About France

I have read about a couple of authors who have characterized the French as being disappointed and discouraged. The theory is that the idea of France as a leader of civilized life has suffered a check. The idea is that the French are envious of the role that English plays in today’s world.

I hope that this is not true. For I have to say that what I find in France quite contradicts this. I have always found, in every part of that country that I have visited over the last twenty years, a proud people, very welcoming of me and my wife, whatever our competence in their language might be. (Believe me, for myself in the beginning it was quite negligible. In Montpellier in 1995 I was proud of being asked, by two young girls, what time of the day it was – even though the only thing I could do to answer was show them the face of my watch)!

We have visited Paris most often. This is a beautiful city, human in scale in a way that New York is not, which I admire. (There are too many skyscrapers already, so bless the Parisians for saying no more Montparnasse Towers)! In Paris, for us, there have been really very few problems. Most of the people we have to do business with speak better English than we do French. But when they get the idea that we want to speak their language, they are perfectly willing to do that too. That to me is gracious, even magnanimous. And we find that routine. There have been almost no occasions when a French person deliberately made us feel like foreigners.

We spent time in the Dordogne, near Sarlat, a part of the country that I compare to the Adirondack Park in my state of New York – but with much better wine. Another time we stayed in Menton, on the south coast, where we were traveling as members of a chorus, close to Italy but not really tempted to go there, for the city itself was sufficiently interesting. We drove through the mountains, along the Gorge de Verdon, to the beautiful village of Moustiers-St Marie, where countless visitors since the Middle Ages have made their pilgrimage. This village depends now on tourism, but it has a rich cultural and craft history. The people there were very welcoming. I could go on for all the parts of France we have visited, from Normandy to Strasbourg, from Sancerre to Tours. Everywhere we met only kindness and interest in our well-being.

There was a time in Sancerre when we were attending a language course at the Ecole de langues. My wife had a problem with her eyesight. The course director sent us to her own general practitioner who quickly referred us to a specialist in a nearby town. We went there by cab, and the driver waited in town for us to finish our business, and brought us back. We got excellent medical care, even though we were foreigners. I can hardly imagine the same good fortune happening to any tourist in my country.

Once we were in Rheims, and undecided about lunch, we bought some wine and charcuterie, and went to a local park to have a picnic. Our surroundings were clean and pleasant, and we had a wonderful time. Again, in my country, this little adventure would not have been possible. There would have been a lot of trash, and unpleasant people in the area.

We rent cars in France and travel on the AutoRoutes. The roadside Aires are magnificent by comparison with those in the USA; the road surfaces are smooth, the traffic is well-regulated, the trucks have to travel slower than anybody else. All of these things are worse in the USA than in France.

When we visit museums in France we find almost every time a class of students, led by their teachers, being instructed in the arts and history of their country. Generally this does not happen in America. If the French complain about their education system, imagine what they would say if they lived in New York.

My father’s tomb is at the military cemetery in Colleville, on the Normandy coast. We have often seen classes of students, led by their teachers, visiting the cemetery, and learning about the recent history of this part of their country. After seeing this I do not listen to people who make disparaging remarks about France.

We can only spend a few weeks at a time in France. To keep up our skills in the language, we take part in a literature group and a conversation group, each of which meets once a month. I have become a reader of French literature, particularly late 19th and early 20th century works. I see in this the origin of many of our cultural memes. The ideas that founded our country come in large part from the work of 18th century French writers. We cannot forget the support of the French in our own founding as a nation. Likewise, the works of many modern French writers and authors fascinate millions of Americans. What happens in French politics shows up on our TV. So, even though we speak English here, we owe a lot to French ideas, and we care about what happens there.

So, to my friends in France, not numerous but well -loved I say, forget about disappointment. You have a great country, and we still have a lot to learn from the way you do things.

