herd immunity

There are a couple (probably many more) expressions emerging from the Coronavirus pandemic presently spiking in most states of the United States that I greatly appreciate, these two being, one, social distancing and two, herd immunity. I’ve probably never used either expression up until now but I’m sure I will in the future. They so well summarize the well entrenched, if not until now well recognized, characteristics of our lives.

For example, we’ve always avoided for whatever reason close contact with others, usually those a bit different from ourselves, that being a kind of social distancing (before Dr. Fauci), and we’re constantly benefiting from the other, that being herd immunity, or being somehow protected by the numbers of others about us who are immune in this case to the bug. In important respects social distancing and herd immunity are really opposite solutions to successfully combatting the virus.

Now what is herd immunity? I take the following text from an article in the Atlantic of July 13, by James Hamblin, A New Understanding of Herd Immunity.

Based on the U.S. response since February, we’re still likely to see the virus spread to the point of becoming endemic. That would mean it is with us indefinitely, and the current pandemic would end when we reach levels of “herd immunity,” traditionally defined as the threshold at which enough people in a group have immune protection so the virus can no longer cause huge spikes in disease.

But a coronavirus vaccine is still far off, and last month, Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that, because of a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling,” the U.S. is “unlikely” to achieve herd immunity even after a vaccine is available.

The concept of herd immunity comes from vaccination policy, in which it’s used to calculate the number of people who need to be vaccinated in order to ensure the safety of the population.

All well and good. Cool terms social distancing and herd immunity. In the few words that follow I’m not able to restrain myself.

When Anthony Fauci said “because of a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling,” the U.S. is unlikely…” What he really meant, or means is because of Donald Trump, who doesn’t read, doesn’t know the history of our country, let alone the world, doesn’t respect the discoveries of modern science, who is someone who listens only to himself, and who is still for another four months or so, alas! our president.

Of what are perhaps our two most important allies in the war against the virus, distancing and herd immunity, Trump has done nothing to make them more effective. Has even sought to undo them. Almost from the beginning when both Covid-19 infections and deaths were growing at exponential rates Trump pushed constantly to get people back to work and back to school, that is undo social distancing, almost as if the virus wasn’t there. And of course the numbers of new infections spiked.

And when achieving herd immunity depends of testing everybody and making the appropriate measurements Trump did nothing on the Federal level, to bring this about, where joint efforts might have had a chance to succeed. And what was he doing, playing golf. With the result that we now see.

on trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison,

Charles Sykes (at the Bulwark) spoke of “a revelation” that he has experienced, courtesy of Trump. “The heart of politics is not about the policy,” he told me. “It’s about the values. I can disagree with you on eight out of 10 issues, but if you’re an honorable, honest, empathetic human being, we can do business.” Trump is none of those things. Joe Biden is most or all of them — and will get Sykes’s vote in November.

But real conversation happily is still possible among us, that which Donald Trump is not capable of. I take the following example of a real conversation from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. You might say, in the manner of Charles Sykes, that if you are an honorable, honest, empathetic human being, you can have a real conversation. Our President can’t. And for four years I’ve missed it, our country’s president as a man talking with men. He’s not a man, and there are no men about him, only sycophants pulling his strings and leading him on.

From Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, Part One, Chapter Two. Prince Harry—

Varvara Petrovna: Listen, Stepan Trofimovitch, of course I’m ignorant compared with you on all learned subjects, but as I was travelling here I thought a great deal about you. I’ve come to one conclusion.”

Stepan Trofimovitch: “What conclusion?”

VP: ”That you and I are not the wisest people in the world, but that there are people wiser than we are.”

SP: “Witty and apt. If there are people wiser than we are, then there are people more right than we are, and we may be mistaken, you mean? Mais, ma bonne amie, granted that I may make a mistake, yet have I not the common, human, eternal, supreme right of freedom of conscience? I have the right not to be bigoted or superstitious if I don’t wish to, and for that I shall naturally be hated by certain persons to the end of time. Et puis, comme on trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison, and as I thoroughly agree with that…”

VP:“What, what did you say?”

SP: I said, on trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison, and as I thoroughly…”

VP: “I’m sure that’s not your saying. You must have taken it from somewhere.”

SP” “It was Pascal said that.”

VP: “Just as I thought…it’s not your own. Why don’t you ever say anything like that yourself, so shortly and to the point, instead of dragging things out to such a length?

