Sunday, October 31, 2004

General Knowledge: Autumn

Autumn is one of those words that conjure vivid mental images. Yellow, orange, and red trees with green struggling to linger yet a little longer. Leaves covering lawns and trails.

The etymology of Autumn begins with the Latin Autumnus and goes through the Old French Autompne and the Old English Autumpne [American Heritage Dictionary]. While the primary meaning is the season after Summer, the secondary meaning is A period of maturity verging on decline... such as the "Autumn of our lives".

In the U.S., we commonly refer to Autumn as Fall... short for "fall of the leaf" or leaves... Robert Burns wrote a poem of that title. Most other nations still use Autumn as the word for this season.

Autumn is a bittersweet time. It is a time of great activity and preparation; the last glorious, robust days of the year before winter.

The seasons have always been a metaphor for a person's life. But I think that, too often, we may look at the negative aspects of Autumn and Winter.

  • Autumn is the end of summer
  • After Autumn comes the cold and death of winter
Life, unlike the seasons, is not over until it is over... Yogi Berra was right. I witnessed a little of life's drama yesterday at the University of Michigan-Michigan State football game. UM had fallen behind 27-10 with just a little more than half of the last quarter (Winter?) remaining. Suddenly, UM's team rallied and tied the game... and then won the game in the third overtime 45-37... no doubt one of the more exciting games (disappointing for State) that one could hope to play or watch. For State, it was a difficult loss, but they never gave up and the game was not decided until the very last second when a pass into the end zone to once again tie the game was deflected away.

The lesson: there is hope despite the season of life. Don't give up. And even when the end comes and we must concede loss or claim victory... it only matters that we didn't give up... that even the forces against us respect us. Life is more than simply living and then dying. It is the manner in which we do both.

As some UM fans left the game when State went ahead 27-10, I remarked to those behind me that the fans who left were going to feel very silly and disappointed if UM should rally and win... something that seemed unlikely. Now, in retrospect, I'm sure they did.

Never give up on life.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

General Knowledge: That smarts

Smart. Who is really, no really, smart?

According to one organization, it is a student at the University of Michigan.

He received an 88% (22/25) on a test designed to challenge exceptionally smart people. Now an 88% is usually around a B+, so this student scored above the average exceptionally smart person.

The problem is he cheated! Well, the testers didn't exactly say he cheated, but, come on, he used the Internet and computer programs to answer the questions. Okay, that's being smart about being unable to do it yourself, but where else could you take a test where it was okay to get the answers from someone or something else?

The student said he was just being resourceful... and persistent. So maybe the old "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" is a good rule of thumb. Maybe it doesn't take a genius to be one.

But, to me, that's kind of like saying "home made cookies" when all you do is cut slices from a tube of dough and pop them in the oven. It's a bit of a stretch.

I like to be around people who are smart because they have really exceptional brains, not because they have 4.0 ghz processors in their PC. It's just not a great conversation when someone says, "Let me think about that on the Internet and I'll get back to you."

So, I'll give the kid this: he is "clever", but I'm not totally convinced about the "world's smartest person".

Friday, October 29, 2004

Relationships: Because and because

Rodney King asked, "Can't we all just get along?"


Not yet, anyway. Of course it's not just a black-white thing. It's also a black-yellow, white-red, brown-black... name your combination... thing. It's also a Muslim-Jew, Christian-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim... name your combination... thing.

We really can't get along. Sorry, Rodney.

There are too many of us to "all get along". Whatever the reason... we'll find it... and not get along.

We tend to get along when there is little or no interaction. The Europeans peacefully traded with the Chinese and Asian Indians for awhile. Then the British decided control was preferable to trade. Christians were a small, irrelevant group until the Romans adopted it as the official religion... then all hell broke loose. Islam became militant almost immediately. Americans got beaten up by the British and then started beating up on the Mexicans and Indians.

So, no, we can't all get along.

What then, constant warfare? Maybe; maybe not. Maybe little wars where attention can be focused, but the geography restricted. More and more, warfare is a politically incorrect option: it's too messy. Nevertheless, strategists still think in terms of weapon systems and technology when they anticipate future warfare. Why? Because history has shown that forums such as the League of Nations and the United Nations don't necessarily do much except talk to themselves... wars still happen.

Charles Atlas claimed that he became stronger through application of "dynamic tension"... basically a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, etc. There is political and religious dynamic tension that has nothing to do with push-ups. The interaction of religious fervor and politics within Islam has strenghtened and will continue to reinforce the rise of religious states that are then confronted by secular forces that will either press back or attempt to isolate the religious states. The irony of the Islamic right-wing efforts to create religious states is that, in practice, they become the antithesis of the religious teachings and create internal forces of their own dissolution.

Iran represents an example of a religious state experiment that is now creating its own internal "dynamic tensions". This doesn't mean that the present phenomenon of a move toward Islamic states is waning; it only means that the very creation of such a conflicted state leads to forces of its own end. Iran is likely to become a greater focal point for Western states because it not only seeks to become a nuclear power, but it combines the spector of anti-American/European religious fanaticsm running amok with nuclear weapons.... Even the French are beginning to react negatively to things Islamic.

For the forseeable future, the world will not be able to "get along". There will only be the continuation of the age-old, much maligned "peace through war" process. The face of war will change, but the reasons behind the ongoing struggle are fairly constant. Why? Because. That is also the reason for age-old hatreds. Because.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Politics: Just Say No

Vote for the special interest proposal of your choice.

I look at the confusing array of proposals that will face voters on November 2 and wonder if even 10% of the voters have any idea about what is behind these proposals.

Most of them look like something that could never get through the legislature so they end up on the ballot because some special interest group paid a bunch of people to walk neighborhoods and say a bunch of misleading things... "your taxes will go up unless you sign here in which case my taxes will go down"... so that they can get on the ballot.

I mostly vote "no". Not always. I kind of liked the proposal to make Krispy Kremes the official doughnut of the SBC (Ameritech) Michigan-Ohio State Classic. I was a little worried that SBC may restrict coverage only to cell phones, though. The streaming video is pretty slow on cell phones. But the whole deal fell through, so I guess I won't have a "yes" vote on this.

I think having gay marriage is great too... much better than voting for sad or dour marriage... I try to apply logic and critical thinking whenever the opportunity arises.

It's bad enough that we have to elect our president from only 2.12 candidates (I'm not sure how much to count Ralph Nader). I've listened to the political advertisements and read the op-ed columns from both area newspapers as well as the radio and TV news/talk/song and dance stations. I'm convinced that there is enough proof to throw both candidates in jail for treason or draft dodging or bad judgment. Isn't there someone who is qualified and people like?

I think I'll vote "no" for president, too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Humor: Technical Difficulties... Please Stand By

I couldn’t get access to the server so that I could post my latest update this morning. It wasn’t my computer… I could access the rest of the Internet. It was a little frustrating. Things were not going as I planned because someone or something else was not holding up their end. It wasn’t my fault… But as I thought about it, I realized that I take so much for granted… things will work… people will do their jobs. Or not.

How many of us have backup plans? What if the electricity fails? Do we have a standby generator? What if the water main breaks? Do we have an emergency water supply? What if the natural gas supply is interrupted? Do we have a way to heat the house? For most of us the answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”.

The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared”. Yet the vast majority of us are not prepared for the unusual. We presume that things will work and people will do their jobs. And, most of the time, we are correct. Some of use do back up our computer files, especially after we’ve gone through the experience of a computer drive failing. We try to have savings enough to get us by when unexpected expenses arise. But we are generally inept when it comes to crisis planning.

Why is that? Why do we expect that things will work and people will do their jobs? Because we are conditioned by our experiences. We expect that if there is a crisis, those who are responsible for making things work will get them to work again. The electric company will repair the power grid. The water department will get the main repaired. The gas company will restore the supply. But what if those who are supposed to fix things can’t? What will you DO?

So, I prepare this update and wait for the server to become accessible again.

And it does.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Relationships: That rushing sound is cash leaving my wallet

I don't care.

Money raisers call to get you to contribute to saving the water, orphaned children, sick children, down-and-out veterans, political candidates, peewee sports programs, marching bands, police officer associations, fire fighters associations, and on and on. Don't get me wrong; I think most of these efforts are positive. It's just that they seem endless. I do give, selectively.

