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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

More Thoughts From The Road

This is not so much a taut string of a story as it is many pieces of twine, rope, lamp cords, bits of rags and so forth tied together ad hoc; taking whatever is available to try to get the job done.

It is the story of the disconnect between the events of importance that ultimately control our lives and our daily movements.  We have been separated from, at least in our minds, the designs and devices that can influence the forces that have power over many of the important decisions that dominate our lives.  This is a hunt for an understanding of that disconnection.

Traveling around this country, talking with people in restaurants and other places, meeting people in camp grounds and generally paying attention to what there is to see creates a dissonant contrast to the news in the media, left, right and ‘center.’

This trip I rode state roads and farm roads as much as I could; camped in out-of-the-way areas.  Toward the end of the first day I checked out a lake in the middle of the Texas panhandle; most of the lake was gone, dried up to half or less of its former size. Boat ramps ended like luckless roads in fields of weeds.  Campsites looked out over the dry lake bottom that had the feeling of unfurnished rooms. 

I rode on, finally stopping at a little ‘recreation area’ on Dead Indian Lake (in the Black Kettle National Grasslands, if you know the history, the irony stings) 5 miles from a town of less than 100 people.  I was the only human there.  I heard coyotes singing love songs. Bullfrogs, owls and herons did a little R&B. A raccoon raided my food, politely taking only one small package of cheese, but didn’t stay for a chat. 

The news on my iPhone told of plutocrats working to damage my children’s chances to fulfill their goals for their future and to make the acceptable poverty of careful choices that I have chosen for myself into an a nearly unlivable poverty of deprivation.

None of this was obvious on the road.  In the middle of the afternoon heat (103º F) I had stopped in Channing, Texas under ‘the’ tree.  A few mostly empty buildings gathered around two secondary roads that across at right angles with a train track paralleling one of the roads.  A big pickup truck, clearly headed away from me, hesitated and then made a deliberate turn in my direction.  The man offered to open a nearby building to get me water if I needed.

The waitress in a tiny, well populated café in Watonga, Oklahoma preformed exactly as she had when I was there 4 months ago, and as she had for the last 25 years would be my guess.  I got the normal stares owed to an old man stranger in a motorcycle riding suit, nods of appreciation from some men, often looks of mild displeasure from some women for stirring the wanderlust, one more time, in the men who nodded.  It was life as usual, not any life that you would see in our society’s stories, but still the life that most people lead.

Let me expand on that: All of these people have real lives with real stories, but the stories of our society no longer include those lives.  So, real lives are lived in the shadow, or better, the glare of the impossibly unreal stories that have become our society.  Amy Winehouse died during my trip, but so did my mother’s brother.  Harry: merchant marine in the Big War, deepwater sailor all his life, rider of the rails in the Depression, a man who lived when stories mattered.  I was camping near Okemah, Oklahoma on Okmulgee Lake when uncle Harry died.  Okemah was where Woody Guthrie was born and lived until 1931; Guthrie, a man who told the stories of people like the man who went out of his way to check on me, the middle aged waitress and my uncle Harry.

As my trip began, my society’s story was of “conservatives” and “liberals” fighting over a Federal budget on the brink, Midwestern heat wave, Google + was challenging facebook, an English prince got married with everyone wearing some really swell clothes, terrorists were doing something really bad somewhere, a new illegal war in Libya, wikileaks as evil, Rupert Murdock’s media empire doing illegal things (and lying about it), someone on TV did some really ‘something’ thing…

All of this with the often ignored sub-text stories of 9% unemployment (a nearly 20% real unemployment), wealth (and income) inequities at record and increasing levels challenging the economic and physical safety of ‘regular working people,’ environmental disregard dangerously impacting biospheric integrity and capacity, the armies of my country occupying other lands, wikileaks as good, Fukushima’s continuing radiation release… It was just all too much.  There was not one thing that offered an action to be taken. When the tornados came through, at least, people could hide in their storm cellars.

From the motorcycle the world rolling by me was intensely real: ancient sand dunes in eastern New Mexico, horizon to horizon rolling plains of the Texas panhandle, the thoughtful and the thoughtless fellow humans on the road.  The hundred and then a thousand houses with various and often inexplicable accouterments of the living inhabitants: from plaster lawn deer to home made dirt-track cars, miscellaneous antique farm equipment to different forms of trash – all displayed on hundreds of miles of more or less mowed lawns.  Almost every house in a little town in Oklahoma had what looked like most of the major appliances along with other furnishings on their front porches; now what was that about?

Two gentlemen came by where I was camped in eastern Oklahoma to empty trash from a nearby garbage barrel – they were not ‘garbage-men,’ they were improving the place for all those in the area. After normal rituals of greeting we spoke of the heat, which was considerable.  One of the men was quick to point out that while it may feel hot no records of any kind had been broken; that was, of course, completely untrue, but is what happens when one’s politics is in uncomfortable confrontation with the reality of a thermometer.

At another campsite my neighbors were biologists collecting bats and various rodents for genetic population studies.  They wanted to talk biology.  They wanted to show me their collected specimens.  It was seldom that they camped near someone interested in talking about the difference between the genetic and biological concept of species.  For me it was a fascinating ‘blast from the past.’

