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Monday, July 30, 2007

Captain Kirk's Explosive Question

In academic thinking, the quality of persuasion is generally marked by the tonnage of your argument. That is, the more complex, convoluted, and referenced your reasoning, the easier it is to get your opponent down for the count, as you simply squash him with detail. But of course, common folk like you and I know that if you have to make your point with more than a few simple illustrations, you often lose site what the point is. Like assembling a bicycle with the instructions written in Chinese, it's often best to forget the entire thing rather than attempt the job and end up with a pretzel with wheels. Even if life could be managed by remote control, we would nonetheless be fearful of all those buttons, and eschew convenience by living more simply even if inefficiency is in the mix.

When convenience becomes inconvenient

Thus, we take especial pleasure with things that can be explained to us in a phrase or a simple picture. Like pop top cans or E=MC2, just keep it simple and people will understand, or be forced to. Which brings us back to the art of persuasion. If arguments have the appeal of an instruction manual for a remote control, it will be easy to ignore or fault the contraption after a moment fumbling with it. However, if the argument is simple, then its logic and function are apparent at a glance, and there is no getting away from the truth. It is at this moment that we fume and fuss upon being confronted with a new and uncomfortable fact that we must either accept lest we proverbially explode in a cloud of sparks and smoke.

Socrates knew this well, and relished the opportunity to pin folks down with the explanatory power of a simple solution obviously derived from an equally simple question. But if entertainment value is added to the equation, you just can't beat Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise for bringing down hoity toity super thinking machines with a phrase. In the 'The ultimate computer', a computer connected to the Enterprise has gone berserk, as computers are wont to do, and is causing a lot of havoc. Kirk asks the machine to restate its purpose, namely to serve man, and then asks the machine how it can square it with its current behavior, namely serving men up, like toast. Naturally, the computer can't square it's logic with the facts, and turns itself off, or in previous episodes pops, fumes, and ultimately blows up.

And that's why we like people who reason like Captain Kirk, who with simple and ingenious argument render the enemy argument and perhaps the enemy itself into ashes. A modern day Kirk was the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who demonstrated with a glass of ice water how O ring seals were rendered inelastic by cold weather, and thus caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Feynman demonstrating how O Ring does not hold
(Concept later adopted for Polident denture commercials.)

A more current argument was presented by Michael Moore, whose documentary 'Sicko' demolished the health care industry through the mere recital of the facts, colorfully posed of course, that Americans spend twice as much per capita on health care for a product half as good as France (which covers everybody), and just as good as that stalwart of efficiency, the Republic of Slovenia. What is remarkable is that critics behave like Kirk's computer, and fuss and fume with smoke and non-sequiturs (e.g. Moore is fat, a socialist, etc.) that refute nothing. I anticipate that this is a prelude to the American health care system exploding, like O ring manufacturers.

And of course, as the circle turns, we are left with the human psyche, which we are assured is too complex to easily understand, sort of like the intractable physics of O rings. Thus we skip the 'convenience' of a long winded text on psychology for an easier answer gladly provided by the Doctor Phils of the world. But easy answers are no substitute for sharp questions, which is why in these troubled times we need a lot more Captain Kirks to ask a few simple questions.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Road to Rumination

A big problem with living is that we have to think about, well, living. This often hurts as we consider invariably the slings and arrows of outrageous coworkers, rude drivers, and bill collectors. We respond by becoming tense, and become fearful or angry if we know what we are being tense about, and merely anxious if we don't.

Which brings me to 'da cure'.

It's a simple and age old wisdom. Namely, you could ignore or avoid your problems, reinterpret them, or put yourself in a physiological state where it doesn't matter.

Before the age of psychotherapy, journalese and the printing press, folks had to get to the point. Self help was thus embedded in simple philosophies, and was particularly valuable when times were tough, which in ancient times occurred 24/7. So, as a respite for bad times, you could retire to a garden of simple pleasures (Epicureanism) and ignore the world, or consider all those bad thoughts merely thoughts (Stoicism), and soldier on unemotionally. A third way was to a invoke a contrary emotional state, elicited then as now through drugs or a stiff drink. In the Enlightenment, the philosopher Spinoza took this argument to a non toxic level by postulating that the best way to fight a bad emotion is with a contrary emotion aroused from an intellectual love or nature or 'God'. It was a sort of God intoxication derived from the scripture of nature, rather than mere scripture.