I tend to favor local organizations that are hands-on. I'm not interested in going through a professional fund raiser... who knows where the money is going. "Are you a police officer?" "Well, no, but I represent them." "What's your take?" "Well a significant portion of what we raise helps police officers." "How much and how?" "A lot and we help them." "Thanks, bye."

Civic groups that are all volunteer and spend everything they raise to improve the community seem worthwhile to me. And soup kitchens... I worked in one... just one day... and I was impressed with what they do. I've given a couple of old cars to Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission. I know they only get a portion of the money... but I respect what soup kitchens do. They are basic. They feed the hungry and offer clothing to the cold. The Salvation Army gets bags of clothes each year, too.

I give money to my mother and mother-in-law. Not huge sums, but something that helps out. If I know that they need more, I'll find it. When you're retired and putting a son through college, money needs to be budgeted. So my new golf clubs can wait another few years and that 15-year-old TV is still working fine. I'll spend money on those in my family who need it.

Taxes... now that's where a big chunk of my change goes. A lot of where it goes seems important. Repairing poorly built highways, building state-of-the-art administrative buildings for officials, funding fact-finding trips, paying for those newsletters from my representative who somehow never seems to say anything comprehensible... all important stuff, I'm sure.

I think the government doesn't like the idea of people giving things to charities, though. They think it is okay to give cash, but not tangible things that can become cash, so they are cutting the tax deductions for things like cars given to charities. Well, the government does know best how to use my money.

I'm sure you can probably think of some other important causes for my money, but, you know, I just don't care.

Well, I do... but I can't.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Humor: What, me worry?

Rogue asteroids, super volcanos, tsunamis, Iraq, Bush, Kerry.... What do these have in common?

  • They cause people to worry
  • They can impact our lives
Life can be a risky proposition. We do our best to minimize our risks. We try to avoid situations where we can been harmed. Most animals have an instinct to flee when they feel threatened... the key is "feeling threatened". There is always something that can cause the fiercest predator to flee. It is built into the DNA.

But humans are not like "most animals". As a species, we have learned to ignore most threats. We will build our cities next to active volcanoes... think Pompeii... or on floodplains or sandbars. Oh, we will leave the location if the situation seems dangerous, but we come back. We "assess" the danger and have "contingency plans".

When it comes to truly cataclysmic events, we accept the possibility that they may happen and that "lives will be lost"... but probably not ours.

How is it that we can go about our everyday lives with all of these grave threats to our existence? Distance. Our minds do a risk assessment and we prioritize our concerns. So the super volcano that could wipe out much of mankind may be there in the background, but the chance of it happening in our lifetime is too distant... too remote... to cause us to give it much concern. The war in Iraq is closer, but for most of us it is a point of debate more than a concern about our personal safety. Who becomes our next president is a little closer to home, but we all know that after the smoke and mirrors go away that our lives will continue pretty much the same no matter who is making deals from the White House.

We "worry" about the "big" things... but not really. Our concerns are more mundane: work, bills, flu shots, lawns... the things close to us. All the big things are great conversation topics, but our focus is much closer to home. We leave the big worries to others... professional worriers... journalists, environmentalists, politicians, researchers. We'll worry about the big things when they tell us to worry.


Sunday, October 24, 2004

Philosophy: Follow Religion... Religious Followers...Not Always the Same

Religion gets a bad rap. That said, I need to clarify that statement.

From the dawn of mankind, there has been an urge to understand creation... no, more than an urge... a need. Gods, supernatural power, the unseen, even in science-fiction: the "Force"... all part of mankind's quest for meaning and truth.

Question six people at the scene of an accident and ask them to describe it and you will likely get six different descriptions. Take six billion people and ask them about truth and meaning and you are likely to get more questions than answers.

God made man in his own image... or vice versa. An angry god, a vengeful god, a loving god, a forgiving god, a judgmental god, a capricious god... god in man's image. Truth and meaning from god... as mankind understands it.

Why? Perhaps it is because most people do not seek truth and meaning as much as validation. It is part of the herd mentality. It is the need to be "right". My herd believes this so we must be right... because my herd believes this. Never mind that what is believed came from the earnest search for truth and meaning by someone long ago who added his "revelations" to those who came before. It only matters that here and now we believe what we believe and it is right because we believe it.

Then we disregard the essence of the belief and seek only to defend that our herd is RIGHT. We will have a holy war to show the world that our belief is right. We will become the opposite of what our belief professes to show that we are right. Our religion says do this and we do the opposite and justify our actions with the notion that it is for the "greater good".

So, religion is really what's wrong with the world? No, what's wrong with the world are those who claim a religion as theirs and then do everything they can to subvert the teachings of that religion by taking those teachings out of context... out of the spirit of the religion... to prove that their herd is right... to validate their agenda. Religion is mankind's expression of the search for truth and meaning. Religious subverters are those who seek only to be "right" and care little about truth or meaning. They wrap themselves in the fabric of their religion as so-called patriots wrap themselves in the flag... only to crush the very spirit of that which they purport to defend.

Beware of those who say we must fight for the "true religion"... they have only lies and deceit. There are many reasons to fight, but defending a religion is not one of them. There are NO "Holy Wars".

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Environmental Extremism: Fear... Not!

Just wishing and hoping
and thinking and praying
and planning and dreaming...
- Dusty Springfield


There is a line between hope and false hope that is not always clear. Is the U.S. on the verge of strong economic recovery or on the verge of a new recession? Are jobs being created faster than lost or are lost jobs gone forever? Are the forces in Iraq opposing the U.S. finally being exposed and eliminated or are they simply increasing? If there is a line between hope and false hope that isn't clear... there is also a line between fear and false fears that isn't clear.

Is our country investing in its future security by spending billions of dollars in the Middle East or are we pouring money down a rat hole? That seems to be the central issue in this coming election. Heads or tails. No matter what you call, it is still a coin... but you have only one chance in two of being right.

Early on I said that:

  • Nothing is ever as simple as it first seems
The issues facing the U.S. regarding the Middle East are more than just about terrorism. Like it or not, there is a dependency on the Middle East for our economic well-being. It is a dependency based on years of neglect of ... no, outright opposition to... developing reliable sources of energy within our own territory. It is a combination of always seeking the "cheapest" (immediate) solution and those who fear spoiling our environment.

We have alternatives to the Middle East for our energy needs, but we have some strong forces in our country that believe we can significantly reduce our dependency on Middle East oil if only the automobile manufacturers will produce vehicles that run on alternate fuels. Well, duh! But they also don't want to be bothered with the details about the technology necessary to create a new infrastructure and the time that will take.

Yet those same "rational" conservationists and anti-oil interests refuse to accept that there are safe, existing technologies that could free up enormous amounts of oil and natural gas... the most obvious being nuclear power. Not in my back yard! This "environmentalists" would really rather that we all heat our homes with woolen blankets and use bicycles as a primary means of transportation (hook up about 100 bicycles to pull that semi-trailer down the highway). What they don't want to acknowledge is that there is safe, nuclear power that could eventually reduce or eliminate their dependency on the Middle East oil nuts.

So, we will keep "protecting our interests" in the Middle East because we allow our irrational fear of nuclear power to keep us dependent on a region of the world where irrational hatreds abound. What those opposed to using nuclear energy (or new generation coal plants) lack is a viable alternative. They know what they don't want... they just can't provide a better answer... other than don't use energy or advocating a technology like solar or wind power which would cover the landscape with voltaic cells and large wind turbines (to which Sen. Edward Kennedy and friends say..."not in my back yard".)

By the way, there is a safe, reliable nuclear power plant "in my back yard" along the shoreline of Lake Erie. I go fishing only a few miles offshore from the plant... and none of the fish I have caught and eaten have three eyes and glow in the dark.

It is not about resources... it is about fear. There are plenty of energy sources. It is all about using our resources in the most constructive way possible. We have a world full of coal, but we fear it because we remember the soot scattered over the white snow 50 years ago and refuse to accept that it can be burned cleanly today. We have a world full of nuclear materials and safe designs for power plants, but we fear it because we remember the shoddy way it was handled in Chernobyl. We have an abundance of oil in North America, but we are slow to develop it because importing it is politically easier (but may not be cheaper very soon).

