Friday, June 7, 2019

Perceiving the World Through the Sense of Smell

The Scent Keeper
Erica Bauermeister
St. Martin's Press (2019)
307 pages

You need to sell about 9,000 books in a week (the first week?) to make it onto the New York Times best seller list says one book marketing expert.  Erica Bauermeister's fourth novel, the Scent Keeper, landed on Oprah Magazine's list of "buzziest books being released in May 2019." That's not yet the New York Times bestseller list, but it's a start and well deserved.  The Scent Keeper has one of the key ingredients of a best-seller: a compelling book with incredible writing.

Part fairy tale, part coming of age story, part fragrance industry expose, and part philosophical reflection on how we perceive the world through our sense of smell, the book draws you in from its opening line--"We are the unwitting carriers of our parent's secrets, the ripples made by stones we never saw thrown"--to our heroine ultimately confronting, forgiving, and standing up to her parent's secrets.

"Emmeline, like Once upon a time, Emmeline," she says.

"I wanted to explore what it would be like to grow up and live prioritizing our sense of smell over our other senses," said Bauermeister at Imprint Books in Port Townsend, WA (I'm paraphrasing). It's a promising project for a novel because our sense of smell is intimately connected to memory and emotion. Bauermeister immersed herself in six years of research about our perception of scents, the connection between scents and memory and emotions. She researched the scent industry and she spent time absorbing the scents on a remote island chain in northern British Columbia.  The work paid off in rendering a simple linear coming of age plot line with deep nuance and interest.

The denominative title of the book is rendered in the singular, but Emmeline derives from a royal line of scent keepers.  Her grandmother was an appreciator, saleswoman, and connoisseur of Chanel No. 5; her mother a perfumer and sorceress of scents; her father an inventor of a kind of camera obscura for the instant preservation of scents, and hence memories.  There are scent keepers in this book, including young Fisher, a mixologist who can divine people's "real drinks."

There are the scents of the island, the pines, the mosses, abalone, clams, mussels, and seaweed; there is the smell of rain and winter, and the fragrance of spring. There are the fading scents mysteriously maintained by Emmeline's father in small bottles kept in rows and rows of apothecary drawers accessed with a ladder. There is the scent of fear, of incest and rape, of sex, of violence, and love.  The scents of memory.

Do they reveal any objective truths,  these scents? Do they tell a story to be trusted, or are they just there to delight, torment, and haunt each of these scent keepers?

It's a skillfully crafted and engrossing novel lovingly told.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Gender Inverted Adventure Down the Colorado River

From A.C.T. Production in San Francisco

Men on Boats
written by Jaclyn Backhaus (2015)
Key City Public Theater, Port Townsend, WA
through April 27, 2019

To open their 2019 season, Key City Public Theater in Port Townsend present Jaclyn Backhaus's all women play about John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869.  It's top notch theater.

Jaclyn Backhaus knows about dissonant roles and identity. She was born in Wisconsin to a first generation Sikh mother and a German-Catholic father.  Her mother was ostracized by her family for the intermarriage.  She was affected by the racial murder of a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa shortly after the 9/11 attack, as well as by the racially motivated killing of six at a Sikh temple in Oak Ridge, reported the New York Times in a profile.

Backhaus grew up in Phoenix Arizona, where the Colorado river must have been very much in  consciousness. In 1869 John Wesley Powell recruited his older brother and eight other adventurers and mountain men for the exploratory journey.  The trip was sanctioned and partly paid for by the U.S. Government and Powell was able to ship the four boats used by the expedition by train all the way from Chicago to the launch spot at Green River Station in Wyoming. The transcontinental railroad terminal had been completed there just two weeks before the Powell party arrived.

The 10 women cast communicates in 21st century banter. But the gender switched roles and snappy dialogue does not turn the play into a novelty. The women are tightly choreographed to convey the danger and force of the river. The loss of two boats and supplies, and dissension among the crew regarding the correct course of action, spearheaded by a mutinous William Dunn, a hunter and trapper, punctuates the action. Should they portage or float through a rapid? Should they abandon and attempt to reach the grand canyon's rim, or carry on? These are life and death decisions and the explorers had no way to compute the odds.

