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Monday, May 23, 2022


A senior moment is a momentary mental lapse of the sort that people in my age bracket experience all too often. Forgetting where one put the car keys, blanking on the name of someone one has known for years, that sort of thing. It may be, but need not be, a distressing evidence of the onset of dementia. A charming cinematic example is Eli Wallach, in Holiday, who goes out for a walk, forgets where his house is, and has to be guided back by Kate Winslet. 


I have for years been troubled by one particular kind of senior moment – totally blanking on a name. I think I have perhaps mentioned that there was a time when I simply could not bring to mind the name of the great operatic soprano, Kathleen Battle. I knew that she had recorded a splendid collection of Baroque arias for soprano and trumpet with Wynton Marsalis. I could visualize her, I could play over in my head in all their musical complexity a number of the arias she sings on the CD, but I simply could not remember her name. I thought if I remembered the initials K. B. that would help, but then I could not remember the initials!  Recently, I was telling over in my mind a story about an experience I had in 1964 when I arrived at Columbia University to take up a professorship there. I could recall in the most minute detail every aspect of the story except for the name of the person involved – Arthur Danto. 


Generally speaking, my memory is pretty good. I can remember my landline telephone number, my cell phone telephone number, my wife’s cell phone telephone number, our telephone number in Pelham, Massachusetts, my credit card number, my Social Security number, my wife’s Social Security number, the telephone number of my parents’ house where I live from the time I was six until I was sixteen.  I can even remember the National Guard identification number I was assigned when I went off to Fort Dix in 1957 – NG 21268121. But I am constantly blanking on names.


Usually I can use my computer in one way or another to cough up the name, either by going to Google or else by searching the 800 page autobiography that I wrote and posted online. One of the oddities of my senior moments is that when I set off to the computer to track down a name, frequently as I am about use the computer to find it, it pops into my head.


I figure there must be some place in the brain where names – but not all this other stuff – get recorded. Otherwise, it would make no sense to me that my senior moments are so precisely defined in their character. There must be a neurologist out there reading this blog – does anybody have an idea what the explanation is?


Anonymous said...

These comments might get the ball rolling.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A perfect example!! I forgot I had posted the same question three years ago. Sigh. Maybe I am indeed on the downward path to dementia. Now, that great German philosopher, Immanuel ???

David Palmeter said...

I might have posted this earlier, but I can’t remember. From Seamus Heaney’s “The Attic”:

As I age and blank on names
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheadedness

Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable,

It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.

I love the lines, “As the memorable bottoms out/Into the irretrievable.”

Marc Susselman said...

I have a wonderful book titled “Keep Your Brain Alive” by Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., Prof. of neurobiology at Duke U. The book contains numerous exercises for keeping one’s brain alert as one ages. The general explanation for memory loss as we age is that neurons die by the millions every day, and are not replaced, which in turn weakens neural pathways on which we depend for our memory. Here is his explanation regarding memory loss as we age:

“Because each memory is represented in many different cortical areas, the stronger and richer the network of associations or representations you have built into your brain, the more your brain is protected from the loss of any one representation.

“Take the common problem of remembering names. When you meet a new person, your brain links a name to a few sensory inputs, such as his appearance (visual). When the brain is younger, these few associations are strong enough so that the next time you see this person, you recall his [her] name. But the more you age, the more people you’ve met, leaving fewer unique visual characteristics available to represent each new person, so the associative links between visual characteristics and names are more tenuous. Now, imagine closing your eyes in the course of meeting someone. Sensory input, other than vision, become much more important as the basis for forming associations necessary for recalling a name: the feel of his hand, his smell, the quality of his voice.

“You have now tagged someone’s name with not just one or two associations, but at least four. If access to one associative pathway is partly blocked (“Gosh, he looks familiar”), you can tap into associations based on other senses and do an end run around the obstruction. Adopting the strategies of forming multisensory associaions when the brain is still at or near its peak performance – in the forties and fifties [too late now for many of us] – builds a bulwark against some of the inevitable loss of processing is very large, it’s like having a very tightly woven net, and the loss of a few threads isn’t going to let much fall through.” (Footnote omitted.)

