Peace & Love 3: Shrugging off the SHRUGS


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It might seem as though the answer is easy and obvious. But I don’t think it is. It might be nice if the SHRUGS disappeared from the earth one day. Getting rid of them through violence however, is not a particularly good idea. Violence against individuals is no more effective than war. It may well be true that SHRUGS “deserve” to die. On the other hand, they exhibit a tendency that the vast majority of us have — to look out for ourselves first. Equally rare are those altruistic heroes who fall on a grenade to save their buddies. Most of us have both tendencies in us, but SHRUGS have completely killed within themselves any tendency to empathize or care about others. There may be inborn differences as to the balance of altruism and selfishness that we are born with. In addition, the way people are brought up probably also has a lot to do with how this balance plays out. People who experience unconditional love are more likely to grow up so that their natural connectedness to others prevails over greed, at least most of the time. Indeed, empirical studies show that people who are completely altruistic or completely greedy are rare. Most of us are somewhere in between and our behavior is much influenced by the situation that we find ourselves in, both in the short term and in the long term. That is why it is important, not only to raise children with unconditional love and teach them right from wrong, but also to have a society that encourages and rewards cooperative behavior over complete selfishness.

SHRUGS are, to a large extent, the product of being raised by other SHRUGS who will demean a child and try to dominate them in order to induce shame. The child grows up physically but not emotionally. They will in turn, tend to raise more SHRUGS and treat others, not as individual human beings with their own rights but as tools to be used with no more thought than you would care how a hammer “feels” when it hits a nail or how the nail “feels” when it is hit by a hammer. It is indeed, a very sad thing when a person (or even a dog or cat) is so mistreated that is lashes out whenever it can. SHRUGS need therapy; perhaps even love. But don’t expect to “fix” them. They also need to be contained. Your two year old might have a temper tantrum in the grocery store when they are denied a piece of candy they see. It is not a good idea to give in to them thereby reinforcing the display of immaturity. But it doesn’t mean you need to shame them, humiliate them, beat them, or stop loving them. But you are the adult. You need to make sure they understand that screaming, crying, and smacking anyone around is not going to result in their getting their way. The very worst thing to do is to tell them they can’t have the candy; let them continue their temper tantrum; and then finally give in. This teaches them that they can always get their way if they are persistent enough.


As the SHRUG gets older, they may find that they enjoy bullying other children regardless of whether they actually succeed in reaching any goal other than making the other person feel bad. This is much like a kind of “reverse empathy.” The more they make someone else feel bad, the better they feel. Sometimes people like this become skilled in athletics but never learn true sportsmanship. They never respect, but only disrespect their opponents. They never seem to understand that without a worthy opponent, there is literally no sport and no-one would pay to see them. On other occasions, the SHRUG may become a law enforcement officer. And, by the way, most police officers are not at all like this and actually want to help the public. A few, however, will enjoy beating the “truth” out of a suspect or forcing them to assume humiliating positions or actions, such as crawling. If the suspect fails to comply, they may be shot dead on the spot. Other SHRUGS will simply become accountants, sales people, or doctors. But they are not really all that interested in accounting, sales or doctoring. What they really want to do is move up the hierarchy so they can “lord it over others.” You seldom see a SHRUG working as a single stand-alone contractor, accountant, sales person, or doctor. If they do, they will have limited success because they will simply alienate their potential customers. Most people do not really like interacting with a SHRUG. A few people, however, like being dominated by another because it is clear what they are supposed to do; namely, whatever the SHRUG says. Giving in to a SHRUG simply makes them all the more SHRUGish and set in their ways. Nonetheless, in a society where a sense of fair play is very common and where love prevails, a SHRUG will not get to far unless they manage to become perceived as a SHILL by others. (The SHRUGS themselves always see themselves as SHILLS, but for the most part, others do not see them that way. Most people “see right through” most SHRUGS.



For people who judge others, not on the basis of actual behavior, but on the basis of superficial markers, however, SHRUGS may tend to be perceived as SHILLS. If a SHRUG is particularly popular, or beautiful, or athletic, or rich, or powerful, or wears extremely expensive clothes people who would like to have those things for themselves will tend to view the SHRUG as a SHILL. In times of war, we are often bend over backwards to perceive SHRUGS as SHILLS. But even in times of peace, it is possible, as explained below. Since truth is the first casualty of war, however, it is particularly in times of war that we may sometimes consider SHRUGS as SHILLS. Such folk often end up, for instance, arguing that torture is justified in order to find out vital truths to save the lives of “good people” at the expense of the pain of the “bad people.” Torture is actually quite effective, but not at getting at the truth. It is quite effective at getting people to say what you want them to say. This makes it especially valuable for SHRUGS trying to convince people that they are actually SHILLS. They will ensure that whoever is tortured will add evidence to the narrative that makes SHRUGS appear as SHILLS or even Heroes. In a similar vein, SHRUGS do not particularly care for the rule of law. In the same way that they believe that sweeping away all the chess pieces and declaring themselves the winner is just fine, they also believe sweeping away all sense of fair play and justice is just fine too.

Perpetrating violence and breaking the law in order to destroy SHRUGS is therefore, in effect, playing the same “game” as the SHRUGS. So, here is the crux of a dilemma. If you allow the SHRUG to have their way, they will simply take more and more over time and come more and more tyrannical over time. However, if you destroy the SHRUG by violence, you simply replace one SHRUG with another. Thus, the violent overthrow of the Czars in Russia led fairly quickly to Lenin and then to Stalin. The violent overthrow of the corrupt Chinese government that perpetuated vast inequality in China led to Mao. The French Revolution led, at least initially, to a bloodbath that went far beyond actual SHRUGS to anyone even associated with the so-called Noble class. Eventually, all of these regimes became more democratic though in varying degrees.