Although the play is closely based on Powell's notebooks from the journey, the all women cast and modern dialogue breaks any illusion of verisimilitude. These are not Powell's men. But the play's the thing, and by shunning pretense the play is successful in immersing us in the story on its own successful terms.

There are great sound-effects of wind, roaring cataracts, snakes, and the echoes of the canyon walls. The play could have benefitted from live music accompaniment.

Come and support live theater in Port Townsend. The season is off to a good start.

For more on the Grand Canyon, here is a report on our own journey a couple of years ago.

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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Wolfgang Fisher's "Styx:" a lackluster film that does not make us care enough

Mediterranean refugees/AP

Written by Wolfgang Fisher and Ika K├╝nzel
Directed by Wolfgang Fisher
Starring: Susanne Wolff and Gedion Oduor Wekesa
94 min. (2018)

Rieke, an athletic young emergency room doctor in Germany, decides to sail solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island. It's a long journey that would carry her 2,500 nautical miles along the North African Coast to Cape Verde in Senegal, and from there out into the middle of the South Atlantic to a volcanic man-made garden inspired by Darwin. It's more than a vacation.  More like a six month sabbatical.

Rieke's craft is modern, with communications gear, radar alarms, self-tailing winches, seemingly ample battery power and electrical generation capacity. Still, it's an extreme activity: sailing a boat by yourself for weeks on end, with no-one keeping watch for hours at a time, and handling sails by yourself during storms and squalls; it is not for the faint of heart.

Only 40 sailboats stop at Ascension island in a given year says one who did.

We don't know what motivates Rieke's trip. The opening scene suggests she's burnt out from dealing with the aftermath of violence, death  and crime in a big European city. Does she have connections on shore? Family, friends who care?  She outfits her craft in Gibraltar, silently by herself, amidst the ugliness of this commercial port, revealing nothing. High on the hills above, Barbary macaque monkeys climb down to the built environment. Nature mingling with civilization. The blue sea sparkles and beckons beyond.

I saw the film at the Rose Theater in Port Townsend, and during the introduction, seemingly by way of excuse, it was explained that the film was shot with six people crammed onboard with cameras and drones. The crew was challenged to frame each shot to maintain the illusion that Rieke was alone. Perhaps as a result, the filmmakers did not succeed in generating many artful shots. There's nothing compelling about the sailing footage.

The film is literal but geographically out of place. After a storm off the coast of Mauritania Rieke spots a fishing trawler overloaded with refugees. We think of the Mediterranean and the more than 17,000 refugees who have perished there in the last five years. The trawler is dead in the water and evidently in distress. Vague figures wave and yell for help in an undecipherable language. As Rieke approaches some of them jump overboard, even though they can't swim.  We don't learn what the trouble is. Are they out of water? Are they diseased? How long have they been adrift? Rieke believes they are dying.  But why? Why in the next 12 hours?  A boy, perhaps fourteen, manages to reach a life line Rieke tosses to him.  He is lifeless as she manages to wrest him onto the boat.

Rieke frantically calls for help on the radio. She raises an unidentified coast guard station. They give brusque orders to her not to approach the trawler. She will make matters worse by approaching; the desperate refugees will riot, they will overwhelm her and her small craft.  Help is on the way, they assure her. But they offer no specifics. Ten hours pass, no help appears. A passing freighter refuses to lend assistance. "Company policy," says the master. Rieke begins to wonder if help will actually show up.

The main drama of the film is the interaction between Rieke and the young boy, who implausibly revives, and turns out to be ungrateful, surly, and irrational. These scenes are poorly written and unconvincingly acted. There's not enough humanity for us to hang onto.

We take our cue from the film's title, a reference to the river Styx in Greek mythology that separates the world of the living from the underworld. Rieke bears witness to the demise of these poor refugees, like some traveler on the river bank watching dead souls being ferried across. She is frozen in place, unable to leave the scene, and unable to approach to help.  It torments her, but it's not clear what her moral dilemma is. We are not sure whether she is afraid to help, whether she fails to act because she believes there is nothing she can do, or whether she is simply following the orders of the disembodied voice of the unidentified coast guard. The film does not succeed in making us care.

Watching dead souls being ferried across the river to the underworld, after all, is not a moral dilemma. It's a novelty.

