Family Matters: Part Two – Garlic Cloves and Puffer Fish


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PicturesfromiPhoneChinaParisPrinceton 177There are many directions to go for the first sequel to “Family Matters: Part One.” That blog focused mainly on my family of origin, so one obvious place to go is to talk about my children and grandchildren. But I don’t really want to speak for them. After all, they can still talk back. My parents and grandparents cannot. But the real reason is that everyone should get to define themselves, at least to the extent that it’s possible. I think it is possible to a great extent, but not completely. Not everyone can become a pro athlete or a great musician even if they try really really hard. Luck and innate predispositions play a role in our fate.

Certainly, there are many “how to” books out there that would lead you to believe that the only thing that stands between you and owning the universe is your attitude. It isn’t a totally bad thing to imagine that you can do anything and have no limitations due to circumstances or your innate abilities and predispositions. It’s a fiction, of course. It’s a complete and utter fiction. If you spent the first five years of your life drinking lead tainted water, e.g., no amount of the proper “attitude” is going to undo the harm. But, for people whose main obstacle to a fulfilled life is self-doubt, it could provide a good antidote, or at the very least, a few good anecdotes that arise from a series of unfortunate incidents taking place from following such advice.

What I have in mind however, is something different; viz., trying to show how family situations tend to be continuous threads in a way that is analogous to the continuous genetic threads. For example, my grandmother used to tell “Old Pete” stories and ran a dramatic club. My mother became an English and Drama teacher. I have always loved acting and storytelling. Several of my kids and grandkids have also written originally and extensively. My mother’s brothers all were jokesters and storytellers. Her oldest brother Karl was a principal and then superintendent of schools. The middle boy, Bob, became a psychiatrist. The youngest, Paul, became a lawyer. The next generation included two psychologists, two lawyers, a neurosurgeon, a teacher. I could elaborate further but the point is that storytelling, art, psychology, and education as well as science and engineering are threads throughout this very local part of my family tree.

Before I go any further, however, I need to explain why I subtitled this, “Garlic Cloves and Puffer Fish.” As a side note, it’s good to remember that both garlic and puffer fish are our distant cousins. The same basic machinery that makes the cells of a garlic plant “work” and live and reproduce is what does all those same things in our cells. And our other, somewhat less distant cousin, the Puffer Fish has that same machinery in every one of its cells. Of course, beyond that we even have most of the same organs and types of symmetry as the Puffer (or any other) Fish. Now, I bring up our relation to these distant cousins because I would like to have you view what I am about to say about various people as being observational and not rendering value judgements. It would be silly to go out to a garlic plant and yell, “Why can’t you be more like a Puffer Fish?!  What’s wrong with you?!” It would be equally ridiculous, of course, to go snorkeling and when you encounter a Puffer Fish scream at it: “What are you doing out here in the ocean? Why can’t you be more like your cousin Garlic who at least makes wonderful tasting (to most) and health-giving nutrients? No, instead, you poison people! What’s wrong with you?”


Now, when it comes to people, of course, it isn’t just their genes that determines behavior. The family, neighborhood, culture, religion, and physical environment that they grow up in determines, at least in large measure, who they become. Humans come in many varieties. This is both because, when it comes to our own life, we can actually make ourselves different in some ways on purpose (there is a grain of truth in the “positive thinking will win you the universe” genre) and secondly, when it comes to someone perceiving us, their own background and character will determine what they see in you. Similarly, your background will help determine what you see in others. If you think back on your own experience, you’ll see this is true. Anyway, among these many ways that people differ is how neatness-oriented they are. The hit TV series, The Odd Couple, featured two bachelors living together; one was an utter slob (Oscar) and the other was a neatnik (Felix). We all probably know people close to those extremes. We may even know two such people in our family as defined with a small circle to say your second cousins. I’m not trying to say one of these characteristics is better or worse than the other. But I would like to point out that each makes a lot of sense, under certain conditions.

Some years ago, I was watching a TV program about Alice Waters, a famous chef, restaurant owner, and author. She believes in such things as organic, locally grown ingredients. In any case, she happened to make this offhand comment that “it didn’t really matter if a little piece of the garlic skin clings to a clove” {at least in the context of the sauce they were making for a huge fish}. Anyway, I do most of the cooking in my house and I do try to remove the skin of garlic cloves. Most of the time, it’s fairly easy. But every once in a while I have encountered a clove of garlic that is pathologically stubborn about giving up its skin as a corrupt politician is about giving up the illusion of sanctity. Even a garlic plant has its own personality, I suppose. On the scale of neatnik to slob, I would put myself near the middle. Of course, to anyone who thinks it’s good to be super neat, I will seem like a slob. And to anyone who thinks cleaning is just not worth the trouble, I may seem like a neatnik. Anyway, my point is that maybe there comes a point where you don’t generally have to be absolutely precise in cooking. And I would guess that this rings true with your experience as well. There are some cooks whose approach is very intuitive and, although they may follow a recipe, their measurements may not be totally accurate. And, then their are cooks who will follow directions extremely carefully. Generally speaking, it doesn’t make that much difference. I tend to prefer dishes such as mixed ginger/curry vegetables, burritos, or omelets. In these dishes, you can get away with a huge variation in proportions and specific ingredients. I give these dishes care and attention to detail, but all within very broad parameters.


In at least one case, however, it is crucial to be a “neatnik” cook and that is in the preparation of the Puffer Fish. The Puffer Fish contains a highly potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. Most of this toxin is in the liver, skin, and other internal organs. It is very easy if you are even the least bit sloppy — and we are not talking Oscararian sloppihood, just normal college guy sloppihood — to nick something and release the poison into the flesh making it potentially deadly. Under those circumstances, being a neatnik is vital. In some cases, expert chefs push a little further and allow a tiny bit of the toxin to bleed into the flesh which will cause a “high” in the eater, but not be fatal. Personally, I think I’ll stick with tuna. The point is that being extremely neat and careful can be a very good thing. Packing your parachute — good to be careful! Performing cataract surgery — be precise!

On the other hand, suppose that you are spear fishing or out gathering nuts. A “neatnik” might want to make sure every fish is skewered in exactly the same way. Except, perhaps for Puffer Fish, it doesn’t matter that much; the point is to catch the fish. Similarly, if you are gathering walnuts, there generally isn’t much point in arranging them by size. Suppose you are making a rock wall. You would do well to make sure it doesn’t fall down but the way to do that is by careful arrangement and filling in the cracks carefully with cement. An alternative approach is to insist that every rock is exactly the same. This would make building the wall much easier. On the other hand, it would be absurdly time consuming to search for rocks of precisely the same size. Other approaches are to have one group of people cut rocks to preset measures and then the job of building the walls is easier or to make artificial rocks called “bricks.” Under various circumstances, any of these methods will work just fine. In other circumstances, any of these approaches might fail. It isn’t quite so simple a matter as Disney and the Three Little Pigs would have you believe.

When it comes to recipes, whether for bricks or for soufflés, It is difficult to know ahead of time which aspects of the process require a Felixian attention to detail and which aspects are fine for a more Oscarian approach. And, just as there are situations that are particularly suitable and best done by Neatniks there are other situations particularly well suited to Slobs, this same principle holds true for every approach and personality trait that I can think of. So when I describe people in my more extended family, I am not trying to pass judgement on who is better than whom. You might imagine that there is an attempt on my part to make out someone as “bad” or “good” based on your own personality preferences. Similarly, it’s quite possible that I accidentally make one or the other kind of personality sound better based on my own preferences than they really are.

Although it is quite natural for people to express different preferences on the neatnik to slob dimension, it is often a source of tension, argument, fights, and in extreme cases, probably divorce and murder. Most often, when an “Oscar” does something annoyingly sloppy, (and which to Oscar is actually typically exactly nothing), Felix will not try to dialogue about the situation and negotiate a solution. Rather, Felix’s first move is more often to call out Oscar’s character as being deficient because he is such a slob. Immediately and quite predictably, Oscar’s defenses go up. His next move is to point out that Felix is insanely OCD. And thus, the problem moves from what is immediate, simple, and fixable to one that is long-term, complex, and unfixable. Oscar will never convince Felix to be like Oscar and Felix will not ever convince Oscar to be like Felix. In fact, for Felix to even expect Oscar to act Felixian is rather silly.

You have undoubtedly heard the expression that you “marry the family” as well as your own spouse. I found this unfathomably silly when I was younger, but now I see that in many ways it is true. For example, if your spouse has unresolved issues from their childhood, those can impact your relationship. If your spouse’s family is into crime or drugs or unnecessary drama, those will certainly impact you. These people will almost certainly interact with you and your kids so they will impact your lives directly and indirectly.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s tune into “Uncle Al.” Al worked at one point as a commercial artist. In such a position, being something of a “Felix” probably worked to his benefit. But not every situation calls for OCD. Al lived in one of two houses at the end of a dead end street. What would you do if you drove to the end of his narrow, dead end street? Well, one possible action would be to abandon your car at the end of the street and walk home to buy another car or just wait there until you were beamed up by aliens. Most people however, would instead go into one of the two driveways at the end of the street, turn their car around and drive back out the dead end street. Al didn’t like that. I suppose most of us might be mildly annoyed. But after all, what else could people do other than abandon their car or back out the entire length of the street? So, while most people might be a little annoyed at strangers using their driveway for a U-turn maneuver, Al was instead, very annoyed. So annoyed was Uncle Al that he paid to have five steel posts put into the end of his drive. Indeed, this completely prevented any stranger from using his driveway as a place to turn around. Chalk one up for Uncle Al.


Now, you may have detected a slight flaw in Al’s plan. He could no longer use his driveway either. For that matter, he could no longer use his garage to house his car either. But to Al’s way of thinking, that was worth it because he had achieved his goal. The phrase, “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” comes to mind.  At another point, several of my ex-brothers-in-laws went over to clean Uncle Al’s house. When they opened up the refrigerator, the shelves were all filled with the same thing. Can you guess what it was? No, you probably can’t. Every shelf was filled with tiny paper mini-ramekins. And in each of those tiny paper mini-ramekins was tartar sauce. Upon questioning, the story finally came out. Every Friday, Al went to a nearby diner where they had an “all you can eat fish” special. The fish came with tartar sauce. Uncle Al hated tartar sauce. But he had paid for the tartar sauce! So, when he left the restaurant, he took the tartar sauce with him each and every time.

This seems a little on the crazy side, but I would guess that almost everyone has sometimes taken something that they have access to even though they end up not using it. In fact, it’s a little odder and more selfish than that. We might even know when we take the items that it’s very unlikely we use them. For example, in the IBM cafeteria, I would often take an extra napkin. Why? Because on rare occasions, someone, possibly even me, would spill something and having an extra napkin that could be deployed jack-knife quick proved very handy.  But most of the time, these hypothetical emergencies failed to eventuate. Now, what to do with the extra napkin? I could put it in the trash, or since it was clean, put it in the recycling. To me, taking the time and effort to recycle is completely worth it. Not everyone does that. We can return to that later, but re-use (or in this case, first use) trumps recycling. So, I would take the napkins back to my office. I had one drawer in particular that ended up with a collection of napkins as well as tea bags, plastic forks, tiny packets of salt and pepper, and other food-related items. Small stuff. There were no stashes of candy bars or soda cans or deer carcasses.

However, this example of hoarding was not an idle and useless exercise in hoarding. When people in the lab had birthdays or other types of celebration, it actually turned out to be quite handy to have a nearby supply of napkins and plastic forks. When I thought about the design rationale for this procedure, I never thought to myself, “I paid for this dinner and there’s no rule against taking two napkins, so I want to keep what is mine.” In terms of explanation, my saving napkins and Uncle Al’s taking tartar sauce are light-years apart. But looked at in terms of situations and behavior, there are actually a lot of similarities. As already explained, all of us are closely related. Although Uncle Al was not “related” in the way that people generally use that word, our ancestors were common for billions of years. So, I would hypothesize, the behavior of keeping something that is not of immediate use but could be used in the future is one that is found broadly in the animal kingdom and in plants. We imagine that the desert plant that stores water in it’s thick leaves does not “think about it.” It seems pretty silly to think it thinks at all. But let’s expand the idea of how information is coded just a little. It wouldn’t make a difference if the rationale were written in Spanish or English or French would it? It wouldn’t matter if the design rationale were printed in 14 point Helvetica or 12 point Times New Roman. It wouldn’t matter whether it was coded in ascii or EBCDIC. So, why not extend the concept a little further. The “design rationale” for the plant’s behavior is coded in it’s DNA.  We may not be able to “read” this design rationale quite as readily as we could one printed in our native language. But that is basically a matter of convenience, not a matter of underlying truth. The plant does have a design rationale for being “greedy.”

When it comes to human behavior, of course, there are not only genetic determiners but also social ones. (Actually, this can be true of non-human animals as well). So, it isn’t just that people may have a genetic propensity for keeping extra items for future use; their particular culture has inculcated values and design rationals and ethics around greed, waste, generosity, and so forth. The design rationale that Al gave, I find too self-centered for my taste. My Mom was generous to a fault. And, when I say she was generous to a “fault” what I mean is that she was so generous that she would often give away the same item to several people. So, perhaps being overly generous can be a fault?

In any case, just as people come in all sizes and shapes, they come in all kinds of behavioral predispositions. These predispositions are probably weakly related to your immediate family both because of where you live, among other things. There is no one “right answer” as to which characteristics are “best” under all circumstances. Some may innately be predisposed to Felixism while others may become that way because of strict teachings by their parents and schools. Regardless of why Felix is a neatnik, Oscar is never going to convince him that he (Felix) should be like Oscar. That was true in paragraph ten and it is true in paragraph 17. One thing should be clear to both Felix and Oscar: if they can work together effectively, they will be able to solve a wider range of problems than they would working alone.