“My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Caseshe virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to reopened religious facilities.

By Kate Conger, Jack Healy and Lucy Tompkins, The New York Times, July 8, 2020

Pastor Ron Arbaugh of Calvary Chapel of San Antonio said that he did not know how the virus had spread in his church but that he regretted announcing after several weeks of resumed services that congregants could hug one another again.

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

Pastors and their families have tested positive, as have church ushers, front-door greeters and hundreds of churchgoers. In Texas, about 50 people contracted the virus after a pastor told congregants they could once again hug one another. In Florida, a teenage girl died last month after attending a youth party at her church.

More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database.

“There’s a very fine line between protecting the health and safety of people, and protecting the right to worship,” said George Murdock, a county commissioner in northeastern Oregon, where the largest outbreak in the state has been traced to a Pentecostal church in a neighboring county. “It’s one we’ve been walking very nervously all along.”

While thousands of churches, synagogues and mosques across the country have been meeting virtually or outside on lawns and in parking lots to protect their members from the virus, the right to hold services within houses of worship became a political battleground as the country crawled out of lockdown this spring. In May, the president declared places of worship part of an “essential service” and threatened, though it was uncertain he had the power to do so, to override any governor’s orders keeping them closed.

Continue reading “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

Joe Biden, please take Tom Friedman’s advice

Thimas Friedman:

Biden Should Not Debate Trump Unless Trump Meets Two Conditions

• The New York Times, July 7, 2020

First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.

And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.

Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?

Yes, the fact that we have to make truth-telling an explicit condition is an incredibly sad statement about our time; normally such things are unspoken and understood. But if the past teaches us anything, Trump might very well lie and mislead for the entire debate, forcing Biden to have to spend a majority of his time correcting Trump before making his own points.

Biden should not go into such a high-stakes moment ceding any advantages to Trump. Trump is badly trailing in the polls, and he needs these debates much more than Biden does to win over undecided voters. So Biden needs to make Trump pay for them in the currency of transparency and fact-checking — universal principles that will level the playing field for him and illuminate and enrich the de im, stay in his hotel in Washington or use it for corporate entertaining.

Debating Trump is unlike debating any other human being. Trump literally lies as he breathes, and because he has absolutely no shame, there are no guardrails. According to the Fact Checker team at The Washington Post, between Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and May 29, 2020, he made 19,127 false or misleading claims.

Biden has been dogged by bone-headed issues of plagiarism in his career, but nothing compared to Trump’s daily fire hose of dishonesty, which has no rival in U.S. presidential history. That’s why it’s so important to insist that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hire independent fact-checkers who, after the two candidates give their closing arguments — but before the debate goes off the air — would present a rundown of any statements that were false or only partly true.

Only if leading into the debate, American voters have a clear picture of Trump’s tax returns alongside Biden’s, and only if, coming out of the debate, they have a clear picture of who was telling the truth and who was not, will they be able to make a fair judgment between the two candidates.

That kind of debate and only that kind of debate would be worthy of voters’ consideration and Biden’s participation.

Otherwise, Joe, stay in your basement

Journal Notes, It’s Sunday, july 4th,

Hello, Today is the 185 th day of the year. Here in Tampa, FL where I am sunrise is at 6:39am, Moonrise at 8.13pm.

What’s your lattitude and longitude? Mine are latitude 27.9193357, and longitude: -82.506322 for this address: W Santiago St, Tampa, FL 33629, USA

Now there was a period, of a few days or weeks, when I did know when the sun rose. Not any more. Only that it rose in the East and brought the morning with it was about all that I could say. I never knew the time of the moonrise.

Now I notice that there are today about 14 hours, almost, between sunrise and moonrise. The moon follows the sun? Is that always true? But wait a minute neither the sun nor the moon rises. Isn’t the earth turning, and turning around the sun, not around the moon. I would point out that we don’t know, at least most of us, 99.9 percent of us don’t know at any time the time of sunrise or moonrise. Not the school’s fault.

There are things we’ve always known about things that ought to bring us together. But instead even as we grow ever more intertwined, we stay ever more resolutely separate from one another, group from group, individual from individual.

We live on the same planet but on that same planet we live in thousands, tens of thousands of different worlds. You might say that’s the way it is, that it’s always been this way, but that’s not true. Things change, and more important, beliefs change and we change with them. Some different worlds do get together, as the contries in 1945 after the war.


