Saturday, September 29, 2018


No, this is not modern sculpture. Red agate and quartz from Argentina



All lines sink deep into the valley of the palm
into the small cavity where beats the spring of fate
here is the line of life look it flies like an arrow
the horizon of five fingers brightened by a stream
that rushes forward destroying obstacles
there is nothing more beautiful or powerful
than this onward rush

how helpless by comparison the line of fidelity
like a cry in the night like a river in the desert
conceived in the sand and dying in the sand
perhaps deeper under the skin it continues
spreads apart the tissue of muscles enters arteries
so we can meet our dead at night
inside where there is memory and blood
in the mines wells chambers
full of warm names

that hill wasn’t there — I remember well
over there was a nest of tenderness as round as if
a hot tear of lead fell on the hand
I remember well the hair
I remember the shadow of the cheek
fragile fingers and the weight of sleeping head

who has destroyed the nest who has piled
the mountain of indifference that wasn't there

why are you pressing your hand to your eyes
we are telling fortunes   who do you ask

~ Zbigniew Herbert, tr Oriana Ivy

Now, there is no “line of fidelity.” There is the “heart line” — but Herbert, with his chronic womanizing (apparently related to his being bipolar — he had affairs during his manic episodes, when libido is notoriously high), invented the “line of fidelity” to have something that applied directly to his situation (which is of course a common human situation, but some people are — how should we put it? — “less monogamous than others”).

One thing I deeply appreciate about this poem is that Herbert is not dismissing his affairs as not really infidelity — unlike Milosz who claimed that all that time he was indeed faithful to “her only.”


Romantic love is like cut flowers — it’s not rooted in reality and doomed to end, whether or not one of the partners meets an attractive “other.”

I remember well
over there was a nest of tenderness as round as if
a hot tear of lead fell on the hand
I remember well the hair
I remember the shadow of the cheek
fragile fingers and the weight of sleeping head

who has destroyed the nest who has piled
the mountain of indifference that wasn't there

The question is whether the romance will transform into deep friendship and attachment, with acceptance of the partner’s imperfections, or just keep on withering into deeper disappointment and alienation. But that part lies outside the realm of the poem.

The last line might be interpreted as “who was it this time” — but no. I went back to the Polish text, and the accurate translation would be “whom do you ask.” “Whom” sounds a tad stilted in English, so I decided on “who.” But that’s misleading — the meaning is rather the person you ask, rather than the name of the “other woman” (though I suppose she would be the informant with the most knowledge, except for the emotional discomfort).

And it makes a terrific difference who is telling the fortunes. Usually it’s a total stranger, and that’s just what puts us at ease. It was with glee that I learned that therapists don’t usually go to other therapists — they prefer to go to psychics. It’s so easy to confide in a “psychic.”

I never “believed” in the occult in the sense of being a True Believer, but something about it was very attractive. I’ll never forget how, during a long break in a Jungian lecture, the woman next to me turned out to be an astrologer — and in no time I was telling her things that I’d never told even my closest friends. Her interpretation was of course completely astrological: “He has to do that, he is a Cancer” — and that made me completely forgiving toward that particular man, completely accepting.

And again I experienced the insight that I'm sure I had before, and more than once: people will tell things to their psychic or astrologer that they will not tell to their therapist. The difference is unconditional acceptance. Religion talked about unconditional love, but delivered condemnation instead. It saw people as evil. But here, no matter how nonsensical the basis, you were like a dear child — you are an Aries, what else could you have done? A Scorpio Rising, of course you didn’t tell anyone, except now, confiding in this dubious stranger with her soothing voice — a mother figure who understood all, forgave all.


Sex education is very important — but shouldn’t we also teach the older schoolchildren something about love relationships, and how they evolve over time? For me, the shock of falling out of love for the first time was a startling and deeply disquieting experience. Wasn’t love supposed to last forever? Where did that dizzying feeling go? Was there something wrong with me? Was I abnormal, incapable of “true love”? No books or movies prepared me for falling out of love. But that is not something that should be kept a secret from the young.


Another life lesson that I learned from my devastating early relationships was that it’s more difficult if you tend to live in your head, without much external life. Then the relationship becomes more important than it should be. It can become a destructive obsession. But having rewarding outward-focus work and activities helps preserve perspective and keeps the brain on a more even keel. 

Byron diagnosed this situation correctly when he remarked “Love is of man's life a thing apart/ 'Tis woman's whole existence” (Don Juan, Canto I). Byron of course meant women of leisure, who in his epoch basically “had no life” as we’d say today. Fortunately the world has changed, offering richer options to women as well. The cure is to “get a life.”

This said, I simply have to have the “alone time” to digest what is happening. On the other hand, now I finally understand that having enough “external life” is an absolute necessity as well.

I remember how much emotionally stronger I felt once I began to devote time to poetry. Finally there was a passion in my life more important than romantic love, and what a triumph it was, what a coming into my own! I was no longer tossed by the whirlwinds of infatuation like Dante’s Francesca da Rimini. Or at least less so.

If satisfying work is not available, at least “gaze at the world,” as Larry Levis advised his overly introspective students. The beauty of the world has a healing effect.

For Nature never did betray
a heart that loved her

~ Wordsworth asserts. Only once I felt so shattered that I couldn’t respond to that beauty. Otherwise, even in my lowest moments, just “gazing at the world” has been enough to sustain my will to live. In Milwaukee, it was Lake Michigan, my sole sublime. In California, it’s enough just to look out the window. 

~ “There’s an eerie symmetry between Donald Trump and The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan, as if the villain of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel had been brought to life in a louder, gaudier guise for the 21st century. It’s not just their infamous carelessness, the smashing-up of things and creatures that propels Tom’s denouement and has seemed to many a Twitter user to be the animating force behind Trump’s policy and personnel decisions. The two men, real and fictional, mirror each other in superficial but telling ways. Tom moves like Trump, aggressive and restless, and talks like him, with ponderous pride. He picks personal fights in public, “as though … it would be a privilege to partake vicariously of [his] emotions.” Tom surprises his dinner guests with disjointed political speeches, warning insistently that “civilization’s going to pieces.” His patrician mannerisms are shot through with flashes of anxiety, “as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.”

Tom—the Yale man, the football star, the spender of old money, the scion of what he calls the Nordic race—embodies the peak of social status in his century. Trump—the former Playboy-cover subject, the billionaire celebrity, the most powerful man in America—does the same for his. And their shared personality traits are the product of their shared relationship to power—the casual unreflective certainty that comes from inheritance, and enables its holders to wield its blunt force as both a weapon and a shield. Such power has its own logic; it responds not to social or moral rules, but to what it perceives as danger. It’s for these reasons that in 2018, The Great Gatsby reads like a warning. For as much as it is a story about the American Dream, it is also a story about power under threat, and of how that power, lashing out, can render truth irrelevant.

Fitzgerald draws a connection between class and character from the first pages of the novel, encompassing honor and honesty in Nick’s comfortable middle-class notion of “advantages.” Yet it soon becomes clear that the advantage afforded by wealth is less a natural inclination to honesty than it is the privilege of bending the world to one’s own convenience. Nick sums up this dynamic:

    They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Money is a shield between the careless wealthy and the consequences of their actions, cutting them off from the reality of what they have done and what it means. Thus, although Tom (like Trump) has a reputation for having cheated on his wife, he decries the loss of family values, transforming easily “from libertine to prig.” His actions, however confused, are in his own mind “entirely justified”— so that talking to him feels, in the end, like “talking to a child.” Tom throws the weight of his denials around in tandem with his money, dismissively contradicting a man who sells him a dog on the street. When George Wilson, the mechanic, implies that Tom has been slow to produce the car he’s promised to sell him, all it takes is Tom’s cold “No” to make clear that he’s overstepped his place.

Yet Tom is far from the only character to use his wealth and status as a means for deceit. Jordan, similarly privileged, is “incurably dishonest,” relying on the assumed codes of polite society to protect her reputation just as she relies on drivers more careful than herself to stay out of her way. Gatsby acquires a new identity when he acquires his fortune, the excess of his belongings—shirts and books and oranges and flowers—matched only by the proliferation of stories about his roots. Nick, more subtly, aspires to do the same: He buys a set of financial books with “that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer,” seeking amid their “shining secrets” a way out of his old life and out of “that tangle back home” with a woman he’s rumored to be courting.

Even Daisy, idealized as she is, demonstrates the relationship between money and its power to override reality. As Tom’s wife, she personifies the kind of wealth that he possesses and other men can only pursue: In Gatsby’s words, “Her voice is full of money,” which is to say it’s seductive, hard to catch, and compels her listeners to belief, though she rarely says anything she means. At one point, Nick doesn’t notice her insincerity until the moment she stops speaking. When she does, he interprets her smirk “as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged”— signaling the couple’s elite status by flaunting how little they need to care for the truth.