Along much of the road other realities pressed their way forward. Giant, multistory drilling rigs – smart rigs that can drill down and sideways, ‘errorless’ drilling avoiding all hazard to surface dwelling man and beast.  These towers are set on a footprint of about 2 or 3 acres with supporting portable housing, materials, equipment and utility yards.  The air around them smelled of oil, and I assumed that that breath-catching smell was fracking chemicals. 

Mile after mile of production wellheads with surrounding tanks and pipes spotted the fields along side the road.  Humans were busy beavers here: farming, drilling, truck driving, digging.  How then to explain the nearly empty little towns, the main streets with every storefront empty except for the antique shop (most often closed) where the drug store used to be.

It was my hope that compressing all of these moments and observations into units of time that typically make sense would somehow also make the compressions make sense; I assumed, and still assume, that a collection of events, real and related in space and time, form the evidentiary basis for reality.  All I was doing was trying to slice across the behavioral landscape in a different way, exposing the layers of interaction not usually seen.

All of these people and all of these places seemed to me to need the same things, things stolen from them by crimes of wealth, the lies of media and the afflictions of power.  I could almost grasp it, felt that I could almost discover the words. 

There are so many of us. We are so various. What is needed to be done is so foreign to our present beliefs and understandings: just as our numbers and our powers are unnatural, so what we must do and how we must live in this present time with those numbers and powers must also be unnatural to immediate individual desires and habits. 

That is the overpowering sensation, repeated over and over again: Mostly original short-grass prairie and a plowed field; the plowed field and the drilling rig; the gentle kindness of people and the incredible pain delivered and about to be delivered onto the Great Many, here and around the world, by plutocratic humans and general circumstance; the little towns grown from mutual and local exchanges of goods and services and killed off by the erosion of mutual interest; thin lines of “nature” snaking through farms and towns, streams and creeks struggling to keep the land alive in a world increasingly covered with lawns and concrete.

It is clear; nothing will do but communication, understanding and wise planning.  The status quo is first of all impossible – there is no status quo, there is no present condition, only processes of change.  In a remarkable reversal of the earth’s most powerful forming forces, it is now that great motive force of change, humanity, that is the ‘creature’ in need of protective conservation, while the technological and environmental forces that we have set into motion surge around us, a powerful machine out of our control.

There is a great longing for sense and order in every one I’ve talked with, but they don’t seem to have the tools to create them; they try to acquire them ready made mistaking religion, money, guns and even education for solution.  That man who drove out of his way to offer me water, he and I were in complete sympathy in our interaction, but I suspect that he might have taken exception to my attitude toward Christianity; we could share the water of life and the good-will of one human for another, but reject each other based on different views of an anachronistic system of belief that has gone through thousands of iterations in 5000 years.

To the biologists, smart and dedicated people, but possibly also too comfortable in their certainties and uncertainties, my thoughts are similar: take the tissue samples, plot the distribution of genetic variation and correlate to biological species variation, write another paper on the details of evolutionary process in a particular group of animals, but also stop in Watonga and try the Spanish omelet – and tip the waitress like she was your sister.

The Tower of Babel story is wrong.  We built it and have continued building it until it now does reach heaven – and we have found heaven empty except for our projected hopes that there would be someone there to take responsibility other than us.  And now the tower and its many relations are in danger of falling under their own weight.  We dare not knock them down since their uncontrolled falling would destroy us and we dare not leave them up since they will surely fall on their own soon enough.  And then I realized one source of my fascination: the road is just the tower laid flat over the ground.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Wind And The Stone

At first blush it seems that there are two basically different stances that a human being can take in the confrontation with the daily data of living – but are really the opposite ends of a continuum.  On the one end, a person can accept a fully formed set of propositions, values, rules and possibilities: a known world, lived in with known parameters for action.  New data is shaped to fit the existing ‘truth.’  With expectations clear, reality in a bottle, a small industry forms to adapt any reluctant data into the accepted forms. 

This can be metaphorically summarized as the Stone Sculpture model: the sculptor has a vision of what the sculpture is to be (or what the client requires it to be) bounded by the stone’s form, the surrounding stone is removed, losing the preexisting form, detail and expansiveness contained in the original, until the desired shape is obtained – make no mistake, under the right hand, the product can be exquisite and even evocative of grand vision.

At the other end of the continuum the forming propositions are understood to be in constant flux.  Values, rules and possibilities change in response to the ‘tectonic’ forces of population density, energy availability and type, technological development, social innovation and idea.  A person living on this end of the continuum considers as much of the salient data of life as possible, and is flexible with what is called past experience, really seeing it as new data of a different form brought to each new moment of choice.

The metaphorical model for the fullest expression of this way of living I take from a recent motorcycle trip.  I’ll call this the MTFH (Motorcycle Trip From Hell) model. The rider enters the road as the wind begins to blow at speeds equal to the bike speed: swirling, coming from right or left, front or back, other vehicles change the patterns, all without predictability.  Nothing from the past matters other than that you are still wheel-side down and still riding; nothing from the future matters beyond the visible traffic and the invisible wind.  The exhilaration is magnificent and the exhaustion profound.

It should be clear, especially from the metaphors, that both approaches are limited and limiting in their own ways.  It should be clear that different situations are best served by different approaches – if this sounds a bit like a version of the second model, I’m sure that is true – and shows a major failing of the first model.  It is also clear that in the second model only the most salient data can be considered fully and only for a short period of time: comfortable expectations met with predictability must still be a major part of life or we would literally die of stress and exhaustion, which points out a major failing of the second model.

