17 December 2014

"The Overcoat," "Gone with the Wind," "The Dead," "11/22/63," and more

I am sadly behind in book reviews, distracted by school and politics and Confucianism.  At some point I started reviewing every book I read, but as it turns out, I now have a backlog of almost a hundred books to do.  I may have to start skipping, but I'm going to resume regular updates.

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Dead, James Joyce
11/22/63, Stephen King
What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane Hill
The Eisenhorn Trilogy, Dan Abnett
Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
State of Fear, Michael Crichton
Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas


The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol (trans. Constance Garnett)

Gogol's work has been said to be the true beginning of Russian literature.  But it's hard not to see an even stronger influence once you read The Overcoat, a very short book about a shabby man.  The hour you spend with poor protagonist Akaky Akakyevitch will make you realize that you've been hearing echoes of this work in work as diverse as Camus' Nausea, the works of Kafka, Hugo's Les Miserables, Nabokov's Pnin, Melville's Bartleby, and (of course) War and Peace.  It's kind of absurd, this ur-texting, like hearing a background noise you'd never noticed before.

There's a specific feeling that's articulated in the text and which transmits itself ineradicably to later authors: the worn sort of pathos of a man who's just slightly irregular enough to be comical.  It ties up in itself a weariness with the indignities of life and a vast compassion for suffering.  It is so immensely Russian.
It would be hard to find a man who lived in his work as did Akaky Akakyevitch. To say that he was zealous in his work is not enough; no, he loved his work. In it, in that copying, he found a varied and agreeable world of his own. There was a look of enjoyment on his face; certain letter were favourites with him, and when he came to them he was delighted; he chuckled to himself and winked and moved his lips, so that it seemed as though every letter his pen was forming could be read in his face. If rewards had been given according to the measure of zeal in the service, he might to his amazement have even found himself a civil counsellor; but all he gained in the service, as the wits, his fellow-clerks expressed it, was a buckle in his button-hole and a pain in his back.
The writing is excellent, at least in translation from the extremely reliable Constance Garnett, and this story is so short and so important that you frankly have no excuse not to read it.  It's one of the necessities.


Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

The basic idea of Gone with the Wind is that a childish debutante, Scarlett O'Hara, endures the harshness of the Civil War and is exposed to the courage and kindness of others, and so she grows as a person.  She doesn't become a good person, but she does begin to finally value the things she took for granted, and finds a steely resolve to keep herself and hers safe on the family plantation of Tara.  All the while the handsome rogue Rhett Butler is subtly hiding his true knightly brilliance and love for Scarlett behind a devil-may-care attitude.

It's a pretty good book, even if the movie's immense popularity has made it difficult to experience with any freshness.  But wow: super-racist.

It's racist in the obvious ways, of course, because it's an uncritical historical romance set in the Civil War-era South: slavery is depicted as basically a good thing and the heroes of the book are mostly members of the Ku Klux Klan (seriously).  But it's also racist in smaller ways, such as the way in which the freed slaves are depicted as a savage horde of animals when Scarlett drives her wagon through Shantytown, or the way in which every black character is a one-dimensional romanticized stereotype (loyal stoic giant or subservient surrogate mother or so on).

The racism aside (though for real, it's weird to find yourself glad that the heroic Klan is riding in to stop the villainous Freedman's Bureau) it's an engaging read.  The writing has a lot of the vigor and sharp contrasts of nineteenth-century adventure stories, and it's fun stuff.
As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low in the bosom. He looked quite old, at least thirty-five. He was a tall man and powerfully built. Scarlett thought she had never seen a man with such wide shoulders, so heavy with muscles, almost too heavy for gentility. When her eye caught his, he smiled, showing animal-white teeth below a close-clipped black mustache. He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate's appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath. She felt that she should be insulted by such a look and was annoyed with herself because she did not feel insulted. She did not know who he could be, but there was undeniably a look of good blood in his dark face. It showed in the thin hawk nose over the full red lips, the high forehead and the wide-set eyes.
So despite the racism (and you should really be an alert reader when it comes to this one) it's a fun book that is extremely well-paced, with arresting action and interesting characterization of the main characters.

You have probably seen the movie.  If you liked the movie, you will probably like the book.  As far as I can tell, in this instance that is an almost infallible test.


The Dead, James Joyce

Joyce's work is thick with meaning.  Well-chosen words and symbols dance around through the text, all around a single theme: the point at which life and death meet.

All forms of this meeting are explored during the dinner-party encountered in The Dead.  The complacently happy are dead in spirit.  An encounter with a rowdy friend reminds you of friends gone by.  Those who have never known passion have never truly known life.  And so on.  Traipsing always around the edge of explicit statement, but coming tantalizingly close near the end, Joyce waltzes us through the many ways in which death is present in our lives.

It truly is a dance, as deep symbolism is followed by teasing overtness is followed by deep symbolism. And all the while, it is expressed with a mastery of the language that staggers the soul:
He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.

"That's the rule of the order," said Aunt Kate firmly.

"Yes, but why?" asked Mr. Browne.

Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said:

"I like that idea very much but wouldn't a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?"

"The coffin," said Mary Jane, "is to remind them of their last end."
This very short book is available for free, and you should take advantage of that if you have not read it.  If you have read it, read it again.  You will find still more to think about.


11/22/63, Stephen King


Stephen King can write.  There's no way around it.  For a while he fell out of fashion with the literati, but his talent burns so brightly that no one can ignore it for long.  That's especially true when he surpasses his too-frequent mediocrities like Dreamcatcher (which was a cut-rate It) or Under the Dome in order to turn out a wonderful book like 11/22/63.

The plot is simple: a man goes back in time to try to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the death of JFK.  But King tells the story of that mission with such skill that you are snatched up in the narrative. It's a spy thriller, and a sci-fi tale, and a historical discussion, and a high romance.  And it's all well-done.

The writing, as usual with King, is ever-so-slightly sloppy.  King's prose has a loose tie and sleeves rolled up: it's here to get things done.  It's not artful and seldom very deep, but it is extraordinarily effective.  He's been writing every day for decades (his published work must surpass 20,000 pages by now), and paying attention as he does it, and it shows.  The pages and words drop away and you fall into the pages and forget yourself with ease.
Even if you do have to kill him, you don’t have to do it right away.True enough. Oswald was going to relocate to New Orleans for a while after the attempt on the general’s life—another shitty apartment, one I’d already visited—but not for two weeks. That would give me plenty of time to stop his clock. But I sensed it would be a mistake to wait very long.  I might find reasons to keep on waiting. The best one was beside me in this bed: long, lovely, and smoothly naked. Maybe she was just another trap laid by the obdurate past, but that didn’t matter, because I loved her. And I could envision a scenario—all too clearly—where I’d have to run after killing Oswald. Run where? Back to Maine, of course. Hoping I could stay ahead of the cops just long enough to get to the rabbit-hole and escape into a future where Sadie Dunhill would be . . . well. . . about eighty years old. If she were alive at all. Given her cigarette habit, that would be like rolling six the hard way.
This is a fun book, and perfect for a quiet Sunday evening read when you have no energy for examination or introspection but just want a great story to pull you in. Take a look.


What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell


Ah, Malcolm Gladwell.  He is almost the soul of the modern New Yorker, a sanctified officiant at the altar of Hidden Expertise.  Other altars stand alongside his, such as Elizabeth Kolbert's Stern Cynicism and Jonathan Franzen's Wistfulness, but the burnished stone to which Gladwell offers his rite is distinct in prominence.  And it is quite a rite!

The trick to it is this: some unknown number of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell discovered that there was brilliance hidden in every crack of modern life.  I'm not being sarcastic when I say that this is a genuine insight.  As the podcast 99% Invisible teaches us, there is a surprising amount of thought spent on many of the most seemingly trivial topics.  We can probably thank the trio of academia, bureaucracy, and capitalism for this wealth of consideration, but whatever its source, it definitely exists.  IF you think about something - anything - in just the right way, you can find astonishing depths.

Ketchup is one example.  In What the Dog Saw, there's a detailed consideration of condiments, and Gladwell ponders why mustards and steak sauces come and go, while Heinz soldiers on popular and unchanged.

As far as it goes, this is excellent stuff.  There's interesting aspects to so much of life, and it can be really rewarding to expose the hidden intricacies at work in the small things.  Unfortunately, it also means that Gladwell inevitably winds up reporting on topics on which he has no expertise at all.  He must instead rely entirely on his experts and consultants and the subjects of his profiles.  Gladwell is a very good judge of character, so he doesn't go too wrong, but there is definitely a problem at hand.  Stephen Pinker sums up the issue well in his review of this same book in the NYT:
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
This is a problem particular to Gladwell's style, though, and it's one that won't bother many people (unless you have any expertise in mathematics or finance or anything else).  Suffice it to say that you should check out another source on these things if one of them interests you, before you go repeating your own half-understood notions of Gladwell's half-understood ideas.

