A participant reports on last fall’s Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

January 13, 2023 • 11:00 am

Elizabeth Weiss, a professor of anthropology at San José State University in California, wrote a summary of Stanford’s Academic Freedom Conference this fall for Quillette (click headline below to to read). She was not only a reporter and a participant, but also a victim—professionally damaged by those who violated her academic freedom. That’s because she studies remains of Native Americans, and those remains are considered so sacred by Native Americans that scientists are barred from studying them before returning them to indigenous people. That, of course, prevents us from knowing a lot about human colonization of the Americas. But the law is complicated on issues about whether scientists really aren’t allowed to study the remains first or, importantly, whose remains are they given the copious of indigenous people in North America? In principle “fossil” DNA could settle that issue, but that’s not the way it’s done. Any group with a claim to the land gets what’s dug up on it. If valid claims can’t be established, I think the remains should be kept in scientific custody.

Weiss wrote about her travails in an earlier article. She was treated unfairly by her department: not only locked away from the anthropology collections but also forbidden to photograph or X-ray human bones—or even photograph the boxes in which they were kept.  The department also retaliated against her. Such is the conflict between indigenous “ways of owning” and science. My own view is that scientists should get the chance to extensively study the remains first, and then they can be given back to those who have a valid claim.

But you can read about the meetings below (yes, I do get a mention: I was part of a panel of four on the incursion of ideology into science), and you can see all the videos at this link. (Our science panel’s video is here). 

Weiss concentrates on the group of people suffered professionally via violations of their academic freedom (see this panel involving four of them), but I want to highlight one bit about the chilling of speech that was also part of this conference:

When it comes to possible solutions, Dorian Abbot called for the widespread adoption of his university’s 2014 Chicago Principles (and its much more venerable Kalven Report), which explicitly uphold academic freedom and serve to de-politicize the university’s mission. The Chicago Principles state that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They also dictate that while people should be free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, “they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

What this means in practice is that no department or unit of our University, nor its administration, can make any political, ideological, or moral statement. The reason is that such pronouncements could chill the speech of people who fear opprobrium or professional damage by bucking “received and official opinion” There are rare exceptions to this policy that involve the University speaking up against initiatives that violate its vital mission of teaching and learning. We’re the only school in the country with such a principle, but the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is about to get one, too. But that’s it: out of several thousand colleges in America, only two forbid the chilling of speech by official university proclamations about politics and the like. Every American college and university should adhere not only to the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, but also the Kalven Report.

Videos from the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

December 4, 2022 • 10:45 am

The videos for the Academic Freedom Conference, held at Stanford on November 4 and 5, have now been collected at one YouTube site. There are 17 of them.  At the time, I though I’d write a lot about the various talks, but somehow I wasn’t inspired to do so. I was suffering from insomnia (still am), and had very little energy. But you don’t need my commentary, for you can watch all the videos, which include Q&A sessions, and in effect attend the conference vicariously. I’ll put up the video of the one panel I was in, about (the lack of) academic freedom in STEM, and excuse me for self-aggrandizement, though I was far from the best speaker in this group.

The speakers below include Mimi St. Johns, a Stanford undergraduate in computer sciences, who gave a great talk, as well as my friends Anna Krylov (physicist, USC), Luana Maroja (evolutionary biologist, Williams College), and me. Bari Weiss was there and got Luana to write up her talk for publication on Bari’s Substack. Luana and I have similar views on the infiltration of biology by ideology, and are collaborating on an article about the issue.

Other talks you might find interesting—even if you dislike the speakers or their politic—include Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson’s discussion about “The War on the West” (Murray was on Zoom from the UK), “Academic Freedom and What is it For?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossen, Rick Shweder, and Hollis Robbins, “Rationality and Academic Freedom” with Steve Pinker, and the last panel, which comprised four academics who had suffered professionally for speaking out: “The Cost of Academic Dissent,” with Amy Wax, Joshua Katz, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frences Widdowson. (I’ve given links to the talks and discussions.)

If you wanted to go but couldn’t, well, pick your topics.

