Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book repair and restoration — short video

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 January 2021 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Video

The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists

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Tanya Lewis writes in Scientific American:

The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building last week, incited by President Donald Trump, serves as the grimmest moment in one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history. Yet the rioters’ actions—and Trump’s own role in, and response to, them—come as little surprise to many, particularly those who have been studying the president’s mental fitness and the psychology of his most ardent followers since he took office.

One such person is Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and president of the World Mental Health Coalition.* Lee led a group of psychiatrists, psychologists and other specialists who questioned Trump’s mental fitness for office in a book that she edited called The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. In doing so, Lee and her colleagues strongly rejected the American Psychiatric Association’s modification of a 1970s-era guideline, known as the Goldwater rule, that discouraged psychiatrists from giving a professional opinion about public figures who they have not examined in person. “Whenever the Goldwater rule is mentioned, we should refer back to the Declaration of Geneva, which mandates that physicians speak up against destructive governments,” Lee says. “This declaration was created in response to the experience of Nazism.”

Lee recently wrote Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul, a psychological assessment of the president against the backdrop of his supporters and the country as a whole. These insights are now taking on renewed importance as a growing number of current and former leaders call for Trump to be impeached. On January 9 Lee and her colleagues at the World Mental Health Coalition put out a statement calling for Trump’s immediate removal from office.

Scientific American asked Lee to comment on the psychology behind Trump’s destructive behavior, what drives some of his followers—and how to free people from his grip when this damaging presidency ends.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What attracts people to Trump? What is their animus or driving force?

The reasons are multiple and varied, but in my recent public-service book, Profile of a Nation, I have outlined two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis. Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence—while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship.

“Shared psychosis”—which is also called “folie à millions” [“madness for millions”] when occurring at the national level or “induced delusions”—refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence—even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.

Why does Trump himself seem to gravitate toward violence and destruction?

Destructiveness is a core characteristic of mental pathology, whether directed toward the self or others. First, I wish to clarify that those with mental illness are, as a group, no more dangerous than those without mental illness. When mental pathology is accompanied by criminal-mindedness, however, the combination can make individuals far more dangerous than either alone.

In my textbook on violence, I emphasize the symbolic nature of violence and how it is a life impulse gone awry. Briefly, if one cannot have love, one resorts to respect. And when respect is unavailable, one resorts to fear. Trump is now living through an intolerable loss of respect: rejection by a nation in his election defeat. Violence helps compensate for feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy and lack of real productivity.

Do you think Trump is truly exhibiting delusional or psychotic behavior? Or is he simply behaving like an autocrat making a bald-faced attempt to hold onto his power?

I believe it . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 January 2021 at 5:10 pm

No absolute time: Newton got it wrong, Hume saw it right, and Einstein learned from Hume how relativity would work

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Matias Slavov, a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at Tampere University in Finland, writes in Aeon:

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, who had recently composed an article on the theory of relativity. Einstein praised it: ‘From the philosophical perspective, nothing nearly as clear seems to have been written on the topic.’ Then he went on to express his intellectual debt to ‘Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.’

More than 30 years later, his opinion hadn’t changed, as he recounted in a letter to his friend, the engineer Michele Besso: ‘In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D Hume on me was greater. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern.’ We know that Einstein studied Hume’s Treatise (1738-40) in a reading circle with the mathematician Conrad Habicht and the philosophy student Maurice Solovine around 1902-03. This was in the process of devising the special theory of relativity, which Einstein eventually published in 1905. It is not clear, however, what it was in Hume’s philosophy that Einstein found useful to his physics. We should therefore take a closer look.

In Einstein’s autobiographical writing from 1949, he expands on how Hume helped him formulate the theory of special relativity. It was necessary to reject the erroneous ‘axiom of the absolute character of time, viz, simultaneity’, since the assumption of absolute simultaneity

unrecognisedly was anchored in the unconscious. Clearly to recognise this axiom and its arbitrary character really implies already the solution of the problem. The type of critical reasoning required for the discovery of this central point [the denial of absolute time, that is, the denial of absolute simultaneity] was decisively furthered, in my case, especially by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings.

In the view of John D Norton, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, Einstein learned an empiricist theory of concepts from Hume (and plausibly from Mach and the positivist tradition). He then implemented concept empiricism in his argument for the relativity of simultaneity. The result is that different observers will not agree whether two events are simultaneous or not. Take the openings of two windows, a living room window and a kitchen window. There is no absolute fact to the matter of whether the living room window opens before the kitchen window, or whether they open simultaneously or in reverse order. The temporal order of such events is observer-dependent; it is relative to the designated frame of reference.

Once the relativity of simultaneity was established, Einstein was able to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of his theory, the principle of relativity and the light postulate. This conclusion required abandoning the view that there is such a thing as an unobservable time that grounds temporal order. This is the view that Einstein got from Hume.

Hume’s influence on intellectual culture is massive. This includes all areas of philosophy and a variety of scientific disciplines. A poll conducted with professional philosophers a few years ago asked them to name the philosopher, no longer living, with whom they most identify. Hume won, by a clear margin. In Julian Baggini’s estimation, contemporary ‘scientists, who often have little time for philosophy, often make an exception for Hume’. Before saying more about Hume’s permanent relevance, we should go back to the 18th-century early modern context. His influence is due to his radical empiricism, which can’t be fully understood without examining the era in which he worked.

The dominant theory of cognition of early modern philosophy was idea theory. Ideas denote both mental states and the material of our thinking. A mental state is, for example, a toothache, and the material of our thinking are thoughts, for example, of a mathematical object such as a triangle. The clearest proponent of the theory of ideas was the French philosopher René Descartes, for whom philosophical enquiry is essentially an investigation of the mind’s ideas. In one of his letters, he explains why ideas are so important: ‘I am certain that I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me.’ If we wish to gain any certainty in our investigations of any aspect of the world – whether the object of our investigation is the human mind or some natural phenomenon – we need to have a clear and distinct idea of the represented object in question.

Hume’s theory of ideas differs from Descartes’s because he rejects innatism. This view goes back to Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis, which maintains that all learning is a form of recollection as everything we learn is in us before we are taught. The early modern version of innatism emphasises that the mind is not a blank slate, but we are equipped with some ideas before our birth and sensory perception. Hume starts at the same point as his fellow Briton and predecessor, John Locke. The mind begins to have ideas when it begins to perceive. To ask when a human being acquires ideas in the first place ‘is to ask when he begins to perceive; having ideas and perception being the same thing,’ writes Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Drawing on this insight, Hume devised his copy principle.

Perception, for Hume, is divided into ideas and impressions. The difference between the two is  . . .

Continue reading.

