn Rand was actually correct to say you don’t owe beggars any of your money, which you worked to obtain (and they did not). They have no right to it. What they do, however, have a right to is not being harmed by you.

That might seem a minimalist sort of ethics. But if we have a world in which that prevailed, and nobody did any more or less, that would be a vast improvement.

* Schur quotes Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh that some things we seek — wealth, fame, possessions — are often actually obstacles to our happiness. That can certainly be true of the quest for them, but can even be true of getting them.

Crime and Policing

October 3, 2022

Crime is rising! People always think this. But in fact crime rates hit a peak in the early ’90s (though nowhere near earlier epochs), and then fell inexorably and dramatically. But in the last couple of years have rebounded (though nowhere near early ’90s levels).

Whites, hearing the word “crime,” typically picture a Black criminal and white victim. But in fact crime is concentrated in Black communities; while they’re around 13% of the population, nearly half of all homicide victims are Black.

Why? Some whites think Blacks are by nature more crime prone. That’s nonsense. The answer is that they more likely live in poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods, with paltry job prospects; perpetuated and aggravated by crappy schools. And where policing is much less effective.

A recent analysis in The Economist, by Daniel Knowles, spotlights this. Noting that, even after the big three-decade drop, America’s violent crime rate was still many times higher than in all other advanced countries. This has a host of diverse harmful effects on society, calculated to be costing us around $10 million per murder, totaling hundreds of billions annually. Against which police spending is a pittance.

Democrats never wanted to “defund the police” — that was just a dumb label for proposing to shift resources from armed officers to other kinds of interventions to curtail violence, like deploying mental health specialists. And anyway, the recent crime spike has put paid to the “defund” trope; President Biden aims for a big rise in police staffing and funding.

Knowles looks carefully at what drives violent crime. The reality bears little resemblance to TV crime dramas. It’s very disproportionately a scourge of the most economically blighted urban areas, where a culture of violence has taken hold among a segment of young Black males. Without other ways to assert manhood and command respect, they feel compelled to act as tough as possible. And with most guys carrying a gun, you’d better have one too. Thus any little argument can easily escalate to bullets. In fact, stupid little quarrels are the number one cause of U.S. homicides.

And they occur almost with impunity. Seemingly aggressive law enforcement actually undermines police effectiveness in these kinds of neighborhoods. What aggressive policing there usually means is stopping a lot of young men, on small pretexts, to search them for guns or drugs. Such police hassling has scant correlation to serious criminality; thus “police are seen as a malign and arbitrary power in people’s lives, not as enforcers of just laws.” Compounded by criminal justice bureaucracies being often dysfunctional, opaque, and callous. All making citizens unwilling to cooperate with authorities when it comes to actual shootings. And so “the vast majority of violent crimes go unpunished, even as trivial offenses are treated harshly.” A big vicious spiral.

The poster city for this has been Baltimore., where the 2015 Freddie Gray death from rough police treatment sparked riots. Knowles observes that even before, Baltimore police pursued a particularly assertive brute force approach. That did suppress violence in the short term, but with a cost of destroying relations between residents and law enforcement. Which in turn led to soaring violent crime.

To explain the recent nationwide crime spike, Knowles suggests the pandemic may have pushed more young men onto the street, as social services shut down, and their lives became more stressed, leading to more arguments. While the number of guns in circulation continues to rise. And the spotlight on police abuses, following the 2020 George Floyd murder, seems to have inhibited some cops.

So what’s the remedy? Knowles does talk about alternatives to conventional policing, like those “defunders” were seeking. Particularly “violence interruption” initiatives, often deploying streetwise reformed miscreants to defuse conflicts and help the next generation calm down and wise up.

He also says “America’s poorest people need more investment in their neighborhoods, better education and greater access to jobs.” And more motherhood and apple pie.

Knowles adds that “hostile police unions also need to be defanged, and the worst cops fired and prosecuted. Only greater accountability can rebuild shattered trust.” While most police officers serve nobly, it’s an ugly reality that that career too often attracts the wrong sort, macho guys who fancy swaggering with weapons and beating on people.

And overly powerful police unions do invariably protect them, battling against accountability. Data shows that in a typical police force, the bulk of abuses are committed, over and over, by the same few officers.

But one thing Knowles does not mention at all is ending the insane drug war. The pointless illegality of drugs lies at the heart of much that’s wrong with policing, and indeed, much of what we call crime. Any benefits from this policy are overwhelmed by its negative societal impacts. Ending this would free cops to really go after truly harmful crimes. It would be, all in all, a stupendous improvement in all our lives.