Trump displays a similar carelessness. Amid the cloud of easily disprovable statements that surrounds his administration, he has also, strikingly, used falsehoods to define himself and his office—spinning claims of the largest-ever inauguration crowd and a landslide electoral victory and a record number of Time covers into the mythical biography of a superlatively powerful self. Trump doesn’t appear to care for realism, and maybe that’s the point: Whereas a social climber like Gatsby is meticulous with the details of his self-invention, stocking his library with real books though his guests would not be surprised by cardboard, Trump knows that the secret of power is effortlessness; in his world, as in Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s, wealth means less if you have to work for it. The president inspires loyalty through sheer swagger, telling it like it is even when it isn’t, speaking reality into existence: It is so, because I say so.

What can rouse such complacency into action? Only, perhaps, the notion that what Nick terms the “rather distinguished secret society” of the powerful is under siege. Tom expresses this anxiety early on in The Great Gatsby, when he warns from the head of his own opulent dinner table that “the white race,” having “produced all the things that go to make civilization,” must “watch out or these other races will have control of things.” He wants, above all, to preserve the ease with which he sets the terms of his world—“to ensure,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.” Tom is motivated by the same reactionism that Coates has documented as one of the forces that crowned Trump the successor to America’s first black president.

Tom’s fears aren’t brought to life, however, until he comes face-to-face with Gatsby—the man who “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,” whose smile, which “believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself,” reflects back to all who behold it the reification of their dreams. There’s convincing scholarship to suggest that Fitzgerald may have created Gatsby — with his “tanned skin,” close-cropped hair, and studied diction — as a light-skinned black man passing for white, and this, to the white-supremacist Tom, would have been the ultimate insult. It’s enough, though, that Gatsby acts, and leads Daisy to act, on terms that Tom has not defined — so that Tom finds his wife, and all of the wealth and power she represents, “slipping precipitately from his control.”

The tragedy unfolds from there, and strangely, it parallels Trump’s rise. Tom attacks Gatsby’s origins the way Trump demanded Barack Obama’s birth certificate, denouncing Gatsby as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.” There is a scene; Daisy, unable at last to embody Gatsby’s romantic ideal, drives in tears toward home, running Myrtle down with Gatsby’s car. And Tom (after conspiring, the novel suggests, with Daisy) turns Wilson’s need for vengeance to his advantage—just as Trump, with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, played to the previously unspeakable fears of those who felt their country had been taken from them. Tom names Gatsby as the source of Wilson’s grief—his wife’s lover and her killer—and Wilson kills both Gatsby and himself, while Myrtle’s real lover (Tom) and killer (Daisy) retreat unharmed. Nick’s famous condemnation comes here — “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy.” This censure is all the more scathing for the moral emptiness of the Buchanans’ petty sin, and all the more futile: The careless, by definition, pay no attention to whom they hurt.

Like Trump, who ran on promises to ban Muslims and deport Mexicans, Tom scapegoats an outsider as a threat to what his community values. Tom assigns an identity to hazy, formless discontents and fears, just as Trump has declared a national crisis that he alone can fix. The president lives in a widening circle of disgraced former aides and advisers; likewise, Tom leaves behind him the bodies of those who have done, or been blamed for, his dirty work. And like Trump, who’s made numerous unfounded claims to cast himself as a victim, Tom cherishes his own implacable sense of what’s right and wrong and real.

And this, today, may be the most potent warning of Fitzgerald’s novel. Because when Tom and Daisy smash up the things and creatures around them, they don’t just demonstrate their own carelessness about truth and consequences. They also expose the misconceptions of their witnesses, revealing that Gatsby is blinded by his own dreams; that Jordan is naive to trust in other people’s honesty; that Nick has, as he confesses to Jordan, been lying to himself and calling it honor. So too has Trump exposed the gaps in America’s ideal of itself—the ugly currents of its power, the limits of its possibilities. He’s forced a reckoning, brought the country’s vision closer to its reality.

Yet it’s difficult, now, to know what a sense of reality is good for, when the disconnect between truth and the truths of power is so stark. In the penultimate scene of The Great Gatsby, Nick confronts Tom about what he told Wilson  —and Tom is so certain of the justice of his actions that the only thing Nick can do is shake his hand. “There was nothing I could say,” Nick muses, “except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true.” ~


The Great Gatsby is one of the most amazing novels I've ever read. But at the time I didn't pay all that much attention to Tom Buchanan. It was about Jay and Daisy, right? Tom was a bore. This article showed me Fitzgerald's insights, down to Tom's white supremacist creed.

But the main idea here is that Tom, sheltered by his wealth, simply doesn’t care if he hurts others. Only he counts. His needs come first. Everyone else is a kind of servant, to be sacrificed if they threaten that primacy.

Such people are punished only momentarily, when they glimpse that no one really loves them, just as they have never really loved anyone. But they develop defenses against those moments of realization: everyone loves me! My wife adores me! All my mistresses found me the best and greatest lover ever! And besides, I am a loving husband and father — the best husband and father ever. Denial is so simple . . .

But denial takes energy to maintain, and outbursts of rage when it breaks down make us see a pathetic human being. Narcissism is said to stem from not having been loved (or sufficiently loved, or loved for what one truly is rather than a false persona). Sadly, it perpetuates not being loved — since love for a narcissist soon becomes love-hate, laden with resentment. Un-love breeds un-love. And humans mess up at love so much that we need dogs to show us the way.



~ “Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.

Trump’s only true skill is the con, his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.” ~ Adam Serwer,

“I like to watch Trump, because he just takes my mind off stuff. No matter what happens personally, there’s this much greater disaster taking place.” ~ Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success

“Let's raise children who won't have to recover from their childhoods.” ~ Pam Leo


Wow, what a concept! And besides, I think life automatically throws difficulty and suffering at anyone, starting with childhood — so parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, etc don’t have to pile it on on top the usual dose — and we’ll still get the kind of learning that comes from dealing with difficulties. No need to hit, yell, shame, or otherwise abuse the child — who’s often scared as is, confused about the rules, and assumes everything is his or her fault.

Scott F. Fitzgerald and his daughter Scottie



~ “As a child, I struggled to celebrate my achievements. I found reasons to dismiss praise—the test was easy, the teacher likes me—and blamed myself whenever someone hurt me. I was far more comfortable providing care than receiving it.

It was only, many years later, when I was writing Rethinking Narcissism and rereading the myth of Narcissus that I had an aha moment. Like the love-struck nymph in the myth, echoists, like myself, could echo the needs and feeling of others, but we’re at a loss when it comes to “voicing” our own desires.  We play Echo to Narcissus, shrinking from the special attention that narcissists thrive on. 


I scribbled the term echoism on a piece of paper and shivered with recognition. The myth contained both sides of narcissism—the dangers of an addiction to feeling special and the inability to enjoy feeling special at all. Everyone forgets about Echo in the myth, and that made the term seem all the more apt. 

Of all the people we measured, echoists were the most “warm-hearted,” but they were also afraid of becoming a burden, felt unsettled by attention, especially praise, and agreed with statements like, “When people ask me my preferences I’m often at a loss.” Where narcissists are addicted to feeling special, echoists are afraid of it. In the myth of Narcissus, Echo, the nymph who eventually falls madly in love with Narcissus, has been cursed to repeat back the last few words she hears. Like [Echo], echoists definitely struggle to have a voice of their own.

Eechoists are often drawn to narcissists precisely because they’re so afraid of burdening others or seeming “needy” that to have someone who relishes taking up all the room, as narcissists often do, comes as something of a relief; but it's a high price to pay for a respite from their anxieties. When narcissists become abusive, echoists sometimes blame themselves for their mistreatment (“I expect too much; I’m being overly sensitive; I shouldn't have gone back"). No one deserves to be abused, whether they stay in a relationship or not — abuse is 100% the responsibility of the abuser — but echoists can mire themselves in abusive relationships because they feel responsible for their mistreatment. 

Echoists appear to be born with more emotional sensitivity than most of us—they feel deeply—and when that temperament is exposed to a parent who shames or punishes them for having any needs at all, they’re apt to grow up high in echoism.

Some echoists develop from echoist parents, who pass on the fear that any special attention—wanting unique clothes, dreaming big, asking for more—is the height of arrogance and selfishness.  One of my clients had a mother whose mantra was “don’t get a big head.” She grew up feeling ashamed of normal pride, downplaying her every achievement, because her mother shamed her instead of celebrating her accomplishments.

Whenever temperamentally sensitive children are punished for wanting special attention, they’re apt to become echoists.  Most often, it’s narcissistic parents who push their children in this direction.” ~


I find it almost uncanny how “echoist” sounds so similar to “egoist.” It’s of course the other side. But both narcissism and echoism have similar roots — the child’s needs for attention and being loved “as is” not having been met. Both develop as defense mechanisms against the perception “I am not loved,” which is too painful to bear.

I wouldn’t say that Echo is entirely forgotten whenever the myth of Narcissus is retold — but she is certainly not paid attention to and analyzed the way Narcissus has been.

