5.31.2016

Summertime

Note: With the start of the summer, Marks in the Margin will take a break. Postings should resume sometime in the autumn.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to read reading Shirley Hazzard’s “We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays.” Toward the end I notice an essay titled “The Tuscan in Each of Us.” I turn to it at once. She writes,

“The anthem of praise raised by foreign writers…to Italy, to Tuscany, to Florence, has consistently sounded a note of relief. Its theme is that of a heaven-sent rescue, the rescue of the self from incompleteness. …We celebrate an environment that is both a revelation and a repose to us, a consolation and a home.”

Her essay reminds me of my days in Tuscany last summer, where I spent a few weeks in a small hill town—Radda in Chianti—mid-way between Florence and Siena in the heart of the rolling Chianti hills.

I stayed at a villa-like hotel surrounded by gardens, with roomy lounges, a pool, and a comfortable room with a view out to the gardens and fields below.

I looked out at the villas scattered about the hills of Chianti and it all seemed so desirable. But I was there in the summer when it is warm and know nothing of the long winters that are cold and damp. And I wondered how comfortable it is inside those charming villas after all. I don’t see all the labor that goes into maintaining the olive and grape groves, or the many days of keeping them neat and trim. What I see is very superficial, nothing of the reality.


I was at peace in Tuscany, the countryside seemed so familiar, there’s something about it that keeps me returning to Italy. After roughly nine months of winter, rain, clouds, cold, utterly dreary days in Portland, I head to Italy for summer, sun, blue skies, warmth and parks.

The countryside reminds me of my childhood, the land around the town where I lived until I went to college. All that is gone now. But it remains in Tuscany. I think the landscape of my youth keeps me coming back.

It was always difficult, she said, to come home. She adored Italy. Apart from everything else, it was one of the few places where one’s hopes for the future could be restored. Beautiful, unspoiled fields and hills. Great houses that families had lived in for five hundred years. It was deeply consoling. Also the general sweetness of the people.
James Salter All That Is

5.27.2016

Taking Your Life

I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Simon Critchley

The Ethicist is column published in the Times Magazine every Sunday. Each week the author responds to a question that revolves around a moral quandary.

This year, on January 20th, a 50-year-old woman asked the Ethicist if she should help her sister end her life. She says her sister has a range of serious medical problems including “uncontrolled epilepsy, a stroke that left her physically and mentally impaired, paranoid schizophrenia, to name a few.”

The Ethicist responded that no one has the right to help end another person’s life, sister or not, even if it’s clear it’s not a life worth living. Only her sister has the right to commit suicide, on her own, without the aid of anyone else.

If she was in the Netherlands or Belgium, her plight would be much different. In discussing the life-long struggles of a woman in Belgium, Rachel Aviv (New Yorker, 6/22/15) describes the work of Wim Distelmans, an oncologist and professor at the Free University of Brussels. Distelmans is one of the leading proponents of a “law in Belgium that permits euthanasia for patients who have an incurable illness that causes them unbearable physical or mental suffering.”

It was the phrase “mental suffering” that caught my attention. I had never heard of a nation or state that permits euthanasia for that reason. It isn’t a reason I haven’t thought of before or found as compelling as incurable disease. But I had never imagined a law permitting it.

According to Aviv, Distelmans has euthanized more than a hundred patients who claimed they were simply tired of living or unable to find a reason to continue.

Her article dwells on the controversy over the law, the case of one woman and her son, in particular, and the situation in other countries, as well as the United States.

The Belgian Council of Ministers appointed Distelmans to serve as the chairman of the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission which reviews euthanasia deaths to insure that doctors have complied with the law.

In terminal cases, two doctors need to confirm that the patient’s suffering stems from an incurable illness. For non-terminal cases, three doctors must agree. But doctors have adopted increasingly loose interpretations of disease.

Last year, thirteen per cent of the Belgians who were euthanized did not have a terminal condition, and roughly three per cent suffered from psychiatric disorders.

Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland and Columbia this year.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state.

Within months of the ruling, Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the year after; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.

In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. This pattern of reasoning was exemplified by Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who moved to Oregon last year so that she could die on her own terms rather than allowing her brain cancer to take its course.

While several states in this country currently permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminal illnesses, none do so for mental suffering. To my knowledge, no one has ever proposed such a law and I cannot imagine one will ever be enacted in the near future. That does not mean the issue is not worth considering. Perhaps it is time to begin a public dialogue on the matter in this country.





5.24.2016

On Scientific Replication

Within the course of a few days, a series of articles appeared on the Web that addressed the issue of replicating scientific findings. Most of the articles dealt with psychological investigations, but not exclusively. For example, the journal Science withdrew a political science study because of concerns about faked data.

And in a short note in The Lancet (4/23/15) Richard Horton claims that much of science is untrue. He puts it this way:

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted with studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analysis, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn toward darkness.

Later Horton levels a broadside against tests of statistical significance. “Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairly tale.”

Questionable research findings that are eventually retracted are more prevalent than you might imagine. Bourree Lam reports (Atlantic September 2015) a study by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus of 2,047 retractions in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They found that only 21.3 percent stemmed from error, while 67.4 percent resulted from “misconduct” that included fabrication, faked data and interpretive bias.

Benedict Carey reports in the Times (8/27/15) a major study by Brian Nosek and his team of researchers at the Center for Open Science. Carey writes:

… a painstaking years-long effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.

The importance of replicating scientific research cannot be over emphasized. To confirm a finding strengthens our confidence in it. Yet journals are reluctant to publish replication studies, thus investigators have little if any desire to conduct them. As a result, the problem is simply ignored, until someone like Nosek realizes its importance.

He commented about his findings, “We see this is a call to action, both to the research community to do more replication, and to funders and journals to address the dysfunctional incentives.”

The same seems to be true for medical and biological research. In Don’t Swallow Your Gum, a book about medical myths, Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman note that much of what a doctor diagnoses and prescribes for a particular ailment has not been proven. And by that they mean on the basis of a randomized, controlled experiment, ideally one that has been replicated. But these studies require a great of time and money and so are rarely conducted.

Several other factors are at work. Proper control conditions may have been omitted from the original experiments, the samples may not have been randomly selected or consist of a highly uniform, unrepresentative group of individuals, usually college sophomores.

Or the results may have occurred because of experimenter biases that led to evidence supporting their hypothesis. Few experimenters really design studies to disprove, rather than confirm their hypothesis. This is a point Karl Popper emphasized many years ago.

Then there is the publication biases characteristic of most scientific journals. Researchers who do not report positive outcomes cannot get their findings published. According to one study, ninety-seven percent of psychology studies proved their hypothesis. We know this can’t be the case.

As one investigator (Richard Palmer, a biologist) noted, “Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed.”

These were some of the reasons I stopped doing research in psychology and instead, turned to literature where the emphasis is on the particularities of human experience, rather than its generalities.



