What’s New?


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“What’s new?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Know What?


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Know what?

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

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

Know what?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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You Know


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David's DreamDeeply


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Horizons University


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost Horizon.


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


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

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

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



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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Author Page on Amazon

Much lost!


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IMG_9722Why do we feel so devastated after losing someone we love when we generally felt pretty good before we ever met them? That person lives in us; at least a mental model does and that includes what they looked like, how they talked, their habits, their mannerisms, their smell, what they liked and disliked, specific interactions and conversations, shared memories. It’s really little wonder people believe in ghosts. I often dream about my grandparents, for example, decades after they died.

Their life is gone and that is a huge sadness but there is also an impact on you and me. We will have to do things differently, say things differently, recall things that they used to recall. In some cases, of course, it means we may now have sole responsibility for raising children or running a business.

Here’s another strange case. People pretty much exactly like us physically used to live, mate, reproduce, bring up kids, find food, find shelter, find water, avoid enemies, make friends, grow old, share stories, and eventually die. But they did all that without cellphones. They did that without television. They did that without oil or wheels or electricity. They did not miss these conveniences because, for them, they were not even conceptions. But if all those things are taken away from us, we would feel deprived.


Let’s get more specific. The video games of today are fantastic. But, let’s rewind recent history. I thought the original adventure game was completely awesome. We would type in two word commands and the 80 character by 40 line display would flash up green word descriptions of places and events. The descriptions were well-written and there were clever puzzles to be solved. But how many gamers of today would be able to enjoy the original Adventure game as we did in the 1980’s? Maybe all of them? But probably not.

Every time I go to youtube, they ask whether I want an “ad-free” experience which I can “try” for free! Of course, after having the ad-free experience, going back will be relatively difficult whereas right now, I don’t even notice them. I totally get why people eventually become unable to “hear” the other side of a political argument. Instead, they simply tune it out. Indeed, it is often the same approach and probably often the same people who end up trying to “sell” a political candidate as those trying to “sell” a new brand of deodorant. There is much that needs to be fixed about our current political system. But if we replace it with corporate rule, I think we will miss the “good old days” very much indeed.

Do you recall the oddly delicious pain of a loose tooth? To wiggle that tooth caused pain. At least that’s the way I remember it. Yet, I loved to cause myself that hurt. It didn’t hurt much. And, I could control the pain pretty precisely by how hard I pushed with my tongue. Of course, I knew that eventually the tooth would come out and be replaced by a newer stronger tooth. I also knew that placing my tooth under the pillow would cause my parents to supply cash; typically, a dime. That was not an inconsiderable sum. Yet, neither better teeth nor financial gain provided my main motivation for wiggling my tooth. Simply having a small pain that I could control seemed a wonderful thing.

In fact, once the tooth eventually fell out and the newer, bigger, stronger tooth began to grow in, I missed the old, weak, loose tooth, not because of the tooth, per se, but because I had lost that controllable pain. The desire to have something is rather strange, particularly because it is both fundamental to the “rational man” of classical economics and at the same time, extremely irrational. 

People who lived a hundred years ago did not desire iPhones, television, or central air conditioning. They might have thought, e.g., “I am frigging frying – need a cooler breeze.” But they wouldn’t exactly desire air conditioning. Later, some people actually could afford air conditioning and others could not. The “could not’s” would feel the lack of air conditioning much more than their ancestors. There is one group of people who would feel the sting even more: those who had air conditioning and subsequently lost it.


In fact, once we have something for awhile, we not only feel the loss of that thing intently; we feel we deserve whatever it is we lost. After all, it is ours! (Even if we just stole that very same thing from someone else a few weeks ago!).

It isn’t just things and people that people feel a loss for. They feel a loss for places, situations, abilities, and even abstractions such as progress toward a goal. And that brings me to my dissertation.

I gave people a fairly simple river-crossing problem. The problem begins with three hobbits and three orcs on one side of the river. There is a small boat that can hold one or two creatures. The goal is to figure out how to get all six creatures to the other side of the river. They can’t swim, or wade, or leap, or build a bridge. The only way is to use the boat. At least one creature must be in the boat at all times. The orcs can never outnumber the hobbits on either side of the river. If that happens, the orcs will gang up and eat the hobbits. It’s a little tricky, but it is possible to get all six critters from one side of the river to the other by ferrying it back and forth.

Some people were first given “half” of the problem; that is to say, they were given a starting position that was half-way through the entire solution. After they solved that, they were given the whole problem. Many of them wanted to give up the problem as impossible, precisely at the spot from which they had just solved the half-problem no more than 20 minutes earlier. Apparently, the position was psychologically different if they were plunked into the spot as opposed to getting to that same spot through their efforts. People who started the problem from the beginning felt as though they had been making “progress” toward the goal. At one point, they had to appear to move away from the goal. It may have seemed to them, in other words, as though they were losing the progress that they had already made. On the other hand, when they started at that same mid-way point, they didn’t feel any “loss” and had an easy time solving the problem from that point forward.

This effect is related to a major deviation people have from acting in accordance with the economic fantasy of the “rational person” when it comes to decision making. Consider investments in stocks. Let’s say that  at one point, you buy 100 shares of IBM stock at $50/share and at another point, I buy 100 shares at $150/share.  Now, the current price is $100/share. You and I have the same exact information about IBM, the tech industry, the economy and so on. Rationally, we should make the same decision (leaving aside tax consequences and whether we need the money desperately). People do not typically view these situations as similar. If you bought the stock at $50/share, you feel as though selling it at $100/share is a great deal. You’ll make a cool $5000! Sounds great. On the other hand, what would you counsel me to do? You might well say that I should definitely not sell right now because I would lose $5000. Actually, the stock certificates have no memory. They have no idea what either of us paid for them and are worth identical amounts.


I will not try to “prove” this to you. For now, it’s enough to realize that people feel quite different about the two situations. People are very motivated to avoid a loss. Indeed, even the pain of a wiggling tooth can be something not to lose. In Lord Byron’s poem about the Prisoner of Chillon, the long-time prisoner is finally set free, but feels the loss of the prison.

The longish poem ends with these lines.

“My very chains and I grew friends,

So much a long communion tends

To make us what we are:—even I

Regained my freedom with a sigh.”

Returning veterans, despite the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions they’ve been in, often feel as though they have lost something vital when returning to civilian life; e.g., a clarity of what is important, a clear mission, and being part of something bigger than themselves. In fact, the sense of loss can be so overwhelming that more US veterans have committed suicide after returning from duty in the middle east than have been killed in combat.

When people lose a limb, whether through war, an industrial accident or in some other way, they often have “phantom limb” feelings. They can feel sensation and even pain in the limb that is no longer there. Is this similar to what happens when we lose a loved one and then see them in a crowded room? Our mental models of what is true about the world, about others, and even about ourselves are always in danger of being out of touch with what is really happening now. As your kids grow up, your mental model of their capability is always behind the times because it is based on your past experience with them. People who are dangerously thin can still be concerned about being overweight. People no longer capable of driving safely because of their vision or memory may resist the suggestion to stop driving because of a lifetime of experience driving safely. To a computer program, loss and gain may appear symmetrical but they don’t appear that way to a person.


My three older kids are a year apart in age. When they were young, there was one large shared toy box in the family room. On more than one occasion, one of the kids dug through a random pile Lincoln logs, Lego pieces, tinker toys, monopoly money and pulled out, say, a tiny, green, broken toy car. The car, so far as I could determine, had no QRC code, embedded electronics, or wireless connection. Yet, within seconds, one of the other kids would appear from the other end of the house where they had been doing homework or reading and — Voila! — they would appear and announce: “Hey, that’s my car. I’ve been looking for that! Where did you find it? Anyway, give it here.” Seriously? They hadn’t seen the car for two years, perhaps. They had completely “gotten over” the loss. Now, however, they were reminded of their loss as well as presented with an opportunity to recover that loss. You might think they would be much more inclined to share this toy than they would a new toy. You might think that if you didn’t have multiple kids of your own, that is. No. This “prodigal toy” was welcomed back with open arms and more than a little suspicion and hostility toward the sibling that discovered it.