Could Rieke have approached the fishing trawler, tied up to it, and delivered water, food and ministered to the sick as best she could until help arrived from the coast guard--who were on the way?  Maybe. The film makes no convincing case why not beyond fear and prejudice. If so, Rieke had a legal duty to assist. The  1982 UN Convention on law of the sea provides that "the master of a ship ... insofar as (s)he can do so without serious danger to the ship, .... (must) render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, and (must) proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress." See Part VII, Section 98.

The 2004 Amendments to the Convention further clarified that the owner of any ship, or a shipping company, may not hinder or prevent the master of a ship to proceed with any action (s)he deems necessary to safeguard the safety of life at sea. The refusal by a freighter to lend assistance, as portrayed in the movie, would be a crime.  "Company policy" is no excuse.

Yet even if Rieke could have tied up and rendered some assistance, but did not because she was paralyzed by fear, we could understand it. In accordance with the law of the sea, her fear--and implicit judgment that she could not render help safely--would be respected. In this sense, she is in no different position than a couple witnessing a mugging on the way home from the theater. They avert their gaze and quickly walk on. It's understandable and excusable.

What's inexcusable is that this film, widely and favorably reviewed, does not succeed sufficiently in making us care about a real life human tragedy unfolding in our time.

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Friday, February 15, 2019

Ilhan Omar needs to Shape Up

Ilhan Omar (D-MN) attacks Elliot Abrams/screenshot
Among the many artistic and literary efforts blossoming in Port Townsend, Washington, is Bonnie Obremski's Storyborne project. It kicked off at the Cotton Building on Water Street last night with Alex Dugdale and Dirk Anderson playing hot bass and saxophone, and a handful of locals coming forward to tell their heart stories: a sailor troubadour's tale of fatherhood, a mime's history, tales of #metoo, and our ex-mayor and still councilwoman (Michelle Sandoval, here boosting PT) telling her story of not being tall enough, or blond enough, to break into 1970's Hollywood. The hook of the story was her realization that Mexican culture was cool. She attended a cultural event in Los Angeles and there was Paul Simon and David Byrne trying to learn from Latin culture.  "Fuck assimilation," she concluded.

Assimilation is a tricky thing. Our prejudices are tapped when we watch Ilhan Omar’s exchange with Elliot Abrams over U.S. policy in Venezuela earlier this week. Her English is not native. She’s not blond and blue-eyed. Born in 1981 in Mogadishu, Somalia, she's from a "shithole" country as Trump would have it. Yet the fact that this immigrant who arrived at age 14 from a refugee camp in Kenya can be elected to Congress from Minneapolis/St. Louis Park and environs at age 37, attests to something that is great about this country. Sandoval is correct: music, food, and ethnicity, don't need to be assimilated. Our multi-cultural society does not need to be homogenized.

So what kind of assimilation should we be looking for when we look at someone like Ilhan Omar? What brings us together as Americans is we have organized around a set of principles and ideals: individual liberty, separation of church and state, due process of law, equal protection, and freedoms of speech, assembly, the press, petition, and religion. These values come with responsibilities, let's call them political virtues. Virtues like integrity, honesty, empathy, a thirst for genuine solutions that are good for the country as a whole, learning, and political involvement with a dose of humility regarding our ability to know the correct course.

As a country these days, we are not very assimilated around these political virtues. Our commitment to our founding values is being tested. There is a gulf between rural America and urban America: red and blue for shorthand; Trump America and Obama America. We are wavering on our commitments to free speech, to equal protection. We are not taking politics seriously. On Facebook we share mean and outrageous fake news for giggles and kicks. At the highest levels of power our representatives are wavering in their commitment to democracy. Politicians are practicing power politics devoid of values.

Congress is populated with too many political hacks. We should expect every one of our representatives to assimilate towards higher political skills, more integrity, and a genuine interest in learning and policy. We should all take our responsibilities more seriously. We should not spread fake news on Facebook for kicks.