5.21.2016

This is Water

Last weekend my grandson graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. While I didn’t attend any of the events, and there were a great many, I watched most of them on the commencement webcasts.

Here I was in Portland, Oregon, sitting comfortably in my warm apartment watching the goings-on, while everyone in Philadelphia was sitting outside, in a vast stadium, on a cold and windy day. Once again, the miracle of the Internet was at its best.

Lin Manuel Miranda was the invited commencement speaker. He spoke briefly, to my relief, emphasizing the importance of stories in one’s life. But his talk was by no means especially memorable.

The most indelible talk I’ve ever known about was delivered by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. I wrote about it soon thereafter. Here is what I said.

David Foster Wallace began his widely discussed and recently published (This is Water) commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2005 with a parable. In the parable two young fish happen to meet an older fish that says to them “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a bit until one says to the other “What the hell’s the water?”

Wallace writes: “The point of the story is that the most important, obvious realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

To the graduating students he says that the really significant education they have received isn’t “about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” Later he added this means: “…being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

He says that in his experience the most dangerous consequence of an academic education is the tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right of front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.” It’s the water parable again.

Much of the talk is a warning to the students about what adult life is really like. “Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”

Wallace then proceeded to unpack what that means. You get up, you go to work, you are there eight or ten hours, you are tired and exhausted and now you are stuck in traffic on the drive home, and then you have supper if you are lucky enough to have someone prepare it, otherwise you stop at the market and try to find something to eat and wait a while longer in the check out line, and get back on the freeway, where the traffic is as bad as it was when you got off, and then you try to unwind a bit after your lean cuisine, whereupon you hit the sack early because you have to get up early again the next day and go through it all again.

“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates actual life routine, day after week after month after year….The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.”

“This I submit is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

For Wallace being educated is being able to recognize the importance of attention and awareness and discipline and he adds “being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty unsexy ways every day.” These are not our default settings. They have to be learned and the learning isn’t easy and it is readily forgotten in the midst of all the distractions that usually take control of our lives.

Wallace concludes that his remarks (“stuff”) isn’t your normal inspirational, optimistic, commencement speech. He reminds the students again that the real value of their education has little to do with knowledge “and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water.”

Even if his remarks are far from cheerful, they are pretty inspirational in my book. Even more, they are true. The audio version of his talk can be heard here

5.17.2016

Greene on Capri

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they liked. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.

5.13.2016

All The News That's Fit To Print

The New York Times is a marvel. I’ve been reading it every day for years. It was early in August of 1955 when I first discovered the paper. I was in New York on the way back to my home in Los Angeles, after attending summer school in the East.

The paper was lying around a coffee shop, I picked it up and began reading an article about Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that had been decided the previous year. I knew nothing about the Times having been raised on the Los Angeles Times, and latter, when I was at college, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In those days, the Times did not have a West Coast edition and was only available in a few magazine shops the day after it was published in New York. In the summer of 1980 the paper began publishing a national edition that was available the same day it was published, but again, only in a few magazine shops.

I stopped on my way to work to grab a copy that I read in the evening after classes and those never-ending faculty committee meetings. Home delivery in Portland began many years later.

I continued to read the Times in the morning for years, even in Hawaii when it was delivered a day after its publication. In all this discussion I am talking about the print edition. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Times began it’s online, digital edition.

That is how I read the Times now. It is my “home page” that I return to throughout the day and thanks to the miracle of Wi-Fi, wherever I am in this country or abroad. I read the literary news, sports, health, tech, science, business, a couple of blogs, everything in this remarkable newspaper.

Earlier this fall (9/21/15) the Times reported, “We recently passed one million digital-only subscribers, reflecting the remarkable bond that The Times has built with readers on our digital platforms. They join our 1.1 million print-and-digital subscribers.”

I also subscribe to the the Times numerous email alerts—books, writers, morning briefing, business news, the Upshot, the Times Magazine and Sunday Book Review, on and on, a plethora of skillful reporting.

Regardless of one’s view of the Times political stance, the paper is a daily encyclopedia of subjects. The Gray Lady as it is often referred to is regarded as the national “newspaper” of record, even though its print edition is outsold by The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

To a certain extent, the Times has replaced the New Yorker as the place I go to for information, especially cultural commentary and analysis--films, books, theater. If someone asked me what wanted most, while I was stranded in a far off island, I would reply at once: the latest edition of the New York Times.



5.10.2016

On Old Age

Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide is the latest addition to the increasing number of books on old age. In reading it, I was expecting a serious discussion of the experience of growing old. But Kinsley’s treatment was nothing like that.

Instead, it was a hodgepodge of previously written essays and articles he has written that were not well integrated. Further, it was far too jokey for my taste. There’s nothing funny about growing old, at least my experience of growing old and I suspect that is generally the case.

At the age of 43 Kinsley learned he had Parkinson’s disease. He tried to keep his illness secret until it became obvious whereupon he made it known. He also underwent deep brain stimulation that appears to have slowed the progress of his symptoms. In fact, it is clear that 23 years after his disease was diagnosed, he hasn’t lost his “marbles,” as he frequently reminds the reader.

At the outset Kinsley says his book is supposed to be “about the baby boom generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—as they enter life’s last chapter.” But in spite of its title, the book has very little to say about old age, other than the Parkinson’s Disease. And even then, we learn very little about his particular symptoms and problems in coping with it.

The book also ends with a message to the baby boomers. He argues that the enormous personal and national debt his generation leaves behind has to be redeemed, in the same way the “Greatest Generation” did during World War II.

“What we can do is…pass on to the next generation an American that’s free from debt. Instead of ignoring it, or arguing endlessly about whose fault it is and who should pay for it, boomers as a group should just reach out and grab the check.”

I thought what a strange way to end a book on old age. But then I realized Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide wasn’t really about old age at all. Rather it was about how clever Michael Kinsley is in his early 60s.

I don’t usually comment on a book I don’t like. But in my reading Kinsley’s book seems both pretentious and misleading, both features missing from Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty.

The fourteen essays in former US Poet Laureate Hall’s book are largely about the infirmities and limitations of growing old. Hall is now 86, no longer drives, has difficulty standing, getting up, and remaining balanced.

Yet he is alert and tries to read and write, but not with the same facility he once had. He remains oddly cheerful, in spite of being largely disabled and alone. He gets around in a wheelchair and with little appetite eats frozen dinners, is clumsy and slow with buttons, etc.

The book is more of an old-age lament, rather than a group of essays on the art of poetry, as I was expecting given his life as a much-praised and award-winning poet. Instead, Hall writes about how the mail is delivered, his wives, their travels, his cancers and the one that killed his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.

He recounts how each day is much the same now as any other. He no longer travels and friends rarely visit. Most are long gone. So he reminisces about almost-forgotten times He’s also periodically visited by a bookkeeper, trainer, housekeeper and companion, all women in their 50s.