Another controversial and related phenomenon is the notion of constructed memories or confabulations. Here is a simple example from the psych lab. You give a person the following list of words to recall:

Peach, Pear, Brandy, Tree, Plum, Orange, Pie, Book, Seed, Dish, Grove, Orchard,  Plate, Cinnamon, Zest, Peel, Cobbler, Supple, Couple, Farm, Sample, Computer. 

No, a few hours later, you ask them to recall the list. Almost everyone will remember part of the list. A few people might recall all of them. But more people typically recall “Apple” than any of the items actually on the list! Of course, advertisers are not unaware of this phenomenon and neither are political consultants. They can easily get you to imagine that the candidate said something when they actually did not say it. But the words chosen got you to think it and recall it. But wait. It gets even better. The inclusion of “Apple” in your memory is based on associations that are widely shared in the mental structure of most American native speakers of English. The same technique can be used to arouse words, thoughts, and images selectively in specific segments of the population.

Consider the following list:

Sharapova, Halep, Muguruza, Federer, Del Potro, Mcenroe, Navratilova, King, Evert, Keys, Vandeweghe, Tilden, Laver, Andersen, Radwanska, Gore, Nader, Roddick, Connors, Borg, Ulna, Radius, Radium. 

If I listen to that list and try to recall it a few hours later, I am very likely to include “Nadal” in the list. If you’ve never watched or followed professional tennis, you’re very unlikely to include “Nadal.” For you, the list is pretty random and has little association with “Rafa Nadal.” But for me, these are all strongly associated.


Ponder that for a moment. Advertisers and political consultants can send an implicit message that only “works” for certain groups of people. When it comes to political consultants, one of their favorites is to convince you that you have in fact, lost something which you never had. Because it is something you come to believe you lost, you want it quite dearly.

A case in point is the mythical perfect America of the past. If you have been reading this blog before, you know that I love many of the things that actually used to be true in America. For instance, when I used to pull into a “Service Station”, I actually got service! Someone came and cleaned the window and checked the oil as well as pumped the gas. Now, when I pull into a “Gas Station” that does not happen. That really is a loss although if we did have that service today, gas might be $10 a gallon instead of $3. And, there are many other things that are gone that really did exist. But many people have also been convinced that there were a lot of things that they have lost, even those things that never actually existed. 

The Founding Fathers, for example, were not all Protestants. And, even among those who were Protestant, they did not all agree on the same Biblical interpretations. And, I am extremely confident that very few of the Founding Fathers interpreted the Bible in precisely the way that your particular minister does. There was never a time when workers didn’t complain, had no unions, and yet were treated fairly. There was never a time when every politician was above corruption. There was never a time when children were never molested, or when the press did not sensationalize, or when everyone “got along.” That is not an America that has since been lost. That is an America that never existed.


Legends of a “lost land”, Atlantis, Eden, Shangri-La, and the “noble savage” are not unique to modern America, of course. Many politicians in many eras and many different lands have tried to gain power by making people feel that they have “lost” something that never actually existed! It’s a pretty cool trick when you think about it. If done with artistry and tact, and especially if done with billions of dollars of advertising, they can not only make you think you heard the word “apple”; they can make you remember the taste of an imaginary apple!


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Poems of Loss

Too Much!


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A  tennis player hoping some day to be at the US Open improves their serve; hits it harder and deeper. Good! They practice more; hit it harder and deeper. Now, every serve is rocketing over the net and sliding off the service line. But should they hit it even harder, they will double fault their games, their sets, their matches and their careers away.

A baseball pitcher learns to throw faster and faster, hitting the corners of the strike zone. Too far left or right and no-one will swing. Right in the middle risks at least a single and probably worse.

The surgeon cuts beside the heart. The tumor must go. The cut must be made but should the scalpel slide too far from the target, the surgeon could prove more lethal than the tumor.

A life lesson hard to learn is that there really can be too much of a good thing.

How much is too much varies according to circumstances.

Yet, individuals and businesses seem so easily to fall into the trap of “If some is good, more is better.” This is almost never the case except within extremely narrow contexts and under many sets of assumptions. Much more common is the case where some is good, more is better, and too much is worse than none at all.



Cases in point litter the annals of human misery throughout the centuries. No vitamin A is very bad. A little is better than none. More is better. But only up to a point. Beyond that, it becomes toxic. Too much.

There are often natural boundaries and tradeoffs in nature that do some of the work for us by keeping things within reasonable boundaries. For example, we think it’s really cool if a football player (whether American football or soccer) is extremely fast. But by “extremely fast”, we mean humanly possibly fast. It would ruin the game if one player could run 300 miles per hour.


Like most kids, I liked candy. Favorites came and went though themes repeated such as chocolate, nuts, and crunchiness. Caramel and peanut butter — yum. I would always opt for more rather than less candy.  Parents though consistently pushed toward less candy. Nonetheless, I found and developed clever ways to cajole and trick them into letting me have enough candy to ruin my teeth. Too much of a good thing.

One of the chief ways that companies make too much of a good thing is when it comes to motivation. It has long been known that the performance of people tends to increase with increasing motivation, but only up to a point. After that, further motivation reduces performance. This so-called “inverted U” is true, not only for humans, but throughout the animal kingdom. In work that involves more than one person, companies often multiply the error. As pointed out by Frederick Brooks many years ago in “The Mythical Man-Month” when a software project gets behind schedule, the typical response of management is to require tighter reporting on progress and to add more people to the project. Requiring more reporting obviously puts people under more pressure and takes time away from actually accomplishing anything. Adding more people is typically even worse because they don’t know what is going on in the project and the people who actually are being productive have to take time away in order to instruct them!

The optimal level of motivation interacts with other things of course. For one thing, how you take external stress depends a lot on how you take it. Some people begin to awfulize when things get hot; they take things personally; they imagine the worst, etc. So, to an extent, it depends on the person’s own character how they react, but it also does depend a lot on the external stress. No-one is most productive under too much stress.


The optimal level also interacts with how creative is the task at hand. For an extremely simple task, higher motivation can work well. If I ask you to hang suspended onto a bar as long as possible, you may be able to do it for a minute. If I offer you a thousand dollars, you’ll probably hang on longer. Suspend you over the grand canyon and you may be able to hold on still longer. But now imagine instead, I ask you type, without error, a page of text at your maximum keying speed. You may do better for a thousand dollars than doing it for free, but if you’re life’s on the line you are almost certain to make errors. When it comes to a task requiring you to do something completely new or do something creative, you will most likely to best under very low levels of stress. The more stress you experience, the more you are likely to stick to what you already know.

Again, these relations can be moderated by personality but they are pretty robust across gender, age, education and, in fact, even apply to other animals. If you want to teach your pet a new trick, you will have much better success if they are motivated but not overly so. A simple “creativity” task for animals is the “Umweg” test. “Umweg” means “way around” in German. You place the animal and a treat on a platform separated by a screen that does not go all the way across the platform. A lizard may starve to death instead of walking around the screen. They are too bent on going straight for the treat. A dog will typically have zero or little problem with this task, unless the dog is extremely hungry. As for humans?

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I recall reading about such a test that was performed on US army recruits. Each recruit in the experiment was put in a large room they had never been in before. This room had a large number of doors. An announcement came over the loudspeaker asking them to leave. Each recruit would go to a door, typically find it locked, move to another door, etc. At last, they would find the door that was unlocked and leave the room. Sounds easy, right? You and I could probably solve this without any real difficulty.

Now, comes the “fun” condition. In that condition, the announcement comes on while a simulated fire is right outside. The announcement now says to leave because the building is on fire. What happens? The vast majority of recruits go to the nearest door, try to open it and upon finding it locked, do not try another door. Instead, they try harder and harder to open this same door, jiggling the handle ever more vigorously. Yes, under enough stress, people cannot solve this simple problem. 

In my sophomore year at college, my girlfriend at the time was a Freshman at Oberlin. As part of her requirement for introductory psychology, she ran an experiment about the inverted U of motivation with lab rats. I helped. Here is how the study went. Rats were in one of three states of “stress” before having to swim a small underwater maze. The maze was quite simple. The rat had to go down a long corridor, make a left turn and then come back another long corridor. The “stress” was induced by holding them under water for a small, medium, or long period of time before they started. (I don’t really like this as a way of inducing “stress” because brains don’t work as well with less oxygen but I didn’t design the experiment). Anyway, my job was to get the designated rat out of the cage, hold under water for a few seconds and then let it go so it could swim the simple maze.

