The End of Reflection
In the Times (6/11/16) Teddy Wayne writes about the end of reflection. He says we no longer spend time alone with our thoughts. Instead, whenever we are walking or waiting somewhere or riding the subway or bus, we have a look at our mobile phone to see what’s up.
The days of ruminating or contemplating are over. The devices we carry around are simply too distracting. We read, text, email or listen to tunes. No more simply having a look at our surroundings or pondering a verity.
Well, I spend a good part of every day brooding about something or other. Yes, I check my emails and the sites I go to on the web. But I don’t spend a great deal of time doing that. I rarely text, don’t get many emails and the number of phone calls I receive or make each week are not many more than none.
The thing is, I don’t carry around my cell phone. If I go anywhere it remains in the dock on my desk. I suppose I should take it for emergencies and I may start doing that, but if I do, I’m not going to browse the web or use one of the few apps I have. Very simple. Leave your phone at home.
Wayne spends some time discussing the effects of using the phone on cognitive and introspective abilities. But as in most research on such questions, the results are relatively uninformative. In my judgment, they fail to adequately capture the nature of reflection. Moreover, there are not many studies on the topic and those that have been conducted usually don’t agree with one another.
People often make fun of McDonald’s. Their food is greasy, full of calories and fats, and they are everywhere. But in fact, McDonald’s has become a place where friends can gather, spend time talking and bringing a sense of community to their life.
In this sense they have become a Third Place, namely a place as central to a person’s life as their home and workplace. To be sure, those who gather there are largely lower income Americans who feel isolated from the privileged and cannot escape the emptiness of their jobs.
Instead, they drop by McDonald’s to visit with their friends, share an inexpensive meal, and discuss the news of the day. Who can sneer at that? As Chris Arnade writes in the Guardian (6/8/16), in many places it has become “the glue that holds communities together.”
A Hero of France: A Novel
France, the spring of 1941. The war in Europe intensifies. The British are bombing the hell out of Germany. Some of their aircraft are shot down.
The pilots manage to parachute into a German occupied area of France. They hide until they somehow manage to make contact with someone in the French Resistance, who have organized escape lines to Spain, where they are able to return to England.
Alan Furst’s A Hero of France tells the story of one such Resistance group and their leader. He describes the other members of the cell—a nightclub owner, a 17 year-old high school student who is a bicycle courier, a professor of ethnology at the Sorbonne, a chic socialite, and a young Jew. They all want to find ways to find ways to sabotage the Germans and send them packing
Yes, the story has been told many times. But it is still exciting.
Members of the Resistance are always on the alert, sleep is hard to come by, so is warmth and food, the pressure of clandestine work ages them. Somehow they avoid the Germans, transport the British flyers to safe houses on the routes to Spain.
Once again I ask myself what would I have done in occupied France? Would have I silently tried to get by? Would I have saved Jews seeking a hiding place? Would have I lent a hand to the Resistance at great risk to myself and family?
I hope I would take the risk like the members of cell Furst describes. I hope I wouldn’t keep my head down when a German soldier passed me by. I hope I might have done everything I could to harass the Germans.
Courage. That is what attracts me to these stories.
“When we lost the war, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died. This reached me, and soon enough I began to do things, small things, but they made me feel better. And the more I watched these arrogant bastards strutting around the city, my city, the more I did.”
Alice and Oliver
“I have to remember that we all have our own times and journeys.”
Charles Bock’s Alice and Oliver describes a two-and-a-half year battle with leukemia, not his, but his wife’s, Alice. She undergoes grueling chemotherapy, spends most of her time in hospital beds and can’t decide whether to accept her fate or fighting it.
“You have acute myeloid leukemia, or AML,” began Eisenstatt. “What this means: inside your bones there is marrow, a spongy red tissue responsible for producing your blood cells. AML is a mutation, or disruption, inside that marrow. Instead of producing a normal blood cell, your marrow produces purplish cells called myeloblasts.”
It was almost as grueling to read the long tale of her suffering and Oliver’s endless negotiations with insurance companies, the difficulties in starting his software company, and caring for their baby.
The story is based on the journals Alice kept throughout her ordeal. In an interview he said, “They became a baseline, I would write over them or take moments, and I would change them, but I felt, I get to keep her spirit in the word.”
After a while, reading about Alice’s suffering and Oliver’s grief and pain became too much for me. I skimmed the final third, rather than abandoning the book.
