A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Simple, the Complex and the Devastating – The Simple

What you, the nation, humanity and the world are facing is finally fairly simple: the energies (and their surrogates: wealth, money) of the earth are a zero-sum game. While there are many designs and devices, evolved in living things and created by humans, to trick this reality for brief moments, if one creature is to have much, some other creature will have to have little [1].

Ecosystems have always parceled out capacity and opportunity evenly to their thousands or millions of participants; they all work with the same genetic tools and all in the same time space [2]. The appearance that one species is superior to another or that one can do as it wishes while another is subservient is a purely human fantasy-based projection. Bacteria, fungi, wolves and deer are all integrated into functional dependencies with each other and thousands of other species.

Humans have gamed the system for a few thousand years, not even a good blink in geological and evolutionary time. Again this part is simple: we got more by driving other organisms out and by finding fossil energy sources; both short term adaptations. Fossil fuels are limited in amount and destructive when returned rapidly into the energy mix, and displacing other organisms disrupts the integrated designs of biophysical order that allow complex life to exist.

So now we are turning on each other in an attempt to keep doing as we have done – the goal of every organism. But we do this not from a homogenous ‘we’, but from a heterogeneous ‘us and them’; and not from a common behavioral relationship with the sustaining environment like all other organisms, but from vast differences in how ‘we’ relate to primary resources, from hunting/gathering, subsistence farming to jet set opulence where there is essentially no connection to organic reality.

These differences create a Tower of Babel like no other as we, disrespectfully, take what we either have been taught to believe is our due or, more egregiously, all we can get. The other organisms evolved an ‘all I can get’ habit into a form of mutuality; our special human adaptations have released that habit on to the world like the whirl wind.

However, most humans restrain themselves, preferring that most of their time be spent with the pleasures of communion and activity, but some significant number are more affected by the promise of power and accumulation and so drive the Tower to greater and greater heights of both altitude and disconnection from its base. As we approach the pay window for our lost biophysical gamble, that we could control and dominate the earth as an exceptional species, there is no way that somehow our vast differences will melt away and the damage from the falling Tower will be evenly distributed. Our greatest struggles are yet to come.

Even if all the above is true, and I am forced by information and reason and against my best wishes for my children and all the world’s children to believe it is, I still hold out hope that the actual exceptional nature of the human species, just might discover itself, individually if not collectively. The next essay, The Complex, is a more detailed consideration of these issues.

[1] Especially those with much make the argument that ‘everyone’ has been be lifted by the ‘increasing wealth’ of humanity; to some extent this is true. Millions of people have great wealth and billions have some wealth greater than the averages of previous times, but billions have less – live with less material certainty and thus in greater danger. But even beyond this fact, many thousands of species have been driven to extinction, millions of species have been marginalized and diminished and the integrity of biophysical systems compromised.

[2] This is not completely true. Cells that reproduce asexually are in a different evolutionary time space, but most have evolved ways of exchanging genetic material and thus speeding up their rates of adaptation.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Financial Derivatives

Various people and institutions have accumulations of wealth often in considerable excess of their needs, wants and even usefulness. Two things are done with the excess that is too much to even spend in the classical sense of that venerable activity: first, as much as possible it is hidden from those who might have legal claim to it like tax collectors, and second, constant efforts are made to find places to put excess that cause its amount to increase.

This last is the especially tricky part. Money left sitting untended slowly rots away – a bit like those movies were the treasure crumbles to dust in the hand, even refrigerating it does no good. It must be (carefully, remembering the taxman) put out into the dangerous Autobahn of high speed and high stakes monetary transactions; but where?

A savings account? No, the amounts involved will not be covered by the FDIC, and the interest rates that banks pay to use the deposits are almost zero. People with great excess want it to increase on steroids and are willing to take considerable risk, especially if they can hedge their bets or even use the power of wealth to manipulate the “investment environment.” Besides, they know that banks are screwing depositors since they often own banks.

Stock market? Better! Careful selection of stocks can increase the yield and over the long term the aggregate stock value has gone up ahead of inflation. But again the amounts involved, record keeping and regulation of the stock market and the difficulty of being really ‘creative’ (read ‘manipulative’) make this option less desirable. The same can be said of the bond market.

With the traditional investment options looking less than exciting and with millions and billions of dollars that must be put into some fructifying motion, the “smart ones”, who make money by moving the excesses of others, looked and looked for all the possible ways to get that excess moving at the fastest possible speed. Investment of this excess also must be done in such a way that the return is in real wealth and as little as possible the trading of virtual wealth among the wealthy, although a certain amount of this virtual trading is required to perform the necessary slight of hand to turn virtual into real wealth.