I think Craig Malkin, the author of this article, has discovered something important. And it's such a wonderful example of how myth can keep on giving us insight who knows how many thousands of years later . . .

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1909
~ “Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored--oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants — eternity.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra


This could be an aside to all essays on happiness. For me the critical statement is:

“Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored.”

We must be willing to suffer, to trust that suffering will not destroy us. Anyone who’s ever accomplished anything knows the labor, the setbacks, the humiliation of rejection slips (or equivalent). And outside of the creative process, if you want the joy of parenthood, you will also know the stress of parenthood. If you want a beautiful flower garden . . .  but I know I don’t have to multiply examples. “All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored.” It’s the “enamored” that makes this sentence poetry.

a fritillary on lantana; Mim Eisenberg


Milosz also had the idea that for the resurrection in flesh to be real, the totality must be resurrected, including all the insects, blades of grass etc. Well, certainly the the gut microflora . . . etc etc. Nothing must be lost, forgotten, every ant and earthworm ad infinitum . . . And I had the impression that Milosz was entirely serious — his tone was perfectly serious.


Autumn is the most poetic season of the year. Here is how we know that autumn has arrived:



“In ancient Greece, the navel of the earth was marked by a monolith at Delphi. The navel of my earth is not in Greece (though my heart and mind reside there). My world-navel is the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. This British monument may be comically ugly but, to me, it is reassuringly familiar. I used to play around its steps when I was a tiny child. Its frieze taught me the names of the great poets, artists and thinkers of the past; the groups of figures at four corners put the four continents on the map for me.” ~ Arnold Toynbee, Why I Dislike the Western Civilization

Yes, the Albert Memorial is “comically ugly,” just the Warsaw’s Palace of Culture is a Stalinist-era eyesore. But any talk of demolishing the Palace of Culture breaks the hearts of those who grew up with it, and for whom Warsaw without it wouldn’t really be Warsaw. When such a landmark disappears, those who’d been familiar with it for a long time suffer from a special kind of trauma called “the loss of the familiar.” Their grief is real.

Those who grew up around the memorial will always love it. They'll take up collections for its preservation. So it goes.

Toynbee’s passage made me realize that for me the "navel of the earth" is indeed the Palace of Culture. Not that I don't love California more. Various places right here in San Diego are very dear to me, e.g. the Wind Harp at the Marina. It's indeed embarrassing to think that a ludicrous skyscraper dedicated to Joseph Stalin could have such an important place in my heart. But we get to have only one childhood — no control over that. 

Prince Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens, London



~ “In late-seventies, then head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, made a remark to the effect that the Soviet Union had won the Vietnam war in the streets of the American cities. Soviet leadership, via the KGB and Soviet embassy/consulates, invested many millions of dollars in helping to organize anti-war demonstrations in the US. The intended audience for its propagandistic efforts was, therefore, the American college youth and various progressive segments of US society.

Putin and his inner circle of former KGB functionaries-cum-multibillionaire mafia oligarchs, in their turn, in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign (and beyond), had (and continue to have) their countless online trolls and bots and on-site agent-provocateurs concentrating their efforts of fanning the flames of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Muslim fears, anti-Mexican resentment, etc. within the American society, by creating fictitious political groups and action committees, organizing mass gatherings of right-wing and ultra-reactionary nature in various (predominantly, red and purple) parts of the country, et al.

While the Soviet Politburo and the old KGB targeted mainly the progressive, educated layers of American society, Putin and Co go after the backward, poorly informed, racist, xenophobic, fearful, perennially embittered, past-bound ones.

The Soviet rulers tried to enlist the future of the American society in their efforts to defeat America from within, while Putin is banking on those tied to America's past.” ~ M. Iossel


~ “I grew up in an authoritarian country. I thought after the Soviet collapse it would become more like America in many ways. Civil society, rule of law, elections. But everything's going the opposite way. America is becoming more like Russia. Trump looks at someone like Putin and I think the envy is real. The respect is real, because this is a kleptocrat in the same way that Trump wishes to be. This is somebody who has muzzled the media the way Trump wishes to do. It's a perfect world for him. As somebody born in Russia, finding myself here in an election that has been in part determined by Russia, it's very strange.

I think a large part of the population, they want the opposite of truth to be beamed into their home — or more importantly onto their screen. If they can be proven right in their hatred and their racism, they would rather get that news beamed into their device than the hear the truth. I think people aren't that stupid. A lot of people, even people at Trump rallies, know that he was just speaking crap, that none of his stuff really makes sense. That he's lying about everything. We live in a world where people will vote for a lie. What is more '1984' than that?” ~ Gary Shteyngart

“I like to watch Trump, because he just takes my mind off stuff. No matter what happens personally, there’s this much greater disaster taking place.” ~ Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success 

St. Petersburg (or "St. Leningrad" as Shteyngart likes to call it), Nevsky Prospect after a storm


~ “ In the mid-1990s, as he was working on Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis was asked by an Irish historian to pen a chapter on a collection on the Great Famine. His interest in the El Niño effect, which had a chapter to itself in Ecology of Fear, would shape how he approached the topic; in his research he stumbled upon the unnecessary mass starvations in much of the Global South in the 1870s and the 1890s. The result of this intellectual peregrination was the influential Late Victorian Holocausts (2000). 

He argued that during the late nineteenth century British control—both direct and indirect—over vast swathes of the world’s peasantry forced the conversion from subsistence farming to growing cash crops. This increased peasants’ vulnerability to poor harvests, especially if the El Niño effect aggravated droughts. New imperial infrastructure of railways and deep ports for steam ships could carry away cash crops to the metropole while being tied to the world market elevated the price of foodstuffs. The result was between 32 and 61 million deaths in Africa, China, Brazil, and South Asia. These natural disasters, inflicted by British capital, created a stunted “third world.” There would be no improvement in people’s living standards for decades, until national liberation.

If famines left the Global South underdeveloped in the nineteenth century, Planet of Slums  argued, the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs by the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s was the analog a century later. These “reforms” forced postcolonial countries to remove tariffs on industry and agriculture, so that peasants—ruined by the fall in crop prices and dumping by Northern farmers—flooded into cities where there were no factory jobs (again, due to tariffs) and newly hollowed out welfare states could not help them.

It is capitalism’s constancy of separation that unifies Davis’s oeuvre, which has varied in geographic and temporal scope. Capitalism, as Davis traces its spread and change, separates work from ownership, people from land, metropole from colony, humanity from nature, rich from poor, gated community from slum.” ~



This bleak outlook is shared by many. And yet we are not doomed to swing between extremes. It seems that it’s been shown again and again: a mixed system is best. Such a system preserves the best features of capitalism while aiming to reduce its social cost. I, for one, adore the idea of the social safety net — best exemplified in Social Security and Medicare, and the equivalent systems in other countries.

Is Marxism still worth studying and debating as a living ideology? As a cohesive system of thought it’s a historical relic of the Industrial Revolution. Marx was infuriated by the progress made by the trade unions — for me, this almost “says it all.” But some relevant insight still glimmer in the rubble. This will take a separate article in a future blog.


“In the beginning, there was nothing. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.” ~ Woody Allen


La Sagrada Familia: like Vatican without god.~ John Guzlowski

John Guzlowski:

I've been there. It was wild inside and out. The interesting thing was that the architecture is so overwhelming that all the religious stuff in the church disappears. It was like the Vatican without god.


The same struck me about the Our Lady of the Angels cathedral in downtown LA. You get architecture rather than a church, you get modern art (ugly, even nasty — as if modernity had to be more important than anything else) — and no religious feel to it. Then the basement is a kind of traditional sub-church, and while it seems naive — a lamb, a phony virgin martyr (St. Vibiana), tall candles, votive candles — there is a warmth to it, a welcoming atmosphere.

It’s taken several centuries for the Catholic church to figure out what kind of building works best, what kind of layout, art, music, flowers, ritual . . . In old-style Catholicism, every detail counted — it was theater designed for maximum effect. You mess with it at your peril. 



~ “It turns out that the lymphatic vessels long thought not to exist are essential to the brain’s ability to cleanse itself. The University of Virginia researchers’ new work gives us the most complete picture yet of the role of these vessels – and their tremendous importance for brain function and healthy aging.

Jonathan Kipnis – who chairs UVA’s Department of Neuroscience and directs its Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, or BIG – and his colleagues were able to use a compound to improve the flow of waste from the brain to the lymph nodes in the neck of aged mice. The vessels became larger and drained better, and that had a direct effect on the mice’s ability to learn and remember.

“Here is the first time that we can actually enhance cognitive ability in an old mouse by targeting this lymphatic vasculature around the brain,” Kipnis said. “By itself, it’s super, super exciting, but then we said, ‘Wait a second, if that’s the case, what’s happening in Alzheimer’s?’”

The researchers determined that obstructing the vessels in mice worsens the accumulation of harmful amyloid plaques in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s. This may help explain the buildup of such plaques in people, the cause of which is not well understood.