All these approaches were effective but temporary, and required strict discipline to use effectively (or in the case of alcohol or drugs, to not use too effectively). Now flash forward to the present, and through an avalanche of often contradictory, redundant, and over complex information, one still emerges to embrace yet again the common nostrums of the past. Of course, at root we are all epicures, as nothing can better sooth the soul than retiring to one's garden, or better, settling back in front of a 42" plasma screen high definition rendering of a garden. Still, when push comes to shove, or perhaps fisticuffs, its better to use high reason to extract us from our bad feelings. But whereas then we had philosophy and sophistry, today we have psychology and psychotherapists. No practical difference really, except credit cards are now accepted.

An Epicure's Virtual Delight

And so Protagoras is replaced by Dr. Phil, and the Stoic acceptance and commitment of a virtuous life is transformed into Acceptance and Commitment therapy. As the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Actually, I prefer the literary quality of ancient thought full of grand ideas and purpose to the trivial psychologizing of today that aims no higher than a better relationship with your boss or mother in law, but that's just me.

Oh. And as for Spinoza, please see tomorrows post.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Utopia is Nowhere: Thank Goodness!

It is a perfect world, having what we please. It is unknown to man, yet the object of an eternal and futile quest. It is Utopia, literally nowhere. Not so for our mammalian cousins, where only abundant fields will do. It is all a matter of incentive, and with animals it becomes transparently clear. The ability to forage, to roam, and to anticipate are rudimentary yet crucial ingredients for survival. But even for simple brains, perceptions have to shine above others, otherwise one would focus on everything, and get quite literally, nowhere. And so the simple cognitive maps, illuminated and selected by attention are necessary novel and positive things. Experience or learning is molded by such ideas that to our animal cousins can be configured into points on a grid. Thus B follows A, a mouse follows a scent, explores an unkown trail, and maps out the world in simple dimensions. Thus a happy animal in its heaven of heavens is an eternal forager, continually projecting forward, perhaps for a millisecond, an enticing and expectant future.

If it were only so simple for homo-sapiens. We are, or seem to be, entirely different. What's the difference between us and our pet cat? A bigger brain of course, but more specifically, a bigger part of our brain. An expanded cerebral cortex, or forebrain, provides us with the computational space not just to ponder, but to render. Thus the dreamer could dream he was dreaming in infinite recursion. Yet the emotional circuitry that governs our drives remained deeply embedded and essentially unchanged. Value, and in particular human value, was carved out of this thinking stuff and became unique to all the world. We think of it as emergent, like a bubble ascending from froth, or consciousness arising from the dance of a billion neurons. But is value indeed something new and emergent, or is it a foraging response that is twisted in time and place by the metaphors of thought?


Consider a torus, a continuous three dimensional loop. Twist it like a balloon into a plaything, and it emerges as a dog, but its topology or essential state remains the same.

Toruses Among Us

For our mammalian cousins, the topology of motivation is simple: time, motion, and circumstance occur as a fixed arrow. Thre is no contemplation of alternatives, no rumination over lost opportunities, no measure of the branching possibilities that could be. Behavior is unremarkable, predictable, and the circle of life is a continuous recursion, moving in an eternal circle at once and never the same.

For humans, circles are dull things; we prefer instead a more convoluted path that we can twist backwards and forwards in time, map multiplying possibilities that elude apprehension, and see untold futures even in the movements of stars. With a larger brain, nature has given us the opportunity to virtualize the possibilities, and to act in mind all eventualities as if they were real. Like a torus twisted into an animal, a foraging field becomes a field of dreams, and though it may seem a distinctive thing as a giraffe emerging from a twisted balloon, its topology or essence remains the same.