The Republican Nomination Contest

Well, now we have both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the lists for President. Of the two, Paul is the more interesting because he is not a militarist, and he favors easing the punishment for drug law violations. This difference will cost him some votes vs. people like Cruz, and might gain him some votes against the Democratic nominee, almost certainly Hillary Clinton.

Paul’s libertarian views are extreme, and show a fundamental misreading of human nature. We are not autonomous individuals, but, inescapably, members of social groups of increasing size, benefitting and being benefited by those groups. The only apes that are autonomous, arguably, are the orangutans of Borneo, the males spending their lives alone except for an occasional mating with a female. The female’s only society is her own offspring. The orang is rather distant from us on the family tree of life. Closer are the gorillas and chimpanzees, all of which live in moderate sized social groups, comparable to those of human hunter-gatherers. We find these apes much more interesting, much more like ourselves. The reason is simple. Like them, we are social animals, and we rely on each other.

Libertarianism and conservatism would deprive us of Social Security, Medicare, and mandatory health insurance, would cut regulations on polluting industries and predatory corporations, let support for the indigent dry up further, privatize public education, sell off public lands, and refuse to deal with climate change and overpopulation. The Republican primaries will wind up selecting somebody to try to put a pretty face on all this. We should avoid being fooled.

A Failed Audition

I have been singing as an extra with Albany Pro Musica since 1990. This despite not being able to read music, at least not at the beginning. This failing of mine, that dates back to grade school when my parents and teachers allowed me to opt out of music class in exchange for doing more arithmetic, has been a limitation in my choral career. It slows me down in learning new pieces.

At times I thought maybe I would study music and learn how to sight read, but I never got around to doing that. I tried a couple of times to become a regular member of the chorus, auditioning with the founding director, David Janower. But being able to sight read is a requirement for full membership, and as I got older I think the quality of my singing declined a bit. I finally gave up the idea, but I remained a member of the “B” team and got to sing one or two concerts every couple of years. There are some good musicians who were not accepted into this group, which is officially called Albany Pro Musica Masterworks. So I was happy to be in Masterworks.

When David passed away a couple of years ago, the principal chorus sang with a number of interim directors before hiring José Daniel Caraballo, who moved to this area from Vero Beach. The first production involving Masterworks was scheduled for this spring, and it was necessary for everybody to have an audition with the new director.

I was not looking forward to this audition. I was rusty, and I had heard from some choristers that it consisted of a series of exercises of increasing difficulty that stopped only when one made a mistake. The audition itself seemed to me to go OK, but it really did not. I got an email explaining that I had trouble matching pitches, remembering patterns, and intonation, i.e., holding a pitch instead of drifting flat. I had to agree: with a diagnosis like that I would have a hard time participating.

But I was not entirely satisfied that this was a definitive judgment. In addition to certain physical frailties, I have substantial hearing loss, and I use hearing aids. These are sophisticated programmable devices, and I had four programs designed for different situations. Could it be that these were at fault, reporting incorrect pitches? I downloaded an application to my Iphone, called PitchPerfect ($2.00 from the Apple Store). This “listens” to pitches that are played or sung, reports the letter of the note, the frequency, and plots a whole note on the treble or bass clef. It can even generate leger lines, if necessary. I played a C on the piano, and this program dutifully reported the fact. Then I tried to match the pitch as best I could. B. It turns out all pitches on all my programs were reduced a semi-tone. This is because most of my hearing loss is in the upper frequency ranges, so the programs compress the sounds to push them into my better listening range. Most of the time it does not matter, but I noticed that a lot of musical pieces that I know well did not sound so great with these hearing aids.

I went to my audiologist and got a new program added, just for music, that does not change the pitches that are played into my ears. I got a second audition.

The result was much better. I could match pitches and remember short passages played on the piano. I still have a problem with intonation, but that is much more manageable than not being able to reproduce pitches that other people hear. I will have another audition and we will see then if I can fix the intonation problem. In the meantime, though, I feel pretty happy with the new program on my hearing aids. Music sounds better, and it is easier to produce.