We fear the future... because we cling to the fears of the past.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Relationships: Halloween ... All Hallows Even

I was driving with my own thoughts yesterday, when suddenly a landscape of orange caught my eye... and it wasn't construction barrels. Pumpkins! Lots of pumpkins!!! They made me smile and I remembered the many Halloweens I spent tromping around the neighborhood with my sons as they yelled "trick or treat".

Halloween is one of those holidays everyone enjoys and no one gets too excited about the fact that it is rooted in a pagan and then Christian past. Our celebration of Halloween has more in common with its Celtic origins than the Christian All Hallows Even (holy evening). It is a time we allow ourselves to be consciously frightened by ghosts and witches and all sorts of "evil" creatures... in the name of fun. Even the bewildered look of a 2-year-old child is part of it. And teenagers get to act "gothic" and no one minds.

Why do we have traditions like this? Well, most of life is a serious affair. Societies develop holidays as pastimes... diversions... from all that seriousness. If religious holidays are too serious, we have a tendency to make them less serious. Christmas moves from the religious celebration of Jesus' birth to Santa Claus bringing presents. Easter moves from Jesus' death and resurrection to the Easter Bunny bringing candy and eggs. Halloween moves from honoring the dead back to scaring off the ghosties and beasties with our masks. And people have a good time. We allow ourselves the luxury of enjoying ourselves with our family and neighbors.

Of course, celebrations change with the times. As we concern ourselves with "bad" people and not letting anything bad happen, we let seriousness creep back into our celebrations. No more cookies or doughnuts or cider, thank you... might be poisoned. Only store-bought, sterile "treats". Move the "trick or treating" to the afternoon to protect everyone. Don't want to let our defenses down. Better safe....

Isn't that sorry?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Relationships: Waves

An acquaintance died yesterday.

I saw him a couple of times each year for at least the past decade. We both volunteered as workers for the Farmington Community Chorus during their Spring and Winter shows. He was a nice gentlemen who did his work quietly, always was pleasant, and added to the overall value of the shows. He never received special recognition for his effort, but everyone knew that he contributed faithfully and well.

We started receiving calls about his death from various chorus members and it became obvious that it was important to them that everyone in the chorus should know about his death and be available to show their support to his wife at the funeral.

Why bring this up?

In a world of 6 or 7 billion people, the life of one person seems a little insignificant... not unimportant, but a very small part of the picture. We all will die, sooner or later, so we accept that the world will go on despite each death that occurs. But that is not the point. The point is that each of us has some impact on the future of mankind. It may be small or it may be dramatic. But we have the potential to make things better or worse for people not yet born.

This man did many things in his life. I'm only writing about one small aspect of it. Yet it is obvious that he touched people enough that a community mourns his loss. So it is reasonable to say that he added to the community and potentially its future well-being, if this aspect of his life reflected the overall person he was.

A wave in the ocean may not change the ocean. But it may contribute to changing the shoreline. Likewise, each one of us may not individually change mankind, but we may, individually, help change the boundaries of mankind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Relationships: A change for the better?

I have often used the term "sub-optimization" to explain why organizations or systems don't work as planned. It's really a simple concept:

This concept from systems theory refers to the extent to which attempts to improve the performance of a sub-system by its own criteria may act to the detriment of the total system which includes that sub-system, and even to the defeat of its objectives.
The word "system" refers broadly to anything that exists or functions as:
1 : a group of units so combined as to form a whole and to operate in unison 2 : the body as a functioning whole; also : a group of bodily organs (as the nervous system) that together carry on some vital function
(c)2000 Zane Publishing, Inc. and Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. All rights reserved
A human being, a tree, a city, a business, a university... disparate, but all systems... and all capable of being sub-optimized. The athlete who takes steroids to increase muscle bulk and damages his overall health, the tree that is bred from too much of the same stock and becomes vulnerable to pests and disease, the business that places too much emphasis on cost control and too little on product development, the university that focuses too much on research and too little on student education... all sub-optimized... all performing below design for the entire system.

One of my sons recently began work as a contract employee (temporary) for a large corporation. This corporation had spent years trying to instill a "process-based" culture so that all aspects of the business ran on a methodical and interactive approach. Projects were developed through a process. Ideas were screened through a process. Work was scheduled through a process. Money was appropriated through a process. And yet it seemed to my son that nothing was being accomplished. The most minute efforts required a "process review". And worst of all, after all of the process reviews, when the work was finally done, it was substandard.

Why? How could such a "process-driven" business fail to be anything but the best?

The answer was simple: so much emphasis was placed on the process aspect, that the people aspect was sub-optimized. It was believed that as long as the processes were sound, it wasn't necessary to have the best qualified people in charge of the operations or completing the actual work. Now, don't get me wrong, they believed that they have good people and they spend a lot of time and money "training" these people. But the truth of the matter is that they don't necessarily seek the best people.

The example I use is that the company would rather pay 5 somewhat qualified people $60,000 per year than 1 absolutely the best person $300,000 per year for purely "technical" work. They are content with a lot of mediocrity rather than a small amount of genius. That's a "process-based", "cost conscious" company. So computer system development takes months... for the smallest effort. Top engineers must either become managers or not advance... so they leave if they are really good and want to be "hands on". Product design now becomes the purview of suppliers... who want to sell the components they have already designed.

And so my son comes home and says he needs to find someplace where he can really use his talents. He talks about improvements that he could have completed in a week that would have been vastly superior to what exists now, but after two months nothing has been done because all of the "process review" hasn't been completed. He talks about how one area within the company will charge another $10,000 for a job that will take 3 months when he could contract out the same work for less than $100 and have it done in less than an hour... and he knows that because he has done that.

So what's the point?

Sub-optimization is the norm not the exception. Why? Because it is easier to sub-optimize than optimize. It is easier for a department to justify 5 engineers at $80,000 for a large project than one super engineer for $300,000 to the personnel department. It is easier to say that anyone can be trained in the processes, so you do not have to hire the best qualified person.

But the reason that sub-optimization is the norm is that systems are designed to allow for the root cause of sub-optimization... it is known as change. Change in goals, wants, needs, resources, purpose... whatever the cause... need to be addressed by existing systems... and it can't always be done in a way that maintains the system's optimization.

And most systems... most of us... do not know how to stay optimized during times of change. So we try things that may or may not be effective to react to the change. Sometimes we are able to re-optimize the system and sometimes we sub-optimize it permanently.

When the airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers, the U.S. was no longer insulated from enemies attacking within its boundaries. The system that is the U.S. and all of its subsystems are trying to come to a new optimization after that change. And for awhile, we will make mistakes. We will optimize sub-systems and sub-optimize the system. Eventually, if we are fortunate, we will bring the system closer to optimization.

Meanwhile, be concerned about those who claim they now can optimize the U.S. because they see sub-optimization. Our world is still changing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Education Failure: The intelligence of this planet is constant....

the population is growing. (H. L. Mencken) You do the math.

CNN reports that fewer students are prepared for college. Yet, more than ever, this world needs more... not fewer... critical thinkers.

A few days ago, both The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press ran articles about the University of Michigan planning to tour high schools in Michigan in an effort to recruit more minority students because both the number of minority applicants and the number of accepted minority applicants has fallen.

I took the opportunity to send an email to Mary Sue Coleman, president of UM, and to the writers of those articles that contained the following passages:

I applaud efforts for "reaching out to students" in Detroit and elsewhere, but simply speaking to an auditorium full of students who have poor preparation and little interest in your message is nothing more than taking bows for "trying". If you and the University are serious about wanting to have more black students enter U of M as qualified applicants, then perhaps you need more than just a few pep rallies.

I sent the letter below to the Free Press almost two years ago. They declined to print it which was their loss. Perhaps you might consider implementing some of the suggestions. That might be your gain.

...U of M has the resources to help address the root causes of dysfunctional education processes, and that is where its efforts should be. Create in-school assistance programs in schools deemed under-performing. Create seminars to explain to under-performing parents the economic impact of their lack of responsibility. Offer free, on-site university programs to grade school and new high school students that show them the range of opportunities that an education offers. Create an excitement for education. Then "special considerations" will not be used in place of real effort.
Too many well-intentioned people use faulty logic. They propose: if A then B. If I go out and talk to students, then they will get excited about UM and apply. What they need to understand is: B if and only if A. More students will successfully apply and succeed, if and only if they are well-prepared... and we can help them achieve that preparation.

"There is only one good, which is knowledge, and one evil, which is ignorance." - Plato

Monday, October 18, 2004

Philosophy: Critical... thinking

Yesterday, I watched a program about Greek history: Homer, the Iliad, Troy, Helen....

