Friday, March 30, 2007

Another Short Bit on Intelligent Design

I think we may be too harsh or hasty in rejecting the notion of intelligent design outright. So I'm going to suggest that we take the ID hypothesis and consider what inferences we might make about the nature of the designer or designers, based on observations of biology and the natural world.

First, the strongest inference that can be made is that there is probably more than one designer. I make this suggestion as an alternative to the other possible conclusion: that there is a single designer who is both stupid and neurotic.

Consider, there are numerous examples of superior designs throughout nature that are nevertheless overlooked in the design of other flora and fauna. One famous example is the eye of the octopus, which is notably superior to the mammalian eye. Why is the superior design not used? Clearly, the mammal designer did not have access to the better design. For a single individual that would be enormously stupid, but for multiple designers it could easily happen. Indeed, we do not even have to hypothesize that the mammalian designer did not know about the octopus, merely that the patent (or something analogous) has not run out. Similarly, we can say that the reason why there are no centaurs is that the mammal designers do not have access to the six-limbed design, while the insect designers can’t design decent endoskeletons.

So far so good. But the neurotic design aspects are a little harder to understand. Simply put, the designer(s) have a great deal of difficulty eliminating unwanted features from their designs. For example, if I go out and cut into a current model Cadillac, I will not find vestigial tail fins, despite the fact that all such creatures had them only forty of so generations back. In fact, all traces of tail fins disappeared in a single design cycle. But human still have vestigial tails, as well as many other such archaic features, to say nothing of the ontogenetic features of fetuses. In fact, vestigial features are typical in practically all organisms.

Why is this? That is hard to say. One resists the conclusion that the designer(s) are so neurotic as to be unable to ever discard anything. Indeed, discards do occur—by the complete elimination of a species, genus, etc. that contains that trait. That is rather like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, and it seems to result in a permanent loss of those design ideas. Perhaps intelligent designer intellectual property law works similar to our own trademark law, where failure to protect (use) a trait means that the trait is no longer available for future designs. In any case, this is another situation where multiple designers makes more sense, primarily because game theory tells us that such seemingly irrational behavior can often result from rational behavior of individuals in groups.

In summary, therefore, it may very well be that the camel was indeed a horse designed by committee. The ethical, moral, and religious implications of these insights is left as an exercise for the reader.

Brittle Strategies

"The wind does not break a tree that bends" - Sukuma proverb (Africa)

I remember one session near when I first began the practice of Aikido. The attack was shomen uchi, an overhand strike to the head. The response was ikkyo, which translates to “technique number one,” where you control the elbow of your attacker, deflecting his strike into a circular motion that either breaks his balance backwards (the omote form), or opens a hole into which he spirals for a fall (ura form).

My partner and I were both young and strong and cranked on adrenaline. There is a tendency in those circumstances to block the strike straight on, taking the force of it onto your forearm, even directly onto the boney part. The adrenaline shields you from the pain. It all feels so tough and manly.

The next day, of course, both my arms were black and blue, from the striking edge of my hand up nearly to the elbow. Even so, we were lucky. Either of us could have broken a bone in our hands or arms. It happens.

Needless to say, I don’t train like that these days.

I’m not sure when I first began using the phrase “brittle strategy,” or even the circumstances. It was probably about politics, but it might have been about a business practice, or a legal maneuver, or even about war or the martial arts. There are brittle strategies in almost every endeavor.

It’s an evocative phrase; others have also used it. Google tells me that there are 27 instances (then proceeds to show 42; is something up with Google?). One of those instances is me (will this essay make two, I wonder?)

It’s obvious what "brittle strategy" means: a strategy that breaks rather than compromising. In metallurgy, brittleness means stiffness without the ability to deform, to absorb shocks.

In a brittle strategy, there is no Plan B.

The things we think of as most brittle often present a hard face to the world, but they contain inner stresses. If you drip molten globs of glass into water, you may get “Prince Rupert’s Drops,” teardrop shaped bits of glass that will withstand a hammer blow on the head, but mere finger pressure on the tail will cause it to explode into powder.

Our culture is permeated with tough guy talk and words that attempt to convey strength and power. More powerful than a locomotive. It’s the strongest relief you can buy without a prescription. Ram tough. Super-strong. Empowered. Rugged, with the power you need to get the job done. Shock and awe.

Failure is not an option. It is an outcome.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Behold the Young Knurd

When I was young I got a Gilbert Chemistry Set for Christmas, and later a copy of Henley’s Twentieth Century Book of Formulas, Processes, and Trade Secrets. I’ve seen a lot of “ain’t it awful” talk about the Gilbert Chemistry Set, and how our modern litigious society took all the good (i.e. dangerous) stuff out of chemistry for youngsters, but the mid-1950s version of the Gilbert set didn’t have much to it either, with sodium bisulfate being the strongest acid in it, and many jars of such dangerous stuff as Logwood, and Iron Filings.

When I got tired of cutting the summer grass, I thought I’d invent an herbicide. I didn’t know the word “herbicide” and had no idea of the fact that major chemical companies developed and sold them, I just wanted the grass to grow more slowly. So I set up an experiment, nine small plots of dirt (in the holes of three cinder blocks), seeded with grass and put under a flood lamp in the basement. The center section I left as a control, and I applied different chemicals from my Gilbert Set onto each of the other sections.

Most had little to no effect, but the calcium hypochlorite surprised me by growing much better than the control. I know now that the hypochlorite is unstable, and converted to lime pretty quickly, and lime is good for the acid soil of Tennessee. The only section that had retarded growth was the one with copper chloride. Years later I learned that CuCl is a known phytotoxin and is used to control algae blooms in waterways and to kill roots in drain pipes.

I was nine years old when I did my experiment, and I still think it was a pretty good bit of junior science.

Jung and Easily Freudened

In my previous essay Sublimation, I took a backhanded slap at Carl Jung, specifically at his theory of the collective unconscious, which I (and I’m not alone here) hold to be a depersonalization of the unconscious. In fact, Jung specifically splits his theory of the unconscious into the “personal” unconscious and the “collective” unconscious, and made no secret of his belief that the latter was by far the larger, deeper component.

I think this is bad psychology, in the sense of bad psychological theory, though I will concede that it may be “good psychology” in the sense of making it easier for some therapeutic clients to confront the idea of the unconscious mind. Jung was, it should be acknowledged, an almost universally acclaimed therapist, and maybe the depersonalized unconscious gave him some additional traction. However, it’s also widely understood that good therapists do pretty well no matter what theory they operate under, even including astrology, numerology, and chiromancy (palmistry). So I remain dubious about this collective unconscious thing, especially insofar as it leads to the “let’s blame it on somebody else,” idea, when the real effort on psychological growth depends on understanding that the only one who can hope to control you is you.

I’ll also note, while I’m feeling like letting Jung off the hook, that during his most fertile theoretical period, the woo-woo-ESP-psychic powers-etc. hypothesis wasn’t as thoroughly discredited as it is now. We’ve had another half century or more of people trying to find the damn things, and we’re no closer than when Harry Houdini was exposing spiritualists, except that the field has contributed substantially to the theory of double blind experiment protocols, operator bias, and protection against fraud in experimental settings.

Which brings us to the second place where Jung just fell asleep at the switch, “synchronicity.” His 1952 paper "Synchronicity — An Acausal Connecting Principle" would seem to have gotten it right in the title; this is about things that are not causally connected, but which seem to be meaningful to the observer. That’s a perfectly valid thing to look at and theorize about. Some days, all the traffic lights turn green just before you get there, the weather is great, and you get to the restaurant just before the lunch crowd arrives and get seated just across a beautiful creature of whatever sex most interests you and she/he smiles at you once or twice. You feel you are in tune with the universe. Other days, well, everything goes wrong and that evening you wind up wanting to buy a cat just so you could kick it.

Coincidences affect mood, in other words, and vice versa. If you start the day feeling happy, you’re going to notice the green lights and whistle through the red ones. And some coincidences feel very important, so there’s yet another doorway into the psyche. Excellent starting point.
Then Jung ties it all into his view of the collective unconscious and other action-at-a-distance hoo-ha. In short he tries to find the cause of a phenomenon that he starts by labeling acausal.