If you have never read one of Gladwell's essays in The New Yorker, then do so.  If you find it enjoyable, then you will probably enjoy this collection of his work, since they're all much the same.


The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane Hill

I should read things like this book more often, I have to admit.  I just wish I could.  It's hard to face up to uncomfortable truths.

The Everyday Language of White Racism is a well-informed and well-considered discussion of the ways in which a dominant white culture is casually racist in a sweeping and structural sense.  The soft bigotry of condescension, the diminishing theft of appropriation, and the simply thoughtless use of historical viciousness are all treated with thoroughness.  It's not incendiary or accusatory - by and large, Hill calls for greater thought and awareness of our language.  And while she occasionally reaches too far in her condemnation, there is no doubt that she also neatly pinpoints the ways in which some aspects of racism have been subsumed wholly into our normal language.

For example, she discusses the vicious cycle of how overt racism scandals - someone caught saying a racial slur or the like - become race panics that are exaggerated by pundits and the media in order to make it clear that they are not prejudiced in a direct way.  It's a shield.
These episodes of [racism-awareness] panic probably occur because when utterances of racist words and propositions by public figures, especially by highly placed White men, become public, this is profoundly unsettling for many White Americans. They have invested, at the very least, attention to these figures in their role as celebrities. And many have invested far more: admiration, envy, votes, financial contributions, hero-worship, and the like. George Allen, whose political career probably ended after he called an opponent a “macaca,” was not only a United States senator. He was widely admired by White men because of his association with the all-American sport of football. He had himself played varsity football in college at the University of Virginia, and his father, also named George Allen, had been a legendary professional coach of major teams including the Chicago Bears, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Washington Redskins. Since “racism,” in the folk theory the practice of rednecks and Ku Kluxers, is held to be incompatible with the exemplary character and courage that many fans associate with football, and certainly incompatible as well with service in one of America’s highest elected offices, evidence that Senator Allen used racist slurs was profoundly unsettling to the self-image of his admirers. And it was unsettling to anybody who believed that White Americans are people who believe in racial equality, and who would be able to detect and reject racists as unqualified for public office. Those who had invested enough in Allen to feel attacks on him as a racist as an attack on their own creditable selves and on White virtue more broadly rose to his defense to preserve that credit and virtue.
If someone gives me an implausible excuse for lateness, I might reply with brief irony - "Ay yi yi" - before moving on.  I'm conveying that I don't entirely believe in their unlikely excuse by using calmly an expression that's usually associated with an alarm.  But seriously, it's a little bit racist.  I'm not Latino and the only way I became familiar with the expression was from people mocking or appropriating the cultures in which "ay yi yi" was colloquially used (and here I'm thinking maybe Speedy Gonzalez).

I'm not beating myself up too much, of course, and Hill doesn't call for a grand cultural inquisition.  But there's really no harm in pausing every now and then to rethink some of the very quiet bigotry woven into our language (even as we admit, like the song says, that everyone is a little bit racist).  Check this one out, if you have the moral fortitude.


The Eisenhorn Trilogy, Dan Abnett


The world of Warhammer 40,000 is a curious one, and it has more in common with the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft than anything else.  In this science-fiction universe, created for a tabletop tactical game, the galaxy is filled with nothing but monstrous horrors and puling victims.  There is virtually no joy, except as snatched between moments of horror and serving only to highlight the depths of despair that will follow.  It is bleak and humorless and extravagant.  A sprawling space empire of thousands of inhabited worlds and billions of subjects fights desperately to preserve itself in the face of hordes of vicious invaders.  Human life has no value in the brutal fight.  The motto of the series sums it up well: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

The Eisenhorn Trilogy is one of the canonical books in the Warhammer 40k universe - if you ask someone which book to read from that world, this is usually the first recommendation.  There's a good reason for this: the three books of the series capture the dominant mood of Warhammer 40k perfectly while also offering decent writing and a good plot.  In the world of branded sci-fi, it's rare to get all three in the same package.

Gregor Eisenhorn is an imperial Inquisitor.  He serves the God-Emperor, a demigod that lives frozen in half-death and is sustained only by daily sacrifices of thousands.  As a member of the Ordo Xenos, he fights against the different alien species that threaten mankind - Orks, Eldar, Tyranids, Necrons, and more.  But his greatest struggles come from the intrusions of the chaos demons into...

No...  No, sorry.  This can't be done.  There's no way to explain Warhammer 40k without sounding a little silly unless you avoid nouns.  That's the consequences of a naming schema that so transparently leans on common words (the Tyranids are terrible/tyrannical, the Eldar are quite old, the Necrons are all zombies, etc)  You reap what you sow, nomenclature-wise.

The writing is consistent throughout: breathless and grim and not terribly well-done.  Archaic language is chosen deliberately to try to create a faux-medieval atmosphere.
I was on Lethe Eleven under instruction from the Ordo Xenos, deep in work, with the accursed xenophile Beldame Sadia almost in my grasp. Ten weeks to find her, ten hours to close the trap. I had been without sleep for three days; without food and water for two. Psychic phantoms triggered by the Darknight eclipse were rolling my mind. I was dying of binary poison. Then Tantalid turned up.
To appraise you, Lethe Eleven is a densely populated world at the leading edge of the Helican sub-sector, its chief industries being metalwork and shield technologies. At the end of every Umbris, Lethe’s largest moon matches, by some cosmological coincidence, the path, orbit and comparative size of the local star, and the world is plunged into eclipse for a two week period known as the Darknight.
The effect is quite striking. For the space of fourteen days, the sky goes a cold, dark red, the hue of dried blood, and the moon, Kux, dominates the heavens, a peerlessly black orb surrounded by a crackling corona of writhing amber flame. This event has become – students of Imperial ritual will be unsurprised to learn – the key seasonal holiday for all Letheans. Fires of all shape, size and manner are lit as Darknight begins, and the population stands vigil to ensure that none go out until the eclipse ends. Industry is suspended. Leave is granted. Riotous carnivals and firelit parades spill through the cities. Licentiousness and law-breaking are rife.
Suffice it to say that the books strongly resemble what might happen if you gave all the people in the Lovecraft universe lasers and magic swords and sent them out to fight aliens.  It's pulpy and bleak and silly and interesting.  If you want to open yourself up to a whole new genre, this is your best bet to try it out.


Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies


I am fairly sure that Lizzie hates this book, even though she hasn't read it, because for two days I was following her around saying, "Hey, did you know that many common names today, like Bywater and Oxford, are simply geographic... Thomas Bywater was the Thomas who lived by the water and Thomas Oxford lived near where cows crossed a river!  Isn't that interesting?"

On the other hand, she may just never feel the need to read a book that I have spouted to her in one excited exclamation after another.

Either way, this detailed examination of the everyday lives of the people in a typical medieval village - in this case, residents of a village north of London called Elton - is fascinating from start to finish.  It is written to be both informative and interesting.  It avoids picking out the more exotic bits for the sake of shock value, and instead puts the whole life of the typical medieval villager in context.  It's the sort of thing that goes almost wholly unremarked in histories and sagas and poetry, and yet it is so intriguing!

Did you know that it was customary for most families to keep a pot of vegetables such as cabbage and carrots cooking gently over the fire all day, and that this "pottage" would constitute most of their meals when combined with a dense loaf of "maslin" wheat/rye bread, washed down with weak ale (by adults and children alike, since water was often unsafe)?

Did you know that "clandestine marriage" was a long-running problem for churches, wherein a couple would exchange secret vows in private and pledge only by a kiss and a ring, causing problems for inheritance rulings and the legitimacy of children (and cutting the Church out of fees), and that churches only solved this once the Council of Trent began requiring a marriage have witnesses?

Did you know that the shortage of winter feed for livestock was said to cause an annual Michaelmas slaughter, where the people killed and ate all of the animals they didn't want to feed over the winter?

Authors Frances and Joseph Gies, both only recently deceased, wrote a number of these sorts of books.  They seem to have traded credit from book to book (Joseph and Frances, Frances and Joseph, Joseph and Frances) and yet their work has none of the occasional awkwardness of collaboration about it.  It's clear and direct.  We might find some criticism with the chapter divisions which segment up peasant life into different spheres, but the transitions make us stumble for only a moment.
The art of preaching, however, was undergoing a revival, led by the mendicant friars, the Dominicans and Franciscans. Arriving in England in the 1220s, these roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, they encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.
I must admit that people less interested in history than myself might find this boring, even though I found myself fascinated by the simple details of everyday life in the medieval era.  But if you enjoyed works like The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, or other glimpses of that other country that is the past, I think you'll like this book.