A lot happens in 3,000-4,000 years. Civilizations come and go and get buried and lost. Of course, we are getting better at recording history... or are we?

No one knows for sure about the "facts" surrounding Troy and its war with Sparta. In fact, there are other versions about Troy that place it in England, of all places. And the great poet Homer may or may not have been an actual person. Some think he is an amalgamation of many poets and storytellers. Yet, the Iliad remains one of the great sagas of all time... fact, fiction or a little of both.

What is of interest also are the means by which this "history" was preserved through time. For hundreds of years before Homer (if he existed), parts of the tale that became the Iliad were handed down by storytellers... orally. It wasn't until later that a written version of Homer's Iliad "hit the newstands".

Now we have computers, satellite telephones, instant "facts" from numerous sources. We have archives of history in dozens of media. All is known; all is told... or not.

Dramatic events can be produced through creative camera angles and editing or outright staging. Digital photographs are easily manipulated by anyone with $200 software. Statements can be strung together electronically so there is little resemblance to what was originally said and the context in which it was said completely lost.

Facts can be manufactured or easily misrepresented... and with television and radio stations competing to be first with the "facts", they sometimes skimp on the "fact checkers". Then we have particular "facts" that might be wrong, but represent the truth... so that's okay. Sorry, Dan.

It used to take hundreds of years to create hi-story from story. Now it takes a few minutes.

That means you have the responsibility to be a critical thinker. The fabricators are absolved of their responsibility to be "truthful". They only have to sound "plausible". You must, therefore, understand:

"the relationship of language to logic,... (or have) the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief....(or acquire) the ability to distinguish fact from judgment, belief from knowledge, and skills in elementary inductive and deductive processes, including an understanding of the formal and informal fallacies of language and thought."
You need to cut through the b---s---. Election Day is near.... Do some critical thinking.
  • Is John Kerry a Vietnam War hero or a Communist stooge? Can the answer be "neither"? Can the answer be "both"?
  • Was George Bush a "draft dodger" or did he "serve honorably" in the National Guard? Can the answer be "neither"? Can the answer be "both"?
  • Is what happened 35 years ago relevant? Why?
  • Is what happened between 35 years ago and now more relevant?
  • Are there patterns of decisions that anticipate future decisions?
  • As president, will Bush or Kerry benefit more people? How?
  • As the beneficiary of great wealth, how can Kerry represent the "common man"?
  • As the beneficiary of great privilege, how can Bush represent the "common man"?
  • What does the "common man" mean... careful.
  • Has Bush sold out to business interests? For example?
  • Has Kerry sold out to special interests? For example?
  • Is Bush to blame for the economic recession or Clinton or both or neither?
  • Is Bush to blame for job outsourcing or Clinton or both or neither?
  • Who signed NAFTA? (Hint: January, 1994) Who both supported and criticized it?
Need I go on (you really need to click on this link)?

Step right up! Getcher critical thinking here! Hurry, hurry, hurry!!!

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Philosophy: Tongue In... Tongue Out

Remember that these are generalities.... Individuals experience a mixture of input from environment, groups and personal experiences. But to the extent that we allow ourselves to be labeled as part of a group... "Republicans", "Democrats", "beer lovers"... we allow ourselves to be influenced by "group think". We all do it.

I'm a "sports fan" which means that I enjoy watching a variety of activities defined as sports... football, golf, beach volleyball (okay, my wife draws the line there). Sports don't appeal to everyone... there are the mentally ill and those who spend most of their time looking at or drawing inexplicable shapes described as art... who simply don't understand the metaphorical aspects of sports and how sports allows peaceful interaction among groups.

It really doesn't matter what the particular sport is. There are only two types of sport: team (armies facing off) and individual (facing life's challenges).

Football and "futbol" are great examples of how groups rally the emotions of their members. The "soldiers" (team members) lock in battle (the game) while the support troops (coaches, trainers, bus drivers) ensure that the soldiers have what they need to face the enemy (the other team). The citizens (fans) provide critical resources (money, noise, scantily clad women) to ensure that the soldiers and support troops can complete their mission (win the game) without the enemy having an advantage (except the home field).

Golf is a metaphor of man versus life's challenges. You can never quite overcome all of the challenges (the courses), but you can become skilled enough (good off the tee... great putter) to top other golfers occasionally. But no matter how good you become, eventually your game will let you down and others will take your place as the "leader".

Sports also simplifies "good" and "evil". Other team is always evil.

Sports simplifies "fair" and "unfair". A call that goes our way is fair.

I still have a little trouble with "right" and "wrong" though. I was watching the Purdue-Wisconsin football game and saw a Wisconsin player hurt by a Purdue player who dove at the lower leg of the Wisconsin player... a "chop block"... perfectly "legal", but somehow it seemed "wrong". Why, well, it seems like the intent of that action goes beyond the goal of impeding the progress of the opponent to injuring the opponent. The argument that it isn't "wrong" because it is "legal" and, therefore, should be expected. But realistically, the chop block was delivered in a way that prevented the opposing player from expecting it or protecting himself from it. So, the injured Wisconsin player had to leave the game and stay out. Ultimately, I felt that "God punished Purdue" for the chop block because Wisconsin won the game....

Isn't that how we feel when we overcome our foes?

Okay, it's time to remove my tongue from my cheek and go look at some inexplicable shapes created by some guy with a bad beard and dirty fingernails.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Ethnic Divisiveness: Majority-majority, Majority-minority, Minority-minority

Recently, the City of Detroit paid a company going by the name of PowerNomics a 6-figured sum to come up with some idea about how to improve the city's economy. Part of the report recommended the development of an African Town... perhaps not an unreasonable idea given the existence of Greektown and Mexicantown. But the report became contentious when it accused Hispanics, Arabs and other minority immigrants of "depleting community resources and taking jobs from blacks"... as if job creation was a zero-sum game.

Why bring this up?

This is how the "herd mentality" works. This is the source of conflict. "We are right, they are wrong." It is the process whereby we identify with "our group"... race, religion, ethnicity, politics, city, state, nation... and seek to validate our shortcuts... beliefs, "facts", "truths"... by demonstrating the shortcomings of shortcuts held by "outsiders".

In this case, a black businessman and consultant addresses a predominantly black government group in a predominantly black city and tries to convince them that the government must provide special assistance to an "official minority" to the exclusion of others.

Well, so what? This is nothing new. Happens all the time.


Recounting previous points:

  • we have an instinct to survive, acquire, and pass on our DNA
  • we survive best in "herds"
  • herds are structured to satisfy the strong and accomodate the weak
  • the rules of one herd may vary from others based on experience and environment
To this list, let's add
  • herds will not readily accept "outsiders"
Why, because outsiders alter the dynamics of the herd and may not play by the rules of the herd. Therefore, they are seen as a threat to the survival of the herd.

So, in the example above where we have used Detroit as a "herd", a black "majority-minority sub-herd" views with suspicion new "minority-minorities sub-herds" such as Arabs, Koreans, Hispanics, etc. They are "stealing" jobs and resources that "rightfully" belong to the "majority-minority". In this example, the "majority-minority" has a dysfunctional perspective regarding the successes of the "minority-minorities". What is ignored is, the other minorities:
  • in many cases, have started with less resources when they arrived than the black citizens of Detroit already had
  • have had a significantly different attitude toward individual effort and group cooperation
  • have had a greater alignment with the "majority-majority" with regard to business and education
  • have had a significantly different attitude toward family unity and responsibility
  • have not regarded themselves as "victims", but rather as the recipients of great opportunity
In this example, the experiences of one herd versus others have caused choices and perspectives that are dysfunctional versus the functional choices and perspectives of others.

Now remember, this is a generalization about the "herd", not of specific individuals within the "herd" that may be seen as "strange" (geeks?) or "not with it" (not adhering to the norms of the herd). Yet, ultimately, it is the outliers that represent the possibility for the dysfunctional herd to eventually change and become functional (in comparison to other herds).

It is from the outliers that change, new perspective, new understanding, progress, greater functionality, competitive advantage... and better chance at survival originate. It is also from outliers that the opposite may occur... from which the Adolf Hitlers or Usama Bin Ladens may emerge. Identifying the emerging functional from the emerging dysfunctional may not be simple from within the herd.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Relationships: Rules of the Road

How, indeed, do we make functional choices?