I mean, really, that’s just asking for it. It just screws the pooch, as Tom Wolfe’s astronauts said.

Nevertheless, there is much that is either admirable or interesting (or both) in Jung. For one thing, he invented the word association test, one of the most powerful methods in psychoanalysis.

Then there’s that business of archetypes. Forget for a moment that Jung went woo-woo for the “collective unconscious” thing, and recognize that, by categorizing symbols that seem to easily pass from person to person and culture to culture, he pointed to a way in which the basic structure of human psychology could be examined. Think of it this way: if alien scientists had access to nothing but human athletic equipment from various cultures, it’s quite likely that they would be able to describe the human body, at least in general terms, because various forms must conform to various functions. In some cases, like athletic gloves, the human body is precisely mirrored, but even without those, an alien could still probably theorize hands and their functions.

Then too, by providing lists of archetypes, Jung provided a wealth of raw material for artists and writers, once they’d run out of memory repression stories, rewriting Oedipus and other things they could steal from Freudian psychology.

Then there is the Jungian theory of personality types, the introversion/extroversion scale and the opposing rational (thinking vs feeling) and arational (intuition vs sensation) functions.

Most people encounter Jungian personality types though the Myers-Briggs tests, which is unfortunate, because Myers-Briggs gets it wrong. Jung’s notion of introversion/extroversion was not oppositional. The oppositional functions are like the Yogi Berra quote: “Good pitching stops good hitting and vice versa.” But introversion doesn’t interfere with extroversion in the same way that thinking interferes with feeling. The question is one of focus, other-directed vs inner-directed in Maslow’s terminology, though that differs from Jung in some aspects. The critical question is whether the individual is drained or energized by interacting with others.
Also, Meyers-Briggs tests tend to be pretty superficial, taking the testee at his or her word. So someone pounding the table and exclaiming, “I am not influenced by strong emotion!” will test as a thinking type, while a reflective, “Yes, emotions do often affect my decisions, how could they not?” will test as a feeling type.

Finally, Myers-Briggs adds a last dipole: Judging vs Perceiving. But here is one of those nomenclature problems I’ve railed about in the past. Someone high in “Judging” isn’t “judgmental” nor is someone high in Perceiving necessarily “perceptive.” There’s a prescription for confusion. The actual tested functions seem to be “structured” vs “unstructured” or “improvisational.” The difficulty with this last one, as any jazz musician or improv actor will tell you, is that you need a lot of structure before you can properly improvise.

So the last M-B category seems contaminated with a cluster of possibly unconnected functions. Someone high on the authoritarian scale would probably score high on J, but so might a scientist or lawyer, and either might, in fact, be pretty spontaneous personalities. On the other hand, someone might have contempt for rules and authority but still have OCD. Self-assessment can be tough.

Yet I’ve found that generally, just reading the descriptions given by Jung in Psychological Types, often produces a single “Aha! That’s me!” from individuals. That makes it very different from the usual sort of vague “cold reading” descriptions often found in things like astrology or even Myers-Briggs results. But you do have to read the original descriptions from Jung. I’ve been looking at the type descriptions that you can find online and they generally get them wrong. Jung’s descriptions are more complex, and the online capsule summaries seem more like caricatures. Or maybe I just think that because I’m an introverted thinking type.

Monday, March 26, 2007


May 6, 2006 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, leading to numerous articles, opinion pieces, diatribes, and discussions. So nobody should mind my sticking an oar in.

In many ways, anti-Freudianism is as interesting as anti-Darwinism, though there is perhaps more irony in the former, since it’s generally people’s psychology that is on display in these matters. Both Freud and Darwin are subject to the constant barrage of “That’s not Science!” from their detractors, usually as a result of a combination of misunderstanding what the theories are about and a refusal to accept the results and implications. There is also the matter of not conforming to someone’s overly restrictive view of What Science Is, but that’s a different essay.

Still, many otherwise intelligent and educated people have a disdain for Freud, despite their actually believing in many of Freud’s discoveries and results. One common stance is to focus on some of Freud’s more outrĂ© ideas, such as Penis Envy. Now I can quite understand any woman not believing herself to have an unconscious envy of the male organ. In fact, I’m entirely willing to believe it to be a Freudian mistake, occasioned by the fact that Penis Envy is a very common component of the male psyche. In other words, Freud may have been Projecting, but then you can’t believe that without buying into a Freudian trope, can you?

The attack on Freud by modern psychologists has taken two forms, really. The first was the complete denial of cognitive psychology by an academic establishment that was, for a time, dominated by behaviorists. That’s just garden-variety academic in-fighting, of course, but no less unfortunate for all that. The second attack, if that’s the right word, was the wholesale appropriation of the Freudian phenomenology by more cognitive-oriented psychologists, all the while denying that Freud was the originator. Ben tells me, for example, that he has seen academic papers where the final conclusion is something like, “This looks a lot like Freud’s ‘latency period,’ but it isn’t the same. Really.”

Just as often, the Freudian phenomenon is repainted to make is more palatable. Jung, for example, made the concept of the unconscious more easily swallowed by coming up with the “collective unconscious.” See, it’s not really you that’s responsible for all those dark and nasty things. No, it’s collective; other people are to blame. Pretty easy to see where Jung’s racial theories came from, isn’t it?

Most post-Freudian psychology begins with the Freudian phenomenology, then concentrate on some specific feature as central to the whole shebang. So Adlerian psychology is Freud plus an emphasis on social dominance issues. Maslow emphasized specific motivational needs. Erickson thought that later development was more important than he thought Freud allowed. Wilhelm Reich jumped in with both feet and held that if sex was important, then, by God, orgasms should be at the center of the universe.

That’s just the neo-Freudians, of course. The cognitive psychologists began by rejecting behaviorism, insofar as they accepted the idea that consciousness actually exists and is worthy of study, but at the beginning they didn’t care to talk about the unconscious. That’s not surprising, since they weren’t too keen on the idea of introspection. What exactly do you do about distinguishing between the conscious and the unconscious when the most salient characteristic of the latter is that it is not accessible to the former? Do you ask someone? Uh, no, that would involve introspection, wouldn’t it?

Whatever. In the last two decades, as cognitive psychologists got their acts together, they’ve managed to devise tests and experiments whose results basically got them back to the unconscious, but it’s not Freud’s unconscious, because they weren’t using Freudian methods. Uh, huh.

In my view, the nub of Freud is first the acknowledgement of the existence of the unconscious, then the bestiary of those mental processes that the psyche uses to defend itself against anxiety, especially anxiety emanating from the unconscious. Freud also divided the psyche into the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Ego is “you,” your conscious self, the Id is all your primitive wants, needs, and desires. The Superego is the one that is most often gotten wrong, since most people think of it as the “conscience.” But there is another part, the “Ego Ideal,” the person that you’d like to be, or your own idealized version of yourself. When someone has a “Big Ego” what they usually have is a big Ego Ideal, while their Ego may in truth be rather fragile.

Freudian therapy, when it works, is devoted to bringing the unconscious elements of anxiety to the conscious mind, where they can be dealt with, or so one hopes. The best description of it that I ever heard was “Converting neurotic anxiety into honest grief.”

The Freudian anxiety defense bestiary is fairly small, but insightful. The anxiety defense mechanisms are

ASCETICISM: I start with the one that doesn’t show up on most lists (because I’m going in alphabetical order), but it’s what is going on in anorexia, which is usually a problem with adolescent girls. Adolescent boys are more likely to go into some sport or martial art that requires a high degree of self-discipline. Adolescents in general often try to protect themselves by denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. Hey, why do you think that Mr. Spock was so popular?

Anna Freud also discusses a milder version of this called restriction of ego. Here, a person loses interest in some aspect of life and focuses it elsewhere, in order to avoid facing reality. A young girl who has been rejected by the object of her affections may turn away from feminine things and become a "sex-less intellectual." (Jung’s term was “angel without wings”). A boy who is afraid that he may be humiliated on the football team may become a science knurd.

