Monday, February 23, 2009

What We Can Learn From The Gecko

I tend to be more pragmatic than ideological but there are limitations to that. Pragmatism is very useful in solving problems but first the problems and the goals need to be defined. It is our human values that help to define the problems and the goals.

So it is with me. I have been a spectator to the slow motion train wreck that is minimally regulated American capitalism. That train wreck is observable fact. First, the lively interplay between wealth and politics made for some questionable decisions, particularly, in globalizing the race to the bottom with respect to cheap labor. That caused many of our manufacturers to fold their tents and silently steal away across the Pacific or South of the border. Slowly at first but then at an increasing pace, the USA has lost much of its manufacturing capacity. Also, the taxes on the wealthy were reduced so that an ever greater fraction of the nation's wealth has been concentrated in a few hands.

The globalization of financial transactions and international banking paralleled these developments. More recently, we have been told that we now have the "ownership society," meaning, I suppose, that if you must actually work for a living then you are on your own.

None of this matters much unless you care.

The key to stabilizing capitalism has not yet been discovered. It seems to progress by means of a sequence of "bubbles" followed by crashes. Peoples' lives are seriously disrupted when they lose their jobs, lose their homes, or lack medical care, or cannot afford their children's education. It has happened before and now it has happened again.

John Henry

Well, we humans sure have got rhythm but the best and the brightest can't manage an economy in the common interest.

These truths are self evident. The gecko knows.

The latest crash is more severe than most. It came at a time when the government had been deprived of revenues by massive tax cuts and bled white by wars, when the physical infrastructure of the nation had been long neglected and was crumbling, when fossil energy was peaking and needed rapid replacement, and when many of our institutional traditions were antiquated and failing.

The cruelest cut of all was not something I had expected. I have long been aware that when torrents of money pass through human hands the owners of those hands develop sticky fingers. I had not believed that it could get so bad. Some members of that highly respected and magnificently rewarded class, the top level bankers and investment bankers have engaged in a reckless race to the bottom with respect to risk management. They fouled their own nests and, with that, they sabotaged the entire international financial machinery. Even the gecko knows that.

Now, we are told that those same great guys trust our common treasury to save them and they will tell us how. That's where the gecko comes in.

The gecko is an animated figure, just a few inches tall, who appears in various entertaining commercials for the GEICO auto insurance company. In the latest of these we see the gecko's boss (a middle aged white male, of course) telling him about the importance of trust to their business. The boss suggests a new commercial in which he will fall backward and trust the gecko to catch him. He then stands up and begins to fall backwards toward the gecko, who is visibly in fear of being crushed. The commercial ends at that point.

It seems to me that the gecko is a very clever fellow and that this is an allegory about saving the really big, very insolvent banks. Can our treasury save them or will it be crushed. Are they too big to fail or too insolvent to save? Will we be left with "zombie banks" that persist but cannot do much lending?

No need to speculate. Like it or not, we shall see. The psychological economists have pointed out that markets are not entirely rational and will not therefore be acceptably self regulating. To put it another way, hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street.

Stretching it a bit, there is also an allegory about the recent behavior of our financial bigwigs based upon drunk driving.

Wreck on the Highway

Since this was written I have heard President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress and to the nation. I have also heard Bobby Jindal's response. Obama's speech was highly optimistic but he had a lot to say. Will some friend of Bobby Jindal please suggest to him that if one has nothing even remotely useful to say it might be best to shut up.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


In my long life, I have met a few people who were unusual and impressive. They are rare but, in a large population, you may also have met some.

Metaphorically, they are old souls whose wisdom and kindness suggest that they have passed through this vale of tears more than once and are better prepared to deal with it. They do so without egotism and without wearing any faith on their sleeves. They are not striving to be anything, they just ARE. If you happen to be a Christian, or a Jew who considers Jesus to be family, you may understand me when I say they are not followers of Jesus, they are Jesus.

Speaking in a more literal vein, meeting such people gives me a vision of what human beings can become when the proper genetic and cultural variables have been identified and understood. We have a long way to go but scientific progress is accelerating and the travel time may not be as long as you might think.