My Birthday Gift – A Marriage Culture

September 19, 2022

For my recent 75th birthday — in a addition to a cake, a new cushion for my outdoor recliner, a mermaid sculpture, a piece of furniture, and a mess of chocolate — my wife Therese presented me with a book of poems.

A handmade gem of a volume she’d written and painstakingly crafted. Titled My Beloved Lebensabschnittsgefahrte (that’s German for “life travels companion”). She’s a serious poet. But these poems were not grave in tone. She said her aim was to hear my laughter. Indeed, my laughter was itself a key theme in these poems.

They succeeded. I howled. She’d spent a year perfecting these poems, and it showed. Not “roses are red” type poems but beautifully conceived and expressed, a true work of art.

Having a wife who’d go to such effort to please me, to such good effect, would have been blessing enough. But the content furthermore described virtues galore that she values in me — a sense of humor again holding center stage. All ridiculously flattering — and not tongue-in-cheek.

The back cover is a compendium of catch phrases in our marriage — that we laugh together about. Like “Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.” They’re funders for PBS’s “Nature” series, and every time we see that on the screen I say the names aloud. Wachenheim is kind of a funny name, but that “III” really does it. Suggesting they’re a third generation of Sue and Edgar Wachenheims.

“Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.” Spoken to us by a New Orleans Maitre d’ when we pointed out lack of a bread basket. A useful metaphor phrase in many subsequent situations.

“I see nothing.” The refrain of German Sergeant Schultz on TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes,” shutting his eyes to what American inmates in his POW camp were getting up to. A useful phrase in a marriage.

Also included were the first and last lines of my favorite jokes:

“A bald man walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head . . . ” (The doc says, “What seems to be the trouble?” And the frog says, “I’ve got this man stuck to my butt.” Note that his baldness is important for visualization.)

And —

“Well,” the masochist says impatiently, “you gonna whip me?” And the sadist says, “No.” (You see, he wants to inflict pain, but the masochist enjoys pain, so the way to make him suffer is to deny him pain. Yet actually, if that does make him suffer, isn’t that giving him what he craves after all?)

It was really impressive to see, embodied in this book, the breadth of the mutual culture we’d created in our 34 years together. How much binds us together. Not just laughs, of course, but so much more. This book shows how much Therese loves me. And why I love her so much. For all the right reasons.

Thank you, Therese.

The Metaphysical Club: Religion and Democracy

September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.


Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.

Assholes — A Theory

August 28, 2022

“Well, he’s got the asshole vote,” I remarked to my wife early in 2016. “But are there enough assholes?”

Now I’ve read Aaron James’s book, Assholes — A Theory. Trump appears right on page 2. The book was written in 2012. (James has produced a sequel titled Assholes — A Theory of Donald Trump.)

Of course not all Trump voters are assholes. But they deify him regardless. That signals something disturbing in today’s America.

So what exactly is an “asshole?” My 2016 remark entailed a very general concept of obtuseness. James (a philosophy professor) is concerned with something more particular, defining it in terms of interpersonal relations: systematically arrogating special advantages to oneself, from an entrenched sense of entitlement, disregarding complaints of others.

A quintessential asshole utterance is “Do you know who I am?” Asserting status above ordinary peons.

James is talking about an enduring pattern of behavior, recognizing that even normal people lapse into it occasionally. Thus he excludes someone “better classified as a jerk, a boor, a cad, a schmuck, or a mere ass.” Yet he also inexplicably excludes “the ‘royal asshole,’ who is distinguished even among assholes.” These categorizations seem weird.

James uses male pronouns throughout, on the basis that assholes are generally men. He explores how males in particular are thusly acculturated, from early childhood. Indeed, he considers “asshole” a gendered word (like “bachelor” or “spinster”). With a different word applicable to females: “bitch.”

Yet curiously, the book is short on etymology. I would note that “ass,” importantly, references an animal (donkey) considered to exemplify dumbness, as well as human anatomy, whereas “asshole” refers exclusively to the latter. James does associate it with “a foul stench,” and “a part of the body we hide in public . . . that many people feel alienated from and perhaps wish wasn’t there.”

His take on the subject is fundamentally moralistic. Assholes are morally repugnant, in failure (or refusal) to operate according to the most basic social precept: recognizing everyone’s human equality. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike. But the asshole puts himself before others in a way that doesn’t accept their right to any consideration at all from him. (White supremacist racism is a special subclass of this.)

I’ve written in this vein myself, under the rubric of “arrogance,” deeming that the ultimate sin underlying every moral violation. The unjustified privileging of oneself above others.