And the question was never ‘should it be done?’; never ‘what will be the consequences?’ The only question that mattered was: ‘Will it work to protect excess wealth from rotting and also grow it very fast?’ And certainly it was never asked: ‘What is all this excess and virtual excess wealth really good for anyway?’

* * *

It is claimed that the derivatives market is too complex for ordinary pea brains to understand – only the geniuses of financial wizardry can get it. It is supposed to be like quantum mechanics combining with relativity in grand unification theory.

But that is, frankly, crap. It is actually more like the castles, cars and giant robots made of Legos that used to be seen in shopping malls; outsized, seemingly complex representations made up of many little pieces; though it is true that no ordinary human would spent the time and effort. What is not clear is how someone thought up such things, but how they actually got made is not such a mystery, more a matter of many details strung together.

In essence, a small (comparatively) amount of real wealth is given to a financial institution to write an IOU for a much larger amount of virtual wealth and various bets are made on whether the virtual wealth would be successfully turned into real wealth. The bets are made using the virtual wealth and act as a hedge that will turn some that virtual wealth into real wealth. And when this scheme failed as it must, it had grown so large and the real vs. virtual wealth so confused that the banksters could argue that the only way to not have the whole economic system collapse was for the real wealth of the general public (taxes) to cover the virtual wealth created by their bets.

That is derivatives. It doesn’t matter so much what the details of each derivative structure is or was; there is no question that they are ‘computer complex’, but they are also manipulated by those with control of the derivatives speedway like a clever dealer can manipulate a card game.

Poker is complex, so is even ‘little’ blackjack, but ultimately they are, like derivatives, gambling games. They are bets against one outcome and for a different outcome. When you bet with money you don’t actually have, the amount you bet becomes real money in the minds and behavior of the people at the table. If you win, you will be paid even if your bet was an IOU. If you lose, you have to pay off even if you had nothing but the IOU to begin with.

Derivatives and hedge funds, for all the fancy language about ‘creative financial instruments’ and ‘risk spreading to support financial innovation’, are ad hoc gambling games driven by huge excesses of both real and virtual wealth looking for some place to go (and virtual wealth ‘looking’ for the magic door to go through to become real wealth). And in this game the dealers get paid real money for writing IOUs for the players when they make leveraged bets. The players then gamble with the IOUs – some of the time treating them as real wealth and some of the time betting on whether they will become real or not (new bets invite new IOUs and so on).

On a small scale this would be like a backroom poker game with card mechanics in which the bets are made with pennies that the players get to cash-in for dollars taken from the customers in the bar out front. But derivative markets and hedge funds is a world wide game; IOUs for from 500 to 1000 trillion dollars have been written, far more wealth than the earth holds (world GDP is about 70 trillion), and are treated as a debt that the people of the earth must honor at least in part. Since the IOU holding people are the oligarchs who dominate governments, we ordinary working stiffs are being told that we have to cover the IOUs that were written, more or less, out of thin air.

Now how hard is that to understand? No matter how cloaked in legalize and economic jargon, it comes down to the excessively wealthy, believing themselves entitled, have written a number on a piece of paper and the rest of the world is supposed to honor it as if it were a tangible asset. Asked for proof of its value, we are told to look at a Lego structure of a castle.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Remembering Kent and Jackson State

The Vietnam War changed the world. It was also the guiding force that set the boundaries of my youth. I graduated from high school in 1961 and went immediately to college, within 2 weeks of graduation. I had no plan other than having no other plan and the hope that university would be different and better than what I had known before.

Vietnam began to leak into the spaces between classes, the lovely young women and my own, now that I have some perspective, monumental confusion. This was to continue until it was attached to every thought about and action taken for ‘my future.’

I worked my way through school and graduate school, living in a poverty that has to be, to this day, embarrassingly joked away. Without the kindness of strangers and a fair bit of larceny I would not have been able to do it, even in the ‘easy days’ of the 1960s. In fact, almost did not do it. There were pivotal moments. And always Vietnam.

I avoided the draft with student deferments and then with teaching deferments. I had studied the war, read General Giap’s book in 1962. Saw the pictures. Knew what happened to tender young men when their bodies were blown up. Knew that the war was the plaything of old men struggling for power. As a rural farm boy I knew what bullets did and what death looked like.

The graduates from my grad school were sought in the region because they had the reputation of being well trained; I was hired at the only job for which I applied, borrowed a little money and a car from my graduate advisor and moved to a great city were my life was to begin – with enough money to eat and sleep, and finally free of Vietnam.

I was young; many of my students were older than me. Many were Vietnam vets. A certain willingness and enthusiasm made me the darling of the department chairman and, perhaps more importantly, my group’s secretary. Soon I was writing my own teaching schedule, creating courses, getting the little awards of a better office and being invited to consult on faculty and curriculum issues.