Have you encountered any of them?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Behavioral Observations

It is well known that power corrupts; we see that almost daily in our news media.

It is also well known that human beings sometimes practice deception for personal advantage. I find it interesting that intentional deception is not limited to humans. If deception confers advantages then it might well also confer an evolutionary advantage, in which case we might find examples of it in other species. Of course, we know that a mother bird might employ the old "broken wing" trick to lead a predator away from her chicks but I cannot rule out the possibility that such behavior is innate to birds.

One example of deception in a dog is almost certainly not innate. I was visiting a home that had two resident dogs, one male and one female. They ate out of two separate dishes on the floor. One day, I observed the male finish his food more quickly than the female and then run to the front door, barking loudly. I assumed that he had heard someone at the door. So did the female and she left the remains of her food to join him at the door, also barking. At that point, the male ran back to the kitchen and quickly ate her food.

There are also mean spirited behaviors that confer no tangible advantages but which are somehow rooted in human psychology. I'll offer three examples from my childhood and adolescence.

1) At age approximately 6 my father gave me a new air rifle which used compressed air to fire pellets. (I can't imagine why he did that.) I was standing out of doors with it when another boy of about the same age came over to admire it. He then asked me to let him hold it, which I did. Then he asked me to stand about ten feet away "so I don't shoot you." When I moved to the indicated spot, he shot me. I can only guess what went through his mind. Perhaps, while holding a gun, he just wanted the new experience of shooting someone.

2) At age about 11, I was playing in an empty lot with an occasional companion. We had just finished a one-on-one game which I had won handily. Then he pointed to a wooden fence with a wood rail at the top and asked me to put some empty cans on it so we could try to knock them off by throwing rocks. I did that and then stood far enough aside that he could not possibly hit me when aiming at a can. The first rock he threw hit me just above my right eye. I believe that was a mean spirited payback.

3) At age about 16, a frequent companion invited me into his home after school. We were just talking amicably in the kitchen when he suddenly grabbed the hair at the back of my head, pulling my head back, and held the sharp edge of a very large kitchen knife to my throat. After a few very tense seconds, he released me and laughed aloud at the good joke he had just played on me. He added that he had believed that the back of the blade was at my throat and had contemplated carrying out a sawing motion but decided against it. More chuckling. Naturally, I did not see much of him after that. In retrospect, I explained to myself that he really wanted to kill his father and he had been acting it out on me.

Aside from indicating my incredible naivte' these episodes also illustrate the erosion of trust that can result from common childhood experiences. Since the productivity of civilized society is very dependent upon trust we would be much better off in a culture which made such deceptions and betrayals very rare.

Absent such a culture, it is necessary to be very discriminating about new acquaintances. I remember a refrain from a country song I heard many decades ago.


Although individual behavior is circumscribed to some extent by law and custom, mob behavior is a more free form phenomenon.



Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The term "agnostic" literally means without knowledge. It is usually taken to mean not knowing God.

That's a no-brainer isn't it? What do I know about God? Only what others have said and most of them already had closed minds on that subject or were as confused as a termite in a yo-yo. So I am really on my own with respect to God. Well, if one doesn't know, what could be more honest than to say "I don't know"? Still, this point of view needs some explaining.

There is the famous problem of the First Cause. We are accustomed to events in this world where we generally see that everything that comes into being has been caused by something, or someone. "When I see a watch I look for a watchmaker" is the way someone expressed it. (William Paley's watchmaker argument) However, this explains very little. The first cause might be something or some entity that is unique and completely outside our experience and even beyond our imagination.

The rest is speculation or fantasy. I have one of my own but, unlike religionists, I freely admit that it is just an amusing fantasy and no more. Consider a universe that is much grander than ours and unknown to us. In that universe, there exist immensely more powerful computational devices than any we can imagine and grand experiments are carried out on these machines by entities of great intelligence. One of these entities, whom I shall call "IAM, the graduate student" for rhetorical convenience, is carrying out a very interesting experiment. It is the creation of a virtual universe in which the fundamental physical laws are probabilistic, so that the new universe can evolve in unpredictable ways. It is a very sophisticated evolutionary algorithm which happens to have produced us, an event of nearly zero probability. We are merely collections of symbols in that machine.