The struggle becomes then, not so much between the full range of extremes, but a tug-of-war closer to the middle.  We all admit that some principles are needed as fixed points and we all admit that changes are part of life.  It is the primacy and balance of these views over which we argue and contend.

Returning to the continuum extremes should make clear that there are circumstances when one view effectively predominates the other.  Carving a stone sculpture by responding to every shift of perception or thought would result in a pile of pebbles and stone dust.  Riding a motorcycle in heavy wind with a rigid set of preprogrammed expectations and action… let’s not go there!

The views from the extreme ends of the continuum are very different.  The MTFH model has no trouble accepting the Stone Sculpture model for this moment and then for that moment; it would just never occur to the MTFH thinker that any one notion should be dominating for more than the moment immediate forces focus on it.  The Stone Sculpture model on the other hand has a lot of trouble with the MTFH model: it is just wrong almost all the time, and is wrong without redemption.  Staying upright in heavy winds of change doesn’t compute as a primary goal.  In fact, the MTFH model from the Stone Sculpture model perspective is not just unsatisfactory, it is destructive and evil and must be made to be fixed in the correct sculptural configuration.

Another important difference is that the MTFH model accepts as natural that everyone would have their own MTFH model details; there would be no way for one person to tell another exactly what to do in a given situation other than to give your absolute attention, then hang loose and go with the flow.  Specific applications of the Stone Sculpture model, however, would reject even the details of other practitioners of their same art as foolish, wrong and incompetent, even as they accepted their methods (but would be shocked that theirs was a method and not just the only way).

A well functioning community is made up of both these views and all the points of lesser extreme along the divide.  In a community where obligations of observation supply much of the information used in relationships and decision-making, the extremes are forced into some level of respect, sometimes grudgingly, but sometimes profound.  The danger for us humans comes when the extremes become isolated and self-reinforcing: unmodulated by successful consequences delivered by the opposite view, the most extreme positions just keep on marching further and further into wonderland [1].

But it is here the symmetry fails.  The MTFH model can only go so far, it is by its nature bounded by immediacy, which is another way of saying Reality.  Its major defining quality is given by how far it reaches back toward the center, back toward more and more ordering principles.  The Stone Sculpture model is, on the other hand, largely unbounded when not forced to periodically reevaluate in light of some immediate and overwhelming reality, and even then its institutional guardians have full sway to interpret all events in the fixed terms of expectation and principle.

The Stone Sculpture model underlies religious fundamentalism – of all varieties –including capitalist fundamentalists, Marxist fundamentalists, free market, free trade, racial fundamentalism: those who tie their behaviors and prospects to absolutist positions in general. Without the natural restraint supplied by MTFH model thinkers, Stone Sculpture model habits come to be ascendant given their self-justifying and unbounded nature; they are also self-organizing and often aggressively spreading. 

The two extremes only exist in symmetry when an environmental order has preeminence over the system of which they are a part, as in small, materially simple communities or possibly in the systems that humans, especially of the MTFH model habit, might create in recognition of our unavoidable and eventually undeniable human nature.

We have tried building walls against our biology, our nature; it is now time, again, to discover how to live within our biology’s ebbs, flows and swirling winds.

[1] MTFH model habits of thinking and acting have been largely excluded from public discourse.  We are only seeing choices offered among competing “certainties.”  The arts, literature, creative science (as opposed to technology application) and the speculative processes in general are largely invisible in today’s public world.  The tendency of the Stone Sculpture model toward meanness – it must reject a great deal in a changing and uncertain world – is becoming more manifest.

Since every living thing must act, over the long run, in compliance with biophysical reality, and since it is the interplay of these two extremes in socially supported symmetry that is the human method for comporting with that reality, we really had better get our shit together.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Explaining Job Creation

I just had a humbling, even humiliating, conversation with my 90-year-old mother – she is the only 90-year-old person that I presently know and while she doesn’t stand for all old people, she is somewhat typical of a segment of them.  She never recovered from two powerful forces: the events of the depression and its apparent swoop into WWII, and the confusion and burdens put on southern womanhood.

Being from the Deep South, she grew up as a Democrat, but was converted by my father’s father, a very political man and a Republican from West Virginia– all Civil War related selections.  I know that such choices, driven by ‘ancient history,’ seem of no present consequence, but many are still driving significant parts of, especially, rural and southern political positions.

So my mother said, unwisely if she wanted a quiet breakfast: “Without the rich people there would be no jobs; ‘it’s the rich people who create the jobs.’”

Now, I have matured, slightly, in my 68 years so I didn’t throw things or hold my breath until she took it back.  Rather, I recognized an opportunity to have a go at explaining the error of her ways; a practice session, if you will, for other hard cases.  Old people (I don’t so designate myself yet) are slippery in matters of the mind: they have accumulated lots of tricks as well as can pull the ‘I’m too old to understand’ routine.  I was prepared: hadn’t I played checkers with this lady since I was 5?  Hadn’t I argued every cause from civil rights and Vietnam, through Reagan being a fool, to George Bush being a fool?

I tried, “Now, just how do rich people create jobs?”  I hoped to spark some reflection on the process of job creation, but got the predictable, “They are the ones with the money to hire people.”  Her stare began to get a little vacant and I couldn’t tell if she was reflecting on the possible logical fallacies she was toying with or if she had recognized the trap I was setting and preparing an escape.