“In human Alzheimer’s disease, 98 percent of cases are not familial, so it’s really a matter of what is affected by aging that gives rise to this disease,” researcher Sandro Da Mesquita said. “As we did in mice, it will be interesting to try and figure out what specific changes are happening in the old [brain] lymphatics in humans so we can develop specific approaches to treat age-related sickness.”

Kipnis noted that impairing the vessels in mice had a fascinating consequence: “What was really interesting is that with the worsening pathology, it actually looks very similar to what we see in human samples in terms of all this aggregation of amyloid protein in the brain and meninges,” he said. “By impairing lymphatic function, we made the mouse model more similar to human pathology.” The meninges comprise protective layers of tissue around the brain and the rest of the central nervous system.

The researchers now will work to develop a drug to improve the performance of the lymphatic vessels in people. (Kipnis just signed a contract with biopharmaceutical company PureTech Health to explore the potential clinical applications of his discoveries.) Da Mesquita also noted that it would be important to develop a method to determine how well the meningeal lymphatic vasculature is working in people.

The researchers believe that the best way to treat Alzheimer’s might be to combine vasculature repair with other approaches. Improving the flow through the meningeal lymphatic vessels might even overcome some of the obstacles that have doomed previously promising treatments, moving them from the trash heap to the clinic, they said.

It may be, though, that the new discovery offers a way to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s to the point that treatments are unnecessary — to delay it beyond the length of the current human lifespan.

“It may be very difficult to reverse Alzheimer’s, but maybe we would be able to maintain a very high functionality of this lymphatic vasculature to delay its onset to a very old age,” Kipnis said. “I honestly believe, down the road, we can see real results.” ~

human brain: motor and parietal cortex


Alas, based on the past, we know it will take forever before anything comes of this discovery — if it does. But it’s still fascinating to read that those lymphatic vessels were not even supposed to exist. I suppose there is such a thing as knowledge for the pleasure of knowledge.

ending on beauty:


The strangeness of others —
Even your sisters and brothers —
Is a responsibility to
Overcome — or some night they will be lying
In a bed dying — and HOW you loved them,
Its quality — will be as unknown
To you as your own mother was
While a living stranger.

~ Stan Rice

Full Harvest Moon over a cranberry bog; Jacob Baker

Saturday, September 22, 2018


Juno’s views of Jupiter, Sept 2017

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan't be gone long. — You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan't be gone long. — You come too.

~ Robert Frost

It can be argued that the theme of this poem is “rebirth” (spring both as a season and a source of water), and that the speaker, a farmer, is inviting a friend to come along. In a greater “mortalist” scheme (all poems are in some way about mortality, right?), it can also be saying that life is short and the reader is also ultimately going where the speaker is going. But because of the images of spring and new life, that’s a perverse reading. Springtime is renewal.

But my immediate reaction was that this poem, like all poems, illuminates the nature of poetry. The reader is not just invited to come along. He or she IS coming too, through the act of reading the poem and letting it register on a receptive mind. This happens through the power of images: thanks to the description, we see the spring being cleared of dead leaves and the water beginning to run clear. And we see how the newborn calf totters when licked by the mother’s tongue.

The power of imagery is so suggestive that I didn’t just see the calf tottering; I felt the cow mother’s tongue licking me too. And what a large, strong tongue it is!

Thus, if we read a poem at all, we come along to whatever places the poet takes us to. It won’t take long — but it’s quite satisfying. 


The plot is so terrible that I’ve decided it doesn’t matter a great deal whether or not you know or guess “the secret” ahead of time. But it’s difficult to discuss the main problem with the movie without discussing the central premise — just skirting it as “implausible.”

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeing this movie. The acting works miracles — we are riveted by the painful self-control as revealed by the wife’s facial tension, her every twitch and forced smile. Her husband is at his best in his womanizing scenes, but the acting by Glenn Close may finally win her an Oscar (she has been nominated six times before!). Now if only the plot could be worthy of her.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife of the famous author Joe Castleman. “Joan” seems too ordinary a name for this extraordinary woman, who immediately comes across as more interesting than her husband. It turns out that Joan (SPOILER ALERT! there is still time to stop reading this if you plan to see the movie and would rather be surprised) is the real writer of the celebrated novels and short stories — she ghost-writes them, while her husband serves mostly as an editor (and not a good one, judging by the one scene of his “editing” that we get to see). He also does — or claims to do — most of the housework. In the past, he acted as the primary parent to the couple’s two children.

Nevertheless, he has also received all the credit and praise, with the wife playing “support” in public, trying to conceal her growing resentment and humiliation (made worse by his non-stop flirtations and affairs — using the same come-ons, including the same famous passage by James Joyce, he used to seduce Joan when she was a student in his creative-writing class). Why the charade? Joan, listening to bad advice, became convinced that as a female author she’d get no attention from publishers (the flashbacks go back to 1958). Why then not adopt a male pen name? That would make too much sense, as the saying goes.

Now, to make things really absurd — though also crazily interesting, I have to admit — the fake author ends up winning the Nobel Prize. The news supposedly bumps Bill Clinton off the Time magazine cover. Some critics took it as a comment on the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton. True, he womanized while she mostly showed steely self-control — but no one would go so far as to suggest that Hillary was the real president. The movie explicitly wants us to believe that the wife is the real writer. If we don’t accept this premise, the plot crumbles. For me, it does.

And to make things even more implausible, as soon as Joan asserts herself, the fake writer and Nobel-Prize winner has a fatal heart attack. This, in the context of the movie, is a happy ending — even though Joan continues to be willing to keep up the public charade, this time as The Widow who threatens to sue the would-be biographer “if you dare impugn my late husband’s talent.” The final visual and the true happy ending is the triumphant smile that spreads on Joan’s face. For the first time, there is nothing forced about it.

Not that the movie is without interest in spite of the plot. We get to see what goes on in the wings of the Nobel Prize ceremony — more self-effacement for the wives, being offered “shopping trips and beauty treatments” while their husbands rehearse the “three reverences” — the three deep bows they are to render to to the Swedish king, the bust of Alfred Nobel (I loved this best), and, last of all, the audience. And, speaking of the movie’s virtues, the performance of Christian Slater as the sleazy, prying would-be biographer (“I know your secret” — does he really, or is he bluffing?) is also fabulous.

The movie made me think not of Hillary Clinton, but of Vera Nabokov — the archetypal super-devoted, self-effacing wife of Vladimir Nabokov. There is hardly anything that Vera wouldn’t do for the sake of her husband. She was his typist, chauffeur, editor, muse, researcher, teaching assistant, business agent, and more. She did put up with his multiple affairs. She made it possible for Nabokov to become a great writer. When Joan Castleman says about her “occupation,” “I am a king-maker,” I immediately thought of Vera Nabokov. Nevertheless, even if her editing happened to be significant (we don’t really know because she blacked out her comments in the manuscripts), there has never been any doubt as to who did the actual writing. 

Now, I read in a New Yorker article that a taxi driver who knew the Nabokovs supposedly said to a journalist, “He’s so lazy — I think she does all the writing.” Who knows, perhaps that was the germ of the idea behind the plot of The Wife. Nevertheless, an idle comment by a taxi driver is only that — the real Vera was much too busy taking care of her genius husband to do the actual writing also. And to my knowledge, no eminent writer — certainly no Nobel Prize winner — has ever been exposed as a fake, with someone else acting as a ghost-writer. That’s pushing the limits of plausibility too far. We know that spouses and other supportive people aren’t given enough credit for the important role they play in the “star’s” achievement, but again, going too far is going too far.

In spite of the unbelievable plot, the movie manages to hold the viewer’s interest, and the actors’ performances are worth experiencing. I also liked two memorable statements, both of them made by Joan: “Everyone needs approval” (in defense of her  son’s desperately seeking his father’s praise of his writing) and “Don’t present me as a victim. I'm much more interesting than that.” I too think we all need approval, and we all are victims to some extent, but shouldn’t be reduced to just that label; we are, each of us, “much more interesting than that.”


By the way, the actual winner of the Nobel Prize in 1992 was the poet Derek Walcott (1930-2017). Long before the “Me Too” movement, he’d been accused of sexual harassment; in one case he reached a settlement with his accuser. At no point, however, was there any question about the authorship of his poems. Again, to my knowledge, there has been no real-life precedent for the situation portrayed in the movie.

That said, I agree that spouses and other people who support achievers should get more credit than they typically do. In many cases, the achievement would have been impossible without them.

(Another thought: could Lolita have ever been written by a woman? I don’t think so. The stamp of male sexuality is much too strong here. A woman writer could perhaps write Lolita from Lolita’s point of view.)

(And one more addendum: There are movies where implausible, preposterous plots work fine. Such movies are typically comedies, e.g. The Producers. But a serious drama follows different rules.)