A trick which is often recommended for remembering names is to associate the name with some activity which will then spark the memory. The problem with that is one often forgets the identity of the activity which is supposed to be the spark. I have a terrible time remembering Taylor Swift’s name. So, when my daughter plays her music in our car, I stumble trying to recall her name. I have told myself, just remember speed, or swiftness, or the bird. But, inevitably, I have forgotten the clues I am supposed to retrieve to remember her name.


Marc Susselman said...


I have a few anecdotes about memory loss from another wonderful book, of mathematical inventions and riddles, titled “Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures.” In addition to the riddles and paradoxes, he includes amusing anecdotes about mathematical prodigies. The anecdotes are not about memory loss due to aging, but about brilliant people who had memory lapses. The first anecdote is about Paul Erdos, who was an eccentric itinerant mathematician, whose expertise was number theory. He never had a permanent home. He used to travel around the world, staying at the homes of other mathematicians. He holds the record for the most published peer-reviewed mathematical articles. There is something called the “Erdos index,” which us the number of Erdos articles that a mathematician wasco-collaborator with Erdos. The anecdote, verbatim, is as follows:

“He knew the phone numbers of many mathematicians by heart, and would phone them anywhere in the world, ignoring local time. But he could never remember anyone’s first name – except for Tom Trotter, whom he always addressed as Bill. One day, Erdos met a mathematician. “Where are you from?” he enquired. [interesting spelling] “Vancouver” “Really? Then you must know my friend Elliot Mendelson.” There was a pause. “I am your friend Elliot Mendelson.”

The second anecdote is about Norbert Wiener, the pioneer of the mathematics of random processes and cybernetics. The anecdote, verbatim, is as follows:

“He was a brilliant mathematician, and notorious for forgetting things. So when the family moved to a new house, his wife wrote the address on a slip of paper and gave it to him. “Don’t be silly, I’m not going to forget anything as important as that,” he said, but he put the paper in his pocket anyway.

“Later that day, Wiener became immersed in a mathematical problem, needed some paper to write on, took out the slip bearing his new address, and covered it in equations. When he had finished these rough calculations, he crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it away.

“As evening approached, he recalled something about a new house but couldn’t find the slip of paper with its address. Unable to think of anything else to do, he walked to his old house, and noticed a little girl sitting outside it. “Pardon me, my dear, but do you know where the Wieners have mov-“ “That’s OK, Daddy, Mommy sent me to fetch you.”


The third anecdote is not about memory, but quite amusing and worth retelling:

“”William Feller was a probability theorist at Princeton University. One day he and his wife wanted to move a large table from one room of their house to another, but, try as they might, they couldn’t get it through the door. They pushed an pulled and tipped the table on its side and generally tried everything they could, but if just wouldn’t go.

“Eventually, Feller went back to his desk and worked out a mathematical proof that the table would never be able to pass through the door. While he was doing this, his wife got the table through the door.” (The account does not indicate whether his wife disassembled the table, by removing the legs, to accomplish this feat.)

DDA said...

1. That's not quite what Erdős number means: The Erdős number describes the "collaborative distance" between mathematician Paul Erdős and another person, as measured by authorship of mathematical papers. If you co-authored with Erdős your Erdős number is 1. If you co-authored with a co-author of Erdős your Erdős number is 2. Etc.
Here's a great link

Marc Susselman said...


What you have written is only partially correct. It is true that if a mathematician collaborated with Erdos directly, that individual’s Erdos number is 1; a mathematician who did not collaborate with Erdos directly, but collaborated with a mathematician whose Erdos number is 1, has an Erdos number of 2. But of these mathematicians, many have earned an Erdos number 1 several times, due to multiple immediate collaborations with Erdos; this is also true of several mathematicians whose Erdos number is 2. Below is the list of mathematicians who have an Erdos number 1 many times over.