A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson


This is a project book: Bill Bryson decided he would hike the Appalachian Trail (with his friend Katz) and then write a book about it.  It didn't quite work out - he skipped big sections of the trail because, hey, it's long as hell, who blames him?

Project books seldom end up with a real finished project.  When A.J. Jacobs tried to read the whole encyclopedia he skimmed/skipped a lot of content, and when he tried to follow all the rules in the Bible he found it difficult to stone anyone.  So we won't be too hard on him, particularly since his musings and digressions are so much more interesting than those of A.J. Jacobs.  Bryson discusses the history of the Appalachian Trail, the attraction of the great American wilds (no matter how diminished), and his reflections on the more solemn aspects of wilderness hiking.  And, of course, we are entertained by the comic relief of the bumbling Katz, who throws away his backpack in favor of a postal carrier's bag and who eats days' worth of food at a time.

Bryson is excellent at two things in particular: expressing a quiet wry humor and conjuring a sense of awe.  This is how he plucks an interesting narrative from even the driest facts.  It works well.
Imagine it--a wall of ice nearly half a mile high, and beyond it for tens of thousands of square miles nothing but more ice, broken only by the peaks of a very few of the loftiest mountains. What a sight that must have been. And here is a thing that most of us fail to appreciate: we are still in an ice age, only now we experience it for just part of the year. Snow and ice and cold are not really typical features of earth. Taking the long view, Antarctica is actually a jungle. (It's just having a chilly spell.) At the very peak of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, 30 percent of the earth was under ice. Today 10 percent still is. There have been at least a dozen ice ages in the last two million years, each lasting about 100,000 years. The most recent intrusion, called the Wisconsinian ice sheet, spread down from the polar regions over much of Europe and North America, growing to depths of up to two miles and advancing at a rate of up to 400 feet a year. As it soaked up the earth's free water, sea levels fell by 450 feet. Then, about 10,000 years ago, not abruptly exactly but near enough, it began to melt back. No one knows why. What it left in its wake was a landscape utterly transformed. It dumped Long Island, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and most of Martha's Vineyard where previously there had just been sea, and it gouged out the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and little Sunfish Pond, among much else. Every foot of the landscape from here on north would be scored and scarred with reminders of glaciation-- scattered boulders called erratics, drumlins, eskers, high tarns, cirques. I was entering a new world.
Everyone should check this out; this book was wildly popular for good reason.


State of Fear, Michael Crichton


Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has been harping for a while on the difficulty of sorting through statistical and scientific studies to locate the truth.  If you're a layman on a topic, and often even if you have some expertise, it can be incredibly hard to figure out which studies to believe.
[T]ake the minimum wage question (please). We all know about the Krueger and Cardstudy in New Jersey that found no evidence that high minimum wages hurt the economy. We probably also know the counterclaims that it was completely debunked as despicable dishonest statistical malpractice. Maybe some of us know Card and Krueger wrote a pretty convincing rebuttal of those claims. Or that a bunch of large and methodologically advanced studies have come out since then, some finding no effect like Dube, others finding strong effects like Rubinstein and Wither. These are just examples; there are at least dozens and probably hundreds of studies on both sides.
But we can solve this with meta-analyses and systemtic reviews, right?
Depends which one you want. Do you go with this meta-analysis of fourteen studies that shows that any presumed negative effect of high minimum wages is likely publication bias? With this meta-analysis of sixty-four studies that finds the same thing and discovers no effect of minimum wage after correcting for the problem? Or how about this meta-analysisof fifty-five countries that does find effects in most of them? Maybe you prefer this systematic review of a hundred or so studies that finds strong and consistent effects?
And it gets worse, since you often can't even trust real experts to sum things up fairly and give you their assessment.  Everyone's got an agenda.

But it has to be said that it's far, far worse when a skilled author falls victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect and, in an attempt to prove himself and his chosen partisans correct, tries to do away with inconvenient truth (haha! get it?) and wield childish fiction as fact.

Most of the book is Crichton's standard thriller style fiction, propelled by intriguing technologies and ideas.  Credulous lawyer Peter Evans is caught up in a plot by environmentalists to fake a tsunami, in order to popularize the idea of global warming.  Brave and intelligent scientists take him along as they fight to stop this, pausing along the way to explain how global warming is not occurring and proving it with science, even including graphs and charts that are very impressive (and unusual in a work of fiction).

The other half is a densely sourced essay demonstrating to the reader why global warming does not exist and pointing out the villainous lies of the environmental lobby.  It also has charts and figures.

The fiction is a little embarrassing, to be honest.  The writing bears a shocking resemblance to Glenn Beck's The Overton Window, with a good-natured dilettante being led with gruff kindness to the truth (but golly you can't blame him because it's the fault of the brainwashing media!)  It's even worse that it's trying to use the emotional elements of fiction (this is what the heroes believe, and this is what the villains believe) to bludgeon the reader into being more accepting of a particular perspective on a controversial question (again: The Overton Window comes to mind).
“People have no perspective on Antarctica, because it appears as a fringe at the bottom of most maps. But in fact, Antarctica is a major feature on the Earth’s surface, and a major factor in our climate. It’s a big continent, one and a half times the size of either Europe or the United States, and it holds ninety percent of all the ice on the planet.”
...
“No wonder they’re concerned that the ice here is melting,” Evans said.
Kenner said nothing.
Sanjong was shaking his head.
Evans said, “Come on, guys. Antarctica is melting.”
“Actually, it’s not,” Sanjong said. “I can give you the references, if you like.”
Kenner said, “While you were asleep, Sanjong and I were talking about how to clarify things for you, since you seem to be so ill-informed.”
“Ill-informed?” Evans said, stiffening.
“I don’t know what else one would call it,” Kenner said. “Your heart may be in the right place, Peter, but you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hey,” he said, controlling his anger. “Antarctica is melting.”
“You think repetition makes something true? The data show that one relatively small area called the Antarctic Peninsula is melting and calving huge icebergs. That’s what gets reported year after year. But the continent as a whole is getting colder, and the ice is getting thicker.”
The "science" is reportedly even worse.  But I'm not going to get into that.  If it interests you, check here or here.

There's no reason for anyone to read this.


Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas

This book is a thin strip of meat attached to an enormous wedge of repetitive fat.  There is a trickle interesting insight throughout, but the lion's share of the worthwhile material is exhausted within the first chapter.  The rest of the book is devoted to reiterating a few points: sociopaths like Thomas are amoral, sexually liberated, and work hard to fooling the world.  These points are illustrated with a series of examples that quickly become tedious and masturbatory.

There is, naturally, a very specific allure to the mind of a madman or killer.  Audiences are always fascinated by a look into a different sort of mind as it successfully defies society's rules.  I suspect there is also an unconscious pairing of wish fulfillment and self-flattery at work, because we are less fascinated by unsuccessful sociopathy: we can imagine that we could be just as successful and dramatic if we weren't just so darned moral.  We allow ourselves to imagine that it's only our essential goodness that holds us back from dominance, congratulating ourselves on our scruples, while speculating the extent to which we would inflict our will on the world if we were more villainous.  We can't quite bring ourselves to think such a thing in so many words, but would we be as fascinated with a Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) or Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) who failed to enact his desires?

These Confessions just don't have that much to shock, and the succession of small banal exchanges soon starts to bore.  It isn't too long before stories designed to showcase sociopathic amorality start to highlight sociopathic narcissism, instead.
I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to, as I am sure most people have.  I have rarely wanted to kill those close to me; more often it has been a chance encounter with someone who caused me consternation.  Once while visiting Washington, DC, for a law conference, a metro worker tried to shame me about using an escalator that was closed.  He asked in thickly accented English, "Didn't you see the yellow gate?"
Me:  Yellow gate?
Him:  The gate!  I just put the gate up and you had to walk around it!
Silence.  My face is blank.
Him:  That's trespassing!  Don't you know it is wrong to trespass!  The escalator was closed, you broke the law!
I stare at him silently.Him: [visibly rattled at my lack of reaction]  Well, next time, you don't trespass, okay?
It was not okay.
Nothing is lost if you restrict yourself to only the first chapter of Confessions of a Sociopath, since there are few grand revelations to be had in the rest of the text.  Don't waste your time with the fatty excesses.

09 December 2014

Accordion: What 2016 Predictions Reveal About Predictors

This post is an accordion.  Read just the top paragraph, or follow the footnotes for weird discussions.

