Saturday, July 31, 2021


smoky quartz from Switzerland


Dearest Maman: A disastrous dawn.  
I woke to go to the lavatory, lost
the safety pin I use to close my drawers.
Went wandering through a dozen creaky rooms,
rummaging in your dressers for another pin;
only managed to get slightly chilled.  
(Slightly! Hah, hah, what a joke!)
That was the end of sleep, so I picked up
my mother-of-pearl fountain pen
and the blue stationery
you gave me for my birthday
(I had asked for lilac).

People might find it odd
that we write letters to each other
though we live under the same roof.
But you and I understand.
You have a writer’s soul:
that’s why you made me a writer.
I have to dream for us both.
Thank you for the flowers and the thorns.

Why do you torture me? A month ago
you put me in such fury that I seized
a visitor’s new hat and stomped on it,
then mailed you the torn lining
as proof of what you do to me.  

You know I can’t get up before seven
in the evening, and expose myself to drafts.
So what if I dine alone at the Ritz
at four a.m., or sit in two pair
of long underwear and a fur coat
in front of a blazing fireplace —
go to bed fully dressed, in gloves and slippers,
or use fifteen towels when I wash —
 even that is my art.
Do you have talent? means
Are you abnormal enough?

You say many men could boast
more misfortunes than I,
yet they get out of bed,
kiss their wife and go to work.
But can they suffer as much?
— the first requirement for a writer.

And so I gasp for breath
in the echoes of your widow’s flat.
Another tram shudders by
and your cabinets ring
that high-pitched note that dissects my nerves.
I long for spring — tulips and narcissi —
but I feel so helpless around flowers . . .

As for the time when I broke
a crystal vase because you wanted me
to wear the yellow gloves
while I preferred the gray —
I treasure the letter you wrote:
May this shattered glass, as in the Temple,
be a symbol of indissoluble union.

Even my asthma
is a language between us.
But I must ration myself.
Tomorrow I’ll write in more detail.
A thousand kisses, Marcel.

~ Oriana


We kill everyone who loves us through the worries we give them, through the troubled tenderness we inspire in them, and the fears we ceaselessly cause. ~ Marcel Proust

Proust had a great teacher of tropes – his mother, the inspiration and victim of this murder project – and it was thinking about his relationship with her that started me on the question of readerly craziness. I had in mind especially her extraordinary metaphor for the mending of that relationship after a quarrel she and her husband had with Marcel, where their repaired future is represented as a Jewish wedding. The Prousts were not a noisy family and this was one of the few real rows – as distinct from lots of niggling and moaning – they ever had. They were nice people, and very polite to each other; and are very polite again as soon as the quarrel is over. We may want to remember though what Proust says about nice people in a notebook: ‘In my novel, there is an ultra-bourgeois family, how many sick people in it?’ – ‘combien de malades dedans?’

What seems to have happened is that at the end of the episode of shouting, Proust slammed the door behind him so hard that the glass in its panels broke. He has written to apologize – that note is lost – and this is his mother’s reply in full. The date is not certain, but is thought to be some time in 1897:

My dear little one

Your letter did me good – your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things [une impression fort pénible]. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge. Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union. 

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.

I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don’t walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass. 

[Another source states that Marcel “broke a cup made of Venetian glass in a fit of anger.”]

(Also, how interesting that she signs this note "JP" initials for Jeanne Proust – rather than "Maman." And yet in the salutation she infantilizes Marcel – as if she couldn't quite find the right balances between affection and relating to each other as adults.)

There’s a fictional version of this event in Proust’s early novel Jean Santeuil, and late in life he told his housekeeper Céleste about it. Biographers have made various guesses at what the quarrel was about – Proust’s homosexuality, or his expensive lifestyle – and in the novel part of it at least is about the hero’s not wanting to get a job. The postscript about the glass in the dining room doesn’t require any kind of crazy reading, although obviously it is open to several interpretations, some kinder than others. Evelyne Bloch-Dano, the biographer of Jeanne Proust, thinks her subject’s forgiveness is ‘contradicted by the mock warning’. 

I don’t think it’s contradicted, but clearly there is something about the postscript that makes it a sort of mockery, probably just a bit of what we would now call passive aggression: patent further talk about what we are not going talk about. But what about the allusion to the wedding, and the glass thrown to the ground by the groom and then crushed underfoot? This gesture has been taken to mean many things apart from indissoluble union, but even (or especially) on this reading Edmund White finds the image ‘chilling’, and George Painter has this to say:

'If [Mme Proust’s] words were given their full, terrible meaning they would imply a mystic union with her son more valid than her marriage, in an alien faith, to his father. But their consequences need not be taken so seriously. Psychoanalysis had not yet been invented; and moreover, the malady in Proust’s heart fed not on his present relationship with his mother but on the buried, unalterable fixation of his childhood.'

My suggestion would be that Jeanne Proust is not thinking, even unconsciously, of a mystic union with her son, but the extravagance of her analogy does mark a degree of continuing distress, does seek to contain and compensate for that distress, in a way that all the reasonable talk of forgiving and forgetting cannot. We need to go along with her extravagance in order to see how upset she is. The imaginary wedding turns a shattering into a unity, and the fantasized result is not a marriage between mother and son but something better and different: an endless maternal and filial intimacy for which marriage can only serve as an oblique hint. The result is not less crazy in this transposed form; but the craziness is what the case requires.

Some of the craziness that Proust and his mother instigated in and required of each other – and that we can follow in their letters – is very mild, and often there is no craziness at all, embodied or solicited. They report on hotels, travels, acquaintances, discuss the Dreyfus Affair, tell jokes, worry about each other’s health. Jeanne Proust, in particular, is given to quotations from the classics, especially Racine, Corneille and Molière, a habit that has produced some interesting divergences among biographers. Take the last entry in a collection of Proust’s letters entitled Correspondance avec sa mère, which also shows up in Contre Sainte-Beuve. 

This doesn’t come from a letter at all, either his or hers, but from a notebook. ‘Mother sometimes had a great deal of sorrow,’ the note says, ‘but one didn’t know it, because she never wept except with gentleness and wit. She died making a quotation from Molière and a quotation from Labiche to me.’ The note also illustrates the mother’s wit by her use of a quotation from Corneille to cheer her son up, an exhortation to the French equivalent of a stiff upper lip: ‘If you are not a Roman, be worthy of being one.’

But then there is a sense in which these letters begin to look more like symptoms than a means of communication, or like a language in which an otherwise unspoken communication can take place. The mother constantly asks about the son’s health, and the son constantly, obsessively answers.

It’s hard not to put together the story they are enacting but not quite telling themselves. She is making sure her son remains an infant; and he is making sure she remains his mother. Both of them use political metaphors for this kind of relationship – she in her letters, he in his fiction – so they clearly understand something of what is happening. But they don’t, I think, quite understand the damage they are doing to each other, and what alternatives there might be to this tenderly stalled or frozen relationship.

. . . There the hero is in his room simmering with rage after the quarrel with his parents I have mentioned, and takes a coat out of a cupboard. It isn’t his coat, though, it’s his mother’s, one she wore long ago, and he suddenly sees the person she was then, ‘young, brilliant, happy’. ‘But this was not her any more ... she would never put on again this little coat too young for her age, too gay for her endless mourning, too slim for her plumpness, too dated for the new fashions.’ ‘And in a few years,’ the hero adds, ‘he would not find her as she was today either,’ the older woman would be even older, and then dead. The hero is not thinking about a magical causality here, though, ordinary time and living will do the trick.

There is one other important figure in Proust’s magical family scenario: the person who lives as long as she wants to, and not a day longer. Proust’s father died in 1903, his mother in 1905, and in letters written right after her death the son insists on a special sort of bereavement. His mother, he says, ‘wanted to survive’ his father for their sake (his and his brother’s), ‘but could not’. And more elaborately: ‘Alas, whatever will she had to live for me whom she knew to be so ill, so unarmed in life, she could not survive my father.’ Proust insists again and again on his ‘incapacity’ for life, as if his mother were a nurse who had abruptly resigned from her job, and clearly he wants both to sympathize with her and to blame her. She wanted to stay and she just couldn’t. But why couldn’t she, what was interfering with her ‘will’?

Better to kill the thing that loves you than to have it leave you of its own accord. This is how crazed reading works, how you get an emblematic inference out of real family crimes and imagined Jewish weddings. Only a figure like slow murder will express the guilt and helplessness Proust now feels. What he is saying here, and says more delicately, ironically in A la recherche, where the image also evokes a child’s exaggeration of his guilt, is not that he has killed his mother, but that his crime belongs in the ranks of murder, and that its horror is all the worse for arriving so late.

At the famous moment of the goodnight kiss in A la recherche, that scene so well known to everyone who has read even a little bit of Proust (and to many people who have never read Proust at all), once the mother has decided not only to confer the longed for kiss on the child but to stay the whole night with him, he thinks of himself as having begun his career as a matricide:

‘I ought to have been happy: I was not. It seemed to me that my mother had just made me a first concession which must be painful for her, that this was a first abdication on her part before the ideal she had conceived for me, and that for the first time she, who was so courageous, was confessing herself defeated. It seemed to me that, if I had just gained a victory, it was over her ... it seemed to me I had just traced in her soul the first wrinkle and caused the first white hair to appear.’

There is an epilogue, though, and we have seen a hint of it in the last quotation. Virtual parricides can survive, and even become novelists. They can unkill the mother, so to speak, which is not the same as resurrecting her, and find through loyalty and labor the independence they are now able to imagine the dead lady wanted for them. ‘Maman,’ Proust writes in 1908 when he is already at work on his great book, ‘gives me the strength not to see only through her’ – ‘par elle’, by her, with her help – ‘for I know that death is not an absence and that nature is not anthropomorphic.’ It’s the end of the pathetic fallacy. ~  (excerpts)

 Jeanne-Clemence Proust (née Weil)


Thinking of Proust, according to his own measure he must have been full of talent — he was certainly "abnormal enough." I can't help but find the incidents in the poem and essay disturbingly creepy, with their infantilism and intensely intimate co-dependency between mother and son.

As a grad student I read his massive "Recherche" in its entirety,  and my responses may well be the best of unintended critiques: 1. I now remember almost nothing of all those hundreds of pages, and 2. I wrote a paper on it, entirely in the passive voice. Neither one of these, the forgetting nor the passive voice, was the result of a conscious choice.


Yes, there is a creepiness here, a kind of emotional incest between mother and son. But the angle that fascinates me is that they preferred to communicate by letter, even as they lived under the same roof! And that was the mother’s only outlet for her writing talent, and her whole lively mind and sensibility.

My adventures with Proust are perhaps even more strange. I loved the introductory section (waiting for the mother’s kiss), and then Swann in Love. And yes, I remember quite a bit. But when it came to the next section, with adolescent Marcel and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte, I was totally unable to connect with those characters. And the long sentences with their excess of detail steadily got on my nerves. After about twenty pages, I stopped. One of my French textbooks has the most vivid excerpts from the later parts, and I tackled some of those, admiring how observant Proust was, reminding me of the realism of Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is a greater magician by far, making the reader feel as if they were present at the scene.

Another problem is that we are less and less interested in the lives of the late nineteenth-century upper class. Those people seem to dress up and socialize, and even falling in love has to be very complicated to keep them from sheer boredom. To be sure, the writers of that era can impart some universal psychological insights, they can ponder good and evil, the mysteries of love and so on, but we relate less and less to the characters. 

Still, Proust was a psychologist enough to have given us a few gems. The best known one of course is the “madelaine moment,” the description of a “trigger” of involuntary memory. But there is also “Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade.” Somehow we must avoid the empty lives that most of Proust’s characters live; we need to feel useful, to have a purpose. Though his relationship with his mother was of course primary, Proust also admired his father, a physician who studied cholera and tried to propagate the principles of hygiene that protect people from infectious disease.


~ The greatness of true art is that it allows you to find, allows you to possess, allows us to know the reality from which we live at a distance, that reality that we risk not knowing during life, and that is simply our life.

Real life, life finally discovered and explained and consequently, the only life actually lived is literature. ~ Marcel Proust, Time Found, 1927

A shameless digression: I love this anecdote: His first translator died before he was finished (and no wonder).


~ A study in which scientists drove mice to bond by zapping their brains with synchronized signals raises questions about a phenomenon that has been observed in humans: When two people interact, their brain patterns align in intriguing ways.

~ The tales we tell each other are an ideal means of exploring the social glue that binds. Neuroscientist Uri Hasson of Princeton University conducted seminal experiments in brain coupling by using storytelling. In one such study, he put an individual in a scanner and had that person tell a story. Then he put someone new in the scanner and had the volunteer listen to a recording of the story told by the first person. Hasson compared the brain processing of speaker and listener across time, matching activity moment by moment, and he found evidence of the two brains coupling. “The brain of the listener becomes similar to the brain of the speaker,” Hasson says. And the more aligned the brains were, the greater the listener’s reported comprehension. Says Hasson, “Your brain as an individual is really determined by the brains you’re connected to.”

Perhaps inevitably, neuroscientists have moved to studying not just two, but many brains at once. These experiments require the use of EEG because it is portable. Early studies showed that when we engage in group activities like concerts or movies, our brain waves become synchronized—the audience’s rapt attention means they process the symphonic finale or a love or fight scene in the same way. That is not all that surprising, but now scientists are applying the same approach in classrooms, where the findings could add to what we know about how students learn best.

In a series of studies in New York City high schools, a team of New York University researchers including Poeppel, Suzanne Dikker and Ido Davidesco took repeated EEG recordings from every student in a biology class over the course of a semester. They found that students’ brainwaves are more in sync with each other when they are more engaged in class. Brain-to-brain synchrony also reflects how much students like each other and the teacher—closer relationships lead to more synchronization.

Their current study is examining whether levels of brain synchrony during class predict retention of material learned. “I think what we’re doing is very useful,” Poeppel says. “How [do we] use these techniques in a targeted way for STEM learning?”