Co-author Number of
András Sárközy
András Hajnal
Ralph Faudree
Richard Schelp
Cecil C. Rousseau
Vera T. Sós
Alfréd Rényi
Pál Turán
Endre Szemerédi
Ronald Graham

Marc Susselman said...

Another brilliant decision by J. Thomas and his conservative, rule of law colleagues, precluding the introduction of new evidence post-conviction to demonstrate that a criminal defendant suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel

According to these “Justices,” finality is more important than getting at the truth and getting the verdict right.

LFC said...

David P.
I believe you have posted those Heaney lines before, but he's good enough to bear re-posting.

Howard said...

In Bible days people had no such rights- and the Constitution is a footnote to the Bible- I think that's what the conservative justices are thinking- I mean people have the right to worship G-d- in fact the duty to worship G-d and G-d is the source for all our blessings and our rights- the founders said we had rights endowed by our creator- that pretty much means we are a theocracy and the Bible and each Justice's conscience is key to the interpretation of the Constitution

Eric said...

Howard said...

I mean in reference to Marc Susselman's discussion of the rights to a fair trial- about admitting post trial evidence

aaall said...

Howard, Gilded Age/gilded calf - think there's any difference for the Nader/McConnell/Stein Court? Thomas never got over his hearing.

DDA said...

and here's a nice profile of Erdos

LFC said...


I think none of the right-wing Supreme Court Justices thinks that the U.S. is a theocracy, i.e., a polity with an official, established religion in which the government draws its justification basically from its alignment with that religion. (Contemporary Iran, for example, is a theocracy, in which the supreme leader of the polity is a cleric. Probably not even Thomas thinks that the President of the U.S. should be a priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or other person "of the cloth.") There is no language conducing to theocracy in the Decl. of Independence. The ref to "Nature's God" is not theocratic, nor is the line about being endowed by the creator w unalienable rights.

I don't really understand aaall's response to your comment, but that's ok, I don't have to.

LFC said...

MS @1:40 p.m.

I've looked at the majority opinion in that case (by Thomas) -- it's awful. Sotomayor's dissent is v. good. As Sotomayor says, in a state w procedural rules like Arizona's, where a defendant has received ineffective assistance of counsel at both the trial and state post-conviction stages and gets a competent lawyer for the first time at the federal habeas stage, the defendant is now out of luck -- even if crucial mitigating facts that were available were never uncovered or presented by his ineffective trial counsel (or state post-conviction counsel). So much for the Sixth Amendment.

Marc Susselman said...

Placard on J. Thomas' desk;

"You do the crime, You pay the time."

Marc Susselman said...


Correct, the Court’s ruling on ineffective assistance of counsel eviscerates the 6th Amendment guarantee “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” I am concerned that the next victim of J. Thomas and his cronies may be the ruling in Miranda v. Arizona requiring that upon arrest for a capital crime, the police must advise the arrestee of the right to the presence of an attorney before speaking with the police. This was an extrapolation from the language of the 6th Amendment, but according to the strict constructionists like Thomas, Gorsuch, et al., extrapolations do not exist.

Marc Susselman said...


The Miranda ruling requiring that the police read an arrestee his Miranda rights was unique, because it required agents of the state to inform you of your constitutional rights. Before Miranda, if upon being arrested the arrestee said, “I know my constitutional rights, and I don’t have to talk to you without an attorney present,” the police would have to respect that demand. But they were not required to inform you that you had the right to make the demand. So, I can see J. Thomas and his cronies saying that nothing in the Constitution requires that the state inform you of your Constitutional rights. You are presumed to know them. For example, if a police officer knocks on your door and asks if s/he an come in, you can demand to say a search warrant. But the police officer does not have to tell you that he has to have a search warrant, and that you can refuse to allow him entry unless he shows it to you. If you voluntarily allow the police officer in your home without a warrant, you have waived your 4th Amendment right. Why should being told about your right to counsel under the 6th Amendment be any different? Police are not educators. The state does not have to inform you about your rights. If you don’t know them, and don’t assert them, it’s your own fault.

