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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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: Germany's new leader of the CDU

Annagret Kramp-Karenbauer and Agela Merckel/Reuters
Last Friday, December 7, 2018, the center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU), the largest of Germany's seven political parties (30.2 representation in the Bundestag), elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as its new leader.  The CDU has been the dominant party in Germany since its formation on June 26, 1945, and has been most prominently led by Adenauer (1950-1966), Kohl (1973-1998), and Merkel (2000-2018).  Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) will lead the party into its next national election, which will be held sometime between now and November 24, 2021. Merkel remains Chancellor until then.

AKK was born, educated, and lives in the Saarland, the smallest of Germany's sixteen states after the city states of Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin.  The Saarland has fewer than one million people and accounts for about 1.1 percent of German GDP. The state's economy includes the automotive industry, mechanical engineering, steel production, pharmaceuticals/medical technologies, the ceramic industry, and it is a research hub for information and communication technologies.

The Saarland has been a political football since the end of feudalism.  Conquered by the French revolutionary forces it was made part of the French Republic in 1792. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the region was divided between Prussia and Bavaria. In 1870, Napoleon III ordered the invasion of Saarbrücken--the capital of the Saarland--sparking the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Thereafter the Saarland was made a province of Imperial Germany. After World War I, the area was again occupied by France and the UK who siphoned off coal revenues in order to collect on Germany's World War I reparations.  In a plebiscite on January 13, 1935 more than 90 percent of voters in the Saarland favored reintegration into Germany.  After Germany's defeat in World War 2, the French re-occupied and administered the area as a French protectorate until 1956. The French then proposed that Saarland be established as an independent territory under the auspices of the European Commissioner, with continued economic ties to France. This was rejected in a referendum on the Saar statute (67%), and Saarland joined West Germany as a state on January 1, 1957. 

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was born five years later, on August 9, 1962.  She has been active in party politics since high school. At age 22 she was elected to the city council of Püttlingen, and in 1985 became chairwoman of the city's CDU association. In the 90's she served as planning officer for the CDU in the Saarland under its environment minister. In 2011 she rose to Minister-President of Saarland (the state executive elected by the state legislature). In the 2017 elections she led her party to a dominant 40.7% vote share in Saarland among 16 competing parties. 

AKK is well liked across a broad swath of the political spectrum. She is notably not polarizing and has a down-to-earth reputation "with a strong sense of reliability," says The Guardian "Leadership is more about being strong on the inside, than loud on the outside," she has said. She is said to resemble Angela Merkel in style and politics and was championed by Merkel as her successor.  

She is married to a mining engineer come house-husband and has three children. She is a social conservative, Catholic, opposed to abortion rights, opposed to same sex-marriage, but a fiscal liberal. She is reported to be a big reader, fact oriented, knowledgeable. 

Here in the United States, of course, we watch this succession process in Germany's most dominant party wistfully as we contrast it with the shit-show that was the GOP primary process in our 2016 election cycle.   We wish AKK well, and hope the Democratic Party can do as well over the next two years in selecting a new standard bearer. 

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Marion's Guilt Racked Flight from Phoenix: Lynne Ramsey's Tribute to Hitchcock

You Were Never Really Here
a film by Lynne Ramsey (2017)
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette,
John Doman, and Judith Roberts

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is part psychological-thriller, part routine murder-mystery detective story, and it concludes with a deus ex-machina style explanation of schizophrenia as we understood it in popular culture in 1960. The film is expertly crafted so it holds us in its suspense from beginning to end, despite knowing the plot, and despite the passage of 58 years of movie-making. Part of it is the acting: Vivian Leigh (Marion Crane), Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), and Martin Henry Balsam (detective Milton Arbogast) are masterful in their roles. Part of it is the jarring musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock's own evaluation was that "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." And part of it is the efficient and skilled story-board directing of Alfred Hitchcock.

The slasher-movie genre, of which Psycho was a pioneering paragon, is not known for its subtlety of plot. Psycho is no exception. Marion Crane, a legal secretary who'd like to be married to her beau (Sam, lacking money), impulsively steals $40,000 entrusted to the lawyer by a client for a real estate transaction. She flees town (Phoenix, AZ) in her car, with the money, and we see her racked by guilt, in a state of high agitation, playing all the conversations her boss, the police, her fiancée, must be having back home in her head. For the duration of Marion's drive, we are inside her head. Hitchcock let's us hear the cacophony going on in her brain. The camera focuses on her darting eyes, her nervous fingers on the steering wheel, and we feel her struggle, anxiety, and distress.