All went well until I went to get one of the rats who was in the “high stress” condition. All the other rats were pretty tame, but not Mr. “High Stress Condition.” Oh, no. He ran around the cage trying to avoid my hands. When I finally grabbed him around the belly, he grabbed hold of the cage wire with all four paws! He began barking like a dog! I had done various training exercises with rats before and this was the first one that did anything like bark! I had to pry his little paws off the cage one by one. I can tell you that at this point, this poor rat was already in the “high stress” condition. And so were Janet and I!

And, now I needed to hold him under water for the longest time before letting him swim the maze. I felt horrible. I was well aware that this rat was already stressed and was already probably exhibiting an oxygen debt from his vigorous attempts to avoid capture and escape my clutches. Nonetheless, we decided to go forward with the experiment. I held the poor critter under water the requisite time. Now, we could hear him swimming down the long corridor, make a quick turn and swim toward his freedom. As long as we could hear him swimming, we knew he hadn’t drowned. He was indeed the slowest of the rats so far. We didn’t care at this point. We just wanted him to survive. Down the long corridor he came to the open place where he could escape the water at last. He got there! Whew! We both sighed in relief.

But only for a second! Unlike every other rat, when this one got to the open space instead of surfacing so he could get to the air, he immediately made a U-turn and began back the other way! Oh, crap! I hadn’t really signed up for drowning rats! We could still hear his little rat paws churning through the water. Janet and I were trying to figure out whether we could break into this apparatus and save the rat if he stopped swimming. Meanwhile, Mr. “High Stress Condition” kept paddling along. He came all the way back to the origin of the maze, turned and went back. Freedom was there for the taking for this poor rat, but he was too stressed to look up and see it. Sigh.

At long last, after Mr. “High Stress Condition” had swum three times as far as his mates, he finally came out of the water. He looked a lot like a … well, a drowned rat. I patted the poor fellow off with a towel and put him back in his cage. His stress level hopefully fell at that point, but I know Janet and I were both relieved that he survived. Our pulse rates eventually returned to normal too.

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As a therapist at the “Institute for Rational Emotive Therapy” I had plenty of chance to work with people who were just as over-stressed as poor Mr. “High Stress Condition” had been. This is not to say that people are just like rats. Of course, they aren’t. But when it comes to reactions to stress, we are very similar to our animal cousins. What people can learn to do is to moderate their stress by what the focus on and what they tell themselves.

To take a sports example, if you are playing in the US Open tennis round of 16, you are in much higher stakes game than someone who is just having a friendly social match. But every world class athlete learns to control their stress level. They do this by focusing on their process and on the current condition. If they start thinking much about the score, the stakes, the errors they’ve made, they will get in trouble. And if they start saying things like, “Oh, you idiot! How could miss that shot? Now, if you don’t get this next point, your chances to win are ruined.” Humans can intentionally make themselves more stressed or less stressed than the objective situation would justify. This is a skill that everyone should learn, by the way, not just athletes.

Our society seems to have forgotten how to motivate people “just enough” and instead puts too much stress on employees, encouraging them to work too many hours and thereby lowering productivity and greatly lowering creativity. Once again, it’s no accident that IBM was successful for so many years and had the motto: “THINK” and every employee had this on their desk. Mr. “High Stress Condition” rat would have done better had he kept this in mind.

Our society’s obsession with overdoing is not limited to over-stressing employees. We tend to overeat, overuse drugs, over stimulate ourselves, drive too fast, spend too much money, buy way more than we need, and use way, way more energy than we need. It’s just too much! Too much of a good thing is bad for you personally and even too much success can be bad for a company in the long run. (See, for instance, the link below about how Kodak actually invented the digital camera but then got on board too little and too late because of their overwhelming success with film and cameras). And, in that spirit, rather than continue to argue the point, I will end with The Jewels of November. 


The Jewels of November

(Third prize winner in the Chatfield National Poetry contest)

Winter ripped into our neighborhood last night;
Gale and pail of rain turned flake by morning;
Gutters filled to overflowing; my basement flooded.
And the riot of yesterday’s autumn light
Gone as though it never burned its magic riots of red and gold.
All the tallest tulip trees and oaks stand naked now,
Black, bucking wet twigs against the steel gray sky.

Bundled in my leather hat, jacket and gloves,
I walk out to survey the carnage of fallen leaf and broken branch.
The wind still gusts to make my eyes smart and my cheeks burn.
Low black clouds swim and swirl.
Somewhere a flag cord bangs against an empty pole.

So off I go through deserted streets of a condo Sunday morning
Into the drear of pale November.
The wind sings a shriller note when the leaves are gone,
The hush is replaced by a whistle.

And, walking down the hill toward the main road
I see beneath the broken canopy the first Jewels of November —
Coral leaves laid in relief against the wet black woods
The amber leaves, the carmine leaves of shrubs
Protected by the barren trunks of their taller cousins.

Beside the road, a head of goldenrod casts against green grass.
A few lonely wood asters, white and an occasional blue.
Hanging from the dead vines, clusters of gold and red.
Before me, the sky breaks for a moment only
And a hawk wheels through a single shaft of sunlight
Rejoicing, so it seems, in the thick cold air,
His outstretched white wing fingers glowing white for a moment.

And so I find, here in this gray and lifeless world
Treasures of color and texture and form — and music too
For the overflowing brooks are singing quiet giggles
Just as ten black crows careen and crackle through the trees.

I look down and see a broken piece of branch
Bedecked with lichens, the palest possible shade of blue-green.
I bend to pick it up and out of my jacket pocket coins tumble
Tinkling on the black macadam roadway, they splay themselves:
A shiny copper penny, dime, quarter, nickel and a dark penny.
How fine when I was a child to find a few coins like this! How rich!
I knew the different smell and taste of every coin,
My parents’ dire warnings not to put them in my mouth
Making the taste so much more exotic and exciting.
Now my money comes to me as a blue paper note
Claiming the check was deposited directly in my account.
How efficient, I note.

Another shaft of sunlight strikes me from the briefly parting clouds
As I retrieve my coins one by one
And remember that today is the New York City marathon.
Phillipides, so the story goes, died after bringing the news
Of a Greek victory back, from exhaustion, so we suppose.
But I wonder: was it simply that his life’s best work was done?
Or could it even be the sheer clear joy of the news delivered?
Or, the ecstasy of the swinging legs and arms, the hot heart,
The heaving chest — feeling so alive that pain itself is joy.

The wind is at my back and I wonder what it would feel like
To run today that long race through the windy streets of New York.
But a walk through the woods is enough for me, enough today,
Stopping to watch the hundred precious scenes laid out before me.
I wonder where all these treasures were last week-end
When I walked this same path.
The answer is, of course, that they were drowned in a sea of color
The neon chaos of autumnal carnival showing off.

I turn back toward home now.
Lonely snowflakes hit and actually bounce once off the black road
Before settling down to melt their brief beauty on still warm tar.

The wind is fully furious in my face.
I dream what lunch I might fix once out of this blowing cold
A steaming chicken broth thick with onions, carrots, and peppers.
And I recall a time when I was a senior in college and had the flu;
The medicine the doctor gave me made me worse
And I ended up not eating for three days
But the at-last, ah-ah, taste of the clear broth I savored oh so slowly!
A feast from a magic bullion cube!

And I wonder as I begin the ascent up the long hill toward home,
Whether winter might not be the whirling earth’s greatest gift.
What would autumn, full summer, or the tender spring be
Without the deadly in-between, the waiting, the wail, the white.

In a land of endless plenty and eternal life, would we ever see
The Jewels of November?

short stories and poems by author

Author page on amazon


Me Too!


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One of George Carlin’s routines captures well our attitude toward our own driving vis-a-vis other drivers on the road. Basically, we think anyone who wants to drive more slowly than we want to drive is an idiot while anyone who wants to driver faster than we do is an a**hole. We can all relate to being stuck behind someone who seems to be going much more slowly than necessary for the road conditions and traffic. It’s frustrating! We need to get somewhere! We might think, “Why do I have to be stuck behind this slowpoke?!” On the other hand, just as we are mentally or vocally swearing about the slowpoke in front of us, seemingly out of nowhere, some jerk comes careening out into the passing lane on a hill or blind curve and zooms around three or four cars. This time they were lucky. No semi was coming the other way and they lived — this time — despite their erratic driving and general a**holiness.