Very early on, I wrote about shortcuts. These are our guides for living based on that which we have been taught, our personal experiences, and that which we have observed.

Our world is dynamic. Groups are formed and dissolve as they gain and lose function. Guidelines appear and disappear as the circumstances and interactions change. Nevertheless, some aspects of human existence remain fairly constant... and it is from these aspects that we formulate our "truths"... our beliefs and morality and ethics.

Humans are "herd" animals. Humans that live in isolation are less likely to survive. Herds survive by spreading the risk and sharing the resources. There are implicit "rules" of the herd. Rules allow the weak and strong to co-exist while acknowledging the strong through larger shares of the resources and protecting the weak by receiving a measure of protection from the strong. So, killing another member of the herd is prohibited except under extreme circumstances. Allowing the strong to kill the weak at will would destroy the herd. Sharing resources, albeit unequally, satisfies the strong and accomodates the weak.

So human herds have "commandments", "laws", "rules of engagement", "God's truth"... constants that reflect the ongoing dynamics of herd living. Of course there are variations! Rules of conduct, customs, traditions... they are all variations of basic herd dynamics that occur because of differences in environment, resources, and accidents of the past... something worked once and the lesson stuck. That's why so many religious beliefs have so much in common... despite the particulars that separate them. Questioners through time have all come to common conclusions about what was beneficial to the herd and what was destructive. Since most societies have had a belief in a creator of some sort... a god or gods... because they had no other explanation for existence... then the recognition of what was good or beneficial for the herd was easily transformed into "God's will" or "God's commandment". Men were physically stronger than women, so it was "God's will" that women be subservient to men. The strong got a larger share of the herd's resources, so it was "God's will" that a man could have up to four wives... if he was strong enough or rich enough to care for them.

The particulars varied from desert to islands to grasslands, but the general "truths" of the herd remained fairly constant. As the herds became larger and man's mastery over his environment became greater, "God's laws" required augmentation... greater specificity: laws of conduct, business law, rules of the road.... But all based on the cumulative shortcuts that have help mankind survive within his groups for millenia.

Our choices then become functional or dysfunctional within the larger context of the herd. The variations among herds allow some dysfunctional choices of one herd to become functional... appropriate... choices of others. It is often the combination of territorial encroachment and variations in what is deemed appropriate that bring herds... nations or cultures... into conflict.

Hence, suicide is a sign of mental illness in the West, but honored as "martyrdom" if done in the name of Allah against an "infidel" enemy. Or perhaps we only see it as suicide because death is certain for the attacker. Compared with the soldier in battle that dies knowing that there was a high risk of death, but not certainty, one could say the distinction was not that great... but for me it is great enough... especially when targets are not other soldiers. Ah, but those targets of the suicide killer supported the soldier. Perhaps... perhaps they were only other members of the herd... weaker members... non-threatening members. My shortcuts won't let me accept the validity of the suicide killer's shortcuts... but I understand the premise... better a death well conceived than a life futilely spent.

Perhaps this is an example of the reason we go to war. Perhaps this is why those with the "absolute truth" on their side are the greatest danger to peace. Those that hold to "absolute truths" argue that our choice is that "if one does not assume objective truth and an intelligible world, one will find only doubt and meaninglessness". In other words, without an absolute truth (which we may never be able to prove, but which we know in our hearts... believe...) there is only nonsense.

Or maybe what there is, is the basic human drive for thousands of decades... to know more and to know better. Perhaps we may never prove what is absolutely true, but we may know better what is and should be... why some choices are functional and some dysfunctional.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Relationships: Cat Skins

It was just an "error in judgment".

Well, yes. That's an aspect of being dysfunctional. We all make errors in judgment. The problem begins when those "errors" represent the norm.

Now remember, we are not talking about "truth" or "right" anymore. We are talking about being functional based on the world around us. Do we make choices that make sense based on seeking an intended, positive outcome without producing negative, unintended outcomes?

Wait a minute!!!! The world isn't that simple. Okay, nothing ever is. We are, indeed, generalizing. But there is room for disagreement about outcomes here. The room is based on the timeframe one uses in examining choices. For example, the choice to defeat a tyranny through the use of force may be functional. Nevertheless, one could look at outcomes over a short timeframe and conclude that the effort was dysfunctional because it cost large amounts of money and lives of our citizens. The American War of Independence or the British fight against the Nazis might well have seemed dysfunctional because of the initial losses. But the outcomes took years to solidify... and after some serious setbacks.

On that basis, it is quite early to determine if Iraq was the "wrong" or "right" war right now. Have we "won the battle and lost the war" or "lost the battle and won the war"? How can you tell? If the goal was to stop an organized, extremist, Islamic group from perpetrating acts of violence against the U.S. (and other countries), the actions in Iraq may or may not be dysfunctional. I wrote the following to a well-known columnist who was already drawing conclusions about the U.S. involvement in Iraq:

What is or should be apparent to all is that Iraq is only one point of contention in a protracted conflict between Islamic radicals and whatever is not Islamic. It will be protracted for as long as people try to reason or negotiate with those who accept the radical agenda. Those who believe that homicide by suicide of innocent people is the "Will of Allah" will cause the world great grief in this century. I am under the strong impression that the world cannot rely on the French or Germans to take a strong stand against such radicalism and that the so-called intellectuals in the U.S. who preach that all cultures are morally-equivalent will excuse the fanatic Islamists as being "depraved because they were deprived" (I know that dates me)... in other words "they are following their faith." Iraq is only a chapter in the story and, perhaps, far less important than those ahead.
Now, this is a bit of a digression. The original point was that complexity must be factored into evaluating whether a choice or action was dysfunctional or not. This is not necessarily a matter of scale. There may be little complexity in a decision to fight a war. If we are attacked by a nation or force intent on destroying our social structure and having territorial dominion over us, we can make a functional decision to fight back based on:
  • our ability to fight
  • our willingness to face the risk of death
  • our unwillingness to succumb to a cruel and tyrannical force
However, if our concern is not with who has power, but only with survival, we may make a functional decision to not fight, but to capitulate. India and China capitulated to the British and survived not only intact, but with knowledge of business and organization learned from the British. They traded freedom and power, temporarily, for the preservation of their lives and cultures. It worked out over a couple of centuries. So what may have been a seemingly dysfunctional choice to quit fighting may have been a functional one on an albeit greatly delayed timeframe.

The point of this is that we can err when we are quick to judge. And furthermore, there may be more than one approach to a problem that is functional... leading to intended, positive results. There is more than one way to skin a cat... an old, somewhat disgusting thought... but applicable.

As with "truth" and "right", we need to discuss "dysfunctional" within the context of the situation. You shall not kill is a functional statement within the context of living with your neighbors, your town, your country... your groups. It sustains an environment of peaceful cooperation. What about killing killers... killing those who willingly, actively seek to kill others? That's a little stickier, isn't it. Some might argue that it is morally reprehensible to kill anyone... including a killer. Others might argue that it is morally reprehensible to pay huge sums of money to keep such persons living for the rest of their lives.

Ah, we see how mixing "right" and "wrong" with "functional" and "dysfunctional" complicates matters.