I didn’t have to count pennies or collect deposit return bottles from the roadside. I could buy shoes and do important work.

It was not all sweetness and light; there were conflicts, but I was maturing into college teaching, growing up and forming a plan for my future. I would stay here. The school had a future. The students liked and respected me, chose my classes. I gained a little weight. Until May 4, 1970.

By now I lived in a nearby town more to my country tastes. I got up that morning, hopped into the car I had recently bought brand new and drove to school. The radio news said that students had been killed at an anti-war demonstration in Kent, Ohio. I knew my students would be angry, I knew that I would have to pick a side and for the life of me I didn’t know what side that would be. Vietnam was back.

The next few days were filled with arguments, academic and not so much, about the need for stability, the power of education to win the day, things I really and truly believed. My students also had their histories and desperately wanted to believe what I was telling them: keep you focus on your classes, get your education, fight from a position of social strength. At least in my little area of concern it seemed that the struggles that were going on elsewhere would pass us by – and I might win again in my private war with Vietnam.

Ten days after Kent State, I was driving to school when the car radio had the audacity to tell me that my life as I was planning it was over. Two students had been killed at Jackson State in Mississippi. My school was a state inner-city college about a third Hispanic, a third Black and a third ‘white.’ While Jackson State may not have had as much impact on the rest of the nation’s universities, it was the deal breaker for us.

My mind was a swirl of thoughts and emotions with only one conclusion. The college would close. I would be pressed into service to help make that happen. I was to become the student of my students. When I walked into my office there were 3 students there, standing as far from each other as they could get; the leaders of each of the major student groups. Their message was simple. They did not trust each other, but would work together through me. Soon after they left the representative of a much less formal Vietnam veterans group came to tell me that some anti-war vets were planning to blow something up if the school didn’t close classes and do a teach-in on the current state of political corruption; such a thing seemed unlikely, though possible. My informant was believable.

Without going through the details of which I am not proud, the classes were ended and replaced with teach-ins on the war and related matters – it did not go especially well. I was told that I could not to be fired, but that my life would be made into a teacher’s hell if I stayed. The leader of the Black student group said he would put on a major march if I wanted to stay, but too much had happened, too many bridges burned.

I tried again at a great Midwestern university, where, a bit older and battle worn, was again the darling for a brief time. But the magic was gone, the infantile brilliance of colleagues grating, the students insipid and… the magic was gone.

Somehow Vietnam seemed to get us all one way or another.

* * *

Up to that point in my life I had only driven through Jackson, Mississippi three times and had never been to Kent, Ohio. I have never been to Vietnam.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Meaning of a Rock Wall

I have just returned from spending about a week hiking around and looking at one of the most spectacular Mesozoic formations on the earth [1]. In some places the stratigraphic column is hundreds of feet thick with clear boundaries between the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous [2]. The Triassic red beds, the Jurassic sandstones and the mix of Cretaceous rock types make high canyon walls and cliffs running for many miles. They are mute rock record of over 150 million years of the earth’s history in this region. The lowest and oldest rocks in the column, Triassic, have yielded up thousands of dinosaur, reptile and amphibian fossils; as a fossil hunter, walking in the red beds is thrilling, but it was the Jurassic sandstones that, this time, took my attention and imagination.

From one end to the other of this exposure the lower peach-tan layers shade into a wheat color and can be more than 100 feet thick. That 100 feet is broken into bands with different patterns of deposition: many feet of solid sandstone and then a band of cross-bedded deposits with a truncated top surface and more cross-bedding, another layer of solid, undifferentiated deposition and then more cross-bedding.

Sitting in a narrow canyon, high up on one wall looking directly at the opposite side straight on, I tried to imagine the processes that laid down these layers. A geologist with us said that there were disagreements about whether some of the sediments were marine, littoral zone or dune in origin, but most were considered to be dune deposits adjacent to lagoonal seas.

As I pondered this, looking at the massive wall of cryptic history in front of me, I was struck by the incongruity of the actual actions of water, wind and sand and the 50 plus million years of the Jurassic period. The wall was huge, but the Jurassic was long. I calculated that if one grain of sand thickness (one millimeter) were deposited every year for the whole of the time, the total distance would be 50 kilometers [3]. Yet, there was only 100 feet of rock for the whole of the Jurassic. I could see in the fine layers of the cross-bedded dune sands that each tiny band of sand, followed by hundreds or thousands just like it, must be counting the seasonal cycles of years.

So, there were only thousands of years out of the millions available actually represented in the rock. Millions and millions of years had occurred, been lived through by the earliest birds, mammal-like reptiles, almost modern insects, dinosaurs, the coniferous plants and much more without a single trace, at least here in this place.