I had a negative reaction to Omar’s exchange with Abrams. It’s not because she’s a Somali immigrant, or Muslim, or dark skinned. It’s not that there aren’t serious points to made about Abrams’ impunity regarding previous lies to Congress, and his involvement in murderous Latin American policies in the 80’s and 90’s, or that this should make us skeptical about American policy in Venezuela today. See, e.g., the analysis by Zack Beauchamp at Vox. What grates for me about Omar's questioning of Abrams is that she made those points in an ad hominem attack that lacked nuance, that lacked a commitment to understanding, that lacked humility, respect, and  a genuine interest in learning about our Venezuelan policy, or what that policy should be. It was an attack that lacked political skill and political virtues.

Omar started her four minutes of questioning by calling Abrams a lier. "I fail to understand, why the members of this Committee or the American people should find the testimony you give today to be truthful," she said. And she would not let him respond.

She asked him about the El Mozote massacre of 750 villagers in El Salvador by government soldiers, some of whom were trained by the United States, and with a self-conscious "gotcha" smirk she asked: "Yes or no, do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement?"

"Would you support ... war crimes ... and genocide... in Venezuela if you believed it advanced U.S. interests?" she asked.

This manner of questioning reflects entirely too much of the disingenuous partisan questioning we saw by Republican House members during the Benghazi hearings. It is not questioning that is aimed at the truth, or at advancing actual policy, or at persuading anyone. It is partisan grandstanding and bullying.

The U.S. policy in El Salvador and its effects should be brought up and we should be skeptical about our involvement in Venezuela. But we need to do so in light of our political virtues: we need to prioritize the values of integrity, respect, humility, and a genuine search for truth and what is best for the country.

Let's assimilate over that.  Let's elect representatives who exhibit those values and apply them with skill. Ilhan Omar needs to shape up.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Is Trump About to Hit the Wall?

Sen Min. Leader Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
Feeling bullish/National Review photo
It's nuts. President Trump is staking his presidency on securing $5 billion (and who knows how much more would be needed?) to extend the border wall an additional 1,000 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego to Brownsville. [1] In order to get his way Trump and his GOP enablers in Congress have shut down a portion of the government. Affected are 380,000 federal workers across the country who are furloughed and not being paid, and another 420,000 federal workers who are directed to work without receiving any paycheck until the shut-down ends. This includes correctional officers, customs and border patrol officers, and transportation security officers. In addition, science researchers and many tens of thousands of other federal contractors are not getting paid, and their payments may be at risk (i.e. they won't get paid when the shut-down ends).  

Senator Lindsay Graham has warned that if Trump doesn't win this game of chicken, it could mean the end of his presidency. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, seems to agree and he has vowed not to bring any legislation up for a vote unless it has Trump's blessing. In other words, McConnell has vowed not to bring a house bill that would fund the salaries of TSA employees and CBP employees to a vote in the Senate without Trump's approval, and Trump has said he won't approve unless the Democrats authorize funding for his wall. This morning, Jim Geraghty speculated at National Review that Democrats may crack under the pressure. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who appears to me to be calling the shots, seems to agree with Lindsay Graham and McConnell, but seems to think she's got a winning hand. Frankly, it's hard to imagine how she does not. She can say "No" to border wall funding, and she knows the Senate will have to act on the House bills to re-open government sooner, rather than later. How long does McConnell think he can keep border agents and TSA agents working without receiving a paycheck?  

There is no Crisis at the Border

Pelosi and the Democrats have good reason not to give in to this blackmail--even without Lindsay Graham's encouragement. 

Human migration is timeless. We've been doing it since we left Africa in numbers 50,000 years ago. At the same time, Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China notwithstanding, people like to stay put. Absent some compelling reason, populations remain relatively unaffected by migration. The main drivers of migration are economic needs, droughts, wars, and political unrest. Whether borders are open or closed, that is not the determining factor.

California has open borders with the 49 other states in the Union and with the territories of Puerto Rico,  Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. No matter how poor the conditions in Puerto Rico and the Rust Belt states, these open borders do not result in a flood of immigrants. During the decade from 2007 to 2016, for example, California experienced total migration (in and out) of 1.2 million per year. [2]  The net change in population from migration is just 100,000 (or 0.2%) annually. Not much. And if we compare California's unencumbered open-border migration numbers with the migration numbers across the closed, non-open and militarized national borders of the United States, the numbers are about the same: in 2016, net immigration to the U.S. from all sources was ~900,000  [3] ( or .27% of the population). In other words, open borders or closed, the rate of migration is about the same. 