So then how do we decide?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

But I thought it was okay

Dysfunctional choices are not always apparent to the chooser until the unintended results become apparent. The dysfunctional chooser is one who makes a choice based on:

  • a similar situation, but with critical differences
  • a new situation with faulty information
  • an expectation based on wanting an outcome rather than the ability to discern the likely outcome
  • an emotional aversion to another, better choice
  • outside pressure to make the choice one way rather than another
  • willing to take a risk knowing that failure is likely, but hoping for success
There are other reasons, but let's take a look at these. As a golfer (hacker), I often find myself facing a 200 yard approach shot to a green. Suppose this particular shot is difficult because there is a water hazard in front of the green and sand hazards along side the green.
  • Similar, but different... I hit a 200 yard fairway shot to the middle of the green last week... critical difference: no water in front of the green and no sand alongside... and the ball only flew 175 yards and rolled the remaining 25 yards. So, I decide that I can make the shot to the green this time... and it ends up in the water.
  • I'm playing a course I haven't played before. I know I am at the 200 yard marker and figure I should be able to get pretty close to the green, so I take out my 5 wood and hit away. Only problem is the water in front of the hole isn't visible and I didn't check the course layout on the card... and it ends up in the water.
  • I can score less than 90 strokes if I make it on the green from 200 yards and sink the putt. I really want to break 90, so I hit away and... the ball goes in the water, I get a penalty shot from in front of the water, mis-hit the next shot back into the water. Take another penalty shot. Hit the next shot slight over the green, chip on the green and put the ball in the hole after three putts... and score 97.
  • I know I can get on the green with two short shots, but I'm a manly-man and that's a girlie-man approach. So I hit the 5 wood shot... into the water.
  • I know I probably will not get on the green with a 200-yard shot over water, but the guys I'm playing with all say they would go for it... so I do... and the ball goes in the water.
  • I know that it's unlikely I'll get the ball on the green... in fact, I know I'll probably end up with a bad shot into water or sand... but it would be "sweet" to make that 200-yard shot... so I do... and the ball ends up in the water.
In all of the above situations, there was a possibility that I could actually make the 200-yard shot onto the green. But in all cases, I chose to disregard the likely outcome (except the one where I hadn't played the course before... and didn't bother to check to see if a potential problem might exist). My choices were all dysfunctional because my thought processes were faulty. While it was true that I might be successful, I had an unrealistic assessment of the situation.

Interestingly, had I actually made the shot, I would then reinforce the faulty thought processes that would lead me to attempt the shot every time a similar situation arose. I would ignore my failures and view my failures as aberrations. Oh, wait, I guess I do that. Well, golf isn't all that important.

The problems in our lives occur when we make dysfunctional choices from which we can't walk away.

We have a child with a woman to whom we are not married. She wants money to raise the child. So we shoot her for asking and beat the child to death so there will be no support payments. Okay, so there are no support payments (our goal), but we go to jail for the rest of our life and destroyed our DNA heir in the process. That's dysfunctional.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

That's Dysfunctional!

What's truth? What's right? Read earlier posts.

Let's move away from the loaded questions. In a world of competing "truths" and conflicting "rights", we can either give up or look elsewhere. I choose the latter.

As individuals, we are born with the instinct to survive, to acquire, and to reproduce. After that, the wide variety of "truth" and (what is) "right" can create a world of confusion for us. Therefore, as individuals, we are forced to make choices that define and confine us within the context of our environment and those that surround us (groups). We are trained and we question our training. We are told the truth and we discover our own truths. We go with the group or against the group. We choose and we live with the choices.

Okay, that's pretty self-evident. So what?

Very early on, I raised the issue of complexity. Nothing is ever as simple as it first seems. Choices are never as clear-cut as we describe. There is a range of consequences to our choices from trivial to catastrophic for us as individuals. The same can be said for groups among other groups. So I would like to use the terms functional and dysfunctional to describe the outcomes of our choices. (do a Google search on dysfunctional if you want to do a lot of reading).

For our purposes, I choose to define "dysfunctional" as that which produces unintended, negative results.

Examples of dysfunctional choices:

  • scratching the side of your head with a loaded gun... safety off, finger on trigger
  • learning to fly by jumping naked off a cliff
  • feeding an alligator by holding a steak in your hand
Okay, so those are obvious. But farther down the range are less obvious dysfunctional choices, the consequences of which are not always so apparent.

That's where this blog is heading... a discussion of common sense or nonsense... truth? right? forgetaboutit!

Next... how we get to be dysfunctional.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Right or Wrong... or Right the Wrongs

Given the elusive nature of the "truth"... even the "facts"... we might conclude that little can be concluded about the appropriateness of actions, policies, laws, beliefs, etc. To the contrary, truth is not necessary to the discussion of what we deem to be right or wrong.

Truth is a construct. Right and wrong are more immediate and contextual. We covered territorial imperative driven by survival needs as basic to our thoughts and actions. As we have become more complex and sophisticated in our ability to survive... indeed, collectively we seldom concern ourselves with threats of the environment or other species... we increasingly have had to respond to the territorial imperative instinct with larger scale measures.

What does that mean?

We are now... actually have been for thousands of years... only concerned about interactions with other humans. Consequently, there has been a continuous effort to balance the territorial imperative of an individual or group with a cooperative process. In other words, there is a balancing act between what is beneficial for an individual and what is beneficial for groups. The individual is driving to "succeed". The group is driven to manage the individual. From these polarities come our concept of right and wrong... always from the group perspective. Unmanaged individual territoriality leads to chaos and destruction; unmanaged group territoriality leads to war and destruction.

Whether handed down from a deity or a legislature, what is "right" versus what is "wrong" is contextual. That doesn't mean that what is perceived as right or wrong is constantly changing. But it does mean that what is accepted as right or wrong is constantly being challenged by those who would benefit by changes in the accepted definitions. "God's laws" or group laws are in conflict with individual liberty (or license, as some would say). There is no absolute rule regarding anything; there is only the right or wrong that the group can impose and still retain the support of its constituents.

What about dictatorships that impose the will on the group? Well, actually this is one group (the dictator's) imposing its will on another group (the subjugated). This is a not a case of right or wrong as much as a situation of power and lack thereof. These situations tend to resolve themselves over time. Nevertheless, even in these situations, there are generally accepted standards of right and wrong. If the dictator's group forays too much into the realm of what is "wrong", the likelihood of rebellion increases.

So what are we saying?

  • Right and wrong are not absolutes; they are what is accepted by the group. For example, most groups hold murder to be wrong. But the Nazis held that murder of Jews and other "undesirables" was the correct thing... the right thing... to do. Killing outsiders has not always been deemed "murder"; whereas killing members of the group is usually forbidden.

  • Right and wrong are contextual. If the group is driven by the fear and acceptance of a deity, then there are immutable "laws". Women must be covered completely. One must worship on Sunday. No other gods are allowed. One group's "immutables" are not necessarily another's. One group's "truths" are not necessarily the other's.

  • Right and wrong can and do change over time and circumstance. Individual protections increase and decrease as the dynamics of the group changes or the interaction of the group changes among other groups. What is "right", what is acceptable, changes over time.
What then, anything goes? Not exactly. It's just that not everything stays. What was once deemed "wrong" may eventually become "right". Then we talk about the wrongs being righted.

Next... right and wrong or functional and dysfunctional?

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Survival of the Fittingest

George Santayana is credited with saying, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Lest we all get energized to go out and study history now, I would like to point out that the "facts" of history tend to get written by the winners... not always... but quite often. Ask a Turk if the Armenians were "massacred" and he will respond that the rebel insurgents were defeated by the brave and honorable soldiers of Turkey who themselves suffered greatly from the deadly attacks by those scurrilous Armenians. Of course, in this case, there were enough of the "defeated"... survivors... to make their historical case against the "victors".

But when whole cultures disappear over time, the lessons of their histories may no longer be available or relevant for us to learn... although they may be interesting to some as the study of ruins and relics. Some cultures thrived and became dominant for so long that they affect us today, long after their demise. China's great empires dominate eastern Asian culture. India's culture dominates the Asian subcontinent as it has done for 5,000 years. The Greeks, Romans and Ottomans had their turns in the Mediterranian and Middle East. Eventually all of them influenced the Western European rise to great power and are now being influenced and dramatically changed by that new Western culture. Hong Kong may have the food of China, but it has the culture of the West... with a Chinese twist. Most of the world has adopted the Western scientific/business model while maintaining traditions of their earlier cultures.

The point is that history doesn't have absolute lessons for us. It has a litany of surprises which can inform, entertain and astound us, but doesn't necessarily prepare us for the future. What was strength may become weakness. America's industrial wealth and high standard of living may be the undoing of American industry as the nations with access to our technology and information create their own industrial machines using far cheaper labor and manufacturing costs. Just as it was easier for the Romans to conscript the Goths (a lot of them available and they worked for practically nothing) into the Roman army than use Roman citizens, it is easier for American companies to outsource research, development, manufacturing and support to "less developed countries" such as China and India. Soon, China and India will insource American management and do everything themselves.

I guess America could have learned something from the Romans and Goths.

Let's go back to the idea of survival.

Charles Darwin wrote of the "survival of the fittest" in his Origin of Species. But given the variety of species and the incredible life forms that have become extinct, one might argue that it is not fitness as much as fit that assists survival. As environments changed over time due to movements of tectonic plates and overall climate change, species rose and fell with seeming randomness. There was, of course, the dynamic of predator/prey. Some species of predator became so specialized that they became extinct when their specific prey was wiped out. But others survived because they were able to fit into a variety of environmental and ecological niches. The most spectacular success of survival of the fittingest is homo sapiens.