DENIAL: Blocking the ego threatening events or facts by refusing to believe them. It may enable person to live through difficult times, or it may make it impossible for them to deal with a problem. Most people reserve their “skepticism” for a short list of things that, remarkably, are precisely those things that make them uneasy.

DISPLACEMENT: Displacement occurs when an instinctual impulse is redirected from a more threatening activity, person or object to a less threatening one. Can’t get at Bin Laden, then invade Iraq.

FANTASY FORMATION: This is Escapism, plain and simple. It’s so much better to worry about the fate of the Galactic Empire than about losing your job.

IDENTIFICATION: You can vicariously take comfort from the successes of someone else (Hero-worship). Or, you can have Identification with the Aggressor, which is the essence of Stockholm Syndrome. Where would Fascism be without Identification and its blood brother Projection?

INTELLECTUALIZATION/ ISOLATION: By analyzing threats in a detached, intellectual way, anxiety is isolated, separate from the psyche. Fritz Leiber called this “living in the mirror.” Trust me, it works.

PROJECTION: Projection involves attributing to others one's own feelings, thoughts and intentions. One's own personality is displaced upon people, objects or animals. If you know someone who always blames other people for the bad things that happen to them, you’ve got a pretty good candidate for a Projection diagnosis. People who feel inferior can project inferiority on selected racial, ethnic, or social groups; people who are obsessed with sex become very censorious of others’ sexuality, which leans toward Reaction Formation.

Altruistic surrender is a form of projection that at first glance looks like its opposite: Here, the person attempts to fulfill his or her own needs vicariously, through other people.

RATIONALIZATION: Rationalization is the idiot child of Intellectualization and the sibling of Denial. Here, the intellectual arguments are fallacious or dishonest. Rationalization provides ethical-sounding rationales for unethical motives, or dishonest excuses for bad results. The least harmful example of rationalization is probably sour grapes.

REACTION FORMATION: “Believing the opposite.” Anger becomes exaggerated concern for the one who made you angry. Fear leads to anger at the one who scared you. And boys hate girls, and vice versa.

REPRESSION: Repression was Freud’s biggie, the primary ego defense that makes all other psychological defensiveness possible. Repression is suppressio_, the temporary and conscious pushing of something out of one’s mind, writ large. In Repression, suppression is habitual and unconscious.

Repression is also part of one of Freud’s most controversial theories: Repressed memory, where past trauma is not remembered, but where there is still a neurotic price to pay. The past 20 years of the “repressed memory syndrome” fracas was, more or less, a replay of Freud’s own work. But, of course, everyone ignored what Freud actually said because Freud wasn’t “scientific.”

REGRESSION: Reverting to an earlier, more secure, stage of development. Someone may be regressing when they act fatigued or ill, throw tantrum, or curl up into a fetal position in the corner.

SUBLIMATION: Sublimation diverts instinctual impulses into some other activity, often advantageous. Don’t want to finish the report? Clean the oven.

I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets here by noting that I’m pretty much an Intellectualization/Sublimation/Fantasy kinda guy. Indeed, one of the benefits of being an science fiction and fantasy writer is that it’s possible to combine them into one grand scheme of Working on the Next Story, or even, Thinking about the Next Essay.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bullies and Butts

Dave tells me that Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat, written in 1836, contains a passage that refutes the saying “All bullies are cowards,” noting that, in fact, bullies usually possess considerable physical courage. I’ve only just skimmed the book and I can’t find that passage, but it’s certainly consistent with the character of Vigors, the bully, whom Easy beats to the point of bloody unconsciousness in their first fight, yet nevertheless fights Easy once more later in the book, knowing fill well that he is hopelessly outclassed.

Marryat notes:

In all societies, however small they may be, provided that they do but amount to half-a-dozen, you will invariably meet with a bully. And it is also generally the case that you will find one of that society who is more or less the butt. You will discover this even in occasional meetings, such as a dinner-party, the major part of which have never met before.

Previous to the removal of the cloth, the bully will have shown himself by his dictatorial manner, and will also have selected the one upon whom he imagines that he can best practice. In a midshipman's berth, this fact has become almost proverbial, although now perhaps it is not attended with that disagreeable despotism which was permitted at the time that our hero entered the service.

The bully seldom needs to physically coerce the victim; the dominance has already been established. After that, everything turns on the humiliation of the bullied victim.

It’s there where the saying “All bullies are cowards” then becomes true. A bully may possess inordinate physical courage, but he will fear humiliation above all other things. This avoidance, in fact, if often the greatest driving force in his life. The butt is his reassurance that he is not, in fact, the most worthless human being alive.

Physical confrontation is rare for us middle-class folk; it’s usually seen as a lower class vice (or virtue, in the case of military service). The middle class tends to be more abstract in everything, including its bully tactics. Real lashing becomes “tongue lashing,” berating and verbal diminution, in other words, though none the less destructive to self esteem, given the proper upbringing.

Several years ago I worked for a time managing a small second-hand thrift store for a non-profit. It was sited in a “rough” area, on a busy street connecting Berkeley and Oakland, near both residential and commercial/industrial neighborhoods. The residents of the area were a mixed group, in almost every conceivable way, and there were quite a few of the homeless scrabbling for existence on the street as well. It took a while for me to become properly attuned to the aura of submerged violence and occasional physical intimidation that permeated the area. Some people are oblivious to it; others overreact. There was one person who was also employed by the non-profit who once came scurrying across the street because she thought that I’d just had some sort of confrontation with a couple of young men who were, shall we say delicately, of a certain color. In fact, they had politely asked me for directions and I had politely given them. An entirely friendly encounter, in other words.

There were other times when the encounters were not quite so friendly. Though I myself never had any trouble, I was witness to one incident of verbal abuse leading to a drug store security guard calling the police. On another occasion I saw just the aftermath of something that resulted in a guy just sitting on the curb with blood dripping down his face. I also once sold a golf club to one of the homeless men with a solvent abuse problem (we never sold him any used paint thinner, just as a matter of policy). I’m pretty sure he kept the golf club in his sleeping bag for self-defense. He carried it around like a cane.

I myself have always been pretty hard to physically intimidate, even before I learned Aikido and bulked up to over 170 pounds. And I have enough education of the right sort to be hard to intellectually intimidate as well.

But we’re all susceptible to social intimidation, insofar as so few of us are at the top of our local social pyramid, and even then, if we stray into someone else’s territory, suddenly we’re not top of the heap, and some local bully may decide we qualify as a target on that day. There aren’t that many of us who never have to deal with the DMV or the passport office, and there are very few who begin their careers as boss.

Bullies fear humiliation, and it’s humiliation that makes bullies, I think. But I have to reflect a lot more on the difference between humiliation and mere embarrassment before I get a better handle on what that means. I do know that, in a country where bullying is usually abstract, there are fewer empathetic links to those for whom humiliation is a heavy physical presence. The broken links are found near such scattered phrases as “Well, why doesn’t he just…” without the subsequent insight that he can’t “just…” There’s a bully keeping him down. But when that pressure is released, watch out. Because when the worm turns, it doesn’t stop until the bird is dead, and the worm has devoured him.


#1 Saving children from drowning

I learned to swim when I was six years old, and it took me as long time. I flunked my first deep water test, among other things. I was afraid of water, or so I’m told. The actual feeling of fear is something I’ve apparently repressed.

So I overcompensated. I learned to swim, then I swam a lot. When I was eight, I was given the choice of continuing on in the Boy Scouts, or going to the downtown YMCA three times a week. I chose the Y; it had an indoor swimming pool.

I took the YMCA Lifesaving test when I was 13, and passed. It carried an automatic pass for the Red Cross certificate, because the Y’s test was notably more difficult. I began working as a lifeguard at the Y when I was 15.