He comments, “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”

Still he says that, while old age is a “ceremony of losses,” it is still preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. He’s fortunate to feel that way. I’m not so sure.


5.06.2016

Open Access

In 1964 I visited Portland Oregon when I was working on a summer research job for an advertising firm. After being there for a couple of days, I vowed never to return. Yet, a few years later, in 1967, I moved to Portland as a new faculty member at Reed College. I’ve lived here ever since; at the time of this writing 52 years. Such are the vows of a young man.

The climate here has changed dramatically in that relatively short period. Most notably, the long winters were much colder in those early days than they are now. It snowed often then; today it hardly ever snows and if it does, it doesn’t last as long as it used to.

There were frequent ice storms then; they are a rarity now. In a word, the winters, though still as lengthy, are much more tolerable, still quite rainy, but a great deal warmer on the whole. This appears to be the case elsewhere too.

Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin write in the Times (4/21/16) that Christmas in New York last year was “lovely.” “It was the city’s warmest ever, with temperatures peaking at 66 degrees.”

They describe a paper published in the journal Nature that claims the weather is becoming more pleasant for the majority of Americans. “Over the past four decades, winter temperatures have risen substantially throughout the United States, but summers have not become markedly more uncomfortable.”

Since I am somewhat of a “weather nut,” as well as a skeptic about secondary accounts of research reports, I wanted to look closely at the article in Nature myself. I went online to the journal and quickly learned that it would cost me $199 if I subscribed for a year or $32 to purchase the full text version of the article.

This is a common dilemma for anyone seeking to read research reports in most peer-reviewed academic journals. And by “anyone” I mean an individual who doesn’t have an academic affiliation that would enable them to read such reports via their online library subscription services.

Our beliefs are heavily influenced by what we read or hear, regardless of source—book, newspaper, television, radio, online, etc. For those who want to go beyond these accounts, that is, “fact-check” and analyze secondary accounts of evidence, it’s important to be able to readily access primary materials. But if it’s going to cost a bundle, scarcely anyone is going to do that.

In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto Aaron Swartz wrote, “The worlds entire scientific and cultural heritage…is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies of share them with the world.”

To circumvent the corporate paywalls to journal articles, Swartz downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an academic database. Following in his footsteps, Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani researcher, has established Sci-Hub, an online repository of more than 47 million scientific papers.

In the same tradition, but operating on a pay-to-publish model, the Public Library of Science established PLOS ONE in 2006 as a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal database. The site claims to cover primary research from any discipline within science and medicine.

Taken together these efforts to remove the barriers to accessing scientific research suggest the academic world is ever so gradually moving toward reform. In this country much depends on the researcher’s stance toward copyright law. Many journals require authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement that prohibits them from freely sharing their work.

But this is easy to get around. It is a simple matter to email the researcher(s) requesting a copy of the publication and most authors will be happy to comply. When I was an active researcher, I never felt protective of my work. As far as I was concerned, it was public information, freely available, gladly shared and also the most effective way to replicate and advance the area I was studying.

However, in spite of the virtues of the open access movement, I still can’t find the paper in Nature that I am seeking. Neither Sci-Hub, PLOS One or Google Scholar has a free copy of the paper.

As far as Portland, Oregon is concerned, I really don’t need confirmation that the weather is “simply becoming more pleasant.” I know it’s been warmer in the past 50 winters and it’s inconceivable that the summers will ever be uncomfortable in this city not all that far from the Arctic Circle.

5.02.2016

A Good Life

What does a good life mean to you? Have you been able to live such a life?

Before I went to college, these questions meant nothing. After entering, they meant everything. As a freshman, I was fortunate to take a full year course in the history of western civilization. Early on we were introduced to culture of ancient Greece.

It was there, largely through the ideas of Socrates as described in the Dialogues of Plato, that I began to understand what the good life meant. Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is one of relentless questioning and searching for the truth.

That is what a good life has always meant to me—teaching, doing research, writing. Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means.

When I asked a good friend what a good life meant to her, she replied working in an important job. Another said, it was being happy. A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich. Another 50 percent of the same young adults said another major life goal was to become famous.

Robert Waldinger, who is now the fourth director of the 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, reports (Tedx Lecture November, 2015) that a good life is built on good relationships.

This remarkable study began in 1938 with a group of Harvard sophomores. A comparison group consisted of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s.

Throughout the course of the study, the men were interviewed at various intervals in their homes. Their medical conditions were tracked, their blood was drawn, more recently their brains were scanned, and the investigators talked with their children.

Waldinger says there were three three lessons learned from the study. First, social connections are “really good for us” and loneliness is toxic. Second, it’s not just the number of friends we have, but the quality of our close relationships that matters. Third, good relationships not only benefit our health, they also “protect our brains.”

In a way, these lessons have been known for ages. What I find striking in the study, however, is that nowhere is the importance of a “life of the mind” mentioned. Whatever every happened to the role of the examined life?

Can a life of reflections be built in the absence of good relationships? In so far as I know, this question is never discussed. I wouldn’t expect such a life to play much of a role for the comparison group of boys from poor Boston neighborhoods. But I surely would have expected it to be mentioned by some of the Harvard graduates, even though most are in their 90s now.

Maybe I overemphasize the importance of “a life of the mind.” Maybe I’m simply out of touch with contemporary culture. (That is definitely the case.) Maybe I am fortunate to have a close relationship to support the life I lead.

So I know that one can live an examined life, while at the same time having at least one good relationship. And I imagine that those who don’t have a close relationship can still carve out the same kind of life. In a word, perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life.

4.27.2016

The Ineffability of Pain

For the sufferer, pain is the prototype of certainty – there’s no way to doubt that you have pain. But it is the exact opposite for those who observe a person in pain. David Biro

“Ineffable: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.” Many individuals are in pain much of the day. Their back hurts, they have an awful sciatic pain, a stabbing migraine that never goes away. They may try to describe their pain to another person. But there are no words for what the person is experiencing.

All they can do is groan, shout, screech or swear. And all the other person can do is listen and observe the behavior of the person in pain, a far cry from the person they used to be. They are bent over, in a slouch, rubbing their leg or forehead, trying their best to get from one place to another or reduce the pain in their leg.

“English,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”

Consider a person who suffers from a spinal cord tumor, a tumor that puts pressure on nerve fibers and damages them. Or one who has had a compression fracture of the spinal cord, usually caused by osteoporosis or lifting something heavy, too heavy for their weak spinal cord.

Both can lead to severe back pain that is very difficult to treat. When a person with such a tumor or compression fracture tries to describe the pain they are feeling, once again all the observer can say is that they understand. But their pain cannot be felt.

Elaine Scarry writes about this difficulty in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. “When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact.”

She says physical pain has no referential content. “It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language.

Your doctor asks you to rate your pain on a scale from one to ten. You say it’s a ten, the most extreme point on the scale. But what does that number mean? Yes, it hurts a lot, but are there more specific words, instead of a numeral to describe your experience?