~ “In Healing from Hate, an illuminating book building on over twenty years of thinking and research, Michael Kimmel shows that the boy crisis provides fertile ground for recruiters from white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and other extremist groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups rose from 784 in 2014 to 954 in 2017. The center’s list now includes “male supremacy” hate groups such as Return of Kings and A Voice For Men, which characterize “all women as genetically inferior, manipulative and stupid and reduces them to their reproductive or sexual function.”

Alek Minassian, the man who drove his van into pedestrians on a Toronto street in April, killing ten, declared himself an “incel,” a member of an online community of “involuntarily celibate” men who consider themselves the victims of women who decline to sleep with them. His rampage was pledged to the “Incel Rebellion”—a backlash against feminism, but also against the social hierarchy in which conventionally attractive and successful men, “Chads,” have greater access than other men to sex and the affection of women. The rise of such groups is a threat in itself, but it also reveals a close link between violent extremism and misogyny.

Of those Kimmel profiles—members or ex-members of male hate groups in the US, as well as former members of hate groups in Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, and Canada — virtually all were abandoned by their fathers or “were abused, physically or sexually, by stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends.” Fathers who were present, he says, were “emotionally shut down, opaque, phantom presences in their own homes.” Many of these sons were bullied or became bullies on the playground. One man told Kimmel he grew up in a “field of violence” that kept him “constantly enraged.” S
uch a boy then links the harshness and indifference he encountered with his identity asa boy, so that he believes he is being punished for being male. “Whether I was talking with ex–neo-Nazi skinheads in Sweden, ex–white supremacists in the United States, or even ex-jihadists in London,” Kimmel writes, “the issue of masculinity…did not fail to come up.” Failed by men—presumably mothers played some part, though we hear little about it—the men he studied also felt like “failures as men.”

Men don’t need women to recognize their manhood, Kimmel argues; they need other men. “Women would pollute things,” he was told. Generally women are badly treated by white supremacist groups; in the US few accept women as equal members. A number of white supremacists call for “tradwives”—traditional wives—to produce more white children. The men in neo-Nazi groups shave one another’s heads and dress alike in black, tattoo their arms, and wear battle-ready, hard-toed, thirty-two-eyelet boots. Male-to-male initiations into hate groups also called for “minor vandalism” for which they would be “declared heroes,” Kimmel observes wryly, such as painting swastikas on Jewish tombstones. “Men need a glorious war against something,” the historian George Mosse observed of German extremists in the 1930s, so that they can display their masculinity “stripped down to its warlike functions.”


In his autobiography White American Youth, Christian Picciolini offers a vivid illustration of the path to extremism Kimmel describes. Born in 1973 to blue-collar Italian immigrant parents who worked long hours in Oak Forest, Illinois, Picciolini recalls his father as being quick with undeserved smacks to the head and otherwise as an impassive chauffeur driving him to be placed in “someone else’s care.” A short boy with a funny name, Picciolini became the playground target for bullies, until he developed a vicious punch of his own. He carried guns, drank, and listened to harsh music from bands with names like Skrewdriver, Brutal Attack, Skullhead, and No Remorse.

It was a fatherly gesture from a neo-Nazi that first drew the fourteen-year-old into an extremist worldview. Picciolini was smoking a joint with a friend when he was spotted by a sharp-jawed, bulky man sitting in a car. The friend ran away. Christian stood his ground. The man rose from his car, walked over to Christian, took the joint from his mouth, and told him that he shouldn’t succumb to a Jewish plot to sedate Gentiles.

In his new life of white supremacy, Picciolini began to “succeed.” He wrote and performed songs—one of which Dylann Roof listened to in 2016 a few months before killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston. He started a business selling violent music and launched a band that performed at white power rallies around the world. At sixteen, he led Hammerskin Nation, which the Anti-Defamation League described as the “most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the U.S.” Picciolini was living out a strange, toxic inversion of the American Dream.

But when his wife became pregnant, “I suddenly felt guilty and out of sorts,” he recalled. “I didn’t respect…the Klansmen,…the mother carrying her infant with a tiny Klan hood on.” Becoming a father turned Picciolini’s life around, but he acknowledges that this came at the expense of his teenage wife’s own ambitions: “She sobbed. What about her plans? What about college? What about becoming a teacher?” That trade-off is not incidental. Kimmel found in his research that “for several it was a wife, girlfriend, their mother, or another woman who drew them away from the movement. It’s often through personal relationships with women that the guys get enough strength to tear themselves away. It’s hard. It was the intensity of the male bonds that got them in. That intensity has to be matched—or even exceeded—by the relationships with women.”

Like millions of girlfriends and wives, Picciolini’s wife made enormous hidden sacrifices to rescue the angry lost boy she’d married. She deserves great credit for rehumanizing her husband and so improving the safety of those around them. But it seems like a lot to ask of female partners of violent men to take on, in addition to all else they do, the daunting job of acting as society’s tacit rescue squad. It’s surely better to solve the problem at its many roots—with generous support for troubled families, school outreach programs, drug recovery centers, reduced mass incarceration, help with the skyrocketing costs of higher education, and enhanced understanding of the forces at play —all of which contribute to the male crisis itself.” ~


Alas, not only are hate groups on the rise; teachers report an increase in bullying at school. This is one consequence of rewarding a Big Bully with the highest office in the land. Public displays of insults, misogyny, petty vengenfulness, unwillingness to condemn the Nazis — and more, much more — not surprisingly result in social contagion among those already ripe to adore such a leader as “one of us.”

Can anything be done? 

One kind of reply is this beautiful video by Christian Picciolini. One of the things I learned from it is that neo-Nazis believe that Jews are plotting a genocide of the white race, and that a race war is inevitable. Picciolini’s last words are also quite memorable: Find someone who you think least deserves compassion and give them compassion.

Picciolini emphasizes the need to address the emotional problems of young men who turn to extremist groups to meet their need to belong and have a purpose. His own underlying problem, he says, was the sense of abandonment. He didn’t get enough parenting from his parents, becoming vulnerable who whoever could serve as a father figure. Millions of underparented youths can be found in low-income neighborhoods — that’s where white-supremacist recruiters concentrate their efforts. Hence the need to invest in youth programs — arts-and-crafts, sports, vocational-skills training — where caring adults can basically serve as substitute parents. 

Alexander Calder: The Black Gawker


~ “A gambler might call it chasing your losses. The British saying – ‘don’t throw good money after bad’ – captures a similar sentiment. Economists call it the sunk cost fallacy, and it’s ubiquitous.

This is the logic that says “I’ve sunk a lot of money into my old car. I can’t just scrap it now. I really should replace that faulty gearbox”. (See also: those who stay in bad relationships for several additional years because they don’t want their time together to have been ‘all for nothing’).

What links these examples is the phenomenon of continuing to throw good resources (time or money) after bad, hoping for things to improve when there’s no good reason to believe they will.

In other words, people are loath to cut their losses. We are much more likely to continue to senselessly plow time or money into a project that isn’t working out, in the hope that it will get better, than take a hit and walk away. What drives this is optimism (that, against the odds, the situation will improve) and an aversion to failure.

Even animals can show a sunk-cost bias. One recent University of Minnesota study found mice and rats were just as likely as humans to fall foul of lab experiments involving delays and rewards. In each case, the more time invested waiting for their ‘prizes’ (for the rodents, flavored pellets, for the humans, funny videos) the less likely they were to quit the pursuit before the delay ended. According to some researchers, this pattern may suggest some evolutionary reason for this economically irrational flaw.

At work, the consequences of desperately hanging on to irrecoverable costs can be catastrophic. For smaller firms, this could mean, for instance, putting off firing a worker you have spent months training, even though it was clear from the outset they were never going to cut it.

But this same spirit pushes people towards totally illogical huge investments. Thinking only in terms of future possible gains means they fail to factor in unrecoverable funds already spent. It’s easy to see why.

After you’ve invested £10 million ($13m) in a project, which hasn’t delivered, the case for throwing in a further £5 million is far easier to justify if you only consider returns on £5 million – rather than £15 million. But in reality, of course, you also don’t want to look stupid by abandoning it.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman hypothesizes that ‘sunk cost’ thinking often explains why firms turn to new management, or hire consultants, at this stage of a project’s decline. Not, he believes, because they are necessarily more competent than the original managers – but because the new arrivals carry none of the political baggage (and the associated reluctance to cut losses and move on).

Like a gambler ‘chasing losses’ at a poker table, people stuck in the sunk cost trap will pretend that they have a winning hand. Nick Leeson, the infamous ‘Rogue Trader’ who caused the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995, followed similar reasoning in trying to recover his position from a series of disastrous early trades.

Political overspend

Making continuous foolish decisions driven by sunk-cost analyses will eventually lead firms to hemorrhage money or market share and consequently grind to a halt.

By contrast, there are fewer checks and balances around political decision-making. It certainly doesn’t help that around the world, political U-turns are viewed as inherently weak – further incentivizing politicians to persist with costly decisions.

Many examples bear out this trend on a global level. Public infrastructure projects are notorious for running over budget – Britain’s proposed ‘High Speed Rail 2’ project – on course to overspend by £50 billion ($65bn) and counting, for instance.