In the case of so-called Western Democracies, people must work to depose whatever SHRUGS are in power, not through violence, but through whatever legitimate channels still exist in that particular democracy. This is hard work and needs to be smart work as well. It involves communication, and it involves understanding. One must understand both the SHRUGS and their supporters. The grievances that underly their supporters must be addressed. That does not mean that if workers are convinced that the only way to insure that they get a good job is through misogyny or racism that everyone else gives in to misogyny or racism. But everyone needs to look beyond the misogyny and racism and understand the disappointment, failure and frustration that lead to these dehumanizing beliefs.

In short, if you try to take the quick path and unseat a SHRUG by violence and hatred, you’ll only succeed in spawning the conditions for even more SHRUGS to arise. It’s much like trying to fix a broken arm by amputation rather than setting the broken bone and allowing it to heal. Once again, the path to lasting peace and love is through the clever and judicious use of peace and love and not by war and hate, even if undertaken to ensure that the society be run in a just and cooperative way. A key component is to communicate fully and effectively.

SHRUGS can be voted out of political positions. This is an important power to exercise, but it is not your only one. You can choose how to spend your money. You can choose to whom you give your labor. You can choose which products you buy. You can choose what you say to your friends and family. You can model kind behavior. Once you think about it, just as there are millions of cells working together to shrug your shoulders, so too, millions of people working together can SHRUG off the SHRUGS.



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Peace and Love, Part 2: SHRUGS & SHILLS


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(This is the second in a series of blog posts about Peace, Love, and the pros and cons of war and peace).


Two trillion dollar wars with little to show but dead bodies. But at least America learned its lesson. We will never again elect someone with a financial and political interest in having the nation go into a needless war. Whew! Finally. But wait a moment. We already are in a war. A cold war. And by a “cold” war, I mean a war that is not being waged against an enemy on our borders ready to cross over with warm bodies. I mean, we are in a war in which the enemy without is in cahoots with an enemy within. And, it is a cold, long, and calculating war. America, or what’s left of it, is fighting a war on two fronts. (Silly, silly Napoleon; silly, silly Hitler). On the one hand, we are being attacked from the outside by Russian leaders who would like to divide and weaken Western democracies of every stripe. Main targets are the UK, American, and Germany, but others will have their turns as well. Their goal is to consolidate their power within and to strive once more toward world domination.  I’ve already addressed the divisiveness that arises from the way social media work combined with outside influences pushing on leverage points. This might be a moderately effective method of waging war with pretty much zero Russian casualties and only moderate expense. However the war is made much more effective by having a second and internal front. We have far right “parties” within Western democracies that are aiding and abetting these enemies by dividing the countries with hate speech, fanning the flames of fear, executive orders, laws and, at least in America, the infestation of the federal government with incompetent administrators who will do everything in their power to ruin all that is good with the federal government including public education, research, fair-minded judges, public lands, and so on.

In the short term, most of these internal allies of the external enemies are not really doing it to “Make America Grovel Again” but are doing it to satisfy a few extremely wealthy donors. The extremely wealthy donors want your wealth and my wealth. This is not a recent phenomenon. Extremely greedy people are never satisfied. If you are like most people and you see that there are ten people at the table and ten donuts, you would take one for yourself and leave nine for the other nine. But extremely greedy people would be inclined to take all ten. Then, there are the ultra-greedy and they would not take all ten. They would convince you that they have 100 donuts for each of you. Unfortunately, they need to eat all ten of the first batch of donuts themselves for right now. Then, they need you to go out and make 1000 donuts. They will give you all the equipment you need to make 1000 donuts. When you spend a week of your time making 1000 donuts and then bring back the 1000 donuts to split, they will actually take 910 for themselves and give you 90 donuts to split among the other nine people. It seems a little unfair, but you are still better off, right? Before, you would have only gotten ONE donut. Now, you get 10 donuts. A definite improvement! And that is what capitalism is all about. Until lately. (The article below tends to blame the growing inequality of wealth on new technology, but I believe that is secondary to the new (im)morality.

Now, we have a small number of hyper-ultra greedy people. They will make the same deal and take all ten of the original donuts for themselves. After getting you to use their equipment to make 1000 donuts, they will give you only half a donut each. They will tell you that if you want a whole donut, you’ll have to figure out a way to make 2000 donuts first. So, you and your nine co-workers put your heads together and figure out a way to make 2000 donuts instead of 1000. Now, when you come back with the 2000 donuts, you will get 1/9 donut each. The hyper-ultra greedy will take 1999 of the donuts and let you and your coworkers split the one remaining donut. If you happen to be a female donut-maker, he might promise to give you a donut but only if you have sex with him first. You must understand one thing. They don’t feel bad about doing this. They just think it is their right by virtue of their being “smarter” than you are. They think they deserve all the donuts, and they are actually being quite wonderful to let you have a whole donut in return for sex.


In America, until around 1970, productivity gains were split between — on the one hand, the workers who largely invented new technologies, techniques and methods; learned the new techniques and skills — and on the other hand, the people who owned the means of production. Since 1970, the greedy have been, through mergers and acquisitions, mostly replaced by the hyper-ultra greedy. Unions, environmental safeguards, safety regulations, inspections, and the right to vote are now all under attack. The hyper-ultra-greedy are now being replaced by the super-hyper-really-ultra greedy who not only will take every last frigging donut you produce, but they have no qualms whatever about making you do it in a way that makes you burn every last one of your fingers off. They have absolutely no qualms about making sure that you have no time or energy left to learn a new trade. They have absolutely no qualms about making sure that your children will also be making donuts for nothing and getting your “chicks” for free, even if those particular “chicks” are only 13 or 14 years old.