In an essay on medicine and literature, Andrew Solomon writes in the Guardian (4/22/16), “The language gap frustrates your visit to your doctor. He seems not to understand the problem because you can’t describe it lucidly enough. You don’t understand the proposed treatment because he can’t explain it. I’ve sometimes forsworn medical help because the complexity of voicing what is wrong has felt heavier than the sickness itself.”

In short, there are few words, if any for extreme pain, it resists the language available to a person and any attempt to describe it reverts to the “pre-language of cries and groans.”

Elsewhere, Ian Frazier wrote “Talking about hunger and being hungry are two different things; talk can wait for a convenient moment, but when you’re hungry you’re hungry right now.”

Frazier’s remark captures precisely the very general issue I am writing about, the discrepancy between words and feelings, between words and experiences.



4.25.2016

Poetry












This April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. While I don’t read a great deal of poetry, there are some poets that I turn to from time to time. C. P. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote (in Greek) only 154 poems some of which were published in local newspapers and magazines. In celebration of National Poetry Month, here are two of his poems that I have always liked.

An Old Man
At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.
 
And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.
 
He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.
 
And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”
 
He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.
 
But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Morning Sea
Here let me stop.  Let me too look at Nature for a while.
The morning sea and cloudless sky
a brilliant blue, the yellow shore; all
beautiful and grand in the light.
 
Here let me stop.  Let me fool myself: that these are what I see
(I really saw them for a moment when I first stopped)
instead of seeing, even here, my fantasies,
my recollections, the ikons of pleasure.

Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn


4.21.2016

Public Squares

Michael Kimmelman writes about the importance (he calls it a craving) of public squares in the New York Review of Books (4/20/16). He says, with increasing frequency people are moving downtown “for the pleasures and benefits of cultural exchange, walking streets, parks, and public squares.”

Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the Times, points out that “The art of architecture requires not just making attractive buildings but providing citizens with generous, creative, open, inviting public spaces.”

I was born in Los Angeles and lived in a neighborhood, not far from a few shops but there was no public square nearby. When I moved to Portland, Oregon to begin teaching, once again I began living in neighborhoods that didn’t have a community gathering place.

It was only recently that I moved to an area in town where there are two public squares: one with a rock-water fountain that becomes a crowded wading pool in the summer; the other a natural garden with native plants. Both are occupied only during late spring and summer months and neither is the kind of public gathering place like the agora of ancient Greece or the piazzas in every town in Italy.

I have friends who live in the suburbs, about two miles from the nearest town in a cluster of homes set back about a mile from an eight lane freeway. Each time I visit, I am struck by the vast differences between their neighborhood and mine. The homogeneity of theirs is conspicuous, with every building a home and every home a garage, garden and shake roof.

There are no buses, apartment houses, or coffee-houses nearby. Most of the homes scattered about the hillside in their suburban setting face away from the street. There are no sidewalks and it is rare to see anything like the sort of social life there that is everywhere along the sidewalks of my urban neighborhood.

Each time I visit Italy, I am struck by the lively public socializing on the streets in the neighborhood in Florence that has almost become my second home. The people there greet each other with great warmth. The owners stand outside their shops in order to better converse with those who own the shops across the way.

I doubt that the rarity of such encounters in America is because Italians are more outgoing than we are. Rather I think it has more to do with almost haphazard way their cities have evolved over the centuries and the resulting relationship of the buildings to the street. The frequent socializing of the Italians occurs because their cities naturally invite fortuitous meetings between individuals as they stroll along the sidewalks or meet their friends in their neighborhood piazza. Richard Goodwin writes:

Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day's work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, arts, doctors, technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significantions--all these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.

In his book, Intimate Anonymity, Hillel Schocken defines a city as: "a fixed place where people can form relations with others at various levels of intimacy, while remaining entirely anonymous." Schocken argues that a city should make it possible for individuals to have contact with a variety of people from whom they can choose their intimates. He concludes his essay by noting: "The future of urbanism lies in the understanding that the city is a human event, not a sculpture."

I am sure this is the secret to the design of all good cities and the neighborhoods within them. It is surely the secret of my neighborhood in Portland and why, through the relationships that I form here, some of which are personal, others entirely anonymous, I have become rather attached to it.

Oh, that the winter in the far north of this land was a little shorter and the days were a little sunnier, warmer and not so rainy.


4.17.2016

Warfare at a Distance

The United States is currently at war in four countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. It’s not ground warfare, it’s not air warfare, both of which risk the lives of those who take part in them. Rather, its something entirely different, warfare at a great distance that in no way risks the lives of Americans. It is known as drone warfare.

In drone warfare, a man or woman sits in front of a screen in a cramped, stuffy trailer in the Las Vegas desert and presses a switch that delivers a horribly destructive Hellfire missile in a country a thousand of miles away. It’s not unlike a video game, except that individuals viewed on the screen are in fact killed, sometimes several of them, sometimes those for whom the rocket was not intended

Recently, I saw two films that dealt with this form of warfare—“Good Kill” and “Eye in the Sky.” In my mind, both films confront the morality of drone warfare. Both also reminded me of the well-known experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience and disobedience.

These experiments illustrate the power of proximity on delivering “shock” to a “learner” in a distant room. The percentage of subjects who deliver the full “450” volts increases the further away they are from the “learner.”

Similarly drone warfare illustrates how easy it is to fire a rocket intended for a person or group in a far off country. The killing is real, yet it occurs half a world away and is obscured by the very technology that enables it.

Milgram’s experiments also illustrate the power of authority on compliance. If an authority figure tells you to press that button, you will be more likely to do it, even if it brings tears to your eyes.

Ethan Hawke plays the role of the drone operator in “Good Kill.” He knows there is always the likelihood of “collateral damage,” namely, the deaths of innocent individuals. His guilt and boredom lead him to drink, a crisis in his marriage and he too becomes a causality of modern technology.

The estimates of collateral damage play a critical role in “Eye in the Sky.” The governing overseers want to know if the attacks will lead to a diplomatic crisis or worse. The military wants to discharge its responsibilities as effectively as possible.

The military officer (the authority) in charge of the attack in “Eye in the Sky,” played by Helen Mirren, brings considerable pressure on her assistant to make an accurate estimate of innocent deaths, too much pressure in my opinion, so that the assistant ends up making an estimate well below what he actually believes--with disastrous consequences.

Both films raise a host of questions about drone warfare--some legal, some moral, some about its consequences. Among them are the following:

1. How are we to regard drone attacks in countries that are not at war with the United States?

2. How serious is the radicalizing force of drone operations among some Muslim individuals?

3. What are we to make of the inevitable collateral damage of drones, that is unintentionally killing of innocent individuals, including families, children and foreign aid workers?

4. How accurate are the official reports of the collateral deaths of innocents?

5. Does the targeted killing of presumed terrorists reduce the risk of terrorists attacks on foreign countries, including the United States?