Livestream of upcoming academic freedom conference

October 24, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I previously announced and described the meeting on academic freedom on November 4 (Friday) and November 5 (Saturday) at Stanford University, and also gave the schedule of events.  Now, according to the announcement below (click to read), you can livestream it, seeing all the talks (and a panel with PCC[E]) in real time. (They’ll also be archived on YouTube.) Big fun, and the Woke are sharpening their knives and fangs. The site below reprises the schedule and speakers. Be there or be square!


h/t: Edward

The annual evolution meeting raises some questions

May 12, 2022 • 1:45 pm

The annual “Evolution Meeting” is taking place next month in Cleveland, and each year it gets woker: there is less emphasis on science and more on “harm”, “safety” and the oppression narrative. This year the meeting is a tripartite gathering of members from three evolution-related societies: the American Society of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists. You can see the website here, and try perusing it a bit. What you won’t see is the names of prizes that have been dropped because the famous scientists once being honored were found to be flawed.

Call me an old grouch, but in my view the organizers are consciously turning societies devoted to the promotion of science into organizations devoted to the promotion of social change. Yes, organizations should not discriminate against any class of people so long as they’re qualified to give talks or attend meetings, but it’s another thing entirely for a meeting to promote equity on the grounds that science is structurally racist. In fact, I think scientific societies should remain politically neutral while obeying any anti-discrimination laws. Effecting social change should be the purview of individual members of societies, as different members have different views (I know a lot of people who object to the fulminating wokeness of evolution societies.)

Whlle perusing the long list of diversity initiatives (14 of them), guaranteed to bring people together by separating them, I found this one:

Latines? What happened to “Latinx”, itself created to avoid gendering an ethnic group as well as not to offend LGBTQ Latinxes? Recall that “Latinx” was itself a term imposed on several (and diverse) ethnic groups by largely woke white people trying to demonstrate their compassion and virtue.  Most members of the Latina(o) community spurn the term:

Despite its increasingly frequent use, a Gallup poll claims only 5% of Hispanic Americans prefer the term “Latinx.” In contrast, 37% preferred the usage of “Latino,” and 57% preferred “Hispanic.”

Aren’t we supposed to call a group what they want to be called? So why not “Hispanic”? And where the deuce did “Latine” come from? The Tulane Hullabaloo explains:

These numbers beg the question, why can Hispanic not be used when referring to this specific ethnic subgroup?

Essentially, the two terms are not exactly synonyms. “Hispanic” typically refers to someone from a Spanish-speaking region, while “Latino” typically refers to people of Latin American descent. A Portuguese-speaking Brazilian man would not be Hispanic, but he would be Latino. A woman from Spain would be Hispanic, but not Latina. Despite the two terms describing large and often overlapping groups, the term “Latino” includes people that “Hispanic” does not — similar to how “African American” refers to fewer people than “Black person” does.

Got that? Now you can ignore it, because everybody knows that the regular use of “Hispanic” lumps these two groups together.

But what is this “Latine”? Get ready—it’s even woker than “Latinx”, and is again a term promoted by woke non-Hispanics to make up for the fact that they realized that the term “Latinx” could cause harm. 

The criticism “Latinx” faces is not for it being more inclusive, even harsh critics of the term acknowledge that it stems from good intent. Instead, some believe it is the anglicisation of a term that does not belong to English speakers — an effort to impose their ideals onto a language with entirely different rules.

While it was created with good intentions, “Latinx” is not made for Spanish speakers. Some people just see “Latinx” as a “White thing.” The kind of term that gets used in academics, but not at taqueriasIf that is the chief issue, then input from Spanish speakers, particularly under the Latino umbrella, would be the key to making a term that both satisfies Spanish speakers and includes marginalized groups. Fortunately, such a term exists: “Latine.”

You don’t hear “Latine” at taquerias, either! But I digress:

“Latine” offers a more organic alternative to “Latinx.” On the surface, Latine and Latinx may strike readers as synonyms. Both terms are designed to be more inclusive than their gendered parents, specifically in reference to nonbinary people, and both terms are relatively new. So what justifies the use of the younger, less popular “Latine?”

Latine fills the void in a way Latinx never could, mostly because it was designed to work with the Spanish language. It is not an insertion; it is an evolution. A natural progression from gendered terms to neutral ones. As such, Latine can be pronounced and conjugated in Spanish, while “Latinx” cannot.