Marion checks into a lonely motel on "the old highway." The owner, Norman Bates, is a charming young man. He falls for Marion and invites her to dinner at the house. He steps into the rain, saying "I will go and prepare the meal, and I will call you when I'm ready," (paraphrasing). While he's gone, Marion overhears a loud argument between Norman and his mother.  The mother sounds mentally disturbed, jealous of her son's overtures towards Marion. So Norman returns with some milk and a sandwich. They eat in Norman's study--a kind of museum to stuffed birds.  And they strike up an intimate conversation. "People never run away from anything, we are all in our private traps," says Norman. There is a glimpse of mental disturbance as Norman describes his relationship with his mother. And once they say good night, there is sexual deviancy: Norman looks through a peephole at Marion in Room 1, next to the office. This is shortly followed by the famous shower scene, where Marion is slashed and murdered. We see a fleeting glimpse of a dress as the murderer disappears.

The violence in the shower scene is implied. It is horror, but we are not shown the slashing directly. It's more the idea of horror. That iconic musical screeching. After this the film turns into a conventional murder mystery. Private detective Milton Arbogast is on the case, and he is murdered in turn with a conventional cover-up motive. The plot is pulled together by a forensic psychiatrist's explanation to those assembled at the courthouse: the mother was never really there!  By the film's end, Norman has had a full schizophrenic break and fully becomes his mother.

Lynne Ramsey's (2017) You Were Never Really Here is an open tribute to Hitchcock's film.

Unlike Hitchcock, Ramsey makes no effort to tease out any type of plausible plot line. The nominal plot of a sex ring that enslaves underage girls, including the daughter of a U.S. Senator who is the Governor of New York's "favorite" (he's a patron), and a police force complicit in a murderous cover up of this sex-slave operation, is not developed in any meaningful sense. It doesn't matter because the plot is willfully beside the point. It's like watching opera in that sense.

Ramsey's film has that same jarring dissonance between action on the screen and the film score as we enjoy in Psycho. Johnny Greenwood's  film score is every bit a match for Bernard Herrmann's score in Psycho. It keeps your blood flowing, and it is a big part of the film's success.

Unlike Psycho, there is nothing conventional about You Never Really Were Here. Ramsey amps up and develops that portion of Psycho that is Marion Crane's drive escaping Phoenix. Ramsey takes us inside the brain of Joe, a damaged soul, suffering from various unspecified traumatic events in childhood and in the military, and then Ramsey takes us inside the brain of the abused Nina (the senator's young daughter captured by the sex-ring).  Post-traumatic stress is to this film what schizophrenia is to Psycho. As in Psycho, the violence is more implied than shown. (There is much more of it) But the film is brutal, as A.O Scott correctly observes, not so much for its violence as the "grisly intensity of its mood."

The film expressly invites us to compare it's relation to Psycho. Unlike Norman Bate's mother, who was not real, Joe's mother is very much real. She is mentally ill, and the son--an avenging angel hit man--has a loving relationship with her. The film hints that both survived the abuse of a son-of-a-bitch husband and father, years ago. Norman Bates poisoned his mother and her lover a decade in the past; Joe's mother is killed by corrupt police. Norman Bates retreated into a split personality; Joe is racked by self-destructive impulses, suicidal thoughts and violent rage. Nina attempts to escapes into a trance of counting numbers backwards, and also submits to violent rage and murder. Norman Bates genuinely manages to touch (and positively influence) Marion Crane. They are a mismatch because one is healthy, one is a schizophrenic. Nina and Joe manage to help each other because they are both equally wounded personalities, crippled by trauma. Psycho ends with a clinical explanation of what happened (mostly psychobabble viewed 60 years on).  You Were Never Really Here ends with Joe waking from a horrific suicidal fantasy to be gently guided to the recognition that the sun is shining, and it's a nice day. For now.