Driving is an ever-present paradox in cooperation and individuality. In many areas of the world, people rely on public transportation such as rail and busses to commute to work or see relatives and friends. That is not unknown in the US, but it is rare. If we can possibly afford a junker, we do so that we can have the “freedom” to take our own path. Yet, that freedom comes with a high cost. Not only do we have to pay for a car, insurance, gas, oil, taxes and upkeep. We have to follow a set of conventions and laws about traffic in order to minimize traffic accidents and even deaths.

According to Fortune, there were about 40,000 deaths in America in 2016 with 4.6 million people suffering severe injuries. The overall cost of traffic accidents, in terms of lost productivity, medical and property damage is estimated at $432 billion for 2016. The USA is far from the “deadliest” place to drive. Many other countries have far more accidents per mile driven. It is estimated that world-wide, there are about 1.25 million deaths per year from road accidents. Sadly, in the US, traffic fatalities often strike down young people in their prime. They are both less experienced and less cautious. Often, young people do dangerous things in order to “prove themselves” or “be accepted” by their peer group. Any such act, including texting while driving, puts at risk their own lives, the lives of their friends, and usually the lives of total strangers as well.

The monetary costs associated with accidents do not include lost productivity due to traffic jams. According to an article published in Money magazine, this was estimated to be 124 billion dollars in 2013 for the USA. This is a considerable amount of money. I am pretty sure, that’s way more than in my wallet right now. Let me check. Yep. Not even close. You know the old saying, “A billion here. A billion there. Pretty soon, you’re talking about real money.” These cost estimates do not even include the stress and strain that being stuck in “stop and go” traffic puts on the people stuck, the kids that get yelled at as a result, or the impact that higher blood pressure has on people’s brains, kidneys, and hearts.

What if I told you that George Carlin’s skit depicting people’s reactions to other drivers is only an accurate description of how people currently choose to react to traffic? What if I told you that you may well be subjecting yourself to stress and inefficiency in the way you handle stop and go traffic?


To begin with, let’s think back to your days in “Driver’s Ed” classes in high school. Or, perhaps you were lucky enough to have attended a “defensive driving” course more recently in order to reduce your insurance rates or because a judge ordered you to. In any case, one of the basic concepts taught in those classes is that you stay an “assured safe distance” behind the car in front of you. In my informal polling, many people seem to have completely forgotten about this concept and, when asked, offer absurdly short distances as “safe” when it comes to how far behind the driver in front they need to be; e.g., at 70 miles per hour, some people think they should be one or two car lengths behind the car in front. That, my friends, is way off. You should be seven car lengths behind the car in front at 70 mph, not one or two. There are almost zero reasons you can be safely closer than that and having “really good reflexes” is not one of them. If you are going up a very steep hill, you can get a little closer. But there are many more reasons why you need more distance. These include poor visibility due to curvy roads, low light, fog, smoke or smog. They also include bad brakes, going downhill, a wet road, a snowy road, or an icy road. They include anything that is distracting you the driver such as kids, conversation, sleepiness, even the slightest bit of alcohol, or having the car in front of you following the car in front of them too closely. If your brakes or tires are the slightest bit compromised, you need even more distance for safety.

But following the assured distance for safety is not necessary the “best” distance; it is only the minimal distance for safety. If you are interested in driving “efficiently” — and having the traffic around you being more efficient, there is more you can do. If you are interested in driving without adding to your personal stress as well as adding to the stress around you, there is more you can do. Watch closely as you consider your current strategy for driving in stop and go traffic and an alternative strategy.

Let’s say that a car length is about 15-18 feet though obviously a stretch limo stretches for a lot more and a mini-cooper is much less. Now if you are traveling in traffic that varies from 70 mph to 0 mph, your minimum car length would also vary from 18 x 7 = 126 feet to 18 x 0 = 0 feet. When you are stopped, you might be near the rear bumper of the car in front of you. When you are going “full speed” you might be 126 feet away. If you do this, in stop and go traffic, what you will experience is a long series of frustrations. For awhile, everything will go smoothly, and you’ll go zipping along at 70 mph. But then, for no discernible reason, everyone will suddenly come to a screeching halt. You sit there for a few seconds or a few minutes, one of many people bumper to bumper with the a line of other cars. Eventually, people will start to go slowly. But then, they will all stop again. Or, perhaps they will speed up again and then stop. The traffic may even speed up to 70 mph again and then stop again, and once more, for no discernible reason whatsoever. You may find such phrases as “What the h*** is wrong with people!” caroming off of your cranium and rattling round in your brain. You try to figure out how you can minimize your time in this awful traffic. You look for tiny spaces. This lane appears to be moving. Ah, there’s a space! Slam into it quickly. You do. Your lane is moving! Yay! All it once it comes to complete stop. The lane you just got out of now appears to be moving better. Just your luck! Wait, you can get back in. No! Some a**hole just got into that space from the other lane! Damn! Wait, everyone’s moving again.

This is a very frustrating way to drive particularly if you are late, or just an impatient person or both. You are stopping and starting all the time. Your hour commute now stretches like taffy (or traffy) into two hours.  And worse than that, per se, is that this all seems senseless. And worse than that is that you are sending your blood pressure through the roof and even that magnificent sacrifice on your part seems to have zero effect on clearing up the traffic jam. And, even worse than that, in the long run, is that your experience is causing you to think very uncomplimentary things about your teammates. Teammates? Yes, your co-drivers — every last one of them — are potentially your teammates. But if you drive in traffic this way, you don’t see them as teammates at all but more like competitors. And we all know what our job is in a competition, right? To win!! 


That same exact objective physical situation can become a completely different experience. And, to make the transformation is simple. I didn’t say it was easy. But it is simple. The key is to stop focusing on keeping the minimum safe distance between you and the car in front of you and instead keep a much longer distance between you and the car in front. The key is to stop focusing on your commute and your goals and instead to think of the traffic as a whole moving efficiently.  The key is to stop driving as fast as you possibly can and instead to try to match your speed to the average speed of the traffic ahead of you. If you do those three things, something amazing happens. You get to the same place in the same time but you will hit your brakes and accelerator far less often. Furthermore, you will feel far safer and less frustrated. You will be able to see a much larger picture of the traffic in front. You will notice that, yes, leaving a large space in front of you does make it possible for other drivers to zip in front of you. But you will also notice that most of the time, these drivers will zip back out of your lane a few moments later.

But wait! There’s more! When you stop putting your brakes on so much, it gives other people a completely different impression of the traffic. If a person is on a eight lane highway (four each way) and only sees 8 cars ahead of them (because everyone is jammed together) and every single one has their brakes on, they will come to something of a screeching halt, particularly if they have been driving right behind the car in front of them. If, however, they look up and see only 7 of the 8 visible cars with their brake lights on (because yours are not on), they will be far less prone to slam on their brakes. Furthermore, they may well be able to see more of the traffic ahead because of the space in front of you. It no longer looks jammed so their behavior will be less erratic. If they are behaving less erratically, that will be true of the people behind them as well.

But wait! There’s more! People who drive mostly look forward, but they also hopefully glance in rear view mirror on occasion. This means that the people in front of you will also have a somewhat different perception of the traffic conditions based on the fact that you are not driving erratically and that you have a large space (=not stop and go; not crowded; not bumper to bumper) in front of you. You won’t have as much influence on the people in front of you and the people behind you, but you will have some. You will also have a subtle influence on the people beside you. Why? Because they also see that large space. This puts them in a more “traffic is moving” frame of mind than a “traffic is stop and go; Crap!” frame of mind. Not only can they see the large space, they can see through the large space. They are able to see a greater number of cars diagonally ahead through your lane. They can see whether the tail lights are on. They can see perhaps 16 cars instead of just 4-5. The impression when you see all four cars stopped in front of you with their brake lights on is quite different from the impression formed when you see, say, 13 cars stopped and 3 cars moving. So, the cars beside you will also drive less erratically.


But wait! There’s more!  This means that the cars in back of them will also drive less erratically. And that’s swell news for you and everyone else because — since people do look in their rear view mirrors, the impression of moving traffic will be even stronger in the drivers ahead of you. This in turn will ripple through the entire set of drivers and tend to be a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious cycle. In other words, just you, yes you, you one driver can have a significant effect on the entire set of drivers around you. I know it sounds too good to be true, but give it a try!