You can get a Kindle edition of Hume’s books and essays for 77¢.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 January 2021 at 4:33 pm

C.S. Lewis On The Reading of Old Books

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C.S. Lewis in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.

Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.

In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.

They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so.

Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne.

In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age.

It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly.

But it will be noticed that these are all books of  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2021 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

When Tech Antitrust Failed: Books and book prices

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Shira Ovide reports in the NY Times:

If you’ve wondered recently why prices for e-books seem high, let me tell you why a failure of antitrust law might be (partly) to blame.

A government antitrust lawsuit a decade ago that was intended to push down prices helped lead instead to higher ones.

The outcome suggests that the U.S. government’s lawsuits against Google and Facebook and a just-announced Connecticut antitrust investigation into Amazon’s e-book business may not have the desired effects, even if the governments win. It turns out that trying to change allegedly illegal corporate behavior can backfire.

Cast your mind back to 2012. The second “Twilight” movie was big. And the Justice Department sued Apple and five of America’s leading book publishers in the name of protecting consumers and our wallets.

Book publishers were freaked out about Amazon’s habit of pricing many popular Kindle books at $9.99 no matter what the book companies thought the price should be. Amazon was willing to lose money on e-books, but the publishers worried that this would devalue their products.

The government said that to strike back at Amazon, the book companies and Apple made a deal. Publishers could set their own e-book prices on Apple’s digital bookstore, and they essentially could block discounts by any bookseller, including Amazon.

To the government this looked like a conspiracy to eliminate competition over prices — a big no-no under antitrust laws. Eventually the book publishers settled and Apple lost in court.

Later, Amazon, Apple and other e-book sellers agreed to let publishers enforce e-book prices. The arrangements were legally kosher because they were separately negotiated between each publisher and bookseller. (I can’t answer why Amazon agreed to this.)

The government won but the publishers got what they wanted with e-books. Bookstores can choose to take a loss to heavily discount a print book, but they typically can’t with digital editions. The $10 mass-market e-book is mostly gone.

How did an antitrust case meant to lower prices instead possibly lead to higher prices? Christopher L. Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University who wrote a book about the e-books litigation, told me that he believes it’s a failure of corporate antitrust laws.

Professor Sagers and others believe that because a few major book publishers release most mass-market titles, they have the power to keep prices high. He laments that the antitrust laws have failed to stop industries from getting so concentrated. In other words, he thinks it’s bad for all of us that a book-publishing monopoly is trying to fight Amazon’s monopoly.

“American antitrust is basically a failure and this case was a microcosm,” he told me.

Somehow this newsletter keeps coming back to this debate. An influential view — particularly among left-leaning economists, politicians and scholars — is that U.S. antitrust laws or the way they’re applied are flawed. They believe that the government has failed to stop the increasing corporate concentration and mergers in industries like airlines, banking and technology, which has led to higher prices, worse products and income inequality. . .

Continue reading.

It’s clear that printed books incur substantial costs that do not apply to ebooks: materials, production labor, distribution/shipping costs, and so on. The ebook versions should not have those costs in their price.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2021 at 12:12 pm

Queen of suspense – the art of Patricia Highsmith

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The Far Away Melody (1945), Rolf Tietgens. Courtesy Keith de Lellis Gallery, New York

Matthew Sperling writes in Apollo:

Patricia Highsmith, who was born 100 years ago this month, was already known as a giant of suspense fiction at her death in 1995. Since then, while the stock of some of her literary contemporaries has gone down (think of Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, or Norman Mailer), her reputation as a writer of serious artistic and philosophical achievement has increased. The 21st century – when imposture is at the heart of online life, when self-identification precedes authenticity – seems more and more like the age of Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s greatest creation.

Less well known, however, is that the final publication Highsmith oversaw was not about murder or secrecy or guilt, but about drawing. In perhaps the last piece of writing that she ever completed, the foreword published in German in Patricia Highsmith: Zeichnungen (Diogenes), the book of her drawings and paintings that appeared posthumously in 1995, Highsmith argued for the unity of writing and visual art:

Why should it be surprising that many writers enjoy drawing or sculpting? Perhaps some of them also have a go at composing here and there. All arts are one, and all art – ballet too – is a means of telling stories. A picture also tells a story. [author’s translation]

While Highsmith claims not to take her own art very seriously (‘I enjoy it when I succeed in a picture; and if a friend likes it, I say, “If you like, you can have it”’), she also has a keen sense of what writing and drawing shared, and how they differed:

Drawing, painting, modelling – in my case also making tables or other things out of wood – means that you live in another element for a while. For the writer, the art of the painter is something totally other, and wonderful: a picture can be seen and grasped and understood in an instant, whereas it takes much longer with a book or a short story…

Part of the value of making images and objects, then, is that it allows you to become absorbed in another element. In 1989, unwell and beset by worries, Highsmith reminded herself in her diary to ‘put more variation in my life, such as drawing & carpentering’. Throughout her life she was attracted to making as a way of imposing order on her surroundings, whether it was in her tool-shed or in her contributions to the design of ‘Casa Highsmith’, the almost windowless house in Tegna, Switzerland, that she helped to design for herself. (‘Hitler’s bunker’, a friend called it.)

But the painter also has one advantage over the writer, in the immediacy with which their creations can tell a story. For a novelist who was so dedicated to the careful elaboration of plot, it must have sometimes seemed an enviable position. As well as putting fictional painters into her novels on a number of occasions, bringing one form of storytelling into another, Highsmith produced drawings, watercolours and gouaches throughout her life. The 106 images chosen for Zeichnungen, none of which had been exhibited or published before, are taken from many hundreds, spread between dozens of sketchbooks, that now reside in her archive in Switzerland. In the best of them, Highsmith demonstrates a spontaneous facility for seeing and shaping the truth of an image, which makes her drawings something more than just a sideline to her writing life.

Throughout Highsmith’s life, she had close ties to the visual arts. Her mother, biological father and step-father were all commercial artists, and her first job in New York was writing for a comic-book publisher. She was divided between pursuing a career in writing or in art for several years. ‘I was on the fence ’till I was 23 as to whether I wanted to do drawing or painting or writing’, she recalled in 1991. Naturally left-handed but forced by schoolteachers to write with her right, she continued to draw with her left hand. Wherever she went, even after her novels and stories had become her life’s work, she turned out landscapes, window views, drawings of her pet cats and snails, and sketches of her friends and lovers of the time. In 1958, she even provided the drawings for a children’s book, in collaboration with her lover, Doris Sanders, who came up with the text. As the captions in Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda go from ‘A veil on a snail’ to ‘A monk and a skunk and some junk on an elephant’s trunk’, Highsmith’s jaunty drawings rise to the challenge each time, maintaining a poised and decisive line as the subjects grow more and more absurd.