Creativity and diversity are always vital, but probably never more so than right this minute. Humanity has changed so much in every external way in the last two thousand years and most of that since the industrial revolution and most of that after the computer revolution. Change is not only rapid, it is rapidifying. Yes, I made that word up. That’s another symptom of the same thing. Change in media, language, meaning are all happening more and more rapidly. So, in times of such great change and such great uncertainty, it has always seemed to me to absolutely and vitally important to include every viewpoint on the problem that we possibly can.

If I am lying on the beach under a sunny sky, feeling healthy and happy, I don’t really need your advice much, at least not this second. Yes, I may not be as neat as you would like or I am far too neat but I don’t really care and it doesn’t matter. You be you, and I’ll be me.

On the other hand, if I am thrown into something beyond my comprehension, I would want to have as many eyes on the problem as possible. Of course, it feels more comfortable to surround yourself only with those who already agree with you rather than a highly diverse group. You won’t argue as much about what the problem is or about what “fairness” really means or even argue about the right process is for combining your insights. A diverse group can initially provide a slight “shell” of added awkwardness for some. In my experience, when people are focused on a situation or a problem, they get past that very quickly and every stage of the process is enhanced. There are more ideas generated, higher quality ideas, the evaluation of ideas is more robust; they generate more ways to fit ideas together. Not only is the output of the group improved. It is just plain more fun during the entire process. Perhaps a better term would be to say that it is more engaging. If someone has a slight accent, you need to listen more closely. If someone comes from a different background, not only do they provide a different way of looking at things or even solution; they also stretch your mind. It may not be as broadening as  traveling to another culture, but it is more than one step in that direction. An all-celery salad gets old fast.


Beyond all that, it seems important to remember that these variations in human predisposition are not entirely new human inventions. Many species of plants and animals exhibit different “philosophies” or “strategies” for dealing with the same issues: getting food and water, finding a mate, reproducing, avoiding predators, etc. (Yes, plants do these things). What works for a plant in one climate will not do in another climate. Of course, it isn’t just the climate. It also depends on what other species are present, the nature of the soil, etc. Some plants, for instance, put time and energy into making flowers to attract bees, having the bees fertilize the flowers, grow the fertilized flower into a fruit that is both colorful and tasty. This means the fruit (e.g., wild strawberries or raspberries) are eaten by our cousins the rabbits and carried in many directions out from tree by the rabbits. The rabbits excrete the digested seeds which now find themselves in a tiny pre-fertilized plot. Come on!  How about a hand of applause? Do you see how many ducks have be lined up her for this plan to work?

I may have had a reputation for being a little off the wall, but this plan? This is my craziest idea on a combination of illegal drugs and then put through a cognitive blender. I worked in “Corporate America” for about 40 years. I worked for IT companies, but let’s imagine instead a company that made self-reproducing garden ornaments. The way they worked was that each ornament, after one year split in two. Anyway, they were making good money. Now, I go into the top management and say, “Hey, I have a great idea for how to have these ornaments reproduce. No more just splitting in two. Instead, each element will grow a little ornament on top of the ornament but brightly colored. This will undoubtedly attract some sort of something which will fertilize —- oh, wait, did I tell you about the whole “two sexes” deal? Anyway, we’ll then have a process for turning a fertilized element into a fruitling. The fruitling will be fortified with vitamins and sugar so that … um … something will come along and put this into its belly and carry it away into the neighbors yards where they will help build the first step of the new ornament. Give me funding for about 100 million years of experimentation and I can pretty much guarantee….” No, they would not fund a project like that. Evolution is a slow smart cookie. That tree of living things? That’s our tree. And that little teeny branch way over there? That includes Oscar and Felix and everyone else regardless of gender, age, race, religion, or hoardingness.  Does it really make sense for us to destroy the whole branch if we can’t go in exactly the direction we want? And what about how the decisions affect every other part of the tree? It is, after all, a family matter.

Family Matters: Part One


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Perhaps you recall, as I do, that in the very earliest memories, parents are huge! My mother was huge and my dad was huge! Of course, they not only loomed gigantic physically, they also had a huge influence on me. That, I never thought about as a child, but we’ll return to influence later.

The other remarkable thing about my parents, in early memories, is how different they were from each other. My mother was soft, gentle, smooth-skinned with a soprano voice. My dad was completely different. He was even larger, but besides that, he was hard, physical, hairy and his voice boomed so loud I could feel as well as hear the vibrations. Needless to say, they smelled completely different and I generally saw them at different times of the day, or, more accurately, I saw my mother most of the day and my dad only for small segments on most days. They did different things, said different things, held me differently. There was no way as a child that I saw them as two different examples of a larger class of things called “people.” They were as different as night and oranges to me.

These differences were not just physical and perceptual. As I grew older, I also realized that the species of “Dad” and the species of “Mom” also behaved quite differently.  For example, I could generally count on my dad to remain calm and to get things done whereas in an emergency, my mother generally fell to pieces emotionally. No, come to think of it, she always fell to pieces.

When I was about five years old, my parents took me to a stranger’s house for one of their “Bridge Parties.” To me, “Bridge” was a complete mystery. I understood the concept of games; e.g., “Mother May I”, “Red Light Green Light”, “Pick Up Sticks”, “Checkers”, and (my personal favorite), “Red Rover, Red Rover.” In Red Rover, Red Rover, the opposing team formed a human chain by holding hands. Everyone on a team would chant in unison, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Tommy come over.” (Tommy was my nick-name at the time). There were two really cool parts to this game in addition to the chanting. One, when it was your turn to make a human chain, you might get to hold hands with a pretty girl. Two, when you were called, you were allowed, indeed encouraged, to run as fast you could, and then SMASH right into the opposing team! That was fun. Honestly, I think I’d like to do that right now. But “Bridge?” The adults just took turns throwing cards on the table. Yet, they were generally screaming and laughing while playing this game. They seemed to be enjoying themselves but I had no idea why.

In any case, however much Mom and Dad enjoyed “Bridge Club”, I certainly didn’t. My parents took me into some random bedroom and said, “you will sleep in here.” Right. I’m five years old in a strange place and I am supposed to go to sleep while there is, basically, a mini-version of Woodstock going on about ten feet from my five year old (and therefore highly sensitive) ears. No, I’m not going to sleep. Even as a five year old, I knew that wasn’t happening. I’m not sure how my parents could have deluded themselves, but apparently they managed. Since sleep was out of the question, I needed to find some way to occupy myself.  What I can do? I’m going to explore the room!

I rather liked the room. It had wall to wall carpeting and dark, heavy, solid wood furniture. I padded about the room looking at this and that, but there wasn’t much to see really. This is what necessitated me to go to phase two of exploring the room; that is, looking under and in things. I looked under the bed, but it was just dusty. I knew it was a long shot that anyone else was trying to invent a new color and keeping the best results under the bed in little jars that had held maraschino cherries, but you never know. Well, actually, yes, eventually you do know. But I didn’t know then because I didn’t know that many people so I didn’t really know how many might be trying to invent new colors. Since then, I’ve met many people who do exactly that although not quite so literally as I was trying to do way back then. I have eleven grandchildren and every one of them is inventing new colors, each in their unique way.

My explorations of the bedroom bureau began very disappointingly. Drawer after drawer was filled with clothes. Sigh. Then, as they say, my eyes actually did become as big as saucers. Large saucers. Because lying right there atop some boring gray gaberdine pants was the coolest biggest gun I had ever seen! I liked my guns! In fact, one of my earliest memories was of a red plastic one. But now, as a “big boy”, I had metal guns. Even better, when I pulled the trigger, they went “BAM” “BAM” because of the caps. I liked my own guns all right, but this gun was way, way cooler. For one thing, it was all metal. Mine were partly plastic. And, the gun was shiny with a depth of its own — except for the handle which had a wonderful pebbled grain.



I could have enjoyed looking at that black gun (similar to, but not identical to the one above) for an hour. But, of course, I had to pick it up. Well, if the look of that gun had been exquisite, and it was, the feel of the gun thrilled me, filled me with uncertain terrors never felt before — to quote Mr. Poe. But alongside the terror was admiration that quickly blossomed into love. The object that constituted the gun seemed so beautifully and solidly built. Had I ever before held something that heavy and dense? I don’t think so.

I knew that my parents had told me to stay in the room and go to sleep. But they were the two people I loved most in the universe. How could I keep the discovery of something this cool, go unshared? I had to let them find out just how cool this gun was. I probably also thought that no little credit would be coming my way for being the discoverer of this marvelous instrument. (Somehow, it never once crossed my mind that the people who owned the house probably already knew about this gun). I definitely thought of it as my discovery, and so it was, in a way. And, if I were never going to get any credit from Grandpa for inventing a new color, at least I would have this great accomplishment forever written into my plus column.

Out into the living room full of laughing, screaming adults somehow getting pleasure out of “Bridge” I tottered, slightly off balance from the weight of the gun, though I was able to hold it one hand, just the way the cowboys and policemen did. “Look what I found.” Now, listening to  the memory of how I said it, I realize it probably was getting credit for my discovery rather than sharing it that most motivated me. Ah, well. Live and learn, as they say. I expected to gain some credit for my discovery and some appreciation for the gun, but I never expected the eruption of adult action and concern and panic and fear and anger and utter surprise. They provided such a sensory overload that my memory is like a loud noise and a great white light. Not only did I receive no plaudits for my wonderful discovery, I definitely had done something unspeakably wrong. (I later discovered that the gun had been loaded with the safety off). But at the time, I felt only bewildered disappointment. However, the one thing I do recall through the white noise was that Dad remained calm and managed to take the gun from me without my trying it out on him for fun. Meanwhile, Mom was being her usual “hysterical in an emergency” self.

At the time, I did not think that my mother was “typical” of all women nor did I think that she was “atypical.” It’s just that I knew this about my mother, but my mother formed one edge or point on  the growing conceptual map of people. And, everything that was true about her was all there together in her own rather large corner of my mind: soft, smooth, soprano, hysterical, gentle, slightly hard of hearing, illogical, loving, beautiful, and fun. Her body positively writhed when she found something funny. Early on, I tried to learn how to cause one of those paroxysms of laughter. Dad, on the other hand, could be counted on in a crisis. He was also hard and hairy and loud and undemonstrative. When, he laughed, most of the time, it was “UH!” That’s it! One sort of half snort, half laugh. I do that too sometimes. On the other hand, I also go into a full out writhe with laughter as well. I am part Mom; part Dad just like most of us.

My parents had two different professions as well. Dad was an engineer. He was very logical; yes, even as a very young kid I saw this. Mom was an English and Drama teacher. Years later, at CHI in Atlanta, talking with Doug Engelbart, I discovered his parents had he same combination. As an adult, I can imagine that their professions not only seemed to be choices that sprung from their native talents, but that the professions, in turn, helped cement these traits in place.

I met other family members at a young age and each of them was quite different as well. My mother’s mother, Ada was smart, soft, and she told me “Old Pete” stories. We listened to radio programs together such as “The Lone Ranger”, “Roy Rogers”, “Hop-along Cassidy”, and “Tom Corbett and the Space Cadets.” Grandma was the Superintendent of Sunday School at the Methodist church we went to. She also founded the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and ran it for decades. Meetings were held at my grandparents’ house and the women (all the members were women) read plays. This turned out to be a cool deal for me because, as a little kid, whenever someone didn’t show up, I filled in because my memory was so good, that even without trying, I knew all the parts. Grandma also had to take “iron shots” because she was anemic. The best thing though was that she baked peanut butter cookies and when she made a pie, she made butter, sugar, and cinnamon roll-ups!

Her obituary from the Akron Beacon Journal begins this way: “Ada Weimer: Founder Of Drama Club Mrs. Ada P. Weimer, 78, founder of the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and its director for 30 years, died at Edwin Shaw Hospital Wednesday after a six-month illness. Born in Akron, Mrs. Weimer, 1384 Grant St., attended Greensburg High School and Heidelberg College. For many years, she was a Sunday school superintendent at Firestone Park Methodist Church, of which she was a member.” Apart from that, it lists her three sons and daughter whom she “left behind.” No mention of her peanut butter cookies though. Occasionally, after much begging, she would also make popcorn “from scratch” in a kettle. Not mentioned. She also spent a lot of time canning for the extensive “root cellar” my grandparents had in their basement. Not mentioned. Sometimes, she would walk with me up Grant Street to meet Grandpa at the bus stop. On the way, she never failed to scowl at the “beer joint” up the street where the overwhelming odor of beer and alcohol would flood out onto the street. Not mentioned. On rainy days, Grandma would take out two large shoe boxes that contained her extensive post card collection. Each had a photo, or more rarely, a cartoon, on one side and a hand-written or hand-printed note on the other side. They had come from many US states and from many countries around the world. The foreign ones also had interesting stamps to ponder with miniature scenes or portraits or animals from far-away places. I found all of it fascinating: the varieties of handwriting, the stamps, the pictures, the addresses. I would often ask her who these people were and what their comments meant. Usually, she would answer, but occasionally she wouldn’t. The newspaper was silent on the whole matter. Not one single post card was cited.

Grandma was affectionate as was her sister Mary, but their sister Emma took the cake. She was forever pawing, fawning, making a fuss, telling me nursery rhymes, hugging, kissing, etc. All three of these women were somewhat overweight and typically wore loose print dresses. I tend to think of my grandmother mainly wearing white, or off-white dresses with small flowers printed on them. Mary, on the other hand, the largest of the three, tended to wear dark blue dresses with white flowers. Emma typically wore brown or yellow dresses but made up for it with bright red lipstick and lots of make up. That entire branch of the family held family reunions every year. Much later, I met a cousin of Mom’s that had grown up with her family for a time.  He eventually became a psychology professor at an Ivy League School. Although I met numerous distant uncles and cousins over the years, I don’t much recall any of these more distant relatives. Grandma’s mother had come from Wales. My Grandpa painted a picture of the Welsh cottage that she was born in. It was beautiful and set in beautiful country but quite modest in size.