It was a pretty easy gig. The 60 X 20 indoor pool, when it was used at all, was mostly used by middle-aged men swimming laps, most often one at a time. In fact, for long stretches of time there would be nobody there at all, and I could read or daydream. When a swim class met, the instructor would be in charge, and I could take a break, wander over to the weight room or the gymnastics equipment, whatever. Like I say, an easy gig.

The pay, of course, was really low, below minimum wage, even, since there was some provision in the law about non-profits, or so I was told. During the summertime, when there were plenty of other jobs for lifeguards--at pools with sunshine and girls--the downtown "Y" had trouble getting anyone to do the job. One summer, I wound up being the only lifeguard they had. One week I worked 72 hours, 12 hours a day for 6 days straight, for something less than $50. As I said, the pay was crappy, though it should be noted that this was several major rounds of inflation ago; my first year's college tuition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was around $1500.

All in all, I was glad to have the job, even if it meant forgoing the summer tan and the chance to strike an elegant pose for the girls while the wind blew my hair (that's a small joke; I had a crewcut at the time). Besides, the YMCA was three blocks from the Nashville Public Library, and I was a bookish sort. I also did very little swimming myself that summer, because you're not supposed to swim when you're guarding the pool, and I was always on duty. Still, I do remember one particular instance of my getting wet.

A little extra background: the downtown YMCA had an arrangement with the various suburban branches, as well as with several school groups and day camps. So periodically we would get groups coming in to use the pool. I didn't particularly like these events. They meant extra work during and after, though usually not before, because the powers that were usually didn't bother to give me much notice before such a group showed up. In fact, I'd often hear about it from the front desk right about the time when the group arrived.

The group in this story was of grade school age, and only had boys in it, about twenty of them, plus two chaperones. Maybe that was why they'd gotten their signals crossed, or whatever it was that caused the incident. All I know for sure is that just after the group got in through the door, someone blew a whistle and all of the kids ran and jumped into the pool.

Maybe they were used to pools with no deep end. Maybe they got confused as to which end was the deep end (though, frankly, the diving board should have been a tipoff). Maybe they just overestimated their own swimming abilities. All I know for sure is that four of the kids were in trouble immediately. In my pool.

Kid #1 was fairly close to me, so I flipped him the end of a towel and yanked him to the side. Kids #2 and #3 were together, trying to climb up over each other to stay afloat. They were somewhat farther from the side, but there was a pole on the wall that we used for fishing out debris. I grabbed it stuck it out to them, and kids in a panic grab anything, (including each other). Both grabbed the pole and I yanked them to the side of the pool. I didn't even wait for them to release the pole; I just laid it on the deck and trusted them to hold on or climb out on their own.

Kid #4 was out almost to the middle of the pool, but on the side away from me. I might have been able to reach him with the pole, but he was already under water, and I wasn't sure he'd grab onto it, nor was I sure that kids #2 and #3 would let go of it. Whatever. I jumped in after him, feet first, because that's the way you're supposed to do it. I did not use any fancy carries. That would have been a waste of time. The pool wasn't that deep, maybe eight feet where he was, and I'm over six feet tall. So I just went down to the bottom of the pool, reached up and grabbed him, lifted him far enough so that his head was out of the water, and walked him across to the side.

So there we are: four drowning kids, four rescues, elapsed time: less than thirty seconds (it might have been less than fifteen seconds, given the well-known fact of subjective time dilation). They were out on the side, sputtering and coughing, before their chaperones even knew they were in trouble. I don't even remember them thanking me, though I expect they did. I also expect they would have gotten the kids out on their own, if I hadn't, but the fact is, they didn't, I did. And I’ll make one final parenthetical aside that seconds matter in such cases, because there is such a thing as aspirated pneumonia that can come from inhaling even small amounts of water.

That is the only time in my entire history of being a lifeguard that I can remember saving anyone from drowning. I will suggest that the incident justifies my entire career as a lifeguard. I did exactly what I was supposed to do, in exactly the manner that I was supposed to do it, right on down to the part about not going in until it was absolutely necessary. And I know that, in the event of an emergency, I am at least capable of doing the right thing. Quite a lot for less than thirty seconds, isn't it?

Intelligent Design Stories

The hypotheses of intelligent design, as well as the related hypothesis of "directed evolution," have been a matter of speculation for quite a long time in the realm of science fiction. In fact, the two ideas are often referred to as the "black monolith theory" after Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, A Space Odyssey, where creatures who look like black monoliths tamper with ape evolution to make smarter apes, i.e. humans.

Intelligent Design advocates are obviously squeamish about inquiring into either the design process or the motives of the designer(s), owing to their religious intentions. They deny that they are actually Creationists, but silence can speak louder than argument. The refusal to address important issues speaks volumes. Fortunately, science fiction writers and readers are not so shy.

In science fiction, the motives of the alien meddlers have long been a matter for speculation (and some cracking good yarns). I'll summarize a few of those ideas here. I will henceforth call the meddling aliens "black monoliths" or simply "monoliths." One hypothesis is that of "Benevolent Education," namely that the monoliths might be lonely, or otherwise desiring of companionship, so they try to create said companionship and do so benevolently, as parents might raise children. At first glance, this might seem to give a special place for humanity in the general scheme of things, and indeed, often that is the case, in such stories. There are, however, other stories whose authors have a greater sense of the ironic. In some of those, it turns out that humanity is merely a byproduct of a plan for some other creature (e.g. "God must love beetles; why else would he make so many of them?"). In other stories, humans are still a very primitive form, and it will still be billions of years before the process produces anything actually interesting to the black monoliths.

A related, and also darker, vision is one in which what the monoliths desire is not companionship, but rather servants, or maybe slaves. In some versions, humanity is too cantankerous to make good slaves. In "happy ending" versions, this leads to either being left alone or a war in which humanity prevails. In more realistic versions, the monoliths just wipe us out and start over.

There is at least one story in which we have not been made slaves because we just aren't smart enough yet.

In various stories, the motive of the monoliths is simply esthetic. The world is made because the monoliths find it pleasing. Sometimes this is of little comfort, since tastes can change, and who knows what next year's fashion brings?

Feel free to add to this list.

A Few Brief Observations Concerning Black Snake Moan

To immediately undercut my own essay title, let me first say that much of this is going to be observations about commentaries I’ve read about this movie, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, two actors who could probably sell any story, no matter how implausible or preposterous. So we begin with the acknowledgement that the old Hollywood Magic is in overdrive here, and I find nothing wrong with that.

Second, let me stipulate that, as with all of the estimable Jon Swift’s book reviews, I Have Not Actually Seen This Movie. This, in fact, is one of the ongoing arguments that have erupted on multiple comment threads seemingly everywhere. One must See the Movie to have a valid opinion, at least so say a goodly many people, people who, I imagine, have nevertheless formed opinions about foreign countries they have never lived in (or even visited), wars they have not fought in, drugs they have never taken, sexual practices they have only imagined, and celebrities they have only read about.

And let me be very clear about this, I have upon occasion judged books by their covers, bands by the names of their songs, people by their appearance, and movies by their reviews, advertising, and interviews in Entertainment Weekly. Call me shallow. Or possibly concede that popular culture is a grand interconnected archipelago of information, with islands that are often observable from other islands, without the need to set foot on their shores to count the number of trees thereon.

But enough: here is the basic plot of BSM, known to anyone who has watched television or read the entertainment section of a newspaper within the past two weeks.

Ricci plays Rae, a girl who was sexually abused by her father, and whose boyfriend has just left for the National Guard. She’s sexually compulsive (aka a “nymphomaniac”), gets gang raped then beaten to unconsciousness, after which she is found by Lazarus (Jackson), and taken to his house where he chains her to a radiator for many days, during which the transference bond that forms between them cures her of her compulsions.

I just slipped the “transference” thing in; usually it’s called “tough love” or some such drivel.

Okay first interesting thing about the comments I’ve seen so far. They’re all about the chains, the radiator, and the interracial aspect. For some reason, these rank higher than the gang-raped-and-left-for dead part. Why is that?

