Organization

A very happy event came to me this week. The local bookstore (The Book Table) started getting periodicals again. I think I’ve alluded in the past to my enjoyment of well written book reviews and how The New York Review of Books is the pinnacle of this art form. When the pandemic descended, the bookstore dealt with it for a time by allowing one to order online and then go to the back door to receive your purchases – a little like a 1930’s speakeasy type of thing. Sadly, it turned out that they would not make periodicals like the NYRB available. Maybe receiving those deliveries was too much of a manual process like getting newspapers delivered.

The Book Table had started allowing people to go into the store when Summer came. I’ve tried pretty hard to not go into places that I don’t need to and I stuck to my backdoor access instead – and we used it; I’ve bought a couple books and our daughters asked for a few which my spouse and I were happy to buy. This past week, we went to pick up a book I had bought (Man’s Fate, Andre Malreaux. I’m sure I’ll write on that at some point, very much a favorite which I’ve reread many times). This time though, I went into the store. That was interesting in itself – a bookstore is necessarily a tactile place. You browse, touch, flip pages, read – just like going to a food store or farmer’s market. Prominent signs made clear the need to use the omnipresent hand sanitizers. Despite the daily or hourly chatter of this or that implication of the pandemic, it had not sunk in with me the particular challenge for a place like the bookstore. I took a pretty cautious approach, joyously noted the NYRB and took a copy from the back of the stack.

The first article was a review of a new book from Elena Ferrante by Elaine Blaire. I knew of Ferrante by name but haven’t read anything of hers. It was a great review. One of the nuggets in it was a paragraph on how Ferrante’s characters who write or reflect or meditate are dealing with the challenge of how does one organize the jumble of thoughts that run through your head and memories and shape them into something. I am not doing it justice right now, but it was written well enough that I reflected on how it has a similarity to aspects of my own life – whether written or otherwise. In physics, there’s a notion which is conveyed in the idea of entropy that organization has information inherent in it which is not always directly related to the objects being organized. Not surprising really but it interests me.

At the same time, this idea conflicts with other ideas around how to run a life. Sometimes when I think of the depth and discipline I need to learn about things I want to do or need to do, I start down the path of thinking that I need to organize for the future; I will do X for this period of time on days A and B. But I reflexively recoil almost immediately. It might be a result of getting older, but I feel like the flexibility I retain by not deciding ahead of time exactly what I will do and when is more important to life and to doing things than the rigidity of an organized plan. Is there room for the apparent chaos in waiting to the last moment to decide what to do? I’m not sure.

Leaves

I write so much less than I’d like to, or maybe what I imagine I’d like to. For a good part of this cursed Summer of 2020, I’ve had an outline of some thoughts about leaves I wanted to express. It’s something in late Summer that catches my senses. In the formal, professional, work world, there’s a weird dynamic where you wonder on which day is it that you are supposed to start perseverating (I know I’m wrong here, a word I picked up from my wife many years ago) about the end of what you want to continue and the forced start of what you have no interest in. In Summer, late July brings a kind of similar thought and feeling.

Summer is dead. The time for getting ready for something else, something not yours, is coming. I see it in nature, in particular in the trees and their leaves. They’ve reached deep maturity at this time of year, their green is not delicate, but dark and matte. There’s an exception though – the Ginkgo tree.  It behaves like an adolescent when it needs to have the proper solemnity. Ironic, given that it is ancient from an evolutionary perspective. But I envy that Ginkgo.

I have more on this but am pausing for now.

Not Sure

I was biking with my spouse today. She had the one of her two jobs which brings her home earlier on Fridays. She’s been having various aches, pains, etc. that are keeping her from a lot of the physical activity she likes and hence is open to sporadic opportunities to do other things, like today, she says – I’ll be home shortly. Let’s bike.

It’s a route we’ve come to like this Summer. A little more in her likes – decently rural, even if it is in an urban area. In the afternoon sun, my mind drifted to thinking about my son’s exposure to sexuality over the past couple years. One of the absolute best things about my wife, is that we’ve raised our kids to be open about sexuality – to the best we can at least. I know from my wife that with his last girlfriend he never came in certain situations, like getting blown. He had felt good enough to say that (ask? Not sure) to my spouse.

