Right and Wrong

...make a liberal tired, hungry, rushed, distracted, or disgusted, and they become more conservative. Make a conservative more detached about something viscerally disturbing, and they become more liberal.   Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 569). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A lot of research and pontification has been expended on what makes a person conservative or liberal.  One broad conclusion that is not particularly controversial is that liberal and conservative tendencies tend to apply broadly - those liberal on some subjects tends to be liberal on most.  Similarly for conservatives.  Both conservatives and liberals are convinced that their opposites are morally deficient.  Liberals find conservatives deficient in compassion and tolerance and conservatives find liberals deficient in some other stuff.

Some studies seem to confirm the liberal suspicion that conservatives, at least those of the so-called right wing authoritar…

NYT, Reaching for Greatness

Newspapers have pages to fill up, even when the real news is either too inconsequential or depressing to print, so a lot of really stupid stuff gets printed.  My nominee for today comes from the New York Times: 60 times Madonna Changed Our Culture.  I guess the former pop star just turned sixty.  I would be more sympathetic if I wasn't so much older.

I was never much of a fan, though I did appreciate some of her music once it made it into its Weird Al version.  Anyway, it seems that every reporter, copy boy and kiosk tender in the NYT stable got to submit some way in which Madonna "changed the culture."  Some of them might even be real, but the top few give a hint of the intellectual gravity of the enterprise:

1.SHE IS FIGHTING THE PERNICIOUS IDEA THAT OLDER WOMEN DON’T MATTER.  - yeah, we all fight that notion that old people don't matter, but we always lose.

2.  SHE TURNED HER CONFIDENCE AND STYLE INTO MOVIE STARDOM. - omg, that's got to be the first time anybody…


Westworld is the story of a theme park in which rich tourists can inflict their most depraved fantasies on extremely humanoid robots.  In an age when sexbots and virtual reality glasses are about to be mainstreamed, this is a prescient topic.  My old news review is based on Season 1, the only one I've seen.

What's good: rather sophisticated meditations on the nature of consciousness and the implications of artificial intelligence, gorgeous scenery at all scales, excellent music, lots of apt and penetrating Shakespearean quotations delivered by talented actors, and those talented actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and others that I did not recognize.  This series can suck you in.

What's not good:  A bloated and barely coherent plot that relies entirely too much on ugly Deus ex Machina.  For example, Harris plays a monstrously bloody sociopath in the early episodes, but the effort to give him meaningful motivation and backstory collapses into the ludicrous.  The g…

Portrait of the Artist as a ?

There is ample evidence that being a great artist is no innoculation against being a rotten human being.  Wagner and Picasso come to mind.  The recent death of Nobel Prize winning author V. S. Naipaul has provoked a flood of both praise and condemnation: praise for his work and a more mixed reaction to his life and character.  A child of the Indian diaspora, he was born in Trinidad in 1932 (on my birthday, though not my birth year).

I've only (so far) read one of his books, A Bend in the River.  Clearly a great book, it nevertheless left me with a distrust of the author's character, a distrust inherited, I expect, from my feelings about the narrator.  It fits neatly in my mind between two other great Africa books: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Part of the anger against Naipaul is personal, based on his misanthropy, misogyny, and treatment of the women in his life, including physical and psychological abuse.  The rest of it see…

Abrahamic Religions

Stated most straightforwardly, most of earth’s humans have inherited their beliefs about the nature of birth and death and everything in between and thereafter from preliterate Middle Eastern pastoralists.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 417). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  An exaggeration, of course, since those religions only got critical mass after people started writing stuff down - the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran.

Agricultural Blunder

Agriculture enabled civilization*, but what else bad can be said about it?  Sapolsky is another member of the not completely a fan club: Which brings us to agriculture. I won’t pull any punches— I think that its invention was one of the all-time human blunders, up there with, say, the New Coke debacle and the Edsel. Agriculture makes people dependent on a few domesticated crops and animals instead of hundreds of wild food sources, creating vulnerability to droughts and blights and zoonotic diseases. Agriculture makes for sedentary living, leading humans to do something that no primate with a concern for hygiene and public health would ever do, namely living in close proximity to their feces. Agriculture makes for surplus and thus almost inevitably the unequal distribution of surplus, generating socioeconomic status differences that dwarf anything that other primates cook up with their hierarchies. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump until we’ve got Mr. McGregor persecuti…

Unequal/Air Rage

There is a substantial body of observations that show that societies that are more unequal are more violent, have more crime, and dramatically less healthy.  Sometimes this exhibits itself in small but vivid ways.  Sapolsky has an example: The frequency of “air rage”— a passenger majorly, disruptively, dangerously losing it over something on a flight— has been increasing. Turns out there’s a substantial predictor of it: if the plane has a first-class section, there’s almost a fourfold increase in the odds of a coach passenger having air rage. Force coach passengers to walk through first class when boarding, and you more than double the chances further. Nothing like starting a flight by being reminded of where you fit into the class hierarchy. And completing the parallel with violent crime, when air rage is boosted in coach by reminders of inequality, the result is not a crazed coach passenger sprinting into first class to shout Marxist slogans. It’s the guy being awful to the old wom…