Schilbach believes interactive neuroscience has real-life applications in psychiatry as well. It could make it possible to predict which therapist will work best with which patient, for example. And the focus on real-life situations helps ensure that any findings have value for patients. “As a psychiatrist,” Schilbach says, “I’m not interested in helping a person to get better on a particular social cognitive task. I’m trying to help that person to lead a happy and satisfying life.”


These findings have given rise to interesting "extended mind" discussions of consciousness. It seems that marching and singing or chanting together have been used to produce that "extended mind" (at least briefly) for a very long time in the history of humanity. Religious rituals and Nazi rallies have shown that this is a powerful technique. The positive side is an increased sense of community. The negative side is known as "destructive obedience."


The discovery that brains synchronize  when engaged in activities like telling/listening to stories, and singing/listening to music is fascinating, and has many implications. Of course there is the one mentioned, of crowds becoming part of an "extended mind" and swept up in collective actions manipulated by negative, even evil, leaders with false and destructive narratives. Religious experience of ceremonies and sermons, concerts and choirs and shared music, can all create positive social connections, but the same synchrony can occur with stories orchestrated by Hitler, Jim Jones, Manson and their like.

In terms of experiencing this synchrony, I wonder if reading the story works the same way as hearing it...that the shape of the author's thought is mirrored in the reader's  experience of it. Certainly stories we read often impress us deeply so that the reading is an experience of the events that can feel as profound and direct as memories of our own experiences.

These become part of our own store of memories, our own stories. Thus reading amplifies experience and creates connections across both time and space. The feeling of reading something becomes very close to the feeling of living it.

Language is certainly essential to what makes us human, and so is what we do with it. I would say that among all the things we do with words, telling stories is one of the most important, most constant and most universal. The synchrony that comes with this storytelling may be crucial to forming social ties and connections...a community shares the same stories, and creates and recreates them over long stretches of time.

And we have only recently discovered how accurate our oldest stories can be. In societies with long oral traditions who only recently adopted writing, for instance indigenous groups unabsorbed by the historically modern culture encountered with colonialism, the oral tradition has recently proved astoundingly accurate about conditions and events in the extreme past. Indigenous groups in Australia preserved in oral tradition knowledge of lands they knew long ago as dry land, but that were covered by the sea millennia ago. This was not only remembered in the oral tradition, but it was remembered with remarkable exactitude, astonishing scientists who just recently discovered these submerged areas.

That is only one example indicating traditional tales are not vague mythical stories, but stories that preserve information over very long stretches of time. Stories are essential to being human, and stories are repositories of memory, as well as the vehicle of our connections both past and present. Telling stories may be not only our favorite but our most important activity.


It’s certainly interesting to wonder to what extent reading changes the reader’s brain rhythm. Yes, the mirror neurons are probably involved — especially if we feel empathy with what’s happening on the page. We know that people watching a movie together synchronize their brains. I think something very important is going on, and we have just barely, barely glimpsed the mystery.




1. Under some conditions, paying people for their work makes them work less hard.
Classic work on the topic of cognitive dissonance has found that under many conditions, if you pay someone to do some task, they realize that they are only doing it for the money, and their motivation regarding the task itself reduces dramatically (see Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

2. Most people are easily capable of killing someone who is totally innocent if an authority figure requests them to do so.
In his classic research on obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram found that a substantial majority of regular Americans are capable of engaging in behavior that would kill an innocent man simply because an authority figure requested that they do so (Milgram, 1963).

3. Reactions to infidelity account for about one-third of homicides in the modern world.
An analysis of thousands of homicides from two large North American cities found that a full one-third of homicides are connected, in a significant way, with infidelity (Daly & Wilson, 1982).

4. Basic facial expressions of emotions cut across all cultures of the globe.
The way that people express and understand emotional facial expressions varies almost zero percent across all human groups that have ever been studied (Ekman & Friesen, 1986). A smile is a smile wherever you go.

5. We tend to see people who are in "other" groups as all the same as one another relative to people in our own groups.
When we think of people as being members of some "other" group from our own, we literally are unable to see variability among them; we literally tend to see them as "all the same" (Haslam et al., 1996). This phenomenon is known as outgroup homogeneity.

6. Our psychological connections with dogs and cats have strong roots in the human evolutionary story.
Next time you look at your dog or your cat, realize that our psychological connections with these creatures actually go far back into human evolutionary history. They joined us in this journey for very specific, evolution-based reasons.

7. The same five basic personality traits characterize people across the globe.
Research into basic personality traits, which shows much variability from person to person, has found that the same basic personality traits—extraversion, emotional stability, open-mindedness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—characterize how people differ from one another in all corners of the Earth (see Schmitt et al., 2007).

8. Situational factors account for more "evil" behavior than do dispositional factors.
A mountain of research on "evil" or anti-social behavior points to this conclusion: Evil behavior is much more the result of situational factors than dispositional factors. Thus, it is more accurate to talk about environmental conditions that facilitate evil behavior than it is to talk about "bad people" (see Zimbardo, 2007).

9. Anxiety actually has an important role in human functioning.

While on the surface, we tend to think of anxiety as simply problematic and as something that we need to reduce, in fact, anxiety acts very much like a Darwinian adaptation, leading to benefits such as success at all kinds of tasks. A moderate degree of anxiety is, in fact, a good thing (see Nesse & Williams, 1994).

10. There really is something to the idea of true love. And we can see it in people's brains. 

True love really is a thing, and it can be observed in neural activity in the brain. Helen Fisher has dedicated a lifetime of intensive research that ultimately points toward this conclusion.


~ Imagine the following scenario. Scientists identify a potential global threat, but initial data are spotty—not enough to spur drastic action. Rapidly, relentlessly, the threat grows. What once was preventable becomes inevitable. The world has no choice but to endure the disaster at the cost of trillions of dollars and millions of lives.

This is the story of COVID pandemic—but it could equally well be the story of a catastrophic strike by a large asteroid. As we emerge from the worst of COVID-19, we should heed this lesson: low-probability, high-impact events do occur; but they can be mitigated if we prepare and act early enough.

Asteroids are like viruses in a sense: they number in the tens of millions but only a few types pose a threat to humans. For asteroids, it’s the “near-Earth” variety—those with orbits that come close to our own—that we must worry about.

Also as with viral outbreaks, the likelihood of a catastrophe is unlikely in any given year, but almost inevitable over time. And just as we can in principle develop vaccines against emerging viruses before they cause too much damage, creating immunity without making people sick, we can similarly use modern technology to develop a level of global immune response to asteroid collisions. But this requires ongoing investments in research and preparedness—and while the U.S. spent more than $6.5 billion dollars on pandemic preparedness over the past decade (with admittedly mixed results), the nation spent less than a tenth of that on the work of asteroid detection and deflection. This is far too low.

In fact, impacts from space happen all the time, but they are generally small and harmless. The Earth is peppered with meteors throughout the year that are mere inches across or less, which burn up as shooting stars when they enter our atmosphere. The threat comes from the bigger ones, which are house-sized or larger. These strike less frequently, but they do happen. In 2013, a 60-foot-diameter meteor exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring thousands of people. The really big ones—miles across—are even rarer, occurring every few hundred million years or so. But the damage they do can be catastrophic. Think of the mass extinction 65 million years ago that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. The good news is that we’ve found most of those and, fortunately for us, Earth is not in their crosshairs.

But there is a middle ground that demands our attention: “city killer” asteroids that are about around the size of a football field and could unleash 10,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima. They seem to hit us every few thousand years, on average. There are likely many tens of thousands of them with orbits near Earth’s, yet we’ve only found about one third of these.

And finding them is hard. Even the big ones are tiny, cosmically speaking, and are camouflaged against the blackness of space by their charcoal-like dark surfaces. Ground-based telescopes, which measure reflected light, struggle to see these small, dim objects. Only a few hundred are discovered each year. To significantly improve the rate of detection we need to move off the Earth, to the realm of the asteroids. We need a telescope in space.

The Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor is a modest space telescope currently under consideration by NASA. Instead of looking at reflected light, it would seek out heat signatures of asteroids, which glow with infrared radiation against the cold background of space. And in space, where there’s no bad weather and daytime that limit observations, the NEO Surveyor could find more city-killer asteroids in the next 10 years than have been discovered by all the telescopes on Earth over the past three decades.

The mathematics of orbital mechanics that characterizes asteroids can be as heartless as the exponential growth that goes with viral outbreaks. And as with broad testing regimes that have been used during COVID, a dedicated effort to discover potentially hazardous asteroids will be the key to preventing disaster. It’s possible to alter an incoming asteroid’s orbit to protect the Earth, but that becomes increasingly more difficult depending on how close we are to impact. It is far easier to act years (if not decades) in advance.

After more than a decade in bureaucratic purgatory, where the NEO Surveyor has struggled to gain approval, the project appears ready to move forward. The Biden administration recently proposed to fund this mission in its latest NASA budget; Congress should support this request. It will take years to build and launch, but as early as 2026 we may see the start of the first dedicated effort to understand the scope of the asteroid threat.

We also need to invest in deflection technology, the “vaccine” of the asteroid response. Fortunately, NASA is close to launching a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). In 2022, the spacecraft will ram into the tiny “moon” that orbits the near-Earth asteroid Didymos, slightly changing its orbit. Scientists will compare the exact degree of change to their predictions, which will help them understand how to alter asteroid orbits more effectively in the future. This is only a test, but it could serve the same function as the years of basic research into the field of mRNA vaccines that ultimately paid off when applied to COVID.

We must also continue to support sky surveys by ground telescopes, which can support the work of space-based missions. The Vera Rubin Observatory, for example, now under construction in Chile and especially good at finding fast-moving objects in the solar system, will greatly assist in asteroid detection. (The proposed “megaconstellations” of Earth-orbiting satellites by Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, and others threaten to overwhelm our view of these dim objects and make asteroid detections more difficult. There is no easy solution to this, beyond further confirming the need for space-based detectors located in quieter regions of the solar system.)

The coronavirus pandemic has many humbling lessons for humanity. But let this be one of them: low-probability, high-impact disasters do occur; and there is no higher impact disaster than a large asteroid collision with the Earth. We know that early awareness enables early action. Big problems later on can be prevented by small investments now. Let’s not be caught off-guard again. ~

The Baobab flower. It takes 50 years to bloom.



~ On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.

Martin has long been interested in how plants produce beneficial nutrients. The purple tomato is the first she designed to have more anthocyanin, a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compound. “All higher plants have a mechanism for making anthocyanins,” Martin explained when we met. “A tomato plant makes them as well, in the leaves. We just put in a switch that turns on anthocyanin production in the fruit.” Martin noted that while there are other tomato varieties that look purple, they have anthocyanins only in the skin, so the health benefits are slight. “People say, Oh, there are purple tomatoes already,” Martin said. “But they don’t have these kind of levels.”

The difference is significant. When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease. After the publication of Martin’s first paper showing the anticancer benefit of her tomatoes, in the academic journal Nature Biotechnology in 2008, newspapers and television stations began calling. “The coverage!” she recalled. “Days and days and days and days of it! There was a lot of excitement.” She considered making the tomato available in stores or offering it online as a juice. But because the plant contained a pair of genes from a snapdragon — that’s what spurs the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanin — it would be classified as a genetically modified organism: a G.M.O.

That designation brings with it a host of obligations, not just in Britain but in the United States and many other countries. Martin had envisioned making the juice on a small scale, but just to go through the F.D.A. approval process would cost a million dollars. Adding U.S.D.A. approval could push that amount even higher. (Tomato juice is known as a “G.M. product” and is regulated by the F.D.A. Because a tomato has seeds that can germinate, it is regulated by both the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A.) “I thought, This is ridiculous,” Martin told me.

Martin eventually did put together the required documentation, but the process, and subsequent revisions, took almost six years. “Our ‘business model’ is that we have this tiny company which has no employees,” Martin said with a laugh. “Of course, the F.D.A. is used to the bigger organizations” — global agricultural conglomerates like DowDuPont or Syngenta — “so this is where you get a bit of a problem. When they say, ‘Oh, we want a bit more data on this,’ it’s easy for a corporation. For me — it’s me that has to do it! And I can’t just throw money at it.”

Martin admitted that, as an academic, she hadn’t been as focused on getting the tomato to market as she might have been. (Her colleague Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist, eventually stepped in to assist.) But the process has also been slow because the purple tomato, if approved, would be one of only a very few G.M.O. fruits or vegetables sold directly to consumers. The others include Rainbow papayas, which were modified to resist ringspot virus; a variety of sweet corn; some russet potatoes; and Arctic Apples, which were developed in Canada and resist browning.

It also might be the first genetically modified anything that people actually want. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, G.M.O.s have remained wildly unpopular with consumers, who see them as dubious tools of Big Ag, with potentially sinister impacts on both people and the environment. Martin is perhaps onto something when she describes those most opposed to G.M.O.s as “the W.W.W.s”: the well, wealthy and worried, the same cohort of upper-middle-class shoppers who have turned organic food into a multibillion-dollar industry. “If you’re a W.W.W., the calculation is, G.M.O.s seem bad, so I’m just going to avoid them,” she said. “I mean, if you think there might be a risk, and there’s no benefit to you, why even consider it?”

The purple tomato could perhaps change that calculation. Unlike commercial G.M.O. crops — things like soy and canola — Martin’s tomato wasn’t designed for profit and would be grown in small batches rather than on millions of acres: essentially the opposite of industrial agriculture. The additional genes it contains (from the snapdragon, itself a relative of the tomato plant) act only to boost production of anthocyanin, a nutrient that tomatoes already make. More important, the fruit’s anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, which seem considerable, are things that many of us actively want.

Nonetheless, the future of the purple tomato is far from certain. “There’s just so much baggage around anything genetically modified,” Martin said. “I’m not trying to make money. I’m worried about people’s health! But in people’s minds it’s all Dr. Frankenstein and trying to rule the world.”

There are some signs that the future of small-scale, bespoke G.M.O. produce may already have begun. In late April, Cathie Martin told me that the U.S.D.A. had recently updated its regulations to allow more G.M.O. plants to be grown outside, without a three-year field trial or in tightly contained greenhouses. (The exceptions are plants or organisms with the potential to be a pest, pathogen or weed.) 