6. What consideration should be given to the serious psychological damage some drone operators experience or to the equally serious effects of the constant hovering of armed drones overhead on civilians in a potential attack area?

7. Does the use of drones violate international law and if so, in what respect?

None of these questions lend themselves to a clear-cut answer. They call for a careful analysis, drawing on factual evidence where possible and the kind of methodical reasoning that is relatively uncommon.

4.11.2016

How to Avoid Paying Taxes

It’s tax season once again and the recent Panama Papers “scandal” has highlighted the various ways individuals and corporations are scheming to avoid paying them.

The Prime Minister of Iceland and his wife were the first to receive notoriety when it was revealed they had transferred a goodly sum of their assets to the Virgin Islands. The Prime Minister announced his resignation, then backtracked, saying he only stepped aside for a short period. Now it appears he will be replaced by the agriculture and fisheries minister, after all. So it goes.

According to Cass Sunstein (New York Review of Books (1/14/16) many individuals in the United States and elsewhere have been transferring their money to foreign countries—Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Virgin Islands. In this way they have been able to avoid paying taxes in their home country.

Drawing on the work of Gabriel Zucman in his The Hidden Wealth of Nations, Sunstein says the magnitude of these transfers is considerable.

• About 8 percent of the word’s wealth, $7.6 trillion is held in tax havens.

• As a result, governments lose about $200 billion in tax revenue each year.

• In the United States, the annual tax loss is $35 billion; it Europe it is $78 billion.

While awareness of these figures is growing and the issue has been much discussed, to date no major “crackdown” has occurred.

James Surowiecki describes (New Yorker, 1/11/16) a somewhat similar tax avoidance strategy of large, multinational corporations. It is not (currently) illegal for American corporations to locate their operations outside this country and more and more of them are doing this to avoid paying US taxes.

He also discussed Pfizer’s recently announced merger with the Irish drug company Allergan. Pfizer was planning to reconstitute itself as an Irish company, thereby lowering its overall United States taxes. However, the plan was recently called off after the Treasury Department removed many of the tax benefits of such a merger.

In January of this year, before the new Treasury Department rules were in place, Johnson Controls announced its merger with Tyco International also based in Ireland. By doing this, the Times editorial page (1/29/16) claims they will avoid taxes in the United States “by at least 150 million a year.”

In commenting on tax inversions, Sunstein suggests that regardless of political party, it is unlikely you would approve of illegal corporate tax havens. Here is an area he believes “in which significant reforms might appeal to people who otherwise disagree on a great deal.”

Why am I writing about this? I am not an economist and I know little of the ins and outs of tax law. Yet it seems to me just another form corporate and individual irresponsibility.

I am dismayed when I think about the billions of dollars that are not paid to the government and, if they were, the potential benefits that might accrue. At the very least, it is clear that this is yet another reason why the United States tax system is long overdue for changes.

I am but one among millions, my words are scarcely heard, they count for nothing, but I cannot avoid expressing them.

4.05.2016

A Doubter's Almanac

If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. Renee Descartes

There are two sections in Ethan Canin’s latest novel, The Doubter’s Almanac. I found the first engrossing, the second redundant. The plot focuses on Milo Andret who grew up in a remote part of Michigan. Milo was a loner who spent his time wandering deep in the forests surrounding his home. His parents rarely spoke to him, he was reluctant to form friendships and realized early on that he was “entirely alone in the world.”

In the summer of his 13th year, Milo found a tree blown down in the forest and began carving its stump into a 25-foot-long wooden chain that looped back upon itself. It was a remarkable creation that he hid in a concealed underground hollow. His ability to find his way in the forest and ease in visualizing shapes anticipated his work in typology, a field of mathematics that studies geometric properties and spatial relations among objects.

Milo enrolled in the mathematics department at Berkeley where he began work on the fictional Malosz conjecture. His advisor, Hans Borland, told him, Topology is God’s rules, Andret. That’s what I’m telling you. And you’ve been called upon to translate them.

He began by assuming the result and working backward. If this was true, then so must this be true and so on. In this fashion and after many hours of difficult, exhausting analysis he was able to prove it.

… within hours of showing the proof to Borland, rumors of the achievement had begun to spread. Soon after, the paper had been accepted by the Annals….At thirty-two years old, he’d found a solution to one of the great problems in the history of mathematics. The article would arrive next month in libraries around the world: the Malosz conjecture, thanks to Milo Andret, had become the Malosz theorem.

Milo won the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics and obtained an appointment in the mathematics department at Princeton. At this point his life took a precipitous turn. It started when he began insulting members of the department, sleeping with women, and turned to drinking and drugs. It’s was if his mathematical genius was a curse that justified his noxious behavior, displayed without shame or apology.

Milo’s behavior became so objectionable that he was fired from the Princeton faculty, whereupon he moved an isolated cabin by a muddy lake, not unlike his childhood home in Michigan. So began the second part of A Doubter’s Almanac, narrated by Milo’s son, Hans.

We learn that Milo began teaching at one unknown college after another and that he married his former secretary at Princeton. Hans, like his sister, inherited Milo’s mathematical gifts and the curse that goes with it. He also took to drugs and alcohol in an effort to flee the curse. Meanwhile, Milo struggled to solve another mathematical problem, the Abendroth conjecture.

The central puzzle of the Abendroth conjecture concerned a subset of Whitehead’s CW-complexes that were infinite yet finite-dimensional. Clear enough. Though it was considered part of algebraic topology, Andret had a feeling that its solution—if it was going to be solved at all—would come not through equation but through the ability to visualize strange and unearthly shapes. At this he was quite adept.

He started working on it in the belief that he had “one thing left” In him. But he got nowhere and spent most of his time drinking. It is said that a mathematicians’ work was generally over before the age of forty. Perhaps so.

The book ends as Milo falls ill, his family, including his former wife, who had earlier left him, and his first love at Berkeley return to care for him. Hans writes that people like his father are always chasing after something. Each question leads to the next one in a never ending effort to comprehend something. Such a quest has a powerful appeal to me.

The second part of the novel had none of the momentum that the first had. I wanted to know if Milo solved the Malosz conjecture. Or if he had given up. If not, I wanted to know how he solved it and if anyone had solved it before he did. It was one of those fictional tales that I found hard to put down, until the next day, when I turned to it as soon as I could.

The world, if you let yourself consider it, was a puzzle in every plane of focus. Why was he so afraid of it? Then the corollary: Why did he want to live? He wanted to live so that he could solve a great problem.




4.02.2016

Apple Inc.

Yesterday, was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Apple Corporation. Apple products have made an enormous difference in my life, as well as millions of others. About five years ago, I wrote a blog on Steve Jobs and how he benefited the college where I taught for many years. Apple’s anniversary gives me an occasion to repost it.