Now that the 2014 midterm elections are completely finished1, pundits are turning with glee to the 2016 race for Republican presidential nominee.2  Perhaps more interesting than the discussion of who is recruiting more "bundlers"3 are the beliefs revealed by the predictions themselves.  There are a lot of assumptions inherent in how a prognosticator speaks of the GOP candidates4 - and the fact that there are literally dozens of potential nominees gives pundits plenty of room to wedge in their own ideas.  It's almost the opposite of 2012's tournament of the lightweights, as all the big names are coming out to play.  Do you think the Grand Old Party has swung unrealistically far to the right?  Then you might speak well of Jeb Bush's chances, though they're really pretty lousy.5  Do you consider yourself a "serious" pundit or a Republican "wonk?"  Then you might single out Paul Ryan, instead.6  And even more than that: if you started talking about all this nonsense and all of these candidates (Christie,7 Cruz,8 Jindal,9 Paul,10 Perry,11 Rubio,12 Santorum,13 Walker,14 Romney,15 and Carson,16) as far back as last year, then you're confessing something else: you're a serious masochist.

1.  Mary Landrieu (D-LA) just got crushed in her run-off election against Bill Cassidy, her GOP challenger.  Her departure from the Senate means that there is not a single Democratic senator or governor from the Deep South (Virginia and Florida do have Democratic senators, but a majority of their citizens are transplants from elsewhere).  Jonathan Chait at New York's Daily Intelligencer argues that this decline in southern Democrats is "overdue," saying that it reflects a regional difference that has existed since America's earliest days:
Barack Obama ran for presidency hoping to transcend old divisions, but his presidency has ironically lent renewed vigor to the most ancient division in American politics. The tea party, which presents itself as the heirs to the Founding Fathers, is actually an heir to one side of the American argument. One tradition bore intense suspicion of centralized government, venerated farmers and rural life, believed the Constitution forbade Congress from all but a handful of specifically enumerated fields of activity, felt comfortable with aggression and violence in both domestic life and foreign affairs, and defended existing social institutions against racial minorities and their allies. This political coalition has always had its strongest base in the Deep South. It is right-wing.
The other tradition advocated a stronger federal government (and deemed this expanded role Constitutional), considered public investment and education the best method of securing prosperity, was more averse to territorial conflict with neighbors, and was more solicitous of racial minorities. This coalition has always had its strongest base in New England. It is left-wing.
2.  The Democratic nomination is promising to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton.  We have passed the point where there can be any doubt that she intends to run; if she were to decide not to run now, then she would be rightfully accused of hobbling her party's nomination procedure with her own vanity.  Assuredly, she is going to run for President, and she is likely to win (barring the known unknown and unknown unknown in any major race).  Her likely rivals, right down to the serving Vice-President Biden, have not been gathering the materiel they'd need for a real race: money, bragging rights, and so on.  The major threats right now are people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (VA)... and he has already admitted his candidacy is designed to force Clinton further left.  Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley is widely discussed, but it seems clear that his bid is mostly designed to increase his national profile, not to win.

3.  A "bundler" is a professional political middleman who gathers together individual donations into a more significant sum.  There's a limit on how much any one individual can give to a campaign or party (although they can launder unlimited funds through Super-PACs), and so some communities and social circles concentrate their monies in the hands of one person, who "bundles" their donations together.  The idea is pretty simple... candidates pay more attention to the one person who writes them a $25,000 check than they do to any ten people who write them $2,500 checks.  Bundlers are the purest articulation of money in politics.

4.  Yes, you meta smartass, I know that I am doing this too.  But hey, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, right?

5.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush once headed up a fearsome state machine, but his brother's presidency and the years he's spent out of the public eye have left him with a personal brand that is - at best- extremely complicated.  He's fondly remembered by unapologetic Bush family fans and some powerful corporate interests, but he's also spent years supporting the Common Core standards and comprehensive immigration reform, two positions anathema to the party's base.  NOTE: It is a federal crime to use the word "anathema" in any other context than this during an election year.  Combine these flaws with a general reluctance to nominate a third Bush, and Jeb might have problems even his probable money advantage won't help fix.

6.  Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, using his disproportionate reputation as an "ideas man" to bolster the ticket.  His first budget plan, offered in 2008, never made it out of committee.  But careful work with colleagues and ceaseless speechmaking helped raise Ryan's profile and made his ideas popular.  Successive budgets not only made it to a vote, but became the de facto budget plan of the entire party.  Perhaps I should call it a "budget," though, since it is unable to pay for its large proposed tax cuts for the wealthy even with its draconian budget cuts.  For the rest, the "budget" relies on handwaving and on something called "dynamic scoring," in which the budgeter assumes that the economy will very conveniently boom into overdrive when cued by tax cuts.  Ryan's been working on poverty issues with his head down since the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, but he has already been seen to be sniffing the 2016 air.

7.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a brash and brilliant political creature, and a really good example of the dangers of narrative.  He is often described as a bully, even by admirers, and that means that every small instance of harsh language has an instant framework for a lazy thinker.  Even though he might actually be fully capable of controlling himself on the national stage, like other politicians with nasty tempers (think Lyndon Johnson), his biggest challenge will be escaping his image.  The real danger lies in the big moves he's going to make to try to force people to re-evaluate him.  On the plus side, he'll raise absurd amounts of money with his Wall Street and RGA connections, and Bridgegate will help him a great deal in the primary; he should see if he can delay the investigation's conclusion six more months, to time it better with the race.

8.  Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) has achieved a fevered following among the base, even though he's only been in office for two years.  He has become (in)famous for his efforts in pushing for the government shutdown last year and for his frequent jeremiads about the threat Obamacare poses to our precious fluids.  Unfortunately, his party spent a lot of time attacking the current president over a lack of experience, and it doesn't seem as though Cruz's rhetoric can withstand much scrutiny.

9.  Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will be interesting to watch, but stands virtually no chance of success in the presidential bid he's been preparing.  He never made it to the real race in 2012... at the time, this was commonly blamed on his disastrous response to Obama's 2009 State of the Union, but the real reason was that he'd had to focus on a 2011 re-election as governor.  That would have been a hard move to make, and maybe Jindal was also smart enough to see the writing on the wall for 2012.  But it may also have been his only chance.  In the years since, he's run into problem after problem.  He was an advocate of Common Core, and his many soundbites on the issue open him up to easy attacks (and his claim that it was a "bait and switch" just makes him seem gullible to the base).  Even worse, he proposed to repeal Louisiana's income tax while hiking the sales tax - we can call it the Fuck the Poor Plan, perhaps - but lost a high-stakes confrontation with the state legislature.  It's hard to run based on a string of well-intentioned failures.

10.  Sen. Rand Paul (KY) is winning, but tenuously.  He has a large organization and a lot of money, and his unorthodox views force many people to re-evaluate him on his own merits.  Unfortunately, his own merits aren't all that great.  He's avoided scandal and endeared himself to many civil libertarians, but it's extremely difficult for someone who has worked to maintain an "outsider" brand to unite the GOP factions behind him.  He also has the unique distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous candidate from my perspective: he has little interest in my priorities (the environment and income inequality), while his esoteric policy interests pose a threat to a wide variety of important infrastructures in government that no one else cares about.

11.  Outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent the last year building relationships and explaining his terrible 2012 performance, and he'll have good connections and the free time to use them when he leaves office.  But leaving office means that he'll have fewer opportunities to make headlines, and it's hard to stand out in a field this crowded with big players.  He'll be a serious contender, but it's hard to believe that the whole of his problems last time around came from back pain and medication.

12.  Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) is a victim of his party.  By all rights, he should be sitting in the catbird seat.  Out of the gate in 2012, he led the charge for comprehensive immigration reform.  It was a lousy bill, but it responded to the demographic trap facing the GOP, as the party's scant minority appeal forced it to rely on scraping up every spare scrap of the white vote that it could manage.  But what should have been his shining moment and a turning point for the party abruptly reversed course, to the horror of the party elite, and the fever dream deepend instead.  Demagogues denounced the proposed bill, backed by hard-line fearmongers, and Rubio watched his numbers plummet.  He believed in the bill: he knew it was not only the right thing for the Republican Party and not just the right thing for the country: it was the plain Right Thing to Do.  But he didn't risk his career, and he was forced to denounce and campaign against his own bill.  He still hasn't stopped his backpedal.  Rubio had almost proverbial chance at greatness, where he could do the smart and right thing in the face of difficult odds and unreasoned hatred.  He backed down, and it was so unspeakably sad.

13.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) has now put many years' distance between himself and Dan Savage, and he may have left that incident behind (hehe... "behind").  He was even able to put up a respectable showing in 2012, winning a few primaries during the few mayfly weeks during which he was the front-runner.  Unfortunately, the list of other onetime 2012 frontrunners includes Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain.  These were figures who were distinguished only by virtue of not being Mitt "The Inevitable" Romney.  Santorum, like the rest of this list, never managed to get any serious backing from other politicos or monied interests - he was sustained in large part by a single donor, Foster Freiss.  Theres no sign that his fortunes have gone anywhere but down in the years since.

14.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is so boring that I am not going to blurb him.  Blah blah he hates unions.  Google him.