“Why would they hire someone in the first place?” I asked.  She noticed right away that the game had been changed from creating jobs to the actual act of hiring a person and played for time with the ‘I don’t understand economics’ argument.  I would have none of it. It was not a question that she wanted to answer and so we moved on into the land of the simple and hypothetical.

“Imagine that you are a shop keeper.”  I knew that she was ahead of me and had, at some level, capitulated when she didn’t ask what kind of shop.  “Imagine that you are a shop keeper and you have very few customers, will you hire an employee?”  “Of course not, that would be foolish.”

“Now imagine that customers start coming to your shop and you can’t effectively handle them all, would you hire some one?”  “Oh yes, you would have to.”

“So, are you creating the jobs or are the increasing numbers of customers forcing you to hire help?  Certainly, you are important in creating the environment in which hiring can take place, but can you really say that you are creating the jobs?”  “I see that more customers require that people be hired.”  There seemed to be, to my mind rewarding, cognitive dissonance bouncing around in her head.

“And the people hired are doing the work needed, they are producing the result, not just you, so shouldn’t they receive reward in proportion to their contribution?”

(I have left out that near the beginning of this conversation she told me of her father working for a steel foundry in the south, working with management, where the laborers lived in company houses, were paid in script and were effectively captives of the company.)

She sort of coughed up a semi-noncommittal agreement. 

“Now suppose that you hired an accountant because your time was needed in the shop, and that the accountant told you that you could make more money by paying your employees less, that you could get rich; would that create more jobs or only make you wealthier?”  She didn’t respond, but adopted a pensive look.

“No one would think it inappropriate for you to take more money from the profits than the employees since you created the environment in which profits were made, but you did not do it all; the others who work with you also have an interest in the shop and should be compensated in proportion to their contribution.”  “Yes, I see that.”

From there the conversation went to ‘The Spirit Level’ by Wilkinson and Pickett.  She thought it a very sensible and understandable observation that inequity results in social instability.  She was surprised that the U.S. was one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

I was feeling pretty good by now.

I gave her Bernie Sanders’ statistic: “Have you heard that, in this country, the 400 richest families control more wealth than 150 million of the least wealthy people?”

“Wow, we better keep those 400 here!”

“What do you mean?”

“Those 400 richest people must really create a lot of jobs.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It’s The Ignorance, Stupid

Here is one for you: How uninformed can people be allowed to be in a free society? How misguided? How ignorant? How stupid?  Before you knee-jerk the answer that people have the right to be as uninformed as they wish, listen up:

There are many places where ignorance is not allowed.  Just try to play sandlot football with 17 to 23 year olds in Jacksboro, Texas without a reasonable grasp of the game!  Or try going fishing on a group charter and fail to learn or otherwise ignore the rules of etiquette.  Go to a sports bar and, while watching a basketball game, loudly proclaim that a player should be put in the penalty box for moving before the snap.

Are the sailors on a submarine allowed to be ignorant of functions in their areas of responsibility?  Imagine being on a shooting range with someone who knows and cares nothing about gun safety.   Is it OK to put rat poison next to the condiments in a restaurant?  Is it OK to lie about the bridge being out just around the blind curve?

This is not a solutions essay; it is about hair-pulling, screaming, fit-having exasperation.  Really, just how stupid can people be allowed to be, and its corollary, how much dishonesty (an important ingredient in ‘stupid soup’) can be mixed with ‘free speech’ before it kills you?

I know that this opens a can of worms, even invites whole new species of worms that have never been captured and put in cans.  But as I said this essay is not about solutions; it is about anger and fear.

A specific example, the one that got my blood up:  I often read the writings of climate change deniers, supply side economists and general purveyors of the so-called conservative set of mind; they are, while not the primary source of our troubles, the main proponents of our staying in trouble. 

I recently ran across a thing called, “There IS a problem with global warming... it stopped in 1998, written by a smarmy character named Bob Carter.  Now, I have no serious problem with smarmy or sarcasm (actually I do), but the ignorance or dishonesty, most likely a combination of both, is intolerable: he cannot play on my team, must leave the sports bar and is not to be allowed in the kitchen.  I can’t think of another way to deal with this.

I went to the original Temperature Anomalies data and ran the numbers.  Mr. Carter was simply wrong, intentionally or otherwise wrong.  The data clearly show that global temperature has risen approximately .2º C every 10 years since 1980.  Carter’s piece was written in 2006, but one still hears the same arguments on rightwing radio every day (if you listen everyday).  There are a number of sources for the summarized data and they are the same as the averages that I calculated from the anomaly raw data.

More than that, the data show a trend of increasing rates of global average temperature increase in both atmospheric and ocean temperature over the whole range of time that reasonably accurate global records have be collected, from 1880 to the present.

This is not a ‘he said, she said’ argument.  Usually when the media report a “disagreement” on such issues the matter is left with: ‘Mr. Keye says that temperatures have increased while Mr. Carter claims that global temperature stopped increasing in 1998 and the climate change supporters have no explanation.’

Here are some of his words, “Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).” 

That sounds authoritative, but what was Carter actually ‘drawing on’?  1998 had the greatest deviation to that date from the standard base comparison period (the global temperature averaged for the years 1951 to 1980).  The years following 1998 have slightly lower deviations, but still consistently higher than the any of the years before 1998.  This comparing of single data points is, well, pointless. 