A.O. Scott concluded that there is "less to the movie than meets the eye." I disagree. The film is a worthy tribute to Psycho. It is gripping, and (for me) it works as a meditation on the subjective nature of human perception. I'm currently reading Lisa Feldman Barret's book on how emotions are formed. Emotions are not neatly defined states that reside in specific regions of the brain and that respond to outside stimuli, she suggests; emotions are constructed in light of our individual histories, our experiences, and especially our traumas. Norman Bate's is beyond good or evil. The law absolves him of criminal responsibility. And when I watch You Were Never Really Here, I wonder what it would look like to take a similar (subjective) look at all the unexamined villains in this film. Like Joe, they do terrible things. And when we watch Joe, we ask, "what would their story look like, up close, with the camera staring at their brain?" Watch both of these excellent films and judge for yourself how they compare.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Hope: "the most irrational magnificent thing we are capable of as a species"

Pandora's Box/Wikia

(Hesiod ca. 700 BCE)
Zeus (was) in … anger … because Prometheus ... deceived him; therefore he planned sorrow and mischief against men. … `Son of Iapetus, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire -- I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.' 
 … And [Zeus] bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athene to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature. So he ordered. … And he called this woman Pandora (All Endowed), because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread.  
[T]hen he ... sent glorious Argus-Slayer, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. 
 For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. 
 Only Hope remained … within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out; … But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently… 
                                   --Transl. from Classical Texts Library 

This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests (Beatrice Han-Pile, Robert Stern, and Judith Wolfe) discussed the evil of hope--or is it a good--left behind in Pandora's box.  BBC 4 "In Our Time."

Why would hope be an evil? [1] Hesiod challenged us to ponder the question, and philosophers and theologians in the intervening 2700 years have taken up the challenge. Is Pandora's box, empty but for hope after all the (other?) evils escaped, a prison that keeps hope from us, or is it a pantry that keeps hope for us?

The story suggests that Zeus viewed hope as an evil. He was out to get his revenge on Prometheus (and mankind) for the theft of fire and he filled the box with evils. Plato picked up on this. Hope is often in vain, he noted. A distraction. It is a passion of the uneducated. It is the domain of those who lack sufficient knowledge or are easily swayed by wishful thinking.

But hope comes in many guises. For Aristotle, hope can be a good because it gives you courage to get up and do what needs to be done. For Christians it is an essential aspect of theological virtue: Love, Faith, and the Hope of being reunited face-to-face with God in the afterlife.

We fall ill and hope to get better. We fall in love and hope our love is requited. Our team is down six points with seconds to play, and (unlikely as it seems) we place our hope in Reggie Miller.  We vote and hope our candidate wins....

Christian theologians sound very Talmudic when they contemplate and dwell on Faith, Love, Hope and their interplay: they play with these terms and concepts, turn them around and venerate them from different angles, as if their very contemplation is a kind of worship. Take St. Paul. If there is no object of hope (eternal life in the presence of God), he said, then hope is in vain and an evil.  But, he posits (by faith), hope for eternal life does have an object, and it's not in vain. God has chosen to dwell with man in the figure of Christ. Christ, by being the incarnate God who has died and risen again makes possible the vision of a life that is no longer bounded by death.

The Enlightenment rejected revelation as a source for faith. John Locke (1632-1704) said the strength of our beliefs should be commensurate with the reliability of their source. He based both hope and faith in reason and the structure of the world. Kant realized that reason can't get us fully there. Hope, for him, fills a gap: a gap between faith given to us through revelation and grace (a cop out because too easy), and the limits of rationality (too hard and not sufficient). Thus as a Christian he hoped for the existence of God, even though he acknowledged he could not be sure of it. We have to make some effort, said Kant, while also relying on God's assistance.

For Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) the jig was up. The Enlightenment eliminated the possibility of God. Hope could not bridge the gap for him. Young Nietzsche adopted a very pessimistic view of the hope left in Pandora's box: hope is fundamentally deceptive and it hides the true nature of life from us, he said. Life is endless suffering and there is no God to redeem it. Hope hides this tragedy from us.

The older Nietzsche still believed that hope is deception, but he mellowed in his feelings towards this deception. Hope is like a rainbow, he said: we have to hope to learn anew. Like Aristotle's hope leading to courage, Nietzsche now grants that hope gives us the get up and go for what needs to be done. The deception of hope is a good thing, therefore, because it helps us to live. Hope makes this life bearable. Let love of life be your highest hope, he counseled.

Robert Sapolsky, the neuroendocrinolgist who has devoted years to studying baboons in the wild, had a similar message for the assembled masses in a commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2009. We are not so unique in the animal kingdom, he observed. We share most of our genes with fruit flies, and baboons have the ability to murder, to empathize, to form social structures, and to transmit cultural styles. Like us, baboons have a conception of "other minds." We are merely "uniquie" in many of these attributes. We can abstract better, we can reason better, and we can do these things in ways that are completely unprecedented, but, above all, suggests Sapolsky, what distinguishes us is our ability to carry on in light of contradictions. What is that if not hope.