“The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering: “You are born. You live. You suffer and get sick. You die.” But of course nothing is so simple.”
I’d like to go to Italy, she would prefer to explore Oregon. I’d like to see the latest French film, she wants to see the latest comedy. I like philosophical novels, she craves the mysteries. And so it goes. In these and other areas, we have different tastes.
In "What It Is Like to Like", Louis Menand reviews (New Yorker, 6/20/16) Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like, a book about taste and whatever it is that shapes our preferences. According to Menand, we can’t account for our tastes. We don’t know why we prefer one thing over another.
“But where tastes do come from is extremely difficult to pin down. Taste is not congenital: we don’t inherit it. And it’s not consistent. We come to like things we thought we hated (or actually did hate), and we are very poor predictors of what we are likely to like in the future.”
From time to time I try to account for the taste differences between my wife and my tastes. Yes, we come from different backgrounds, have had widely different life experiences, social needs and economic concerns. But I am a loss when I try to nail down the factors that account for the variability between us.
Italy is very special to me, so are philosophical novels and foreign films. But she doesn’t share these tastes. And that’s about all I can say.
It’s also impossible for me to try to alter her tastes. Even when I point out inconsistencies in them. Can a marriage be built on such differences? Can it last? All I can say is that we’ve been married for almost 58 years and going strong. That’s pretty well answers my question.
Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born..
Dora Bruder is the story of a quest, a quest into the past. The narrator happens to read a note in a 1941 Paris paper: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15…Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”
He had long been familiar with that area, waiting in cafes in the morning when it was still dark and early in the evening as night fell. This sets him off on a search for Dora Bruder, what he can find out about her and her fate during Nazi occupied Paris.
The search takes him into administrative offices, libraries, research centers as he tries to hunt down photos, information about Jewish individuals in Paris and anything he can learn about Dora Bruder.
He traces down her parents, where they lived and the work they did. In time, he learns that Dora ran away from home once, was sent to a Catholic school from which she ran away again. He wonders how she got by, where she hid, as she was Jewish.
Finally, he discovers: “Father and daughter departed Drancy on 18 September, in company with thousands of other men and women, on a convoy of trains bound for Auschwitz.”
Everything falls into place, the quest is over, a deep sadness overcomes the narrator, as well as the reader. Memories of those times begin to haunt the narrator, one year merging into another, that of 1965 when he writes the book and those of wartime Paris.
“I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorizes, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.”
“Who are you? Who have I been married to all this time?” David Mason News from the Village: Aegean Friends
Do I know everything about my wife? How much has she concealed from me and, indeed, how much have I concealed from her? And what happens when the truth of either one of us is revealed?
Much depends, of course, on how long we have been married. Perhaps in the early days, we didn’t know everything about each other. And as the years went by, there are more and more experiences that we might have concealed or revealed to one another.
In the film 35 Years Cate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are about to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. They seem a very happy couple, both retired, living in a rural area in English countryside. They read, walk their dog, visit friends, have tea in the afternoon.
Then one day a letter for Geoff arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, a former girlfriend who had died in a mountain climbing accident has been discovered. Geoff has been named as the next of kin.
Cate knew nothing about Katya, about her death in Switzerland, or Geoff’s desire then to marry her. What has been concealed all these years is suddenly revealed.
The film depicts Cate and Geoff’s reaction to this long-ago, now-revealed romance. Their anniversary party is on the verge of disarray. Their marriage doesn’t seem quite so contented after all.
Secrets. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes they unexpectedly make their appearance. We don’t always know everything about one another, even after 35 years of marriage.
Ben Taub’s article, “The Shadow Doctors” in The New Yorker (6/27/16) was utterly depressing and, at the same time, remarkable. Depressing as it depicted the death of so many Syrians and the total destruction of so many towns. But remarkable in Taub’s descriptions of the techniques doctors are using to transmit medical techniques and advice to the remaining doctors there.
Taub meets David Nott in London at a dinner with other doctors in a upscale Chelsea restaurant. As Taub sat down for dinner he noticed Nott reading a series of text messages from a young medical worker in Aleppo. He told Nott how he had removed several bullets from a patient, “slowly dying on the operating table.” But he didn’t know what to do next.