I’m not sure why that triggered what it did but it’s something. I found myself daydreaming about telling him (maturely of course) that the relationship between physicality and emotion is a strange one. The idea of what is ‘Love’ is tied up therein too. That led to an imagined soliloquy on how love shows itself this way with heavy cast of a certain kind of physicality but with any other person, it shifts and gives itself away in other ways. I thought and said a lot more in this ‘conversation’ and a good while into it, I realized that a lot of what came to be advice on Love I wanted to give, would be something I should bring into my own life.

Recently, I’ve had a lot of thoughts that centered around an admittedly self-centered notion of what am I getting [from our relationship/marriage]. Do I grab those opportunities to grow love and rethink it? Am I a bad person for not having done that? I guess its lazy in a sense to not keep pushing. ‘They lived happily ever after’ doesn’t suggest work to move to the next castle.

WSJ and Steele

In particular, Holman Jenkins. I went through today’s (7/22/20) WSJ op-ed pages like I usually do. I want to do a better job of understanding the content of their arguments because so often I just get disturbed by the conclusions that I shake my head without giving them their due of actually reading the material. In working through Jenkins article this morning, I kind of remember why – well, at least one part of it – their writing just isn’t very good. To unpack all the points and figure out where things are assertions, where they are fact based and the apparent obfuscation which almost seems intentional to confuse just to get to the points.

I think his article’s point is that he has figure out that ‘it makes sense’ and therefore ‘is likely’ that the FBI’s leaks of information which appear buttress the case for some kind of collusion with Russia are a distraction from the FBI itself being a stooge for Russia in terms of the HRC emails.

By the end of the piece, its clear this is just Jenkins speculation and that it ‘fits’ to him, but nothing more. Along the way, though, he often conflates what ‘the FBI’ does with what specific individuals thought- or just hints at it. I think he’s talking about margin-notes from P. Strzok in interviewing a Steele source where he (PS) doubted elements of the source. Okay, but it’s a bit of an extrapolation to the view of the FBI.

Jenkins seems to make a lot of two things: 1) the coincidence in timing of the HRC investigation denouement and the probing of Trump campaign for Russia ties; and 2) what Jenkins sees as the contradiction between the PS comment and public statements made about the Steele-related investigation. Kind of thin I think. Oh, in between there’s the cry about why an appendix in an Inspector Generals’ report isn’t getting trumpeted because *surely* it is the key to this whole mess. An there’s a particularly awfully written paragraph about ‘lending verisimilitude to the media leaks’ via the use of dossier material in the FISA court requests. I had to read actual sentence 5 times to figure out what he was trying to say – as in ‘what is the subject’ and ‘what is the verb’. I’ll bet Holman had an orgasm using ‘verisimilitude’.

The claims that I would like to understand better are that the ‘FBI knew the collusion asserts were unfounded, false, baseless’ and also the legitimacy of the FISA court requests. Jenkins’ end-note speculates that Carter Page was an informant mischaracterized as a Kremlin agent. (at least I think that’s what he’s speculating’ -again, clarity is not a strong point with Holman).

Bleak

Yesterday afternoon and evening seemed to be just a generally bleak time. I’m struggling to figure out how much of it is me, how much is just my sensitivity to the riot of ugliness in our days. My oldest daughter, I think focusing on herself, nearly accuses my youngest child of being racist because of his perspective on when people do racially insensitive acts out of ignorance. The youngest also had a very mild fever at the end of the night. At my work, I feel chronically under-appreciated and voiceless. My oldest was rejected for two more jobs and my middle child’s college is making decisions in terms of re-opening that are heartbreaking for her and (in my view) potentially psychologically damaging to her.

A Bike Ride

One thing that has emerged as a great pleasure for my adult life has been biking. I really owe my spouse for re-introducing me to this. When we were dating in Ann Arbor, we went on regular rides in the Summer in the rural areas outside of town and it’s followed us as a feature of our lives ever since. In Chicago, our Summers and Falls feature long rides into downtown and so on. I prefer urban biking and I’ve biked to work whenever I can for the past 17 years.