Living in Greenwich Village throughout the 1940s brought Highsmith into contact with a varied circle of friends, acquaintances and lovers from the art world. They included the collector Peggy Guggenheim, the gallerist Betty Parsons, the critic Rosalind Constable, and painters including Buffie Johnson, Lil Picard, and Allela Cornell. Highsmith and Cornell had a brief relationship in 1943, during which Highsmith sketched her new lover as a goggle-eyed tomboy with her nose in a book, and Cornell painted the oil portrait of Highsmith which the novelist would carry with her wherever she lived for the rest of her life. In that picture, the young Highsmith already resembles the older, gloomier figure she would become; her complexion seems tinted with green, and her large, dark eyes stare intensely back at the viewer.

A different view of Highsmith emerges from the photographs by two other friends, Ruth Bernhard and Rolf Tietgens, for whom she posed in the 1940s. Both German émigrés, the two were sharing a studio when Highsmith met them. In Bernhard’s portrait from 1948, we find Highsmith clasping her arms around a knee that is drawn up in front of her in a gesture of girlish self-protection, yet the look on her face seems one of steady purpose and confidence. It is the image which most bears out Bernhard’s opinion that ‘Pat was a very attractive person, a wonderful-looking woman, and people were drawn to her’.

Tietgens, meanwhile – one of the gay men with whom Highsmith attempted what she described as a ‘not quite successful’ sexual relationship – took nude photographs of Highsmith (he saw her as ‘really a boy’), and used her as a model in several striking surrealist photocollages. In one, The Far Away Melody (1945), she is superimposed in double exposure on a deserted rural landscape, appearing wistful and ghostly as she tilts her head upwards, eyes closed. In another from 1942, her disembodied head, with eyes again closed and hair spread out above her, floats in front of a cloudy sky. And in the weirdest of them, also from 1942, the same head has been superimposed on a crumpled sheet of paper, burnt around the edges, giving Highsmith the appearance of Christ on Saint Veronica’s veil, while scraps of burnt paper, a doll’s-house chair and window frame, and a large shell stand next to her on the stage set. Since Highsmith is a writer whose own works are so good at creating the sensation of dread and the uncanny in the reader while never departing from the grammar of realism, it is striking to find her image at the centre of a work which summons its own sense of poetry through surreal juxtaposition . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including more images.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2021 at 11:06 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Writing

How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist (and Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories in the First Place) and What Experts Recommend

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Josh Jones writes in Open Culture:

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.

We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including more brief videos worth viewing.

Later in the article:

[A]n abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

Written by LeisureGuy

13 January 2021 at 10:55 am

Possession as a web made of memes and a look at identity: How we swim in the ocean of cultural entities and understandings

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A few mornings ago for some reason I found myself pondering the idea of possession. I was looking at one of my razors — not the Fendrihan Mk II I was using but the Fine aluminum slant on the shelf — and thinking that it was nice to own it — but I realized that “being owned” is not discoverable from the razor itself. “Ownership” exists not in the natural world but only in the meme-universe of human cultural knowledge, and cultural content is not part of the natural world but instead comes from the cultural knowledge of the observer.

One example of this consists of what you see here: black markings on a white background:

이 문장에는 의미가 있습니다 (한국어를 아는 경우에만 해당).

Not matter how closely you examine those markings, they remain simply black marks (unless, of course you have the cultural knowledge to interpret them).

I then encountered the following post by Maria Popova in Brain Pickings. The post addresses how our identities are not from nature but are formed from cultural elements.

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul“is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet we are increasingly pressured to parcel ourselves out in various social contexts, lacerating the parchment of our identity in the process. As Courtney Martin observed in her insightful On Being conversation with Parker Palmer and Krista Tippett, “It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.” Today, as Whitman’s multitudes no longer compose an inner wholeness but are being wrested out of us fragment by fragment, what does it really mean to be a person? And how many types of personhood do we each contain?

In the variedly stimulating 1976 volume The Identities of Persons (public library), philosopher Amelie Rorty considers the seven layers of personhood, rooted in literature but extensible to life. She writes:

Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves. This is a complicated biological fact about us.

Rorty offers a brief taxonomy of those conceptions before exploring each in turn:

Characters are delineated; their traits are sketched; they are not presumed to be strictly unified. They appear in novels by Dickens, not those by Kafka. Figures appear in cautionary tales, exemplary novels and hagiography. They present narratives of types of lives to be imitated. Selves are possessors of their properties. Individuals are centers of integrity; their rights are inalienable. Presences are descendants of souls; they are evoked rather than presented, to be found in novels by Dostoyevsky, not those by Jane Austen.

Depending on which of these we adopt, Rorty argues, we become radically different entities, with different powers and proprieties, different notions of success and failure, different freedoms and liabilities, different expectations of and relations to one another, and most of all a different orientation toward ourselves in the emotional, intellectual, and social spaces we inhabit.

And yet we ought to be able to interpolate between these various modalities of being:

Worldliness consists of [the] ability to enact, with grace and aplomb, a great variety of roles.

Rorty begins with the character, tracing its origin to Ancient Greek drama:

Since the elements out of which characters are composed are repeatable and their configurations can be reproduced, a society of characters is in principle a society of repeatable and indeed replaceable individuals.

Characters, Rorty points out, don’t have identity crises because they aren’t expected to have a core unity beneath their assemblage of traits. What defines them is which of these traits become manifested, and this warrants the question of social context:

To know what sort of character a person is, is to know what sort of life is best suited to bring out his potentialities and functions… Not all characters are suited to the same sorts of lives: there is no ideal type for them all… If one tries to force the life of a bargainer on the character of a philosopher, one is likely to encounter trouble, sorrow, and the sort of evil that comes from mismatching life and temperament. Characters formed within one society and living in circumstances where their dispositions are no longer needed — characters in time of great social change — are likely to be tragic. Their virtues lie useless or even foiled; they are no longer recognized for what they are; their motives and actions are misunderstood. The magnanimous man in a petty bourgeois society is seen as a vain fool; the energetic and industrious man in a society that prizes elegance above energy is seen as a bustling boor; the meditative person in an expansive society is seen as melancholic… Two individuals of the same character will fare differently in different polities, not because their characters will change through their experiences (though different aspects will become dominant or recessive) but simply because a good fit of character and society can conduce to well-being and happiness, while a bad fit produces misery and rejection.

Rorty’s central point about character takes it out of the realm of the literary and the philosophical, and into the realm of our everyday lives, where the perennial dramas of who we are play out: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 January 2021 at 9:33 am

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?