Now, speaking of Grandpa, he was as different and distinct from Grandma as Mom was from Dad. Grandpa smelled of pipe tobacco and although he too, like Dad, seldom laughed very demonstrably, he always seemed to have a twinkle in his grey eyes. Grandpa was extremely smart and knew about everything; or so it seemed at the time. Besides that, he was multi-talented. He worked as an engineer, but he was also an artist of some note. He was also an accomplished musician. Best of all, from my perspective, he was an excellent teacher. When we went out to the garden to pick corn on the cob, he taught me something about plants, soil or gardening. Einstein died when I was almost ten years old. Grandpa showed me the item about it in the Akron Beacon Journal and then proceeded to tell me about Einstein’s work (in elementary terms). He subscribed to “Sky and Telescope” as well as “The Atlantic” and “Scientific American” and the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. He would point out particular articles to me and then discuss them with me or explain something in more detail.

No need to point out and describe every single person in my family. The main point is that each of these people seemed very very different from the others. Much later, I can see many “family resemblances” in terms of skills, interests, psychology and physical characteristics. But as a child, I perceived none of that. It never even occurred to me that we all needed to breathe or had two arms and two legs. If someone had asked me, I could have answered correctly, of course, but the similarities among these people never crossed my mind. Every week, I listened as The Lone Ranger and Tonto found someone in trouble, tracked down the bad guys, shot a gun out of their hand and rode away. After they were gone, the beneficiaries of their bravery would remark that they didn’t know the true identity of The Lone Ranger, but he had left behind a single silver bullet. In retrospect, these stories were quite formulaic. But at the time, every story was just a different story. And so it was with folks in my family. They were different. They were individuals. Beyond that, they collectively made up the space of possible individuals.

As childhood continued, of course, that people-space continued to grow. New people often revealed, not just that people could be more extreme on existing dimensions such as age, size, or how much they laughed, but they forced me to consider and construct entirely new dimensions as well. People, it turned out, came in different colors; they spoke with different accents. In fact, they spoke in entirely different languages! When I was about three and a half, Mom, Dad and I all left for Portugal. My Mom told me later that I was frustrated that a bunch of Greek sailors could not communicate with me. I don’t recall this. But I do recall a little of learning to speak Portuguese although to me, it was not “learning to speak a different language.” It was just that I encountered people who spoke differently and I learned to communicate with them. Some people don’t laugh much while others laugh quite a lot. Similarly, some people spoke the way I was used to and others spoke some entirely different way. It never occurred to me, as a child, that they spoke an entirely different language and certainly not that they spoke that strange other way because of their own family and their own country. If asked, I imagine that I might have answered that they chose to speak Portuguese rather than English. But mainly, it just was. I didn’t consider why people were fat or skinny; why they spoke with an accent or not; why some people were male and some female; why some were old and some were young. Each person was simply and completely the way they were. They went about their business and as I interacted with them they punched at the edges of the net of my ideas about what people were like. Each person punched outwards in their own direction and the space of people grew larger and larger and larger.

I guess not everyone reacts that same way. It now seems to me, as an adult, that some people only expand their space of people a little ways from the points laid down by their first family and friends. When someone is too different, they are not really part of the whole human condition, but instead, are assigned to some other category such as “old person” or “toddler” or “professional athlete” or “foreigner” or “cripple” or “gay.” For some, each category requires special treatment different from all the rest. If, for instance, a “professional athlete” assaults or rapes someone, that might be okay because there are special rules for such folks. If, on the other hand, a “foreigner” assaults or rapes someone, they should at least be put in prison and quite possibly killed.

Indeed, even my own family gave some hints that this was the way to think about people. You had to be careful with grandparents because they were “old” and could be easily injured or broken into small pieces. When my cousin threw a xylophone across the room and hit me in the head, no punishment was forthcoming because he was “just a little kid” and “didn’t know any better.” When I went to the hospital, people did not seem to be treated as people but rather as “patients” or perhaps as “pneumonia” or “burn victim” or “appendicitis.” Given names were rarely used. Although, even as an adult, I see that there are commonalities in the way doctors need to treat patients with particular diseases, it seems to me that there are also often important differences as well.

One way that people differ quite a bit is how they treat and categorize other people. To me, every new individual I meet still seems quite different although the differences I see now are not nearly so gigantic as the differences that I saw as a child. It might be similar to the way in which both our house and my grandparents’ houses seemed gigantic in that there were so many separate places or regions to the house.

In the next blog, I examine further implications of family matters.


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Ripples: “Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.”

(The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge).


One of my earliest memories: splashing water. I know it is an early recollection because of the decontextualized nature of the memory and the lack of color constancy. Let me explain. I recall that yesterday I met with some friends for dinner at True Foods Kitchen. I know how I got there. I know why I went there. I know what I had for dinner. We met the manager. We had a great conversation and so on. I know we stopped on the way back to visit my mother-in-law. In other words, any particular memory of the sights, smells, tastes, and so on is put into a temporal and spatial context. Granted, this is a much more recent memory, but this kind of contextualization is present in my memories after starting school. I recall falling down the steps in first grade. I know why I was at school, where the steps were, that someone pushed me, and so on. But my memory of splashing is simply splashing. In my memory, it is not even splashing really so much as “painting” (in effect) with the water. As an adult, if I recall splashing in the water, I would know where I was, whom I was splashing and so on. I also see the water in the swimming pool at Gindra’s as being blue. Of course, light on the water would appear different colors depending on what was nearby. I recall “chicken fights” in which we teenage boys would put girls on our shoulders and each team would try to get the other team to fall apart. It was a fun game that required balance and strength for the “horses” below, and complete body strength and balance for the “rider” above, but the main thrill for a young teen boy was being that close to a girl!

That early vision of splashing though is of causing the water to appear in patterns and colors by smashing my hands into the water. I was, in effect, conducting an orchestra of color, shape, and noise. Later, there were other adventures in water such as dropping a stone in and watching the ripples go out to the sides of a sink, tub, bucket or pond and watching them reflect off the edges. On and on the ripples went.

I conducted other, larger scale childhood experiments. For example, I discovered in the bathtub that if I swayed my body in time to my own waves, I could make the waves go higher and higher with each body swing eventually causing the water to reach and then breach the edge of the tub and slosh out onto the floor. Amazing! Making these “tidal waves” did not require great strength. The timing was critical though. I could “stop” the waves by going out of synch. Or, I could make them larger and larger by careful timing. The “ripples” were no longer passive but adding energy at the right time, grew them ever larger. Then, when the water slopped out onto the floor and seeped through the floor, it caused another kind of “ripple.”

Those ripples might be called “behavioral ripples.” While I was concerned with the vital work of trying to understand the basic physical phenomena of the universe my parents seemed far more concerned with the structural and aesthetic integrity of our house. They made these priorities quite clear. Alas, my tub experiments had to be limited to creating waves that went up to the edge of the tub but not beyond.

Rain-soaked storm gutters provided a similar challenge. All the kids in my neighborhood wanted to find the deepest possible streams that would pool water up to the very top edge of our black rubber four-buckled boots. Naturally, there is a fine line, often crossed, between water coming up to the very edge of the boot tops and going ever so slightly over the edge. Once the water started going over the edge, however, that water seemed to invite more water to follow along. This foot soaking provided more “behavioral ripples”; namely, finding a way to sneak into the house and not have my mom notice that my shoes, socks, and feet were soaked. Sometimes I succeeded…but most times, I failed. Looking back, it does seem I found water to be a much less “invasive” substance than did my parents. I probably should have been more careful. On the other hand, even looking back, it seems they really exaggerated the damage done to socks, shoes, feet, and floors by a few drops of water. It seems almost as though they were afraid any amount of water in the house where it didn’t belong could slide down some slippery slope toward flooding or having our house carried away like a little stick raft on a creek.


Water fascinates people around the world, not only because it’s essential for life, but also because of its strange properties. As a liquid, we become familiar with its cohesion, waves, and ripples. We marvel at its power to destroy as well as to build. Beyond that, we learn that it changes state. Ice is frozen water. Ice itself exists in many forms such as snowflakes, icebergs, the solid ice of frozen winter ponds, the deceptive nature of candle ice. (As it turns out, under laboratory conditions of extreme pressure, ice can exist in scores of additional crystalline structures). But even in our natural lives, we see liquid water and frozen water quite often and the transitions between them. Moreover, we also see water vapor, mist, clouds, and steam. There are actually very few substances that we see in two, let alone three phases: solid, liquid and gaseous. Yes, we have seen demonstrations of frozen nitrogen and we may know that mercury freezes at close to -40 degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit. But for most substances, it is rare that we are privileged to see it change phase.

Water not only makes up most of the surface of the earth and most of the substance of our own bodies; not only do we drink it and swim in it and dive into it and skate on it as ice; we use it to clean; we use it to mix with other things in industry as well as our own kitchen.



The amount of water that falls in a region makes a huge difference in the flora and fauna that populate that area. As we all know, cacti dot the sands of hot deserts, while the rain forests favor a wider variety of trees, shrubs, moss, ferns and even plants that live on other plants. Naturally, animals that actually live in the water have adapted to living, loving, and dying in that water. We typically think of the animal species as being subject to the laws of natural selection that eventually result in that species changing to adapt to that watery environment (or going extinct). But, I believe evolution is a two way street that also involves choice.


Imagine a species of animal that lives on the edge of a pond in an arid region. Initially, they are all one species and, by definition, can mate with each other. Let’s call them “tortles.” In the same way that some people prefer the seashore while others like forests and still others like desert, we would expect that some of these tortles really enjoy hanging out in the water. Others prefer the nearby desert and only come to the pond in order to drink. Over many eons, those who spend a lot of time in the water are likely to mate with other like-minded tortles. Those that love the desert will tend to find their mates from that population. There will be a natural variation in bodies of these tortles with some having stronger shorter legs, for example, while others are born with longer legs with webbing between their toes. When times are tough, the web-toed tortles who like water will be able to swim better and have better luck finding food, escaping predators and hooking up with their mates. The web-toed variety on land, however, will not be so lucky. They will tend to get tiny pebbles stuck between their toes and have a harder time “racing”, if I may use that word for tortles, to beat out rivals to a mate or to escape predators. Meanwhile, the stocky legged tortles who live on land will have advantages while if they choose to spend most of their time in the water, they will be at a disadvantage. After many generations, the tortles will actually drift into two completely different species. The land tortles will no longer be able to mate with water-based tortles. Indeed, they may find the prospect very off-putting in their tortlely way. Similarly, the water tortles will no longer be able to mate with land tortles (and, yech, who would want to?). Eventually, though many similarities might remain, the water tortles would come to be what we now know as turtles and the land tortles would evolve into tortoises. What started as the pebble of desire and preference, would over many millennia, ripple into wave after wave of evolutionary pressure eventually resulting in two different species.

The reason I bring this up is that we often think of evolution as something that happens to a species in response to the environment and that is certainly valid. In some cases, the environment changes for various reasons and having a diverse population is a kind of “insurance” that some of the population will be adapted to that new environment. If the change is too sudden or too drastic, the entire species will die. If the pond and the nearby desert were both to be suddenly covered in hot lava from a volcanic eruption, both the turtles and the tortoises would perish. However, if the pond spread suddenly because of unusual flooding, only the turtles would survive. On the other hand, if the pond dried up for months at a time, only the tortoises would likely survive.

Equally important however, is that over a long period of time, conscious choices of the tortles plays an important part in natural selection. The same thing has been true for the entire 4.75 billion years of evolutionary history of life on earth. What we humans have become today is partly a response to environmental pressures, but it is also partly because of the “choices” our living ancestors made over the course of life’s 4.75 billion years on earth.

There are two other important “levels” of choice and adaptation. Within the life of an individual animal, much is learned via a variety of mechanism. For example, if your dog goes for a walk and you train him properly, he will not yank your arm but walk with the lead comfortably loose. A really well-trained dog might even keep beside you under the extreme provocation of a squirrel running by. If the dog continues to pull hard on the leash despite your attempts to train him, you will eventually find it too much work to take him for walks and he will suffer physically from the lack of exercise. Over longer periods of time, people as a whole will tend to breed dogs so as to make them be more trainable rather than less trainable. Eventually, the ability of the individual dogs to learn to adapt to their situations will impact the evolution of the species. A dog whose body is adapted so that many walks are necessary for health will be subject to a greater degree of evolutionary pressure toward learning how to walk socially than will a dog whose body allows a greater amount of sedentary life. Further, to the extent that dogs keep choosing to go for walks, those choices will impact both their learning and eventually their evolution.

There is yet another level of choice-evolution interaction. If a human society “choses” (via laws, customs, regulations, etc.) to reward one kind of behavior and punish another, the first will tend to be learned and the second not learned within the lifetime of an individual. Eventually, there will even be evolutionary pressure toward one kind of behavior (and body) and away from the other. For example, imagine a society that idealizes and rewards athletic excellence over artistic excellence. Athletes might make more money and have higher social status. They will tend to mate more often and eventually the whole species will tend to be more athletic. This might seem a tremendously good thing. In addition, if there is a huge population of athletes in a society, they may learn from each other and challenge each other toward ever greater feats of athletic prowess. Their bodies will tend to be evolve in various ways to support athletic activity. However, there is a down side too. In order to be a more successful athlete, the individual will have to take greater risks, spend a lot of time in athletic endeavors, and consume more food and water. If resources are scarce in a society, having everyone being athletic could be problematic. Other things being equal, there would tend to be less time spent in building shelters, caring for children, finding food, etc.


On the other hand, we can imagine a society that rewards artistic achievement over everything else. In this case, those who have a natural proclivity toward art will be rewarded in various ways, learn to be great artists. Typically, those who love art will spend more time doing it and improve their skill. They will also develop communities of practice and learn from each other. We can imagine a society eventually developing rules and regulations as well as customs that favor artistic expression. In such a monoculture society, a person of unusual athletic ability might not be much noticed while a person of unusual artistic ability would be. While it would certainly be nice to be surrounded by beautiful artwork all one’s life, there are some potential down-side risks to a society that concentrated all its efforts toward art. People might make shelters that looked beautiful but did not work very well. They might favor crops with beautiful flowers even if the resulting fruit was inedible or poisonous.