Any bets whether Hispanic Americans are going to proudly proclaim themselves as “Latines”?

I also found the event below, apparently based on the title of a book by Joan Roughgarden that I reviewed (critically) in the Times Literary Supplement of 2004 (email me for a copy of the review as it’s no longer online). Roughgarden, who had recently become a trans woman, made the case in her book that the diversity of sexuality in nature justifies human sexuality other than the “cis” form, and at any rate should erase our opprobrium towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. But this is an example of the “naturalistic fallacy”: we needn’t—and shouldn’t—see how animals express sexuality to inform our own morality towards those with different sexual expression. Here’s a screenshot of one paragraph from my review:

The event below, bearing the title of Roughgarden’s book, looks to me like the same kind of stuff: a romp through the diverse sexuality of animal species with the express aim of “supporting and retaining our LGBTQ+ students and colleagues.”  But the diversity of sexuality in nature is completely irrelevant to that aim: people of different sexual preferences, genders, and so on, should be treated as moral equals on the simple grounds that they are fellow humans and such equality is a boon to society.  I find it bizarre that this event (which costs $5 extra) is being given, assuming its aim is what they say it  is:

KentPresents report: Day 3

August 24, 2018 • 9:30 am

The last day of KentPresents Ideas Festival 2018—a meeting I went to in Connecticut last week—was a great sendoff. (See earlier reports of Day 1 and Day 2). The schedule is here, and I learned earlier in the meeting that the presenter at the first talk, Robert Lang, was a reader of this website (we had a long talk at the speaker’s dinner the first night). What I didn’t know was that he’s also one of the world’s great origami artists, and his talk, a Q&A with biologist Harold Varmus, was called “Origami: The Art and Science from a Master.”  (Lang will take commissions; his website, with many fantastic creations, is here.)

Lang (left) and Varmus in conversation.

Robert showed slides of many of his creations, nearly all made with a single sheet of paper. These days origami artists often use math and computers to design the folding pattern (Robert was a physicist before he realized he could make a living from his beloved hobby), but there’s always an element that can’t be preplanned. Here are some of his works.

A turtle:

Stag beetle:

Praying mantises (in copulo, I think):

Another beetle:

A lovely owl (look at those feet!). Robert goes to Japan to teach people origami; he says that the art was slow to gain acceptance because it started as a pastime for children.

A really hard one: an organist. I’m not sure if this is one piece of paper or more.

This cactus is from a single sheet of paper, and Robert said it was the hardest origami he ever folded. He had it sitting around for eight years as he couldn’t be arsed to keep folding all the spines:

Lang told me that one of the hardest animals to fold is a cat, as it’s hard to capture the essence of the beast in paper. D*gs, in contrast, are dead easy. (See a Lang cat here.)

Here’s a short video from Lang’s website:

As for the science, Lang has used his skills in unexpected ways, for example helping experts design space telescopes that could fold and unfold properly:

. . . and to design a portable kayak that fits in a backpack:

He even showed how one could fold DNA itself (using a method I can’t remember, but the reference is here) into funny shapes:

I missed some of the “North Korea versus the US” talk as I got caught up in a conversation when it had already started, but the discussion featured Nicholas Burns (former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece, now a professor at Harvard), Christopher Hill (former Ambassador to South Korea, Iraq, Poland and Macedonia), and David Sanger (chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner). Hill doesn’t appear to be in the photo, but was apparently replaced, and I can’t recall who replaced him. Nor can I give many details of the talk, but it will be online. In the meantime, the slide behind the discussants paints a grim picture.

One of the best discussions I heard was “Wrongful convictions in the post-DNA era”, featuring Nina Morrison, Ekow Yankah, and Robert Jones. Yankah is a law professor at Cardozo and on the Board of the Innocence Project, an initiative that aims (with great success) at exonerating criminals who have been wrongly convicted. Morrison is the Project’s senior attorney, who has helped exonerate many innocent people, some on death row.  Yankah and Morrison talked for about twenty minutes, and their indictment of the criminal justice system, where prosecutors often ignore exculpatory evidence and defendants, even if innocent, are urged to take plea bargains, was scathing. Many men have had 20 or 30 years cut out of their lives by such bargains, and a disproportionate number are black and can’t afford a lawyer. Overworked public defenders simply can’t give these cases proper attention. The result: imprisonment of the innocent, and racial injustice caused by poverty. 