Fields of Dreams

Consider a bear running in a field a hundred by thirty yards square. He can see ahead perhaps for a second, and map in his mind a limited set of moves that are suggested and constrained by a scent, a sound, or the notice of a rustle in the leaves. But what if in his minds eye he could see more? Spontaneous movements can become coordinated tactics, all played out as what-ifs in the bears mind. Run right, run left, fake out prey with a sudden move, elude rivals with a dodge and a spurt of speed, and all replayable in memory for future edification and regret. And all of this measured against a host of imponderables faintly modeled that suggest future mating success, a suitable cave, and the regard of other bears and animals in the forest. The ability to render mere possibilities twists a simple sensitivity to new and important things into a game, a sport, or an entire culture, as the bear if it had a mind morphs into a Chicago Bear. With the virtual possibilites bestowed by a mind, all things delightful become illuminated by the mere contortion of a tease, which for mammals with a mind stirs the grandest dreams of a forager eternal.

From bear

to Chicago Bear

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The 400 Year Storm

Traveling across the Twin Span bridge from New Orleans to the City of Slidell, I always found it odd and a bit frightening to see on the shoreline rows of piers abutting houses on stilts extending into the horizon. A good hurricane would reduce it all to kindling, but that was not in cards it seemed to those who lived on the shore. After all, the last major storm to strike this region was Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and the next 400 year storm was many years away. That was before August 30, 2005, when that perfect storm arrived, 360 years early.

So Katrina destroyed the coast, and by merely happening, changed the odds. Certainly for the insurance companies it did, as rates rose to match a more dangerous world. In actuality however, no one knows the true likelihood of when the next big storm will hit, and in lieu of time consuming explanations of events, which only with great labor can even attempt to reveal reliable probabilities (think of the global warming controversy), a better bet is to infer probabilities from a mere sampling of events. A quick rule of thumb way of assessing the probability of some event is to just extrapolate from a simple pattern in the past. This 'heuristic' method is called induction. The problem however comes when we assume that the success of our heuristics is due to some set of natural laws that we cannot explain. Often this may conflict with the 'true' odds as revealed through nature. Thus, although forty years without a storm does not predict next year's weather any better than the first year after the storm, we would be more comfortable with our beach house investment with the former case than the latter.

This thinking becomes even more illogical if we preselect the sample that makes a set of startling predictions post-hoc or after the fact. For example, the frequency of sun spots and the size of the hem of women's dresses can be shown to have a positive correlation with stock prices. Similarly, one may choose to build a vacation home in the Florida coastal town of Apalachicola. After all, it's never been hit by a hurricane, yet.

So why do we have a predilection for choosing positive post hoc predictions? It's not because logic demands it, because such predictions are at root illogical. A better answer is that is affective, or in other words is an intrinsically pleasurable thing. Positive post-hoc predictions are 'inspiring' if we perceive them, and 'motivating' if they engender our intention to act to like them. Thus, it is inspiring to see the exploits of a war hero, and motivating if we promptly enlist to follow his footsteps. (Of course, we will likely get killed in the process, rather than make a killing, as the next example also attests.)

The conflation of logic with affect takes perhaps its most ironic turn when we look to investor strategy. Consider the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal, filled with articles brimming with academic acumen that invariably extol the fact that you can't beat the market, as your bright insight into a stock is already factored into the cost of the stock. The recommendation: just put your cash into a stock index fund and sit back and think of other things, like fishing. Of course, if all investors followed that wisdom, there would be little need for a Wall Street Journal. Hence the journal becomes a selection of Dr. Seuss tales for mature children, selected post-hoc because of their happy endings. That means of course an avalanche of stories about this or that investor who made the right call and invested in gold, hedge funds, pharmaceutical stocks, or sub-prime mortgages (wait, scratch that last one). Inspiring stuff to be sure, and motivating too! Just call your broker and get in on the action! Ultimately, whether investing success is dumb luck or skill is often decided because it's simply more fun to impute skill to dumb behavior, even if we know better.

Postscript: Such dumb behavior has been confirmed experimentally (as if we still need confirmation that people are naturally inclined to do dumb things-- and we do!). Consider the following experiment that demonstrates once and for all that a subscription to Field and Stream magazine is preferable to the Wall Street Journal.