Take Soren Kirkegaard (1813-1855). Kirkegaard said that Christian faith requires that faith persist in the face of the impossible, and that humans have the ability to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things. Sapolsky offers Sister Helen Prejean as an example. Sister Prejean ministered to men on death row for years. When asked why she did this she always had the same answer: "the less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven," she said. "The less lovable a person is, the more you must find the means to love them."  That strikes Sapolsky as wonderful. "As a strident atheist," he says, "this strikes me as the most irrational magnificent thing we are capable of as a species." And Sapolsky continues with the inspirational part of his commencement address ....
It's in that realm (of our ability to entertain contradictions/of hope)[2] that we (far exceed) the fact that we can do special things (as a species) with theory of mind, and special culture, and all of that, and it's this simple trait that moves us. We are not (the most special of species) simply because of this property of us. It does not come easily, and the harder it is--this contradiction, this impossibility of something being the very proof that it must be possible, and to become a moral imperative--the harder it is to do that, the more important it is. 
You, as of tomorrow around noon, are officially "educated." And as part of your education, what has happened is you learned something about the ways of the world, how things work; you've learned the word real politik, you've had your eyes opened up, you've wised up. And one of the things that happens when you've wised up enough, there is a very clear conclusion that you have to reach after a while, which is at the end of the day it's really impossible for one person to make a difference. And thus, the more clearly, absolutely, irrevocably and unchangeably clear it is that it's impossible for you to make a difference and make the world better, the more you must. You're educated, and privileged, and so there is nobody out there better positioned to sustain this contradiction for your entire life, and to use it as a moral imperative. So go do it! 
 It's what Robert Reich has been doing for 50 years. It's why we vote. It's what will see us through.

[1] For a good general discussion of the history of "hope," see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Hope."

[2] I've taken slight liberty with the word "hope" here. If you listen to the Sapolsky talk, which I recommend, he uses a non-specific pronoun.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Atrocities of War

Today at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" marks the cessation of formal hostilities ending World War I. "The war to end all wars!" Right.  

To my limited consciousness and understandings of world conflicts, World War I stands out as the most senseless, useless, and incomprehensible of wars. A bunch of cousins sending millions to slaughter. For what? Spasms of colonial competition and nationalist hubris? The Ottomans were not the only "sick man of Europe." See, e.g. Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers.

Siegfried Sassoon was a British trust fund baby. His father was from a wealthy Jewish merchant family from Baghdad, his mother Anglo-Cathloic. His mother loved Wagner operas, hence the name. Sassoon spent the pre-war years playing cricket, dabbling in poetry, and studying history at Cambridge. 

Caught up in war-fever, like the rest of his generation, Sassoon and his younger brother joined the British army on the eve of World War I. The brother was killed in the Gallipoli campaign. Siegfried, sent to the trenches in France, became friends with, and inspired the poet Robert Graves.  "[Sassoon] soon became horrified by the realities of war," says his Wiki entry, and he penned poems "intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches: ... rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide." 

Sassoon was a manic war hero who engaged in "suicidal feats of bravery," reported Graves. Here is Graves' description of one incident:
[Sassoon] went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. "British patrols" were Siegfried and his book of poems. "I'd have got you a D.S.O., if you'd only shown more sense," stormed Stockwell.
On July 27, 1916 Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross medal of honor. The inscription read: "2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus. For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy's trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in."

But by 1917 he became disillusioned by the political leadership of the war and he penned a letter of "willful defiance of military authority," Finished with the War: a Soldier's Declaration. "The war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it," he charged. "I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed," he said.

Here is an example of one of Sassoon's war poems, hoisted from an earlier posting (July 19, 2014).


You bragged how once your men In savage mood,
Butchered some Saxon prisoners. 
That was good!
I trust you felt no pity when they stood
Patient and cowed and scared, as
prisoners should.

How did you kill them? 
Speak and don't be shy:
You know I love to hear how Germans die,
Downstairs in dug-outs. "Camerad!" they cry;
And squeal like stoats when bombs
begin to fly.

I’m proud of  you. 
Perhaps you’ll feel as brave alone in no man’s land 
when none can save or shield you 
From the horror of the night
There’s blood upon your hands.
Go out and fight.  

I hope those Huns will haunt you with their screams
And make you gulp their blood
in ghoulish dreams

You’re great at murder. 
Tell me, can you fight?  

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

And here is Samuel West reading the poem.  

This poem was censored and was known by a much tamer version for a long time.  I first ran across it when Harry Brighouse linked it on Crooked Timber.