These are the increases that I calculated; global average temperature increases in degrees Celsius from the standard of ‘0’ increase of 1951-1980.  The 2001-2010 value has been reported as 0.61 in another source.  The average value from 2001 to 2005, data available to Mr. Carter, was 0.45, significantly higher than, 0.38, the average for the previous five years (which included 1998) [1].

Here are the increases over the 1951-1980 zero set point for the 10 hottest years since 1880 up to 2005 (there have been 3 years hotter than 1998 since 2005):

º C

It is that the five hottest years on record after 1998 are 2001 to 2005 that Mr. Carter is calling a cooling trend – though to his credit he does point to its insignificance as cooling.  It is almost impossible to believe that someone could be so ignorant or even intuitively challenged that he could make such a claim with honesty.  But let us not be too critical of Mr. Carter and assume that he is just plain stump stupid and not a dishonest slimeball.

But this is not an essay on global climate change or even on the arguments surrounding it; it is about uninformed, ignorant, stupid and dishonest, and just how much of them we can tolerate in a society that seems to make ignorance a viable personal choice protected by law.  The same kinds of arguments and deceptions, based in ignorance, could be drawn from the economy, election malfeasance, political machinations, corporate corruption and more.

I am sick to death (not rhetorical since I am old and am pushed toward death by every new stress!) of the extent of the failure of public understanding for issues that are clearly settled [2].  No one with the capacity to read Mr. Carter’s piece should be accepting of it.  They should know enough to, first, suspect its disingenuousness and then be able to test its presentments.

I know, I know, that is asking too much of the average, overly busy, hard working, blah, blah, blah citizen.  But that is bullshit.  We get what we demand.  When I was teaching, mid school, high school, college, it didn’t matter: I got the result that I demanded.  I simply refused to accept that any student was incapable of learning what I had to teach and refused to accept even the thought that what I wanted them to learn wasn’t very important for them to know.  This was not done 25% of the time and relaxed at other times; it was done 100% of the time in every single interaction – and the students came like puppies to bacon, even the ones that didn’t believe that they could do it, because they could feel that I believe in them and they liked the feeling.  It is my experience that people like becoming competent and knowledgeable [3].

This doesn’t mean that people will agree on all things, but it does mean that it is possible for most people to agree on beginning with the same basic facts.  Humans are not made to be a stupid animal; our shtick is knowing what is going on.

If you are in a boat with 20 other people, maximum “safe” capacity, anyone claiming that they, and you, are standing on dry land would be considered crazy.  They would not be allowed to be part of any decision making process; if, say, some swimmer came to your boat and asked for a place on board, the ‘dry lander’ argument that there was plenty of room would be seen for the insanity that it was.  There are times when ignorance and also insanity just aren’t allowed.  No matter how the deliberations progressed every one would be expected to begin by acknowledging that they were in a boat at or near capacity.

Should we demand any less of the regular folks around us in our political and economic life?  Obviously, all human failing can’t be outlawed, but human communities have always set standards for the responsibilities of individuals.  With the withering of community we have been left with no enforceable (by social pressure) codes for what a person needs to know to be an effective participant in society.

No, you may not have your own opinion of the carcinogenic qualities of tobacco smoke, not if you are going to live in a community of others.  And no, you can’t decide on what is correct science without addressing the issue in the rules of science just as you may not use a baseball bat in a board game. 

And yes, far too many people are painfully ignorant of how to work the most basic skepticism useful for survival, much less the details and facts of our economic and political situation.  Of course, it is mostly a matter of ‘garbage in garbage out.’  The vast majority is not willfully uninformed, but they are uninformed and that’s what matters. 

It is time to fight back.  You can’t expect that others will do what you will not do.  Challenge the Bob Carters, they are just hacks being paid to twist the facts into a form that suits a political and economic interest.  And don’t let a friend drive (or vote) ignorant, tell them what you know because you have done the work to know something worth telling.  Even be in their face if necessary, and ready for the consequences.

Ignorant and stupid must be made unacceptable; in a pickup game of football or in the making of national decisions that determine the quality of our lives.  And I don’t think this needs be parsed too closely, you know, the ‘people defend their attitudes when challenged’ stuff.  Just do it, challenge and inform from a position of knowledge. You can’t expect that others will do what you will not do.  Repeat yourself if you think it important.

[1] Here is an example from another kind of data collection that will help to make clear Mr. Carter’s disingenuousness.  Each year in the spring I start riding my road bike on a timed loop recording each day’s time and average speed.  The times get better and better as I get into shape, but they don’t improve evenly from ride to ride.  I will always post a time on an especially good day that I will not better for a week, even two.  It in no way means that I am not getting faster by not bettering that unusually good time the next time out; my times following that day will be improvements on the average for the precious week and averaged together will show a pattern of consistent change.  That is what is happening with the 1998 temperature measurement and Mr. Carter either knows it and is lying or is willfully uninformed, neither of which should be acceptable.

[2] Clearly settled doesn’t mean universally accepted or happy about.  It is clearly settled that leopards will attack children let to wander from the village.  People in the village can argue about it all day long without changing the behavior of leopards.  We see this with the climate change “arguments”; the military, insurance and other affected institutions are all making plans for global warming and other consequences even as they are often the supporters of climate change deniers.