Japan, too, has a costly addiction to infrastructure spending. This is part of the reason the country has been saddled with the highest level of national debt in the world. Many of these projects have offered very little fiscal stimulus, and there are numerous ‘bridges to nowhere’, both literal and metaphorical.

In the US, the “war on drugs” policy increased the number of people behind bars, creating the most extensive prison infrastructure in the world. Yet despite the wealth of evidence that focusing on supply has done little to curtail drug abuse (and caused a host of terrible side effects) lawmakers would now struggle to dismantle this pervasive system.

The sunk cost trap drives bad decisions in the billions and trillions, but it also impacts personal finances – individuals waste money needlessly pouring their savings, for instance, into repairing a property that gains no value.

The sunk cost fallacy, then, has huge significance on a micro and macroeconomic level – for personal and political decision-making around the world.

“We are all susceptible to these biases”, says Dr Jim Everett, a social psychologist and researcher at Leiden University. “But often, we can partially offset them by taking a step back and thinking through the alternatives.”

When weighing up whether to persist with a course of action, he says, always ask yourself: ‘What would I gain or lose if I stuck with this option, and what would I gain or lose if I switched?’

If in doubt, Everett recommends reflecting on the entire chain of decisions that has led to where you are now, and considering the counterfactuals – in other words, what’s true and not true, a reality check.

“If presented with the same choice again, would I make the same decision? If not – why not?”

So, it’s a simple idea, with global ramifications. And ultimately, it all goes back to the first lesson of gambling. Any good poker player knows when to fold.

from another source: THE CONCORDE FALLACY

~ “The sunk cost fallacy is sometimes called the Concorde fallacy when describing it as an escalation of commitment. It is a reference to the construction of the first commercial supersonic airliner. The project was predicted to be a failure early on; but everyone involved kept going. Their shared investment built a hefty psychological burden which outweighed their better judgments. After losing an incredible amount of money, effort and time, they didn’t want to just give up.

It is a noble and exclusively human proclivity, the desire to persevere, the will to stay the course – studies show lower animals and small children do not commit this fallacy. Wasps and worms, rats and raccoons, toddlers and tikes, they do not care how much they’ve invested or how much goes to waste. They can only see immediate losses and gains. As an adult human being, you have the gift of reflection and regret. You can predict a future place where you must admit your efforts were in vain, your losses permanent, and when you accept the truth it is going to hurt.” ~


And here is it, perhaps the most beautiful aviation failure, explained on YouTube:


The French and British government official fully knew that Concorde would be a commercial disaster. The project should have never been started; if started, it should have been canceled as soon as possible. But that would have been rationality and not ego.

The American equivalent of Concorde is the F-35 stealth plane. The consensus is that the cost of building and maintaining a fleet of F-35 is unaffordable. And yet this behemoth of waste continues to be funded. The more money you have already wasted, the harder it is to stop wasting it.


Almost everywhere you look, the sunk cost fallacy turns up like a drunken uncle at Thanksgiving . . .  once you start repairing that old car . . . or an old computer that is bound to crash again within a month or two . . . a “bargain” fixer-upper that turns out to be a super-expensive nightmare to restore and maintain . . . chemotherapy that keeps failing and ruining a patient’s quality of life, but more continues to be given because so much has already been given . . . Or if you yield to pressure (often from adult children) to try to patch up an old marriage that only keeps you miserable and hampers you from meeting potential compatible new partners . . .


I knew a man who lost all his retirement savings, which it took him decades to accumulate, on one bad investment. When he approached me to borrow money to put into the same losing project (at this point he was living in his van), I said no. He threw a verbal temper tantrum. “I'm not just someone who just keeps throwing money away like a drunken Indian!” he shouted. “The project isn’t dead,” he said, his voice trembling with desperation. “It’s just in intensive care.”

I'm sure he tried that line on practically everyone he knew. But others understood that if they lent him any money to put into the dying investment, they might as well flush it down the toilet. If someone happened to be foolish enough to lend this man money, they would certainly be approached again and again. Only one person here was blind to the tragic truth. And if not completely blind, then close to a mental and physical breakdown. Abandoned by his long-term partner, losing friends, living in squalor, he seems to have fallen for the old scam of “We need only 5K more from you to keep the project alive. Otherwise all is lost.”

This is an odd cognitive glitch: digging yourself deeper into a hole because you've already done so much digging; staying in a bad relationship because you're already “invested” in it so much miserable time together; in science, defending a bad theory because you’ve already spent so much time defending it. It hurts to admit you’ve made a bad mistake, so you keep perpetuating it, using ego-defense justifications, heroically announcing "I'm not a quitter!" We don't want to look foolish, while in fact, the longer we persist, the more foolish we look (and ARE). What a paradox: by trying to avoid looking foolish, we end up looking more and more foolish and absurd.

The secret: our investment isn’t just financial. Nor can it be counted solely in terms of time, energy, and effort. Our investment is emotional. We start behaving like addicts.
To break the addiction, we need to stop and think. Specifically, it helps to think back to the start of the narrative. Would you make the same decision again?



Here the Buddhist saying “No self, no problem” seems especially apt. If you don’t try pretending that you never make mistakes, especially foolish and expensive ones, you can just shrug and say, “So I’ve made a mistake. No point throwing good money after bad” — and you move on. Now and then it really takes an outsider to restore sanity — someone who didn’t participate in the beginning of the losses and so hasn’t fallen into the sunk-cost trap.

Another fascinating example here is the oppressive churches that require a lot of sacrifices (“investment”) from their members. Paradoxically, these are the churches least likely to lose members. Why? The sunk cost. If you’ve already tithed and spent the time going to church not just on Sunday, but twice a week; if you’ve invested in bible classes, special clothes, stopped drinking alcohol and coffee, going to the movies, and so forth — all these sacrifices add up to a considerable investment. The higher the investment, the less you are willing to simply quit and enjoy what life still remains. No, now you need to stick with it, claiming this is the one true religion, or your investment will look foolish.

The same goes for bad marriages — the more sacrifices, the greater the “investment.” True, it’s painful to realize that if you’d gotten a divorce years ago, back when you were younger and more physically attractive to potential new partners, you’d have been ahead — but no, you go to “couples therapy” and invest thousands of dollars trying to make things work with a spouse you should have never married to start with — or else divorced quickly. But few of us show such wisdom, even if we have the example of the same mistake made by our parents — or maybe particularly when we have this example. The same goes for miserable jobs.

And for unwinnable wars. Seventeen years in Afghanistan, at a horrible cost (not just in money — think of all the mutilated, suicidal veterans), with nothing to show for it. Tough, sometimes you have to say that a war was a catastrophically expensive mistake, and yes, the soldiers died and got mutilated for nothing, and it's a national tragedy — so let's not perpetuate it and get out. But the longer you keep fighting and the more expensive it is, the more flagrantly irrational, the harder it is to let go. The national ego is more monstrous by far than an individual ego.

It's interesting that up to a certain age children are not liable to fall into the trap of sunken cost because they live in the now: they consider only the rewards and/or punishments of the present and the immediate future, not the "investment" they already made (which is irrelevant, being a psychological factor, narcissism — not wanting to look like a fool). What is relevant is the present (not the past) loss of “blood and treasure,” which shouts GET OUT, GET OUT! — and the chance of winning, which is zero, now or ever. The course of action should be obvious. But no administration wants to be the one to “lose” a war.

Even poems aren't exempt from a sunken-cost fallacy. You'd think it would be easy to quit working on a poem that obviously isn't working. If you do it early on, you simply call it a "fragment," stick it into the "fragments" folder, and are free. But if for some reason (maybe a friend criticized it) you keep fiddling with the poem, rewriting it (or a portion of it that should just be tossed), it becomes harder and harder to quit wasting your time.

It helps to have an "absolutism detector." When you hear noble-sounding slogans such as "Never give up," you can be sure that there ARE exceptions, and ignoring those exceptions can prove downright tragic. Persistence is a virtue up to a point -- but only up to a point. When the return isn't in sight, we need to start asking questions: am I persisting only to prove that I'm "not a quitter"? Am I defending a bad investment? Am I trying not to look foolish — not only to others, but first of all to myself? What seemed like the virtue of persistence may just be ego, becoming more and more entrenched.

People losing all their money or wasting their lives being miserable because they don’t know when to quit — let’s not despise them, but be grateful to them. They teach us to recognize the universal bias at work here, and allow us to learn our lessons vicariously rather than the hard way. How easy it is to be an “impartial outsider” versus someone who has made a heavy investment — which is never “only money” — it is ego.


My mother was a strange mix of the “never give up” heroic ideology and “quit quickly if it doesn’t work” pragmatism — which in her case was a kind of mysticism. She says she learned the latter from her schoolfriend. “Sabina always said, If you don’t get the job right away, that job is not for you,” my mother would say. “If a man shows no interest in you no matter how hard you try, he’s not the right man for you. If the dress doesn’t look right on you the first time you try it, it’s not the right dress for you. If anything starts giving you trouble, if all you experience is difficulties, that thing is not for you. Keep repeating to yourself, THAT’S NOT FOR ME, THAT’S NOT FOR ME.”