In the wake of this change, Martin and Jones are planning to make the purple tomato available first to home gardeners, who could grow it from seed as soon as next spring — well before the commercially grown tomato reaches grocery stores. (U.S.D.A. approval is expected by December.) They’re currently testing six different varieties, to find the most flavorful. “When we first developed the purple tomato, it was home gardeners who were most interested in it,” Martin noted. “And with home gardening, it’s an opt-in system. It’s up to you whether you want to grow it.”



“The modern man does not want to know in what way he can imitate Christ but in what way he can live his own individual life, however meager and uninteresting it may be. It is because every form of imitation seems to him deadening and sterile that he rebels against the force of tradition that would hold him to well-trodden ways. All such roads for him lead in the wrong direction.” ~ C. G. Jung

Considering the book’s popularity since the late fourteen-hundreds, perhaps we should wonder if there is something of value in it.

From Wiki: ~ Kempis writes one must remain faithful and fervent to God, and keep good hope of attaining victory and salvation, but avoid overconfidence. Kempis gives the example of an anxious man who, oscillating between fear and hope and with grief went to the altar and said: "Oh, if only I knew that I shall persevere to the end." Immediately he heard the divine answer, "What if you knew this? What would you do? Do now what you would do then, and you will be very safe." After this the man gave himself to God's will, and his anxiety and fear of future disappeared (Chap. 25).

Jesus says that spiritual progress and perfection consists in offering oneself to the divine will and not seeking oneself in "anything either small or great, in time or in eternity" (Chap. 25). Jesus says not be anxious about future—"Do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid." Jesus advises the disciple that all is not lost when the result is not as planned, when one thinks he is farthest from Jesus, it is then that Jesus is nearest, when one thinks that all is lost, it is then that victory is close at hand. Jesus says not to react to a difficulty as if there were no hope of being freed from it (Chap. 30).

The Imitation of Christ is regarded as the most important devotional work in Catholic Christianity and is the most widely read devotional work next to the Bible. Apart from the Bible no book has been translated into more languages than the Imitation of Christ.


The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: 

It rejects and eliminates every speculative element not only of scholasticism but also of mysticism, and yet, at the same time, it abstracts from the colorful multiplicity of the Bible and – since it is written for those who have turned from the world – disregards the world, in all its richness, as a field for Christian activity... In place of the openhearted readiness of a Catherine of Siena, a subdued and melancholy resignation runs through the book.... [T]here is an excess of warnings about the world, the illusions of egoism, the dangers of speculation and of the active apostolate. In this way, even the idea of the imitation of Christ does not become the dominant perspective. There is no mention of the mediation of the God-man, of access through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. The mystery of the Church, therefore, does not come into view either. The individual is unaware that his love of God can only be fulfilled if it expands into love of neighbor and into the apostolate. All [that] remains is a flight from the world, a world that has not been brought home in Christ.

René Girard wrote: "Neither does Jesus propose an ascetic rule of life in the sense of Thomas à Kempis and his celebrated Imitation of Christ, as admirable as that work may be.”

an 1878 edition


The book has come into my hands, but could never sustain my interest. It was not, as Jung suggests, because a modern person doesn’t like the idea of imitating someone else. It was the constant nagging and the belief that only the afterlife counted. Nevertheless, in the brief discussion of it in Wiki, I find a peculiar echo of self-help books, which  often advise the reader to imagine themselves already having won the victory — how would you act then? And that is a thought-provoking question.


~ Almost two decades ago, in a news release about his landmark paper, "Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo" (Bramble & Lieberman, 2004), Dennis Bramble explained how "long legs, which chimps and australopithecines lack, led humans to take huge strides when running." He also notes that our long Achilles tendons act "like springs that store and release mechanical energy during running."

Additionally, Bramble and Lieberman found that "the arrangement of bones in the human foot creates a stable or stiff arch that makes the whole foot more rigid, so the human runner can push off the ground more efficiently and utilize ligaments on the bottom of the feet as springs."

A recently published systematic review of running biomechanics and styles (Van Oeveren et al., 2021) notes:

"In order to bring about a flight phase, the runner needs to generate a force that at least exceeds the force required to support body weight. The flight phase therefore reflects the runner's ability to generate power during the relatively short [time on the ground]. To generate sufficient force for a flight phase, it is necessary to 'compress' the leg spring."

"Some runners seem to hardly touch the ground, while others appear to have difficulty becoming airborne," Ben van Oeveren and co-authors explain. "Indeed, marked differences exist in the [flight time] between runners. For example, high-performance runners distinguish themselves from recreational runners by having longer flight time at given speeds.”

Another recent paper (Burns et al., 2021) compared the "bouncing behavior" of elite runners (sub-four-minute milers) to highly-trained but not quite elite-level runners, who couldn't run a mile in less than four minutes.

Burns et al. found that the "underlying spring-like physics of running" in the elite-level running group looked more like a "beautifully coordinated bounce" than someone forcibly pushing off from the ground. The elite runners who mastered this "bouncing behavior" spent much less time on the ground and more time in the air.

"When running, muscles and limbs coordinate to act like a giant pogo stick, and those muscles, tendons, and ligaments interact to recycle energy from step to step," Geoffrey Burns said in a July 2021 news release. "With their 'stiffer' spring behavior on each step, [elite runners] may be better recycling that gravitational energy from the time in the air to quickly and efficiently bounce along."

Burns suggests that "running on different surfaces (pavement vs. grass vs. dirt) will force you to change your body's bouncing behavior" and that "challenging your body to interact with the ground differently will likely promote some sort of beneficial adaptation, if dosed responsibly."
However, he cautions against casual joggers saying to themselves: "I'm going to try and spend as little time on the ground and as much time in the air as possible for this whole run." Trying too hard to increase flight time between each stride could be a recipe for disaster if a runner's unique biomechanics don't support an extended flight phase.

As Burns sums up, "Broadly speaking, when we run, our bodies choose the movement patterns that tend to be most efficient and safest for us at that time." This is great advice. Nonetheless, there's nothing wrong with "wishing you could fly" and visualizing yourself taking flight on your daily jog—even if it's just a state of mind. ~


The recent study involved the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM) in Barcelona, Spain, and the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI) in Sioux Falls, SD.
The researchers’ goal was to find out what role omega-3 plays in life expectancy. They tracked 2,240 participants over 11 years and analyzed omega-3 levels in the participants’ blood.

They divided the study participants into four groups:

people with a high omega-3 level who did not smoke
people with a high omega-3 level who did smoke
people with a low omega-3 level who did not smoke
people with a low omega-3 level who did smoke

According to the study authors, “Kaplan-Meier survival curvesTrusted Source were used to estimate survival proportions by age given different risk profiles.”

According to their analysis, people with high omega-3 levels in their blood who did not smoke had the highest survival estimate. People with high omega-3 levels who did smoke and those with low omega-3 levels who did not smoke were almost identical in terms of survival estimates.

Finally, people with low omega-3 levels in their blood who did smoke had the lowest survival estimate. 

“This reaffirms what we have been seeing lately,” says study author Dr. Aleix Sala-Vila, a postdoctoral researcher in IMIM’s Cardiovascular Risk and Nutrition Research Group.
“Being a regular smoker takes 4.7 years off your life expectancy, the same as you gain if you have high levels of omega-3 acids in your blood. Having higher levels of these acids in the blood, as a result of regularly including oily fish in the diet, increases life expectancy by almost 5 years.”

Speaking with MNT, Dr. Harris also wanted to make it clear that although people with high omega-3 levels who did smoke and people with low omega-3 levels who did not smoke had almost identical survival estimates, “this should not be taken to mean that somehow taking fish oil capsules ‘erases’ the bad effects of smoking.”

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a nutritionist, was not involved with the study but spoke with MNT about its findings. “It’s notable that this study not only looked at the benefit that overall omega-3 fatty acid intake may have in benefiting longevity, but also that it can lead to diet recommendations based on biomarkers, such as blood concentrations of types of omega-3s.”

“The article also recommended discussing consuming fatty fish as well,” said Kirkpatrick. “This is consistent with other studies, which show that fatty fish consumption can benefit brain health (including mental health outcomes) and longevity. I’m not surprised by the research but would love to see if outcomes are consistent between both supplemental and whole food forms.” ~



Eating avocado with tomatoes or carrots significantly increased absorption of beta-carotene 2.4 times and 6.6 times respectively compared to eating tomatoes or carrots without avocado.

Eating avocado with carrots significantly increased absorption of alpha-carotene 4.8 times more than eating carrots without avocado.

Eating avocado with tomatoes or carrots significantly increased the conversion of provitamin A (inactive form) to vitamin A (active form) more than eating tomatoes or carrots without avocado.


In India — where the Delta variant was first identified and caused a huge outbreak — cases have plunged over the past two months. A similar drop may now be underway in Britain. There is no clear explanation for these declines.

In the U.S., cases started falling rapidly in early January. The decline began before vaccination was widespread and did not follow any evident changes in Americans’ Covid attitudes.

In March and April, the Alpha variant helped cause a sharp rise in cases in the upper Midwest and Canada. That outbreak seemed poised to spread to the rest of North America — but did not.

This spring, caseloads were not consistently higher in parts of the U.S. that had relaxed masking and social distancing measures (like Florida and Texas) than in regions that remained vigilant.

Large parts of Africa and Asia still have not experienced outbreaks as big as those in Europe, North America and South America.

How do we solve these mysteries? Michael Osterholm, who runs an infectious disease center at the University of Minnesota, suggests that people keep in mind one overriding idea: humility.
“We’ve ascribed far too much human authority over the virus,” he told me.


Over the course of this pandemic, I have found one of my early assumptions especially hard to shake. It’s one that many other people seem to share — namely, that a virus always keeps spreading, eventually infecting almost the entire population, unless human beings take actions to stop it. And this idea does have crucial aspects of truth. Social distancing and especially vaccination can save lives.

But much of the ebb and flow of a pandemic cannot be explained by changes in human behavior. That was true with influenza a century ago, and it is true with Covid now. An outbreak often fizzles mysteriously, like a forest fire that fails to jump from one patch of trees to another.

The experience with Alpha in the Midwest this spring is telling:

Even Osterholm said that he had assumed the spring surge would spread from Michigan and his home state of Minnesota to the entire U.S. It did not. It barely spread to nearby Iowa and Ohio. Whatever the reasons, the pattern shows that the mental model many of us have — in which only human intervention can have a major effect on caseloads — is wrong.

Britain has become another example. The Delta variant is even more contagious than Alpha, and it seemed as though it might infect every unvaccinated British resident after it began spreading in May. Some experts predicted that the number of daily cases would hit 200,000, more than three times the country’s previous peak. Instead, cases peaked — for now — around 47,000, before falling below 30,000 this week.

“The current Delta wave in the U.K. is turning out to be much, much milder than we anticipated,” wrote David Mackie, J.P. Morgan’s chief European economist.

True, you can find plenty of supposed explanations, including the end of the European soccer tournament, the timing of school vacations and the Britain’s notoriously late-arriving summer weather, as Mark Landler, The Times’s London bureau chief, has noted. But none of the explanations seem nearly big enough to explain the decline, especially when you consider that India has also experienced a boom and bust in caseloads. India, of course, did not play in Europe’s soccer championship and is not known for cool June weather.


A more plausible explanation appears to be that Delta spreads very quickly at first and, for some unknown set of reasons, peters out long before a society has reached herd immunity. As Andy Slavitt, a former Covid adviser to President Biden, told me, “It seems to rip through really fast and infect the people it’s going to infect.” The most counterintuitive idea here is that an outbreak can fade even though many people remain vulnerable to Covid.

That’s not guaranteed to happen everywhere, and there probably will be more variants after Delta. Remember: Covid behaves in mysterious ways. But Americans should not assume that Delta is destined to cause months of rising caseloads. Nor should they assume that a sudden decline, if one starts this summer, fits a tidy narrative that attributes the turnaround to rising vaccination and mask wearing.

“These surges have little to do with what humans do,” Osterholm argues. “Only recently, with vaccines, have we begun to have a real impact.”


I don’t want anyone to think that Osterholm is making a nihilist argument. Human responses do make a difference: Masks and social distancing can slow the spread of the virus, and vaccination can end a pandemic.

The most important step has been the vaccination of many older people. As a result, total British deaths have risen only modestly this summer, while deaths and hospitalizations remain rarer in heavily vaccinated parts of the U.S. than in less vaccinated ones.

But Osterholm’s plea for humility does have policy implications. It argues for prioritizing vaccination over every other strategy. It also reminds us to avoid believing that we can always know which behaviors create risks.

That lesson has particular relevance to schools. Many of the Covid rules that school districts are enacting seem overly confident about what matters, Osterholm told me. Ventilation seems helpful, and masking children may be. Yet reopening schools unavoidably involves risk. The alternative — months more of lost learning and social isolation — almost certainly involves more risk and greater costs to children. Fortunately, school employees and teenagers can be vaccinated, and severe childhood Covid remains extremely rare.

We are certainly not powerless in the face of Covid. We can reduce its risks, just as we can reduce the risks from driving, biking, swimming and many other everyday activities. But we cannot eliminate them. “We’re not in nearly as much control as we think are,” Osterholm said. 

~ New York Times newsletter, July 30, 2021


On a related note: a “tsunami of suicide” was predicted as a  result of the pandemic. In fact, the suicide rate declined.

Both jobs and school can be significant stressors for some people. Perhaps rather than trying to predict the suicide rate, we should focus on job-related and school-related stress? 



It seems strange how some journalists are trying to act as if the COVID 19 pandemic would run its course and disappear. Have they never read articles about polio, smallpox, measles, and a host of other diseases that vaccines brought under control? That doesn’t mean the disease disappeared from the face of the earth. It means that the disease affects a minimal number of people.

The COVID rates started falling in January for two primary reasons. First, as science predicted, mandatory mask-wearing needed about six months to be effective. At that time, society might expect lower infection rates. Dr. Fauci had been talking about it for months. Europe started two months earlier than the United States, and it took about six months for mask-wearing and social distancing to reduce the infection rate.