It is not at all clear that IAM intervenes in any way. He may merely observe. He may or may not permit the experiment to reach the finality of death. Perhaps he will terminate it sooner. We may have no possible way to discover this underlying reality, nor can we explain the mystery of IAM's existence.

This is not the whole story. There is another kind of religious belief which is pragmatic. That is, perhaps the rather weak human psyche needs religious belief as a crutch. Perhaps only some people feel this need. In any case, the beliefs they choose to hold may actually be useful to them. The popular singer, Frank Sinatra once, when asked what he believed in, replied "whatever gets me through the night." The philosopher, William James, spoke of "The Will to Believe."

My take on this theme is that, while some beliefs may fortify the spirit, human beings will also profit from "The Will to Doubt" [Bertrand Russell]. Many of us are curious by nature, especially scientists, who are trained to be skeptical. I see no particular difficulty in the human mind harboring both belief and skepticism, either of which can be summoned as needed. I suggest this in order to make it clear that we have some interesting choices. What is the goal?

old time religion

Nice song, but if the goal is to civilize human behavior nothing has yet been dicovered that is good enough. Nevertheless, liturgical music is a salient feature of a religious culture.

Kol Nidre

Lord's Prayer

Despite what I have said, if you think that tribal loyalty means nothing, think again!

Rivers of Babylon


Monday, February 9, 2009

Ideologies Versus Pragmatism

There is a lot of unsupported economic speculation to be found at this time.

It seems to me that one conclusion is reasonably clear: the human species has not yet discovered how to create a culture and a socioeconomic infrastructure that is productive, humane and stable.

Joe Hill


So, in the present difficulties (largely facilitated by ideological believers in minimally regulated capitalism) we are offered the choice of massive debt, followed by inflation or default - or else, of doing nothing, followed by an economic collapse and human misery to rival the great depression.

Naturally, it is not the right time to completely replace a leaky roof in rainy weather if a tarp will suffice. However, when times are relatively good, the voices of privilege and complacency are loudest and dissidents are treated like lepers. This culture needs to change.

The fundamental flaw in our thinking, besides the normal human quota of greed, fear, and intellectual bombast, is the massive allegiance to restrictive ideologies. Sooner, rather than later, people will have to start thinking outside of their ideological boxes. Sometimes, this is referred to as "pragmatism" but it needs to be big picture pragmatism not just clever patches.

Need I add that the macro-economy would be better regulated by a well designed computer program than by the Congress of the United States? There are only a few salient parameters in question: money supply, interest rates, government spending, and tax rates. Remove these from the arena of political bullcrap and watch our garden grow. Why? Well, a few things can be discerned.

Our political class will have less opportunity to extort money from the corporate class.

The corporate class will be less motivated to buy favors from the political class.

Scientific methods are much more reliable than ideological bullcrap when regulating a complex quantitative system. That is why airplanes can fly but our economy frequently crashes.

What Am I ?

I can answer this puzzling question only in scientific terms. The rest is unsupportable speculation.

Simply put, I am a deterministic biological machine. I respond to the stimulation of my senses in the only way I can, depending upon my state at the time. My brain makes a choice and a fraction of a second later I become aware of it and I say "I have chosen that." What does it mean to become aware of something? That is an internal mental state which philosophers might call "an emergent phenomenon." The value of awareness is that it permits the brain to critique its own actions and the results of them. It enhances our ability to learn and to modify our own behavior.

I am a little, lost, imperfect machine thrown, will he, nil he, into a prefabricated lunatic culture to which I am ill adapted and of which I was initially wholly ignorant. This deserves a generalized universal lament.