Marc Susselman said...

I just checked the decision in Miranda v. Arizona. I was mistaken. It was not based on the 6th Amendment right to counsel. It was based on the 5th Amendment right not to be compelled to be a witness against oneself. It was a 5-4 decision, written by J. Earl Warren. The dissenters, J. Harlan and White, argued that failing to advise an arrestee that he does not have to talk without an attorney present does not constitute compelling the arrestee to talk. Given the composition of today’s S. Ct., White and Harlan would be considered moderates, in the guise of Roberts. J.’s Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett would probably agree with Harlan and White – where’s the compulsion? The only thing that would save Miranda is respect for stare decisis, and we will see when the Dobbs decision comes out how much stare decisis counts for these days.

Howard said...


I believe religious values informs the rulings of the conservative justices. Perhaps not blatantly- when Alito speaks of 'tradition' he means Christianity, his Christianity.
The Constitutional logic is just a pretext.
For some people, maybe the justices definitely the Republican base, the Bible is foundational.
Think of Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and the defendant who happens to be a person of color, who said we're a theocracy because it says 'In God we trust' on our currency.
That's how some people think, and in the colonies before the revolution in New England we were a theocracy.
Some people want to bring back the so called 'city on a hill'
This is just speculative, but these justices are part of a movement and the movement is a religious one

LFC said...

Speaking of religion and the Sup Ct, if you want to see how one of the conservative Justices thinks about the Establishment Clause and related matters, read Gorsuch's concurrence (joined only by Thomas) in a recent case involving flying flags outside Boston City Hall (I forget the exact name of the case, can look it up later). Putting the substance to one side, it's very well written -- Gorsuch obviously wrote it himself, not his clerks.

Howard said...

Thank you LFC
I'd say that religion serves the purpose of expression of collective solidarity and that it must be public to be effective, to generate emotional energy and that society was probably more religious then than now in that it influenced more aspects of life.
Religious people like Gorsuch feel like they have to go on the offensive to preserve their 'freedoms'.
Back then in the early years of the Republic freedom of religion meant essentially a cease fire in the religious wars- the establishment clause means oppression for Gorsuch because it must be publicly expressed to be authentic.
Forgive me, I'm still absorbing Gorsuch's argument.
Anyway, even if you can set back the clock you can't set back history

Howard said...


Sorry for the lack of clarity. My hunch is being religious is different today compared in the days of the signing of the constitution. Many people who are religious feel under attack by a secular country. The case of the flag in Boston exemplifies their feeling.
There's more to it. Involving the sociology of religion. I have to think more about it.
It might have to do with something called interaction rituals; people have to act out their religion in some days to gain emotional energy. So religion isn't just a belief. So freedom of religion has less to do with liberty of conscience than having your religion validated in some way that affects you psychologically

LFC said...

Well there does seem to be evidence that *some* religious people feel "under attack," but to what extent that feeling is justified is a separate question.

What comes through clearly in that Gorsuch concurrence is that he thinks the establishment clause as understood through the lens of his originalism or textualism should not be directed against public displays of religious symbols, except perhaps in very rare cases.

In terms of the *result* in the Boston case, all the Justices agreed, but there were some separate concurrences where different approaches to getting to the result were laid out.

I didn't read every word of all the opinions, but Gorsuch can have a distinctive, rather informal style that he uses well in that concurrence.

aaall said...

The decision is terrible but by the time the Supremes get done with it, this case will have way more consequences:

Thomas and his wife are clearly very angry and somewhat deranged. I assume basic personalty plus the Senate confirmation hearings couldn't have helped.