I am adding an update. I had a second audition and was permitted to sing. But I really could not fix the problem and had to drop out.

A Bad Week for Religion

CNN (Feb 17) published a story, “Religion’s Week from Hell”, about the spate of atrocities, more or less religiously motivated, that took place in the previous week:

“Across several continents, including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, scores of religious believers suffered and died in brutal attacks over the past seven days. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike all fell prey to assaults.”

One of these stood out because there seemed to be an atheist at the bottom of it: three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shot dead by Craig Stephens Hicks. He frightened a lot of his neighbors even before this attack, and it is not entirely clear just what his motives were. The recent killings of Jews, other Muslims, and Christians were all carried out by Muslims – some affiliated with Al Qaeda and others with ISIL. At what point will large numbers of people decide, like Hicks, to take revenge on Muslims for these repeated attacks from groups like ISIL? It is indeed something to worry about.

There are about 1.6  billion Muslims on the planet. Almost all are law – abiding, peaceful people. It is they, and not their violent would-be leaders of whatever stripe, who define their beliefs, read their holy books and literature, and follow more or less faithfully the advice and counsel of their spiritual leaders. But any group of people, particularly those motivated by ideology, could become aroused to action. This is the fearful result of provocations repeated too often.

ISIL claim to be the correct interpreters of Islam. According to an article by Graeme Wood in the March Atlantic, these people believe they have established a caliphate – a territorial state in the ancient Islamic tradition, obeying strictly the injunctions in the Koran as to treatment of enemies, apostates, and the like. In effect they are ultra-fundamentalists intent on imposing a rule of law established for Muslims over 1000 years ago. The prescriptions of this law are bloody minded in the extreme. Wood concludes in his article that the west has no choice but to confront this regime, but should not fulfill Koranic prophecy by sending in occidental forces on the ground. Many of the victims of these groups have been Muslims. Condemning Islam would only make it more difficult to suppress these extremist groups, and it would be unjust as well. Most Muslims are not deserving of that.

 

Permission to Operate

Just before we took off for France last June, we played host to an organization that was promoting solar power for private homes in our area. I have two friends who were members of the group.  One, a retired engineering professor, had long experience with solar power; the other, a biology professor, had already installed a system in his home and was an active member of this group. I had talked with both about it, because I had received an offer from a private company that would install a system but retain ownership of the equipment, selling me power at a fixed rate likely below what the power company would offer. What about this? I asked my engineer. His answer – they are making more money out of this than you. He went over the economics with me, and I became convinced that it made sense to actually buy a system. So, at the suggestion of my biologist, on that June day my wife and I posed on the back lawn for a story for the local paper, which would promote the cause of solar power in our community.

Our vacation lasted three weeks, and so we did not actually get the ball rolling with the contractors until July. Over the course of the next several months, the project proceeded at a glacial pace, it seemed to me. There were weeks when I would hear of no progress; occasionally somebody would show up for a crucial piece of design work, and then nothing would happen. In November, finally, a crew came to install a new net meter that could handle a new parallel source of power to the house. A week or two later some people came to install posts in the ground to hold the ground unit. It was not until early January that the crew arrived to lay the cables, install the 16 ground panels and 5 roof panels. Even then it was not ready to go. We had to wait for the power company to send an inspector and then issue the Permission to Operate. That just arrived a couple of days ago, and today we finally turned on the system. We were in the middle of about 60 households who had signed up for the contract that had been negotiated by the group.

Harry Cleaning Snow of the Solar Panels

Problem: the panels were covered in snow. Fortunately, my contractor informed me, I could buy a snow-raker from an auto parts store or car dealer and without damaging the ground panels scrape the snow off. This entailed a fair amount of work, because I had to dig a path through deep snow to even get to the unit. I also had to buy a long extender from the paint department at Home Depot so that the scraper could reach the top panels. After a fair amount of effort I had removed the snow by midafternoon. By the end of the day the system had collected 3 KWH of solar electricity. I feel as I did when I got paid my first dollar.