Thoughts on Education. Now it can’t really be done, take away a child’s ignorance, even our own ignorance. Also most of what is known is known only in part by specialists of the parts.

So what is it that we try to teach children in the schools? When I was in school, in public high school and later at an independent private educational institution, education was most of all having to memorize , and then giving this back at test time.

Things are better now, now we teach children to think, or to understand, knowing whole lines, whole stories rather than bits and pieces here and there. And I suppose that’s an improvement.

Yet when we look closely at our graduates they know no more how how to think than they did when they had to memorize the Krebs cycle in organic chemistry class (I had to do that, but I’ve long forgotten what it is). Do students still have to do that now?

Why is it so hard for us to see that education can never be having kids learn this or that, because the this or that are infinite and nothing within that infinity of things and ideas is more valuable than anything else in that infinity.

Like at MHS, public school, my having to learn vocabulary lists in English, and Spanish classes, and the lists say of the major wars fought in Europe in modern times, and any number of other such lists.

Education has to be something other than acquiring information and our school systems haven’t yet learned what that is.

While it’s really all very simple, isn’t it. Education has to proceed from what’s already there in the mind and heart of the learner, has to be what interests him or her, what corresponds to what he or she might like to do with their lives, not all about what we want them to do with their lives. The latter doesn’t work and more than anything else has accounted for the failure of our schools. Why isn’t this cried out from a bully pulpit so that everyone can hear it?

Why is this so hard to understand, that learning can’t be imposed on the learner, but that the learner has to seek himself, what and how to learn. The best we can do is to make suggestions, and to share, perhaps, when appropriate what we are doing.

Lessons drawn from Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore.on July 4? Are there any lessons to be drawn?

He certainly made us aware of the divisions that separate us.

Isn’t what any one of us humans see as the whole world is only what those same “any one of us” happened to have encountered, whatever belief we happen to have adopted as our own, the result of this being that it’s really, happenstance, chance that principally drives us. Why don’t we walk away from the separations, join up with others who are always in fact more alike us than different?

Now in Trump USA there are those, perhaps more than ever before who want to hold onto the differences between us, for they like being different, being rich rather than poor, white skinned rather than dark or colored. And who can argue with them, that rich is not better than poor, that white skin is not better than dark because if nothing else your chances of becoming rich are greater.

You could say that those who are white and rich understandably want to keep the country that way, and not share the country’s land and riches with those who come here often as refugees and mostly poor.

And you could say also that the Donald, The President, if he understands anything at all understands that those coming here from what he calls the “shit-holes” of the world, the tens of thousands of Central Americans for example who came here looking for better lives are in Trump’s eyes a foreign invasion and have to be stopped. And if not by a wall, by soldiers with guns. Trump would keep these people out, and if they were somehow already here Trump would deport them, often having separated the children from their parents.

And Trump’s actions would seek to assure his gun toting base that they, his base, white and rich, would never have their guns taken away from them.

While many are against Donald Trump’s ideas, see him as a major threat to our democracy there are very few who would stand up against him. Certainly not the Republican Senators, also known as Trump’s enablers.

Am I just one? There have been a very few others on the world stage, one in particular being Angela Merkel who in 2015 allowed millions of fleeing Syrians into her own country Germany.

Might we encounter another one, a Jimmy Carter redux perhaps?


Back to education talk and notes. Why is it so hard to understand that learning can’t be imposed on the learner, that instead the learner has to learn by his own efforts powered by his own interests. The best we can do is to make suggestions to him and when appropriate to share with him what we are doing ourselves.

Varvara et stepan part 1

OK. Why below my three columns with the three identical passages taken from English, French, and Russian versions of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Demons, or the Possessed? I’ve probably just incorrectly used the word version, because the Russian version is Dostoevsky’s original novel and the two others are just translations. Although I suppose nothing prevents an author having more than one version of the same novel, and in fact most authors probably do, and it’s even possible that the one that gets published is not the best of them.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Ok, but what’s in a name?