A related concept is narcissism. Now, we are all narcissists, to a degree; we all have egos. It’s a fundamental psychological reality that for each individual, the most important person on Earth is themself. And a certain degree of self-love is essential to a healthy psychology. But the degree is crucial. When it trumps other people’s right to recognition of their proper self-concern, that makes an asshole.

James invokes Rousseau’s distinction between a person’s natural sense of self-worth (amour de soi-même) and a “potentially destructive concern for rank or status as compared to others (amour propre).” Rousseau said healthy self-love does not require feeling superior to anyone; we can recognize mutual needs for status recognition while still considering everyone basically equal. But the asshole, says James, “won’t settle for mere equality.”

He posits that unlike “the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts, and who sees people as so many objects in the world to be manipulated at will,” the asshole is morally motivated, in deeming his behavior justified, and being resentful or indignant when his claimed entitlements are not respected (“treated very very unfairly”). This distinction too eludes me; assholes and psychopaths fall along a spectrum, it’s only a matter of degree in privileging oneself above others (which again every normal human does, to some degree).

And while James works from the standpoint that assholes, believing they’re entitled to behave as they do, are thus acting according to a moral concept, albeit a mistaken one, I think this perspective is itself mistaken. Assholes need notconsider themselves morally entitled. Morality mostly does not enter the picture for them. Rather, it’s solipsism, acting as they do simply because it suits them, serving their own felt needs and wants, which requires no further justification. That is the essence of assholery.

James suggests its proliferation might be explained by “the near plague of narcissism in our culture.” Through most of human history, almost everyone was treated like dirt, making humility the norm; its reversal a largely positive development. But perhaps we’ve overcompensated, giving too many people an exaggerated sense of themselves. It’s one thing to have a world where everyone feels their human dignity respected; another where everyone thinks he’s king. (Trump an extreme case.)

Yet on the other hand, my own positive outlook is grounded in lifelong observation seeing most people as basically virtuous. I’ve actually encountered relatively few proper assholes. Maybe this testifies to my discernment in associations. Or maybe modern life has not corrupted us that much after all.

A chapter titled “Naming Names” does so. Yet much here just vents the author’s personal animus, without in fact fitting his own “asshole” definition. Certainly Richard Dawkins does not (his The God Delusion deemed an “asshole title”). And James blasts French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy for calling the “lynching” of Libya’s Gaddhafi “revolting,” after having advocated his armed ouster. I guess that means I’m no asshole since I wrote a poem celebrating the episode.* But Lévy’s alternate view is defensible. Perhaps James is the asshole here.

Many pages explore whether assholes are blameworthy for their behavior, or it’s outside their control. This is the eternal question of free will. James calls it “freedom of will” and, strangely for a philosophy professor, doesn’t reference much of modern philosophizing (or neuroscience) relevant here. He seems to go around in circles on the subject. Getting tangled in the question of whether an asshole can reform; suggesting that maybe it’s like alcoholism, the person can restrain their behavior, but would still remain an asshole inside. His conclusory line here: “They are to blame simply because they think like an asshole, whether or not they will, or even can, ever change.” Thought crime?!

I’d answer the problem this way: people may not be able to control their personality, but behavior is always within one’s control. Good people squelch their worst impulses. Assholes do not.

* Read it here:

Soccer Life Lessons

August 22, 2022

I am the least sports-minded person on Earth, but here’s a thing I can confidently say most soccer champs do wrong.

You’re about to take a penalty kick. The goalie is positioned center. You know they’ll almost always lunge left or right — because penalty kickers almost always aim for a corner. So your chances of guessing the correct corner are around 50-50. But your chance of scoring is lower because kicking to a corner risks missing the goal entirely. Not so if you kick to the center — where, again, the goalie rarely stays. So a kick to the center is more likely to score.

But soccer players almost never do that. Why?

This is discussed in Think Like a Freak, a 2014 book by Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner.

The answer is that if you kick to the center, in the rare case where the goalie stays there and hence easily blocks your kick, you’ll look ridiculous. That potential humiliation, however unlikely, outweighs the cheers you’d get by scoring. Better to accept lower odds of scoring than to risk embarrassment.

Keen sports analyst that I am, I’ve also written about something basketball players do wrong — with a similar dynamic operating. Statistics prove that free throws done underhand more likely score than overhead throws. But players never throw underhand. Because they think it looks sissy. I commented that Vince Lombardi was wrong: winning isn’t everything.

The authors use the soccer point as a lead-in to a larger one: people’s reluctance to ever say, “I don’t know.” We’d rather answer a question wrong than confess ignorance. Because we feel the latter would make us look worse.