While the examples above describe athletics and artistic endeavors, the same principles would apply toward any physical characteristic (being tall or short, being very strong or less so) or mental characteristic (being extremely curious, loving greatly, being cold-hearted). There are some situations and some aspects of various situations that favor any one mental or physical characteristic over another. And eventually the choices that the species makes about those characteristics that we most favor will come to be more prevalent in the population. Just as you were partly shaped by the choices made by every single one of your ancestors, so too do your choices today impact what kind of world your descendants will live in and therefore, eventually also determine what they are, how they look, and how they are prone to behave. And, because our modern society is so tightly interconnected in so many ways, your choices will not only impact what becomes your descendants but also those of your neighbors and quite possibly what becomes of everyone on the planet. That is an awesome responsibility. In the same way, the choices that your neighbors make will impact the world that your descendants will live in. That is an awesome pain. Because you personally would not make some of those choices that your neighbors make.

For example, I personally love nature. I have always loved going out into the woods or fields, and I feel better and more alive when I am outdoors. I would love it if we make the wild world livable forever. I would very much like to see people, a thousand generations from now, be able to experience trees, flowers, birds, and so on. I hate the idea that everything will end up as one giant city of plastic and metal. What kind of life would that be? Not one I would like and not one I would like for others. But not everyone agrees with my vision of the future. Some would see the endless world-filling mega-super-city-state as a great culmination.

It seems to me that in our current state of confusion about where civilization and our environment is headed, the very best we can do is to encourage the maximum amount of diversity. There certainly is no world-wide shared vision of who we are and where we are headed. If there were, we could debate about the best way to get there, but we don’t have any consensus on what that “there” should be.

Here is just a small sample of the various visions people seem to have about humanity’s future. 1) We don’t have to do anything. God has a plan and it will happen. 2) We need to grab all the resources for our country by whatever means necessary because the resources are limited and time is running out. 3) The government is out to get our guns but they won’t. 4) In a decade or two, AI will surpass human intelligence and tell us how to get out of the mess we’re in. 5) All sovereign nations will work together toward peace and prosperity for all. 6) It’s a dog eat dog world. Always was. Always will be.  7) We are evolving to a higher plane of existence.

I didn’t pick these particular set to make fun of anyone. The point is that these are just seven out of thousands that could be listed. We humans clearly have extremely different ideas of where we want to go! The fact that you have a vision shared by lots of other people and you’re convinced it’s the right one doesn’t change the fact that not everyone has the same vision. Let’s just take those specific ones. What do these various visions imply about what we should do in the real world of today? Who should we vote for? Where should we live? Should we recycle? How should we raise our children? What should we eat?

The thing is this. Let’s face it. We humans have never been here before. We lived in little tribes of people who had over a thousand square miles to roam around in and do with what they please. The human population of the entire earth may have been a million for the vast majority of our time as a species. Now, earth has 7 billion people! If we had to hunt and gather for our food, the vast majority of us would die, full stop. We have technologies and speeds and greeds that were literally unimaginable to most of our ancestors. We’ve been following many scripts for most of our individual lives and for most of our life as a species. Guess what? Now, the play is over, but we are still on stage! We have to improvise. We don’t know where we are headed or where we should be headed. This is completely new ground! Don’t be terrified because we don’t know. Don’t hold on tightly to a teeny corner. Grab the challenge. If we pull this off, it will be the greatest come-from-behind victory in the history of, well, anything.

The Great Race to the Finish!


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I really wondered how that whitish-green hard puffy leaf worked. What was it made of? How hard would it be to burst it? And when I did, what would come out? At the age of four, ooze, jelly, a million tiny red spiders, or an emerald all seemed about equally likely. I began to squeeze it with my fingernail, slowly and carefully increasing the pressure. I concentrated so hard I didn’t notice my grandpa coming up behind me. He told me not to hurt the plant. I asked him to clarify that statement. (Of course, I didn’t use those words but I knew the word “hurt” could mean to damage or to cause pain.)  He insisted it was both. I remained skeptical. But I did know he took great care of his plants so I didn’t molest them again.

UPDATE: More evidence that plants can “hurt.”


On the other hand, I never had the slightest doubt that other animals actually feel pain much as we do. For that matter, I still don’t have any doubts. We co-evolved for billions of years and then much more recently grew separated into species such as human, dog, cat, horse. To me, it is much more “parsimonious” to believe emotions and consciousness are in all living things in some degree and in vertebrates to much the same degree as we have it — than to imagine that emotions and consciousness “emerged” when our brains passed some critical threshold of complexity; one that just happens to give us a great excuse to kill anything else we please, not so co-incidentally.


So even at an early age I at least credited all living animals as being pretty much like us. That is why it shocked me to read in a Walt Disney comic (of all places!) about lemmings following each other over a cliff to drown in the ocean! Why would they do that? Can’t they see there’s a cliff there? Are the ones in front doing it on purpose? I could imagine some of them get pushed by the ones behind, but what about the last rank? At least they should be scraping their tiny claws into the earth in a last ditch attempt to save their lives. And, if all the lemmings drown in the sea, how can there be more lemmings?

Only a few short months later, this time in school, I learned that buffalo did the same thing! Buffalo! Big headed buffalo. What are they thinking? “Hey, everybody wouldn’t be stampeding if we weren’t headed to the lushest greenest most goodiest pastures of plenty our herd has ever seen!” And then, in that last second before the terrible and explosive rib smashing landing do they think in their bisonic code equivalent, “Damn!” or “What the…?” or “Oops!” or “Take me God!” Perhaps it’s more likely they think, in essence, “Hey, everybody wouldn’t be stampeding unless we were being chased by a horrendous bison-eating monster!” I doubt they think something like, “Whoopee! A stampede! Great chance for me to work a few pounds off. I don’t mean to be putting it on, but the grass here is like, sooooooo good, man. I eat one blade and the next thing I know, I’ve munched down 10000000. (Not that big a number; bison use binary).

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Of course, from our perspective outside the herd, it looks as though all the lemmings or bison or beached whales agree that the self-destructive behavior is a great idea. It might well be that one, or two, or even many of the bison are just as bewildered as we would be. They might be thinking, “Hold on. Why is everybody rushing so madly toward…what was it exactly? Shouldn’t a couple of us go up a hill and see where we’re heading? Hello! Let me take a minute…hey! Quit shoving! I’m trying to get a better look! I’m not sure this is…Arghhhh….I knew it!” They are wondering whether a stampede is wise but they are so pressed by the others on all sides, they can’t convince the herd to slow down. It is even possible that someone in the herd actually knows they are headed for doom and they still can’t do anything. “Wait, guys! I recognize this patch of sweet clover! We’re headed for the cliff! Stop! Stop!” Over they go along with everyone else.

All kidding aside, these were serious questions to me at the time. I certainly wanted to live. And, from everything I could tell in life or on the radio or on TV or in the movies or the cartoons or books, everybody and every thing wanted to live. But somehow, these creatures were doing something that caused their own deaths! That just seemed perverted. Odd. Weird. Life should be propagating life, not destroying itself. I don’t even need a Bible lesson on that one.

Although non-human animals most likely feel emotions and are conscious, I don’t actually think they think in words in the way we humans do or communicate with all the subtlety that we do (despite all those Disney movies). So, it came as another shock to learn that sometimes people commit suicide. Still later, I learned that they sometimes do it in packs! (See, for instance, an article on Heaven’s Gate cult).

Meanwhile, even more commonly, huge numbers of people march off to wars. Many are maimed or killed. In this case, people are generally convinced that they are doing something for their group, tribe, or country. For instance, with two armies lined up at the border, it is pretty much assumed, with some justification, that simply giving up will also result in death or slavery. This behavior is not unique to humans. At about the age I was learning about suicide, my cousin and I observed an ant war between red and black ants in my grandfather’s garden. At that point, I already knew about human wars, at least in broad outline, but watching ants fight made it seem perhaps more inevitable that humans too must fight rather than that they choose to fight.

It often happens in war, that the soldiers, and indeed, the whole nation is more or less tricked into fighting and in that sense, it is effectively a kind of mass suicide but with a lottery system thrown in. Not everyone who fights dies, but it is by no means an impossible or even unlikely outcome. From the perspective of those fighting, it is a brave thing to do — a selfless act that is designed to help save their people and their nation. After the fact, looking back, it sometimes seems that only a few people such as arms dealers and leaders actually benefit much from wars. For example, Hitler convinced people in Germany that aggression and conquest would be to their benefit and in newsreels, the masses of people saluting him look every bit as mindless as lemmings following each other over a cliff to drown in the ocean.


And what about our human species? On the one hand, we devote a large proportion of our resources to fighting each other, committing crimes, defending against crimes, punishing crimes, defending against invaders, and building machines to help us in fighting other humans. These conflicts always cause massive suffering and always benefit a few people but occasionally help reach some national objective that has broader benefits. Meanwhile, we are collectively headed for numerous cliffs. Although population growth may be slowing, we are in danger of reproducing way beyond the earth’s carrying capacity in terms of food and drinkable water.

At the same time, our activities are contributing to global climate change and to pollution. As our population density increases, and as our immune systems are assaulted with an ever greater quantity and variety of chemicals that make it harder to fight off disease, we face increased odds of a pandemic. And, we are not spending money on preventing it.

The threat of atomic war still looms.

We can disagree, argue, do more research on which cliff we are headed for, but why are we headed toward any cliff? Why don’t we simply decide collectively that we are better than that; that we don’t have to plummet off any cliff at all. We can just decide that we need to make this planet habitable for a long long time and collectively decide how to do it. We would not only save the lives of countless people in future generations but also the lives of many of our fellow living beings.

Or, we could wait until we are over the cliff in free fall and as the ground appears to loom up to us faster and faster think to ourselves, “Oh, darn, we should have…”

But we are not lemmings after all, nor bison. We are human beings who are capable of seeing where we are going and changing direction. Right? Right?


Math Class: Who are You?


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David's DreamDeeply

What better way to drive traffic to your blog than title the entry “Math Class.” As most of you probably recall, math was your favorite class?! All kidding aside, I actually found math fun but that’s probably because I learned a lot of it outside of regular classes which can admittedly be pretty boring. Rest assured, the “math” in this entry does not require integral calculus, differential equations, trigonometry, or even algebra. In fact, if you prefer, you can call the post “Christianity” or “Buddhism” because you would reach the same conclusions but from a very different pathway.

Part of the inspiration for this post came from visiting the Smithsonian Institute about 20 years ago. They displayed a large graph with the population of the earth plotted against the year. I looked at my birth year and could easily see that more than half the total earth’s population came after my birth year. And, that was 20 years ago.

Another inspiration comes from having led the artificial intelligence lab at NYNEX. I worked for an ex-Bell Labs engineer, Ed Thomas. People were always asking me whether we were “related.” I found this question extremely amusing. Why? Because we are all related! In fact, we share about 40% of our genes with crayfish and 90% with horses. We’re closely related to chimps and bonobos though we did not “descend” directly from apes.  Yet, in our society, we chose to “draw the line” between being “related” and “not related” way over at one end of the scale. Ed Thomas and I only share about 99.9% of our genes so we are called “unrelated” while my brother and I share 99.95% and so we are (closely) related. Most people would say they are “unrelated” to a horse even though you share 90% of your genes. Weird.

A few days ago, I read that new fossils indicate life on earth is at least 4.75 billion years old. When I was a kid, starting around age 7, I became (like many others) fascinated by dinosaurs. At that point, the best guesses were that life was somewhere between 500 million years and 1 billion years. In the course of my lifetime, that estimate has increased a lot.

Who cares and why does all this matter? Apart from curiosity, it matters because it allows us to put in perspective our own individual lives in the context of life on planet earth.

Most people, most of the time, love their children and generally put the welfare of their kids even above their own. This is how life progresses. So far as we know, individuals never live forever, at least in this physical world. However, life as a whole continues to live and our direct descendants and relatives continue to live after our death. So, how much of your genetic material is actually in you versus all your cousins?

To simplify, let’s start with just other human beings. There are currently 7 billion people on the planet. You are one of them. You share 99.9% of your genes with those folks.

How much do we share genes?

So, let’s see. There’s you. And there are 7 billion relatives. Some are slightly more related than 99.9% identical genes, but let’s just say 99.9%. That means the total genome of your genes is in one person (you) who has 100% of your genes and 7 billion others who “only” have 99.9% of your genes. 99.9% of 7 billion is 6,993,000,000 while 100% of 1 is 1.000. In other words, the total amount of “your” genes that is in other people is 6,993,000,000 as much lies within the physical boundaries of your own skin. Not an equal amount. Not 10x as much. Not 100x as much. Not even a million times as much. No. Nearly seven billion times as much.

From the standpoint of genes, this vastly understates the case because there are 7-10 million species on earth besides humans. All of these share some of your genes and many of them share a lot of your genes. Of course, we humans are relatively big and while there are some plants and animals much bigger than we are, there is more mass of life in bacteria than blue whales or redwoods. In principle, one can calculate a better number by taking into account, for each of 7-10 million species how many cells are in each; how populous they are, and what percentage of genes are in common between humans (and therefore you) and each of these species. It’s straightforward but tedious. I gave up after 100,000 species. No, I didn’t. I never started because I knew I would give up way before I got to 100,000. In many cases, we don’t even have a very good estimate of the populations. Given all the trees, grasses, bacteria, insects, fish, plankton, etc. I would guesstimate that adding all the genes in all the other plants and animals would mean the genes in your body represent at most about one in a trillion of all the copies of those genes on earth. So, from the standpoint of ensuring the propagation of your genes, caring about your own physical life represents about 1/1000000000000 of the total.

life on earth

I grant you that genes are not all that matters in human life. And, I want to explore some of the other aspects of the interconnectedness of life apart from a common genetic heritage. However, first, it is really worth taking a moment to let that fraction sink in.