A lot evidently, given the Wikipedia response below to my what’s in a name question. Also according to many readers including myself Весы is Dostoevsky’s greatest novel (you are probably asking how that can be given the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and the Idiot). I think it’s because of the central place in the novel of two very credible stories, one that of an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism, and two that of a friendship, that between between Varvara Petrovna and Stepan Verkhovensky, friendship always being perhaps the very best answer to nihilism,

The original Russian title is Bésy (Russian: Бесы, singular Бес, bés), which means “demons”. There are three English translations: The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons. Constance Garnett‘s 1916 translation popularized the novel and gained it notoriety as The Possessed, but this title has been disputed by later translators. They argue that “The Possessed” points in the wrong direction because Bésy refers to active subjects rather than passive objects—”possessors” rather than “the possessed”.[3][4] However, ‘Demons’ refers not to individuals who act in various immoral or criminal ways, but rather to the ideas that possess them: non-material but living forces that subordinate the individual (and collective) consciousness, distorting it and impelling it toward catastrophe.[5]


Варвара Петровна и Степан Трофимович

from Dostoevsky’s Demons,
Part One, Chapts. 2 and 3

But there was nothing Varvara Petrovna dreaded so much as a humorous tone.

She was a woman of the classic type, a female Mæcenas, invariably guided only by the highest considerations.



The influence of this exalted lady over her poor friend for twenty years is a fact of the first importance.

I shall need to speak of her more particularly, which I now proceed to do.

There are strange friendships. The two friends are always ready to fly at one another, and go on like that all their lives, and yet they cannot separate. Parting, in fact, is utterly impossible.


The one who has begun the quarrel and separated will be the first to fall ill and even die, perhaps, if the separation comes off.

I know for a positive fact that several times Stepan Trofimovitch has jumped up from the sofa and beaten the wall with his fists after the most intimate and emotional tête-à-tête with Varvara Petrovna.





This proceeding was by no means an empty symbol; indeed, on one occasion, he broke some plaster off the wall. It may be asked how I come to know such delicate details.


What if I were myself a witness of it? What if Stepan Trofimovitch himself has, on more than one occasion, sobbed on my shoulder while he described to me in lurid colours all his most secret feelings. (And what was there he did not say at such times!)


But what almost always happened after these tearful outbreaks was that next day he was ready to crucify himself for his ingratitude. He would send for me in a hurry or run over to see me simply to assure me that Varvara Petrovna was “an angel of honour and delicacy, while he was very much the opposite.”




He did not only run to confide in me, but, on more than one occasion, described it all to her in the most eloquent letter, and wrote a full signed confession that no longer ago than the day before he had told an outsider that she kept him out of vanity, that she was envious of his talents and erudition, that she hated him and was only afraid to express her hatred openly, dreading that he would leave her and so damage her literary reputation, that this drove him to self-contempt, and he was resolved to die a violent death, and that he was waiting for the final word.)







You can fancy after this what an hysterical pitch the nervous outbreaks of this most innocent of all fifty-year-old infants sometimes reached!






I once read one of these letters after some quarrel between them, arising from a trivial matter, but growing venomous as it went on.




I was horrified and besought him not to send it.

“I must… more honourable… duty… I shall die if I don’t confess everything, everything! “He answered almost in delirium, and he did send the letter.

.

« Varvara Petrovna ne craignait rien tant que le sens de l’humour.


C’était une femme d’esprit classique, une femme mécène qui n’agissait qu’au nom de considérations élevées.


‘L’influence qu’elle exerça sur Stepan Trofimovitch fut capitale.



Il faudrait parler un peu d’elle, c’est ce que je vais faire.


Il est des amitiés étranges : ces deux amis qui avaient la plus haute estime l’un pour l’autre, passèrent toute leur vie en ayant presque envie de s’entre-dévorer, et cependant, ils ne purent se séparer.

Il leur était même tout à fait impossible de se séparer : l’ami qui, pris d’un caprice aurait rompu le lien tomberait le premier malade, et en mourrait peut-être.

Et pourtant, j’ai vu à plusieurs reprises qu’après les effusions les plus enthousiastes entre Varvara Petrovna et Stepan Trofimovitch, une fois celle-ci partie, mon ami Stepan bondit soudain de son divan et se prit à marteler le mur à coup de poings. »

Je n’exagère rien : un jour même, dans un de ces transports furieux, il déplâtra la muraille. On me demandera peut-être comment un semblable détail est parvenu à ma connaissance.

Je pourrais répondre que la chose s’est passée sous mes yeux, je pourrais dire que, nombre de fois, Stépan Trophimovitch a sangloté sur mon épaule, tandis qu’avec de vives couleurs . ll me peignait tous les dessous de son existence.