Morrison (right below, with Yankah on the left) had some gruesome tales about miscreant prosecutors, and it was a fascinating if sobering lesson about the flaws in our justice system:

They then introduced Robert Jones, one of their success stories. Jones was wrongfully convicted at age 19 (the prosecutor willfully withheld exonerating evidence), and was sentenced to life plus 121 years in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, one of America’s most horrible prisons. He served over 23 years—in the meantime getting his degree and acting as a jailhouse lawyer—before he was completely exonerated. There’s a civil suit filed in which Jones hopes to collect substantial remuneration for the lost years of his life, and perhaps establish a precedent (not yet existing) in which prosecutors can be made to ante up for engaging in habitual misconduct like withholding evidence on purpose.

As someone who once worked as an expert witness for the lawyers who founded the Innocence Project (I testified against government misuse of the statistics associated with DNA evidence), I was once again reminded at how tilted our justice system is. While there are honest prosecutors, many merely want to get a conviction, for district attorneys are judged on their ability to convict people for horrible crimes. Public defenders, on the other hand, simply need to show that there is reasonable doubt in a prosecutor’s case, and they almost never withhold evidence. I remember how often I had to go up against a prosecution who knew better but was determined to discredit me. They were interested not in justice but a conviction.

At any rate, Jones is on the right below, and gave heartbreaking testimony, sometimes in tears, at how he fought for exculpation and release (somebody else did the crimes of which he was accused). He’s now a judicial activist and speaker. And he got a standing ovation—the only one I witnessed during the whole three-day meeting:

Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York Magazine and a new Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, spoke about “The contemporary art world; the good, the bad and the very bad; tips, lessons, and warnings.” (Saltz had agreed with me at Thursday dinner that the Isenheim Altarpiece was one of the world’s best pieces of art.) Since most of the attendees were either gallery owners, collectors, or somehow connected with the art world, Saltz’s talk was directed at them, and he dropped many names that I didn’t know. His talk was akin to a comedy routine—as if Woody Allen was delivering art criticism—and was hilarious in places, but I was unable to discern how Saltz winnowed bad from good art. To be fair, he said that his talks usually last longer than two hours, and he had only 35 minutes.


The last talk I went to, before I delivered my own, was a discussion of “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the #MeToo Era”, featuring Lisa Bloom (civil rights attorney and television presenter), Marjory Fisher (The Title IX Coordinator at Columbia University), and moderator Faye Wattleton (former CEO and President of Planned Parenthood, and a well known feminist activist and speaker).  It was a good discussion, and I don’t think anybody here would disagree with the panel’s conclusion that we need to fight harder against the misuse of power to leverage sexual harassment and assault.

I did have two quibbles with Fisher’s statements (she’s on the left below, with Bloom in the middle and Wattleton at the right): she seemed to favor the current standards for adjudicating harassment/assault cases in colleges, which simply calls for a greater likelihood of guilt than of innocence, whereas I’d favor a stronger standard, more akin to the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used by the courts. Further, she mentioned Emma Sulkowicz (“Mattress Girl”), a highly publicized case that took place at her university (though not, I think, under Fisher’s watch), implying that Sulkowicz was a victim without mentioning that Sulkowicz’s accused “assailant” was found not culpable by Columbia and the school has given him an undisclosed settlement.  On the other hand, Fisher gave an excellent response to a questioner who asked, “Why does the University have to adjudicate these cases? Why can’t those claiming assault go to the police?” (A: The police can’t do stuff like remove an accused assailant from campus to prevent him meeting the alleged victim).

As I said, I think my own talk went fairly well, and was almost entirely about the evidence for evolution. But several people pushed back on my statement that religion was responsible for creationism, including an angry (and to my mind, misguided) Jesuit priest. I answered with my take on why evolution (and science in general) was incompatible with religion, and recommended that people read Faith versus Fact to learn more.