But wait! There’s more! Of course, very few people have only one commute in their life. Human beings have memory. If you are in “stop and go traffic” and stay smooth with a large space in front of you, a few other people will notice and decide to try it for themselves. Eventually, it may dawn on them that “despite” your large buffer space in front of you, you are making just as much progress as they are. They may think, “Me too!”  If those people try it and succeed in having a better experience for themselves and others around them, that will tend to cause other people to try it as well, not only in this traffic jam, but in future ones as well.

Driving exemplifies the paradoxical nature of the human condition. We all want the freedom to be ourselves and we want to feel a part of the group. But some paradoxes have solutions. In this case, as I said, the solution is actually simple. You decide that the best way to be a team player is to be different. You stop playing the game of making sure there are no “unused spaces” in traffic. You stop playing the game of switching lanes to zip into the smallest “unused” space. You stop staring into the taillights of a few cars and back off to where you can see a much larger sample of cars. You stop playing the “me, me, me, it’s all about me” game and instead make up a different game which is matching your speed to the average speed of the traffic ahead. You stop worrying if someone zips into the lane in front of you. Just ease off the gas a bit and relax. And, by being yourself, and playing this different game, you will actually make all the traffic around you work better. You are a better teammate by being different. 

The traffic is a lot like free market capitalism operating without much analysis, foresight, or insight. To the extent that people see an opening, they vie for it. Having two people do this at the same time, of course, causes a near miss, a sideswipe or a 20-car pileup. But generally speaking, the person who manages to gets into open space feels wonderful. OMG, I pulled it off! Not quite like winning the Superbowl but in that ballpark, so to speak. Chances are, the lane-switcher find themselves temporarily ahead of the people who had been next to them confirming that their act of private heroism had a practical impact as well; it was efficient by plugging up that damned hole.

This may be related to the line of thought so common in business that if you are really being efficient, every single minute of your calendar should be booked a week in advance. Gaps are anathema. Gaps are viewed to be even be worse than double-booked time. If word gets around I’m double booked all the time, everyone will know I am important. Well, important to some, in the same way that jeetos are important to some not despite their ghastly orange hue and anti-nutritional value. Having space in your calendar means you have time to learn, to observe, to think about what is going on, who is your customer, how can you do better, how can our company do better, and so on. It’s no accident that IBM’s motto was “Think” and that it was so successful for so many years in a dramatically ever-changing world of technology.


You might just give the alternative strategy a try, both in business and in driving. Oh, I know. It seems impossible that one person’s behavior could have much impact when there are 7 billion people on the planet. Imagine that instead of using the 7 billion teammates as an excuse not to change because, “it won’t make any difference,” you thought: “Wow! Seven billion people on the planet! That’s potentially seven billion people who could change, even a little, in the direction of greater cooperation.” What if, instead of thinking of yourself — or you plus a small number of similar people — as being in competition with a much larger number of people worldwide, what if you thought of 7 billion as the astounding number of teammates you have? You might not influence all of them, but you can influence some and they can influence others. Nearly all of those seven billion people use language. Think about that. At some point in our distant past, people did not use language. Now, they do. How did that happen? At some point in our past, people did not have power over fire. Now they do. How did that happen? At some point in my lifetime, no-one had a mobile phone or a personal computer or access to the internet. Now, billions do. Can you hear the music of people working together?

For several years, in the 1990s, my wife and I attended the Newport Folk Festival with John and Clare-Marie Karat. We heard an amazing array of great bands in a beautiful outdoor setting. I particularly like outdoor concerts because of the room it affords for dancing. I find it very difficult to sit still in the presence of stirring music. This concert was held in late summer and the weather was generally, hot, humid, and sunny or hazy. Although, as I said, the weather cooperated most days, one particular morning looked ominous. A particularly cool, hazy sprinkling morning warned us to wear clothes in layers and bring lane gear. An optimist, I wore my speedo underneath in case the weather cleared so I could dance in the sun which I hoped would soon appear.

When we arrived on the island, as usual, Wendy and Clare-Marie sprinted ahead with a blanket to get a prime spot for watching the stage while John and I lagged behind carrying the clutter and clatter of chairs and coolers. The music inspired as always but the weather was not cooperating. Everyone was huddled down in their rain gear, under their umbrellas. The thing about rain gear and umbrellas is that they are typically designed for keeping you dry temporarily in the rain. After sitting there with ten thousand other people, huddling and shivering in the cold rain, I finally decided enough was enough. I stripped down to my speedo and began dancing. After all, that’s what I came there to do! And, while most people dance to the beat of the music, I let the music dance through me. I don’t have some set moves that are done to the beat. Rather, every note impacts what my body does.

Now, the situation had changed. Instead of ten thousand people huddled under umbrellas getting wet and cold, there were only 9,999 people huddled under umbrellas getting wet and cold and there was one person, namely me, dancing in the rain. As a matter of fact, I felt warmer dancing in my speedo than I had sitting still under layers of soaking clothes. Yeah, people stared at me a little. So what? Michelle Shocked commented on how well the crowd was holding up in the horrid weather and gave a particular shout out to the guy “dancing nude” in the middle. Just for the record, I was not dancing nude (not even in my “tights”). There was a large umbrella right in front of me, and it might have looked as though I was nude from the stage. In any case, I kept dancing and I was having a great time. Then, a strange thing happened. A few more people got up, shed varying amounts of clothes and joined me. Now a half dozen people were dancing in the rain. Then, a dozen people. Then, two dozen. The rain continued and the cold continued, but the number of dancers grew and grew till it was probably over a thousand. Each person discovered for themselves, as had I, that it’s actually warmer and more comfortable to dance in the rain with a little clothing than to sit in a puddle of soaked clothes — not to mention, one hell of a lot more fun!


When we first sat down in that cold rain, everyone looked around and saw that everyone else was coping with the rain in the same way. Everyone they saw had raincoats, umbrellas, or both. They looked at this spectacle and thought, “Me too!” But now, a few hours later, many people looked around and saw folks joyously dancing in the rain and thought, “Me too!” Indeed, “Me too!” is a double-edged sword. Use it wisely, whether it is dancing in the rain, leaving lots of space in stop-and-go traffic or taking the time to think in your job. You may be very pleasantly surprised at the results, both for you and your 7 billion planet-mates.






Fool Me!


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Long before seeing television, or even knowing it existed, I listened to stories on the radio mainly with my grandmother. As I mentioned earlier, my favorites were The Lone Ranger, Hop-along Cassidy, and Tom Corbett and The Space Cadets. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why she listened although she might have answered questions for me or provided some additional commentary. As I only learned much later, these programs used special props for the sound effects of whizzing bullets, thunder, horse hooves, rocket engines, etc. At the time, it never occurred to me that there were “sound effects.” I just listened and constructed an entire “TV program” in my mind’s eye. More accurately, I was there along with the villains and heroes.

Although the stories presented each week in these programs fascinated me, my grandma’s “Old Pete Stories” captivated me even more. Grandma presided over the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and her performances for me were filled with all the drama she could muster. Her “Old Pete Stories” arose out of an actual character she knew from her days growing up on a farm. Old Pete was a hired hand on the farm; a loner and a drifter, Old Pete had a talent for getting into trouble. In fact, it is rather surprising that Old Pete seemed to get into precisely the type of trouble that a five year old boy might get into and rarely into the kind of trouble that you would expect an adult farm hand to get into. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? But it didn’t make me wonder! Not at the time. Instead, I found myself, just like Old Pete, wondering what mysteries that deep blue pond held. I found myself, just like Old Pete, terrified when he became tangled in the unseen currents and forces below the surface. And, like Old Pete, my gratitude and relief came in waves when I … er, Old Pete, I mean … struggled to the shore and pulled himself out. Although “Old Pete” inspired my grandmother’s stories, I’m pretty sure that the plots she constructed were “cautionary tales” much like Aesop’s Fables.