[3] I realize that not accepting lack of capacity and disinterest is, even if effective as a teaching tool, a rigid position and that I am arguing against rigidity in favor of a fluidity in understanding, adapting to realities.  It is, however, also an empirical position based on the reality of student success in overcoming self-generated inhibitions to learning – they just needed to be believed in.  Of course, it didn’t work with everyone, but it worked better than anything else.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

It Is Really Pretty Simple

For all the complexities that we face in this crazy world, there are still general patterns of simplicity that can be discovered.  There are many examples, but these two give the flavor:

•The millions of substances of the universe are combined from the 90 or so natural elements by quite simple rules systematized for clarity in the Periodic Table of Elements.
•Millions of extant and billions of previous species of living things are, or were, organized into integrated systems of interaction called ecosystems, and all by the very simple and easily comprehended principles of natural selection functioning through the DNA/protein information nexus.

But what about the political and economic confusion that we presently endure, to which we respond in an ad hoc process that seems to carry us deeper and deeper into trouble and uncertainty?  Might there be an understandable organizing principle, a comprehensible simplicity that, while it may not give us the tools of control, could help us avoid the gravest dangers?  I think there is, though it is not so simple as the theories of electron structure and evolution.

Comprehending the overall simplicity our human muddle can come from understanding that every species has characteristic behaviors, often as, or more, defining of the species as physical characteristics.  Therefore humans have an expected behavioral set.  Secondly, the behavioral characteristics of a species are evolved to a defined environment.  Therefore humans have expected conditions of environment to which and in which their behavioral set is evolved.  And thirdly, organisms living in environments to which they are not evolved either die outright or adapt their evolved behaviors in ways that almost always are destructive of both the species and the environment.  Therefore humans, by creating their own ‘environments,’ are adapting a behavioral set evolved to the environments of their origin in ways destructive of themselves and the earth.

This is really pretty simple.  What makes the application of such simplicity very very complicated is the aberrant behavior that forms as adaptive product from evolved behaviors in inappropriate environments; there are no real limits to the variety of such adaptive behaviors, these are behaviors that arise without orderly underlying principles.  Sociology and psychology find patterns, correlations, but no satisfying unifying principles.  Freud tried.  Skinner tried.  Maslow tried.  Others tried.  But they were attempting to organize aberrant behavior into coherent species-consistent principles.  This would be like trying to find the underlying principles that generate baseball, poker, field hockey, chess, clue, chicken, marbles, war, ‘cowboys and Indians’, etc.  Wittgenstein tries to explain this one: we “know” that there are combining qualities, just not what they are. 

In a perverse symmetry, the more complex the understanding required the more numbingly empty the attempts to understand.  So that today’s thousand generations of efforts and distortions are reduced to “God is in his Heaven” and “greed is good.”  We must do better.

Often a metaphor helps: Imagine a regulation pool table with 16 balls on it.  With sufficient accuracy of measurement, the behavior of the balls could be well described through many changes.  If the size of the table were to be increased to that of a basketball court with the number of balls corresponding, detailed description becomes more difficult, but only by the addition of the number of interactions; each interaction remains in the strict service of the laws of motion.  Nothing is changed by moving to a ‘table’ the size of a city, a small nation or a continent. 

But what if somehow the balls contained a ‘memory’ of the regular sized pool table, if table size and ball number were important in developing the orderly response to the laws of motion, and that the ‘memory’ influenced the way that the balls performed the motion laws – with great accuracy on the regulation table, but less and less so as the table grew larger and larger.  On the basketball court sized table the balls began to ‘forget’ how to exchange momentum, began to vary the elasticity of collisions and vector collisions developed subtle confusions of angle.  These affects increased with increasing ‘table’ size until regions of the ‘table’ functioned by regional pragmatically adopted rules of motion attempting to give order to less and less well ordered interactions.  The ‘memory’ was sufficient to realize that there was something to remember, just not what it was. 

In such a situation there could be only one form of solution; to recreate the essential cues of the regulation size table.  The most obvious way would be to cut the huge tables down to “natural” size, but there would be other ways also.  Balls could spend a certain amount of time on regulation tables, return to the big tables with the restored ‘memories’ for a time until they began to forget how to perform the physical laws again.  The big tables could be sufficiently demarcated into regulation sized areas that most of the balls most of the time retained reasonable behavior.

It is possible that some balls, once having lost the capacity for exact correspondence with the physical laws of motion, might never recover; they would need to be kept away from the others on the table since orderly interactions would always be disrupted by them.  They would be easily identified on a regulation-sized table, but not necessarily recognized at all on a huge one.

If the metaphor is appropriate, then we need to define the size and nature of our human informing space.  It is becoming clear that our present expanded world will not give up its secrets of order – because it has no secrets of order.  I believe that we must begin by looking at the Paleolithic and prePaleolithic forms of human organization and at the patterns of behavior that are found in those primates most like us.  If that informing space can be reasonably guessed at and tested for its consequences, an option to our madness is possible.

This, of course, has already been done and for thousands of years.  Looked at in terms of the metaphor above it can be imagined that some balls, by chance, would find themselves in appropriate spaces and regain the capacities for “normal” function; then try to ‘report’ (interact by the rules) this to others.  But the telling of ordering and purpose is not feeling it and only the feeling of it is informing; the telling is just another story among a thousand stories.