It isn’t as though the “you” inside your skin weighs, say, 150 pounds while the “you” that is outside your skin is, say, the size of a blue whale. No. In fact, even 1000 blue whales compared with your physical body is not so lop-sided a comparison. Imagine thirty galactic clusters of stars. Each of those thirty clusters has 100 stars. Each of those stars has 10 planets to support life. Each of those planets has 100 oceans and each of those oceans has 1000 blue whales. Versus you.

Another way to think about is that when you physically die, it is a little like “trimming” or “pruning” the “Tree of Life.” But your dying would not be like cutting off a branch. Or a twig. Or a leaf. It would be like shaving an invisible razor thin strip off one needle of one twig of one branch of a huge Redwood.


It is understood that life is partly (and by no means wholly) about competition. Each and every one of those bits of “you” that is in other life-forms is not necessarily your best bud. You may share a lot of DNA with a great white shark but you might not wish him well. Or, you might not much like your cousins the mosquitoes and deer flies and pneumonia germs. The problem is that we are not collectively anywhere near to being smart enough to understand the effects of deleting certain species and not others. Perhaps, some day in a hundred years or so, we might understand enough to intelligently redesign an ecosystem. Don’t hold your breath though. Despite the fact that some of those individual species and some individuals within a species are annoying, we really have no idea how to extract some one thing. It is not a set of legos. Every species is connected with a variety of chemical and mechanical connections to hundreds of others. It is more like trying to extract your iPhone adapter from your backpack which also contains headphones, power cords, adapters for five other devices and, for good measure, a couple stray shoelaces.

You could also point out, quite rightly, that not all genes are as “fundamental” to making you you as are other genes. There are genes, perhaps, that make your eyes blue or brown. Does that seem fundamental to you? Or, perhaps there’s a gene that makes your thumb fingerprints whorls or loops. Does that seem fundamental to who you are and to your life? On the other hand, there are genes that make you want to live and find love and raise a family and contribute and play and learn. To me, those are the genes that are fundamental and guess what? Those are the very genes that you share with millions of other species. Naturally, we humans like to think of ourselves as fundamentally different from other species on the planet and in some ways we are. As discussed below, being able to communicate so many messages with other people across time and space and even after death indeed makes people “different” but when it comes the things you are likely to care the most about: staying alive, avoiding pain, keeping your family healthy, fighting off disease — those are pretty common across animals and even plants and bacteria, at least in rudimentary form. Just because an ant doesn’t do calculus doesn’t mean it doesn’t work to stay alive and help it’s colony do the same.  See video links below and you will hopefully see how similar other animals at least are to us.

And, speaking of math classes, let us turn to some of the other aspects of how our own individual life fits with the larger web of life. Let us think about learning. Pretty much all life is able learn.  Humans, however, are able to communicate through speech, writing, and pictures. This means that we can learn across continents and generation. Eventually, communications affect behavior. Everyone ends up getting exposed to unique information and delivered under different circumstances so that people also end up acting very differently and even perceiving things differently. So, when it comes to human beings, many of the differences we think important are in terms of the ideas and attitudes various people have as well as their actual behavioral differences. To put it simplistically, we largely feel akin to others on the basis of how we think and feel. Many of the labels that we put on people — in fact, the vast majority of them — focus on differences among people. For example, we have: extrovert, introvert, flirt, workaholic, physicist, physician, psychologist, psychic, pscyho, Republican, Democrat, liberal, heterosexual, homosexual, creative, drudge. But what percentage is different and what percentage is the same and how fundamental are the behaviors and ideas?

How much of the total knowledge and how fundamental is that knowledge? Perhaps people learned approximately linearly through time. We’ve had spoken language for, let us say, 100,000 years although it could be much longer.  At best, people learn about four “chunks” per second. A “chunk” is basically a new configuration of things you already know. We measure the information in a computer in terms of “bits” but this turns out not to be a very good measure for people (or other animals). If you have to learn “A CAD” it is pretty easy. It is essentially only one “chunk.” If you know how to read hexadecimal then “ACAD” is equal to 10-12-10-13. It is easier to remember “a cad” than to remember “10-12-10-13.” That in turn is easier than the binary string: “1010110010101101” though they have the same bits. In the same way, it is much easier to recall the password: “Thistooshallpass” than the password: “ooassllapsTsthih.” That is the basic concept behind “chunks” as a measure. How easily we learn new things depends heavily on what we already know. One major problem with trying to learn a new language is that we keep thinking of it (and even hearing it) in terms of the language we already know. In fact, studies with infants show that by a few weeks of age, they are already less able to distinguish sounds that make no difference in their native language than they were at birth.

Psychology is endlessly fascinating! But let’s return to our calculations. If you are awake, on average for 16 hours a day for your lifetime of 100 years, you would have an opportunity to learn 4 chunks/second x 60 seconds/minute x 60 minutes/hour x 16 hours/day x 365 days/year x 100 years for a total of 12,600,000,000 chunks! That is a lot! Of course, that is rather an ideal case. If you don’t read and watch the same TV shows and hang out with the same people you may not get your full 12 billion chunks worth of learning, but it’s still going to be a lot. 

We humans have been communicating and learning through speech though for at least 100,000 years. That is more than 1000 times as long as you’ve been alive. For a long time, the population of the earth was far less than today, but sill likely over a million people for most of that time. Since each person grows up in a different environment, they learn different things. Leaving aside the fact that the population of the earth is now about 7 billion and just using the very conservative 1 million figure, you know about 1/1000000000 or a billionth of what humans collectively have learned.  (For a more in-depth estimate, check out the link below).

Of course, a more direct way to think about this is that collectively today, on average, you know about 1/7000000000 of the knowledge of humanity since you are only one person and there are seven billion on the planet. If you’ve been learning for about 70 years (as I have) then you may know a slightly higher fraction of the total knowledge. Let’s just take the conservative estimate that your knowledge is one billionth. But how much is a billion?

One way to think about it is this. You, as an individual, have one “book” of knowledge in your head. (It’s a rather large one, but all of the books in this example will also be large). Now, let’s consider that the whole world of knowledge exists on ten continents. Each continent has 25 countries for a total of 250 countries. Each of these countries has 40 cities. Each of these cities has 10 libraries. Each of these libraries has 10 rooms and each room has 1000 books each of which is every bit as complete and weighty as your own.


Much of your knowledge is common, but a lot of it is unique. No-one has lived the life you have and so your “book” will contain a lot that is just about your own experience. And that’s true as well for each of the other 7 billion people on earth. So, while the biological stuff that makes you you, is hugely outside your own skin, the knowledge that humanity has collectively has a teeny fraction inside your own skull. Best to share what you think best before you die at which point it will become inaccessible. Aside from that sage advice, you might reflect that indeed, none of us knows very much at all compared with what we know as a species.

The other major way that we interact with each other and with every living thing on the planet is through our chemical exchanges. People, such as you and me, for example, breath air in that contains oxygen. We cannot live without it. Where does the oxygen come from? Green plants. To many people, “tree hugger” is a slam, an insult, a term that is meant to be demeaning. Okay, I grant you, actually hugging a tree is probably something that doesn’t mean much to the tree. However, without green plants and the oxygen they produce, people (and other animals) would die off. Not only do plants produce oxygen but they also get rid of carbon dioxide. Of course, without green plants, there would be few foods from plants and we would have to “eat” mostly animals for the short time the supply lasted. A lack of green plants would really have four ways to end humanity: greatly increased carbon dioxide caused global warming, lack of sufficient food, lack of sufficient oxygen, too much carbon dioxide to survive. Probably, the lack of food would do us in first. You could actually hug much worse things than trees.

In any case, the oxygen – carbon dioxide and food cycles are two of the important ways that we are chemically interconnected with the entire web of life on the planet. Another important cycle is the nitrogen cycle. While plants are ultimately at the root of what we eat, the bodies of humans and other animals eventually provide important nitrogen for plants. Most plants are quite patient about waiting passively for us to die before partaking of our bodies. But there are some much pluckier plants such as the pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap which actually trap animals such as insects and small frogs in order to “feed” their nitrogen needs.

trapped bee

These cycles have been going on for a very long time. What’s new that humans bring to the party is not a nice cabernet, but rather a toxic cocktail of chemicals that never existed before. Some of these are intentionally produced and others are side-effects of other things. But rest assured, these “new” chemicals are overwhelmingly bad for everything in the biosphere. They are bad for you, for your kids, for your grandchildren, for frogs, redwoods, and honeybees. They are bad for almost everybody. For instance, you may find it convenient to buy “air fresheners.” These do not actually “freshen” the air. They have three important classes of chemicals: something that screws up your hormones; something that is a known carcinogen; something that destroys your sense of smell. “Air freshener” indeed.

It strikes me as odd that adults in many parts of the world are “not allowed” to buy “street drugs” while any seven year old can walk in and buy “air freshener” which could cause numerous problems. Of course, the other problem is that even though you exercise your freedom to buy air freshener, eventually those chemicals end up in my lungs and the lungs of my descendants as well as monkeys, parrots and rabbits. The polluting chemicals eventually end up pretty well scattered throughout the world. China’s air pollution eventually gets to Americans and American air pollution gets to China. Speaking of math, here’s an interesting calculation to show how much we exchange air molecules with others.

Have you breathed air molecules from Jesus?

To make an overly long story overly short, we are all highly interconnected and most of what makes you, you is not inside the confines of your own body.  For me, this puts unfettered greed in the category of just being plain silly.

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City Mouse and Country Mouse


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In our childhood, many of us heard the fable of the city mouse and country mouse. Briefly, the city mouse invites his cousin, country mouse, to visit him in the city. At first, the country mouse is quite impressed with the array of food available in the city mouse’s home. Then, the house cat comes with sharp claws and long pointed teeth and nearly rips them both apart. In the end, the country mouse scampers back and shouts back to his city cousin something to the effect that he’s happy to have his bread crumbs in peace rather than risking life and limb in the city. The exact words, I don’t recall, but they have probably suffered in the translation from Aesop’s ancient Greek to modern English and even more severely in the translation from mousespeak to human speech. Most likely, the original sounded something like this: “Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.”

Aesop Fable of the Mice

No doubt there are advantages and disadvantages for a mouse to live in the city or the country. Both places have sources of food and both have predators. But what about human beings? Here too, there are advantages and disadvantages of living in a large city versus living in the country or a small town. While human beings undoubtedly have many behaviors that are influenced by “instinct”, people are also capable of learning. Moreover, because we humans can talk and write and are fundamentally social beings, not only do urban and rural environments result in different kinds of individual skills, in a fairly short time, they also result in different cultures. These differences are not arbitrary but are adaptations to characteristics of the two environments.

In cities (and especially coastal cities), people typically come in contact with a huge variety of people. Many metropolitan areas feature different cuisines, attractions, races, religions, sexual preferences, and so on. Take the matter of cuisine. It is easy in New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Washington DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or San Diego to find restaurants that serve excellent Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Vegetarian, Vegan, Ethiopian, Jewish or Indian food. I happen to love them all! But if someone hates any of these options, it is also easy to avoid that option. You don’t care for Indian food? No problem. Don’t go. Suppose however, you are with a group of friends and everyone else wants to go for sushi which you happen to hate. The vast majority of urban Japanese restaurants in the USA offer other options that are “close to” traditional American cuisine. So, you can go to a Japanese restaurant with your friends and order steak teriyaki while they all eat raw fish.

But let’s just suppose that for whatever reason, you are so appalled by raw fish that you get sick watching someone else eating it. Well, you simply don’t watch. Now, the thing about living in a big city is that you don’t have to create this solution on your own. That’s what everyone does. If they see something they don’t like, they look away. They learn not to dwell on it. It’s very crowded in a city. If you walk around or take public transportation being “offended” or “put off” by anyone who speaks differently, dresses differently, eats differently, worships differently, looks different, etc. you are going to quickly become completely stressed out and become one completely unhappy camper. People in large cities learn to be polite and focus their energy on the places and people that give them joy. It takes time to find friends but eventually you find people who share fundamental interests and values. They might be next door, but more likely, they are are a subway ride or long walk away. There are literally more than a million people in any large city that you never get to know. Because there are so many choices, plenty of opportunities arise to do what you like and many people who will join you. You might love tennis, roller skating, and art museums. You might never step foot in the science museum or the public library or the parks. It’s all fine. The culture of the city is tolerance for everyone. Yet, people find those they relate to from a huge pool. If you come from, say, China, and you want to stick with other Chinese people, you can easily do that. You can survive in New York City or San Francisco without having to experience Mexican food or even without learning much English. On the other hand, if you want to become assimilated into more “mainstream” American culture and eat pizza every day and listen to jazz and dress like an American Indian — hey, you’re welcome to do that too. Because everyone passes by people that are so different every day, almost everyone learns tolerance. In essence, you see, there is not “one” New York City or Los Angeles, there are thousands! People essentially live in their own version of these cities and become close only with a small group of like-minded people. Of course, your “tennis friends” might be different from your “roller skating friends” which might be a slightly different group than your “art museum friends.” But even putting all your friends together, the people you know are only 1/10,000 or 1/100,000 of the people in the city.