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In Wired Steven Levy writes on a long bet come due. It’s also a litmus test for one’s own view of societal progress over the past quarter-century: are the average person of today better off now than the average person in 1995? The article begins:

ON MARCH 6, 1995, WIRED’s executive editor and resident techno-optimist Kevin Kelly went to the Greenwich Village apartment of the author Kirkpatrick Sale. Kelly had asked Sale for an interview. But he planned an ambush.

Kelly had just read an early copy of Sale’s upcoming book, called Rebels Against the Future. It told the story of the 19th-century Luddites, a movement of workers opposed to the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Before their rebellion was squashed and their leaders hanged, they literally destroyed some of the mechanized looms that, they believed, reduced them to cogs in a dehumanizing engine of mass production.

Sale adored the Luddites. In early 1995, Amazon was less than a year old, Apple was in the doldrums, Microsoft had yet to launch Windows 95, and almost no one had a mobile phone. But Sale, who for years had been churning out books complaining about modernity and urging a return to a subsistence economy, felt that computer technology would make life worse for humans. Sale had even channeled the Luddites at a January event in New York City where he attacked an IBM PC with a 10-pound sledgehammer. It took him two blows to vanquish the object, after which he took a bow and sat down, deeply satisfied.

Kelly hated Sale’s book. His reaction went beyond mere disagreement; Sale’s thesis insulted his sense of the world. So he showed up at Sale’s door not just in search of a verbal brawl but with a plan to expose what he saw as the wrongheadedness of Sale’s ideas. Kelly set up his tape recorder on a table while Sale sat behind his desk.

The visit was all business, Sale recalls. “No eats, no coffee, no particular camaraderie,” he says. Sale had prepped for the interview by reading a few issues of WIRED—he’d never heard of it before Kelly contacted him—and he expected a tough interview. He later described it as downright “hostile, no pretense of objective journalism.” (Kelly later called it adversarial, “because he was an adversary, and he probably viewed me the same way.”) They argued about the Amish, whether printing presses denuded forests, and the impact of technology on work. Sale believed it stole decent labor from people. Kelly replied that technology helped us make new things we couldn’t make any other way. “I regard that as trivial,” Sale said.

Sale believed society was on the verge of collapse. That wasn’t entirely bad, he argued. He hoped the few surviving humans would band together in small, tribal-style clusters. They wouldn’t be just off the grid. There would be no grid. Which was dandy, as far as Sale was concerned.

“History is full of civilizations that have collapsed, followed by people who have had other ways of living,” Sale said. “My optimism is based on the certainty that civilization will collapse.”

That was the opening Kelly had been waiting for. In the final pages of his Luddite book, Sale had predicted society would collapse “within not more than a few decades.” Kelly, who saw technology as an enriching force, believed the opposite—that society would flourish. Baiting his trap, Kelly asked just when Sale thought this might happen.

Sale was a bit taken aback—he’d never put a date on it. Finally, he blurted out 2020. It seemed like a good round number.

Kelly then asked how, in a quarter century, one might determine whether Sale was right.

Sale extemporaneously cited three factors: an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless, causing a depression worse than the one in 1930; a rebellion of the poor against the monied; and a significant number of environmental catastrophes.

“Would you be willing to bet on your view?” Kelly asked.

“Sure,” Sale said.

Then Kelly sprung his trap. He had come to Sale’s apartment with a $1,000 check drawn on his joint account with this wife. Now he handed it to his startled interview subject. “I bet you $1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe,” he said.

Sale barely had $1,000 in his bank account. But he figured that if he lost, a thousand bucks would be worth much less in 2020 anyway. He agreed. Kelly suggested they both send their checks for safekeeping to William Patrick, the editor who had handled both Sale’s Luddite book and Kelly’s recent tome on robots and artificial life; Sale agreed.

“Oh, boy,” Kelly said after Sale wrote out the check. “This is easy money.”

Twenty-five years later, the once distant deadline is here. We are locked down. Income equality hasn’t been this bad since just before the Great Depression. California and Australia were on fire this year. We’re about to find out how easy that money is. As the time to settle approached, both men agreed that Patrick, the holder of the checks, should determine the winner on December 31. Much more than a thousand bucks was at stake: The bet was a showdown between two fiercely opposed views on the nature of progress. In a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and predatory capitalism, is optimism about humanity’s future still justified? Kelly and Sale each represent an extreme side of the divide. For the men involved, the bet’s outcome would be a personal validation—or repudiation—of their lifelong quests.

Continue reading. There’s much more (including the judge’s decision), and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 January 2021 at 10:54 am

Bob Newhart’s interview of book author

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I enjoyed this little clip.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2021 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Books, Comedy, Video

Recommended free book(s)

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Some time back I blogged about how truly excellent E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle is, and how I was able to download a copy from the Gutenberg project and use Calibre to convert it to Amazon Kindle and move it to the device.

Today I saw that StandardEblooks.org has that title (and that’s where the link above takes you), along with some more Edith Nesbit’s books. And indeed, their library of free well-edited books grows apace. I don’t make many donations, but I did donate to this effort.

Since Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway comes into the public domain this year, I’m hoping we’ll see that. (They already offer two Woolf novels.

I’ve already suggested Scaramouche, so I’ll mention it again. It’s free and fun. Could you ask for more?

Well, of course you could. How about a nice serving of Charles Dickens? or Jane Austen? or Anthony Trollope? or Rudyard Kipling? ….  and they are a great many more.

As I’ve previously noted, the (free) program Calibre is extremely useful in managing your ebook library. I wouldn’t be without it.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

Violet to start the year, and a commitment to Progress

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A late start, as seems appropriate for New Year’s Day. Some sleeping in, but then some tending to tasks: rotate the mattress, for one. (I alternate rotating and flipping the mattress each calendar quarter). Then reading my email sent 1/1/2020 that arrived this morning (using FutureMe.org), and writing a letter to FutureMe that will be delivered 1/1/2022: goals, predictions, current situation, and whatnot.

I also reviewed my budget, taking a look at actual expenditures over the past year and planning for the coming year. I have a Google Sheets workbook, based on my Within Your Means budget idea but adapted as needed. (See: “My Implicit Spending Almost Did Me In.” The spreadsheet described in the article can be downloaded in Exel format, which also works in Google Sheets and Apple Numbers.) I tinkered with the spreadsheet some, adding some running totals to better track and control day-to-day and week-to-week spending.

The Eldest recommended the book Atomic Habits, which seems just the ticket for a time of year when we are reconsidering our habits and thinking of improvements we might make. The reader reviews are impressive (especially the one that provides a detailed outline of the book), and it’s currently in my shopping cart. I’ll probably buy it next week.