Most of us do not actually meet these people face to face and our experience is with other people like us so we find it hard to believe that someone would be that greedy. Of course, making donuts is not their only business. They also hire people to put on their make up, write speeches for them, handle publicity, write up fake stories about them, broadcast for them and otherwise make you think that they are just ordinary folks like you but more successful because they are smarter. They aren’t smarter. They just refuse to play the game by the rules. They don’t really view what they are doing as “lying” because for them, truth doesn’t matter. While most of us are involved in a giant cooperative enterprise of trying to find more truth about the universe and tell each other so we can all collectively make better decisions about how to make more and better donuts for everyone, they are only concerned with themselves. They do not think of you as “another human being” but as a tool to be used in whatever way is most efficient to meet their ends. While they don’t care about the truth, they do care about “communicating” which for them means manipulating you into doing what they want. (By the way, please realize that not all extremely wealthy people are SHRUGS and not all SHRUGS are necessarily wealthy. It isn’t the amount of owned wealth that defines SHRUGS; rather what defines SHRUGS is their attitude toward ethics and particularly their base belief that stealing everything from others while claiming to be working for the good of all or doing “God’s work” is perfectly natural.)


These are deeply flawed human beings. Why? Because without you, they are, for the most part, completely unable to make or find even a single donut on their own. They are ultimately so greedy that they are killing “the goose that lays the golden egg.” Currently, they are doing everything in their power to divide (at least) America according to race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. Their goal is to redirect the anger you quite naturally feel at working harder and getting nowhere toward women, minorities, foreigners, etc. and away from the SHRUGS themselves. These super-hyper-ultra greedy people are unable to function without your active cooperation. So, it’s really important for you not to realize just how much you are being taken for a ride. Some of them may realize that their actions are also greatly helpful to the destruction of America as a world leader. But mostly they don’t really care much about that because they are convinced they will have even more power under, say, Russian rule.


This is actually quite a humorous miscalculation. As soon as America’s role in the world is sufficiently diminished, the super-hyper-really-ultra greedy (SHRUGs for short) will be the first to go. They will be the victims of the first Putsch. Why would the super-hyper-ultra greedy among the Russians not replace the American super-hyper-ultra greedy with their own? Of course they will. If American SHRUGS took as long as two minutes to actually think about it, the American SHRUGs would realize this is exactly what they would do if they took over Russia (or any other country). In point of fact, when banana Republic dictators do not go along with American orders, they are eliminated in the same way. So, all the facts and history are there, but you need to understand that the power and position and privilege that American SHRUGS enjoy ultimately gives them an extremely warped view of their own abilities. They come to believe that they are not SHRUGS but a different species altogether: SHILLS (Super-Hyper Intelligent Lovely Leaders). SHRUGS, in fact, need not be particularly intelligent at all, but they do gain that illusion. It’s easy to see why. You play a game of chess with a SHRUG. You play by the rules. You are about to win when the SHRUG knocks all the pieces on the floor and yells, “I win!” When they do this enough times, they come to think that they actually are a very very shrewd chess player. It sounds crazy and it actually is in the sense that their perception of reality is completely divorced from it.

The second to go will be those unwilling or unable to be slaves to the new set of masters. If you care to live a long life, you might want to start learning Russian now. In the meantime, we might yet be able to prevent the SHRUGS from taking over America. But if the control of the SHRUGS persists even for another year, they will disenfranchise enough Americans so that there will never be another fair election. They will make many more things illegal and exact horrific penalties for minor crimes. They will put in place judges who will exact punishments depending on people’s political views. They will prevent more than a few more people from coming to America – particularly those who might not already be brainwashed into thinking the SHRUGS are really SHILLS.

What do we do about that? We begin to explore this topic in the next blog post.

(By the way, I do not believe that Russian people or the Russian nation is particularly prone to SHRUGS any more than America is. Trying to blame all Russians for the actions of the Russian SHRUGS is as unfair as blaming all the sins of American SHRUGS on America as a whole. Most of us would not approve many of the “dirty tricks” we end up playing on other nations in order to placate our own SHRUGS.)

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Peace & Love, Part One: Casualty Count.


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Peace and Love: Part One (War Casualties).

(In response to suggestions from a few readers, I am trying a slightly new format of much shorter and more frequent posts; we’ll see how that works, for me and for readers.  Feedback welcome on that or anything else.)


To some readers, “Peace and Love” reminds you, as it does me, of slogans from the 1960’s. It arose in response to the war in Vietnam which President Johnson led us into full-bore with a lie about the Gulf of Tonkin. That war produced over 58,000 American deaths.

There were also more than a few American citizens who were wounded physically and a great many who were wounded mentally as well as their families.  It also resulted in millions of Vietnamese casualties.

However, the loss of lives did allow Vietnam to remain a free and democratic nation. Wait. Wait. No it didn’t. Vietnam became communist and sadly Vietnam was only the first “domino to fall.” Now, all of Asia is communist. Oh, wait. No it isn’t. I’m sorry. I’m confused. How could “the greatest” nation on earth spend nearly a trillion dollars (in current dollars) and kill so many lives and end up losing the war?


And how could the fall of Vietnam not result in Japan and South Korea and Singapore and India becoming communist once this first domino nation fell? What happened to the other dominos?  I’ll tell you how. In war, truth is the first casualty.,5753,-21510,00.html

We were lied to in order to get enough support to get us into the war and we were lied to continuously about the likely consequences of losing the war and about the progress of the war. What would our lives be like now in America, let alone Vietnam, if all the money we poured into the war had instead gone into advances in science, medicine, technology, infrastructure and education?

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Not only were there many protests about the war in America; there were actually candidates who ran mainly on a platform to end the war. Some may recall the names of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern who ran on peace platforms. You may also recall that Hubert Humphrey, who had been Johnson’s Vice President obtained the nomination of the Democratic Party via shenanigans at the convention in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Chicago police beat up peaceful demonstrators outside the convention. Humphrey would have won the nomination, most likely, even if the people in charge of the Democratic Party had allowed the McGovern camp to speak their piece. I was so pissed off at the senseless violence perpetrated by the police against peaceful demonstrators that I found myself sorely tempted to vote for the Republican candidate in protest. He had a “secret plan” so he claimed, to end the war in Vietnam.