There is a down side. You may never get to know your next door neighbors. You and they may simply have very different tastes and interests. Besides that, there is a lot of turnover in a city. Often, there doesn’t seem to be much point in becoming friends simply because you live next door partly because they (or you) are quite likely to move away in a month. There is a worse down side as well. At the extreme, the distance that people create mentally to accommodate the extremely close physical proximity and the culture of leaving others alone also makes it possible for someone to be stabbed on the street without anyone helping. This phenomenon has been studied and called “bystander behavior.” People are actually much more likely to help if they are the only witness than if they are one of 100. Each of the 100 looks around and sees that none of the other 99 are doing anything and so conclude, all evidence to the contrary, that nothing much is happening or else the other 99 people would be helping. In any case, the “culture” that arises in cities is typically quite tolerant of differences, somewhat distant from the vast majority of your fellow citizens but certainly allows for close friendships based on any combination of a hundred different factors. Because large cities develop a culture of tolerance for other types of people, that fact becomes known and attracts still more diversity which in turn encourages more tolerance and diversity.

There is another important aspect of living in a large city. It is crowded and complex. You constantly have to “trust” people you don’t know who drive the taxis, deliver the food, come to fix your cable, police the streets and so on. These are typically not people you know. In fact, for the most part, you won’t even see them again. But it is impractical not to trust all these strangers. Most of the time, the trust works out though on rare occasions, it backfires.


The experience of living in a small rural town is completely different. There are not 400 different restaurants to choose from. There might be three. Possibly one of the three is ethnic, but it is far less likely. A Korean restaurant in New York City can be quite profitable if only .01% of the NYC population goes there regularly. That won’t work in Woburn MA or Bend OR though, let alone in a town of 5000. A small town in America may well have a baseball diamond and a public library. But they are unlikely to have a holography museum or a laser tag facility. The sheer small number of people living in a small town means, in essence, that the citizens must agree on what types of restaurants are available, what recreational facilities are available, what clothing stores are in town and so on. In addition, everyone in town is likely to run into everyone else again and again. Rather than learning to avoid and look away and ignore things you don’t personally care for, people in small towns instead lean in. They want to know what exactly is going on with everyone else in town. Everyone soon knows who the town drunk is and who is having an affair with whom. People in small towns do not typically think, “It’s none of my business” but that’s exactly what they think in large cities.

For these reasons, people in small towns are less likely to learn the skill of looking away. If they personally hate sushi and end up visiting a relative in a big city and then end up in a Japanese restaurant, they are both fascinated and disgusted by watching their cousin eat sushi. They could theoretically just look away, but that is not a very well learned skill for most. For these reasons, the culture of the small town also evolves to be different. People who thrive on diversity and believe strongly in tolerance feel as though they don’t belong and they also feel deprived of interesting possibilities so most end up moving away. Of course, that makes the town even more homogeneous. The small town ends up being much more “tight knit” than a random group of 5000 people in a large city. It seems much less likely people would fail to help someone being stabbed on the street (though I haven’t actually tried that experiment).


In a small town, since people know almost everyone they interact with, they don’t really have to trust strangers all that much. If someone new delivers the mail, the small town person is likely to ask whether they just moved in town, where they live and so on. This would be considered quite rude and even weird in a big city. People in a small town probe to know people in their small town. They tune in not out. They are much more likely to choose friends partly on the basis of location rather than vocation. Because of this cluster of factors, people in one small town are more likely to stay in that small town. It is probably much more “disruptive” to move from Woburn MA to Bend OR than to move from New York City to Los Angeles. Of course, either move means you will have to learn where things are, get a new driver’s license, make new friends etc., but the “culture” of cities is becoming similar all across America and indeed, all across the world. Two small towns can have quite different cultures.

People from large cities are likely to feel quite different on a number of issues compared with people from small towns. People in large cities have been trained and acculturated to simply look away and ignore things and people that they don’t like and to focus on what they do like. Conversely, people in small towns have learned to depend on everyone and so want everyone to agree on a much larger range of issues. There are enough resources in a large city to have scores of museums and hundreds of restaurants and scores of clothing stores. People don’t need to agree on taste. But in a small town, that’s not true. There is much greater pressure to agree on what the “right” museum is for the town, what the “right” kind of food is to serve at the handful of restaurants and what the “right” kind of clothing might be.

People in a small town are likely to know the police that they come in contact with. If a police officer in a small town arrests someone or even shoots them, people in a small town are much more likely to know both the police officer and the person arrested. Provided the police officer is known as a generally fair-minded person, the people in the small town are much more likely to be sympathetic. In addition, they may well known that the person arrested (or even shot) is and has been a “bad guy” the whole time he’s been in town.

In a large city, by contrast, people who read or hear about someone making an arrest or very unlikely to know personally either the policeman or the suspect. They probably still have a presumption that the police probably acted correctly. However, their reactions are much more likely to vary from person to person that what you would find in a small town.

Needless to say, cities do differ from each other in terms of culture and so do small towns. For example, Murray Hill, New Jersey is not a huge city (population around 3500). However, many of the people there were from Bell Labs, a large famous research institute long part of AT&T but now part of Nokia. That particular small area includes residents from many countries, liberal and very well funded schools, and so on. Small towns that grow up around trade centers, farming communities, research centers and universities, or coal mining undoubtedly have very different typical “cultures.” Similarly, a large city like New York that has people from all over the world is quite different than one of the Chinese cities around large-scale manufacturing facilities (e.g., Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Nonetheless, as a general rule, living in a small town versus a large city tends to produce different skill sets and a different outlook and culture.


What can small town cultures and big city cultures learn from each other? How can these cultures tolerate each other? Is there a way to have the advantages of both? If humanity keeps exponentially increasing population, will there even be any “small towns” left in 100 or 500 years? To me, city culture and small town/rural culture mirror many of the distinctions made by Jane Jacobs in “Systems of Survival.” I recommend this as an interesting (and short) read.

Systems of Survival

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The Invisibility Cloak of Habit


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“No, you’re not wrong; I’m wrong!”

How often have you heard, or uttered these words? Seldom is my guess. In fact, you may have even misread these words.

Michigan winters are hard. Even in the lower peninsula at the University of Michigan where I went to grad school, winters are long, snowy, bitter cold, and often feature treacherous ice storms. But that made springtime that much more soul-saving. Often, when it was sunny and warm, I would teach my introduction to psychology classes outside on the lawn near Angel Hall. Nearby ran one of the “main drags” in town including a T-shaped intersection. The street going into the main drag included a stop sign for the first three years I lived in Ann Arbor.  And, then, there was a change. Whatever the design rationale, the highway department reversed the situation so that traffic on the main drag now had stop signs both ways and the other street was free to turn onto the main drag. That doesn’t seem  like a tsunami of a change, does it?

Yet, my classes were often interrupted by screeching tires, and honking horns. Society had not yet evolved to the point of pulling a gun and shooting someone for a traffic faux pas. That would still require years of work on the part of the NRA to convince people that they needed “protection” for road rage (which coincidentally made road rage that much more deadly). But back in the 1970’s, my classes were not interrupted with gunshots. But aside from the screeching tires and honking horns, we could hear plenty of screamed profanity.

What made that an interesting situation to discuss in the intro psych class was that it was never the people who actually had the right of way who did the honking and screaming. It was always (at least so far as I observed) the people who sailed right through the new — and unseen stop signs! These stop signs were in plain view. This was not at all like the stop sign I sailed through years later in Westchester. That stop sign was well-hidden behind trees and then made more invisible by spray paint. I guess some teen-agers thought it would be pretty cool to cause an auto accident. Sigh. But let’s teleport back again through time and space to Ann Arbor a couple decades earlier. Those new Ann Arbor stop signs were large and clearly visible to anyone. In fact, both signs were both easily visible to the psych class from 75 yards away. But they were apparently under a magic spell because these same stop signs were invisible to drivers who had driven the main drag for many years. They “knew” the stop signs were not there. They “knew” there was a stop sign on the cross street. So, to many (not all) drivers, these stops signs were under an “invisibility cloak” created by their own expectations.

Furthermore, when drivers did sail through the stop sign and then found themselves almost in an accident, slamming on their breaks and swerving to avoid the accident, it was invariably followed by a loud blaming exercise. The “blame” of course, was always on the other driver — the one actually following the law. In the 5-6 near misses we observed, we never saw someone sail through a stop sign and then realize their mistake and apologize. Nope. Not once. It was always an anger display at the “idiot” who had gone right through the (non-existent) stop sign. If you read the last blog post about “Big Zig Zag Canyon” you are already familiar with how our expectations of reality can be slow to match actual reality.

Such situations remind me a little of tether ball. As a reminder, tether ball is played with a ball that is…tethered. The ball is much like a volleyball but connected by a rope to a pole. The players try to hit the ball and wind it completely around the pole in “their” direction. (This game is made for two righties or two lefties). Anyway, as the cord wraps itself around the pole once, the cord shortens and the radius of the ball path is shorter meaning it comes around more quickly. So you need to adjust your timing. But the typical behavior, at least for beginners, is to jump up a little late because everyone bases their timing on the previous cycle rather than the next cycle. The player realizes they are late and adjusts their timing. Unfortunately, they typically adjust to the last cycle and are once again late. They do keep adjusting but always one revolution too late. As a result, the ball whips around faster and faster wrapping itself into the pole.

In attempts to build artificial intelligence systems, computer scientists encounter the “update problem.” As the world changes, so too must the reactions of the system change. But what kind of change in the environment is related to which changes in necessary reactions? In many cases, humans are pretty good at this. In other cases, not so much. Let’s say, for instance, that you routinely set your clock radio for 7 am in the morning. One evening, you go out for dinner at the Fish Market and bring home left-overs which you put in your fridge. Now, you immediately go and make sure your alarm is set for 7 am, right? No, of course not! You have a model of the world that enables you to realize without any conscious thought that putting leftovers into the fridge in the kitchen will not change your alarm setting.

Let’s take another example. You drive to a golf course and park. You take out your clubs and get ready to play a round. But you realize you need a new golf glove so you buy one at the check-in desk. Fine. But now you play the entire round wondering where your car will be when you’re done. No you don’t! Of course not! Again, your model of the world allows you to realize that there is no way buying a new golf glove can cause your car to appear in a different place. This is not in actuality completely true. Someone at the check-in desk could look at the credit card you used to buy the glove, ask for ID, realize you are going to be occupied with golf for the next 3-5 hours, call their buddy at the DMV, find out your license plate and then call their car thief buddy who finds your car and steals it. That’s extremely unlikely but theoretically possible.

Anyway, what is mainly easy for humans is not that easy for AI systems. It might be configured in such a way that whenever anything changes, it needs to recheck everything. But occasionally, people are confused about the update problem as well. As AI becomes more ubiquitously integrated with the Internet of Things, our own models of what is related to what may well be as outmoded as an Ann Arbor driver. You believe putting something in your fridge cannot affect your alarm setting. And that is true for your “dumb” fridge. But what about a “smart” fridge? It might infer, based on your past behavior, that you typically eat leftovers for breakfast. Your home command center reads the bar codes on your leftovers and realizes it will take you an extra five minutes to consume the dinner-breakfast you brought home. So, it automatically changes your alarm to 6:55. Helpful? Even today, how many of us can really say for certain what the interactions might be among the remote controls and settings for the various components of our home entertainment systems?

Although humans are still much better than computer systems at solving the update problem, we still make errors. Here’s one I remember. We had a small workout room at NYNEX Science and Technology where I ran the Artificial Intelligence lab. In this small workout room was an ordinary wall clock. For years, I used the workout room at noon, and glanced at the clock to check the time. At one point, the equipment was moved around and I realized that the clock would be much easier to see on the opposite wall. So, I moved the clock to the opposite wall. I got on the treadmill and about ten minutes later glanced at the clock to check the time. Only I did not glance at the clock. I glanced at where the clock use to be. Think about that. I myself had moved the clock a few minutes earlier. Obviously, I “knew” where the clock was now positioned. And yet, I felt like a clueless Ann Arbor driver.

Another common sighting of the “invisibility cloak of expectation” came at IBM Watson Research Center. This is a place where Nobel Prize winners work. Anyway, the computer science department was housed for many years at an office building in Hawthorne. Restrooms were conveniently located near the stairwells on every floor. On three of the four floors, the men’s room was on the right. But on one of the floors, the women’s room was on the right. Whether the designers did this knowingly for a joke, I am not sure. But on the “odd” floor, men often wandered into the women’s room and women into the men’s room. Now, the doors for these restrooms were not marked in Kanji characters or ancient Greek. No, they were clearly marked in English. Although the computer science department consisted of people from all over the world, they all read English quite well. But expectations apparently trump perception. That seems to be the case for everyone some of the time and for some people nearly all the time regardless of intelligence or education. People very often see (or don’t see) based on expectations rather than the evidence of their senses.

Is there anything that can be done to help us remove our blinders and see what is really there? I think so, but it isn’t easy. The first line of defense is social. What do other people see? Chances are, if you were milling around in a park and suddenly everyone else starting running and screaming away from the swing set, you probably would too even if you saw nothing at all unusual. However, in the Mysterious Case of the Ann Arbor Stop Sign, people immediately interpreted the other driver’s behavior, not as another source of information, but as proof that the other person was a careless or demented driver. Not only did the drivers not see the “obvious” stop sign but they completely overlooked the possibility that they may have been wrong themselves.

This may be “human nature” but I suspect that aspect is exaggerated by an overly competitive school system and society. In school, we are molded to try to get good grades. Ideally, “grades” would not be so much about comparing people but about realizing what you still needed go learn. In society, we have perverted such intrinsically social and cooperative activities as dancing, cooking, singing, and dating into “contests.” At work, too often, a project failure results in finger-pointing rather than problem solving and prevention. Whatever the reason, it seems incontrovertible that people in our society are bunny-quick to blame others and tortoise-slow to blame themselves.