So I’ve had a busy morning, and I rewarded myself with a pleasurable shave. Violet is a wonderful floral fragrance, and the lather from Jabonman’s Eufros shaving soap seemed especially good today in all respects. The Progress is my favorite adjustable, and it generally is well behaved, but I did get some nicks on the upper lip today. My Nik Is Sealed took care of that quite handily.

A small splash of the Vanille Violette EDT as an aftershave, and the new year is looking pretty good.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 11:59 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Shaving

J.G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction

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J.G. Ballard was one of the great science-fiction writers, and he also achieved excellence in other fiction. His 1984 novel Empire of the Sun is based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese takeover in WWII, and in 1987 that novel was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Christian Bale (playing the boy), John Malkovitch, and Miranda Richardson.

Thomas Frick interviewed J.G. Ballard for Paris Review in 1984. The interview will be available outside the paywall for only a short time, so read it soon if you’re interested (or clip it to Evernote or Pocket, both free). It begins:

The son of an English businessman, J. G. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. For the past twenty-odd years, he has lived more or less anonymously in Shepperton, a dingy, nondescript suburb of London lying under the approach to Heathrow Airport. Ballard’s writing is so often situated within the erotic, technical, postholocaust landscape, and so often concerned with the further reaches of postmodern consciousness, that it is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself. On first meeting, Ballard is standing somewhat shyly in the doorway of a modest two-story dwelling similar to all the others on the block; one would take him as a typical suburban lord of the manor. He is wearing a brown sweater over his shirt, protected against the faint chill of a summer afternoon.

Inside, two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminum lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household. Until a few years ago, Ballard, a widower, raised his three children here as a single parent.

We sit down in his study, which appears to have once been the living room. Ballard works at an old dining table against the wall, upon which sits his middle-aged typewriter, surrounded by fairly tidy stacks of letters, books, and papers. The bookshelves are overflowing, packed every which way with an odd collection, including a thick, illustrated anatomy text called Crash Injuries, the complete Warren Commission Report, the collected works of Shakespeare, and many books on surrealism, dadaism, futurism, and pop art.

An extremely articulate and wide-ranging conversationalist, Ballard expresses his ideas, speculations, and concerns with considerable force. A serious sense of humor is also evident, and one often has the feeling that he is continually amused, or at least bemused, by the sheer fact of existence.

At the time of this interview, Ballard had just finished the first draft of his latest novel, Empire of the Sun, which was published in October 1984 to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s my first good review in the States in fifteen years,” comments Ballard, referring to the generally indifferent reception his books have received here to date. This is a situation which has long been puzzling to Ballard, who consciously draws on specifically American iconography in much of his work. Yet, within just a few weeks of publication, Empire of the Sun has already become his most commercially successful work. This “nonfiction” novel—a great departure in subject matter for Ballard—details his own adolescent experiences, first in war-formed Shanghai as the son of a British merchant, then, after Pearl Harbor, as a fugitive-then-prisoner-of-war in the Lunghua Assembly Center. “I assume that it took me a long time to forget, and then a long time to remember,” Ballard recently told an interviewer who asked why he had only now attempted this reconstruction.

After an hour or so of talk, Teacher’s Scotch and sodas are served, and Ballard discourses briefly on the virtues of Shepperton water (several low-lying reservoirs are nearby). While the sun is setting in the shady green backyard, visible through French windows, a moment of suburban quiet prevails. “I don’t know why I ended up here, really . . .” Ballard comments. “Actually, the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom. It needn’t be much; kicking the dog will do.”

INTERVIEWER: Are you ready to risk the fate of the centipede, who, when asked exactly how he crawled, shot himself?

J. G. BALLARD: I’ll do my best to examine my hands in the mirror.

INTERVIEWER: So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD: Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan . . .

BALLARD: I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes.

INTERVIEWER: So you rely on the magnetism of an obsession as a way of proceeding?

BALLARD: Yes, so the unity of the enterprise is forever there. A whole universe can be bounded in a nutshell. Of course, why one chooses certain topics as the subject for one’s obsessions is a different matter. Why was I obsessed by car crashes? It’s such a peculiar idea.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, why were you?

BALLARD: Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

INTERVIEWER: Your work does at times seem to possess a sort of prophetic quality. Are you aware of this as you write?

BALLARD: It’s true that I have very little idea what I shall be writing next, but at the same time I have a powerful premonition of everything that lies ahead of me, even ten years ahead. I don’t mean anything too portentous by this. I suppose people—certainly imaginative writers—who consciously exploit their own obsessions do so in part because those obsessions lie like stepping-stones in front of them, and their feet are drawn towards them. At any given time, I’m aware that my mind and imagination are setting towards a particular compass point, that the whole edifice is preparing itself to lean in one way, like a great ramshackle barn.

INTERVIEWER: Has this manipulation of your obsessions come to feel at all mechanical over the years?

BALLARD: I do exploit myself in a calculated way, but there again one has to remember the old joke about the laboratory rat who said, “I have this scientist trained—every time I press this lever he gives me a pellet of food.”

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship.

BALLARD: I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality, just as actors need to act all the time to make up for some deficiency in their sense of themselves. Years ago, sitting at the café outside the American Express building in Athens, I watched the British actor Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa) cross the street in the lunchtime crowd, buy Time at a magazine kiosk, indulge in brief banter with the owner, sit down, order a drink, then get up and walk away—every moment of which, every gesture, was clearly acted, that is, stressed and exaggerated in a self-conscious way, although he obviously thought that no one was aware who he was, and he didn’t think that anyone was watching him. I take it that the same process works for the writer, except that the writer is assigning himself his own roles. I have a sense of certain gathering obsessions and roles, certain corners of the field where the next stage of the hunt will be carried on. I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.

INTERVIEWER: I believe I once read—perhaps it was in connection with the Vermilion Sands collection—that you actually enjoyed the notion of cultural decadence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

New article on Medium: “Patience Comes Through Practice”

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I have a new article just published on Medium. It summarizes some things I’ve learned that have improved my patience. Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 December 2020 at 10:10 am

Posted in Books, Business, Daily life

An English word that has come down directly from Proto-Indo-European

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Sevindj Nurkiyazova writes in Nautilus:

One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”

Today, roughly half the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language. That family includes 440 languages spoken across the globe, including English. The word yoga, for example, which comes from Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, is a distant relative of the English word yoke. The nature of this relationship puzzled historical linguists for two centuries.

In modern English, well over half of all words are borrowed from other languages. To trace how language changes over time, linguists developed an ingenious toolkit. “Some parts of vocabulary are more stable and don’t change as much. The linguistic term [for these words] is ‘a core vocabulary.’ These are numbers, colors, family relations like ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ and basic verbs like ‘walk’ and ‘see,’ says Guy. “If you look at words of that sort in different languages, it becomes fairly clear which ones are related and which ones are not. For example, take the English word for number two, which is dva in Russian and deux in French, or the word night, which is nacht in German and noch in Russian.”