The last two weekends, I’ve discovered a Cook County forest preserve about 10 miles away that is one of many such places that the urban county hides away a stash of wonderful greenery. I’m not sure how they do it, but these places are like gems where you can just disappear from the hustle and bustle of urban life. While I personally find more enjoyment in hitting the city on  a bike, my spouse gets a lot of pleasure from the rural trips. In this case, I could find a place that was far enough away but which you could get to without lots of auto traffic and be rewarded with another hour of biking in a forest in the big city suburbs.

The first visit was by myself and a week later it was the two of us – not a pretty day: dripping skies, lots of humidity, but it was great. Even better is seeing her get out and enjoy it too. We don’t always see how we need these escapes until they happen to us. I mean, we plan them, but it still feels like they happen to us of their own volition somehow as well. It doesn’t cure the horrific events of the year 2020 or the disaster that has been the years since November, 2016, but it reminds our hearts that there’s good reason to keep beating and our lungs to keep breathing and our souls to keep jumping.

 

In Praise of Karen Russell

On a book review, I had read ‘Swamplandia’ by Karen Russell and it was awesome. Deceptively easy going to read and springing darker things on you when you don’t expect them. Very embedded in a Florida sensibility that I’m not so familar with but with a heroine (and friends and family) that ends up with a ‘good ending’. Fun. So I picked up a follow up that came out of short stories – ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’. I’m half way through, but I’m so mesmerized by each story that I wanted to get that down. Each of the stories I’ve gone through starts with a feeling that they might be kind of boring and they slowly turn the boiling water up and end up just incapacitating me to do anything but read. Each one has some point where things happen in a way that everyone’s autonomy just disappears – often literally. Scary stuff. In a sense, they’re old fashioned ‘horror stories’. But they catch you off guard and you don’t anticipate it. Each one starts (as I said) by making me think this is a literary work of seriousness. Then it sinks the knife. Absolutely wonderful.

Friends

I heard from or about 3 of my 4 best friends from my life over the past months of the age of Covid. Being honest, I think being a faithful and good friend has never been a strong point of mine. Even with family, I reach a point where I just move on and am somewhat absent of a need to spend time – even when I know it’s what they want from me. I’m married but haven’t had that sense with my spouse yet – beyond what I think is normal for people who can crowd each other a bit.

There are 4 people who I wold have counted at some point in my life to have been a best friend – David, Robert, Brandt, and Mike. I’ve known David since maybe 2nd Grade in Texas and by the strangest coincidence we met again in high school in Virginia and hung out quite a bit. He’s in North Carolina and I hear from him at odd occasions, but not regularly. But when we  do connect, it’s clear we still have a good feeling of friendship.

In high school, particularly in my last two years, Mike was a very close friend of mine. By the time summer after high school ended, for whatever reason, he really grated on me and that relationship soured – an expression of my feeling toward him than the other way around I think. We both knew Brandt from high school. Brandt was my crazy drink-like-a-fish friend in the first couple years of College. A truly weird artist guy who ate up the fraternity life. Starting out as a strange nerdy guy, the frat life and his outsize personality made him a social figure. As my life moved onto something more solitary and I soured on fraternity life, we drifted apart. My life moved onto my passion for research – his life continued apace in a very parochial sense, very tied to the undergraduate friends we both knew. He was successful and life continued as a fraternity party; but he was a good friend to those who knew him. I say ‘was’ because he died just about a week before the Covid shutdown. He has a second wife with one child, around 8 I think. I feel awful for them and for us. I reached out to Mike a month later to let him know. He had already been told by Carol – a mutual friend and girlfriend of both of ours and another story.

Robert, the best man at my wedding, is the last of the quad. We shared a passion for physics since undergraduate, though we had actually met in high school in a trip to the Naval Research Laboratory. I’m not sure how that happened since we went to different high schools. Robert is a truly bright and socially comfortable person. Much better than me at focusing on the academic pursuits – not distracted by sins of the flesh as I am. But career-wise in academic physics, partly through luck, partly through who we are, I eventually had more success. In the end though, he managed to carve out a career that has let him remain in academia. I did not. Although not there now, we last had an overlapping life in Ann Arbor where I met my spouse. His family and mine spent a fair amount of time together. Shortly after I got married, he and his wife had a very ugly divorce. She wanted it and he did not. We remained close, possibly closer, to his wife. I found myself insensitive to his plight and feel like I was something of a jerk about it. In the end, I think that put a bit of coldness on our relationship. He’s in Utah now and we still talk, maybe once a year. He’ll always land on his feet but I never did quite enough as a friend for him as I should have. I think that was true about all of my friends.