In The Walking People by Paula Underwood, she describes the “Iroquois Rule of Six.” This is a rule of thumb they use to avoid over-focusing on the very first explanation of behavior that springs into mind. Suppose you work for a large multi-national IT company and find yourself sitting alone in meeting room P-45. You glance at the clock. 10:10. You take out your calendar, whether paper or electronic, and re-read your note: Meet Joe, 10 am, P-45. Here it is 10:10 and he hasn’t shown up! It is natural to have some thought like this trounce through your head, “What he hell? What’s wrong with Joe? I guess he just doesn’t really care about our project!” Maybe. But the Iroquois Rule of Six might get you to consider at least five alternatives such as: 1. Maybe Joe is from a culture where 10:15 is “on time” for a 10 am meeting. 2. Maybe you wrote down the wrong room. 3. Maybe you wrote down the wrong time. 4. Maybe you wrote down the wrong date. 5. Maybe you are not actually in P-45. 6. Maybe the clock is wrong. 7. Maybe Joe cares about the project but is stuck in traffic. And so on. It isn’t so much that we human beings grab on to the first thing that pops into mind. The problem is that once we do grab onto an interpretation of events, we never let go!  We don’t consider other possibilities.


My grade school friend Butch had had an uncle who had fought in the Pacific in WWII. He gave Butch this really cool book about how to survive off the land. One thing I read stuck with me. Monkeys are among the easiest wild animals to catch, not because they are stupid but because they are smart. One simple technique is to put two holes in a coconut shell and hollow it out as much as possible. Then, you slip a treat like a nut or small piece of fruit inside. The monkey comes along and grabs hold of the treat. Their hand, which went easily into the hole cannot get out while their fists are balled up holding the treat. So, you walk up to the monkey and club it and cook it and eat it. Monkeys are fast. It would be easy for the monkey to let go of the treat and scamper away. But they won’t. (At least, that is what the manual claimed). How much are we like the monkey? We grab at an explanation that makes us feel good and stick with it. We cannot let go. And we cannot accept the possibility that we ourselves might be wrong. Only in that last split second before the monkey’s skull is split open does it perhaps think, “Let go. Run. Too late.” Can we do better?

The United States, among other countries, has the intellectual capacity and the urgent need to quickly and fully develop new energy sources that are cheap, reliable, renewable, clean, and not dependent on foreign wars. And we are. In a trickle. But we are giving corporate welfare to old energy oil company kingpins because they are lavish campaign donors in a torrential river of cash. If you had a huge hole in your pocket that was draining all your cash, you’d see to fixing it quickly. But the oil drain isn’t so obvious. It steals far more of your money than a pickpocket could. But it’s well-hidden. Of course, at least until lately, oil money doesn’t come right out and say, “We know we’re rich but we deserve it. Give us more!” But we are so much in the habit of using non-renewable resources that we don’t think twice about it. And, those habits and expectations are played on plenty so that we are trained to think: “EPA- who needs it?” “Climate Change – unproven science”, “Solar and wind power are great but way off in the future”, “Pollution may cause cancer and asthma but that’s the price of civilization.”

The cheap oil prize that we so greedily grabbed hold of is now the trap that will get us killed, quite literally. It’s what we’ve been doing for many years. Why let go now? Instead, it’s easier to scream at others: “There is no stop sign here!!” Eventually of course, people change and civilizations change. But to change too slowly means you could be the cause of an accident; you glance on the wrong wall to see the time; you miss the tether ball on every cycle. Or, it could just mean complete annihilation. Maybe you could at least let go for a little while. Maybe you could at least let go with one hand. Maybe you could just forget the prize and the coconut and get away before it’s too late. I hope so.

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Big Zig Zag Canyon


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Big Zig Zag Canyon


Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed hiking. Where I grew up, in Northeastern Ohio, woods, fields, streams and hills provided the typical backdrop. I still cannot deny that every new vista, every turn of the path provides a coursing-through-your-body pleasure…unless of course, the path becomes actually dangerous rather than simply breathtaking. People differ a lot on where that boundary lies between thrilling and insanely stupid. Personally, I find that I get plenty of “adrenaline rushes” simply from being a driver or pedestrian or cyclist. Walking across a fallen log 50 feet above a ravine has never been my idea of a good time. I would, of course, try it if necessary but I wouldn’t enjoy it. On the other hand, speaking in public has always seemed pleasurable although it is definitely nerve-wracking. In any case, it has always seemed to me that there are millions of interesting, beautiful, unique paths, in just America’s own 50 states, that have very little intrinsic danger. All of them are worth pursuing.

I never saw “real” mountains till I visited the West Coast. I hiked a few times on Mt. Ranier with my brothers-in-law. When some of them attended college at Reed in Portland, we decided to take a hike on Mt. Hood in order to take advantage of the clear day. The odd thing about climbing a mounting, at least in the Pacific NW is that often your view of the mountain becomes more and more obscured as you come closer to the parking lot where you begin your journey. By the time you park, you actually possess zero sensory evidence that you are anywhere near a mountain and have to believe it must be there somewhere because of your general orientation in space and because of your belief in social cooperation in providing actual rather than false trails, accurate maps, compasses that more or less work, etc.

Imagine instead that we lived in a society where it was more common to make false trails than real ones; a society where it was more common to publish false maps than real ones; a society where compasses were all digital — and regularly hacked. Would you still bother to try to climb a mountain for pleasure? At the very least, you would build a completely different strategy.

For our actual hike, however, we lived in a society wherein we could generally trust people. We had a map and headed out for what we estimated to be a hike to get us back to the car right before dark. We were not attempting the summit, but it certainly appeared to be a serious hike. We were basically doing a kind of helical partial circumference trek. The scenery began as spruce and pine gradually giving way to more scrub and less forest. Occasionally, we were rewarded with glimpses of the summit. A fair amount of the hike soon consisted of taking zig zag paths up and down small canyons. As we continued these became larger. And larger. And larger. Now our elevation map indeed warned us of “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and “Big Zig Zag Canyon” but we weren’t precisely sure where we were.

As we encountered ever larger canyons, we kept revising our idea about where we were. As we finished one canyon, we would always say, “Well, that must have been Big Zig Zag Canyon, so we must be *here* on the map.” At one point, after just deciding that we had conquered Big Zig Zag Canyon, we emerged from a grove of hemlock to a gaping maw of the mountain. It completely dwarfed anything we had seen before. Obviously, the much lesser giant we had already conquered was only “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and we were only now facing “Big Zig Zag Canyon.” It probably took at least an hour to descend and re-ascend. As those of you who have ever climbed on a mountain know, changing elevation is much like traveling in time. As we descended, the cold frozen ground of winter gave way to the first signs of spring. As we continued our descent, weeds and flowers abound and trees bud and leaf.  At the bottom of the ravine, it felt like a summer day. And, again, on the way up, there was the feeling of time travel compression. We were climbing through weeks of season change in minutes.  At last we reached the top of the trail and looked back at this canyon which would have been much better named “Gargantuan Zig Zag Canyon”! One last look and we turned back to the path into another forests. At the entrance to the forest, I noticed there was a small wooden sign oriented toward people leaving the forest and entering the canyon. Curious, I ventured forth and looked back to read: “Little Zig Zag Canyon.” What!!?? That enormous chasm in the earth was little Zig Zag Canyon?

Up to this point, our hike had been vigorous but not dangerous. However, now a small and subtle danger did present itself. We might be lucky to make it back to the car by dark. We had not bought provisions for an over-night stay. Hiking in the dark is dangerous. And, it gets really cold at night. So, now the question was, could we still cross the next canyon and still get back by dark? We decided we could. We did make it back before dark, but barely. Clearly, “Big” Zig Zag Canyon was a name chosen in a paroxysm of understatement while “Little” Zig Zag Canyon was just a bald-faced lie.

Like it or not, we journey now on spaceship earth. We are traveling together with everyone else on the planet. Neither a single person on the planet nor all of us collectively have a guaranteed comprehensive well thought out plan for how to avoid any one of a number of ecological disasters. Throughout the planet, there are numerous religions and cultures. Getting along with each other is critical, even if many countries did not have nuclear weapons, which we do. To enhance the adrenaline rush, these various countries and cultures and religions are associated with many different languages and stories about how we got to where we are today. Everyone, in other words, has a different map. There are no posted signs. And no-one owns a compass.

I could say, “Fasten Your Seat Belts Folks. We are in for turbulence.” I could say that to bend the spaceship metaphor. But if we think of ourselves as passengers on a plane that someone else, perhaps even someone competent, is piloting, I believe that stance pretty much guarantees that humanity’s day’s are numbered. No, I think a vigorous and potentially dangerous hike is more in order. Sometimes, it will feel as though you are going backwards in time and sometimes forward at lightning speed. Everywhere along the path, you will have to watch your step, even as you take the time to appreciate the beauty still surrounding you. And just when you think you have conquered the biggest challenge we have ever faced, a still larger challenge will appear.

I am hopeful.


panorama of Big Zig Zag Canyon

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Parametric Recipes and American Democracy


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On the Value of Parametric Recipes and American Democracy


Most people are familiar with the concept of a recipe. It typically lists a set of proportions or amounts of various ingredients and the steps that should be taken in producing a food item for consumption. The goal of a recipe is to encapsulate a “best practice” which has been developed over time. Following the steps is important for a good result. If you cook a cake too little, it will be gooey but if you cook it too much, it will be burned. If you put in too much sugar or too little or too much flour or too little, the result will not be as good in terms of texture or taste.

If you stray from a recipe, there are many ways to go wrong. My mother used to make peanut butter cookies. Homemade peanut butter cookies still warm from the oven are amazing! And, this wonderful taste treat was repeated every time…except for the time that she accidentally put in salt instead of sugar. Randomly replacing one ingredient with another typically results in a recipe for disaster.

A “parameter” is something that can be changed from one situation to another. While randomly changing ingredients does not often work, there are many recipes which allow for huge flexibility among some of their ingredients. For example, I often make a salad for lunch. On top of the fresh vegetables and greens, I use pepper and one teaspoon of olive oil along with one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. But which greens and vegetables are in these salads?

That depends. In every salad, I include vegetables according to which ones are the freshest. I also include a variety of colors. To me, a green salad that is all green is not so attractive as one with bits of color. Adding red peppers, radishes, tomatoes, yellow peppers, carrots, red onion, radicchio, or cheese makes it more appealing. To some extent, that is probably just because variety itself is interesting. Beyond that, people may react to the bright colors that typically signal important and biologically useful phytochemicals.  While people have long known the value of vegetables, more recent research has confirmed that brightly colored fruits and vegetables often contain substances that help prevent cancer among other benefits.

A salad is more interesting, at least to me, when there is a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. A carrot, cucumber, tomato, lettuce and snap peas all have quite different textures and this adds to the pleasure of the salad. So, when I “create” a salad, I take care to include a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. The only substances which are “measured” are the olive oil and vinegar. I do not need to follow a strict recipe regarding the vegetables. Since I typically shop and prepare food only for two people, I need to “use up” ingredients while they are still fresh. Indeed, the choice is even more complicated. I know from experience approximately how long various vegetables will still be fresh and so choose, not just the very freshest, but also vegetables that are fresh today but may not be so tomorrow. Parametric recipes, when appropriate, prevent boredom, are economical and healthy.

Salads are not the only example of a “parametric recipe.” I also use such a scheme for making an omelet. My omelet always contains eggs and cheese but could include any number of a host of other vegetables. There are “constraints” on the vegetables. I would not typically make an omelet with only hot peppers, onions, and garlic for example, because it would be too hot for my taste. I use a variety for color and texture, but to a large extent, the omelets I make are never the same twice. I also use a variety of cheeses. I suppose if I had access to numerous types of eggs, I could also vary the egg type but I do not do that in practice. Other common “parametric recipes include stews, soups, fried rice, beans and greens, curried vegetables, baked potato with vegetable/cheese toppings, burritos, tacos, fruit salads, bean salads, and pizza. To be sure, some parts of these “recipes” are more parametric than others. The pizza dough must be prepared according to much stricter “rules” than the selection and proportion of toppings.


Needless to say, many recipes require very strict adherence. Many recipes for baking must be followed closely in terms of ingredients, proportions, and the steps taken in preparation. Even more vitally, you do not want your pharmacist improvising in compounding your prescriptions. In other words, there are cases where parametric recipes are extremely useful and practical. There are other situations where strict adherence to recipes is better. And, there are many situations where certain aspects of the recipe require strict adherence while other aspects of the same recipe can be varied quite a bit. When you use a parametric recipe, some attention is required along the way. Simply adding different vegetables to an omelet or salad will always add variety, but for best results, you need to think about what you are adding in order to optimize color, texture, etc. as well as individual tastes.  While my wife and I both love kale, collard greens, garlic, onions, and cilantro, for example, I know that not everyone likes these ingredients so when making an omelet for a guest, I enquire about the vegetables and cheeses that are incorporated.

OK. So what does the culinary conundrum of “parametric recipes” have to do with American Democracy?


Anarchy is much like grabbing a handful of ingredients that are closest at hand and simply throwing them in a pot and cooking them for a random period of time. There is no structure and there is no learning from best practices and there is no accountability. On the other hand, fascism is like finding one recipe you like, if you are the one in power, and insisting that everyone like it because you like it. Imagine you were a guest in my house and I insisted you eat my blue cheese and shiitake mushroom omelet even though you hated blue cheese and hated mushrooms. I could say, “Well it’s my house! Eat what I make!” Some people were pretty much brought up that way. At the other extreme, some parents will end up making four omelets for four different people because they want to please everyone. With infinite time and resources, this may not be a horrible way to go. But most people are limited both with respect to time and with respect to resources so when it comes to making an omelet for four very different people some compromise may be necessary. Indeed, in some cases, omelets may not be the best option.

The problem with a purely fascist approach is not simply that it is mean and mean spirited. It is worse than that. First of all, if you never get the omelet you want (or indeed any omelet you can even stomach) eventually, you are going to try to “overthrow” the damned chef and make your own omelet. You might not like omelets at all and prefer cereal for breakfast. In “normal” American Democracy, that’s fine. I can make an omelet for myself and you can have cereal. But if I have forced you to eat omelets for a year even though you hate them, you can bet that once you’re in power, you’ll be forcing me to eat your ridiculous cereal for at least a year. Fascism leads to power grabs and ultimately to violence.