Analyzing the patterns of change that words undergo, moving from one language to another, showed how to unwind these changes and identify the possible originals. “Reconstructed vocabulary of Indo-European is based on a comparison of descendant languages,” explains Guy. “You collect words that mean more or less the same thing in all the languages, and if they look like each other in terms of their pronunciation, then it’s a good candidate for a descendant from a common ancestor.” The English word honey is madhu in Sanskrit and myod in Russian. Sanskrit and Russian haven’t shared a common ancestor since Indo-European, so these words had to come from the same source. (There are also the words mead in English, met in German and mjød in Danish that refer to an alcoholic drink made from honey.)

After discovering a word that might have existed in the Indo-European, linguists compared how its pronunciations changed from language to language. For example, sound [k] changes to [h] from Latin to Germanic, and the Latin word casa transforms into the English house while the French word cœur transforms into the English heart.* With hints like that, linguists could undo the sound changes and trace the original pronunciation. In several thousand years, most words change beyond recognition, like the word wheel, which initially might have sounded “kʷékʷlos.” But there were some remarkable exceptions—like the timeless lox.

The family tree of the Indo-European languages sprawls across Eurasia, including such different species as English and Tocharian B, an extinct language once spoken on the territory of Xinjiang in modern China. In Tocharian B, the word for “fish/salmon” is laks, similar to German lachs, and Icelandic lax—the only ancestor all these languages share is the Proto-Indo-European. In Russian, Czech, Croatian, Macedonian, and Latvian, the [k] sound changed to [s,] resulting in the word losos.

This kind of millennia-long semantic consistency also appears in other words. For example, the Indo-European porkos, similar to modern English pork, meant a young pig. “What is interesting about the word lox is that it simply happened to consist of sounds that didn’t undergo changes in English and several other daughter languages descended from Proto-Indo-European,” says Guy. “The sounds that change across time are unpredictable, and differ from language to language, and some may not happen to change at all.”

The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived. The fact that those distantly related Indo-European languages had almost the same pronunciation of a single word meant that the word—and the concept behind it—had most likely existed in the Proto-Indo-European language. “If they had a word for it, they must have lived in a place where there was salmon,” explains Guy. “Salmon is a fish that lives in the ocean, reproduces in fresh water and swims up to rivers to lay eggs and mate. There are only a few places on the planet where that happens.”

In reconstructed Indo-European, there were words for bearhoneyoak tree, and snow, and, which is . . .

Continue reading.

There’s also a good discussion of this in David Anthony’s fascinating book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.

See also this earlier post and this one as well.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2020 at 11:36 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Memes

Why are there so few children’s books set in the suburbs?

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Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, writes in Psyche:

Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sandbank underneath the root of a very big fir tree. One day, their mother dropped them off at soccer practice and picked them up promptly afterward. When they got home, they all had bread and milk and blackberries.

That is roughly how the classic Beatrix Potter story from 1902 would go if it had been set in the American suburbs. But even if Potter hadn’t set her books in England’s Lake District, she would never have chosen a suburban setting. The suburbs kill the narrative adventure that is the lifeblood of children’s literature.

Reading picture books to my children over the past 10 years, I’ve noticed how many of the stories shun a suburban setting. This is no accident: the tales that most grip the imagination of children (and adults), with few exceptions, require rural or urban locations for their drama and vitality.

To simplify, the antithesis of North American suburbia is walkability, and picture books with literary merit love walkability. Compelling children’s stories require that their characters are able to navigate their setting at a pedestrian scale and pace. For example, in the US author Arnold Lobel’s classic stories of the 1970s, Frog and Toad never appear in a car, despite being thoroughly anthropomorphised. What most draws the reader into the stories are the adventures that the amphibians experience between their houses – in the meadow, the woods and the tall grass. They climb mountains and swim in ponds, but they also walk everywhere: to fly a kite, to buy ice-cream, to fulfil a to-do list.

The plots of the Frances stories of the 1960s and ’70s written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban also revolve around walkability. Frances can walk to the general store and buy a tea set or a Chompo bar. Her trips on foot to her friends’ houses frequently initiate narrative adventure. ‘Today is my wandering day,’ announces Frances’s friend Albert, on which he likes to catch snakes, walk on fences and look for crow feathers. ‘Wandering days’ in American suburbs, however, are infrequent or nearly impossible. Walkable environments preserve independence for the young, who are often the main characters in children’s stories.

Consider George and Martha as yet another example. The only cars we see them in are the bumper cars at the amusement park. The US writer and illustrator James Marshall’s beloved hippopotamuses of the 1970s and ’80s consistently engage meaningful, walkable destinations rather than sprawling subdivisions. They can hopscotch home after a visit to the store, comfort each other on their walk home from a scary movie, or push a bed to a picnic using roller skates.

In urban settings, walkability is closely linked to public transport, which is another narrative avenue for rich engagement with one’s environment. Accordingly, the number of picture books that feature trains and buses is significantly greater than the number of trains and buses that most Americans experience. Yet I’ve never seen a picture book that features a minivan or an SUV.

The zookeeper in Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla (1994) lives within walking distance of the zoo. In Erin and Philip Stead’s A Sick Day for Amos McGee (2011), the zookeeper takes the bus to work. Both commutes are integral to the stories’ plots, enabling shenanigans for the zoo animals.

Besides public transport, urban settings give other ample opportunities for  . . .

Continue reading.

I find his point about the importance of “walkability” an interesting insight, which, now that I live in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, I understand. Think of places you’ve lived in which you mostly got around by walking (and perhaps public transportation as well) rather than by car. Being in a car is isolating, walking among people or being among them by using public transportation involves you more in the daily lives of others.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 December 2020 at 8:30 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Memes

“The Young Visiters,” a wonderful novel by Daisy Ashford, 9 years old at the time

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I have just begun reading The Young Visiters. You can buy it from the Amazon bookstore for $5.85 for a Kindle version, but I preferred to download it from the Gutenberg Project for free, but note that what they call “Kindle format” is MOBI. That was once the format Kindle used, but quite some time ago Kindle switched to AZW3. No problem, though. I used Calibre (free) to convert it from MOBI to AZW3 (and also get a better cover by editing the metadata), and then used Calibre to load it onto my Kindle.

The book was published in 1919, so it seems appropriate to read it in 2020. think. The opening seems full of verve, dash, and charm:

Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes. He had a pale brown suit but on Sundays he had a black one and he had a topper every day as he thorght it more becoming. Ethel Monticue had fair hair done on the top and blue eyes. She had a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves. She had a black straw hat and kid gloves.