Mais voici ce qui arrivait d’ordinaire après ces sanglots : le lendemain il se fût volontiers crucifié de ses propres mains pour expier son ingratitude ; il se hâtait de me faire appeler ou accourait lui-même chez moi, à seule fin de m’apprendre que Barbara Pétrovna était « un ange d’honneur et de délicatesse, et lui tout opposé ».



Non content de verser ces confidences dans mon sein, il en faisait part à l’intéressée elle-même, et ce dans des épîtres fort éloquentes signées de son nom en toutes lettres. « Pas plus tard qu’hier, confessait-il, j’ai raconté à un étranger que vous me gardiez par vanité, que vous étiez jalouse de mon savoir et de mes talents, que vous me haïssiez, mais que vous n’osiez manifester ouvertement cette haine de peur d’être quittée par moi, ce qui nuirait à votre réputation littéraire.
En conséquence, je me méprise, et j’ai résolu de me donner la mort ; j’attends de vous un dernier mot qui décidera de tout », etc., etc.





On peut se figurer, d’après cela, où en arrivait parfois dans ses accès de nervosisme ce quinquagénaire d’une innocence enfantine.






Je lus moi-même un jour une de ces lettres. Il l’avait écrite à la suite d’une querelle fort vive, quoique née d’une cause futile.





Je fus épouvanté et je le conjurai de ne pas envoyer ce pli.

— Il le faut… c’est plus honnête… c’est un devoir… je mourrai, si je ne lui avoue pas tout, tout ! répondit-il avec exaltation, et il resta sourd à toutes mes instances.


Но ничего так не боялась Варвара Петровна, как юмористического смысла.

Это была женщина-классик, женщина-меценатка, действовавшая в видах одних лишь высших соображений.

Капитально было двадцатилетнее влияние этой высшей дамы на ее бедного друга.


О ней надо бы поговорить особенно, что я и делаю.

Есть дружбы странные: оба друга один другого почти съесть хотят, всю жизнь так живут, а между тем расстаться не могут.




Расстаться даже никак нельзя: раскапризившийся и разорвавший связь друг первый же заболеет и, пожалуй, умрет, если это случится.

Я положительно знаю, что Степан Трофимович несколько раз, и иногда после самых интимных излияний глаз на глаз с Варварой Петровной, по уходе ее вдруг вскакивал с дивана и начинал колотить кулаками в стену.

Происходило это без малейшей аллегории, так даже, что однажды отбил от стены штукатурку.



Что, если сам Степан Трофимович неоднократно рыдал на моем плече, в ярких красках рисуя предо мной всю свою подноготную?
(И уж чего-чего при этом не говорил!)




Но вот что случалось почти всегда после этих рыданий: назавтра он уже готов был распять самого себя за неблагодарность; поспешно призывал меня к себе или прибегал ко мне сам, единственно чтобы возвестить мне, что Варвара Петровна «ангел чести и деликатности, а он совершенно противоположное».

Он не только ко мне прибегал, но неоднократно описывал всё это ей самой в красноречивейших письмах и признавался ей, за своею полною подписью, что не далее как, например, вчера он рассказывал постороннему лицу, что она держит его из тщеславия, завидует его учености и талантам; ненавидит его и боится только выказать свою ненависть явно, в страхе, чтоб он не ушел от нее и тем не повредил ее литературной репутации; что вследстви этого он себя презирает и решился погибнуть насильственною смертью, а от нее ждет последнего слова, которое всё решит, и пр., и пр., всё в этом роде.

Можно представить после этого, до какой истерики доходили иногда нервные взрывы этого невиннейшего из всех пятидесятилетних младенцев!

Я сам однажды читал одно из таковых его писем, после какой-то между ними ссоры, из-за ничтожной причины, но ядовитой по выполнению.

Я ужаснулся и умолял не посылать письма.

— Нельзя… честнее… долг… я умру, если не признаюсь ей во всем, во всем! — отвечал он чуть не в горячке и послал-таки письмо.

.




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The World as ideas, or better, ideas are the world, more than mountains, rivers, oceans, and people.

Ideas are a big part of my life, the biggest part probably. Ideas not just in the books of ideas that I read, in particular those that I’m currently reading — but even in what I’ll call the fun books that are are always a welcomed distraction from my usually heavily laden life of ideas, the books of Louis L’Amour, John Macdonald, Georges Simenon, Rex Stout and many others. But even these fun writers are not at all without good ideas, and they are always surprising you with them.