One possibility is that we’ve seen that so many times in modern cinema that it’s become unremarkable. Another is that if follows the course of “normal” morality; get high, screw a lot of guys, well, hey, you’ve got to expect a certain amount of brutal beatings along the way. Goes with the territory.

I think I’m going to go with the interracial bondage explanation, though. Black man, white woman in chains. That’s certainly what they’re selling in the print ads, which say “Everything is Hotter Down South.” Gotta go duck huntin’ where the ducks are.

Okay, just a speculation mind you, but what do you think would happen in “real life” to a sex-and-drug compulsive young woman who had been gang-raped and beaten, then found by an ordinary kind citizen who called 911 and she’d been taken to a local hospital? One good chance is that she’d have been treated, then released, then found again a few days later in similar condition (or dead, but that ends the story prematurely). After a time or two of this, she’d have been involuntarily committed as “a danger to herself or others” (the latter as a possible vector for STDs—this does happen). If she became "intractable," she’d then be, at the very least, tied to her bed at night, and probably given some fairly powerful medication to make her more “tractable.”

Or possibly, at some point she’d commit some petty crime and be just jailed.

If she were really, really lucky, she might be given medication for bi-polar mood disorder (part of the “lucky” thing is that this would be a correct diagnosis; it’s at least a plausible one), and there would be some brilliant therapist who accidentally came to be working for a county hospital for a while, who could effect the transference cure on her long enough to turn her life around.

I know, this is only slightly less implausible than the movie scenario. She wouldn’t look as good as Christina Ricci in any case.

My point here is that Jackson’s character is actually doing what movie characters do all the time: acting as a vigilante and taking the law into his own hands, except here he’s being a sort of “vigilante therapist.” It works because in Hollywood Magic, vigilantism always works, provided the hero’s heart is pure and intentions are good. After all, what are a few chains and a thong between friends?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Methane: a dossier

Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon, a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms, each at the vertex of a regular tetrahedron.

Natural gas is over 99% methane, the remainder being some heavier hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, and butane.

Methane lasts for about 10 years in the atmosphere. Its main sink is photochemical oxidation. Additional methane interferes with the photochemical sink so that any additional emitted methane is expected to last 14 years rather than only 10.

The pre-industrial concentration of methane in the atmosphere was 0.7 parts per million. The atmosphere contains 4,850 teragrams of methane, 4.85 billion metric tons.

Methane is the third most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, after water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Anaerobic bacteria emit methane as a waste product. Anarobic bacteria live in swamps and other wetlands, sanitary landfills, animal waste, domestic sewage, and in the intestines of various animals and insects.

The combustion of organic matter emits methane. Biomass burning (for forest clearing among other things) emits an estimated 40 million tons of methane per year.

Termites emit 20 million tons of methane per year.

Natural gas leaks emit 40 million tons of methane per year.

Swamps and other wetlands emit 115 million tons of methane per year.

Total worldwide emissions of methane from all sources, natural and anthropogenic, are an estimated 535 (plus or minus 125) million tons per year.

Methane is the eighth most abundant gas in the atmosphere, behind nitrogen, oxygen, argon, water vapor, carbon dioxide, neon, and helium.

The melting point of methane is -182.48 C, and the boiling point is -161.49 C, at standard pressure.

Replacing one of methane's hydrogen atoms with something else gives a "methyl" compound. The simplest replacements are for the halogen elements, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine. CH3F is methyl fluoride, CH3Cl is methyl cloride, and so forth.

Global methane concentrations vary annually by about 3% from the highest value (during summer) to the lowest value (during winter).

Methane concentrations vary with latitude and hemisphere. The highest concentrations of methane are in the Arctic during summer months, the lowest concentrations in the Antarctic during winter.

The global average concentration of methane in 1982 was about 1.6 parts per million.

The global average concentration of methane in 1972 was about 1.4 parts per million.

The global average concentration of methane in 1992 was about 1.7 parts per million.

The global average concentration of methane leveled off in 2000 at about 1.75 parts per million.

The growth rate of methane concentrations in the northern hemisphere in the 1990s was much smaller than in the preceding two decades. No one knows exactly why.

Rice paddies emit 60 million tons of methane per year.

Coal mines emit 30 million tons of methane per year.

The danger of methane in coal mines is from asphyxiation and explosion. Miners carry canaries, which pass out from a lack of oxygen more quickly than do humans, to warn them of asphyxiation dangers. The "miner's lamp" was invented by Sir Humphrey Davies to reduce the dangers of explosion.

The methane produced in wetlands sometimes bubbles to the surface in substantial quantities, and occasionally this methane catches fire, causing mysterious "lights" in the middle of a dark swamp at night. This "swamp gas" explanation was once used to explain some UFO sightings.

On a "pound for pound" (unit mass) basis, methane is 58 times more potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. However, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are 200 times greater than those of methane.

Methane is used for motor vehicles in the form of "CNG," which stands for "compressed natural gas." It is one of the cleanest forms of internal combustion.

The hydrogen for space launch rockets is made from methane, via a catalytic process.

Methanol is made from methane, and methanol in turn is used to make MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether.

Methane is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. When used in commercial natural gas, an odorant is mixed with it to alert users of gas leaks.

One out of Two Inevitables

We're heading into tax time again and there is the usual gnashing of teeth throughout the land.

In my first real job out of college, one year I got a big raise. This was back in the 1970s, and when my first paycheck reflecting that raise appeared, it was pretty disappointing. Turned out my marginal tax rate was just short of 50%, which isn’t wonderful.

I took account of my circumstances, however. I was working in environmental science, primarily on contracts that were either from government agencies, or from companies that were doing the work almost entirely because of various regulatory mandates. So I shrugged and said to myself, “the government giveth and it taketh away,” and refused to get too upset about it. The linkage was even more apparent during the Reagan years when taxes went down, but so did the money going to environmental research.

One of the flanks of the right wing is manned by the gold bugs, people who decry “fiat money” and want every dollar (or whatever) to be backed with something “real” like gold. It was either Ayn Rand or one of her acolytes who made a statement that all that backed up fiat money was the willingness of the government to tax the populace. They thought that was a bad thing.

But really now, the history of gold-backed currencies isn’t that pretty, matching every inflation with a painful deflation, yet still hostage to the international flows of specie, new mining (and other) discoveries, etc. Making your currency hostage to a single commodity might not be the best plan.

Then too, we have all those SF stories about what happens when gold is synthesized, or otherwise made cheap (Fred Hoyle wrote one about a solid gold asteroid landing in England). There’s nothing particularly natural or inevitable about the love of gold, and men’s willingness to accept it as a medium of exchange and store of value. Also, the conflict between “medium of exchange” and “store of value” can conflict. Convertible currencies are very good at producing “bank runs,” among other things. Bank runs seem quaint now, with many people only having seen on it “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thank god.

On the other hand, consider the system that we actually have: the government issues currency (I’m greatly simplifying, of course), uses it to buy things, then goes out and demands it back in the form of taxes. That last part is important; it’s what gives money its value. The tax man shows up, you hand him “legal tender” and he goes away. Such a deal. You’d rather have to give him something with intrinsic value?

Just incidentally, although he became a gold bug in his later years, Heinlein gave one of the best capsule descriptions of the virtues of “fiat money” in Beyond This Horizon. You could look it up.

People do, naturally, want assurances that their tax money is spent on things that are good for them, and not on things that are bad for them. Politics arises when people differ on what those things are. Politics also occurs because many people would like a free ride (I wouldn’t have been annoyed if I’d not had to pay taxes on my earnings back on my first job). All that is common and natural.

It’s also common and natural for people to invent philosophies to make things they want seem like universal truths and absolute good. When people have a lot of money, they even spend some of it on think tanks and sycophants who will do the rationalizing for them. And one of the outputs of the sycophancy of the past several decades has been an attack on the very idea of taxation.

But there is a difference between taxation and theft, and that is the rule of law. An attack on the legitimacy of taxation is an attack on the legitimacy of government, and an attack on the legitimacy of government is an attack on the rule of law.

