Lost Horizon.


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


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

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

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



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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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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


Only You…


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Only You….


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Only you can prevent forest fires!”

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If Only…


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If only…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to his surprise, she spoke first.

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

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

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

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

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

She stuck out her gloved hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Author Page on Amazon

Readers might find the following links also interesting.

Henry Holmes – Wikipedia

Belle Gunness – Wikipedia

What if…?


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

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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


What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…

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

What if…?


Pies on Offer: Rhubarb & Mincemeat


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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