At the same time, I want to reinforce the doubts I expressed then about some of its products, especially the iPhone. Nothing depresses me more than to see people staring at their iPhone screens throughout the day—in restaurants, on the street, around the dinner table, while they are driving—anywhere it seems.

I believe the iPhone has become an addiction for all too many people. The constant preoccupation with the device has become a substitute for plain thinking, plain observing, plain reflection, conversation, rumination, or dreaming.

Here is what I wrote in October 2011:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Apple’s 1977 “Think Different” Advertising Campaign.

Steve Jobs went to Reed College where I taught psychology throughout my academic life and was a student while I was there before he dropped out after his first semester. For a while after, he continued to hang around the department, primarily in the heavily electronic physiological lab and audited several of our classes.

And it is true, as he noted in a graduation speech he delivered at Stanford several years ago that he was troubled by the fact that it cost his parents so much to send him there. I doubt, however, that was the only reason he dropped out.

I write about Steve Jobs not only out of respect but also because he and his original team at Apple brought the computer world to me. Throughout his life he remained extremely generous to Reed. After the first computers were produced at Apple, he gave each faculty member one and he continued the practice with each succeeding version of their personal computer.

I never would have learned to use one were it not for the simplicity, its user friendliness as it is called. That feature is characteristic of all Apple products, They are designed to be models of simplicity.

It was simple matter to learn how to use them, something I had previously found impossible with other computer operating systems around then and still do with complicated Windows-based computers. In a way, the early Mac with its graphic interface opened up a new life for me, gave me a better and clearer way to express myself, and eventually with the development of the Web and the Internet expanded the sources of information and the ease of obtaining them regardless of where I am.

You have to remember when this was, otherwise it makes no sense given the electronic world we live in today. It was in 1984, twenty-seven years ago [at the time of this writing], that the first Macintosh computer was produced. The picture above is what it looked like and something like it sat on my desk at Reed soon after it was manufactured.

I wrote my first book on it, a book on promoting energy conservation, with a word-processor known as MacWrite. Since my handwriting is atrocious, completely unreadable even to me, I never could have written such a heavily documented book without it.

Everyone once it a while I stop to think about the larger implications of the new products that Jobs and his group at Apple developed—the iPhone, iPod, the iPad. I’m not entirely certain they represent the positive contribution the personal computer does.

Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution recently. I was reminded of what he said about this issue in thinking about the death of Steve Jobs and his enormous influence on society.

By setting the story [“Town of Cats,” published in the New Yorker] in 1984, before cell phones and e-mail and the Internet had become common, I made it impossible for my characters to use such tools. This in turn was frustrating for me. I felt their absence slowing down the speed of the novel. When I thought about it, though, not having such devices at the time—both in daily life and in the story—ceased to be an inconvenience. If you wanted to make a phone call, you just found a public telephone; if you had to look something up, you went to the library; if you wanted to contact somebody, you put a stamp on a letter and mailed it. Those were the normal ways to do those things. While writing the novel (and experiencing a kind of time slip), I had a strong feeling of what the intervening twenty-seven years had meant. Sorry to state the obvious, but maybe there’s not much connection between the convenience of people’s surroundings and the degree of happiness they feel.

3.28.2016

Merchants of Doubt

Climate change. Cancer and cigarette smoking. Vaccinations. What do we know?

Whatever knowledge we have is grounded in probabilities. What is the likelihood that carbon emissions lead to climate change? Does cigarette smoking causes lung cancer? Do immunizations prevent disease?

The merchants of doubt say we don’t know, we can’t be sure, we could be wrong, the evidence is suspect, we need more research.

Merchants of Doubt, a film made from the book of the same title, depicts the efforts to sow confusion and skepticism about the scientific research on these questions. Most of these efforts are corporate financed public relations campaigns designed to confuse the public.

Lies are spread, so is dishonesty and deception. The men and women who engage in these efforts couldn’t care less. They have a job, the untruths they spread are part of the deal.

Of course, there is always the question of who does and does not succumb to their playbook, the effects of their deceptions. Not everyone, that is for sure, but enough to block widespread acceptance of the research.

The same sort of doubts about research evidence has also characterized recent proposals of certain Presidential candidates. James Surowiecki calls them instances of “magical thinking.” (New Yorker 3/21/16). In particular, he discusses Donald Trump’s proposals to “slash taxes.”

He says Trump’s plan would reduce revenues by more than nine trillion dollars (can you can imagine such a number?) over the next decade. At the same time, he has promised to balance the budget and not cut services such as Social Security and Medicare.

How does he imagine he can do that? Surowiecki says he will get rid of government “waste and fraud and abuse…abolish the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency” and that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy so that government revenues will increase.

This claim is contrary to all the current evidence. Surowiecki writes: “The message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.”

This is the same sort of misperception that characterizes the beliefs discussed in the film Merchants of Doubt. All you have to do is make the claim, spread doubt and once they are in the public domain, they’re very difficult to overcome, in spite of all the contrary evidence, most of which is discounted or more likely ignored and unknown.

3.24.2016

When Paris Went Dark

Parisians seemed to be going thought the motions of life without living at all.

Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, is a rich, detailed, account of the German Occupation of Paris during World War II.

Rosbottom drew upon an extensive collection of materials-- diaries, memoirs, essays, newspaper articles, histories, letters, films, archives interviews, photographs, maps, etc.—all of which helped him to understand Paris during the Occupation.

Much of this is well known. However, like so many other readers, my appetite for reading about World War II seems inexhaustible. Some say it was the greatest event in human history, a saga about the collision between good and evil and the remarkable courage so many displayed.

During those days in Paris, food was scarce, heat was rare, gas for automobiles was unavailable, long lines were pervasive, air raid drills were common and the presence of the Germans created a quiet, almost eerie city that was dangerous and often frightening to those who remained.





“The silence caught you by the throat, made sadness press into your thoughts."



In time, it became extremely dangerous for Jews, many of whom left the city if they could, others tried to find a place to hide, but thousands were rounded up, virtually imprisoned for days and then shipped to concentration camps where most did not survive.


In spite of the risks, the French Resistance was a constant threat to the Germans. Rosbottom writes that the German troops “were more and more demoralized as they watched safe Paris become a site for both discriminate and indiscriminate attacks against the Occupier.”

Rosbottom marvels at the fact that Paris managed to survive the War almost unscathed. Hitler had ordered its destruction when the advancing allied armies forced the Germans to leave. How this was avoided is another remarkable tale. In contrast, most of the other large cities in Europe were virtually destroyed by the destructive power of seemingly constant allied bombing.

That is what was seen. But Rosbottom notes, “What the world did not see was the economic, social, and psychological damage wrought by the Occupation, which would take years to repair.”

Eventually this would be clearly seen as the surviving Jews, political prisoners, captured soldiers and others who had hidden in the country began returning to Paris. Rosbottom says, they were unrecognizable as the trauma they had endured lasted so very long.