One morning Mr Salteena came down to brekfast and found Ethel had come down first which was strange. Is the tea made Ethel he said rubbing his hands. Yes said Ethel and such a quear shaped parcel has come for you Yes indeed it was a quear shape parcel it was a hat box tied down very tight and a letter stuffed between the string. Well well said Mr Salteena parcels do turn quear I will read the letter first and so saying he tore open the letter and this is what it said

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2020 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

Decisions Traps: A summary

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Decision Traps: 10 Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, by Russo and Schoemaker, is on my list of books I repeatedly recommend. Decision Traps provides clear guidance to making big decisions (not what-to-order-for-lunch decisions, but whether-to-take-a-new-job-that-requires-relocation decisions). They describe a four-stage process for making a decision, along with two other steps (getting ready and subsequent evaluation). The book examines the most common errors people make along the way: one error each for getting read and subsequent evaluation and two errors for each of the four stages.

It’s a good read, informative as well as entertaining. I highly (and repeatedly) recommend it. I just came across a clear and useful four-page summary of the book (though it certainly does not replace the book).

You can download the summary (PDF) and see what you think.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2020 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Books, Business, Daily life

“Why I chose to study classics”

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Charlotte Higgins writes in Prospect:

In my final Classical Musing column, I wanted to try to set down what it is about classics that I find worthwhile. In my day job, I am a writer on the Guardian. Journalism is, by definition, about the events of the day, which rush past at a bewildering speed. The literature of the deep past offers a respite and, to an extent, an escape. This was certainly true on a personal level in the early months of the pandemic, when I was on leave, immersed in writing a book of retellings of stories from the Greek myths.

Disappearing into the world of Arachne, Penelope and Medea offered a defence against the anxieties of the moment. But classics also offers a new perspective on the modern world; a different lens through which to see our own times. Encountering the literature of the past is a dynamic process. When we read, we cannot leave behind our contemporary baggage; we see ourselves reflected back in those old books. In turn, reading ancient texts can cast light on our own moment. You can understand a lot about power in the time of an epidemic by reading Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus; you can get an intriguing perspective on modern patriarchy by reading Aeschylus’s The Kindly Ones.

I’m often asked why I chose to study classics. It was mostly because I fell in love with the stories. The world of Catullus and Euripides was so familiar and yet so thrillingly alien, so hard to decode. I have also come to realise, though, that it was also because I wanted to escape having to compete intellectually with my father and brothers, who were all gifted in the sciences. Honesty is required: I also liked classics partly because Latin and Greek sounded impressive, especially to my parents, neither of whom were from the kind of background where Greek epigrams ran in the veins. These days, I would put it in terms of cultural capital. Classics held lots of traditional cachet, and I wanted to partake of it.

This cachet, of course, was unfairly bestowed. The discipline is currently beginning to face up to its historical role in shaping a damaging worldview that put the Graeco-Roman world at the centre of a rhetoric of white European and north American exceptionalism and superiority. But this history does not mean classics should be abandoned—or written off by the left, as it sometimes is, as “elitist”. (It’s always worth remembering that Karl Marx was a classicist, and that his PhD in Greek materialist philosophy palpably shaped his theories of historical materialism.) It means, rather, that classics should constantly be reshaped, opened out, rethought—and some really exciting scholarship in the field is doing exactly that.

The death of classics has been predicted for centuries. It is indeed suffering setbacks. As I sat down to write this column, I heard that an attempt to reintroduce a route for trainee teachers to qualify in Latin in Scotland has been unsuccessful. This kind of knockback is being energetically fought by educators and organisations such as Advocating Classics Education. Classics in the culture at large continues to find a ready audience: one thinks of the popularity of Madeline Miller’s novels, Mary Beard’s history books and television programmes, and Emily Wilson’s brilliant Odyssey translation. Classics generates creativity—I think not just of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2020 at 11:04 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Means of Descent: Robert Caro talks about writing about power — and powerlessness

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Robert Caro is a great writer and his works on Robert Moses (The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York) and Lyndon B. Johnson (read at least The Path to Power) are absorbing, detailed, and illuminating (and I include both in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending). In Medium Rachel Syme interviews him. Her article is prefaced with a pull quote:

“You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power.”

The text of the article begins:

Robert Caro doesn’t want to renew his lease. He tells me this on a cold day in mid-October, as we stand in an elevator bay on the 22nd floor of the Fisk Building on West 57th Street. He has worked in this same office, every day, for the last 26 years. He likes his routine — he dresses to write (this day he was wearing a periwinkle v-neck sweater and a pair of pressed khakis; an informal choice for a man who usually puts on a tie before he writes a single word), walks from his apartment on Central Park West down to Columbus Circle, and takes the same rickety elevator up to the cloistered rectangle of grey carpet and a drab brown desk where he has written the last two orchestral volumes of Lyndon Johnson’s biography.

The historian is now working on the fifth installment of his LBJ series, which was only supposed to be three volumes when he began his research in the 1970s. But Caro doesn’t believe in brevity or speed; his first book, The Power Broker, began as a small character study of the Machiavellian city planner Robert Moses and swelled to seven years of work and over 1,300 pages. He won the Pulitzer for it — the first of two he would win for his oeuvre, along with the National Book Award, and tonight, a National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement — but writing it nearly broke him and his wife, Ina.

Caro is now 80 years old. The regularity of his writing routine comforts and motivates him. He hesitates to break up the flow; he is now deep into the Vietnam era of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the period in which everything goes wrong and Johnson’s power starts to crumble. This requires concentration and consistency. He writes every day, first in longhand on a legal pad, then on a typewriter, placing each page in a box to edit by hand the next morning.

But looking out the window over 57th Street, he tells me that he has not been able to bring himself to sign the paperwork to stay in the office for another year. The skyscrapers are depressing him. He points to One57, the tower that will cast a permanent shadow over Central Park. “Isn’t that disgusting?” he asks me. “For a moment, I thought maybe things were changing in New York City. But now I am not so sure.”

What makes Caro melancholy about these towers is that their presence means that someone currently has too much power. When he agreed to an interview about his life’s work, Caro did so on the stipulation that he did not have to discuss either presidential candidate. He said he was far too consumed with charting the every move of a past president to focus on what comes next. But with just a few weeks until the election, the idea of someone wrangling outsized power without proper checks and balances does not seem far from his mind.

As he looks out over the new construction, which he says will make 57th Street the most congested corridor in the city, he sighs. He doesn’t want to be confronted day after day with a new abuse of urban power and the human cost of the skyscrapers. But he says he will eventually sign the lease, and he will keep coming back. He has to finish his investigation of power. It is his small gift to humanity sung in big operatic sentences. He is the scrivener of the hidden systems that people use and abuse to gather power for themselves, and also of the powerless who suffer at their hands.