Second, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris always appeared in public wearing a mask. Journalists belittled Trump for not wearing a mask or taking the pandemic seriously; then, they ignored the positive effect of Biden’s and Harris’s actions. Political scientists and psychologists filled the airways with criticisms of the ex-president; then, they became silent about the Biden and Harris behaving well.

The author writes that the attitudes in the United States didn’t change as the disease continued. He is right. However, Biden’s and Harris’s consistent modeling had a positive effect on slowing the spread. The Republican conservative attitudes remained the same, but even those not taking the safety measures seriously began to wear masks. Finally, enough people practiced good hygiene to lower the spread of COVID 19.

Science claimed we would gain some control over the disease, but it stated there was no absolute control of the virus even when we reached herd immunity. The author ignores what science said about mutations. The medical community agreed that vaccination is the most effective way to fight the pandemic. Today polio and measles are re-establishing themselves in the West because of the anti-vaccine crowd’s refusal to vaccinate their children.

Within any pandemic, there is an infinite number of mutations along with the surges they produce. We give ourselves maximum protection by wearing a mask, vaccinating, and practicing social distancing. If we do these three things, the pandemic will diminish, but the virus will continue to exist and mutate.

With the current surge in Florida, conservatives are finally getting vaccinated. Their behavior has changed, even if their public attitudes remain the same. 


It seems strange how some journalists are trying to act as if the COVID 19 pandemic would run its course and disappear. Have they never read articles about polio, smallpox, measles, and a host of other diseases that vaccines brought under control? That doesn’t mean the disease disappeared from the face of the earth. It means that the disease affects a minimal number of people.

The COVID rates started falling in January for two primary reasons. First, as science predicted, mandatory mask-wearing needed about six months to be effective. At that time, society might expect lower infection rates. Dr. Fauci had been talking about it for months. Europe started two months earlier than the United States, and it took about six months for mask-wearing and social distancing to reduce the infection rate.

Second, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris always appeared in public wearing a mask. Journalists belittled Trump for not wearing a mask or taking the pandemic seriously; then, they ignored the positive effect of Biden’s and Harris’s actions. Political scientists and psychologists filled the airways with criticisms of the ex-president; then, they became silent about the Biden and Harris behaving well.

The author writes that the attitudes in the United States didn’t change as the disease continued. He is right. However, Biden’s and Harris’s consistent modeling had a positive effect on slowing the spread. The Republican conservative attitudes remained the same, but even those not taking the safety measures seriously began to wear masks. Finally, enough people practiced good hygiene to lower the spread of COVID 19.

Science claimed we would gain some control over the disease, but it stated there was no absolute control of the virus even when we reached herd immunity. The author ignores what science said about mutations. The medical community agreed that vaccination is the most effective way to fight the pandemic. Today polio and measles are re-establishing themselves in the West because of the anti-vaccine crowd’s refusal to vaccinate their children.

Within any pandemic, there is an infinite number of mutations along with the surges they produce. We give ourselves maximum protection by wearing a mask, vaccinating, and practicing social distancing. If we do these three things, the pandemic will diminish, but the virus will continue to exist and mutate.

With the current surge in Florida, conservatives are finally getting vaccinated. Their behavior has changed, even if their public attitudes remain the same.

With the current surge in Florida, conservatives are finally getting vaccinated. Their behavior has changed, even if their public attitudes remain the same. 


And now we also have Novavax, which seems the best of the vaccines: it's effective against the variants, and it has fewer side effects compared with the m-RNA vaccines. Slowly, we are learning how to protect ourselves, in spite of the fools who talk along the lines, "My freedom is more important than your health." Some people refuse to accept the fact that society is a cooperative enterprise. Bring back civics, please! And may the first lesson be on how civilization is possible only thanks to cooperation.

Back to the vaccines:

Novavax is supposed to be the most effective of the vaccines, with the least side effects. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the traditional way of preparing vaccines. Meanwhile m-RNA technology could prove very useful in gene therapy and other applications.


ending on  beauty:

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.
~ Robinson Jeffers, Rock and Hawk


Saturday, July 24, 2021


This once in a lifetime photo was taken by Ernie Serediak in Kelowna, BC. November 29, 2020.


A recent piece in PRAVDA gives the library books checked out by Stalin between April and December, 1926. Much has been made of their oddity… ~ Robert Conquest (historian of the Soviet Union)

(Paris: LeGrande, 1902)

The woman has agreed to swallow pins,
and here, white-robed,
stands great Dr. Charcot,

pointing to the needles in her palm. The photo
makes them gleam. The stovepipe-hatted amphitheatre strains,

heads abob for better looks. She's about
to lap them like sugar, but the Doctor's minion

stays her hand; down her dress they glitter and rain.
And now from the murmuring crowd he procures a hat,

placing it upon her lap.
Your child is crying.
Can you soothe him? Tenderly the hat's caressed.

To and fro she rocks it as she sings—a case
of "simple congestive hysteria." He is dying,

woman, your child is dying! The tears cascade,
her shoulders twitch and tremble. Diagnosis confirmed.

(Munich: Insel Verlag, 1922)

"The shoulders twitch and tremble at the tertiary stage,
signalling generally the advent of paresis."

Comrade Stalin tamps his pipe and struts
the carpet to the phone, having marked another passage

with red pen. Do not put him through, I said.
I am trying to relax. The receiver's slammed down:

collectivization can wait.
He re-cracks the spine,
relights the merschaum to Nietzsche gone mad,

to Schumann demented, to sepias of six noseless
Neopolitans, an aged whore whose arms are candle wax,

spirochettes that marinate the blood, x-es
and arrows to mark their swim. His pulse

crescendos and his forehead glistens,
x and asterisks—
all night the margins redden.

(Moscow: Nova Mysl, 1908)

Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?
The day requires signatures, decrees.

He longs for verse, but must speak in prose.
All the endless signatures.
A photo shoot: he poses

with pen in hand, the Pravda newsman on his knees.
Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?

Signatures of every sort, the pace never slows.
The State revised, rewritten endlessly.

He hungers for verse but lives by prose,
Redrafted, retouched. The coffins set in rows

like Red Square parades, marching to infinity.
Should the couplets be open
or should they be closed?

Late in the Kremlin, his desk lamp glows.
So much to excise, he's up until three.

(O to live by verse instead of prose.)
The drafts soar upward. On his desk the pile grows

skyscraper high, Babel tower and gallows tree.
O sentence in verse, O sentence in prose.

Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?

~ David Wojahn, my favorite sections among the seven  

Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, replied to his critics: "They're still talking absolute balls. In the academy, there remains a feeling of, 'Don't let's be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’”

“Conquest described how on a single day, 12 December 1937, Stalin and his henchman, Molotov, personally approved death sentences on 3,167 people - and then went to the cinema.”


~ In the pantheon of dictators Joseph Stalin’s reputation for brutality is rivalled only by that of Hitler. The conventional image portrays Stalin as nothing more than a bloody tyrant, a machine politician, a heartless bureaucrat and an ideological fanatic. Yet Stalin was also an intellectual who believed in the transformative power of ideas and a bookworm who amassed a significant personal library.

Stalin was a voracious reader from an early age, devouring the classics of European literature alongside the canonical texts of the socialist movement. He was educated in a seminary but found his true metier in the radical bookshops of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Stalin believed in the power of words for the simple reason that reading books changed his life and guided him to the revolutionary underground in Tsarist Russia.

Belief in the importance of revolutionary theory was the hallmark of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and, as a keen activist, Stalin devoted himself to endless reading. “Send me some books” was Stalin’s most frequent request to his comrades while he was imprisoned or exiled to Siberia.

Nationalization of the publishing industry was one of the first acts of the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Russia in 1917. Aware that words could be used to subvert the Soviet system, they created an elaborate censorship regime to control the output of newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and printers. Stalin, however, was exempt from this censorship and his private library contained many otherwise banned volumes.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not a demagogue who used words to heighten emotion and induce mass hysteria. For Stalin words were not a cudgel but rather a scalpel, a sharp instrument of rationality and reason, albeit underpinned by a dogmatic insistence on the truth of Marxism.

Although his peripatetic lifestyle meant Stalin did not begin to collect books and build a personal library until after the Russian Revolution, by the time of his death in 1953 he had amassed a collection of some 25,000 volumes. In 1925 Stalin drew up a grandiose plan for the classification of his books. He envisioned a library that would contain a diverse store of human knowledge, not just the humanities and social sciences but aesthetics, fiction and natural sciences.

Acquisitions to his library were stamped “Biblioteka I.V. Stalina” – the Library of JV Stalin. Some books he bought, while others were gifts. At the height of his personality cult in the 1930s and 1940s he was deluged with presents, including many books. Stalin also had a habit of borrowing books from libraries and not returning them.

Stalin was not a bibliophile. He did not collect books for profit or aesthetics or as a monument to his cult image as a latter-day Renaissance Man. His library was a working library and the collection was spread across his various work and living spaces – his Kremlin office and apartment, his country mansions and his holiday homes on the Black Sea.

Even as the Soviet system’s centralized bureaucracy revolved around Stalin with hundreds of documents crossing his desk every day, he still found time for his books, claiming to confidants that he read 500 pages a day.

While Stalin’s native language was Georgian his preferred medium of communication was Russian. Almost all the books in his library were in Russian, the great majority written by Bolsheviks or other varieties of socialists. In the 1920s much of Stalin’s reading concentrated on the writings of his erstwhile rivals to succeed to Lenin as leader of the party, notably, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin. All three perished in the purges, while Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. But their books remained on Stalin’s library shelves.

History was an enduring interest of Stalin’s, especially Russian history, and he was fascinated by comparisons between his rule and that of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Stalin did not judge his achievements against the Tzars’ but compared them to himself and found them wanting. The most heavily marked book in Stalin’s collection is a history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, written by his favorite historian, Robert Vipper, an ancient history specialist who also penned a biography of Ivan the Terrible.

Stalin became interested in military affairs during the Russian civil war and he read the works of the foremost German, French, Russian and Soviet strategic theorists. During the second World War Stalin studied the tactics of his Tzarist predecessors as Supreme Commander, especially Alexander Suvorov, the 18th century strategist who never lost a battle, and Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812. Portraits of both generals were hung in Stalin’s office alongside the likeness of Lenin.

Stalin devoted considerable time to reading about science, linguistics, philosophy and political economy. After the war he intervened in Soviet debates about genetics, socialist economics and linguistic theory. The most notorious of these interventions was his support for Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet botanist who argued that genetic inheritance could be influenced by environmental controls. In private, however, Stalin ridiculed Lysenko’s view that every science had a “class character”, writing on a report by Lysenko: “Ha-ha-ha…And Mathematics? And Darwinism?”

Stalin read in diverse ways – sometimes selectively, sometimes comprehensively, cursorily or with avid attention. Some books he read cover to cover, others he merely skimmed. Sometimes he began reading a book but lost interest after a few pages or jumped from the introduction to the conclusion. Typically, he used brightly colored crayons – blue, green and red – to annotate his books but also made fainter markings with light pencils and fine-nibbed pens. While Stalin’s cursive script was a scrawl, he reserved his neatest longhand for his books.

Stalin valued books and respected their authors, even those with whom he vehemently disagreed. His habit was to mark texts that interested him and his annotations are riddled with expletives: “waffle”, “gibberish”, “nonsense”, “rubbish”, “fool”, “scumbag” and “ha ha”. But mostly Stalin read to learn and the notes he wrote were aides-memoir rather than epithets. Indeed, Stalin found much that he agreed with in the books of Trotsky and other arch enemies.

Stalin’s annotations also reveal his schematic mode of thinking. He marked the text of the pages, paragraphs and phrases that interested him by underlining or by vertical side-lines in the margin. To add structure he would number points 1, 2, 3 etc. To add emphasis he would double the lines or insert an NB in the margin. His phenomenal memory was aided by the structured character of his reading.

After Stalin’s death the majority of his books were dispersed to other libraries but the few thousand volumes that survived in the official Russian archives provide an intriguing lens with which to view Stalin’s private thinking. Above all, Stalin’s annotations of his library books show he was indeed a true believer in his own ideology. “The most important thing is Marxism”, Stalin scribbled in the margin of an obscure Soviet military journal. And he meant it. In the thousands upon thousands of annotated pages in Stalin’s library books there is not a hint he harbored any doubts whatsoever about the communist cause.

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”, Stalin is supposed to have said. The attribution is apocryphal but it does capture an essential trait of Stalin. Stalin as intellectual lived in a world of words, ideas and texts. In this world there was an abundance of emotion, sentimentality and abstraction but little by way of human empathy and conscience. Harsh decisions affecting the fate of millions were easy to take and to rationalize. Books helped insulate him from the inhumane realities accompanying his violent pursuit of utopia. Alone among his books, Stalin found solace as well as intellectual nourishment.

The sign says "We are for peace!" 

Like the majority of people in the world, I believe that Stalin is one of the most despicable leaders in history. Whenever I read an article on him, I realize how lucky the United States was to have Trump as president instead of Stalin. To read how industrious and intellectually curious he was indicates how hard a dictator must work to remain in power.

When the author describes Stalin’s library, I thought comparing it to Trump’s library would be like comparing the Smithsonian to a trash bin behinds a McDonald’s Hamburger joint. It is fortunate that the only dictator quality Trump has is charisma. Unlike Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, Trump lacks not just the breadth of knowledge but the work ethic to be successful.

Stalin was more insidious than Hitler and Mussolini because he never allowed his personal biases to divert his grab for power. Il Duce believed the Italian Army was invincible because they were descendants of Rome. Because of this belief, he refused his generals’ request to build the infrastructure required for an invasion of Ethiopia.

His premature attack on that country required help from the German Army and drained soldiers and supplies from the Eastern Front. Hitler’s obsession with eliminating the Jews caused him to focus his army on his genocidal plans. This also drained men and supplies from his war effort.