Modern man separated from other apes somewhere between 100,000 to 1,000,000+ years ago (depending on interpretation of fossil records). Regardless of the timeframe, these modern or near-modern humans had several distinct advantages over other species: hands with opposable thumbs (grasping paws of other animals are not quite as adaptable to using tools) and forward-facing eyes (a common trait of tree-dwelling animals) in combination with vocal chords and a tongue capable of producing a complex array of sounds (language) plus a large brain to allow more complex integration of information. Rather than reacting to their environment or being programmed into a static model of environment forming (such as ants or termites), homo sapiens were able to shape or control their environment in countless variations.

Mankind moved beyond survival of the fittest and survival of the fittingest to survival by mastery.

Certainly, modern humans face challenges from extreme environments such as the arctic/antarctic, Sahara and tropic Africa, and the Amazon basin... but even in the harshest of environments, man has learned or is learning to shape the environment to his own needs. Man still has organic competitors, but he is no longer bound to stuggle against them with muscle or simple tools. Modern technology is eliminating one threat after another to mankind's existence... except one: himself.

It is interesting that the territorial imperative we covered earlier is primarily within a species. Animals fight within their species for territorial rights to resources that will allow them to survive and reproduce. In a few cases such as dogs and humans, dogs will become part of the human pack and become territorial against "outsider" humans. But for the most part, one species will ignore another within its territory.

Now that mankind generally has been relieved of the constraints imposed by predators and environment, survival is threatened mostly from within; mankind is mankind's greatest threat to survival.

The rules of survival have changed and mankind is trying to adapt to the change. The question is can mankind overcome the most basic survival instinct, inbred over millions of years by countless species to survive, by using the same advantages that provided increasing mastery over the earth?

I have tried to set the stage for further discourse by covering two basics: what is truth (or what is true or real) and issues of survival. My conclusions, to this point, are: truth is elusive and subject to revision; the rules of survival have changed for man.

Looking forward: right and wrong and more.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

On One Hand; On The Other Hand; On The Other Hand... or Why Truth Doesn't Always Matter

I've covered a few of the basics: truth, meaning, perception, and language. Not bad for the first week.

While some (much?) of the prior ramblings might be too esoteric for many people, it is important (to me) that an attempt be made to set the ground rules. We may or may not have similar experiences and perceptions of our existence and, therefore, may or may not mean the same thing when we make a statement purporting to accurately communicate something.

Can a Yanomami indian communicate (language differences aside) with a Polish mathematician in any meaningful way? They are products of such vastly different environments, experiences, and perceptions of the world. Well, yes, technically they can communicate and even learn from each other. But human history has shown that it is more likely that people are slow to learn from each other and quick to become "territorial" in their behavior and beliefs. What we don't understand, we don't accept. Or, worse, what we don't understand, we attack.

One might argue that attacking what we don't understand is simply a "survival mechanism"; a necessity during mankind's violent history. The flip side of that argument is that our violent history is caused by that "survival mechanism". As you might have read in the link above, for the "primitive" Yanomami tribes, violence is common... 1/4 of the men will die from violence.... They get along nicely with close neighbors, but fight the ones farther away. That happens despite sharing an environment and culture. They are "not us."

This territorial imperative seems to be part of our DNA. Without sufficient resources to nourish and sustain ourselves, our DNA will perish. Thus, while we, as a species, have gradually taken command of our immediate environment, we have yet to come to grips with the basic drive to stake out our territory... the major force behind all of man's conflicts. This imperative doesn't ask about "truth", it only demands our devotion. One could argue that Mars, the god of War, is still the greatest of the gods. We have been bred to be Mars' soldiers; it is our nature.

Whoa! That's a bit harsh, isn't it. Well, yes, warfare is territoriality taken to its extreme. Humans do cooperate, but cooperation becomes more difficult as the scale increases. We form "coalitions" and "alliances" where we perceive advantages or benefits. But the basic drive to acquire and maintain our own territory remains strong. It is "my car" or "my house" or "my wife" or "my school" or "my town" or "my country". "They" want what is "mine".

Now mankind has recognized that constant warfare is really not too beneficial, so we set up mechanisms to deal with the territorial imperative before it becomes extreme action. We organize into groups and interact with other groups in proscibed ways to avoid destructive interaction. Hence, laws, customs, conventions, and Friday night football games. Well, think about it!

6 or 7 billion people trying to respond to their own territorial imperative. Ain't gonna work without some way to avoid physical violence at every turn. So, we establish the "rules of the game" and keep a strong military force to make sure the rules are followed. But that 17 lb. dog chasing the 75 lb. dog out of the yard is still part of our DNA... and it doesn't really consider the "truth" of its foolishness in challenging a much larger and stronger animal.

So, what am I saying here? Simple. Truth is a construct, an abstraction, that we want to find, but often ignore. We fail to look deeply enough into our own nature to see what colors our perspective red when the truth may only be revealed in white light. We believe that if we are "logical" enough, we can get to the truth, but logic has its limitations (see my previous discussion).

Then perhaps we need to take a different tack. You remember the Polish mathematician I mentioned? He is a product of his environment... or rather of how his environment has been reformed. His mathematics may be valid, but his perspective on the world... and his behavior... would be greatly affected if he were suddenly transplanted into the reality of the Yanomami. Two Jaguars plus two Anacondas equal 4... what? Potential killers? The point is that the reality of the Amazon is different than the reality of Poland. Yes, guns work in both places. But fire ants are not an issue in Poland. What is relevant frames what is "true"? No, it's just that some "truths" might be irrelevant.

Were the Goths invaders of the Roman Empire or were they subjugated people who rebelled against the Empire? Were the Crusades "holy wars" or simply excuses to expand power and territory? Was the "100 Years' War" the fault of the French or the fault of the English? Was Christopher Columbus a great explorer or a flim-flam man? Was Thomas Jefferson a noble leader or an abusive human? Was communism an effort to share the wealth or an effort to gain unbridled power? Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of war?

The answers are: Yes!

Territoriality, relevance, contradiction... the stuff of life! Truth: somewhere out there... maybe.

Friday, October 08, 2004

What I Say versus What I Mean

I've just examined some of the limitations of "truth", so you can take any of my future comments as opinions only. That's the truth.

When we attempt to state the "truth", we mean we are trying to give an accurate account of what happened, what is happening, and what will probably happen, given our abilities to convert our perceptions into meaningful language. Our pain is real to us, but "I really hurt" may not begin to describe the truth of what I feel. As we move from the immediate, sensory-based, experiences to the abstract, the limitations of our language make an accurate description of the "truth" very difficult. Ever wonder why scientists like mathematics? As a symbolic language with specific rules, it is a very comfortable medium for expressing objectively their observations. But mathematics is limited in its ability to communicate human perception (or human perception is limited with regard to what mathematics describe).

All language is symbolic, but "symbolic logic" is an attempt to rigorously define the usage of symbols so that can only mean one thing. I remember long before I had even heard of Fortran or Cobal, that I took a class in symbolic logic that featured a book by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) called the "Tractatus". It was an attempt to create a language of purely logical statements using symbolic logic. I was a sophomore and this was a senior/graduate level class, but the concept had a strong appeal to me. I was pretty good at math and science and the book came fairly easy for me. I easily aced the final, not only by being able to use the symbolic language in context, but to also explain its very distinct limitation (didn't work at all with the subjective and emotional realms). In addition to the Tractatus, I also took a class in symbolic logic... just for the fun of it... never expecting it would be of any use to me. 6-8 years later while I was working on my Masters in Operations Management (logistics, PERT, CPM, etc.) I took my first class in computer programing... Fortran (Fortran 1 followed by Fortran 2 in the early '70s). I was astounded: Herr Wittgenstein was writing computer code using symbolic logic. Well, lets say it was close enough to Fortran that I had no problem with the logical construct of that language.

These studies also taught me an important lesson: logic is logical, but never equate it with "truth" or "meaning". In no way could it express the beauty of a sunset over water or the love in a wife's glance. Language, even the most logical, has its limitations. Language is used to communicate an approximation of life's experiences and personal perception, as well as for communication of constructs... logical, psychological, scientific, etc.