The wrap-up talk was wonderful: the great jazz musician and composer Wynton Marsalis (founder of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program) had a conversation with Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Marsalis would illustrate some of his points by playing the trumpet, accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner. Despite his prodigious talent, Marsalis seemed like a really lovely down-home guy, and, drawn out by Walker, told some fascinating tales. He played not only New Orleans style early jazz, but finished by performing one of his own compositions, called “Goodbye”. I made a small video of a snippet, but the whole thing will be on the KentPresents website, and that piece is worth the price of admission. Here’s Marsalis with Walker and a portion of the music.

And goodbye it was—to a great meeting. Thanks to Ben and Donna Rosen, Julia Benedict, and Sam Cournoyer for their invitations and assistance.

KentPresents Report: Day 2

August 23, 2018 • 10:15 am

(The report for Day 1, last Thursday, is here.) I went to four discussions/talks on Friday, August 17, and then repaired back to my B&B, the Old Drovers Inn, to rest, work a bit, and have dinner there, as the food is highly reputed.

The full schedule for Day 2 is here; I neglected to take photos of the Social Media talk.

The morning kicked off with a Q&A session, “Universities and Free Expression” featuring Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago (and mathematician on the faculty), who was interviewed by John Donvan, newscaster and moderator for the Intelligence Squared Debates. Zimmer, pictured below, gave a good explanation of our free speech policy (see the University’s “Statement on Principles of Free Expression“), and his talk included this:

  • Any faculty member or student group who invites someone to speak will be accommodated by the University, which will also provide security
  • Students who disrupt or attempt to disrupt a talk will be removed and possibly disciplined
  • Students are free to protest outside the venue according to University regulations, and they’re welcome to organize a “counter-speech” session
  • The University discourages but does not prohibit the use of “trigger warnings”, as that is a slippery slope that prevents the free exchange of ideas so crucial to the university. However, reasonable accommodations can be made, such as indicating possibly triggering material on the syllabus
  • The University does not endorse “safe spaces” because they also inhibit the free discussion that Zimmer and his predecessors have considered essential to the functioning of a great university.

I agreed with everything Zimmer said save one minor point. When asked by Donvan if it was now mostly the Left that tries to shut down speech on campus, Zimmer said that censorship came from both Left and Right. Well, technically that’s correct, but if you look at FIRE’s “disinvitation database,” you’ll see that, over the last four years or so, the bulk of deplatformings, disinvitations, and disruptions of invited speakers in the last five years has come from the Left.

Beyond that, I was proud of what Zimmer said, which reflects the free speech principles of my own university.

Zimmer (left) and Donvan

A succeeding talk on “The Social Media Crisis” featured Rana Foroohar, editor and writer for the Financial Times and CNN’s global finance analyst, Roger McNamee, social media expert and investor, and Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. As I didn’t take notes, I can remember just a bit, which included McNamee, who was a big investor in Facebook, indicting those big platforms for manipulation of advertising and adding, in effect, that one should stay off social media. Newport, who wrote a bestselling book, Deep Work, argued the thesis of the book, which was that you don’t need to be on social media to advance your profile or career (although it’s worked for some small businesses), and that you’re wasting your time and professional advancement by frantically perusing social media. I have to say that I’d like to go off the grid for a while and see what happens, but I must maintain this website. But even when I don’t, I spend too much time reading unenlightening stuff, and suspect that if I stopped doing so much Internet Inspection, I’d learn a lot more by reading books.

Sean Carroll spoke before lunch on “The Big Picture on Life, Meaning, and the Universe”, a broad topic to be sure. As you’ll know if you’ve heard him, Sean is an enthusiastic and clear speaker, and tried to compress the thesis of his latest book (he’s now writing another) into 35 minutes, which included questions. His talk was a distillation of the hourlong talk below given at LogiCal, which I heard live. One of his big points was that we fully understand the basic physics of everyday life, giving the equation presented in the talk below. He also said, and I hope the audience got it, that there’s no way that there can be a non-physical soul that can interact with a physical body. Sean, of course, is an atheist, but is less pushy and obnoxious about it than I am.

Judging by the applause, the audience really liked Sean’s talk. There does seem to be a dearth of real science at KentPresents compared to politics, technology, and sociology, and I think that in the future they might consider programming more scientists.

Sean in Kent:

Lunch: herbed chicken with three salads (garbanzo bean, watermelon and arugula, and spinach), raspberry iced tea, and a ripe peach (I’m eating healthier these days). I even eschewed dessert. There was a buffet every day, so you could eat as much as you wanted, but I exercised restraint.