Undocumented immigration across the southern border fluctuates with the economy and the desperation of people living in dysfunctional Latin American states. Immigration reached a peak when the economy was booming in the first half decade of the 21st century, and it dropped off markedly following the greater recession, starting in 2008.  

According to Pew, as of 2016 there were 5.4 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico living in the United States. The number has declined by more than a million since 2007.  Significantly more than 80 percent of undocumented workers from Mexico have been living and working in the United States for more than 10 years.  Id.  These immigrants are tightly integrated in our communities. They commit far fewer crimes than the native born population. Contrary to the assertion of Trump and his enablers, there is no known, relevant, domestic terror attack from someone crossing the southern border illegally.  

Which is to say, there is no "emergency" on the southern border. See, e.g., this BBC News report. 

How Many Actually Cross the Southern Border Illegally?

There are no good numbers on how many successfully manage to cross the southern border illegally. In 2015, the Customs and Border Patrol claimed an 85% apprehension rate.  Based on 397,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2018, that would indicate fewer than 60,000 managed to illegally cross the southern border in 2018 (~164/day along our 2000 mile border with Mexico). According to Bloomberg, the Institute of Defense Analysis estimated that 200,000 made it across in 2015 (or 548/day).  Whether it is 60,000 or 200,000 undocumented immigrants, these are people intent on coming here to work hard and earn a living. They do not present a national emergency. And the numbers are small compared to people overstaying their visas--estimated to be 607,000 for fiscal year 2017.  

Democrats Should Stay the Course

As James Hohmann pointed out in the Washington Post this morning, Trump ran on building a wall (to be paid by Mexico) and he lost the popular vote. He ran on the wall in the mid-term election, and Republicans got trounced. They lost 40 seats in the House. Democrats won the House by 10 million votes, the largest margin of victory ever.  Democrats received 12 million more votes for Senate than Republicans. [They lost a net results of two seats because they were defending more seats, and there is the structural issue that California's population of 40 million gets two senators, and Wyoming's population of 600,000 also gets two senators]  Lindsay Graham may be correct: Trump may be about to hit a wall. And the Mueller report has not even been released yet. 

Nancy Pelosi is licking her chops.

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[1] The border is just short of 2,000 miles from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas,  and some type of barrier already exists along about a third of this distance, especially in the West.  

[2]  For the decade 2007-2016 5 million people moved to California from other states, and 6 million left California for other states. 

[2] Total immigration was 1.49 million. This includes foreign-born individuals (ages 1 and older) who resided abroad one year prior to the survey, including naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, and others who might have lived in the United States for some time prior to 2016; as well as temporary nonimmigrants and unauthorized immigrants.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Einstein at Leiden, November 12, 1923

Einstein, Ehrenfest and Ehrenfest's son, Paul
University of Leiden (June 1920)/Instituut-Lorenz
Searching through the Times archives I ran across a short article of Albert Einstein (1879-1955). The news clip said Einstein arrived "hurriedly," taking refuge in the Netherlands with his friend Paul Ehrenfest (1880-1933) on November 23, 1923. Ehrenfest was a colleague, a professor in physics at Leiden University.

From Ehrenfest's Wiki entry:
On (Ehrenfest's) invitation Einstein accepted in 1920 an appointment as extraordinary professor at the University of Leiden. This arrangement allowed Einstein to visit Leiden for a few weeks every year. At these occasions Einstein would stay at Ehrenfest's home. In 1923 Einstein stayed there for six weeks, after German ultra-nationalists in Berlin had made threats against his life. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lorentz' doctorate (December 1925) Ehrenfest invited both Bohr and Einstein over to Leiden, in an attempt to reconcile their scientific differences about the emerging quantum theory. These discussions were continued at the 1927 Solvay Conference, where Ehrenfest much to his dismay had to side with Bohr's position in this great debate. [For more on the Solvay Conference, see my post here]
This journey to escape Berlin from death threats from ultra-nationalists occurred  four days after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch which landed Hitler in jail. Hitler served just eight months of a five year sentence, using the time to dictate Mein Kampf. 

A promise of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was that Jews would finally consolidate their full emancipation in Germany. It was not to be. The Holocaust intervened. Here is one sign of trouble, from early in the Weimar Republic.