In the end, he doesn’t too care much for the skyscrapers. But he cares a great deal about the people in their shadow.


.
Syme:
So, we are going to talk about power. If anything defines your work, it is this intricate and detailed dissection of how power works and moves between people and institutions. How did you become obsessed with analyzing power structures?

I fell into it. I knew nothing. They needed an investigative reporter at Newsday, and it was purely by accident. But I started getting more and more interested in political power.

Everything I was looking into…the path seemed to lead to Robert Moses. I thought, who the hell was Robert Moses? He doesn’t have a position. I would type “City Planning Commissioner Robert Moses.” And I thought, what does that have to do with the fact that he is building the Long Island Expressway, which isn’t even in the city? He is the chairman of the Triborough Authority and the Henry Hudson Authority and the Bethpage State Park Authority and the Jones Beach Authority. It all seems to lead to public authorities. So I went to the card catalog, and not only was there not a book, there wasn’t even a magazine article on a public authority as the source of political power. Everything said: “It sells bonds and collects tolls to build a bridge, then goes out of business.” But obviously something very different was going on here.

Newsday had me investigate Moses wanting to build a bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay, and another one from Orient Point to Connecticut. It was the world’s worst idea. It would have required 8 or 10 more lanes on the expressway just to handle the traffic. And it was so long that the piers that would hold it up would have to be so big that they would disrupt the tidal flow in Long Island Sound and cause pollution. So I wrote these stories.

They sent me up to Albany, and I saw Governor Rockefeller and the assembly speaker, and the president of the State Senate. Everyone seemed to know it was the world’s worst idea. So I wrote these stories that the bridge was dead. And about two weeks later, a friend called and said, “Bob, you better come back up here.” And I said something like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.” But I remember walking into the assembly chamber as they were voting on the next step, and it was some vote like 144-to-3 to authorize it.

I remember thinking in that moment: Everything you have been doing so far is bullshit. That was a moment for me. Everything is based on this feeling that in a democracy power comes from the voters, being elected. But here was a guy who was never elected to anything. A guy who had more power than anyone who was elected, more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, more power than any mayors or governors combined. And he had had this power for 44 years, and with it, had built everything! And I said to myself: You, who are supposed to know something about political power, have not the faintest idea about how it works, and apparently neither does anybody else.

They let me do a long series. And I thought, you could never do this in the terms of a newspaper. You are going to have to do a book. I only knew one editor, really. So I wrote him a letter and got a very small contract to do The Power Broker.

Syme: Why did this moment have such an effect? How did you know you needed to focus on this man and how his power affected people?

Caro: I got really angry at the injustice of something that happened to small farmers on Long Island. And I just knew that the book I had started out to write wasn’t going to satisfy me. I wasn’t really going to examine power the way I thought it should be examined, because it didn’t deal with the powerless. You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.

So then I said, that book is going to take years and years to do. There are all these books on the human cost of highways, but there is not a single definition of human cost. I need to figure out a way to show the human cost. He destroyed 21 neighborhoods. And I’ll take one and show what that meant. And that’s a decision that has a lot of ramifications if you’re doing a book; it’s going to take six months to research and write, and we didn’t have any money.

Syme: You were out on the streets, broke, trying to get the details right of this one neighborhood, captured in the Power Broker chapter “One Mile.” Was that stressful?

Caro: Oh, we were totally broke. We had been broke for so long. But you have to talk to everyone and research the history of the neighborhood. But more than that, you have to really write it. You want to capture that this was a real neighborhood. This was a lower-class, mostly Jewish, real neighborhood. They had a home. They had a nice life. They had big rent-controlled apartments and a community. And Moses tore down 54 six- and seven-story apartment houses in this one mile. He had an alternate route where he only had to tear down six tenements, but if he used that route for the Cross Bronx Expressway, the end of it had to come back up and destroy the Third Avenue Transit Co., a business all the Bronx politicians had stakes in. So he took the other route.

Sime: And so you realized you had to discuss power through the human cost rather than through the lens of people at the top?

Caro: Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it.

Sime: Did you feel you had a certain amount of power when reporting on Robert Moses, because at the time you were writing about someone who was alive? Did you feel you had the power to affect his career? Did you feel like publishing this huge tome about the city infrastructure and this man who controlled it would make you a powerful force?

Caro: No, the answer to that is no. This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.

So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.

All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, “It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.” All I was trying to do, over years of thinking, was show that it was important that people understand how power works in cities. Because, you know, Moses was such a genius, that he got to the heart of what power was in cities. If you can explain how he did it, which no one had ever done before him, you would be explaining something nobody knows about how power works — not just in New York, but in all cities.

But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book. When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.

After five years, we were completely out of money. I still remember the rent on our apartment was $362.73 because every month we were worried about it. I learned later that Ina was so afraid to walk past the butcher and dry cleaner because we owed money; she always took the long way, but never said anything at the time.

Sime: What I am trying to understand is how the theme of power has continued to run through your life. After The Power Broker, were you thinking of doing another broad investigation of power? I know you were going to write about Fiorello LaGuardia, but through a conversation with your editors decided to transition to Lyndon Johnson instead, and have now written four major volumes about his life with more to come. Did you think, “First I have to understand power in the city, and then I can move on to the entire country?”

Caro:

That was my calculus, yeah. Things evolved. In the course of doing it, I realized I was fascinated by political power because it affects all our lives. Was the subway service bad today? It is because Moses starved the subways for 40 years, and they can’t ever catch up with the maintenance he didn’t do. If you go up the FDR Drive, look across the river, you’ll see that the bridge comes down in Astoria, across 96th Street. So why do you have to drive up to 125th Street? You are adding four and a half miles. And of course, it is because of William Randolph Hearst. And that’s a tiny little way it works. But it all has ripple effects.

It was a revelation for me. Something happened. I knew that this was really about justice and injustice. I was so angry and what happened to people here. And I was angriest because no one had ever told their story. I really wanted to do a book about national power. And I knew I wanted to do it through Lyndon Johnson. The thing that attracted me to him was that he did something that no one ever did before. He was the Senate majority leader — I got interested in him not as a president but as a senator. Because before he became majority leader in January 1955, before then for 100 years the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He comes in, he is majority leader for six years. The Senate is suddenly the center of governmental creativity and ingenuity in Washington. It’s not Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act, it’s Johnson’s.

Sime: How has writing about power all these years affected you? Has it made you more cynical? How has it changed the way you live day to day?. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And if it’s behind a paywall — well, IMO Medium is worth subscribing to.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 December 2020 at 1:14 pm

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