Outside the lunchroom door was a bowl of beautiful ripe peaches. There are few fruits both more beautiful and more tasty than a tree-ripened peach:

One of my gustatory discoveries at the meeting was this wonderful carbonated Italian drink, which is made from the juice of blood oranges. I guzzled as much as I could, but others had also discovered it, so I had to be quick at the bowls of iced drinks.

After lunch was the Big Talk of the Day, with CBS news correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewing former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, now 95 years old and running a consulting firm. Many of you will know of Kissinger from having lived during the Nixon and Gerald Ford era or having read Christopher Hitchens’s book about him. Kissinger lives in Connecticut not far from Kent; at dinner the night before I was introduced to his wife Nancy.

Lesley was staying at my Inn, and when we rode back in the limo with her husband the night before, we discussed what she was going to ask Kissinger and how he might respond. It went pretty much according to her predictions. I did have a lot of trouble hearing Kissinger because he has a heavy German accent, his voice has gotten even deeper with age, and my own hearing has always been subpar. Lesley tried to get him to pronounce on current affairs like the Middle East and Russia, but Kissinger talked a lot about other eras, including his growing up in Nazi Germany and his relationship with Richard Nixon. (He did say that Nixon deeply wanted to change the world, but was hampered because his personality was such that he simply could not abide criticism.) As Stahl had predicted, Kissinger was loath to criticize Donald Trump, and in fact said exactly what she said he would: he would never criticize a President himself (though he did diss Nixon a bit), but only a President’s policies.

But about Trump’s policies he had little to say (I might have missed something, and at any rate the videos will be online at KentPresents after a while). When Lesley asked Kissinger if it was a mistake for Trump to have talked to Putin one on one without notes, in effect negotiating with Russia, Kissinger responded (after some pushing) that yes, it was a mistake. One-on-one meetings between leaders, he said, should be largely a venue for the exchange of pleasantries, and the spadework of negotiating should be done in advance not by the President, but by diplomats and professional negotiators. Finally, Kissinger said that he considered the Middle East the biggest international problem facing America, but he had no advice on what we should do about it, simply offering the bromide that we should try to be amiable with each other. But of course he was holding back his real opinions on the issue, which he probably gets paid to tender via his consulting firm.

Photos of the conversation:

At times I got the impression of Yoda

I skipped the other talks that day to repair to my B&B for rest, work, and dinner, missing the fancy dinner at the meeting that night. But I didn’t miss much, because dinner at The Old Drovers Inn was superb.

It started with a plate of crudités and a basket of warm homemade bread. (I had a stout instead of wine):

Then a fantastic “shrimp cocktail” which was more like a ceviche, with lightly cooked shrimp, avocados, tortilla strips, and a delectable sauce:

Then a salad with feta cheese.

And a wonderful plate of softshell crabs with greens and two huge French fries. I was too full for dessert.

At dinner I noticed a ghoulish figure in the wood of the wall next to me:

And a bit of solipsism: a selfie in a mirror at the Inn, blurry because it was so dark and the shutter speed was about 1/5 of a second:

Kent Presents report: Day 1

August 20, 2018 • 10:30 am

I’ll put up a few reports about the KentPresents conference I attended, held from last Thursday through Saturday at the Kent School, a four-year (and very expensive) private “prep school” in Kent, Connecticut. Most of the students live on campus as boarders. It’s about two hours to the nearest airport (Hartford) and so is isolated, but in extremely beautiful country. Here’s a view of the school taken from its website. A perfect place for a conference.

There were a series of both discussions and lectures (more of the former), held simultaneously in two venues: a large auditorium and a smaller recital hall. I went to as many as I could given that I needed an occasional break, but had to miss some events since at most you could go to half of them. (I spoke the last day.) I’m told, however, that the discussions and talks will be put up on the conference’s website, since everything was filmed. (The lineup is here, the schedule here.)