My mother also read me stories, mainly from a giant book of stories. Each story typically only had one ink drawing on the title page for that story. There was one about a mouse who played the piano and another about a Bull in the China Shop. She too loved to practice her most dramatic voice when reading aloud. And then, some time in the first grade, something magic happened. We were sitting around in a circle struggling through our primers when my teacher made some comment that caused everything to “click into place” for me and from then on, I could pretty much read anything! I could now read stories to myself! The stories in the school primers were generally pretty lame, but soon, I got my own books and soon after that, Tootle, and The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy gave way to Tom Sawyer! Huckleberry Finn!  I went to the library every week and picked out three books. Generally, these included some science books and some fiction books and often some combination. The Earth for Sam was a fictionalized account of a boy going back in time to see first hand what dinosaurs were like (among other things). I discovered that our library had a copy of our first grade science text. In fact, it also had a copy of every grade 1-6 science texts. I went through them like the proverbial knife whose molecules had extremely high kinetic energy through butter. Stories of the Knights of the Round Table thrilled me as well as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Some people found it odd that I read Nancy Drew, but I think they are better written and I can relate to a girl hiding in the closet trying not to get caught and not trying to scream when a spider dropped on her just as easily as if a boy were hiding in the closet trying not to get caught and trying not to scream when a spider dropped on him.

You might think from my catholic tastes and prolific reading that I would forgo television when we finally got a TV set. No way! I loved Gabby Hayes, for instance, and Superman. We had a couch and a reclining rocking chair in our living room. When Gabby Hayes explained that Quaker Oats were shot from guns (!), I hid behind the rocker as the cereal exploded out of the canon. When the Superman theme song or that of The Lone Ranger came on, I ran across the room full speed and flung myself into the recliner. My parents hated this and told me on numerous occasions not to do it despite the fact that I only knocked over the rocker once. Their story was that I would “hurt myself” or “break the chair.” But neither of these things happened. I don’t recall ever actually getting severely punished so I concluded this was just one of those things parents feel obligated to say because they see themselves as responsible adults who must therefore say such things. Meanwhile, I didn’t understand how they could be so blasé about these shows. Why on earth were they also not running across the room and flinging themselves into the chair or couch? Did they not hear the strains of The William Tell Overture? Didn’t they realize that this meant that another episode of The Lone Ranger was about to begin? Didn’t they understand that he would right wrongs? The Lone Ranger not only prevailed every week; he did so without bloodshed! He would gallop up alongside some bad guy and then jump and tackle him off his horse, wrestle him to the ground and subdue him with fists alone. On occasion, The Lone Ranger would shoot, but only to defend himself or others and even then, only shoot the gun out of the villains’s hand! He never missed the target and accidentally gave the bad guy a free appendectomy or craniotomy. And, Superman? Come on! In case you forgot from last week, it always began by reminding you that he could leap tall buildings at a single bound (though why he needed to do this when he could fly is unclear). He was faster than a speeding bullet! He was more powerful than a locomotive! How could they possibly forgo these shows to do some other thing? That seemed incredible but only for the first few milliseconds of the show. After that, I was glued to the tube and lost interest in what they were doing.

Although people hate to “be fooled” so much that when they are fooled, no matter how much evidence accumulates, they tend to dismiss the evidence and insist that they were not fooled. And yet, there are other occasions, like movies, television, novels, and plays were people welcome being fooled. This really struck me hard many many years later watching Apollo Thirteen for the third time. I knew this movie was based on a true story and I knew how the real life events had unfolded and I had seen the same exact movie twice before. But that didn’t stop me from being excruciatingly worried about whether the astronauts would make it back alive. Other species of animals and plants can certainly “communicate” with their own kind and even with other species. It seems doubtful, at least so far, that they can “tell stories” however. This may be one of the quintessential differences between humans and other species. Whether we sit down in a campfire circle to trade ghost stories or streak across the room to throw ourselves into a rocking chair, we seem to be saying “Fool me!”

“Fool me” arises in other contexts as well. The first few years that I lived on North Firestone Boulevard, a peddler appeared several times each summer with a small hand cart filled with toys, puzzles, and games. Generally, these items were not to be found in stores. One item in particular held my attention. A small number of wooden rectangular blocks, roughly card-sized but much thicker, were held together with ribbon. However, when he held them up, he ticked one and allowed them to cascade in a magical fashion so that each block changed from one side to the other. He did tell some cock-a-mamie story as he did this and no doubt, like any other magician’s patter, it was designed to draw attention away from what was actually going on. But in this case, it wasn’t the story, per se, that was so cool. It was the (seeming) physical impossibility of what was happening before my very eyes. In this case, it wasn’t that I wanted to stay fooled. I wanted to see the trick again to understand what was really happening. The peddler, however, relished making money. He wasn’t really trudging up and down the street in his rather heavy coat (especially for summer) for his health nor to entertain children. He wanted to turn a buck. So, despite our pleadings, he would never do this trick more than twice. After that, if we wanted to see it again, we would have to pay for one of these sets of “magic” interconnected blocks and figure it out on our own. I raced back inside to wheedle my parents into giving or at least lending me some money so I could buy one of these. I breathlessly and ineptly explained how these were magic blocks but they seemed singularly unimpressed with my analysis. Dad muttered something vague and incoherent about it just being the way the blocks were connected by the ribbons, but he had not seen the actual demonstration. I did not score the money nor the blocks, at least that time. I did, however, save up my money. My allowance at that point was a dollar every two weeks. So, I had to forgo my favorites from the popsicle man, substituting grape popsicles at 4 cents each rather than the more expensive (and much tastier Mr. Goodbars or even fudgesicles) in order to save, but save I did. The next time the peddler appeared, I was ready! But damn! He wasn’t! He didn’t have any more of the magic tumbling blocks and tried to interest me and my friends in some other toys. I suppose some of those were pretty cool too, but I didn’t care. You’ll be happy to know that I eventually found some when I had my own kids. I was delighted that they were delighted but they no longer held any mystery for me personally.


Everyone I know likes stories and magic tricks. What I find hard to understand are people who prefer to stay fooled. They don’t want to know how a Jacob’s Ladder works. They don’t want to know how a magic trick works. They don’t want to know whether their political candidate lies and cheats. They don’t want to know whether climate change is really going to affect the lives of their children and grandchildren. If there were only say, 100 stories in the world, maybe I could understand that they wouldn’t want to know the outcomes of those 100 stories. But there are way more than 100 stories! There are way more than 100 damned good stories; I don’t see any shortage. But more than that, I don’t see any problem with knowing the outcome (as I did with Apollo XIII) still being engaged and entertained and transported by a good story, well told.

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I want to know how magic tricks work, doesn’t mean I think it is necessarily right for me to explain it and that people who don’t want to know are inferior or stupid. Different people have different preferences. I like cilantro and anchovies and blue cheese but not everyone does. When it comes to what is actually happening in the world in ways that impact our ability (and even more importantly, the ability of our families) to live and function though, it seems to me the truth is much more important than is the pleasure of listening to the same false but comforting story over and over.


Imagine that we are all sitting around a campfire listening to a “ghost story” about a guy trapped in a pit with scores of foot long spiders who come out and nibble on him whenever he tries to sleep. I am not going to spoil everyone’s “fun” by pointing out that this is very unlikely. No way. On the other hand, if I see a forest fire headed our way, I am going to interrupt the frigging story and let people know! Furthermore, I cannot fathom why some people would rather stay and hear the story if it means they are going to die or at least suffer a lot of third degree burns. Perhaps stories are not only one of humanity’s greatest gifts, but also, under some circumstances, our greatest curse as well.

My fascination with stories continued throughout grade school, high school, and college. Although as an undergraduate at Akron U and then Case-Western Reserve, I took almost a dozen psychology courses, none of them delved with any depth into stories. I did, however, also take courses in English Literature, Shakespeare, and Drama. Even to this day, it’s a little hard to believe that these psychology courses largely skirted the whole issue of stories considering how important and fundamental they are to understanding the human psyche. Freud and Jung did discuss stories in some depth. Even in four years of graduate study at the University of Michigan, stories seldom came up as a topic in cognitive psychology. In fact, the whole enterprise of experimental and cognitive psychology at that time seemed to be about deconstructing human thinking, problem solving, learning, and decision making into different little boxes and finding out about the little boxes.