Stalin had his own biases, but he concentrated on gaining the knowledge to enable him to be the Russian leader for life. It is interesting that his library contains books he banned. He kept the necessary knowledge to unseat him locked in his residence. It’s no wonder that he’s Putin’s number one influence.

To me the biggest difference between Stalin and Trump is courage.

It is unfortunate that courage doesn’t know good from evil. One definition of a coward is to tell your supporters that you will lead them into a confrontation; then, while they march into the fray, you go home, lock the gate and front door. In your room, you wait for the results — and this is what Trump did on January 6th, 2021.

Propaganda or not, Stalin’s stand against the Nazi Army is seen as courageous, and unfortunately, it solidified his position as leader. This is why every time I read an article about Stalin, I feel lucky that when the time was ripe for America to install a dictator, the country chose Trump.


Now there’s an unexpected perspective!

I think one thing that’s lost on English speaker is the meaning of Stalin’s assumed name. “Stalin” means a “man of steel.” While there is no doubt that he was a monster, he also lived up to his name (his actual family name was Dzugashvili; his nickname was Soso). 

He couldn't be removed from power, but he could be killed. in one of my earlier blogs I present the evidence that he was poisoned by Beria (with the full consent of Khrushchev and Molotov) with warfarin, a powerful anticoagulant commonly used as a rat poison


Now, according to Trump’s first wife, Ivana, Trump did have a favorite book that he kept at his bedside. It was a collection of Hitler’s speeches entitled My New Order.



Halberstadt: My father stopped speaking to his father, my grandfather, Vassily Chernopisky, when I was born. There were many sound reasons for him to do this, but mainly he did it because he wanted nothing to do with what his father stood for, which was Stalinism and the power of the Soviet state. My grandfather had been an officer in the secret police for most of his life, and for thirteen years one of Stalin’s personal bodyguards. He was an absent and sometimes brutal father. He was also a gifted photographer, and a really great-looking man obsessed with clothes. When my mother and I left Moscow, when I was nine, we took with us one photo of Vassily and my grandmother Tamara. They are sitting near a lake; he’s wearing a fedora. For years, that was all the proof I had that my grandfather existed. I assumed that he had died sometime shortly after I was born. Then in 2004 my father got a call from a distant cousin who said that Vassily was alive and mentally still with it.

Vassily was Ukrainian, the child of beet farmers. When I found him, he was living in Vinnytsia, a medium-size city in the country’s center. It turned out that he was occupying the same one-bedroom apartment where my father had grown up fifty years earlier. It felt like time had stopped for Vassily fifty years earlier, too.

He served in a cavalry unit, and impressed his commanders with his competence and, mainly, by never complaining. He was one of several recruits from the unit chosen to attend the academy, in Moscow, of the OGPU, as the secret police was known at the time. It was considered a serious honor. When he boarded the train to Moscow, it was the first time he had been on a train.

Vassily was Orthodox, and I’m quite sure he never read [Isaac] Babel [author of "Red Cavalry"]—in the almost twenty years that he was married to my grandmother, he read only one book, which for some reason was Pot-Bouille ["stew pot'], a satirical novel by Émile Zola. He kept in on the nightstand by his bed. My grandmother did not know if he had ever finished it.

He spent nine years as an agent of the secret police, which went from being called OGPU to NKVD and, later, KGB. These were the years of the Great Terror, when nineteen million Soviet citizens were arrested, and roughly seven million were executed, many by quota. Vassily was a major, overseeing fifty-five men at Lubyanka, which was the secret-police prison in Moscow. During this time, the entire secret-police apparatus was purged, twice, and it is remarkable that Vassily survived. It was in 1941, when he was at the front, as part of an NKVD division charged with shooting deserters, that he received a telegram ordering him to report to the Kremlin, where he was made a bodyguard.

Vassily told me about participating in the ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars, and witnessing the abduction of young women when he was riding in a limousine with Lavrentiy Beria, who was head of both the secret police and the gulag. I came to realize that these were just the incidents he chose to reveal, and how much more he must have seen and done. A dynamic of our time together was my attempt to get him to talk about these things, and his attempt to evade my questions. I felt very much like a journalist when we spoke, in the sense that our encounter was a kind of battle, and I was aware of our attempting to manipulate one another. The book became in part about the impossibility of understanding the past. I came away thinking that to understand what life was like in the Soviet Union in the late thirties is really impossible for someone living in the contemporary world. The memoirs and documents and films can get you only so close.


When I called him for the first time and introduced myself, he said he didn’t have a grandson. I think he was surprised by the call’s coming out of the blue, after all those years. Of course he eventually remembered. When I met him, he wore this pressed, worn-out blazer for the occasion, and he embraced me and teared up. I recognized him from the one photo I had. For some reason I actually took it out and showed it to him, like I was presenting my credentials. During our time together I was aware of how conflicted he was—I think he badly wanted to tell me about his life, and at the same time tried to manage my impression of him by withholding and then doling out information. And yet each of us wanted to be known by the other, to connect.

After I met Vassily and had some time to process what he’d told me, I realized that I had misunderstood the story of my family. Our relationships had been shaped more fundamentally by history than by our personalities, and so much about who we were and how we carried ourselves in the world had essentially been predetermined by where and when we were born. At that point the book opened up—I wrote about my maternal grandparents, Lithuanian Jews who lost their families during the war, about my parents, and about growing up in Moscow and, later, in New York. The book is preoccupied with the idea of what it means to have this history accrue and live inside us, and the strange ways it separates and connects us.

In the last section I write about traveling to the Volga with my father, ostensibly to go fishing, and visiting a place called Selitrennoe, where the Mongol army that overran Russia in the thirteenth century and occupied it for more than two hundred and fifty years built its capital. And I write about new research in epigenetics that demonstrates the intergenerational transmission of trauma. The last section grapples with how trauma can shape not just a family but an entire society. ~

book excerpt:

~ My father’s first memory of his father was watching him count money. They lived in a communal prerevolutionary apartment near the Hotel Metropol, a few steps from Red Square, alongside families of other state security officers. Vassily coaxed the bills into neat stacks and laid them gingerly into a shoe box that he kept on a high closet shelf, along with his pistol. He never quite figured out how to spend his extravagant major’s salary and lavished much of the money on clothes, for which he had a keen eye, ordering dozens of monogrammed shirts and gabardine suits from the Kremlin tailors. My grandmother Tamara designed women’s clothes for an atelier that furnished the city’s dress shops. When the two of them went out, they looked like one of the smart modern couples from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine Tamara pried away from a colleague of Vassily’s who lived upstairs and whose job it was to monitor foreign mail. It was 1949 and my father was three or four years old.

It occurred to me that my father’s was a decidedly uncommon set of memories for someone growing up in Moscow in the late 1940s. Ninety percent of Moscow’s apartments had no heat, and nearly half had no plumbing or running water; in winter, people going out for water carried axes along with their buckets, to hack through the ice that grew around the public water pumps; workers stacked firewood brought from the countryside on street corners in piles that sometimes grew taller than a building; siblings went to school on alternate days because they shared a single pair of shoes.

But the Kremlin elite never prided itself on being egalitarian. The war was over. Vassily and Tamara went dancing, vacationed on the Black Sea. At home, my father remembered, she covered every surface with red and white carnations in cut-­crystal vases, floral bouffants that gave the room the look of a funeral parlor. They dined on caviar and smoked sturgeon sent over as part of Vassily’s rations. On New Year’s Eve—­the secular Soviet Christmas—Tamara put out porcelain bowls filled with pomegranates and oranges and decorated the tree with tinsel and crystal bells, arranging presents and sometimes a pineapple under the bottom branches. My father tore the wrapping open after supper on the thirty-­first, and after he was put to bed, the neighbors gathered around the radio console in the hallway and waited for midnight, toasting the New Year with a sparkling wine labeled Soviet Champagne. Moscow was rising from the wartime mire. ~


"Let me just tell you about Russia. Russia used to be a thing called the Soviet Union.” ~ Donald Trump, 07.28.2020




(this interview was conducted in 2016)

~ ‘It was rare for us to see him in the mornings,” says Brunhilde Pomsel, her eyes closed and chin in her hand as she recalls her former boss. “He’d walk up the steps from his little palace near the Brandenburg Gate, on to which his huge propaganda ministry was attached. He’d trip up the steps like a little duke, through his library into his beautiful office on Unter den Linden.”

She smiles at the image, noting how elegant the furniture was, the carefree atmosphere where she sat in an ante-chamber off Joseph Goebbels’ office with five other secretaries, how his nails were always neatly manicured.

“We always knew once he had arrived, but we didn’t normally see him until he left his office, coming through a door that led directly into our room, so we could ask him any questions we had, or let him know who had called. Sometimes, his children came to visit and were so excited to visit Daddy at his work. They would come with the family’s lovely Airedale. They were very polite and would curtsy and shake our hands.”

Magda Goebbels, Hitler, Goebbels, three of the children

Pomsel is giving one of the first, and last, in-depth interviews of her life; at the age of 105, and having lost her sight last year, she says she is relieved that her days are numbered. “In the little time that’s left to me – and I hope it will be months rather than years – I just cling to the hope that the world doesn’t turn upside down again as it did then, though there have been some ghastly developments, haven’t there? I’m relieved I never had any children that I have to worry about.”

While she admits she was at the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine, with her tasks including massaging downwards statistics about fallen soldiers, as well as exaggerating the number of rapes of German women by the Red Army, she describes it, somewhat bizarrely, as “just another job”.

“Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.” After the rise of the Nazi party, “the whole country was as if under a kind of a spell,” she insists. “I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics but the truth is, the idealism of youth might easily have led to you having your neck broken.”

She recalls being handed the case file of the anti-Nazi activist and student Sophie Scholl, who was active in the White Rose resistance movement. Scholl was executed for high treason in February 1943 after distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich. “I was told by one of Goebbels’ special advisers to put it in the safe, and not to look at it. So I didn’t, and was quite pleased with myself that he trusted me, and that my keenness to honor that trust was stronger than my curiosity to open that file.”

Pomsel describes herself as a product of Prussian discipline, recalling a father who, when he returned from fighting in the first world war, when she was seven, banned chamber pots from the family bedrooms. “If we wanted to go to the toilet, we had to brave all the witches and evil spirits to get to the water closet.” She and her siblings were “spanked with the carpet beater” whenever they were disobedient. “That stayed with me, that Prussian something, that sense of duty.”

She notes how life for her vivacious, red-haired Jewish friend, Eva Löwenthal, became increasingly difficult after Adolf Hitler came to power. Pomsel was also shocked by the arrest of a hugely popular announcer at the radio station, who was sent to a concentration camp as punishment for being gay. But she says that largely, she remained in a bubble, unaware of the destruction being meted out by the Nazi regime on its enemies, despite the fact she was at the physical heart of the system.

“I know no one ever believes us nowadays – everyone thinks we knew everything. We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret.” She refuses to admit she was naive in believing that Jews who had been “disappeared” – including her friend Eva – had been sent to villages in the Sudetenland on the grounds that those territories were in need of being repopulated. “We believed it – we swallowed it – it seemed entirely plausible,” she says.

When the flat she shared with her parents was destroyed in a bombing raid, Goebbels’ wife, Magda, helped to soften the blow by presenting her with a silk-lined suit of blue Cheviot wool. “I’ve never possessed anything as chic as that before or since,” she says. “They were both very nice to me.”

She recalls her boss as being “short but well kept”, of a “gentlemanly countenance”, who wore “suits of the best cloth, and always had a light tan”. “He had well-groomed hands – he probably had a manicure every day,” she says, laughing at the thought. “There was really nothing to criticise about him.” She even felt sorry for him because of the limp he had, “which he made up for by being a bit arrogant”. 

Only occasionally did she get a glimpse of the the man who turned lying into an art in pursuit of the Nazi’s murderous goals. She was terrified to see him on stage at Berlin’s sportpalast delivering his infamous “total war” speech in February 1943. She and another colleague had been given ringside seats, just behind Magda Goebbels. It was shortly after the battle of Stalingrad and, Goebbels hoped to get popular support to pull out all the stops to fight the threats facing Germany. “No actor could have been any better at the transformation from a civilized, serious person into a ranting, rowdy man … In the office he had a kind of noble elegance, and then to see him there like a raging midget – you just can’t imagine a greater contrast.”

The details Pomsel chooses to focus on may reflect the way she has edited her own story so that she feels more comfortable with it. But it is also conceivable that a combination of ignorance and awe, as well as the protection offered by the huge office complex in the government quarter really did shield her from much of reality.

It was the day after Hitler’s birthday in 1945 that her life as she knew it came to an abrupt halt. Goebbels and his entourage were ordered to join Hitler in his subterranean air raid shelter – the so-called Führerbunker – during the last days of the war. “It felt as if something inside me had died,” says Pomsel. “We tried to make sure we didn’t run out of alcohol. That was urgently needed in order to retain the numbness.” She lifts an index finger as she takes pains to tell events in their right order, recalling how Goebbels’ assistant Günther Schwägermann came with the news on 30 April that Hitler had killed himself, followed a day later by Goebbels. “We asked him: ‘And his wife as well?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And the children?’ ‘And the children too.’” She bows her head and shakes it as she adds: “We were dumbstruck.”

She and her fellow secretaries set about cutting up white food sacks and turning them into a large surrender flag to present to the Russians.

Discussing their strategy ahead of their inevitable arrest, Pomsel told her colleagues she would tell the truth, “That I had worked as a shorthand typist in Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.” She was sentenced to five years’ incarceration in various Russian prison camps in and around Berlin. “It was no bed of roses,” is all she will say about that time. It was only when she returned home that she became aware of the Holocaust, she insists, referring to it as “the matter of the Jews”.

She quickly resumed a life not dissimilar to the one she had had, when she found secretarial work at the state broadcaster once again, working her way up to become the executive secretary to its director of programs and enjoying a privileged life of well-paid work and travel before retiring, aged 60, in 1971.