Let me say first that this was one of the best meetings I’ve gone to, and the best “diverse” meeting not dedicated to a single theme (the “theme” meetings would be the first Imagine No Religion meeting I went to, as well as the Atheist Alliance International Meeting in 2009, which was the first big secular meeting at which I spoke). KentPresents is a melange of politics, science, sociology, art, and, well, everything you could think of. The organizers, Ben and Donna Rosen, went to an enormous amount of trouble to arrange it, and it went off without a glitch. The talks were good, the food was fantastic, and the logistics impeccable. There’s only one paid employee, too: everyone else, including speakers, volunteers their time and presence. The money ($2500 per ticket, but still sold out) goes to local charities.

Ben and Donna:

The diversity of local charities to which the money goes:

Just a few words and photos on the first day’s events I attended (photos are mine):

TRUMP VS. HIS OWN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT Preet Bharara, Jeh Johnson, Trevor Morrison. From left to right: Bharara (former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York), Johnson (former Homeland Security Secretary under Obama), and Morrison (Professor of Law and Dean of New York University Law School). These guys knew their onions, and speculated on what Mueller was going to do as well as dissecting the legal ins and outs of the case. Consensus: Trump would not be indicted, but Mueller would issue a “just the facts” report at the end of his investigation. It would then be up to the House of Representatives to decide, based on the facts, whether to impeach. (Of course they wouldn’t!). It was a pleasure to listen to these eloquent guys.

WHERE IS THE SUPREME COURT HEADED? with Kristen Clarke, Samuel Issacharoff, and Jim Zirin. Left to right: Issacharoff (Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law), Clarke (president & executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under La), and Zirin (former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and author).

This was again a really great panel.There was some disagreement between Issacharoff and Clarke, as the former thought that Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was not an unusual appointment for any Republican president, while Clarke, who works on civil rights, thought that this was a deeply offensive appointment and reflected a far more Rightist perspective than normal. She was particularly upset that the documents requested for the period when Kavanaugh worked in the White House (he was Staff Secretary under George W. Bush) were not fully turned over: only about a third of them have been; and Clarke thought that the remainder might show incriminating stuff.

Everyone thought that the new more conservative court would try to dismantle Roe v. Wade, but Issacharoff thought the court would do it via “death by a thousand cuts” method, just letting increasing state restrictions on abortion stand, which is what it’s doing now. As for the court being highly politicized, Issacharoff said, in effect, “that’s just the way things work”, and that every President picks a nominee that reflects his values, “freezing in amber” the political ideology held at the moment. In general, the panel’s prognostication was gloomy.

“YOU NEVER KNOW”: THE WORK OF DIANE ARBUS with Jeffrey Fraenkel, Wardell Milan, and Elizabeth Sussman.  Fraenkel is founder of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco and probably America’s premier marketer of photographs and author about photography, Milan is a prolific artist and photographer, and Sussman is an author and curator of photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (I don’t have a picture of this one.)

I went to this small but crowded venue as I love Diane (pronounced, as I learned, “DEE-anne”) Arbus‘s photography. The format was great: each of the three presenters started out their 15-minute segment describing how they became acquainted with Arbus’s work, and then chose and discussed three of their favorite Arbus photos. As far as I can recall, here are Sussman’s three choices (she curated the biggest exhibit of Arbus’s work to date):

Is she looking at you or through you?

NSFW: “La Dolce Viva”, showing the Andy Warhol movie star Viva, is shown from an article in The Cut called “The Diane Arbus photo that nearly killed New York Magazine.” It did, too, for advertisers fled from what looked like a photo of a drugged-out sex maniac. (Read the article; the story is more complicated.) Sussman liked this because it displayed Arbus’s talent for taking pictures of subjects who were seemingly unaware of the photographer (even though Arbus was close up with her big camera) but deep in their own thoughts.

This photo, which is untitled, was a take from Arbus’s only multi-photo project: documentation of the residents at two institutions for the mentally ill (see here for more information). The photographs are haunting, and this is the most famous: the residents dressed up for some fete. It looks, said Sussman, out of time, as if the photo could have been taken from a medieval painting (her example is below the photo). This is a deeply disturbing and yet mesmerizing photo; one of the greatest by Arbus.