Richard Nixon did get voted in as President and I did vote for him even though I was skeptical that he actually had a secret plan. But he did! He did have a secret plan to end the war. The plan was to give up. Yeah, there were more deaths and more lies along the way, but basically his secret plan was to give up. Well, that and rely on “dirty tricks” to secure his power. I was mistaken to vote for Nixon. He was impeached and he was a liar and he was, despite his protestations to the contrary, a crook. (My “revenge” vote against the establishment of the Democratic Party didn’t really work.) However, whatever faults Nixon might have had, he was a paragon of virtue compared with #45.

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At least America learned a good lesson. Before going into a costly war, we now make sure we know the real facts. And so, before Bush got us into the second Iraq war, Republicans and Democrats worked together to make absolutely positively sure that the Iraqis really did have “weapons of mass destruction.” Oh wait. I am so sorry. I got confused again! No, we didn’t. We had a Vice President with financial interests in having a war in the Middle East. We had rich old men who had cheated their ways to fortunes who hoped to cash in on even more oil money through the war. And so they did. A small price to pay — a few tens of thousands of American deaths and a few hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and maimed. There seems to be no consensus on the exact numbers.

At least now, there is finally a unified and peaceful Iraq though so maybe it was worth it. Oh, wait. Damn! Something in the water must be muddying my memory because, no, there isn’t a peaceful, democratic and unified Iraq. How could the “greatest nation on earth” spend two trillion dollars on a war and end up gaining nothing from it? I guess we just sacrificed all that money that we could have spent on education, keeping our bridges and roads from collapsing, researching cures to cancer and other diseases for the benefit of Iraqis. That is really quite remarkably altruistic of us. But I guess it was worth it because now, as everyone knows, the middle east is at last at peace. Democracy everywhere! Or, at least everywhere except Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and maybe a dozen other places. Apart from the lack of success in meeting our objectives…which were what exactly? Anyway, apart from meeting our objectives, it wasn’t that big of a deal because all we lost were wealth and human lives and limbs and a working infrastructure for Iraq. Oh, there is the continuing cost of medical and psychiatric care for Gulf War vets and the impact the war had on their families and our national debt, but hey. Every success requires sacrifice, right? Or, to put it in slightly more exact terms, every success for the transfer of wealth from the middle class and poor to a few extremely wealthy people requires sacrifice on the part of ordinary citizens who don’t really count for much anyway because, well, if they really counted for anything, they’d already be wealthy! If they really counted for anything, they sure as hell wouldn’t be off fighting a war where other people were shooting at them! They’d be in the National Guard doing nothing. Or, they’d be excused from military service because of a severe medical problem such as heel spur which might, luckily enough, heal later.


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Create Peace!


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Monday, I had so-called secondary cataracts lasered off the back of the membrane that holds in my clear plastic lens. I now feel that my vision, in terms of acuity, is the best it has been in my entire life. Just let that sink in for a moment. I’m 72 years old and experiencing the best my vision has ever been in terms of detail. My grandfather was an artist. When in his 60’s, he developed cataracts. He had surgery but his results were disappointing; the results are far better today. I am not sure he was even checked for secondary cataracts. His vision at 72 was frighteningly bad — especially when he drove. Wednesday, I played tennis for the first time since the laser treatment. The little fuzz hairs on the chartreuse ball, the grimace on the opponent’s face, the serve that misses the mark by a half inch and I can call it out because I am 100% certain it’s out- this is the joy of good vision, or at least a tiny sampling thereof. The result of Monday’s surgery is a moment to moment miracle for me personally, but it is also a miracle in cooperation across many kinds of borders.

It so happens one of my former colleagues at IBM Research, Jim Wynne was one of the co-inventors of laser surgery. People that do this procedure, or any other avant-garde medical procedure, typically share information around the world. They do this to benefit everyone, themselves included. Progress works best when information is shared. Over time, a very complex process has been developed in science to help insure that only truthful information is shared and that the most important information is more widely distributed (not necessarily the most sensational information). The system also provides a nice balance of tools for the researcher to find the information most relevant to what he is doing and tools for the publishers of information to guide it in directions likely to find interested consumers/reactors to that information.

People sometimes disagree in the scientific community about something, but violence rarely breaks out! Why? Because everyone values the truth? Well, that is part of it. Most people in the scientific community do respect the truth pretty much above all else. But not everyone feels that way all the time. So, just as the American Constitution is designed to provide good governance despite selfish or evil intentions of particular individuals, so too, the scientific community has processes and procedures to resolve differences and, for the most part, those processes and procedures work very well even if a particular scientist fakes data, say. He or she will be found out. And they will be held accountable. Even if they are not fired, their reputation is forever sullied in their scientific community.


There is a downside to settling differences the way the scientific community does. It can take time. In fact, almost every method of settling differences takes time. This should not be surprising. But let’s just make sure it’s front of mind. The only method that can resolve things extremely quickly is total power hierarchical chain of command. That’s its rep at least. But does it really work? Let’s just take another look at that. Imagine two hypothetical countries, let’s arbitrarily call them Russia and America just for fun. Let’s imagine that one of these countries — let’s say Russia — is essentially headed by a dictator who wants to exert personal control over the country. The dictator has an advantage of being able to decide things quickly and exert power over the press. Now, imagine that there are nuclear disasters in both countries. How are these handled?

In a dictatorship, it might take time for the truth to even be known that there was a nuclear disaster. People in charge of a nuclear plant will not want to let anyone else know. Eventually, of course, the truth will out. Eventually, the dictator will know. But the dictator will lie about it and then try to minimize what happened. This is really evil. People world-wide and probably even within Russia will fail to take adequate steps to minimize injury and will also fail to learn how to prevent such accidents in the future; they will fail to have the information available to make intelligent trade-offs about safety versus having a renewable energy source. If the Russian government lies about where and how much radiation leaked, then it also means people’s health will continue to be worse than it otherwise could be. People will be led to believe certain places are safe to live even though they are not. Mutations in the genes will cause medical problems for generations to come. The total cost of attempting to hide and obscure information about the nuclear accident will outweigh the initial cost of the disaster.