The Symmetry of Slaughter

President Obama is catching flak from Republicans for remarks he made about the murderous acts committed in the name of Christ during the crusades and later in Jim-Crow country, rightly comparing those to the barbarisms of ISIS. An article in the New York Times, February 6 2014 reported for example : “‘The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”’ In my opinion, however, Obama was right. Everyone was horrified, for example, by the burning to death of a Jordanian prisoner by ISIS a few days ago. But how is that different, really, from the stake burnings at the hands of the Inquisition, a Catholic institution that continued doing this until the early 1830s? It is not just Islam and Christianity that carry this burden of history, as witness the terrible religious violence that has occurred regularly in India. Religious wars are comparable in moral terms if not in sheer scale to the violence of Nazis who killed millions of Jews, handicapped, or Gypsies during World War II, based on a long festering prejudice pumped up to a racist ideology. People are capable of mortal violence when they believe on religious or ideological grounds the evil character of some other group. Gilmore’s criticism, apart from its obvious pandering, shows simultaneous ignorance of history and human nature. Add to this the frequent ignorance and denial of science among Republicans, one is struck that the Republican Party remains vulnerable to the criticism, in the words of one of its own, Bobby Jindal, as “the stupid party.”

Good News About Hillary

The results of a new poll show Hillary beating all the GOP candidates who are being touted for President in 2016.

The Republicans in Congress are most likely going to make a mess sometime in the next two years; it is likely they will lose the Senate again, and their majority in the House will probably shrink.

We are going to have divided government, but I think we can count on Hillary to do a good job.

 

From Free Will to Broken Windows

I present here some thoughts on free will, indiscretion, crime, and sanctions.

I have reported earlier on this blog my reading of Free Will (Free Press, New York, 2012) by Sam Harris, and I have read some other books that touch upon the subject. What follows is for the most part not original with me, but represents a kind of synthesis of what I have learned about this subject.

We are self-aware creatures. We regard the world, perceive sounds, odors, sensations, we can observe our own bodies, we can think, and we can even think about thinking. Many feel that we have the ability to choose what to do, to direct our minds, as if there were a little version of ourselves in our minds, directing our behavior. This idea is at the heart of the concept of free will and is the foundation for a dualistic theory of the mind. Dualism is widespread, having adherents in both religious and legal scholarship. The basic tenet is that given a set of circumstances, one can freely choose one of several actions. Put that simply most people do not object to this statement.

It is only on reflection that we realize how little control we have over our minds. Thoughts enter our heads by surprise quite often. They change due to our conscious processing or they disappear without being considered in any depth. Example: I am thinking about a pink hippopotamus at the moment, for no good reason. Now I am turning my attention to the next paragraph of my essay, and shortly I will no longer be thinking about that pink hippo – unless of course it comes back to mind…

Scientists have conducted experiments (discussed by Harris in his book) that show that certain events in the brain strongly correlated with decisions take place before a person is actually aware of the decisions he or she makes. The delay is sometimes several seconds in length. This is evidence that the decision is made by our unconscious, and is represented by brain activity that takes place before the decision becomes a part of our conscious attention. This evidence is consistent with the idea of determinism.

Determinism holds that everything has an antecedent cause (despite atomic-level indeterminacy, which is considered irrelevant at the scale of the brain and in any case random). Determinism is a fundamental assumption of science, and its value is assessed by the practicality of the results produced by science. On this view, given a set of circumstances, there is only one action a person can take – the one that is caused by the events preceding it. Thus the things we do are imposed on us by the sum total of circumstances. We are not therefore morally culpable for anything bad we do, or morally praiseworthy for anything good we do. We do everything because we are caused to do it. If you think this does not follow, consider an example described in more detail by Sam Harris in his book. Imagine a boy who accidentally shoots his sister to death with a gun. He will not be held accountable for this by anything like a prison sentence. But if the boy is 21 years old and does the same thing, there will be legal consequences. Yet again, if he is shown after the fact to have a brain tumor that could have caused his actions, he would not be held morally accountable, but would instead qualify for medical treatment at state expense. As soon as we know or even suspect the cause of his act, and recognize that it has nothing to do with his wishes, our opinion of what to do with him changes.