SooChow Gambling Task
Researchers in Taiwan developed a fascinating gambling task (Soochow gambling task) with counterintuitive results. Even when experimental subjects know that they have a choice between a positive and a negative expected value bet (+$250 versus -$250), they still choose the negative option in large numbers (about half the time). When not told the odds, they do even worse. They lose all the money they are given at the beginning of the experiment, and still continue to lose. So what could persuade them to lose over and over again when they have a clear choice for how to make money? The negative expected value gamble usually results in a small win, but every 5 trials a big loss happens, and on average the subjects lose $250 per trial. The reverse happens in the positive expected value gamble - a series of small losses and one big gain. Even though they lose money, those 4 small gains are so valuable to people that they persist in choosing to play from that deck of cards. It seems to support Nassim Taleb's strategy of investing for catastrophe payouts.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Keeping up with the Chens

Every generation or so, great concern is raised by intellectual pundits in the know about how Americans are falling behind the rest of the world in intelligence, schooling, standard of living, competitiveness, and so forth. Thus relatively speaking, or in contrast to other cultural exemplars, we should not only be concerned that we are not keeping up with the Jones', but also with far away people with a lot of foreign sounding surnames.

Of course, others may and do retort that compared to a lot of other folks, live or dead, we are doing comparatively just fine. The argument takes the question of whether a glass is half full or half empty to a different level, placing the answer relative to somebody else's glass.

This concept, called behavioral contrast, makes personal satisfaction a relative thing. Yet this argument extends far beyond the rhetorical to the personal, as we take it quite personally when we don't measure up to someone else. In other words, comparison hurts. You know it when you do even simple things, like going driving, shopping, or going to the bank. Get in the slow lane, whether it is on the interstate, or the check out or teller lines, and you will be suitably upset because other folks are getting about faster than you. On the other hand, if you are in the fast lane, you feel at least slightly smug in your suddenly apprised superiority.

But relativity only occurs when we have something to compare ourselves to. Conceal or obscure the 'better options' and we will do just fine. That is, the grass is often greener on the other side of the fence, but if the fence is high enough, we will never know and likely not care. Lucky for us common folk, we don't compare our life styles to captains of industry or Chinese peasants because they in general are not within our psychological line of sight. So if all the world becomes like Buck Rogers in the 23rd century, we will only be upset upon viewing our neighbor's greener lawn, and remain eternally blissful of our relative poverty and desolation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Jaak Panksepp and Attila's Gold

If you want to find the good stuff for any topic, from the arts to the sciences, you go directly to the source, which happens to be the human being who best knows and can most easily communicate or construct beautiful or knowing things. So if you want good music or literature, Mozart and Shakespeare are names you can trust. Their thematic catalogs are easily available, you can access them easily and in general for free, and you can readily find good explanations about them and their work on the web. Part of this is due to the antiquarian impulse in scholarship, which doesn't rest until all the minutiae of great minds of the past are excavated, dusted off, and reassembled like shards of ancient pottery. So if you want any of the old stuff, from the geography books of the philosopher Pliny to musical scores by Telemann, their work is but a mouse click away.

Sadly, only 10% of texts from the ancient world come down to us, the rest infringed not so much by copyright but by folks like Attila the Hun. Still, if Attila could hold copyright for ransom, he would have preferred that method to a bonfire. After all, if there's gold to be had in intellectual property, it's just as good as the real thing. Ironically, for the common man, surveying the knowledge of the past is a whole lot easier than surveying the knowledge of the present, which thanks to modern day Attilas, is 'freely' available, for a little gold of course.

Herman J. Attila Jr., PhD
Founder of the American Psychological Association

Consider present day psychologists and their research. First is the problem of publication. Good articles are published in academic journals for no one to see except those solitary folks who haunt college libraries, and stupid articles are published on internet and are meant to appeal to our stupidity. (Yup, that includes a lot of my stuff, but they are supposed to be stupid!). And if you want a particular article without having to make a trip to Podunk U, its only $42.50 plus tax, an extortionary bill that would do Attila proud. Luckily, many psychologists say the hell with APA (American Psychological Association) copyright restrictions and publish some of their stuff anyways on the Net. You can find these papers scattered across the web with no particular organizing principle. And that presents yet another problem. For psychologists of note or those who think they should be noted, you would expect that they would use the internet to aggrandize their popularity and repute by organizing and summarizing their meager extant scribblings so as to communicate better to the great intellectually unwashed like you and me.