In a democratic country with a free press such as America still has, it will be much more difficult for the government to hide and obscure information. People in America will learn far faster about the proper tradeoffs between safety and renewable energy. More will be learned about how to recover from nuclear accidents as well as how to prevent them. Having a free society doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes. Of course, there will be. But we can all learn from them much more easily than we can in a fascist state.

Dictatorships almost always promulgate wars and violence. By getting everyone in a country to see enemies “out there”, and by being at war, anyone who disagrees or tries to work against the war is jailed for the excuse of being a “traitor.” The populace may be bombed, taxed, and conscripted — but they are brainwashed into believing it is all for a good cause. Meanwhile, people are too busy scrambling to stay alive to ask themselves who actually benefits from the war. In most cases, only a very small percentage of the population of a state benefits from war. But everyone in the nation feels it’s time for celebration when a major victory is “won” even though that “win” probably costs hundreds, thousands or even millions of innocent human lives.


In the long run, I have no doubt whatever that democracy will prevail over autocracy. Though not the main topic of this post, I’ll outline the argument briefly. Dictatorships bring out the worst in people and especially where novelty and creativity are necessary. Yes, you can build pyramids with slave labor but you cannot really invent the transistor with it. When people are stressed to deliver exactly what is required on a short fuse, they will tend to stick to the tried and true. It isn’t just technological innovation that lags behind under dictatorship; it is also learning about every craft, every process, every art. Since income and privilege are so unevenly distributed in a dictatorship, it will always be the case that the dictator is inches from being mobbed and killed. In order to secure their position, they see their chief enemy as a free press and dictators will do just about anything to destroy truth. While this may keep them on their throne longer, it has the unfortunate side-effect of making it much more difficult for everyone in the society to learn from their mistakes or to make good decisions about anything. Being fed false information over a long period of time ruins people’s intuitions about what’s what. Although dictatorships claim to have the advantage of efficiency because of speed of decision making and centralized coordination, in point of fact, the dictatorship becomes more inefficient over time, both due to a lessened creativity but also just the general incompetence implied by “might makes right.” At every point in the hierarchy, there will be a growing likelihood of that position being filled by a power-hungry individual rather than one interested in getting the job done. Of course, these two goals are not always in direct conflict, but generally speaking they lead in somewhat different directions. Bureaucracies come to be more and more staffed with incompetents who have “powerful friends” rather than people who are more competent. Almost all decisions are better when the input of all who have knowledge are consulted. But the bully in power doesn’t want to do this. In his mind, gathering the opinions of experts just reinforces the fact that the bully is not an expert. Knowing how petty and egomaniacal the tyrant is, on rare occasions when he does ask for opinions, most of his underlings will try to guess what the tyrant wants to do (or, when possible, what will enhance their own position) and state that. So, first of all the type of social interaction that predominates in these two governmental forms is quite different. In the democratic case, people are focused primarily on how to identify and solve problems. In the autocratic case, people’s attention will be on kissing ass, figuring out how to advance their position, how to avoid making a mistake, how to pin the blame on someone else if they do make a mistake. Of course, both types of thinking take place in both a meritocracy and an autocracy, but how can there not be a correlation between prevalence of type of action and what is valued in the society? For these reasons, whatever initial advantage a particular autocratic nation may have had will soon be lost and that nation will tend to be surpassed by democratic ones.


Autocratic nations at that point (or slightly before once losing position becomes clear) will decide  under the autocrat’s authority that it’s time to go to war. All sorts of reasons may be given to try to rationalize why there needs to be war but the real reason is always the same: to maintain or consolidate the power of the autocrat. There may have been a time when kings and queens physically led their troops in battle but that is not happening today. The autocrat knows he will be safe as long as possible. Lots of other people will die, but who cares?

So, therein lies the puzzle. Let’s posit that other things being equal, most people would rather live in peace than war. Most people would prefer not having their friends and neighbors shot dead in front of them. Most people would prefer not having their homes and fields destroyed by bombs and flames. Most people would prefer not having to give up their own dreams and ambitions in order to fulfill a military goal. But even if we assume peace is more desirable than war, what can be done to avoid war when autocratic nations are determined to go to war?


There may be alternative answers to this question but one answer seems obvious: the international community — the entire population of the planet —  should work to ensure that all nations are ruled by some variant of democracy. If that happens, it won’t necessarily put an end to all wars, but two democratic nations at least have the possibility of talking through their disagreements because they both value truth over power. Autocratic nations, on the other hand, will eventually fall behind economically and in pretty much every other way because of the inherent inefficiency of dictatorships. So, those countries will necessarily go to war because that will be the only way a dictator sees to keep power.

In some cases, a deal might be made between many democracies and a dictator. Essentially, the democracies might say, “Hey, we’ll help keep you in power but don’t go to war (or at lest, not too much, and definitely not with us) or otherwise thwart our interests. Because if you do, we will crush you.” So, the dictator who is a successful bully in his country cannot pull that off on the international stage. The bully/dictator will probably make a condition of his being propped up and beholden to the democracies that that fact not be made known to the people of his own country. The bully/dictator will posture and speechify (and more recently tweet) that he is in control and has everyone else over a barrel. The only thing that the dictator (and its supporters) really value is power. So, the bully/dictator must keep up the illusion that he has power. Otherwise, his supporters will simply dessert him or her.

So we have a somewhat uneasy peace between dictators and the democratic countries of the world. The democratic countries typically don’t want war. Unless they are able to lie convincingly about the war and/or keep domestic casualties to a minimum, they’ll be voted out of office. This is why the US, for instance, engages in bombing, drones, or small strike forces rather than sending thousands of people out to die in a ground war. Those moves prove very unpopular. Most people don’t like seeing their friends and relatives come back in body bags.