Humans are notoriously varied but one thing you can pretty much count on is that whatever else is going on, these little boxes communicate with each other. My senior year as an undergraduate, I had three part time jobs. One of these was teaching astronomy and space science at the Sixth Grade Educational Center in downtown Cleveland. Another was working with kids in a psychiatric hospital. Another was as a research assistant to a Professor doing experiments in operant conditioning. In the latter set of experiments, kids went into a large “Skinner Box” and pulled a lever for nickels. In front of them, during training, was a large red circle. Later, they continued to pull the lever but got no coins. During this phase of the experiment, they might be shown a smaller red circle, a red ellipse, a green circle and so on. During the time the kids were actually in the Skinner Box, there wasn’t much for me to do. So, I went out to the waiting room and used the blackboard there to teach the kids who were waiting a little astronomy such as the names of the planets and their “order” around the sun. Although my Professor was a behaviorist, he did ask me to debrief each kid as to what they thought about the experiment. To my astonishment, the kids who had heard my little mini-lecture about astronomy tried to relate what I said to the little circles and ellipses that were shown during the experiment. Of course, once they said that, I realized that to them, it made perfect sense to try to relate these experiences. After all, they came to the University, and here was the same guy (me) telling them about weird unusual things. Naturally, they tried to make one unified story out of it.

In graduate school, I got my chances for story telling to my kids but also at a more adult level. It was tradition for each sub-area within the Psychology Department to put on “skits” and I co-authored two satirical musicals, mainly about the professors (and still managed to get my degree). To show you how much on the edge I was, my advisor the first year was Dr. Reitman who studied cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. One of the main characters in the play was “Dr. Brightman” whose student (played by me) was building an AI program and trying to impress a very cute grad student.

I told her my program simulated human thought. “Oh, really?” she replied. “Your program simulates human thought?”

“Absolutely,” I answered, “although for now, purely for convenience and ease of measuring accuracy, we’ve decided to focus on mathematical thinking as a representative domain of human thought.”

“I see,” she answered, “So, this program simulates the way humans do mathematical reasoning.”

“Precisely!” I continued. “Of course, because of storage limitations on our computers, we are initially focusing on arithmetic.”

Now, her brow furrowed to signal that she was less impressed. “So, you are saying your program actually does arithmetic problems?”

So, I said, “Indeed! Or, at least it will if I ever get the code debugged.”

Well, you get the tenor of this satire. (And, by the way, the hype in AI still exceeds the actuality by about the same ratio today 50 years later!) Looking back on it, I am very impressed that the Professors in the department were able to take it all as good-natured fun.

There were important stories told in graduate school. For example, my Professor in physiological psychology discovered the “pleasure center” in the rat brain. The reason he discovered it was his inexperience. He and his professor were doing research on stimulating the “Reticular Activating System” in rats. This part of the rat (and human) brain is important in keeping you awake and alert. A small current into this part of the brain makes the rat much more alert but is punishing to the rat. You can “prove” this by implanting electrodes into the brain and turning on a very tiny current (which is not painful in the sense of an electric shock) and then the rat will soon avoid whatever part of their environment they are in when you turn on the current. But something was terribly wrong with the rat that James Olds had prepared. Instead of avoiding the area, his rat was falling head over heels in love with that area! The rat kept going back for more! When the rat was “sacrificed”, it turned out that Olds had not waited long enough for the cement to dry and the electrode had moved forward into another area of the brain. A whole line of research grew out of this “mistake.” What was “good” here was that Olds and his professor did not try to hide this unlikely result or sweep it under the rug. Instead, they strove to understand it. Although there are certainly scientists who are not as honest as these two, by and large, people go into science in order to find the truth. Not many people go into science in order to make a career out of lying. If you want to be dishonest as a career, you’ll make much more money much more easily by becoming a con artist, or some kind of unscrupulous business person than becoming a scientist. I’m not saying it never happens, but it is a rather stupid path to take. Besides the fact that people who go into science want to know the truth (and do not go into it to get rich), there are all sorts of checks and balances in science to “weed out” dolts who lie about or cover up results.


My interest in stories and my interest in psychology, though both strong, for many years stayed separate. At one point in my IBM career, I was trying various ways to study and improve a system called “The Speech Filing System” which later transformed into the “Audio Distribution System.” This was a system which functioned a little bit like an answering machine, but was much more sophisticated. One big advantage was that you called it on purpose to leave an audio message. This puts the user in a much better frame of mind than an answering machine. If you call a human being and expect to talk to a human being and instead, get an answering machine, you are (even to this day) more likely to leave a somewhat incoherent and incomplete message such as:

“Leave a message after the beep. BEEP!”

“Oh, hi. It’s me. I wanted to … well, I… I wanted to … maybe it’s .. . you know what? Call me back. I will be gone for an hour or so unless you call in the next ten minutes. Anyway, you know my number, right?”

Yeah, we’ve all been there. By now, a few decades later, people are not quite so surprised by an answering machine, but it still sucks.

Instead, if you called the Audio Distribution System, you knew ahead of time you were going to be leaving a message so you prepared it mentally. You could also easily edit or delete your message and start over. That is just a taste of its many features. But it was new; not just a new product, but a new concept. Furthermore in those dark days of the distant past, there were no mobile phones. People were not used to using something with twelve buttons for a User Interface. The system had a lot of functions but only twelve buttons. Speech recognition was too unreliable to be used for the command interface. So this provided something of a puzzle; how could the buttons be used to make a good interface. Luckily, there were plenty of psychologists on the case. In fact, the main inventor of the concept, Stephen Boies, had been a student of Mike Posner, one of the most brilliant experimental psychologists ever, and John Gould, a prominent and experienced member of the Human Factors Society was also on the project as was I. In addition, the team included Jim Schoonard and John Richards. John was another Posner student. We may have had the only project team with more psychologist by training than computer scientists! As it turned out, both John Richards and Stephen Boies ended up doing a lot of the programming and most of the maintenance.

By using standard processes of design, test, and re-design, we developed a good set of commands. Beyond that, the interface, prompts and documentation were all derived from a state transition table so that changes in the User Interface could be made fairly easily and the documentation could be automatically updated and kept congruent with each other. However, I felt the need for something else. It wasn’t that people had much trouble “figuring out” how to accomplish a particular thing with the User Interface. That, they could do. The problem was that many of them never thought to use the Audio Distribution System. It did not require anything different. There on the desk was your same old phone. (True, there was a little template of commands that sat around the square keys). The trick was, how do you get someone to send an audio message as opposed to calling someone or sending a memo or email? For that purpose, I found a bit of video story-telling to be more effective. I portrayed by voice over what was going through my head and modeling what I hoped the thought process of the user might become.

For a variety of reasons, the Audio Distribution System, although it became an IBM product briefly, never became a “best seller.” For one thing, it was inexpensive. That’s right, inexpensive. It provided a lot of function for the customer but not a lot of sales commission for the sales person. On the other hand, for the sales person to sell the Audio Distribution System required them to learn a whole new way of thinking and then a whole new way of convincing their customers. It was much easier, and much more lucrative, to sell the customer on more storage or processing power.

I happened to attend a talk at an IBM meeting by Shelly Dews who mentioned storytelling. She worked in Raleigh at the time on a new IBM suite of networking products. We ended up working together on what was essentially a story to explain to customers what Netview was and what it did. That seemed to work very well and people who read the “story” version remembered the concepts better than the standard form of documentation and training. However, at about that time, I had an opportunity to begin an Artificial Intelligence Lab at NYNEX and so left IBM for a dozen years. At NYNEX, I mainly sublimated my storytelling by writing a play and three novels and some day we’ll come back to that.

I also worked with Heather Desurvire to develop a variation on the User Experience technique called “Heuristic Evaluation.” In that technique, you basically ask people to look for issues in the User Experience. It works better if you use experts, but even non-experts can find many of the issues in the User Experience that would come out in tests.  The variation builds on people’s ability to use empathy. So, rather than simply being asked to find issues with the User Experience, people are told to look at the interface via a series of different perspectives; e.g., a cognitive psychologists, a worried mother, a physical therapist, a Freudian therapist, and so on. People who look at the interface in a variety of ways were able to see more issues and also to make more suggestions for additional features than folks who spent an equal amount of time simply looking at the interface (presumably from their “own” perspective). This relates to story in that people who enjoy stories must be able to experience what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters in order to comprehend and enjoy stories. It’s a little disconcerting that education doesn’t spend more time improving on people’s natural empathic abilities.