Nott asked a couple of questions, immediately received the answers, and then told the medical worker how to proceed. Taub then describes other such distant communications between physicians and doctors in Syria.
There were once thousands of physicians there, as well as several hospitals and treatment centers. But they have all but destroyed by the Syrian government. And now the very few medical personnel who remain there must work underground or move their facilities from one place to another.
Taub says Assad’s government has killed almost seven hundred medial personnel. How can this be, how can this continue in the 21st Century? What has come over those individuals who commit such atrocities, destroying hospitals, doctors, indeed, their entire country?
Its Life Went On: Weddings, Births, Deaths
Greece itself was not the cure. No country is a Cure
Who has not dreamed of chucking it all and heading to a place in the sun? The poet David Mason and his wife Joanna did just that when they headed to a friend’s house in Greece. Mason describes their times in Greece in News from the Village: Aegean Friends.
…this was merely an opportunity to get away from our families, to see our homeland from a distance, to slough off accumulated anxieties and inhabit dreams remembered from the long, long nights.
The settled in a small village by the sea in the Peloponnese. They “regressed” to a simpler, lazy life of swimming, eating the best food, bread and oil, much less meat, more fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Mason says he now had the time and freedom to read widely and with “total immersion.” When the weather was warm, which it was most of the year, they slept under the stars, “the cicadas having finally silenced when the breeze soughed down from the mountains.”
They made long lasting friendship among the villagers, as well as the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife, Joan, who had a home there. Mason says meeting Fermor was one of the great gifts of his life. Together they talked literature, took long walks together, swam in the warm Mediterranean.
“Over the years, Paddy and Joan have meant more to me than I could ever convey to them—as models of graciousness, always curious about the world.”
It was a life you dream about, not a life you can live for very long. And when it was time to return to America, nothing was ever the same.
“For Joanna and me, it would take great suffering, divorce and marriage to others to begin to place ourselves in the real world, and when I returned to Greece sixteen years later it would be almost as another man, hopefully better equipped to love the place for what it is, to accept its many changes not to desire it only for my own gratification.”
News from Greece was a delight to read, Mason writes well and clearly reproduced what it was like to live in Mani, as well as what it meant to return to a place where he was happy in the past, to see it after many years and in different circumstances. I read the book as quickly as I ever do, always eager to soak up that sun, bread and olive oil.
“Here was a country of worldly people who were far less puritanical than many Americans, who worked hard and took their relaxation when they could, who valued friends and family above all else, who respected education and eloquence, who were skeptical of government but aware of their precious freedoms, who knew about corruption but weren’t entirely soured by it, who were polite about my Greek and didn’t expect me to stand in for all American policies.”
Jerry Brown, the governor of California has written a brilliant review (New York Review of Books, (7/14/16) of William Perry’s My Journal at the Nuclear Brink. Normally I wouldn’t read about this topic, but Jerry Brown, yes THE Jerry Brown drew me to the article and once I got into it, I was impressed by how well it was done.
Brown describes Perry’s six-decades of nuclear studies and research. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great at the present time. He says it was by sheer luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis and the several accidents that have also avoided a nuclear explosion.
There is a central point to Brown’s review, namely that the “the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater that it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
Perry argues that rather that provide security, nuclear weapons, “they now endanger it.”
Brown concludes his review by noting that many complain about the various problems and dysfunctions in our country, “few see the incomparably greater danger of nuclear doom.”
A brilliant review of a very unsettling book.
The Kindergarten Teacher
The premise of The Kindergarten Teacher, a provocative film from Israel, there’s little room for poetry in the modern world.
Of course, this ignores the fact that poets are still writing poems and readers are still enjoying them.
No matter, the film is about the relationship between a kindergarten teacher, Nira, and one of her 4 year-old pupils, Yoav. I have a poem, he says, proceeds to walk back and forth, reciting the poem. A modern day Mozart of the word.
Nira deeply appreciates poetry and writes poems of her own. As Yoav continues to recite his poems, she worries that his gift will be smothered as he grows older. “Being a poet in our world is going against the nature of the world,” she says.
Then things become a little weird. Presumably in an effort to keep Yoav’s poetry talent alive, she kidnaps him and together they drive to a remote hotel in the Sinai. They settle in to their room, Yoav locks the teacher in the shower room, calls 911, and the police arrive to bring the film to an end.