This is so important that I am going to, perhaps, over explain.  If you are confident that the meaning and application of the metaphor are clear to you, then just skip to the end.

What are the parts of this metaphor in the natural and unnatural history of our species?  We are, of course, the balls and are generally of common form and function. Humans are formed by the same biological process of development as every other living thing: a set of instructions stored in the form of a DNA/protein structure.  But, and this is vital, no information that is stable and readily available from other sources will be stored as the DNA/protein instructions, but will be ‘stored’ in the stable and consistent surrounding conditions.  In terms of the metaphor, there is no reason for the memory of the balls to include the dimensions of the table if tables were always of regulation size; however, the information for properly relating to physical laws would require the regulation sized table to be properly expressed. The table is the environment in which our form and function are expressed.

When we make large and self-generating changes in the environment, we remake and remove the essential conditions for the development and expression of our specieshood.  And so, our relationship to the very conditions that inform and allow life to exist begins to fail.

There is no way to recover our true understanding or integrating behaviors by “understanding” our present functioning.  Only by having a sense of specieshood can a perspective be had and maintained that will guide the Many toward the behaviors of organized demand and sacrifice that can restabilise both our material and behavioral relationships with the planetary surface.

The first and most important step is to localize power.  The consequent distortions of national and international power relations cannot be incorporated into any meaningful action for the recovery of either environmental stability or psychological health.  A new book, A Perfect Moral Storm, by Stephen M. Gardiner (Philosopher, Univ. of Washington) purports to struggle with these very issues.

Somehow a significant number of us must discover ways of ‘returning to our roots.’  You see, we have known this all along!  The ‘easy way’, like taking up the plow and raising chickens, however, will not do for enough people to make a difference beyond those that actually raise the chickens.

We have overshot too far for the landing to be soft.  But that doesn’t mean that we must despair as the only or even first emotion.  There are ways to discover how to live the life the human animal was born to; given the press of the future perhaps some of us had best get to it.  It is only in the act of real self-preservation, as a functioning member of the human species, that there can be a future for our species and for many others.

Such a way of life sees the present Randian capitalist/fascist thinking for the insanity that it is.  Being fully human is a community based life, meditative and active.  And today it must be scientific – not supplicant to the science establishment – in respect for the processes of skepticism and discovery.  

A species values, that is, evolves its behaviors and material actions for, its young above all else; even a digger wasp has a longer functional ‘sense’ of generations than modern human institutions.  The most difficult concepts to put into action in the present economic environment (a very big pool table), concepts of present restraint in support of generational fecundity, are natural to communities of affection and responsibility (the regulation table).

It is really pretty simple after all.  We can understand and we can decide for ourselves to make the effort to become sane and retain sanity.  Build and find community.  Seek the clues and guides to living as a human, what I call specieshood.  And if there are enough of us, we might even become the barbarians at the gates of the Mad Empire.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


(This is the compelling scene before the title credits run): Maintaining motion against friction (resistance) is a real problem.  There has to be the consistent application of a force, either the most basic like gravity and magnetism or the localization of motion based forces in an energy consuming motor.  These things are easily understood in the physical world, but not so clear – though just as necessary – in the world of behavior: a lump of protoplasm must have a “motor” attached to move, whether it is an ameba or a man.

And since movement implies change of location, the efficacy of movement is greatly enhanced if consequent new locations are not purely random; there also needs to be a steering wheel.  Just as in a car, the motor and the steering wheel can be quite separate. We can rev up the engine without having our hands on the wheel; conversely, we can steer like crazy without the motor running.  While these things are generally true for all things, including the living ones, humans, as they often do, create a different set of issues because they ‘think’ about things, and how things are thought about influence both the motor and the steering wheel.  To finish off the metaphor: you are driving to the store to get a box of Depends for your grandmother, but you are thinking about being 2 cars back in the last 3 laps of the Indy 500; you see?

How Are We Supposed To Think About Things?

A hell of a lot differently than we do, for sure. For damn sure! 

There are a lot of things to think about and just about all of them could use some attention: politics, religion, economics, science, work, debt, family, friends, enemies, food, status, life, death… even the best way of thinking about things!

This is not a new question.  It seems that it should have been thoroughly sorted out in the last 3000 years or so, yet still haunts us.  This is mostly because there are almost always some of us who don’t like the answers delivered by a well-considered opinion; taking an obvious and pressing example: human impact on the places where we live. 

If you look at a photo, taken 40 years ago, of the foothills near where I live, you will see tree covered hills resting comfortably at the base of 12 and 13 thousand foot mountains.  That same scene today shows the foothills covered with a mix of mansions and high density housing, many thousands of units, supported by the requisite roads, shopping areas, water systems and other services.  There can be no question of impact; there has been impact.

Not only have the hills themselves had trees removed and been dug into for roads, building foundations and utilities, the ecosystems have been destroyed, water use pushed well over replenishment rates and, more subtly, thousands of people have gathered in places that require intensive and constant support by armies of people, near and distant, in order to live there.  This is what happens when population doubles, impact doubles, at the very least.  But it is really more like the relation of distance to intensity, but in reverse: when the use doubles, the impact often increases by an exponent, perhaps by factors of 4 or 6 or 8 or 100.

Now, what is the correct way to think about these changes?  There are three times to think about things: before, during and after.  If you think about it, they are quite different.