Moon's Joli Blon

A simple example of the multitude of things I didn't understand is currency inflation. Shortly after the big war, circa 1947, I was a college student involved in a debate on the proposition: we should retain the five cent fare on the New York City subways. I took the positive position.

There were others who knew better. Mike Quill, the leader of the subway workers union, always put on his best brogue during salary negotiations. At one time, when told that higher wages would inevitably require higher fares, he thundered "there should be no fare at all!" There was no effective reply to such argument. Mike was no shrinking violet. When the handsome, liberal, Republican Mayor Lindsay visited Mike's hotel room to inquire how the negotiations were going, Mike greeted him with "once a schmuck, always a schmuck!"

New York was not alone in such butting of heads.


A brilliant mathematician of my acquaintance once said of someone "he believes that something is true as soon as he hears himself say it." This was a humorous overstatement (we all practice deception) but there is much truth in it. We are what we are.

We got to be what we are through a process called "evolution." That is an extremely painful
and wasteful process and it has been going on as long as there has been life on Earth. The survival of the fittest is accompanied by the misery of failure for many in the great crapshoot of life.

Reuben James


The brightest kid in my school never came back. Our families in Europe were destroyed.

Mammals have been in existence for about 200 million years. Therefore, I am the descendant of a 200 million year old unbroken line of sex-crazed mammals. So are you. If just one male in this line had been unmotivated by the rear ends of females, you or I would not be here. That explains a lot about our behavior.


fan commercial

Scientists are close to the point of being able to control genetics without evolution. They are almost as close to the point of making intelligent robots. When these things are realized we may have some really different "descendants" in a big hurry.

What a Piece of Work is Man

The human species may become irrelevant, except as a curiosity. Think of it: all of our ethnic, racial, and religious quarrels will go the way of the buggy whip and all of our ideological nonsense will also be in turd with our bones. :-)

One thing more that I am, that I think we all are. It is not so much a thing as it is a potential phenomenon: a moment of extreme passion that comes up like a summer storm and empowers us to do things that we never before could have done and to risk all. I cannot explain it but perhaps you can recognize it.



I am now 84 years old and not inclined to write memoirs.
I have some things to say and they might possibly be of use to others but I came by them the hard way over a lifetime and the details are not always important.

This is the time for a little feedback: a few fragments of recent American history, a few songs, and a few personal observations that seem important to me. I make no claims of originality for these posts. I am merely trying to express my thoughts as concisely and correctly as I can.


Just kidding.

This video, made by my wife, shows where we live. It is a good place to die.


One more thing. Our present economic system is not very stable. It is subject to frequent bubbles and to crashes which disrupt the lives of the innocent in sometimes catastrophic ways. In discussing this and related topics, it might be thought that I am exercising some animus against the wealthy. That is neither my intention nor my pattern of thought about them. They are, in fact, of the same species as the rest of us and they are largely just some of the more fortunate specimens of a very flawed species.

Many of our wealthy contemporaries are successful entrepreneurs. Some of them have contributed to our civilization in important ways. In other respects, they may be much like the rest of us, which is neither a compliment nor a condemnation.

Others of the wealthy are more like props of socio-economic evolution rather than actors. They are the place holders for aggregations of capital, surrounded by swarms of lawyers, money managers, accountants, politicians, hacks, flacks, quacks, preachers, foundations and charities. However passive or active they may be, they are important components of our society.

Well, very few of us are perfect. Our society has growed like Topsy and there are many ways to game the system. Some of these are clearly anti-social. There are the sponsors of yellow journalism and those who support violent groups of racists, xenophobes, or terrorists. There are the overpaid CEOs who sometimes shamelessly sell defective and even deadly products, the insiders who pump and then dump stocks, the Ponzi schemers and other white collar criminals. One distinguished group is the banksters, who inhabit the boom and bust dimension of our economy. Some of them actually serve the government in important positions. They require special attention because they can cause such egregious harm. When society has all but forgotten the last Really Big Bust it may be set up for another one, preceded by years of de-regulatory ideology. Over-regulation can be a damper of economic activity but deregulation is a thieves' paradise.