And you would be wrong.

Go the website of almost any psychologist, and you will invariably read a vitae filled with endless literary accomplishments, but usually neither its explanatory context nor its content is available to you. In other words, they present to you not their wisdom, but their resume! Consider the web site of the distinguished neuro-psychologist Jaak Panksepp. Reading his vitae, you know he has written many great articles, but chances are you'll never read them in your lifetime. Compare him to the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. Like Panksepp, Euripides was an eloquent expositor of the affective nature of the human condition. Of Euripides eighty two plays only 18 come down to us, the rest are fragments. Compare this to Panksepp's over 300 articles of which only 1% come down to us, or more accurately, can be loaded down by us. Ironically, we know more about a fragmentary Greek playwright than the fragmented and hidden works of psychologists, of whom Panksepp is only one small example. In sum, we live in a new dark age, or should I say an age in which we are kept in the dark.

For more on Jaak Panksepp, take a look at my new e-book on the psychology of the internet: 

As an exemplar of how to make the most of the fragmentary, the sites of the psychologist Pawel Lewicki and behavioral neuro-scientist Kent Berridge are some of the few that get it right. Both represent mini-educations in themselves.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Antonio Damasio takes a crowbar up his ego

As a lay and not academic psychologist, one of the ways to find out if your work makes sense or is just senseless is to simply ask similarly minded academics what they think of it. Since most view your query with the attention span of a housefly, or more succinctly, view you as a housefly, you want to keep your questions pithy, simple, and short. Generally, they will ignore you, unless your comments are on a topic close to their heart, and in particular if they helped invent that topic. So it was no surprise that when I sent my latest article on the concept of the somatic marker to its inventor, the neurologist Antonio Damasio responded.

Mezmer self portrait

So what was his breathless reply? It was not a specific dispute with my argument, my data, or even with my grammar, it was something far more serious and frightening, namely my bibliography! The following comment, which is priceless in its stunning inanity and vanity, gives yet another reason why I find psychologists are such wonderful candidates for mockery.

Below is Damasio's response to my paper, my rejoinder is in italics.

Damasio: Given that there are ample descriptions of the IGT provided by Dr. Bechara in his original 1994 paper (Cognition) and countless others, and provided by me (including the 1996 paper in the Royal Society Journal), it is odd that you select a description et al in 2002! Why take the description from an obviously biased source, even if it may be accurate, instead of the original?

Me: An accurate source is an accurate source. Accurate definitions in psychology are not apriori less so if they do not quote the primary source. Actually, I quote you verbatim in much of the paper. As to the bias, Tomb's experiment was short enough to appear as a letter to the editor in the Journal Nature Neuroscience. His so-called bias was in one short sentence at the end of the paper in which he denied the efficacy of the somatic marker in decision making. I do not concur with that, as my paper clearly posits that the somatic marker is efficacious, but only in terms of the goodness of moment to moment decisions. I use Tomb's work because he noted an independent variable, namely schedule variance, that was not controlled for in the IGT experiment. Indeed, my entire article pivots on that one crucial variable.

Damasio: On the same vein, the 1994 edition of Descartes' Error, is from Putnam, not Avon (that is a 1995 paperback). The current edition is Penguin Books, New York.

Me: The Avon edition is in my personal library, and I read the wrong copyright date. It has since been corrected.

Damasio: I have great difficulty reading through a paper when I encounter misrepresentations and tendentious framing of the issues. This is not, incidentally, a comment on the intellectual substance of your text. (the message ended here, as I am sure he felt I was properly swatted.)