The 1925 census counted 564,973 Jews in Germany. After the Holocaust, the remaining Jewish population in Germany was just 37,000.  Seventy years on, this number has increased to 117,000,  with an "enlarged" Jewish population nearly twice that size.

Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Southern Germany, half-way between Munich and Freiburg. The family moved to Munich, where his father operated a public utility based on direct current, and Einstein studied at the Luitpold Gymnasium.  At age 16 Einstein renounced his citizenship in the German Kingdom of Wuerttemberg and transferred to Argau, Switzerland to complete his secondary education. This was followed by mathematical studies at the Zurich Polytechnical University (ETH). He gained Swiss citizenship in 1901 and then a job at the Swiss Patent office where, in 1905 he published his four groundbreaking papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy, which established him as a major scientist at the age of 26.  In 1908 Einstein was appointed professor at the University of Bern, and the following year at the University of Zurich. In 1911-1912 he lectured at the University of Prague, before returning as a full professor to Zurich.  In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Einstein was recruited by Max Planck to teach at the University of Berlin. There he remained for 19 years.

In March 1933 the Nazis came to power in an electoral landslide in Germany. That September, his friend Paul Ehrenfest murdered his own son (suffering from Downs syndrome) and took his own life.  In October of that year, Einstein accepted an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University in New Jersey.  Einstein became a United States citizen in 1940.

Here is an Inkwell studio animated explainer of Einstein's theory of relativity, silent movie variety, from 1923.

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I received an email from a friend who used to work at the Institute. There is “One small correction in your Einstein post,” she notes. “The Institute for Advanced Study is not a part of Princeton University. It is an independent organization founded in 1930 by Abraham Flexner with the cooperation (and money) of the Bamberger family (Bamberger Department Stores). I worked for years for the Institute and this was a correction we were always making.”

She continues:
“The Bambergers were brother and sister Louis and Caroline Bamberger (Fuld). They gave a $5 million initial gift to found the Institute and eventually about $18 million in all. Flexner was the first director. The first two faculty members of the Institute were Albert Einstein and Oswald Veblen.

The Bamberger stores were eventually sold to Macy's (apparently just before the depression). After the sale, Bamberger split a million dollars between his 240 employees.
In its founding statement, the institute described its mission in part as follows:
“The Institute should be small and plastic (that is flexible); it should be a haven where scholars and scientists could regard the world and its phenomena as their laboratory, without being carried off in the maelstrom of the immediate; it should be simple, comfortable, quiet without being monastic or remote; it should be afraid of no issue; yet it should be under no pressure from any side which might tend to force its scholars to be prejudiced either for or against any particular solution of the problems under study; and it should provide the facilities, the tranquility, and the time requisite to fundamental inquiry into the unknown. Its scholars should enjoy complete intellectual liberty and be absolutely free from administrative responsibilities or concerns.”
"The Institute is unique. It is the first and probably still the best of the many similar organizations that it inspired. It's a place where faculty and members are free to study whatever they want. There are no required year-end reports; no required attendance at seminars; no classes to teach etc. The idea is to bring together great minds and give them freedom from everyday pressures so that they can pursue their subject while interacting with other "great" minds. It's worked out pretty well. In mathematics, for instance, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists are either faculty or members of the Institute.

"I worked for Carl Kaysen (an incredible person) who was the director of the Institute. During the time I was there, there were huge battles going on about Kaysen's attempts (successful) to establish a School of Social Science at the Institute. The mathematicians were against him. It made headlines in the New York Times. It extended all the way down to the rug fund for the common room. One mathematician sent a penny to Kaysen. Here is description of Kaysen's battles as seen by Freeman Dyson
"In general, I would say the Institute is extremely successful in its mission and does take people out of the maelstrom of the immediate - but people are still people with all their flaws.

"For me personally, the Institute was an incredible learning experience. I had the opportunity to know and be friends with some of the great minds of our times. It was an intellectually stimulating place, located in an idyllic setting.  Except for the maelstrom of the immediate, I might never have left!"  
Thank you, Geraldine.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

When we Sing of Love

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD
How Emotions are Made: the secret life of the brain
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017) 
448 pages. 