So symbolic logic allows perfect communication within a very limited sphere; natural (ordinary) language allows imperfect communication over a very broad spectrum. "Truth" and "meaning" are imperfectly communicated in ordinary language and not applicable to symbolic languages (although mathematicians might argue that mathematical equations are "true" statements.. I would argue that "valid" is more appropriate..., but while an important point, also a very limited point for most of us).

Consequently, when this discussion turns to morality, ethics, right, wrong, good, evil, Bush, Kerry, sex, and other areas of great consequence, be forewarned that the discussion will be held in ordinary language, not symbolic language, and will be subject to imperfections ... not mine, of course.

Okay, I just threw in some gratuitous sex to keep you interested.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Beyond Truth

We left the issue of truth hanging... or is it just us twisting in the wind?

Complexity and truth. One causes the other to be elusive. Part of our problem is language. Peel back the onion of "truth" and "logic" within our language and we end up to "assumption" and "presumption".

What do we "know"? We have to presume, based on empirical observation, that humans generally perceive the world in the same way - mechanically. That is to say, our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing generally work the same way for all individuals since we have a 99.99% commonality in DNA. I see red, you see red. We probably perceive about the same thing unless one of us has a defect that makes us "colorblind". I can't tell you the "truth" of red. A physicist can describe the energy signature of red in terms of wavelengths. We can assign meanings to red: stop, danger, passion, Communist, Republican state.... But there is nothing inherent to red itself that assists us in the pursuit of "truth" or "meaning" other than the fact that it is very likely that our common perception of red is very much the same. But at the same time, our common perception is also our common limitation based on our common organic organization.

Where are we going with this?

If we understand that behind our language and our perceptions there are general commonalities, but also general limitations, we can begin to see the importance of the assigned meanings in our experience.

A volcano explodes: the gods are angry. Another group of humans are killed by a natural disaster: it is the will of Allah to punish the unbelievers. We won the war: God is on our side. That is the truth of "red". Okay, that's a little simplistic... but not too much.

We seek the "truth" of events, data, beliefs. Mostly, we argue about the truth of "red" (or we co-opt that expression).

Something can't be in two places at one time... except in quantum physics. Nothing can exceed the speed of light... except that light can be slowed down to a crawl under the right conditions. We all have 20/400 vision with regard to "truth". But perhaps the truth of it is that we can't really describe the truth with our language and our perceptions.

What can we do? Well, based on our common perception of the world around us, we can examine the appropriateness of our assigned meanings and beliefs within that dynamic, volatile framework.

A scientist attempts to say: "if this, then that, given these." If we do this, that will happen, given these parameters. If the results are repeatable, then the conclusion is deemed valid... until a better explanation is offered. There is a difference between science and science-fiction. When it comes to the meaning of things, we humans have a little more difficulty. We have a tendency to assign meanings when we can't comprehend or accept what our perceptions provide. Hence, since we cannot comprehend the beginning or end of what we perceive to be "existence" (but we try), we assume that something created it and, given enough people over enough time without any means to comprehend the beginning of existence, the conclusion is that there is a creator and that creator is God. Given more people and time, the "nature of God" is revealed. Given more people and time, God's "truth" is revealed. Given more people and time, the "true God" and "true believers" are revealed.

Except that there are apparently more than one "true God" and "true belief". So the only way to settle that anomoly is to fight until one set of true believers has dominated or eliminated another.

That is much more satisfying than saying, "We just don't know and can't know what's beyond our perception." After all, we get an answer and at least someone gets to own the "truth".

But I don't want to go there. It's much more fascinating to examine the results of humans assigning meaning to their perceptions. We don't have to know the truth; we can understand the consequences of our assigned meanings.

So, in coming issues, we have the opportunity to examine "right and wrong" "fair or unfair" "good or evil"... or we can examine "functional versus dysfunctional". Maybe they are just different faces of the same thing... maybe not.

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There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.
Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956)
“The Divine Afflatus,” A Mencken Chrestomathy, chapter 25, p. 443 (1949)
... and one could add "not all human problems really are."
It was beautiful and simple, as truly great swindles are.
- O. Henry
... The Government is on course for an embarrassing showdown with the European Union, business groups and environmental charities after refusing to guarantee that billions of pounds of revenue it stands to earn from carbon-permit trading will be spent on combating climate change.
The Independent (UK)

Tracking Interest Rates

Tracking Interest Rates


SEARCH BLOG: FEDERAL RESERVE for full versions... or use the Blog Archive pulldown menu.

February 3, 2006
Go back to 1999-2000 and see what the Fed did. They are following the same pattern for 2005-06. If it ain't broke, the Fed will fix it... and good!
August 29, 2006 The Federal Reserve always acts on old information... and is the only cause of U.S. recessions.
December 5, 2006 Last spring I wrote about what I saw to be a sharp downturn in the economy in the "rustbelt" states, particularly Michigan.
March 28, 2007
The Federal Reserve sees no need to cut interest rates in the light of adverse recent economic data, Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday.
The Fed chairman said ”to date, the incoming data have supported the view that the current stance of policy is likely to foster sustainable economic growth and a gradual ebbing in core inflation”.

July 21, 2007 My guess is that if there is an interest rate change, a cut is more likely than an increase. The key variables to be watching at this point are real estate prices and the inventory of unsold homes.
August 11, 2007 I suspect that within 6 months the Federal Reserve will be forced to lower interest rates before housing becomes a black hole.
September 11, 2007 It only means that the overall process has flaws guaranteeing it will be slow in responding to changes in the economy... and tend to over-react as a result.
September 18, 2007 I think a 4% rate is really what is needed to turn the economy back on the right course. The rate may not get there, but more cuts will be needed with employment rates down and foreclosure rates up.
October 25, 2007 How long will it be before I will be able to write: "The Federal Reserve lowered its lending rate to 4% in response to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and massive numbers of foreclosures that threaten the banking and mortgage sectors."
"Should the elevated turbulence persist, it would increase the possibility of further tightening in financial conditions for households and businesses," he said.

"Uncertainties about the economic outlook are unusually high right now," he said. "These uncertainties require flexible and pragmatic policymaking -- nimble is the adjective I used a few weeks ago."

December 11, 2007 Somehow the Fed misses the obvious.
[Image from:]
December 13, 2007 [from The Christian Science Monitor]
"The odds of a recession are now above 50 percent," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "We are right on the edge of a recession in part because of the Fed's reluctance to reduce interest rates more aggressively." [see my comments of September 11]
January 7, 2008 The real problem now is that consumers can't rescue the economy and manufacturing, which is already weakening, will continue to weaken. We've gutted the forces that could avoid a downturn. The question is not whether there will be a recession, but can it be dampened sufficiently so that it is very short.
January 11, 2008 This is death by a thousand cuts.
January 13, 2008 [N.Y. Times]
“The question is not whether we will have a recession, but how deep and prolonged it will be,” said David Rosenberg, the chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch. “Even if the Fed’s moves are going to work, it will not show up until the later part of 2008 or 2009.
January 17, 2008 A few days ago, Anna Schwartz, nonagenarian economist, implicated the Federal Reserve as the cause of the present lending crisis [from the Telegraph - UK]:
The high priestess of US monetarism - a revered figure at the Fed - says the central bank is itself the chief cause of the credit bubble, and now seems stunned as the consequences of its own actions engulf the financial system. "The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it," she says, daring to utter a thought that fellow critics mostly utter sotto voce.
January 22, 2008 The cut has become infected and a limb is in danger. Ben Bernanke is panicking and the Fed has its emergency triage team cutting rates... this time by 3/4%. ...

What should the Federal Reserve do now? Step back... and don't be so anxious to raise rates at the first sign of economic improvement.
Individuals and businesses need stability in their financial cost structures so that they can plan effectively and keep their ships afloat. Wildly fluctuating rates... regardless of what the absolute levels are... create problems. Either too much spending or too much fear. It's just not that difficult to comprehend. Why has it been so difficult for the Fed?

About Me

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Michigan, United States
Air Force (SAC) captain 1968-72. Retired after 35 years of business and logistical planning, including running a small business. Two sons with advanced degrees; one with a business and pre-law degree. Beautiful wife who has put up with me for 4 decades. Education: B.A. (Sociology major; minors in philosopy, English literature, and German) M.S. Operations Management (like a mixture of an MBA with logistical planning)