But it would take her a full six decades after the end of the war before she made any inquiries about her Jewish schoolfriend, Eva. When the Holocaust memorial was unveiled in 2005, she took a trip from her home in Munich to see it for herself. “I went into the information centre and told them I myself was missing someone, an Eva Löwenthal.” A man went through the records and soon tracked down her friend, who had been deported to Auschwitz in November 1943, and had been declared dead in 1945.

“The list of names on the machine on which we found her just kept on rolling non-stop down the screen,” she says, leaning her head back, the finger tips of one hand tracing the line of her necklace. ~

(Goebbels was well read, with interests in literature and history. He earned his Ph.D. in 1921 at the University of Heidelberg. His dissertation was on a minor 19th century Romantic dramatist, Wilhelm von Schütz. By 1940, he’d written fourteen books, including two plays.)


~ Despite the 30 hours of interview on which the film is based and hours of conversation that followed for the book, she withheld a crucial detail of her own biography until shortly before her death, Weigensamer revealed.

“She told us about the love of her life, Gottfried Kirchbach, who was Jewish, with whom she planned to escape Germany forever,” he said.

Kirchbach went to Amsterdam to arrange a new life for the couple. Pomsel visited him there regularly, until one day he told her she was endangering her life because her frequent visits had come to the attention of the Nazi authorities. “She never saw him again. A doctor advised her to abort the child of theirs she was carrying, because she had a serious lung complaint and she might have died.”

Weigensamer said that even towards the end of her life Pomsel expressed no sense of guilt, “except towards people she said she should have taken better care of”. One of those was her best friend Eva Löwenthal, a vivacious, red-haired Jewish girl. Only in 2005 did Pomsel enquire about her friend’s fate, discovering she had been murdered in Auschwitz towards the end of the war.

“She remained true to herself until the end, only seeing her own fate, never seeing it in terms of the societal dimensions or putting it into its historical context,” Weigensamer said. “There were no insincere confessions.” ~

(Brunhilde Pomsel died in her sleep at the age of 106.)

Brunhilde Pomsel in 1943, in a suit given to her by Magda Goebbels


In the articles about Stalin, Vassily the bodyguard, Goebbels, and the secretary Brunhilde Pomsel, the central issue is the question of evil. As in Shakespeare — “a man can smile and smile, and be a villain.” What we see in these people is for us a conundrum..a man can be at once, a monster and a gentleman, a mass murderer and an intellectual who loves books. What we struggle with is how, and why. That's because we have an unexplored bias that assumes an intelligent, educated, cultured person will share with us a sense of morality, of cultural values that make brutality, torture, murder, hatred, the devaluing and denial of other's humanity and rights, so repugnant and unnatural, so laden with a sense of wrongness, as to make evil behavior impossible. This bias makes it hard to see the monster in the gentleman, hard to believe in that monster, in the evil heart, and thus makes us more vulnerable to his monstrosity.

So much depends on appearance, and we rely on appearance to such a degree that we are stunned and baffled by what looks fair and yet is essentially foul. How can this man who dresses so beautifully, so meticulously, who has such lovely manners, is so well read, has beautiful children, loves music and literature, commit such enormous, such horrific crimes?? What kind of man can order the slaughter of thousands and then go to the cinema??

These men: Hitler, Stalin, Goebbels, Mao, Pol Pot. Men who in their push to power and dedication to an idea, will cover the world with blood and ash, will engineer genocides, will accept no curbs on their drive to recreate the world in the shape of their ideology.

Very much like those who will commit the most hideous acts in the name of their chosen theology: Isis, Jihad, the Inquisition.

In the face of evil, some are like Brunnhilde Pomsel, a secretary in Goebbels’s office. She saw him as such a gentleman, so well dressed, well mannered, family man, lovely children; he and his wife always "both very nice to me." She saw Goebbels as elegant, polite, always well manicured...and didn't like the time she saw him in action, in a screaming rant, urging "total war." It terrified her to see him as a rowdy "raging midget." So, just as she followed the order not to look at certain files she was entrusted to put away, and proud of herself for obeying and not looking, she did nothing to disturb the "bubble" she claimed kept her, and "everyone" from "knowing anything."

This ignorance is deliberate. Serving at the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine, responsible for skewing numbers to fit the Nazi narrative of the war, she yet claimed she really knew nothing — a desperate and impossible falsehood that proves her innocence to no one. Not even herself. I think that is truly who she wants to convince, herself. She wants to believe she had no responsibility for the horrors and crimes of her elegant boss and his boss. This careful bubble of denial is not so easy to maintain, as difficult as it was for Vassily, who wanted to connect to his grandson, to share his story, and yet knew he couldn’t...that if he did it would make connection not more possible but impossible.

In the end, at the end of her long life, Pomsel is simply tired, welcomes blindness, welcomes her end, without professing any regret, accepting any guilt. Blindness, after all, served her well
she survived her friend, her lover, her Nazi past.

The kind of “editing” both Pomsel and Vassily did with their memories, their stories, allowed them to be more comfortable, and might be what allowed them to survive as they did. The unedited truth involves them with evil in a way that makes ordinary life, ordinary relationships, impossible. Both are essentially alone in ways that can't be remedied.


The Nazis remain a puzzle to us. Some of them were indeed well educated — especially  Goebbels, with his doctorate in literature from the University of Heidelberg, acknowledged since childhood as intellectually gifted. As Mary points out, we have a bias that makes it difficult for us to see an outwardly “cultured” person as someone who doesn’t share our moral values and doesn’t see the inherent ugliness of brutality, torture, and mass executions (or even of a single execution). They must have been blind, we think, but what made them blind?

One answer has been that they were “in a hypnotic trance” induced by a charismatic charlatan who presented himself as the Savior of the Fatherland. It’s been argued that entire Germany was “hypnotized” by Hitler. Against this are the voices of witnesses who say that on the contrary, high-ranking officers despised Hitler as an ignorant vulgarian — but true to their loyalty oath, they obeyed orders. Another and more convincing answer is that people willfully made themselves blind. Human ability to rationalize shameful actions and see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil has been well established.

Goebbels must have known that the idea that Jews were responsible for starting all the wars was absurd on the face of it, but he chose to use his intelligence not to refute the absurdity, but rather to rationalize it. The uneducated masses were the “useful idiots” who needed a scapegoat. Hatred is an energizing emotion without which ordinary people prefer peace to war. Fear based on lies is also a marvelous tool for promoting warfare.

Deeper down, the underlying problem is that humans developed a language that is in a sense larger than they are — it can handle abstractions, generalizations, religion, science and pseudo-science. Generalizations can indeed blind us. Lying is justified if it serves a noble goal, a glorious future — and besides, it’s not a secret that if a lie is repeated often enough, it starts to sound true by virtue of its very familiarity.

A bit to the side, I love the anecdote about Goebbels and Fritz Lang, at the time Germany’s foremost film director. Goebbels wanted Lang to make movies that promoted the Nazi ideas. Lang, raised as a Catholic, tried to get out of this assignment by saying that he had Jewish grandparents. Goebbels allegedly replied, “We will decide who is Jewish and who isn’t.”

Now, that is power.  



~ Tyranny is sado-narcissism. There are two ways to gain supremacy, elevating yourself or demoting your enemies. You can claim Godlike status either way. 

Godlike status is the problem. It's why I reject all posturing at enlightenment, all avatars, all saints, etc. even Buddha and MLK. Saints are a slippery slope toward demigods. Citing the Buddha as though he was omniscient and omnificent is little different from citing Jesus, Trump or Hitler as though they were.

There are no omniscient, omnificent humans. There never will be. Don't play God and don't play the righteous follower of someone else playing God or regarded as Godlike. 

When the cold war ended, the US claimed absolute victory, as though the USSR's fall proved that we were right about everything. That's defaulty logic: Since they're wrong, we must be right by default. 

The [right wing] conveniently assumed that Communism was the problem, not tyranny. 

The essence of tyranny is always the same. Do not be distracted by the branding differences between different versions of it. ~



~ In China, suburban garages do not factor in the lore of computing history the way they do in the United States. But prisons do – at least, one particular prison in which a brilliant Chinese engineer was sentenced to solitary confinement for thought crimes against Mao Zedong during China’s Cultural Revolution. His name was Zhi Bingyi and, during long and anxiety-ridden days, months and years of solitude, he made a breakthrough that helped launch China’s personal computing revolution: he helped make it possible to type Chinese with a run-of-the-mill Western-style QWERTY keyboard.

Zhi was born in 1911 on China’s eastern coast, in Jiangsu province. His generation shouldered an almost unbearable burden: a mandate to dedicate their lives to the modernization of their country. Zhi completed his undergraduate education in 1935, receiving a degree in electrical engineering from Zhejiang University. He moved to Germany in 1936, receiving his doctorate in 1944 from the University of Leipzig. He spent nearly 11 years in Germany, becoming fluent in the language, and marrying a German woman.

Upon the couple’s return to China in 1946, Zhi held a variety of distinguished posts, yet his long-time experience overseas made him suspect in the eyes of the still-nascent Chinese Communist Party regime following the 1949 revolution. When the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, Zhi became a marked man. Named a ‘reactionary academic authority’ (fandong xueshu quanwei) – one of the era’s many monikers for those condemned as enemies of the revolution – he was confined in one of the period’s infamous ‘ox pens’. The cell measured a claustrophobic six square meters. Outside its four walls, China descended into the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. In his hometown of Shanghai, fanatics and paramilitary groups pledged undying loyalty to the person of Chairman Mao. In the early months of the crisis, bands of radical youth set out upon ‘seek and destroy’ raids intent on purging the country of all pre-revolutionary vestiges of ‘Old China’.

Unsure if he would ever see his wife again, with no other voices besides his guards’, and with no work to occupy his mind, Zhi filled the long hours staring at the wall of his cell – specifically, at an eight-character poster that made a chilling assurance to him and anyone unfortunate enough to set their eyes upon it:

(tanbai congkuan, kangju congyan)
‘Leniency For Those Who Confess, Severity For Those Who Resist’

The message was clear: We have the authority to destroy your life (if you resist). Or to make your imprisonment somewhat more tolerable (if you confess).

Zhi read this terrifying couplet over and over again, for days, weeks and months on end. And then something began to happen – something that reminds us of the inherent strangeness of language.

No matter one’s mother tongue, the process of becoming fluent in a language is a process of forgetting that language is a form of arbitrary code. There is nothing inherently ‘candid, frank, or open’ about the character 坦 (tan), nor ‘white, blank, or clear’ about the character 白 (bai). As with any young child, Zhi in his earliest years of life would have looked upon these symbols as random assemblages of pen strokes on the page, born of a complex web of conventions whose origins we will never be able to reconstruct in full. But steadily, over the course of innumerable repetitions, something happens to us: the sounds and sights of language begin to approach, and then to achieve, a kind of natural god-givenness. The character 白 (bai) no longer ‘stands in’ for whiteness by dint of painstaking study and memorization, but merges with it effortlessly. This merger is the fruition of every child’s struggle to speak, read and write: the struggle to make inroads into their family and community’s semiotic universe, transforming it from an indecipherable code to a medium of expression.

While most of us experience this transformation as a one-way process, it can be reversed. A sound or symbol made second-nature can be denatured – defamiliarized and queered, in which one is somehow able to tap into the original meaninglessness of one’s mother tongue, even as one continues to be able to hear, see and speak it fluently.

This is what happened to Zhi. As he whiled away his time in prison, mulling over these eight characters (seven, if we account for one character that is repeated), this act of repetition restored to them their inherent arbitrariness. By the 100th reading – perhaps the 1,000th, we cannot know – Zhi began to explode these characters in his mind, into a variety of elements and constellations. The first character (坦), for example, could be readily divided into two distinct parts: 土 and 旦, and then further still into + and − (making up the component 土) and 日 and − (making up 旦). The second character 白 could be subdivided, as well, perhaps into 日, with a small stroke on top. Then the rest. Even in this short, eight-character passage, the possibilities of decomposition were abundant.

Zhi managed to get hold of a pen – the one he was given to write political self-confessions – but paper was impossible to find. Instead, he used the lid of a teacup, which his captors provided him to drink hot water. When turned over, Zhi discovered, the lid was large enough to fit a few dozen Latin letters. Then he could erase them and start again, like a student in ancient Greece with an infinitely reusable wax tablet. And so he mulled over each character one by one, decomposing them into elements, and then converting those elements into letters of the Latin alphabet.

He was creating a ‘spelling’ for Chinese – although not in the conventional sense of the word.
In Zhi’s system, the letters of the Latin alphabet would not be used to spell out the sound of Chinese words. Nor would they be used to ‘compose’ them per se. Instead, he envisioned using Latin letters to retrieve one’s desired Chinese character from memory. For him, Latin letters would be the instructions or criteria one fed to a machine, telling the device to, in effect, ‘retrieve the Chinese characters that match these requirements’.

Take the example of fu (幅), a Chinese character meaning ‘width’. Ultimately, Zhi settled upon an unexpected ‘spelling’ for this character, which bore no resemblance to its sound: J-I-T-K. The first letter in this sequence (J) corresponded not to the phonetic value of the character (which should begin with ‘F’) but to a structural element located on the left-most side of the character: the component 巾 that, when seen in isolation, is pronounced jin. The code symbol ‘J’ was derived from the first letter of the pronunciation of the component.

The rest of the spelling – I, T and K – followed the same logic. ‘I’ was ‘equal to’ the component/character yi (一); ‘K’ referred to the component kou (口); and ‘T’ to tian (田).

Other letters in Zhi’s code performed the same role:
D = the structure 刀 (with ‘D’ being derived from dao, the pronunciation of this character when seen in isolation)
L = 力 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation li)
R = 人 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation ren)
X = 夕 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation xi)

Zhi eventually gave his code a name: ‘See the Character, Know the Code’ (Jianzi shima), ‘On-Site Coding’ (OSCO), or simply ‘Zhi Code’ (Zhima).

In September 1969, Zhi was released from prison, rejoining his wife and family at their apartment on South Urumqi Road, in Shanghai – albeit in a form of prolonged house arrest.
Other changes were afoot, as well. In 1971, the United Nations recognized Beijing as the official representative of China, granting the country a seat on the Security Council. In 1972, Richard Nixon shocked the world with the first US presidential delegation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 1976, Mao died of cancer, setting in motion a profound sweep of political, economic and social transformations. Then, in 1979, the gates opened even wider, with the normalization of relations with the US.