Dictators don’t really care how many civilians are killed so long as there are sufficient protections and compensations for them and their supporters. They can’t be voted out of office by the population as a whole. Democratic countries realize that having a dictator in charge of any country is a potential threat to them because the dictator has far less to lose in a war, other things being equal. Of course, they are not equal and collectively, the democracies of the world enjoy a higher standard of living. The dictators don’t really care because they can always steal enough from their own people to keep themselves and their handful of supporters happy. But if any dictatorship creates a hazard for democracies, why let them survive? Why don’t all the democracies simply get together and eliminate all the dictatorships by force? Although non-peaceful and destructive in the short terms, wouldn’t there be more peace in the long term?

Not necessarily. It is possible for a democracy to become a dictatorship. The way that works is fairly simple. A candidate in a democracy appears or pretends to be an ordinary candidate who is “playing the game” of democracy. If such a candidate comes to power however, they will immediately wage a campaign that has absolutely nothing to do with improving their country (though they may claim that) but has everything to do with consolidating their power; i.e., making them a dictator. For example, they will see which people in the democracy are statistically likely to vote for them. These people will be favored over people who are statistically unlikely to vote for them. The latter will be disadvantaged economically and various roadblocks will be enacted to prevent them from voting. Government positions will not be filled by those most experienced or most able to fill the roles. Instead, government positions will be filled by those most willing to forgo a sense of duty to the common good of the citizens and instead to subjugate such motives to absolute loyalty to the would-be dictator. In many cases, the dictator will fill important roles with family and personal friends regardless of how incompetent such people are to fill the post they are supposed to be assigned to.

The free press will come under attack at the same time the would-be dictator spews forth a string of “big lies.” Political opponents will come under attack; in many cases, they will be accused of crimes. However absurd such charges will be, the loyal backers of the would-be dictator will join the chorus of accusers. The would-be dictator will also try to fill courts with people whose decisions are based only loosely on the law or the facts of particular cases, but who are willing to hand down decisions based on what will help the dictator consolidate their power. In some cases, this means putting political opponents in jail. In other cases, it means handing down decisions that simply make life extremely difficult for those who would vote the dictator out of power. For example, let’s imagine a country where there are people of different colors. (It doesn’t really matter much what the difference is; it could be religion, region, origin, color, style of walking, education level or all of the above). What matters is that there is a statistical difference in voting patterns. Suppose, people whose skin is colored green vote for the dictator while people whose skin is colored purple do not typically vote for the dictator. Then, people who are colored purple will be vilified, lied about, and, thanks to the courts, incarcerated much more often and for much longer than green people. The lies about purple people will be initially seen as absurd and ridiculous. But after constant repetition for years and years, even gray people and pink people will begin to wonder. (And of course, the would be dictator’s supporters — largely green folk — will immediately take it on faith that purple people all deserve to be in prison).


I’ve already mentioned that such dictatorships are ultimately inefficient and don’t really work very well from a practical standpoint. Beyond that, they are much more horrible to live under for most people than are democracies. And, beyond that, they almost always will end up in wars. Dictatorships kill. Often, democracies do as well. But it isn’t a requirement for a democracy to get into a war. Dictatorships will always strive toward war. So, part of creating “Peace on Earth” is to prevent dictatorships from arising from democracies. This is apparently harder than it would seem. Part of the reason is that most people who have grown up in a democracy have been taught to “play by the rules” and to cooperate. They tend to assume that others will do the same. The would be dictator pretends to play by the rules, but in fact, will break absolutely any rule to consolidate power for themselves. In most cases, there are plenty of signs that the would be dictator is just that. In today’s world, there are many public records of behavior from tweets to tax records that give insights into the character of a candidate. No dictator, no matter how clever, or well-connected can possibly come to power without the willing support of a substantial fraction of people in the democracy. Remember that Hitler was initially voted into power and so were many other dictators.

We must therefore ask ourselves the question why people would vote in someone who wants to be a dictator. Why would people give up democracy for autocracy? There are many possible reasons; these reasons need not be the same for everyone. Some people in a democracy may feel that they are “losers.” Since democracy is not “working for them,” they are willing to try anything else if it might mean they will now be “winners.” This is not completely irrational. After all, if someone has voted for various seemingly different stripes of competent candidates who are playing the “democracy game” and yet, the voter’s real purchasing power continues to fall, why not try someone playing some other game? Maybe things will be better. Of course, the would-be dictator plays into this and tells such voters that their lives will be so much better once the dictator is in charge. In some cases, the would be dictator will blame other groups of people; in Hitler’s case, for instance, he mainly railed against Jews. In our hypothetical case, recall that it was the purple people who are responsible for all the bad in the world.

I think some people don’t believe anything the would-be dictator says. They actually see right through the childish lies. However, some believe that once a dictator is in charge, they too can literally get away with murder. Such a supporter can become a corrupt judge, police officer, petty bureaucrat and then kiss ass and lie and manipulate until they reach a position of personal power that allows them to force sexual favors, destroy lives, demand respect etc. While everyone probably has an element of this nastiness in them, most people work against it and try to feed “the good wolf” within them. A few people, however, just say, in effect, “Hell with it! I’m going to feed the bad wolf!” And so they do. In many cases, their fantasy never actually materializes. All it takes, after all, is one misstep and they piss off their superior. In fact, they might not even make any missteps. All that happens is that they are a handy scape-goat for their superior.

Some people who support the would be dictator do not feel as though they are losers at all. They are already rich and powerful. They literally have everything they need and nearly everything they could even imagine wanting. However, they may have gotten all this and feel immensely lucky. But luck can change. And, it is a normal human tendency, if you have 435 pies and your neighbor has zero pies to feel as though you should share some of the 435 pies. Most of us would normally do that. But some people instead keep all 435 pies and instead come up with a rationalization for keeping them all. “Well, you know, that next door neighbor of mine is purple and we know that once they get one pie, they will want more!” Or, “My next door neighbor doesn’t have any pies because he never learned to make any! Why should I give him mine?” Or, “My next door neighbor isn’t really a Christian. He doesn’t deserve any pies.” Or…well, you are probably just as good at making up bogus excuses as the next person. This kind of supporter of the would be dictator wants a system in which keeping the 435 pies is seen as the “right thing to do” rather than the rather selfish and cowardly act that it actually is.