Of course, it’s possible to turn the chain of causation around: illegitimate governments destroy the rule of law and often destroy the legitimacy of money as well.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Paying Attention

Chlorine gas is quite the little charmer, from a photochemist’s point of view.

Most gases need ultraviolet light to get frisky, but not chlorine. No, Cl2 absorbs into the mid-range of the visible (somewhere around yellow, as I recall), and does so pretty emphatically, photolyzing at several percent per minute in full sunlight. When it absorbs light, it decomposes into two chlorine atoms, radical atomic chlorine, which is mega-reactive, yanking hydrogen atoms off of even methane at a pretty fast rate. For larger hydrocarbons, the rate is “collisional” which means that when the Cl atom hits, the probability of reaction is 1.

So Whitten and I got interested in chlorine because it can goose the smog process, and it was probably doing so in Henderson, Nevada, and we had a small contract to assess the situation. Henderson had been having smog episodes on cold December mornings, when the thermal inversion was very low (trapping the pollution very near the ground). Usually smog does not go so well in the cold, but in Henderson, apparently, the chlorine trumped the cold. The chlorine came from a company called Timex, which made titanium, not watches, with a process plant that was new in WWII, and leaked like a sieve.

As part of the work, I did a literature study on chlorine photochemistry, which was interesting. The “smog accelerator” effect from chlorine had been used since the mid-sixties as a way to enhance radical initiation in smog chamber experiments, and after that, the phenomenon of ozone destruction in the stratosphere had led to a fair number of papers.

But before the 1960s, there wasn’t very much about chlorine photochemistry in the literature—until I got back to the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning around 1920, there was a sudden boom in the study of chlorine in the gas phase. That boom lasted until the mid- to late 1930s and then trailed off. By the time of WWII, it was a moribund field.

It takes no great insight to realize what caused the sudden interest. The Great War had left a wake of disabled veterans who had been victims of gas attacks, chlorine, phosgene, and bis-(2-chloroethyl) sulfide (“mustard gas”). I also got interested in phosgene chemistry a while after our Henderson study (phosgene also contains chlorine, and it’s a decomposition product of chlorinated hydrocarbons like methyl chloroform), and all the information I could find on it also came from this time period.

This is, of course, a very ordinary description of the ordinary behavior of science, or, indeed the ordinary behavior of human beings. We study things that interest us; we pay attention to our interests.

Some of the more extreme advocates of relativism and deconstruction claim that science is an enterprise no different from any other, and that the results of science are conditioned/determined/biased/required by the social, cultural, or gender outlook of the scientific community. One can, of course, deconstruct such claims by noting that they are made by one class of university academics who are locked in the usual struggle with a different class of university academics, but that is a petty, or at least trivial insight.

Scientists generally hold themselves to be “reality based,” to use another culturally biased phrase and I strongly agree that no amount of cultural relativism will make N-rays exist and X-rays imaginary. But that is not the be-all and end-all of bias and cultural determinism. No, the phrase “where one’s interests lie” says a lot about science. We study chlorine in the 1920s and 1930s, not because of some rational, objective criterion of how chemistry should progress, but because cultural factors made it important to do so. I can point to a number of objective truths that my colleagues and I uncovered over the course of my career in science, but it would be folly to think that we were not looking “where the light’s better,” under the streetlights of funding, social interests, and group status within our little part of the scientific community.

If I had to make my own philosophical stand, holding up my own interpretation of both free will and the forces that work against it, I’d give that as a capsule summary: it has to do with paying attention, to what, and for what reasons.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Fighting City Hall IV – Property and Money

“The Hobo Code says that if you put something down you’re done with it.”
– U. Utah Phillips

Modern property law considers “ownership” to be a bundle of rights, which can then be unbundled and traded (sold), according to the will of the owner in accordance with the law. We should also bear in mind the difference between “real” property (land plus what’s built upon it i.e. real estate), “chattel” or “personal” property, which is moveable (so a building can be chattel if you move it somewhere else), and “statutory property,” which includes some things which are called “intellectual property,” like copyrights and patents, but also things like broadcast licenses and commercial airline travel routes.

Property is both a matter of Custom and Law (Command, in my previous alliterative list). Without Custom, no amount of Law will hold; without Law, the intricacies of a modern society are intractable. But Custom is a popular conception and it often does not correspond to what the Law says.

There was, for example, the big kerfluffle that recently erupted over the use of Eminent Domain by a city in Connecticut to take a number of private homes to turn them over to a developer to build a shopping mall. This was seen as an unjust “taking” by many people, because it used government power to transfer property from one group of private citizens and hand it over to another group, for no “greater purpose” than to enhance the tax base of the city.

It was and is unclear to me how this differs from the huge land grants that were given to railroads in the 19th Century, except possibly that the railroads gave lots of stock to the legislators who voted for such patronage, nor how it differs from more recent “takings” of homes for airports (I personally know some folks who lost their homes to an expanding Nashville International Airport). One may hold that “transportation benefits everybody,” but in fact, these cases benefited the private railroads and airlines. That the public may use them for transportation is quite true; the public can shop at a shopping mall as well.

And trust me, the folks who lost their homes to the airport thought it just as unfair as those Connecticut citizens who lost theirs.

But shopping mall developers have clout with city governments, while homeowners have clout with state legislatures, and besides, it made a good story on cable news, so a lot of states have now passed laws that limit the power of cities to do this sort of thing. I bet they haven’t restricted the states themselves all that much, however, and they can’t do anything about the Federal Government’s powers of Eminent Domain, not that the Feds would ever use them for the benefit of private corporations or anything.

I recently saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about another interesting property situation in Vermont. It turns out that there are a large number of unmarked and little used (often to the point of invisibility) roads in Vermont that go through private property, often property that has recently been sold to owners who had no idea that road easements ran through their property. One particular problem with the situation is that many of the new owners are new to Vermont, so they were not only ignorant of the easements, but also they were accustomed to different Customs, as it were. They would put up “No Trespassing” signs where the local custom was free access across neighboring properties.

When different Customs clash, the Law inevitably becomes involved, and things can get messy. Often one party or another (or both) gets Coerced.

The clash is caused by Other People, of course, and as Sartre famously noted, Hell is Other People. There’s always someone who has a vision of how Heaven should be constructed.

The Randites and the Libertarians put their faith in the perfection of the philosophy of Property, specifically Private Property. I’ve even seen arguments to the effect that there should be no such thing as public property, and the idea that there are some things that shouldn’t be property at all seems to be alien to them.

Criticisms of Libertarian and Randian philosophies are numerous and targets that big are hard to miss. But what I’d like to observe here is the curious way that their proponents (the right wing variants, anyway) choose to deal with the individual/group question. Ayn Rand in particular was adamant that “power over people” was not her aim, yet she chose to elevate the idea of private property to a Stirnerian “fixed idea.” Yet private property as a concept makes no sense except as it controls the actions of people. The fabled man-alone-on-a-desert-island has no need of it; he can do whatever he can to everything he can do it to.

Ayn Rand chose the dollar sign as her symbol, a bit of “political incorrectness” before the term was ever used (it is the same as present day political incorrectness in that flaunting it was entirely safe; indeed, all she was doing was lauding something that is almost universally desired, an action approximately as risky as saluting the flag). Money is the essence of trade and property, the medium of the exchange of property. Money conveys vast power over people, and without people, money is worthless.

The left libertarian Karl Hess once spoke about men (invariably men) who bragged to him about their “individualism,” their separation from the common herd. Who were they? Typically, he noted, they were commodity traders and the like, people whose lives and livelihoods depended entirely on playing a complex game with other people for money. Competitive they might be, but individualists? Spare me, Hess said, with a note of genuine pity in his voice.

But money has this going for it: it reduces the actual personal interactions you must have with your fellows. Often this is a good thing; if I am tired and out of sorts, I may not wish to have to follow the social niceties with every single person with whom I transact business on a given day. There are times when the credit card reader at the gas pump, or the automatic vending machine are as much of society as I wish to deal with for a while.