Here a thousand years of deposition; there a few millions of years unrecorded; and again a bit of deposition. The land rose and subsided just above and just below the level of the shallow sea. The wind blew and the rains fell. But that was not what was recorded in the rock. The rock recorded the formation of rock and once in a great while it, by the purest of happenstance, captured a raindrop, stored an earthquake, saved the ‘giant bird print’ of a hunting dinosaur or a bone; froze some surface ripples in the sand from one moment in one day and not the millions of other moments in the millions of the other days when sand was washed to ripples by the waves of the shallow sea or by an unrelenting wind.

The beautiful sandstone wall in front of me was not a movie to be viewed from bottom to top. It was millions of disconnected still images, very still indeed, captured in the hard rock. Millions of years of water percolating through the rock and millions of years of water and wind exposed and nibbled at the rock edges, washing out the canyons and river valleys; the form of the images lost irrevocably as the grains of sand separated from the patterns locked together so many years ago.

As I stared across the canyon I realized that the sandstone wall could tell me very little about life on this spot 150 million years ago, but it could tell me something as geological evidence combined with other evidence from other locations, as metaphor and as instrument for measuring my own life.

First me and mine: my 66 year old body still scrambled up the 150 million year old rocks with only minor inconvenience from the old bicycle-injured shoulder. The pleasure in place and beauty was not diminished by multiple exposures; this was and still is my element. The others I was with, many experiencing a bit of rock climbing for the first time, and certainly this scale of earthly gorgeousness for the first time, were properly moved. Grandeur may be a human invention, but it is a powerful one.

The geology is more interesting. The tiny bit of time evidenced for the Mesozoic in this location is supplemented by tiny bits of time evidenced in many thousands of other locations. By combining all of the bits and arguing over how their edges should fit together, geologists have come up with a pretty good, and continually improving, picture of these millions of years of earth history. By knowing the current state of that understanding it is possible to give real meaning to the brief statements contained in this one Jurassic sandstone wall.

But it is the metaphor that moves me most. Thousands of geologists each working within a system guided by a method based on open communication and transparency of process could bring order and understanding to the very most complex problems on the cognitive map. Physics may require deep individual mathematical sophistication and insight, and incredible equipment. Geology requires a vast human infrastructure working with common principles as well as massive powers of abstraction; very human tools.

Just two hundred years ago almost nothing was known about geology beyond basic geography and yet today we have convincing evidence for a 4.6 billion year old earth with a detailed history of slow but constant change [4]. It is a testament to the incredible powers of observation, idea and communication of which our species is capable. And if it is possible to understand something as counter-intuitive as the forces that drive plate tectonics and mountain building, it is possible for groups of humans, organized and committed to effective principles, to comprehend our economics, politics and even ourselves.

We know how to see a sandstone wall: first, realize the considerable complexity hidden in its apparent simplicity; and then bringing our great powers of observation, reason and tenacity together with honest and honorable process – I see no reason not to say it in this way. The women and men who do this work are moved by the grandeur of both the land and the enterprise; this too is important.

Concentrated in this landscape is the power of the earth to, first, overwhelm and then to organize the senses. There is a meaning here too, and it is that we are either participants in the earthly enterprise or we are visitors. Visitors do not need to understand, but also must at some point leave – can overstay their welcome. If we are to stay, we must come to understand.

[1] Mesozoic – middle life. Modern multicellular life is almost 600 million old. The oldest division of that duration is called the Paleozoic, ending about 245 million years ago in a great cataclysm, followed by the Mesozoic, ending in a great cataclysm about 65 million years ago, followed by the Cenozoic within which we presently reside, and a period of time yet to show changes sufficient to name a new period, i.e., there has been no cataclysm worthy of such renaming. It is an irony that the naming agent could be wiped out by such an event and thus no new name attached.

[2] The three periods of the Mesozoic: Triassic (245 mya to 208 mya), Jurassic (208 mya to 145 mya), Cretaceous (145 mya to 65 mya). This was the time during which the dinosaurs became the most representative fossils in the fossil record. The Mesozoic began with the supercontinent of Pangaea and ended with the present continents moving apart toward their present positions.

[3] 50 kilometers (31 miles) would be the thickness with an average deposition rate of 1 mm per year; that is not too different from a year’s worth of dust on an untended windowsill. It may be known exactly how much of the Jurassic is represented in this particular sandstone, I do not, but is considerably less than 50 million years; more like less than one tenth of one percent (.1%) of that time.

[4] I take some license here. While change is always happening, it has in no way been constant; rather episodic: long periods of very gradual movement of earth surface, climate, chemistry and processes punctuated with intense violence from within the earth and from the sky.