A variety of other rationales, excuses, reasons etc. help prop up an unpopular dictator among his or her supporters. But how can we help prevent democracy from devolving into dictatorship? There will never be world-wide peace until we can solve that puzzle. We certainly cannot expect that the would be dictators will simply wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Gee. I’ve been focused way too much on enhancing my own power. I need to think about what I can really do to help my country.” Or, “Gee. It just occurs to me that if everyone acted as I do, we humans would never have invented the wheel or controlled fire. We’d be little more than chimps throwing feces at each other. I’d better change.” No, that kind of insight is not going to happen. It might be, as Socrates purportedly said, that the unexamined life is not worth living. But the would-be dictator just uses that as motivation to make as sure as possible that no-one else’s life is worth living either.


In order to solve problems, people tend to focus their attention on what is different. We ask ourselves how this situation is different or how that person is different or which car has more horsepower or which stock will likely have a better ROI. We seldom think about how people are the same or what cars, in general, do to us and the environment or why we have a stock market. So too, when it comes to people we immediately gravitate toward what is different among people. When it comes to collective decisions, we tend to focus on how we differ. What would happen if, instead, we focused first on how we were the same? What if we went through a process that helped us identify what is similar or even identical in what we wanted and then worked together on ways to make those things more likely to become true? In other words, what if we identified and solved problems rather than characterizing each other in unflattering and overblown terms? On some items, maybe we would not agree. But to me, it seems exceedingly likely that any two people would find things that they did agree were desirable states of affair.

If that hypothesis is true, then, what would happen if these two people worked together to try to bring those states of affair into existence? It seems to me likely that they would make some progress toward their mutual goals. In the process, they would come to trust each other more. If they saw the world in different ways, or had different ideas how to proceed, could they not find a peaceful way to resolve those differences and continue to make progress? Wouldn’t they continue to learn from each other? If they worked together using a peaceful process on a problem — however large or small — it seems to me that they would be likely to plant seeds of peace on a small scale that could contribute to peace on a much, much larger scale.

We can do this. I see it quite clearly now.

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Resolution: Create!


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When most of us think of the word “Create” we tend to associate it with particular pursuits and professions; e.g., artist, writer, actor, scientist, engineer, photographer, choreographer or chef. However, every single human being — indeed, every living thing must be “creative.” To live is to create. It is not something relegated to particular human professions or past-times. In particular, when you and someone else disagree, instead of hunkering down into a straight-laced no-holds barred negotiation about who gets the biggest slice of a given pie, there is an alternative. That alternative is to dig into that natural creative streak that you have — and that the person you are disagreeing with has — and to create!

Let’s take a simple example. A good metaphor for life, as we know from Forrest Gump, is a box of chocolates. Let’s say there is only one box of chocolates. I want the chocolates. You want the chocolates. What to do? As you already know (but have not yet forgotten) if you are a kid, there are some simple standard ways to deal with such a situation.

You could use a game of luck or a game of skill to determine who gets the box of chocolates. We could split the box in two. If there are 64 chocolates, you get 32 and I get 32. Of course, since I am not a kid, but an adult who is “skilled” in zero-sum game negotiations, I might not settle for just 32. I’ll feel as though I’ve lost by only getting half. I’ll likely hire a lawyer. Which will tend to induce you to hire a lawyer as well. We may go to court and the judge will award 40 chocolates to me and only 24 to you. Victory for me! Of course, I will now have to pay my lawyer 20 chocolates so I only end up with 20 instead of 32, but I’m still better off that you! You have to pay your lawyer 20 chocolates and you end up with only 4! Loser! You won’t be very happy with this outcome so you may appeal to a higher court. In the end, I will be lucky to end up with ONE chocolate, but hey, if you have zero chocolates, I can still call myself a “winner.” Yeah. That’s the “adult” way. Remember those days when you were just a silly little kid and you would have ended up with a mere 32?

Instead of using our adult knowledge and intelligence to end up with less than a naive kid, we could use our adult knowledge and intelligence to end up with more. Here’s one simple way. Typically, all chocolates are not the same. I actually only like solid chocolates with nuts. I prefer dark chocolate, but milk chocolate with nuts is okay too. I don’t even really like the ones with caramel or creamy fillings. I would rather have all ten with nuts than five with nuts and 27 with fillings. If it turns out that you like the ones with fillings better than or equally to the nutty ones, we will both be better off by taking these preferences into account. Of course, it might turn out that both of us hate the creamy ones and love only the nut-filled chocolates. In this case, we have to find a way to split the nut ones and forget about the rest. Right?

Wrong! Of course not. Although it is really greed that makes you blind, in reality, the world does not begin and end with you, me, and a box of chocolates. We could find a third party who loves creamy chocolates; get them to pay us for those and go buy some chocolates with the money — the yummy crunchy chocolates with nuts that we both love. If we play our cards right, we could each end up with 32 nut-filled chocolates. We could each end up with even more if we find someone who really really loves the creamy ones.

Once you relinquish your greed-filtered view of the world, you will see that there is much more to the world than you, me, and chocolate. While it’s true that I really do love chocolate covered nuts, I am in the process of losing weight so even the chocolate covered ones that I love are a kind of double-edged sword. I might find some way to trade my share of the chocolates for something that I value even more. For instance, I might trade my presumptive half of the chocolates for ten apples since you have a surfeit of apples and don’t really like them. Or, since my tangerine tree is still going strong, I might take your half of the chocolates and give you ten seedless tangerines. These are actually, now that I think about it, even better than chocolates. Each seedless tangerine offers the pleasure of how it feels, how it smells, the activity of peeling it, the knowledge comes to mind that the white slightly bitter material between the fleshy segments is filled with rutin which is an important nutrient though the word is apparently not in the spell-checker. When you eat a tangerine, you get to break it into segments. This in itself is a satisfying process. If a friend happens by, you can have the pleasure of offering them a tangerine as well. If you happen to leave one of those tangerines in a sunny car for a few minutes, it will not be ruined. Nor will your car upholstery.