Money, of course, is attractive just for the material possessions it can buy, and the power that it gives you over other people’s actions. You can pay people to do things they’d never do for you if you had to convince them to do it for free, and they’ll do a better job of it than if you were using force or other means of coercion.

But money is also a means of keeping score, and it’s a way for people with poor social skills to achieve a position in society that they would otherwise never have. It’s even a way for some to tell themselves that they are individualists, when everything they do is predicated on accumulating something that has no value except in relation to other people.

”You know what I did? I went down to this place where they had a lot of food and I got a lot of it and put it into a basket. There were people at the door and I gave them some little engraved slips of paper so they’d let me take the food with me. You know what? They fell for it.”
– from the “Dear Friends” radio show by Firesign Theater

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Fighting City Hall III – A Badly Posed Problem

Two Guys in the woods. In a tent. Big bear comes up, he's gonna eat 'em. One guy reaches in his pack, starts putting on his running shoes. The other guy: "you idiot, you can't run faster than a bear..." Guy says 'I don't have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you..."



You know why that's particularly funny...? (PAUSE) The man would not be in the woods with his running shoes. (PAUSE) He wouldn't take them in the woods. So the joke indicates hostility on the part of the man who brought the shoes. (PAUSE) It indicates, in effect, that he brought the other man into the woods to kill him.
--David Mamet, The Edge (January, 1996), p. 6

Competition or cooperation, which is it going to be? Like most false dilemma, badly posed problems, the first question is, what the hell does that mean?

A cheetah chasing a gazelle is competition; the two animals are competing for the gazelle’s life. Two men in a post-apocalyptic knife fight for a can of baked bean, that’s also competition.

But two guys on a tennis court are cooperating. One may win the game, but there’s no game at all unless they both agree on it first. Then there’s that thing about there being rules.

Is warfare competition or cooperation? Armies fight, but the individuals in the armies are cooperating with their fellow soldiers, and with the orders they are given. At least they are if they want to have a chance at remaining alive. The choices aren’t quite as stark in the corporate world; corporations aren’t allowed to court martial employees or put them in the stockade or to death (though some would if they could, I’ll bet). Nevertheless, what is meant by “market competition” generally boils down to competition among organizations, and putting up barriers to impeding organizations, interfering with the very act of their organizing (e.g. unions, regulatory bodies, other corporations), is a big part of how the grand game is played.

Tonya Harding was, after all, just being competitive.

Okay then, if I’m so smart, how would I describe the choices that individuals make in dealing with each other and with organizations? Let me suggest another alliterative list: Custom, Command, or Collaboration.

Truth to tell, most of our day-to-day behavior is motivated by Custom, or its baby brother, Habit. It’s midnight, not another car in sight, yet we still stop for the red light. Well, it’s the law, isn’t it? It’s also the law to drive less than 50 on that stretch of Route 4 I drive every morning, the one where everyone drives 70. What’s the difference? Custom, habit, call it what you will. In some places, people don’t lock their doors at night; there’s not enough habitual theft in the area for it to matter, apparently. In some other places, with no greater incidence of crime, the doors get locked. That’s just the way things are done around here. Some other places, you see bars on the windows, and for good reason, because the teenagers in the area have developed the custom of thievery.

In some parts of the world, it’s a full-fledged Tradition, and not one limited to teenagers.

That last neighborhood probably gets more police attention than the other two, incidentally. It’s not a matter of the law itself; it’s whether people are accustomed to obeying it. It’s also a matter of how the police are accustomed to enforcing it.

”If you keep calling them the PO-lice, they ain’t never gonna come!” – from the Flip Wilson Show

Command, in fact, doesn’t work very well without custom, but, truth to tell, pure command doesn’t work very well at all. I once worked briefly with a scientist who tended to treat everyone he worked with as “just another pair of hands,” as one of the programmers put it to me. The scientist in question was undeniably smart, though I personally thought he had some peculiar blind spots; he seemed to have almost no physical intuition, for example, so he had to work through the math to come to even minor, obvious conclusions, or so it seemed to me. Worse, his disregard for those working with him led to some occasionally serious oversights, oversights that could have been caught by subordinates if they’d been given any responsibility or trust.

That’s a minor example, of course. If those under your command really want to bring you down, all they have to do is withhold their own judgment and do exactly what you tell them to do, no more no less. The organization might just as well have fragged the commander. The “tight ship” is more collaboration than command-and-control.

The fact is that collaboration is the also fun part, the activity that truly nourishes. Look at any group of musicians and watch just how much fun they are having, no matter what else they are trying to project. Even the lone performer out on the stage is in collaboration with the audience, and the difference between a good collaboration and a bad one can be pretty obvious. Every writer is a lone performer out on the stage, incidentally, trying hard to collaborate with the audience. When we collaborate with other writers, that just means that part of the audience is a lot closer.

Even mutual hostility is collaboration. The comedian brags about “killing,” and is terrified of “dying.” But it’s really about being in the groove. Any team sport gives that same reward, and it takes two to Tango. Or to Tangle.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Badly Posed Problems

I have at least another couple of “Fighting City Hall” essays in mind, and the next one ruminates a bit about how the question of “Competition vs Cooperation” is a bad way to think about individuals and groups. But before I do that, I think I’ll do some similar musing about another Badly Posed Problem: Nature vs Nurture.

Badly posed problems, ill-conceived questions, whatever you want to call them are big time intellectual traps, examples of what the I Ching calls “Difficulty at the Beginning.” If you ask the wrong question, you’ll never get the right answer.

When people say, “Nature vs Nurture,” what they are really thinking about is education policy, and, in the extreme (and people tend to get extreme about these things), it devolves into a matter of some people claiming that some other group of people aren’t worth teaching. If you look to the 19th Century racial literature, the case is often made explicitly that “the Negro” should not even be taught to read; it would only serve to confuse and befuddle him and make him surly and unsatisfied with his lot, without truly elevating his intellect, which is far too limited to make proper use of education. And no, I’m not making this up.

But racist pseudoscience aside, the question of education policy is still only a small part of how individuals interact with and are transformed by their environment. Consider, what is “Nature” supposed to mean here?

The popular image of genetics assumes a strong connection between genotype and phenotype, so you get such silliness as newspaper stories about a newly discovered “gene for fill-in-the-blank.” There are supposedly genes for obesity, for sexual infidelity, for I.Q., and for risk taking behavior. All of which is nonsense.

There are a (very) few genes that map directly to a single phenotypical trait, such as eye color. Nevertheless, I knew a girl in high school who had one brown eye and one blue. The blue eye was an acquired trait; she’d injured her eye when she was young, and the pigmentation cells in that iris had died. Eye color, Nature or Nurture?

Most human traits, however, are much more complex than eye color, our genes being what tells our cells first how to develop in the womb, and then how to mature after we are born. Body and brain continue to reshape themselves, responding to both genetic programming and environmental factors, well into adolescence (and beyond), but there’s a huge amount of this that takes place for the first few years after birth.

Before birth? Again, huge developmental issues. I have some friends who have a child with a visible birth defect. There’s no need to describe it, or any of its consequences, although I will say that their child is an excellent human being by any standard that I’d care to name. What I will say is that it was innate (hence “birth defect”) but not genetic. It probably originated from a viral infection that the mother had sometime during a particular period of gestation. Is that Nature or Nurture? See? Wrong question to ask.

Then there are the “heritability” studies so beloved of I.Q. determinists. They’re particularly fond of separated twin studies, and reach conclusions about the “heritability” of I.Q., when actually what the studies are doing is sampling the variance of the environments in which separated twins are placed. Want more variance? Put one of the twins on an early diet that is deficient in critical nutrients. I guarantee that you’ll find I.Q. to be less “heritable.” Alternately, some parents have put their children through a program of early, intensive education toward certain ends, from chess playing to golf, to baseball and tennis. Sure enough, these specialized children grew up to be awfully proficient in their chosen (by their parents) fields, at least those who don’t crack under the strain.

You want an even better example? Height is even more “heritable” than I.Q. in practically every heritability study ever conducted. So what explains this?