The second problem with fascism is that only a very few people in power are really happy with the results. I force my “optimal recipe” omelet on everyone all the time and more and more people get sick of it over time. The person in power, I suppose, gets some kind of pleasure from “forcing” their will on everyone else, but it is nothing compared with the pleasure that normal people get from creating something that “works” for all the people involved. Fascism is not about love, cooperation, or pleasure. It feeds on fear, hate, and meanness. It doesn’t really matter whether the fascism has some quasi-religious affiliation (like the Taliban who outlaw music and trees) or some racial bias like Hitler’s Germany. Such a regime is not conducive to people’s pleasure.

Third, fascism is ultimately not very practical. At first, it might seem “efficient.” Someone in power gets the “best” recipe for an omelet and then everyone has to fall in line and eat that kind of omelet whether or not it tastes good. If the omelet calls only for asparagus as the vegetable, then the entire supply chain can be geared toward asparagus. Efficient! But only under extremely limited circumstances. Suppose that the lack of crop rotation and variety helps cause an asparagus mold plague. Asparagus first becomes very expensive and then non-existent. Or, suppose a foreign agent, knowing everyone has to eat asparagus, finds a way to poison the supply chain. Now, instead of only a few people dying from the poison, everyone will. Or, suppose science discovers that asparagus actually causes kidney stones. Even worse, fascism hates change. In order to prevent change, fascism hates news, science, opinion variety, free speech etc. So, under fascism, when science discovers that the state-approved asparagus is actually poisonous or causes kidney stones, rather than changing the omelet recipe, fascism imprisons the scientist who discovered the problem and tortures him or her until then recant their findings. Problem solved! Recipe unchanged! Efficient! But meanwhile, people are dying from being required to use the recipe.

If everyone is an island unto themselves, there would be no information sharing and people would have to come up with their own omelet recipes. Instead, imagine a world in which people trade recipes informally, are free to discuss, restaurants introduce people to a variety of tastes, people write, publish and read cook books. In that world, people are free to improvise, experiment,  find what works, share the information, cater to the situation of what’s available, cater to their specific guests, and so on. All this culinary activity is carried out in a very broad context of rules that cannot be broken without penalty. You cannot willingly poison your guests with your omelet without going to prison. You cannot even cook in peanut oil when you know your guest is allergic to peanut oil. People are not allowed knowingly to sell you tainted eggs. This is a good system. This is, essentially, American Democracy. We have collectively decided that some rules are necessary. (Don’t poison people). But we don’t demand that everyone use the same recipe. We don’t demand that everyone eat the same food. We do not try to enforce our preferences on other people, even when we have the power to.

To me, the advantages of a Democracy over fascism are so obvious that I never imagined for an instant that we might get rid of Democracy in America in favor of fascism. Until now.


Now, we have elected a mean-spirited egomaniac who wants to tell us what to eat, whose clothing to wear, what facts we’re allowed to pay attention to, who we are allowed to be friends with, who we can have sex with, and who we can marry. Democracy is not yet dead, but it is already severely wounded. The Clown has limited powers so long as Congress has the guts to limit the powers of the Clown. So far, they haven’t. But they can. We all need to learn which people in Congress are “ours” and make sure they reign in the Clown immediately. Anyone who fails to do that needs to be voted out as soon as possible and never elected to any public office ever again. Even if you agree with some of the Clown’s executive orders, you have to understand that without a Congress willing to check the Clown, the Clown becomes the Dictator. The Clown has already surrounded himself with people who are chosen because he believes they will enhance his power completely irrespective of whether they have the slightest experience or ability to do the job. You must do what you can to make your Congress accountable to you. If you let the Congress be accountable only to the Clown, then you are dooming your children and your children’s children to live in a Fascist Circus run by a demented Clown. And, in another four years, you won’t have a say in Congress. And, you will be required to eat the omelet made with rancid cheese, moldy asparagus, and bad eggs. Every morning. Forever.



The Crabs are Biting


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My dad led the design team for the electrical system of the original Goodyear Blimp. One summer, between the third and fourth grade, his work on airships called him away from Akron and we spent the summer in Tom’s River, New Jersey. After returning from Portugal, we had stuck close to Akron so was looking forward to a trip that took us hundreds of miles to the sea-side.  I could smell the ocean when we still an hour away from Tom’s River. Our small apartment in Tom’s River sat a mere two blocks from the public library, a library that contained the “Powers of Ten” book which takes the reader on a journey from the innermost workings of the atomic nucleus to the outermost regions of the galaxy.

While my dad worked at Lakehurst, my mom and I spent part of the day watching the “McCarthy Hearings.” I was too young to understand it thoroughly, but I could quickly discern that McCarthy was a liar. I had a harder time telling whether he was genuinely a very hating hateful person or whether he just appeared to be full of hate in order to popular with other hating people. Hating others has never come very naturally to me. I always felt connected to my family, my friends, other people and even other forms of life. So, hating, to me, has always consisted of nine parts self-loathing plus one part prideful ignorance. Don’t get the idea that I am a saint. I’m far from it and anger comes quite easily to me when I’m frustrated. My parents claimed that, as a toddler, frustration would propel me to run across the floor and smack my head down on the floor. By the time I was nine, I had developed less self-destructive ways to express anger. But whether McCarthy really was a tiny person filled with hate or simply a person who tried to impress those who really were haters in order to win their support, I couldn’t tell. I have no idea how “large” McCarthy was physically. I call him “tiny” because it seems essential in order to hate that you must pull in your sense of wonder and appreciation to the boundaries of your own physical skin. When people hate, something has happened to them and it shouldn’t happen to them because, after all, they are the center of the universe. Apparently, haters have never seen the book, Powers of Ten.

Probably so they could have some adult time, my parents also enrolled me in summer church school. I became friends with one of the kids in church school and he invited me onto his Cabin Cruiser. My parents met with his parents before accepting this and they ended up being invited too. A bright sunny day and off we sped onto the sparkling ocean! At some point, the kids, under the supervision of my new friend’s dad, went crab fishing. Although I had never gone crab fishing before, I understood the basic concept from several fishing trips with my Uncle Karl. Karl lived in a fancified log cabin on Comet Lake near Akron. Fishing consisted of going out into the lake on a row boat, putting a live worm onto a hook, putting a fishing pole over the side of the boat and then sitting quiet and still for hours on end. I think I may have caught one small fish in my three trips. It seemed frankly like a huge amount of boredom for a very small reward. So, when crab fishing was announced as the next activity on the Cabin Cruiser, I tried to steel myself for hours of boredom. I didn’t want to end up running across the deck and smacking my head in frustration.

The baiting was easier and instead of poles, we put out some lines with multiple baits. Over the side of the boat they went. That wasn’t so bad as pithing the worms. Now would come the endless hours of waiting for a nibble. Two or three minutes later, for no reason I could discern, we started pulling up the lines. They were filled with crabs! While the trout, bass, perch, and bluegill in Comet Lake were shy and crafty little critters who would try stealthily to nibble away the worm without getting barbed on the hook, the crabs of the Atlantic seemed to have no greater goal in life than to clamber into our boat as fast as possible. This fishing sped along more in synch with my natural rhythm. No need for head-banging here! Line after line went over the side and minutes later, back each one would come with a meal’s worth of crabs. Now this fishing was more like it!

After sunset scattered scarlet shards across the ocean, the kids went down below to sleep in the bunks. There were portholes in the bow and we could see through those portholes into an ever-darkening starry sky. We could hear the murmuring of the alcohol-plied adults above discussing whatever it was that adults discussed back then; perhaps the McCarthy Hearings; perhaps something about a popular movie or TV show. We kids below however had more serious things to discuss. Mainly, we discussed the fact that we could see stars that were (or at least had been) far, far away. We speculated whether, at this very moment, there might be a planet circling one of those distant stars. It seemed that if there were planets, they too might have oceans and Cabin Cruisers and kids. And those kids would also be looking up into the night sky seeing a faraway star — our sun! And, they might well be thinking, those alien kids, of how there might be a planet circling Sol and how on that planet could be kids looking up at the night sky at them…or at least at their sun. Of course, we might be years or even thousands of years “out of synch” which only added to the mystery.

These possible aliens might be like us in every way. More likely, they would be like us in some ways and unlike us in some ways. They might be wondering whether we would be friendly to them just as we wondered whether they would be friendly to us. And, probably, we concluded, a lot would depend on the particular alien you encountered. For some reason, that particular small group of kids didn’t talk much about “categories” of people. It seemed to me, and to my new-found friends, that everyone was quite different. We had learned in school that every snowflake was different. If something as simple as a snowflake is unique, how much more true that must be of people. And, it seemed completely and obviously true. My Aunt Emma and my Aunt Mary were completely different from each other as each was from my Grandmother Ada. Of course, people were all different. As I listened to the voice of the other kids, I could see that person’s face in my mind’s eye. Yes, we all had one nose, one mouth, and two eyes, but we were all really different. We sounded different. We looked different. We moved differently. We were from different states hundreds of miles apart. But we all were interested in whether there were aliens and what they would be like. Though we were somewhat mindful of the potential danger, we were much more excited about learning about them and from them than protecting ourselves from them. And we all understood that all the thoughts and feelings we were having about them were quite possibly mirrored by their thoughts and feelings about us even if separated by lightyears of space-time and by biological lineages.

None of our group of nine-year olds were such “scaredy cats” that we were terrified of the aliens and therefore filled with hate for them. It never occurred to any of us. I don’t think that’s just because we were all going to “church school.” It’s just more natural to assume that the kids on the faraway planet would be wondering about us in much the same way as we wondered about them regardless of the number of eyes and legs they might have. I think that in order for us to have hated or feared the aliens, an adult would have to come into our cramped quarters to tell us that all the aliens were the same; that they were all out to get us; that they should all be hated and destroyed. Maybe McCarthy would be good for that job. It’s honestly hard to believe any of us would have taken him seriously. But, I suppose, if we heard that hate day in and day out, complete with fake news features filled with fake facts and fake figures, we might eventually find ourselves in a state of hate and fear.

Of course, no such adult came down below decks to sell us that particular bogus bill of bads. Why would someone like McCarthy decide to make their fame and fortune by filling young minds and hearts with hate and fear? I still don’t know whether he was really so filled with hate and fear himself that he couldn’t help it. I did, years later, read a biography of Joe McCarthy and something his wife said made me very much think it was all fake and he didn’t actually believe any of it. That just makes it all the more disturbing. A hate-monger such as McCarthy, who does it all as an act to gain power, does not just hate communism and communists. He also hates the people he is hoodwinking. He totally disrespects them through his dishonesty and dissembling. Eventually, Joe McCarthy soon found himself completely discredited and disgraced but not before wantonly laying waste to the lives of many innocent individuals.

Of course, in the right circumstances, almost everyone lies on occasion. What most people do when they are caught in a lie is apologize and try to explain why they lied. What a McCarthy does, however, is quite different. Instead of apologizing, they simply shout the lie more and more loudly. On other occasions, they will deny ever having told the lie in the first place. The screaming gets louder and louder. When no-one believes their lies, they are left with the only recourse left to them: violence. War, incarceration, murder — all of these seem a nothing compared with the ego bruising hurt of admitting that they had been lying. In the meantime, Joe McCarthy did provide a summer’s worth of entertainment. It’s too bad it came with ruining innocent lives.

I wonder whether those far planets we hypothesized as revolving around those far suns in our night sky hold their own McCarthy-like beings. It seems hard to believe an entire species would survive if they were all McCarthy-like. Imagine a river full of piranha that attacked each other! The species wouldn’t long survive. Is there some utility to having a small proportion of the population of an otherwise intelligent species be McCarthy-like? I don’t really think so. At least I haven’t been able to come up with a scenario yet in which actual witch hunts are useful to the group as a whole.

A partly related phenomenon might be called “Cassandra-like” in which someone thinks they see a danger which no-one else does. But such a person is useful to the society as a whole only to the extent that they are willing to share their concern and work together with others to determine whether the danger is real, how to assess it, how to protect against it etc. On the other hand, if the person simply insists that there is a danger regardless of whether others see and just tries to prove it by screaming more loudly, that is not very helpful. If the “danger” is premised on something which is absurd on its face (e.g., because you were friends with a communist, that meant you must be communist as well; or, because some communists wanted to overthrow the US government, if you were a communist, that meant you were a traitor as well) then, it can’t lead to very effective action. A McCarthy-like person is completely unhelpful in locating and protecting against actual danger because their cognition is too damaged to be helpful in itself and their communication style is so warped that it actively interferes with the attempts of others to do actual problem solving.

In the years after the summer of McCarthyism, I worked with kids in many capacities. For instance, I worked as a child care worker and camp counselor. I can tell you that kids often engage in conversations about deep topics. They are concerned about their world and other worlds that might be. Kids care passionately to learn about the world. But despite their passion, they tend to be pretty careful about discriminating the bait from the hook. In my experience, they are more like the Comet Lake trout, perch, bass, and bluegill than the crabs off the New Jersey coast. However, if people of any age are desperate enough; if they are told the big lie often enough, many will stop acting like discerning vertebrate fish and just latch on to the first shiny thing that appears before them. Perhaps that is why the McCarthy’s of the world, if they had their way, would outlaw public libraries, gut public education, and discredit the independent press. They wouldn’t want the fish to be able to discriminate the bait from the hook. They are much too impatient for trout fishing. Throw a line over the side of the boat and make sure that people are so desperate that they clamp right onto the empty line. Who knows what exactly goes on in the mind of a crab? Perhaps that clamp on in hate. Perhaps they latch on in fear. Perhaps it is a little of both. But what we do know is that whatever motivates the crab to grab hold of that shiny line, it is always the crab itself, not its enemies, who ends up in the belly of the beast. One can still hope that this will be a good year.


@John Thomas, 1/16/17 

McCarthy in Wikipedia