But wait. There’s more! The world as it is, plus the world of my imagination, plus the world of your imagination, plus the emergent world of our collective imagination extends beyond even a world of you, me, chocolates, apples, and tangerines. You might actually not like tangerines, but you could learn from me how to like them, provided you are open to it. It might turn out that the only reason you currently dislike tangerines is that you tried some very small seedy ones when you were a kid. You found them bothersome to peel and deseed with your clumsy five-year old fingers. Then, when you got your hands all sticky, you sticky-fied your mom’s fine tablecloth at the Holiday dinner. She yelled at you in front of the whole family and now you hate tangerines. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault! Nor is it the fault of tangerines in general. Really. These tangerines in the here and now are not those tangerines at all. My tangerines are large, juicy, seedless, and easy to peel. Your fingers are likely far less clumsy than they were at five. Your mom is not here to yell at you for getting your fingers sticky. So, what you could learn from me about the joys of tangerines and the more general fact that you yourself are limiting your current pleasure in life based on a gross over-generalization of specific childhood experiences — that, my friend, is a lot more valuable than a box of chocolates.


I might similarly be currently disinclined to see the value in ten of your apples because I had a bad experience with apples once. Perhaps it was one of those apples that looks all fresh and shiny in the store but once home, one bite tells you this apple is yucky, granular and brown inside. Quite possibly it got frozen in transport or terribly bruised. If you like apples, you can teach me to like apples (again). You and I might even decide to chuck the whole box of chocolates, trading it for money to buy more fruit, or even sending it jointly as a gift to a family for whom a box of chocolates would be far more meaningful than it would be to either of us. The gift of good feelings that we would get by being generous to others could totally outweigh the pleasure of 32 chocolates.


We could take that box of 64 chocolates into the kitchen and so some joint experimenting in terms of a culinary challenge. It might work like this. We take turns choosing one chocolate either by the index (which any chocolatier who is not devil’s spawn will provide) or by appearance alone. Let’s say we flip and let me go first. I choose a chocolate and my challenge is to find something in the kitchen that will enhance the flavor or at least give it an interesting and different context. So, I pick a solid dark chocolate piece. I toast a piece of Dave’s Killer Bread and split it in two. I spread Laura Scudder’s crunchy peanut butter on each half. I melt the chocolate and spread that on top. Now, we taste the result. How does the chocolate add (or detract) from the overall concoction? Would more chocolate make it better? More peanut butter? Should I have added cinnamon? The fun of this and the knowledge we gained and the resulting bonds of friendship could easily be far more valuable than the chocolates themselves. Who knows? Maybe we could go into business with a line of chocolates not meant to be eaten alone but to be used as accoutrements to numerous side-dishes. Our explorations could lead to guidelines about which kind of chocolate goes best with which kind of other ingredients.


Alternatively, we could each take 32 random chocolates and make an advent calendar. Perhaps, each chocolate comes with a picture and story about one of the ingredients or an interesting story about it. When did people first make chocolate? Who? When did people first begin “refining” sugar? Who first boxed chocolate? Do you know the story of “Mother’s Day” by the way? What is the current thinking on the dietary impact of chocolate? Is it good for you? Bad for you? Both? We could turn a simple box of chocolate into a thoughtful and interesting gift of value far beyond the box of chocolates itself. Yeah, it would definitely be a lot of work to make this into a multi-dimensional gift. But it would also be a lot of fun. Who knows? We might even make a multi-million dollar business out of it.

There’s nothing particularly “special” about tangerines, apples, or chocolate in this regard. Anything of value can be made more valuable by the addition of other ingredients, contexts, knowledge, love, caring, gaming, and by changing your stance or attitude toward it. You can continue to negotiate like a little kid. That’s not horrible. At least you’ll get half a box of chocolate out of the deal (or a fair chance for the whole box). Or, you could negotiate like a “real winner” type A go-get-um up-and-coming ladder-climbing dynamo of flash and dazzle. You can then brag to your friends (if you have any) that you ended up with one chocolate while I ended up owing three chocolates. Yes, you could brag that you “won.” Congrats.

Your third alternative: approach every negotiation as an exercise in creativity and creation. Every party to a negotiation brings something to the table tangibly (or why are they there?). But beyond that, each party also brings their unique perspective, values, and life experiences. Working together, we could almost certainly create something of more value than what we are negotiating about. Despite my best efforts, you might just not like tangerines. But maybe you do like oranges. Why? I mean, why do you like oranges but not tangerines? We might discover something of great interest to tangerine growers or the advertisers for oranges. You might like creamy chocolates but you don’t like chocolates with nuts although you like both chocolates and nuts. Why? We might discover something of great interest to chocolatiers. Or, in the process of trying to discover why you don’t like chocolate covered nuts though you like both ingredients, we might discover something about what makes some people allergic to nuts or something about you. Every disagreement need not devolve into a zero-sum game unless you decide or believe that’s all there is. Instead, you could treat every disagreement as an opportunity to work together jointly and create value beyond what comes to the table.

As explained in “The Winning Weekend Warrior” sports are not zero sum games. If you take me on in tennis, one of us will “win” the match and one of us will “lose” the match. But the winning is but a small part of the overall value. I improve, hone, or broaden your skills and you do the same for mine (provided we are somewhat evenly matched). We are both exercising which means we are improving the body, mind, and spirit of each of us. True zero sum games are largely a fiction. More accurately, they are zero-sum only in terms of a very limited view of the context of your experience. Be creative! When there is an issue of disagreement, create!


Comments welcome! My computer is deathly ill and this was created on a borrowed computer so it may take a while to respond, but I will respond to comments when I can.

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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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