15.  Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign introduced me to the term "nurdle," and for that I will be forever grateful.  But despite the rumors about how he would be solid candidate if he ran again, his strong polling right now is mostly a reflection of name recognition.  He's much more famous than a lot of other prospective candidates, and that's nothing to ignore... but could anyone really launch a third grueling national campaign after a movie was already made about your two previous humiliations?

16.  Dr. Ben Carson is a surgeon who has made some very good speeches, and who interviews very well.  He is wildly popular as a speaker, but he also seems to be smart enough to know better than to try to actually run for the nomination.  And who really needs the hassle, when you already have money and you're not someone actually interested in political power?  Better to bask in admiration from vast crowds, sell a few more books, send your ideas out into the masses, and wait for the humble requests from famous men.

05 October 2014

Commonplace: Analects 1.2


有子曰。其爲人也孝弟、而好犯上者、鮮矣。不好犯上、而好作亂者、未之有也。君子務本、本立而道生。孝弟也者、其爲仁之本與。
1.2 Master You said: “There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never troublemakers. The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears. Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness?”
Confucius was outspoken in his teachings, and spent years traveling China looking for work. He accumulated in this way a significant number of disciples. Many of them found positions of favor in varying levels of government, as I mentioned last week, and one of these, Ran Qiu, helped arrange for him to return home after he was forced to leave his birth state of Lu. At different times throughout The Analects, we hear Confucius praise or scold his disciples, and some of them are even given the podium themselves. In fact, it’s very likely that many of the things in these pages are only attributed to the master, since The Analects was assembled over many years.

One of Confucius’ disciples was the Master You of today’s selection. We will hear from him a few times early on, and then not at all - a fact which has led some scholars to speculate that he may have a had a hand in compiling the early chapters of the text. Eno suggests that the fact that he is referred to as “master” is significant in this respect.

You’s full name was You Ruo, and he had the courtesy name of Zi Ruo, and he was notable for speaking and looking much like the master himself. Mencius, a great Confucian who we will discuss more at a later date, actually relates in his Mengzhi an unflattering anecdote about how the man. Apparently, You Ruo’s appearance almost led to his advancement:
When Confucius died, after they had observed the three-year mourning period,
the disciples packed their bags to go to their homes. They all went to see Zigong, and
facing one another, they all wailed until their voices gave out, only then did they depart.
Zigong returned to the gravesite, where he built a hut and lived alone for three years more, only then departing for home. At another point, Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyou felt that their comrade You Ruo resembled a sage, and they wished to serve him as they had Confucius.
They pressed Zengzi to join them, but Zengzi said, ‘It is not right. As though washed by
the Yangzi and Han Rivers, bleached by the autumn sun, how gleaming white – the
Master cannot be surpassed.” (Mengzhi 3A:4)
We should take a moment to note here that it is not very flattering to be compared to Confucius in appearance. Confucius was famously ugly, and Confucian sages have tended to that same ideal* (either in imitation or because there’s something about being wise and disagreeable that attracts the beauty-challenged).  Wilkinson reports that the master was said to have a big bump on his head, a spine like that of a tortoise, stocky back, and deep crow's feet (among a total of 49 distinguishing physical features, a list apparently intended to mimic and surpass the Buddha's traditional 32 lakshanas.)

Whatever his flaws as an exalted sage or male model, though, the disciple You Ruo has given us two wise sentiments to consider in this second passage of The Analects.

The first is an observation about correlation, as he notes, “There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never troublemakers.”

Few commenters have bothered themselves about these observations, generally enfolding them into the rest of the selection. Of my sources, only Zhu Xi comments here specifically. Even his comments are not particularly helpful, though, since they consist only of basic definitions (“To be good at serving one's father and mother is to be filial.”) But this observation is worth notice and consideration, since it expresses a basic relationship: those people who are good to their parents and good to their elders** are seldom the same sort of people who find pleasure in disruption and disobedience to society.

The nature of this correlation isn’t discussed in this passage, but later study will make clear that Confucius and his followers believed in a ground-up approach to cultivating the good life. If people were happy, they could help make their families happy. And happy families made for a happy province, which made for a happy empire. We will see many examples of this reasoning, and there is little doubt that You Ruo would endorse the view that filial and fraternal piety (caring for one’s family) would create a person who would help create an orderly and good society.

This grass-roots approach to virtue is supported by considerable evidence. Time after time, we have seen in history and social policy that it is impossible to mandate morality or enforce a new way of life from the top. If you want change in society, you must set a good example, make the best arguments, and gently nudge people into reforming themselves.  And while the whole "nudging" thing is getting a little faddish these days, it remains true that the most successful reforms are the ones which provide positive incentives for people to be virtuous.

Consider home ownership.  For a long time, it was considered to be an important civic trait for citizens of the United States, and so the government set into place incentives to help guide people into home ownership.  There are legal benefits (you can't lose a home to bankruptcy, and you have special rights and privileges on land that you own); financial benefits (there are a host of tax incentives for homeowners, and there are special government programs designed exclusively to make it easy for people to finance home ownership); and considerable moral benefits (a homeowner was set up, for a long time, as the prototypical successful American... the little house with the white picket fence, not the little condo with the white picket fence).

I'm not saying that this is necessarily a good civic virtue to instill in the citizenry, but the point is that it was much more successful to set into place these many nudges, rather than trying to directly require people to buy homes at age 30.  It is because of these nudges that home ownership hit rates of 69% (in 2004) and remains at an astonishing 65% in the USA and in other developed countries with comparable incentives.

It's a fact: encouraging people to build their own virtue from the ground up is effective in a way that mandates are usually not.

You Ruo continues, “The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears. Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness?”

Coming on the heels of the previous sentiment, we have turned from discussing the signs of a noble man to identifying the path to become one, in the most general sense. It’s the same basic principle being extended further: virtue cannot be imposed, but it must grow from the basics. And that means it’s time to talk about virtue.

Confucianism is a blend of utilitarianism and virtue ethics and in that sense is comparable with nothing so much as the philosophy of Aristotle in the West. Unfortunately, it is only lately that scholars have become aware of this fact, thanks to the phenomenons of great distance, Jesuit missionaries, and Mao. But that’s a story for another time.

Utilitarianism, as you may already know, is the philosophy that says that the correct action is the one that maximizes utility - the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.*** While its role in Confucianism is often overlooked, it is the rationale for a large number of Confucian arguments and thoughts. It will come into play a lot as we move through this text.

More dominant in Confucian thought is virtue ethics. This is the philosophy that says that correct action is the one undertaken by virtuous people, and so people should undertake to improve their virtues. For Plato, these virtues were wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, while Aristotle placed different kinds of wisdom at the top of a pyramid of virtues.

In Confucianism, there are a variety of virtues we should strive to improve in ourselves and employ in decisions. The most important virtue is that of ren, which is a sort of ur-virtue that has no single definition or description. Hsieh Liang-tso speaks of ren to say that “it is not only that nobody can list all of the relevant examples [to describe its nature]; in practicing it no one can do it fully, and [even] to describe it is difficult.”

I will adopt various translations for ren as seems appropriate; here, it is “fundamental human goodness.” This choice of variation should serve us well, since ren is a slippery thing - “the more learned one’s words, the further one has departed from ren” - and it avoids the dangers of rigid standardized translations, where ren is always “humaneness” and li is always “ritual” and so on. *** These big Confucian ideas just can’t be represented by a single translated word.

It’s not too hard to see the danger posed by rigid translation. Take the word “hard,” for instance. If we assigned it a single meaning as we translate our text, we would have a difficult time with “it was hard to get up in the morning” and “he was too hard on that student.”

Returning to the text with our new knowledge, then: You Ruo has asked (or rather, stated, since Zhou Xi notes that this is framed as a question only for the sake of politeness), “Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of ren?”

Just as in the first part of the passage, this is a message about how a moral world must begin at the bottom. Just as someone who treats their family well will be more likely to be a good citizen, avoiding disruption to the state and rulers, so too someone who treats their family well is likely to develop into a moral person. It’s that grass-roots approach to instilling virtue, since Confucius and his students recognized the futility of imposing the good life on people who didn't want it.

I think that's probably enough on the topic for this week, since it's something to which we will return later as we discuss specific virtues.  For now, then, an anecdote.

Remember how I said that it was only lately that scholars became truly cognizant of the similarities between Confucian thought and Aristotelian philosophy? I’ll talk more about that in a later post, but this omission actually led to one of the odder coincidences in philosophical history, as discussed by scholar Yu Jiyuan.

In 1958, a group of New Confucians in Hong Kong, intent on reviving an appreciation for Confucian philosophy and returning the study to prominence, published a famous treatise in English called the “Manifesto for a Re-Appraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture.” In addition to pointing out things that China could learn from the West that were in concord with Confucian values, like a democratic constitution, these New Confucians also called for those in the West to learn to appreciate the Confucian emphasis on development of correct character. They appear to have been unaware of Aristotle’s focus on excellence of character and the corresponding strain of Western thought, known in the field as “virtue ethics.”