One of the many changes that Sino-US normalization brought was an influx – first a drip, then a flood – of US-built computers and computing equipment into the PRC, personal computers in particular. US companies regarded China as an immense, untapped market for the ‘personal computing revolution’.

There was a major problem, however – at least for Chinese consumers: all of these Western-built computers were effectively useless for anyone seeking to input and output Chinese-character text. After all, how does one use the keys of a QWERTY keyboard to ‘type Chinese’? 

Suddenly, Zhi and his teacup hallucinations took on immense real-world applications. The ‘spelling’ system he made might be the key to cracking the code of QWERTY-based Chinese computing. Zhi came on the radar of engineers and technologists in the PRC, as well as two foreign organizations – the Olympia Werke company, a towering presence in the history of German precision engineering, and the Graphics Arts Research Foundation in the US. Newspaper and magazine articles celebrated Zhi’s system. International computing delegations found Zhi at the centre of the action. Zhi’s code, many felt, would finally make it possible for the Chinese writing system to hold its own in the global computing age.

It’s hard to fathom that, only a decade before the Chinese personal computing revolution took off – a revolution that would not have been possible without cracking the code of keyboard-based Chinese input – Zhi was sitting in a darkened cell, with long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of dread, tracing out ephemeral alphabetic codes on the underside of a teacup, and eventually dreaming of a fully mature Chinese-language information environment. Then, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, as he looked out on his country, he saw the contours of this dream beginning to take shape in reality.


~ In 1959, in the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, there lived three men who each believed that they were the biblical figure Jesus Christ.

Each of the men had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would soon be the subject of an ethically dubious and at times distressing experiment by their psychologist Milton Rokeach. Rokeach believed he could break their delusions by getting all three together, prompting them to question their identity as God's only son.

As such, the three were moved to the same ward and held many meetings together under Rokeach's supervision, to play out what was at best a mediocre sitcom idea at Rokeach's request. 

The first meeting was – as you'd probably expect – a little tense. These men were unshakably convinced of who they were, and so when confronted with someone else claiming their identity, the three became hostile to who they believed were imposters.

"I'm telling you I'm God!" the patient Joseph yelled, while Clyde protested that he was God. The third "Jesus",  Leon, said nothing until the end of the first session, calling it "mental torture". 

Nevertheless, all three showed up to the sessions when asked, though to no avail. Rather than questioning their own belief that they were Jesus, they would incorporate the other two into their delusional beliefs. Clyde believed that the other two were "not really alive," adding "the machines in them are talking. Take the machines out of them and they won't talk anything. You can't kill the ones with machines in them.”

Joseph believed himself to be God, and that the other two were "patients in a mental hospital and their being patients proves they are insane". Leon, seemingly the more amicable of the three, believed that the other two were lesser gods, or occasionally reincarnations of Captain Davy Jones and the King Mathius. Each of them believed that they had created the others.

Over time – the experiments would last two whole years – Rokeach would come to use many different techniques, which his students came to see as cruel and unethical. At times the team would play along with the patients' delusions, others they would question them. During one portion of the experiment, they hired an attractive research assistant in an attempt to get Leon to fall in love with her, and use her to break his belief. He did fall in love with her, and withdrew even more than he had previously when he discovered she was only flirting with him on request.

“Truth is my friend," Leon said after the incident. "I have no other friends."

The relative friendliness that the men showed to each other – which Rokeach put down to the patients attempting to appear amenable, as befitting their status as the son of God – soon broke down and led to verbal and physical fights between the three "Jesuses".
In one meeting, Clyde declared that Leon "oughta worship me, I'll tell you that" to which Leon replied that he was a "creature" who needed to wake up to the facts. Another day saw Clyde announce "I'm gonna kill you, you son-of-a-gun!" when Leon declared that Clyde's foster father was a sandpiper, a type of bird. The first violence occurred during an argument over whether the biblical figure Adam was white or not, as well as whether Adam was Leon's brother-in-law. Clyde punched Leon, who did not respond. 

The patients, especially Leon, believed that the psychologists were "trying to agitate one against the other". Although you could maybe argue that at least the psychologists were attempting to understand and treat the patients – patients at the time were often set aside without proper treatment – he definitely had a point. Their researchers began to send letters to the patients, pretending to be from the head of the hospital – or, in Leon's case, an invented "Madame Yeti Woman" who he believed to be his wife. The letters promised that she would show up to meet him at the hospital. When she didn't show up, he became upset, angry, and confused. 

The letters continued to send him instructions on how to change his behavior, which he followed to the letter. When the letters eventually began to question the identity of the men, they cut off contact.

As the experiment went on, and the three were moved into closer quarters during the day as well as for meetings, the three developed strategies for talking to each other without antagonizing the other two. By the end, they got along quite well by avoiding the elephant in the room (that all of them believed themselves to be Jesus), even humoring each other's delusions (such as Leon's belief that he was married). 

The experiment was by no stretch of the imagination a success, and the only shift in identity came when Leon requested that people call him Dr Righteous Idealized Dung rather than Jesus of Nazareth. He continued to believe that he was God. 

After the experiment was closed down, Rokeach wrote an account of it in a book titled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Though a fascinating look at belief and identity, he too saw the unethical nature of his work and the manipulation of his patients.

“I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives," he wrote in an apology in a revised edition of the book, adding, "while I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing mine-of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives within the framework of a ‘total institution’.”



~ You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.

This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light. 

Press your right index finger to the top of your right ear, where it meets your head. Now move up an inch and back an inch. You’re now pointing at your right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). This area has long been linked to empathy and selflessness. But Soutschek, by using magnetic fields to briefly shut down the rTPJ, has shown that it’s also involved in self-control.

Which makes perfect sense. Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You. 

“For a long time, people have speculated that we use the same mechanisms to reason about other people as about our hypothetical selves,” says Rebecca Saxe from MIT. “So this new study fits really well.” 

Saxe should know. She was one of the first scientists to link the rTPJ to theory of mind—the ability to understand the mental states of other people. In 2005, she and Nancy Kanwisher scanned people’s brains while they listened to stories in which protagonists made poor choices based on false beliefs. This experiment showed that the TPJ is active specifically when people are “reasoning about the contents of another person’s minds”—the essence of theory of mind. This region, the duo wrote, helps people to think about thinking people. 

Many other studies have since expanded on those early results. If the rTPJ is bigger, people are more likely to behave altruistically. If the neurons within it are better-connected (and well-linked to other parts of the brain), people show less bias towards their own in-groups. If the area is stimulated by electric currents, people become better at taking someone else’s perspective. 

And if the region is disrupted, it changes our ability to reason about morality. Consider a woman who poisons her friend’s coffee—if she does so deliberately, we’d judge her more harshly than if she acted accidentally. Intent matters, and we need the rTPJ to judge intent. When Liane Young, one of Saxe’s former students, disrupted the rTPJ using magnetic fields, she found that people were more lenient towards the deliberate poisoner, as long as her friend survived. With their ability to gauge intent disrupted, they started looking to outcomes instead.

Not everything fits with the idea of the rTPJ as a nexus for theory of mind. For example, many studies suggest that it affects our ability to shift our attention from one part of space to another, like a technician moving a spotlight around. “Even in my own small lab, people disagree about the function of the rTPJ,” says Young, now a professor at Boston College. 

If you look at the debate and relax your eyes, you can probably merge the two viewpoints into one. Maybe the rTPJ is a region that redirects our attention from one thing to another—whether between objects in the world around us, or between our minds and other people’s. Alternatively, it’s likely that what we call the rTPJ is not actually a singular bit of the brain. “There’s a lot of work suggesting that there are different sub-regions—one of which does spatial reorienting, and the other does perspective-taking,” says Young. 

That’s where Soutschek’s study comes in. He specifically focused on the back half of the rTPJ—the one that’s been more heavily linked to empathy—and disrupted it in 43 volunteers. When that happened, the recruits became more likely to pocket a pile of cash for themselves rather than splitting it with a partner, and especially when the partner was a stranger. But they were also more likely to pick a small immediate lump of cash over a larger future one, especially when the delays were long. 

A second experiment explained why. This time, the volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to say how many the man in the room could see. They had to shift their perspective to his, and they became worse at that when their rTPJ was disrupted. What’s more, Soutschek showed that the extent of their bias—their inability to leave their own heads—predicted both how impulsive and how selfish they were in the earlier experiment.

This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity. Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces. ~


~ Let me start with a disclosure. I am not a ‘moral philosopher’, but I have taught moral philosophy for several decades. I have come to regard the very idea of morality as fraudulent. Morality, I now believe, is a shadow of religion, serving to comfort those who no longer accept divine guidance but still hope for an ‘objective’ source of certainty about right and wrong. Moralists claim to discern the existence of commands as inescapable as those of an omniscient and omnipotent God. Those commands, moral philosophers teach, deserve to prevail over all other reasons to act – always, everywhere, and for all time. But that claim is bogus.

First, most systems of morality are inherently totalizing. Adhering to them consistently is impossible, and so each system is forced into incoherence by setting arbitrary limits to its own scope. Second, our preoccupation with morality distorts the force of our reasons to act, by effecting among them a triage that results in some reasons being counted twice over. Third, the intellectual acrobatics invoked to justify this double counting commit us to insoluble and therefore idle theoretical debates. Fourth, the psychological power of moral authority can promote deplorable systems of evaluation as easily as good ones. And fifth, the emotions cultivated by a preoccupation with morality encourage self-righteousness and masochistic guilt.

Morality seems like the ghost of religion. Religion is totalizing by its very nature: God knows and judges everything you do and think. And terror, though less fashionable among Christians nowadays, is a tried-and-true instrument of faith. Many Christians have lived in terror of hell. ‘Divine justice never stands in the way,’ proclaimed the 18th-century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards. ‘Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment.’

And it works: the threat of hell (though not the promise of heaven) turns out to be a good motivator. Without God, however, the moral terrorism that relies on hell loses some leverage. And anyway, most moralists are reluctant to equate morality with fear of punishment. Still, morality hardly retreats. The most commonly defended systems of morality, when taken to their logical conclusion, extend their tentacles to every choice. Just as venial sins can be forgiven, so in practice some acts are exempt from moral scrutiny. But that is only in virtue of ad hoc intellectual acrobatics with which moral systems insulate themselves from their more repugnant implications.

This can be illustrated for all three of the most prominent systems of moral theory: Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue theory inspired by Aristotle. Each, if taken strictly, entails that everything comes under morality’s purview. Here’s a sketch of how they do so, and of how each tries to walk some of it back.

In Kantian morality, a ‘categorical imperative’ [can the moral rule be universalized?] is supposed to follow from the simple fact that I am a rational being. Similar to how you can just see, as a rational being, that 2 + 2 = 4, you are expected to just see that an act is wrong unless you could coherently envisage a world in which everyone does it. This provides a test for every thought and deed. It not only applies when my actions affect others: Kantian morality explicitly burdens me with duties to myself. This is another manifestation of morality’s status as the ghost of religion. If God owns me, it is not absurd to suppose that God alone can dispose of me. But in secular terms this makes no sense. Sure, I might sometimes say I promised myself … But a promise can always be waived by its beneficiary. As the promisee, I can waive my own promise. To say I failed to keep it is just to say I changed my mind. 

Kantians recognize that some duties are ‘imperfect’: you could always give more to charity, but we shan’t blame you if you do the minimum. But placing that minimum is arbitrary. Some Kantians, though not Kant himself, might even grant that sometimes I really need to lie – to the murderer, for example, who asks me to reveal their victim’s whereabouts. But those concessions, however sensible, are not part of the Kantian system: on the contrary, any derogation to the categorical imperative is strictly inconsistent with it.

Does utilitarianism fare any better? The principle of utility sets the happiness of the greatest number as the ultimate value. Nothing in the logic of that principle can exempt any act or thought from being fed into the calculation of overall utility. Again, in practice, utilitarians will make exceptions. A racist’s distress, however genuine, at an African American’s success can simply be discounted, perhaps by appealing to a concept of ‘rights’, justified in some ingenious way by reference to utility. Moral claims, as always, outrank prudence – the rational consideration of one’s own interests – but most utilitarians want to keep an area of personal freedom relating only to the latter: whether to play hockey or chess is not a moral question.

It is not clear, however, that utilitarianism can consistently insulate such questions from its own reach. For since my happiness is a component of the total, any harm I do to myself will affect the world’s net utility. If hockey can harm me, my choosing to play it should be, strictly speaking, immoral. Not even the trivial can be kept apart in principle from the morally significant. As Peter Singer has stressed, for the price of another pair of shoes, you might have saved some child from starvation. For a consistent utilitarian, you are guilty whenever you contribute much less to charity than what would entail your own destitution. Since most people find this to be more than they can accept, Singer has provided a calculator that will suggest how much you should set aside to save others from poverty. But that again sets an arbitrary limit to the principle of utility.

For an Aristotelian or ‘virtue theorist’, the case can look somewhat better. A virtue theorist can admit a plurality of values. The ideally virtuous person I could be (but fail to) differs from the virtuous person you could be. Even here, however, the totalizing tendency can be made out. For whether there is a single model for all or a different one for each, you might not be actualizing your own potential for human excellence as efficiently as you should. Aristotle himself avoids having to say that every act and thought is subject to moral praise or censure mainly by conceding, in the opening chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics, that ‘exactness must not be looked for in all discussions alike’. The morality-free space I can carve for myself is mainly due to the impossibility of knowing exactly what my potential might be.

In the end, then, in each moral system, some space is typically protected from the tyranny of totalizing morality only by making arbitrary concessions about realms of life that are deemed insufficiently important to need controlling. The price paid is inconsistency.

Consider again some examples. To warrant that a reason is a moral one, a Kantian, as we saw, will derive it from the categorical imperative, a wonderful device that is supposed to follow from the mere fact that you are rational, and both assumes that you are absolutely free and subjects you to an inescapably binding command.