The film is a parable of the decline of culture. I have trouble with this view. Yes, the world seems to have no place for poetry, for writing and the culture of reading. But hasn’t that always been the case?
There have always been a few who have valued the arts, who have fought to preserve the intellect by their actions. Just look at the web today, the current periodicals, and the research in countless disciplines to confirm this view.
Is the Dream Over?
What is it like for a foreigner to come to America now with hopes of starting a new life? Consider the experience of Sayed Kashua (New Yorker 7/9/16) who came to this country from Israel with her family to become a writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign-Urbana.
They arrive eager to begin living in this country. At once, they are confronted with reality. They were not prepared for the heat and humidity of the summer. The mosquitos were “brutal.” The cicadas were maddening.
They had difficulty getting electricity, water and cable TV without a Social Security number, couldn’t buy a car without credit, couldn’t get a credit card at their bank without a credit history.
They ruined the garbage disposal because they didn’t know to turn on the water. A letter arrived from the neighborhood association that they would be fined if they didn’t mow the lawn. Their children didn’t speak English and they had no friends or relatives here.
And so on and on. Until one day things begin to look up.
They went out to dinner one night. When their son finished his Fanta, he asked for another one. Ms. Kashua went to the counter to order another. She was told refills are free, as many as you want. “Refill was the first word my toddler son spoke in English, and when I heard him say it, I felt some small new hope about our prospects in America.”
I was walking along the street in downtown Portland, when I was startled to see a piano placed in a park. There it was, a piano in a park. How strange, I thought.
Then a couple of days later my wife and I drove out to a park at the junction of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. And once again, there was a piano sitting all by itself in the park.
On further investigation I discovered a program, “Piano! Push. Play”. that rescues old pianos and puts them on the street or park for everyone to enjoy. They’ve been doing this for the past four summers.
Megan McGeorge the founder of “Piano. Push. Play” said, “I want people to have access to pianos all the time, especially for pianists who can’t afford one in their homes.”
Currently the program has eleven pianos in parks around Portland. It has also developed an app that displays where the pianos are located and “pings” users when they are close to one.
This year the program is placing the pianos in 30 different parks, with some pianos spending two weeks at each location. The pianos are donated by Portland Piano Co and sponsored by various organizations throughout the city. After the summer months, the refurbished pianos are given to schools and community centers.
Apparently, Portland is not the only place where you might hear someone playing a piano in a public setting. In an article in the Times (8/20/16) Aurelien Breeden reports that the French national railroad company has installed pianos in nearly 100 stations. The company rents the instruments from Yamaha which maintains and tunes them.
“The pianos have proved to be very popular, and the music, blending with the sounds of shouting passengers, screeching trains and rolling suitcase, can give French stations a peculiar soundscape.” I’d say a pretty terrific soundscape.”
The Next Big Thing
We are now very old and only one thing can happen to people our age.
Anita Brookner’s, The Next Big Thing, is like all her other novels—slow going, a bit repetitious and, yet, I read them until the predictable ending. It is clear why I continue to read her novels; they capture much of my life.
Julius Herz is 73 years old, he lives alone, no longer married, stuck in a London flat. He is without visitors, friends, anyone who can talk to other than a cashier or salesperson. His only companions are the anonymous people he observes on the streets, mostly young people drinking and laughing outside pubs.
He lived like a recluse, for that was how he thought he must, as if his destiny had reclaimed him. As time wore on the future seemed less accommodating, continuity not to be taken for granted. He revised his expectations, resigned himself to living in an uneasy present.
Julius great battle is with solitude, how to get through the days without succumbing to loneliness, isolation unsupported by family, friends or the pleasures of art and science. Like so many other individuals today, he is also without work or substitute other than the routines that fill upon his long days and sleepless nights.
Julius is also haunted by an unfulfilled love for his willful cousin. Her life has worked out much like his and they exchange long and tedious letters that try to arrange a reunion. But Julius recognizes he can manage much better on his own rather than in the company of others.
The fundamental subject in The Next Big Thing is old age and how to face its consequences. “As he eased himself out of bed, he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time and time taught harsh lessons.”
Julius’ solitary life had bred an endurance of life’s vicissitudes. Brookner writes, “better a stoical pessimism, a hard look at life’s realities, and most of all a determination to enjoy that life, certainly to value it.” And so he clung to his routine, although it bored him and was without pleasure but at least preserved his dignity.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.