He concludes, “There are, in the life of a nation, moments that wound its memory as well as the idea that one has of one’s country. This was one of those moments for France and from all accounts still is, more than 70 years after the Occupation ended."


3.21.2016

Water News

Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. Coleridge

There is a drought in the west, floods in North Carolina, the reservoirs in Brazil are drying up, and 663 million people are said to be living without access to water. Meanwhile, cities are experimenting with recycled waste water and in some countries desalinization of sea water. Water has become one of the crises of our times.

Tomorrow, March 22nd, is World Water Day. To acknowledge the day, I begin with a report of a study, the kind I love. It’s an article by Arron Carroll in the Times (8/24/15) that deals primarily with the recommendation to drink 8 glasses of water a day. According to Carroll, there’s no evidence to support this.

Although I have not read the original study, Carroll reports a paper he co-authored in 2007 on medical myths. The first was that people should drink at least 8 8-ounce glasses of water a day. He says people continue hold that belief, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

The same finding was reported in a book on medical myths that once again “debunked” the idea that we need 8 glasses of water a day. Carroll says water is present in fruits and vegetables. I drink coffee twice a day and tea once, both are said to dehydrate you. Carroll claims the research shows that’s not true either.

How did the water recommendation get started? It may have been a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board report recommending that people need that much water per day. You’d think by now, 70 years later, the myth would have been dispelled, that the weight of the evidence would have called it into question.

But no. The belief spread, remains unexamined, and has assumed a kind of cultural truth that is virtually impossible to alter.

At the same time, the water news from Israel presents a more optimistic picture. Faced with year after year of drought, the government took drastic steps to curb water consumption and increase water resources. Isabel Kershner reports in the Times (5/29/15) the following measures were instituted:

1. A heavy tax was placed on excessive household water consumption.

2. Individuals were told to cut their shower time by two minutes, washing cars was prohibited and watering lawns was heavily taxed and only permitted in the evenings.

3. A major national effort was made to desalinate Mediterranean seawater, with five plants now in operation.

4. At the same time, programs were developed to recycle wastewater.

5. Large cuts were made in the annual water quotas for farmers.

6. Water Authority representatives went door-to-door offering free low-flow showerheads and advice on how to conserve household water consumption.

Kershner observes that taken together these measures have provided Israel with more than enough water for all its needs, even during periods of severe drought, and even enough now to export.

The lesson here is abundantly clear. This is what is required to overcome the periods of extreme drought currently faced by California, other western states and elsewhere throughout the world.

3.16.2016

Anita Brookner

Anitia Brookner died the other day. Brookner was an English art historian and novelist. I think I’ve read almost all of her many novels.

At times they grow tedious, but she wrote well and her themes captured my interest. In 1984 she won the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac--a tale of a lonely woman coming to terms with her solitary life during a visit to a hotel by a Swiss lake.

At the Hairdressers was her last novel and the first to be published as an e-book. It is the only one I wrote about on this blog. Her others were written before I started blogging. The following post was written four years ago.


…we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. Anita Brookner

There are several firsts in Anita Brookner’s latest novel, At the Hairdressers. It is her first e-book; in fact, it is only available as Penguin Short e-book. It is her first novel after a lapse of several years. For a while, she was publishing a new novel each year like clockwork, most of which I read. Now they appear intermittently and since she is almost 84, I don’t imagine there will be many more.

It is also the first Kindle e-book I have read from start to finish. After many tedious criticisms of e-books in general, I have finally mastered the fine art of highlighting passages and then copying them into my commonplace book. As readers of this blog have been reminded all too often, these steps are essential to my way of reading.

At the Hairdressers is similar to her other novels. There is a lonely woman (occasionally a lonely man), usually educated and reasonably well off, emotionally reserved, and finished with their professional life. They long for friendship or perhaps a lover, a happiness that is never fulfilled, without hope or expectation that anything will happen to them other than yet another blank day.

Solitude is the familiar burden for Elizabeth Warner in At the Hairdressers. She lives in a basement flat in London and leaves the house only to go shopping and have her hair done. Her only “friends” are the people she sees on the streets, the market, or the women at her salon. Mostly, what the 80 year-old Elizabeth longs for is youth.

…a brooding and no doubt disagreeable old woman to whom memories of youth come unbidden, and unwelcome, now that youth is out of reach.

Sometimes the young do nothing for one’s dignity.


At the Hairdressers opens on this theme as Elizabeth recounts a dream. In it she recalls the small group of friends she had as a student in college, imagines what course their lives have taken, and how much she would enjoy seeing them again. Of course it was youth that was being celebrated.

When she chances upon one of these friends, she is immediately disappointed by the wide social gap between them and the comparative inadequacy and failures of her own life. She concludes that the dream only brought back feelings that are gone forever now.

Again, like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness, continual reflection by the protagonist of their life, their life unlived, and the only life that one can expect now.

I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser's, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself.

You have to like this kind of internal dialogue to enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels. And yet it spite of their repetitiveness, self-centeredness and absence of any action, I find it hard to put one down once I start. I may not read it all at once, but I do eventually finish, knowing full well that the next one, if there is to be one, will not be any different.

3.14.2016

Operation Thunderbolt

June 1976, almost 40 years ago. An Air France flight takes off from Israel, where security is tight, with 228 passengers heading to Paris, with a stopover in Athens, where security is lax. Four hijackers board the plane there, with heavy bags that were never checked and said by the hijackers to be loaded with guns and explosives. They order the pilot to fly to the Entebee airport in Nairobi, Uganda.

So begins Saul David’s Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History. The story of the hijacking, the days at the terminal in Entebbe, the debate within Israel about how to respond to the terrorist demands and the eventual planning and rescue of the Jewish hostages is told in an hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, account by David in a “you are there” fashion.

The four hijackers, later joined by two others at the airport in Entebbe, demanded the release within 48 hours of 53 militants mostly imprisoned in Israel, in exchange for the release of the hostages.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed the government had to give in to the terrorists to avoid the slaughter of the Jewish hostages; Defense Minister Shimon Peres argued for an attempt to rescue them with a raid at the Entebbe airport in distant Uganda. The squabbling between Rabin and Peres was at times bitter.

However, the plans for a surprise raid were yet to be formulated, with various impractical ideas on how to return the hostages to Israel. Were it not for the extension of the deadline three days, so that Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, (who knew about the hijacking in advance and supported the terrorists) could attend a conference of African leaders, the hostages would have been killed or released, if Israel acceded to the demands of the terrorists.

The additional time gave the Israel Defense Force (IDF) time to work out a “realistic” rescue plan that finally gained the support of Prime Minister Rabin and his cabinet. Meanwhile, 48 non-Jewish hostages were released by Amin and flown to Paris. Although the final airlift-rescue plan was never rehearsed and entailed a number of unknown risks, it was nevertheless launched on the night of July 3rd.