There have been several Great Awakenings in America since the eighteenth century. The results have been mixed. Hopefully we are seeing the last gasps of the current one though it could still take us down with it. While "theocracy" doesn't quite fit, there is a danger in being too exact. As with the "is Trump a fascist" thing, there is sometimes danger in playing, "are we there yet?"

"Integralism" is a thing and it has a certain purchase on the Right (Adrian Vermeule, who holds a named chair in constitutional law at HLS is an integralist). Flavors vary but there is a general hostility to liberal democratic values amongst certain conservatives (check out some of the amici on Dobbs).

Right wing media has managed to convince a fair number of religious folk that we deracinated cosmopolitans hate them and serious persecution is coming. Hence, between ground shifting change and continuous lying and riling, a fair number of folks are angry and scared.

Between the late 1960s and the late 1970s Capital decided to ride the tiger as a way to power and a number of initiatives were started (see Powell Memo) including this (between Scopes and mid-century fundamentalist religion had retreated):

"The modern Southern Baptist Convention story begins in 1967, when Paige Patterson, a seminary student, and Paul Pressler, a Texas judge, met in New Orleans to discussing taking over the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and ridding it of liberals, purging those who believed in abortion rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. By 1979 their candidate was elected head of the organization, and in the 1980s, Southern Baptists, who then numbered about 15 million people, were active in politics and were staunch supporters of the Republican Party."

(Around this time Harlan Carter and his cronies engineered a take over of the NRA, turning it into a PAC/industrial lobby/insurance co. - lots of other stuff happening - Heritage, Cato, sundry astroturf.)

Reagan, Limbaugh, and Gingrich and here we are.

(We are well into a Second Gilded Age and too many religious leaded have given themselves over to corruption and debauchery, hence the "gilded" quip.)

Howie said...


My assumption is that the law is a fiction- I think Hobbes and others call it a convention.
I'm not sure a case is ever about that case, but ulterior motives and psychological prejudices prevail.
My main run in with the law was getting out of jury duty three times.
I think Gorsuch's ideology is what determines his ruling and then he comes up for reasons for it.
There is no way he'd not support flying a flag for Christ in city hall, the Constitution be damned.
It's just human nature.
God comes first, above country for him

LFC said...

Here's an idea. Let's try to distinguish real threats to democracy from imaginary ones. Personally, I don't give a **** if some Christian organization wants to fly a flag with a cross outside Boston City Hall for two hours once a year. Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, the three Justices in the 'liberal' bloc on the Court, all voted to allow it. (Breyer wrote the majority opinion.) Why? Because, they said, it's not government speech, so it doesn't run afoul of the establishment clause, and hence viewpoint discrimination is impermissible in this context.

There are a lot of people on the Harvard Law School faculty. One of them is an "integralist." (Cue the folks at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog so they can get all upset and pretend that having one "integralist" on the HLS faculty constitutes a threat to the republic.) Few people even know what "integralism" means because it hasn't been a real thing in the Euro-American "elite" context since probably around -- well, pick your date, but it's been a *long* time.

The Jan. 6 insurrection was a threat to democracy. So are white-nationalist groups like the Oath Keepers, etc. So is the Trumpist myth of the stolen election. So are some of the new state voting laws. But one Harvard Law School professor who becomes an integralist (which in this case is basically a right-wing, theocratic version of Catholicism), not so much.

LFC said...

I suppose shd re-emphasize that the outcome, the result, in the Boston case was agreed on by all nine Justices. The Gorsuch opinion is a concurrence, which is jargon for: Justice X agrees with the result, but wants to say something about the case that differs from what the majority is saying, either w/r/t its reasoning or something else.

So when Howie writes "There is no way he'd [Gorsuch] not support flying a flag for Christ in city hall, the Constitution be damned," keep in mind that all nine Justices supported flying the flag, except that it's not in City Hall, it's outside City Hall on the plaza (there are photos attached to the opinions as appendices).

Marc M. Susselman said...

