You Fool!


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Make no mistake. You have an *amazing* brain! Whether you flunked out of high school or aced every test at Princeton, your brain has astounding and amazing capabilities! Perceiving things in space, watching a soccer match, engaging in small talk, navigating your way to the front door without tripping over the cats…it doesn’t matter. You and your brain are doing amazing things all the time! In fact, one of the beneficial side-effects of doing research in “Artificial Intelligence” is that it makes you realize how flipping amazing the human brain is. Everyone is creative. Everyone learns, adapts, solves problems and so on. You have a good brain.

However. Make no mistake. You (and me and everyone else) are prone to many kinds of illusions and delusions. I cannot recount them all in one blog post, or even in one thick psychology textbook. At one point, soon after joining IBM, I wrote a speculative research report entitled, “Cognitive psychology from the standpoint of wilderness survival.” (IBM Research Report, RC-6647. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation). The thesis of that report was that some of the many illusions and delusions we are prone to are because we evolved for over 4 billion years in a series of “natural” environments and now we live in a very “artificial” one. For example, people have a lot of trouble with the concept of true randomness. Suppose you have a “fair” coin and you flip the coin five times and it comes up heads every time. Now, you go and flip it again. What are the chances that it comes up heads this time? The answer is that it is still equally likely to be heads or tails. The coin has no “memory” and no “desire to be fair.” It has no ability to “go on a hot streak.” If it really is a fair coin toss, the probability of each toss remains the same. Here’s another related problem. You throw a coin a hundred times. What are the chances of getting 50 head and 50 tails?  Perhaps surprising to many, this will happen only about 8% of the time. The chances of getting fairly close to a fifty-fifty split is fairly high, but the chance of getting exactly a fifty-fifty split is fairly low. I speculated in the aforementioned article that one reason these types of problems are difficult for people is that in nature, true randomness is rare, at least at the scale that we typically care about. Mountains are not “randomly” strewn across the planet. Blackberry bushes are not randomly distributed. Bison are not randomly distributed. Good flint for making axes or arrowheads is not randomly distributed. Fresh water is not randomly distributed. Nearly everything is “clustered.” If you find a mountain, you are likely to find other mountains nearby. If you find a blackberry, other blackberries are likely to be close by. If you find a bison, others are likely to be close by. And so on. The same goes for most events we care about. Is it raining? Chances are much greater it will be raining in five minutes than not. Is it extremely hot out? Chances are it will also be extremely hot in five minutes. “Things we care about” are very likely to be clustered in space and in time. So, when we present people with problems that presuppose true randomness, yes, human brains have trouble with it.

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Well, at least humans are the “smartest” species on the planet, right? Not so fast. We are the only species in serious danger of making the planet uninhabitable for our own species. That doesn’t strike me as particularly brilliant. Leaving that aside, consider this very simple problem. There are three levers. If you press the left-most lever you get something good 1/3 of the time on a random basis. If you press the middle lever or the right most lever, you never get something good. If you want to get as much good stuff as you can, your best bet is to press the leftmost lever every single time. And, so you will…eventually. But you know who is better at this problem than you are? A kid. Yes, a two-year old will very quickly press only the left most lever. You know who else will beat you at this problem? A monkey, a dog, a cat, a bird, and a fish. All of them will focus on pressing the left-most lever all the time and will do so fairly quickly. You and me? Not so much. No, we are too “smart” for that! We will think that there must be some “system” for getting something good every time. So we think, “Let’s see. If I press the left one the number of letters in my grandmother’s maiden name and then press the middle one six times and then the right one once and then the left one with the successive digits of pi….” Yeah. We tend to assume that there must be some really complicated rule and that we are smart enough to figure it out. And, in fact, in life there often are some complicated rules. But it won’t work for you in this experiment. And, it won’t make you rich in Vegas. People have palaces because of gamblers in Vegas. But it isn’t the gamblers who get rich. It’s the people who sucker in the gamblers. They are the only ones who profit consistently. Once upon a time, you could win by counting cards, so they added more cards. And when people could still count cards, they made it illegal. And, they watch on cameras to make sure you don’t. And, if you did come up with a fool-proof system based on the phases of the moon and the number of letters in the title of the pop chart-topper, they wouldn’t let you play any more! (If you’re lucky). See, they want to make money. They are not in the business of making you rich. They are in the business to make themselves rich. And, they rely on these illusions and delusions we have about probability to do it.

Consider a lottery game. Let’s say there are 75 numbers and you are to pick five. If all five of your numbers come up, you win! So, you pick 5, 22, 37, 68 and 75. The winning numbers are: “5, 22, 45, 60 and 75” and you think, “Damn! I was so close! I had three of the five numbers!” Yeah. How close were you? If I somehow told you ahead of time what three of the numbers were and you only had to guess the remaining two, you would have a 72×71 divided by 2 chance of winning: one chance in 2556. In other words, when you had “three out of five” numbers correct, you were not close at all. People are also good at finding “patterns.” The problem is that finding a “pattern” after the fact, doesn’t really “prove” anything because there are pretty much an unlimited number of patterns to be found. You might think, in the example above, “Oh, man! I was so close! My third number was just 8 less than the winning 45 and my fourth number  was also just off by 8 from the winning number!” But suppose the winning numbers had instead been: “5, 22, 44, 60, and 75.” Then, you might think, “Oh, man, I was so close! My third number was 7 off and my next number missed by 8. Damned! Next time, I’ll get two lottery cards and add 7 to my third number and 8 to my fourth number.”


Seeing patterns isn’t just limited to numbers, of course. When people look up at clouds, trees, rocks, marble, inkblots,  they often see faces, animals, etc. Our brains are great at finding patterns. And, often we see patterns that aren’t even there. In the wilderness environment, however, what are the relative costs? If we look up in the sky and see a horse head that isn’t really there, what harm is done? You “know” it isn’t really a horse. If you look in the bushes and see a bear and the bear isn’t really there, it might cost you an unnecessary spear throw, but if you fail to see a bear that really is there, you could get eaten. It’s not surprising that we tend to “see” patterns even when they aren’t really there. This generally works well. However, since other people are well aware that people tend to see patterns that aren’t really there, they can use that information to “fool you” into thinking there’s a pattern when there isn’t.

In the case of the wealthy casino operators, they are perfectly happy to get rich off your tendency to imagine that you can find a pattern in random events. But casino operators aren’t the only ones. People who make a percentage on all your stock trades are essentially doing the same thing; they are hoping you will trade a lot based on some imagined pattern. The casino owner and the stockbroker are involved in legal business practices but both take advantage of human illusions and delusions. The real experts on human illusions and delusions, however, are the experts in marketing and advertising.

Their actual job is to get you to spend your hard-earned money on things you don’t want, don’t need, and in many cases are actually harmful to you and your family. True enough, for example, humans did evolve in situations where salt, sugar, and fat were hard to find. But in many (but by no means all) parts of the world now, over-eating is more of a problem than starvation and malnutrition. Most people “know” that too much sugar and too many calories are detrimental to health. Yet, the people who put together commercials are able to convince you to spend money on a kid’s cereal that is not at all good for them. A short visual vignette, for instance, may imply that your kid will love you if you provide this cereal. To assuage your guilt, they may also “fortify” the cereal with some vitamin that the kids are actually very unlikely to be deficient in if they have a natural diet. In other cases, commercials are designed to convince you that a product will make you “cool” or “desirable” or “smart.” Some commercials go further and convince you that you have a problem you didn’t even know you had! “Do you suffer from crenelated elbow skin? When your arms hang down at your sides, you may not see the ugly ridges and valleys of your crenelated elbow skin, but your your friends do. And, let’s face it, that cute junior executive will not be asking you out after all, once he sees the giant crevices of your unsightly flapping elbow skin. Sad, but not incurable! The good news is that now, there is “SMOOTHAWAY” the wonderful new patented elbow cream that dissolves extra flaps of extra elbow skin! Not available in stores, you can order from our toll-free number where our operators are standing by to take your order. If you order in the next five seconds, we will give you two tubes of SMOOTHAWAY, each a $150 value (says who?) for the low, low price of $49.95 plus shipping and handling.”


I have already mentioned in previous posts that there seems to be almost no accountability any more in advertising. “Unscented” cat litter is actually scented — with a scent whose trade name is “Unscented.” “Air Fresheners” do not actually “freshen” the air at all. The contain three ingredients know to cause cancer, mess with your hormone balance, and destroy your sense of smell. “All natural fruit drink” might contain almost nothing that is natural and as little as five per cent fruit juice. There is also the common tactic advertisers of product X use of making you believe that the competitors to product X are really bad for you.” “Our apples are guaranteed gluten free!” “Be confident! Keep your child safe! Our disposable diapers are not made from radioactive wastes.” (Of course, none of them actually are…but it does make you wonder).

Magic shows also “work” because the magician plays on all your illusions and delusions. One of the most persistent illusions is that we “see” everything before us in color and detail. This is completely untrue! You actually see, at any one time, a very small part of the visual field in front of you in color and in detail. Your brain remembers a lot of color and detail as you scan around the scene. But if something changes, you might or might not see it depending on where your attention and your eyes are currently focused.

I remember my Uncle Karl, who landed with the Allies at Omaha Beach, doing “card tricks” for me when I was about five or six. He would take an ordinary deck of cards and show me the four Jacks. He very carefully put the four Jacks into four seemingly random spots in the middle of the deck and then told me an elaborate story about the four Jacks, who were all friends, and their shenanigans. Amazingly, somehow these four Jacks ended up together at the end on the top of the deck. It was utterly impossible, yet Uncle Karl managed it. I don’t recall enough of the details of the trick now to describe how it was actually done but I’m sure you’ve seen similar card tricks. Maybe Karl used real magic. While he was involved in jogging up the beach in Normandy, a point came where suddenly everyone around him disappeared, blown to bit. Only he survived and moved forward from that group of bloody corpses. He didn’t tell me a lot about his experiences in WWII fighting the Nazis except that, toward the end of the war, the German “troops” that they faced consisted largely of boys aged 11-13. That’s the kind of thing an egomaniacal dictator ends up doing to save his delusions of power.


Some magic tricks depend on “sleight of hand.” Others primarily depend on subtle mathematical relationships so that the outcome is guaranteed. One of my favorite tricks is to “force” a card on someone. This one depends on people’s long established habits. If someone hands you something, you take it. It is so ingrained, that you don’t even know you’re doing it, particularly, if I am saying something that requires or entrains your attention. So, I fan out the cards face down, mainly holding them with my thumbs. I ask you to pick a card. Since you are looking down at the cards, you cannot see that underneath the fanned cards, my right middle finger is on the card I want to “force” on you. As I fan the cards back and forth, I move the whole stack as well as the relations slightly. You have some trouble picking a card because of the motion. At last, when the time is right, and your own finger is about to choose a card near the one I want you to pick, I change the angle slightly and flick the desired card into your hand. You believe you’ve made a free choice, but you really haven’t. I keep making it hard to take a card until you are nearly picking the one I want and then I “promote” that card, just a little.

Now, this little trick does not always work. And, it wouldn’t be prudent to try it more than once on someone. (If done repeatedly, most people will eventually catch on that they are being manipulated).  If someone does stubbornly take a different card, you simply move to a different trick. But if they do take your card, oh, my that is a breathtaking moment. Imagine this. You know what card they have already. They think that they have chosen a card at random and you do not yet have any idea what it is. So, now you are free to do anything at all! The sky (and your imagination) are the limit. You can have them shred the card, burn the card, eat the card, put in an envelope and send it Certified Mail to White House. It doesn’t matter. You already know it’s the Four of Clubs. You can open a book at random and pretend to pick a word at random. It has four letters. Now you start turning over cards for “vibrations” and then you turn over a club, you keep going but then, say, “Wait!” and go back to it. “Yes, Yes” you say, “there is something here. Clubs. Definitely the four of clubs.”

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One favorite variant on this trick is to have the person put the card back in the deck and have another person shuffle and cut the cards. Now you take the deck and start turning over the cards so they are face up. Once you find the “targeted card”, say the Four of Clubs, you turn over a few more and then say, “OK. I’ll bet you $20 that the next card I turn over is your card.” 95% of the time they will take this bet since you have already turned over their card. You shake on the bet and then rifle through the cards already turned over till you find the Four of Clubs. Now you turn it over. And collect the $20. I don’t actually take people’s money, by the way. And the reason I don’t think it’s fair is that I knew something that they didn’t and I intentionally misled them in several ways. I’m tricking them into taking a “bet” which is for me a sure thing (although they also think it’s a sure thing for them because they’ve already seen me turn their card over). I’ve turned over most likely around 25 cards and each time, I’ve turned it from back to front. I’ve already turned their card over from back to front, so naturally they think my next act is to turn the next card in sequence over from back to front as well. But I don’t. Instead, I turn over their card from front to back. So, our oral contract actually meant one thing to the audience member and something else entirely to me. However, the words that I actually said were consistent with both interpretations. So, in a written contract, I could have collected on this bet. But I still don’t think it would be fair to do so.

Make no mistake. Don’t be fooled. Just because I wouldn’t take your $20 doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of others who would. Oh, yes! They would be happy to take your money by making you believe one thing was going to happen while in fact something else entirely happened. If you notice, even professional magicians have the audience pay for the show. They don’t bet them for money or possessions that they are going to keep because they too think it’s unfair. I think that most people would consider actually taking the money unfair under the circumstances above. What do you think?

I am convinced that there are at least a small percentage of people who not only think it fair to take money under these circumstances; they think it is smart. In fact, they would think I’m being ridiculous for not taking the money. Of course, it need not stop with one bet. A person can parlay one bet into much more because of another little aspect of the human psyche “cognitive dissonance.”

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Basically, the idea is that you don’t like it when two apparently contradictory statements are in your head. For example, let’s say you lost the bet above. You think: “Wow. What a sucker I am. I just lost $20!” But, at the same time, you have a concept about yourself which is: “I’m pretty damned clever. I am hard to fool. I am careful with my money. I am a winner!” So, now I offer you a chance to make your money back — and then some. What are you going to do? Well, you might want to reduce that “cognitive dissonance” and think something along these lines. “Hah. I can beat this guy at his own game. I’m smarter than he is. I’ll come out on top in the end and walk away richer.” But you see — no, you aren’t. You might actually be smarter in general, but I know the game. I am setting the rules. This is not some “fair” contest of wits or will. It’s a “game” that I invented. For my benefit.

So “cognitive dissonance” is a kind of potential multiplier on every other illusion and delusion that humans fall prey to. We all make mistakes of perception, judgement, inference, and so on. We all see bears in the clouds. But what if someone points out to you that there is no bear in the clouds? How do you react? Do you say, “Oh, okay, thanks for pointing that out.” Or, do you say, “Oh, yeah?! Well, I see a bear there so there’s a bear there.” If you have that defensive reaction, people will tend to avoid you and if they do run across you, they have no interest in giving you honest feedback. Over time, you will come to have another delusion: “That you are much more often right than anyone else you know.” Why? Because you contradict a lot of other people but they hardly ever contradict you.” You attribute this to your being right, but it’s actually only because you’re much more of a dick than most people when it comes to being confronted with the truth.

Before there were mass e-mails with variations on the “Nigeria scam”, people sent out actual snail mail with essentially the same ruse. I received one such letter in the mail in the 1980’s. At the time, I had not actually heard of this scam. Luckily, I did not reply. It sounded too good to be true, so I figured it probably was. Such scams offer a huge reward if only you will put a little cash up front. Of course, if you do put a little cash up front, you will be asked for more — either more cash or more information or both. The more you “put into” this scam, the more you are willing to risk further in order to get the reward. The mechanism at work here may be similar to what happens to people who go along with abusive relationships as well. “I’ve already invested all this time and energy and pain. Maybe this time, he (or she) really will change and stop (drinking/beating me/lying/being unfaithful, etc.).

Although I did not fall for the Nigerian riches scam, I have had my share of being fooled. Not only was my Uncle Karl’s magic beyond my ken. Most stage magic still astounds me even though I know the general principles that are at work. It still seems that they are doing the “impossible.” The closer I am to the trick, the more amazing it becomes. For instance, at our high school senior prom, we had a stage magician. I was one of four “volunteers” who held a rope around a box that held (or at least thought I held) the magician’s scantily clad female assistant. This was done on the gym floor at Ellet High School. Unlike a stage, I knew quite well that there were no “trap doors” here. All at once the assistant was gone. She literally disappeared right in front of my eyes from a box no more than six feet away. In a magic show, it’s all for fun, but the same principles of playing on your expectations and illusions can be used against you.


As I’ve mentioned before, my older cousin took great delight in manipulating me to my detriment. Among other things, he once “tricked me” into ranting about the failings of our grandfather. He found a moment when I was slightly ticked off at grandpa. Then he took me aside and told me all sorts of bullshit about grandpa. Most of it was just made up, but some of it had some truth to it. Grandpa was skinny. He was old. He was strict. He didn’t like to be interrupted when classical music or opera was playing. But my cousin ranted and raved about this and how unfair Grandpa was and so on. Of course, I wanted to be like my older and bigger cousin. At some point not long after, all of us were together along with the whole family and my cousin said something that triggered one of those aroused dislikes I now had for my grandfather. My mouth began to spout almost exactly what my cousin had just said. Everyone was horrified, especially my cousin. When I called him on it, he simply denied it and said I was just trying to shift the blame for such an unfair and outrageous display against the man we all loved, Grandpa. What a frigging fool I was! Hopefully, you have never been tricked into being mean-spirited to someone who deserved your respect.

Here’s an illusion of a quite different sort. For the first decade I worked at IBM Research, my commute through the beautiful woods and reservoirs of northern Westchester took me through a steel truss bridge. My Datsun at that time only had an AM radio. So, every time I went through the metal bridge, the bridge prevented receiving a strong signal and the volume for “Imus in he Morning” faded. The sound would diminish remarkably upon entering the bridge and then, on the other side, it would return to normal. One day, after work, I “treated myself” to a decent stereo system that included an FM radio as well as a cassette tape player. This was great because now I could listen to “Books on Tape” during my commute. So, the next day, I was driving to work, when all at once, the volume of the tape I was listening to went way up! Then, a few seconds later, the sound went back down to normal. It flashed through my mind that there must be a loose wire from the new installation so that when I went over the bump at the beginning of the bridge…wait a second! I’m so used to the sound going down when I enter the bridge and up when I exit it, that when I had a sound source of constant volume, it sounded as though it was changing!

Technology, of course, can itself be another source of illusions.  One rainy Saturday afternoon in my sixth year, the four main adults in my life were in the living room watching TV. (Now, it is important to your understanding of what follows to know that when I am talking about our “TV” of 1951, it is nothing like the TV you have today. Apart from the fact that there were only three channels, and that it was only black and white, the resolution was far less than what you have today. In addition, the image flickered noticeably. Content-wise, it was all rated G. In fact, even most of the things that are G today would not have been allowed on commercial television. Sex was portrayed on TV by implication, not demonstration. And, the implications were carefully aimed to be above the level of an innocent (no Internet) child so that sometimes there were really two shows going on at once; one for children and a slightly edgier version for adults. There was no way that nudity would be presented on TV!)


Anyway, I was in my room and I didn’t hear anything but quiet music coming from the living room of our tiny one floor bungalow. The adults were hardly talking. It sounded boring. But eventually, it also bored me to play with my toys all alone. So, at some point, I wondered out to see what they were watching that enforced such quiet among the normally chatty adults. As I turned the corner into the living room, my mouth literally fell open — for there right in front of me on the TV screen were men and women dancing naked! I like to call a spade a spade so I remarked in amazement, “Mom! Dad! They’re dancing *naked*!” My mom, dad, and grandfather all immediately over-talked each other telling me the same story: “Oh, they’re not naked; they’re wearing their tights!” “Oh,” I replied sagely and went back to my bedroom, whereupon I immediately stripped completely and then re-entered the living room stark naked, dancing in joyful imitation of the professional dancers leaping and twisting on TV. Well, okay, maybe not precisely as they did, but as close as I could manage. As you might imagine, the four adults erupted in unison. “John!! You’re dancing naked!” “No,” I calmly replied, “I’m wearing my tights.” And, I folded my naked arms over my naked chest in triumph and nodded my chin down in a note of finality.

My brilliant answer did not go over well.

But at least the day was no longer boring.

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More on “Cognitive Dissonance”

“Obedience” studies of Stanley Milgram


Only You…


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Only You….


Perhaps, like me, you recall “Smokey the Bear” from your childhood along with his famous slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” In English, we seem to have stuck with the completely unmarked and ambiguous second person pronoun. “You” could refer to one single individual or to two people or to everyone on the planet! And, at least in English, the verb form doesn’t help you much either. Of course, verb forms don’t typically help much in English in any case, but you would think, since the pronoun is ambiguous, there would be some other clue in the syntax, but there isn’t. “I can, you can, he/she/it can; we can, you can, they can.” Brilliant. Although many verbs do mark for singular third person with an “s” for the verb which, come to think of it, also makes little sense. If anything, “s” on an English verb should mark for plural. Whatever. I am not bringing this up to criticize English syntax to start a revolution in order to make it more consistent and logical. I learned my lesson from George Bernard Shaw who left his fortune to at least make English spelling phonetic. He sponsored a contest resulting in a beautiful “Shavian alphabet” but his will was contested. He died in 1950 and now, 67 years later, English is just as difficult to spell as ever. Sigh.

So, no, I am not going to try to convince you to start saying, “you can” for singular you and “you cans” for the plural. In the South, some feel that “y’all” or “you-all” marks for plural but that is not a universally held belief. In any case, when I first heard, “Only you can prevent forest fires” I thought Smokey the Bear was talking about me personally. This was no doubt reinforced by the posters which clearly showed Smokey pointing his “fingers” at me. He wasn’t gesturing to a crowd. He was pointing at me. I had already seen the Disney movie Bambi which graphically portrays the flaming horror of a forest fire so I really did want to prevent them. But how? Smokey went on to offer some helpful rules such as not dropping my cigarettes carelessly on the ground and putting out my campfires completely. I was only about five so I didn’t have much of a nicotine habit. And, several more years would pass before I went to YMCA camp or Boy Scout camp. At five, I didn’t really have much chance to make sure my campfires were out because I didn’t have any campfires. My parents didn’t let me play with matches. Yet, forest fires persisted. Smokey must have been leaving out some crucial steps as to how I was supposed to prevent forest fires.

I generally tried to work out such puzzles for myself, but eventually I gave up and asked my grandpa how I could prevent forest fires. He patiently explained that Smokey was talking about people in general, not just me in particular. I don’t think I totally “bought” this explanation, but it did assuage my guilt somewhat. “People in general” is an odd concept anyway. It was weird for a five year old, but it remains weird to this day. People are very diverse in their abilities, motives, goals, backgrounds — so how can you possibly make sure “people in general” do anything at all? It wasn’t till many years later that I learned that some people set fires intentionally while a larger number are criminally careless.


Of course, it isn’t just forest fires that need to be prevented. Parents caution kids in a thousand ways and perhaps 900 of those are actually valid concerns. “Don’t run with scissors!” “Look both ways before crossing!” “Don’t stick anything in your nose!” “Don’t stick anything in your ears!” You may have heard the expression, “It takes all kinds.” It basically means that our world needs different kinds of people in it. I agree! But I must confess, I had no understanding of why my parents would say to me, “Don’t stick anything up your nose!” “Don’t stick anything in your ear!” What!? By this time in my life, I had experienced things stuck in my nose and ears (to name two places doctors like to jam things into you). Every doctor’s visit required that Dr. Miller jam some ice cold metal thing up my nose and when that was done, into my ears! I hated it! But apparently, some kids loved that so much that they wanted to recreate the experience. A few times, playing, hiking or just hanging out a bug flew into my eyes, nose, or ears. I hated that. True, they weren’t ice cold but they moved and buzzed making it even more terrifying. So, now my parents caution me not to stick something up my nose? Of course, once the idea is planted….No, I did not partake.  Once they cautioned me, of course, I did consider it for the first time. But I couldn’t get over the horror. I actually seriously considered two possibilities as to why they would give such advice. 1. They were insane. 2. They knew something I didn’t. Hidden just beyond my view loomed an alternate universe in which things behaved quite differently. And, apparently, a person — even a five year old person like me — could accidentally slip into this alternative universe. In this alternative “up is down” “left is right” universe, it actually would be totally cool to stuff a crayon up your nose and not be able to breathe out of one side of your nose like you had the worst most disgusting bugger ever invented stuck and you could not sneeze it out. And, then, you would have a horde of grown ups hovering around you in a panic like you were going to die, and very soon, unless extreme measures were taken. So, off you went to the “Emergency Room” and some sleep-deprived intern whose mind swam with images of the cute nurse in pediatrics, stuck some cold instrument up your nose and spread your nose tissue like it was going to explode. Whether she needed to do that or enjoyed the movie about the nurse in pediatrics so much, she wasn’t paying attention, I don’t know. But either way, horrible is horrible. So, yeah, I considered it. And I considered it stupid to stick a crayon up my nose.

However, a few years later, I learned that there really were kids who stuck crayons up their nose. What!? This meant that my parents weren’t insane after all. Instead, there really hovered some alternative universe in which it made perfect sense to stick a crayon up your nose. Yeah, sure. Good times. But it isn’t a universe I particularly want to slip into. At least not ahead of schedule. I figure, if I’m lucky enough to live long enough, I may end up with quite a few tubes stuck in me various places. I might not, but I might. In that case, I guess I will have to change my attitude. I wonder whether kids who did stick crayons up their noses have an easier time with this?  In any case, please remember: “Don’t stick crayons up your nose.”

Well, okay, I can think of a scenario where it would make sense to stick crayons up your nose. Let’s say that you’re James Bond and have been issued a very special crayon; when snuffed up your nose, it provides an instant antidote to the poison you are about to release by clicking your heels together three times. BANG. Fog. Your assailants all crumble to the ground. You remove their weapons, tie them together, and waltz back to the hotel to order a double martini, two olives, shaken not stirred. Under those circumstances, I probably would do the nasty.

Sadly, a much more common set of circumstances also exist. In my real life, I had the luck to be born into a loving family. From birth on, like most kids, I was surrounded by love. And, although I wasn’t always the center of attention, as I secretly knew I should be, I had plenty of attention. My parents had their times they didn’t want me to butt in but I also had plenty of time that I wanted to be alone or with my own friends. Live and let live. But what if, instead, I had been unlucky enough to be born into a family that provided very little if any love or attention? Under those circumstances, I might have been desperate enough to try putting a crayon up my nose or even playing with fire.

Just as I never felt compelled to stick crayons up my nose, I never understood kids who enjoyed “playing with fire.” I personally don’t like getting burned, not even a little bit. I recall accidentally touching my thumb to a hot soldering iron my dad was using. Oh, my god that hurt! I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had burned myself. How I discovered this, I have no idea, but I discovered that if I lay down on the living room rug and vigorously rubbed the burned part back and forth on the rug, the pain went away. But when I stopped, the pain returned even worse than before. So, naturally, I did the only sensible thing a six year old would do. I resumed rubbing the burn on the rug. Ah. Relief. Of course, from today’s perspective, rubbing the burned part screams of stupidity. At the time though, I eventually confessed when my parents asked me why I kept making persistent thumb love to the rug. Whatever they did to treat the pain, I can tell you it wasn’t as effective in the short term as rubbing it on the rug. But they were adults. They were interested in what is best in the long run. And, I just bring that up because it seems somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten that.


In the universe where I grew up, the adults had responsibilities. Top most among all those responsibilities was to provide for future generations. At least most parents are overjoyed when their kids are born. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that your kids will also be overjoyed when they have kids and so on down the line. If adults are collectively unable to put off their own pleasures for the good of future generations, this particular branch of the tree of life is about to be pruned.

The idea that we adults should squeeze every ounce of earth’s resources and leave future generations far worse off in terms of the beauty of the earth, the healthfulness of the air, water, and food supply — no way! That’s what little kids might do. And, lying about it to avoid any consequences? That’s what you expect a little kid to do. Not an adult. Only a child would play with fire. It might burn far far beyond any original intention. You know, Smokey was right:

“Only you can prevent forest fires!”

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If Only…


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If only…

Henry slung off the down comforter and swung his well-muscled legs over the edge of the four-poster. “Screw it” he muttered. “Nothing for it.” He padded over to the dresser and began pulling out some clothes for late night walking.

As usual, he made no attempt to direct his thoughts but watched to see where they would flow on their own. While his dextrous hands dressed himself, he listened attentively to the voices vying for attention in the theater of his brain.

Tick, tick, tick. I hate clocks, Henry’s relentless flow began. Tick. Tick. Tick. They’re everywhere. Why? All they do is remind people that they’re going to die. So what’s the point? There must be somewhere in this God-forsaken city that a guy can go and get some peace from their incessant — and even worse than their damned tickery  — that clanging gonging earsplitting racket! It drives me to — but more of that later. I need to exit this rat-trap of a hotel and walk the river, no matter how late it is or how foggy the night. Head ready to explode and all this place offers me is noise. Did you ever notice how the tick tick tick of clocks is like the sounds those insect — what do they call them — mandibles I think — yeah, like their jaws only sideways. That’s the sound. Only magnified. Louder. Sharper. More painful.mandibles

He snatched his Macintosh, and crammed himself into the elevator thinking as he slammed the grate shut, here I am again in this absurdly teeny cage of an elevator. All these European hotels are the same. Can’t spring for a real elevator. Just these little metal cages. Not even enough room for two people. Especially if one of them blobs on the floor uselessly. Damn. It would be so much nicer if I could take them up to my room after. Dragging dead weight up three flights of stairs though? No way.

Maybe I’ll buy myself a small cottage instead. Secluded. If I can save the money. I’ll get there. Or my own damned hotel. Why not? Think big. Not teeny like this damned elevator. And, why does this lift — as they call it — take so blasted long? Like everything here. Too ancient. Like they never got over losing their favorite colony. Not sure why so many people swoon over London. Everything’s old or broken or most likely both. Although, that torture museum on the south bank. I have to say, that is pretty cool. For the first time in a long while, Henry’s eyes sparkled and the right corner of his mouth even turned up. “Even the frigging elevator goes tick tick tick,” he muttered.

Charles, the night clerk pretended to be shuffling important papers on the well-polished mahogany counter he considered his rightful domain.

“Good evening, Mr. Holmes. I trust all is well with you? Out for another evening stroll, are we?”


Henry’s inner voices continued, Good God, the Brits are annoying. I’ve got to get back to city of big shoulders. Do they learn this crap at their homo boarding schools? Suspicion drips like black blood from his pupils. And that voice. Almost worse than the ticking. He acts like he’s in the Globe, playing Hamlet. Fine. I can join this little charade.

Aloud, Henry intoned his lines like Maurice Barrymore: “Indeed, my good chap. You surmise correctly. And, if you can hold the key till my return, that would be capital.”

Henry half placed, half slammed the key with its heavy awkward metal tag down on the wooden counter. Not so hard that he expected Claude to raise a fuss, which he calculated he wouldn’t have the rocks to do anyway. But not so soft that he isn’t going to wonder what’s going on. Let him wonder, the prig, thought Henry, noticing with pleasure the slight wince that flickered across Claude’s stoic face.

“Yes, I should return around twenty-two hundred latest. A pint of bitters should do me nicely. And, kidney pie of course.”

“Yes, sir. I will still be on duty when you return.”

In an aside to his audience of one, Henry silently added, Of course you will, you little prick. What else is there to do in your pathetic little life? Kidney pie! Lord. Does he think I’ve sunk so low I’d eat the garbage they do? Tastes like pee. No pub for me. No siree…I have other plans.

“Cheerio then, Clyde.” Or whatever your real name is. They can’t even be bothered to wear name tags like they do in modern countries like the states. 

Even the frigging front door isn’t like a real hotel door. Doesn’t open automagically. You have to turn the little faux crystal handle like you’re about to visit His Majesty in Buckingham Palace. When I get my own hotel, there will be an entirely different set of amenities. Oh, yes. 

Henry slid out into the damp London fog thinking: And bloody good I brought this bloody armored raincoat. Chilly and damp. Is there any other kind of London weather? Is it too cold for other Londoners to be out and about? No way. If they wait for decent weather, they’d never get out of the house. Or, bed. They’ll be someone. I just have to be patient. Tower Bridge, Tooly Street. Some lonely heart American there maybe. Or, just someone too jet-lagged to turn in early. They’ll be happy to hear my midwestern accent in this sea of ‘raaaaathaaa good.’ Or the scarier: ‘Eh goo lay-ee, needin’ spot a compny, are we?’ Morceau de gateau as the frogs would say. 

Well, there’s one good thing about London at night, Henry told himself. All these lights, each wearing its own halo. One good thing about the fog. Yeah. I love the halos. I admit it. So what?That doesn’t make me a fag. But these people. Acting like they’re all pristine and godly. Have these Londoners even visited their own Torture Museum? Get the truth you want. Yeah, no matter what. No matter who. I learned that on both sides. Toes still can’t really work right. Especially in this endless cold damp weather.

Henry began sizing up possible targets. Too many. And walking too fast. Nope. Don’t like three on one — though I could no doubt take all three. But it might get messy. They’re young. Better to bide my time. Maybe this couple? Not far enough away from the others. I’ll just go hang out on the bridge. Stare at the Thames like I’m lost in thought. Wait for the right one. Stare into the murky dark of the river. I can barely see that relentless tidal flow. It carries everything with it. Everything. Every year, some dozen idiots think they can out swim the power of the tide. Not to mention the cold. What fools. But aren’t we all fools. Crap it’s cold up here as well. Hey, now, here’s a cutie. What’s she doing out alone? Decent clothes. Some kind of glinty choker around her neck. Be cool, Henry. Be cool. I’ll start by complaining about the weather.

But to his surprise, she spoke first.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to know if there’s a pub around here? I’m freezing.”

Jackpot. American.  At least I’m pretty sure. Maybe a touch of accent.  “I sure do. I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it is to hear another American ‘accent’ as they call it. Am I right? Anyway, I do know a pub, well, two actually, just down there maybe 200 yards. I’m done staring into the black water and asking myself why I came to London in January. I’m headed there myself. I can show you.” Play it cool. Play it cool, Henry. Nothing pushy. “I’d be happy to buy you a drink, but no obligation. You pick your pub and if you don’t want company, I’ll take the one across the street.”

The woman smiled, “Oh, sure. A drink together sounds great. But you needn’t pay. Let me treat you.”

Like shooting fish in a barrel, smirked Henry. “By the way, I’m Henry. Henry Howard Holmes. From Chicago.”

“Pleased to meet you! I’m Belle. Belle Gunness from Indiana.”

She stuck out her gloved hand.

Henry could see the bumps of two substantial rings beneath the tight white silk.  “Nice to meet you Miss Gunness. Or, shall I say, ‘Mrs. Gunness’?”

What’s that? I see a flash of — regret — then she smiles warmly? What — Henry’s mind still searched wordlessly as Belle supplied the answer.

“Well, I’m sorry to say my poor husband is dead,” she said matter-of-factly. I still go by Mrs. Gunness though, out of respect. He was a very proud man. You know. Handsome and strong like you.”

Henry intentionally slowed his breathing as he thought: This is shooting fish in a barrel after they swim into the barrel on their own! “I’m so sorry about your loss, Mrs. Gunness.”

“Oh, it was awhile ago. I thought that leaving our farm for a time, taking a trip abroad, would cure my loneliness, but it really hasn’t. No, not at all.” Here she sighed and looked full into Henry’s eyes.

“Well, Mrs. Gunness, I am sorry to say I have some idea of how you feel. My poor wife Agatha died a few months ago. I too thought a change of scenery would do me well. Chicago can be brutally cold in the winter. Alas, perhaps we should have chosen Nice instead?”

“Mr. Holmes, I am equally sorry to hear of your loss. Life is often merely the fruit for the seeds of death, isn’t it?  Ah, well, anyway, the pub it is! A warmer place and then on to a happier topic of conversation. Shall we?”

“All right, Mrs. Gunness, let’s go arm in arm like comrades facing this lonely world together.”


Out of the cold night and into the surprisingly bright and crowded tavern they walked, locating a booth that looked a little less noisy that most, probably empty due to its proximity to the flight path of a spirited dart game. Henry didn’t mind a little danger, nor apparently did Belle.

“So,” began Henry, “What shall it be then? A pint of bitters, Mrs. Gunness?”

“That sounds lovely. And, please call me Belle.”

“Okay, Belle. And, please call me Henry. That’s what my friends back in the states call me.” Henry chuckled inwardly. Friends? Bah. As unreal as my made-up wife Agatha. But Henry had long ago learned to lie much more convincingly than most people can utter the truth. “And, remember, I’m paying.”  Henry trudged up to the bar to score a couple pints and skirted the lurching and somewhat over-intoxicated patrons. He set the pints back down on the small table between them along with a small ramekin of salted cashews.

“Thanks, Henry, that’s very generous of you. And, by the way, just out of curiosity, if you’ll excuse my question, what brings you to London? Is it only to escape sad memories or do you do business here as well?”

Henry eyed her carefully as she removed her coat and gloves revealing a number of interesting pieces of jewelry which his practiced eye judged to be quite real and quite dear. A bit dangerous to wear all this late on a London eve, especially in this part of town. Basically, Henry thought, not for the first time, these people get what they deserve. 

Henry chuckled again inwardly but let no humor reflect on his practiced mask, “As a matter of fact, I do manage to earn my keep when I travel to London. Belle,” he added. “How about you?”


Belle smiled her full-lipped and open-eyed smile. “Me too. But what is it you do here? Isn’t it hard for an American to go into business here?”

Henry took a nice long suck on his pint as he considered this question. “You know, Belle…you’re sure it’s okay to call you that? Well, it’s very difficult to reveal — I mean explain. There is no one source of income. My sources are extremely diversified and even somewhat random. Yet, somehow, I succeed each time. It is really as though wealth seeks me out rather than the other way around. Just lucky I guess.”

Belle laughed, “Oh, Henry, you’re so mysterious. I saw you eyeing my rings. You aren’t a thief are you?”

Henry let his face betray nothing, half hiding it behind another long sip. “Oh, no, don’t worry. I’m not a thief, at least no more than any other businessman, and I’m certainly not out to steal your jewelry, which by the way, I did notice. You’re quite right about that. Very beautiful. Especially the star sapphire ring. But don’t worry. You won’t be calling the Bobbies to complain about me stealing it. That I can promise you.” Henry looked into her eyes quite openly now because he was telling the truth. He had no plans whatsoever for her to be complaining to the Bobbies or anyone else about his actions for the night.

“And how does a lovely widow such as yourself manage business here?”Henry asked with unfeigned interest. He really was curious.

“Well, Henry, tit for tat. Tit for tat. Although you didn’t give me a very clear answer. Anyway, my husbands happily did provide for me after death. I’m fine for now. But it won’t last forever, so I’m spending his fortune over here finding what might be the basis of an import business. Buy things here inexpensively and then back stateside, charge a premium. How does that sound?”

“That could work. Yes. By the way, did you say ‘husbands’? Did you lose more than one?”

“Oh, no. Just the one. Well, I mean, it is a bit loud in here, isn’t it? People do tend to get louder in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they consume.”

As though on cue, the sharp clatter of a heavily laden tray declared its undying love for the third law of thermodynamics.

Henry snorted. “I see what you mean, Belle. It is loud. Perhaps I should have suggested a quieter place for a quieter meal and conversation.”

“Oh, Henry. This is fine. I’ve already suppered in any case. Just a pint or two and I’ll be off to bed. I just wasn’t ready to face sleep alone. Not yet.”

“Okay. Well, pardon me for saying so, but it does seem a shame that one so charming and intelligent as yourself should have to travel London unaccompanied. What sorts of items are you looking for? Jewelry? Antiques? Handbags, perhaps? I notice yours is rather unique.”

“Oh, this old thing. Yes, I suppose. It is a Hermes. But I’m more into what is inside. Can I show you?” With practiced skill, she glanced to see that they remained as unobserved as possible in such a public place and unclasped the bag. She drew out a small pearl-handled dagger, presenting it to Henry much as a Michelin three star chef might present the piece de resistance. She placed it toward him but not where he could reach without effort.


Henry found himself admiring this woman. Of course, that was exactly how they all worked. Draw you in one way or another so they can sting. Just like a black widow. He was sure she had said “husbands.” But the dagger — that really is beautiful. Henry moved his hands toward hers. “May, I, Belle?”

Henry laid the blade carefully in his hand admiring the workmanship as well as the sharpness. “It is indeed a beautiful blade. But don’t they make such daggers in the US?”

Belle laughed. “Well, Henry, yes, you can get a right nice dagger in America, but not one like this. This you see, has history. This dagger was supposedly owned by Mary, Queen of Scots. That’s what I’m after. Artifacts with history attached. That’s what some will pay top dollar for back in the states. Of course, I will have to move to a larger city for that kind of market. New York would be ideal. Or, perhaps Chicago.”

“Hey, Belle. Move to Chicago! We could be neighbors. I want to open up a hotel there, in time to catch people for the Columbian exposition. Which by the way, would also be a fine opportunity to let people know about your line of — are they all daggers?”

Belle smiled. “No, not at all. Here. Give me back the dagger and I’ll show you another fine item.” She gently took back the dagger and placed it carefully back into the depths of her handbag and then placed another item on the table. “Do you know what this is, Henry?”

“Well, bless my heart. I do believe that’s a thumbscrew. Of all things! So, they are all … weapons of some sort?” Be cool, Henry, he told himself. Don’t fall for this dame.

“Not exactly. I haven’t really decided on the exact scope. They are all — they all claim to be — of some historical significance. I think you might like this one.” She scooped up the thumbscrews and replaced it with an awkward assemblage on the table but kept it half-covered by her hands. “Do you recognize this, Henry?”

“It’s…a…chastity belt? Are you serious? I mean … whose?”

“Well, it’s not mine! I’ve been married. Not clear whose, but from the 1500’s. Imagine this may have prevented the birth of a King or a maniac or another De Vinci. Anyway, that’s why people like these artifacts to have a history. And, they will pay good money for them. They were common among the nobility in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t only jealousy. That was obviously one thing. But they were also for protection. And to prevent uprisings over claims to royal blood. Anyway, I suspect it will raise a good price back in the states. I’d never wear one. Or, I mean, is that the sort of thing that would…?”

“Oh, Belle, believe me, you have all the equipment any man would desire.”

“Henry, desire is not a word I have thought much about lately. But now that you mention it, the nights are lonely here. And cold. I don’t mean to seem forward, but I do have a very nice room. Perhaps you would be kind enough and brave enough to accompany me home to insure my safe arrival? Or, are you hungry? We haven’t had anything to eat and now I see our bitters are out.”


Just then a waiter appeared to pick up the empty glasses. “So, would you two fancy something to eat? Or, another pint?”

Henry glanced at Belle but he had not yet learned to read her and she gave no hint of what she wanted, at least not in terms of food and drink.

“All right. No dinner. I think for us tonight, how about just desserts? Anything good?”

“Well, I’d recommend the blackberry trifle myself.”

“Okay,” said Henry, “We’ll take two. And two brandies as well, please.” He glanced again at Belle, waiting for her to assent or object or something. But she just stared at him pleasantly, Madonna like.

She smiled and yet seemed strangely distant as they awaited their desserts. However, when the trifles arrived, she once again became animated, tasting both the brandy and her trifle with obvious, if somewhat salacious, relish. She kept flicking her tongue over her lips.

Despite his best intentions to keep cool, Henry found himself aroused and drawn to this mysterious woman. He wanted to get a conversation going. He needed now, more than ever to keep his wits about him. “Have you heard about the Electric Chair? Do you think it will replace hanging?”

As soon as these words slipped out, he regretted it. Damned alcohol! Woman’s making me stupid. 

But Belle seemed completely unperturbed. “Oh, yes. I know about the Electric Chair. Yes, I suspect it will replace hanging. So long as they have a large enough place for the gallery. I do think it very important for people to be able to see the price of crime up close and personal. Otherwise, we’d all be doing the most sinful things, wouldn’t we? And vengeance of course, is not to be denied, is it? If I kill someone’s wife, the husband wants revenge doesn’t he? If he doesn’t get it, then he’s likely to kill me and my whole family. And, when that happens, the next thing is my village attacks that man and kills his whole village. And it escalates. Hang the person who did it. Have everyone watch. They feel their revenge. And, all the other bystanders? It makes them refrain from crime.”

“Indeed. Or do a damned good job of covering it up.”

Belle laughed. “Oh, Henry, you are too much! Yes, I guess another good outcome of hanging — or the electric chair — is that it makes people just that much cleverer. Speaking of clever, this trifle is delicious! Thank you so much. I see you’re finished as well. Shall we?”


“Indeed, we shall, my lady. Indeed we shall.” He laid down the proper coinage on the bill and helped her on with her coat, ever the perfect gentleman. Then, he donned his own. Out into the cold night air they went. He offered his elbow once again, ever the perfect gentleman. He spoke in his Barrymore voice again, “All right, Mrs. Gunness, let’s go arm in arm like comrades facing this lonely world together.”

They walked back to Tower Bridge which was now considerably more deserted than it had been on their initial encounter. Henry’s heart raced. He briefly considered going back to her hotel room with her for a pleasurable encounter beforehand. But now, that makes for complications. Someone could easily spot him coming in. Better here on this now deserted bridge. With his free hand, Henry surreptitiously worked his knife into his hand.

“I know it’s cold, but can we just take one look at the Thames? Just for a moment?”

“Certainly, Henry. I’m no longer cold with you beside me.” Henry tried to make out her expression but to no avail.

“Actually, let’s duck down here for a moment, Belle. We can get a bit closer to the water.”

Off they went on a side path to an even more deserted path. Yes. Here. Henry’s heart raced like a whipped horse now. So close. Revenge at last. Revenge for all those women who…

Henry heard a blood curdling scream and wondered where on earth it was coming from. Me, thought Henry in panic. It’s me! What? He realized that sweet Belle had stabbed him and badly. Over the initial shock, he tore free and stabbed her with his own knife. She crumbled, mortally wounded, so he thought.


Damn! Thought Henry, I’m losing consciousness. He grabbed her to throw  her into the black water and with his last strength hurled her into the Thames. She held tight however and they both plunged into the water. Don’t gasp! he told himself, but he did and they fell apart both struggling uselessly in the icy water, laden as they were with soaked heavy clothes. But my beautiful hotel, Henry thought. It would have been so delicious. The Exposition. Belle, he thought. Belle. Blood. Cold. Oh, God, I really am dying. Supposed to take her life, not have her take mine. Damn you, Belle. And why kill me? What did I…?  

Author Page on Amazon

Readers might find the following links also interesting.

Henry Holmes – Wikipedia

Belle Gunness – Wikipedia

What if…?


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This is a kind of print medium, backed-up electronically. So, it will still be here in a few minutes, hours, and days. Here’s my suggestion. Read through once while your inner “Yeah-but”-ite chorus is otherwise occupied. You know the “Yeah-but”-ites. We all do. “Yeah but, You can’t possibly afford that.”  “Yeah but, you aren’t smart enough to do that.” “Yeah but, no-one would be that kind.” “Yeah but, yeah but, yeah but.” Give the chorus a TV show to watch, knock em out with whiskey — whatever it takes. Read the following once and see where the train of thought takes you. I have been thinking about this in terms of “America” because that’s where I happen to have been born and where I live now. But I suspect you can read what is below and substitute the name of your own country wherever it says “America.” If you do that, can you see these suppositions as equally applicable to your own?

You can always go back and rip my suppositions to shreds when you go through it a second time. In fact, knock yourself out. Read it fifty times and find fifty things wrong every time. First, read it once though, without doing that. Just flow along with the story. I realize it’s a story. I’m not trying to steal your pocketbook or convince you of tax reform or against it or any of that. It’s simply a “what-if” train of thought. I don’t know exactly where it will lead and neither will you, although the “Yeah-but”-ite chorus would insist after line one, that they knew exactly what I am going to say and why it would never work. By the way, if you do go back and read it a second time and find some better alternative, unstated assumption, another line of speculation, etc., I really would like to know. Anyway, here goes…

What if…

The vast majority of Americans actually wanted pretty much the same things for the country?

What if…

The vast majority of Americans wanted the basics for everyone and a few luxuries and a better life for their kids?

What if…

There actually is enough wealth for everyone to have the basics and a few luxuries and build a better life for their kids?

What if…

That were true regardless of political party, religion, region of the country, education level, gender, race, generation, or occupation?


What if…

Agreements and Cooperation actually occur across every boundary in this country far far more often than acts of crime, or even nastiness?

What if…

Acts of crime or violence or scandal are reported far, far more often than the much more numerous cooperative actions?

What if…

Media have discovered that they make a lot more money if they report on sensational rather than inspirational or informational content.

What if…

The politicians, in order to gather our contributions, tend to exaggerate the negative attributes of their opponents and minimize their own while meanwhile exaggerating their own positive qualities and down-playing those of their opponents.

What if…

There were a vast number of improvements that could be made that everyone would agree on?


What if…

Our roads, bridges, and schools could be repaired and rebuilt?

What if…

We discovered that whether buildings and bridges stood or fell depended on physics and not on the political persuasions of the architects?

What if…

We made education a higher priority and spent more money on it than on cosmetics?


What if…

We worked together to improve health in the country by encouraging everyone, male and female, young and old, to exercise more, eat healthier meals, and spend more time interacting with each other than watching TV?

What if…

We forced politicians to do what was best for their constituents rather than what was best for their wealthiest donors (when those are in conflict — they are not always in conflict)?

What if…

We focused on working together to accomplish what we agree on while we have a full and open debate on those things we don’t agree on?


What if…

We took it upon ourselves every day to give each other the benefit of the doubt?

What if…

The next time we are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, instead of weaving frantically in and out to “save” a few seconds, we kept up as smooth and steady a pace as possible while minimizing lane changes, accelerations, and breaking?

What if…

When we disagree about ends or means, we first recount what we have in common and how we want to deal with disagreements rather than rushing to resolve things once and for all immediately.


What if…

We thought that life itself was a pretty cool gift to be enjoyed and that many human activities such as gardening, dancing, reading, making love, making music, teaching, participating in sports, walking, eating — that they are all pleasurable in and of themselves and not means to some other end like making more money?

What if…

It were possible for people to get together in neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and world-wide to find, formulate, and solve problems even without governments?

What if…

We saw every human being to be an individual with their own desires, talents, ideas, issues, that to them were just as important as our own are to us?


What if…

The successes, failures, short-comings and talents of each individual were partly based on luck and individual effort, but were also largely based on the actions of their parents, grandparents, neighbors, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, strangers, teachers, doctors, Founding Fathers, explorers, scientists, artists, writers, bakers, truck drivers, fire fighters, police officers, farmers…?

What if…

A major way to reduce abortions would be to educate women better and to give them economic opportunity, and if they did get pregnant without wanting to, they had a much wider variety of choices than: 1. carry to term and give them up for adoption and never see them again or 2. carry to term and then struggle to make ends meat while trying to take care of a a kid on their own or 3. abortion?

What if…

Everyone promised to take care of every child born and make sure any mother who wanted to had the economic, social, and educational resources to give that child an opportunity for a full happy life with the mother being as involved as she wanted to be?

What if…

People viewed jury duty as a civic responsibility rather than something idiotic to be avoided so they can concentrate on more important things?


What if…

People cared as much for the looks of their neighborhood and yard as much as they cared for the appearance of their clothes and hair?

What if…

Every American realized that people from other countries had just as much pride and hope for their own country as we do for ours?

What if…

People who made millions of dollars despite not producing any tangible work product or useful service were not viewed as some higher form of life, but as a kind of parasite on society?

What if…

In other words, actually providing direct value by building, discovering, cooking, growing, teaching, for instance, were viewed as much more valuable than redistributing money that was created by primary work.

What if…

We all realized that we are someplace we’ve never been before and no-one knows for sure what the path forward is, but that whatever the correct path is, it cannot be based on mutual fear and hate but must be based on love and trust?


What if…

Realizing that, we collectively tried to determine how to follow or build paths of love and trust and found ways to overcome hate and fear?

What if…

We used our choices of media to watch and products to buy, not just on how much momentary pleasure they gave us, but also on how they were impacting the world and its people?

What if…

By working together we can build a better world for everyone?


What if…

By respecting everyone, we can come to a better appreciation for the complexity that we live in?

What if…

Things are just a means to ends while life is an end in itself?

What if…

People came to see that everyone on earth is closely related?

What if…

People saw life on earth as something precious and worth saving and that that was even more important even than getting a new pair of sneakers?

What if…?


Pies on Offer: Rhubarb & Mincemeat


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So, here we all are, somewhere on earth, each of us is unique; a product of our evolutionary, cultural, and personal histories. I am convinced that the vast majority of us are trying to do their best regardless of country, party, religion, race, or background. And, before launching into a discussion of anything else, it is worth at least a few moments of reflection on the fact that we have changed our world tremendously even in the space of my personal lifetime. I was born in 1945, the year the atomic bomb first devastated human lives. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seventy two more years have passed and we have not had an atomic war. Of course, there is no guarantee that we won’t ever have one but we have survived decades when we might have wreaked this kind of heartless havoc on each other. And, we haven’t.

Another thing that impresses me is that we regularly communicate and cooperate with people across the world. Countries share ideas, products, services, and people. True enough, war persists. Yet, generally, people today enjoy the lowest death rate by violence at any time in our history. (Of course, if you or a loved one is a casualty, there is little comfort in knowing that “in general” people aren’t killed as much by violence as they used to be). But the general decrease is fairly remarkable when you consider a few vital accompanying changes. First, we have far deadlier weapons than ever before. Don’t get me wrong, if you smash someone’s skull with a large rock they are every bit as “dead” as if you drop a bomb on them or poison them. But, today we can kill a great many people at a very great distance. And whereas the strongest and healthiest and best-trained knights may have had a much better chance of survival than weaker or less able cousins, today it does not matter how well-trained you are or how much you can bench press. You will not survive in close proximity to an all-out attack whether by atomic weapons, chemical weapons, or biological ones. Second, we have far more people on earth than we ever have before. More people have been born since I was born than were born from the beginning of history until my birth. We evolved to be hunter-gatherers. We lived in small tribes. Now, we have 7 billion people on this planet.


Imagine that there is only one large pie and four people all must satiate their appetites from that one pie. They might discuss things a bit. Maybe one person would claim to be famished while another does not really care that much for pie but would like to taste it. I would not foresee much trouble with four people. Would you?

Now, imagine that instead of four people, you had four hundred people and they only had one pie to stem their hunger. Wouldn’t you expect a much louder level of argument if not actual fighting to break out? Now, imagine that instead of four hundred people, there were 40,000 people and the only thing to eat was that one pie? Of course, there is a good chance for violence. However, it might also be possible that they would realize one pie split 40,000 ways is not much improvement over nothing. Why fight? It might be better to do a lottery and have the winner lay claim to the whole pie. If they liked, they could share with their friends and family. This may not be great, but it is probably still better than having everyone fight for the pie. Or, people might decide that they will have a contest based on what they value most. If they value physical strength more than any other human attribute, they might have a shot put contest or a wrestling match. The winner of the contest would get the whole pie and would be free to wolf it down themselves or share as they see fit.


Suppose that everyone agreed to a wrestling contest and as the semi-finalists entered the ring, many were shocked at the discrepancy between their apparent physical abilities. Odysseus, let’s call him, sported legs like tree trunks, arms thick with banded muscles. Despite his giant proportions, he walked like a lion displaying a quick, easy grace. By contrast, Cassius, say, appears a bit on the thin side. His gait impresses the crowd as someone who might stumble or fall frequently. How can they both be one match away from champion?

Here’s how. Cassius isn’t using his strength at all. He’s using poison. As in ancient Greece, contestants wear gloves and Cassius, for each of his previous matches, has put a nearly undetectable ointment on the outside of his gloves. He touches his opponent, and they begin to get weary; they nearly fall asleep. But before they are so clearly drugged that foul play would be obvious, Cassius headlocks his disabled and wobbly opponent. The crowd mainly attributes his success to having, despite appearances, a terrifically effective headlock. Why do they do this? They are prone to give Cassius the benefit of the doubt. They do not assume or presume that when someone is successful despite a rather obvious lack of relevant talent, that every one of his previous matches was due to nastiness and breaking the rules.

Now at last, it has become clear. Cassius has succeeded only by some foul means even though the precise nature of that means is not yet clear. The crowd grows restless. Cassius was supposed to embody what the crowd agreed was the most important, best defining characteristic of their hero: physical strength. Instead, Cassius does embody a trait — treachery — a willingness to say one thing and do another; a willingness to break any and all rules in order to win the entire pie for himself to then further dole out as he wishes.

It would be wrong to say that treachery is never a good trait and it would be equally incorrect to say that immense physical strength is always a good thing. For example, what if you appear to agree to be a spy for space aliens but meanwhile tipped off the humans and thus saved humanity from certain annihilation? It seems to me that an ability to be that “treacherous” would be good. On the other side, imagine  two people get extremely frustrated trying to level a door. The weaker one pounds the side of his fist on the door twice to vent their frustration then goes back to leveling the door. The stronger one, however, whams the door with his fist hard enough to break the door and embed his hand into the splintered wood. He becomes trapped there and bleeds out through his shredded brachial artery.



It needs to be noted that everyone agreed that the they wanted their hero to be the one with the most physical strength, not the one most willing and able to be treacherous. Odysseus played the agreed upon game and stood poised to win. Cassius on the other hand, did not argue with the crowd and try to convince them that treachery trumped strength and therefore they should have a treachery contest. No. Cassius pretended to agree to play the game of “who is stronger than whom” but what he really played was the treachery game all along. In a way, this is not all that surprising because that is the game he is best at. Cassius isn’t so deluded as to think that he is better at actual wrestling than Odysseus.

The thing that I find surprising about this scenario is that people didn’t catch on much sooner that Cassius was not winning his matches through ability but through treachery. As I said, I believe one reason for this is simply that most people are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. Second, while many might have admired Odysseus, others may have been secretly resentful. They realized that they could never be as agile, as strong, as skilled as Odysseus. On the other hand, when they looked at Cassius, they might think, “Hey. Here’s a regular guy like me. If he can win the pie, it’ll be almost as good as if I get the pie! Anyway, he promised to distribute ten of these pies to everyone if he wins, so maybe, just maybe, I won’t think about other possible ways he could have ousted bigger, stronger, faster opponents.” Of course, once more and more people come to recognize the fundamental treachery of Cassius, the ones who knew the longest become more and more vested not to admit that they knew all along. They keep on cheering for Cassius: “Look at those biceps! No wonder he beat all those others! Killer headlock! Go Cassius!” Others in the crowd look at the biceps of Cassius and what they see is pretty damned ordinary arms; if anything, a bit on the puny side. There is nothing to their eyes, that trumpets: “Look out! Killer headlock!”


So, here we find a divided crowd. Those people who believe ability is most important believe basically this: “This is insane. Has the rest of the crowd gone blind? How can they speak of the ability of Cassius as being the cause of his success. It’s poison and we will prove it. And people guilty of treachery will be punished.”

The Cassiusists, on the other hand, believe: “…that treachery wins the day and, in fact, that it is a kind of wily intelligence. The human race didn’t get where it is because of strength. We aren’t anywhere near the strongest. But we may well be the wiliest. We set traps for other animals. We learn their habits and hunt them down. We bait hooks for fish. We domesticate other animals for our purpose. All of it hinges on a kind of treachery. As they say, hunting is the only sporting event where only one side knows it’s playing. Anyway, there’s always been treachery in politics, hasn’t there? It’s smart to win any way you can.”

Yes, I agree it is smart to win any way you can. Under the following two conditions: 

  1. What counts as “you” winning is only what happens to the protoplasm inside your skin. This attitude is off by orders of magnitude. As discussed in an earlier blog post, most of you is outside the boundaries of your own skin. Most of what is in the interest of Cassius is not within the boundaries of his own skin but in everyone else in the entire crowd and therefore how his actions impact them, is on the whole, hugely more important than the impact on himself, even from the standpoint of self-interest. 
  2. One note does not make a symphony. The pie splitting contests are not a one-time deal. People play over and over and over again. If you use treachery, you encourage treachery in others. Yes, if everyone else is trusting, you will gain a lot in the very short term. But in the long term, you will be punished right back. And your descendants will live in world that much more ruled by treachery than ability. It’s actually a long-term lose for everyone, including those who are “best” at treachery and that is true regardless of whether you are “found out.”

Meanwhile, of course, what is even more important is what is not happening to the extent it could while people argue about how the pie should be split and who should get to decide. Diseases are not being cured to the extent and rapidity to which they could. People are not getting the education to the extent they could. Better international cooperation and mutual respect is not being accomplished. Better roads are not being built. Crumbling bridges are not being repaired. Scientific discoveries are not expanding our knowledge of the universe as quickly as they could. Affordable healthcare and wellness are not improving in the country.


What this all amounts to is that we are not creating more pies. We are too busy fighting about who should be awarded the pie we have. This is the other reason why treachery is not a reasonable value for a society to hold dear, let alone primary. Treachery leads to treachery. And, although it is true that those in power can do a lot of dictating, no matter how heavy-handed a reign of terror becomes, it is always subject to overthrow and revolution. And, during such a struggle, we are essentially fighting over who gets how much of the pie and — oh, by the way — killing each other in the process. We are not during tyranny or revolution making all that many pies. That’s why, to me, it is antithetical to the whole idea of any society whatsoever; any form of cooperation; to reward treachery.

There is room for legitimate debate about which qualities are most important for someone who gets to decide who gets how much pie. If that same person also gets to decide how much energy we put into making which additional pies, this adds another set of important qualifications. If splitting pies is the hero’s only job, being fair-minded, open-minded, generous, would seem to be good qualities. If the hero also had a large role in determining how many and what kinds of new pies to create, then, being vastly knowledgeable and intelligent would be vital; being able to communicate across disciplines and interests in order to make difficult tradeoffs would be important. In the best case scenario, this person would take in good ideas from all angles and help produce even better ones on output.


The only scenario that makes sense for me to have a treacherous leader would be to imagine that we live in a completely treacherous world internationally and in that sense, there is a “fixed pie” model of the world economy. What France gains, I necessarily lose and vice versa. This is, by the way, an insanely incorrect model of the world. It is far more cooperative than competitive. Of course, this is not to say that countries do not sometimes compete for Olympic venues or airline contracts. But this is overwhelmingly accomplished without treachery by staying within agreed upon rules of the game. People don’t always agree with every specific rule; they may try to change them, but for now, everyone’s agreed to play by them.

Yes, under the incorrect scenario of a treacherous world, having a treacherous leader would make some sense, but only provided treacherousness was “maxed out” because otherwise it is still in someone’s best interest not to be treacherous. Of course, the other critical proviso is that we would have to completely trust that the person would be treacherous to other countries but honest and above-board with its own crowd or citizens. A Medieval king or queen may have been able to pull this off. I submit it’s impossible today except for a few dictatorships where news from the outside world is heavily censored. When people have access to the internet and social media, for example, you cannot say one thing to one nation or group or crowd and a completely different thing to a different crowd or nation or reporter. So, it seems completely paradoxical to have a leader who is maximally “treacherous” to be of any long-term value. You couldn’t trust him on a long-term basis and neither could any other nation. Once trust is completely gone, it takes a long time to win it back. As a strategy, treachery seems a really out-dated one. If you really love treachery, I can see why you would want to cut back on education, quash any dissenting views and so on. Without that, you couldn’t get it to work against your own citizens more than once or twice. But if you prevent people from ever finding out, it will take longer. It won’t take forever. But it will take awhile. And meanwhile, treachery metastasizes throughout the land. I like to think the immune system of the crowd is sufficiently strong to treat the tumor successfully or isolating it from the rest of the body. These are the best ways.


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Citizen Soldiers 3: Galoshes in the Gutters


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One of the joys of childhood is to be lucky enough to be walking home from school after the rain has abated but the storm gutters are still filled to the brim. Often, the earth smelled clean and the sky was clear. Part of the wading game was to get the water level as high as possible on your boot tops but not to over-brim and soak your feet. This danger provided one source of excitement, but there was also the sensory thrill of water’s music and the rushing water pushing against your legs with a rather considerable force. All of us kids had seen movies where people were helplessly rushed away by river currents, sometimes to be flung over waterfalls and shredded on the rocks below. If you would have asked any one of us in your all serious adult “show me how smart you are voice” whether we thought we would be swept out to sea or over a waterfall, we would have answered of course not. But secretly, it felt like a real possibility.

Here’s the odd thing. Looking back on it, I actually think this is a great strategy for learning. The problem with trying to “practice” something like swimming or floating in a raging river so as to not lose your life should you ever end up swimming or floating in a raging river is this: You’re much more likely to die in practice that you would in real life! For Navy Seals, of course, the equation changes, and may be worthwhile. But I contend that for kids, doing something completely safe, but a tiny bit like something actually life-threatening or otherwise critical could be quite a good thing. In the first place, it would help keep you from panicking. I’m not saying it would be a perfect inoculation, but it could help. Second, it could teach you a little bit about the situation. Yeah, in the case of wading in the gutters, far less force would be involved than in a life-threatening situation, but you are learning something of the way water works by wading in it and watching it flow in the gutter and seeing what floats and what doesn’t and how things tend to get “stuck” in certain places.

Imagine two kids of identical strength and temperament, one of whom had played in raging gutters a score or more times and one who had never done so. Now they fall into a raging river where there is real danger. One of them survives. Well, my money is on the kid who waded in the gutters. Every time.

There are many other childhood activities I engaged in that have echoes of life and death situations such as hunting, tracking, avoiding predators, and even war. Most sports involve acts of throwing, catching, hitting, kicking, knocking each other down. Think of kid’s games such as “Red Rover Red Rover” or “Hide and Seek” or “Freeze Tag” or “Mother May I” — each has skills that could help a child survive in a disaster or accident, or, sad to say, war. These days, many kids instead sharpen another set of skills by playing video games. These skills too could come in handy in another class of disasters. It’s hard to know which is more valuable because of the uncertainty for our future. Probably learning a bit of both would be good. Personally, I like video games but I’m very happy for having waded gutters.


One of those glorious afternoon wades home, however became a horror show. At that time, I was probably around ten years old. My two best friends were 9 (Bob) and 11 (Bruce). The nine year old Bob had a younger brother, Billy. We were all walking home in sight of each other, but Bruce and I were about a half block ahead, I think on Austin Street. Anyway, we heard a scream and looked back to see three teen age boys holding Billy by the ankles threatening apparently to drown him. Bob was trying to get his brother loose, but they swatted him away like a fly.

Suddenly, our pleasure had turned to pain. Our friend Bob was up there trying to get his brother loose. What should we do? I looked at Bruce and he looked at me trying to discern a clue to the right action. I am not still not sure what the best response would be. Four pre-teens against three teenagers would be an extremely one-sided contest. Boys don’t get any real strength until their hormones kick in and that wouldn’t happen for us for another few years. At that age, bigger boys do not just have more strength and range, they are also cleverer and know more. Any way, maybe we should have run back up Austin street, but what we actually did was run home to get some adults involved. (Inexplicably our cell phones were non-existent because of the linear time assumptions we all accept as truth). I am glad to report that Billy did not drown and no-one was seriously hurt. But it did ruin our enjoyment of gutter-walking. First, we wondered if those giant teenagers would reappear another time. Second, it always made us wonder whether running to inform all three mothers had been the best tack. It certainly wasn’t the bravest and we definitely had an urge to help our friend and damn the consequences. But then again, it might have enraged the biggies even more and all four of us might have been actually injured. I, at least, also felt guilty because it was a ubiquitous rule among us kids that you don’t involve parents if humanly possible not to.

One of the most despised type of kid any of us ever ran into was that kid who would go running to their parents at the slightest most trivial affront. I’m not talking about someone who gets slammed against a wall and breaks a rib and tells their parents (though even then, it’s a close call). I’m talking about someone who forgets to collect their two-hundred dollars when they went around GO in MONOPOLY and then goes running to mommy. “Mommy! Mommy! They won’t give me my $200. They’re cheating!” Mommy, who of course, knows absolutely nothing about what just happened, comes in and says, “Now, boys. You’ll have to play fair. Give Timmy his money or you’ll all have to go home.”


The third and final unpleasantness, of course, is that it made me feel inadequate. If I had only been older, stronger, faster, smarter, bigger, then I could have charged them with such a fury they would have backed off and never darkened our gushing gutter play again! At that point in my life, I don’t think a thought such as, “If only I had a weapon like a knife or gun, then, I could have handled them.” ever crossed my mind. But I can totally understand why it might well cross the mind of many boys and young men today. It might indeed do more than cross their mind; it may well inhabit their mind and become an obsession. If I have the right weapon I will be adequate to defend those I care about.

Other folks may take a different tack and go full bore into body building. Some feeling (and not unfounded) might be, “I will be so physically strong, I will be able to defend those I care about.” Still others might mainly focus on trying to acquire sufficient resources to defend those they care about. In our society, if you have more “things”, and more money, it can make the difference between life and death; for example, when it comes to expensive health care or even being able to afford housing away from major toxic pollution sites. “I will be so rich, I will be able to take care of and defend those I care about.”

My own reaction has been somewhat a mixture, but my major obsession has been to find ways that humanity can get out of its own way and solve its problems cooperatively rather than blowing each other to smithereens. “If I can be wise and persuasive enough, maybe I can help defend those I care about.”

When it comes to “defending” there are many possible paths and all of them have value under various circumstances.

These days, it seems that there are enemies of many sorts. Computers may have brought many good things but they have also made an unending assault on our senses easier than ever. I cannot even use my own phone any more as an actual phone because I get so many spam calls. E-mail is serviceable but barely for a similar reason despite various spam filters. Social media is filled with click bait, “Do this one simple trick with a honey crisp apple and a fax machine and never die!” “These pictures of celebrity X with celebrity Y will make your hair turn white and your shoes into thousand-league boots.” And so it goes. This is an annoying enemy but only deadly in the long run.


A much more short term threat is imminent terrorism. Everyone in America agrees that having our citizens murdered is not a great thing. However, people’s ideas about what to do about it are quite varied and probably correlated with the approaches they take toward making sure they can defend those they care about. I am not sure what the right combination of approaches is in the short term; probably all the strategies outlined above are appropriate.

I also know that over-generalizing about people being “bad people” based on their skin color, toe length, religion, country of origin, age, gender, is counter-productive. I understand it’s based on the same generous motive: trying to defend those you care about. This is a motive I share. I can imagine the following metaphor. Let’s suppose that Islam is a religion that is, at its roots, a violent, hate everyone, destroy, “my way or the high way” philosophy. Now, you could view the  plant as the ordinary people of Islam. But in the flower there are barbed seeds. When you walk through the garden, they snag your ankles. Annoying. But if you just cut out the part with the barbed seeds, the plant will simply grow a new one. So you have to get the root.


That may be a compelling analogy, but there are several important issues that I have with it. The most important is that the religions and philosophies of the world are not like separate cans of cat food or flashlights. All the world’s major religions share many of their teachings. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are particularly tightly related. In every religion, the culture is heavily inter-twined with it. There is a huge gap between an individual being born in a particular place and therefore being exposed largely to one set of beliefs and how that individual actually practices that religion and how, if at all, it affects their decisions and actions. A thousand years ago, the vast majority of people on earth spent most of their life in a very small area. Their ideas were quite local. Today, the situation for people with access to the world’s information is that ideas from every stripe of every religion are all interconnected in a trillion ways. People are emotionally connected with each other across every national boundary, religious boundary, cultural boundary and so on.

Singling out any one group will not help you defend the people you care about. Why? Because you will alienate an ever growing circle of people. Some of those people will end up with weapons as good as yours, a body as strong as yours, resources as rich as yours, learning as great as yours. Your efforts to “weed out” terrorism actually operates more like the New England fishermen who fought the starfish that preyed on their shellfish by tearing the starfish into pieces  — each of which produced a new starfish! That’s not to say terrorists are starfish, but unless you are very careful in how terrorism is dealt with, you will definitely recruit more terrorists.

Wouldn’t you? I mean, just suppose you are and think of yourself primarily as a small business owner. You’ve been pro-US your whole life. You live in Syria and you are a Muslim. Now, people invade your neighborhood and destroy your business. Some of your close family are killed. Now, you are welcomed to America with open arms. You really think you’re likely to become a terrorist and help destroy the country who welcomed you? Not impossible, I grant, but not bloody likely.

Now, contrast this with a situation where the same businessman suffering the same civil war begs to come to America. He explains that he is a Muslim but is a big fan of America. He wants to be a productive citizen. He has a grand-daughter he’s never seen already living in the US. But no. He cannot come in because he is a Muslim. He tries as best he can to defend those he cares about. But he and his entire family are wiped out, except for his grand-daughter in America and one of his sons who survives though his leg has been shattered. He curses his father for the pro-American stance, that, at least in the son’s mind, led to the death of his family. Does he join ISIS? Damned right he does. It has nothing to do with religion. He doesn’t become more religious or more Muslim in his heart when the takes to the path of violence. It is a desire to seek revenge. He cannot defend those he really cares about because they are all dead. But he can make those who caused the death pay dearly.

Part of the difficulty of course, is that everyone is an individual and reacts differently. The same survivor above might have gone a different way. He might have decided Bashar al-Assad was at fault and dedicate his life to destroying him. He might even have decided Putin was at fault; without his support, al-Assad would have fallen long ago. It doesn’t seem quite fair to go around destroying the lives of people because they might be justifiably angry. Let’s say my neighbor’s dog attacks and severely bites and kills one of my cats. Should I be now deported? Should I be jailed because I could have the rather bizarre (but somewhat understandable) behavior of killing my neighbor? Would it matter if I told you I was a Christian? A Jew? A Muslim? An atheist? Maybe I should mention being 1/8 or 1/16 Native American so no doubt there is savage blood in there too, right? What if I’m a Jew but married to a Muslim? What if I studied the Koran, and the Bible but actually think of myself as a Zen Buddhist?


A society that begins to punish people for what they are (which they can’t help) or for what they believe (which can never be proven or measured in detail) rather than for what people actually do is a society well on its way to destruction by its own hand. This is especially true because the actual physical threat to the citizens of the USA and many other countries, while real, is way down on the list of things to worry about. However, that could change. And one of the main ways we can make it a hundred or a thousand times worse is to start punishing people for some broad religious category that can be attached to them. This will grow the number of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.

But there is another way to aid the terrorists and that is by over-dramatizing and focusing on terrorists events. The worst terror attack I know about is 9/11 where more than 3000 people from around the world died here in America. At the time, there were over 300,000,000 Americans most of whom were “terrorized” by the event and its aftermath, at least to some degree. I’d much rather be “terrorized” than be one of the 3000 dead, but in total, there were five orders of magnitude more people “terrorized” than killed just among Americans. Meanwhile ten to twenty times that many world wide were also more or less terrorized. The actual death of a person happens once, but a terrorist event can be relived and reported and talked about a 1000 times. Naturally, this is not to say that professionals should not investigate these terrorism attacks and try to develop increased security techniques that actually work.


If we put stopping terrorism at the top of our agenda, and are willing to do literally anything to defend against terrorism including subverting the Constitution, then we have multiplied the effectiveness of the terrorists far beyond what they themselves are capable of. If we stop working together to find and solve problems and instead start pointing fingers at each other as the source of all our troubles — game over.

Game. Set. Match.

The carefully laid fire-cracker laid there with the intention of destroying one side has actually destroyed the other side.

Instead, we need to mostly forget about the “big kids” that hang out on Austin Street. We can’t jail them just for being big kids. But we have to develop a number of solutions to make sure they will never pull that trick with Billy again. Meanwhile, we should not let glancing over our shoulder, a necessary caution, keep us from sloshing down those gurgling gutters in our galoshes.



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Citizen Soldiers, Part Two: What Fathers can Learn from their Kids


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Growing up in the semi-developed neighborhoods I did, we never had enough kids of the same age to play football, baseball, or even basketball with full teams. One upside of that was that we played modified games according to how many people showed up. For example, we often played basketball one on one or two on two. More rarely, we played three on three. One common variant of baseball we called “Three Dollars.” One person batted by throwing the ball in the air themselves, then quickly positioning that throwing hand onto the bat in order to hit the ball. The other two, three or four players were “fielders” and if they caught a fly ball, they would receive “$1.00.” If they caught it on the first hop, it was $.50 and a deftly caught a grounder netted you  $.25.  In effect, this was just a way to keep score. No money ever actually changed hands. Whoever earned at least three dollars, then got to take the batter’s position. In my experience, everyone would rather be the batter than one of the fielders. Anyway, fielders also lost this symbolic money. If you went for a fly ball and dropped it, you lost a dollar. Similarly, you would lose money for bobbling a one-bouncer or grounder. This game seemed to be pretty well-known throughout America so I’m sure we didn’t invent it.

However, we did try tweaking the rules. For example, we sometimes played without the penalty clause. You gained but never lost “money.” But we decided to go back to the “original” rules. Then, another time, we decided to try it with a different goal, five dollars. After we tried that a few times, we all agreed it took too long to get a turn at bat. So, again, we returned to the original rules. Another slight variant that came up was that not all fly balls were equally difficult. On the one hand, a sharply curving rocket line drive is very difficult to grab! A blooper fly ball is easy; in fact, easier than many grounders. On the other hand, for us at least, a towering fly ball was again quite difficult. So, we experimented with awarding various amounts such as $.75 for an easy blooper but as much as $1.50 for a sharp line drive. It proved that there were too many “boundary cases” to make this a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. None of us really wanted to waste time arguing instead of playing baseball! That was the sort of nonsense that parents engaged in, but kids were smarter than that. On the other hand, each of us instinctively knew that we also had to “stick up for ourselves.” We could not just acquiesce in the face of injustice. Quite naturally, we would tend to see things a bit differently. Let’s say I am in the outfield and have $2.00. Now, you, as the batter, hit a looping fly ball/line drive which curves and sinks. I make a nice catch. Yay me. But now I start trotting up to the plate because $2.00 plus $1.50 for a line drive puts me at $3.50 and it’s my turn to swing that sweet honey colored bat and knock that little ball for a loop. But you say, “Whoa! Hang on there, John. You only have $2.75!” And I say, (and, please note that there is no baseball going on during this exchange) “No way. That was a line drive! That was a hard one too!” (And, I mean that in the sense that it curved and sank and it was actually quite a hard catch to make.) So, then, you say, “What? That wasn’t hard! I caught a lot of line drives that were harder than that one.” (And, what you mean by “hard” is that it was high velocity.) Generally speaking, we resolved these disputes but after 3 or four of them, we made a firm decision to revert to the original rules. In an entire season, under the “normal rules”, there might be one questionable call as to whether a ball was caught at the very end of the first bounce or just after the second bounce began. But the categories of fly ball, one bounce, two or more bounces — these withstood the test of time.


Learning by modeling; in this case by modeling something in the real world.

There are some interesting balancing acts inherent in the “design” of these rules. I am positive that this game was not invented by a single individual who used a mathematical algorithm to determine the appropriate “values” for the various fielding plays and what the stopping rule was and whether or not to extract penalties. Kids tried out various things and found out what “worked.” The rules and the consequences were simple enough (and easily reversible enough) for our small group to determine what worked for us. For example, if we make the changeover goal dollar amount too little; e.g., $1.50, the turnover is too fast. Too much time is spent running in to take the bat one minute and then running back out again later to field.  No-one gets to “warm up” in their position enough to play their best. To the batter, if feels like a real win to be able to hit the ball and, in a way control the game. Because, any half way decent batter, if they are hitting from their own toss can easily direct the ball to left, center or right field and can determine whether they are hitting a likely fly ball, one bouncer or grounder. So, for my own selfish reasons, I wanted the game to go as long as possible with me as batter. So, it made sense to hit more often to those players who had low amounts so as to “even up” the game. This also made it more exciting for the fielders because it made the game “closer” for them. An unwritten code however, also kept this from getting out of hand. For instance, if I began by hitting two hard line drives to the left fielder, and they made great catches, it wasn’t really okay to simply ignore them and never hit to them again until everyone had caught up.


Many potential rule changes never even came up in conversation. For example, no-one ever said, “Hey, let’s count $.98 for a fly ball, $.56 for a one-hopper and $.33 for a grounder.” We wanted to spend the summer (or at least much of it) honing our baseball skills, not our arithmetic skills. And, while we soon discovered that we did not want to spend our time arguing about the boundary between a line drive and a fly ball, we knew without even trying that we definitely didn’t want to spend our time practicing mental arithmetic. And, we further instinctively knew that people would make errors of addition as well as memory. It was pretty easy for the batters and other fielders to keep track of what three people had when left fielder had $2.50, center fielder only had $1.50 and right fielder had $2.75. No way did anyone want to remember current scores such as, $2.29, $2.85 and $2.95. Then, the left fielder misses a grounder and you subtract $.33 to get to $1.96. No. Not happening.

We wanted rules. We never simply had one person bat as long as they felt like it. And, we definitely didn’t want to argue after every single strike of the ball whether it was time for someone else to bat and if so, who that might be. So, the rules were really helpful! They were simple. They were fair. And they minimized arguments. We experimented with rule changes but in every case, decided to go back to the original rules. And, there were many potential rules that we never even discussed because they would be silly, at least for my neighbors and friends.


In addition to all the formal rules, unwritten and mostly unspoken codes of conduct also impinged upon our play. If someone “had to” bring their much younger sibling along, for example, we didn’t hit a line drive at them as hard as we could. We knew that that wasn’t “fair” even though it was within the rules. Fielders tended to “know” how far each batter could hit a fly ball and positioned themselves accordingly. Someone could have pretended not to be able to hit farther than 100 feet; keep drawing the fielders in and then bang it over their heads so they had no chance of getting a valuable fly ball. But no-one did that. It was understood that you hit the ball as far as you could. Fielders also positioned themselves far enough away from each other so that running into each other’s implicit “territory” proved rare. “Calling for” a ball occurred but not very often. We never had to say, as best I can recall, that you were not allowed to “interfere” with each other’s catches. Implicitly, even though the fielders were competing with each other to take the next turn at bat, the fielders were modeled after a real baseball game and so, in effect, the fielders were all on the “same team” just as they would be in a real outfield or infield.

A number of interesting phenomena occurred around this and similar games but the one I want to focus on now is that we experimented with the rules, we changed the rules, and if we didn’t like the new results or process, we changed the rules back to the way they were. And I find this relevant today because I find that many of my colleagues, classmates and friends seem to want to “return” to a set of conditions that no longer exist. I totally get that and in many ways can relate. It seems doable because many of us have had similar experiences both in sports and in other arenas where we try out a new way of doing things and then decide the old way is better. In my experience, this worked and with very little argument. I don’t recall spending time in my childhood screaming about whether a $5.00 limit or a $3.00 limit was better for the game. We started with a $3.00 limit, tried a $5.00 limit and then we all agreed $3.00 was better. There may well be places where the particular group of kids decided on $2.50 or $5.00 limits. But is there any group of kids who beat each other up over this? Is there even a group of kids who preferred the $2.50 limit who refused to play with the $5.00 kids? I don’t really know, but in my observations of kids whether parental, grandparental; whether familiar or professional; whether at camps I attended or ones where I was a counselor; whether in a psychiatric hospital or a school setting, I have never seen it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it can’t be very common.

In our small group of neighborhood kids, we were able to “roll back” rules pretty easily and smoothly. It seems as though we should be able to do this on a larger scale, but I just don’t think that is possible. It may or may not be desirable for various specific instances, but I don’t think for many situations, it is even possible; or, at the very least, the costs are far higher than we would be willing to pay.

Consider some examples from nutrition. When I was growing up, my parents and grandparents inculcated in me that I was supposed to eat “good” meals which included meat or fish every single day. At some point during my adult life, there came to be concern about cholesterol in the diet. The theory was that cholesterol contributed to heart disease and that you should avoid eating foods like beef, eggs, and shrimp which contained a relatively large amount of cholesterol. Now, we believe that refined sugar and artificial sweeteners are both far worse sources of calories than beef, eggs and shrimp. In fact, most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by you and only a little comes from your diet. But eating a lot of sugar causes you to store rather than burn body fat and also makes your cells eventually “immune” to the regulatory effects of insulin.

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Now, people have always had differing tastes when it comes to food. Some people have completely ignored every bit of nutritional advice that’s ever been put out there. They eat what they feel like eating. Others are willing to try any new fad that comes out. Most people are somewhere in between. But because there have always been people eating beef, eggs, and shrimp, repopulating these into my diet or your diet is pretty easy. It is one case where we really can roll back guidelines.

But imagine instead of having a change in nutritional guidelines, we all subscribed to a religion which made eating any birds or bird products strictly taboo for the last thousand years. And, let’s imagine that was true world-wide. Now, a revelation comes that actually, birds are quite good to eat and so are eggs. Now what? There are no chicken farms. There are no boxes made to carry eggs. There are no companies whose business is to provide eggs. There are no egg inspectors. There are no regulations about breeding chickens or gathering eggs. Indeed, it is a lost art. There are no recipes that use eggs or chicken. People don’t realize that some people are quite allergic to eggs. People don’t realize that eggs “spoil” if they are kept warm too long. The point is, that unlike my little coterie of kids deciding to go back to $3.00 instead of $5.00 (which was easy), the adjustment of adding chicken and eggs back into our diets will be a big deal. There will be many mistakes along the way. A few people will even die of food poisoning. Still, my guess is that it would prove possible. The benefits would outweigh the costs. Even so, there would be a lot of disruption. People who sell soy products, for instance, might well claim that the religious revelation was bogus and that eggs and chicken should still be banned. Even people who are persuaded that it is not a sin to eat eggs might still think they are pretty gross because they have been brought up that way. Family stories have been passed down over generations. Perhaps Aunt Sally once tried an egg when she was little and that’s why she grew up cross-eyed. (This isn’t the real reason, but it might be the reason in a family story).

The point is that we can “change” this way of doing things, but it will be much more disruptive than changing the rules of our ersatz baseball game. Other changes are even more difficult to pull off. Partly this is because in a complex interconnected society like ours, any change away from the status quo will hit some people harder than others. Just like our “soy producer” in the egg example, whoever is “hurt” by a reversion to something older will not like it and will struggle socially, politically, and legally to keep things they way they are now. They will not want to go back to how things were (or, for that matter, into a future which is different either).


Most of our ways of doing things are now highly interconnected and global. For example, the computer I am writing on at this moment is far, far, more powerful than all the computing power worldwide that existed when I was ten. While I know something about how to use this computer, I do not know the details of how the hardware works, the operating system, the application that I am using, and so on. This computer was produced and delivered by means of an extremely complex global network and supply chain. The materials came from somewhere on the planet and probably no-one knows exactly where every part of the raw material even came from. The talent that conceived of the computer, designed it and built it was again from all over the world. Apple does business in at least 125 countries throughout the world. Other major companies are similar. The situation is nothing like having 125 separate companies in 125 different countries. These companies are all linked by reporting relationships, training programs, supply chains, communication links, personnel exchanges, and so on. If, for whatever reason, Apple decided to become 125 different independent companies — one for each country, they would, I believe, fail pretty quickly. It would be nearly as difficult (and as sensible) as if you decided that you would no longer be an integrated human person but instead your arms, your legs, your head and your trunk would now operate as six separate entities.

We are now vastly interconnected. Certainly, WWI and WWII were deadly global conflicts. Not only were these wars costly in money and human life, but they were horrendously disruptive as well. Families were broken apart, infrastructure was destroyed, supply chains were interrupted. New hatreds flared. But even as lethal and costly as these wars were, WWIII would be much worse even if no atomic, biological or chemical weapons were used. Why? Because nearly every country in the world is now tightly interconnected with every other country. Maybe that was a great idea. Maybe it was a horrible idea. Maybe it’s a good idea in general, but we should have been much more thoughtful and deliberate about the details of how we inter-relate. Regardless of how wise or unwise globalization has been, we cannot simply “change the rules” back to the way they were 100 years ago.


If we attempt to destroy globalization, and have each country “fend for itself,” it will be incredibly expensive both in dollars and in human lives lost. This genie, however much you hate it or love it, will not squeeze back into that bottle. If we attempt to go back 100 years, we will actually go back about 2000 years. Again, consider this computer I am using. I worked in the computing field for 50 years. And, I would be completely helpless to try to make anything like this computer from scratch. But the computer is far from the only example. Could I fix my car? Some things I could but the engine diagnostics now require a computer hook up. Could I fix my TV? Not much. My dad was an electrical engineer. The most common cause of problems with a TV in my youth was that a vacuum tube stopped operating properly. When the TV was “on the blink” we would take one or more tubes out of the TV and take them to a testing machine at the grocery, drug store, or hardware store and see which tube needed to be replaced and then buy that replacement, go back home, put in the new tube and *bingo* the TV worked again! Can I do that today? No. Can you? I doubt it. But it isn’t simply electronics and automotive industries that are global and complex. It is nearly ever aspect of life: financial, medical, informational, entertainment, sports, and so on. What about your local softball team? You know all those people personally just as I knew the folks I played $3.00 with. But where are you spikes made? How about your softballs? Bats? Mitts? The last bat I bought — a beautiful, heavy aluminum bat — it came sheathed in plastic. I think that was unneeded pollution, but there it was. Where was that plastic made? Where did the bat come from? Where was the metal mined? Where was it fashioned?

Personally, on the whole, I think the highly interconnected world we live in is more fun and interesting. In a typical week, I literally eat food inspired by Mexican, Japanese, Indian, and Thai recipes. In many cases, it is prepared by people originally from those countries. Books, plants for gardens, music, movies, games — these things are made worldwide and distributed worldwide. To me, it makes life much more interesting. If you don’t like globalization as much as I do, you can certainly stick to American authors and “traditional” American dishes (although almost all of them came originally from another country), American composers, etc. You’re missing out, but it’s your call. But no matter how you try, you cannot “disentangle” yourself completely from the larger world.

The inter-connectedness often wreaks havoc as well. Little bits of plastic micro-trash that come from the United States pollute oceans everywhere. Air pollution that originates in Asia comes across the Pacific to affect people in North America. If the Japanese kill too many whales, it affects the ecosystem world-wide. Pollutants that come from Belgium may kill bees in Argentina. A plague that begins in Thailand may kill people in New Jersey or Sweden. We cannot wish this interconnectedness away. Today’s “Citizen Soldier” needs to be smart as well as brave and loyal. You are not standing in a long line dressed in a red uniform facing a long line of soldiers dressed in blue (who are your enemy). You are going about your own business. But you must understand that how you treat people from every other country whether you are visiting a country or they are visiting your country — how you treat them will impact people globally. If you treat people badly it will impact you and your neighbors badly in the long run. We really have to think globally even while we act locally. I think it’s the “right” thing to do. It’s a little hard to imagine a serious world religion or world philosophy that justifies trying to get as much as possible for you or your tight-knit group of friends at everyone else’s expense. But even if you somehow convince yourself that it’s morally “okay” to be a complete isolationist, reality will not let you do it.

You can take your turn at bat. But you also have to go out in the field and take that turn. Kids who take their first turn at bat and then “go home” as soon as they have to go out in the field do not get called upon to play a second or third time. You might most enjoy being a bazooka shooter. But you are going to have to spend a fair amount of your time being “Claude the Radioman” (See earlier blog post) because with seven billion people on the planet, more coordination than ever is needed. It won’t work to have everyone be a “hunter-gatherer” any more. It won’t work for everyone to “do their own thing.” It won’t work to roll back the rules of the last 100 years and have every country do their own thing either. We cannot smoothly “undo” history. We cannot jam the genie of globalization back into the bottle. I have a much better chance of fitting into the pants of my first wedding suit (waist 29”).


I mentioned that in my neighborhood, we typically did not have full teams. One day, however, while we were playing American football (five on five) in a vacant field two blocks down from my house, an older kid approached us explaining  that he wanted “his team” to play “our team.” We didn’t actually have a “team” at all. We would get together and chose captains who would then take turns picking kids for their (very temporary) “team” for that particular game. We had a football. That was pretty much the extent of our “equipment” though someone did occasionally bring a kicking tee. The vacant lot did not have any goal posts so there were no field goals. We generally played a variant of American football, wherein the defenders were not allowed to cross the line of scrimmage and tackle the quarterback until they had counted “One Chimpanzee, Two Chimpanzee, Three Chimpanzee, Four Chimpanzee, Five Chimpanzee” — and then, they could rush in and tackle the quarterback. In the five on five variant, the center was generally a blocker while the other three ran down the field and tried to “get open” so that the quarterback could hit them with a pass. Occasionally, a quarterback would try a run. If they could “fake” a pass and get the rusher (usually only one person) to jump up off the ground, the quarterback could generally sprint past them before they got back on the ground and gain a reasonable number of yards before the other defenders realized it was a run. (In case you aren’t familiar with American football, once the quarterback goes beyond the point where the ball was hiked from, they are no longer allowed to throw a forward pass).

In any case, although five on five football was fun, it also seemed to us that it would be fun to play eleven on eleven like “real” American football. So, we agreed to come back the next day after school and face “his team.” Weather cooperated and we showed up the next day after school and so did the other team. In uniform. We didn’t have uniforms. But not only were they all wearing the same colors. These kids had helmets, shoulder pads, thigh pads, elbow pads and shin pads!  They were armored!  But we weren’t! Every time their center hiked the ball to the quarterback, a bunch of us would try to rush in to get the quarterback. No “one-chimpanzee”, “two-chimpanzee” business now. We were playing real football. And getting real bruises.

I can tell you from personal experience, that it hurt an unnatural amount to run into these other guys but we held our ground any way. It did seem unfair to us but they never wavered or offered to take off their pads or helmets. The first few times were not so bad, but once your body is already bruised, then it does hurt to run into someone with full body armor. I suppose it sometimes seemed equally unfair to Medieval peasants without armor who were attacked by armored knights. Hardly a “fair fight” as we would say. Nor does it seem a very “fair fight” for a little kid walking on some distant jungle path to suddenly have their leg blown off from a land mine. And, I suppose some would judge it an unfair fight for a village of unarmed farmers to have a rocket or drone smash their village to pieces along with many of the men, women, children and livestock. Just guessing, but that’s my sense of it.

This older kid who arranged our game did not actually play, as I recall, but served not only as coach for his team but also as the one and only referee for the game. That didn’t seem particularly fair either, but he was pretty impartial. As it began to get dark though and we were still tied, he did make something of an unfair call, at least in my opinion. Anyway, I think they won by only one touchdown. We did pretty well against these armored kids from another part of town. But we were a sore lot the next day. None of us suffered any major injury such as a broken bone though we were all pretty black and blue from the battering. None of us were very eager to have a rematch though. We talked briefly about the possibility of getting our own uniforms but we were way short of that financially. Even if we had actually collected all the pretend money we talked about in “$3.00” we couldn’t afford that kind of equipment.

Does it matter whether a game — or a war — is a “fair” fight? Or, does it only matter who “wins”? In sports, we generally have a lot of rules and regulations to insure fair play. We would consider it a gross misconduct of justice to have one NFL team denied equipment! Some readers may be old enough to recall the controversy over using fiberglass poles in the Olympics. See the link below for a fascinating story regarding the “fairness” of Olympic pole vaulting.

I think it may matter more than many think as to whether a fight is a fair one. A fair loss leads most people to acceptance and adaptation; in many cases, it can serve as motivation to do better . But if they think the fight is unfair, resentment will often linger and eventually result in another fight. Chances are that this time, the party who feels they had been treated unfairly will no longer care about having a “fair fight” and do anything they can to win. Anything. So, it serves us well to think long and hard about winning an unfair fight. What will happen next?  It seems to me that when we win an unfair fight, there are many negative consequences and they almost always outweigh the benefits of the win.


First of all, whoever loses the unfair fight will resent you. Second, people not involved at all in the unfair fight and who don’t even care about the outcome, will care about the process and the vast majority will dislike whoever behaves unfairly. Third, it makes it more likely that other people will be unfair in their own transactions.

In the days of childhood sports, we sometimes disagreed about what was fair. But we never disagreed about whether it was okay not to even try to be fair. We all assumed we were supposed to be “fair.” You must understand, this was unsupervised child’s play. We did not play baseball with parents around coaching, umping, and spectating. Of course, we had disagreements and sometimes we lost our tempers. On rare occasions, someone might walk off in a huff. But, there really weren’t that many huffs to go around back then, so it was rare. And, whoever did walk off in a huff was back the next day ready to play $3.00 again. Their huff dissolved in the cool night breezes. When they went to their closet the next day, no wearable huff remained. There may have been a few tattered huff-shreds in the bottom of the closet, but not even enough to wear as a bathing suit, let alone a three piece suit of huff complete with huff vest, huff pants, and a huff coat. I don’t think any of us even owned a huff tie.

I think part of the reason was that all of our disagreements and arguments were face to face. We never sent e-mail. And, we certainly never hired a lawyer to “represent” us. For some reason, when one person “represents” another, they feel it is more “okay” to do unfair things than the person themselves would feel comfortable with. We kids simply discovered that it was a lot more fun to play baseball, in any of the variants, wearing a shirt, sneakers and jeans. A huff suit was simply too confining and too easily torn. Kids all seem to know this instinctively, but as they grow up, they may begin to fill their closet with huffs and wear them on many occasions.


Imagine a world in which adults all gave their huff suits to the Goodwill. In this world, they talked, solved problems, had some fun, and when they disagreed, tried to do what was fair for everyone. It sounds kind of crazy, I know. But we live in a world of miracles, don’t we? And, that world is embedded in a universe of miracles. Very slowly we are coming to understand more of it. Our understanding of this amazing universe grows and some of that understanding even sheds light on how our bodies and brains work as well as the fundamental characteristics of the universe. Maybe somewhere in this vast universe of miracles, there is a way to experiment with the rules of the game until we find a way that works for everyone who wants to play. Perhaps we could pay $.25 when someone can restate what you said to your satisfaction. If someone can think of another example of the same principle, they get $.50. And, if someone has a brand new sharable insight on the topic, they get $1.00. First one to $3.00 gets to direct the dialogue for awhile. Come dressed for serious play. No huff allowed.

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Citizen Soldiers 1: Early Enlistment; No Retirement.


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Citizen Soldiers — Part One: Early Enlistment; No Retirement

Congratulations! You’re in the army now. Well, maybe not exactly in the army and hopefully, you will never have to face combat situations month after month. But make no mistake — regardless of your age, mobility, fitness and so on, you might well find yourself in a “combat situation.” Instead of a an AK-47, you might not have any real military weapons at your disposal. You may only have your wits, your experience, and whatever is at hand.


We are all now a new kind of soldier in a new kind of war. This much seems obvious. And although we mostly won’t have to face combat or terrorist situations, we will have to be brave and loyal. But we will also have to be smart. It won’t be enough to follow orders. Rather than a clear chain of command issuing orders to a loyal army fighting another loyal army, you have already become one of 7 billion game pieces in a complex and giant “game” of war in which the sides are unclear; the objectives are unclear; the boundaries are unclear; and the weapons are anyone’s guess. At least one way to think about what to call the “sides” in this war: Life versus Death.

In a traditional war whether tribal warfare, Roman conquests, Medieval wars, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and so on, death is always a possibility. Life and death are always at stake. But what I mean is that in the changing panoply of various sides and nations, there are two large themes in play. One of these is pushing toward those things that foster life: competition with rules, love, creativity, innovation, science, play, freedom, democracy, listening to all sides, cooperation — these are things that foster life. They do not just foster modern human life. Freedom, for instance, isn’t just another word for nothing left to do. Animals caught in a trap will chew their arm off to be free. Diversity isn’t some liberal invention of the 20th century. Diversity is central to the very existence of life. Life is about experimentation and seeing what actually works. Letting people play, paint, write, speak as they like — these are extensions of the great human experiment to find out more about our universe and share that information with everyone. These are the values of life, not because some political party tries to claim them, but because they are central to life itself.

Top-down central control of everything; restricting people’s religion, dress, dancing, games, speech — these are not characteristics of life. These are characteristics of anti-life. Above all, the forces of Death want to take away from you knowledge of how life really is. Whether it is making it illegal to paint pictures of birds with naked legs in Afghanistan under the Taliban or defunding public libraries and public education in the USA, the goal is the same: to make sure that your children and your children’s children grow up in enslaved ignorance to someone in power. The people who are pro-Death don’t say this of course. They will make up some crap about how this is in the service of Allah or God or that it’s to grow the economy and therefore to everyone’s benefit. Guess what? It is not in everyone’s interests. It is not in your interests. The very same techniques that have been honed over the centuries to push your buttons and induce  you to buy the brand new horseradish & sea slug ointment that will forever rid you of unsightly elbow wrinkles is also used to make you think you will not only thrive but survive under the new slave order. But you won’t. Not only won’t the horseradish and sea slug concoction not cure your elbow wrinkles. Guess what? It isn’t even a problem!  You skin is supposed to wrinkle at the elbows when you straighten your arm. Of course, once you buy the cream and apply it twice a day as instructed, and you find that nothing in your life has improved, it is embarrassing to admit you’ve been hoodwinked into spending $29.99 for a month’s supply. No-one likes to be tricked. But even less do people like to admit they’ve been tricked.


How did you end up in the army now? How did I end up in the army? As a kid, I dreamed of being a great warrior, space ranger, or fighter pilot. When did these dreams begin? When did my battles start?

I lived in Firestone Park with my mom, grand-parents and great-grandma till the middle of Kindergarten. The two story white house with green shutters, commanded a strategic view at the corner from which any potential enemy could be spotted.  I didn’t really play much with other kids during the first half of Kindergarten there in Firestone Park. When I was five, my dad returned from Portugal and Mom, Dad, and I moved to North Firestone Boulevard. In that neighborhood were enough kids my own age to play with. At school, there were no “battles” because teachers separated kids before it got that far. Even so, those would have been more fights than battles. Cowboys and Indians as well as Cops and Robbers served that role. We played and of course I wanted to “win.” It’s just more fun not to be the dead one. Since we didn’t use live ammo or even paintball ammo, who “won” was mostly a matter of negotiation really. When we first began these games, we tried saying “I got you” but I discovered quickly that others would simply say, “I got you first!.” without any regard to who actually got whom first. If one of us were the policeman, we might argue that the good guy should always win. Then, we might argue about that. And so on. Although these games offered some fun, they generally lacked the kind of clear-cut victories I sought.


Later, we learned to play checkers and then chess. You don’t exactly get your blood boiling as you might with Cops and Robbers, but at least checkers and chess offered a clear winner. Still later, we learned to play Risk, which I found an enormously fun game. The goal is quite simply to “take over” the world. In case you’ve never had the pleasure of playing Risk, it’s a fairly large game board overlaid onto a vastly simplified map of the world. (Of course, every war map is necessarily vastly simplified. It would make decisions about where to bomb, for example, even more complicated if you were distracted by the death and destruction to people, animals and property that you really have no beef with). No, the Risk “armies” consisted of tiny painted wooded cubes. I believe my original set contained “armies” of bright yellow, bright blue, bright red, black, pine green and pink. The map was divided into the Continents. The Australian Continent (which included Australia, New Zealand, and all of Indonesia) consisted of four “countries.” Europe had seven “countries,” Africa 6, South America 4 and so on. The version I own now has plastic armies which are not nearly so cool as the original wooden ones.

Risk was also cool because, although there was a definite element of luck, strategy played a huge part in whether I won or lost. I generally won. I think I liked winning mainly because of this: as I won more and more land and acquired more and more armies, this meant I had more and more choices in where I deployed my armies and where I attacked. Meanwhile, my “enemy” had fewer and fewer armies, territory and fewer choices about what they could do.

My strategy (hardly original) was to capture Australia and Siam. If you occupied “all” of Australia, you got an extra two armies every turn. Over time, this is a big advantage. If you owned all of Asia, on the other hand, you got seven extra armies every turn. The problem though, with trying to occupy all of Asia was that you could be attacked from many different other countries. On the other hand, to attack Australia you only had one choice. You had to attack from Siam. This meant you had to occupy Siam before you could attack Australia. Conversely, if I could hold on to Siam, I could “protect” my occupation in Australia. And, equally important, I would be preventing anyone else from owning all of Asia. Anyway, during the many years I played Risk, I seldom related it in any way to real war. Although it was played, as I said, on this crude multicolored map with little bits of wood. Is it possible the obsession with the “Domino Theory” and its application to southeast Asia was based partly on childhood experiences with “Risk”? I don’t think so. The timing is wrong. Risk came out in 1957 so people born in 1945 would only be 12 when it came out. I would only be old enough to die in Viet Name; but not make any policy decisions. Military generals with enough power to shape US policy would have had to take up playing Risk when they were at least in their thirties.


I played a game after all. The game’s objective was clearly stated in the rules. The objective was to take over the world. It never occurred to me that this might be something “bad.” I understood, even at 12, that the other players also wanted to take over the world for themselves. Someone winning didn’t result even in a hiccup in friendships. Angry words were never spoken. However, if someone thought someone else was cheating, then that was an entirely different matter. We had to try to resolve that before moving on. Generally, on the few occasions that that occurred, I think the person accused of cheating said it never happened and we all said something like, “OK, but don’t let it happen again.” This kind of indicates that we did not totally believe the story. Actually, it isn’t quite true that my friends never got angry during play. When we played with two sides, we didn’t get angry. Three or four sided Risk did result in some angry words. The reason was that when one person began to win (usually me), the remaining players would gang up. But these alliances were only temporary. Once another player became dominant, the alliances would shift to prevent the new dominant person from “winning.”  Then, the old allies might begin to fight verbally. Managing these fluid relationships was much more difficult than managing how to arrange the armies on the board. It involved another set of skills entirely. Moreover, to “win” at that game never struck me as being quite as honest as winning at two-person Risk or at checkers or chess. To win at 3-person or 4-person Risk, you needed to manipulate others into seeing your interests and their interests as being aligned knowing full well that at some point in the future, you would have to attack your ally in order to win the game. I could never really put my heart into this aspect of the game. As a result, I eventually much preferred 2-person play which was an overt and obvious all-out competition from the beginning to end.

My cousin Bob (3 years older and who also became a psychologist) liked multi-person Risk. He spent a lot of time trying to manipulate me into doing things I didn’t really want to do.  Perhaps we can delve another time into my credulousness when it came to my cousin. In my own defense, I would remind readers that when you are a little kid, you generally believe that someone three years older knows more than you about how the world works; he is someone to learn from, after all. In fact, not only does the older kid know more, they actually are most likely smarter. Their brains are not just filled with an additional three years of knowledge; their brains are more mature; the wiring is more complete. Anyway, on one particular occasion, we were having a toy soldier fight in a sandbox at his house. His dad, a psychiatrist who ran hospitals for the criminally insane, often moved from city to city and one of our typical summer vacations was to visit him in his new location. At this point, he ran a maximum security psychiatric hospital  for the “criminally insane” in Altoona, PA and lived in nearby Hollidaysburg. He owned a large house with a dog run for Bob’s Collie, Laddie (who was now, sadly, nearing the end of his life) and included a large, hand-made sandbox. This formed the backdrop for the pitched battles cousin Bob and I set up.


We employed the cool hollow lead soldiers that were hand-painted. Anyway, we had each set up our soldiers and we were about to go through our elaborate process to see who would “win” this battle, when my cousin brought up the idea that he wanted to use a firecracker. I objected that this was unfair and that it might actually blow up some of my soldiers besides giving him overwhelming odds of winning. He countered by saying that it isn’t just about winning. More importantly, it’s about having a good time. And wouldn’t it be cool to have an actual explosion in our battle? Now it occurs to me that I might have asked him to let me determine where to place the “dynamite” since it didn’t really matter to him who “won.” Alas, I didn’t think of it at the time and so I relented. He ran inside, got the firecracker and some matches, ran back out, carefully placed the firecracker to do the most damage to my troops (and probably therefore win the “game” that doesn’t really count so much as having a good time, let’s not forget). He lit the firecracker and there was a very short dramatic moment while we awaited the inevitable. We had stood a safe distance away so now, after the surprisingly loud CRACK-KOOM we walked back to the sandbox, Bob with a happy grin and me more in a resigned frame of mind. Well, I thought, at least it would be interesting to see the exact pattern of destruction suffered by my troops.

And that pattern was…impossible.  In fact, none of the considerable damage from the firecracker had been wreaked onto my troops. All of the fire-cracker damage slaughtered his troops. As this slowly dawned on the two of us, I burst out into laughter. My cousin, however, sprang into tears and ran inside. I found that extreme a reaction disturbing in someone so much older and wiser. Anyway, I surveyed the battle scene for awhile. I never did come up with a very good explanation of how this (and quite possibly Karmic) “smart fire-cracker” actually managed to hit only my cousin’s troops, especially since Bob had so carefully positioned it to harm mine, or so we both thought. Soon my thoughts turned back to my cousin. Why had he been so upset? It occurred to me that it really did matter to him who “won” our toy solider battle — enough to make him cry, at least when prompted by my laugh. But besides that, and more importantly, it taught me that he had misrepresented how he actually felt in order to manipulate me into doing something mainly in his interests while making it seem as though it was in my interest.

They say hunting is the only sport where one side doesn’t know they’re playing. That’s how I felt though. I had been playing a game of toy soldiers with my cousin. We had established norms and rules to decide who “won” a battle. Apparently though, my cousin was also playing another game— a game of psychological manipulation. This was a game that no-one told me we were playing. Of course, it you are three years older than another kid and the other kid doesn’t even know you are in a game of manipulation, it’s pretty easy to manipulate them.  But now, Bob had spilled the beans. For him, it wasn’t just about winning at toy soldiers or checkers or chess. It was also about winning a psychological game I hadn’t even known we were playing. I’d like to say that he never succeeded in manipulating me psychologically again. I don’t think that’s quite true, but at least there were far fewer incidents after that.


And that brings us back to the war that we are all in today. Here. Now. This minute. It is partly a war of soldiers and positions and weaponry. On that front, the USA is well positioned. However, it is also a war of diplomacy, communication, and finding common cause with reliable allies. It is also an economic war and a scientific war. Although finding and maintaining superior weapons are not by any means the only values to having a healthy economy and a large established scientific community, it is one value. If a country finds any type of superior weapon before anyone else can develop it, they have a huge advantage; quite possibly one that cannot be overcome in any other way.

What might such a weapon look like? It’s hard to say. It could be chemical, biological, nanotechnological. It could be superior robotics or AI. Or, it could be having a huge advantage in know-how about psychological manipulation, especially if the citizen soldiers don’t even know they are playing —- and being played.

If I were in charge of trying to “take over the world” today, even if I had a large arsenal of atomic, biological and chemical weapons, I would still have a giant problem. And that problem would be international cooperation in general and NATO in particular. And the “worst” part of NATO would be its strongest partner, the United States of America. If I use atomic weapons or biological or chemical weapons, yes, I can destroy many countries. But they will destroy me and my country. So, that won’t work. But what if, instead, I destroy a country from the inside out? What if I destroy the trust and cooperation of nations in general and of NATO and the USA in particular? If I can accomplish that, I can indeed, end up taking over the world.

Okay, that’s easy enough to say. But how on earth can you manipulate a country into destroying itself? If I thought this had not already been figured out by many other people a long time ago, I wouldn’t publish it here, but they have so I will. You first look for real problems in that country. Let’s take, as a random example, America. There were real problems even in 2016. A small selection in no particular order: gun violence, crime, opioid addiction, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, soaring medical costs, giant and growing wealth inequality, soaring cost of higher education, insane levels of greed and corruption, a distracted public that wants to “get” everything in two minutes or less, polluted air and water. So, these are real problems that could be used as scaffolding for a full scale attack on our country. These are like the Medieval ladders that allowed the enemy to scale the castle walls. But ladders alone won’t do the trick. After all, these are all problems that can be ameliorated with intelligent direction and hard work provided people cooperate. First, they need to cooperate on a way to prioritize these issues and pay for them. Second, they need to cooperate in the execution on every one of the necessary plans. So, no, scaling ladders alone won’t do it.

The second weapon that must be brought to bear is the catapult. And, this catapult is not your grandmother’s catapult. It is an “intelligent” catapult. It doesn’t just uselessly careen boulders into a mud puddle in the courtyard. No, these flying rocks are guided to the fault lines in the castle walls. Where are the fault lines? What fault lines, you ask? Well, the “fault lines” are the lines drawn in the sand between people when they can be psychologically manipulated into pointing fingers. “It’s your fault!” “No, it’s your fault!!” Everywhere you can find people divided on an issue, you can aim a rock to catapult there. It doesn’t even matter how trivial the issue is! All that matters is that there are at least two sides (two is probably best) and that they fervently disagree. It can be much more entertaining to point fingers and yell at another group of people than to sit down and calmly pick a problem and then go solve it together. I swear that there are very very few people who would not experience much better feelings doing the second than the first. And, yet, the “finding fault” is addicting. It makes you high. It really does. And, like heroin it actually solves precisely the same number of real problems in the real world. Zero. Zip. Nada. Two groups of people can scream at each other for hours, days, months, years, decades. They can throw insults; they can point fingers; they can lob bombs. But not one thing has been accomplished that way that even begins to counterbalance the damage done in the process. And, meanwhile, there is the opportunity costs of not working together to create something useful, or beautiful, or just awesome!

America has always been something of a delicate balancing act. We celebrate freedom of speech, for example, and this results in some very extreme views. We embrace diversity which engenders huge creativity and resiliency. On the other hand, it also means it may take a little longer to understand each other. And so on. But what if someone sought to upset the balance? What if someone’s idea of how best to destroy America is to put their fingers ever so slightly on the plates of those scales? And what if the way that did that was to exaggerate and inflame the various “fault lines” in America and in so doing, greatly weakening the castle walls so that scaling them would be much easier?

That is why every Citizen Soldier in any country, needs to be wary of psychological manipulation and to try to avoid focusing on finding fault and differences and instead focus on finding a soluble problem and then going out and just solving the damned thing. Yes, it’s great to be brave and loyal. But you’ve also got to be smart. Think about it. Companies spend millions of dollars on commercials to get people to buy their products. Do you think they would do that if advertising were ineffective? Now imagine a country that wants to weaken the US. Do you think they would line up atomic weapons and tanks to shoot us but then fall short of using techniques of psychological manipulation that inflame your hatred and exaggerate differences? They sure as heck would not be sponsoring radio programs to air uplifting stories of cooperation across our differences!  No. It is a war. We are all soldiers. But we must be smart. Think this through.

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Claude, the Radio Man


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When I was about seven, I got my first bronzed dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I earned bribe money for being good about getting my butt stabbed by penicillin shots. In any case, I discovered these dinosaurs on the last page of my grandpa’s The Natural History Magazine. They looked really cool! The designers had chosen to make the T-Rex’s forearms look more robust than would have been a perfectly scale model with those teeny hands. The T-Rex was great! It was solid and cold and heavy because it was metal. There is something about metal or wood or stone that resonates with me much more deeply than plastic ever could. (Sorry, plastic. I know you are a cool invention and really inexpensive and very malleable and all of that. But, you just don’t touch my soul like wood, metal, and stone do.) When I moved the T-Rex, my muscles felt it. Perhaps this is one reason that I still have much of my dinosaur collection 65 years later. (How many of your plastic toys do you still have from 65 years ago?) I didn’t think so. But they are out there somewhere, along with my own forgotten plastic toys, polluting the world for centuries to come.

Bronze, as you have seen many times in your life, does not look worse when it oxidizes as iron does when it rusts. Instead, Bronze turns a beautiful powdery light green with the slightest hint of blue. So, T-Rex looked beautiful as well.  So, you might well think that the next time I had enough cash for one of these statues (1$ for the small size and 2$ for the large size) I would get another T-Rex. No, I got a Dimetrodon and a Stegosaurus. Later I got a Trachodon and a Brontosaurus. Anyway, what was fun about this diverse cast of characters is how different they were from each other and the richness with which they interacted. There’s no way it would have been as much fun if it were one army of T-Rex’s against another. (Poor brontosaurus’s tail fell off many times but my dad is no longer here to solder it back and anyway, the tail got lost in the last move).


Similarly, a few years later, when I owned toy soldiers, I enjoyed having ones with different properties; that is, mainly different weapons. Liking the variety must have been true for other kids as well because the sets that I could buy were always mixed. My favorite type of soldier were hollow lead ones.  They were well enough hand-painted that you could see their faces, although not so well that you could determine whether they were fighting out of hate, out of fear, loyalty, patriotism, duty, because it’s a job, or for some private demon. I especially liked the bazooka men. I think I owned four of them. Of course, this weapon takes a while to reload and there probably aren’t a huge number of rounds. On the other hand, there were machine gunners, riflemen (more of them than anyone else), and a couple of officers who were pointing a pistol. There were also a couple of dudes sitting on the ground with a *serious* machine gun tucked between their spread-eagled legs. There were also a couple of hand grenade throwers. Another soldier had a rifle with a bayonet raised up above his head. This made arranging them for a pitched “battle” all that much more interesting. Although they had very different weapons, all of them had obvious lethal capabilities. All but one. There was one poor guy with no weapon whatever. His job was communications. His only visible “weapon” was a rather large boxy radio set. I suppose in a pinch, he could whack someone in the face with it. Even if that didn’t kill them, it would for sure put a crimp in their dinner plans.

It was difficult for me to decide which one of these soldiers I would “be.” I liked the bazooka man a lot. The rifleman looked cool. By the way, there were three versions. One type of rifleman lay on the ground with legs spread and the rifle stabilized by his elbows on the ground. Another type of rifleman sat on the ground and put the rifle across his upright knees for support. The third type, and my favorite, was the proudly standing rifleman. Thinking about it from an adult perspective, he’s probably the guy who was voted by his platoon:  “most likely to die quickly.” But I didn’t think about that then. Sometimes, I thought it would be cool to be the officer pointing the pistol. Obviously, in most ways, it wasn’t as devastating a weapon as a rifle. Although conceivably in very close quarters, he might outmaneuver a rifleman. But there was one guy that I definitely did not want to be.

You guessed it. I never wanted to be the guy on the radio. Let’s call him “Claude.” Claude didn’t get to actually fight! And, it seemed to me at that point that I could stay alive no matter what obstacles and enemies were thrown at me — if only I were an excellent enough rifleman (or bazooka man, or pistol-wielding officer). On the other hand, it seemed as though “anybody” could do Claude’s communications job and would do it equally well. Furthermore, it seemed any enemy could just walk right up and shoot this dude Claude before he knew what hit him and way before he transforms his awkward radio set into a lethal weapon. Of course, Jason Bourne could do it, but I don’t think Claude had that kind of training. And, anyway, the first movie didn’t come out until 2002 and this was the early 1950’s. Treadstone didn’t exist back then. (BTW, this is not “my” Claude but it’s the closest image I could find.)


As I mentioned, these hand-painted lead soldiers were my favorites but I owned three other types. One were extremely detailed and beautiful lead soldiers. These suckers were expensive and, as I quickly discovered, not very durable in real “battles.” When you smashed them into each other, the horses tended to break, or what was more typical and worse, not break but bend into an uncomfortable and unrealistic position. At that point, I would very carefully ease the broken leg into position, Angstrom by Angstrom… Snap!! It would break off in my hands. That was worse. I felt as though I had personally snapped that beautiful white horse’s leg in half. It always seemed as though I could ease it back into position and I almost succeeded each time. Then, SNAP. Suddenly I am holding a three legged horse in one hand and a piece of horse leg in the other. My favorite of these collections were the “Coldstream Guards” with their white and bright red uniforms with splashes of gold.  It is sad, I can tell you, to be an eight year-old general and not be able to put your most beautiful soldiers into battle. But, beautiful as they were, they were fragile. I did manage to break a few of the hollow leaden ones as well, but I had to work at it.

Then, there were unpainted plastic soldiers. They came in a kind of gray-green suggestive of olive drab. Let’s call it “off-olive drab” like the olive from that bottle of garlic clove filled green olives that you accidentally left at the very back of the fridge for five years. Then, when you finally discovered, it, the olives looked as toxic as rain forest frogs; but far from a beautiful bright warning color, these were so drably off-olive that you almost didn’t see them. But, as for the soldiers, it wasn’t just their uniforms that were off-olive drab. All of them, including the little flat plastic stands, their expressionless faces, and their normal-sized (well, normal scaled I should say) hands exuded that same toxicity of colorlessness. Their one giant advantage was that they were far cheaper than the painted leaden ones. And, whereas the fancy ones were fragile and the leaden ones were rugged but breakable, these all-plastic soldiers could not be broken. For some reason, I do know that they can be cut with an ordinary steak knife provided you have enough patience and are smart enough after you’re caught the first time “ruining” the steak knives, to make sure the second time you experiment when you’re alone. The plastic ones can also be melted. However, melting them had the side-effect of greatly disturbing my parents because of the toxic fumes that permeated our house. (I think we will have to leave for another time the question of why I wanted to know these things). One great thing about these plastic soldiers was that they were to the same scale as the metal ones. So, they could all participate in the same battles without stretching the credibility till it snaps like a rubber band and stings the soul of make-believe.

Ah, but there was as well a fourth type of soldier. These were insanely cheap plastic soldiers! A hundred soldiers for a dollar! I ordered two sets so I would have an amazing two hundred soldiers along with the probably 75 I already had. And then they arrived. Yay! Imagine! My army would now rival those of Caesar, Hannibal, Grant, Patton!

My first clue that something must be terribly wrong was the size of the shipping box — unbelievably small for 200 soldiers. I opened the boxes and then got to the actual soldiers. They were in 2 point font.  They were approximately the size of one of the feet of my other soldiers. And, these soldiers gave a whole new depth of meaning to the expression, “cheap plastic.” These soldiers were fabricated out of some material that was like what plastic uses when it doesn’t bring out the good stuff for company. And, “fragile” doesn’t quite do justice to the care with which these teeny slats of plastic needed to be handled. Oh, by the way, speaking of “slats,” did I mention that they were two dimensional? Did I mention that not only couldn’t you discern the motivations of the solider from their face, you couldn’t discern whether they even had faces. These soldiers were not of molded plastic; they were basically stamped. In fact, each solider had to be detached from a long plastic rod by twisting.

How could I have possibly known I would waste my two dollars? The picture that accompanied the advertisement for these soldiers depicted something other than their product. The picture showed something every bit as detailed and colorful and three dimensional as the hollow leaden soldiers. These same comic books also advertised “sea monkeys.” In the picture, there are “families” of little human-looking aquatic monkeys. You can tell what mood they are in and how the various family members interact. Well, I thought this was fantastic! But I didn’t totally believe it was possible either so I asked my grandpa whether they were real. He said they were just brine shrimp. I also saw that there was a teeny asterisk in the corner of the picture, half hiding in the seaweed that some of the “sea monkeys” were harvesting for the family meal. Then, in almost unreadably tiny type, the asterisk was explained, “visual depiction may not precisely duplicate visual characteristics of crustacean provided”  or some equally incomprehensible legalese gibberish that very few 8 year olds are going to comprehend (in the more recent version shown here, I don’t even see that cryptic warning).


Apparently, we live in a society where that’s okay. I think part of the reason it’s okay is that we live in a very differentiated society. If you think about the single artist, craftsman, or chef, they are much more about substance than puffery. You don’t typically expect someone who makes something to be dishonest about what it was they did. However, hiring a advertising expert brings into play a different set of factors. The advertising person cannot make a better painting, or chair or soufflé. Their expertise and their “product” is in making people buy the substantive product. If they can lie, exaggerate, or mislead and get away with it, so long as sales go up, that is a win for the advertiser. Needless to say, they would never describe what they do as a lie. Because, after all, who would advertise a “lie” as being a “lie”? Then, you might not want to buy one. They have a whole raft of explanations as to why what they are doing is really in everyone’s interest. They’ve rehearsed it and perfected it and —- since this is what they expert in — they will probably have you agreeing with them. I’m not sure it is just fine and dandy, especially when it’s combined with a low quality product such as brine shrimp or “toy soldiers” that are too small to be used or played with as toy soldiers. In these cases, the actual product is nothing like what they “depicting” it as.

It gets a bit murkier when their are unstated but implied benefits. BMW actually does make a fine car. However, you are not going to be driving it long if you drive it the way it is portrayed on commercials. Similarly, a car is not going to be very often the snappifying head-turner among young people seeking a mate that the advertisers would have you believe. It isn’t merely that advertising tends to have us spend money on products and services that aren’t really filling our needs, although that is problematic. We spend a huge amount of money on junk food, cosmetics, and so on — and more than on medical research. But in addition to that, doesn’t it seem to undermine the meaning of truth in all human discourse? Or, is it okay to lie if you are an advertiser because they are doing it for money? In other words, it’s okay to lie if you are benefiting yourself, perhaps because you are undoubtedly benefiting your client even more?

We are more and more and more connected electronically. This is good news. And this is bad news too. One thing, though is certain. The potential impact of a lie is tremendous and much much more than it was in the past. In distant times, a lie had only local impact. Now, a lie could literally destroy the world. So, to me, the balance point of when it’s “okay to lie” is way different than it was 20,000 years ago.

I believe there is a way for people to provide value to each other honestly and still have a thriving economy. In any case, even if we never reach that point and advertisers continue to oversell products, can we at least try to be vigilant not to let that attitude toward the truth permeate every other aspect of life? A large complex and highly differentiated society can only exist in an atmosphere of trust. You must trust that the drivers of the other cars on the road are not trying to kill you. You must trust that the food you buy is not poison. You must trust that the policeman is there to protect you. If that trust breaks down, there is no longer a society. So intentionally lying in order to make a buck (or a point) is really a push toward utter chaos and anarchy. Obviously, no single push will bring us there, but we must be extremely careful. Why? Because lack of trust is contagious (as is trust). A slight imbalance between trust and mistrust could become a vicious cycle. Information is the resolution of uncertainty, not the multiplication of uncertainty.

A communication network of people becomes more valuable as the number of people increases. A network of, say, 350,000,000 people is much more valuable than 10 relatively homogeneous networks of 35,000,000 each. And, to take this to the extreme, it’s much more valuable than 350,000,000 networks of one person each, no matter how smart or strong that one person is or how many treasure-troves of weapons they have. We need to work together whatever differences exist. That’s why it’s important that we all keep communicating. That’s why it’s important that we try to be as truthful as possible. That’s why I now think that Claude, the radioman, may be the most skilled and crucial solider of all.



Find books by John Thomas at: my Amazon author page

Family Matters, Part 3: The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts


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Some my earliest and fondest memories centered around family dinners at my grandpa and grandma’s house. For Thanksgiving, for example, there was turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, olives, rolls, salad and several pies for dessert. But beyond the vast array of food, it was fun to see my grandparents, parents, three aunts and three uncles, and various numbers of cousins. On a few occasions, my second cousin George appeared and early on my Aunt Mary and Aunt Emma. All of these people were so different! We had more fun because we were all there together.

You have heard “The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts” before, no doubt, but I think this is what it means when applied to a family setting. All families argue (although ours never did in these larger Holiday settings. And, almost all families love. But a fundamental question is this: do the people in the family tend to “thrive” more than they would on their own. If the family is functional, this should be the case. They balance each other; they support each other; they help each other improve. They cooperate when it counts. You will not always agree on everything. Far from it. You might be a slob like Oscar while your sibling might be very Felix-like. And, you’re both “right” under different circumstances and for different tastes.

Many sports teams will have a variety of people who excel more in running, or in blocking, or in throwing, or scoring. In baseball, for instance, or American Football, there are very different people in different roles, both physically and temperamentally. An offensive lineman in football will typically be stronger and bigger than a quarterback. Moreover, if the lineman gets “angry”, they might be able to block better on the next play. By contrast, the quarterback must remain calm, cool, and confident under pressure. He must try to put away any fear or anger or depression he feels on the way to the huddle before he gets there and certainly before the snap. When teams are working well together, they don’t criticize each other for differences and they work together to win the game rather than wasting time pointing fingers or trying to assign blame. In a baseball or football team, there is no question that the individual does better because of his teammates. Working together they can solve problems, win trophies, and have more fun than they could individually.


You right eye sees the world a little differently from your left eye. Thank goodness! Your brain normally puts these two someone different flat, 2-D pictures into a 3-D picture! Your brain does not argue as to which one of these views is “correct.” It certainly does not instigate religious wars over it. I say that the brain “normally” does this. However, if a person is born and their eyes do not move or align smoothly, or if one eye is extremely near-sighted, it can happen that the brain “chooses” one eye to pay attention to. In this case, it seems the two images are so discrepant that the brain “gives up” trying to integrate them and instead chooses one image to use. In a condition such as “amblyopia” the brain mainly relies on the input from one eye. This condition is a distinct disadvantage in many sports.

In boxing, for example, it is literally a show-stopper. A fighter might look like hamburger, but the fight goes on. If, however, there is a cut above his or her eye so that blood drips down to obscure vision in one eye, the fight is stopped. That fighter can no longer see in depth (as well as losing some peripheral vision). It is no longer deemed a “fair” fight. Anyway, it seems the human brain does have some limits as to how much two discrepant views can be reconciled, at least when it comes to vision. Is there a limit to how much a family may disagree productively and still be functional? This is a good question, but one to return to later. Instead, let’s first turn to what are called “dysfunctional families.”

We said in a functional family or team, people are better off than they would be doing something on their own. On the other hand, consider a dysfunctional family. Here, people get mostly grief, judgement, criticism, competition, and lies. Why does this happen? Often dysfunctional behaviors are handed down from generation to generation through social learning, among other things. If too many dysfunctional behaviors are in one family, this causes a “vicious circle” that makes things worse and worse. For example, imagine a family is basically healthy but they do not engage in “alternatives thinking.” They see a situation, come up with an idea, and unless there is imminent danger, execute the idea as soon as possible. They will end up in a lot of trouble with that strategy. However, if they don’t engage in blame-finding, but instead they engage in collective improvement, they will learn over time to make fewer and fewer mistakes. People will all benefit from being in the family. But if a family instead fails to consider multiple alternatives before committing to a course of action and has a cycle of blaming each other without ever improving, then it will probably be dysfunctional. People will give more and get less in return than if they have been working alone. That does not mean there are zero benefits within a dysfunctional family. They may still cover for each other, help each other, provide emotional support, etc. But the costs outweigh the benefits in the long run.

People who come from functional families tend to see the world in a very different way as compared with people who come from dysfunctional families. Obviously, there are all sorts of exceptions as well as other factors at play, but other things being equal, these families of origin color our perceptions of daily life and predispose us to certain actions. Depending on the circumstances, it is even true that some of what we think of as “dysfunction” could actually be “function” instead. Suppose, for instance, you and two siblings suddenly found yourself attacked by a bear. It may be the best thing imaginable to take the first action you think of without trying to over-analyze the situation. Or not. It may well depend on the bear. And, therein lies the rub.


Our own personal experiences are always a teeny sliver of all possible situations. So, your experience with a bear, bee, or bank may be quite different from mine. As a consequence, we may have different ideas about what constitutes function or dysfunction. In terms of the argument I am about to make, it doesn’t really matter which is “better” or “worse.” All that matters is that we agree some families provide a healthier environment than others. And attitudes are not all that are handed down; so are “ways to do things.”

Perhaps the arbitrary nature of what we consider “intelligent” wisdom handed down in families is best illustrated by a story about making a Holiday Ham. In the kitchen, a 10 year old boy asks: “How come you’re slicing off the ends of the ham?”

His mom answers, “Oh, that’s the way your grandpa always did it.”

Son: “So, why did he do it?”

Mom: “Oh, well. Uh. I don’t really know. Let’s go ask him.”

Son: “Hey, Grandpa, how come you cut the ends of the ham off?”

Grandpa: “Well, sonny. It’s because….it’s because…let’s see. That’s way my mom always did it.”

As it turns out, the 90 year old great-grandma was at the feast as well. Though she was a bit hard of hearing, they eventually got her to understand the question and thus she answered, “Oh, I always used to cut off the ends because I only had one small pan and it wouldn’t fit. No reason for you all to do it now.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. We are all walking around with thousands if not millions of little bits of “folk wisdom” we learned through our family interactions. In most cases, we’re not even aware of them. In virtually no case did we ask about where this folk wisdom came from. Have any of us actually tested one of these out in our own life to see whether it still holds up? And then what? Are you going to inform the others in the family that what everyone believes may not actually be true, at least in every case. Maybe. Most do not, in my experience. In addition, it seems that if you are from a “functional” family, you are much more likely to share this kind of experience (but they still don’t do it 100% of the time). People will often be interested in it and want to learn more. If you are from a more dysfunctional family, you might be more likely to realize they would put you down and try to shoot holes in your example. They might laugh at you. They might just not talk to you. So, what do you do?


We can extend these ideas to much broader notions such as a clan, a team, a business, a nation. For people who were not lucky enough to grow up in a functional family, the notions of trust and cooperation come hard. And, that’s a sad thing. Because your experience of what a bee or a bear or a bank will tend to be based on your own experience with very little reliance on the experiences of others. You are one person. There are 7 billion on the planet. So, yes, you can rely on your own experience and dismiss everyone else’s. Good luck.

Even a functional family may draw the boundaries around itself so tightly and firmly that anyone “inside” the circle of trust is trusted but anyone outside is fair game to take unfair advantage of. At the same time, such a family regards anyone outside as a threat who must “obviously” be out to get their family. People from this type of family do know cooperation and trust, but find it nearly impossible to extend the concept across boundaries of family, culture, or nation.  They are happy to hear about their brother’s experiences with bees but they are not much interested in the experiences of their cousins from half way around the world.

Everyone must decide for themselves how much to rely on their own experiences and how much to rely on close relatives, authority figures, ancient teachings, or the vast collective experience of humanity. Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or thing. You might “weight” different experiences differently. And, that weighting may reasonably be quite different for different types of situations and strangers. For instance, if your cousin is a smoother talker, vastly handsome, and twenty years younger, you might not put much stock in his or her advice about how to “hook up.” You might instead put more credence in someone at work who is in a similar situation. You might put very little stock in the experiences from a culture that relies on arranged marriages. Surprisingly, exactly because they are from a very different situation and therefore a quite different take on matters, they may give you very new and creative ways to approach your situation. For example, you might find that if you “pretend” you are already “pledged” to a partner your parents chose, dating might be less anxiety provoking and more fun. You might actually be more successful. I’m not saying this specific strategy would work or that ideas from other cultures are always better than ones from your own culture. I am just saying that they need not be dismissed out of hand, not because it’s “politically correct” but because it is in your own selfish interest.

I’ve already mentioned in previous blogs that people are highly related and inter-connected via genetics, their environmental interchanges, their informational interchanges and through the emotional tone of their interactions. Because people are highly interconnected, you can find much wisdom in the experiences of others. But there is another, largely underused aspect of this vast inter-relatedness. I call it familial gradient cognition. Or, if you like, “Mom’s somewhat like me.”

To understand this concept and why it is important, let’s first take a medical example. However, this potential type of thinking is not limited to medical problems. It basically applies to everything. So, you have a pain in your right hip. What is the cause and how do you fix it? That’s your question for the doctor, or more likely, nurse practitioner. They will typically ask questions about your activity, diet, what you’ve done lately, when the pain comes and goes etc. They may run various tests and decide you have sciatica. This in turn leads to a number of possible treatments. When I had sciatica, I got referred to a sports medicine doctor and got acupuncture. It worked. (Later, I discovered an even better treatment — the books of John Sarno). Anyway, we would call this a success and it seems like a reasonable process. But is it?

The medical professional’s knowledge is based on watching other experts, book learning, their own experience etc. And so they basically engage in this multiplication of experience. The modern doctor’s observations are based on literally many millions of cases; far more than he or she could possibly observe first hand. But what potentially useful information was completely omitted from the process described above? Hint: blogpost title.

Yes, exactly. Throughout this whole process, no-one asked me whether anyone in my family; e.g., my mom, dad, or brother had had these symptoms. No one asked whether they had had any kind treatment, and if so, what had worked and not worked for them.   Now, my brother, mom and dad are especially closely related but so are my four children and my grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. And, in the most usual cases, it isn’t merely that we share even slightly more genes than all of humanity. We are also likely to share diet, routines, climate, history and family stories and values. These too can play a part in promoting health. For example, did people in your family believe in “toughing it out” or were they more of a hypochondriac?  The chances are, you will tend to have similar attitudes.

In medicine, would it be better to make decisions based, not just on the data of the one individual under treatment, but on the entire tree with more weight given to the data for other individuals based on how closely related they were? Of course, family relations are only one way in which the data of some individuals will be more likely relevant to your case than will others. For instance, people in the same age cohort, people who live in the same area, people who are in similar professions or who work out the same number of hours a week that you do will be, other things being equal, of more relevance than their opposites.

Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, modern medicine does take into account the life experiences of many other people. But these other “people” are completely unknown. Studies are collectively based on a hodgepodge of people. Some studies use random sampling, but that is still going to be a random sample limited by geography, age, condition, etc. Other studies will use “stratified sampling” that will report on various groups differently. Some studies are meta-studies of other studies and so on. But how similar or dissimilar these people were to each other on a thousand or a million potentially relevant factors is more than 99% lost in the reporting of the data. But that doesn’t really matter because the doctor would typically not look at any article in response to your case because he or she will base their judgement on just you and the information they know “in general” which is based on a total mishmash of people.

Imagine instead that every person’s medical issues were known as well as how everyone was related to everyone else, not only genetically but historically, environmentally, etc. And now imagine that in doing diagnosis decisions as well as treatment options, the various trees of people who were “related” to you in these thousands of ways were weighted by how close they were on all these factors. Over time, the factors themselves could become weighted differently under different circumstances and symptoms, but for now, let’s just imagine they are treated equally. It seems clear that this would result in better decision making. Of course, one reason no-one does this today is that keeping track of all that data is mind boggling. Even if you had access to all the relevant data, we can’t layout and overlay all these relationships mentally to make a decision (at least not consciously).


However, a powerful computer program could do this. And, the result would almost certainly be better decisions. There are obvious and serious ethical concerns about such a system. In addition, the temptation for misuse might be overwhelming. Such a system, if it did exist, would have to be cleverly designed to avoid any one power from “taking it over” for its own ends. There would also have to be a way to use all these similarities and prevent the revelation of the identities of the individuals. All of that, however, is grist for another mill. Let’s return to the basic idea of the decision making by using multiple matrices of similarity to the existing case rather than relying on general rules based on what has been found to be true “of people.”

This may be essentially what the human brain already does. A small town doctor in the last century would see people on multiple occasions; see entire families; and would undoubtedly perceive patterns of similarity that were based on those specific circumstances. The Smith family would all come in with allergies when the cottonwood trees bloomed. And so on. But he or she only sees a limited number of cases even in his entire lifetime. Suppose instead, she or he could “see” millions of cases as well as their relationships to each other? Such a doctor might well be able to perform as well as the computer and much better than they would today.

Can it be better done by collecting huge families of data and having a computer do the decision making? Or can it be done better by giving access to human experts to much larger data bases of inter-related case studies? What are the potential societal and ethical implications and needed safeguards for each approach?

The medical domain is only one of thousands of domains that could do better decision making this way. For example, one could use a similar approach in diagnosing problems with automobiles, tires, students’ learning trigonometry functions, which fertilizers and watering schedules work best for which crops in which soils for what results? You might call this “whole body” decision making. It is a term also reminiscent of the phrase, “Put your whole body into it” (as when cracking a home run into the upper deck!).

It is also reminiscent of the following situation. When you accidentally burn your finger, it does not just affect your finger. You jump back with your whole body. There are longer last effects in your brain, your stress hormones, your blood pressure. And, various organs and cell types will be involved in healing the burn on your finger. Your body works as a whole. But it is not an undifferentiated whole. Your earlobe may not be much involved with healing your finger. It is tuned to have communication paths and supply chains where they are needed. It’s had four billion years to work this out.

Of course, the way the body interacts is largely, though not wholly, determined by architecture. Even if your body decided that your earlobe should be involved, there is no way for the body to do that. To some extent, it can modify the interactions but only within very predefined limits. On the other hand, the brain is much more flexible when it comes relating one thing to another. We can learn virtually any association., But, at least consciously, we are limited to the number of things and experiences we knowingly take into account while making a decision.

What people might say would lead you to believe that they very often base decisions on only one similar case. “Sciatica you say? Oh, yeah. My cousin Billy had that. Had an operation to remove a disk and the pain totally vanished. Of course, three months later it was back. In his …well… back in his back.” It could be the case that there is more sophisticated pattern matching going on than meets the eye. Sadly though, most laboratory experiments reveal that most of the time, under controlled conditions people seem to suffer from a number of reasoning flaws. I believe that the current crop of difficulties people have with reasoning is not inevitable. I think it’s because of cultural stories and with new cultural stories, we could do a better job of thinking. And, we might be able to further multiply our thinking ability by giving the right kind of high speed access to thousands or millions of similar cases along with presentations based on how various cases are related. Or, we could have the computer do it.

Indeed, speaking of “family stories” that are common in our culture, I actually think that we have a “hierarchy” of thinking based on a patriarchal family structure. We do experiments and report on a teeny and largely preset sliver of the reality that was the experiment. A person reads about this and remembers a teeny sliver of what was in the paper. When it comes to a specific case, the person may or may not consciously remember that sliver. This is the “rule based” approach and it is probably better than nothing. A more holistic experience-based approach is to allow the current case to “resonate” with a vast amount of experience.  Of course, both methods can be deployed as well and perhaps there can even be a meaningful dialogue between them. But it may be worth considering taking a more “whole body” approach to complex decision making.

twitter: JCharlesThomas@truthtableJCT