What I call my idea books are books like these — Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Easter; Tamin Ansary, The Invention of Yesterday; Robert Crease, The Workshop and thy World; Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan; Samantha Power,
The Education of an Idealist; Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny; Peter Watson, the Great Divide; and Richard Bernstein, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?; plus all of Hannah Arendt’s own books…

In my own life the ones, idea books, outnumber by far the others, the fun books. But not always. And then there is this passage I think about often, from the Tufts professor, Daniel Dennert, who wrote: ” I think Darwin’s idea of natural selection is the best idea anybody ever had, ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein. What it does is it promises to unite the two most disparate features of all of reality. On the one side, purposeless matter and motion, jostling particles; on the other side, meaning, purpose, design.” To that I say WOW! Wish I had thought, and said that myself.

Would it be enough, I asked myself, to just read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection? Well yes, sometimes I think so. For now I’m well into my eighties, (quatrevingtans) and while ideas are still what’s most important in my life maybe I’ve reached the point where I ought to begin building my own idea wall, keeping new ideas out, finally recognizing that all these new ideas, new thoughts are just too much for me to assimilate, much as Trump would build his wall to keep people out, as new people are just to much for him. The old Whites are what he wants, with perhaps a few new whites from Northern Europe thrown in.

In any case I love new ideas (not all of them of course for there are some that I’d let lie and never wake up). Here’s a couple of new ideas that I’ve just encountered in two of the books mentioned above. Right now I’m at work trying to assimilate them, the only barrier between them and me being my own inadequacy to the task. The one I call Constellations, and the other Black Swans, both good names for these new ideas.


Ansary, Tamim

Constellations

This book takes inter-connectedness as one of the through lines of world history but acknowledges another side to the story. Even as we grow ever more intertwined, we stay ever more resolutely distinct from one another as groups. We live on the same planet but in many different worlds. What any of us humans see as the whole world is just the world as we see it, whoever “we” might be. What we know as the history of the world is actually a socially constructed somebody-centric world historical narrative. There’s a Euro-centric one, an Islamo-centric one, a Sino-centric one, and many more. How many more depends on how many collections of people on Earth think of themselves as a “we” distinct from “others.” Any two world historical narratives might have the same events and yet be different stories because the shape of the narrative depends on the teller of the tale. To say that one of the many possible somebody-centric world histories is the real history of the world is like saying that maps depict the world as it really is.

The shape of the narrative is what it all comes down to in the end. History deals in facts, of course, but in history, those facts fundamentally serve a narrative. When we construct our story, we are inventing ourselves. That’s what we were doing in those caves, long ago, gathered around the fire, passing on to our children what we remembered about our grandparents and reminiscing about life-changing adventures we’d shared and arguing about which of us really killed the bear and drawing conclusions about the meaning of life from the stars we saw above—when ancient folks looked up at the night sky, they didn’t just see stars, they saw constellations. They said, “There’s a bear,” and they said, “Hey look, a mighty hunter,” and their companions nodded, and as long as everybody in the group saw the bear and the mighty hunter, there they were.

It’s all too easy for us modern folks to say the constellations weren’t really there. Yes, it’s true that those constellations existed only in the minds of the people looking, but then, everything we see and know as human beings is in some sense a constellation: it’s there because we see it. We exist as constellations of people. We’re immersed in constellations of ideas. We live in a universe of constellations, which are themselves made up of constellations. In the social universe, constellations are as real as it gets.

Social constellations form intentions and set the agendas of history: countries, families, empires, nations, clans, corporations, tribes, clubs, political parties, societies, neighborhood groups, social movements, mobs, civilizations, high school cliques—they’re all constellations. They do not exist outside culture. The mighty hunter dissolves upon closer examination into random random individual stars. The same is true of social constellations. Clan, country, movement, mob—get up close to any of these and all you see are individual human beings and their ideas.

Culture is a world we invented and keep inventing, a world that would disappear without us. Social constellations are not like rivers or rocks, they do not exist in the physical universe, and yet they have an existence as real as floods or landslides. They must, for they do things in the physical world: build bridges, make wars, invent cars, send rockets to the moon. Any individual human who is part of such a constellation can drop out without the constellation winking out of existence. All the individuals in a social whole can be replaced by other persons without the constellation losing its identity and continuity. Every American who existed one hundred fifty years ago is dead and gone, yet America still exerts clout. Every Muslim alive in 1900 is dead now, but a palpable Islamic entity still influences real events. When we talk about history, we’re talking about events that happened only in the cultural universe, and in that universe, social constellations enact the drama; they’re the characters strutting the stage.