Me: I sent you my article because I wanted you to find any misrepresentations before its prospective publication, something I am sure not many authors who criticize your work are wont to do. The problems you have found are on the whole trivial, particularly when many of my arguments and conclusions are highly provocative and new. But being provocative does not mean being biased and partisan, as your use of the word tendentious imputes. Indeed, many researchers on the somatic marker, such as Maia, Tomb, and most recently Dunn, are hardly prejudiced observers, and I doubt they would be published in respected journals if they made unwarranted and biased claims. Indeed, it is a greater mark of bias to ignore the concept of the somatic marker or to mindlessly accept it.
As a Popperian, I believe a theory to be worth its salt must be falsifiable, and if feelings are hurt in the attempt, too bad. That's not prejudice, that's science. That is what I attempt to do in a clear and distinct manner (I am a Spinozist by the way), with as little mis-representation of the data as possible. If bias is indeed there, then you refute it, and do not ignore it. That is the true mark of a true scientist.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


In Mike Judge's recent movie 'Idiocracy', only idiots reproduce, while smarter ones merely ponder the issue. Thus the morons inherit the earth. So the U. S. president is a pro- wrestler, the most popular movie is 'ASS' ( a filmed version of just that), and we all wile away our time watching car explosions a la Nascar and pondering eternal mysteries like why a square peg doesn't fit into a round hole.

But genetics aside, there are many other ways to be an idiot. Take a shortened attention span for instance. If you can only spend five seconds on a topic before bolting to the next diversion, you are autistic. But if all that useless diversion is in your warped minds eye 'productive', bolting from from one diversion to another and back again becomes multi-tasking, and from your multi-tasking ipod/phone/computer, you become a master of the universe, or rather, its minutia.

The grand idea of our current culture is that you can build profundity in a thirty second blurb, so the news becomes celebrity and crime, or better yet, celebrity criminals. Similarly, artists or 'idols' are made after five minutes training and discovered after a five minute performance, and psychologists and politicians are vaunted as experts by their ability to master a pithy phrase. What is more, our grandest inventions allow us to port over the glory of a distracted life to every minute of our lives!

So we become a functionally autistic, with the brains but not the attention span. And we don't have to wait for evolution to bring us there.

Thus, I hope you understand why I keep this post short.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Hitcher

Just leave it to the movies to make you afraid to go outside by yourself. There's always a criminal psycho who is ready to greet you in the local forest, cave, beach or anywhere else you walk alone. Of course, he (she) proceeds to chop you up into people tartare, which serves you right for being so damned trusting in the first place and not sticking to safer venues, like the local mall or Wal-Mart.

And that's why we have traffic problems.

No, that's no non-sequitur. Consider this, how many times have we refrained from picking up hitchhikers because we fear for our safety? Does all the time seem right to you? After all, the movies perform a valuable public service to warn us of hitchhikers because that's the preferred way murdering psychos get to work in the morning. So we don't trust one another and drive alone.

But consider if you have no option but to trust. Then you take your chances and find out that you somehow survive. That's my experience. Consider this true story. It was 1995 and I was thumbing around Moscow, you know, that little town in Russia? (and don't ask me what I was doing in Moscow at the time, that' s another story) Since at that time nobody had cars (which has changed now, as Moscow traffic now more resembles Los Angeles) and taxis barely existed, you had to use your thumb, or rather your fingers. So, on a semi-busy Moscow street, just extend your arm down on a 45 degree angle, extend two index fingers, and traffic literally would stop and make a bee line to you, sort of like it does in American cities for expensive hookers or drug dealers. Similarly, its a deal they were after, since you had the rubles, they had the car, and we both wanted something the other had. So after a little negotiating, it was off to the races, which depicts exactly how Muscovites drive. Needless to say, I survived, and got around a city of 8 million plus with all the economy and speed of a bullet train.

In America, we've learned the hard way not to trust. After all, trusting got the Russians communism, Gulags, and other nasty things. So, smart folk that we are, we build trust by first insuring trust. We know this from our personal affairs because we have the FDIC and FDA to respectively keep our bank accounts and food supplies sound. If not, we would keep our money in our mattresses and grow our own food. The problem is, for personal transportation, we need a way to insure trust in each other so the hitchhiker in all of us can roam free.

Following the lay of the law for guns and other dangerous devices, I suggest that the government just issue hitchhiking permits or ID cards that certify our trustworthiness as pedestrian or driver and thus allow us to carry a concealed thumb. Then establish a suggested per mile rate to cut down on the need to negotiate. Presto, everybody begins to carpool, traffic congestion goes down, global warming eases, and we all get to work on time.

Hmm, I think I have just saved the world.

To the Nobel Prize committee: you can mail my award to me anytime.