The very same year, 1958, a British philosopher named Elizabeth Anscombe called for what amounted to a revival of Aristotlean ethics in her seminal paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” focusing on the need for clarity in what makes a “virtuous character.” Her paper helped revive virtue ethics, but described a yawning abyss between Plato and Aristotle, conducting a brief survey of other major philosophers and finding that they did not address a clear definition of virtue… but without ever once mentioning Confucius. Anscombe was apparently unaware of the entire Eastern tradition of virtue ethics.

The two great conceptualizations of virtue ethics were both revived from a long quiet during the exact same year, and neither one even mentioned the existence of the other. They passed each other in silence, like ships in the night.


* In her recent NYRB review of a book about geniuses (Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon), Tamsin Shaw speaks about the tendency to look to the superficial: "Anyone who frequents research libraries in Europe or North America will know that it is not unusual to encounter in them individuals who appear to be rather introverted and yet sport oddly ostentatious hairstyles, with unkempt shocks of hair sprouting with peculiar abandon from their pallid male scalps. You can still encounter the odd Yeatsian dandy, but the slightly disheveled Einsteinian archetype seems largely to have prevailed in the academy, just as the Beethovenian archetype has long prevailed in the world of music. This phenomenon alone, the slightly embarrassing aping of the superficial attributes of genius, reveals an ersatz quality to the idea of genius we have inherited; even in the most solemn temples to intellectual achievement the notion is awkwardly associated with a good deal that is theatrical, preposterous, ridiculous."

** It is important to note that the text itself actually refers to brothers, not just general elders. Confucianism in the original text is fairly sexist and extremely classist. How we must handle that sort of thing is a big issue, but one for a later day. For now, let’s just operate on the assumption that The Analects contains statements of universal principles and wisdom, and set aside the uncomfortable specifics.

*** A complete defense of utilitarianism is outside of my scope here today, but if you’re interested, I can point to no better work that Scott Suskind’s enormously helpful Consequentialism FAQ, which delineates and defends my particular strain of utilitarianism.

**** Ames complains about the dangers of a rigid codification in translating a set of concepts in one language into another, saying, “Confucianism has also been depreciated from without as, in the process of being introduced into the Western academy, its key philosophical vocabulary and terms of art have been overwritten with the values of an Abrahamic religiousness, thereby reducing Confucianism in the eyes of many to a necessarily anemic, second-rate form of Christianity.”

28 September 2014

Commonplace: Analects 1.1

學而時習之、不亦說乎。 有朋自遠方來、不亦樂乎。人不知而不慍、不亦君子乎。
1.1 The Master said: "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure? When friends come from distant places, is this not joy? To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?” *
Confucius is now known with such respect that his name is a byword for wisdom in the West, and in China he has achieved the distinction of being called the "Ultimate Sage and First Teacher." Confucius was not truly appreciated in his own lifetime.  He was never forced to drink hemlock or anything, so perhaps Socrates has the greater claim on our sympathy, but Confucius never found the success he sought.  Though he always spoke of the correct method of governance, and he gathered a significant number of disciples, he was perhaps too troublesome to employ.  By his own account he could be contrary and defiant, and often spoke truth to power, and these are not traits that endear themselves to many rulers.  Ames and Rosemont describe his practical influence as "marginal," while Waley notes that Confucius' highest rank never seems to have been greater than shih-shih, the "Leader of the Knights" - not a high post.  To put it bluntly, Confucius was, at best, middle management.

Unhappy with his advancement, he tried taking his services beyond his home state of Lu.  At the time of his birth, China was no longer a great mass of dozens of different small states controlled by a single emperor, as in the time of the Zhou dynasty (an era he would come to revere).  Fourteen states had swallowed up all the others, and each was looking for an advantage.  Confucius must have thought that one of these rivals would welcome his teachings, and so he traveled to Ch'i, Wei, Ch'ên, Ts'ai, and K'uang.   But he never found success, and was kept from returning to Lu for some years.  While it was common at the time to offer services to different rulers, as Wilkinson tells us, it didn't earn Confucius any favors back home.  It was only the influence of some of his disciples, who were in Lu's bureaucracy, that enabled him to come home from his exile and settle down to a quiet life.

This failure has always been something that was hard for later fans to accept.  Depictions of Confucius over time kept giving him more and more impressive regalia and titles, with many late portrayals showing him wearing kingly robes and seated on a throne (though chairs only arrived in China a full thousand years after the master's death).  The embarrassing 2010 movie version presented a long-running popular theory in which Confucius' wisdom and leadership led to his promotion as a high adviser to Lu's king, where he defeats all obstacles, and where only his betrayal by a villain yields an unjust expulsion from his post.**

But however unfortunate and unfair it may be, Confucius was not a success in his own lifetime.  It is entirely possible that being a font of immense wisdom and unimpeachable learning has nothing to do with actually being a good leader.

Confucius had, instead, the consolation of philosophy.***  And in today's passage, we find what Grier calls the "fusion of his theory and practice."  This selection encapsulates many of the topics that would dominate Confucian thought: how to live a good life in evil times; what the true pleasures of the world can be; and the path to resisting adversity.

Eno points out that there are three precepts here, each with their own force, building to a "punchline."  We can find wisdom in each, in turn.  There is also danger: as happens so often with Confucius, the complexities of his thought could easily be reduced to fridge-magnet-grade pablum.

In the first place, we are reminded that an educated and talented man may find pleasure in cultivation and teaching, for its own sake.  Confucius says, "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure?"

Anyone who has become proficient in a skill knows the pleasure of practicing that skill and passing it on.  Noel Burch described four stages to becoming competent at anything: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious incompetence.  And once we have reached the third stage, when we do something well and know that we do it well, it becomes a pleasure of itself.

Hsieh Liang-tso, a tenth-century Confucian, says that this precept means one's life should be one of constant practice of the correct behavior, of all sorts.  When you have learned how to stand properly and with reverence, that one should always stand properly, he says.  In this, then, we can imagine trying to teach a conscious or unconscious competence in all aspects of life.  Zhou Xi agrees, writing, "Learning never ceases, like a bird repeatedly flaps its wings. When one has learned and then continually practices it, then what one has learned becomes familiar and there is pleasure in one's heart."

Perhaps we are reminded of stories of those who have spent their lives in pursuit of competence in all things, practicing their learning at every moment like a bird flapping its wings.  Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong writes of observing his master, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, during their first moment of meeting:
As I watched he walked directly to the altar, and with a great deal of care, began to rearrange some flowers that were standing on the altar in a tall vase. ... I came to realize that because he was a Zen master and gave one hundred percent of himself to rearranging those flowers, as he did to everything, in that moment he was actually rearranging my mind.
What a pleasure to do things well!

Confucius says, further, "When friends come from distant places, is this not joy?" Hsieh expands this with the admonishment that "friends" should be a broad idea.  "Exploring among the ancients," Hsieh says, "for those who were 'first to discover this common element in my heart,' and researching among people today, those whom you believe are not so different from you, all are friends."

In the final precept, Confucius wryly ties together the neat little lesson with a self-referential comment: "To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?"**** he asks.  The implications of these three teachings in a row are clear:  I am a man of learning and a valuable teacher, I have many people who are my friends and follow my words, and yet I am unappreciated.

Confucius is now one of the most well-known sages of history, so it's hard to feel very sorry for the way he went unrecognized.  But consider that for every genius who was recognized only after his death, there might be ten who are never recognized at all.  Scholarship and friendship may take us much of the way, but many people lack what may be the decisive element: sheer blind luck.  Your work must appeal to the right people at the right time, and you need to have the opportunity to take your shot.  I have known geniuses, and not all of them were successes in life.

And if you fail, and are left without material reward or recognition, then?  Well, then, Confucius teaches, we must not become embittered.  Even if you do not find the success you deserve, it will do no good to become resentful - to become "soured."

This is not just moral advice, it is practical.  To be sure, this is not particularly easy.  Zhou Xi describes the experience of avoiding resentment as "disagreeable and hard," which in the hugely restrained language of the ancients is something like "oh my god this sucks I just can't even."  But what is the advantage of becoming angry or resentful?  Is it likely to improve your prospects, by making you better at your work or by drawing others' positive attention?  Certainly not.  We might find help in growing ambition to improve, but resentment is unlikely to bring you happiness or success.  After all, as Yin Dun wrote,  "Learning lies in oneself. Whether one is appreciated or not lies with others. Why should there be any resentment?