Forty thousand years ago, such social constellations were imagined into existence by small groups of people who knew each other personally and what they saw together was who they were together. We’re not fifty people in a cave anymore; we’re eight billion people spread all over the world. None of us can have the perspective of all eight billion. Each of us is part of some smaller social world and bound to the perspective of our own world. We don’t see the same stars, and even if we did, we wouldn’t see the same constellations: what we see up there reflects who we are down here, and down here we’re not all one group. History keeps happening because of that fact: we’re not all one group.

Ansary, Tamim The Invention of Yesterday . PublicAffairs.


Taleb, Nassim Nicholas

Black Swans

Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.* I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood.† What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.* A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential. Just imagine how little your understanding understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don’t cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher.) How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the consequences of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the effect of the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; but that is not yet the core concern of this book. Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don’t mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all “social scientists” who, for over a century, have operated under the false belief that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effects; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of “risk,” and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan—hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology (we will see how they dress up the intellectual fraud with mathematics). This problem is endemic in social matters.

The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world? the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world? It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House Publishing Group.

Anne Applebaum ––history Will Judge the Complicit

Story by Anne Applebaum July/August 2020 Issue of the Atlantic Monthly

Required reading for Republican members of Congress, for Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, and the full coterie of enablers, collaborators, and sycophants making up the entourage of the president.

Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?

On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.

Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re‑creating Berlin’s city government.

He had one central task: to ensure that any local leaders who emerged from the postwar chaos were assigned deputies loyal to the party. “It’s got to look democratic,” Ulbricht told him, “but we must have everything in our control.”

Leonhard had lived through a great deal by that time. While he was still a teenager in Moscow, his mother had been arrested as an “enemy of the people” and sent to Vorkuta, a labor camp in the far north. He had witnessed the terrible poverty and inequality of the Soviet Union, he had despaired of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941, and he knew about the Red Army’s mass rapes of women following the occupation. Yet he and his ideologically committed friends “instinctively recoiled from the thought” that any of these events were “in diametrical opposition to our Socialist ideals.” Steadfastly, he clung to the belief system he had grown up with.

The turning point, when it came, was trivial. While walking down the hall of the Central Committee building, he was stopped by a “pleasant-looking middle-aged man,” a comrade recently arrived from the West, who asked where to find the dining room. Leonhard told him that the answer depended on what sort of meal ticket he had—different ranks of officials had access to different dining rooms. The comrade was astonished: “But … aren’t they all members of the Party?”

Leonhard walked away and entered his own, top-category dining room, where white cloths covered the tables and high-ranking functionaries received three-course meals. He felt ashamed. “Curious, I thought, that this had never struck me before!” That was when he began to have the doubts that inexorably led him to plot his escape.

What would it take, by contrast, for Pence or Pompeo to conclude that the president bears responsibility for a catastrophic health and economic crisis? What would it take for Republican senators to admit to themselves that Trump’s loyalty cult is destroying the country they claim to love? What would it take for their aides and subordinates to come to the same conclusion, to resign, and to campaign against the president? What would it take, in other words, for someone like Lindsey Graham to behave like someone with backbone, like Wolfgang Leonhard?

Continue reading Anne Applebaum ––history Will Judge the Complicit

as I have traveled…

AS I HAVE TRAVELED around the United States and abroad since leaving office, I have heard—and asked myself—many variants of the same question: “Are we going to be okay?” We have ample grounds for alarm.

The sources of America’s strength—our diversity, our embrace of individual rights and dignity, our commitment to the rule of law, and our leadership in the world—are under severe threat.

The basic lessons my husband Cass and I try to teach our two boys (tell the truth, count and share your blessings, treat everyone equally) are being abused and ridiculed by the person holding the highest office in the land.

President Trump’s contempt and bigotry, his rage and dishonesty, and his attacks on judges, journalists, minorities, and opposition voices are doing untold damage to the moral and political foundations of American democracy. (From Samantha Power’s recent book, The Education of an Idealist.)

Continue reading as I have traveled…

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité