Issue Resolution.


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You have different experiences than I do. Yes, this is completely obvious. And yet, somehow when people like you and I are faced with a complex situation, we are initially surprised (if not amazed or stunned) that everyone doesn’t see it the same way or instantly agree on a course of action. Why would that happen when we have such vastly different experiences? It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. Even my five cats have completely different reactions to most situations.

We also have different real and imagined interests in various outcomes. If I am rich and would benefit from a tax break for the wealthy, I might be more inclined to think it’s a good idea than if I stood to lose. For some people, self-interest plays the largest part. For some, it plays the only role. But for others, it plays very little role. They are more motivated by something else; e.g., what they think of as “fair” or “best for economic growth” or “most likely to reduce crime.”

You and I won’t even go to the grocery store and pick out the same box of cereal (at least, not usually). Why on earth would be expect to agree on everything when we have different experiences and different interests? We even have different priorities about what even counts as our interest. For example, I look at the past primarily as a vast storehouse of things to learn from. I appreciate that change takes time and that people are able to adapt to change at different rates. But I don’t really care much about preserving a law, custom, or method “for its own sake” or “just because we’ve done it that way” unless there is a current or future benefit or unless the change is likely to produce an avalanche of unwanted side-effects. For instance, I’m happy to try out new computer technologies, but more reluctant to try out some new drug.


On the other hand, I care a great deal about how the future turns out for my family, my nation, my species and for life on the planet. You, on the other hand, may love all things retro and think of the future as something that is completely unknowable and that any action you take in order to make X occur is just as likely to make ~X occur. You might care about only your own country, or your own species, or your nation. Or, you might care a lot about some specific other species such as whales or polar bears.

So, if we agreed on every issue, it would be astounding. You and I are going to differ, at least on some issues. You and your neighbor are also going to disagree on some issues. You and your boss will disagree; you and your spouse will disagree; you and your son will disagree; you and your daughter will disagree. That isn’t a bad thing. It is an inevitable thing. It has always happened; is happening; will always happen.

There nothing new in disagreement. Humanity, however, seems lately to have forgotten most of the ways of handling disagreements and how to accomplish intelligent issue resolution. 


Currently, many of the popular social media are not, at least in the current way they are being used, very productive in creating issue resolution. They may be quite useful in energizing people who feel the same way you do about at issue. Perhaps we can create something to do a better job of issue resolution electronically.  For now, social media proved useful in the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian ouster of Putin’s puppet but have proven not so useful in resolving where America wants to go as a country.

Face to face negotiations are a better venue in which to manage issue resolution. Let us delve into why a bit later. But first, let’s review some of the general strategies for issue resolution. In the most general case, I want X and you want Y. Now, what do we do about it?

I, for one, do not expect everyone to agree with me on every issue. I am however, more than a little disappointed that our current society does not seem so mature at issue resolution as my friends and I were as pre-teens.

When I attended Junior High School, our neighborhood featured many brand new homes in various stages of construction. This afforded opportunities to hang out indoors without prying parental eyes. One of the things we did was play penny-ante poker. Different people preferred different poker variations. So, what did we do? Did we argue all day and go home mad? No, we played “dealer’s choice.” In many card games, one person, “the dealer,” shuffles the cards. Typically, someone else “cuts” the cards at a random place. Then, the dealer deals out the cards. The next round, the deal passes and it’s someone else’s turn to deal and to specify which game is to be played for that round. Some of my compatriots liked naming lots of “wild cards.” Others didn’t. Personally, I liked five card draw, nothing wild and seven card stud. We sometimes tried to convince the dealer to pick something other than their first choice. But we never quit because of their choice or tried to “beat them up” until they picked the same thing we would. We knew that preserving the integrity of the game was better than wrecking the game in an ill-advised attempt to get our own way.


For the same reason, we didn’t cheat. I can assure you that if someone cheated more than once, he would have been ostracized and not invited to play again. We would not have tolerated cheaters or bullies. And, if that person lied about their behavior, it wouldn’t have helped their case at all. Taking turns is one general strategy for dealing with disagreements. Of course, it cannot be applied to everything. It makes sense to let the dealer chose the game for a hand of cards. It makes no sense to have one administration build bridges and have the next administration tear them down and then have the next administration build them up again.

When we played pick-up baseball, basketball or American football or soccer, the two “captains” typically took turns choosing players. We chose the captains through a voice vote. One of the captains chose first from the remaining players. Which captain? Sometimes we flipped a coin, or saw which captain could roll a baseball closest to a bat that was about twenty feet away. Most often, the captains played a game of taking turns placing their hands on a bat. Whoever got to the “top” won first choice. So, as a general rule, on some occasions, luck or skill determined a small issue resolution.


Later in high school, I joined a “debate team.” We prepared for these debates by structuring arguments and also by doing research to gather facts, stories, arguments, statistics. We wrote perhaps 100-200 hundred cards and organized them. It never occurred to me to fill one of these cards with lies; e.g., exaggerated statistics. I never thought about why we didn’t make up statistics to prove our points. It simply wasn’t done. So far as I know, we all recognized at some level that this would be cheating and that cheating would spoil the game for everyone. What possible honor would their be in a ribbon, medal or trophy that won by cheating? I suppose, if asked, I might have also pointed out that being caught making up facts, quotes, or statistics would be humiliating. I suspect our teacher coaches would have also extracted some penalty beyond that, but I never had one of my debate team mates even suggest such ploys.

These debates were run by rules. No-one in these debates used ad hominem arguments or belittled their opponents. We were sixteen years old. By the way, we debated “real” topics. One topic I recall was federal aid to education. Another topic involved free trade agreements among the Americas. The topics were non-trivial. The debates followed rules of turns and timing as well as conventions about what was an acceptable line of argument. Debaters cited facts; used metaphors. We argued as persuasively as we could. But I never despised or even disliked my opponents. If someone came up with a novel clever argument, I would be appreciative just as I am today if my tennis opponent hits a particularly good shot. Before the debate began, we introduced ourselves and shook hands. Did I mention that we were sixteen years old? At sixteen, my brain was not fully mature, and my hormones were pouring into my veins. I could literally get angry in one second. Yet, we always debated with civility and sportsmanship. How on earth have we come to a place where national leaders behave more like children than sixteen year old debaters or twelve year old boys playing baseball or poker?

It wasn’t just me. By the age of 16, everyone I went to school with knew about resolving issues by luck, by skill, by taking turns, and by debate according to rules and based on facts. 


Two additional methods we were fully aware of were physical power plays and decision by authority. On very rare occasions, and generally at a much younger age, a kid might try to get their own way by physical intimidation. This worked for them in the short term, but never in the long run. Bullies were quickly ostracized. Of course, parents and teachers were authority figures and sometimes they would insist on resolving an issue “their way” simply because they were the authority. This method seems a close kin to bullying. On some occasions, we would protest the decision of a teacher, administrator, referee or debate judge. If we pushed that too far, we could get ejected from the class or the game. That was rare. In some instances, I managed to change an authority’s mind. Most of them were invested more in doing the right thing and making the right decision than in simply demonstrating their superior position. We expected them to be fair even though we didn’t always agree with their decisions.

I recall on one occasion that we won a debate. As my teammate and I were leaving the room after the debate was over, the debate judge continued to argue with the other team over the subject matter of the debate! The evident bias of our judge ruined the victory retroactively. It ruined the experience for the losers but it also ruined the experience for my teammate and me.


It astounds me that many Americans seem to have forgotten even these simple methods of issue resolution that I knew as a teenager. Since then, I’ve learned four additional techniques that probably each deserve their own blog post to describe in some detail. I will list them briefly before returning to catalogue some of the reasons why issue resolution is generally best done face to face.

The first method I first discovered when I got married the first time in a Quaker meeting. The branch of Quaker that I married into did not vote to resolve disagreements. They talked about it until there was a consensus! I was incredulous to learn of this. I asked, “What do you do when people don’t agree?” The answer was, “We keep talking.” The style of these Quaker meetings was for people to simply stand up and say things that came to mind. It was definitely not a structured debate. In fact, sometimes a person’s comments left no clue as to whether they were “pro” or “con” on an issue under discussion. Many years later, I discovered the work of the quantum physicist David Bohm on “Dialogue” which has a very similar flavor. He does not claim to have invented “Dialogue.” Instead, he says that many so-called primitive tribes including Native Americans, naturally engage in the practice. Basically, one person says something. Everyone listens with respect. Everyone then reflects silently on what was said. If they now have something to contribute, they do. It doesn’t have to be an argument “pro” or “con.” It can simply be an observation or question.

The next method for issue resolution comes from the work of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues who developed a “Pattern Language” for building. A Pattern is the named repeated outline of a solution to a common problem. A Pattern Language is a lattice of inter-related patterns that covers at least a large part of a domain. Initially, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues developed a Pattern Language that covered city planning, public buildings, and homes. Each pattern has a number of parts, including a listing of opposing forces. The opposing forces tend to push solutions in various and often opposite directions. The Pattern that forms the solution involves either a useful point of compromise, or more wonderfully, a transcendent solution to the (apparently) opposing forces.

While at the NYNEX AI lab, I commissioned someone to teach a three day workshop based on the Harvard Negotiation project. The basic concept of this approach is to negotiate according to your needs and wants rather than your positions. In a simple example, two sisters each want the only orange they have. Eventually, they decide to split the orange in half as the only fair compromise. As it turned out, however, one of the sisters really wanted the peel in order to use the zest for a cake while the other sister wanted to eat the flesh of the orange. Rather than settle for half of their actual desires, they could have each had it all — if only they had honestly talked about what they needed and why. For more information, see the link below.

Still more recently, while working at IBM Research on knowledge management, I helped start a monthly meeting of people from several companies who were all interested in knowledge management. One of the participants, I believe from United Technologies, told us about TRIZ. TRIZ was developed by a Russian, Genrich Altshuller. He was a Russian inventor who wrote a letter to Stalin suggesting it was important for Russia to become more creative. For what was seen as an implied criticism, he was sent to prison where he connected with other very intelligent and highly educated Russians who had also been sent to Siberian prison camps. By talking with experts in a wide variety of domains, he developed a general way of solving engineering problems. The method gives general ways of resolving apparently opposing demands. For example, an auto axle needs to be light to reduce gas consumption and materials costs so this would lead to an axle of minimum diameter. But an auto axle also needs to be strong. Having your axle break when you hit a bump at 60 miles per hour can ruin your day. So, you want the axle to be of maximum diameter for strength. The lowest level “solution” is a linear compromise. You want the axle to be sufficiently thin to be economical but not so thin as to be easily breakable. A more “transcendent” solution is to make the axle hollow. Such an axle is nearly as strong as a solid one but much lighter. A still more “transcendent” solution is to lose the axle altogether. Four independently operating wheels are too tricky for most humans to handle, but I suspect that when autos are all self-driving, we will eventually see axle-less autos as well. Under the proper algorithmic control, four independent wheels could be lighter and safer.

All of these methods are worth considering in more depth. However, let’s return to the notion that Issue Resolution is best done face to face. Is that true? If so, why? What is it about face to face communication that makes it better for Issue Resolution?


During my career in IT and telecommunications, the bandwidth for remote communications has increased tremendously. I recall as a young child that my mother was tremendously excited to see the coronation of Elizabeth II live on TV. The black and white picture was extremely grainy and the content, at least to a young child was snoringly boring. We watch the live high definition TV events of today broadcast in much more fidelity and color. Likewise, teleconferencing often includes picture phone and/or screen sharing. An engineering view suggests that we can make teleconferencing work as well as face to face meetings by increasing bandwidth until it is indistinguishable from face to face.

To a psychologist like me, however, simply increasing bandwidth will never be enough to make teleconferencing equivalent to face to face meetings. Let me illustrate by example. For two years, in the early 1980’s, I worked in IBM’s Office of the Chief Scientist. My main objective was to get the IBM company to pay more attention to the usability of its products. In this regard, I visited the majority of IBM development labs, programming centers, and scientific centers. By traveling there, I could not only see people but experience what they were experiencing. At one meeting, for instance, a Danish doctor came to a meeting of European IBM executives and product managers. He began his talk by placing a metal box on the table in front of him and turning a switch. The box emitted a horrible noise! He began talking and showing slides and his audience immediately objected and asked that the box be turned off. He calmly said, “Oh, just ignore it” and he continued with his talk. The protests grew more vehement. He remained calm. “Oh, that? The noise? Just ignore it. That’s what you ask your users to do. This is only 60 Decibels, the same as your acceptable and actual noise levels on your new terminals.” Had this meeting been a teleconference, this demonstration would have been far less effective. On a teleconference, many would have simply turned down the volume or even turned to other tasks until the noise ceased. The participants would not have been able to sense the tension in the room or seen the dawning comprehension on the faces of their colleagues.

Face to face meetings allow the possibility of doing each other direct, immediate physical harm. Of course, most of the time, we don’t actually do that, but the fact that we could cause harm but refrain, builds trust. Remote participants cannot punch you. So, the fact that they don’t punch you doesn’t build trust. It just reinforces your understanding of physical reality.

Beyond the meetings themselves, traveling to a remote location allows you to understand at a much deeper level that you are in another location. You experience the food, the physical context, the restrooms, the transportation system, the language, at least to some extent, the culture. For instance, at the lab I visited in Sweden, some people brought their kids to work. Every person in that lab had a window. It is one thing to read about these things and a completely different thing to experience it first hand. I began learning even before arriving at the airport in Stockholm. I sat next to a Swede on the plane and, in the normal course of events (neither of us having an iPhone at the time), he told me interesting and important details about their culture. For instance, no matter how much land someone owned, travelers were allowed on that land up to about 200 yards of the owner’s house. They were allowed to forage and to use fallen wood as firewood. The people at the top of companies were only paid about 20 times what the lowest paid person was paid.


In another case, I drove the spectacular and extremely scary road from Nice to the IBM lab in La Gaud. Once there, I spoke to their “usability” person. He showed me their “usability lab.” It became clear upon my questioning that this was essentially a “Potemkin Village” usability lab. It had never been used or even completely set up. It was a ruse to show that they were in compliance with orders from headquarters. After being unable to answer a number of my pointed questions, the “usability person” admitted to the scam as well as his own lack of qualification to run a usability lab. He could have easily fooled me via teleconference.

One of the potentially important factors about face to face meetings is the high degree of time synchrony. It turns out that people can sense and interrupt each other and move in rhythm much more easily with essentially zero lag. There is also always the possibility of shared experiences beyond what is necessary for business. For example, when I travelled for IBM to Zurich in the summer of 2000 to meet about knowledge management with ABB group, there happened to be a solar eclipse “visible” from Zurich. Unfortunately, the day was quite overcast. Nonetheless, our host provided everyone at the meeting with safe viewing equipment and we all left the meeting to view the eclipse. All we saw were clouds. After a few minutes, however, the clouds parted and we all got a good look (through the smoked glasses) of the eclipse for a few minutes before resuming the meeting indoors. If you and I are in the same physical space, there is a chance, however remote, that I might save your life, you might save mine, or we might work together to save someone else. It seldom happens but it could happen. This means that you and I might have to depend on each other. We might have to trust each other. This possibility may well make us more prone to be civil.

If you think back on your personal experience, you will probably come to a similar conclusions. Some things are best done face to face, regardless of bandwidth. However, you don’t have to rely on your own experience or mine. There is an entire empirical literature on this. Here are some good places to start.,8599,1998396,00.html

My wife Wendy and I were among the co-organizers of a CHI workshop on “cross-cultural issues in HCI” that took place in Monterey in 1992. At that workshop, we had participants from many countries. We began the workshop by having all the participants cooperate to physically rearrange the space so that we were in a large circle rather than in rows (as though listening to a lecture).


Another CHI Workshop begins with a physical task

So, we began working together on something physical that we were all familiar with (but not something we were expert in). What happened is that we sensed that the other people were pretty much like us. On the other hand, if your first encounter is with words, you will immediately notice an accent and in many cases, it will be difficult even to understand what they say. After working together to successfully re-arrange the room, now when one of those people speaks, there is already a tiny bit of a bond. As a result, each person tries a little harder to understand accented speech. If you don’t understand something, you are slightly more apt to speak up and ask what was said. Perhaps, the initial common ground of a successful physical task made the entire two day workshop go more smoothly. I wonder whether others have experienced anything similar. Comments welcome.




Standard Issue


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Most of the suburban neighborhoods of my home town were quite similar. They typically had a long row of very similar houses and each house had a yard. That yard was filled with neatly mowed grass. Around the house were bushes. The size of the house varied from neighborhood to neighborhood but lets go back to the part where all the houses “decided” to landscape their yard in a very similar way. No-one, so far as I know, ever threatened a person whose lawn was not well-mowed. For the most part, people voluntarily kept their yards looking “nice” although within very narrow bands of taste. Having the neighborhood embody variations on a theme actually made the neighborhood as a whole look nice. Neighborhoods would have had a quite different look and feel if everyone competed on how high they could grow the bushes and trees throughout their entire property!


And, at a larger level, that’s how I feel about the rampant sensationalism in advertising. I visited a small college town once for a job interview and the only signs were moderately sized wooden signs that said, “Post Office” or “USABank” or “Barber Shop” — and it all worked for everyone in that small locale. But when there’s enough money to “go national” businesses get into an arms race to grab your attention with all bold type and much worse tricks. But it all just becomes harder to read. It makes buying and selling actually more random as people need to filter out all that crap that they are exposed to nearly every waking moment.So, I actually think these huge ad budgets are exactly a kind of tragedy of the commons. All the companies would be better off with more low key and quieter ads and so would we. And, consumers could make more intelligent choices because they would be exposed to little enough information to make some sense of it.



Is there a way for advertisers, regulators, the public, to unwind toward less sensationalistic advertising? I don’t know whether it’s possible or even desirable. But it’s worth considering.

It’s also worth considering experimenting with a different set of algorithms for social media. In their current instantiation, social media are a bad alternative to face to face meetings. In real physical space when people meet face to face, for a number of reasons, they generally act civilly. This doesn’t always happen obviously, but it generally does even if people do not agree. Actual fights at school board meetings, Congress, state legislatures, town hall meetings, high school debates, bowling leagues, assemblies, work meetings occur rarely.

Filtering and Bandwagon Effects

The social media that I know of have algorithms to filter what is shown to you. These algorithms work behind the scenes showing you and me just those things that are meant to maximize profits for the social media company. Yes, true enough, there is an intermediate goal of pleasing the user. But rest assured, if there were a way to displease the user and make more money, that’s what would be done. It’s important to keep in mind the intermediate as opposed to the ultimate goal. Of course, you realize that the social media company is out to make money. And, you also know from your own experience, that the social media company suggests things to you and shows you ads. In some cases, you also directly pay the social media company, perhaps for enhanced capabilities.

Despite not knowing the details of these unknown algorithms, I can make some educated guesses. For instance, on Facebook, we are presented with a scroll of posts. Generally, these originate from people you are “friends” with on Facebook. Ads and sponsored pages (=Ads that don’t look like ads) weasel there way in there as well. But I have hundreds of friends on Facebook.  Which ones actually appear in the feed? Likely inputs to that decision are: how many times I hesitated and for how long on previous posts for that person. Most likely, that weighting function is moderated by a recency & frequency metric. In addition, choosing an emoticon, would give that person a bigger bump and a still larger bump would come from commenting on a post. The biggest bump of all would come from a “Share.” It’s possible, but seems to me unlikely, that Facebook might actually do some natural language processing on the comment contents to see whether the reaction text is positive or negative about the post. I think it likely that Facebook may also assign some indirect positive weight. If many of my friends, especially those highly “valued” according to FB algorithm, like a post, then I am more likely to see it as well.

Let’s assume for the purposes of argument that the above speculations are more or less accurate. Clearly, there are unintended consequences if these are the only measures that the algorithm considers. For example, say I am friends with people Claude and Carol. I play tennis frequently with Claude and met him about a year ago. Carol, on the other hand, I’ve known for fifty years and I find everything she reads, thinks, etc. fascinating. As it turns out, Claude posts about 30 times a day and a lot of the stuff is rather cute. So if I see it, I may click a “Like.” Carol, on the other hand, posts maybe once every week or two. Whatever it is, it is interesting and I often comment or share it. Because Carol posts so infrequently, I don’t even notice that I haven’t seen her on FB for the last three weeks. Meanwhile, at long last Carol posts: “Hey guys. Recovering from accident. More later.” But do I see it? I haven’t paused on, liked, commented on or shared any of Carol’s posts because she hasn’t had any. It’s quite possible that Carol’s post will never get to the top of my queue. If I then fail to see this post, Carol’s “rank” will go down even further. Having a post get high in your queue probably depends to some extent on the content as well as the accompanying media. I like videos in general, and perhaps I like posts about “Human Computer Interaction.” This so happens to be what Carol typically posts on. Her most recent post, however, has nothing topic-wise to recommend it to me. The keywords that may be looked at “guys” “accident” “recovering” are not generally topics that interest me. So, because of the unusual and “uninteresting” post, I’m even less likely to see the post about my good friend, Carol.


In any case, I can pretty much guarantee that whether these algorithms are good or bad for society as a whole has not been a top priority in design meetings. Perhaps there is a way for the user to be able to push and pull the priorities in various ways to achieve a panoply of different results. In fact, one can imagine an open system environment in which dispersed and diverse groups offer up various add-on capabilities. This is an alternative to having one giant company control how we see and react to each other.

Bandwagon Alternatives.

The “Bandwagon Effect” refers to social media algorithms putting high priority to show those items that already have more pauses, likes, comments and shares in the case of FaceBook. In Twitter terms, it would be likes and retweets. Thought of in terms of viewing humanity as a giant neural net, the bandwagon effect is a sharpening to the first stimulus that pops up. This is less than the intelligence of an earthworm! We should be able to arrange a multi-layer, highly interconnected network of people to have a more intelligent and nuanced reaction than “WOW!” And, yet, every time one of these idiotic tsunamis of insanity gone viral, it interferes in a very real sense with your ability to keep up with the people whom you actually know.


Anonymity Alternatives. 

Companies need to carefully consider ways to insure people’s identities are broadly consistent with reality. I do not think it would be okay for me to have an account on twitter, for instance, that has a name like “Donald_Trump” or “Barack_Obama” if I have no official relationship to the real people who are most likely referenced by these labels. This is even more serious if I am really using a moniker to get people to see my posts when my real goal is to trash these political figures.

My FB profile says I worked at IBM Research and Verizon and studied at the University of Michigan. Does FB do any work to verify these claims? After all, if I make a comment about IBM, people may reasonably put a little more credence on that comment if they know I worked at IBM Research than if I just made that up out of whole cloth. As we have recently discovered, some “fake” accounts that claimed to be US citizens concerned about our country were actually the accounts of Russians who were intentionally trying to foment discontent in America. Things of a similar nature are being used to disrupt and divide other Western democracies.

Similarly, my LinkedIn profile is even more detailed with degrees, work experiences, and other details. But suppose I present myself (falsely) as a highly experienced diplomat with widespread middle east experience. Won’t people who read my various posts and comments about the middle east put more weight on my opinion if I claim to know something about it? The question is, however, does LinkedIn do anything to verify the claims a person makes about their experience and background?


I am not picking on these specific social media platforms. They are among the most popular and are three I happen to be active on. That’s the only reason I chose them. But do any of them make attempts to verify the information? Sure, you could argue it’s up to the individual to do this kind of checking but that’s insane. My name, for example, John Thomas, is an extremely common name. It’s not that trivial, even with google, to distinguish my actual publications, background, etc. from others with the same name, even for me. Wouldn’t it be a lot more efficient for, say, LinkedIn to at least lightly verify that I worked at IBM than for every one of my 3000 connections on LinkedIn to do it themselves? Part of the value of the social media platforms is in the profiles that people create. Is it to much to ask for the social media people to do any checking? Don’t we expect the FDA to at least spot check that things labelled as “beef” actually contain healthy cow meat and not rotted horse meat? We don’t allow people to get away with fake credit cards or driver’s licenses and with good reason. Who makes sure these social media profiles contain reasonably accurate information? Who should? It would be one thing if these media were simply used as occasional sources of entertainment. But that’s not the case! People rely on FB, for instance, for their news! 

In the absence of any checking, most people, me included, are putting up “real” information about ourselves, but others are completely lying perhaps as part of a small personal scam, but more crucially as part of an international attempt to divide America and other western democracies. True enough, FB terms of service ask for the help of users to put up real information about themselves. But we have learned that some accounts were not even telling the truth about their country of origin. This is not okay, folks. This is not okay.

Enforced Civility. 

Could or should social media do more to enforce some kind of civility in the content? This may admittedly be difficult to implement. Currently, social media do have various “Terms of Service” meant to move people toward civility but real civility is much more than simply avoiding swear words. It is easy to avoid being blocked and still “say” the swear word in a number of ways such as embedding or substituting other characters. You know I mean a**hole and I know I mean it. No one thinks it is short for a parameter “a” raised to the power “hole.”  But even if smarter algorithms detected and deleted disguised swear words, it would only address a small part of the problem.

As I have blogged on many occasions, another part of the problem is likely due to society’s rush and that, in turn, is reflected by limits such as (until recently) Twitter’s limit of 140 characters. I personally like the restriction since it provides a creative opportunity. However, even in my most creative mood, I find it very difficult, in 140 (or even 280) characters to acknowledge your point, restate it, and then move forward some kind of reasoned dialogue about an issue we disagree on.


Research and suggestions about how to make on-line environments more constructive have been published for awhile. For example, lac, of anonymity and human moderation appear to be critical. One can also create better communities, perhaps by using levels of intimacy and trust. In the physical architecture of a home, for example, Christopher Alexander points out that most homes have a gradient from public to private space. The front porch, for instance, is somewhat public. Your vestibule or entry is somewhat private but you may let in the pizza delivery man. People would have to be further vetted to be allowed into your living room. Traditionally, the bedroom and inner garden would be still more private and reserved for fewer people.


In some cases, people may type something that is unintentionally uncivil. When you speak face to face, you can see the reactions of the other person immediately. This allows you to get feedback in real time and discover immediately that you may be causing an emotional reaction in the other person. You may choose to moderate your speech accordingly. In addition, when you speak, you say things in a particular tone of voice with a particular prosody. I might say, “Wow. That is a really interesting dress.” I could say this and sincerely mean precisely that. If I type those words, however, you do not actually hear my voice. Instead, you “hear” these words mentally with the intonation you put on them. You may hear me say it sarcastically even though it was not intended that way. Alternatively, you could “hear” me say those words suggestively, as a come on, even though I intended nothing of the sort.

In couples therapy, people are often encouraged to use “I talk” instead of “You talk.” What this means is that it works more productively for me to talk about how I feel about you and what you do than about what you do and how you should change. It also works better to be specific and to seek a solution rather than to be general. For example, let’s suppose I find my socks scattered all about the house. It works better to say, “This evening, after a hard day at work, I felt a sense of eager anticipation as I opened the front door. Then, when I saw socks strewn about the living room, my heart sank. I would be really happy if I saw no scattered sox.” than to say, “You are such a slob! You don’t care about my sox. You always strew them everywhere!” Your spouse is much more likely to react favorably to the first statement than the second. Of course, in our case, the real culprits are the cats. And no amount of coaxing or coaching, however lovingly I couch it, will convince the cats from strewing my sox about. If I want them to quit, I will have to put the sox out of reach. Similarly, people being what they are, one cannot simply ask them to behave well. The situation must include guidance and enforced penalties for misbehavior as well as perceived benefits for good behavior. Should companies provide (optional?) guidelines on rules of discourse such as being specific and using I-Talk?

While the formal properties and terms of service of the social media may be a strong force in influencing behavior, they are not determinative. For example, in the early days of AOL, there were “chat rooms” which allowed up to 21 or 22 people to enter. People could only input a couple lines at a time. Most chat rooms that I explored were largely filled with “age sex location checks” and trivial talk. I tried on several occasions to engage people in more serious debate and discussion on issues of importance to the future of civilization. My wife made similar attempts. Generally these attempts failed. But on some occasions, we both entered the same chat room and began more serious discussion. On these occasions, people were much more likely to move to that type of interaction than if just one of us tried it alone.

At this time, there were several “Native American” chat rooms. These chat rooms were completely different from the “typical ones.” I could “tell a story” — a long story — two lines at a time and no-one would interrupt. When I finished a story, people would comment. After that, someone else would “tell” a long story — again without interruption for perhaps a half hour or more. At the end of that, people would comment on the story. So, the formal characteristics of the medium could prove adequate for several quite different modes of communication depending on how people acted.

If you read the “Terms of Service” of various social media, you may quickly come to the conclusion that their main motivation is to make money. After all, they are for-profit corporations. However, it seems clear that some thought has been given to safety and privacy concerns. It’s less clear that much consideration has been given to how these social media may be shaping (or misshaping?) society as a whole.

We drive our private cars on public roads. We have considerable freedom in how we drive and when we drive and how we drive. But we are not allowed to drive north on a one-way, southbound street. We are not allowed to weave in and out of traffic or speed recklessly nor block traffic by sitting still in the middle of the road. The car manufacturers do not control these laws. They are enacted for the benefit of society as a whole. Safety is a large consideration, but not the only one. (If it were, we might have a world-wide speed limit of 35 or 40 mph). The rules recognize that safety is important but so is “reasonable” speed. We tolerate a fair number of deaths every year in order to accommodate speed. But if we were killing half the population, we would insist on changing the rules. Perhaps it is time to start considering changing the rules about how we use social media. Perhaps the Terms of Service should not be the sole province of the company’s who provide the platform any more than the construction companies that build our roads are the sole determiner of traffic laws, fines, and penalties.


There are many other thoughts on media, its impact on society, and how to make it a better force for good. Here is just a small sample.


Gold Standard


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At David Hill Elementary, our third and four grade teacher, Miss Wilkins, had a small library in the classroom which we were allowed to freely peruse on Thursdays during spelling tests, provided we had gotten 100% on Wednesday’s preliminary test. I generally did manage to get a perfect score on Wednesday and of all the books, I most liked one that had a very detailed picture of not one, but two Medieval castles. Movies about King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Prince Valiant further stoked my love of these fine days of knights and castles and kings and queens. Playing out fantasies with toy swords and shields seemed so much more satisfying than playing “cops and robbers” or even “army” which often devolved into shouting matches about who shot whom first. When someone got hit with a toy sword, they damned well knew it! That wasn’t the only reason for the attraction though. It seemed more honest and more “real” to battle someone with sword and spear than with guns. Even as a nine year old, it seemed clear that a much weaker person could kill a stronger one with a gun. All that was required was a fast draw or to shoot someone in an ambush.

For years, I made castles from cardboard boxes with the cardboard axles from paper towels as turrets. These allowed toy knights to be deployed in larger battles. One Christmas, I even received a “real” castle made of metal! This was one of the coolest presents ever. Now, decades later, it seems I, along with millions of other people may get to live out this childhood fantasy in a second “real” Dark Ages.

The thing is this; in the intervening years, I’ve been to real castles in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and France. They are cool. In fact, they are cold. And damp. They lack the basic comforts of today’s cheapest Motels. Falling from our intricate, inter-connected, inter-dependent computerized modernity into a new Dark Ages will not be as fun as you might think in case you are still harboring those childhood fantasies about Medieval Europe.


I hope people also realize that a descent into the brutality of the Dark Ages is not something that be easily undone either. Just as most of us have lost the skills to snare rabbits or find edible wild plants, the second generation of a new Dark Ages would not be able to program, let alone build, a computer. The third generation will be lucky to have a third grade “education” in terms of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Yes, there will hopefully be fragments of useful information scattered about, but without the social structures of public schools, universities, research institutions, private companies, markets, investment capital, etc., nothing will have enough context to succeed. Are people going to fund you to build a computer from scratch when they don’t even know what it is and they feel hungry right now? No. They will ask you to join the hunt or go hungry yourself when the goods are returned to the campfire, village, or tent.

By the way, this may be an extremely dangerous case of the “grass seeming greener on the other side of the pasture.” We are all quite familiar with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from our own modern world. But we woefully underestimate just how much less interesting, less healthy, less fun, less fulfilling, and less fair life would be in the dark ages. Most likely, you would die in childbirth. If you did live, you’d most likely be little more than a slave (yes, even if you’re “white”). You’d probably die around 30 or 40. If you’re lucky. You wouldn’t be playing video games or watching TV or listening to an iPod or texting on your iPhone. You probably wouldn’t even be reading a magazine or newspaper or book. If you get sick, you are very likely to die, unless of course you are staring in a movie about the Dark Ages and then you will be miraculously cured by your true love, or the magic ointment of a witch, or a vision of the Holy Grail. But in the real, Dark Ages, you’d die.

Even the kings and queens and bishops and knights of the “real” Dark Ages did not generally have life half so good as we have it. But your chances of being one of those pieces is pretty much nil. A chessboard may have 8 pawns a side and 8 “upper class” pieces, but in the real Dark Ages, it would be more like 10,000 pawns to one king or queen. You and I would be one of the pawns. Our basic job is to work from dawn to dusk until we die of illness or battle and give almost all of it to the noble who owned us. If we didn’t particularly enjoy farming or blacksmithing, too bad. We were stuck. If you worked extra hard and extra smart as a serf, your reward would be that you died younger. You would not “work your way up” to be King. No. You and your children would be serfs and so would all your grand-children. One thing to keep clearly in mind is that dictatorships, whether the dictator is called “Premier” or “Chairman” or “King” or “Tsar” are mainly for the people at the top.


I hope people do realize that even a modern country seldom gets the chance to “vote out” a dictatorship and say, “No, we liked it better as a democracy. We’ll take that again, please.” It doesn’t work like that. The view of someone who’s a dictator is that life is all about power and position — period. They are not going to give any of that, or the associated wealth, to other people. We may think the French Revolution might have considered “reasoning with” the aristocracy rather than beheading them. But after centuries of being tricked this way and that by the aristocracy, the aristocracy had no remaining credibility.

I bring this up, because if we collectively allow the continuing downward spiral of ill-informed shouting matches to continue, trust will continue to erode and society will unravel. We will find ourselves in another Dark Ages and it will be far less fun than my (and perhaps your) childhood fantasies of the Dark Ages might be.

This plague of divisiveness that is sweeping America as well as other democracies, is a truly vicious circle. It now seems crystal clear that this is precisely the effect that was intended by a foreign power (some Russians with ties to oligarchs and former KGB personnel). I call this a “vicious circle” not simply because it is mean-spirited in intent and execution (though it is) but because it constitutes a positive feedback loop. For example, the more we feel our own political party, value system, religion, or favorite candidates are under attack, the more anxious and angry we become. This makes us less discerning; when we do encounter “fake news,” we are so eager to validate our own positions and predilections that we fail to execute good judgement about whether the “news” is really fake or not.


The “good thing” about a vicious circle, aka “positive feedback loop” is that it can be run backwards to de-escalate bad feelings and reduce the effectiveness of fake news. In the earlier “cold war” between the USSR and the USA, you may recall or at least have read about an “arms race” to make more and more nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Every time the Russians increased their arms, it made the US leaders feel less secure so they increased their arms. But every time America added more nuclear missiles, it made the Russians feel less secure so they added more nuclear missiles. It seems like a runaway process. If either side can calm themselves enough to understand the system that they are a part of — and if they are brave enough, they can (and in fact did!) run the circle the other way. When the USA reduced the number of missiles aimed at the USSR, the USSR felt slightly more secure and felt okay to aim fewer missiles at America. That made American leaders feel more secure and they could further reduce atomic weapons.

Similarly, in the USA and other democracies today, if we can step back and understand that the increased divisiveness is not good for anyone, we can begin to “rewind” or “unwind” this ever escalating hate speech. Each “side” will feel a little more secure and a little more willing to take the time to exercise good judgement about what is best for America, for example, rather than simply “sharing” or “retweeting” the best zingers. It will take time to build confidence and to right the “ship of state.” But it can be done.


I believe that there are three major arenas for actions that democracies can take to reduce divisiveness. The first area is what individuals can do. That is what I will discuss today. To simplify writing, and because I am most familiar with it, I will pose these actions and arguments in terms of the USA, but the general strategies might work in any society that wants to increase cohesion and decrease divisiveness. In two future blog posts, I will examine: 1) how changes in social media algorithms and interfaces might contribute in a positive way to increasing social capital across constituencies and 2) how government regulations (or voluntary agreements in industry) may also help stamp out the worst of fake news.

But let’s begin with what you and I can do to stop this madness. Because right now, most of us are actually contributing to the divisiveness plague without really meaning to. Rather than suggesting specific news sources that are good or bad, I recommend a set of questions to ask yourself about on-line communications. When someone posts or tweets a link to a story, you might ask some of the following questions.


Who are the advertisers or funders of a purported piece of news? If you click on a link and you go to a site filled with pop-up ads, banner ads, and side bar ads, what are those ads about? Do the ads themselves have credibility? Is it really all that likely that some new oil of oregano will cure every disease known to humanity? Or, that there is “one trick” that will make everyone find you sexually irresistible? What is the relationship between the image and headline that got you to click on something and the actual substance? What is the source of the story clicked on? Is this something you’ve heard of for twenty years like CNN, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, or even The National Enquirer? Or is it something that has sprung up recently? Naturally, a newspaper might sometimes get stories wrong too, but most of their revenue comes from subscriptions. By contrast, most on-line sources only gain revenue from ads. By the way, just because there is a website with a picture of a soldier or eagle or flag or Bible does not mean its stories are real. A fake Russian news article is not going to announce itself by saying, “We’re trying to destroy your country!” nor by having a site branded with a hammer and sickle.

When it comes to evaluating a news story, sometimes it helps to consider whether it is likely based on what you know about reality. What people know about reality, of course, varies a lot from person to person. If you’ve never taken a biology course or forgotten everything, you might think a headline such as “New Hope for the Dead!” or “The Zombie Apocalypse is Real!” could be true. But even if you’ve forgotten almost everything from biology class, you do know that there are doctors who dedicate their lives to learning about medicine and practicing it. If there were really, “New Hope for the Dead,” your doctor probably would have heard about it long before your seeing it in an on-line tabloid. They might well have mentioned it to you at your last physical. “Yes, you have really high blood pressure and that is a bad thing. However, if you do die, we have a new procedure to bring back to life.” You might ask your insurance agent what they think. “Hey Joe. Hi, this is Frank. I just read this article entitled New Hope for the Dead. Do I still need life insurance?” You might ask someone else who knows a lot more about life science that you do. You might google “New Hope for the Dead” and see what other types of sites collaborate the original story. There is no single method for checking the validity of a story, but there are some general principles that are always good for problem solving. Think of alternatives and think of consequences.


Maybe there really is new hope for the dead. That’s one possibility. Or, maybe there isn’t and someone wants to make you believe there is. Why might they do that? To get you to spend money would be one reason. Another might be just to make you feel anxious or angry or jealous. Another might be to make your distrust your fellow human beings. In that latter case, the story would be slanted slightly differently; for instance, “AMA refuses to acknowledge life-restoring value of rhino horn!” This story is trying to get you to believe that rhino horn can bring you back to life and that the American Medical Association is intentionally hiding that fact from you.

How well do you keep secrets? If you’re like many people, your idea of “keeping a secret” is to tell only your closest friend or two and swear them to secrecy. They will likely do the same. Eventually, secrets tend to “come out.” The idea that among a quarter million AMA members, they are all going to successfully keep a secret from the public does not hold water. A more “reasonable” conspiracy theory would be that three doctors did something unethical and kept anyone from discovering their unethical behavior.

Aside from making judgements about the stories, links, shares, tweets that we see, we also need to make judgements about what we ourselves communicate. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else to consider four basic criteria:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind to everyone involved?
  • Is it useful to the recipient?
  • Is this story going to increase or decrease trust?

If you cannot discover the truth value of a story, you might pick for sharing something you are fairly certain is true instead. Or, you could ask others if the story is likely true. Or, you could preface it by saying that you are not sure whether it’s true and you wonder what other people think.

Think about whether what you are propagating is kind. Of course, there are times when a truth will make someone feel bad. For example, if you’re interested in baseball, you might report on a pitcher walking in the winning run. If that’s what he, in fact, did, he will not especially like being reminded. I wouldn’t personally call this “unkind” though. If on the other hand, you embellished the report, it could easily become unkind. “So-called relief pitcher Wiley Wrists should be relieved permanently from the Red Sox lineup.” Or, worse, “Wiley Wrists is too fat and ugly to walk to the mound without waddling, let along pitch!”


Will the information be useful? In the case of Wiley Wrists, most people are not going to find it useful. A few gamblers or baseball players might find it useful. The useful part, by the way, is simply the fact of his losing the game by walking in the winning run. Making fun of people generally adds no value, makes no friends, and increases bad feelings.

The criteria of truth, utility, and kindness are not my own inventions. I think they are pretty much inculcated into the face to face culture I was brought up in. I have seen these explicitly repeated in numerous forums. But the fourth one I think is also important and while related to the others, deserves its own consideration.

If we want to avoid another Dark Ages, (and I mean, the real ones, not the childhood fantasy version), we need to do what we can to restore trust among the very diverse people we have in our country, whatever country you live in. As I said before, because we have such different experiences and backgrounds, it will naturally take us longer to find common ground. Yet, at the same time, we are being driven to faster and faster schedules and timeframes. Our communications may be misinterpreted or clumsy, but at least strive to communicate in a way that tends to increase rather than decrease trust. There are actually very few people that I distrust intensely. So calling them out on being untrustworthy is true and useful. It’s impact on trust is complicated. I believe that the untrustworthy in government are intentionally destroying trust in the country. If those untrustworthy people are trusted? Then, we are collectively toast.

Similarly, some modern politicians are doing things that are genuinely unkind; in fact, they are downright nasty. It is not really kind to them for me to point this out. On the other hand, if we can get rid of politicians who pass legislation that tries to destroy America or make it a crueler, meaner place, then even though the message is unkind to some, it hopefully encourages people to prevent turning America into Amerikkka. And, that is the kind of kind that trumps nice words.

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Excellent Analysis of “Fake News”

Fool’s Gold


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Fools Gold

The Lost Sapphire

(Appeared summer 1997 in the e-zine, The Empty Shelf, slightly re-edited, here).

I can’t recall how that giant blue sapphire first veered into the orbit of my life. Of course, even at five years, I knew it might not be a real sapphire; at least, that’s what my parents insisted. They called it “just glass.” But, they might just possibly be wrong, I secretly thought. After all, I could look into it forever. And, if I looked real hard, I could see the dim, midnight blue outline of things beyond and through the stone, transformed by the magic of the stone into something quite out of the ordinary; something heavenly, mysterious, almost certainly good rather than evil. Almost. And, so far as I could tell, my parents never actually saw the stone; certainly they never looked through it. They’d just glance at it and say, “Oh, yeah, it’s blue glass.”

Well, it seemed to me that it could very well be a real sapphire. Besides making things look beautiful, there was something else — something mom and dad never even tried to understand. It was this. If something happened I didn’t like; if I were sad because my dog was “put to sleep” or scared of getting a shot, I could look at this sapphire and it made me feel better! It made it all, “Okay.” If I listened carefully, it spoke wordless tales of wisdom and comfort. It was obviously worth a lot, lot more than my parents knew.

True, there was a tiny chunk broken out of one corner. But that didn’t really matter. The stone was still perfect…perfect: something to be kept forever.

Forever, that is, until Jimmy moved next door. Jimmy was ten years old and had a two-wheeled bike. Jimmy towered up nearly as thick and high as an adult. But Jimmy was still young enough to see the powerful magic in the sapphire. One bright Saturday morning, on the green grass of the “devil strip” between the white sidewalk and the forbidden black street where the deadly cars zoomed, I sat in the grass watching the magic sapphire, listening for its words of wisdom. Jimmy rode up and tossed his bike onto the devil strip and hopped off in one smooth move. He plopped down beside me. He flashed the red reflector from his bike in the sunlight. Oh, how it sparkled into my eyes!

“Do you want this ruby?” asked Jimmy innocently.

“Oh! Okay. Thanks!”

Jimmy handed it to me and let me flash it in the sun. It was so much brighter than the sapphire! It sparkled fire!

“Great,” said Jimmy, “Let me have the sapphire.”

He snatched it from the grass where I had lain it, jumped up sped away on his bike.

I stared dumbly at his vanishing figure, then back down at the red reflector in my hand. Maybe this was a good trade after all, I thought. It was really bright all right. And when you moved it in the sun, it made different starburst patterns. After all, it had come from a full-sized two-wheeler. But still…something was missing. Then, a buzzing filled my ears. I suddenly realized that the reflector was just pretty glass! There was no magic to it. It didn’t speak; it just buzzed its foolish empty buzz. I couldn’t look through it to other things. It had no depth. And worst of all, it could never make anyone feel better, not even a little bit. “I thought you meant…for a minute…” I said to the big kid now behind his own front door.

I considered telling my mom and dad. Maybe they could get the sapphire back! I hated telling them. You just don’t tell parents about kid troubles; it’s against the main unwritten law of being a kid. But maybe they could get my sapphire back! When I finally told them what had happened, they said, “Well, you made a trade.” I tried to get Jimmy to trade back, but he had none of it. Jimmy soon moved away, never to be seen again. But I kept the red reflector — not to look at — because that would seem somehow unfaithful to the spirit of the sapphire — but just in case Jimmy came by one day wanting to trade back.

And later, much later, I used my allowance to buy special clear marbles — called “Peeries” — emerald green and dark blue with bubbles in them, and my dad got me a cool science kit with a clear rainbow prism that threw color into everything, and then one day I looked into the deep, sparking blue eyes of a blond girl named Jennifer and later into the sparkling blue eyes of a beautiful woman named Wendy and then into real diamonds and computer screens and experimental results and statistical analyses and conclusions, insights, and science fiction. And all of those things were good and all of these spoke to me.

Still, I wonder where the blue sapphire is and how to get it back. How to get it back? The magic. Not clever illusion, not something made to look nice, but true magic. Are you out there, Jimmy? Because I still have your red reflector if you want to trade back.


I don’t know whether society can trade back either. We used to have some kind of balance between competition and the other valuable things about life. We seem mainly to have traded it in on a newer model. In the new model, money is the only thing that matters. Winning is the only thing that matters. Math definitely does not matter. People who are rich and powerful can pretty much get away with anything. The only exception would be someone like Bernie Madoff who was silly enough to include some wealthy people among those he bamboozled. But the Bernie Madoffs of Wall Street that sunk the economy in 2008 walked away scot free.

“All that glitters is not gold.” The normal interpretation of this means that not everything that glitters (like gold) really is gold. Normally, this is meant in a metaphorical way but based on the real phenomenon of “Fool’s Gold” (Iron Pyrite) which does glitter like polished gold but is of far less conventional value.


I like to consider a different interpretation: What if all gold is “Fool’s Gold”? Naturally, I’m not denying the existence of metallic gold. I’m wearing a (mostly) gold wedding ring. So, I believe in real gold. What is meant is that striving after gold is itself a foolish thing to do. If that’s true, then, it’s all “Fool’s Gold” whether or not it’s Iron Pyrite or Real Gold.

How could this possibly be so? Isn’t life a contest to see who can make the most money? Isn’t money (and before that gold) an easier way to exchange goods and services that having to strike each deal uniquely? It is indeed easier. Does that necessarily mean it’s better?

Society is growing more and more differentiated. We do vastly different jobs from each other. For example, for many centuries, farming was a common occupation. In the USA in 1900, for example, about a third of the entire workforce were still farmers.  Now, that percentage of farmers is about a tenth that. It isn’t only that there are now many different fields such as computer science and forestry. Even within a field such as computer science or forestry, there are more and more subspecialties. It’s as though the tree of humanity is growing larger and larger and branching out farther and farther.


At the same time, this entire enterprise called “society” is not stable. It is spinning; spinning faster and faster. This means that this whole enterprise will eventually fly apart — unless, the cohesive strength of the whole enterprise continues to increase. Unfortunately, it seems that just when we need to increase that bonding strength, it is weakening.

What is the real gold? Anything that strengthens the ties is real gold. Anything that weakens the ties will tend to cause the entire enterprise to disintegrate. Even if some bars of heavy shiny metal accrue to those who strive to break us apart, they are causing overwhelming harm to others, including generations and generations of their own offspring.  The last time, the European Dark Ages occurred, it last centuries. Science, engineering, agriculture, learning, medicine — all these things were worse for a half millennium before they started to get better again. Meanwhile, the toll in terms of human misery was immense. And for what?


Our fall from the advanced civilization to the next Dark Ages will be a much harder fall than what much of Europe experienced after the fall of Rome. People in a Roman society were closer to the land and to the world of real things than many people are today. Many moderns in the so-called Global North have no idea how to live off the land, plant a garden, hunt or fish. Even if they did, we wouldn’t be close to being able to feed 7 billion people without modern agriculture, distribution, knowledge of crops, irrigation systems.

My history lessons focused on Western Europe and the United States, so when I think of the “Dark Ages”, I think in terms of Western Europe. But we should remember that that minimal impact, for instance, on most of the people of the planet at that time including North and South America, Australia, most of Africa, and most of Asia. This time, it would be different. Such a catastrophic Dark Ages would today be global. No-one would really escape.


No-one would escape the new Dark Ages and that includes extremely rich and powerful people. Yes, they could have more absolute power over other people as a Newmedieval Tyrant than as the leader of a democracy. And, granted, that may be the most important thing in the life of that kind of person. But it isn’t the only thing. They have no idea how inconvenienced every other aspect of their life would be if civilization fell.

We, as a species, are not “set up” for the Dark Ages. There are way, way too many to feed without the science and engineering behind today’s agricultural processes. There are way too many to obtain fresh water without modern infrastructure. Of course, it isn’t just that we are physically unable to deal with this kind of downfall. We are nowise prepared mentally either. Most of the knowledge we currently have for living in a complex, technological society would be completely useless and we’d know very little of what we should actually know in order to survive.

Maybe hell is not the punishment for one person’s life of sin, but the collective punishment wreaked upon all of our descendants for the collective current sins of humanity. After all, isn’t extinction a kind of hell for the species? We wouldn’t be the first extinguished species. Not by a long shot. Most of them were “hit without warning” by the after-effects of a meteor or a met by a human-powered bulldozer clearing away amazing rain forests for a few more bars of fools gold.

I know one thing for certain. Jimmy’s not coming back to trade you back what you really care about for that shiny red reflector that caught your momentary eye.

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New Fools.


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They say there is “no fool like an old fool.” I may be an old fool, but I am now being fooled in entirely new ways.

Despite my injured knee, I went out onto the tennis court in the San Diego sun today to practice. Mainly, I focused on one important, simple, yet difficult skill: keeping my eye on the ball all the way onto the racquet and then, a split second beyond that, keeping my eye fixed on the point of contact. If you would like to see what this looks like in a professional tennis player, watch a slow motion video of Roger Federer. All the professionals typically do this, but no-one does it more obviously, more consistently, or more effectively than Roger.

Most athletes are aware that watching the ball longer allows you to make any needed adjustments as late as possible. It increases your chances of making good contact. There is a second, and more subtle reason for this technique however. We humans are social animals. We have evolved to be extremely good at reading social signals. One of those social signals we’re expert at is judging where someone else is looking. The “natural” thing for me to do is to intend to hit the ball into a particular place, say deep into my opponent’s backhand corner. And, the “natural” way to do this is to look right into that corner an instant before I hit the ball. Then, I will easily see where the ball actually goes. Unfortunately, this increases the chances that I will mis-hit the ball. More importantly, it signals to my opponent where I am intending to hit the ball. They can tell from my gaze where the ball is headed, at least roughly, much sooner than they can by tracking and extrapolating the path of the ball. The trick which I was practicing today was to simultaneously have a clear intentional target but keep my eyes on the point of contact. Keeping your eyes on the point of contact still leaves plenty of time to then look over and see where the ball is going and how your opponent is moving toward it.


Not “telegraphing” your punches is vitally important in boxing and other martial arts. Similarly, a good basketball player will try to “fake” one direction and go another. A good football play often hinges on misdirection. In fact, in any sport in which the players interact in real time, avoiding doing anything to “signal” what you’re about to do is crucial. In baseball, for instance, if pitchers are not careful, they may develop a habit of giving away the pitch they are about to throw.

In sports which do not involve this kind of direct interaction such as weight lifting, hurdling, pole vaulting, shot putting, bowling, etc. there is no need to “fool” your opponent about your intentions. No pole vaulter thinks, “I’m going to run real slow down the runway so my opponent thinks I won’t be able to clear the bar. Then, I’ll put on a burst of speed at the last second and clear it! They’ll all be so surprised!” No.

Conversations among friends generally involve people sharing news or information or feelings in a straightforward way. You tell a story about what happened to you because you want to share the experience with your friends. You might introduce humor or some exaggeration, but if the whole purpose of your stories is to manipulate your friends into doing something that’s for your benefit, you won’t keep many friends for very long. Conversation is supposed to be a cooperative enterprise.

On the other hand, in other venues such as courtrooms and debates, skilled speakers may try various tricks, not aimed at working together to share information in order to reach a more profound or broader truth, but to manipulate someone into doing what the speaker wants; e.g., to confound the opposing debater and win the trophy or, more seriously, to render a “not guilty” verdict and to let the murderer walk.

I love acting. In acting, of course, I play a role and my intention is to be believable. In this case, I am not only saying things that are false, I am faking everything. I am pretending to do things I am not really doing (e.g., drinking whiskey but it’s really tea), speaking lines with absolute sincerity that are complete lies, and expressing feelings that I may not be feeling at all. There is some sense in which I “believe” in the story I am participating in, but I’m willing to bet that if I’m in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the theater curtain catches fire, I will not run for the fake phone, imagine hearing a dial tone and place a pretend call to the fire department and then engage in a conversation with an imaginary fire department dispatcher. I will dial 911 on my iPhone.

We put up with this “dishonest charade” because everyone knows its for entertainment purposes. As you may recall from history class, plays were not always regarded kindly by custom or law. Some religious regimes have banned or regulated stage plays.


Personally, I love watching live theater as well as participating. I believe that overall, it has beneficial impacts on society by showing other ways that things could be. But theater is only positive so long as everyone is clear that these are fantasies, not realities. (Even if a play rests on historical fact as its basis, it will still be a vastly simplified account from one angle). We are basically all in this together. And the more people that inhabit the planet, the closer we all get. None of us can know everything. We must rely on each other in order to make our complex system work. It’s fine to play “what-if” games for entertainment or as part of a scenario planning process. But we should never mislead each other about whether something is a fantasy or a truth or something partially true. Are there exceptions?

Yes. One can generate scenarios in which a lie can save someone’s life. An obvious example: your depressed friend comes to your apartment agitated and asks for your gun so they can kill themselves. Your gun is right under your pillow. Instead of locating it for them, you lie, “I don’t own a gun! Why would I? Anyway, sit down here and tell me why you’re so upset.”

It is sometimes fun to play harmless pranks on people although even these have a tendency to go awry. I recall a kid at YMCA camp saw one of our cabin-mates approaching and decided it would be really cool to scare him by jumping up and screaming like a wildcat just as he opened the door. The unsuspecting camper-to-be-pranked (in a primitive 10 year old way) pulled open the door. The “practical joker” sprang up all of about two inches before hitting his head on a protruding nail. Instead of screaming like a wildcat, he screamed like a wounded ten-year old.

While I love acting, I do not really enjoy scamming people or fooling them for my benefit. I really think it’s really bad. Our information and actions are so interconnected and interdependent that every positive or negative thing you do has completely unseen ramifications. If you lie, even a little, you have no idea how gigantic those implications might be 25 steps removed. In other words, there is no such thing as a “harmless lie” because every lie has a cost. That cost is hard to predict.

I did, nonetheless, break this general rule on rare occasion. My older cousin Bob kindly demonstrated the general concept by conning me repeatedly. Eventually, I wised up. But not before being tricked into doing things against my own interest just for Bob’s amusement.

I spent two of my teen summers as a counselor at a camp (e.g., a Rotary Camp) for kids with special needs. This was a coed camp on the shore of a beautiful lake (Let’s randomly call it “Rex Lake” for convenience). We took kids out on motorboats, canoes, and rowboats. We played kickball, sang camp songs, swam like every other camp. Since the camp was coed, so were the counselors. One of the women counselors my age was headed to one of the prestigious “Seven Sisters.” Let’s just pick one: Bryn Mawr. She was very well read and intelligent. I bring this up because, despite her intelligence and knowledge, she was one of the most gullible people I’d met, up to that point in my life. I probably would never have had occasion to discover this if left to my own devices. At least, I like to think that.


I must explain that the “boy counselors” (yes, only the boys) went to this camp a week early to refurbish it. We peeled old paint, applied new paint, washed windows, replaced light bulbs, scrubbed floors, etc. Though pretty hard labor, much of it allowed us to talk. I heard many stories about this woman (let’s call her Susan) because she had been a counselor before. So, a week before I actually met her, I was told a number of stories about her. For example, one of the daily chores was to sweep the shiny red floor of the recreation room. A long handled, black-brushed broom provided the main tool along with “sweeping compound” which consisted of oil and sawdust and had a very sweet odor to it. The camp counselor, let’s still call her Susan, found sweeping more enjoyable, apparently, when done bare-foot. When my companion counselor happened upon her, his brain immediately hatched a plot. “Oh, my God, Susan! You stepped in the sweeping compound with bare feet! Go see the head counselor (let’s call her Gracie) at once! She’ll have to rush you to the hospital for immediate treatment!”

Meanwhile, Gracie was serving tea to some would-be potential donors to the camp. Normally, we counselors would knock politely on the door to Gracie’s tiny ivied cottage. Instead, Susan turned the knob, threw open the door and yelled, “Gracie, I stepped in the sweeping compound!” Gracie lowered her teacup gently onto the crystal table, turned to Susan and asked, “So?”

Susan purportedly next said, “But I mean, I stepped right in it barefoot!”

Gracie: “So?”

Susan: “Well, I mean, don’t I have to go to the hospital? Isn’t it poisonous?”

Gracie: “No. Go finish sweeping.”

This might have been a “harmless” joke that kept a hundred thousand dollars of donations from flowing to the Rotary camp.

Another lengthy example, while — let’s call him Stan — and I washed a thousand window panes involved convincing Susan that she had accidentally married Stan in a legally binding ceremony. Setting aside for a moment, the cruelty of such a joke, if believed, let’s again remind ourselves that this young woman was intelligent and well read. She was headed, remember, for Bryn Mawr.

Every week, at one of the evening gatherings, each cabin put on a skit. Working with these kids to design, rehearse and perform these skits — priceless. Anyway, according to Stan, she and Stan were in a joint skit with her cabin and Stan’s cabin in which, she and Stan get married. Stan’s older sister (let’s just call her Lynda) played the part of the minister. A day later, Stan approaches Susan all trembly and nervous apologizing for the horrible accident.

Susan said, “What accident?”

Stan claimed, “I am so sorry. I forgot that my sister is an ordained lay minister. That makes our marriage legal. Since I’m catholic, divorce is out of the question. I’m so sorry, Susan. I never meant for this to happen.”

In the world according to Stan, she took this bait hook, line and sinker.

Of course, I didn’t really know this Stan counselor. So, I didn’t take just his word for it. When I met Susan, I probed her about these events and she confirmed that she had fallen for both of these pranks and several more besides. Beyond that, the very first 3 weeks, sad to say, I participated in one of these scams.

Our motorboats ran on gasoline and periodically, we would need to motor over to a nearby dock called (let’s just say) Dusty’s Landing. Typically, one of the counselors would motor over with a bunch of empty gas tanks, obtain and pay for the fuel and motor back to the Rotary Camp. I understood this from the very first week and Susan had been a counselor for two previous years.

Nonetheless, we convinced her that we had changed the procedure and that she was to go out in the middle of the lake and wait there. Dusty would be along any minute as part of his new weekly mobile gas run around Rex Lake. Sigh. What disturbs me even more than being mean enough to have been part of this is that she fell for it. 

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To fully understand why that was so disappointing, you have to understand that Dusty’s was very much a one-person shop. Dusty himself was quite a character. Probably around 60 at the time, he had some interesting shows of strength he could perform such as plant his hands on the ground and stick both legs straight out in front of him parallel to the floor. He sold all sorts of things besides gasoline in his dusty, musty clapboard store. His was a “convenience store” whose wares included one of my favorites, “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” Whenever it was my turn to go buy gas, I, like the other counselors, could buy a piece of candy from the change. So I picked the Reese’s. Unfortunately, as I discovered on the way back to our landing, the chocolate was infested with worms. Who knows how long those two cups been sitting there on the dusty shelf?

Anyway, the idea that Dusty would leave shop in the middle of the day is pretty far-fetched to begin with. While the camp had a pretty regular schedule, the shore of the lake was dotted by small mansions whose owners came and went as they pleased. It would be impossible to make any kind of efficient distribution of the gas by having Dusty cruise around the lake to meet people. It made infinitely more sense to have the patrons come to Dusty.

One must also understand, that unlike the case of stepping in “poison” sweeping compound, there was no urgency here. Even if, God forbid, we missed the mythical “Dusty’s gas run”, we could still motor over and get gas the “old-fashioned way.” Moreover, you need to understand that the camp was small. It would take no more than five minutes to find Gracie or another authority to confirm this new procedure. And, Susan had been fooled into so many pranks before. My own role was even more rotten because Susan already had good reason to distrust Stan, but not (yet) to distrust me. So, I really was “feeding the evil wolf” here. I remain more upset though about Susan. Why would she fall for any of these. It’s bothersome, of course, not just because of Susan but because by this time, I knew she had gone to a private school that had the best reputation in the area (let’s call it the Akron area). Come to think of it, this was an all girl’s school. Perhaps the one lesson they were not well-equipped to teach was how treacherous men can be. Then, you would think they would make double the effort, unless, of course, the whole point was to make intelligent sounding wives who were extremely gullible?

Susan is not the only one, of course. Criminals would stop phishing if it didn’t sometimes work. There lots of dishonest people out there. In many cases, they are not just trying to “make a harmless joke” or “get your goat.” They are out to steal your money, rob you blind, get you vote against your own interest, and ultimately to take arms against your neighbors. That’s not for your benefit. It’s not for your neighbor’s benefit. It’s for their benefit.

When someone appears to be sincere in their communications, how can you tell it’s a manipulation? It’s not easy. I have to say, Stan was a pretty convincing liar. I think in the pranks pulled on Susan, she could have reasoned that they didn’t make sense. Would the camp really ask the counselors to sweep the floor where the kids played every day with a deadly poisonous substance? Seems absurd to me, but then it also seems absurd that human beings would knowingly ruin the habitability of their planet. It seems pretty absurd that the people of Flint Michigan would be given poisonous water knowingly.

Just as some people are more gullible than others, some people are much better liars and manipulators than others. Any great salesperson is a great manipulator. They may or may not also be a great liar. In some cases, such as tech sales, a sales person is primarily a problem solver and to a large extent that can apply to other sales people as well. The real sleaze occurs when there is no repeat business.


What sales people can do is read you. For example, a smart sales person (actually, I think Stan became a salesman) may think the best feature of a used car is its engine. But if the sales person is smart they are going to tell you all the wonderful features and see which ones light your fire. Maybe all you care about are the tail fins. Is the sales person going to say, “Oh, yeah, but who cares? Right? They’re just gingerbread. The real nice thing about this car is the engine.” You are the one buying the car. So, they are going to appeal to your values, not try to make you take on their values.

A politician who gives speeches live must be able to “read the crowd.” In a similar way, he will test the reaction of the crowd to various things and see which ones trigger a really good response. Since everyone in the crowd can hear everyone else, it becomes something of a positive feedback loop. Once the crowd as a whole latches onto something, then everyone is even more prone to join in. Reading a crowd, however, is much harder than reading a single individual, up close and personal. For this reason, most politicians, put some kind of control over the setting, the timing, the audience, for their speeches or other events. People who disagree, protest, heckle are really not all that welcome. Some politicians go further and only allow in avid supporters. When this kind of a crowd then appears on TV, viewers at home may assume this is a random cross section of America. No. It is a very select group. “Reading the crowd” becomes much easier within a fairly homogeneous group. A great politician can do it no matter what the group composition or initial position. Though clearly fiction, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar displays Marc Anthony believably turn the crowd from applauding the conspirators who slew Caesar to searching to destroy them. But even the most mediocre politician can rouse a group who already strongly supports him or her.

The sales person (and the politician) are operating on two levels at the same time. Remember Roger Federer and his watching the ball with his eyes while he is mentally prepared to hit the ball down the line to his opponent’s backhand? Roger knows the plan. But he is not sharing that plan with his opposition.

Although a sales person is not your opponent or your enemy, they do have an agenda. They want to sell you a car, or a house, or a pig in a poke, or a life insurance policy. They are appearing to have a conversation with you and are indeed exchanging information. In the case of the car, they might talk about how reliable the company is, how great the service is (even though it’s never needed) or about how roomy the back seat is. But always, always, while they are watching the ball of the conversation, they also have a very clear intention in their mind to close. If you would like to hear a funny genius at sales discuss this, check out any one of Zig Ziggler’s books or tapes.

A politician often does the same thing. They are trying to manipulate the crowd in some way; to make noise, to scream, to applaud, to go out and vote, and sometimes, on rare occasions in recent American politics, they are actually inciting people to riot or commit actual crimes. One way you can tell a politician is doing this kind of desperate manipulation is to listen to the form of their speech. Unless they are intelligent, being totally occupied with trying to read and manipulate the crowd while they are also talking, will render their speech marred with errors, vagueness, and non sequiturs. They will repeat themselves over and over. By contrast, some politicians are mostly speaking from the heart. Even when their words are crafted partly or solely by professional speech writers, those people know what the politician really believes. If it is real belief, the politician can not only appear glib; they can also probe and respond in a deep way to complex issues. If they are overwhelmed with the dual tasking of manipulation and speaking about something they don’t care about, they will stumble and bumble about, simply repeating, repeating, repeating words and constructing “sentences” that do not really form complete sentences.

That inarticulateness is an important cue but it isn’t a perfect one. Some politicians are smart enough to lie eloquently and still have enough intellectual capacity to try to move you in your beliefs or actions from point A to point B. After all, many politicians have been lawyers and that’s practice. In fact, Congress and car salesman are perceived to be the least honest professions in the United States. (If you’d like to learn more about the demographics of your Congress, you can check it out here).

You would probably be hard-pressed to come up with a belief so whacky that no-one in America believes it. Generally, that’s not such a big deal. It’s been historically difficult for any politician to pull together funding from the “People who believe our brains are in our armpits” Foundation. Until now. Because now, the politician does not have to try to cajole the nut cases from all over the country to a $2500 a plate dinner so they can listen to him blab about how he has long believed our brains are in our armpits and thank God  for these brave souls in the audience withstand the daily ridicule of their neighbors to help bring out the real truth. The politician in such a mythical $2500/plate dinner would say he agrees with the audience about the cover-up and he’s sure something stinks. The press does nothing to ensure fair coverage. For the past 50 years, the story scape on this vital topic has been arid, says the politician.

Because this fringe is so scattered however, the logistics make such a dinner unworkable. Until now. Furthermore, there is always the chance that a videotape of his acceptance of this tripe will appear on the evening news. Until now.

Now, the politician does not have to appeal in a traceable way to such fringe groups. Nor, does he have to even communicate with them. Instead, he can pay people to make up stories that support their beliefs, whatever they are, and add in some manipulative message. For example, let’s imagine the politician in question is being investigated by the New York Times for tax evasion. He can have fake stories sent almost exclusively to people who already believe that their brains are in their armpits. “New York Times found guilty of complicit coverup. Newly discovered files confirm the Times knew all along people’s brains were in their armpits but failed to break the story.” This helps the politician’s cause of course, but it can’t be tied back to him. The politician no longer needs to be able to read the crowd. He can have the computer do it for him.


Every time you “like” or “dislike” something on Facebook or retweet on Twitter or google something, a record gets created. Those records are collated over time and compared with the records of millions of other Americans. That can be used by software programs to make a damned good guess as to whether you are part of the .05% of Americans who believe our brains are in our armpits. This process is many times more effective than the most tuned-in politician in history trying to watch people in the physical crowd before them.

Tuning fake news stories to appeal to very small audiences could be used to sway elections. Right now, here in America, and apparently elsewhere, these fake news stories are not aimed primarily at swaying an election. They are aimed squarely at destroying America and other western democracies by exaggerating our differences until we are so distracted and weakened by internal disagreements that we can be taken over without firing a shot.

Susan, now you have lots of company. We will all join you as the New Fools. We will sit in our rowboats in the middle of the lake until past dinner time.

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What’s New?


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“What’s new?”

Can’t you just picture two spry and amiable old men from the small town of Kent Falls, Ohio meeting up at the corner grocery. It’s a fine warm day in late autumn. It’s one of those days when the trees are starting to glorify the reddish  rainbow and the nights are nippy. Yet, in late afternoon, it is warm enough for shirts and trousers; the sky is clear; when two acquaintances meet, what do them say?

And, when one of the small band of kids that often gets together for some pick-up game at the school baseball field is joined by Susie who was off visiting her Uncle in Dubuque for a few days shows up, her friends ask:

And, when the knitting circle/book club shows up at the local library every Tuesday night, before they get into the details of their latest pick, “Turing’s Nightmares,” one of them is sure to be heard saying:

“Hey, Doris. What’s new?” Elaine queries her companion. In some parts of the world, the acoustic wave forms might be slightly different; e.g., “Comment-alez vous?” (How goes (it with) you?) or “Vie Gehts?” (How goes (it)?) I only know a smattering of the expressions among all the languages of the world, but I am still willing to bet that strangers who trust each other as well as friends and acquaintances everywhere try to elicit news from others. This process tends to increase social capital. Your asking the question shows that you trust this other person not to lie. Their telling you (a truth as they see it) increases your trust in them. Further, the fact that you are communicating is community reinforcing because you are using the same language; more than that, and more deeply, you are sharing information. You are saying, in effect, “I don’t know everything. I want to learn more. We are members of a species who can communicate with each other so we can share knowledge. How cool! Let’s do it!”

And we are right to celebrate this ability to share information. We literally would not have survived as the human species to this day if we could not have. And, beyond that, our ability to learn from and communicate with each other has allowed us to grow to 7 billion in population. We are not feeding everyone. But we could. We are not housing everyone. But we could. We are not getting fresh clean water to everyone. But we could. Because our ability to learn and share information collectively has allowed people to specialize their knowledge in a million different ways and cure diseases, and invent in the fields of computing and telecommunications. That in turn, meant that people could communicate way beyond their own town, not just in books, but nearly instantaneously.


There is way too much for any one person to ever learn. And, on the other hand, you also share a tremendous amount of information with others. So, it is completely reasonable to ask, “What’s New?” You don’t want to hear, yet again, for example, that 2+2 is 4. You already know that. You want to know what’s new.”If you’re like many people, particularly in the “Global North” you have little patience to hear about something you already know.

Imagine that, out of nowhere, a cold wind blew up and it began to drizzle then pour down rain in big floppy drops. Your friend says, “Hey, it’s raining!” If you’re type A, you might say, “I know! I know!” or even “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know!”

As I’ve mentioned before, in modern societies, almost everything we do has an instrumental quality or aspect to it. In addition, many activities also have various intrinsic qualities. The rain itself may have an instrumental value in that it will be good for the crops. But rain also provides a range of potential experiences for you (and your communicating friend right now). You can feel it the soft patters on your scalp and shoulders and face. You even feel your skin shiver perhaps. You hear the plish plosh staccato drum on the pavement. You see everything become grayer, foggier, less clear and a bit of steam rising from the still warm blacktop. You smell the clean clear smell of new rain. It may even remind you of walking, as a child, through rain-filled gutters. Even the fact that the rain surprised you — shocked you a little — energized your consciousness. Suddenly, you had a purpose. Find shelter. Stay warm. Re-organize your plans for the day. These are all things to be experienced and enjoyed in that moment. It does not require your friend’s participation, but if you both experience it, it is bonding and makes the experience a little more pleasurable. If your friend says, “Hey, it’s raining” he or she is not trying to inform you in an instrumental way. He or she is just inviting you to share the experience.


It is not at all uncommon to hear in the halls of modern commerce phrases such as: “Bottom line it.” “And…you’re point is?” “Just give me the 10,000 foot view.” “And, therefore…?” or even simply, “So?” Every one of these phrases is coming from the same place: looking at information exchange purely from the standpoint of what it means right now for this specific part of this specific company and how do we make more money, spend less money, or avoid prosecution. I mean, just let that sink in for a moment. You may be so used to it that you no longer see how truly bizarre it is.

Imagine a typical 12 person conference room gathering for the weekly progress report. Everyone has 5 minutes tops to discuss progress and problems. I walk in one minute before the start time with a wide-eyed stare and announce, “I just came in. There is a wildfire headed this way.” My boss says, “OK, well, this meeting is about progress on release — what’s your progress on that.” Or, perhaps, they might even use the terser, “So?” This might be a slight exaggeration, but trust me, not much. People are so trained to think of information in instrumental terms that they don’t see any value in the intrinsic experience of information, at least in a business setting. Beyond that, however, they don’t just limit information to instrumental communications. They predefine small category boxes to be slotted into small agenda boxes at the appropriate time. That a wildfire may be about to destroy the building, the machinery, some of the data, and — did I mention —- the people is very instrumental. But it is not instrumental to the predefined task at hand.

When we walk up to friends, acquaintances or even folks we’ve seen in town before and we say, “What’s New?” we are “making small talk” and increasing social capital. It is conversation that has intrinsic value. In some cases, it also has instrumental value as well. If the person outside the Kent Falls barbershop says, “Well, did you hear about the cholera outbreak in Kent Corners?” or “Are you going to the big barn dance this week end?” or “My kid’s trying to get into the double’s tournament but he needs a partner.” or any one of a million other things, information has been exchanged that you might have an interest in. You might want to (respectively) avoid going to Kent Corners, ask your spouse if they want to go to the barn dance, and ask your kid if they’re interested in teaming up for a tennis tournament.

This person you meet could, of course, be lying. They could be saying whatever they are saying as part of a con. This could happen. But it’s very unlikely. Why? Because you know who this person is or at least you recognize them. You’ll find out the truth eventually and when you do, if they are lying, you will have often have the means to ostracize this person or even have them jailed for lying. You also have the advantage that you can look them in the eye, ask them questions, and generally be able to verify things pretty quickly. For instance, assuming Kent Falls is near Kent Corners, you’ll fine it easy to discover whether there is really a cholera outbreak. Some people can look you in the eye and lie pretty convincingly, but it’s not that easy. Not only can you see directly who is talking; the speaker knows that you are looking at them. They know you can pretty easily verify their statements. They know that if they lie, they can get in big trouble. So under these circumstances, lies tend to be few and far between.

With on-line media, however, the situation can be quite different. Someone famous tweets something and you don’t see that person actually do it. All you see are the 140 (soon to be 280?) characters. They may be tweeting, not about the next town over but about an island thousands of miles away. You have no easy way to verify what they say. Even worse, what they say may be “verified” by a so-called citizen’s group or news agency which is actually nothing like a citizen’s group or news agency. It is merely an invented tool to lend credibility to the lie.

If such lies become widespread on a national basis, coordination of ordinary activities becomes extremely difficult. In the case of the small town, if people begin to circulate false rumors of barn dances, eventually no one will bother to attend or organize a real barn dance. What if you’re told that Kent Corners is not suffering a cholera outbreak but that they are part of the zombie apocalypse and you need to burn down the village before they come for your town?

In a large country, even worse lies can be harder to track down. Imagine, for instance, that banks no longer feel obligated to tell you how much money of your money they actually have or imagine that they create new accounts and charge you fees for those accounts without asking your permission or telling you about them. Imagine doctors are paid by you to be their physician but unbeknownst to you, they are also being paid way more money than you can afford so that they will prescribe specific drugs that are actually not best for you. Imagine that wealthy bankers develop a system so that they make what are essentially long odds bets and when those bets pay off, they pocket the winnings. But when they lose all their money, they charge the taxpayers for those risky bets. It isn’t just that people are telling these specific lies to cheat you out of your money, time, or attention. That’s bad enough. But what they are also doing is destroying our ability to coordinate and trust and collaborate.

What’s amazing about such stories is that the events underneath these stories have a tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Yes, the stories are often, long, complicated, and filled with detail. Perhaps that is why the media put far more coverage on sports teams and movie stars than on these scandals which, in actuality, are galactic in scope.

I implied earlier that every communication has a relationship impact. Compared with face to face communication, distant communication has a less positive impact on relationships. At best, it is simply not as warm. At worst, it can exacerbate arguments. Introduce an intermediary who is vying for everyone’s attention in a raging ocean of screaming voices also vying for attention. Only the loudest screamer gets heard. But this has the unfortunate effect of making everyone scream as loudly as possible. Similarly, the media have some push toward screaming as loud as possible. This tends to exaggerate differences, but let’s not also forget that it tends to further decrease the potentially positive relationship aspects of communication. In face to face meetings, it is always possible to have the two sides proffer hands and come to agreement. With news feeds going specifically to people who already believe what is about to be reported, the illusion among those people also grows that their view is the correct view. All of this happens even without fake news.

Now, let’s add fake news. It increases divisiveness. It further decreases any shreds of a felt commonality across the divides. But it also makes each communicative act less of an activity of warmth or connection. When newspapers report on facts, even many reputable ones end up having a general bias left or right. So, when they report on facts, the stories may emphasize different things. When people read stories from these different newspapers about events, they tend to read the papers who often look at things the way they do. So there is some isolation happening already. Two people may therefore read two somewhat different accounts of the same events and continue the disagreements inherent in the different slants.

However, with online fake news an entirely new dimension comes into play. This is not reputable newspapers looking at the same events from a different perspective. This is an online source, e.g., DarkBart, making crap up and reporting on it as news. Typically, there are multiple apparent sources reporting the same (totally made up) story. Often, to increase credibility further, they will post a picture of something that happened long ago or somewhere else. Though perhaps not stated explicitly, the import is clear in context that this is supposed to be a picture of the event talked about in the story. Other fake news sources will be delighted to rebroadcast any popular story whether true or not.


If someone, say, Joe, has a vested interest; e.g., let’s say Joe’s job depends on big oil, and a story comes out in fake news that protesters against the Dakota pipeline were paid to protest by the czars of a wind and solar company. That person might tend to believe it because it’s in their interest to believe it. On the face of it, it’s a pretty absurd claim. Chances are, Joe doesn’t fall for this one. At first. But now, he sees the same story repeated on numerous on-line fora. Of course, the protestors deny this, but when CBS interviews the protestors and airs the interviews, this is a completely predictable event to DarkBart because they knew the story they ran was fake. So, they are all ready to go with the counter-story. CBS is heavily invested in by some of the same dark forces behind the Dakota protests. Or, CBS is fake news. Or, even, “We should review the license of CBS to see whether they should be able to keep their license.”

There has always been some degree of lying. What’s new is that people can lie now to millions of people at once. What’s new is that people who run media are not paid purely to tell the truth. The are partly paid to be attention-getting. What’s new is that the people who run media companies are not in your neighborhood. If they do lie to you, there are very little consequences. What’s new is that, while you and I have never been trained as journalist, by reposting and liking and retweeting, we are, in effect giving some sort of amplification to stories. What’s new is that some on-line news sources are only in it for the ad money. What’s new is that this entire system has been used by a foreign government in a kind Trojan Horse move to divide and mislead people.


In ancient times, kings kept their subjects in the dark through power and intimidation but also by not letting them be educated. The printing press made that more difficult. Over the last few centuries, there has been a general trend toward enlightenment, democracy, and freedom. But don’t be fooled. There are plenty of people out there who would love to enslave you every bit as much as those ancient kings did. It’s too late to fool the current generations by withholding information. But it’s not too late to fool the current generations by flooding the information channels with fake news while every freedom and every penny is taken away or until power is so consolidated that it’s too late to do anything about it. At that point, there won’t be any news except what those in power want you to hear. That’s What’s New.

Know What?


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Know what?

The Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus) is the smallest mammal weighing in at a measly two grams or less.

There are 907185 grams in a ton, so the blue whale at two hundred tons, weighs 90,718,500 x as much as the shrew. Yet they both have spines, a brain, a liver, intestines, breathe oxygen, eat food, have a beating heart, etc. They mate, nurse their babies, raise families, just as we do!

Know what?

First, there is huge variation — but at the same time, a lot of similarity — among mammals. We naturally have a curiosity about the largest, smallest, tallest, fastest that is possible. This curiosity is not limited to our culture or our time. Indeed, it seems to be true of animals, in general. In fact, our nervous system is fundamentally tuned to changes, boundaries, and extremes. For example, if you walk into a kitchen, the aroma of freshly baked cookies seems to fill you with pleasure. It can be very strong. But after a few minutes, you may barely notice the smell. If the fan in the kitchen is on, it may at first seem pretty loud. But after a few minutes, most people will no longer notice. There are limits of course. If the smoke alarm goes off, you will continue to notice it. It is designed to be loud enough to annoy you forever. Just as our ears are mainly attuned to changes, so too, our visual system is attuned to edges. This is why, for instance, a cartoon “works” to depict something that is actually much more complicated. Given that neither humans nor any other animal has an infinite brain, it is a useful general heuristic to especially note changes, edges, and the “extremes” of our experience.

The second thing to note is that, since life is complex and complicated, there are many astounding facts.  It is interesting and exciting to know about the “edges” of experience in many different dimensions. This is not a “bad thing” but it does make us susceptible to being “suckered in” by things that are astounding or sensational even if they are not particularly useful. Some people take advantage of this tendency and use it to manipulate us into buying toothpaste, drugs, and candidates.


When I was a kid, there were certain newspapers (which still exist) which “everyone knew” were absurd attempts to capture people’s attention with “fake news.” Photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, BigFoot, Aliens from Outer Space, people rising from the dead. Amazing! Too good to be true! Well, they weren’t true. Now, it is much easier and cheaper to “publish” fake stories than it was in the days of print.

There is a much subtler and more virulent change as well. Fake newspapers lay out on the checkout stands at drug stores and grocery stores for everyone to see. Most people knew these stories were fake, but some people would fall for it. Everyone could see the headlines: “New Hope for the Dead!” and pretty much dismiss the entire magazine on that basis.

The Internet is has become worse that tabloids because if you’re like most people, there are traces of your behavior all over the Internet. Fake news doesn’t have to concoct one common story for everyone to swallow. They can analyze your personality, your likes and dislikes, your background, your political affiliation from what you look out, how you comment, what you buy on line and so on. They can *target* stories that you are especially likely to believe and that are particularly likely to sway you in your buying or voting behavior. Of course, it isn’t perfect. But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. Whether there was any collusion between the Russian intelligence agencies who were and are doing this and the Trump campaign is still up in the air. However, that they were doing such things is clear. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they are continuing to do it.

Why would they bother? The USA has, by far, the mightiest military in the world. Direct military action against us is absurd. Much better idea: weaken us from within. The greatest strength of the US is its diversity. Use that to push and prod at all the rifts between people whether based on sexual preferences, religion, dietary habits, what kinds of sports you like, your preferences as to how and when you celebrate Holidays, your skin color, your country of origin, whether you think pot should be legalized, whether you favor more lax or more stringent gun regulation, the  music you like, the clothing you find attractive. Anything on which people differ can become a battleground if the people are properly played.

I can easily imagine people from different backgrounds or beliefs, when faced with a real world problem, taking the time to understand each other’s concerns and come up with either a compromise, a vote, or even a transcendent solution. You can probably imagine that as well. Humans have been doing this for a hundred thousand years. We humans don’t always resort to violence every time there’s a difference of opinion.

Let the media notice the disagreement and it will get worse. Let the fake news decide it’s an issue worth making people hate each other over, they will zoom in on that disagreement with more passionate love than house flies buzzing toward a forgotten turkey carcass in the garbage. They will make a fake story sure to inflame the passions of one side. They will generally create an inflammatory headline first that is a complete lie. Then, they will “back it up” with vague statements, lies, or half-truths, and generally with a combination of all of those.


To see how this might work, let’s imagine that there is an island where there are two species of birds that look identical. Squeakers live on one side of the island and the Squawkers live on the other side. The squeakers like to squeak, need I point out, while the Squawkers like to squawk. No big deal. Then, one day a very rich human arrives on the island and offers to make them all very very rich. He claims he is going to buy a tiny piece of their lovely island for sunbathing. He just wants to make sure his investment is safe so he needs to know which bird is going to speak for the entire island. Need I point out that the squeakers and squawkers are now all at risk to become squabblers. As a matter of fact, it may not even matter whether the bird who “speaks for the island” is a squeaker or squawker. Nonetheless, there will be argument and counter-argument. But at long last, this dispute will almost certainly be settled without bloodshed. That is not a guarantee, but it is likely.

Now, let’s first inject a legitimate TV news crew into the picture. They hear about this deal the rich man is offering ahead of time. So, they go and do a report. You might well hear this on the news or read it in the newspaper: “A rousing controversy is brewing tonight on the normally peaceful island of “Ang-Grebe-urds. Multi-billionaire business tycoon, Lance O’Latte has offered an undisclosed but sizable sum to the natives of “Ang-Grebe-urds.” However, to collect this handsome sum, the Ang-Grebe-urds must choose a single spokes-bird. Who will it be? No-one yet knows. Indeed, that is where the process seems to be stuck in the craw of the Ang-Grebe-urds. We’ll keep you updated on this breaking story as more details unfold.”

That’s not all. They scan the environment for particularly nasty things that one side says about the other.


Imagine this hypothetical interview: the reporter asks one of the prominent Squeakers how they feel about the head of the Squawkers. The interviewed Squeaker might say, “Oh, I’ve known Mr. Squaw-Squawk for ages. We are both big fans of soccer. He was our top speller in high school. Also, he did a great job as quarterback on the high school football team. I don’t particularly like him in the way he squawks all the time though.”

What will reported? No way to predict for certain, but my money is on this quote: “I don’t particularly like him…he squawks all the time….” Publishing that statement is really not going to help the Ang-Grebe-urds come to consensus. But it probably still won’t prevent it. Newspapers are still largely paid for by subscriptions. This is important. Because the newspapers are not completely paid for by advertising, it tends to make them more likely to stick to the truth. Individual reporters may exaggerate or hype the conflicts but they very seldom make things up. If they did that, many subscribers would stop doing so. Even some advertisers might shy away from the newspaper that sold papers on the basis of lies. Advertisers do look at readership and people are more likely to pick up a newspaper if the headline is: “Famous Squeaker Complains that Squaw-Squawk squawks all the time!” She said, “I don’t particularly like him…he squawks all the time….” But, there is still a “brake” on complete fabrications. Companies who care about their brand (e.g., Coke, Pepsi, IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Disney) will not want to be associated with news organizations that only lie, Subscribers too will fall off if they become suspicious that they are being lied to.


Now, let’s see how this situation worsens with stories that are presented on-line. Being on-line is an important detail. Because it is on-line, the media outlet need not have one single actual artifact (such as a printed newspaper) that everyone can point to. Instead, stories can be slanted to different readers. A Squeaker who is pretty much a decent old bird but hates onions, for instance, can get a fake news article that claims Squawkers love onions. Furthermore, the fake news claims, there are secret plans, if a Squawker is elected, to make onion-eating required. 

In reality, Squeakers and Squawkers mostly don’t care much one way or the other about onions. Rather, both Squeakers and Squawkers each have about 10 percent, both equally divided about whether onions are: 1) completely wonderful to add to any dish or 2) the invention of the devil to torment Ang-Grebe-urds. Many on-line sources are not paid for by subscribers. They are paid only by advertising.

Furthermore, while the newspaper advertisers only know the circulation of the newspaper as a whole, by contrast, the on-line advertiser can measure how many clicks they get for particular ads and stories. This is a huge difference. It means that every single article for on-line media is pushed toward sensationalism and conflict. Furthermore, the on-line sources can republish many different versions to many different selected sub-audiences to maximize clicks. If, for example, there are some Squeakers who feel football is too violent, the interview reported can be: ““I don’t particularly like him…quarterback on the football team…he squawks all the time….” No need to include that phrase if you are presenting the article to football fans.

These kinds of “fake news” stories are designed to make money out of advertising of course, but beyond that, they are not only meant to grab your attention but are often designed to set you at the throats of your neighbors and countrymen. Of course, in our hypothetical example, that’s precisely why the rich business tycoon set up this situation and then kept using fake news to jack up the emotions of the Ang-Grebe-urds until they killed each other off. Now, he can not only have his sunbathing cove; he can have the entire island. For free. Well, free for him. The Squeakers and the Squawkers paid with their lives. They will rest forever in total squilence. Differences in preferences and slight variations in behavior were driven into hate and violence by targeted messages. While the Squeakers and Squawkers thought they were enemies of each other, in fact, they were both being manipulated by the Takers. The Takers are birds of an entirely different feather. They don’t actually give the slightest damn whether birds prefer to squeak or squawk. All they care about is buying real estate cheap and selling it dear. Some may have actually enjoyed watching the Squeakers and Squawkers kill each other off, but that’s just the icing on the cake.


What about citizens in the US, the UK and Europe and other countries that are currently democracies like Canada and Australia? Know what? We are under attack. I’m not trying to be sensational. (I’m not paid by subscribers or ads). I’m just trying to put it out there for your consideration. While it is not yet clear how much, if any, collusion existed between Russia and the Trump campaign, it is clear that Russian interests worked fake news stories into the discussions and debates leading up to the US election as well as the Brexit vote. These stories are not only meant to sway elections but also to foment discord; to make people in one party or part of the country distrust others; to make people doubt science and more objective media. (After all, if you can’t trust “experts” and “scientists” and “the mainstream media” then, where  are you going to go for information? You guessed it: social media and on-line media become even more popular.

Back in the days of mostly local newspapers, normal checks and balances pushed owners, editors and reporters toward printing news that was truthful. They would tend to be motivated to say things about the community that were useful, kind, and true because otherwise false stories would negatively impact their own community. In addition, if they were “found out” they would definitely experience social ostracism that would likely be extensive. A false story about a coming plague might sell a lot of newspapers in the short term, but when it was discovered to be a lie, the entire newspaper was in danger of losing its readership.

By contrast, a very large national newspaper chain might be headed up by someone who cares very much or little about social ostracism and probably lives in a “community” completely divorced from the people he or she lives and works in. The CEO might well be only interested in profits which in turn means pushing stories based on how they impact readership, not based on what it means for America as a whole. Nonetheless, there is a still a tradition in newspapers of long standing to tell the truth and to verify stories. There may also a sense of long-term commitment to the company. For example, the people in a traditional newspaper want to be able to hire the best people for their organization. To allow that to happen, it is vital that they have a reputation for telling the truth and for responsible reporting. As I’ve mentioned, newspapers who lie regularly are at risk of losing both their subscriber base and their advertisers.

By contrast, when it comes to on-line news media, because they are new, there is little tradition; they don’t depend on subscriber dollars; their advertisers tend not be companies like IBM and Disney who care about their reputation, but instead unheard of companies who want to sell you miracle cures and self-adjusting tea cozies.


Know what? These on-line media are doing this to us now and even when we retweet or argue about the truth of divisive news, it’s still divisive. Then, we often disagree on social media about whether it’s true and that’s also divisive. Is nothing to be done? I do think that there are some principles and guidelines than can help distinguish real news (which does also appear on-line) from made up manipulations to make you angry. Next week, we will explore what some of those principles and guidelines might be. Meanwhile, I personally like onions. But I don’t insist you do.

Know what? We are all now “Citizen Soldiers” in a war of words. Most likely, you were never trained as a reporter and most likely, like me, you aren’t making a penny out of your use of social media. But social media grows ever more important in people’s understanding of what is true about the world. Like it or not, your Facebook posts and tweets either exaggerate the impact of fake news or dampen it out. You might consider a reporter’s questions: What, who, where, when, how, and why. You might also consider these before sharing a story: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?”

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David's DreamDeeply


You know perhaps of various versions of the story of the “two wolves” that live within us. I have heard it various ascribed to Native Americans of the Dakota tribe as well as the Cherokees. Basically, a grandfather, or other such wise person tells his grandson that there are two wolves inside him: a good wolf who is kind and generous and a bad wolf who is mean, spiteful and selfish. These wolves are in a constant battle with each other. The grandson asks which wolf will win and the grandfather replies “whichever one you feed.”

We have probably all seen cartoons in which an angel perches on one shoulder of a cartoon character inspiring them toward good actions and a devil slouching on the other shoulder whispering rationalizations for bad actions. I suspect that variants of this story exist in many cultures. It seems to me that there is more than a speck of truth in it.

I would love to report that I was born without any bad wolves and that I never had such a struggle myself. That, however, would be a lie. To lie about it would be feeding the bad wolf. In fact, I have experienced the bad wolf as well as the good wolf. I also find the that the bad wolf has weakened considerably over my life-time though he is far from completely dead.


At boy scout camp, for example, when I was about 10 or 11, three of us sat around a campfire, getting ready to make some simple biscuits. So far as I can recall, I have always loved being outdoors and especially in forests, wood, fields, mountainsides. I don’t even recall feeling any conflict whatever about this. I suppose both the “good wolf” and the “bad wolf” must love the outdoors. On the other hand, I don’t love everything about the outdoors equally. Trees, flowers, clouds, streams, deer, rabbits — always my friends. Spiders, ticks, mosquitoes and deer flies — not so much. I never understood why on earth a person would pick a tarantula for a pet, for instance. On the other hand, I realize that most spiders are harmless to humans and even helpful because most of them catch things like mosquitoes that are much more harmful. Your chances of getting a lethal spider bite are nearly non-existent. Even at eleven, I could not really say I “hated” spiders although having one fall unexpectedly onto my body caused me to jump and try frantically to brush it off. I didn’t really care if I killed it in the process.

While we waited for the fire to heat up enough to cook our primitive trail biscuits however, one of my companions found a spider on a stick and placed it on the hot pan atop the grill. He shook the stick until the spider fell onto the hot pan. For a moment, the spider sprung into action, jumping and hopping excitedly. When he made it to the edge of the pan, my pack mate pushed him back to the middle with the stick. The spider didn’t last long after that. He collapsed and died.


This simple scene did not last long, but it certainly stirred a tornado of emotions inside me. I thought about objecting but didn’t. I really wanted to see what would happen to a spider subjected to that kind of environment. In other words, I was curious. At the same time, I felt a strange kind of gratitude that the spider was on the hot grill and not me. I had already gotten a rather nasty burn so I knew that burns were horrifically painful. I felt a kinship to the other two guys in this. We were humans after all, and therefore more powerful and clever than a mere spider. I was superior to the spider as were they. We could control the life of the spider more than it could control us. And though I had never actually been bitten by a spider of any kind, let alone been seriously injured, I had been frightened when they dropped on my arm or hair. So, I also felt a kind of vindication; I told myself the creepy spider deserved to die for being so creepy and — well, spidery. Yet, despite all this, I kind of hoped the spider would make it off the hot grill and just learn their lesson (which was what exactly? I guess not to be a spider?) and go on with their life being a more enlightened spider. Anyway, my camp companion prevented any of that from happening by pushing the spider back onto the middle of the grill.

While there had been a whole dark rainbow of emotions in that twisting tornado, I didn’t have any doubt that this was feeding the evil wolf. This was an evil deed and I knew it. When my body is attacked, I am going to defend it. I would defend my life and those of my family by killing any attacker, whether it be an attack from a virus, a bacterium, a spider or an actual wolf. But this spider had not actually attacked anyone. We had gone out of our way to kill it. Not only that, we had killed it in a way that, to all appearances, pained the spider considerably. We hadn’t exactly laughed at the spider’s plight but we had certainly enjoyed it and exclaimed about how he bounced around so vigorously. I did not go home and brag about this incident to my parents or grandparents. Killing unnecessarily, and especially killing another creature in a painful way, is not something anyone in my family would have praised me for.

Of course, considerations of when killing is “necessary” versus “unnecessary” could be the topic of an entire book. <grin> That book might conclude that killing is never really necessary; it’s only convenient. As for pain, I have largely been trained as a scientist and in that training, we were always told to employ parsimony and avoid “anthropomorphism” — that is, to hold to the simplest explanation and not to assume that mammals and birds (let alone spiders) have consciousness and feelings like humans do.

For example, many years later in college biology class, we dissected a surprisingly large live crayfish and this mantra was repeated. So, for example, we were reassured that the crayfish would feel no actual pain because its nervous system was too primitive. First on the agenda: badly injure one of its arms by crush-crunching it with pliers. The crayfish hesitated a few moments and then reached over with one of his major claws, clamped on to his injured arm and yanked it hard. This caused the arm to snap off at one of the joints. The crayfish could then re-grow its arm from that point. The jerking of its own arm was termed as a “reflex.” This “reflex” serve the crayfish well in the wild because the crayfish will grow back a complete arm. This particular crayfish, however, never had that opportunity because the next little trick on the agenda was to remove its beating heart.

So, I cut out the heart and put it in a separate little dish that had some small dosage of adrenaline in it. Immediately, the teeny heart started beating faster. Meanwhile, the heartless crayfish continued to totter about its cramped living quarters. Perhaps it was searching for its missing heart.



I accepted the explanations given as to why the crayfish felt no pain. (And, by the way, while I did feel some curiosity as I did all this, I did not have any of those earlier feelings of the crayfish “deserving this” or of my being “superior to it.”) The Teaching Assistant explained, that after all, the crayfish’s nervous system was “primitive” compared with a human’s. We have these enormous brains, you know. It also made a lot of sense to me to take the most “parsimonious” explanation. I believed that then and I believe it now. However, my assumptions about what constitutes “parsimonious” have evolved quite a bit.

You know, I’ve always been something of a pain to my parents, teachers, and probably many others. Starting that tradition early, my mother was in labor for 72 hours before I was born. As best I can recall (which is not at all) I must have been reluctant to enter some new environment head first. By the way, in movies people are always diving head first into ponds, rivers, lakes and so on without the slightest knowledge of how deep the water is or what is in that body of water (such as a submerged log, for instance). So, generally, it is a much better idea, if you have to enter such a body of water, to enter feet first. You might twist your ankle or even break your leg, but you are unlikely to spend the rest of your life paralyzed from the neck down. So, the strategy of “feet first” is a good one.

Except it isn’t a good strategy at all, while you are being born. Anyway, in the various gymnastics I performed to get into the right position, no doubt, with plenty of encouragement and prodding of the doctor, I managed to get a hernia. I was born with a hernia and operated on at about six months and the hernia was fixed. I later discovered, to my great surprise, that this operation had almost certainly been performed with no anesthesia whatsoever. Why? Because a baby’s nervous system was thought too primitive to feel pain. Sure, babies cried and writhed, but those actions were just reflexes, according to accepted medical doctrine at the time.

Of course, if you’ve ever been in close contact with a baby, your own opinion, like mine, is likely that this is utter non-sense! Of course, babies feel pain. You may also be surprised to learn that about that time, the medical profession also believed that babies could not see until they were about six months old. Professor Robert Fantz conducted some of the initial research on this question while I was studying psychology at Case-Western Reserve. Though I wasn’t personally involved in the experiments, I was personally involved in the idea because I had a newborn daughter at home. The work of Fantz was cool and showed that infants preferred human faces and a moderate level of complexity. Infant research is amazing in its own right. Researchers use gaze direction, heart rate deceleration and other clever measures to find out what babies perceive. But how on earth could doctors have ever believed that babies couldn’t really see until they were six months old? As a new father, I found that completely preposterous. My daughter could most certainly see from day one.

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My brother is eleven years younger than I am. When he was an infant, I used to carry him around and show him various things in the house and later, in the yard. Of course, he could see from day one. But how could the medical profession have thought otherwise, even before Fantz’s work at Case-Western?

The next year, I moved on to grad school in Ann Arbor and delved more deeply into infant development and perception. That is when I discovered that those bastards had almost undoubtedly operated on me without giving me any pain killers or anesthetic. No, I kid, of course. No hard feelings. They were no doubt just doing what they thought best. For them.

Therein lies the problem. I now think the most parsimonious explanation is that every living thing feels pain. While the precise quality of the pain may differ among crayfish, spiders, and humans, I see no reason whatever to believe that our human pain is more excruciating because we have bigger brains. In fact, it seems equally plausible, that because of our much bigger brains, our experience is more removed from actual pain than is that of a crayfish. I believe that people define away consciousness and pain for others because it is more convenient for them in making decisions and living with themselves without guilt.

Saying that the crayfish’s nervous system is more primitive doesn’t really cut it either. That firstly implies a doctrine disavowed by most scientists that the “point” of evolution is to make humans and that other branches are necessarily more “primitive” if they have been here longer. For instance, horseshoe crabs have been around for 500 million years, basically unchanged so far as we can tell. Humans have been around for a much shorter time. Of course, if you measure how advanced a species is by how quickly it can destroy things for its own convenience (not just survival) then, yes, humans win hands down. Congrats to all.

Humans have several kinds of sensory nerve fibers on the periphery. We have, for example, A fibers. These are myelinated, and this allows nerve conduction to go much faster than impulses travel in their slower cousins, the C fibers.  So, when a human touches the proverbial hot stove, the A fibers go right into a quick feedback loop to get you to jerk your hand away. A noticeable time lag and you actually feel the pain. The C fibers take longer. It is thought that one way acupuncture might work is to stimulate A fibers to that they inhibit the C fibers.

It turns out that these C fibers have been around a long time and they are the types of fibers in our friend the crayfish. In over-simple terms, “advanced species” have fast and slow fibers while “primitive species” only have the slow pain fibers. Well, if that’s true, and particularly in consideration that the fast fibers may actually serve to dull pain under certain conditions, how on earth does it make any sense to say the crayfish cannot feel pain because its nervous system is too primitive? No. It makes more sense to say that the crayfish cannot help but feel pain. It is the only signal coming in.


It seems the same thing applies developmentally within an individual. Indeed, if you look at the behavior of babies without any preconceptions to the contrary, I think a normal reading of the reality would conclude that babies are feeling way more completely and overwhelmingly than are adults. It seems to me much more likely that babies feel pain more intensely than do adults.

One could argue that, despite the pain of the crayfish, it’s worth it because the doctors being trained (most of the class was pre-med) will certainly end up saving way more pain among their human brothers and sisters than they will cause this crayfish. I think that’s probably valid. But it does require thinking about a conscious tradeoff among species which is a weird kind of decision that we’ve never had to consciously make before in our history.

Our ancestors may or may not have measured the pain of their prey against their own hunger. Now, however, we literally have to ask ourselves whether it is worth saving one human life through economic growth if it means obliterating an entire species of whales? Of fish? Of plankton? How about saving one human a trip to the grocery every week? Is it worth killing off a species for that? How about twelve? How about 1000?

I feel a little out of joint now with much of society because I’ve been feeding the wolf that says to me: “Those living things all have lives and those lives are just as precious to them as yours is to you. Keep that in mind. Oh, and by the way, you bet they feel pain just as you do. Don’t tell yourself some bullshit that they don’t feel pain because they are too primitive. We all feel pain: wolf, rabbit, fish, bird.” Meanwhile, I feel as though many parts of our society, because of the nature of our economy, has been listening to a different wolf.

That wolf says, “Humans are special. They deserve special treatment. And just as the human species is the just ruler of every other species which is only put here for your pleasure, so too, there are some humans who are above and superior to others. And those humans deserve special things. And those humans who are above deserve special favors, sexual and otherwise. And those “up there” humans, who are more evolved, deserve to inconvenience you if it serves their pleasure. But don’t worry about feeling spat upon and made to feel small. There’s a whole lot of things inferior to you and you can take your hate out on them! Kick the dog! Stomp on the ant! Trash the environment! You’re human! You can do whatever you want to destroy earth. It’s your earth after all.”

A few months ago, I found a rather large grand-daddy longlegs in the house. I did consider simply crushing it in a paper towel. Instead I used a paper plate and a cup to take him outside and deposit him intact onto our pathetic brown-leafed gardenia bush. Guess what? That gardenia bush now has wonderful looking leaves. No curling. No browning. Coincidence? Perhaps. What do you think?

I’m pretty sure the following is not coincidence. For a time, I rented a house in Woburn Massachusetts. It had a basement with windows at the top. At one point those windows all became covered with spider webs. I took down all the spider webs. Yay for me. Mission accomplished. The next day, our basement was infested with wasps. It can’t always be “follow the butterflies,” you know. So which wolf will you be feeding? Only you know.


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Horizons University


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Different people’s brains seem to me to be predisposed to pay attention to different kinds of stimulation. My musically inclined wife, for instance, is much more attuned to sounds of all types than I am. This makes it easier for her to identify music from just a few bars, but also makes her much more annoyed by stray sounds that I typically ignore. For example, when commercials come on the TV, she is very keen to “mute” the TV whereas I simply mute them in my mind (or at least I think I do). So, when she told me that I “had to” fix our doorbell right away, at first I had no idea what she was talking about.

“That beep!” she insisted. “Can’t you hear it? That doorbell is driving me crazy!”

After calling my attention to it, I also heard the beep. The doorbell was not something that we had installed. It came with our condo and up till now had been working just fine. Now, it appeared to be hell-bent on incessantly going “Beep! Beep!” Admittedly, it was annoying. Not so annoying as a failing smoke alarm. At least this was going off in the middle of the day whereas failing smoke alarms are not only much louder but scientifically designed to go off at around 3-4 am in the morning. I suppose on rare occasions, they do go off at other times, but I’ve never experienced that personally. Best of all, smoke alarms have directions printed right on the alarm in tiny white on white font. Seriously? You couldn’t afford to pay for .0001 cents of paint to make it legible? But enough of badly designed smoke alarms.

Let’s return to my wife’s request to fix our doorbell. I got out the toolbox and easily removed the screws over the housing. Inside were minor electronics connected with three wires to the house electricity. There did not seem to be a dying battery at fault. I had no idea, and could not decipher which wire would turn off the alarm. So, careful to touch only the insulated rubber guards on the wire snippers, I cut one of the wires. In response, I heard, “BEEP! BEEP!” Well, that didn’t do the trick. I cut another wire. “BEEP! BEEP!” Damn. Okay. I will have to cut the third wire. No battery. No electrical current from the house. Goodbye annoying beep. I cut the third wire. “BEEP! BEEP!”

What? Unlike my Dad, I was never trained as an electrical engineer, but I do know that a completely open circuit without power can’t keep “working.” At least not for long. A capacitor can hold a charge. In old time TV’s you had to be very careful. You couldn’t simply unplug the TV and start working on it right away. The large TV “picture tube” for instance, held a considerable charge until you grounded it against the chassis with a screwdriver. But there’s no way the doorbell could still be making noise.

Eventually, we discovered that there was nothing at all wrong with our doorbell. Well, to be more accurate, there had been nothing wrong until I cut every single wire. The noise source was something else entirely. Years earlier, we had attended a Dave Pelz golf academy focused on “the short game” and had been given a very cheap electronic metronome to help us learn a smooth rhythm on the putting stroke. We hadn’t ever used it for that purpose and had forgotten we even owned it.

But that’s what our lovely, lively cats are for! The cats had managed to turn on the metronome and then carefully and meticulously slide it down into the small slice of space between our piano sounding board and the wall that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Voila! A nice loud “BEEP! BEEP!” sound.

Looking back on the incident, I can’t quite reconstruct why we thought this was a doorbell. It didn’t actually sound like our doorbell. Well, nothing actually sounded like our doorbell because now it didn’t make any sound at all. I had cut all the wires that would enable it to work. But it didn’t even sound like our doorbell used to sound. Somehow, we had gotten sucked into a particular framing and formation of the problem. That specific way of approaching the problem led us down a “garden path” that not only had no possible chance of solving the real problem; it also had negative (and unnecessary) side-effects such as ruining our doorbell. Sadly, even two supposedly “well-educated” people found it all too easy to go down that “garden path.” This brings me to “Horizon University.”


Articles that claim to calculate the “best” University for you to attend have grown up like ragweed in the last few years. What irks me about such articles is not that they rank order university programs according to the average “Return on Investment” of graduates, but that they don’t even seem to acknowledge that this is only one of many criteria by which such programs could be ranked. They too, have gone down a very particular garden path when it comes to defining the “goodness” of education.

Instead of an undergraduate program that is essentially a high level trade school aimed exclusively at getting you the highest paying job, let’s imagine a University with a different focus.

Consider a University where students focus on seeing things in different time perspectives.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be an entire university; perhaps a department or a course. But somewhere along the line, it seems absolutely critical to me that people receive more training in taking a flexible view, a broad view, a long or short view, a loving view, a defensive view. In my experience, people often have one particular way of approaching a particular type of problem. In extreme cases, people approach every problem the same way. Sometimes that one way works extremely well. More often, it works pretty well. Sometimes, it is more of a hindrance than a help. And then, every once in awhile, it results in an unmitigated disaster. And, that’s true for everyone on the planet so long as you stick to one approach for every single problem.

At “Horizon University” you would not take a calculus class or a psychology class or a creative writing class. Why? Because it is all too tempting — indeed probably necessary in order to pass any such course — to use your knowledge of that particular course, using the methods of that particular course. You do not answer a calculus question with an insightful essay on the probable family dynamics of Pascal’s family; not if you want to pass.

In real life, a particular problem might require only calculus, or only creative writing or only psychology. More likely it will require some combination of these and many other skills. It will most likely be solved, not by you alone, but by you in combination with a team diverse in almost every dimension imaginable.

At Horizon University, people would be guided in every aspect of problem solving which includes the extremely important and seldom taught skills of problem finding and problem formulation. These are the hardest parts; they are the least taught parts; indeed, they are the least understood parts of the overall problem solving process.

Let’s take an example puzzle: “There are 435 people in the US House of Representatives. What is the probability that at least two Representatives share a birthday?” I have given this problem to a number of people. After a few moments thought, most smart 10 year olds can solve it. Adults have more trouble. Adults who have taken a college course in statistics however, typically have the most trouble of all. When such an adult hears this problem, they are immediately reminded of the so-called “Birthday Problem.” Counter-intuitively, it turns out that even a small group of 30 people is more likely to have at least one shared birthday than not. A ten year old is unlikely to have heard of this problem, so they think about the 435 people in the House of Representatives for awhile and come up with the correct answer. A statistics-trained adult however, is likely to say something along the following lines, repeated more or less verbatim from someone attending at a party organized by my office mate at the University of Michigan.

“Ahem! Well, this is the famous ‘Birthday Problem’ and, having just received my Ph.D. in statistics, it would be fairly trivial for me to answer this if only I had access to some logarithm tables. (This was long before hand-held internet access). I had happened to notice that my office mate had log tables so I escorted this guy to them and said, “There you go! Knock yourself out!” I went off to enjoy the party while he spent the next few hours muttering in a corner trying to make good on his boast. I checked up on him later, but he still insisted he had almost solved it.

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His insistence that he knew enough to solve the problem and his persistence in tackling it with the same method over and over is one of the things that scares me about the coming ubiquity in “Artificial Intelligence” especially as it intersects with the “Internet of Things”, “Driverless Cars”, and “Intelligent Agents.” It isn’t so much that people won’t make perfect AI systems for a long time. It’s that people will make imperfect AI systems and insist that they are perfect. In other words, hubris is one of the human failings that can be greatly amplified by Artificial Intelligence.

We see this kind of hubris is all sorts of software systems; indeed, it isn’t even limited to software systems although the absurdly short development cycles of software tend to make it more evident there. For example, Microsoft’s Windows 7 had over 2000 bugs.

Bugs, of course, are not limited to Microsoft products. Here’s a list of recent bugs in the MAC OS.

“Bug” is a general term, of course, and there are many varieties. One of the “minor” kinds of bugs are usability bugs. For instance, I recently signed up for an alumni site. They asked users like me to enter the name of the University of my advanced degree. Instead of allowing me to type in the University, however, I had to use a pull-down list. This alphabetical list had over 2000 entries. But where is “The University of Michigan” to be found in an alphabetical list? Looking at the names of other universities showed no consistency whatever. It might be under “T” for “The University of Michigan.” It might be under “U” for “University of Michigan” which might be abbreviated as “U” or “Univ.” and it might be listed under “M” for “Michigan.” It wasn’t under any of these. So far as I could tell, The University of Michigan, one of the top-ranked universities in America with a current enrollment over 44 thousand wasn’t listed at all. You could call the omission of this particular university a “bug” but the more fundamental bug is why they are using a pull-down list to have users select among thousands of items. No-one thought through the fact that new universities arise; they merge; they fold. In addition, there is no obvious single way for them to be listed. But all of these errors in design thinking pale in comparison to the one that prevents the user from simply typing in the name of their university. Not only have the designers and coders of this software omitted an important option; not only have they chosen an inefficient way to enter the data; beyond that, they are so cock-sure of themselves that they have not even provided an alternative input method.

You might argue that subsequent data analysis will be easier if everyone chooses from among a fixed and finite list than it would be if people could type in whatever they wanted. True, but if that’s really the argument, then you are saying that your time and convenience are more important than those of your users. That’s too gigantic an error to be labeled a “bug.” It’s much more fundamental.

If you think I’m exaggerating the scope of software bugs, you might want to check on the Wikipedia entry of known and severe bugs in a number of different fields of human endeavor. 

If Horizon University does a good job, its graduates will likely produce fewer bugs, but more importantly, they will be willing to admit the possibility that their code is buggy. Of course, bad design is not limited to software. Shelves of every store abound with poorly packaged items encased in nearly impenetrable plastic. Many roads are equipped with road signs that cannot be read at night. Processes are designed without feedback on whether they work. The crucial point here is not that humans make mistakes; obviously, they do. The problem is thinking that because you’ve learned a particular method or way of thinking that method is also capable of solving all problems; that your way of thinking is the only way there is.

Let’s return to the poor guy who spent the entire party at the University of Michigan pouring over my office mate’s log tables. He was not so much unable to apply the methods he had learned; it is just that the methods he was attempting to apply were not applicable in this case. There are only 365 days in a year (or 366 if you count leap years). But there are 435 people in the House of Representatives. So, even if the first 366 people you looked at happened to have different birthdays, the 367th would have to match someone.

At Horizon University, students would be taught a variety of methods for each part of the problem solving process. These methods would not be taught in a series of lectures. Rather, from the beginning, students would begin working on individual and group projects of their own defining. They would have access to a variety of experts including many generalists on site as well as remote experts available at varying time scales. They would hear from and see in action a wide variety of ways of attacking each problem. They would learn to respect other ways of looking at problems, not just the one or few that they themselves chose to focus on.

Everything in life is not about solving problems however. It is also important to discover and learn about the things that give you the most joy. For some people all of those things will be closely related to problem solving. But for others, many or even all of those joy-inducing activities will not really be about problem solving. They may want to hone their skills in writing, painting, music, choreography, and so on. Perhaps they will earn enough money to get by without another job and maybe they won’t. A few will find a way to use those skills as part of a collaborative problem solving endeavor. Others may find teaching their skills to others is a good way to keep their own skills sharp for their creative work.

At Horizon University, various activities and architectural features would encourage people to communicate and interact with people across the entire variety of interests. In the short term, this would be beneficial to the individual because all their project work would require a broad range of talents. Of course, in the longer term, the benefit would be understanding the value of all kinds of knowledge and skill rather than just the one that they happened to choose to study.

The idea of project-based learning is not a new one. Indeed, it is far older and more ubiquitous than the invention of subject matter based courses or classes. In the USA, we often have historically tried to balance a public education that makes for “well-rounded citizens” with an education that helps ready people to “earn a living.” More recently, we seem to be focused only on the latter goal. In addition, we now seem to believe it is okay for people to go into great debt in order to secure an education. Putting resources into educating the next generation however, is not something meant to benefit only that next generation, but all generations to come.

Rest assured, it is not only Ph.D.’s in statistics that have challenges addressing problems in multiple ways. As Norton Juster in The Phantom Tollbooth suggests, many of us are prone to “jumping to conclusions.”

Precisely because we humans have such an exciting and completely new set of opportunities, challenges and dangers facing us now, it is more vital than ever to be flexible in our approach to problems. Under pressure, people are prone to fixate on the first approach even more than they usually are. How can we possibly believe this is a good time to cut back on public education? We need a citizenry who are not only knowledgeable but versed in a variety of ways to problem solve. It certainly won’t be enough to know what answers others have given to problems in the past. Why? Because they will be facing literally unheard of conditions. We need to let them at least jump to a different set of conclusions than the previous generation. Hopefully, they’ll do even better than that and not jump to conclusions at all. Rather they will work in cooperative groups to solve complex novel problems using the skills and confidence that were built at Horizons U.

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Lost Horizon.


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One of my favorite movies as a young child was Lost Horizon. I believe I happened across this movie quite by accident (but then, maybe it was no accident after all). In any case, for those who haven’t seen it, the basic plot is that an Englishman, Robert Conway, ends up, seemingly by accident, in a semi-magical city high in the Himalayas, “Shangri-La.” It turns out that he was actually brought there intentionally to be the new head of Shangri-La. However, he heads back to England and later decides that was an error and nearly dies of exposure on the icy slopes of the mountains trying to scrabble his way back to Shangri-La. The plot echoes the idea of a lost Eden. In the Biblical account of Eden, humans lived a kind of carefree existence before defying God and thereby incurring his wrath which cursed all humanity to have pain bearing children, having to work, etc. There are many stories and myths of an earlier time or a magical place where life is much longer, more fulfilling, less filled with strife and disease, and generally speaking, better in every way than where we are now.

I believe that there really is a “Lost Horizon” in much of modern civilization and that horizon is a longer time horizon. In the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that people used to have a tolerance for much longer and more nuanced debate about about public issues than we do now. For example, the famous “Lincoln-Douglas Debates” about slavery lasted all day! Now, we try to compress dialogue, discussion and debate into a sound bite or a 140 character tweet.

I never had the pleasure of climbing “real” mountains when I was a youngster. I never even saw the rockies till my early twenties. However, my neighborhood did have a large empty field. And in the middle of that field was a small hill. Because the land around was mainly flat, even this small hill provided a panoramic view of woods, fields, and nearby houses. Whenever I faced some particularly weighty decision facing me, I instinctively walked about a half mile to this hilltop. I went there, surveyed everything I could, and thought about the problem at hand. This seemed the most natural thing in the world and whether true or not, it certainly gave me the impression that I could think about the problem more holistically than if I simply sat in a chair or walked through a forest crowded with trees. On that small hill, the silence from human voices was broken only by the noise of distant traffic, the wind in the grass, and the trills of bob-whites. Sometimes, I would whistle to them for advice. Their “answers” always seemed timeless and untinged by hurry.

In 2003, I was invited to give a keynote talk at a conference in Madeira about my work on a socio-technical Pattern Language (some of which, not so coincidentally, encouraged a broader look over time and space). My wife and I decided to make a vacation out of it with our nephews, Mark and Ryan. On the way to Funchal, we visited Oxford University and a professor friend in cognitive psychology, Peter McLeod. We played “lawn bowling” (the English version of Bocci) at Oxford. While we did our best to out-bowl Peter, he pointed out to us a grove of gigantic Oaks. He said that they had been planted hundreds of years earlier and some of them would be culled soon for renovating one of the buildings. This, he claimed, was no accidental windfall. These oaks had been planted specifically for that purpose centuries earlier.


It wasn’t just Oxford, however, that had been planned with the future in mind. Medieval cathedrals often took a quarter century or a half century to complete. Notre Dam and Lincoln Cathedrals took about a century while the Cologne cathedral took 600 years! Meanwhile, here in the 21st Century, the US Congress seems powerless to pass legislation to repair our crumbling dams, highways, and bridges.

The US has an opioid addiction problem. In addition, there is an obesity epidemic. There are many reasons for these, but at least part of the problem with any kind of addiction is that people are unable, unwilling, or unpracticed at behaving in what is their own long term interests and instead doing what feels good in the short term. While one might imagine that the advent of widespread literacy, electronic communication and access to a huge amount of humanity’s knowledge via the Internet would encourage people to take a longer view of life and happiness, instead, many people seem more short-sighted than ever.


Think how we cherish the word “instant.” We have “instant coffee”, “instant pudding”, “instant messaging.” We have “speed dialing,” “speed dating,” and just plain “speed.” Software companies feel the need to release new versions and “subversions” at a breakneck pace that necessarily sacrifices sufficient testing.  While people often used to invest in a company’s stock and keep it until they retired decades later, now people invest in a portfolio of ever-changing stocks and a CEO who doesn’t deliver quarter over quarter improvements may soon find themselves out of a job. Many people, in fact, do “day trading” to try to make money. Imagine investing and then uninvesting a few moments later in companies whose products and services change over month or years.


While parents encourage their kids to get good grades now so that they can have a good career later in life, the parents themselves often vote on their short term interests. Politicians cannot solve budget deficits or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. Large number of people who would feel demeaned to be or to be called a heroin addict, will nonetheless buy the SUV, throw the recycling and trash together, and generally accept the rhetoric that denies global climate change and its impacts. Together, our obsession with speed has sometimes been called, the “Cult of Celerity.”

Why does a society that has more material wealth and seems to require less of a “hand to mouth” existence, instead, seem ever more focused on the near term and less on the long term? I suppose one possibility is that it is a symptom of a transitional period in humanity’s evolution from a collection of individuals with strong ties to a small number of people to a world-wide interconnection in which individuals become more like “parts” in a giant machine and the “processing” of information that each person does becomes more and more fragmentary.

In teaching Intro Psych, I constructed an exercise for the students in which the class as a whole solved a simple problem. But each individual person had a slip of paper with simple instructions. For example, one student’s instructions might say, “Take a piece of paper from the person on your left. If the paper they hand you has a cross on it, pass it to your right. If it has a circle on it, pass it to the person ahead of you.” No individual person could possibly understand what they collectively were doing.

Indeed, this aligns precisely with “Taylorism” that shaped so much of the so-called “Industrial Revolution.” Some one person or small group of people designs an assembly line. They understand the overall process. But a person actually working on the assembly line may only know that they see a series of widgets passing by and for each widget, they are supposed to turn a screw. They are not supposed to worry about how their job fits into the overall picture. Indeed, they were not encouraged to take a broad view or a long view of their work. Many such jobs have been replaced by robots.

too brief an article which claims Taylorism “ended” in the 1930’s!

An alternative to ever-increasing atomization and automation of work is instead to structure small teams of people to design and build cars. They can do this, incidentally, with a view toward overall energy costs of manufacturing, distribution, and driving rather than just reducing the emissions of the vehicles after construction.

Even when people are part of a deconstructed process, it can still be worthwhile for them to “see the bigger picture.” Knowing how your job fits into a larger picture provides motivational advantages and knowledge advantages. As a common folk story goes, two travelers are passing by a wall where two folks are laboring. Each laborer selects rather large rocks in a nearby field; carries them to a wall and places them carefully then using cement to fill in tiny cracks. Objectively, these two workers appear to have the same job. However, one of the two was happily going about their work humming and smiling while the other slumped their shoulders and sported a grim visage; could be heard ever muttering beneath his breath. Curious, one of the travelers asked the Glum one, “What are you doing here, my good fellow?”

“Oh, what a pain! I’m building a wall, of course.”

Then, the traveler approached the cheery builder and asked, “What are you doing here, if I may ask?”

“Oh, what a joy! I’m helping to create a marvelous cathedral, of course!”

IBM’s Think magazine once contained an interesting example of the cognitive benefits of seeing the big picture. People who worked on the Endicott, NY assembly lines were given a few hours of training to see how their job fit into the overall picture. At one point, one of the mask inspectors jumped up and yelled, “Oh, no! I’ve been doing it wrong all these years!” It turned out that they had not wanted to “throw out” a mask that “only” had a few errors because they knew a lot of time and effort had gone into making the mask. They thought it prudent to pass masks as “okay” unless there were a lot of errors. Of course, each mask was used to make many thousands of chips, so it was vitally important not to pass a mask if there were even the slightest error. But until this training program, no-one had really made this clear.

At IBM, I managed a research project for several years on the business uses of stories and storytelling. One of the “knowledge management” consultants I worked with, Dave Snowden, told a story of the Thames Water Company. At that time, when people in this part of the UK had trouble with their water or sewer, they called up a help line and the people who staffed the help lines (almost all women) were to follow a script and dispatch engineers (nearly all men) to go and fix the problems. Of course, as is customary, they were measured on how many calls they could handle in an hour. Most of the help personnel were young, but one middle aged lady took about two and a half times as long to dispatch engineers. She was about to be fired for being so slow, when some enlightened individual decided to look a little more deeply. It turned out that, indeed, she was slower. However, it turned out that her husband was one of the engineers who fixed problems. Because of the knowledge she gained from talking over their jobs together as well as her long experience, she actually solved many problems on the phone herself. In fact, while the average service rep sent an engineer out into the field on about one out of every ten calls, this woman sent an engineer out only one out of a thousand calls. By taking slightly longer on the phone, she was actually saving the company a lot of money! Chances are excellent that he probably did a much better job as an engineer for having conversations with a dispatcher as well.


It seems as though more widespread public education and literacy would allow people to undertake their jobs as well as their political and personal decisions with a longer time horizon and a broader view of what the impact of their behaviors are on others. Beyond that, it seems to me that many of the problems of today require longer and broader views in order to take appropriate action. In fact, it seems the evolutionary advantage to early (and contemporary) humans does not lie in our sharper teeth or stronger jaws; it does not lie in our sharper vision or hearing; it does not rely on our superior strength or speed. Our only advantages are to be able to cooperate and communicate over a longer period of time and space. Yet, here we seem to be — focusing on smaller pieces of complex problems, over-simplifying both the problem and the solution, and insisting on instant answers and speedy resolutions.

Rather than pay a dollar more in taxes to build mass transit to help stem global climate change, we would rather wait for a hurricane and spend ten dollars more in taxes or thousands more to repair things. Rather than pay a penny more in taxes and find a cure for cancer, we would rather pay a hundred thousand in medical expenses. Rather than pay to repair a bridge, we’d rather wait till it collapses with scores of people on it. Rather than wait three years for a new software release with minimal bugs, we would rather wait three months and get the newest with a mosquito horde of bugs. Rather than take the time to fully understand a problem before trying to solve it, we’d rather categorize it quickly and apply a solution that might or might not be appropriate or better yet, “hand it off” to someone else. Rather than take the time to enjoy what we are doing at the moment, we’d rather jump ahead to the next moment.

Maybe “Shangri-La” is not a magical village hidden deep in the Himalayas. Maybe Eden is not something humankind “lost” but something we are yet to build. Together. Slowly. Over time. Maybe finding or rediscovering Paradise is not so much a question of scrambling up frozen mountainsides as simply taking a deep breath, a break, a pause in the action in order to see things from a more global perspective.  Even a small hill can help you collect your thoughts and see the broader picture. It might be quiet there and you can hear, not the voices of bosses, managers, advertising and overlords urging you to buy more, get more, work more but instead you can hear the clear call of birdsong reminding you that Eden may only be a few deep breaths away.


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