Because I’ve inherited her persistence — apparently mostly a genetic trait — my mother often repeated Sabina’s wisdom to me — wisely presenting it as something she learned from a schoolfriend, rather than as having figured it out herself — again avoiding establishing the gulf between herself, the Wise One, and her daughter, a Foolish Virgin. And for all I know, there may have indeed been a real Sabina — just the name sounded wise, sybil-like — who lived by the smart precept of repeating “That’s not for me, that’s not for me,” whenever she encountered difficulties.

This could be understood to imply that certain things (jobs, partners, houses, etc) were somehow meant for us, destined for us — and if they were not destined for us, persistent pursuit would bring only misfortune, and delay our getting the good things that were destined for us. But I’ve discovered that that it’s not necessary to believe the mystical angle. What works is the clarity of seeing that something — or someone — is indeed not working out, and moving on before sinking more resources into it. And yes, it does help to rehearse the sacred chant, “That’s not for me, that’s not for me.” 

Hieronymus Francken II (1578-1623): The Parable of Wise and Foolish Virgins


But being a bundle of contradictions as we all tend to be, my mother could also be a fanatic of persistence, with the “Never give up” motto passed on to her by others. But while I remember plenty of times when I heard “Never give up” from her, I think “That’s not for me” pretty much balanced this — and it was different, since it celebrated the freedom to quit and developed the ability to let go. And indeed I never got to see her go ridiculously too far in pursuit of a goal. Thus, I saw that sometimes persistence was appropriate, and sometimes quitting. Deciding which occasion called for which behavior is not always easy. The appearance of difficulty helps, but also it can also goad me into foolish, extreme persistence. This is where Taoism can become an ally: Don’t struggle. Go with what comes easily to you. Cultivate the mind of letting go.

Above all: no rule is absolute. You need to take it case by case, and use your intelligence.
So far, my accumulated experience has favored Sabina’s wisdom: it’s better to quit early than risk digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. Soon enough there’ll be another opportunity, while digging your way all the way to China is simply not going to succeed.


The sunk cost fallacy has some fascinating implications. We can all think of many instances we have encountered, among gamblers, speculators, investors, victims of disease or abuse. It seems puzzling to watch people refuse to abandon situations dangerous and damaging, when there is no evidence to indicate these situations will improve. For instance, the wife who has suffered years of physical abuse, yet continues to remain in the relationship, and while she may temporarily move against her abuser, winning a temporary separation, taking out a PFA, still “takes him back” again and again. Why? I don’t think it is all a matter of “ego” — of her own lack of self esteem or desire not to appear as a failure, though those issues are certainly present. I don’t think it is either entirely a matter of refusing to abandon something you have heavily invested in. I think there is a large component here of something usually thought of as positive—hope.  But here hope is unsupported by any indications there is a real and possible positive outcome/reward for dogged persistence or continued sacrifice.

The lottery is a good example. People, sometimes, even often, those who can least afford it, buying tickets again and again, and somehow believing they will win against astronomical odds. Even thinking they came “close” when a number they chose is “almost” the winning number, assuming a logic that doesn’t exist in numbers without sequence. Or the  battered wife, who clings to her belief in the possibility her abuser will “change” and a beautiful dream of the future will then replace the misery of the past and present. All this despite there being not one shred of evidence that this is even a remote possibility — or even a desirable possibility in the mind of the abuser. Yes, we don’t want to look foolish, and we don’t want to lose all the time and emotional investment we’ve made, but we don’t want to give up the dream either, or even admit it’s an impossible dream.

I think that is part of the sunk cost equation, not so much that people are too stupid or too foolish about their situations, but that they are too stubborn to relinquish their dreams. We are storytellers and dreamers, which is both the best and the worst of us — we can use these skills to explore and discover the truth of things, or to obfuscate and distort them, to win the future, or  lose it.


There has been quite a bit of theorizing about the sunk cost fallacy.  The cognitive dissonance theory goes a long way: if I put in so much money, time, and effort into X, then X must be of tremendous value. Obviously the person has it backwards: logically speaking, FIRST you’d see that X is wonderful and beneficial, and THEN you go ahead and invest in it.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t have a name for it, but he touched on the phenomenon when he said that you like your your neighbor because you’ve helped him once, rather than help him because you like him. The sunk cost fallacy predicts this: once you’ve “invested” in someone or something, you’ll feel a loyalty to that person or thing. In fact, who hasn’t heard that disastrous phrase — “But I’ve invested so much in that relationship!”


Some people appear to have a contract with god (as an old joke says, it’s not legally binding since it’s unsigned) or the “just universe” — they “invest” in charity and church activities, they refrain from major sins — and yes, they expect a return on their investment!

I’ve learned about a woman who discovered that her husband was a womanizer. She rushed to her rabbi: “How could this happen to me? I donate so much to charity!”

It seems that all religions are to some extent contractual: they may not have a myth about the actual “covenant,” but the contract is implicit: I’ll fast and pray and offer sacrifices, and in exchange here is what I expect. Now, a person might deny such “crass,” downright commercial reasoning. And we may never state this in words: I do X for god, and he’s supposed to provide a “handsome return on my investment.” But that really is the at the heart of all religions, for all the mystical obfuscations: humans wants an INTERVENTIONIST DEITY, one able and willing to violate the laws of nature for the benefit of a particular individual.

But the belief in a just universe is enough. There is a sinister tale about the Black Forest. A man is returning home when dusk falls, and then a moonless night. He says to himself, “I am a good person, so I need fear no evil. I am a good man, so if there is justice, no harm will come to me.” A sinister laughter is heard and an unearthly voice announces, “THERE IS NO JUSTICE.”


How come people become irrational once they invest? The answer is probably multifactorial: no single reason, but an interaction of various reasons. I see with special acuteness not wanting to look like a fool — to myself more so than to others — but that’s no doubt no more important to some people and in some cases than in others. I also see the desire for consistency posited by cognitive dissonance theorists. I see wanting to avoid the pain of admitting to having made an expensive mistake. I see the desire to uphold the belief in the just universe: investment and/or effort should not go unrewarded.

But I especially like Mary’s explanation: we are dreamers and story tellers too stubborn to relinquish our dreams. Sometimes this stubbornness leads to a happy ending — that’s when we are more likely to learn about the venture to begin with. At other times it may lead to tragedy, as when the pursuit of wealth leads to financial ruin. And it is very telling that it’s mainly the poor who play the lottery — in saddest cases, putting way too much money into the lottery tickets.

Hannah Arendt might say: it’s the refusal to think. We cling to the bad, to something that leads to continuous losses, rather than stop and think. We become irrational like addicts. That’s why an outside consultant is sometimes the only solution.

river otter; these beautiful animals are not susceptible to sunk-cost fallacy
WHY PEOPLE CLING TO FALSE BELIEFS (hint: recent social feedback)

~ “Getting positive or negative reactions to something you do or say is a greater influence on your thinking than logic and reasoning, the new research suggests – so if you're in a group of like-minded people, that's going to reinforce your thinking.

Receiving good feedback also encourages us to think we know more than we actually do.

In other words, the more sure we become that our current position is right, the less likely we are to take into account other opinions or even cold, hard scientific data.

"If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don't, you're less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know," says one of the team members behind the new study, Louis Marti from the University of California, Berkeley.

For the research, more than 500 participants were recruited and shown a series of colored shapes. As each shape appeared, the participants got asked if it was a "Daxxy" – a word made up for these experiments.

The test takers had no clues as to what a Daxxy was or wasn't, but they did get feedback after guessing one way or the other – the system would tell them if the shape they were looking at qualified as a Daxxy or not. At the same time they were also asked how sure they were about what a Daxxy actually was.

In this way the researchers were able to measure certainty in relation to feedback. Results showed the confidence of the participants was largely based on the results of their last four or five guesses, not their performance overall.

The team behind the tests says this plays into something we already know about learning – that for it to happen, learners need to recognize that there is a gap between what they currently know and what they could know. If they don't think that gap is there, they won't take on board new information.
"What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident," says Marti. "It's not that they weren't paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren't using most of what they learned to inform their certainty.”

The same cognitive processes could be at work when it comes to echo chambers on social media or on news channels – where views are constantly reinforced.

This recent feedback is having more of an effect than hard evidence, the experiments showed, and that might apply in a broader sense too. It could apply to learning something new or trying to differentiate between right and wrong.

"If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information," says one of the team, psychologist Celeste Kidd from UC Berkeley.