 

So here we are

We are on the rising part of the wave. It’s like being at a great beach and an awesome wave is coming in. You feel a bit of a pull away from the beach like the water is being sucked in by the breathing action of the wave. The the deceptively slow rise of the incoming edges starts and you look up and aren’t sure if you should dive right into the beast to come out the back end, or try to ride to the top to flop across its peak or if you should let it drive you down in body surfing. But in any event, you know the peak is there and how you interact with it has a lot of uncertainty as you gauge its build-up.

New York City had over 500 deaths today from Covid-19. Illinois appears to be right at 1/50th of the national total. Average in all things. I look at details of the virus’s behavior and see risks for myself everywhere. It’s bad for old people. I’m not in the risk-featured 60+ range, but I am approaching it, so I know my risk is higher. Higher for males – even though those studies look suspicious to me. Higher for people with high blood pressure. Mine is high but controlled. Does that count? Beyond me, I have moments of panic wondering what would happen if one of my kids came down with a serious case.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how a lot of behaviors are, however, sort of normal but exacerbated. I mentally get very irritated at regular folks I overlap with outside. I mentally paint them as being socially wrong for not following the rules. The kind of thing on my worse day I do too often (am I wrong to think a lot of us do that?) but it’s weird to see that behavior sourced from facets of this plague. I snap at my wife for not properly following distancing rules – but is that just a way of me snapping at her because I do that too often anyway? I worry a lot about the future for my kids.

Stats in the Times in these times

We are in the likely beginning of the biggest world health crisis of my lifetime. A new virus, Coronavirus-19, is spreading throughout the world. Accurate, good information is critical. In this morning’s NYT, there was an article by a researcher from the University of Oregon. The writing style was not bad for this kind of article routinely featured in NYT – starts out with a question put as a non-expert would grasp, the comes paragraph 2 or 3 ‘Our research shows…’ – nearly a universal feature in these articles and for some reason, one that annoys me. Setting that aside, she describes a study she/they conducted looking at 1263 individuals and seeing what the traits are of those who ‘stalk statistics’ vs  those who don’t.

I have multiple issues with the article – some of them addressed by the author but at the tail end and in a very ‘hand-wavy’ way. Given the context of the Covid19 pandemic, I’m more than a little troubled by the article as it clearly promotes viewing people who pay attention to ‘statistics’ about the evolution of the pandemic as pathological in some way. It’s not too far a stretch from saying “Don’t Worry, be Happy”.

The first minor issue: The first observation is that ‘males are more likely to be stalkers than females’ by 55% vs 43% (presumably a small number were ambiguous). When you say ‘more likely’ you are making a probabilistic statement, implying a level of generalization to the population based on your sample. If she had said men in the sample were observed to be stalkers more often, that would be fine. But that’s not what was said. Accuracy in words matter – especially for people who supposedly have expertise. Now let’s see if she can even back up the ‘more likely’ claim. If the sample was roughly 50/50 Male/Female, then that’s 625 each. If there’s not a priori predeliction to stalk or not, then you expect 312. For a binomial distribution, that is you expect 50% with a statistical standard deviation of 0.5*sqrt(312) or around 3%. Thus, you expect 50+- 3%. For males you observe 55, easily consistent with 50/50. Now, is 43% consisten?  Writing this, it’s clear I need to do my own work here too. The relevant question is whether 43% of 312 is statistically different from 55% in another sample of 312. My guess is yes. Let’s say the null hypothesis is the mean (or 49%). So we are comparing two measurements, one is a 2 sigma fluctuation up (49->55) and one is a 2 sigma fluctuation down (49->43). Each has a probability of around 2% so the overall probability is likely around 0.04%. So I have to retract my first statement that this is not significant.