Nobody pretends that there is a practical means of documenting the chain of causes for any but the simplest of systems, let alone the brain. Thus, to all practical purposes we cannot predict reliably what another person will do, and if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot reliably predict what we ourselves will do. This makes us feel as if people are free to do whatever they want, but the determinist holds that that is really an illusion. Furthermore, the determinist position is that we nevertheless are responsible for the things we do, whether they are good or bad, not because we chose to do them freely, but just precisely because we and not somebody else actually did them.

This has implications for social customs and law.

Imagine that I laugh out loud at a funeral. That would be considered an unusual and bad behavior on my part. It would likely have negative social consequences for me. Recognizing this, I refrain from laughing out loud at a funeral, but then again I might go ahead and laugh, and nobody, perhaps not even I, could explain why. However, if it were normal to laugh out loud at funerals, it would be unusual to act strictly grave and circumspect.

Thus it is that social circumstances influence our behavior, and that influence is not completely compelling. Practically speaking, it is as if I can of my own free will violate social convention. (After all there is no documenting the reason for my strange behavior)!

Now when people violate social conventions or commit crimes, society does indeed impose sanctions on them. These can be quite harsh sometimes, even to the point of executing those who commit the worst crimes. What is the effect of the deterministic view on this? A dualist might say “Quite a lot.” If we cannot point a finger of indignation at a person just because his bad actions have been determined by allegedly unknown processes he cannot control, society would rapidly collapse. But one can argue in response to this that society needs to prevent bad behavior and is quite right to attempt to do so. Compared with the dualistic view that holds so widely in law and religion, the only thing that the scientific attitude changes is the moral indignation that accompanies the social sanction that offenders receive. According to this view, recognizing the physical facts underlying behavior does not alter the need for society to regulate it.

All this affects the debate about the character of sanctions. These can range from a lifted eyebrow to the detonation of a nuclear bomb, without altering the fact that human brains are integral parts of the body and that there is no self-conscious “mini-brain” in each that directs decisions made by the brain. The scientific view is that consciousness is a property of the brain arising from its organization, but it is not informed by the entire brain – many brain functions take place without coming to our conscious attention. And few would deny that the unconscious has a powerful influence on conscious thought, especially in the light of recent scientific investigations. This view is strongly supported by medical and psychological experimentation and observation, and is fully consistent with our subjective perceptions, if we are honest about them.

What can we say about the sanctions we impose on bad behavior? This is a vast subject with a long history. The whole body of law, secular and religious, domestic and international, deals with it. Obviously I cannot address all that, but it seems important not to ignore the insights that determinism offers. One such insight is that vindictiveness is not justified by the physically determined character of human actions. Where do we see vindictiveness? It is prevalent, more or less. The most severe sanctions are imposed for the worst offenses. An extreme example of sanctions is warfare, but capital punishment also qualifies as a top priority for our attention. In Europe, there are no countries that execute convicted criminals. In the United States, China, India, and most Muslim countries, the death penalty persists. Thanks to DNA fingerprinting, it has been found recently that a small but significant percentage of those convicted of murder are later proven to be not guilty, both in the USA and the UK. Probably no legal system on earth is free of errors like this; it is virtually certain that capital punishment will lead to innocent people being executed. This is a powerful argument against the death penalty in the USA. Another argument is on the grounds of efficacy. Those who support the death penalty for certain crimes claim that it is a deterrent. But police report that most criminals believe that they will not be apprehended or convicted of crimes that they commit. If that is true then the existence of such penalties is without effect on the likelihood that they will commit capital crimes. There seems to be no scientific evidence on the effect of capital punishment on murder rates. Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, has said, “Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment(1).” Considering the deterministic character of human behavior, the purpose of sanctions on serious crimes would be limited to preventing the criminal from repeating his offense, and would no longer include a component of revenge. That does not mean that severe sanctions should not be used, or that they should not be graded according to the gravity of the offense, but it does mean that the goal of sanctions should be socially practical. We should really look at what the evidence says about the effect of prison on criminals, which sanctions work and which do not, and how can we regulate behavior of criminals by other, possibly cheaper means than prison or execution. But if free criminals think that they will not be caught, there can be no credible deterrence in heavier prison sentences or capital punishment.