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University where she heads the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. She is the president-elect of the Association of Psychological Science, “the leading international organization dedicated to advancing scientific psychology across disciplinary and geographic borders.” She speaks well, as in this talk about her book at Newton Books on May 3, 2017. She has a high opinion of herself. In a scientific paper outlining her “hypothesis” of constructed emotions, she alludes to her theory as a “scientific revolution.” In her book aimed at the general public, How Emotions are Made, she generally drops the guise of hypothesis in favor of more pedantic certainty (e.g. “as you have learned in the last chapter….”) She is not modest. On her personal website she promotes her book as “groundbreaking…, one that could revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind.”  

Barrett has a Ted talk with more than 2.5 million views as of this writing. Is there an inverse relation between such Trump-like success and intellectual rigor? There may be. Discussing the jury’s death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston marathon bomber), Barrett notes that juries generally base their decision on whether to impose a death penalty on their perception of a defendant’s remorse. She then said this—with a straight face: “As a scientist I have to tell you, that jurors do not, and cannot detect remorse, or any other emotion, in anybody, ever! Neither can I, and neither can you.” She follows this with some perfectly reasonable sounding information and advice. Does her book amount to a scientific revolution that will revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind? Does Barrett’s book clear the high bar she has set for herself? 

Emotions are a species of consciousness. We are aware of our fear. I once climbed along a slope on cross-country skis and passed through the rubble of an old avalanche. It had snowed again, and suddenly I was gripped by fear that the slope would give way once more. My heart raced, my palms turned sweaty, my breath was labored, and I felt acute anxiety as I gingerly walked on. This fear involved a sudden irrational exaggeration of the probabilities that the slope would fail again while I was in harm’s way. I’ve seen others afraid. For Barrett to claim that no one can recognize fear in another human, ever, is well… ridiculous. It gets clicks on the Internet at the expense of credibility.  

The terror of Phan Thi Kim Phuc/Nick Ut
The central question of brain science—the elephant in the room—is how do consciousness and mind arise from the operation of purely unconscious, physical, non-mental axons and neurons and associated brain structures. Barrett, seemingly including herself, reports that “Most neuroscientists agree that we are decades away from knowing the intricacies of how a brain works, let alone how it creates consciousness.” What this suggests is that Barrett, who places mental concepts, intentionality, and prediction at the center of her theory of emotion, is largely speculating about processes she does not understand. And she’s given to hyperbole. What could possibly go wrong? 

The Classical View of Emotion

Barrett takes aim at the notion that our emotions are fixed “essences.” Scientists steeped in the classical view of emotion, says Barrett, look at emotional concepts like fear, anger, sadness, and disgust and begin to look for physical traces of these states (“neural signatures” or “fingerprints”) in the brain. Darwin, she says, threw us off the scent by positing a collection of specialized inner forces, sculpted by evolution. On this “classical model,” says Barrett, our brain is a battleground for control over our actions. The brain battles the body, rationality battles emotionality, the cortex battles the subcortex, and forces outside of us battle forces within. Our animal brain is wrapped in a rational cortex endowed with insight and reason, which distinguishes us from other animals. But we come into the world preformed by our genes and we respond emotionally to what the world has to offer in pre-determined ways. On this classical view, says Barrett, emotions are evidence that we are animal through and through, although special in the animal kingdom because we can overcome our inner beast through reason. 

The classical view, says Barrett, holds that emotion categories are carved in nature, with every instance of an emotion (e.g. “Fear,” “Anger,” “Sadness,” “Disgust”) sharing a common biological fingerprint. But she has looked for those “fingerprints,” says Barrett, and they aren’t there. So the classical view must be wrong. 

Focusing on the Structure and Function of the Brain

Instead of starting with our concepts of emotion and inductively hunting and pecking for fingerprints in the brain, Barrett suggests that “as we amass petabytes of brain data (including wearable tech toys in the real world),” we should go about things differently. We should focus on the structure and function of the brain, and from there deduce what the biological basis of emotion might be. 

That sounds correct, even if, in a world where scientists concur that we are “decades away” from understanding consciousness, it seems prudent to approach this task with humility. How can we understand emotion on a biological level without understanding consciousness on a biological level?