Hsieh suggests that these three precepts are the heart of Confucian practice.  We must know how to treat ourselves, learning and enjoying practice; we must know how to treat others, embracing our allies of past and future; and we must not resent adversity.  Hsieh quotes Confucius' student Yen-tzu speaking of the ideal sage "living on a bowlful of rice and a ladleful of water, and not allowing this to affect his joy."

This, then, is the ideal to which we should strive.


* In this first entry of my commonplace book, I have taken advantage of the commentaries of Endymion Wilkinson in his Manual of Chinese History, the comments of Nicholas Gier on the Muller text, the traditional commentary of Zhou Xi and Hsieh Liang-tso, and the commentary of Arthur Waley, Robert Eno, Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, and A.C. Muller in their respective translations of The Analects.  Chinese transliteration remains however I found it, since I don't know any Chinese (yet).

** The Confucius of this film is oddly martial and contemporary, leading wars and decrying the evils of slavery.  Seriously, don't watch the movie.  Even Chinese people weren't that fond of it... during its opening weeks, so many more people went to see Avatar that the Chinese government started leaning on theatre owners to help Confucius out by pulling the decadent corruption of the West from their screens.  Honestly, folks, it's okay to admit that our heroes weren't good at everything.  Needing our role models to be perfect says more about our own inability to think critically than anything else.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and Confucius wasn't a very good administrator.

*** He didn't need quite so much consolation as Boethius, though, who wrote a book of the same name while waiting for his execution.  On the other hand, the foundation of Boethius' consolation was his absolute assurance that "God, the Creator, presideth over His work."  Confucius lacked the comfort of that particular a priori truth.

**** The word here translated as "noble man," and elsewhere as "gentleman" or "worthy man," is actually junzi, a word that meant something like "son of a king" in Confucius' time.  He used it to mean any person of worth, no matter their rank.  It was quite an egalitarian and revolutionary concept at the time - more on that in later episodes!

26 September 2014

Commonplace Wisdom

I've decided to start putting together a sort of commonplace book, beginning with The Analects of Confucius.  That seems an appropriate beginning, especially since Sunday is the anniversary of his birthday in 551 B.C.E. (as best anyone knows, anyway).  But why a commonplace book?  Why not just study the wisdom in every bit of The Analects?

The Analects is one of the most intelligent things ever written.  It is a deep and abiding analysis of what makes a good state.  The the values which it pursues in its elegant proverbs of virtue ethics and consequentialism are mostly the same ones I hold.  But I have neither the background nor the intellect to appreciate every bit of it - and I just plain think Confucius was wrong about some things.  After all, when the Master wrote that "He who has no rank in a state does not discuss his policies," he wrote in a time well before the modern idea of the informed and equal citizenry came about.

The idea to begin assembling a commonplace book with large selections came to me as I slowly made my way through Endymion Wilkinson's Manual of Chinese History, a book which humbles me in many ways.  It was through this method that many of the ancient wisdom books, The Analects included, probably came about.  His students set down all of the things they remembered or retained, and other things were added over the course of centuries.  It's a lot like the Bible, in fact - and it's just as difficult to pretend every last word is useful to you.

This difficulty is why one of the most fascinating things about Christian Bible study groups is how creative they can become when they get to the lesser-known verses or more strange ones. At one Baptist Bible study group I attended in Clearwater, they were going through the whole text, section by section. They skipped nothing, even the most tedious “begat” sections, out of the belief that a divinely-inspired book would have no cruft. It was a marvel to watch when they had moved beyond Genesis (which was interesting and had numerous great folk stories) and Leviticus (which was boring but had lots of moral commands) and into the books like Numbers.

Numbers begins like nothing so much as The Iliad, with a catalogue of men and armies, before moving on into bizarre commands that now seem hard to justify. There are interesting moments, of course, like the command to keep the Passover, or God’s angry fire-smiting of complainers, or the falling of manna. But if you’re taking each verse, you can’t skip to the highlights. So what do you do with passages like Numbers 5:17-23, the “law of jealousies?”

In this passage, we are told that if a guy suspects his wife of cheating, he can take her and a special offering to a priest, who will “take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water.” The priest will say special words (“The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot”), write the woman’s name in a special book, and blot the name with the “bitter water.” If she was cheating, then she’ll get terribly sick and “the woman shall be curse among her people,” but “[i]f the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.”

It’s hedge magic. Specifically, it’s a spell to tell for certain if someone’s wife has been cheating on them. If the wife has been unfaithful, the sympathetic connection of the woman’s name and her health will make her become sick, thanks to the god’s power.

It is really, really hard to read this sort of thing and find serious insight in it. But some Bible studies, including the one I attended, dutifully tackled every single one of these odd verses, considering them enlightened communication straight from the deity to their ears. In these sorts of instances, unfortunately, it proved to be really difficult. It was ultimately possible, as I recall, to consider that this spell was a moral lesson about how infidelity will taint your whole life… but it was quite a stretch.

Part of the problem is that the collecting process of the Bible has broken down.  The Bible, as with most similar books, came about over many years.  Numerous books and verses were collected or discarded, as people kept the parts they found beautiful or important or relevant.  This dialogue over the ages was slowed as all the oral parts became ossified in text, and frozen more as different "versions" were set down in print.  Now there's still some slow adaptation and change, of course.  There are still new translations, that change the ideas subtly.  And there are bizarre things like the Conservative Bible Project, which makes the Bible more in line with American conservative political beliefs.  But there aren't that many people doing the Jefferson Bible thing, intentionally abandoning whole chunks.  For most people, they make do by ignoring some pieces, but if you refuse to do that, then you're in a rough spot.

So it is that I decided to begin working on assembling the things I had found most helpful to improving myself and my life, beginning with The Analects.  There's a certain kind of hubris to it, I admit, since I'm daring to pass judgment on what is "useful" from one of the greatest and deepest things ever written.  But ultimately I don't think it's unreasonable: I don't know Chinese, and read it in translation, so those sayings based entirely on culture and puns are much less useful.  I also have the advantage of 2,500 more years of scientific advancement... it's not all that surprising that someone who has the benefit of the Enlightenment might have a leg up on even the greatest sage of a bygone era.

Someday, I will move on from the Master to Montesquieu or Montaigne or Mencius or Marcus Aurelius.  But for the time being, I'm going to start assembling my own commonplace book from the works of Confucius.  It should be a fun journey.

23 September 2014

Stay alive... the alternative doesn't have a lot going for it.

There tend to be two kinds of transhumanists: those who resent their life as it is, and those who cherish it.  This has become obvious as transhumanism becomes more and more mainstream.  Transhumanists believe that it is inevitable and desirable for mankind to exceed the limitations on life and ability imposed by the human body, living longer and doing more than biology would normally allow.  Of this group, some seek to surpass a prison of flesh - “to leave all of this meat behind,” as one anonymous Redditor put it.  A greater number simply resent that they have such limited choices.  They want the option to live forever, to see ultraviolet, and to touch magnetic fields.  As science fiction writer David Zindell said, “To be what you want to be: isn't this the essence of being human?”

Transhumanism is breaking out all over.  People like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel, ultra-wealthy technophiles, have been pouring money into research designed to extend the human lifespan and human capability; the current cover story of New York is a profile of Martine Rothblatt, another prominent transhumanist; and one of the most widely-read works of fanfiction ever written is a huge novel-length work called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky which leans heavily on impassioned denunciations of the concept of death (“[S]omeday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won't tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they're old enough to bear it; and when they learn they'll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!”)

I’m a bit of a transhumanist myself, at least in the sense that I would happily live forever if it became an option.  But not everyone is won over by the increasing prominence of this perspective.

Indeed, in response to the rise of breathless and near-Messianic denunciations of human limitation there has arisen a group firmly in opposition.  This view is exemplified by Ezekiel J. Emmanuel’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75."
I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
...
Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.
The article is brave and bold, and Emmanuel makes a variety of persuasive points in favor of a 75-year lifespan.  Some transhumanists sneer at opposition, referring to those who favor a natural limit on life as “deathists,” who only pledge loyalty to a limited life out of some sort of irrational Stockholm syndrome. This is seldom true, however, and Emmanuel takes care to present evidence and argument to support his perspective.  On several matters, however, I think he is badly mistaken.

Emmanuel argues that 75 is a good time to die.  He has several reasons:
  • Even though people can and do live much longer, an increasing number of older people are subject to greater and greater restrictions on their quality of life.  Death is preferable to a long physical decline.
  • Those people who remain healthy will still generally find that they are less able to contribute to society, as “creativity, productivity, and originality are pretty much gone” after the age of 75 for the “vast, vast majority of us.”
  • Your continued presence after age 75 will be oppressive for your children, who will be unable to be truly independent and find their own way, who will probably be burdened with caring for you, and who will have to watch you decay away from the vital person of your prime.
  • More money should be going to research Alzheimer’s and other late-stage ills, rather than prolonging crippled lives.
  • An expected end date for one’s life grants clarity and purpose to one’s life.
Emmanuel’s plan is that he will begin refusing most medical care as he nears the age of 75, avoiding any treatment that is curative and embracing only palliative care to make himself more comfortable.  He hopes for a pneumonia or infection to carry him away, quickly and quietly.  He is not trying to convince anyone else to die at 75, and doesn't even consider it the ideal for most people.  But he is quietly and seemingly genuinely happy to have the end to his life fixed on the calendar for 2032.