So if you think vaccinations are harmful, for example, the new study suggests you might be basing that on the most recent feedback you've had on your views, rather than the overall evidence one way or the other.” ~

“People who feel marginalized by life have need to feel special. One way to feel special is to have access to privileged information. Becoming committed to "alternative" facts and theories is a way for some people achieve a sense of validation and belonging to a community of fellow believers.” ~ Andrew Edris 

~ “We're freaks of nature. We can misinterpret the shit out of experience because we live in two worlds, the real one and our language-driven imaginations. We can close our eyes and be legends in our own mind. We can imagine that we can do no wrong and then do lots of it.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

No, it's not the lack of intelligence — it's a glitch in how the human brain *typically* operates: by the most recent feedback. Sure, a scientist would look over ALL the accumulated data. But the average person considers just the most recent events (there is some confirmation of this from other studies, e.g. a treatment is remembered as painful if the last minutes of it were painful).

In real life, an additional factor is the sense of threat and emotional pain if someone contradicts our existing beliefs — the physiological stress symptoms are the same as if we were physically threatened. So we tend to stick to “our tribe,” likely to confirm what we already believe. And there is “confirmation bias”: we “cherry-pick,” seeking out statements that confirm our beliefs. It’s critical to realize that the average person does not evaluate information like a scientist; in fact I am surprised that humanity ever developed science (much hated in some circles, seen as the “enemy”). 

There is, of course, a non-threatening way to present new information, but it’s a difficult art. We could all use some training about the cognitive biases we are wired for, and how to get around them.

It would help if already primary schools taught basic science in some coherent, accessible manner: this is how hurricanes form, this is what causes earthquakes, this is how vaccines work; the age of the earth, the age and size of the universe and how we know it, earth’s rotation and night and day, axial tilt and the seasons — it could go a long way against the crazy talk that hurricanes are caused by gay marriage.

Complicated models of eclipses and intimidating equations aren’t necessary. We need to start with the simplest, most basic science. I worry about those who don’t know that ice and steam are both forms of water (I wouldn’t believe that anyone didn’t know that until, of course, I met someone, a college graduate, by the way).

Ideally, people would see new information as interesting and even exciting rather than as threatening and possibly traumatizing. Again, it would take early exposure to well-presented basic science. I never had trouble with the scientific worldview, but some of my peers (I mean people who read books), lacking such exposure, would rather read tales of the “spirit world.” To them, “facts are not important” — again, an attitude picked up in environments where there is no clear idea of even the most basic and established facts. And these are often the same people who are appalled that to Trump supporters, “facts don’t matter.” That’s why Russian disinformation warfare finds it so easy to spread conspiracy theories — children and young people are simply not provided with enough basic facts to inoculate them against crackpot fantasies.

“Freedom consists first of all in not lying. Where lies proliferate, tyranny appears or is perpetuated.” ~ Albert Camus


Alas, once made-up stuff is preserved in “holy scriptures,” it can last for centuries and even millennia. Fortunately, there is now so much diversity of opinion that another “holy” book is highly unlikely. It would be recognized as fiction — and if the stories happened to be good enough, it would be turned into a movie. Here and there a cult might still crop up, e.g. Scientology, whose very name is an attempt to co-opt science.



~ “Anyone who goes to the Freud Museum in North London is immediately struck by Freud’s collection of antiquities, and, especially, by the forest of figurines from various cultures on Freud’s desk. Freud, as the analyst, would sit overseeing them as he listened to the patient from behind the couch; and the patient lying on the couch could see them by turning to the right, but could not, as we all know, see Freud. In the first psychoanalytic setting – the paradigm of every psychoanalytical consulting-room – the patient could not see the analyst but could see his idols.

Clearly, for many reasons, entering Freud’s consulting-room would have been an unusual experience; the Wolf-man was reminded, he wrote, ‘not of a doctor’s office but rather of an archaeological study. Here were all kinds of statuettes and other unusual objects which even the layman recognized as archaeological finds from ancient Egypt.’ Psychoanalysis, of course, always takes place in a museum – and for the more idolatrous, usually in the Freud museum – but the museum, the stored past, comes to life in language.

Hans Sachs, one of the early members of Freud’s Wednesday Psychological Society in Vienna, recalls in his memoir, Freud: Master and Friend, how ‘under the silent stare of idols and animal-shaped gods we listened to some new article by Freud, or read and discussed our own products, or just talked about things that interested us.’ Presumably, the irony of the situation was not lost on them. And since Jewish thought, by definition, sets itself against idolatry, we should take this as one of the important scenes in the history of psychoanalysis: a group of Jewish men, in a room full of idols, having a new kind of conversation about sexuality. Even though they thought of themselves as secular Jews, this was the equivalent of putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. It was a critique of traditional forms of reverence, because to talk about sexuality, from a psychoanalytic point of view, was to talk about the nature of belief. As the conventions of love poetry have always insisted, it is in our erotic life that we return, so to speak, to idolatry. And our erotic life – as psychoanalysis would reveal – is intimately connected to our acquisitive, materialistic life.

One of Freud's favorites: the bronze statuette of Athena: "except that she has lost her spear."

Towards the end of the 19th century, in the major European capitals, it was possible to purchase gods. ‘The ancients gods still exist,’ Freud wrote to his friend Fliess in 1899, ‘for I have bought one or two lately, among them a stone Janus, who looks down on me with his two faces in a very superior fashion.’ You know the gods still exist, Freud jokes, because you can buy them. They had become a new kind of commodity, just as the personal past was becoming something you could buy in the form of psychoanalysis. Recent archaeological discoveries had given vivid form to the idea that the dead do not disappear. And Janus, we may remember, the Roman god of gods, was the opener and closer of all things, who looked inward and outward, before and after, a pertinent god to have acquired, given Freud’s new-found preoccupations at the turn of the century.

It is, of course, tendentious, to refer to what Freud called his ‘grubby old gods’ as idols. In his collection of over two thousand pieces there were many representations of deities, but Freud did not worship them. He simply collected them with some relish and obviously prized them very highly. On the other hand, it would not be wildly speculative from a psychoanalytic point of view to infer that there were powerful unconscious identifications at work with both the people who had worshiped them and the people who had found them. 

If, as has been suggested, they also represented his family romance – his wishful allegiance to alternative cultures – then they were also a rather grandiose parody of that idea. It would not be a family romance that could contain Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Near-Eastern and Asian members, so much as a world-historical romance. ‘I have made many sacrifices,’ he wrote to Stefan Zweig, and it is a telling phrase, ‘for my collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and actually have read more archaeology than psychology.’ He couldn’t, we know, have had comparable Jewish antiquities because there could be no such thing.

It is an interesting irony that psychoanalysis – in which only words and money are exchanged, in which no graven images are used, and which is carried out in an atmosphere of relative abstinence – had its beginnings in a setting populated by old gods. Freud’s consulting-room, in other words, was a rather vivid representation of an old dilemma: how many gods, if any, and what are they for? None of Freud’s antiquities was kept in his living quarters. So what was Freud telling his patients and himself by displaying his collection in the rooms where he practiced psychoanalysis, a theory and a therapy that was a consistent and impassioned critique of religious belief?

These antiquities in a Jewish doctor’s consulting-room articulated two things about culture, which had interesting implications for the new science of psychoanalysis. First, that culture was history, and that this history, which was of extraordinary duration, could be preserved and thought about. The present could be a cover-story for the past. And secondly – and more threatening to the monotheism of a putatively chosen people – that culture was plural. These figurines from such diverse cultures, representing what Freud called ‘the splendid diversity of human life’, ‘the varied types of perfection’, might suggest that the only viable notion of True Belief was as something local, provisional and various. The figurines underlined the fact that there were all sorts of cultural conventions and worlds elsewhere, as many as could be found.” ~


Some interesting points here, including the irresistible one: that for a group of Jewish men to gather in a room full of "idols" and discuss sexuality was the equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And that psychoanalysis was a critique of the religious worldview.


I always felt it was hate speech. I live in a Navy town, so there are plenty of believers. For decades I've had to follow cars whose bumper sticker said "Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior or you'll burn in hell forever." Sad that it was the sole reason given. Once I read a discussion on rejecting the idea of hell. One commenter (a Catholic) said, “But then no one would have any reason to follow Jesus.” So much for the alleged power of the teachings!

LUDWIG FEUERBACH: ~ “I would rather be a devil in alliance with truth, than an angel in alliance with falsehood.”

Christianity set itself the goal of fulfilling man’s unattainable desires, but for that very reason ignored his attainable desires. By promising man eternal life, it deprived him of temporal life, by teaching him to trust in God’s help it took away his trust in his own powers; by giving him faith in a better life in heaven, it destroyed his faith in a better life on earth and his striving to attain such a life. Christianity gave man what his imagination desires, but for that very reason failed to give him what he really and truly desires.

Religion is the dream of the human mind. But even in dreams we do not find ourselves in emptiness or in heaven, but on earth, in the realm of reality; we only see real things in the entrancing splendor of imagination and caprice, instead of in the simple daylight of reality and necessity.”~

ending on beauty:

The Angel of Death is always with me —
the hard wild flowers of his teeth,
his body like cigar smoke
swaying through a small town jail.

~ Morton Marcus