What does seem to lower crime rates is an enhanced security policy, which increases the real and perceived likelihood that an offender will be apprehended. This may include very simple things, such as fixing broken windows, keeping streets and sidewalks in repair, and enforcing building codes, in addition to putting police in greater numbers in areas where crime rates have risen. There is some empirical evidence for the efficacy of such a “broken windows” strategy.

On this view, there are some real social benefits to be had from a science-based conception of the basis of human behavior. Not the least of these would be a reduction in the cost of prisons and improvement in the built environment and its security.

1. Death Penalty Information Center

Good News in New York

Today the news came out that New York will not allow fracking. The evidence that it contaminates the environment is too strong for responsible officials to ignore. I am not sure what was the most decisive, but the presence of benzene in the air around drilling sites was pretty alarming.

A second bit of good news is the recognition of Cuba by the US government. This is long overdue. The danger of Communism so close to our shores, a bugboo for Republicans, never was very convincing to me, once the Soviet Union had collapsed. We need to have normal relationships with our neighbors, even if our political systems differ considerably. Not that I want to visit Cuba! Key West is close enough for me.

A third bit of good news, not so recent actually, is the decline in unemployment. Obama inherited an immense disaster, thanks to his Republican predecessor, GW Bush. The country is just now regaining the position it had lost.

A fourth bit of good news are the tremendous discoveries being made in science and technology. The detection of sudden methane emissions on Mars suggests that there may have been life on the planet; every day it seems that there are new medical and scientific breakthroughs.

The one fly in the ointment is the immense power the Republican party has gained in the last election. The good news was a little too slow in reaching the public. These grinches could well spoil it all.

 

Move Away from Fossil Fuels

The following letter from me appeared in the Schenectady Gazette last Saturday:
A retired engineer named Russ Wege in the December 8 Schenectady Gazette “Science is not settled on climate changes” goes over some of the known history of climate change, noting that temperature has gone down sometimes when carbon dioxide levels were rising. But are we really expected to believe that climate scientists are unaware of the history of climate change? Temperature fluctuates, and to perceive trends, one has to consider the totality of relevant data. On a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years, global temperature and carbon dioxide levels are correlated. There is evidence from many independent sources that the planet is warming (polar migration of tropical ecosystems, glacial melting, and sea level increase for example). There is convincing evidence that carbon dioxide has been increasing rapidly since the 1950s (the Keeling curve) and that this is due to the burning of fossil fuel (Suess effect). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that causes the atmosphere to retain heat. Numerous quantitative models that are based on the known physics of carbon dioxide and other climatic factors, and that accurately model past global temperature, all predict that temperatures will rise from 2 to 5 centigrade degrees before the year 2100. Carbon dioxide is a major player in all of these models (IPCC Report).
Ecologists have taught us that the characters of biomes (such as deserts, prairies, or tropical forests) are determined by rainfall and temperature. We know that even small changes in temperature can upset an ecosystem. Thus, the whole arrangement of the biosphere could change as a result of global temperature changes. Like it or not, we depend on the current arrangement of the biosphere. The biggest cause of current global warming is our burning of fossil fuel. Mr. Wege thinks there is nothing to be done, but surely it is unwise to keep on adding to the problem.

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