Then there’s the crap shoot that constitutes genotype in the first place. Eye color may be from a single allele, but most characteristics are not, and every child is the result of shuffling two decks of cards (to change gambling metaphors in mid-paragraph) after first throwing out half of each deck. On average, children sorta look like a combination of their parents, but sometimes you get a straight flush and an accidental wunderkind. It sounds great, but it can be a little rough on the family. On the other hand, two recessives can add up to sickle cell, or cystic fibrosis, or any number of SOL results, and that’s even rougher on all concerned.

More often, though, you get some phenotypical clusters that would be helpful in some circumstances, e.g. a famine, but which are bad in others, hello Type II diabetes. Nature or Nurture? That’s not the right question.

The “liberal” answer to the matter is to try to assess individuals as individuals, and to provide each of them with the environmental factors that they require to reach their “true potential” (leaving aside for now the question of which of the vast array of “potentials” is to be the target). Interestingly enough, the “liberal” answer is also the same as the “conservative” answer—provided the individual in question has been born into a family with enough money to make it all happen.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Fighting City Hall II

The police break into a room where an illegal poker game is taking place. Four men are sitting at the table, money is scattered about and one of the men is about to deal. The man to the dealer’s right explains, “I’m not gambling. I just came here to collect a debt that Ed here owes me.” With that, he scoops up the money in front of him and puts it in his pocket. The next two men insist that they are just friends who getting ready to order dinner from room service and the money is to take care of the tip.

The cops turn to the last guy. He has a big pile of money in front of him and he’s holding the deck of cards. “Well,” they say, “We’ve got you at least. You’re under arrest for gambling.” The man replies, “With who?”

In the fracas that broke out at WRPI in my last year at RPI, I was kicked off the air about 20 minutes into my shift, despite the fact that I was signed in as the on-air engineer; I was also on the programming committee. Nevertheless, the Station Manager shut me down; in fact, if memory serves, he dumped the transmitter and shut the station down, at least for a while.

He could do that because he was the Station Manager, the only person in the entire WRPI organization that was officially recognized by the FCC as having authority at the station. One can imagine any number of ways to organize a radio station, but FCC regulations require that ultimate authority about what goes out over the air resides with one guy.

Laws of incorporation work in similar ways, demanding that there be certain accountable (in theory, anyway) persons in the corporation, which means that there are strong tendencies to organize corporations in certain ways. If you want to try something else, you have to use different methods of legal organization, co-ops, unions, granges, political parties, proprietorships, limited partnerships, etc. Most of the really strong privileges, however, go to corporations, and corporations are almost always top down, command and control organizations.

In fact, if you look at the histories of corporations in the latter part of the 19th Century, most of them used the straight-ahead military model of organization. This makes sense, of course, since armies tended to be the largest organizations around (with the possible exception of the Catholic Church), and most people with managerial skills developed them in military service.

Nation states also tended to be organized along military lines; for one thing, it was military action (conquest and defense against conquest) that organized nation states in the first place. City states, the predecessor to the nation state, tended to organize around two things: a marketplace (plus the things that assist a market, such as transport systems like roads and rivers) and a defensive structure (city walls and/or the protecting army).

Individual ambition, when embedded in a large organization, tends to be about climbing the organization. One really interesting variation on this theme is the ambitious individual who takes control of a small organization and builds it into a large organization. In the latter case, the personal identification with the good of the organization is often much stronger, for good or ill (many is the small but growing organization that foundered because the guy at the top couldn’t relinquish day-to-day control once the organization got too big for him). In the former case, it’s quite common to see dog-in-the-manger, stab-in-the-back, or even scorched earth tactics from a climber who is willing to see the organization harmed, so long as they themselves advance.

In extreme cases, you get what is known as “control fraud:”

“Control fraud occurs when conspirators are able to take control of an institution in order to exploit the trust and authority of the institution to convert its assets to personal use.”

The grand scandals of the past few years, Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Amaranth, (well, the list just goes on and on doesn’t it?) should be viewed as just the tip of the iceberg. More subtle and insidious are the cases where the companies still exist, but are left debt bloated, stripped of goodwill and a loyal workforce. They are hollowed out, in other words, assets converted to cash that is then used to buy back their own stock so that the stock options will stay above water, at least until the lads at the top can parachute back to their gated communities.

It’s one sort of individualism, I suppose.

“Money’s just the way you keep score.” – The Wheeler Dealers

Fighting City Hall

Despite what your generic Libertarian/Randite/Nietzchean/Rugged Individualist might try to argue, human beings are pretty much natural collectivists. Real hermits are rare, and usually crazy, to boot. We begin life with, at the very least, familial links, and if those are sour, it’s hard to have anything other than a subsequently sour life. We clump together in tribes, extended families, communities, SIGs, clubs, parties, religions, nations, and ideologies, each with membership requirements, secret handshakes, passwords, responsibilities and privileges.

Now the philosophy of individualism wasn’t a 19th Century invention, though it’s always worth repeating that all ancient traditions date from the latter half of the 19th Century. But the Stoics and the Epicureans have some claim to individualism, and although the “superior man” mentioned in the I Ching is also “The Boss,” there is certainly some notion of individual focus to be found within those poorly translated texts. (Given the age of the thing, I daresay that even the Chinese is a poor translation, just as 18th Century English novels read differently now, despite having exactly the same words as originally written).

Each of us is heir to an immense wealth of pre-existing human knowledge, not just the writings of the past, but the wisdom represented by tradition, the common sense encapsulated in “standard practice” and the wealth of all the pre-existing capital, the roads, the buildings, the cleared forests, grandma’s wedding ring and the old homestead. Without all of that, each of us is an ignorant primate shivering in the dark.

Moreover, even taking all of that as given, even granting the idea that past is prolog, and now is the time me, myself, and I will choose to strike out on my own self as a pure individualist, the fact of the matter is that those groups of organized people I see around me are just so damn big and powerful that I might as well be the Monty Python flea assaulting a bull elk.

Given that reality, it’s easy to see the appeal of the authoritarian. Maybe one can rise to the top of the authority pyramid, to command from the heights of power and write one’s own name on the pages of history. And if not (and for the vast majority of people, not will be the operative word), it can be enough to identify with the tribe, the herd, the nation, especially if that group is personified as an individual, the Ruler, the Big Man, Der Fuehrer, the Man, the Boss, the Big Cheese, the Head Guy, the Top Dog, the Man at the Top.

Heinlein himself isn’t a good example, because, bless him, he was as idiosyncratic as they come. But I’d always wondered how it was that he became a patron saint of libertarians, opining as he did so frequently, about the desirability of military service. Ah yes, it’s The Army of One. It’s a puzzle as great as how Ayn Rand, Ms Atheism personified, seems to be beloved by so many who wound up as Christian Conservatives.

But add in enough Freudian mechanisms, Identification, Projection, and the ever popular Rationalization and Denial, and you can get from point A is A to point Pi (transcendental and irrational) without even pausing to take a deep breath.

There’s a truly fascinating (and entertaining) bit of rumination posted on Economist Brad Delong’s site about the invention of the “corporate person:”

I’ve always held that the “limited liability” privilege granted to corporations was a sort of encapsulation of aristocratic, and hence, state power, so social, i.e. governmental regulation of corporations is not only desirable, but inevitable. The only real question there is who reaps the benefits. I’ll still hold to that, but Delong points out that the granting of “rights” to the corporate person was an example of “judicial activism” in the late 19th Century, by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was, in fact, a deliberate (and totally inconsistent) conflating of the original constitutional use of “person” (referring to slaves), and “corporate person.”

Thus, corporations came to have “rights,” including free speech and the right to due process.

The idea of “corporate rights” like “states rights” is to my way of thinking pernicious. Rights are constructs created to protect fragile individuals from powerful groups. The idea of collective “rights” looks an awful lot like a way of undercutting the very idea of individual rights, confusing the issue in order for groups to gang up on individuals.

But hey, I’m just one guy. Why should my opinion matter? You can’t fight city hall. Or, for that matter, General Electric.