A utilitarian will remind you that life is made of pleasures and pains, and you should always endeavor to occasion the former and prevent the latter – for all existent and future conscious beings who might possibly be affected by your action.

For Aristotle, the supremacy of moral reasons derives from the fact that they follow from what is ‘essential’ to you as a human being. For him, what is essential is both universal and unique to human nature. Note, incidentally, that the more we come to know about ourselves, the harder it will be to find those essential properties. For science is making increasingly clear how much we share with the rest of our mammalian cousins, and also how much individual humans can differ in what they experience as pleasures and pains. Insofar as modern virtue theory allows value pluralism, your obligation will be to become the best that your singular nature can be. Which is hardly easier to discern, let alone to accomplish.

These leading ideas – of rational action, of the value of happiness, and of achieving the best that our nature affords – are grand ideas. In their grandeur, they can once again remind us of some of religion’s grand ideas. For example: that the evil of the world is explained by the possibility of redeeming it by the sacrifice of an innocent God. Or that we are absolutely predestined to hell or to heaven, yet must strive to act as if what we do could change that. And very much like the debates over those theological topics, the debates among the foundations of morality are irredeemably insoluble.

Surprisingly many philosophers have held that a person who is truly virtuous will have all the virtues. This doctrine of the ‘unity of the virtues’ is grounded in the idea that the exercise of a skill should not count as virtuous unless it serves good ends. It implies that no one is truly virtuous for, as Christians are wont to remind us, we are all sinners. But despite its popularity among philosophers, this doctrine is repugnant to common sense, as well as indefensible in the light of recent empirical research on the piecemeal nature of moral development.

As illustrated by many a caper movie, pulling off a major crime requires several traits traditionally regarded as virtues: prudence, courage, intelligence. More importantly, a person’s life can be dominated by a devotion to evil goals every bit as fervent, and quite as dependent on prudence, courage, intelligence and especially ‘honor’, as that of the most admired paragons of conventional virtue. The possibility of a bad morality challenges us to define what counts as a good one. Unless you just assume that your morality is unquestionably the only right one, the term seems to fit any system of principles and values by which its adherents feel ‘bound’ – in some metaphorical sense that is both specific and hard to pin down.

When feeling bound by a moral rule in that special way, the rule’s transgression, by oneself or others, is liable to trigger ‘moral’ emotions such as guilt or indignation. A Nazi might feel indignant at his colleague’s lack of zeal in persecuting Jews. A fundamentalist jihadist might feel guilty for secretly teaching his daughter to read. Deciding between good and bad moralities will once again lead to a wild-goose chase after foundations. It can only add a distracting complication to the already difficult task of assessing the force of reasons. In their psychological profile, in the way that they structure a life and give rise to moral emotions, bad and good moralities are alike.

Perhaps, as Nietzsche argued, such emotions, rooted in fear and resentment, are what above all motivates us to believe in morality. For morality licenses a right to blame that we are reluctant to forfeit. This brings me to my last complaint: morality licenses ugly emotions. It encourages us to feel contemptuous of others who fail to share our principles, or superior to those who fail to live up to them. It allows us a daily twinge of the pleasure that St Thomas Aquinas promised the elect, whose eternal bliss, he assured us, will be enhanced by witnessing the torments of the damned.  

Furthermore, it invites us to wallow in a certain kind of regret we dignify as morally superior by calling it ‘guilt’. Guilt is the primary moral emotion. The benefit claimed for it is that it motivates you to behave better in the future. But simple regret is no less apt to inform and guide future choices. Unlike guilt, regret is not tied to the moral domain: I can regret missing a concert as readily as acting unkindly. We can learn from the past without laying claim to moral authority.

As the philosopher Joel Marks has argued before me, to renounce morality is to wake up to the fact that in every choice we are governed by desires. Some desires are for something we just want for itself; others are for ways or means of satisfying those. All constitute or are grounded in reasons to act. Those reasons can be almost exactly those that move a moralist. I merely forgo that added layer of pseudo-reasons that lets some of them count twice. I have perfectly good reasons for my desire not to cause harm, not to act unfairly, or to be kind. These reasons derive both from my first-order reasons and from my reflection on them. They matter not because of morality, but because I care.

For an amoralist, moral discourse is nothing more than misleading rhetoric. Given the psychological power of the emotions that sustain moral fervor, we amoralists have little hope of weaning many others from their addiction to guilt and blame. Neither do I expect professional ethicists to resign their jobs. Exploring the consequences of an act or policy envisaged is always to be encouraged. I hope only to have cast some doubt on the wisdom of dressing up some of our good reasons in the mantle of morality’s spurious authority.

The history of moral theory is full of baroque edifices of thought that might be intriguing to the historian of ideas. But they are no less irrelevant, at best – or toxic at worst – to the conduct of life. Better to just assess and compare your reasons, and ignore moral theory’s labyrinths of futile debate and the high-minded contempt encouraged by the moralistic stance. ~

Ronnie de Sousa is professor emeritus in philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind (2007) and Love: A Very Short Introduction (2015).


I like best what I learned from Jeremy Sherman: Don’t think in terms of the absolute. Be suspicious of grand abstractions like the love of all human beings, and of terms like “always” or “never.” Consider each case on its own merits.

It’s not a matter of “renouncing morality” — only of paying less attention to any particular “moral theory” that tries to impose general, universal rules.

Finally, while people may disagree about moral principles, we can all agree that actions have consequences. And sometimes, sadly, it’s a choice between two evils. 



~ In his new book, Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Stay Healthy and Lose Weight, Pontzer breaks down the science of metabolism and shares tales from his work studying caloric expenditure among hunter-gatherer societies.
One of the most startling findings is the notion of constrained daily energy expenditure. This is the idea that the human metabolism adapts to our activity levels to keep our daily calorie burn in a surprisingly narrow range — no matter how hard you work out. But don't let that depressing fact hold you back from the gym — it's crucial that you still get daily exercise for weight maintenance and overall health.

You've done extensive research with modern-day hunter-gatherers, like the Hadza people of Tanzania to better understand how human metabolism works. What did you learn?

HERMAN PONTZER: The Hadza, to this day, don't have any domesticated crops or animals or machines or guns or electricity or anything like that. They live in grass houses in the open savanna in northern Tanzania. And every morning they wake up and women are off to get plant foods, such as berries and tubers. The men go off to hunt for a wild game using bow and arrow. 

For somebody like me who studies how humans evolved, a community like that is just an invaluable way to ask what hunting and gathering does to our bodies. Because we humans evolved over millennia as a hunting and gathering species. And yes — in a population like that, food can be scarce sometimes. And you're always spending lots of energy on physical activity. So your body really has to be good at prioritizing how it spends its calories.

The Hadza walk everywhere they go, and compared to us, are seldom sedentary. I'd assume they burn significantly more calories than we do in a day. Yet surprisingly, your work shows that their metabolism isn't all that different from the average American.

About 10 years ago, we went and measured how many calories men and women in the Hadza community burn every day. The Hadza are so physically active, we'd expect that their total calories burned every day would be much higher than we see in the U.S. and Europe and other industrialized populations. And instead, what we found was that actually, even though men are getting 19,000 steps today, women are getting 13,000 steps a day on top of all the other work they do, they aren't burning more total calories every day than we are in the West. 

Physical activity ends up being another one of those things that the body can juggle and adjust. And so in the same way that your body can adjust to changes in your food environment, your body can adjust to changes in your physical activity. So for the Hadza, their "metabolic business" has adjusted so that they spend less on other body systems to make room for that big physical activity workload that they have.

What does this mean for someone who is trying to lose weight today?

If you or I started an exercise program tomorrow, we will burn extra calories from that exercise for a while. But after a couple of months, our bodies will adjust so that we're spending about the same energy every day as we were before we started the exercise. Your body adjusts how it spends its energy to keep the total calories burned every day within a relatively narrow range. It just speaks to how adaptable and flexible our bodies are and how we're not really in charge of our metabolisms the way we think.

You include a section in the book about the TV show The Biggest Loser in which contestants competed to see who could lose the most weight. What was the problem with that?

Contestants went on this show and were put under a brutal routine of intense exercise, coupled with near starvation. You can lose a lot of weight that way. But it's not sustainable. Your body pushes back hard by slashing its metabolic rate. Some of those contestants have been followed for years afterward. The folks that have been able to keep the weight off still have lowered metabolic rates from what they went through. A lot of the contestants gained the weight back. 

It goes to show you the way to fix the obesity crisis societally or [to lose and keep weight off] individually is not some big, drastic crash approach. You've got to go more sustainably than that because the body will just push back if you push too hard.

So if your goal is to lose weight, nutrition will offer the bigger impact than exercise. But for maintenance of healthy weight, that's where exercise is essential?

That's right. Let's rethink what exercise is doing. I call it the rhythm section of your body. Exercise keeps everything on the same page, on the same beat, and it helps regulate how your body works. And so once you get to a healthier weight, once you are able to lose weight and get to a set point where you want to be, exercise is really key in keeping yourself there. Exercise changes the way that your body regulates how hungry you feel or how full you feel.

The paleo diet is based on the idea that when we were all hunter-gatherers, we ate a certain way, and we didn't have problems with obesity or Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. But based on your study of the Hadza, what is it that the paleo folks get wrong? 

If you go out and have a chance to live with a group like the Hadza, you realize that a lot of the stories we tell ourselves about the past, including things like the paleo diet, just kind of fall apart. So there's this idea in the paleo diet world that there's one sort of single natural human diet, and that diet was very meat heavy, hardly any carbs at all and certainly no sugars.
[In reality] the Hadza have a mix of plants and animals in their diets. It changes day to day and year to year, but about half of the calories are coming from plants. And not only that but actually something like 10[%] to 20% of their calories every day comes from wild honey, which is just sugar and water, you know, which it would not be on any paleo diet person's menu. Another big part of their diet is the starchy tubers and these root vegetables, which you often aren't allowed to eat on some version of the paleo diet. 

One last thing that stunned me from your book: You write about the metabolic cost of pregnancy — comparing pregnant women to Tour de France riders.

You can push the body as in the Tour de France, where riders burn 7,000 or 8,000 calories a day for three weeks. But it also makes sense that pregnancy is pushing the same metabolic limits as something like the Tour de France. They both run your body's metabolic machinery at full blast for as long as it can keep it up. It just speaks to how taxing pregnancy is, for one thing, but it also speaks to how these things are all connected. Our energetic machinery gets co-opted into these different tasks and makes connections that unite all of these different experiences.


"Magnesium is a natural calcium channel blocker, blocks sodium attachment to vascular smooth muscle cells, increases vasodilating PGE, binds potassium in a cooperative manner, increases nitric oxide, improves endothelial dysfunction, causes vasodilation, and reduces BP. It remains to be conclusively proven that cardiovascular disease such as coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and cardiac arrhythmias can be prevented or treated with magnesium intake. Preliminary evidence suggests that insulin sensitivity, hyperglycemia,
diabetes mellitus, left ventricular hypertrophy, and dyslipidemia may be improved with increased magnesium intake.

One class of drugs used to lower blood pressure is calcium-channel blockers such as amlodipine (Norvasc). The downside to amlodipine is that it leads to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, meaning more adrenaline and potential chest pains in case of an overdose. The wonderful thing about amlodipine and other calcium-channel blockers is the decreased risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. 

There is a natural calcium-channel blocker: magnesium. Magnesium helps prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In one study, people who took 450 mg per day experienced a significant decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Taking magnesium supplements, however, presents a problem because that they tend to have a laxative effect. Fortunately, magnesium is also present in foods.

~ Green vegetables provide magnesium because chlorophyll contains magnesium. Black beans, sunflower seeds, seaweed and fish (especially halibut) provide magnesium. Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, as are nuts, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and peanut butter. Almonds are especially rich in magnesium.

Signs of magnesium deficiency include weakness, muscle cramps, numbness and tingling, depression and anxiety, and increased inflammation. 

[By the way, Magnesium malate did nothing for my muscle cramps; what works for me is magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) cream. Yes, cream -- magnesium can be absorbed through the skin. That’s why people soak in epsom salts.]


In addition to healthy fats and vitamin E, a quarter-cup of almonds contains almost 99 mg of magnesium (that's 24.7% of the daily value for this important mineral), plus 257 mg of potassium. [a diet high in both magnesium and potassium works to lower blood pressure]

Magnesium is nature's own calcium channel blocker. When there is enough magnesium around, veins and arteries relax, which lessens resistance and improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Studies show that a deficiency of magnesium is not only associated with heart attack but that immediately following a heart attack, lack of sufficient magnesium promotes free radical injury to the heart.

Potassium, an important electrolyte involved in nerve transmission and the contraction of all muscles including the heart, is another mineral that is essential for maintaining normal blood pressure and heart function. Almonds promote your cardiovascular health by providing 257 mg of potassium and only 0.3 mg of sodium, making almonds an especially good choice to in protecting against high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. (you can soak almonds to make them more digestible)


Cashews are a good source of magnesium. Walnuts, pecans and chestnuts have the highest antioxidant content of the tree nuts, with walnuts delivering more than 20 mmol antioxidants per 3 ounces (100 grams). Peanuts (although technically, a legume) also contribute significantly to our dietary intake of antioxidants. 

Subjects consuming nuts at least 4 times a week showed a 37% reduced risk of coronary heart disease compared to those who never or seldom ate nuts. Each additional serving of nuts per week was associated with an average 8.3% reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

Other food sources of magnesium:

dark chocolate


black beans and other legumes


pumpkin seeds, flax seed, chia

fatty fish, especially halibut

leafy greens, e.g. kale, spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard



Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body.

Studies suggest that about 50% of people in the US and Europe get less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium.

Supplement forms that are absorbed well include magnesium citrate, glycinate, orotate and carbonate.


One of the gifts of this pandemic is the phrase "herd immunity."


ending on beauty:

. . . paradise was when
regathered from height and depth
   came out onto the soft, green level earth
into the natural light

~ A. R. Ammons