Reading about this made me wince to recall a personal instance over 50 years ago. I was a new PSC lawyer assigned as sidekick to a senior guy on a big telephone company rate proceeding. Given little to do, I mostly slept through the arcane hearings. Then the case was slated for oral argument before the full commission. And who was handed that gig?

So I plunged into a crash course on the issues. I did manage to get through the grueling session — pretty well. Except at one point, a commissioner asked a yes-or-no question. I didn’t know the answer, but unwilling to say so, I simply guessed. Of course I guessed wrong.

This didn’t go unnoticed. Our staff experts, in the room, went into action. We duly produced a formal letter to the Commission correcting my blooper. Far more embarrassing than if I’d just said, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you on that.”

So I learned a good lesson there. It wasn’t the only mistake I’ve ever made, but I do try to learn from them, and cumulatively improve. I figure I should have this thing called “life” down pat in about thirty more years.

But people do commonly pretend knowledge they don’t actually possess. The likelihood of being outed, with its attendant ego crusher, may seem smaller than for the hit confessing ignorance would entail. And reluctance to say “I don’t know” is not just shame avoidance. Often people actually don’t know they don’t know; ignorance would affront their own sense of themselves. So in lying about an answer, they’re lying to themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect says deficient cognitive ability causes people to not realize their cognitive abilities are deficient.

The Last Rose of Shanghai

August 13, 2022

Shanghai, 1940. The Japanese have ravaged through much of China; they’re in Shanghai, but don’t (yet) control its international settlement. Wherein a top nightclub is owned and operated by Aiyi — a 20-year-old girl — of course impossibly beautiful too.


This is Weina Dai Randel’s 2021 novel, The Last Rose of Shanghai.

Aiyi, we learn, is a daughter of one of China’s richest and most powerful families. They were, at least, until the Japs arrived, confiscating most of their assets. (We’re not supposed to say “Japs,” but in this context that’s being if anything gentle.)

Somehow Aiyi scraped together the financing to buy the club. For a teenaged girl doing that, I suspended disbelief. Not for the first time in this tumultuous melodrama.

Comes now Ernest Reismann, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Berlin. (Should be “Ernst?” But never mind.) Also impossibly handsome; arriving in Shanghai penniless. Desperately seeking a job, any job, without success; Shanghai is awash with refugees. But a sequence of chance encounters finally lands him a gig playing piano in Aiyi’s club. Turns out he’s fantastic — soon famous. Why hadn’t he looked for a pianist job in the first place? Well, never mind.

Of course Ernest and Aiyi fall in love. But she’s engaged to her cousin Cheng, a long-arranged family match. She doesn’t exactly hate Cheng, who isn’t exactly hateful — but never mind.

Meantime, the Japs are an increasingly looming menace. Shanghai’s elites party on regardless. I’m saying to myself: Aiyi, blow off your stifling insufferable family, blow off Cheng, sell the club for what you can still get (a goodly sum, apparently) and skedaddle with Ernest.

Happily ever after? Would have been a different (less interesting) book. We do know Aiyi will survive and prosper; we actually first meet her in 1980 as a billionaire, in Shanghai. Albeit missing a foot.

But back to 1940 . . . now 1941 . . . things get darker. A monster Jap officer (wrongly) thinks Ernest shot a soldier and threatens to seize Aiyi’s club if she doesn’t turn him in. He’s now tinkling the keys in a different club (as if the Japs couldn’t find him there).

At last he asks her to flee with him to Hong Kong three days hence. And she agrees! But meantime the Japs return to her club and shoot it up. She barely escapes unhurt. The club is closed by Jap order. Get the frick outta there NOW, I’m saying.

But Aiyi tells herself her involvement with “the foreigner” is the source of all her troubles. She changes her mind about leaving with him.

Aiiiyiiii . . . .

This is not even halfway through the novel. I’m shaking my head trying to imagine the next half. Well, I’ve written enough spoilers already.

But the book does conform to Robinson’s Iron Law of Capital Punishment in fiction and other arts. Writers and artistes may hold right-thinking enlightened views opposing the death penalty. Yet something deep in the human psyche insists that sometimes justice demands the ultimate punishment. And when fictional villains cross a certain line of heinousness, capital punishment becomes mandatory. So too here, with that nasty Jap officer. Once he’d wantonly killed a second major character, I knew he wouldn’t get out of the novel alive.

Alas, his comeuppance was not especially gruesome — just shooting. Though the novel does note his face blown off.

The Ignorance Epidemic

August 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Marriage?

August 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consciousness Revisited

July 29, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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