Sussman said the photo reminded her of this Breugel painting:

Parable of the Blind, Detail of Three Blind Men, 1568, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

PSYCHEDELICS: HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND, with Corby Kummer and Michael Pollan. In this talk, author Michael Pollan described his new book on psychedelics, titled as per the seminar. Pollan was extremely eloquent and well drawn out by Kummer, a senior editor at the Atlantic. Pollan’s talk covered some new research on psychedelics, especially that dealing with the effect of psilocybin on terminal cancer patients. It turns out that in a large portion of these patients, ingesting the drug  just once largely removes their anxiety and fear of death, apparently by making them see that they’re part of the Universe and taking them outside of themselves. (There was also an active placebo trial.)

Pollan also describes his six “trips” taken on drugs ranging from LSD to ayahuasca (all illegal trips, he confessed), and what effect they had on him. His experience rang true, jibing with my own psychedelic experiences in college, and he and I both are sad that it’s so hard (and illegal) for people to undergo such a profound and mind-altering experience. Based on his talk, I’m definitely going to read Pollan’s new book.

The accommodations and food afforded the speakers (and the lunches and dinners given the attendees) were superb. I stayed at the Old Drovers Inn, a colonial era B&B (built 1750) in New York—about 15 minutes drive from Kent (they gave us limos!) Here’s the Inn, my room, the sitting room, the breakfast menu, and my oatmeal breakfast:

I had the oatmeal with pecans, apricots, and maple syrup with cream, accompanied by a bowl of fresh fruit. I had the omelet, the yogurt, and a Belgian waffle on the three other days; all were fantastic. (The Inn is known for its food.)

There was a speakers’ dinner the first night, held at the Kent Firehouse. We chose a colored card from a basket at the beginning and sat at the table where the balloons of that color were arrayed. We were also greeted by a line of staff proferring drinks:

A welcome sight after a long day of talks!

The dials on a nearby pumper engine:

How lucky was I? I got to sit at a table with Lesley Stahl, Jeh Johnson, the art critics for both the New York Times and New York Magazine, and a famous food writer. Stahl is one of my news heroes, for I always watch 60 Minutes, the CBS show for which she’s a correspondent. (It’s the only non-news show I watch.) It turns out that she and her husband were staying at my B&B, and we rode back to the inn together that night. I got to ask Leslie what she was planning for her interview with Henry Kissinger the following morning, but what she said I’ll keep off the record. Here she is at dinner sitting next to Jeh Johnson. (Dinner consisted of salad, chicken, a superb shrimp jambalaya, and a panoply of small desserts.)

At at the next table sat the subject of Leslie’s interview: Henry Kissinger, still fairly spry and mentally keen at 95.



Report from Jerry: Phoebe’s gone again

August 17, 2018 • 9:00 am

Anna reported yesterday that, after spending a day with Honey in the pond, Phoebe departed again. Perhaps this time it’s for good, but it was time for her to leave, and at least she had a grand reunion with her mother before taking off.

Now I’m not sure whether Phoebe really has flown the coop (or the pond), as she’s disappeared before. But if she’s emigrated, I’d prefer her to go this way than to be scared into flight by chainsaws. I will of course report if I get more news.

Honey remains, and according to Anna is looking “happy and beautiful”. I’m sure she’ll be there when I return Sunday, and I’ll be around to see her annual departure with a champagne toast.

The KentPresents meeting is wonderful, with lots of really absorbing talks. Last night I got to have dinner at a table with the art critics for the New York Times and New York Magazine respectively, a molecular gastronomy expert, the former head of Homeland Security, and CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl (one of my news heroes). I learned a lot, and was pleased to find that both art critics agreed with me that the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grünewald, is one of the greatest paintings of all time. We even did a fist bump when we found our agreement.

I had a long conversation with Robert Lang, who happens to be a reader here and is one of the world’s experts on making Origami. He’s speaking Saturday.

I will report all this when I return, as I have lots of news and pictures, including one of Henry Kissinger, who’s being interviewed by Lesley Stahl onstage today. I have an idea what she’ll ask him (we rode back to our inn together last night), but more later. Yesterday I went to discussions about the Supreme Court, Trump versus his Justice Department, photographer Diane (pronounced DEE-ANN) Arbus, and a absorbing discussion by Michael Pollan about his latest book on psychedelics.

This is all I have time to report; it’s off to breakfast and the meetings to hear my own University President, Robert Zimmer, talk about free speech. Sean Carroll, our resident website physicist, is also speaking. I talk tomorrow.