I’ve read part of J. Breyer’s opinion in Shurtleff, and part of Gorsuch’s concurrence, and, frankly, I find their arguments and legal position unconvincing. Clearly, when the White House flies the American flag at half staff to acknowledge the death of a prominent statesman, or to mark a national tragedy, like the mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas, it constitutes government speech – the government of the United States is calling for a national day of mourning. I do not see why flying a flag with a crucifix on it at the top of the Boston City Hall would not constitute government speech attributable to the City of Boston. Would the Justices feel the same if the flag bore the Muslim crescent, or the Jewish Star of David? Would this not constitute a governmental endorsement of a particular religion? Would the Court tolerate Boston flying either of these flags identifying a religion other than Christianity?

LFC said...

Looking at the syllabus (i.e., the summary -- let us praise writers of syllabi and headnotes for a moment), the key factor for Breyer seems to be that Boston routinely approved requests from private groups to fly flags w/o even asking to see the flags or asking the groups to do anything except fill out a short, routine form. So the city didn't exercise much control, hence not government speech. (An interesting free-speech question would arise if, say, a racist or neo-Nazi group wanted to fly its flag, but apparently that case hasn't arisen.)

LFC said...

I suppose if that case arose, Boston wd deny permission and the cts wd uphold that as a reasonable "time, place or manner" restriction. Just a guess.

Marc Susselman said...


This is a cop-out by J. Breyer. Flags which promote the Boston marathon, or the Gay Pride Parade, or American Veterans, or, etc., etc. , are one kind of speech. But flags which promote or pay tribute to a particular religion are a special sub-category of speech which no American government entity is supposed endorse, and religious speech crosses the line of the separation between church/synagogue/mosque and state. The two categories – secular speech vs. religious speech – is easily recognizable. The former is permissible when affiliated with a government building, the latter is not. Although it was a unanimous decision, but, in my humble opinion, they got it wrong.

LFC said...

Well, maybe they did it get wrong. I'm not sure.

This discussion started because I was impressed by the style (less so by the substance) of Gorsuch's concurrence. But I think the discussion has pretty much played itself out now.

LFC said...

correction: get it wrong.

aaall said...

LFC, while I agree with your take (and the Court's) on the Boston flag matter, you've missed the big picture with your focus on Vermeule (to me a tenured law prof embracing integralism seems akin to a tenured chemistry prof turning to submitting papers on phlogiston, your mileage likely varies). We have learned a lot since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There's a gaggle of folks on the right with all sorts of differences who are united in seeking to end the United States as a liberal democracy. Plutocracy, klepocracy, herrenvolk democracy, right populism, National Conservatism - they'll work that out after the pesky liberals are dealt with. Academics like Vermuele, Deneen, George, etc. are part of that gaggle. Academic freedom and tenure are important values but honoring those doesn't mean ignoring the dangers posed by some of those who benefit from them.

Picking and choosing your "threats to democracy" is a losing strategy. There is one threat to democracy and that's Movement Conservatism and its various organs (Fox, Republican Party, think tanks/foundations, etc.) and their cadres. This began in the 1930s and involves lots of work and money (had an interesting "recruiting" encounter at the Wilshire Country Club in 1961 or '62). Hopefully the coming Jan. 6 hearings untangles some of this.

BTW, if you follow these things you're aware that all this has gone international. CPAC and National Conservatism have meetings in various nations (CPAC recently in Hungary and soon to be in Brazil). The NRA was thoroughly penetrated and corrupted by Russian money. You might try poking around the nooks and crannies (if you don't know how "woke", "CRT", and "groomers" became things you don't understand the threat to democracy).

How did LGM get into this?

LFC said...


This would have to be a longer conversation that I can't really get into now.

I don't spend as much time thinking about some of these things as you do, but it seems to me that it's nec. to do more than one thing at once: make sure the U.S. stays a liberal democracy, but also make sure that that liberal democracy has a more economically egalitarian (or social-democratic) character, among other things.

I wrote more but have decided, on second thought, to leave it there.