After a refueling stop at Nairobi, Kenya, four Hercules transports landed undetected at the Entebbe airport, 2,500 miles from Israel. Two Boeing 707 jets followed, the first contained medical facilities and landed in Nairobi, the second circled over the Entebbe Airport to monitor the raid. A black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin's vehicle and his supporting Land Rovers were driven out of one of the Hercules and headed for the old terminal where the hostages were located. The Israelis hoped they could use them to bypass security checkpoints.

The other Hercules transports held Israeli assault teams that drove their vehicles directly to the terminal building The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and raced toward the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down!”

They identified the four hijackers, shot them, along with numerous Ugandans who were guarding the building and began moving the hostages to the Hercules transports. The commandos then destroyed the Ugandan MIG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing the returning Israelis. Five commandos were wounded and one, the team’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed. Out of the 106 hostages, three were killed, 10 were wounded and one woman who was left in a Ugandan hospital was killed by Amin.

The raid and the liberation of the hostages last only 51 minutes.

The Israeli raid was a daring operation, attracted world-wide acclaim, and served as a model for other rescue missions. It also enhanced Israel’s morale and stature in the world. But how important was it? David makes no attempt to address this question and place it in a wider context.

However, his detailed account of the raid, its planning and ultimate execution was riveting to read. Still, the leader of the commandos was killed along with 4 of the hostages. Unavoidable? Worth the risk? In spite of the elation of the surviving hostages and the crowd that met them when they returned to Israel, you might be left with these questions at the end.

3.07.2016

Where to Invade Next

I saw Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” this weekend. Like his other films, it is a critical indictment of American society. It is also highly selective, as the programs discussed in the countries he visits are “cherry picked.” All the countries have major problems, but Moore ignores them, picking “the flowers, not the weeds,” as he says.

In the film Moore compares the social policies in several countries, mostly European, with those in America. He begins by visiting Italy, where the sun always shines and the people have beautiful tans. He learns from a middle age couple that the companies where they work provide them with four weeks of paid vacation. National and local holidays add even more paid vacation days.

While still in Italy, he visits a Ducati motorcycle factory and a clothing manufacturer that bestows five months paid maternity leave and two-hour lunches. We see workers returning home to a three-course lunch, wine included, with family and friends. How they ever get any work done in the afternoon is a mystery to me, but the CEOs of both firms assure us that the two-hour lunches lead to more contented and productive employees.

Moore moves on to France, where once again we are told that long and healthy lunch breaks are good for school children. In Finland, where everyone seems to speak beautiful English, we are informed that Finnish schools have virtually eliminated homework and standardized testing, as well as providing more free time. In a recent comparison of math, reading and science skills among 15-year olds, Finland ranks number one among developed countries, while the United States ranks among the lowest.

On to Slovenia, a country that is rarely heard from, where college education is virtually free. Moore speaks with several American students who have enrolled in colleges there to avoid the prohibitive costs of tuition, room and board of colleges and universities in this country. However, we don’t find out about the courses offered or their outcome, including graduation rates and subsequent employment of the students who attend college there.

Moore moves on to Germany where there is free health care, as is true elsewhere in most European countries. He spends a fair amount of time in school classes where the study of the Holocaust is required. Moore then laments that there is no requirement in schools of this country for studying the way we have treated Native Americans or the long history of slavery either.

In Norway Moore is startled to learn that prisons are organized around rehabilitation rather than retribution. Prisoners are housed in studio apartments equipped with a bathroom, television, and cookware including knives. No one is locked up in solitary confinement and the maximum sentence is 21 years. Prisoners have considerable mobility within the grounds; you get the impression that Norwegian prisons are not that much different from a small society.

In Iceland, a country of about 320,000 people, where the financial crisis crippled the economy, the country has largely recovered with the help of tourism. Moore comments that the one bank that didn’t fail was run by women. This leads to a lengthy treatment of the many virtues of female leadership.

Moore intends the film to be an exercise in finding solutions to the many problems facing this country. In this sense the film has a positive message, although it deals in obvious generalities about the merits of European countries. (The film was made before the current migration crisis there.)

The film also ignores the many efforts to solve our problems, as well as the difficulties we have in adopting new, large-scale programs in one as big and diverse as ours. Small, relatively homogeneous societies have several advantages compared to large, multi-state countries in introducing and experimenting with new programs.

After seeing a preview of the “Where to Invade Next” a friend of mine announced rather boldly, that she will never see the film. That is a problem with films like this. The audience, like the subjects in Moore’s film, is also going to be highly selective.

After the showing I attended, the assembled crowd burst out with wild applause. That surprised me, although I guess it shouldn’t have.

3.02.2016

In Other Words

As I went through the show [of Matisse cut-outs], I recognized an artist who at a certain point felt the need to charge course, to express himself differently. Who had the mad impulse to abandon one type of vision for another. Jhumpa Lahiri

The blank page. The blank canvas. Day after day they remain blank. I suppose every writer or artist reaches a point in their life when they stare at a blank page or canvas hopelessly paralyzed.

This might have been what happened to Jhumpa Lahiri when she stopped writing in English and sought a new direction to her work. During her first visit to Florence as a 20-year-old student, she fell in love with the Italian language. I recall a similar experience after one of my early visits to Florence. In an essay describing Italian, I wrote:

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing, with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you don't have the vaguest idea what they mean. …It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

Over the years that followed Lahiri took Italian lessons but she never really mastered the language that way. So in 2012, she took the leap and moved to Rome with her husband and two children.

Lahiri says she was never comfortable in the language of her family (Bengali) or the language in which she had been educated (English). She said: “In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.”

In her memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes her efforts to learn the language well enough to speak easily with Italians and write in their language. She stopped reading English and wrote exclusively in Italian, both in her diary and the pieces that compose the book. In Other Words is printed in a dual-language format with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on one page and Lahiri’s Italian on the other. (I found reading both pages of the book a good way to learn a little more Italian.)

There is a simplicity to Lahiri’s short Italian sentences that is beguiling, but after awhile rather limited, especially when she’s writing about complicated issues. They also become somewhat repetitious, as she tries to explain the difficulties she’s experiencing in writing Italian.

When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest. A traveler…When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.

Yet, In Other Words is a pleasure to read as Lahiri struggles to express herself in Italian and strike out in a new direction. Throughout the book I kept wondering why she tried to distance herself from English, her dominant language, the one in which she was so successful.

I can appreciate her desire to try a new direction to her work. But why in a foreign language, one she scarcely knew before she moved to Rome? In Other Words was a best seller in Italy and at the time of this writing has moved into the top fifteen on the New York Times Hardcover best seller list.

Last September Lahiri returned to this country as a professor of creative writing at Princeton. She was reluctant to leave Rome and worries now that she won’t be able to maintain her fluency in Italian and newfound identity. One wonders if In Other Words is the first or the last of her work in Italian? While in Italy she wrote,

“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place. This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”