There is a poignant beauty to many of the arguments here.  Refusing to continue to consume resources and become a burden can be seen as a courageous act, and I very much support the decision to set the bounds and terms of your life.  However, there are serious problems here.

Many of the arguments, for example, are based entirely on a decline in physical and mental ability.  Emmanuel correctly points out that researchers’ efforts at ameliorating late-life illnesses have been less successful than their work at avoiding swiftly fatal diseases - while the lives of the elderly are better, on average, than those of a generation before, we simply have a greater number of people who are living long enough to get sick.

To put it another way, imagine we’re talking about a new robot they can install in cars.  These robots make cars run better, even when those cars are very old.  But they’re really good at avoiding accidents.  There are fewer and fewer accidents every year, as our robot cars get smarter and smarter.  This means that more and more cars survive to get very old… and even though we've advanced our ability to maintain a car after 200,000 or 300,000 miles, we’re still not that great at it.  And so an increasing number of cars chug along, belching black smoke or grinding their worn gears.  We've saved them from sudden accidents, but only so that they will decay on the road before our eyes.

This is a reasonable concern, but it’s a very separate issue.  Emmanuel has conflated two very different issues.  On the one hand, he speaks about a timely death at what he considers a reasonable age, but he’s also talking about choosing to die with dignity rather than slowly decline.  And these are two very different things.

We might be reminded of the Sibyl from Greek mythology, blessed with immortality but not youth.  T.S. Eliot quoted from The Satyricon about her at the beginning of The Wasteland:  "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die."  And assuredly, I don’t think anyone considers this to be their goal.  At a certain point, physical and mental misery might prompt anyone to choose death, instead.  As disease ravages your mind or your body, and if there is no reasonable hope of cure, but only the prospect of suffering, we might justly decide that nothingness is preferable.

However, this is true for people of any age.  I am not urging suicide lightly - in the overwhelming majority of cases it is a permanent solution to temporary problem, and if you feel drawn to it please speak to someone (you can just pick up the phone and talk to a kind, helpful stranger at 1-800-273-8255).  But if you advocate for euthanasia and a death with dignity, it doesn't matter whether or not you’re 75 or 105.  What matters is that your suffering is too great to be borne.

Emmanuel plans to die in 2032, eighteen years from now, regardless of whether or not he is still at his peak physical or mental health.  His choice is unconnected and cannot be motivated by a concern over his quality of life, which is quite a separate issue.  His reasoning works to argue for an option for euthanasia, not death at 75 irrespective of health.

The author himself appears aware of the large flaw in his logic, but unwilling to confront it.  He writes that while many people are disabled by age, “[t]hat still leaves many, many elderly people who have escaped physical and mental disability. If we are among the lucky ones, then why stop at 75? Why not live as long as possible?”

His answer?  Confusedly, he argues that even when we don’t experience mental disability with age, we still experience a natural mental decline in most cases, as “our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older.”  This is, naturally, simply the same argument.  Yes, there might be a point at which our mental functioning is too low to have a good quality of life, without significant hope of improvement from later therapies or technology.  But this may occur at any age.  Being unable to think of new ideas or being creative or being productive for society is not a sine qua non of a fulfilling life, or a life that gives back more than it receives.

When he admits this flaw in his argument, as well, he simply turns yet again to a new argument, suggesting that too long a life can harm our children.  Before addressing this, we should pause to note that bringing up a new argument does not suffice to fix serious flaws in your previous line of thought.  He asks himself why he might want to die early, and says that he doesn't want to experience a painful physical decline.  And if he’s healthy?  Well, he doesn't want to experience a mental decline.  And if he’s sharp?  Well, he doesn't want to stop being productive.  And if we think being productive/creative is not necessary to a happy and full life, or if he’s still productive?  Well… the children might be unhappy!

Anyway, note that medical and technological solutions could address literally every one of his concerns so far.  If we develop a way to selectively dissolve plaques accumulating in the brain, and eliminate Alzheimer’s, for example, then it would be unwise to having already committed via self-neglect, as Emmanuel planned, based on the assumption that Alzheimer’s would make your life not worth living.

Those solutions might not arrive in our lifetime - or maybe even never at all, although that strains my credulity.  But just presuming that these issues of senescence won’t be solved, or that you will probably develop one of them, is a pretty flimsy reason to die one minute before you must.

Emmanuel does present a few arguments that truly do present valid reasons why one might wish to die at 75, regardless of health or well-being.

He states that “[w]hen parents live to 75, children have had the joys of a rich relationship with their parents, but also have enough time for their own lives, out of their parents’ shadows.”  And I have to admit, I can see some merit to that argument, though naturally I do not want either of my parents to die.  But if I had children, I can see myself growing old and wanting them to come into their own.

The thing is, I’m not sure that’s (a) always the case or (b) sufficient reason for anyone to die.  I know that my father has been proud as I grew to be a man, and I can imagine the same thing.  I can imagine a future world, in fact, where it was considered odd that anyone ever thought in terms of primacy, of a “head of the household” or the like.  Our society and families have developed around this natural progression from one generation to a next, but if the nature of our lives changed, I think our self-images and society would have little trouble in adapting.

But let us say that this was an insoluble problem, and many people went almost all their lives feeling overshadowed by their parents.  I just can’t think of how that then leads to the conclusion that the parents should kill themselves with neglect, to get themselves out of the way.  That actually seems kind of twisted to me, a self-imposed martyrdom that would leave an even bigger burden of guilt.

How about this: move to Florida, instead.  Go to The Villages and start a new life of delighted retirement, and vacate the area so that your children can live without shadow.  If it’s really so important that your children escape “pressure to conform to parental expectations and demands,” then go play shuffleboard, far away.  This also has the advantage of probably delaying diseases of senescence, too, since an active life among like-minded people has repeatedly been shown to keep you alert and high-functioning.

This solution would also address another of Emmanuel’s reasons, since he argues that he wants to preserve the memory of himself as a vital and strapping fellow, not a decayed old thing.  “We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking ‘What did she say?’ We want to be remembered as independent, not experienced as burdens.”

If this is really a serious worry, then go to Florida.  Heck, if you really want to make sure you’re remembered well, cut off all contact with your family after 75.  But I think that hypothetical illustrates that this is really vanity.  We may not want to be remembered for our last stages, but we remain ourselves even as we grow to a great age, and produce a richer overall picture.  Siddhartha Gautama’s parents secluded him as a child so he would not have to witness old age or illness, but those things are also a part of life, as he would later note when he became the Buddha and spoke of the transcendent value of such a passage in the Patala Sutta:
Whoever can't endure them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who trembles at their touch,
who cries & wails,
a weakling with no resilience:
he hasn't risen up
out of the bottomless chasm
or even gained
a foothold.
Whoever endures them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who doesn't tremble at their touch:
he's risen up
out of the bottomless chasm,
his foothold is gained.
Lastly, Emmanuel argues for one further benefit of a planned finale:
Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world. The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution.  ... For me, 18 more years with which to wade through these questions is preferable to years of trying to hang on to every additional day and forget the psychic pain they bring up, while enduring the physical pain of an elongated dying process.
While this mindfulness is valuable, death seems like a heavy price to pay for it.  Why not, instead, strive for it all your life… including well past 75, if you can manage it?  There are entire traditions devoted to cultivating mindfulness during one's life, practicing the art of active living and full experiences.  Pick up one of the large stack of Thich Nhat Hanh's books available at every bookstore, and see if that works better for you than a death sentence.

Given the remarkable progress of technology, and its increasingly rapid growth, it seems like a fairly good bet that most of what ails you will be cured or mitigated, as long as you survive long enough to see it happen.  There are no certainties, and indeed, even my generation probably doesn't have great odds of routinely living past a century.  Nor should this stop us from taking Horace's advice, for "dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" ("while we're talking, jealous time has fled: seize the day, trusting little in tomorrow").  But there's no good reason not to keep fighting for happiness every second that you can, hoping for a bright future.  The best justifications Emmanuel offers don't hold up to scrutiny.

The words of research Ralph Merkle occur to me in this regard.  He was discussing cryonics, the practice of freezing a recently-dead person in the hopes of later reviving them, but they work perfectly well when thinking about squeezing every wonderful moment of happiness and life from our time on the planet:  "Cryonics is an experiment. So far the control group isn't doing very well."