Before: there are all those ‘empty’ hills with only coyotes, rats and mice, rabbits and such playing among the little round trees; what would be the harm of a house or two?  And there is money to be made.  During: there is a lot of dust created by a lot of machinery, tons and tons of building materials, thousands of jobs from wheelbarrow driver to contractor to realtor to city planner, and excitement, economic excitement.  After: the hills are alive with the sound of… thousands of humans, the visual and auditory cacophony of spreading human impact.

We, who live here, no longer look at the hills as we travel across town, rather we strain our eyes higher up toward the more distant mountains, and even then notice the crawling lines of the human hyphae working into their nearer edges.  The river that once had water in it is dry; only its dry channel snakes through the city.  Now, what do you think about that?

All those people, they have a right to buy up the land; they have the right to build houses.  They have a right to change the landscape, to fence the road, to use up the water, to remove the habitat of animals and plants.  At least I think they do.  Who would say otherwise? 

That question is actually easy; after the land has been dug up, the building is done and the jobs and economic excitement gone away, then we can think that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, maybe something has been lost that we would have rather not lost.  ‘We’ would rather still have the hills and the coyotes, rats, mice and trees.

But not many of us think this way for very long.  Most begin to look for more hills to build on; higher hills, farther hills.  We return to the ‘before’ thinking and the ‘during’ thinking.  And we keep doing this until only the ‘after’ thinking is left.

Progress first, regret later.  Progress first because we no longer can think of another way.  Regret when the beauty and vitality are gone and regret is all that is left to feel.

Suppose it was in the nature of our thought that no amount of wealth could buy the foothills; that ‘we’ just said no:  No, I will not sell my children; no, you may not build on the land that is collectively ours.  No, you may not use water to the point that the river runs dry.  No, you can’t gate the road and fence the path; it is unthinkable.  What if our collective future pleasure and comfort in the landscape was considered a greater wealth than the possessions of the moment?  Unthinkable!

But, actually not unthinkable.  Anything can be thought, though not everything can be real.  And there is the dilemma: we can think, and do, much that is not real.  We can think, and we can believe what we think.  And we can believe that because we can think a thing that it is reality; we can make it reality by doing the thing we think, even if it is foolish, dangerous, or annihilating of the very conditions that allow life to exist in the first place.

It is that just now we are thinking that individual personal, quite arbitrary, wealth is a claim on the material world.  About 2 or 3 billion people seem to believe this, and because they do, it is real; they act on the belief making it real.  But this way of thinking is not in our bones, not in our genes, there are other ways to think and to believe. 

All that is required is for people to think and then to believe something else; I imagine that John Lennon wrote a song about this.  Of course, it is more difficult than it sounds since so much of the order that sustains us is based on what we presently believe, even though it is the greatest foolishness, but it is also far easier than impossible since we only need to believe that it is possible for it to be possible.  This is not New Age bullshit; it is exactly just such belief that founds our present cultural, political and economic reality.

Here are some things rethought.  It may seem that some of these thoughts are impossibly idealistic, impractical, deeply wrong or otherwise foolish.  I only suggest that our present beliefs, and actions based on these present beliefs, are leading us into the sixth great extinction event in the last 640 million years (and our species has only been in existence for about 200 thousand years!), are condemning 3 billion people to lives more depressed and diminished than any Paleolithic human and separating almost all of the remaining 4 billion of us from the biology that resides in each and everyone ready to create and fulfill the purposeful life – I think this too high a price to pay.

•Almost all property is to be collective as ecosystem (land, water, atmosphere, minerals, plants and animals), not private to individual humans, human created entities or the human species.  Use must depend on natural systems of compensation, not artificial thought-constructed ideas of ‘ownership.’

•Religion is to be a shorthand for correct (meaning adaptive) behavior in biophysical reality.  Gods were created in our thinking to give power and permanence to these adaptive, environmentally derived beliefs.  Buddhism gets along just fine without the God idea.

•The spiritual and the religious are as different as the living thing and a statue of a living thing.  Spirit is about feeling a relationship to the movement of the universe.  Religion is a set of social rules for living within a local set of environmental designs.

•Politics and economics need to be local in form and based in democratic systems and exchanges of substance. Wealth is to be despised as one of the most destructive forces in human possibility.  Some will always seek the power (infantilized need for self-gratification) of wealth; this needs to be recognized and gently treated as an emotional illness.

•The most respected and honored human attainments are to be actions that support and sustain the community and the well being of its members.  It is a simple and obvious realization that living as a human being in a community of human beings is the most basic, essential and praiseworthy act of life.

•Age is a measure of how long one has lived, not a measure of having lived well.  The quest for great age vs. a great life is one of our most depressing behaviors.  A lively dieing after having lived well should be sought as a fitting end rather than the lingering and destructive dieing that we endure today.

•Human progress is to be recognized as changes that improve the wellbeing of humans as members of the human species, changes that adapt our numbers, technologies, science and philosophies to our biology rather than attempting to diminish and control our biology as a dangerous force.  It is insanity to see “progress’ as actions that damage the cycles and systems that sustain life.

•Our goal should be to use as little of the earth’s material and energy as possible for the greatest gain in enjoyment of personal and community life.

•Human life must be more difficult to create, require more effort to sustain and be less difficult to enjoy.

So, what do you think?