Our Preoccupied Brains

The brain is preoccupied, Barrett observes. It keeps us breathing, our heart pumping at the correct rate, our immune system regulated, our hormones circulating, our digestive system in order, and our temperature regular. The brain has to “make sense” of the constant sensory input from our internal organs and tissues (“interoception”), and the brain must further make sense of all the information gathered through our eyes, ears, skin, nose, and tongue—in real time. In short, a large portion of our brain’s 86 billion neurons are preoccupied full time just to keep us going moment to moment. 

Interoception and Affect

This background operation of the brain influences how we feel moment to moment throughout the day, says Barrett. Interoception—the brain’s internal monitoring of the body—can make us feel up or down, good, or lousy. It can give us energy, or it can sap us of energy. “Interoception” and “Affect” are closely linked in that interoception leads to changes in Affect. This flow between interoception and Affect takes place during every moment of our lives.

“Affect,” she says, is not emotion, but a simpler feeling. It has two features 1) how pleasant or unpleasant we feel (valence), and 2) how agitated or calm we feel (arousal). Although in the science of emotion “Affect” is sometimes used to mean anything emotional, Barrett is limiting the term to refer to changes in our internal environment that we perceive as feelings of valence and arousal.  [see p. 72, fn 36]  “The pleasantness of the sun on your skin, the deliciousness of your favorite food, and the discomfort of a stomach ache or a pinch are all part of “affective valence.” Although these are mild examples, pains and discomforts of all sorts (what we feel in the foxhole; what we feel under torture….) would all fall under the rubric of affective valence.  “The energized feeling of awaiting good news,” Barrett continues, “the jittery feeling after drinking too much coffee, the fatigue after a long run, and the weariness from lack of sleep are examples of high or low arousal.” 

Affect, says Barrett, is universal and registers consistently in the brain from person to person, and even between different species. In other words, Affect has a fingerprint. 

As she is using the term, “Affect” seems to encompass all feeling states. What, we might ask, is left over for “emotion?” I think Barrett’s answer is “emotion concepts” are left over, the concepts we construct to categorize and name different feelings. I think that is different from how we normally think of emotions; and I’m not sure that simply separating the feeling state from the name we give it amounts to a scientific revolution that will change psychology, health care, the legal system, and our conception of the human mind. 

It is a further mystery, of course, that our conceptual knowledge of the world can also influence our Affective states. When we watch Michael Jordan celebrate after the Chicago Bulls won their sixth NBA championship in 1998 we know just how he felt. If we are describing his feeling in terms of Affect, we would say he maxed out on both the valence axis and the arousal axis. We’ve been there—alright, not exactly there—but we know how he feels. We can go on to put emotional labels on this feeling (this particular state of valence and arousal following hitting the winning shot and clinching a sixth NBA title): happy, ecstatic, triumphant, jubilant. And it’s true, these emotion concepts are social constructs of our particular society, and our language. And MJ’s conceptual knowledge of the world (e.g. that this was the NBA finals, watched and cared about by tens of millions around the world, and that he just made “the winning shot”) also was instrumental in shifting his affect.

Barrett suggests, I infer, that when the play-by-play announcer says: “That’s it! Bulls win. Jordan is pumping his fist in the air, he is jubilant….” The term “jubilant” is a social construct, readily understood by NBA fans everywhere, and that MJ’s emotion of “jubilance” is a socially constructed emotion. That all seems fine. But if I’m understanding her correctly, she also says that this emotion does not exist independent of the label we put on it. She claims that our experience of emotion is dependent on social constructs, and that we have a richer or poorer emotional life depending on our mastery of emotional concepts. Some poor souls might just feel “happy” when they win the NBA championship, while others who are more sophisticated can also experience “jubilance,” “ecstasy,” “triumph,” “elation,” and “delight.” 

If I’m understanding Barrett correctly here, she is playing language games. Separating feeling states from concepts in our thinking seems like a useful distinction, but it doesn’t revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind. The fact noted by Isaac Bashevis Singer remains: the poorest man—and we might add the man with the poorest vocabulary—is a millionaire in emotions. Singer, I think was referring to feelings, our affective states. The part that has a universal fingerprint. And when we sing of love, that’s really what we care about. 

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