It was not till I returned to IBM to work on “Knowledge Management” however, that I was fully able to marry my interest in stories with my interest in cognitive psychology and indeed with the applied field of “Human Computer Interaction.” I was lucky enough to manage a project for several years that was focused on the “Business Uses of Stories and Storytelling.” This is not the time or place to try to summarize all of that work here, but here are a few interesting tidbits.

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At the time, there was a fairly well-known commercial about “Knowledge Management” that claimed that the “secret” to “Knowledge Management” was “simply” to provide the right knowledge to the right person at the right time. Of course, it is anything other than “simple” but even assuming you could do that, it seemed problematic in concept. I immediately thought back to my college professor who taught German. Professor Maciw was Ukrainian by birth and spent most of World War II in a German Prison Camp which is where he learned German. Perhaps that was part of the reason he tended to be a bit on the sadistic side.

At the end of the first semester, rather than giving us a written test as most Professors do, he determined he would give us an oral exam. He prefaced this by saying, “Who is dis class vants A?” Well, of course, every student in the class raised their hand. Who doesn’t want an A? In our class, happened to be a young woman who had had four years of German in high school, and had lived in Germany for three years. Her German was quite a bit better than mine or anyone else’s in the class. He began with her. His method was simple but mind-boggling. He would begin with a question, always shouted, never spoken, such as “In story of small village, who was main character?”

She would begin with “Eric.”

He would then scream in somewhat broken English (never German), “Please to give complete sentence!”

She would begin answering in German in a complete sentence, but she would not get far. After about three words, he would shout: “Please to decline!” This meant that she would have to think back to the last noun she uttered and then say the noun with the various grammatical cases. Nouns in German all come with articles that differ according to whether the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter, as well as whether it is singular or plural and what the grammatical case is. And, so she would begin with the declination of, say, “Der Hund.”

But no sooner had she begun than he would scream, “In story of Hans, who was wife?”

So, she would say, “Erica.”

Then, the Professor would yell, “Please to say in complete sentence!!”

So, she would put it in a sentence and he would immediately interrupt with: “Please to conjugate!!”

This meant that whatever the last verb out of her mouth was, she would have to conjugate the verb.

This went on for about forty minutes. At last she broke down in tears.

I am quite sure she could have correctly answered any of his questions correctly. It wasn’t the information that was problematic. It was the way in which he interrogated her.

The professor strutted around the room for a few moments with his back turned to the class and then spun about facing us as he said, “NOW, who is dis class still vant A?” Only two of us, out of a class of about thirty raised our hands. Then he started on me. I poured buckets of sweat but did not panic or break down in tears. At last he curled the outer part of his lips down to his shoulders and shook his head a little up and down. Then he started out on the other student, Mr. Lepke whose main sin, I am pretty convinced was that he had been born in the wrong country though I no longer remember what that was. At least twenty minutes of a typical hour and half class were taken up by arguments (in English, or some semblance thereof) about European history. I honestly don’t think I recall a single fact from all that argumentation. In any case, Mr. Lepke’s turn began and after about two minutes the bell rang signaling the end of the double period. All of us left.

By chance, around dinner time, I ran into the professor at the student union. He eagerly strode up to me, his eyes ablaze, “Ah! I had Mr. Lepke in class for two more hours! Finally, he said, ‘No more Dr. Maciw No more, I beg you.’” Now, I have never been in a prison camp so I can’t really say what was up with that particular professor. And, I have to say that his method, although it may have temporarily broken the other two students, gave me a great deal of confidence. Nothing since has so far been as harrowing a verbal interchange. So, in a weird way, it was actually useful for job interviews, exam questions, presentations, and so on in later life.

In any case, the next semester, we were back. None of the three of us who had been questioned dropped out. One of the early spring lectures about European history, the professor stopped mid-sentence and said, “Vat is DIS?! Someone in my class passing notes?” He sped down the aisle and snatched the note out of a student’s hand, striding back to the front of the classroom. !” I vill read note in front of entire class!” 

In his loudest stage voice meant for hundreds of students, though we were only about thirty, he read, “Dr Maciw. Your zipper is open.” And, so it was. But here too, this was the right information, delivered to the right person, at the right time. So, it seemed to me that it was crucial to think, not just about the right information content getting to the right person at the right time. It was also very much about how that information was presented. Certainly, one way that information is presented with thought about how is in the story format. Stories are about emotions, feelings, character, relationships, in other words about people. And, by the way, it doesn’t matter whether the characters are doorman or ducks or dogs or dragons or demigods from Damian three or doctors. The stories are always about people. As a child, or as an adult, I am every bit as stricken with “Lady” in the “Lady and the Tramp” as if she been a beautiful woman. I know just how Tramp feels!


Another interesting feature of stories as a communication medium is that they allow us to talk about the union of our experiences rather than the intersection. In business, one reason the meetings are almost universally boring is that everyone must frame everything into a single corpospeak which tends to be gray and rectangular. Stories, on the other hand, are a different matter. They come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, smells, tastes, and movements. Since each is about people, the variety of possible characters is essentially infinite.

Another consideration about stories is that they tend to focus on the edges of human experience rather than the “central tendency.” The universe is a complicated place, full of wonderful and dangerous surprises. Try as we might, we can never step in exactly the same stream twice. Our knowledge is limited and our personal knowledge is very limited. But, we can learn from the experiences of others. We find this especially interesting if it is something on the edges of human experience. In the same way that we find the largest and smallest and fastest mammal to be interesting, we find it interesting to see what happens when the vilest criminal imaginable falls in love with the nicest person on earth. It makes us consider what we would do; it makes us see the question of “what is love, anyway?” in a new light. A story, in other words, is far more than “mere entertainment.” It can literally be life-changing.

Charles Dickens, for instance, is largely credited at least by some for ultimately improving conditions for the poor in England. Little Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe opened the eyes of many to the horrors of slavery in a way that statistics could never do. Why? Because if you actually read the story with an open heart, you become just a little, of a slave. And, hopefully, of course, you realize that whatever pain you feel in merely reading about something hateful, terrifying, or despicable is only a teeny fraction of the pain a person actually experiencing these things would feel.

David McClelland, a former Harvard professor of psychology helped develop a three factor theory of needs: Need for Achievement, Need for Affiliation, and Need for Power. Some people, and some organizations, have various mixtures of these needs. I identify personally a lot with the need for achievement. I want to find problems, solve them, get things done, understand how things work, improve things, etc. I also identify a lot with the Need for Affiliation. I like people. I like their variety and their surprise. I do not identify much at all with the Need for Power. I like it okay, but only when it’s combined with the other two. If I am in charge and I can make good decisions and genuinely feel that I am doing what’s best for the entire group, I am totally fine with being in charge. But the instant I feel like I want to manipulate someone or bully them or make them do something so that I personally benefit, I will quit. I want no part of that.

McClelland studied children’s literature and found that over time and cultures, these needs were more or less in evidence. What he further found was that about forty years after a particular need was most prevalent in the children’s literature, that need begin to manifest itself in society. Whenever, for instance, the need for Achievement was exulted in most children’s stories, then, when those people grew up and began to make decisions and impact life, that society embodied that need and people made a lot of advances with relatively little violence. On the other hand, when the need for power was prevalent, then the adults raised on those stories had a generation with lots of heat and not much light; a lot of violence but not much progress. Stories are powerful.

Let’s now briefly revisit Jacob’s Ladder, the peddler’s toy that fascinated me so much as a small kid. Recall that the Peddler told a story as he demonstrated Jacob’s Ladder. This was no random story, after all. I recall now that in the story, the various tiles/blocks represented places such as a house or temple. The coins used in the story stood for people. So to my five year old imagination, this was not about coins disappearing and reappearing, though that would be a good trick. No, this was about human beings, being in one place and then, suddenly disappearing from that place and then reappearing in another place! Holy Toledo! If that could happen to Jacob and his brother, maybe it could happen to me! This was magic I had to understand! I didn’t realize this until this moment.  I bought one of these for my kids, and they failed to show anything like the level of interest in it that I had. But, I never told them the story.

What is your story?

UPA talk about stories with more links and references about story

Author page on Amazon


Selection of my short stories

You Fool!


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

My brilliant answer did not go over well.

But at least the day was no longer boring.

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More on “Cognitive Dissonance”

“Obedience” studies of Stanley Milgram